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How “zero-sum funding” can impact the whole criminal justice system

Author: Janine Zweig

| Posted: April 16th, 2014



Domestic Violence Safe Houses

In a recent story in The Crime Report, reporter Deirdre Bannon brings to light a critical policy issue that demands our attention: the tensions related to zero-sum funding of criminal justice programs.

Bannon’s story describes how the Department of Justice will penalize states found to be noncompliant with Prison Rape Elimination Act  standards with a five percent cut in federal funding for corrections. However, Bannon also reports the money will be filtered back to states for them to improve practices to become compliant. Sounds good, right?

That is, until you read that these funds “are being taken from a category of grants that support violence against women programs, drug courts, and reentry services so individuals stay out of prison.”

The funding switch could force some states to cut these types of programs entirely, leaving criminal justice leaders across the country with tough choices.

When we offset new funding by cutting established funding, the implications for public safety are problematic at best and harmful at worst, particularly when it comes to serving victims of crime.

For one thing, it asks us to choose between victims. Cutting victim services and programs to prevent and respond to domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking through the Violence Against Women Act for the sake of programs to prevent and respond to prison rape may leave groups of victims without assistance. All victims have a right to the support and resources they need to recover and move forward after being violated.

Cutting drug courts and reentry programs that rehabilitate offenders also presents a no-win solution. These interventions are in the best interest of public safety, because they decrease the odds of reoffending. In our five-year study of drug courts, we found that those who participated had lower relapse rates and committed fewer additional crimes—all types of crimes—than those who didn’t.

We also know that high-quality reentry programs can be critical for the success of returning prisoners, and this body of knowledge is growing. Programs that effectively prepare them for employment, offer education and vocational training, and provide stable housing help reduce the likelihood that they will reoffend. If we can lower their odds of committing another crime, then we help prevent others from becoming crime victims.

As the research shows, programs that address both victims’ and offenders’ needs benefit society as a whole, and cutting one at the expense of another leaves whole populations vulnerable.  We know that justice can and should hold offenders accountable, while implementing practices that prevent further crime. And justice can and should restore victims’ well-being and mend the breach in the social contract that the crime imposed. Justice for victims, justice for offenders, or public safety for all?  Why should we have to choose?

Photo: A California domestic violence shelter, which provided beds for 12, at a cost of $60,000 a year, was closed June 30, when it lost state funding due to the failure of the Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lawmakers to reach a budget. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

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How being poor in DC makes kids’ asthma worse

Author: Nicole Levins

| Posted: April 16th, 2014




In the United States, more than 7 million children suffer from asthma. But in spite of the chronic and sometimes life-threatening nature of the disease, most of these kids lead active, healthy lives.

That’s not the case for some low-income families in Washington, DC. Asthma’s a big problem for the relatively small city, where the proportion of children suffering from the condition is one of the greatest in the nation.

Fortunately, DC is also home to IMPACT DC, an emergency department-based intervention that has helped reduce the number of emergency room visits from low-income children with asthma. But despite the program’s effectiveness, lots of DC kids and caregivers are still struggling to manage the disease.

So, how can we help everyone breathe a little easier? Urban Institute researchers, led by Marla McDaniel, teamed up with IMPACT DC to interview 33 players involved in asthma treatment—from parents to primary care physicians to IMPACT DC’s educators—to figure out why it’s so hard to treat asthma among DC’s poorest kids. In their own words, here are five potential factors.

Limited time

Low-income caregivers are often forced to balance parenting duties with inflexible jobs and non-standard working hours. Though children’s medical needs come first, it’s sometimes at the expense of the job that helps pay for the treatment.

“…I had to quit jobs before because she had an asthma attack three days in a row… They won’t let me take time off, so I quit.” - Caregiver

For educators and health care professionals, limited time with patients and caregivers makes it difficult to address all concerns and answer all questions.

“…Time is a huge factor... In most primary care visits, you have 15 minutes to cover the entire health of the child… the amount of time physicians have for health education is almost none...” - Asthma educator

Lack of management

Who’s in charge of managing a child’s asthma treatment? For children with multiple caregivers, there’s often no one person ensuring that the child sticks to the treatment plan.

“[Having] multiple caregivers is a strong indicator of poor adherence, for obvious reasons. Usually only one caregiver comes [to] the visit, and frequently it’s the caregiver with the most time on their hands...  But it’s not necessarily the one with the most power in the family dynamic...” - Asthma educator

Sometimes, the responsibility is left up to the child.

“When I am at work then she call[s] me. 'Mommy, it’s time for medicine,’ and I say, ‘OK, go do your thing.’ She turns it on and uses it… She knows what she[‘s] doing… But my son, I can’t trust him with nothing! He’s only four.” - Caregiver

Difficulty accessing care

In DC, the best doctors and specialists are often out of reach for those with low-incomes—located in the less transit-oriented suburbs and Northwest.

“[For low-income families in poor neighborhoods,] getting to the doctor is harder. Once you get to the doctor, you wait longer, so you’re less likely to go… And you lose an entire day of work.  And these are the families who also tend to have the least flexible work schedules.” - Asthma educator

“Unhealthy” housing

Cheaper, older apartments—where many low-income DC families live—can host a number of asthma triggers.

“We don’t have a thermostat to control the heat in the basement apartment.  It gets so hot in there and we have to keep the windows open all the time.” - Caregiver

“We had to move because there was something in the carpets [that was triggering asthma attacks]…” - Caregiver

Lack of adequate health coverage

Most doctors agree that Medicaid and other insurers could do a better job covering routine care for low-income patients, which could go a long way in preventing attacks and hospital visits.

“…Not all of the payers are allowing kids to have two inhalers at the same time. We have one for home, one for at school, and they don’t pay for both…” - Primary care physician

“One of the things [Medicaid] could do better is managing claims and hiring educators to look at claims to see who is filling what prescriptions and when and how often. They could then work with those families when they see prescriptions are not being filled.” - Primary care physician

“It’s much more cost-effective for insurance to keep [a] child out of the ER. There’s a lot of benefit for the insurance.” - Primary care physician

Photo from Shutterstock.

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What charter school growth means for cities and neighborhoods

Author: Megan Gallagher and Simone Zhang

| Posted: April 15th, 2014

Charter schools are one of a number of school reform strategies that aim to expand choices for families. Other school choice policies include open enrollment, magnet or alternative schools, private school vouchers, tax credits for households paying for private school, and homeschooling. Although the number of cities with open enrollment and magnet schools is growing, charter schools represent the most prevalent type of school choice strategy in the United States today.

Charter schools are independently governed and run public schools that are supported with public funds. In the 2011-12 school year, there were about 5,700 charter schools in 42 states serving over 2 million children. That represents a 186 percent increase in the number of charter schools and a 359 percent increase in the number of students attending charter schools since the 2000-01 school year.

Charter school students still represent a small proportion of all students in the US (4.2 percent), but the speed at which their numbers are growing and where these students are located raise important questions for students, families, neighborhoods, and cities.

Where are charter schools located?

Charter schools are more prevalent in cities than they are in suburban or rural areas; 55 percent are located in central cities (compared with 24 percent of traditional schools), 29 percent are located in suburbs and towns (compared with 42 percent of traditional schools), and 16 percent are located in rural areas (compared with 34 percent of traditional schools). Their reach is increasing, too—they represented 12 percent of all public schools in cities in 2011-12, up from 7.5 percent in 2005-06.


This pattern is also reflected in enrollment patterns. A greater proportion of students attend charter schools in cities (8 percent) than in the suburbs, towns, and rural areas. The map below illustrates where the concentration of students attending charter schools is greatest, highlighting distinct state patterns that largely reflect differences in charter legislation.

What does charter school growth mean for cities?

Right now, there is little empirical evidence about how charter schools will affect neighborhoods and cities. We don’t know how growing demand for charter schools affects neighborhood residents or institutions. We don’t know how families communicate or build trust with their neighbors in places where children attend many different schools. And we don’t know whether charter school choices in cities will change where families with children choose to live and stay.

What we do know is that although the proportion of public school students attending charter schools is currently still relatively small, their growth in cities will likely have important implications for cities and their neighborhoods.

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The upside of tax time has a downside, too

Author: Caroline Ratcliffe

| Posted: April 14th, 2014




The deadline to file our taxes has arrived once again. While this deadline looms over many of us, for low-income working families, it can be an opportunity for greater economic security.

Why? Tax credits, such as the earned income tax credit (EITC), provide a substantial infusion of resources to low-income working families, making tax time a time when they can meet their current financial obligations, pay down their debt, and maybe save a little. For a married couple with two children, for example, the EITC can be as high as $5,372 this year.

The benefits and opportunities are considerable, but for the roughly 17 million adults without bank accounts, it can be difficult and expensive to get access to that refund. The unbanked often turn to expensive check-cashing services or pay high fees on refund anticipation checks or loans to avoid long waits for a paper check.

What can help? Offering people a reasonably priced financial product at tax time, a product that provides electronic access to tax refunds via direct deposit and can be used thereafter for everyday transactions such as paying bills, receiving paychecks via direct deposit, and withdrawing money from ATMs.

In 2011, the Department of the Treasury initiated the MyAccountCard, a direct mail pilot program offering low-income unbanked and underbanked families the option of receiving their tax refund on a prepaid card. The reloadable MyAccountCard could then be used on an on-going basis for everyday transactions.

The pilot evaluation, which I conducted with my colleague Signe-Mary McKernan, found that the MyAccountCard appealed most toits target population: unbanked adults. Those most likely to be unbanked were three times more likely to apply for the card and twice as likely to deposit their tax refund into the card account, compared with those who were most likely to have a bank account.

There was also relatively high repeat use of the MyAccountCard for tax refund deposits. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of people who directly deposited their tax refund into the MyAccountCard in year one did so again the following year.

What influenced MyAccountCard usage? Cost was a big factor. A $4.95 monthly fee decreased applications by 40 percent and the likelihood of depositing a tax refund into the card account by 50 percent, compared with no monthly fee. The linked savings account and card messaging (safety vs. convenience) did not impact take-up or use.

The federal government isn’t the only entity in the prepaid card market. Tax preparers have their own prepaid card products, but electronic receipt of refunds onto these cards is available only to filers using that preparer. Some states also offer prepaid cards, but these generally only allow people to spend down their state refunds—the card can't be used to accept federal refunds or as an ongoing account to manage finances and build savings.

The federal government offering a reloadable prepaid card at tax time can help consumers get their tax refunds quickly and safely, avoid expensive alternative financial services, and connect them with the financial mainstream. It can also save the government money, as electronic delivery of tax refunds cost roughly one-tenth as much as paper checks.

Access to the prepaid card should be easy, such as by including the card as an option on the tax form. Because of the national scale, the government would be in a position to negotiate well-priced products and provide oversight to ensure that the product and its pricing are transparent to consumers.

A program like the MyAccountCard also provides a credible platform for implementing an EITC saver’s bonus to promote and incentivize saving among low- and moderate-income tax filers—giving them a financial incentive to save and build wealth that many high-income people enjoy.

Prepaid cards at tax time will make tax time a little easier on low-income unbanked families—and provide them with a valuable tool to cover their banking needs all year long.

Tax image from Shutterstock.

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Some reasonable Social Security reforms

Author: Zach McDade

| Posted: April 14th, 2014




Under current law, Social Security’s trust fund will run dry by the late 2030s. This doesn’t make Social Security a Ponzi scheme, and it doesn’t mean young workers will get no (or even dramatically reduced) benefits. But it does mean that we face a long-run shortfall.

Aside from dramatically restructuring the whole system, there are only two options, mathematically, to cover it: higher taxes or lower benefits.

The current default policy is across-the-board benefit cuts: sometime before 2040, the trust fund will be gone and monthly receipts simply won’t cover scheduled payments.

But making policy by default is rarely a good idea, and my colleagues have proposed and thoroughly analyzed many options for reforming the current system. Although each idea necessarily involves either lower benefits or higher taxes (or both), the three I outline below seem pretty reasonable, especially in combination.

I say reasonable because each would either bring us closer to policy similar to what we’ve agreed upon in the past or would address major demographic changes in our population. They’re reasonable, too, because one way or another we’ll pay for the shortfall; the choice is only whether we’ll do it with a thoughtful plan.

Here we go—it’s about to get wonky.

Increase the Social Security tax cap. Social Security taxes are capped: you pay taxes on all income you make up to $117,000 this year; any income above that cap is not subject to the tax.

In the early 1980s, the cap covered about 90 percent of all wages in the economy. Since then, rapid income growth at the top of the distribution means that the cap now covers only about 84 percent of all wages. If the share had remained constant, 2014’s cap would be almost $230,000.

Eliminating the cap altogether could reduce the long-term deficit between 70 and 86 percent, depending on whether high-income earners also received higher benefits in return for paying more tax. Raising the cap to cover 90 percent of wages again could lower the deficit by 28 percent, even if high earners receive higher benefits.

The tradeoff is that the higher taxes might discourage higher-income people from working, which would itself cost the system some solvency.

Increase the Social Security tax. Social Security payroll taxes increased steadily between 1955 and 1990. But for nearly 25 years, they’ve remained constant at 12.4 percent, split by law between employers and workers.

Raising the rate by just 2.7 percentage points would add 50 years of solvency to the system and reduce the need to lower benefits in the future. (That tax increase would be split between employers and workers, though employers would likely pass some or all of their burden on to their employees through lower wages.)

A drawback, again, is that higher taxes (or lower wages) may discourage work. It might also increase the regressivity of the tax. And it could reduce minimum-wage employment if employers hire less in the face of higher labor costs.

Increase the retirement age. Current law increases the full Social Security retirement age gradually from 65 to 67 for those born between 1938 and 1960. But it remains 67 for everyone born after 1960, despite a half century of health and longevity gains coupled with decreasing shares of physically intensive employment.

Compared with workers born in 1937, today’s workers can expect to spend seven or eight full years more in retirement, on average. Gradually increasing the retirement age from 67 to 69 by birth cohort and then indexing it to life expectancy gains would reduce the long-term deficit by 44 percent.

A huge drawback is that life expectancy gains and reductions in physically demanding work have not benefited all workers evenly. Many may simply be unable to work longer in their industry, or may not live long enough to benefit from a later retirement age.

So what? There are tradeoffs to all of those ideas, making meaningful reform politically difficult. But there is a huge tradeoff to doing nothing, too. If we thoughtfully plan how to cover the inevitable shortfall with a combination of the ideas above (and potentially others), we can also build in ways to mitigate potential harms along the way.

Follow me on Twitter. Illustration by Tim Meko, Urban Institute.

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College is expensive, but how do we know if it is "unaffordable"?

Author: Sandy Baum

| Posted: April 14th, 2014




Most Americans believe that higher education is important, that people who want to lead secure, comfortable lives should go to college—but that it is unaffordable for all but the wealthy.

We see headlines about college prices and we know that they keep going up, but do we know what it means for college to be affordable?

Most of the conversations about this issue focus on family incomes. Many families can and should help their children finance college, and we should think hard about how much parents in different circumstances can be expected to contribute. But other families are in no position to help, and many students are old enough not to even think about parental financing. Is college by definition unaffordable at any price for these students?

Clearly, a lot of students can and do pay for a big portion of college expenses on their own. We should really reframe the conversation to include the reality that students have to be able to pay for college. They may get help from their parents. They may get help from federal and state student aid. They may get help from other sources. But it is their investment in their futures and if the investment does not pay off, they will suffer the consequences.

This means that how much money people have before college is just a fraction of what matters. College carries lots of non-monetary benefits, improving and enriching students’ lives in ways that can’t be measured financially. But the earnings premium is a critical part of measuring college affordability. Will the earnings premium be high enough to pay the price of college—the price that remains after subsidies (including those from parents) are accounted for?

There are lots of colleges with a wide range of prices, and at most schools, students are paying very different prices to be there. Some students complete degrees and others don’t. Among those who do, there is a wide range of employment and earnings outcomes—even among those with degrees in similar fields.

So we can’t say for sure which options will end up being affordable for which students.

But we can ask the right questions. We can ask about available resources before, during, and after college. We can ask about which options are suitable for particular students. We can ask about the trade-offs involved in going to college instead of choosing alternative paths. And we can ask how the risks involved in this uncertain investment with a very high average rate of return should be shared between students and society at large.

Instead of asking whether college is or is not affordable, we should do a better job of tracking the many elements that go into college affordability and make that information widely available. We should know about sticker prices, net prices after aid, tuition and fees, living costs, books and supplies, parental incomes, student wages, household savings, the prices of other goods and services, and post-college earnings. And we should know not just averages, but about the variation in all of these metrics.

Reporting that prices are high and people are struggling is not enough to increase access to valuable postsecondary experiences. We need a more thoughtful approach to this vital issue.

Image from Flickr user Erik Weber (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Who cares about data?

Author: Sarah Gillespie

| Posted: April 11th, 2014




Data-driven programs. The U.S. Department of Education has set a high bar for measuring and reporting program performance and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.  The strict requirements even begged the question “Can they be this obsessed with data?”  from one Washington Post education reporter. But ask those hard at work in communities like Northeast DC’s Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood of the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI), and they’ll tell you it’s not just the federal government or researchers that care about data.

DCPNI is one of 12 Promise Neighborhoods implementation grantees, the Obama Administration’s effort to build a continuum of cradle-to-college solutions for children and youth that put great schools at the center.  Grantees are required to collect data on 15 specific performance indicators for the communities they serve, ranging from how many young children have a place to go when they are sick to how many parents talk to their high school students about the importance of college and career readiness.

Data-driven communities. Last month, DCPNI invited its partners, community members, and other stakeholders to get a first glimpse at the data behind their efforts.  The data told the story both the strengths and needs of children and youth in their neighborhood—highlighting how they compare to other neighborhoods and what that means for their future and DCPNI’s role.  DCPNI showed their community that though the data’s collection and reporting requirements are demanding, understanding and acting on it is the first step to charting a better path for their children and youth.

One required Promise Neighborhoods indicators is the rate of chronic absenteeism, defined as the number of students who are absent 10-percent or more of the days they are enrolled in school. Research shows chronic absenteeism is a key predictor of negative outcomes for children and youth, including poor academic achievement, school drop-out, poor physical and mental health, and even adulthood poverty.

DCPNI found that the rate of chronic absenteeism across all grades in its target schools during the 2012-2013 school year was 32.6%--three times the 10% national average. This data hit the message home to residents and stakeholders that decreasing chronic absenteeism is a key to improving outcomes for students in the Promise Neighborhood. DCPNI shared it goals to change this trajectory through programs such as attendance campaigns, inviting input and collaboration from the community and partners.

Data-driven results. "Data for the sake of data is useless,” DCPNI’s Director of Data and Evaluation, Isaac Castillo, told community members and partners. “We have to share the data and act on it to make the data meaningful.”  DCPNI understands that being “obsessed with data” is not just about reporting statistics for government and researchers. The data belong to the community—and the community, government and researchers can work together to find data-driven solutions to get results for their children and youth.

Photo from Shutterstock.

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Improving seniors’ lives with new technology

Author: Peter Tatian

| Posted: April 10th, 2014




Aging populations in the United States, Japan, and many other countries will need future support and services that current public programs may not be equipped to handle. In Japan, where seniors are expected to reach almost 40 percent of the population by 2050, new technology is helping the country address the challenges of an aging society—and may provide lessons for us as well.

Last week, the Washington Innovation Network sponsored an event highlighting advances in information and communication technology (ICT) and their application to helping seniors live healthy and productive lives—what is referred to as "Silver ICT." The event, supported by the US-Japan Research Institute and Japan Science and Technology Agency, featured products that can support seniors in a variety of environments and enable them to safely age in place—that is, to grow older in their own homes and not in retirement communities.

Toshio Obi from Waseda University (Tokyo)—chair of the OECD-APEC Silver ICT project and coauthor of Aging Society and ICT—spoke at the event and introduced a number of technologies being developed by Japanese companies. Fujitsu's Raku-Raku smartphone, for example, is a touchscreen phone designed to be easier for seniors to use. SECOM's My Spoon robot is a device that makes it possible for physically handicapped people to eat on their own.

A demonstration project being carried out in Otsuki City (near Mt. Fuji) is testing Silver ICT ideas on a municipal scale. The project has three main components: e-Agriculture (many seniors in the area are engaged in farming), e-Health, and e-Tourism. In the e-Agriculture effort, for example, producers are connected electronically to warehouse and distribution outlets to increase market access, allowing more seniors to remain economically productive. A full report on the Otsuki project will be released later this spring.

Silver ICT still faces many barriers to wide-scale adoption, as Majd Alwan, director of LeadingAge's Center for Aging Services Technologies, explained at the event. He cited the lack of awareness of available technologies among both potential users and service providers, variable evidence on return on investment, and the need for sustainable business models as current impediments. Nevertheless, Alwan emphasized the number of products that are being used today, including electronic health records, telehealth systems, and medication management solutions. He advocated moving from pilot projects to large scale demonstration efforts and collecting more data on performance and results.

In the United States, seniors will make up about 20 percent of the population by 2050. Using technology to meet their needs may help them live more independently and self-sufficiently, enhance the quality of their lives, and lower the stresses being placed on the healthcare system. Further international collaboration in this area can benefit all countries in providing for a better quality of life for their aging populations.

The Raku-Raku smartphone is designed to be easier for seniors to use. Photo courtesy of Fujitsu. 

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Keep investing in transit. It’s good for low-income drivers too.

Author: Rolf Pendall

| Posted: April 10th, 2014




With access to cars, many low-income families would live in better neighborhoods, get more stable jobs, and earn more, as my recent study with Evelyn Blumenberg and Casey Dawkins has shown. This is why it’s important to increase the affordability and reliability of car access for low-income households.

But this doesn’t mean we ought to shift our attention and investment away from improving transit, enhancing walkability, and increasing the diversity and density of cities. In fact, all these efforts can help relieve pressure on low-income Americans’ transportation spending even when they own cars.

In 2011, about a third of urban households in the lowest fifth of earners got by without their own car*, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey. The average household in the poorest fifth spends as much of its income on transportation—32 percent—as the typical American household pays for housing. But the single largest expenditure for the poorest households isn’t a car; it’s gasoline, adding up to 12 percent of the average the average poor household's income*.

Households in the poorest fifth who had cars also spent about as much on auto insurance—$800 a year—as those in the second-poorest fifth. On a per-car basis, they paid the same amount as everyone else to insure cars with blue-book values a fraction of that of better-off households. Even poor households without cars took about a third of their trips in 2001 either by borrowing a car or riding with a household who had one.

These numbers strengthen the argument that investing in transit and walkability is important for low-income families. Of course many low-income households are carless, and many others need options for family members who can’t drive or can’t get access to the one car they do have. But if we reinforce transit, we support higher-density housing, jobs, and retail.

With these “trip generators” closer and more mixed together, we all drive less—and shorter trips help low-income drivers in the same way they help everyone—but with a much bigger impact on their household finances. Drivers don’t need to buy as much gas or pay as much for insurance (which costs more when you drive more). They’re less likely to get into accidents because their trip speeds are lower, and driving less means spending less on routine maintenance and major repairs.

And then there’s time: almost all the households in our study were single mothers and their kids. Their lives are complicated enough even when they have cars and live close to their destinations. Every additional mile they have to drive is an additional mile where something can go wrong: a missed appointment with a job counselor or a few minutes late to work or day-care pickup.

Investments including transit that support density and land-use diversity not only give these households more options and improve their cities, but also can save time by bringing people closer to the things they need.

Despite all of that, many low-income families could be greatly supported with access to a car. More on that in my next blog post.

Photo by Lionel Foster, Urban Institute. *Amended since posting.

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