Author Archives: Ben Spielberg

Even with Recent Improvements, Obamacare’s Exchanges Don’t Cut It

“Health care should be a right, not a privilege, and Americans facing illness should never have to worry about how they are going to pay for their treatment.” Thus begins the Joe Biden White House’s description of the signature health care investment in their American Families Plan (AFP).

Unfortunately, that proposed $200 billion investment in no way matches the rhetoric. The AFP makes the expanded health care subsidies in the recently passed American Rescue Plan (ARP) permanent, but these expanded subsidies serve primarily to funnel money into insurance executives’ pockets while only making health care somewhat more affordable for millions of people in need. As policymakers debate their next steps forward on health care, it is essential that Democrats take a more critical look at one of Obamacare’s worst elements.

Health policy analysts typically focus on monthly health care premiums as the primary indicator of health plan affordability. In a February column excitedly touting the ARP’s temporary subsidy improvements, for example, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait included the graph below from my former colleagues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). It shows that the new subsidies should be saving people making between $30,000 and $60,000 roughly $100 per month on their premium payments.

Unfortunately, these types of graphs miss what’s really happening with health care affordability. On the most basic level, by plotting monthly premium amounts against annual income, they make it seem like premiums are much more affordable than they really are. $274 per month doesn’t sound nearly as bad as $3,288 per year, which is how much a typical 45-year-old individual making only $45,000 a year will continue to be expected to hand over to their insurance company if the AFP becomes law.

More importantly, these graphs omit the significant amount of additional money it takes for low- and moderate-income people to actually access the care their premiums are supposed to cover. Deductibles in particular are incredibly high on the Obamacare exchanges. The average deductible for a benchmark (Silver) plan on the exchanges is $4,800, meaning that, if the aforementioned 45-year-old got sick and needed $4,800 worth of care, the insurance company would not chip in at all. So that individual would end up paying $4,800 for their care in addition to $3,288 in premiums to the insurance company – or 18% of their income in total. If the individual’s health care costs exceed the amount of the deductible and the individual receives care from an in-network doctor – which is hardly a guarantee – the insurance company will begin to contribute. But even then, the individual will be on the hook for additional “co-pays” or a percentage of the additional costs due to “coinsurance.” Americans facing illness should never have to worry about how they are going to pay for their treatment, but if they have a new and improved Obamacare exchange plan they’d still be crazy not to worry. And they will continue to decline needed care because they cannot afford the deductibles and/or coinsurance.

In addition to ignoring the continuing health care accessibility problems faced by many individuals, common analyses of the increased subsidy approach fail to show the massive amounts of money being funneled from taxpayers to the insurance industry. Expanded subsidies mean individuals pay less to the insurance company but the government pays more.

The graph below addresses all of these problems. It shows health care spending and revenues for a 60-year-old individual making $30,000 who requires some medical care during the year – two doctors’ visits beyond the physical Obamacare covers, two lab tests, and a routine surgery, the combined price of which can be estimated at $5,583 – under five different coverage scenarios. The first three scenarios are coverage under an average Bronze, Silver, or Gold plan that this individual would have access to today (with the enhancements in the ARP that the AFP seeks to make permanent factored in). The fourth scenario is coverage under the Medicare program, which 17 senators and 156 House Democrats recently asked Biden to improve and extend to individuals below age 60. While Biden and Democratic leadership have yet to indicate they will actually do that, the White House does claim in both their AFP Fact Sheet and budget writeup that, in the words of the budget document, Biden “supports…giving people age 60 and older the option to enroll in the Medicare program.”

The fifth and final scenario is coverage under the Medicare for All proposal that was a centerpiece of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. Medicare for All legislation in both the Senate and House of Representatives has numerous cosponsors. Biden and congressional Democratic leaders remain opposed to this policy, however.

Each bar in the graph has three potential components: individual spending (yellow), or how much the 60-year-old spends on health care taxes (they would have to pay the 1.45% Medicare payroll tax under each scenario, which would come out to $435 annually), premiums, and payments to their health care providers; net government spending (blue), or how much the government spends in payments to the individual’s insurance company and health care providers plus administrative expenses minus the fee the government charges the insurance company to sell insurance on the exchanges and the health care taxes and/or premiums the individual pays to the government; and insurance company spending (gray), or how much the insurance company ends up paying to the individual’s health care providers on the individual’s behalf.

The dotted lines show overall health care spending and who receives the revenue. The horizontal line shows what the health care providers receive in every scenario: $5,583, which is the cost of the care itself. The vertical lines show net insurance company revenue, or how much the insurance company takes in from the government and individual from premiums and subsidies minus the fee the company pays the government to sell on the exchanges and what the company actually contributes towards the individual’s care.

As the graph shows, the Obamacare plans are a disaster for both this relatively healthy 60-year-old and the government. The new subsidies in the ARP actually bring the average Bronze plan premium for this person down to $0 annually, but the average Bronze plan’s deductible of $6,900 means the individual must pay for the full cost of care themselves (assuming they do not forgo the needed care because of the cost), bringing their total health care expenses (including Medicare payroll taxes) to over 20% of their income. The government, meanwhile, pays the insurance company an annual premium of $8,160 through the Obamacare subsidies – far more than what the care itself costs and netting the insurance company $7,976 after subtracting their $184 user fee – in order for the insurance company to contribute nothing at all!

Silver plans are typically considered the best value on the exchanges, in part because lower-income individuals who buy Silver plans can qualify for some cost-sharing reductions. The amount of those reductions vary, but let’s assume this individual buys a plan with a sizable reduction that takes their deductible down $2,000 from the $4,800 average. Co-pays and coinsurance also vary plan to plan, but one of the better Silver plans might cover 80% of costs above the deductible. So once the $2,800 deductible is exceeded, the insurance company in this case would pay $2,226 of the remaining $2,783 the individual owes. Yet between the individual’s $1,020 annual premium payment to the insurance company, Medicare taxes, and $3,357 payment to their health care providers (due mainly to their still-large deductible), they would still be paying close to $5,000 towards health care – which someone making $30,000 a year obviously cannot afford. The government’s subsidy payment to the insurance company would be even larger than it was for the Bronze plan – $10,176 for the year – and the insurance company would pocket $8,718, which would once again be far more than the cost of care itself.

The average Gold plan, with a deductible of “only” $1,600 and coinsurance that might be 10%, is the best plan for an individual needing care. But with an annual premium of $1,848, the $1,600 deductible, and a $398 coinsurance payment above the deductible, our example 60-year-old making $30,000 a year would still need to pay over 14% of their income towards health care costs. The insurance company would contribute $3,585 towards care in this scenario but would still net a tidy $8,169 in revenue.

With government insurance the situation is radically different. Medicare Part B requires individuals at this income level to pay premiums comparable to those under the Gold plan, or $1,782 annually, and also has 20% coinsurance. But the deductible is only $203, saving our hypothetical 60-year-old $785 relative to the Gold plan. The biggest difference is that there is no massive subsidy for the government to pay to the insurance company in this scenario; administrative expenses are negligible (only $73) and American taxpayers collectively save thousands of dollars that would otherwise be wasted on insurance company executives’ outrageously high salaries. There’s really no justification for the Obamacare subsidies approach relative to the expansion of Medicare approach unless your goal is to pad insurance company profits.

Medicare for All would result in slightly-smaller-than-for-present-day-Medicare-but-still-major taxpayer savings relative to the Obamacare approach and, most importantly, is the best deal for the individual needing care. Our 60-year-old friend’s taxes would increase somewhat (by $704) under the income-based tax proposal Sanders released as one of a variety of potential Medicare for All financing options, but that tax increase would be more than offset by eliminating premiums, deductibles, and coinsurance. This individual would pay less than 4% of their income towards health care costs regardless of what care they needed. They would not “have to worry about how they are going to pay for their treatment,” which is why Medicare for All is the clear choice for everyone who truly believes that “health care should be a right, not a privilege.”

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My Didibhai, Purnima (Lekha) Banerji (May 2, 1927 to June 28, 2021)

I have a vivid memory, from when I was around five years old, of playing Monopoly with my didibhai (grandmother) on the floor of my family’s living room. About midway through the game, Didibhai got up to go to the bathroom. While she was gone, I placed hotels on a couple of my properties. The look she gave me and the way she asked whether I had changed anything on the board that I shouldn’t have when she came back was all it took for me to recognize that what I did was wrong and resolve never to cheat in a board game again.

Didibhai had that effect on many young people, which is why she had such a successful career as a teacher. She combined kindness and patience with unwaveringly high standards for both academic performance and behavior. Her students loved her and didn’t want to disappoint her, both because of how much they respected her and because to risk doing so was just a little bit terrifying; she inspired them to be the best versions of themselves. I got to see a glimpse of that firsthand when she subbed for a few of my classes in middle school; in my entire experience attending and working in schools, including as a teacher myself, I have never known a substitute to manage a class as well or get as much work out of their students as she did.

Fondly nicknamed “Shorty” by some of her computer science students, Didibhai packed the presence and personality of a person three times her size into her diminutive 4’ 10” frame. It wasn’t just her students who were obsessed with her; growing up, I rarely went anywhere without someone telling me they loved her. She was a raging extrovert and befriended just about everyone she met at the library, in grocery stores, at restaurants – you name it. I wouldn’t be surprised if, at one point, every waiter in Haddon Township, New Jersey knew her by name. She was extremely generous and went out of her way to thank people for the smallest kindnesses they showed her or for simply doing their jobs, baking brownies or chocolate chip cookies and hand-delivering them to local retail workers, firefighters, and neighbors. If you visited Didibhai in her apartment, the odds of leaving with a chocolate bar were very much in your favor.

Food was, in general, a Didibhai specialty. Beyond baking the best chocolate chip cookies one could find – as my older sister Lela often raved, they somehow always contained fully intact, unmelted chocolate chips – she excelled at cooking American comfort foods, European delicacies, and a variety of Bengali dishes. Her macaroni and cheese, shingara (a type of samosa), luchi (a type of bread), french toast, crepes, and fried eggplant were my personal favorites.

Word games were another Didibhai specialty. We played Boggle, Scrabble, Perquackey, and Quiddler all the time while growing up. Didibhai was competitive but took great pride in her grandchildren beating her. Much to the amusement of my wife Kate, Didibhai threatened to quit a Scrabble game she was winning against us once because, due to the fact that I wasn’t in the lead, the luck of the letters we were drawing couldn’t possibly be fair. Even during the last few weeks of her life when she was dealing with dementia and bedridden in her apartment, Didibhai maintained her sense of humor. When Kate and I visited her a few weeks before she died, she determined that I was offering her water too frequently and jokingly accused me of working for the Water Department.

I was incredibly lucky to live five minutes away from Didibhai and my dadabhai (grandfather) for most of my childhood. Their fun-loving spirits, warmth, and wisdom have helped me to grow into the thinker and person I am today. Their love for each other and enthusiasm for extended family has also been a model for me in my relationships. Didibhai and Dadabhai became family not just to my dad, but also to his parents, his siblings and their spouses, and my cousins to whom Didibhai and Dadabhai weren’t actually related. I am particularly grateful for the very close relationship Didibhai and Dadabhai developed with Kate, who they loved like another granddaughter. Kate loved Didibhai and Dadabhai as if they were her own grandparents as well.

Didibhai believed in reincarnation and would tell me occasionally that she planned to be reincarnated as Kate and my daughter. Both Kate and I hope to one day have a strong, brilliant, loving, generous, and funny child who reminds us of Didibhai.

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Justice Representatives Have Power and We Need Them to Use It

On January 3, 2021, the same day the 117th Congress was sworn into office, Nancy Pelosi won reelection as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Pelosi, who has led the House Democratic Caucus since 2003, won 216 votes from her fellow representatives to Republican Kevin McCarthy’s 209. The vote broke down almost entirely along party lines, with every Republican vote going to McCarthy and all but five Democratic votes going to Pelosi (one Democrat voted for Tammy Duckworth, one voted for Hakeem Jeffries, and three voted “present”). Each of these five defections was from the corporate wing of the Democratic Party; every member of the growing group of Justice Democrats-endorsed Representatives in the House (“Justice Representatives”) cast their vote for Pelosi.

Pelosi’s reelection is a serious problem for Justice Representatives and the social justice advocates who support them. Pelosi’s rejection of progressive priorities like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal is only the tip of the iceberg. She has locked progressive congresspeople out of committees and oversight roles, blacklisted consultants who work for progressive challengers, and campaigned for anti-reproductive choice, NRA-friendly Democratic incumbents (while trying to oust one of the most progressive Democrats in the Senate). Despite her performative opposition to the Trump presidency over the past four years, Pelosi has also routinely given Trump additional military and spying power, funded Trump’s inhumane border detention system, and deliberately steered the focus of Trump’s impeachment away from his blatant corruption. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Pelosi had considerable leverage over Republicans, she negotiated a massive corporate giveaway; even the Democratic messaging bill she advanced in May included millions upon millions of dollars for the rich.

The Justice Representatives who voted for Pelosi are well aware of the obstacle Pelosi presents. So why did they vote for her anyway?

The answer boils down to one word: power. And if social-justice-minded individuals, organizations, media, and congresspeople want to effectively advance policies that millions of people need in the coming years, we must start wielding it more effectively.

Let’s assume that the progressive vote for Pelosi was the outcome of a negotiation. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the most famous Justice Representative, implied as much in a December 16 interview with Jeremy Scahill, calling the speakership vote a “specific leverage point” and saying, “when it comes to using this leverage, I do think that there are things that we can do.” What sorts of things? In response to a tweet from Justin Jackson recommending that she demand a floor vote on Medicare for All, Ocasio-Cortez replied that she would be more inclined “to push for…a $15 min wage vote in the first 100 days [and] elevating longtime progressive champions to important positions of leadership.” In her interview with Scahill, Ocasio-Cortez offered another potential demand: repeal of “an obscure House rule that is extremely influential and significant known as PAYGO…which is saying that any expenditure that a bill has must have a tax increase or spending cut essentially accounted for in the legislation.” If “full repeal” wasn’t possible, Ocasio-Cortez said, she’d want “PAYGO waivers on Medicare for All, tuition-free public colleges, and more.”

The first of Ocasio-Cortez’s suggested goals, a $15 minimum wage vote in the first 100 days, is a little hard to understand. House Democrats passed a $15 minimum wage in 2019 and Joe Biden has already said he supports it, so it shouldn’t be something for which Justice Democrats should have to fight too much. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed timeline may be the key part of this potential demand, and Justice Representatives may have been angling for a commitment from Senate Democrats to make a $15 minimum wage a priority, but we don’t have any evidence that they got one. Especially given the Democratic Party leadership’s approach to end-of-year government funding and coronavirus relief legislation (which Ocasio-Cortez called “hostage taking”) and party leadership’s recent refusal to fight for stimulus checks, it appears that progressives did not win any clear policy commitments in exchange for their speakership votes.

It also doesn’t look like Justice Representatives succeeded in “elevating longtime progressive champions to important positions of leadership.” They did get some committee appointments, including Cori Bush on Judiciary, Jamaal Bowman on Education and Labor, and Bush, Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib on Oversight and Reform, but we have not yet seen any committee chair or leadership appointments that represent progressive victories. In one of the most high-profile committee fights recently, in fact, Pelosi helped Kathleen Rice – a “Blue Dog” Democrat who voted against Pelosi for Speaker in 2018 – get a seat on Energy and Commerce over Ocasio-Cortez.

The victories that Justice Representatives have been touting are in the House rules package, which contains procedural reforms to PAYGO and limits Republicans’ ability to hold up legislation with a Motion to Recommit. Yet House Democrats did not win full repeal of PAYGO and did not even secure the specific exemptions for Medicare for All and free college that Ocasio-Cortez mentioned in her interview with Scahill. The exemptions they did get, for COVID-19 and climate change, are not inconsequential. However, it is important to remember that PAYGO exemptions do not guarantee that Pelosi and other Democrats in the House will allow bold legislation related to these topics to advance; the exemptions just remove one obstacle to such legislation. And the Motion to Recommit reform appears to be much more a win over Republicans than over Pelosi, as corporate Democrats stand to gain from it as well.

It is theoretically possible that Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues negotiated other wins that they have not revealed yet. But what we currently know – that Justice Representatives secured a couple rule changes while losing some big policy and committee battles – does not seem worth a vote for Pelosi.

This outcome is especially troubling when we consider that Justice Representatives should have had the numbers, as a bloc, to deny Pelosi the speakership. If Pelosi legitimately thought Justice Representatives might stand together and vote against her, it’s hard to imagine that social justice advocates and the working-class people they are fighting for would not have secured more significant victories.

Pelosi seemed to know the Justice Representatives were going to vote for her. As Politico described when Rice got the Energy and Commerce Committee seat over Ocasio-Cortez, Rice was “seen as a crucial vote for the speaker.” Ocasio-Cortez was not.

In fact, Ocasio-Cortez signaled during her interview with Scahill that, even though she agreed Pelosi needed to be replaced, she did not see an alternative to voting for Pelosi. If progressives were to oust Pelosi, Ocasio-Cortez said, “there are so many nefarious forces at play [that Pelosi could be replaced with someone] even worse.” Ocasio-Cortez later justified her vote as a way to show unity “in a time when the Republican Party is attempting an electoral coup and trying to overturn the results of our election,” suggesting that she believed that opposition to Pelosi would at best result in an even more corporate Democrat as Speaker and at worst result in emboldening Republicans. That might explain why Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues did not seem to mount a challenge to Pelosi being nominated as party leader in mid-November.

If this explanation is correct, it is problematic. As Justice Democrats co-founder Kyle Kulinski noted after the vote, “there’s no excuse for the left not to have organized in the last few years to mount a challenge to Pelosi. You know she’s hostile to you and your goals and she has a 28% approval rating.” Justice Representatives already tried voting for Pelosi in 2018 and it didn’t work; they and other like-minded members of Congress should easily have been able to identify someone better from among their ranks to run against Pelosi in 2020. And while letting Kevin McCarthy win the speakership vote would have legitimately worrisome downsides, Justice Representatives could have blocked Pelosi without putting a McCarthy win on the table by voting for alternative candidates. There’s no reason to believe that strategy would have any bearing on the Republican Party’s anti-democratic behavior.

Furthermore, a potential McCarthy win due to progressive abstentions would actually have been the single greatest point of leverage over Pelosi that Justice Representatives had. Pelosi banked on fear of that outcome to ensure Justice Representatives fell into line, but Justice Representatives could have flipped this script and used fear of their abstentions to force Pelosi and the Democratic caucus to accede to more progressive demands.

This situation was a microcosm of one social justice advocates face all the time. We are presented with two bad choices – Nancy Pelosi or Kevin McCarthy, Joe Biden or Donald Trump, corporate giveaways coupled with meager relief or no help at all for people in need during a pandemic. We are reminded that one of those choices – McCarthy, Trump, no legislative help at all for people in need – is worse than the other option, and told we must therefore accept the classic “lesser of two evils.” Once we signal that we accept this constrained set of choices and will select the less-bad choice – Pelosi as Speaker, Joe Biden as President, a bad last-minute coronavirus relief bill – the corporate Democrats who manufactured this false dichotomy know they can once again grant just enough concessions to give us the feeling that we won something while rejecting the vast majority of our demands.

In each isolated instance, social justice advocates who take the “lesser of two evils” approach can rationalize it; their choice was better than the alternative on the table, after all. Something is better than nothing and less near-term harm is better than more near-term harm. But in the long run, repeated acceptance of two bad choices will continue to enable our enemies to block the real change people need.

The good news is that Justice Representatives can chart a different path during the next two years. In the 116th Congress, they weren’t organized enough. Different Justice Representatives took different stands at different times while others capitulated on issues ranging from coronavirus relief bills to immigration to the PATRIOT Act. They will have much more power in the 117th Congress, which features a slimmer Democratic majority, if they stick together and identify key points of leverage at which to credibly withhold their support in exchange for major concessions. Justice Representatives, in other words, must function more like labor unions dealing with intransigent employers, which leverage the threat to strike to force their bosses to take them seriously. As Jackson reminded Ocasio-Cortez with Frederick Douglass’s timeless words, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

While the speakership fight is over, opportunities to win important battles are most definitely not. The question is whether Justice Representatives will take advantage of them.

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Anyone but Trump? Weighing Three Approaches for Social Justice Advocates in 2020

Now that Bernie Sanders has suspended his presidential campaign, his supporters are faced with an important question: how to best move forward given bad (Joe Biden) and worse (Donald Trump) options for president. Our goal? Helping millions of people in need through implementation of the platform that Sanders continues to fight for and Biden opposes: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, wealth taxes on the billionaire class, decarceration, peaceful foreign policy, inclusive immigration policy, and more.

Whether or not these policies become reality is dependent on much more than presidential politics. Congressional elections will have an important impact, as will state and local elections. Building the strength of the labor movement is a must. So is the growth of independent alternatives to corporate media. Social justice advocates must continue to organize, wage effective issue campaigns, re-envision Democratic institutions, and increase the membership of promising grassroots organizations that have begun to wield power, including the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement.

But presidential politics still matter, and while no progressive-minded person would consider voting for Trump, there are three distinct presidential election strategies social justice advocates may embrace. Those strategies, along with their pros and cons, are summarized below.

No matter how we weigh any individual strategy’s tradeoffs, it is essential to understand its rationale and stand in solidarity with social justice advocates who pursue it. Attacking each other over strategic disagreements only undermines our common agenda; there is much more that unites people who supported Sanders (or Elizabeth Warren, for that matter) in the primary than that divides us.

Vote Blue No Matter Who

This strategy, embraced by Sanders himself, centers the threat posed by a potential second term for Trump. Sanders, like many of his supporters, maintained since he entered the race that he would ultimately support any Democratic nominee – no matter who it was – because of the importance of defeating the man he believes to be “the most dangerous president in the modern history of our country.”

It’s not hard to understand the rationale for this strategy: Trump, beyond his bigoted rhetoric, disgusting personal conduct, and disregard for political norms, has pursued the standard GOP policy playbook while in office. His administration has worked to gut labor laws, oppress immigrants, roll back environmental regulations, and chip away at the Affordable Care Act. He has appointed a plethora of privilege-defending judges to the federal bench, including two on the Supreme Court. Trump has also flouted the emoluments clause of the Constitution, using his presidency to personally enrich himself and his family, and seriously bungled America’s response to the coronavirus.

Social-justice-minded proponents of this strategy acknowledge that Biden has a long history of condoning millions of people’s oppression. They don’t deny that, over the course of his career, Biden has stymied school integration, helped engineer mass incarceration, worked to deregulate the financial industry, spread racist stereotypes used to deprive poor people of cash assistance, voted against LGBTQ equality, championed the Iraq War, fought reproductive rights, enabled abuses of immigrants, and fomented deficit panic. They recognize that Biden frequently lies, has been accused of sexual assault, and vehemently opposes urgently needed policy, like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, that would threaten the profits of his corporate donors. But while that may be true, vote-blue-no-matter-who proponents point out, Biden would surely appoint Supreme Court justices better than Brett Kavanaugh. He also surely wouldn’t use a pandemic as cover for helping employers bust unions. In the short run, social justice advocates will undoubtedly have a better chance of successfully pushing their agenda – and preventing as much of the serious harm a president can cause as possible – with Biden than with Trump in the White House.

Still, there is a clear downside to pledging unconditional support for the eventual Democratic nominee: it deprives social justice advocates of considerable long-term power. If Democratic party leaders and their allies in the media know you will support a Democrat in the end no matter who that Democrat is, what incentive do they have to cover and push the issues and candidates you care about? Isn’t it perfectly logical for party elites to ignore you and the millions of people their policies hurt and cater instead to groups whose support is conditional upon the pursuit of their interests, like corporate America and affluent White suburbanites? The Democratic Party has for decades done just that, relying on social justice advocates’ fears of Republicans instead of actively trying to court social-justice-minded voters.

Refuse to Support Corporate Democrats

The social justice voting bloc is big enough that the Democratic Party cannot beat Republicans without it. If that voting bloc were to uniformly and credibly pledge to withhold support from corporate Democrats like Biden in general elections, less social-justice-oriented Democrats who want to win general elections above all else would have no choice but to support candidates social justice advocates support – like Sanders – in primaries. This strategy is about destroying the electability argument that won Biden and Hillary Clinton the last two Democratic nominations.

To be clear, corporate Democrats’ electability arguments have lacked evidence for years. But they have nonetheless convinced Democratic primary voters, in no small part because their logic makes a certain sense. If the only swing voters are moderates, people who want to win general elections against Republicans would naturally maximize their chances to do so by nominating candidates who appeal to this narrow swing constituency. Social justice advocates who refuse to support corporate Democrats increase their leverage by becoming a swing constituency themselves.

The goal of refusing to support corporate Democrats, in the long run, is to achieve one of two outcomes: pulling the Democratic Party in a social justice direction or creating the conditions for the emergence of a viable third-party alternative to the Democratic Party. For the millions of people who are incarcerated, bombed, deported, and/or mired in poverty due to policies corporate Democrats support when they’re in power, it is crucial that one of these outcomes occurs as quickly as possible. The likelihood of that happening through the strategy of withholding support from corporate Democrats is uncertain, but what is certain is that, all else equal, it is much higher than the likelihood of achieving these long-run objectives through the vote-blue-no-matter-who strategy.

In the short run, withholding support from corporate Democrats does not have the same impact as supporting Republicans; that’s a basic mathematical fact. It does have a real short-term downside, however. Relative to supporting a Democratic nominee, it makes a Republican win – and the four years of increased damage that would come along with it – more likely.

The Wait-and-See Approach

Some Democratic voters have yet to declare whether they will support or refuse to support Biden in November. These voters do not hold as much power to influence Democratic primaries as those who vow never to support corporate Democrats, but when a corporate nominee like Biden emerges from a primary victorious, they are well-positioned to influence that nominee’s agenda.

The successful execution of the wait-and-see strategy involves outlining concessions that Biden must make to earn your support. Perhaps what you ultimately decide will hinge on Biden’s vice presidential choice; maybe it will be based on who he commits to put in his cabinet or his shortlist for potential Supreme Court nominees. Anything you care about is potentially on the table. 

There are tradeoffs involved in figuring out how to approach this negotiation. Ask for rhetorical overtures without staffing commitments and you’re essentially deciding to vote blue no matter who. Insist on Nina Turner as Vice President, Naomi Klein as Energy Secretary, and Rashida Tlaib as Secretary of State and you’re effectively refusing to vote for Biden. Demand Pedro Noguera as Education Secretary, Lori Wallach as Trade Representative, and Matthew Desmond as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and maybe you have a shot at getting it.

Because the wait-and-see approach can apply to fundraising, voter outreach, and other forms of activity in addition to votes, it is not mutually exclusive to voting blue no matter who or refusing to support corporate Democrats. Someone who has already committed to voting for Biden may only donate or phonebank under certain conditions. Likewise, the frequency and intensity with which Biden is critiqued by people refusing to vote for him may change in response to who he selects as his vice president or promises to appoint to key positions. In addition, these strategies complement each other. People who refuse to vote for corporate Democrats stretch the Overton Window, making other social justice advocates seem less radical in comparison. The potential to bring other social justice advocates along is the carrot that vote-blue-no-matter-who proponents offer the Democratic Party in internal negotiations, while the potential to pull other social justice advocates away is the external stick wielded by those who refuse to pledge unconditional support to the party’s corporate Establishment.

Debate the Strategies, Unite Around Goals

Vigorous debate about how to weigh the pros and cons of each of the above strategies and when to engage which strategy is healthy; joining corporate Democrats in pillorying Sanders supporters who adopt different general election strategies is not. If we are to be successful in achieving the Sanders movement’s central aim – improving millions of people’s lives through the social justice policies a majority of Americans support – we must remember who our allies are. And no matter who is ultimately elected president, we must continue the down-ballot work, movement building, and on-the-ground activism essential to advancing our shared vision.

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It’s Not Over

Even before the results in Florida, Arizona, and Illinois started rolling in on Tuesday night, pundits renewed their calls for Bernie Sanders to drop out of the Democratic primary. “It’s over,” the official Slate account tweeted after it became clear that Joe Biden won big victories in Florida and Illinois.

Pundits and Democratic Party operatives typically cite the need to “unite” or focus on “beating Trump” as the reason Sanders should drop out. But these reasons don’t make sense. Sanders has consistently said that beating Trump is his top priority and that he will campaign vigorously for Biden if Biden ends up being the nominee. The two major Democratic candidates are already united and focused in their desire to beat Trump.

The real reason the political and media Establishment want Sanders to drop out is that it’s not actually over. If Biden had this election all wrapped up and thought it was time to “unite,” wouldn’t he be asking his Super PACs to stop mailing anti-Sanders hit pieces to Latino voters? And is it really plausible that Democrats expect Biden to weather an onslaught of advertisements and lies from the Republican Party during the general election but don’t think he can handle relatively mild, accurate critiques of his record from a guy who repeatedly calls him a “decent guy” and “good friend?”

We’re currently in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that has uprooted American life. It highlights the need for the type of fundamental change to American policy that Bernie Sanders has spent his life fighting for, and that large majorities of Democratic voters now support. Joe Biden is also a deeply flawed candidate who is often incoherent and lies all the time. He has spent his career enacting racist, sexist, and classist policy in line with what both Republicans and his donors want. Biden is not quite as bad as Trump, as his campaign likes to remind us, but that’s hardly a compelling reason to vote for him. The more the Democratic electorate sees Biden and Sanders side by side and learns about Biden’s record, Establishment Democrats fear, the less likely they’ll continue to harbor the misconception that Biden is well-equipped to take Trump on and to deal with major crises.

That’s not to say that things look good for Sanders; they most certainly do not. After losing Florida, Arizona, and Illinois, Sanders now trails Biden by approximately 300 delegates. He would need to win in the neighborhood of 60% of the remaining delegates to have a legitimate claim to be the Democratic nominee. Given that he’s currently polling around 35% nationally, amassing 60% of the remaining delegates looks like a very tall order indeed.

At the same time, many millions of people in 23 states, 3 territories, and the District of Columbia still haven’t voted. A whopping 42% of delegates – or 5.5 times the amount by which Biden leads – have yet to be awarded. The next set of primaries isn’t scheduled until April 4, 17 days from now. It’s hard to believe, but 17 days ago, forecasters still gave Sanders and Biden about equal chances of winning the nomination.

In other words, we’re about five minutes into the third quarter of a football game, four games deep in a seven-game series, or halfway through July in a typical Major League Baseball season. Sanders is trailing and Biden is sitting pretty. Yet there’s a reason you play out the game, series, or season. The New England Patriots wouldn’t have won the 2017 Super Bowl if they had stopped playing when Tevin Coleman put the Atlanta Falcons up 28-3 over 6 minutes after the start of the second half. The Cleveland Cavaliers wouldn’t have won the NBA Finals in 2016 if they had thrown in the towel when falling behind Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors 3 games to 1. And the Atlanta Braves wouldn’t have won the NL West in 1993 if they had packed it in when they trailed the San Francisco Giants by 9.5 games on August 7.

The probability that Sanders will win is low and nobody should delude themselves into thinking otherwise. Still, it’s probably higher than the probability the Boston Red Sox were going to win the American League Championship Series when they were down 3-0 to the Yankees in 2004. Baseball fans shouldn’t have called for the Red Sox to drop out then. Fans of democracy shouldn’t call for Sanders to drop out now, either.

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The Wednesday Morning Speech Bernie Should Have Given

Thank you all very much for being here. Let me begin by acknowledging that last night’s results were disappointing. We lost in the largest state up for grabs yesterday, the state of Michigan. We lost in Mississippi, Missouri, and Idaho.

On the other hand, we won in North Dakota and we lead the vote count in the state of Washington, the second-largest state contested yesterday. With 67 percent of the votes having been counted in Washington, we are a few thousand votes on top.

Poll after poll, including exit polls, show that a strong majority of the American people support our progressive agenda. The American people are deeply concerned about the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in this country. The American people want the wealthy and large, profitable corporations to start paying their fair share of taxes. And the American people want a single-payer national health care system that eliminates copays, deductibles, and premiums, guaranteeing health care to everyone in America as a human right.

Joe Biden is opposed to guaranteeing health care as a human right – on television just the other day, he said he might veto a single-payer health care bill if he is elected President and Congress sends it to his desk. This position is unacceptable, especially in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic we are currently facing. But many Democrats are voting for Joe Biden anyway. Why, you ask? Because they believe he is the safe choice to take on Donald Trump in November.

We need to correct this misconception now, before it is too late. If you want to beat Donald Trump in November, you should vote for me.

I want you to think back to 2016. The same people who are telling you that Joe Biden is the safe choice to take on Donald Trump today were telling you that Hillary Clinton was the safe choice to take on Donald Trump four years ago. We all know how that turned out. Let us not make the same mistake again.

I am the most electable Democrat for two main reasons. First, our campaign continues to win the vast majority of the votes of younger people. Young people’s votes and enthusiasm were a major reason why Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012. Hillary Clinton’s inability to inspire young voters in 2016 was a major reason why she lost that election, and young people also do not trust Joe Biden. You may be committed to voting for either Joe Biden or me in November, but whether we ask them to or not, young progressives – a key constituency we need to beat Trump – can only be expected to knock on doors and vote if I am the nominee.

Why are young progressives uninspired by Joe Biden? It’s because he has been on the wrong side of important fights for decades. I have a 100% pro-choice voting record; Joe Biden has voted over and over again to restrict access to abortion and contraception. When I was in college, I organized to desegregate housing and schools; years later, in the Senate, Joe Biden stood with southern racists and opposed desegregating schools. I’ve fought for free college; Joe Biden helped create the student debt crisis. I opposed the Iraq War; Joe Biden cheered it on. On issue after issue, I’ve been on the right side and Joe Biden has been on the wrong side.

That brings me to the second reason I am the most electable Democrat: I am the polar opposite of Donald Trump. Trump is a pathological liar who is running a corrupt administration. I am recognized even by Republican voters who disagree with my policies for my honesty and integrity.

The contrast will not be so stark with Joe Biden. When Biden points out that Trump has spent his time as President enriching himself and his friends, Trump will point out that Biden’s Wall Street donors got the policies they paid for during Biden’s Senate career. When Biden points out that Trump lies repeatedly, Trump will point out that Biden has plagiarized speeches, fabricated stories, and lied about his record of supporting Social Security cuts. When Biden points out that Trump is a racist and sexist, Trump will point out that Biden was an architect of mass incarceration, advanced racist stereotypes about single mothers, and frequently makes women feel uncomfortable. Even when Biden criticizes Trump for putting kids in cages, Trump will point out that the cages were built and kids first put in them when Biden was Vice President.

Let us be clear: Donald Trump is worse than Joe Biden. But let us also be clear: being better than Donald Trump is not enough. It is not enough for the millions of people who need health care and it is not enough to win an election. Democrats tried it already, in 2016, and we lost. We should not try it again.

So if you live in one of the 26 states that hasn’t voted yet, please tune in to the first one-on-one debate of this campaign on Sunday night. You will see then what you already know now if you’ve seen Joe Biden speak recently or watched my Fox News town hall: in addition to being the only candidate who has fought for you for decades, I am also the candidate best-positioned to defeat Donald Trump.

Donald Trump must be defeated, and I will do everything in my power to make that happen. I hope you will, too, by casting your vote for me in your upcoming primary. Thank you all very much.

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Pro-Choice? Bernie Sanders is the Clear Choice.

On reproductive rights, the records of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are about as different as Democratic candidates’ records can be. “Biden over 36 years in Congress staked out a reputation as one of the Democratic Party’s most conservative voices on abortion,” as Politico summarized last year. According to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s 2016 review, on the other hand, “There’s no question: Senator Bernie Sanders has a strong record on reproductive rights.”

Here’s how Politico elaborates on Joe Biden’s record:

For decades, [Joe Biden] opposed late-term and so-called partial birth abortions, lamenting that one ban enacted in the 1990s did not go far enough. He supported Republican presidents’ prohibitions on funding for groups that promote abortions overseas, and backed legislation that would have allowed states to overturn Roe v. Wade. He even fought unsuccessfully to widen religious groups’ exemptions from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate for birth control coverage…

In public statements, interviews and recently resurfaced videos, Biden said he believed that “abortion is wrong from the moment of conception,” and said he doesn’t “view abortion as a choice and a right” but rather “always a tragedy.” He also said he did not believe that “a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”

Biden voted for the adoption of the Hyde Amendment in the 1970s and later opposed efforts to make exemptions and fund abortions for women who were victims of rape or incest.

He held that position until [the late spring of 2019, after he began his 2020 presidential campaign.]

Here’s how the Planned Parenthood Action Fund elaborates on Bernie Sanders’s record:

Sanders Has a 100% Voting Record on the Action Fund Scorecard
When the Action Fund started scoring congressional votes in 1995 (a few years after Sanders began his tenure in Congress), one of the first votes we scored was an amendment to allow over $190 million for family planning projects under Title X. Then-Representative Sanders was a key vote in moving that amendment forward. Throughout his career, he has continued to vote to protect access to safe and legal abortion, as well as federal funding for family planning and health care provided at Planned Parenthood health centers.

Sanders Supports Expanded Access to Birth Control
To this day, Sanders also has reliably and consistently voted to ensure women’s access to the full range of birth control options. During the fight over the Blunt Amendment, which would have allowed employers to opt out of providing insurance coverage of birth control, Sanders gave a speech on the Senate floor voicing his opposition:

“…there is growing anger that members of Congress, mostly men I should add, are trying to roll back the clock on women’s rights… Let me add my strong belief that if the United States Senate had 83 women and 17 men rather than 83 men and 17 women that a bill like this would never even make it to the floor.”

What’s more, he supports the Affordable Care Act, including its mandated coverage for birth control, and co-sponsored a bill that would protect women from bosses who want to block this coverage from them…

Sanders [also] signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court advocating against the Hobby Lobby’s decision to deny insurance coverage for contraception to their employees…

Sanders Supports Access to Abortion
To sum-up Sanders’ stance on abortion, just read what he had to say in a 2012 op-ed:

“We are not returning to the days of back-room abortions, when countless women died or were maimed. The decision about abortion must remain a decision for the woman, her family and physician to make, not the government.”

His strong position that we, as a nation, will never go backwards when it comes to access to abortion care is a major reason why Sanders is in our corner.

Sanders has also been a cosponsor of one of the most proactive pieces of legislation that would prevent states from chipping away at abortion access: The Women’s Health Protection Act, introduced in 2015 and 2013. This act would prevent politicians from passing laws aimed at shutting down health centers by imposing unnecessary building regulations and medical procedures such as mandatory ultrasounds — which have the sole intent of shaming women and making it harder for them to access safe, legal abortion…

On the campaign trail, Sanders boldly defended abortion access at the Christian institution Liberty University despite the fact that the university is so conservative that Ted Cruz announced his run for president there…

Sanders Has Stood With Planned Parenthood
The PPAF thanks Sanders for being an unwavering ally of Planned Parenthood patients and consistently voting in favor of protecting patients who rely on federal funds to access birth control, cancer screenings, and other basic health care at Planned Parenthood health centers.

If Bernie Sanders is elected, pro-choice women can feel confident he’ll have their backs. If Joe Biden is elected, regardless of what he says during campaign season, pro-choice women will have a lot of reasons to worry.

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Progressive Democrats Beat Electoral Expectations in Competitive House Races in 2018

At the Democratic debate in South Carolina on February 25, Pete Buttigieg asserted that “the people who actually turned the House blue, 40 Democrats, …are running away from [Bernie Sanders’s] platform as fast as they possibly can.” He wasn’t wrong – the vast majority of Democrats elected in swing districts in the Democratic wave of 2018, like Buttigieg, oppose Medicare for All, free college for all, and other social justice policies that Sanders supports. Along with anti-Sanders pundits and Republican strategists, they contend that the Sanders agenda is an electoral death sentence, that candidates who embrace social justice policy cannot win in contested House races.

Their argument doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, however, and not just because corporate Democrats got thrashed by Republicans all over the country in the decade prior to 2018. The evidence from the 2018 elections in the House also fails to support Buttigieg’s electoral thesis, as progressive Democrats in swing districts performed about as well relative to expectations as corporate Democrats did.

Beginning a year-and-a-half in advance of every congressional election, The Cook Political Report publishes a running list of “competitive races” in the House of Representatives. These races may “likely” be won by a Democrat or a Republican, “lean” towards one party or the other, or look like a “toss up.” They change over the course of an election as new information becomes available. Combining the 58 competitive races that The Cook Political Report originally identified in May of 2017 and the 116 they thought were in play on the day before voters finally went to the polls, a total of 124 districts can be considered to have been “swing” districts at some point leading up to the 2018 election.

Under the assumption that endorsements from Justice Democrats and Our Revolution indicate some degree of alignment with Sanders’s social justice agenda, a progressive candidate ran in the Democratic primary in 37 of these districts. Due in no small part to opposition from the Democratic Establishment, which often bankrolled corporate alternatives, only 9 of these progressive candidates advanced to the general election. Every single one of these remaining 9 candidates ran in a district that was projected to be a Republican win. Only 2 of the districts, Nebraska’s 2nd and New York’s 24th, were even considered in play in The Cook Political Report’s original judgment back in May of 2017; the others were all thought to be solidly Republican.

None of these 9 progressive Democrats won the general election. But using the spread between the Republican and Democrat in the district’s 2016 House election and the spread between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election as comparison points, 7 of them outperformed expectations. 2 of them – Ammar Campa-Najjar in California’s 50th district and JD Scholten in Iowa’s 4th district – came extremely close to knocking out incumbent Republicans in overwhelmingly Republican districts (see below). On average, these progressive Democrats outperformed Hillary Clinton by 5 percentage points and the previous Democratic House candidate in their district by 12 percentage points.

The respective numbers for the more corporate Democrats who ran in the remaining swing districts* were slightly higher but statistically indistinguishable: they outperformed Clinton by 7 percentage points and the previous House candidates in their districts by 14 percentage points on average. The subset of corporate Democrats who beat progressive challengers in their primaries fared about the same in the general election, beating Clinton by an average of 5 percentage points and the previous House candidates in their districts by an average of 15 percentage points.

In other words, corporate Democrats didn’t outperform progressive Democrats in the November 2018 elections – there were just way more of them running in more winnable races! If there had been 115 progressive Democrats and 9 corporate Democrats squaring off against Republicans in swing districts rather than 115 corporate Democrats and 9 progressive Democrats, the Democratic Party could very easily have picked up the exact same number of seats.

What makes a district competitive and what makes a candidate progressive are up for debate, of course. Should Richard Ojeda, who supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and outperformed historical expectations more than any other Democrat running in a swing district, be considered one of the progressives? How about Katie Porter, who supported Medicare for All and is a co-chair of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign? Is it appropriate to use a more narrow definition of a swing district that excludes areas in which Medicare for All supporters significantly outperformed expectations? Should major gains from the likes of Campa-Najjar be discounted because the Republican incumbent he was running against (Duncan Hunter) was indicted? Should special elections like the one in Montana in 2017 replace 2016 elections as reference points when they’ve occurred? Given that he literally re-registered as a Republican after he flipped New Jersey’s 2nd district blue, can Jeff Van Drew’s big win really be considered a victory for the Democratic Party? These are all reasonable questions to ask and underscore the inherent subjectivity of electability analyses.

At the end of the day, as I wrote back in 2017:

A candidate’s general election viability is ultimately unknowable.  It may depend on her or her opponent’s platform, debating skill, fundraising prowess, personality, or field operation.  It may hinge on the quirks of the community she’s running for office in or how much the media likes her.  It may come down to random chance.  Electability is also often a self-fulfilling prophecy; people commenting on electability and making decisions based on their perceptions of it can actually influence it and do so all the time.

The only thing we can be certain of in the electability space is political strategists’ and pundits’ poor track records.  Many of the people who claim to know what is and isn’t possible in future elections thought Bernie Sanders would barely get 15 percent of the vote in the [2016] Democratic primary.  Many of them were sure that Republicans would never nominate Donald Trump, and once that prediction turned out to be wrong, were still absolutely positive that Trump would never become president.  It’s long past time we viewed their claims with skepticism, especially when there’s evidence that points the other way.

Good policy can sell.  Voters can be persuaded.  Political reality is not something that gets handed to us, but something we help create.  Candidates with economic and social justice platforms can win in purple districts, and they’ll be even more likely to do so if Democratic pundits stop assuming they can’t and start getting behind them.

*Pennsylvania districts had to be excluded from these calculations because the congressional map was redrawn before 2018, making the historical comparison impossible. Texas’s 32nd district, Arizona’s 8th district, and Wisconsin’s 3rd district also had to be excluded from the comparison to the 2016 House election because Democrats did not run a candidate in those districts in 2016 (these three districts were included in the calculated comparison to the 2016 presidential election).

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On Both Politics and Policy, “For All” Beats “For Some”

Medicare for All or Medicare for All Who Want It? Free college for all or free college for just the non-rich? The debate between universal (available to everyone) and means-tested (available only to those who meet certain criteria) programs has defined the Democratic primary. Bernie Sanders, often joined by Elizabeth Warren, argues for universalism, declaring education and health care to be basic human rights. Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden argue against, contending that government resources must be targeted only to those in need, rather than wasted on the rich and/or on those who ostensibly don’t want them.

On the most commonly cited rationale for each position – sustainability for universalists and resource constraints for means testers – proponents of universalism have the upper hand. Medicare and Social Security, two of the United States’s largest, most successful, and most popular programs, are as close to universal as we’ve got. By giving everyone a stake in these programs, proponents argue, their near-universality has insulated them from attack. Bob Greenstein (the President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where I used to work) points out both that these programs have been cut and that their popularity could conceivably be due to the perception that they’re tied to work rather than to their quasi-universal nature, but the Alaska Permanent Fund, a state-level universal program not tied to work, also enjoys overwhelming public support. So do universal programs that aren’t tied to work in other countries – other countries’ universal health care systems, for instance, are way more popular than our means-tested approach. It’s reasonable to expect a universal program to be more sustainable than a means-tested alternative over time.

The Buttigieges of the world counter that universal programs are too expensive; in December, for instance, Buttigieg said they would require “the kind of taxation that economists tell us could hurt the economy.” But even if you reject the notion that government spending can be substantially increased without raising taxes, concerns about higher taxes are entirely without merit. Research has consistently (and predictably) failed to support such concerns, the United States has significantly lower taxes than the rest of the developed world, and scores of reputable economists support tax proposals, like those Sanders and Warren have released, that can fund the universal programs on offer. When Buttigieg says he’d prefer to “save those dollars [that would otherwise be spent on free college] for something else,” he is presenting a false choice. It is only his and others’ political preferences, not actual resource constraints, that stand between us and full funding of all the priorities he listed: education, infrastructure, child care, housing, and health care.

Still, the most compelling case for universal programs isn’t political. It is, ironically, that they’re better at achieving two of means testing’s major goals: helping people in need and doing so efficiently. They reduce stigma, arbitrariness, usage barriers, and administrative costs.

Universal programs help people in need by reducing stigma

Most low-income people work incredibly hard to put roofs over their heads and food on their tables. Yet they’re constantly accused of being unskilled, lazy, good-for-nothing loafers in search of government handouts. Afraid of being perceived that way and/or ashamed of their economic situation, many people who are struggling to get by decide not to access the means-tested benefits to which they’re entitled. They’d rather go hungry than risk someone catching them using food stamps in the checkout line.

Correcting false stereotypes is a top priority, with universal programs a useful complement for improving the experience of people in need. If everyone received SNAP benefits (SNAP, which stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the contemporary name for the food stamp program), for example, using them would no longer identify someone as low-income. We would thus expect higher rates of SNAP usage among low-income people.

That’s exactly what we’ve seen with the school meals program following the introduction of a program called “community eligibility,” which enables schools and school districts with a certain percentage of low-income students to offer free school meals to all students – regardless of their income levels – free of charge. Research suggests that reduced stigma is at least part of the reason students at schools that have adopted this program are more likely to take advantage of school breakfast and lunch programs.

Universal programs help people in need by eliminating arbitrary cutoffs

For SNAP, the income eligibility threshold is 130% of the poverty line, or about $27,700 annually for a family of three. People who make less than that amount (provided they meet other requirements – SNAP also has an asset test and restrictive eligibility rules for various groups of people including immigrants, individuals aged 18 to 49 who don’t have children, and students) can access benefits; people who make more than that amount cannot. Under Buttigieg’s higher education plan, college is free only for families making less than $100,000 a year (and discounted for families making between $100,000 and $150,000).

Means-tested benefits typically phase out slowly – that is, benefits get gradually smaller as beneficiary income gets higher – to ensure that the sum of pay plus benefits continues to increase when people pass eligibility thresholds. But why shouldn’t a family of three making $30,000 a year get food assistance? Why should $100,001 be the level at which a family starts having to pay for college? Eligibility thresholds in means-tested programs are arbitrary and inevitably create strange, difficult-to-justify divides between people right above and right below them. Universal programs avoid this problem completely by providing the same benefit to everyone.

Universal programs help people in need by reducing usage barriers

Means testing requires some form of testing, as the name implies, to determine whether or not someone is eligible for benefits. Depending on the complexity of a program’s eligibility rules, that testing might require a form of identification, proof of residence, proof of income, or any number of other things. Eligible beneficiaries may need to mail, hand-deliver, or electronically submit one or more forms, which, as Sanders accurately observed during the December debate, “people are sick and tired of filling out.

Filling out forms and proving eligibility is much more than an annoyance for many eligible people in need. Some may not know how to read or write. Some may move and/or change jobs frequently. Some may lack an official ID. The more hoops people have to jump through to access benefits, the fewer eligible people will actually end up receiving benefits.

Government agencies can mitigate this problem with outreach efforts and assistance programs, of course. But even well-administered means-tested programs like SNAP that continue to improve in these areas don’t catch everyone they should, in part because of the access barriers means testing inherently creates – in 2016, the most recent year for which we have data, about 15% of people eligible for SNAP did not participate in the program.

Universal programs improve efficiency by reducing administrative costs

In addition to creating an obstacle for eligible beneficiaries, the complexity introduced by means testing presents a challenge for efficient government. Every form that needs to be filled out has to be processed. Eligibility has to be verified. Complex rules have to be actively managed. Means-tested programs spend a larger share of their money on administrative overhead than universal programs do.

Administrative costs for Social Security, for example, are only 0.7% of total expenses. For SNAP, one of the most efficient and effective means-tested government programs, administrative spending comprises 7.7% of its total budget. Over three-quarters of those administrative costs are “certification-related,” meaning they’re “associated with determining household eligibility.”

To be clear, the overall cost of SNAP and other means-tested programs would be many times higher, even with substantially reduced overhead costs, if they were more universal. Increased overall cost is the only real potential downside of universality. And if one were forced to choose between increasing benefits for people in need and extending benefits to higher-income people who don’t currently receive them, increasing benefits for people in need would be the clearly correct choice.

But as noted above, that choice is a false one. There is no question that the US government has the money to offer increased benefits through universal programs. The only question is whether we will choose to spend it on the worthy goals of helping people in need and improving government efficiency for everyone.

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Filed under 2020 Election, Education, Health Care and Medicine, Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System

SCOOP: Bernie Sanders Raises the Bar for Campaign Employment Practices

“Labor fight roils the Bernie Sanders campaign” began a headline in The Washington Post on Thursday, July 18. In a tweet promoting the story, Post editor Matea Gold wrote: “SCOOP: For years, Bernie Sanders has traveled the country advocating for a $15 per hour minimum wage. His campaign organizers say they aren’t making that much, and they’re using his words to protest for higher wages.”

Refusing to pay your workers less than the $15-an-hour minimum wage you’ve been championing for years would be an unacceptable practice, and anti-Sanders commentators delighted in the Vermont Senator’s alleged hypocrisy. Fortunately for Sanders supporters, however, the headlines were misleading. In fact, both the body of the Post’s original story and subsequent events strongly suggest that the Sanders campaign has the best workplace policies of any presidential campaign in history.

Campaign workers are notoriously underpaid and overworked. Meager salaries, few benefits, long hours, and 7-day work weeks are the norm. Campaign workers also typically have little to no job security. These conditions were the impetus behind the recent formation of the Campaign Workers Guild, which ratified its first-ever contract with Randy Bryce’s congressional campaign in February of 2018. Since then, many other campaigns around the country, both local and national, have unionized as well.

In May of 2019, the Bernie Sanders campaign became the first-ever presidential campaign to sign a union contract. UFCW Local 400, which represents Sanders’s staff, lauded the campaign’s approach to the unionization effort, saying that “Senator Sanders walked the talk on unions,” that the campaign “engaged in good faith bargaining,” and that the overall process “was a model experience in every respect.” According to UFCW Local 400, workplace policies the campaign and union agreed on include:

  • a $15 minimum wage for all campaign staff, including interns
  • fully paid health care benefits for all full-time employees making $36,000 a year or less, with 85% of health care benefits paid for employees making more than that amount
  • four days per month when employees will not need to be on call with “breaks throughout the day, including meal breaks, as well as mandatory time off between particularly long shifts”
  • 20 days of paid vacation for both hourly and salaried employees
  • transparency for both management and consultant compensation with a rule capping management pay at 3 times the amount of the highest salary class in the bargaining unit
  • “robust anti-discrimination provisions as well as comprehensive protections for immigrant and transgender workers,” plus a process for employees to review pay equity
  • “employee-led Labor Committees to address ongoing working conditions and other issues with management”

Soon after negotiations concluded, Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir proposed raising field organizer salaries from $36,000 annually to $42,000 annually while extending the expected work week from five days to six days. The union rejected this offer. On July 11, some field organizers raised concerns internally about their hours and their ability to make ends meet. Shakir responded promptly and said changes would need to be negotiated through the union. The union was preparing a proposal and had not yet sent it to the campaign when the Post’s original story broke a week later. A few days after that, on July 22, the campaign and union agreed to the salary and work week Shakir originally proposed while raising the salary threshold for which the campaign would cover the full costs of employee health care premiums (the Post reported that the union rejected the initial offer over concerns about higher-salaried workers paying a portion of their own health care costs).

That’s the entire story. Reporters and pundits gleefully blasting Sanders’s integrity are seizing on how employees made their appeal for higher wages – by saying their salaries come out to less than $15 an hour if you factor in the extra hours they’ve been working and appealing to Sanders’s pro-worker rhetoric – rather than what the union says actually happened: the campaign negotiated a historically labor-friendly contract in partnership with workers and then agreed, per that contract, to renegotiate provisions in response to worker concerns. When originally contacted about the Post’s story, UFCW Local 400 said “the Bernie 2020 campaign staff have access to myriad protections and benefits secured by their one-of-a-kind union contract, including many internal avenues to democratically address any number of ongoing workplace issues, including changes to pay, benefits, and other working conditions.” After the deal, worker representatives reiterated that “the campaign staff and management have engaged in this process in good faith and to achieve a mutually agreed upon outcome…This is what democracy in the workplace looks like.”

The new agreement deserves praise. $42,000 a year is still not that much money, but that salary for a 50-hour work week – when combined with 4 “blackout” days per month, 20 days of paid vacation, and fully paid health care – blows the typical campaign compensation package out of the water. Factor in the contract’s robust anti-discrimination, pay transparency, and pay equity provisions and it’s easy to see why UFCW Local 400 believes Sanders “walk[s] the talk.”

The headline writers and Twitter commentariat, on the other hand, deserve rebuke. As Daniel Marans reported, union members reacted with “a mix of anger and bewilderment” both about the leaked details of negotiations and the way those details were framed. Staff were involved in “seemingly amicable negotiations with management,” not the “labor fight” trumpeted by the Post’s headline.

Perhaps, if there’s one potential positive to it, the misleading reporting on this issue will build on Sanders’s leadership by pressuring other presidential campaigns to be more pro-worker. Besides Sanders, only Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren have unionized staffs and neither campaign has a contract yet. The Post reports that Warren and Pete Buttigieg pay their field organizers the same amount as Sanders and that Beto O’Rourke and Joe Biden pay more, but while the Post contends these campaigns “have revealed their compensation structure for field organizers,” the paper did not try or was unable to ascertain at least some key relevant details about hours worked, health care premiums, days off, and/or management-employee pay equity from every single one of these campaigns. What the Post did find out – Biden’s non-union field organizers, for example, pay 20% of their health care premiums and typically work 60-hour weeks – appears to confirm that the Sanders campaign’s compensation package is most generous. Sanders is also the only candidate who currently lists compensation for all job openings on his website, and the Post neglected to report that at least two candidates, Biden and Warren, run what are essentially unpaid internship programs.

To the extent that people are now more aware of and outraged about the conditions campaign workers typically face, that’s also a plus. Unpaid internships need to be a thing of the past, as do 7-day work weeks. Personally, I think you should be excommunicated from the party if you try to run as a Democrat and refuse to recognize a campaign workers union.

But if you’ve read an anti-Sanders headline or tweet and wondered if Sanders is a hypocrite, wonder no more: he’s not. Sanders, who for years was one of the only congresspeople to pay his interns, is every bit the champion of economic justice he purports to be.

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