Who Counts? Whose Voice is Heard?

The Trump Administration’s recent request to add a citizenship question to the upcoming 2020 Decennial Census has revived a contentious debate concerning the rights and privileges of political voice and power in our democracy. This debate, and the ugly compromises embedded in our country’s founding documents, are often centered around a simple question: In a representative democracy, who counts, and whose voice is heard in the halls of Congress or in our state and local governments?

Though the current answer to this question is more inclusive since our founding, the intentions of this latest effort, particularly in the backdrop of rhetoric and a contentious debate surrounding the issue of immigration, should cause us to reflect seriously upon what values and principals will guide the future of our democracy.

All this points to the importance of having an accurate 2020 Decennial Census.

The significance of the results is hard to overstate: a comprehensive count of all the people in the U.S. portends a shakeup of political power and voice that affects every facet of our lives. Through a process known as apportionment, 435 seats in the House of Representative will be allocated across 50 states in time for the 2024 presidential and congressional elections (U.S. territories and the District of Columbia have a representative, but not an actual vote in Congress). Some states are aggressively pursuing strategies to avoid the loss of a congressional seat, while other states are eagerly and confidently anticipating one or more new seats.

The factors influencing the potential shakeup of congressional apportionment are complicated; they include recent natural disasters (e.g. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria), immigration and migration patterns, the lingering effects of the Great Recession and the housing crisis and, increasingly, the availability of jobs.

Defending its request to add a citizenship question to the Census, the Trump administration defends its efforts by suggesting it needs more data to properly enforce the Voting Rights Act; skeptics and immigration rights advocates suggest that the natural consequence will be lower response rates (leading to a more expensive survey) and heightened distrust and anxiety among both legal immigrants and undocumented populations. Most controversial, however, is the idea advanced by a small contingent of congresspersons that it would wholly exclude the count of undocumented residents for the purposes of apportionment—a debate that combines hardline immigration policy with a political calculus driven by an effort to curtail the influence of more urbanized and coastal communities that are home to substantial portions of immigrant and undocumented populations.

To tackle the complex intersection of issues that are core to the work we do at MDC, this post will serve as the first in a five-part series about the 2020 Census, and more broadly an examination of country’s history of who gets counted and whose voice is heard.

The five themes covered will include a Southern perspective on congressional representation (through apportionment) and political power, gerrymandering, immigration, and race. The final post will discuss how the continually eroding trust in our core institutions, like the Census, threatens to jeopardize community-driven efforts to build an inclusive and an equitable Infrastructure of Opportunity. In each of these pieces, we aspire to offer a positive vision for how the South can acknowledge its unique role as home to our country’s most painful history, and more importantly, how we can emerge as a region that is increasingly characterized by equity and opportunity for all.

In this first post, we’ll discuss the controversial origin of the South’s political power (e.g. congressional representation) and how the continued growth of the region portends considerable influence in shaping the country’s direction for decades to come.

How the institution of slavery propped up the South’s political power

In prioritizing the formation of a stable government over addressing the issue of slavery following the Revolutionary War, our country’s founders came to what is now commonly called the “Great Compromise.” To win over a powerful contingent of Southern representatives to the Constitutional Convention, our country’s founders created a bi-cameral legislature with a House, where membership was determined by state population, and a Senate that would have two representatives regardless of population.

Underlying this compromise, however are the origins of our country’s original sin—a twisted logic that counted slaves (as well as women) as persons for the purposes of congressional apportionment, without conferring the same rights or privileges as white men. The relevant section of the Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution reads:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. [italics added]

 The first census in 1790 was a count of the U.S. population by U.S. marshals who recorded the name of the head of household and the count of persons using only five categories: the number of free white males (under and over age 16), free white females, all other free persons, and slaves. The Census results produced the first clear portrait of the institution of slavery—a system of oppression and economic dependence that the South, which was home to the clear majority (78 percent) of slaves living in the U.S., was desperate to keep in place.

With only 65 House seats at play for apportionment, the region ended up securing 23 (or 35 percent) of the seats—a result that solidified a voting block that effectively rejected sustained efforts to dismantle the institution of slavery. It took another 73 years, with the election of President Abraham Lincoln, and the secession of Southern states from the Union, that ultimately led to the Civil War and the formal end to slavery. It required three Constitutional Amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments) to officially mark the end of slavery, craft a new definition of citizenship and equal protections under the law, and the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude (the voting franchise wasn’t guaranteed for nearly 100 years).

Even though the South would go on to lose more than 6 million African Americans during the Great Migration of 1910 to 1970, and the simultaneous rapid westward expansion and formation of new states, the region’s political representation in the House of Representatives never fell below 27 percent of the current chamber size of 435 representatives.

The South’s distinct and ugly history during the period of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era (and perhaps beyond) can be summarized by a struggle for the heart and soul of the region (often overtly violent, but also backed by a multiplicity of forms of de jure segregation) and its position on of equal rights and representation of African Americans and other oppressed populations.

The portrait of today’s South eloquently described by MDC’s Senior Fellow, Ferrel Guillory, as a place that “has a contradictory economy, polarized politics, an anxious populace, a divided head, and a conflicted heart” is precisely why the upcoming 2020 Census, and the resulting apportionment,  are an important benchmark for the region’s future. With substantial population growth since 1970 (accounting for 49 percent of the country’s population growth), the states of Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia have accounted for the net increase of 26 House seats since the 1913 reapportionment. Alternatively, the states of Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Kentucky accounted for a loss of 21 seats during the same period (South Carolina held constant at seven seats).

Projecting the impact of Congressional Apportionment on the South

Election Data Services, a political consulting firm, recently completed analysis of the specific states that are likely to be gain or lose seats through apportionment following the 2020 Census. Based upon their latest analysis, the South and West are estimated to add a net of four congressional seats, while the Midwest and Northeast are projected to lose a net of four and three seats, respectively. As shown on the map below, the core states of the Rust Belt (including the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Michigan) are all currently expected to lose at least one seat. Meanwhile, the Southern states of Florida (+2), North Carolina (+1), and Texas (+2-3) are all expected to gain seats..While unforeseen circumstances (legal challenges, natural disasters, and unreliable or suppressed counts) may still affect the outcome of the final Census count, and the state-by-state tallying of congressional seats following the 2020 Census, one reality seams all but certain – the South is going add seats to its congressional delegation. The big open question is what affect our polarized politics, and conflicted heads and hearts, will have on how the maps for new congressional districts are drawn.

With no shortage of challenging issues to tackle on the horizon, recent evidence suggests that the principals and practices (let alone the art and science) of crafting new congressional maps will either work to strengthen or harm the region’s ability to embody a place where all people can belong, thrive and contribute. In our next post, we’ll examine the process and history of drawing congressional maps and how these they can be used as a tool to better represent the diversity and character of the modern South.

Mad Men Marketing Tactics Compromise Our Best Anti-Poverty Program

If you’ve watched TV (or been exposed to any online advertising) in the last couple of months, you’ve almost certainly seen one of my favorite actors (and fellow Mizzou alumnus) John Hamm serve as the pitchman for a series of commercial spots promoting the tax services of H&R Block. April 15th is just around the corner!

Using slick advertising (explosions, zombies, and period-costumes) that will remind viewers of the hit TV show he is best known for, Mad Men, Hamm urges the viewer: “Don’t just get your taxes done, get your taxes won!”

Normally, I would give Hamm a pass on his role as a product pitchman; after all what celebrity hasn’t tried to benefit from their status? However, my years on MDC’s economic security team have brought me face-to-face with tax preparation business practices that prey on low-income working families by charging exorbitant fees. Those questionable fees and practices have taken a large bite out of one of our country’s largest anti-poverty programs: the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Quick primer on the Earned Income Tax Credit

The EITC is one of the few federal programs that have received bi-partisan support since its initial passage. Signed into law under President Ford, and expanded by Presidents Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama, the EITC has had a significant impact on reducing poverty. In fact, President Reagan referred to the EITC as “the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress.” Analysis by The Brookings Institution found that from 2009 to 2011, 2.2 million Southerners were kept out of poverty by the EITC alone.

For the 2016 tax year, as shown in the chart below from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a single parent with two children that has gross household income between roughly $14,000 and $18,000 may be eligible for the maximum credit of $5,572. Similarly, a married couple with two children and income between roughly $14,000 and $24,000 may be eligible for that same maximum credit. For families living paycheck-to-paycheck, the promise of a significant cash infusion from the EITC each year too often masks the effect of the cut that paid preparers take for their services. The magnitude of the tax refund dollars (driven primarily by the refundable EITC) that are diverted from our country’s low-income tax filers is astounding.

Source: Center for Budget and Policy Prorities

Source: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

 

Diverted Opportunity

In tax year 2014, 49 percent of North Carolina’s tax filers claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit used paid preparers. Using a conservative estimate for the average tax preparation fee of $200, over $91 million dollars were diverted from low-income households. Does $200 for tax preparation assistance sound egregious to you? Well, keep in mind that 60 percent of EITC-claiming tax households make less than $20,000 in adjusted gross income for the year. According to the NC Justice Center, the value of tax refunds diverted to paid preparers is equal to 85 percent of what the state of North Carolina spent on a state-based version of the EITC in 2014 before the General Assembly ended the program ($107 million).

While the tax preparation industry has shifted a good chunk of its advertisingeitc to its online products (which typically offer lower prices with fine-print caveats), brick and mortar stores are still where a large proportion of low-income households file their taxes. Most of the largest tax preparation firms operate a franchise model lending the weight of their corporate name to independent operators in communities across the country. These in-person locations typically charge consumers much higher rates to file their state and federal returns – and often charge extra for consumers claiming the EITC or to complete the necessary forms that to reconcile tax credits (financial assistance) received through the Affordable Care Act.

The high rates low-income households pay to meet their tax filing obligation isn’t the whole story. Consumer advocates have raised concerns about the lack of oversight and standards for the paid-preparer industry, but have not succeeded in securing protections against predatory practice. In testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance in 2014, Chi Chi Wu from the National Consumer Law Center noted that while CPAs, enrolled agents, and volunteers with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program must complete testing and operate under strict regulatory oversight, private preparers can open businesses and operate without licensing or regulation.

Liberty Tax Service, recognized by the chain’s prominent use of contractors dressed up like the Statue of Liberty roaming strip mall parking lots and busy street corners, promises prospective business owners that with a $40,000 franchise fee (and other associated start-up and operations costs) in as little as 60-90 days anyone can begin helping consumers file their most sensitive and important financial documents. Last year, an article by The Virginian-Pilot highlighted dozens of lawsuits and forced closures of franchise locations between 2014 and 2016. In at least one these cases, a franchise owner with 50 locations had his e-filing privileges suspended in connection to reports of widespread fraudulent returns.

Another prominent national chain, Jackson Hewitt, was the focus of a recent local news story out of Knoxville, TN where a local independent contractor purportedly charged a mother of two who only earns a little over $25,000 roughly $600 to prepare a simple two-page return. According to the statement from the corporate office, the error was simply a lack of communication with its franchise operators about the fee caps on preparation services.

 Strengthening our civic infrastructure for the low-income tax-filer

While the tax filing season is winding down, Southern communities should take the time to reflect on the important role that free tax preparation programs (both in-person and online) play in ensuring upward economic mobility for hard-working, low-income families. While large corporate tax-filing companies like H&R Block may have the most effective and beautifully crafted commercials (and John Hamm), they clearly don’t provide the best service for our region’s working poor. Instead, we should be looking to leaders in the South, like MDC’s Board Member Stephen Black of Impact America, that refuse to accept the current realities of the massive redistribution of the EITC to the paid preparer industry. In 2016, Mr. Black’s SaveFirst initiative supported a cadre of 675 IRS-certified student volunteers from universities across the South in completing nearly 16,000 tax returns and assisting clients in securing more than $20.4 million in tax refunds. Similar models of free tax preparation are offered by local volunteers (the majority of whom are retired CPAs) at VITA locations (the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program). For consumers that prefer the independence of filing their return online, there are free tax-filing programs like The Benefit Bank or free programs that are verified by your state’s department of revenue. While programs like VITA and The Benefit Bank may be lesser known, and have much smaller marketing budgets than their commercial counterparts, they are providing valuable high-quality assistance to the working households in your community striving to achieve economic mobility.

Overtime protections as a bridge to living-wage work

In our last blog post on the recently announced changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), we discussed the financial security that a full-time, salaried job with benefits offers to families. Far too many low- and moderate-income Southerners who work full-time, however, do not fully benefit from the increased security of predictable and limited hours. One of the big reasons for this gap is that, until the new changes go into place in December, the intended overtime protections under the FLSA allow some industries to take advantage of outdated regulations, paying poverty-level wages to full-time workers who consistently work above and beyond the 40-hour work week. With the current salary test for exempting an employee from overtime protections ($455 a week in earnings), a single adult with three children is below the poverty line, and well below what it takes to make ends meet.

According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, the groups most likely to benefit from the new overtime rules are predominantly women, workers under age 35, racial and ethnic minorities, and those with lower levels of educational attainment. Below, we examine the trends and current earnings gaps by gender, race, educational attainment, and occupations that are most likely to be affected by the new overtime rules.

FLSA changes in brief

The U.S. Department of Labor issued a final notice of rulemaking that will increase the share and number of workers eligible for overtime protections. Specifically, the ruling increased an outdated salary threshold used to determine eligibility for exemptions from overtime protections: the old threshold of $455 per week (last adjusted in 1975) was updated to a new threshold of $913 per week. The new salary threshold for an overtime-exemption will go into effect on December 1, 2016. In short, a portion of workers that make more than the $455 threshold and less than the $913 threshold will likely get an immediate wage bump. A large percentage of these workers live and work in the South  and are likely to benefit from greater financial security and work-life balance that enables the pursuit of additional postsecondary education or training to meet the requirements for the jobs of the future.

Who is likely to benefit from these new rules? And how does educational attainment factor in?

Women: The gap in median, full-time, salaried weekly earnings for men and women is closing, but the need for progress remains. In 1979, women’s median weekly wages were only 62 percent of their male counterparts; in 2014, that figure was 83 percent. While women now account for a greater proportion of workers in professional occupations, continued growth and representation in occupations that offer a living wage is necessary to close the gender wage gap.Who benefits from new FLSA rules?

Young Adults: Nearly 36 percent of the workforce directly benefiting from the new FLSA rules are in the 16-34 demographic. An even higher share of the group’s salaried workforce is projected to benefit than other age groups: 33 percent of 16-24 year olds and 29 percent of the 25-34 years.Salaried workers benefited from increase in overtime salary threshold

Adults with less than a college education: A postsecondary degree or credential has long been the strongest predictor of securing a full-time, salaried job in today’s modern economy—but when disaggregated by race and gender, the median weekly earnings for full-time salaried workers are either below or barely above the new threshold for blacks, Hispanics, and women. For workers with less than a bachelor’s degree, weekly earnings are well below the new $913 threshold, and for those with less than a high school diploma, right at the 1975 threshold of $455 per week.

Median usual weekly earnings, by educational attainment

As shown in the chart below, adults with some college or no college are disproportionately likely to benefit from the changes to the FLSA. Nearly 62 percent of directly affected workers have some college education or none, and the share of workers by educational attainment is highest among those with at least a high school education (38 percent).Distribution of workers directly affected by changes

Occupations: According to an analysis done by EPI, workers in a set of 13 occupations are most likely to directly benefit from the new changes to the FLSA. Leading the group are two white-collar categories: management, business, and financial occupations; and professional and related occupations. Also on the list is service-sector occupations—a segment of the Southern economy that is growing more rapidly than most.

 

Occupations that benefit from FLSA changes

A family-supporting wage is a critical element of the Infrastructure of Opportunity

Far too little of the South’s current workforce are earning family-supporting wages—a product of policies, funding, and systems that have continued to produce low educational attainment and employment opportunities in the region. The changes to the FLSA and overtime regulations are expected to largely benefit women, people of color, young adults, and those with lower levels of educational attainment. Changing how work is compensated in the South, however, is not a silver bullet for stalled economic mobility in the region. In order for the South to succeed economically, states and communities must prioritize the building blocks of an Infrastructure of Opportunity for their citizens. As the data above suggest, educational attainment is and always has been the best predictor of a family-supporting wage. For those workers who represent the working-poor, the new FLSA changes offer the potential for an immediate wage boost and the potential for the time and flexibility to pursue a valuable certificate or degree to take the next step in their career.

Overtime changes offer wage boost for Southerners

“No reasonable person seeks a complete uniformity in wages in every part of the United States; nor does any reasonable person seek an immediate and drastic change from the lowest pay to the highest pay. We are seeking, of course, only legislation to end starvation wages and intolerable hours…” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt, State of the Union Address, 3 January 1938

 

A full-time, salaried job with benefits has long been held as a marker of a young person’s path to adulthood. For many, a full-time, salaried job comes with the increased security of predictable hours, predictable pay, and the first building blocks of a career—one that offers family-supporting wages. For far too many, however, the laws on the books designed to place reasonable limits on the work week and preserve the value of a salaried wage have been compromised—effectively compromising a working adult’s ability to achieve economic resilience and fulfill a meaningful social and civic life outside of work.

Last month, the Department of Labor issued a final notice of rulemaking that makes broad changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to simplify existing regulations and increase the share and number of workers eligible for overtime protections. Specifically, the ruling increased an outdated salary threshold used to determine eligibility for overtime protections: the old threshold of $455 per week (last adjusted in 1975), was updated to a new threshold of $913 per week, which goes into effect December 1, 2016. Under the new rules, a salaried worker making less than the new threshold is eligible to be paid 150 percent of their base wage (time and a half) for work over the forty-hour full-time standard.

History of the FLSA

Originally passed in 1938 under the Roosevelt Administration, three of this country’s most important labor protections came out of the FLSA: tough restrictions designed to ban child labor; the minimum wage; and a set of overtime rules designed to curb the pervasiveness of work above and beyond a newly established 40-hour work week. As an accommodation to employers, however, the law provides certain “white collar” exemptions from overtime eligibility based on the salary an employee earns and the duties or job functions they perform.

Unfortunately, the original law left a number of critical terms and issues undefined, limiting its impact; for example, many industries and sectors of the economy were not covered during the first few decades. And without clear legislative language, the efforts to define job duties that met the exemption standards became increasingly difficult—especially as workplaces changed. Finally, with the significant inflation that occurred during the 20th century, the salary test became disconnected from any meaningful marker of wage strength, effectively allowing for the payment of poverty wages for a household of four (as shown on the chart below).

Impact for Workers

Previous research shows that the groups most likely to benefit from the changes are disproportionally women, workers under age 35, racial and ethnic minorities, and those with lower levels of educational attainment. The options available to employers responding to these new changes are nearly all positive, and will have the effect of increasing the overall economic security of low- and moderate-income households while providing more opportunities for a civic and social life outside of work:

  • Employers could offer an immediate wage boost for those full-time salaried workers making more than the old $455 threshold, but less than the $913 threshold.
  • Employers could reorganize labor that shifts responsibilities for work hours performed by overtime-eligible workers. Employees who remain under the threshold for the overtime exemption will now be compensated for their work above and beyond the 40-hour work-week at 150 percent of their normal wage.

Impact for Southern WorkersScott_SoS_Image_1

 

Usual weekly earnings of non-hourly, full-time workers by selected characteristics, fourth quarter 2015 averages.

 

Changes to the salary threshold for exempting workers from overtime projections have long been resisted—particularly by specific industries and in the South as a whole, where low wages have been a staple of the modern workforce. Even though the new salary represents only the 40th percentile for weekly wages in the South (a bit less than advocates were hoping for), many of the region’s workers will benefit both directly and indirectly from the new changes. Nearly 39 percent (or 4.8 million) of the newly covered workers under the new salary threshold reside in the South (See table below). While it is clear that the most populous states in the South will have the largest number of workers affected, it is notable that Arkansas, South Carolina, and West Virginia have the largest share of their current salaried workforce directly affected. Also notable among the list of states are Florida and Alabama, which represent a disproportionate amount of the increase in lawsuits under the FLSA since the early 1990s.

Scott_SoS_Image_3

Fair employment practices are a critical element to the Infrastructure of Opportunity

The updates to the FLSA’s overtime rules will ensure that the extraordinary efforts of lower-wage workers, who are often juggling the demands of a more active family life and have traditionally been excluded from traditional workplace benefits, can no longer easily be devalued in the marketplace. Moreover, the changes to the FLSA are also likely to have a net-positive impact on health outcomes—which have long been poor in the South. In a recent meta-analysis by the CDC, 16 of 22 studies addressing general health effects found that overtime was associated with poorer perceived general health, increased injury rates, more illnesses, or increased mortality. As communities evaluate their own Infrastructure of Opportunity, businesses and community leaders should take note of how laws and systems like the old overtime scheme have disproportionally benefited largely white and well-educated workers. Without addressing the legal and structural barriers in place for low-wage workers, the South will continue to have an underpaid and undervalued citizenry.

VITA Awareness Day marks one month until tax deadline

More than one million Southerners benefit from free tax prep assistance with VITA, commonly known as the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, and today is VITA Awareness day, as we are one month away from the tax filing deadline of April 15, 2016.

VITA is the nation’s largest volunteer free tax-preparation program. Each year volunteers from across the country mobilize to provide in-person assistance to low- and moderate-income tax filers in navigating our complicated tax code.

VITA preparers offer free tax help to people who generally make $54,000 or less, persons with disabilities, elderly, veterans, and limited English speaking taxpayers.

Each year, thousands of volunteers (many of whom are retired CPAs) gather at public libraries, community colleges, community centers, and local nonprofits to assist people—many who benefit greatly from claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit. The most recent data from the VITA program reveals that more than 1 million Southerners secure refunds of more than 1 billion dollars with roughly 30 percent of the refunds coming from the EITC.

Southern VITA Chart

Rates of Returns Completed by VITA

The VITA program and other free-file self-serve options like The Benefit Bank® save taxpayers money during tax time. The average fee for a paid professional tax payer is costly—with services targeted towards individuals least able to bear the cost.

In fact, a recent estimate in Durham, NC found average fee of about $200. Some firms go even further in offering predatory products marketed towards individuals who are in dire straits, and are willing to lower their overall refund in the hopes of getting their deposit just a few days earlier.

A conservative estimate (around $200 for the average cost of a return) would suggest that VITA saves low- and moderate-income Southern tax filers more than $208 million dollars a year in paid-preparer fees.

Not only is VITA saving taxpayers money, the program has also continuously demonstrated low error rates compared to many self- and paid-tax preparation services. For the relatively small investment (around $12 million went to 213 nonprofit organizations for the 2012 filing season) in the program, VITA preparers are providing a high quality resource to many of our country’s most marginalized citizens.

So today, give a big shout-out to your local VITA tax preparer—chances are you can find them at your local library—and share this information and resource with your family and friends.

 

This post written by Scott Edmonds, Program Manager for MDC. Scott primarily supports MDC’s employment security portfolio by providing project management, policy research, data analysis, and program design expertise for projects that seek to eliminate the underlying barriers to an individual or family’s success in securing postsecondary education and employment.