Charter Schools may be Important for the Urban Poor

A recent Upshot article written by Susan Dynarski from the University of Michigan suggests that charter schools provide the most benefit to students in poor, urban areas. Recent research I conducted with my colleague Elizabeth Bersin on DC Charter Schools also bears out this conclusion.

Who Benefits? Non-White, Low-Income Students in Urban Areas

Dr. Dynarski’s research mostly focused on charter schools in Boston. Her research uses students who were randomly assigned to a charter school by a lottery system. Dynarski’s work assumes that because those who win the lottery and those who lose the lottery are essentially the same in regards to academic history and overall demographic make up, any observed differences between the students after the fact can be attributed to charter school attendance. Analysis was done based on who won or lost the lottery rather then who actually attended the charter school, which means that the results are not biased by transfers after the lottery. In other words, if a charter school decided to expel low performing students, this did not impact analysis.

The results suggest that for students who are low performing, poor and non-white in urban districts, charter schools tend to increase student test scores more than public schools. By contrast, in suburban areas where students are more likely to be white and middle class, charter schools do not do better then public schools, and sometimes perform worse.

Our Research

Elizabeth Bersin and I conducted our own research on charter schools in the District of Columbia. We were interested in exploring the impact of attending a charter school in DC on academic outcomes for students. For our outcome variable, we used DC-CAS data from three school years, 2012, 2013, and 2014. The DC-CAS assessment is administered in the spring for students in grades 2 -10. These tests were aligned specifically with DC English/Language Arts, Math, Science, and Health Standards. We used test scores for Math and English/Language Arts, which have been in place since 2006 for students in grades 2- 10. The data that we utilized contained the number of students who scored at the proficient or advanced level for each school, and we had an indicator for whether a school was a charter school or part of the DC public school system.

While the studies carried out by Dynarski and other researchers take advantage of the lottery system used to randomly assign students to charter schools or their regular public schools, we were only able to use school level data. Our non-experimental design and results obtained are thus subject to two major sources of bias. One source of bias is that students (or their parents) who attend charter schools differ from those who do not attend charter schools. For example, parents who want their child to attend a charter school may know that the public school in the area is not high-quality whereas another parent might just not know about the differences in quality between the public school and the charter school and thus not apply to attend a charter school. The student in the former situation is likely to have a better academic outcome then the student in the latter situation because the parents are more involved in the student’s education regardless of whether the instruction methods or curriculum at the charter school improve academic outcomes. The research designs used by Dynarski and others eliminate this issue by only following and using data from students who apply to attend the charter school. Another source of bias is that some of the charter schools in our study could have used non-random means to select students (i.e. test scores) or that schools could have expelled low performing students and thus sent them back to public schools before the DC-CAS was administered.

We used OLS multivariate regression to analyze the data and produce our results. One of the control variables we used was the ward number for each school, a proxy variable to measure the socioeconomic status of the students who attend that school (assuming that it is likely that students attend charter schools close to home). The table below provides an indication of some of the key attributes of each ward. Wards 7 and 8 especially have a high African American population and a low median income.


Percent of Population that is  Black[1]

Median Household Income

Percent of Families Below the Poverty Line[2]

Ward 1




Ward 2




Ward 3




Ward 4




Ward 5




Ward 6




Ward 7




Ward 8




Source: DC Open Data & Authors Calculations

[1] The authors calculated the percent of the population that is Black by dividing the population of Black individuals over the total population. The population data appears to be from 2000 and the income data may be from 2002.
[2] This column in the data is POVFAM_. The authors assume that this is a percentage. Poverty guidelines for 2012-2014 are available in Appendix 1, figures 2-4. This also includes a note about the difference between poverty thresholds and poverty guidelines.

The graphs below present the differences in percent of students who scored at the proficient or advanced level for charter schools versus public schools for each ward. For both math and reading, there is an especially large difference for Wards 7 and 8 and much smaller differences for the other wards. We also found a statistically significant difference for charter schools versus other public schools, which suggests that the number of students scoring at the proficient or advanced level was more than 10% higher for charter schools rather than other public schools (see Appendix).



Our research is by no means as rigorous or as conclusively causal as the research conducted by Dynarski and others, but it is encouraging to see that the urban poor attending charter schools may have higher test scores and thus may have more opportunities in the future to attend college or receive a scholarship. In future research, it would seem even more important to get a better understanding of why urban schools in poor, non-white areas are struggling to increase scores of the population they serve and to determine policy solutions that would help increase achievement for all students.


Results for Charter Schools and Percent of Students Scoring at the Proficient or Advanced Level (Math)



Standard Error

t value

Confidence Interval

Charter School






Ward 1






Ward 2[1]






Ward 3

Used as Base for Other Ward Number coefficients

Ward 4






Ward 5






Ward 6






Ward 7






Ward 8












R2 = 0.3013 n = 556

*=Significant at the .1 level **=Significant at the .05 level ***=Significant at .01 level



Standard Error

t value

Confidence Interval

Charter School






Ward 1






Ward 2[2]






Ward 3

Used as Base for Other Ward Number coefficients

Ward 4






Ward 5






Ward 6






Ward 7






Ward 8












R2 = 0.3738 n = 556

*=Significant at the .1 level **=Significant at the .05 level ***=Significant at .01 level

[1] The coefficient on Ward 2 is significant, but this may not be a good estimate of the true value because of the small sample size for that Ward.
[2] Similar to footnote 3, the coefficient on Ward 2 is significant, but this may not be a good estimate of the true value because of the small sample size for that Ward.

Why is the Budget Deal All Bad for Obamacare?

While the cable networks wrapped up their most recent Republican debate coverage, House Speaker Paul Ryan released the details on legislation that would keep the lights on in the federal government through 2016. The late-night release of what is supposed to be the first major legislative accomplishment under the newly minted speaker may have been motivated by an unexpectedly steep price tag: $680 billion.

One of the surprising focal points of the spending bill was the Affordable Care Act. The proposal makes four key changes to the existing law:

  1. It delays the “Cadillac Tax”, a 40 percent tax on the most expensive health insurance plans provided by employers, until 2020.
  2. It pauses the tax for not purchasing health insurance as required by the ACA’s individual mandate until the end of 2017.
  3. It pauses a tax on medical device manufacturers until the end of 2016.
  4. It prevents Congress from using general funds to provide payments to health insurers who took on higher numbers of unhealthy customers in the ACA’s Marketplaces (a hit to a program known as risk corridors).

These changes led Politico to label the ACA as the number one loser from the budget deal. Vox reporter Sarah Kliff didn’t go that far, but she did note that the changes make the ACA much more expensive for the federal government and open it to possible attacks from fiscal conservatives.   

But is the alarm over increased spending generally and the changes to Obamacare specifically justified? 

The budget deficit is already very low

Federal data show that the budget deficit (the difference between tax revenue and government spending in a single fiscal year) will drop to 2.5 percent of GDP in 2015. The White House praised the numbers, and the spending deal shows that even conservative legislators feel they have some room for more red ink (likely because it includes substantial tax cuts).

Fiscal hawks strongly disagreed with this assessment. The head of one of Washington’s prominent fiscal watchdogs tweeted:

While fiscal responsibility is generally a good virtue, it isn’t clear that the government is no longer capable of taking on more debt. In fact, deficit spending may help the economy.

The Federal Reserve just increased interest rates. Time for fiscal policy to step up.

One reason that deficit spending might actually help the economy is that the Federal Reserve just increased interest rates. Since the start of the financial crisis, the nation’s central bank has held interest rates at zero to help stimulate economic growth. Now that the unemployment level has fallen to 5 percent, the nation’s central bankers felt that the economy was strong enough to withstand the Fed taking their foot off the gas. This week, the Fed announced that an increase in interest rates was needed to combat the potential for rising inflation, a process that occurs somewhat naturally when the economy is strengthening.

But one byproduct of increased interest rates is slower economic growth. Raising interest rates makes it more expensive to borrow money. Individuals would likely respond by borrowing less to finance large purchases like homes and cars. Businesses will also respond by borrowing less to finance new projects and growth. And while the unemployment rate has dropped, some still see weaknesses in the labor market that would have been helped by keeping interest rates at zero.

But the adjustment of interest rates (and other actions by the central bank that make up monetary policy) is just one of two tools that can be used to stimulate the economy. The other is fiscal policy, and it can come in the form of decreases in taxes or increases in government spending. The budget deal does just that by extending tax cuts and pausing tax increases, particularly the increases slated to occur as prescribed by the Affordable Care Act.  

The changes to Obamacare delay unpopular parts of the law, but popular parts are left in tact

Since the 2014 midterm elections, President Obama has faced a Congress fully in the control of Republicans. Many of these Republicans campaigned on repealing (and sometimes replacing) the ACA. The overthrow of former House Speaker John Boehner came in part because of little movement on conservative priorities like an ACA repeal. A new speaker amenable to the most conservative members of the House may have seen the first budget clash as an opportunity to pursue conservative goals.

But that isn’t what happened. Instead, the changes to the ACA actually placate groups that had some reasons to oppose the law but others to support it.

Principal among these are labor unions which lobbied heavily against the Cadillac Tax. The opposed the tax because one of the long-time perks of union membership has been lavish benefit plans, including expensive health insurance. The tax on high-priced health plans limited the compensation that unions could extract from employers. But members of labor unions are mostly Democrats, and removing the Cadillac Tax eliminates the one barrier members likely have to supporting the signature legislative achievement of the sitting Democratic president.

Another group with split loyalties is the medical device industry. Expanded coverage under the ACA allows more patients to access the devices and products manufactured and sold by the industry. That, in part, was enough of a rationale to ask the industry to pay a higher tax on their products. With the delay (and possible eventual repeal) of the medical device tax, the industry can now accept the new business without the added taxes.

Given the important role interest group politics play in Congressional policymaking, limiting the objections of key groups clears the path for broader political support for the ACA.

All this occurs while no harm is done to the existing mechanisms for providing health insurance coverage under Obamacare. Both Medicaid expansion and the health insurance marketplaces are still functioning, despite conservative objections. And funding for both of these is protected within general revenue.

Lessening the political pressure on Obamacare may even result in coverage gains through Medicaid expansion in conservative states previously reluctant to embrace the ACA.

It’s not all roses either

To be clear, there are parts of the deal that aren’t great for the ACA. The delay of the health insurance tax pauses the most direct policy tool the law has for encouraging people to sign up for health insurance. The delay may limit the number of healthier people who find insurance to be worth its cost and lower the overall health status of those who do purchase insurance.

This problem could be exacerbated by the provisions on risk corridors. Funding from the risk corridor program is meant to shield health insurance companies from the risks of insuring a new customer group by compensating them for higher than expected costs. Limits in the program have already led to the closures of many health insurance co-ops and could push out a major health insurer from the marketplace next year.

But given that Obama faces a Republican Congress made up of emboldened conservatives, a package of tax decreases, concessions to interest groups, and deficit spending may actually mean a mixed outcome for the ACA. In this environment, a mixed bag might be a win.

Crazy for Cruz

With Governor Jeb Bush floundering and Donald Trump leading the pack for the GOP nomination, many commentators have been fairly bullish on Senator Marco Rubio’s chances of winning the nomination. As oftentimes happens, commentators try to find patterns despite the chaos. In previous races, the contest has broken off into two lanes, one in which an establishment backed candidate consolidates support and in another, a more conservative candidate does.

Lately, more and more of the coverage has been predicting that GOP primary will eventually be a showdown between establishment-favorite Marco Rubio, and the self-proclaimed outsider Senator Ted Cruz, duking it out in their respective lanes. While the often-discussed logic in Rubio’s chances are mostly in relation to the weaknesses of the field surrounding him, these arguments fail to address the many potential roadblocks to Rubio’s consolidation of the GOP establishment. In contrast, the complex strategy of Ted Cruz’s advantages going into the race have been less explored and the strength of his opposition overestimated.

There are several political implications which suggest Cruz will be in a far better position to consolidate the Republican Party’s right wing than Rubio the establishment.

Early dropouts benefited Cruz

The Republican race suffered two early causalities that heavily benefited Cruz. Governor Rick Perry’s exit from the race significantly reduced the competition for Texas donors, which has likely contributed to Cruz’s strong fundraising numbers. Governor Scott Walker’s withdrawal freed up a lot of support among anti-establishment Republican voters. Cruz will benefit from these voters, who are angry at Beltway Republicans for overselling while under-delivering on their promises.

Ted Cruz is in the strongest position to consolidate conservative voters

Political and polling considerations aside, Ted Cruz is the strongest candidate to consolidate the conservative vote. Around 50% of the electorate claims to support candidates that have never been elected. However, while disillusioned voters are currently flirting with Donald Trump and Ben Carson, they are likely to move towards a more realistic candidate as Election Day draws closer. This trend can already be seen with Carson’s quick fall in the polls after being put under intense and completely justified scrutiny.

This, however, is no indication that Donald Trump or Ted Cruz supporters will wake up in February as Jeb Bush or Chris Christie supporters. This notion is supported by the research of Emory Professor Alan Abramowitz, whose book The Disappearing Center argues that “to be engaged is to be polarized.” These voters are engaged, they are angry, and they are unlikely to compromise.

This is where Cruz has the advantage of actual political experience over Trump and Carson. Cruz ran for office and in 2012 he won a very contentious statewide primary runoff in Texas fairly handedly with 56.8% of the vote. While he isn’t very popular among his fellow Senators, GOP voters love him. Cruz is an excellent speaker, has articulate policy positions, and while he will not woo many Democrats, he is a credible candidate.

Senator Cruz is in a good position to pick up Trump’s supporters since his rhetoric matches much of Trump’s on the issues that blue collar Republican voters care about. In a new NBC/WSJ poll, voters were asked if the race came down to Bush, Carson, Cruz, Rubio, and Trump, who would they vote for? Instead of two lanes, it appears three have emerged: the Establishment, the Evangelicals, and the Trump/Blue Collar voters. Over 50% of Trump’s voters do not attend church regularly or have college degrees. While it is impossible to know where their support will ultimately land, in the past these types of voters have leaned more towards candidates like Cruz than candidates like Bush and Rubio.

In contrast, Senator Rubio lacks this advantage. His biggest rival, fellow Floridian candidate Jeb Bush, shows no sign of leaving the race despite his remarkably poor performance. If his father’s 1980 performance is any indication, Jeb could remain in the race until as late as May. Besides Jeb, there are several very capable establishment alternatives to Rubio, namely the formidable Governors Christie and Kasich, who both could pick up steam in a narrowed field. This all goes to say that there is little chance for Rubio to successfully consolidate his wing of the GOP before New Hampshire, while that is not the case for Cruz in Iowa.

As Cruz himself recently suggested when explaining his strategy, “Gravity will bring both of those campaigns [Trump and Carson’s] down…I think the lion’s share of their supporters come to us”. In recent weeks, the race appears to have begun to move that way as Cruz has now become Trump’s biggest competitor in Iowa. Even if Cruz fails to win Iowa, he will likely finish in the top three. After Iowa, Cruz should also do well in South Carolina due to his organization and the high number of evangelical voters in the state. From there, Cruz would go into the Super Tuesday/SEC Primary with at least two strong performances, if not outright wins.

Cruz is likely to have another strong performance across the SEC primary because of its contentious nature, and because he can still pick up delegates from states that award them proportionally. Even if Cruz doesn’t win every contest, he can still gain a considerable advantage over his opponents in both the insider and anti-establishment track. As the natural arch-conservative choice, he can rally support while Bush and Rubio fight over Florida, which holds its primary 15 days later.  

It is critical for Cruz’s campaign to build enough support and delegates to become the frontrunner before March 15th because many of the primaries are in states in the Northeast and Midwest which are not only far less evangelical but also winner-take-all. With Cruz far less likely to win in those states, that rules change could serve as a firewall to his nomination.

Chaos Is A Ladder

The fractious nature of the GOP establishment benefits Cruz, who can focus on winning the far-right base without having to worry at this point about any attacks from an establishment rival. The Republican establishment’s failure to rally behind any one candidate, due to Bush’s weakness, Kasich’s liberal leanings, and Christie’s scandals, has left it in a position where it is unable to effectively counter the wave of anti-establishment fervor that is steadily becoming Cruz’s base of support. This allows Cruz to continue to make inroads among far-right voters, where a more unified GOP establishment would be in a better position to placate and co-opt those voters. This happened in 2012, when the establishment united behind the Romney campaign and he worked to de-legitimize outside contenders like Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and after a longer fight, Santorum.

Despite the media’s bullish attitude towards Senator Rubio, he lacks many of the distinct advantages that Cruz does and  worse, his team is blatantly ignoring critical field operations and seems to lack a coherent strategy to win. Rubio has at least three major competitors who show little sign of dropping off before New Hampshire, while Cruz’s main rivals, Trump and Carson, are likely to run out of steam as the primary season approaches. Cruz should be able to consolidate the conservative voter base, slowly becoming a more legitimate candidate, while Rubio still has to compete with Bush, Christie, and Kasich for establishment votes, endorsements, and fundraising dollars. While it is too early to say with certainty that Cruz has a lock, these advantages give him a real shot at winning the nomination. At the end of the day, it is not assured that Ted Cruz will be the Republican nominee, even less likely that he will be President, but everything points towards Cruz being the “outsider” alternative to whichever candidate ultimately emerges from the establishment.

How Policy Will Trip Up Outsiders Like Carson and Trump

Policy wonks often grumble about the negligible role policy plays in the election process. Events like debates and speeches do little to encourage candidates to talk in detail about their policy proposals or give voters the tools to judge which proposals are most effective.

The 2016 Republican primary may signify the low point of policy’s influence on elections. Ben Carson has called for repealing the Affordable Care Act because it is the worst thing to happen to Americans since slavery. Donald Trump has campaigned on solving the U.S. immigration crisis by building a wall on the Mexican border and insists that the Mexican government will pay for it because he can make great deals.

But while voters have yet to punish Carson or Trump for these outlandish proposals, policy is beginning to impact the race in more subtle ways. As the top two outsiders maintain their lead in the primary polls, journalists are beginning to question Carson and Trump’s policy positions in greater detail.

Both have struggled in describing how to implement their policy objectives, revealing their weakness as political outsiders with no experience in elected office. While not yet evident in the polls, these weaknesses are hurting the outsider’s fortunes in terms of electability as measured by party endorsements and prediction markets.

October’s Republican debate on CNBC focused extensively on economic issues which left the candidates vulnerable to criticism of their tax proposals. Trump and Carson were questioned about the mathematical difficulties in both lowering tax rates and lowering the federal deficit.

As scored, Trumps plan would increase the deficit by $10 – $12 trillion over the next decade (see here and here for different estimates). Carson’s proposal for a 10% flat tax is less detailed, but is estimated to increase the deficit by $3 trillion in the first year.

Trump responded to criticism of his tax plan in typical Trump fashion.

Carson answered by denying that that the rate would be 10% and offered vague nods to “strategically cutting”, “getting rid of all deductions and loopholes”, and stimulating the economy as ways to make up the funds lost by implementing the flat tax. When pressed by moderator Becky Quick that he’d have to cut 40% of government spending to make his plan budget neutral, he replied simply, “That’s not true”.

Carson has also struggled on the specifics of domestic and foreign policy. In one notable exchange about his health care proposals on Fox News Sunday, Carson said he had discarded a previous proposal that would have ended Medicare and Medicaid, two federal health programs for the elderly and the poor. He also stumbled in describing the funding mechanisms for his new proposal, leaving moderator Chris Wallace (and health wonks) thoroughly confused.

Policy fluency matters because it demonstrates how prepared and well-executed a campaign is. Effective campaigns employ policy as a weapon by proposing clear solutions and wrapping these solutions into the larger narrative of the campaign. When asked about his lack of executive experience during the 2008 election, surrogates for Barack Obama repeatedly cited the success of his campaign as evidence of his preparation for the White House. In turn, his campaign effectively pinned Hillary Clinton down on her vote for the Iraq war.

This plays itself out in primaries through the debates. Candidates use high profile events like these to build a perception of electability by outlining solutions that speak to the concerns of the primary electorate.

Research by Alan Abramowitz shows that voters judged 1988 primary candidates in part by their chance to win the general election. As the early primaries passed, voters judged candidate electability on their performance in states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Since campaigns now begin well before the first primary states vote, candidates will seek out debates as an opportunity to build this perception of electability.

Voters aren’t the only group that supports candidates that are perceived to be more electable. Primary elections are often prefaced by the “invisible primary”, which occurs when party elites endorse and raise money for their preferred candidates. This stage, where “the party decides, has typically favored insider candidates with extensive fundraising connections in the party. Outsider candidates, like Trump and Carson, struggle to compete in this phase of the campaign as shown by FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker.

Frequent poll watchers might note that Donald Trump and Ben Carson have dominated the polls in the early primary season and have garnered support from over half of Republican voters. While this is true, polls are not the most accurate judge of a candidate’s chances this early in the primary season.

The prediction market is another method that can be used to judge the electability of primary candidates. Unlike polls, participants in prediction markets wager about what they think will happen as opposed to their preference. This encourages betters to be realistic about the chances of each candidate and consider issues like electability. These measures move more reliably in response to major events like a presidential debate. After the CNBC debate, prediction markets favored Marco Rubio, who had a strong response to his rival Jeb Bush and more substantive answers to policy questions.

As the primary election heads towards the first votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, watch for candidates to differentiate themselves further on policy issues. The wonkier the debate gets, the more it disadvantages Trump and Carson.

See more on the debates from Vox:

The Role of the Market in Gun Control

Campus shootings have galvanized the nation in debate about whether gun regulation, even eradication, should be taken up by Congress or Executive action. As the Umpqua Community College shooting reinforced these insistent calls for added legislation, President Obama proclaimed that “prayers and thoughts are not enough. Yet, the current administration will not engage the matter and Obama’s track record shows why: President Obama’s policy machine creates markets and never destroys them.

Remember when people thought Obamacare would ruin the healthcare insurance industry? Thus far, the opposite has been true. The market model has exploded privatization and the growth rate of healthcare spending is expected to finish at 6.8%, a modest gain after the entire industry complied with the various provisions. This is certainly not an anomaly or a haphazard accident. In fact, while predictions by IBISWorld lower the margin rates for the industry by 5% over the next 5 years, for-profit healthcare companies are likely to increase revenue by 3% each year for the same five-year period, finishing the decade at $85262 billion. Both of these effects are results of compliance measures within the ACA.

In a similar vein, the legalization of gay marriage hasn’t hurt the economy either. The Supreme Court’s landmark decision upholding LGBT rights and allowing gay marriage created new markets for both retail and insurance. Same-sex couples are signing up for registries and shopping for insurance, activities which were not feasible in many states before the Supreme Court’s decision. Legalizing gay marriage was another simple move to expand the economic base within segments of the U.S. economy.

We all recall Cash for Clunkers, right? Americans may have ridiculed the policy and its simplistic-sounding title, but this policy instrument propped up the auto industry in its time of dire need. Analysis performed by the Brookings Institute dismissed the program’s benefits for the long-term, but acknowledged that the Cars Rebate Allowance System (CARS) program led to a 14 percent increase in auto sales for July 2009 and a 28 percent increase during August 2009, the terminal month for the rebate program. As a second goal, CARS was meant to direct people to more fuel-efficient automobiles; this required a new supply of these types of vehicles. In order to accomplish this supply turnover, many car dealers brought in the newer vehicles by scrapping the less fuel-efficient cars, thus reducing their taxable inventories. 

The Obama Administration’s Avoidance of Gun Control

Obama might not be touching gun control measures not because he is afraid of the NRA and its mammoth influence. He might not propose legislation not because he is unsure of the Constitutionality of such measures; the Commander in Chief knows the applications of our legal compact, and he is after all, a Constitutional lawyer. It doesn’t even come down to the avoidance of hotbed issues being a natural result of partisan election cycles and keeping control of the White House. The evidence above supports Obama’s quest to engage critical and controversial issues this year than run from them, much to the delight of supporters. The President needs to offset jobs lost from outsourcing and the best way to do that is to maintain the industries that are thriving and create new markets altogether.

The current US market for guns is booming, which good news for the economy overall. Gun manufacturing has doubled from its 2010 level of 5.65 million new guns made to 10.3 million in 2013, the latest for which there are industry reports. The Washington Times notes that even with more challenging gun laws, fears of personal security have led to record number of purchases and background checks, including California where the state processed a unprecedented 200,000 applications. However, stricter federally-guided background checks would ultimately frustrate the sales process, leaving some people to look to a black market for quicker access. If legislation went further and tried limiting supply, the ripple effect would likely lead to lost revenue as result of the emergence of an underground market for weapons.

Despite Umpqua, despite Virginia Tech, despite Columbine and despite the many other unrecognized shootings across the country, a solution that comes across the desk in the Oval Office may just have to stay in the drawer until the next administration. Instead of regulating guns, the President will choose to protect the market because regulating firearms would do more harm than good to the guns market and to the economy as a whole.

Image source: The Federalist

A Glance at America’s Incarceration Problem: Culprits, Costs and Responses

If someone asked you to name the place with the highest incarceration rate on Earth, what answer would you give? Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba? In fact, the United States outranks all of these authoritarian regimes in the number of citizens imprisoned per capita. According to an Amnesty International report, the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population, with over 2 million incarcerated citizens and an additional 5 million on probation or parole, despite a steady decrease in crime. The state of Louisiana imprisons more of its citizens per capita than anywhere in the world. Mass incarceration stems from a variety of sources and disproportionately affects minority communities. It also disenfranchises millions and costs American taxpayers billions of dollars, leading to numerous social and economic consequences. What’s behind the numbers of America’s drastic incarceration problem?


Infographic Source: ACLU 

Culprit #1: Severe Drug Laws

One of the largest contributors to mass incarceration in America is the government’s attempt to curb drug use by implementing a set of policies known collectively as the War On Drugs. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that three-strike laws and mandatory minimums resulting from the War On Drugs often mean severe sentences where individuals may face life in prison without parole for a drug possession charge. Despite the harsh consequences of these policies, drug use has not declined, but the number of those imprisoned dramatically increased.  Over half of prisoners at the federal level are incarcerated on drug offenses, most with no prior criminal record or violent offenses. The War On Drugs has cost the United States over $1 trillion and disproportionately targets minorities. Blacks and whites exhibit similar rates of drug use, yet black individuals are incarcerated on drug offenses 10 times more frequently than white individuals. The War On Drugs has failed to reduce drug usage and has fueled America’s mass incarceration crisis.

Culprit #2: The Privatization of Prisons

The privatization of American prisons has exacerbated mass incarceration. As the number of prisoners has risen, states have struggled to fund prisons and contracted prison services to corporations in an attempt to lower costs. As a result, the number of private prisons rose over 1600% between 1990 and 2009. Operators of private prisons profit from mass incarceration. According to The Sentencing Project, prison contractors have lobbied for policies that perpetuate mass incarceration by donating large sums of money to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a public policy organization that supports privatization and measures that result in longer prison sentences, such as three strike laws. Over 40% of state legislators belong to ALEC, evidence of its large influence in state politics. Through working with organizations like ALEC, private prison contractors have helped secure legislation that continues to imprison more Americans.

Culprit #3: America’s Lingering Debtors’ Prisons

A third contributor to mass incarceration is the existence of de facto debtors’ prisons. Many of America’s poorest citizens find themselves in jail due to their inability to pay fines such as traffic tickets and legal fees. A report published by the American Criminal Law Review says that although the Supreme Court set constitutional limitations to imprisonment for inability to pay fines, people still end up incarcerated due to legal loopholes. Some arrests occur not for failure to pay a fine per se, but for other violations stemming from the fee. For example, missing a court-ordered payment can result in an arrest warrant for being in contempt of court. Some states allow private debt companies to add surcharges to existing debts, making it more difficult for poor individuals to pay their fines. People who fail to pay fees often lose their jobs due to their incarceration, perpetuating the poverty cycle. These imprisonments disproportionately affect poor individuals and add to the increasing number of prisoners in America.

The Fiscal Costs of Mass Incarceration

Mass incarceration costs Americans staggering amounts of money. The Hamilton Project compiled a study about the costs of mass incarceration. The report found that the United States spends over $80 billion on corrections expenditures, quadruple the amount spent in 1980. Additionally, it costs $29,000 to house each federal inmate and each US resident paid an average of $260 towards corrections expenditures annually.

The Degradation of Families and Political Rights

The Hamilton Project study also discusses the social implications of mass incarceration. Incarceration has broken up countless families.  2.7 million children in the United States have a parent in prison. An African American child with a father who dropped out of high school has over a 50% chance of seeing their father incarcerated by age 14. In addition, juvenile incarceration decreases the likelihood of high school graduation by 13% and increases the likelihood of imprisonment as an adult by 22%. Racial disparities also exist in imprisonment, with 1 in 3 black men and 1 in 6 Latino men facing a lifetime likelihood of imprisonment compared to 1 in 17 white males. Finally, mass imprisonment causes disenfranchisement. Due to laws that prohibit felons from voting, 1 in 13 African Americans and 5.85 million Americans cannot vote. Mass incarceration bars millions, most frequently minorities, from the political system.

Washington’s Response

Politicians have begun to recognize the growing crisis of mass incarceration. In July, President Obama presented a speech to the NAACP stressing the importance of addressing mass incarceration to help minority communities and save American taxpayers billions of dollars. In addition, Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders along with three House of Representatives members introduced legislation to ban private prisons, acknowledging their contribution to mass incarceration. Lastly, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which seeks to reduce penalties for non-violent and first-time offenders, decrease minimum mandatory sentences, and provide opportunities to shorten sentences once in jail.

Lawmakers must pass both bills to address this pressing issue. It is unjust that millions of Americans, disproportionately minorities, suffer in prison under unfair sentences and lose their political rights while corporations profit from their imprisonment. Mass incarceration wastes billions of dollars, breaks families apart, perpetuates poverty, and entrenches institutionalized racism. Americans must press their lawmakers to solve this ever-growing problem.

Image source: The New Yorker

Can Paul Ryan Restore Order to the Budget Process?

After a tumultuous overthrow and a difficult search to find a replacement to fill what some have called the worst job in Washington, House Republicans have installed Paul Ryan as the new Speaker of the House. The House is certainly not an easy place to manage. Budgeting is Congress’ primary responsibility and in recent years, with increased regularity, they have missed key budget deadlines, resulting in routine budget crises. Case in point, every year since 2009, Congress has failed to meet their critical April 15th budget deadline for setting spending levels for the following fiscal year. This is due to the fact that Congress has been failing to follow the well-defined legislative process that was created to guide budget formulation. While Ryan has pledged to restore order to both the budgeting process and the general legislative process, he is up against a powerful trend and a difficult caucus.

In his acceptance speech, Paul Ryan said “we need to let every member contribute, not once they earn their stripes, but now.” He went on to say, “the committees should take the lead in drafting all major legislation: If you know the issue, you should write the bill. Let’s open up the process… we need to return to regular order.” Speaker Ryan is promising a more open process, but it will not be an easy task. While the far-right Freedom Caucus, leading Democrats, and even left-leaning institutions such as the Brookings Institute have argued that Regular Order is needed, both chambers have increasingly failed to follow it.

What is Regular Order?

As a child you may remember the Schoolhouse Rock video that taught you how a bill becomes a law. You can already hear the jingle in your head now, can’t you? Our friend Bill would work his way through Congressional committees and floor debates, patiently waiting and hoping to make it to the President’s desk to be signed and become law. That process our friend worked his way through is called “regular order.” In general, regular order is a loosely defined term, but when referring to Congressional budgeting, regular order is a highly structured timeline and process for deciding the budget for the federal government. The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 set this process in place by strengthening and centralizing Congress’ budget authority, creating the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), requiring the annual adoption of a concurrent resolution on the budget, and creating Budget Committees in both chambers. Ultimately, budget resolutions are ‘must-pass’ bills that both chambers must vote on to ensure the United States government has a budget framework and funds to operate.

A troubling trend has been occurring in recent years. Studies show that failure to follow regular order of the budget process is increasingly becoming the norm. When the budgeting process fails to follow regular order, Congress relies heavily on continuing resolutions (CRs). Occasionally, all federal spending for an entire year is provided through CRs. When appropriations bills do pass, they are often packaged together as major omnibus bills. Party leaders from both chambers and the White House negotiate these bills, thus circumventing the role of the respective appropriation committees and removing transparency from the process.

In December 2014, we saw something that the media referred to as the cromnibus, which was a combination of a long-term omnibus spending bills and a shorter-term continuing resolution. These omnibus bills have increasingly become prime opportunities to insert non-appropriation initiatives into must-pass legislation, leading to a further lack of transparency.

Congress’s dereliction of budgetary duty has become so bad that a full-blown government shutdown occurred in 2013 and potential shutdowns remain a constant threat. While Congress struggles to accomplish their basic budgetary responsibilities, longer-term structural issues- issues that cannot be resolved through CRs and omnibus bills- are pushed aside.

Regular Order: Easier Said Than Done

Even John Boehner, who was Speaker during the crisis-to-crisis governance of the past 5 years, agrees that the lack of regular order is a problem. Speaking about the most recent budget deal which the House passed on October 28 he said, “It stinks. This is not the way to run a railroad.” Boehner promised to restore regular order when he was elected speaker but consistently failed to do so.

So why do party leaders so often derail the process? For the sake of efficiency and political expediency. Increased polarization and the decline of decorum has given rise to tactics that aim to slow the workings of congress. Some members attempt to take the budget hostage in hopes of forcing a narrow issue; regular order allows those tactics to flourish.

Often times, party leadership wants to protect their vulnerable members by avoiding amendments that would force those members to choose between the party’s base and swing voters, or alienate a key constituency. Major budget bills can also be picked apart and used as fodder for negative campaign ads. Following regular order opens the process and allows interests groups to exert influence by leveraging their massive resources, putting pressure on members and pushing for policy outcomes and reducing the power of leadership. Simply put, following regular order allows a process to play out that gives power to minority parties, renegade members, and outside groups, and power can be a difficult thing to share.

While discussing why the most recent budget deal was a product of last minute negotiations instead of regular order, Boehner explained, “the alternative was a clean debt ceiling (bill) or default on our debt … and when we got to December 11, we would be facing another government shutdown…So when you look at the alternative, it starts to look a whole lot better. But I would hope that the process in the future would have a little more length to it and involve more members.”

So this begs the question, if Boehner could not clean up the process, how do we expect Paul Ryan to do so? There are a number of tough policy options out there. For the sake of the United States fiscal standing, let’s hope the new Speaker can figure it out.

Image source: Newsmax