Congress Risking Student Loan Interest-Rate Hike

As the cost of higher education rises faster than wages, Americans are staring down $1 trillion in student loan debt—a daunting number that stunts personal economic prospects. But what’s worse is that, for the next set of students looking at college, the interest they’ll have to pay on student debt could double.

A 2007 bill which lowered the interest rate on student loans is set to expire on July 1, which would double the interest on federal student loans from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. The House and Senate need to act quickly—but Minnesota Republican Rep. John Kline, who heads the key committee in the House, claims it’s too expensive to extend the lower rates. (Kline’s concerns about cost must have been rough for him when he voted for the Paul Ryan budget that featured massive tax cuts for millionaires.)

If Congress waits too long, they’ll turn student loan interest into just another example of governance-by-unnecessary-emergency, the same silly process we’ve seen with the payroll tax cut, the debt ceiling, the highway bill and other issues. And refusing to extend lower rates would just shift more costs to young people who will be entering college this fall and beyond.

This deadline isn’t coming up out of the blue. Back in February, Alternet’s Sarah Jaffe noted that the interest-rate hike would add thousands of dollars to the cost of college.

Nobody should have to go to college to get a fair wage and a decent life—but nobody who wants to pursue higher education should be held back by cost. We talk to thousands of people across the country every week, and education is a constant concern—the hope that they or their kids can afford education, and that the cost won’t cripple their long-term prospects. An unnecessary, drastic hike in interest rates for student loans would punish people for pursuing their own advancement.

We’ll keep an eye on this important issue in the coming months. Will future college students win the fight—or will Rep. Kline?

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Senator Harkin’s Rebuild America Plan

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin announced a new economic plan he’s calling the “Rebuild America Plan.” From The Nation:

The legislation is divided into three basic categories: the first is proactive federal spending an action meant to boost the flagging economy. It includes:

$300 billion for roads, bridges, energy efficiency systems and other infrastructure

$20 billion in school modernization funding

Boosting funding for agencies that regulate trade, to better enforce fair trade policies

Funding to states to hire teachers, public safety workers and other public employees.

To help workers and families:

Increased child care subsidies for working parents

Ensuring that workers, particularly white-collar workers categorized as independent contractors, earn time-and-a-half overtime pay

Raising the minimum wage

Strengthening the National Labor Relations Act, making it easier for workers to join unions and increasing penalties on employers for blocking unionization.

To pay for the increased spending:

Raising the capital gains rate and closing the carried interest loophole

A Wall Street speculators tax, of three basis points on common financial securities trades

Ending tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs.

Senator Harkin is aware that such a proposal wouldn’t fly in the current Congress. He does think that we need to stop thinking in Paul Ryan terms:

“I firmly believe that anyone running for election this year to the House or the Senate—if they take up this bill, if they take up the direction of this bill… I believe that will be a winning formula,” he said. “I think the American people are hungry, looking for some way out of this mess that we’re in and I think they’re saturated [with] these sort of quick-fix type things—that we can’t be bold, we can’t grow, we’ve got to, as the Ryan budget says, just keep shrinking and shrinking and shrinking.”

There are some options here that would create jobs by investing in fixing our broken infrastructure. There are options that would help struggling families get back on track.

We certainly need to discuss choices other than the current menu of attempting to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and middle class while continuing to shovel tax breaks at the wealthy.

Photo of U.S. Senator Tom Harkin and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis by US Department of Labor on Flickr, via Creative Commons.

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This Week on Main Street – March 30, 2012

Source: Uploaded by user via IAFF on Pinterest

Tomorrow is April Fool’s Day in the rest of the world, which is kind of like every day in Washington, DC. Except there’s less laughing.

This week the U.S. House, demonstrating the infinite wisdom we’ve enjoyed since the beginning of last year, passed a budget that essentially phases out Medicare while doubling-down on tax cuts for the 1%. The budget is the brainchild of Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who looks like an innocent 1950’s soda shop owner but produced a bill that’s so anti-worker and so regressive, we couldn’t think of a cleverer nickname for it than “The Terrible Deal.”

Unfortunately, as they often do, the stodgy establishment here in D.C. greeted Paul Ryan’s wet-kiss-to-the-insanely rich by furrowing their brows and remarking how “serious” and “brave” it was. As Seth wrote, there’s nothing particularly brave about transferring massive health care costs onto seniors and the working poor while advocating $3 trillion in tax cuts for corporations and millionaires – while increasing the deficit for future generations to deal with.

There was an actual serious and brave budget put forward by the Congressional Progressive Caucus called the “Budget For All.” This budget would end the Bush handouts for the wealthiest, decrease the deficit by $6.8 trillion, and make investments in infrastructure that would put Americans back to work immediately. This budget deserves to be on the table and part of the discussion as much as – if not more than – Paul Ryan’s Terrible Deal. But hey, that would make sense, and this Congress doesn’t really like to do things that make sense, like adequately fund roads.

Out in the states, Wisconsin had a big Friday. In the morning, the state election board officially certified 900,939 valid signatures, triggering the recall election of Governor Scott Walker. Then a few hours later, a federal court struck down two key provisions of the infamous Act 10, the anti-union “budget repair” law that started the whole shebang last winter. In a bit of irony more delicious than a Wisconsin brat, Walker’s attempt to pit police and firefighters against other public workers could have been the move that rendered the law unconstitutional. Not a terribly good way to start the weekend for Mr. Walker.

Meanwhile, Mike gave us an update on the West Virginia mine disaster, Doug asked some more #simplequestions about ALEC’s influence on our government, Dan fought back against Verizon greed, Susan reminded us why we’re going to miss NH Gov. John Lynch, and Seth explained why America’s older women should be sending Paul Ryan nasty greeting cards right about now.

And we’re out! Have a safe and happy weekend, Working America. Wisconsinites – don’t party too hard.

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Study: Older Women Face Economic Insecurity

According to a new study, a shocking 60% of women over 65 can’t afford basic living expenses.

These disparities are often the result of unequal pay and opportunities for women throughout their lives. Women are more likely than men to have worked lower-wage jobs and to have taken time off to care for other family members. While Social Security makes up 59% of older men’s income, it makes up 77% of older women’s income. Another factor in this divide is that older women are more likely to live alone than older men, and thus live in households with lower income and no one else to share costs.

This study, by the organization Wider Opportunities for Women, is part of their Elder Economic Security Initiative, and compared cost of living state-by-state to older people’s income.

This new report echoes findings from a study done last year by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In that study, 47% of women reported having little or no confidence that their assets would last them through their years of retirement, and they also reported at much higher rates than men that they have had difficulty paying for food, housing and health care. Women also reported lower levels of investment in retirement accounts like IRAs or 401(k)s.

These studies highlight how important Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are. They keep millions of people out of poverty, especially as fewer and fewer jobs offer defined-benefit pensions, and they protect older Americans from the impact of catastrophic medical bills. These figures also show how important it is to eliminate disparities in pay for men and women, so that women aren’t disadvantaged later in life, and how important it is to protect the ability of workers to bargain for fair pay and retirement benefits.

Of course, yesterday the Republican majority in the U.S. House passed a budget that would be a devastating blow to Medicare and Medicaid, raising out-of-pocket costs and eroding the guarantee of health coverage for retirees. These politicians—who have perfectly secure health care and pensions themselves—thought that lower taxes on the very rich were a higher priority than protecting seniors.

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In Narrow Vote, U.S. House Passes Medicare-Demolition Budget

In a mostly party-line vote, the U.S. House just passed Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal—a bill that, if it became law, would radically redefine the social contract. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, and his colleagues voted in favor of massive tax cuts slanted towards the very wealthiest, paid for by demolishing Medicare and other programs that working people and retirees depend on.

We don’t need to quibble about motives or intent here, because the reasons why aren’t important. What matters is the effect. And the Ryan budget would redistribute wealth upwards, cutting services and programs for health, education, and retirement security even as it showers benefits on millionaires—and costs the rest of us jobs, too. Politics is about priorities, about choices, and House Republicans made theirs.

This is their platform,” says Joan McCarter of Washington’s Republican politicians, and she’s not just pulling that out of nowhere: Speaker John Boehner says quite openly that this is the vision he and his allies will fight for at every level. It’s a vision of Hoover-era tax rates and the undermining of decades-old guarantees to retirees, of a government that can’t afford to inspect mines or help working-class kids go to college.

This is all well and good. Ryan and his allies have their priorities. And the thousands of people we talk to every week, well, they have a different set of priorities.

Oh, and the pundit-pandering Cooper-LaTourette bill we told you about yesterday? It was overwhelmingly defeated last night. So much for Beltway conventional wisdom.

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Beyond Ryan: More Budget Maneuvers in the House

Although you’ll mostly hear about the plan proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan and Republican leadership, there are a number of budget proposals floating around in the U.S. House. We’ve already told you about the Progressive Caucus Budget for All. Meanwhile, tonight an Ohio Republican and a Tennessee Democrat will get a vote on a budget proposal that, while not as awful as Ryan’s, leaves a lot to be desired.

Based roughly on the Simpson-Bowles commission plan from 2010, the Cooper-LaTourette budget proposal would include some provisions that would force deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare, as well as other vital programs. It also falls short on looking for new revenue from the very wealthiest. As Joan McCarter notes, the Cooper-LaTourette plan predictably caters to D.C. conventional wisdom, asking for a lot more sacrifice from middle-class and working-class people than the very wealthy.

The Budget for All, on the other hand, is a much more ambitious and challenging document, because it asks the wealthy and powerful to bear more of the burden—a policy broadly favored by the public. What’s more, it offers some actual relief for the ongoing jobs crisis. It also includes a public option for health care and negotiating power in Medicare for prescription drugs, two policies that will help families control health-care costs. The Progressive Caucus has released full details of their budget, and we’ll be giving it a close look.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, has also released a budget proposal that protects the guarantee of Medicare, ends Bush’s tax cuts for the very wealthy and closes numerous loopholes that let millionaires get away with paying less than their fair share.

Let’s remember, though, that the official budget proposal of the Republicans who lead the U.S. House is Paul Ryan’s. It’s sure to get a vote soon, and it’s worth looking at some of its key provisions, just to be clear on what a mistake Representatives would be making if they voted for it. Highlights from Ryan’s parade of bad policy:

  • Millionaires, who make up considerably less than 1% of taxpayers, get 37% of the tax cuts from Ryan’s plan.

  • The 2011 financial reform bill had a provision called “resolution authority,” which allows too-big-to-fail-but-failing-anyway institutions to get dismantled rather than just bailed out. Ryan’s budget would throw that out the window.
  • Its spending cuts would be devastating to everything from mine safety enforcement to medical research to families depending on food stamps.
  • And, of course, there’s Ryan’s “morally bankrupt” demolition of the guarantee of Medicare and devastating cuts to Medicaid. Ryan says these changes “strengthen the safety net,” which is like saying replacing your car’s engine with a hamster on a wheel “strengthens your ability to drive to work.”
  • Ryan’s Wisconsin constituents are not happy with his budget plan. The rest of us shouldn’t be either.

    We’ll be watching in the coming days to see which members of Congress choose to side with the very wealthiest over the rest of us by supporting the Cooper-LaTourette plan and the even worse Ryan plan.

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    Expanding the Conversation on the Budget

    Last week, Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Terrible Deal” budget was unleashed to great fanfare and discussion. Less noted by the usual press and pundits was another budget proposal, this one offered by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The “Budget for All” shows that we don’t need to have a narrow conversation focused on austerity and putting more money in the pockets of the wealthiest.

    Politics is about priorities, as I’m fond of noting. In Ryan’s budget, big tax cuts for the very wealthy are the top priority, and what gets left behind is the health and retirement security of millions of working-class and middle-class families. The Budget for All shows that’s not our only choice—we can have a budget that puts programs like Medicare, as well as investments to build a stronger future, first.

    We’re still awaiting full details, but the Budget for All starts with the end of the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy, the addition of new tax brackets for millionaires and billionaires, and the elimination of loopholes and preferential treatment for capital gains that lets corporations and the richest get away with paying less than their fair share. It invests in infrastructure, schools and direct job creation. The principles it’s based on are 180 degrees away from the “you’re-on-your-own” ideology underlying Ryan’s budget proposal.

    By the rules of “serious” put forth by D.C. pundits and political hacks, Ryan’s budget is “serious”—even as it defies public opinion by slashing taxes on the rich and decimating Medicare, and even as it fails to balance the budget except through hand-waving and invented numbers. By the same D.C. rules, the Budget for All gets ignored because it asks the very wealthiest (who are over-represented among political donors and elected officials) to pay a little more. These rules are, to put it bluntly, stupid, and detrimental to good public policy.

    The Budget for All deserves to be part of the debate as much as Ryan’s does.

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    Door to Door, Corbett Budget Causing Direct Pain in Pennsylvania

    by Catherine Balsamo – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

    Take action: Tell Governor Corbett restore the cuts and fund public education.

    During the year that I’ve been organizing with Working America members, I haven’t seen anything fire up our members in Western Pennsylvania more than Governor Tom Corbett’s state budget. The current budget slashed education and social services, demanded sacrifices from children and struggling Pennsylvanians, and caused some districts to increase property taxes – but continued to let corporations off the hook.

    The proposal for the upcoming year’s state budget looks even worse.  Here’s what some Working America members expressed to me last week about the Pennsylvania budget:

    LaTonya Greene, mother and waitress:

    This state budget has crushed education in PA, and we can’t afford for that to happen again this year.  My six year-old son was in full-day kindergarten last school year, and he learned a lot. My daughter is in kindergarten now, but it was cut to half-day due to the budget cuts.  She’s not learning, and I’m afraid she may have to repeat it.

    My two year-old son entered an early childhood education program in September, but because of state budget cuts, it closed in November.  To make things worse, some after-school programs here have been cut as well.

    The government claims the state broke, but many corporations and gas companies here are getting richer, and not paying taxes.  This is being done at the expense of our children’s education.

    We need to make sure that our politicians know that we value education and want to see it funded in the state budget.  Our elected officials need to put our kids over corporate profits, and finally require corporations to pay their fair share of taxes.

    Dr. Ronald Ladick, former Assistant Superintendent:

    The serious defunding of public education in last year’s state budget caused school districts in my area to eliminate after-school tutoring, cut kindergarten, axe staff development trainings and programs, and scale back truancy remedies.

    We have to hold our politicians accountable for a decent state budget.  They want to keep their jobs, and they’re accountable to us.   We need to write letters, call, and meet with our elected officials to demand a decent state budget.

    Cindy Frye, mother:

    State budget cuts are hurting education, overtaxing the little guy, and driving people out of the area.

    My school district recently merged with another school district, in part to avoid having to raise property taxes… but because of the severe state defunding of education, our property taxes are still going to go up! Houses by me went up for sale after the millage increase was announced.   How will there be a future here for the upcoming generation?  The good jobs (manufacturing jobs) have been outsourced, education cuts are underway, property taxes are being increased, and public transit is on the chopping block.

    Robert D’Angelo, music teacher:

    I worked as a music teacher for 25 years, and my wife teaches family consumer science as well as gifted education.  Due to the severe state budget cuts, programs like music, family consumer science, computer science, and libraries in or near my district have been scaled back significantly.

    Computer science and library class are now only available to certain grades.  Books aren’t able to be maintained or replaced.  Family consumer science classes have been reduced, and they now charge students a fee in order to participate in class (the fee is needed to pay for the food).  Our school district can only afford 2 music teachers, and the band and theatre programs are weakened as a result.   Instruments are falling apart.  The school musicals are have decreased in size and scope, and can no longer include as many kids.  Kids who would be involved in theatre if there were space for them are now getting into trouble instead.

    People need to speak up for a budget that restores funding to education.  We need to let our elected officials know what we’re experiencing so that they can shape a budget that reflects our values and needs.

    Working America members recognize that Pennsylvania’s state budget is crushing communities, compromising children, and slashing educational resources.  We need to speak up to our elected officials and demand a state budget that restores funding for education and social services, and requires corporations to pay their fair share of taxes to our state.

    Send a message to Governor Corbett: Let him know you want a fair state budget!

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    Paul Ryan’s Bad-Deal Budget

    To help end the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt proposed “the New Deal.” Now Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, has a different idea: call it “the Terrible Deal.”

    Ryan released his budget today and, unsurprisingly, it’s a blueprint for a very different country—one in which the rich get trillions in tax cuts and the most vulnerable see their safety net cut away. “If you’re very wealthy and believe struggling families have it too easy, you’re going to love what the House GOP has put together,” notes Steve Benen.

    In Ryan’s vision for the country, programs that are vital to education, infrastructure, health care and retirement security get slashed or eliminated. Most notably, Ryan continues (in a slightly watered-down form) his push to replace the guarantee of Medicare with vouchers for private coverage. The effect of this over the long term is a massive shift of costs to seniors as their health care vouchers give them less coverage over time.

    The Medicaid program, which provides a guarantee of coverage to the very poorest, comes in for even bigger cuts. As Slate’s Matt Yglesias says, what Ryan’s plan does is “make Medicaid beneficiaries get by with less health care.” The suggestion, coming from Ryan, that what he’s trying to do is “strengthen” Medicaid is, as Yglesias points out, insulting nonsense.

    Taken together, Ryan’s plans to replace Medicare, slash Medicaid and repeal the Affordable Care Act would leave the number of uninsured people “much higher” with reduced access to care generally.

    Health care programs aren’t the only ones that face cuts. Everything from food stamps to highway funding gets targeted, in ways that impose austerity on an economy still recovering from recession. (And, just as a bonus, the modest regulations on Wall Street set by the recent financial reform bill are swept away.)

    Ezra Klein, looking at the Ryan budget, says that Ryan expects the poorest to bear nearly all of the burden:

    Ryan prides himself on making tough choices. But where such choices need to be made for politically powerful constituencies…Ryan punts. When such choices need to be made for programs that the poor depend on, however, Ryan is considerably more specific, and considerably more willing to inflict real budgetary pain on current beneficiaries.

    What do we get in exchange for all of those cuts? Well, the wealthy and large corporations get around $3 trillion in tax cuts, although Ryan claims his tax plan will actually be revenue-neutral because of changes to tax deductions he isn’t interested in specifying, and because of growth projections based on the classic economic theory of “because I said so.”

    And worth noting is that at least one expert has looked at the number and determined that Ryan’s proposal would, contrary to his zealous declarations, actually increase the deficit.

    Washington, D.C. is kind of a funny town, where conventional wisdom is set by the preferences of a small political and media elite rather than by reality. And in Washington D.C., Ryan gets credit for being “serious,” “brave” and “an expert” for the way his budgets flatter the ideology of the conventional-wisdom-setters. But it takes no bravery or seriousness to pander to wealthy campaign donors and highly-paid pundits by telling them how much everyone else needs to sacrifice.

    Jonathan Bernstein puts it even more concisely: “in budgetary terms, there’s no reason to take this thing seriously, or to give Ryan any points for courage.”

    Politics is about priorities, as I often say. Rep. Ryan has, with this budget, made it clear what his priorities are: low taxes on the very wealthy, the demolition of the Medicare guarantee, and a government that does almost nothing to help people get ahead. Those are his values and he’s entitled to them—but the thousands of people we talk to every week aren’t exactly clamoring for less security for themselves and lower taxes for the rich.

    Photo of Rep. Paul Ryan by Gage Skidmore on Flickr

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    New Bill Aims to Help Older Workers Fight Workplace Discrimination

    In 2009, the Supreme Court eliminated something called “mixed motive” lawsuits against employers who discriminate against older workers, in the Gross v. FBL Financial Services decision. From Think Progress:

    Employment discrimination cases are difficult to prove because the plaintiff ultimately must show what their boss was thinking at the time they were fired or demoted–it is illegal for an employer to fire a worker because they think the worker is too old or too black or too female, but not because they think the worker is incompetent or poorly dressed. Since workers don’t have ESP, the Supreme Court long ago put certain procedures in place to make sure that laws banning discrimination amount to more than just empty promises.

    “Mixed motive” suits are an example of these procedures. To win a mixed motive case, a plaintiff had to prove that discrimination was one of the reasons behind their boss’ decision to fire or demote them. It was then up to their boss to prove that they would have made the same decision regardless of the worker’s race or gender or age. Workers are spared the nearly impossible task of having to prove that that their boss was thinking only of bigotry when they lashed out at their employee; and employers are given a fair chance to prove that discrimination is not the real reason why the worker was cast aside.

    With the Gross decision, older workers suddenly have been forced to become mind readers. At a time when older workers face an uphill battle trying to keep or find jobs, this decision has made life even more difficult for them, while making it easier for employers to discriminate.

    This week a bill was filed to attempt to remedy that decision. From Think Progress:

    A bill introduced Tuesday by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) will overturn Gross and restore to older workers the same ability to fight discrimination that they agreed before a 5-4 Supreme Court took it away from them. Although many Senate Democrats have long supported undoing the justices’ mischief in this way, this is the first time a Republican has signed on to the effort — Grassley’s endorsement of the bill is a hopeful sign that it could become law.

    Overturning the Gross decision would make it easier for older workers to fight discrimination in the work place. It’s certainly a hopeful sign that this is a bi-partisan effort, which certainly makes it more likely that the bill could actually pass. This is worth keeping an eye on.

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