Are You Ready for the New Health Care Law?

In just over a week, the biggest piece of the Affordable Cate Act will get underway. To paraphrase Vice President Biden, it’s a really big deal.

We fought hard for years to pass health care reform. Over big obstacles, we got the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010. Now, it’s time to make the law work. Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Almost everyone will be required to have insurance next year—but if you don’t have it, there may be help available to make sure you can get a plan that works for you.
  2. Starting Oct. 1, you may be able to use the new Health Insurance Marketplace to find a plan that works for you.
  3. You could be eligible for a tax credit to lower your monthly premiums, possibly as low as $0.
  4. There are new protections in place to make your insurance works better for you, no matter what kind of plan you have. That means you can’t be rejected for pre-existing conditions, and you can’t be dropped if you get sick or injured. It also means the end of annual or lifetime limits on coverage.

The Washington Post has a nice explanation of how the exchanges work, and NPR offers some answers to specific questions about the law.

Unfortunately, for all the positives about the law and all the help available, there’s a huge and well-funded effort devoted to undermining the Affordable Care Act. At the federal level, right-wing extremists are threatening to shut down the government or default in order to block it; at the state level, governors like Texas’ Rick Perry are blocking funding for expanded Medicaid coverage and dragging their feet on the many responsibilities states have in implementing the law. There are lobbying groups airing an array of dishonest ads, including a campaign designed to convince young people to stay out of the health insurance marketplace altogether.

The extent of disinformation, delay and outright sabotage going on means it’s really important to get the facts out and make sure everyone who needs insurance knows how to get it when enrollment begins next month.

We helped pass the health care law, so we’re committed to making it work, and we’re here to help you make the most of it. If you sign up here, we’ll send you tips and updates about the new health care law—and you can follow the latest news at the Working America Health Care Facebook page.

Photo from HealthCare.gov on Facebook

Actual Accountability: CFPB Fines JP Morgan Chase for Fraud

Great news from the Consumer Financial Protection Board today. JP Morgan Chase, a major credit card issuer, has been hit with a $309 million fine for defrauding customers. More than 2 million customers will get refunds for unfair fees imposed by JP Morgan Chase.

In addition, JP Morgan Chase will be required to audit its own procedures and present evidence to the CFPB that it has stopped the practices that led to the fine—specifically, billing customers for services they weren’t being provided.

This is precisely why the CFPB exists. JP Morgan Chase was breaking the law and getting away with it. The amount of money being taken through these fees was small enough to not be worth suing over individually, but in the aggregate, it represented a big transfer of money—illegally!—from customers to their credit card company. There was a time when, even if they noticed it happening, customers wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it.

That time is over.

The important thing here is that the incentives are changed for banks and financial institutions. Where once they could steal from customers with impunity and pocket all of the money, now there’s actual enforcement of the laws protecting consumers, with a real cost both in penalties and in the work they have to do to ensure future compliance. That new reality will put a check on future misconduct by banks.

This isn’t the first action the CFPB has taken against a credit card company and it won’t be the last.

The fact that the CFPB works—that it changes the balance of power between banks and their customers—is exactly the reason that Senate Republicans tried to destroy it by blocking the appointment of a director for the agency.

Fortunately, the Senate GOP broke, and Richard Cordray was able to win approval to head this incredibly important agency. 2.1 million JP Morgan Chase customers can breathe a sigh of relief over that.

With Poverty Still High, the House GOP Launch Awful Attack on Food Assistance

As we’ve noted repeatedly, the “recovery” isn’t anywhere close to done. A new Census report today shows the poverty rate stuck at 15% and median wages barely budged above last year’s level. Median wages for today’s working families have fallen behind 1989 levels.

But, their sense of what matters always razor sharp, Republicans in Congress are taking up legislative time now to attack the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.

House Republicans are planning a vote on a big cut to the SNAP program, which helps low-income people stay fed. Analysis shows that between 4 and 6 million people would lose benefits entirely, with big consequences for the families affected and the economy as a whole.

This plan has come under much-deserved fire from across the political spectrum. Two former Senate Majority Leaders—Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Tom Daschle—explain the real-world stakes of the House GOP’s political game well:

By stripping the nutrition title from the legislation this year, the House has severed the vital tie that helps connect our food system with those who struggle with hunger in our own backyard…
In a country struggling to emerge from the worst economic recession since the Depression, this is no time to play politics with hunger. As friends and colleagues, we hope that the House will do the right thing and follow the Senate’s lead in passing a farm bill with adequate funding for food assistance.

This is not some issue of lines on a chart or partisan point-scoring. This is about people’s lives. “We don’t splurge, and it doesn’t last,” said Tarnisha Adams, a Tennessee woman interviewed in a great New York Times piece on food stamp cuts. Her Congressman, Republican Stephen Fincher, is a leading advocate of big cuts to food stamps—yet he’s benefited from millions in federal farm subsidies.

As the Times’ editorial board notes, the way this $40 billion cut is being pitched is especially loathsome:

The House majority leader, Eric Cantor, is leading a propaganda drive that invokes reform as its cause while blaming the victims of hunger simply because the food stamp rolls had to double to nearly 48 million people in the crunch of recession…For their sake, Congress should reject the Cantor proposal as the national embarrassment it plainly is.

If you think the problem is that people are getting these benefits, and not that they need these benefits, you’re really, really missing the point.

The One Thing Corbett Might Do Right: Punching In

Pennsylvania may be the next state to accept Medicaid expansion.

Two years after the protests, some interesting, effective forms of activism have emerged out of Occupy.

The deficit is at its lowest level since 2008, making it foolish to push for more austerity.

Most states are still funding schools at lower levels than before the recession.

Three reasons that might explain why the crazy caucus in the U.S. House is so crazy.

It’s time for Speaker Boehner to cut the crazy caucus loose and strike a deal.

Workers and management both want a union at a Tennessee auto plant–but Republican politicians are throwing a tantrum.

Oregon AFL-CIO President talks about the need for new kinds of organizing.

Everything wrong about how the press thinks about the Great Recession, in one tweet.

 

The Uneven Economy: Whose Recovery Is It, Anyway?

The Great Recession is over, technically: the economy as a whole is growing again. But that doesn’t come as much comfort when you realize how strikingly unequal the recovery has been.

In 2012, reports Annie Lowrey in the New York Times, half of our national income went to just 10% of Americans. The top 1% took home 19% of the income—the highest level on record.

In the recovery years, the vast majority of Americans saw virtually no income growth at all.

There are several reasons for this, but the biggest is that high unemployment and a hostile climate for collective bargaining means that workers have barely any leverage to get a fair share of the economic value they create.

And what’s more, people get it. A Pew poll shows that “when it comes to assessing the U.S. economy’s recovery from the Great Recession, their perceptions are pretty much on the mark.” They know that while the stock market is doing fine, their paychecks aren’t.

At the AFL-CIO convention this week, economist Joseph Stiglitz put what’s happening in stark terms:

All of us, rich and poor, are footing the bill for this yawning gap…this inequality is not inevitable. We created this inequality—chose it, really—with laws that weakened unions, that eroded our minimum wage to the lowest level, in real terms, since the 1950s, with laws that allowed CEO’s to take a bigger slice of the corporate pie, bankruptcy laws that put Wall Street’s toxic innovations ahead of workers. We made it nearly impossible for student debt to be forgiven. We underinvested in education. We taxed gamblers in the stock market at lower rates than workers, and encouraged investment overseas rather than at home.

Let us be clear: our economy is not working the way a well working economy should.

As Stiglitz accurately notes, this doesn’t just have economic consequences, but political ones. The winners of this economic divide are the ones who set the agenda in Washington, through campaigns contributions, lobbying and outsized influence in the press, and they can continue to rig the game in their favor.

There’s no one silver-bullet policy to fix this, but, as economist Jared Bernstein notes, it is fixable.

I submit that increasing labor’s share of national income is neither mysterious nor beyond our scope (it is beyond our current politics, but so is pretty much anything useful). It takes getting rid of the persistent slack in the labor market, which in turn means policy makers must plot a course toward full employment.

Get Ready for Another Monumentally Stupid Budget Standoff

Let’s lay this out right up front: If a plan can’t pass Congress by the end of the month, the government shuts down—and if a debt-ceiling increase can’t pass by mid-October, we’ll default.

This is not some debate over whether or not to pass some optional, wouldn’t-it-be-nice plan. This is basic governance. This is whether we’ll drag down our already-slow economy by furloughing employees and shutting off services—or whether we’ll tank the economy altogether by defaulting.

The last time we had a debt-ceiling showdown, it resulted in sequestration—a set of blunt, unnecessary cuts that hit poor people and local governments hard, hobbling a not-really-recovered-yet economy.

Naturally, Republicans in Congress think that now is a great time to make demands. This isn’t a “negotiation”—after all, a negotiation is when two sides who want different things each make concessions to the other. But Republicans don’t particularly want a shutdown and they definitely don’t want a default. This is more like grabbing the steering wheel and saying you’ll run the car off the road unless you get to decide where to stop for dinner.

Many House Republicans are demanding the repeal or defunding of the Affordable Care Act as their price for funding the government and averting a default. Leaders like Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) understand that’s not going to happen. Instead, they’re going to try to push through a “continuing resolution”—a short-term government-funding bill—with even deeper cuts than sequestration, and offering a more-or-less symbolic vote on the ACA to the angrier members of their caucus.

We’ll keep watching to see if this trick works. But Cantor and Speaker John Boehner have proven themselves unable to wrangle in their caucus before, and already they’re getting attacked for not staging a suicidal confrontation over the Affordable Care Act.

What they should do, instead, is understand that they won’t get enough votes from their own caucus, and strike a deal with House Democrats to pass something that’s less destructive. It’s unlikely we’ll be that lucky—but with only a few weeks to go, there aren’t a lot of other options presenting themselves.

Another Mediocre Jobs Report: Let’s Make Things Better, Not Worse

Today’s jobs report, in five words: “lousy, in a predictable way.”

The economy added a modest number of jobs in August—around 169,000—and the unemployment rate dropped to 7.3%, but new analysis showed that June and July saw fewer new jobs than initially reported, and experts say the small growth shows continued weakness in the labor market.

Writing at the Washington Post, Ezra Klein says that though the number is positive, the jobs report also holds “signs that this job market is weaker than it appeared just a few months ago, and maybe getting worse.”

Analyst Daniel Alpert notes that more than half of the private-sector job growth in this report came from low wage jobs—more signs that there’s a real wage crisis in our economy.

So what’s happening?

There’s a vicious cycle at work here. As economist Dean Baker notes, “few jobs means bad jobs”—widespread under-employment and too few jobs means that people have less choice about what kind of jobs they take. People seeking jobs in a high-unemployment market have too little bargaining power, and as a result accept lower pay than they would otherwise. And when people’s paychecks are too small, they can’t put much money back into the economy—and this reduced demand means businesses don’t hire as much.

For too many people, the recession hasn’t really ended—they’re out of work or stuck working for a wage they can’t really afford to live on. Almost all of the economic growth that has happened in the past few years has gone to the wealthiest people, and the share of the economy taken up by corporate profits is rising as the share taken up by wage income has fallen.

Meanwhile, although we’re moving away from “Grand Bargain” talk, sequestration is still in place, and Republicans in Congress are talking about threats of shutdown or default if they don’t get even more austerity—which would hurt the economy either way. You’d think the very least we could do for our sputtering job market is not make things worse.

Today’s jobs report shows that we have a long way to go, and we’re still not building the kind of economy we really need.

The people who call themselves the “job creators” apparently aren’t very good at it. It’s time to use the tools at our disposal—including monetary policy, ending the sequester, re-investment in infrastructure and schools, and workplace advocacy—to put more money back in the hands of the people who actually create jobs.

This Labor Day, We Need to Pay Attention to the Wage Crisis

This weekend, amid the days at the beach and barbecues and last-minute back-to-school shopping trips, it’s worth remembering what Labor Day is really about: the work that builds this country, and the American tradition of workers coming together to get fair compensation for that work.

Unfortunately, this Labor Day, an ongoing crisis of employment and wages is making it hard for workers to carry that tradition forward.

Harold Meyerson puts the situation into stark relief:

Corporate profits — which comprise a larger share of the nation’s economy than at any time since World War II — are being plowed into share buybacks or dividend payments, but decidedly not into wage increases…The United States leads the industrial world in the percentage of its jobs that are low-wage

.

This situation has real, and negative, effects on the whole economy, notes Meyerson, as does Timothy Noah.

Part of the explanation is that middle class jobs are vanishing, especially in manufacturing, and the job growth we’ve seen after the recession hasn’t been the re-emergence of middle-income jobs, but their replacement with lower-wage jobs.

In many ways, our economy has become “financialized”: not only has the financial sector swelled to outweigh other industries, but every industry is facing increased pressure from a more-powerful financial sector to “maximize shareholder value:”

The pressure to respond to the short-term demands of Wall Street has paved the way for an economy in which companies are increasingly disconnected from the state of the nation, laying off workers in huge waves, keeping average wages low and threatening to move operations abroad in the face of regulations and taxes.

The result is that for many companies, labor costs start to look like just another input, rather than being actual people who create the value of the company.

And, predictably, that means an economy that distributes its rewards exactly how you’d expect:

Most of the modest growth has gone to the small share of the population that owns the vast majority of the country’s assets…workers only got about a third of the economic growth generated so far this year.

It’s no wonder than an overwhelming majority of low-wage workers, despite wanting to do well at their jobs, are feeling underpaid, frustrated and pessimistic.

Economist Jared Bernstein notes that the usual explanations about education or globalization are insufficient to understand what’s going on. He says that we need to make increasing overall employment levels a major priority, because that will increase working people’s leverage to demand more in wages.

And yesterday’s fast food strikes show that, for many working people, enough is enough. They’re ready to take action—at some risk to their own jobs—to speak out about how they aren’t getting paid enough to live on. And you can make your own day at work better using our website FixMyJob.com.

As Teresa Tritch, writing in the New York Times, puts it:

There’s no intrinsic reason that service jobs at profitable corporations, say, in restaurants and big box stores, should pay so little. What is missing today is employee bargaining power…Corporations benefit from the status quo. Workers don’t. That’s why they want a new bargain.

The Paycheck Crisis

Americans are working harder than ever—but what they get for their work has barely budged in a decade.

In a new paper, the Economic Policy Institute’s Larry Mishel and Heidi Shierholz look at recent economic data and find that this crisis of wages is the major barrier to a stronger economy.

The wage and benefit growth of the vast majority, including white-collar and blue-collar workers and those with and without a college degree, has stagnated, as the fruits of overall growth have accrued disproportionately to the richest households.

I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that this is one of the most pressing political problems we face, if not the most—it is the reality underlying so many other issues.

Further analysis shows that what economic recovery there has been is unusually profit-driven. What could have gone into wages is instead turning into profits—and, because wage-earners actually have to spend their money, income that gets diverted into profit doesn’t cycle back into the economy. This is “a fundamental problem for the economy,” says Wall Street Journal reporter Neil Shah, who points to the way low wages drag down future economic prospects.

In particular, low wages mean families have a hard time staying in their home, supporting local businesses and making purchases, which drags down economic growth; declining expectations and reduced demand for products mean that workers have little leverage to get higher pay; and worker bargaining power erodes relative to the companies that employ them. This isn’t about a bunch of lines on a chart. Families like the ones Working America staff talk to every day get this at a basic level.

This doesn’t just have economic consequences. In a political system increasingly driven by the ability to donate, inequality has political consequences as well. A new study indicates what previous research has shown: the policy preferences of a wealthy few far outweigh everyone else’s. Congress responds to wealthier constituents’ interests more quickly and more directly. As economic power shrinks into a smaller number of hands, so does political power.

The result of all this? The people most likely to have benefited from the recession’s end are the people whose voices matter in the political process—so the urgent need to solve the crisis of jobs and wages goes unaddressed. The stock market is doing great, compensation at the upper end is doing great, and the broad majority of people who aren’t doing so well don’t seem to matter to decision-makers.

It’s a self-perpetuating process, and in order to reverse it, more middle-class and working-class people need to step up and get involved.

History Unfinished: Remembering the March for Jobs and Freedom, 50 Years Later

In the coming days, our country will commemorate one of the most powerful moments in U.S. history—the civil rights March of August 28, 1963, best remembered for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The March for Jobs and Freedom didn’t just matter because of the hundreds of thousands of people who came together that day, or because of the words they heard. It mattered then—still matters now—because it was a potent, public symbol of something important happening in communities across the country.

Most immediately, the March helped push forward the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other later legislation that ended legal segregation and protected the human rights of African-Americans across the country.

It’s important to note, though, that the civil rights movement wasn’t just about speeches in front of crowds. As leaders like Dr. King, A. Phillip Randolph and John Lewis knew, it was about people taking action in their own communities. The legislation that passed wouldn’t have passed, and wouldn’t have meant much, if it wasn’t for African-Americans holding public meetings, talking to their neighbors and registering to vote, often at great personal risk.

And it’s important to note that the message of the March wasn’t just that people need to be nice to each other. As brochures for the march indicate, there was a real policy agenda at work—an agenda that demanded access to voting rights, education, and good jobs at good wages. It was an agenda that united religious leaders, labor leaders like UAW President Walter Reuther, students and people of all ages, races and walks of life.

This isn’t ancient history written in stone. It’s within living memory, as we can see in these great stories from attendees collected by the New York Times. And the issues that motivated King and the thousands who crowded the National Mall—a voice in the political process and a fair shot at economic opportunity for all Americans—are still relevant today.

The civil rights movement didn’t begin on August 28, and it didn’t end that day, either. The best way to honor the memory of the March for Jobs and Freedom is to remember why they marched, and to keep fighting.