↳ Policy

September 17th, 2020

↳ Policy

Unceasing Debt, Disparate Burdens: Student Debt and Young America

Since the Great Recession, outstanding student loan debt in the United States has increased by 122% in 2019 dollars, reaching the staggering sum of \$1.66 trillion in June of this year. Student loan debt has grown faster than other debt types, including auto, credit card and mortgage debt. For many, education is the only pathway towards good employment with benefits, leading to economic and social opportunities later in life. But as college becomes more unaffordable with each passing year, student loans are bridging the ever-expanding chasm between college savings and obtaining an education. The crisis has reached the national political arena, with policymakers recently calling for debt cancellation up to \$50,000 for federal borrowers.

Our research demonstrates that the student debt crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities. We found that all young borrowers are saddled with dramatically rising debt since 2009, but low-income groups, BIPOC, and those in their 30s fare far worse than others. While richer students have higher absolute debt, low-income students experience massive and growing relative debt burdens. And students in majority-Black and Hispanic zip codes, who are more likely to attend for-profit private institutions, have seen larger debt increases than those in majority-white zip codes. Debt levels have jumped in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Gaining insight into broad trends in debt accumulation, as well as details about the particular demographic or labor market characteristics that shape changes in individuals’ debt burden over time, allows us to more effectively tailor our policy recommendations. For example, our research finds that forgiving $50,000 in student loans would make 80% of young adult borrowers student debt free.

⤷ Full Article

September 5th, 2020

Spot on the Map

POLICY DRIFT

In addition to straining America's existing welfare infrastructure, the pandemic has fundamentally altered labor markets and generated a wide range of new social needs. Policy responses to these changing circumstances have the potential to shape the trajectory of US inequality for decades to come.

In a 2010 paper, JACOB HACKER and PAUL PIERSON argue that failure to adapt to political developments is more than just passive inaction; in recent American history, it has been among the most effective strategies for active welfare dismantlement.

From the paper:

"A convincing political account of American inequality must explain its defining feature, namely, the stunning shift of income toward the very top. Equally important, it must explain how public policy has contributed to this trend. This means not only identifying public policies that can be linked to large increases in inequality; but also providing an account of the political processes that have led to the generation of those policies.

One oversight of existing political accounts is the presumption that if government played a central role in rising inequality, then a host of new laws and policies must have been created over the past thirty years to drive the upward distribution of income. Very important inequality-inducing laws and policies have in fact been created. But these are but one of the two principal mechanisms through which politics can reshape how an economy works. A second mechanism, which we call drift, is equally, if not more, important. Drift describes the politically driven failure of public policies to adapt to the shifting realities of a dynamic economy and society. It is not the same as simple inaction. Rather, it occurs when the effects of public policies change substantially due to shifts in the surrounding economic or social context and then, despite the recognition of alternatives, policy makers fail to update policies due to pressure from intense minority interests or political actors exploiting veto points in the political process. The design of U.S. political institutions makes policy enactments especially difficult, while maximizing opportunities to pursue policy agendas based on the exploitation of drift."

Link to the article, link to the book.

  • "Drift is difficult to study empirically because it refers to change through inaction. We suggest that closer attention to case-specific empirical implications of the effectiveness of policy implementation can make drift a more tractable concept." Daniel Bélanda, Philip Roccob and Alex Waddan analyze US retirement security and health care coverage. Link.
  • Michael Caniglia asseses how policy drift has shaped implementation of mortgage interest deduction policy. Link. And Daniel J. Galvin examines how changing labor markets have undermined the utility of the Fair Labor Standards Act: "The eroding value of the minimum wage as the cost of living rises is only the best-known example of how drift undermines the FLSA. Most pernicious, however, is the declining enforcement capacity of the Wage and Hour Division." Link.
  • "Studies of drift have paid surprisingly little attention to its feedback effects—the ways in which drift, like the adoption of new policies, may alter institutional arrangements, reshape the universe of organized interests, and recast the dynamics of political action." A new piece by Hacker and Galvin situates drift within the literature on policy feedbacks. Link.
⤷ Full Article

July 27th, 2020

Avey From Cane

PUBLIC HEALTH FEDERALISM

Catastrophic deficiencies in the federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic have led to renewed discussion over federalism and its discontents. The divergence among state responses to the crisis in the absence of federal guidance has produced analyses of Trump’s unique, “narrow” sense of federalism, pronouncements of “a new era of federalism,” and hopes for a solidarity-minded “civic federalism.”

In a 1997 article, health law professor JAMES G. HODGE JR. analyzes the impact of state-centric “new federalism” jurisprudence on the government’s ability to realize public health goals. Hodge places new federalism in the context of decades of increasing intrusion by the federal government on states’ power over public health policy:

"The impact of new federalism on the field of public health law is seen in the history of public health regulation. The metamorphosis of public health regulation from purely local to predominantly national means resulted from increased federal presence in the field corresponding to a deemphasis on traditional federalism. It is an inescapable conclusion that an increased federal presence shifted public health goals. National public health priorities dominate local ones. New federalism restrains the federal intrusion on state public health powers by requiring Congress to operate within the constraints of the political process. As a result, state police powers exercised in the interest of public health are strengthened emphatically by the political process confining federal authority to enter the field."

Full paper available here.

  • In an article published this April, Hodge reassesses federal vs. state public health powers in light of disparate responses to the pandemic: "Americans are left wondering, 'which level of government is actually in charge here?' In the face of a pandemic like Covid-19, the answer under principles of federalism is increasingly clear: neither." Link.
  • "American federalism—with its fissures and fractures—haunts the state of emergency." A March post from Phillip Rocco. Link. (See also Rocco's recent post on fiscal federalism in Notes on the Crises.) Along similar lines: Rocco, Daniel Béland, and Alex Waddan on the fiscal barriers to pandemic response. Link. And Nicole Huberfeld, Sarah H. Gordon, and David K. Jones argues that the pandemic has magnified the state-level inequities fostered by federalism. Link.
  • For another view on the relationship between federalism and public health: A 2014 paper by Adam Varvel on the West Nile outbreak of 1999. Link. See also: A post-SARS policy brief on the impact of federalism on international health regulations. Link.
⤷ Full Article

July 3rd, 2020

Pandemic and Poverty

What the pandemic teaches us about poverty measurements

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, more than 40 million people have applied for unemployment benefits. In April, unemployment spiked to nearly 20 percent, almost double the rate observed at the peak of the Great Recession. To blunt the financial blow, Congress passed the CARES Act, a package that included, among many other things, around $500 billion in income transfers for the U.S. population.

With my colleagues at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty & Social Policy, I have worked to understand how the CARES Act might affect annual poverty rates in the U.S. Our findings took us by surprise: despite the rapid rise in unemployment, we find that the CARES Act’s two major income transfers—the Recovery Rebates (one-time stimulus payment) and expanded unemployment benefits—have potential to return projected poverty rates to pre-crisis levels if access to the benefits is adequate. Jason DeParle of The New York Times neatly brings life to the findings here, while our full report can be found at the Center’s website. The report also details the many important shortcomings of the CARES Act, such as its exclusion of undocumented immigrants, the difficulties that families are facing in accessing the benefits, and the upcoming expiration of the top-up to unemployment benefits.

⤷ Full Article

June 25th, 2020

Declining Access, Rising Cost: The Geography of Higher Education Post-2008

Mapping concentration and prices in the US higher education industry

During and after the Great Recession, public funding for higher education was slashed as part of state budget austerity. Staff and programs were cut and tuition rose; in many states, even by 2018, funding had not returned to pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, enrollment soared. As students locked out of a slack labor market were told they “lacked the skills necessary for today’s jobs,” the solution to unemployment and wage stagnation was to be found in more degrees at higher prices. The result was the acceleration of what is now a four or five-decade trend in US higher education: the replacement of a public good model with a private consumer model, dependent on tuition financed with federal debt, all justified on the back of supposed earnings increases that fail to materialize.

With skyrocketing prices and ballooning student debt, the private for-profit model has taken hold in even traditional schools, which are seeking to cut teaching costs while retaining students and their hefty tuition payments. Even leaving aside the possible collapse of tuition revenues from nonattendance, forecasts for state budget cuts coming out of the Covid-19 recession are alarming—unless the patterns of the Great Recession are avoided, we can abandon hope of a more equitable, inclusive, or expansive higher education landscape into the 2020s.

⤷ Full Article

June 8th, 2020

The Burning

POLICE UNIONS

As commentators and policymakers have scrambled to find explanations for and responses to the unprecedented uprisings against police brutality across the United States, interest in the role of police unions in local politics has soared. Recent research into the question joins a decades-long debate in the labor movement over the distinctive character of police associations—not only as regards their power relative to the public, but also their political strength relative to the rest of the public sector.

A 2017 research paper by CATHERINE FISK and L. SONG RICHARDSON examines the evolution of US police unions, analyzes their impact on policymaking, and evaluates the efforts of cities to reform police departments over the past fifty years.

From the piece:

"Police officers formed local unions in various cities in the 1940s, and some police unions affiliated with national labor federations. However, well into the 1960s, police departments routinely fired officers who attempted to unionize, and courts upheld the power of cities to ban officers from joining unions. In the absence of legal rights to unionize or bargain collectively, government employee unions became adept at securing their members’ interests through political activity and negotiating informal agreements with public officials. Unions succeeded in gaining a lasting foothold in American police departments in the late 1960s. Not surprisingly, they negotiated for contractual protections against discipline and lobbied legislators to incorporate these protections in legislation. They opposed constitutional criminal procedure restrictions on police conduct and sought to block civilian oversight of police discipline. The legacy of the 1960s is collective bargaining agreements which make it difficult to investigate and punish officers to this day."

Link to the report.

  • "Cities which have low levels of police protections are also less likely to experience police abuse. Local-level politics does not have a salient effect on the level of police protections, but state labour laws have a significant impact on the level of protections which officers receive." Findings from a novel police protection index drawing on data from the US's 100 largest cities. Link. And a 2008 paper by Samuel Walker looks at, among other things, the relationship between the civil rights movement and the growth of police unions. Link.
  • Analyzing the consequences of a 2003 Florida Supreme Court decision which increased unionization among sheriffs' deputies, Dhammika Dharmapala, Richard McAdams, and John Rappaport find that "collective bargaining rights led to a substantial increase in violent incidents." Link.
  • A recent paper by Michael Zoorob looks at the electoral impact of the Fraternal Order of Police. Link.
  • "Until 1919, the AFL refused to charter police unions. The 1897 AFL convention rejected an application from a police group in Cleveland, explaining that 'it is not within the province of the trade union movement to organize policemen, no more than to organize militiamen, as both are often controlled by forces inimical to the labor movement.'" Joseph Slater's 2004 book recounts the tensions between police and the early American labor movement. Link.
⤷ Full Article

June 2nd, 2020

Clouds, Sun, Sea

UNREST AND POLICY

This week has seen policymakers, scholars, and the public debate the meaning of collective violence. While political and media discourse often fails to examine the long-term effects of social unrest, a vast literature grapples with the mechanisms that link protests and uprisings with institutional change.

A 1978 book by JAMES W. BUTTON integrates a vast amount of interviews, archival sources, and statistical data to analyze the public response to the US urban uprisings of the 1960s. Focusing the analysis on three federal agencies—the (now-dismantled) Office of Economic Opportunity, HUD, and the DOJ—the book suggests that the 1960s riots were understood by policymakers as political demands.

From the introduction:

"Although domestic collective violence has played a prominent role in American history, few other episodes of urban violence in this country's history have been as dramatic as the black riots of the 1960s. As a result, the causes, precipitating events, and participants of the outbursts have been thoroughly studied over the past several years. Yet what is remarkable about this extensive analysis is the almost complete neglect of the political effects or consequences of these pervasive disorders. By concentrating instead on the factors that may have caused the riots, most investigators have implicitly reflected a normative bias concerning the disutility of domestic violence for affecting social and political change.

The fundamental purpose of this study is to evaluate some of the political consequences of the urban black riots of the 1960s and early 1970s, focusing on responses of the executive branch of the federal government. In fulfilling such a task, it asks: did the riots affect executive officials' decisions and ultimately federal public policy? Did the federal executive branch respond differently to the initial, less intense riots (1963-1966) than it did to the later, more severe disorders (1967-1968) and, if so, why? how have national executive responses to urban rioting been affected by the local political and environmental context and by local reactions to such violence? And how do public officials tend to view the role of violence in American society?"

Link to the book page.

  • A new article by Omar Wasow examines the relationship between violent and nonviolent protests, media, public opinion, and policy alignment from the Civil Rights Era, and in particular on Nixon's election in 1968. Link. And a 2018 paper by Shom Mazumder looks at the persistent effects of Civil Rights protects on political attitudes. Link.
  • A 1978 paper by sociologist Charles Tilly on collective violence: "Historically, collective violence has flowed regularly out of the central political processes of western countries. People seeking to seize, hold, or realign the levers of power have continually engaged in collective violence as part of their struggles." Link.
  • In a 2007 article, historian Michael Kazin asks: "Many of the conditions thought to have precipitated the eruption of civil violence in the 1960s either persist or have grown worse. What accounts for the absence of civil violence on American streets?" Link. And a new book by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener looks at the 1960s in Los Angeles. Link.
⤷ Full Article

May 26th, 2020

Radio

STATE CAPACITY IN THE US

Analyses of variation in state-level responses to the coronavirus tend to focus on party determination: On the whole, states led by Democrats have been found to undertake more rapid and extensive responses to the crisis. The focus on immediate political factors, however, masks the broader history of America's uneven and disaggregated bureaucratic capacity.

A 1982 book by STEPHEN SKOWRONEK presents one of the most comprehensive accounts of the origins of the US administrative state. Focusing on reforms in civil administration, the army, and national railroad regulation from 1870-1920, the book demonstrates how regional differences contributed to the particular character of American state development.

"Unravelling the state-building problem in modern American political development places the apparent statelessness of early America in a new light. The governmental forms and procedures necessary for securing order in industrial America emerged through a labored exercise in creative destruction. Modernization of national administrative controls did not entail making the established state more efficient; it entailed building a qualitatively different kind of state.

The Civil War brought national military conscription, a national welfare agency for former slaves, a national income tax, national monetary controls, and citizenship. Yet, this was a state grounded in only half the nation. As the South returned, national electoral politics changed, and these institutional achievements began to be undone. Here, then, was a state only in the sense of the word imputed to it by the interests and strategies of the mass electoral organizations controlling its offices. No institution stood beyond the reach of party concerns. The fate of the wartime governmental apparatus suggests that if new institutional forms are to constitute a new state, they must alter the procedural bonds that tie governmental institutions together and define their relationship to society."

Link to the publisher's page.

  • Theda Skocpol and Kenneth Finegold expand Skowronek's research into the New Deal era. Link.
  • "In societies where social status is a cleavage, elites can use the threat of desegregation to unite wealthy and poor members of high-status groups against taxation and the bureaucratic capacity required to collect taxes." Pavithra Suryanarayan and Steven White on "Slavery, Reconstruction, and Bureaucratic Capacity in the American South." Link. In another article, Roberto Stefan Foa and Anna Nemirovskaya analyze the development of state capacity on the frontier. Link.
  • Daniel Berliner, Anne Greenleaf, Milli Lake, and Jennifer Noveck present "systematic study of relationship between state capacity and labor rights." Link.
⤷ Full Article

May 4th, 2020

Security for the People

ADVANCE CAUSE

Ethics in mitigation

Following the comparative success of South Korea and Singapore to flatten the Covid-19 curve, governments around the world have been discussing the merits and feasibility of tech-aided contact tracing systems. (Whether these comparative public health successes are actually attributable to such systems remains a point of debate.) In the US context, app-based tracing proposals have been floated by various think tanks, and Apple and Google have released protocols for their design.

Privacy concerns are paramount, as are questions of efficacy and the opportunity costs of new mitigation tools. In a white paper last month, Danielle Allen, Lucas Stanczyk, Glenn Cohen, Carmel Shachar, Rajiv Sethi, Glen Weyl, and Rosa Brooks examined the ethical and legal bases of pandemic mitigation.

From the paper:

"We are currently in the initial stage of facing the spread of an epidemic, with clear emergency needs to secure our health system while seeking to minimize lives lost and ensure that all patients, including the dying, are treated with dignity. We have to fend off a near-term catastrophe, and in that regard we are in our 'triage' moment. We are currently making triage decisions across all sectors of society.

Securing our health infrastructure and minimizing loss of life requires changing the trajectory of transmission through screening, testing, contact tracing, mobility restrictions, and social distancing. Whereas contact tracing and individualized quarantine and isolation suffice in non-pandemic circumstances, community quarantine and isolation become necessary under pandemic conditions in order to address the emergency. Here the challenging questions are to create the right package of temporarily adjusted norms, regulations, and laws around rights of mobility and association, and to determine whether the relevant packages of norms, regulations, and laws are best."

The authors propose guidelines for decision procedures that promote mitigation without violating civil liberties, justice, democratic institutions, or the "material supports of society." Link to the paper. h/t David Grant

  • An evolving list of projects using personal data for Covid-19 response. Link.
  • From a 2019 paper on the efficacy of contact tracing and epi models: "A major concern identified in future epidemics is whether public health administrators can collect all the required data for building epidemiological models in a short period of time during the early phase of an outbreak." Link. A 2018 paper on contact tracing's role in the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Link.
  • Previously shared in this newsletter, a technical paper for the Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP-3T) protocol. The tweet-length summary from researcher Michael Veale: "Health authorities learn nothing about users. Users learn nothing about other users. Users learn if they were too close to others who tested positive. Governments learn nothing about users. No-one is coerced: everything based on genuine, voluntary consent." Link to the paper. (And link to a comic strip explanation of how it works.)
  • An excellent blog post from Ross Anderson at Cambridge's Department of Computer Science and Technology on contact tracing in the real world. Link. See also "Apps Gone Rogue: Maintaining Personal Privacy in an Epidemic." Link.
⤷ Full Article

April 28th, 2020

Yellow TV

ALLOVER SECTOR

A political history of the US Postal Service

It's been a turbulent week for the US Postal Service. With revenues plummeting as mail volume drops, the Postal Worker's Union leader recently estimated that the service is likely to literally "run out of money" by October. The crisis has once again sparked a debate on the organization of America's most popular public institution. Many have called for structural reforms, while others have advocated increased investment and a return to postal banking to raise revenues.

A 1998 book by RICHARD R. JOHN argues that between its founding in 1775 and the commercialization of the electric telegraph in 1844, the post office represented a communications revolution as influential for American public life as the telegraph, the telephone, and the computer.

From the introduction:

"By 1828, the American postal system had almost twice as many offices as the postal system in Great Britain and over five times as many offices as the postal system in France. In 1831, the postal system, with more than 8,700 postmasters, employed just over three quarters of the entire federal civilian work force. (The federal army, in contrast, consisted of a mere 6,332 men.) The postal system transmitted 13.8 million letters and 16 million newspapers at a cost of $1.9 million through a network that extended over 116,000 square miles.

Thanks to a variety of generous government subsidies, a large percentage of the total volume of the mail consisted of newspapers and public documents that described the proceedings of Congress. This steady flow of information helped to introduce a widely scattered population to two key ideas: that the boundaries of the community in which they lived extended well beyond the confines of their individual locality; and that the central government might come to shape the pattern of everyday life."

Link to the publisher's page.

  • A couple links from our 2018 newsletter on postal banking: A 2014 article by Mehrsa Baradaran argues that subsidies for postal banking are "appropriate and justifiable." Link. A USPS white paper details how the policy could expand financial services to the 68 million underbanked Americans. Link.
  • An extensive legislative history of "the concepts, policies, practices, and controversies associated with universal postal service from 1790 to 1970." Link.
  • Léonard Laborie on parcel post and globalization: "In 1880, several Universal Postal Union member states signed a convention for the exchange of parcel post, opening a new channel in the world of commerce. By the end of the 19th century, millions of packets poured into post offices and railway stations, crossed countries, and created unprecedented transnational connections." Link.
  • "Couriers, ships, caravans, and rest houses—throughout pre-modern history, such features have been central to the infrastructural matrix without which complex and enduring states, empires, and polities are not conceivable." Gagan Sood reviews Adam Silverstein's Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World. Link. And Ying-wan Cheng on Postal Communication in China and Its Modernization, 1860–1896. Link.
⤷ Full Article