What we're reading - May 13 2011
Friday, May 13th, 2011
These stories caught the eye of Michael Lawson, one of our reporters:
This week brought two articles on food stamps across my desk (or my screen, really). One, from Fast Company, lists four things you can buy with food stamps that the author would rather people not spend tax-payer dollars on. And a rebuttal, from Racialicious, explains itself right in the headline: If You Haven’t Been On Food Stamps, Stop Trying to Influence Government Policy.
Those are two opinionated stances on a serious public policy issue. Record long-term unemployment across all economic sectors has changed the picture of poverty and financial security. One in seven Americans now rely on food stamps to feed themselves. Some of those are people, as I’ve learned while reporting for this project, who would have never imagined themselves receiving public assistance. While there are societal benefits of influencing healthier eating habits where possible, as the Fast Company article suggests, food stamps are designed for families who, because of limited resources, make choices based upon survival. As many Americans have unfortunately learned over the past few years, when struggling to make ends meet, “choice” becomes a luxury in and of itself.
Some of those people on food stamps might be among the nearly 14 million Americans who are unemployed. Over 40 percent have been unemployed longer than 27 weeks. There are still about four unemployed people for every job opening. This week, Bloomberg reported on a Republican plan that would allow states to divert money intended for extended unemployment benefits. Instead, the states could use to avert unemployment tax increases, which would refill exhausted state unemployment insurance trust funds. The money could also be used to pay back federal loans. Florida this week became the latest state to approve cuts to its unemployment benefits for next year, as the New York Times reported. Michigan, Missouri, and Arkansas have all cut back on the number of weeks people can get state benefits, and others are considering similar moves. Stay tuned. The prospect of increased business taxes illustrates another way the pervasive nature of long-term unemployment may rear its ugly head. Ever heard of the chicken and the egg?
Here's what Kat Aaron, What Went Wrong's project editor, was reading this week:
This week, a couple of reports stood out for me. They’re not all new, but they’re new to me. Like this June 2010 report (pdf) from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018, which I came across while working on a story about workforce development and the jobs gaps. It’s not the most uplifting reading. In 1973, 72 percent of workers had only a high school education. By 2018, almost two thirds of all jobs will require a college degree or higher, according to the report. Given the cuts in many states to primary and secondary education, though, those degrees may be hard to come by.
I also came across a report on the high costs of rental housing, released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Today more than 38 million households rent their homes, 1.9 million more than in 2007. The current rate of homeownership (66.5%) is now at the lowest level since 1998.
The number of renters paying over 30% of their income for housing reached 18.5 million nationwide in 2009, representing 52% of all US renters. A decade ago, 40% of renters were in this predicament, and only 25% of renters faced such a burden in 1960.
State and local budgets are hitting the rental market too, particularly for low income renters, the report found.
With a tight supply of affordable rental units nationwide, more than half of American renters lived in unaffordable housing in 2009. Despite the growing need, housing assistance programs are at risk in budget cuts proposed at the federal level and in state houses, city halls, and county seats across the country. Recently, the House proposed cutting public housing preservation funding by 43%, greatly accelerating the current annual loss of more than 10,000 public housing units a year.
Speaking of housing (how’s that for a transition!), WBAL TV in Baltimore has a great story about a couple who lost their home to a straw buyer scam, then hired a lawyer who they paid $15,000 but who didn’t have a license to practice in Maryland. The piece comes complete with an approach of the accused scammer in a parking lot, and slow motion video of him emerging from his car. I joke, but the story is really good: the couple had a cascade of problems, from a workplace injury to a double mastectomy, and then entanglement with the series of accused scammers. A strong example of local TV reporting on complicated financial issues.