Wednesday, July 25, 2012

POSTSCRIPT TO "W. Va's ASSAULT ON THE POOR" -- TOMBLIN CAVES

Lawrence Messina of the AP reports that, under public pressure, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has backtracked on major parts of his plan to cut childcare services.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

BLACK LUNG AND THE GHOST OF WALTER REUTHER (pub date July 28, 2012)


Initially I saw no connection when a Google search popped up a new documentary film about a former Wheeling resident and, on the same day, The Center for Public Integrity and National Public Radio reported a resurgence of Black Lung disease.

But, in the days following, as I waited for Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and Senator Joe Manchin, both of whom profess unending concern for the welfare of miners, to react to the news that black lung may be more prevalent now than it was forty years ago, a connection between the seemingly unrelated events emerged.

When I was thirteen years-old Wheeling’s Oglebay Institute purchased the old Zion Lutheran Church for the purpose of converting it into Towngate Theater. Today Towngate is one of America’s most venerable community theaters. It has produced hundreds of plays and thousands of actors, at least two of whom have gone on to win Academy Awards. But, in 1969, it was a rundown shell and the challenge of renovating it fell to my dad, Hal O’Leary.

One day, while we were hauling out rubbish, my dad called me into a little storage room where he had found an old church register. He said, “Look at this”, and pointed to an entry.

There were the names, “Mr. and Mrs. Valentine Reuther”, followed by those of their children, Victor, Roy, and Walter.

“What do you think of that?” he said. I looked at him blankly.

Dad was appalled by my ignorance and, after wondering aloud, “What do they teach you in that school?”, he told me about Walter Reuther.

Although he would die in a plane crash a year later, Reuther was then and since 1946 had been the president of the United Auto Workers union. But, more than that, he was an architect of twentieth century America.

Reuther practically invented employer-provided health insurance, making it a standard feature of full-time employment. He was also a primary force behind minimum wage laws, overtime pay, paid vacations, and pensions for hourly workers.

Reuther marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, with whom he shared the podium the day King delivered the “I have a dream” speech. He marched again with King from Selma to Montgomery and, when Walter Reuther died, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King eulogized him as, “a crusader for a better world” who “was there when the storm clouds were thick.”

Along the way Reuther survived two assassination attempts and accusations that he was a communist and a traitor. But, he prevailed and in 1995 was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. In 1998, Time Magazine named Reuther one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. And President Ronald Reagan paid homage to Reuther when, upon enactment of legislation creating Employee Stock Ownership Plans, he cited Walter Reuther as the bill’s inspiration.

The compelling story is told in a new documentary, “Brothers on The Line”, directed by Walter Reuther’s great nephew, Sasha Reuther.

So, Reuther’s ghost haunted me as I wondered when our governor and senator would respond to the news that Black Lung Disease is 50% more prevalent now in southern West Virginia than it was nationally 40 years ago. It’s a scourge that has killed at least 75,000 miners and, more frightening, its presence was recently found in the autopsies of 17 of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion in 2010. They were already dead men walking.

Inevitably I wondered how Reuther, who had to lead often bloody strikes to earn union recognition, would react if his union members were being killed.

Certainly not in the fashion of Manchin and Tomblin – Tomblin, who in the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, loudly signed into law what he called “monumental” mine safety legislation that did almost nothing.

As reporter Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette points out, Tomblin’s “monumental” law failed to require real-time ventilation and monitoring of coal dust, the cause of the Upper Big Branch explosion. The bill’s “new” rock-dust standards are redundant having already been enacted two years earlier. An “anonymous mine safety tip line” announced at the bill signing was also already in existence. A new requirement that miners be tested for drugs addressed an issue that’s peripheral at best and which had nothing to do with the Upper Big Branch explosion or any other mine disaster. And the bill’s increased fines for safety violations were actually watered down by Tomblin’s administration and are, in any case, lower than those in federal law.

It seems that in West Virginia, it isn’t just Walter Reuther’s church that has been replaced by theater. His fight for the workingman has been as well.

Finally, a spectacularly ill-timed attempt by Republicans in the House of Representatives to reduce Black Lung enforcement roused Manchin from his stupor. He opposed the attempt, but did so without acknowledging the black lung report.

“We should never go backward when it comes to the health and safety of our miners”, Manchin said.

Earth to Joe, “We already have.”

Tomblin, meanwhile, is mute. I should probably stop waiting for him to don the mantle of Walter Reuther whose vigilance once earned him a would-be assassin’s bullet. Earl Ray isn’t about to take a bullet for anybody. Probably the most we can hope for is another Academy Award performance.

Sean O’Leary can be contacted at seanoleary@citlink.net.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

WEST VIRGINIA'S ASSAULT ON THE POOR (Pub Date TBD)

I have before me a picture drawn by an eleven year-old girl we’ll call “Kit”. In the picture a smiling turtle appears ready to wink as her head and shell float just above the surface of the water. There is no land in sight. Beneath her picture, Kit gives us a moral.

“When life gets you down, you know what you got to do? Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.”

I’m always moved when I read the last bit -- “swimming, swimming, swimming”. The repetition trails off into perpetuity reflecting Kit’s awareness that to stop swimming, to rest before reaching land, will result in drowning. And though she is clearly resolved, she implicitly and stoically accepts the possibility that land might never be reached.

If this sounds like weighty stuff to be going on in the mind of an eleven year-old, you must understand Kit’s circumstances at the time. Kit, her mother and two brothers were homeless. They shambled weekly, sometimes nightly, from one borrowed or rented room to another, piecing together meals and clothing as best they could.

Through it all Kit was able to attend a single elementary school because a kindly principal turned a blind eye to the fact that Kit’s family had no fixed address and their housing odyssey regularly took them to other districts and counties.

I was reminded of their plight this week when I learned that Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration intends to cut childcare subsidies in West Virginia starting on August 1st.

According to the Associated Press, $8 million will be cut from a program that helps provide day care to the young children of working parents, throwing 800 low-income families and 1,400 kids out of the program. This cut is on top of $9.5 million the Department of Health and Human Resources is cutting from nutrition and other programs. It’s also on top of a decision to end a senior-care program designed to prevent elderly Medicaid recipients from being sent to nursing homes.

The cuts are being made in the name of fiscal responsibility. However, while undertaking these cuts and warning of impending budget shortfalls due to increased Medicaid spending, the administration is aggressively cutting business taxes and refusing to tap nearly a billion dollars that sits in the state’s rain day fund.

Coincidentally, this year’s cuts to the corporate net income and business franchise taxes almost exactly equal the amounts being taken out of childcare and nutrition creating a strange symmetry and posing the question, which is the better investment?

We know that years of business tax cuts under Governors Manchin and Tomblin have done nothing to increase jobs. West Virginia now has the same number of jobs that it had in 1998 and, in this week’s “Under the Dome” column, Tom Miller writes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of businesses with paid employees declined for the sixth consecutive year.

We know that cutting business taxes bleeds the state of revenue, undercutting our ability to address the fundamental issues that discourage business expansion in West Virginia – a decrepit infrastructure, a poor quality of life, and an impoverished, undereducated workforce.

Assessing the impact of cuts to childcare and nutrition programs is harder. Some parents, particularly single mothers, will have to give up their jobs and will require other forms of pubic assistance. All affected families will be made poorer than they already are and some childcare centers will shut down. But, we don’t have numbers.

Still, we do have people and their stories, some heart rending and some triumphant. And I have Kit’s.

I hesitate to tell Kit’s story because some people don’t want to put a human face on these issues. They were in the audience when Congressman Ron Paul was asked in a Republican presidential debate if he would let someone who couldn’t pay for medical care die, and they shouted, “Yes! Yes!”

It’s a primitive sentiment and I suppose, under extreme circumstances, perhaps any of us could feel that way toward those in need. But, I can’t because Kit’s turtle stares unblinkingly, reminding me that Kit kept swimming and, only with the help of her mom; of Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the organization through which we met; and through government social programs like those on the chopping block, she made it all the way to college. She’ll graduate next spring, an accomplished artist whose works already sell for hundreds of dollars and someday maybe for thousands, in which case I’ll have a collector’s item.

But, Kit is a rarity. Most kids in her former position swim for a while, but tire and then drown in the muck of generational poverty. With cuts to programs upon which their families depend, they’ll have to swim even farther to find rest and some who might otherwise make it ashore will die in that incremental distance.

What’s worse is that the stakes will get higher when Governor Tomblin and the legislature must decide whether West Virginia will opt in to the extension of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Failure to do so will leave West Virginia families whose incomes fall between 35% and 100% of the poverty line without any options for health insurance coverage. And to what end? So we can pass more ineffectual business tax cuts for which there is no quantitative justification whatsoever?

That’s what some will demand and a voice within me will scream, “What’s wrong with you people?”

Sean O’Leary can be reached at seanoleary@citlink.net.

Friday, July 6, 2012

THE BOY IN THE BOX at BARTER THEATRE: Corrected time 4PM on Friday, July 13

In an earlier blog entry I reported that my new play,THE BOY IN THE BOX,will be presented on Friday, July 13, at 1PM. The actual time is 4PM.

THE BOY IN THE BOX is presented as part of this year's Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights. In the play, which was commissioned by Barter Theatre as part of its Shaping of America Series, 102 year-old Allard Charles has a secret to tell -- a secret for which he must prepare us. To do so, he recounts the first 15 years of his childhood, which were spent confined in a box, and the unusual perspective that experience gave him as he wandered through twentieth century America leading him to this moment when he must confess something profound, something for which he seeks our forgiveness, even though we, his audience, will have to pay a price to give it.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

IF WEST VIRGINIA REJECTS THE EXTENSION OF MEDICAID, THE POOR WILL SUFFER


According to this chart from Ezra Klein and the Washington Post, If West Virginia rejects the extension of Medicaid benefits under the ACA, families whose income falls between 35% and 100% of the federal poverty line will be ineligible for coverage -- proportionately one of the largest uncovered populations in the country.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

THE WEST VIRGINIA PROTECTION PLEDGE (Pub Date: July 14, 2012)


Political pledges are usually pernicious. They tie office-holders to policy prescriptions long after time and circumstances render them irrelevant or harmful. They inhibit compromise, which is, though some won't admit it, the oil that prevents the engines of government and society from seizing up. And it was Edmund Burke who cautioned us that pledges represent an abdication of judgment and responsibility.

Still, congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia’s second district and David McKinley of the first, signed Grover Norquist’s well-known Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which obligates signatories to oppose any increase in marginal income tax rates and to offset any elimination of deductions with corresponding cuts in rates.

Rather than debate the doubtful merits of the pledge, let’s accept it as accomplished fact and consider that it may need to be counterbalanced with another pledge whose benefits are more certain. It reads:

“I will oppose any budget and tax package that takes more from West Virginia in budget cuts than it returns in tax cuts.”

Call it the West Virginia Protection Pledge. It simply says that state taxpayers must get back at least as much money in tax cuts as we sacrifice in budget cuts so that we’re not made poorer than we already are. This shouldn’t be a difficult commitment for representatives who are, after all, elected to represent our interests.

But, for Capito and McKinley, it will be difficult because it’s probably mathematically impossible to adhere to both a West Virginia Protection Pledge and to Norquist’s pledge. It's also unlikely that they can honor the West Virginia Protection pledge while supporting the budget and tax plans proposed by presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, and Republican congressman Paul Ryan.

Here’s why.

According to the Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, 95% of the tax cut savings proposed in Romney’s plan would go to households with incomes of more than $100,000 a year and 70% would go to those making more than $200,000.

But, in West Virginia we don’t have very many people in either category. While nationally more than a quarter of households make over $100,000 a year, in West Virginia only 11% do. And, while more than 5% of US households make more than $200,000, in West Virginia the number is just over 1%.

In all, we have only a third as many wealthy people as the nation and twice as many poor people. And, under the Romney plan, taxes for many middle class and poorer people will, if anything, go up due to the elimination of some tax deductions.

This will produce a result similar to what happened with the Bush tax cuts of a decade ago when West Virginians received only 67 cents in savings for every dollar received by other Americans. Except this time will be worse because the Romney and Ryan cuts are more skewed to benefit the wealthy than the Bush tax cuts were. In fact, because both the Romney and Ryan plans involve removing deductions, most West Virginians will probably see an income tax increase.

Then there are the looming cuts to entitlements. West Virginia receives more than twice as many dollars in federal spending as we contribute in taxes. Much of that spending comes from programs Republicans are targeting for cuts such as disability, Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps. So, to the degree these programs are reduced, West Virginia will suffer disproportionately probably leaving the state in a “net loss” situation in which more money is removed from the state’s economy than is put back in.

The consequent reductions in personal income and in retail demand could be profound for West Virginia citizens and merchants producing precisely the opposite result of the one which Republicans intend, which is to put more not less money in Americans’ pockets.

It’s reasonable to question the wisdom of a policy that would punish one of the nation’s poorest states so. Perhaps the policy could be justified if, despite the damage to West Virginia, it benefitted the nation as a whole. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise.

As Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, said recently in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, “No large economy has ever recovered from an economic downturn through austerity.” He was referring specifically to the Republican strategy of slashing government spending, which, not coincidentally, is being practiced with stunningly awful results in European countries such as Ireland and Spain.

West Virginia wouldn’t be the only state to face a net loss catastrophe. But, we would be the first and the most seriously damaged while the nation as a whole would suffer as well.

The principles on which Republicans base their policies sound wise -- Tax cuts are good, budgets should be balanced, and social programs shouldn’t breed dependency. But, the road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. Besides, the marketplace isn’t based on the exchange of principles. It’s based on the exchange of money and when the Romney and Ryan plans are monetized, West Virginia and America end up losers.

It’s too much to say that what’s good for West Virginia is good for the country, but it’s not too much to say that what’s bad for West Virginia is bad for the country. So, the question stands.

When push comes to shove, which pledge will our congressional representatives honor, the West Virginia Protection pledge and with it the national interest, or the Grover Norquist pledge and party ideology?

 
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