On Coates and neighborhood disadvantage

I have a new article over at The Week commenting on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s monumental essay “The Case for Reparations.” The idea behind my article is that by making such a compelling case for black reparations, Coates has the indirect effect of also shifting the Overton Window on other, tamer sorts of race-conscious policies. That is, by laying out the historical weight of disadvantage that might warrant reparation payments, Coates also strengthens the legitimacy of considering racial inequality when we craft new housing policy or education reform.

I just wanted to highlight one statistic that I reference in the piece. It comes from Coates’s essay, and is something that I’ve been trying to fully grasp because of how alarming it is. Coates cites research by the sociologist Patrick Sharkey that solidly black middle class families earning $100,000 per year live in the same kinds of neighborhoods as white families earning only $30,000.

Sharkey presented this research at an April conference hosted by the Economic Policy Institute on “Neighborhoods with Concentrated Poverty” (which Coates moderated). He first published it in a journal article called “Spatial Segmentation and the Black Middle Class.” The key insight lies in this graph (click to expand):

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 1.36.58 PM

This graph compares the average neighborhood and spatial disadvantage experienced by different racial income groups. Sharkey measures disadvantage based on certain neighborhood characteristics, such as welfare receipt, poverty, unemployment, number of female-headed households, and number of children under 18. (“Spatial disadvantage” is a measure of these same characteristics in surrounding neighborhoods.) A bar that lies above 0 means that that racial income group tends to live in neighborhoods that are more disadvantaged than the national average, while a bar that lies below 0 means that group tends to live in neighborhoods that are less disadvantaged than average.

Sharkey’s findings show that minority families at every income level tend to live in more disadvantaged neighborhoods than their white peers. Particularly noteworthy is the comparison between the highest earning black group (those earning above $100,000) and the lowest earning whites (those earning below $30,000). Whites earning below $30,000 nonetheless tend to live in neighborhoods with less disadvantage than average. Yet despite solidly middle class incomes, blacks earning at least $100,000 tend to live in neighborhoods with higher than average disadvantage. That is: on average, whites earning only $30,000 live in better neighborhoods than blacks earning $100,000.

The reasons for this troubling finding are unclear, but are certainly bound up in our history of discriminatory housing policy that Coates recalls. Regardless, Sharkey’s findings have important policy implications.

For instance, some propose shifting away from school admissions policies that consider students’ race to a policies that look at socioeconomic indicators like household income. I myself have written favorably of K-12 school desegregation plans like Berkeley’s that do something similar, by using other proxies beside an individual student’s race.

But if we look solely at household income, such policies would not capture the full extent of the disadvantage experienced by even high-earning black families. “Children in black middle-class neighborhoods often are raised in close proximity to areas where violence is concentrated, where schools are of poor quality, where gang activity is common, and where economic opportunities are sparse,” Sharkey explains (at 908-09). Because of this, “advances in economic status made by middle-class black parents are precarious, and the risk for downward social or economic mobility is high.”

It’s essential, therefore, that we also keep in mind the broader characteristics of our neighborhoods — the context that children are raised in and the disadvantage they experience therein. After all, redlining wasn’t mapped out one house at a time; it was crudely grafted around certain neighborhoods. That’s the perverse housing legacy that remains with us today.

Charter schools, regulation, and discipline

Frederick Hess and Michael McShane of the American Enterprise Institute have a column at USA Today warning that the freedom and dynamism of charter schools is under threat from mounting regulation. Despite many charters’ success in educating children from disadvantaged backgrounds, “creeping bureaucratization and regulation are endangering the entire charter school movement,” according to Hess and McShane. “[I]f this regulatory impulse is left unchecked,” they warn, “it’s all too possible that the high achieving charter school of today could become the failing public school of tomorrow.”

For their evidence, Hess and McShane point to long charter applications and admissions lottery regulations in Washington, D.C., and to required teacher evaluation metrics in several states. But they also point to regulations controlling charter schools’ disciplinary systems in New Orleans.

The disciplinary environment in charter schools is one of the most controversial elements of the education reform movement. To proponents of “no excuses” charters, strict discipline is essential to create a structured and secure environment. It’s necessary to signal to kids coming from communities rife with dysfunction that the school takes learning seriously and will not tolerate disruption.

To skeptics, however, the disciplinary control of these schools can be excessive, bordering on militant. They suggest that charter schools get away with disciplining low-income minority kids in ways that would never be tolerated in white middle-class schools. The Guardian‘s Dana Goldstein argues that

it’s difficult to imagine large numbers of middle-class parents ever accepting the disciplinary strategies popular at “no excuses” schools like KIPP: students marching through the hallways in military silence, required to sit with their limbs arranged just-so and with their eyes constantly locked on the teacher; and, in one KIPP school, isolating misbehaving children in a padded, windowless chamber the size of a walk-in closet, for up to 20 minutes at a time.

The disciplinary issue became particularly incendiary in New Orleans. Last fall, a student-led backlash against charter schools centered in part around overly strict disciplinary policies. Two of the schools at the heart of the protest had suspended over 60 percent of their students at some point during the previous year. Parents complained of an environment in these schools akin to a “military boot camp.” Aggrieved students filed a written petition raising issue with “detentions or suspensions for not walking on the taped lines in the hallway, for slouching, for not raising our hands in a straight line.”

New Orleans clearly had a serious problem on its hands. Action needed to be taken, and I doubt many of us would lament the loss of charters’ freedom to impose these sorts of draconian reprimands. Many of us, apparently, except Hess and McShane.

Why does this matter? It’s about more than just disciplinary proceedings. Rather, it implicates the very purpose of charter schools in our education system.

Traditionally, charter schools were pitched as a way for reformers with new ideas to try out novel educational methods in a small setting to see if they were fit for broader adoption by the public school system. As a recent New York Times article said, “A primary rationale for the creation of charter schools . . . was to develop test kitchens for practices that could be exported into the traditional schools.”

If charters are playing by a completely different set of rules from the rest of the education system, then it is hard to see how they make for a valuable test kitchen for what we can import into the rest of our schools. If charter school disciplinary systems are too strict for the public school system as a whole, then this just clouds the question of whether these schools’ success can be replicated in traditional public schools.

Hess and McShane, however, conceive of charters in a different way. “Charters were conceived as an alternative to underperforming public schools,” they write. “This allowed educators and entrepreneurs space to create new schools and new teaching models.”

This is undoubtedly true — charters are indeed an element of pluralist school choice to give parents more options. And they are meant to cater to fresh ideas and innovative models. But this is only part of the story. Hess and McShane leave out the part where charters are meant not just as alternatives to public schools, but to be testing ideas that can be scaled to the rest of the public school system. They are meant to be seeds that can spread, not just island alternatives.

According to the Times, the hope for an exchange of ideas across charters and district schools has, for the most part, proven elusive. A sense of competition between the two breeds of schooling has steadily heightened in the volatile education politics in New York. Many traditional public schools see a charter model that’s dependent on nonunionized teachers, extended school days and years, and strict discipline as having little in the way of workable solutions for the school system as a whole.

Yes, the mission for charters is to experiment with public education with the aid of relaxed regulation. But we must also identify what types of regulations we are willing to sacrifice and which ones we hold dear in order to give charters a worthwhile laboratory to operate in.

Discipline strikes me as a policy worth standardizing across schools. Sure, some charters might elect to have somewhat tougher disciplinary policies to approximate the rigor of a prep academy or a private school. But within reason, and within bounds set by public agencies. Discipline beyond the bounds of what we’d implement in our broader school communities weakens the value of charter schools. It skews their academic results by allowing for subtle or blatant push out of difficult students. But it also infects the integrity of the experiment, limiting our ability to bring the success of charters to scale.

Employer mandate madness

I’ve got a new post at The Week on the burgeoning case for repealing Obamacare’s employer mandate:

What Burwell and Sebelius failed to acknowledge is that the employer mandate is extraneous to ObamaCare’s insurance market reforms, while the individual mandate is essential to ensure the system doesn’t collapse under the weight of new enrollees who are sicker and older. The administration’s dirty little secret, in other words, is that the employer mandate just isn’t that important.

And opponents of the mandate got some new ammunition last week, in the form of a paper from researchers at the Urban Institute. The left-leaning policy organization said that the employer mandate shouldn’t merely be delayed — it should be killed altogether.

Read the rest here.

Two additional points piggy-backing off this piece:

1. Even if we wanted to retain a health insurance system, it’s not necessarily the case that the employer mandate will effectively encourage employers to provide insurance. In fact, the opposite might turn out to be true. Employers might treat the mandate penalty as a fee rather than a fine. Moral philosopher Michael Sandel illustrates the distinction between fines and fees through a daycare center that wanted to discourage parents from picking up their children late. The center began charging parents a penalty if they were late for pickup. Surprisingly, the daycare center saw late pickups actually increase. This is because the parents treated the penalty as if it were a fee—they could now pay for the right to pick up their children late.

If employers likewise treat the mandate penalty as a way to pay their fair share in order to avoid offering health insurance, then we might see more firms grow comfortable doing so—particularly if health insurance costs outpace the value of the penalty.

2. Even though the employer mandate is bad policy, repeal ultimately depends on (gasp) congressional action. Our legislative system, however, is severely broken around the issue of health care. Since 2009, Republicans have been committed to repealing Obamacare in totality, refusing to do anything that might improve the law for fear of weakening their case. Democrats steadfastly reject repeal. This all-or-nothing political dynamic has frozen the state of our health care regulatory regime, leaving administrative agencies to go it alone in tweaking the law within the bounds of reasonable statutory interpretation.

The Obama administration has had to rely on legally questionable administrative delays to avoid implementing the employer mandate. If the volatile politics around health care eventually subside (perhaps after the 2014 midterms), one would hope that the parties could build a legislative solution to the employer mandate, rather than defaulting to an executive one.

The Week: “Divide and conquer” and the deserving poor

Over at The Week, I have a piece on Republican candidate for the North Carolina Senate seat Thom Tillis’s “divide and conquer” comments and the lineage of our thinking about who deserves public assistance:

Last week, as Tillis was wrapping up the Republican primary, footage was discovered of remarks he made in 2011 about wanting to “divide and conquer the people who are on assistance.” [. . .] Some have compared this video to Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” blunder in 2012. But where Romney exploited fault lines between the supposed makers and takers, Tillis stoked a different social division: the deserving versus the non-deserving poor.

Check out the rest here.

New post at The Week: The real reason millennials should embrace ObamaCare

I forgot to link to my piece up at The Week on Wednesday on how young adults fair under health care reform:

Last week, while arguing that our political institutions in general are letting down young Americans, Catherine Rampell of The Washington Post pointed to ObamaCare’s requirement that “‘young invincibles’ who join the individual market must pay rates much higher than are actuarially fair to subsidize older, sicker, more expensive Americans.”

Elsewhere, the close monitoring of the number of young adults enrolling on the health exchanges has been a constant reminder of the law’s reliance on this group for financing. But is this really unfair to young Americans?

Read the rest here.

Why is health care especially special?

During the long march to reform health care in the United States, liberals often asserted that health care is a right – a universal good that all Americans are entitled to regardless of ability to pay. President Obama has even suggested that the Affordable Care Act implicitly creates such a right, telling a crowd last year that “In the United States, health care is not a privilege for the fortunate few, it is a right.”

This rhetoric was useful for catalyzing political momentum and elevating the liberal position based on moral urgency. Yet it might also be misleading. By invoking health care rights, health reformers are appealing to moral and philosophical rights – not legal ones found in our constitution or statutes. The Constitution has no explicit guarantee regarding health care, nor has the Supreme Court implied one. And though the Affordable Care Act may create a regulatory scheme that in effect provides guaranteed health coverage, nowhere does it claim to provide an affirmative right to health care generally.

Nonetheless, the right to health care rings true to many of us. Yet we don’t hear the same rights-based language invoked for other basic needs that are low-level prerequisites for a decent life. Why is health care special?

Consider Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs as a useful framework:

Maslow created a hierarchy of human needs ranging from the most basic to sustain life (physiological) to higher level needs to fulfill life (self-actualization). In the American tradition, Maslow’s hierarchy broadly tracks Jefferson’s general claim of rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “Life” and “liberty” are facilitated by protections of physiological and safety needs, while the “pursuit of happiness” reflects the attainment higher level needs.

To the extent that our Constitution enshrines any of these needs as rights, it does so only as negative rights – rights against the government. While we have constitutional rights against government interference in our morality or religion, our security of property, and sexual intimacy, we do not have positive constitutional rights guaranteeing us employment, food, water, or anything else.

So why have liberals asserted a positive right to health care specifically? Why not include other similar unrecognized rights like housing, food, clothing, or employment? Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares rights to food, clothing, housing and medical care. So too did President Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights.

One likely answer is that liberals do support positive rights to other similar needs. FDR’s New Deal vision remains the unfinished business of American liberals, intending to tick off his proposed social rights one political mobilization at a time. Under this piecemeal approach, health care now serves as a precedent, with food, shelter, and others to follow in the future.

But still, why do health care first? What is it about health care that makes it a good first step to expanding positive societal rights more broadly?

There are two apparent answers to this, but they each stem from the same principle: that health care is the easiest to accomplish. Health care is the lowest hanging fruit.

This may seem daunting given that health care reform took a century to achieve in the United States. But there are economic and political reasons to think that this is the case. In an influential 1994 paper, law professor Einer Elhauge argued that health care was unique among other would-be positive rights because it involved the least economic disruption to a market economy. Any positive right requires redistribution to those who would not be able to afford a good or service absent a societal guarantee. Elhauge argues that redistribution in the context of health care is less troublesome than redistribution against poverty generally because it creates less moral hazard. This is because we have non-economic, bodily incentives to avoid getting sick. “Individuals normally have no incentive to stay in a state of sickness (or get into one),” he writes (at 1487), “because no one wants to be sick, and because receiving medical care is not (for most of us) intrinsically enjoyable.”

Elhauge argues that the right to health care stems from the same moral intuition that supports rights to other basic needs, but that health care rights are the most feasible and pose the least risk of bad market incentives. As he puts it (at 1490-91): “[W]hat we experience as a strong moral sense that health care should be distributed without regard to ability to pay is, at root, the same moral sense we have that other needs should also be met equally and that other undeserved misfortunes should be compensated, but far less diluted by concerns about administrative problems and undermined productive incentives.”

Elhauge’s theory, then, is that health care is the easiest positive right because it does the least damage to capitalism. Some parts of his argument seem at odds with our experience. For one thing, there do seem to be a substantial number of Americans for whom consuming medical care is in fact “intrinsically enjoyable,” in the sense that they get psychic value from excess check-ups, tests, and clearances from doctors. This is part of what drives up our national health care spending. Yet on the whole, Elhauge’s theory of the unique instincts against over-consumption of medical care and against falling sick does effectively distinguish health care from other potential positive rights.

Beyond Elhauge’s economic case for health care exceptionalism, there is also a political explanation for why health care is most achievable. Unlike other would-be positive social rights, we all understand that a day will come where we will need medical care. Optimism bias may infect some of our thinking (hence the paternalist case for requiring Americans to hold health insurance), but for the most part, we know that someday we will get sick. The randomness of sickness cuts across all classes, creating a universal anxiety that animates health care rights for all.

The same cannot be said for other potential rights. Optimism bias is more entrenched in the middle-class assumption that they’ll never fall into poverty. Upward mobility has long been the American assumption. While economic inequality has dampened that spirit, class stagnation is still presumed, as few anticipate downward mobility. Therefore, most Americans place perhaps undue faith in the unlikeliness that they will face disadvantage like homelessness, hunger, or joblessness. Because of this, it becomes harder to marshal invested political will around these issues sufficient to elevate them to broadly recognized rights.

If universality is necessary for positive rights, perhaps that’s why the closest analogue to the right to health care that we see is the concept of a right to education. Education, like health care, is universally experienced by all Americans. While the federal constitution contains no guarantee of a right to a decent education, most state constitutions do. Moreover, we still see the idea that education is a civil right animating education reformers seeking to improve low-income schools.

This political argument for why health care rights are special can be read in two ways. First, we might see it as raw self-interest. The bulk of Americans will only mobilize around a positive right that they expect will effect their lives – that rights are only politically mainstream if they further middle-class interests. A second, more high-minded way of understanding this, however, is that on the issue of health care, Americans’ political determinations are closer to the Rawlsian veil of ignorance than they are on other issues. Because much of sickness is random falling beyond our control, capable of happening to any of us at any time, Americans more closely approximate a singular objective viewpoint – a uniform interest – when thinking about extending health care rights than they do elsewhere.

We know that liberals think that health care is a special good – something too important to be left to an unfettered market, something too essential to human life and dignity to deprive from those who cannot pay. But understanding why it’s special relative to other special goods both politically and economically is essential to the direction of the liberal social vision after health care reform.

The Burwell confirmation hearings: a dud or a grandstand?

With Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stepping aside, President Obama’s nominee to replace her – Sylvia Mathews Burwell – will soon be facing confirmation hearings before the Senate. First up is the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on Thursday, with a separate hearing before the Senate Finance Committee to be determined.

Many have presumed that Republican senators will seize Burwell’s confirmation hearings as an opportunity to relitigate Obamacare in all its glory. But Politico suggests otherwise, reporting that “[t]he proxy war over Obamacare that was expected to dominate the Senate in May is looking more and more like a dud.” Given the fairly the fairly positive reception that Burwell’s nomination has drawn from six GOP senators, perhaps the Burwell nomination is shaping up to be a lower key affair than we initially presumed.

But not so fast! Two days after the Politico story, Reuters hears from GOP strategists that “Republicans are relishing the chance to use confirmation hearings for Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Barack Obama’s nominee as U.S. health secretary, to re-energize their election-year attacks on his signature healthcare initiative.” According to the Reuters story, Republicans are looking to trip Burwell into a gaffe that could win the news cycle; to barrage her with mythical tales of “all of the Obamacare-related disasters”; and to generally cut some good footage for campaign TV ads this fall.

Despite being warned by their better angels, it seems that Republicans still just can’t quit the fantasy that Obamacare has been and will be a calamity. The Burwell hearings present too juicy an opportunity to air grievances and at least traffic in health care-related outrage. What supposed disasters will Burwell be confronted with? From Reuters: “Burwell will be grilled about tax penalties for individuals and businesses that fail to comply with the law’s coverage mandates, as well as the canceled insurance plans that Republicans say belie Obama’s pledge that people would be able to keep their health plans.” And for the sake of senior scaremongering, Burwell will also face questions about “Obamacare[‘s] . . . danger to Medicare benefits.”

So it will be all the old hits: the individual and employer mandates, “if you like your plan, you can keep it,” pulling the plug on granny, etc. Nonetheless, Burwell is widely expected to be easily confirmed. So what gives?

If the confirmation hearings turn out to be, as Politico expects, “a dud,” then maybe this is a sign that Republicans are shifting to reorganize their politics and reelection campaigns around something other than Obamacare. Given the bevy of good news about health care reform enrollment over the past months and mounting current and forthcoming controversies like Common Core, immigration, and climate change regulations, maybe Obamacare is fading as an incendiary central political issue. So if there’s little fire in the Burwell hearings, then maybe this is more evidence that the GOP is standing down against Obamacare.

But conservatives have invested too much time and effort assuring us otherwise – that they will continue to run against Obamacare and make it a central tenet of their very being. They have too much invested to change course now. That’s why I expect that Reuters probably has it right: that Republicans will be unable to resist an opportune vent session over health care reform on Thursday.

But perhaps conservatives are being led astray by all of their investment in fighting Obamacare. They’ve committed years to fighting the law as a brewing totalitarian disaster. Now that the law is proving to be anything but, they haven’t figured out how to course correct. If Republicans keep tying their hopes to a deflating anti-health care reform movement, then their midterm hopes might be skewed by the sunk cost fallacy – that future electoral strategy is being driven by an irrational attachment to past commitments.

The Burwell confirmation hearings are then likely to feature a lot of noise but little fury. She’ll almost certainly be confirmed, but will probably face a lot of soapbox questions – both actual and rhetorical – from Republican senators who have longed to interrogate an HHS official. But health care reform is now a real thing to a large class of people, providing real benefits and real value to their lives. The much-vaunted disasters forecast by the GOP have seldom (if ever) struck, so conservatives must now grope with fighting the law on its own honest terms.

As Jonathan Chait writes, Republicans yearn to “run the kind of obsessive health-care campaign they have longed for since 2010.” They will probably turn Burwell’s confirmation hearings into a grandstand. But if they’re wise, they might make it something else: a last stand.