Posted on July 9, 2013 by Pat Hartman
When contemplating the shabby treatment accorded to America’s veterans, the question is how far back to go. In 2008, Amanda Ruggeri reported for U.S. News & World Report on the shredder scandal, which began with an accidental discovery, when an employee of the Veterans Administration Inspector General’s office found discrepancies in Detroit.
Documents were in the shredder bin that should not have been. Death certificates had not been placed in the service members’ files. Compensation claim forms, and notices filed in disagreement of claim decisions, were also headed for destruction without any action having been taken on them.
At the time, there were 57 VA regional offices, and further investigation revealed that 41 of them had been shredding paperwork inappropriately — without its having been duplicated for the individual veterans’ files. And since the bins of papers intended for shredding are emptied once or twice per week, the 474 questioned documents found during the investigation represented only a small fraction of the potential suspected negligence.
At the time, the VA had a backlog of 800,000 claims waiting to be looked at, and the absence of one crucial document from any one of those files could result in a denial of compensation. Patrick Dunne, the VA Undersecretary for Benefits, told the press:
We can’t tolerate even one veteran’s piece of paper being missing. We’re taking action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Thanks to the efforts of Rep. Bob Filner, head of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, on March 3, 2009, there was a congressional hearing that involved two VA subcommittees — Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, and Oversight and Investigations. The title of the 104-page PDF report is: “Document Tampering and Mishandling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Joint Hearing.”
The result was not heartening. Boiled down to the essentials by a blog called Veteranclaims’s Blog, the goings-on at Veterans Affairs regional offices (VAROs) included 16,000 mishandled documents at a single regional office. The writer mentions, and then quotes, the congressional report regarding:
[…] the ‘Amnesty’ programs which the VA has been operating for at least two years, where they offer amnesty to employees that have removed evidence from veterans claims if they return that illegally removed evidence. ‘During an amnesty period in July 2007 at VARO Detroit, VARO employees turned in almost 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail including 700 claims and 2,700 medical records and/or pieces of medical information. The VARO determined that none of these claims or documents were in VBA information systems or associated claim files.’
The government’s press release outlining the results of the hearings also mentioned that over the previous 12 years, approximately 50,000 surviving spouses of veterans were denied benefits or, worse, billed for supposed overpayment of benefits by the Department of the Treasury, wanting its money back. All these were mistakes caused by the “VA’s mistaken interpretation of the law.”
If the government bureau in charge of these matters doesn’t even understand the rules under which it supposedly operates, how can anything work? No wonder vets have been waiting a year or more to hear about their claims, with the resulting problems leading to homelessness, or in too many cases, suicide.
More recent developments
A new documentary film, titled Duty, Honor, Country — BETRAYAL, was reviewed for NewsWithViews.com by attorney Rees Lloyd. A while back, House the Homeless mentioned the Los Angeles real estate ripoff, but according to filmmaker Bill Dumas, the scandal is a national disgrace. It’s all about “enhanced use” agreements or leases, which allow non-veteran business interests with good political connections to benefit from land that rightfully belongs to American veterans. Lloyd says:
These leases are for as long as 75 years, at prices far below market value, often nominal payments of ‘$1 a year,’ sometimes nothing at all. Worst of all: The Secretary of Veterans Affairs has the authority to give that land to the lessees entirely in the Secretary’s sole discretion, without Congressional action, if the Secretary decides the land is no longer needed for veterans.
This cozy arrangement has been blatantly exploited by people and organizations accused by the film. And in the case of the large tract of land in the middle of LA, it’s even more disgusting:
Many large dormitory-like buildings on the land which could be used for the homeless, are empty, unused, deteriorating because the VA refuses to maintain them, or build adequate new housing, or use the available land for temporary housing as new housing is built…
There are an estimated 20,000 homeless veterans in Los Angeles.
Source: “Military Veterans’ Benefit Claims Records Wrongly Headed for VA Shredders,” U.S. News & World Report, 10/31/08
Source: “VA gives amnesty to employees while Vets suffer,” Veteranclaims’s Blog, 03/06/09
Source: “New Film: VA “Betrays” Homeless Vets,” NewsWithViews.com, 05/14/13
Image by Bill Dumas.
Posted on June 11, 2013 by Pat Hartman
In Florida, at any given time, there are 10 or 12 homeless encampments in the general area of Tampa. The estimated 2,200 inhabitants include an estimated 170 veterans. Reporter Kevin Brady quotes Thomas Brown, who is an outreach coordinator for the organization Tampa Crossroads:
There’s a perception out there that homeless veterans are all drug addicts and alcoholics but that is not the way it is.
Brady also quotes a vet known as Ray, who returned from overseas to find that his second marriage had crumbled and he couldn’t get a job. Here is the part that pertains to suicide:
I volunteered for my second deployment for one reason: to die.
The InterAgency Council on Homelessness says there are more than 62,000 homeless veterans in the country. Depending on whose numbers you accept, between 13% and 25% of people experiencing homelessness in the America are veterans.
Whatever the percentage is now, the Veterans’ Affairs Office foresees that it will rise in the next four years, to where half the homeless will be vets. Among all known suicides, the VA guesses that about 22% of them are veterans. A lot of people are working on solutions to both the homelessness and the suicide rate.
Teresa Shumaker of the Mendocino Beacon interviewed the author of The Warrior’s Mantra, a book whose audience includes emergency services personnel. Roger Ruge is a former law enforcement officer who became a crisis intervention counselor. His method of teaching people to condition their minds and avoid post-traumatic stress involves positive affirmations and mantras.
Shumaker obtained this quotation from Ruge, about veteran suicides:
There is the stigma associated with [seeking help]. There is also this distrust and really long waiting period… Plus, [they] have the warrior mindset. The warrior mindset is, ‘I can take of myself.’ They don’t want to admit that there is a problem, because that is admitting there is a weakness… You have this culture of people who don’t want to seek help in the first place, and then a system that is broken, overwhelmed and can’t really help them… When you are having acute symptoms, you need help right now which is why the suicide rate is so high.
National Survey of Homeless Veterans
Interested parties can download a PDF report compiled by the National Survey of Homeless Veterans. The latest numbers available to work with were from 2011, so there will probably be an updated report soon. The 100,000 Homes campaign added up information gathered by volunteers in 47 communities, from more than 23,000 people experiencing homelessness.
They found that veterans tend to be older and to have been homeless longer than civilians. They are more likely to be sick, and more likely to have traumatic brain injury. This organic physical damage is different from, and may co-exist with, PTSD, which is psychological trauma.
The report compared the situations of homeless veterans who are hooked up with the system, and those who are not. Whatever help people are receiving doesn’t seem to make much difference in regard to their health, except that fewer homeless veterans have Hepatitis C than the non-veterans. The report says:
The data […] suggest that VA health benefits alone do not improve the health outcomes in question for veterans, nor do they help veterans escape homelessness more quickly.
Interestingly, there was no significant difference in length of time homeless between these two groups. Neither was there any significant difference in the health, jail, prison or other data…
Strangely, the report doesn’t contain the word “suicide.”
Source: “Missing In America – Homeless Veterans,” The Current, 05/30/13
Source: “Retired officer shares his knowledge on homelessness…,” The Mendocino Beacon, 05/23/13
Source: “National Survey of Homeless Veterans, ” 100khomes.org
Image by fullyreclined (don toye).
Posted on May 28, 2013 by Pat Hartman
“Wait, what?” — is one thing that you’re apt to exclaim, when you can’t believe what you just heard. For instance, on being told that it could take nearly two years for the VA to make a decision about treating her physical disability or psychological problem, a veteran might say, “Wait, what?” — and then probably a whole lot of rougher words.
Coming “back to the world,” a male veteran might learn that he is an expectant father, when that is a biological impossibility. A veteran of either sex might return to find that the promised sweetheart gave up on waiting, and hooked up with his or her best friend. Anybody can come back and face the grim reality that their step-parent got tired of storing their few possessions, and pitched everything — music, high school yearbooks, civilian clothes — in the dumpster.
Although the government is very optimistic about “transferable skills,” anecdotal evidence to the contrary seems to pop up all over the place. We previously mentioned Matt Farwell, whose 4.5 years of military service “provided plenty of skills with no legal application in the civilian world.”
Even with an eminently useful specialty, the returning vet may find protectionist policies that require training as if from the very beginning, in order to be certified. And whether veteran or not, many people these days have learned that a minimum-wage job does not provide a living wage.
The “Wait, what?” reaction kicks in frequently for returning veterans who discover a series of unpleasant surprises in a place that is not the America to which they dreamed of returning. Meanwhile, during all this turmoil, something else might be going on, as Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless suggests:
It is during that first year after discharge that the demons flood their minds and they relive over and over and over again the most horrific and unimaginable events of their lives.
If that isn’t enough to handle already, what if the person has a medical condition or an emotional breakdown? After initial contact with the VA system, the average wait, to resolve a first-time claim, is between 316 and 327 days. The latest figures finger Reno, NV, as the worst place, with an average time gap of 681 days. New York, at 642 days, is not far behind.
Normally, the things that tie a person to the world and prevent suicide are few and simple. A person wants to have the sense of belonging, and as if life has some purpose, or at the very least, to feel useful somehow. And the average person who isn’t a veteran probably avoids death and pain.
Now, the veteran. The average military member has formed very close ties to other members of the unit, especially in combat. Back in the USA, that sense of belonging is gone. Faced by unemployment or underemployment, especially if unable to find a place to live, a person is likely to feel useless. Live or die, it makes no difference to the world. And having gained a tolerance for pain and a close acquaintance with death, a person might lose inhibitions about those conditions. In a mental state like this, suicide looks like a viable alternative.
The real costs of war
Some are discarded and forgotten; some are simply beyond the point of being able to accept even the most generous and well-meaning help. Either way, veterans who take their own lives make up a big portion of the real cost of war, and it’s difficult to get a clear perception of just how many such lost souls there are. Turn the clock back five years, to a news item about the same bureaucrat who said “Suicide occurs just like cancer occurs”:
William Feeley, the Veterans Health Administration’s deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management, said in an April 9 deposition that VA did not have a metric to track suicides or attempts. He added that he could not recall a time since he took office in February 2006 when VA had conducted a quarterly review of suicides or attempts…
The VA started to focus on suicide prevention in 2007, but only through connection with its own hospitals and clinics. Statistics were not a huge concern. In 2010, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asked for cooperation from the governors of every state in getting suicide data on veterans outside the Veterans Administration health care system. Problems with access to data contained in the National Death Index needed straightening out. VA records needed to be melded with those of the Department of Defense, and there were yet more numbers to obtain from the Veterans Crisis Line and Suicide Behavior Reports. The project is underway, but as we will see next time, the system hasn’t caught up yet.
(To be continued…)
Source: “Back in the World — Homeless Veterans,” HouseTheHomeless.org, 05/14/13
Source: “Over 600,000 veterans caught in messy bureaucracy awaiting pending claims,” NYDailyNews.com, 05/07/13
Source: “VA Official Says veterans’ suicides not reflection of agency negligence,” GovExec.com, 05/05/08
Source: “Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program,” VA.cov, 2012
Image by weStreet (Werner Schutz).
Posted on May 21, 2013 by Pat Hartman
In The New York Times earlier this month, Tara Parker-Pope summarized the data on suicide in America, as compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, and also sought confirmation from an expert that the number of people taking their own lives is vastly underreported.
What we do know is that “More people now die of suicide than in car accidents.” The first question that comes to mind is, how can statisticians treat those categories as separate? Surely, a proportion of auto accident fatalities are deliberate and successful attempts at self-extinction. There must be an overlap.
Anyway, the suicide rate has risen most among the “baby boomer” generation. A CDC official theorized, “There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices…”
Interestingly, the demographic includes Vietnam veterans and the widows and bereaved girlfriends of Vietnam casualties. Maybe that is the “something” that makes a difference. And the most popular means of suicide, overall, is by gunshot. Active duty military personnel and veterans of all ages are more likely to have access to, and knowledge of, firearms than the general population. Just sayin’.
Speaking of bureaucrats, remember when William Feeley, who was at the time an undersecretary at the Veterans Administration, said:
Suicide occurs just like cancer occurs.
But negligence on the part of the bureaucracy? Never happens, according to him. Still, two veterans’ groups sued the VA, claiming that the Mental Health Strategic Plan, supposedly adopted in 2004, was never implemented. The VA failed to follow through on providing immediate help for vets with PTSD and/or suicide risk. Shockingly, the Justice Department ruled there is “no such expectation” of a suicide prevention program or anything like it.
In the same year, journalist Joshua E. S. Phillips recalled what the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study had found out about post-traumatic stress disorder. The inner conflicts and moral and spiritual trauma experienced by veterans is perhaps worst among those who took part in “abusive violence” — defined as “torturing, wounding, or killing hostages or POWs.” The psychological consequences can be more serious than those resulting from combat violence.
Phillips wrote that informational piece as background for an American RadioWorks project he collaborated on with Michael Montgomery, titled “What Killed Sergeant Gray.” The 23-year-old had been in Iraq for a year, and apparently wanted to return there. But for some reason, he was found dead in the barracks and the event was declared by the Army to be accidental; it happened because the young man was trying to get high off some toxic chemical.
Maybe so. But it is known that Adam Gray had things on his mind. He and a small group of soldiers had opened fire on an Iraqi family, killing one parent and a little girl, to make sure they were not planting any bombs. He had also participated in detainee abuse. So who knows. One thing is for sure, there are an awful lot of equally troubling individual histories.
Around the same time, there was plenty of public attention for the story of James Blake Miller, the so-called “Marlboro Marine,” made world-famous by the photojournalism of Luis Sinco. Miller’s troubled and problematic road back to some semblance of normalcy put a human face on the abstraction of PTSD for many Americans who had previously ignored the problem.
In other news, Bob Ireland, mental health policy program director for the Department of Defense, reassured the public:
… [F]or the person who’s suffering, if they’re coming to the edge of suicide […] they always have a choice to engage in what the real issues are or not. And the support for them is there…
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of vets found that, actually, support was not there. The Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth didn’t give up. In 2011, reporter Jason Leopold tells us, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared that:
… [Y]ears of ‘unchecked incompetence’ at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was directly responsible for an epidemic of suicides and lengthy delays in processing disability benefits for war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)… Internal VA memos that surfaced during the trial showed VA officials were aware of and attempted to cover-up the fact that 18 veterans per day took their own lives and more than 1,000 veterans had attempted suicide per month…
Two years ago, the federal government settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the family of an Iraq war veteran who hung himself in his parents’ basement in June 2005 after being turned away by doctors at a VA hospital in Massachusetts where he sought help for PTSD.
That one case alone drained the taxpayers of $350,000 plus litigation costs. Wouldn’t it have been more economical to just treat the guy? Now, multiply that by 18 known and admitted veteran suicides per day — all potentially courtroom fodder. And the money is the least of it. What about the lives?
The director of emergency psychiatry at one VA hospital, Dr. Marcus Nemuth, said in a deposition that:
[…] he expected a high volume of post-traumatic stress disorder cases among veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
That was more than six years ago. How come so few others, even now, have caught on to this obvious fact?
(To be continued…)
Source: “Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in U.S.,” The New York Times, 05/02/13
Source: “VA Official Says veterans’ suicides not reflection of agency negligence,” GovExec.com, 05/05/08
Source: “Inside the Mind of a Torturer,” PublicRadio.org, 10/18/08
Source: “What Killed Sergeant Gray,” PublicRadio.org, 01/10
Source: “Court Demands Mental Health Care Reform for Veterans,” Truth-Out.org, 05/13/11
Image by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo).
Posted on May 14, 2013 by Pat Hartman
The expression was born in Vietnam, a surreal place so different from accustomed reality that many American military personnel spent their whole tour of duty in a state of disorientation. “The world” was anyplace that wasn’t Vietnam, and they longed to return to it, only to find, once they got back, that the USA was even more impossible to cope with.
Things haven’t changed much. Veterans are 50% more likely to experience homelessness than Americans who were not in the armed forces. They tend to stay homeless longer than non-veterans , and are more likely to develop life-threatening medical conditions. They are also more likely to die on the streets.
William Jackson, of the National Association of Black Veterans, has mentioned another facet of the overall problem that is not often called to mind — the fact that many now-homeless vets were not full-time active duty military when they went to Iraq or Afghanistan:
A lot of National Guard soldiers were sent to this war. Many of them only had income from their drill checks before they went off to war. When they come back home, they still have nothing.
What they do have, in many cases, is post-traumatic stress disorder or mental illness.
Faces of Veteran Homelessness
University of Virginia undergraduate Matt Farwell is an accomplished writer whose account of being a 27-year-old homeless vet was published by The New York Times in October of 2011. His biography and resume don’t fit anybody’s stereotypical picture of a homeless guy, and during his time on the streets he kept up a successful facade. This is, in fact, one of the problems with any kind of official census of homeless veterans. One way or another, many of them fly under or above the radar. He writes:
Four and a half years in the Army, including 16 months as an infantryman in eastern Afghanistan, provided plenty of skills with no legal application in the civilian world. It was, however, wonderful preparation for being homeless.
He had lost two close friends in Afghanistan, along with his brother, who was also in the military. A comrade who had likely saved Farwell’s life died of an overdose a year after discharge. One of his former NCOs committed “suicide by cop” after returning stateside. Farwell himself lost his balance for a while, but formed a determination to be treated by a highly regarded VA Facility in California, and received the help he needed to get back on track. He says:
Memories […] helped keep me alive and sane amid the boredom, ennui, confused terror and brief moments of adrenaline-fueled elation of combat — a euphoric sense of zen-like calm and focus that’s better than any drug I’ve ever tried or heard about — but they’ve been doing their damnedest to kill me and my friends since we got back.
The top of Matt Farwell’s Twitter page says, “Turns out I’m not dead, despite what you heard.”
For more individual stories, please consult the documentary “Street Vets,” made by Issac Goeckeritz. One of the homeless vets he interviewed, Eugene Morris, told the filmmaker:
I was severely depressed, and I tried to wreck myself. I tried suicide, and I was addicted to drugs…
Morris was one of the lucky ones, fortunate enough to find First Step House in Salt Lake City, and to find within himself the resources to make use of the opportunity.
Young and Combat-Ready
During 2011, the overall number of homeless vets was said to drop by 7% or thereabouts, but the number of specifically Afghanistan war veterans more than doubled in that time period. Again, the Veterans Administration admitted that the number could be higher because not everyone reports in. For USA TODAY, Gregg Zoroya pointed out an attention-getting statistic concerning folks returned from Afghanistan and the other most recent war, Iraq. Around 70% have had combat exposure, as compared to somewhere around 20% to 30% amongst the total number of homeless veterans.
Psychologically, that can make a big difference. Even if it can be shown that the total number of homeless vets has decreased, the population includes a larger proportion of unstable and volatile personalities than ever before — belonging to relatively young people — which makes it even more essential to help them reintegrate into society. Because the alternatives are not attractive.
The President and the VA
Running for reelection, Barack Obama said:
When you take off the uniform, we will serve you as well as you’ve served us, because no one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job or a roof over their head or the care that they need when they come home.
Sounds good. Maybe there will come a day when vets no longer have to file class-action lawsuits against the Veterans Administration, to force the bureaucracy to stop ignoring post-traumatic stress disorder and brain trauma and the devastating long-term effects of Agent Orange.
A extraordinarily humane story by Kyle Martin for The Augusta Chronicle brought to light some of the daily struggles faced by veterans on the streets:
- Inability to escape the summer heat, which is exacerbated by some medications.
- The public library’s locked restrooms and habit of throwing out anyone caught asleep.
- The extreme difficulty of getting around, and defending oneself from attack, in a wheelchair, whether manual or electric.
- Walking or wheeling a chair to a soup kitchen can use up as many calories as the food provides.
- Meals often contain pork or other foods that those with restricted diets can’t eat, making a wasted trip and even more depletion of bodily strength.
- Additional danger from attackers who want to steal pills, which veterans lucky enough to receive some kind of treatment will probably be carrying.
- Long hold times when calling the VA hospital, using up precious phone minutes, and the difficulty of being notified about appointments without an address or phone.
One of the comments appended to Martin’s article castigated fellow veterans who have managed to get their lives back and feel free to criticize the homeless:
In combat we, I never left anyone behind but now that you are ‘back in the world’ it is ok for you to abandon your brothers in arms.
Source: “Veterans 50 Percent More Likely To Be Homeless, Study Shows,” The Huffington Post, 02/10/11
Source: “More Black War Veterans Ending Up Homeless,” BlackAmericaWeb.com, 11/11/10
Source: “Back Home, and Homeless,” The New York Times, 10/05/11
Source: “Unknown soldiers: Documentary follows Ogden’s homeless vets,” Standard.net, 01/30/11
Source: “Number of homeless veterans explodes,” USA TODAY, 07/26/11
Source: “Homeless in the Home of the Brave,” The Huffington Post, 09/14/12
Source: “Conditions dire for homeless veterans,” The Augusta Chronicle, 05/30/11
Image by EsotericSapience.
Posted on April 30, 2013 by Pat Hartman
What, you may ask, is depicted here? It’s an artwork called “Minimum Wage Machine, (Work in Progress),” a simple but elegant interactive demonstration by which anyone may comprehend the implications of those words. Here is the explanation provided by Blake Fall-Conroy, creator of the device:
The minimum wage machine allows anybody to work for minimum wage. Turning the crank will yield one penny every 4.97 seconds, for $7.25 an hour (NY state minimum wage). If the participant stops turning the crank, they stop receiving money.
Wow, virtual reality at its finest! What if one of these could be placed in the lobby of every office building in Washington and in the chambers of the House and the Senate? Wouldn’t it be instructive if every bureaucrat and elected official could have a taste of what (per the Bureau of Labor Statistics) 3.6 million at-or-below-federal-minimum workers experience every day?
We don’t see that happening any time soon, but in the meantime, here are some aspects and facets of the current struggle to raise the minimum wage in the United States.
How small business owners feel
The CBS MoneyWatch report on this question, written by Erik Sherman, states:
According to a poll of 500 small business owners conducted on behalf of Small Business Majority, an advocacy group, 67 percent of these firms favor boosting the minimum wage from the current rate of $7.25 an hour and adjusting it annually as the cost of living rises… Two-thirds also agreed with the following statement: ‘Increasing the minimum wage will help the economy because the people with the lowest incomes are the most likely to spend any pay increases buying necessities they could not afford before, which will boost sales at businesses.’
The poll, conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, also found that 85% of the surveyed small businesses already pay more than the federal minimum. So those who argue that while big corporations may not feel the hit, small businesses would suffer drastically, appear to be mistaken.
Giving a little background, the Associated Press notes that:
The minimum wage has become an issue since President Barack Obama proposed during his State of the Union address in February that the federal minimum be raised to $9 from $7.25 an hour. Democrats in Congress introduced a bill to raise the minimum to $10.10 an hour in March, but it was rejected by the House.
The survey, commissioned by a group called Small Business Majority, was carried out in early March, a month after the President had addressed the question.
And what about those tips?
For Bloomberg, journalist Jeanna Smialek interviewed an individual in a position to both speak from personal experience and to see the big picture. Gina Deluca quit being a food service industry server two years ago and started a blog called Wiser Waitress. It was an interstate relocation that changed her life. In California, even workers who got tips had to be guaranteed at least $6.75 per hour, even if their tips didn’t bring them up to that.
But when she moved to New Mexico, Deluca was shocked to learn that her wages could fall as low as $2.13 per hour — the federal minimum for workers who get tips. But wait, there’s more. Deluca says on the Wiser Waitress “About” page:
I found that there were many employers abusing the tip credit. Not only were they taking the tip credit, thus allowing them to pay servers a small tiny wage of $2.13, they were also requiring these servers to share tips with back of the house employees, sometimes the whole staff. And unfortunately , these employers were not the exception as I found the practice to be widespread and prevalent.
Legislation in Congress this year would raise the $2.13 base for the first time since 1991. The move would help many of American’s 2.3 million servers, advocates of an increase say, as well as manicurists, bellhops and other workers who rely on tips for much of their earnings. It could also spur firings and reduced hours as thin-margin businesses grapple with higher costs, say some restaurant owners and economists.
Worse and worse
Where have we heard that before? And get this: While the nation has changed from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, with more people than ever forced to settle for low-level, non-union employment, the situation for people in tipping jobs is much more severe than it has been in the recent past:
The cash base was 50 percent of the regular national minimum until 1996 legislation froze the lower rate at $2.13. It now amounts to 29 percent of the full minimum, which has been raised four times since.
Does raising the minimum wage cause some jobs to be eliminated because businesses just can’t afford to pay? Depends on whose survey results you look at. Please see Smialek’s article for more details, and last week’s House the Homeless blog post.
And, for an even better solution that could change the lives of millions of workers, please get acquainted with the Universal Living Wage.
Source: “Small businesses back minimum wage hike,” CBS News, 04/24/13
Source: “Small business owners support increase in federal minimum wage…,” The Washington Post, 04/23/13
Source: “Waitresses Stuck at $2.13 Hourly Minimum for 22 Years,” Bloomberg, 04/25/13
Image by Blake Fall-Conroy.
Posted on April 23, 2013 by Pat Hartman
MINIMUM WAGES (hourly):
- Fought for by President Franklin D. Roosevelt 1938 — 25 cents, which would be more than $4 now
- In 1974 — $2 per hour
- Now — $7.25
- Proposed by President Barack Obama in State of the Union Address — $9.00 per hour
- How much it would need to be, if equivalent in spending power to 1974 — $9.31 per hour
These are a few of the pertinent facts presented by Angelo Young for International Business Times, before going on to demolish several anti-minimum-wage arguments. He quotes Roosevelt’s 1938 speech:
Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, who has been turning his employees over to the Government relief rolls in order to preserve his company’s undistributed reserves, tell you […] that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry. Fortunately for business as a whole, and therefore for the nation, that type of executive is a rarity with whom most business executives heartily disagree.
Strong words! Young says:
It’s not likely that the debating points will change under Obama’s call to pass wage-increase legislation. His proposal to link the federal wage increase to the rising cost of living will definitely be met with Roosevelt’s ‘calamity-howling.’
What with one thing and another, the minimum wage topic did not, for a while, reside on the front burner of the national stove. That there should even be a minimum wage is still not an idea espoused by all, but as House the Homeless discussed last week, acceptance has made great strides.
It’s a debate that has been in progress for 75 years, and the last 39 years have been especially rough, cost-of-living-wise, Young says, and adds:
[…] [W]ages have not kept up with America’s cost of living, making it more difficult for the working, taxpaying bottom-bracket earners in this country to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps […] working Americans in lower income brackets who live paycheck to paycheck, where any fluctuation […] means much more than just canceling premium cable subscriptions.
To that list at the top of the page, we could add:
- Amount that Sen. Elizabeth Warren asks why workers are not paid — $22 per hour
Michael Rathbone explains:
Sen. Warren probably is referring to [a] study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research that showed what the minimum wage would be if it had kept up with increases in worker productivity… The study […] talks about average productivity. Average workers do not earn the minimum wage. This study does not track changes in the productivity of workers who make at or below the minimum wage. Isn’t it possible that the largest increases in productivity have been among more skilled employees who already earn above the minimum wage?
This is not exactly an anti-minimum-wage argument, but Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt has an interesting take on it. In The Huffington Post‘s capsulization of his recent Q&A session via Reddit, Levitt says:
Honestly, I don’t think the minimum wage matters all that much to the economy.
Why? Because relatively speaking, the number of minimum-wage workers is small, with about 5.2% of hourly workers making the minimum or below. The article notes:
Some studies have reinforced President Barack Obama’s argument that raising the minimum wage would boost the economy. Raising the minimum wage by $1 would give households comprised of minimum wage workers $2,800 per year more to spend, according to a 2011 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago cited by CNN.
There is a corny but true parable which has many versions. This one one was adapted by the Starfish Greathearts Foundation:
An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.
‘Young lady,’ he asked, ‘Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?’
‘The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.’
‘But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.’
The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying, ‘It made a difference for that one.’
It’s not accurate that only 5.2% of workers would benefit from a minimum-wage raise. There is more to it. But putting that aside, even if the lives of only 5.2% of workers were improved, like the starfish, it would make a difference for them.
Source: “State of the Union 2013: Obama Calls For $9 Minimum Wage,” International Business Times, 02/14/13
Source: “The $22 (An Hour) Question,” Show-Me Daily, 03/31/13
Source: “Freakonomics’ Steven Levitt: The Minimum Wage Doesn’t Matter ‘All That Much’ ,” The Huffington Post, 02/19/13
Source: “Sex Trafficking,” WomanStats, 10/17/12
Image by Barbara Ehrenreich
Posted on April 16, 2013 by Pat Hartman
“Consider the source” is usually said skeptically, and, of course, we always do consider it, whether skeptical or not. Here, the source is pretty impressive. It is The Economist, which Steve O’Keefe, writing for House the Homeless, described as “the house organ of the economics profession, the gold standard of consensus among economists.” He discussed an article about the minimum wage in which The Economist said, in effect, “Hey, if you do this, it increases everyone’s wealth, not just those earning the minimum wage,” and said it to the finance ministers of every country in the world.
What’s going on here? O’Keefe says:
Minimum-wage laws actually don’t reduce employment. In fact, they increase the welfare of minimum-wage workers and their employers. The Economist notes, ‘Not only has [the minimum wage] pushed up pay for the bottom 5% of workers, but it also seems to have boosted earnings further up the income scale — and thus reduced wage inequality.’
Like the Magna Carta and common law and other refinements of civilization, this study came from Great Britain, which O’Keefe says:
[…] introduced a national minimum-wage law in 1999. The British government requires a minimum wage equal to about 46% of median earnings — compared with a less generous 40% in the United States. When Great Britain instituted the national minimum wage ‘worries about potential damage to employment were widespread,’ says The Economist (itself a major worrier), ‘yet today the consensus is that Britain’s minimum wage has done little or no harm.’
In Austin, TX, the minimum wage question has been the subject of controversy. That is where House the Homeless is centered, and co-founder Richard R. Troxell was asked by Commissioner Judge Sam Boscoe to give his point of view. In an email that was circulated to all the Austin City Council members, Richard wrote:
The Fed has determined that based on a sophisticated formula that includes a two-year time lag (so as not to be distorted by new housing startups), that in the Austin Fair Market Rent Area, one can reasonably expect to pay $681 for an efficiency apartment and $834 for a one-bedroom apartment.
Apparently, in Austin, tenants would have to be making more than $16 per hour to meet the rest of their living expenses while renting a one-bedroom apartment. That’s barely enough space for a couple, or a parent and a child. In which case the parent would have to be working full-time and bringing in $16 an hour. Who makes that much? Or if it’s two adults, they both have to be working full-time for at least $8 an hour. Minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Austin was debating whether, in light of its intense downtown renewal efforts, it should mandate a minimum hourly wage of $11.
By combining existing governmental guidelines, we establish something called the Living Wage, which means enough to allegedly live on. And even those figures are based on the idea that nobody should be spending more than 30% of their income on housing. Many people are forced to spend a much larger percentage.
As head of the campaign for a Universal Living Wage, Richard tells the world that greater income at the bottom of the economic ladder leads to greater spending at the bottom, and boosts the whole economy. Companies benefit from stabilizing the economic situation of their employees, because turnover is expensive. Then there is the matter of lower government spending, when the lowest echelon of workers rely less on government subsidies.
Richard was also recently quoted in a Fortune CNN article by Eleanor Bloxham, CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance. The subject was the need for increased transparency in corporate dealings, for instance:
One such disclosure would be whether the company pays a living wage to all its employees — and if not, what percentage of workers don’t receive it.
Bloxham’s article went on to quote Richard about the Universal Living Wage. But let’s get back to another interesting thing about The Economist‘s breathtaking discovery, which isn’t such new news after all. Here is a quotation from Richard’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, which is available via Amazon, Nook, and Kindle:
Ben Bernanke, during his first month of serving as the newly appointed Federal Reserve Chairman, testified before the House Financial Services Committee. Congressman Bernie Sanders asked Mr. Bernanke if Congress should raise the Federal Minimum Wage…
Mr. Bernanke responded: ‘The concerns that some economists have raised about the minimum wage […] does it have any employment effects? That is, do higher wages lower employment of low-wage workers?’ […] Mr. Bernanke then definitively declared, ‘My response is that I think it doesn’t lower employment.’
Source: “Major Reversal: Economists Agree Minimum Wage Works!,” HousetheHomeless.org, 12/12/12
Source: “How to fix rampant CEO mistrust,” CNN.com, 03/14/13
Source: “The Argument in the Floor,” The Economist, 11/24/12
Image by Aidan Jones.
Posted on April 9, 2013 by Pat Hartman
Last June, this Question & Answer appeared in the online forum ExpertLaw.com:
Is it legal for an employer to deny employment to an individual who they consider otherwise qualified, if it is discovered that the individual currently lives in a homeless shelter?
Short answer: yes. Neither federal anti-discrimination laws nor most state anti-discrimination laws preclude disparate treatment/employment discrimination against individuals residing in a homeless shelter. (ESteele, Senior Member)
A few weeks ago, in Tupelo, MS, after months of job-hunting, Eunice Jasica found work and seemed to be on track for the next phase of life — saving up to move out of the Salvation Army lodge. But when she reported for her first day on the job, fast-food franchise owner Chesley Ruff withdrew the offer of employment “due to lack of residence and transportation.”
Say what? Then, a couple of days later, the manager backpedaled and said his refusal to honor the hire was really because Ms. Jasica had no experience in the difficult and demanding field of fast-food preparation. Plus, he doubted that the 59-year-old woman could lift the 40-pound boxes in which the food arrives. So never mind, no job after all.
Adding insult to injury, he implied that the job applicant had misunderstood and was delusional about having been hired in the first place. This shabby treatment is legal according to both the great state of Mississippi and the Kentucky Fried Chicken corporation. Reporter Emily Le Coz writes:
KFC operates more than 5,200 restaurants nationwide and follows all applicable employment laws, but its independent franchisees make their own hiring decisions, said KFC Corp. spokesman Rick Maynard.
Mississippi is an at-will employment state. That means the employer or employee can terminate the relationship at any time for any reason as long as it doesn’t violate anti-discrimination statutes based on factors like race, age, color, religion, sex, national origin or disability.
In Tupelo, Maj. Sue Dorman of the Salvation Army was shocked, possibly because this didn’t fit with Mr. Ruff’s customary behavior. He had previously hired a man who was not only homeless but a former convict, who had done very well in the business, and whose success story had been featured in a newspaper. The same manager had also hired other Salvation Army residents in the past. Dorman called Ruff, who told it is not company policy to hire people who don’t have stable housing or transportation, which made it sound more like a corporate-level matter.
And indeed, when The Huffington Post made inquiries, Ruff had nothing to say, but referred questions to the chicken vendor’s head of media relations, Rick Maynard, who emailed:
KFC Corporation believes in a culture of respect toward all people, and we abide by all applicable employment laws. The restaurant in Tupelo is operated by an independent franchisee who shares our beliefs, but is responsible for making hiring decisions for the restaurant he owns.
So this was starting to resemble what is colloquially called a runaround. Meanwhile, the Huffington Post story garnered well over 1,000 comments from all over the map, both geographically and philosophically. Typical is the response of “EarthMonkey07,” who wrote:
So now in order to even get a job, you can’t appear to need it in any way? You need to already be employed (since the statistics say they won’t hire you if you’re already unemployed), housed (since they won’t hire you without an address), with transportation (they won’t hire you if you don’t have a vehicle) AND have a bank account (because they won’t hire you if you can’t do direct deposit). This is getting crazy.
Exactly. And the craziness is not exclusive to the USA. A report from a prominent organization in Great Britain, St. Mungo’s, revealed that two out of three homeless job seekers had been rejected for employment because of their homeless condition. Half had found the lack of a mailing address to be an obstacle, and two out of three lacked the appropriate clothing, tools or equipment for the jobs they applied for. Universally, even those who are lucky (or adept at hiding their true circumstances) find that the low-paying jobs they land do not come near to providing enough for housing anyway.
The really imposing feature of the St. Mungo’s report was the contrast between 1986 figures, showing that 83% of the homeless people surveyed then had some kind of paid employment, and their 2005 numbers, which revealed only 5% of their homeless clients holding jobs.
Meanwhile, because of the publicity surrounding this debacle, Ms. Jasica received several other job offers and was “tentatively hired” by On Time Transportation to drive Medicare and Medicaid patients to their doctors’ appointments. While this promises a happy ending for her particular story, many other homeless people throughout the country are not so fortunate.
Not surprisingly, House the Homeless has been involved in this struggle for years. Its Homeless Employment Survey of 2007 inspired the state of California to conduct a similar survey in 2009. Here is House the Homeless co-founder Richard R. Troxell’s candid response to Eunice Jasica’s plight:
Very sad. I for one am outraged! So while the Puritan Work Ethic remains intact for someone who has lost all of their worldly possessions, the compassion, empathy and love for one’s fellow human being has dissipated like water on the sidewalk. Shame on that franchise and shame on KFC for allowing this act of inhumanity to occur in their name. It’s only a matter of time before people will no longer accept this kind of treatment. Then what? There are 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness again this year.
In the Sacramento survey, 70% of the respondents identified the reason for their homeless condition as economic, 87% wanted to work and felt they were able to, and 42% identified their homelessness as the most significant barrier to working. Lack of transportation, as always, plays a big part in the employment equation. One of the recommendations resulting from this survey was:
Expand mail, email and voicemail services: We recommend universal coverage of a mailing address, email and voicemail services for homeless people to dramatically increase their chances for employment.
This excellent idea is, of course, one of the things that objectors are currently complaining about. They are against any plans that are put forward to provide cell phones to the homeless, because why should street people get fancy technology for free? And so it goes…
Source: “Q & A,” ExpertLaw.com, 06/06/12
Source: “Woman fired for being homeless,” ClarionLedger,com, 03/21/13
Source: “Eunice Jasica Claims KFC Franchise Reneged Job Offer…,” The Huffington Post, 03/28/13
Source: “Hard Work for Homeless People,” samhsa.gov, 2005
Source: “Homeless Employment Report: Findings and Recommendations,” National Coalition for the Homeless, August 2009
Image by Joe Schlabotnik.
Posted on April 2, 2013 by Pat Hartman
To satisfy the federal requirement for the information that is needed to fairly distribute available funding, the people experiencing homelessness are counted every year. House the Homeless blog has taken an extended look at the “how” of the annual point-in-time count, which could be described as “different strokes for different folks.”
In a way, it’s good that communities can use different techniques, because if somebody discovers how to do it right, they can share that information. Just imagine, if one city could figure out how to correct the numerous flaws, and create a process that is humane, safe, dignified, and productive of justifiable results. If a community could demonstrate a good common-sense approach, their procedure would no doubt be gratefully adopted all across America.
In Texas, during the stipulated time period this January, 300 Austinites under the auspices of ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) fanned out to enumerate the unhoused. At the beginning of February, a newspaper report stated that the number of homeless people in Travis County had decreased by 39% since 2008.
For the Austin American-Statesman, Andrea Ball learned that in the field of homelessness alleviation, despite favorable statistics, workers “on the ground” are sometimes unable to discern much improvement. Many advocates, like Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, question the usefulness of the annual count, saying it’s a faulty measure. He pointed out that conditions on the appointed count day may vary wildly from one year to the next. Success is influenced not only by the meteorological weather but by the law enforcement climate, which may at any particular time “crack down” in ways that drive the chronic homeless further into hiding.
In the original reportage there was some confusion about daily and weekly figures relating to shelter admissions in Austin. Apparently, the total of homeless people, inside and outside, amounted to less than the number of people who use the inside shelter in a single day. Much depends on these numbers, we are reminded by Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless.
Richard was invited to share his thoughts with radio station KLBJ-FM, and in preparation wrote out his thoughts, some of which are rather caustic:
Excellent news! The number of people experiencing homelessness has been dramatically reduced in Austin by 39% since 2008! Or so you think if you believe the front page headlines in The Austin American Statesman. It is not until you read the 3rd page of the story that you learn that the 2012 count of the homeless (2,121) in the woods, streets, and shelters was less than the actual daily number of people served in the shelters alone (between 2,650 and 2,750 on a daily basis).
Richard also asks how much sense it makes to count people at dusk or in the dark of night. He also finds the 24-hour concept to be flawed, and fears that trying to get it done all in one day is counterproductive. He writes:
Why don’t we count them over a two week period? Because the federal government is afraid of a possible multiple survey responses by homeless folks. The same people might fill out the questionnaire more than once, and skew the numbers. For starters, this assumes that anybody is willing to do it more than once. Do we really think that homeless folks will rush to complete multiple forms? They probably don’t even like doing it once. And the result is, the numbers are skewed even more.
We could best count the folks experiencing homelessness by asking Willie Nelson to throw a bash. We’d get the city of Austin to cordon off a part of Zilker park, suspend the No Camping Ordinance and the No Sit/No Lie Ordinance, and hold a three-day love fest called ‘Everybody Counts.’ We could count and survey the homeless to our hearts’ content. We’d get the highest head count ever, and bring more federal dollars to Austin than ever before.
This homeless count process that has been used since 2000 has always been flawed, dangerous, and foolish. But now the flaw is glaring and staring us all in the face, on the front page of our paper, and on the Internet, and if you think HUD is going to accept these results then you have another think coming. On the other hand, if HUD does accept these results then we’re all in bigger trouble than I think.
With the federal government setting the minimum wage at $7.25 per hour, rendering more and more people homeless every day, do we really think we are decreasing the tsunami which is homelessness at the rate of 39% since 2008? How in the name of common sense is that possible?
The homeless community nationwide remembers advocate, activist, and hunger striker Mitch Snyder with great respect. In the face of controversy about the numbers he had cited, Snyder once remarked that the homeless can best be counted once they have been brought inside.
What could hasten that day? Please proceed to the Universal Living Wage…
Source: “Travis County Homelessness,” Statesman.com, 02/04/13