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Wednesday, November 25, 2020
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  • INDIANAPOLIS – There’s a lot going on right now. With COVID-19 cases rising even as schools attempt to reopen and Congress negotiates its next COVID-19 package, trying to keep up with the deluge of policy news feels like drinking from a firehose.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that financial regulators have chosen this moment to pave the way for predatory lenders to operate freely throughout the country. In late July, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) proposed a new rule that would allow predatory lenders to partner with banks to evade state interest rate limits. How will it work? Thanks to a 1970’s Supreme Court case, banks are able to export the interest rates of their home state. However, both regulators and courts have guarded against allowing this preemption to be “rented out” to predatory lenders seeking to evade state interest rate limits. The OCC’s new proposed rule, which declares the bank the “true lender” so long as it is named as the lender in the loan agreement, would enable predatory lenders to proliferate, charging triple-digit interest for loans that cause harmful debt cycles.
  • INDIANAPOLIS - On the other side of COVID-19 - whenever that may be - we want to see Hoosier families rebuilding their lives on firmer ground than before. That means more families with stable housing, quality jobs, and emergency savings. As we continue to face the pandemic and its fallout, we should be doing all we can to ensure that no family is left behind - meaning no-one goes hungry, becomes homeless, or suffers material hardship because of COVID-19. Yet here we stand on the brink of a precipice: The ongoing crisis has rendered our government’s original consensus aid package insufficient. Without further assistance, Hoosiers are going to suffer even greater harm from the spread of the virus and the recession. The House has passed numerous bills that would provide another wave of relief for working families; why has the Senate refused to respond to these proposals? Will our senators choose to take a big chunk of income from the more than 450,000 unemployed Hoosier workers and their families by refusing to extend the extra $600 in weekly unemployment payments before the end of July? Will our senators fail to close the loophole currently preventing more than 1.5 million workers from accessing the temporary paid sick or family leave established in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act?
  • INDIANAPOLIS  — Early on in “The Man with Two Brains,” Steve Martin’s character needs guidance. He stares up at a gilded portrait of his recently deceased wife, begging her for a sign. Amazingly, the portrait detaches from the wall and begins spinning, slowly at first, then faster, as a woman’s voice wails a definitive “NO!” over and over. The ground rumbles, light bulbs explode, and the plaster behind the painting cracks. Smoke appears. The spinning grows faster, and the voice louder and louder. “Just any kind of sign,” Steve Martin says, seeming totally unfazed by the bizarre and horrifying display. “I’ll be on the lookout for it. In the meantime, I’m going to put you in the closet.”  We appear to be witnessing a similar scene here in Indiana, as some in our state legislature appear unresponsive to the signs right in front of them. Earlier this month, the Legislative Council met to assign interim study topics. These study committees present an opportunity to reach clarity and consensus on where public policy is falling short and what can be done to improve it, or to revisit priority topics that could not be fully addressed in the context of the short session. This year’s selection of study topics has such glaring omissions, it almost seems as though there exists a willful refusal to acknowledge the data. Indiana’s abysmal preterm birth, infant mortality, and maternal mortality rates deserve attention. In fact, they have been a priority item on Gov. Holcomb’s agenda for years. They have sparked at least some legislative attention to how and where pregnant women receive health care and, more recently, to the workplace experiences of pregnant women. 

  • INDIANAPOLIS  —  It is perhaps unsurprising that John Krasinski’s brand new show, “Some Good News,” has risen in popularity with the same turbocharged upward trajectory as COVID-19 cases and unemployment filings. After all, at a time when day-to-day life seems filled with news generally ranging from devastating to disappointing, tuning in to watch police cars line the streets in a show of support for hospital workers, the original cast of “Hamilton” sing together on Zoom to soften the blow of someone’s long-awaited trip to the theater being canceled, or a neighborhood lineup to cheer a teenager’s recovery from cancer reminds us that humans can and do rise to meet moments of devastation and disappointment with incredible compassion. There are many extraordinary examples of communities coming together to recognize and assuage the impact of the sacrifices and uncertainty that challenge us during this difficult time. Perhaps even more inspiring are what in ordinary times are routine acts of going to work in hospitals, grocery stores, childcare facilities, distribution centers, and other institutions that have always been critical but now are actively proclaimed essential.
  • INDIANAPOLIS  — It’s inevitable.  Flu season comes around, and so do the standard recommendations: Wash your hands, and stay home if you develop symptoms. This year, health officials are doubling down on this advice as coronavirus cases emerge in the United States, including here in Indiana. That advice is much easier to follow if you have paid sick days. The United States is an outlier when it comes to paid leave. Nationally, policymakers have set no baseline standards for what employers should offer. And while some employers recognize that it is not to their benefit for sick employees to come to work for a variety of reasons – including that they are less productive and could infect fellow employees and clients – far too many still do not. According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data (2019), about one in four workers nationally, and as many as one in three workers in Indiana, do not earn paid sick days. Digging deeper, the statistics on who does and does not earn paid sick days becomes even more problematic. Fewer than half of workers in the lowest wage quartile – often, the people who care for children and the elderly, prepare food, or handle transactions at a cash register – lack the ability to earn paid sick days. When workers lack paid sick days, they are far more likely to go to work sick. In one Center for Disease Control study, nearly 60% of workers who prepare food reported going to work sick.
  • INDIANAPOLIS  — Parenting is full of memorable experiences: Your child’s first step, your child’s first words, the first time your child says, “I love you.” These are the moments that make all the hardships worth it, the things you dream about when you decide to become a parent. But another glorious parenting experience, one that you won’t see in any Hallmark-type show but one that many parents know too well, is the day you make your last childcare payment.  For many families in Indiana, childcare rivals housing for the top budget drainer. According to the Indiana Early Learning Advisory Committee dashboard, the parents of a preschooler in Indiana can expect to pay over $8,000 per year for high-quality childcare. Parents of infants pay even more, close to $12,000!  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers affordable childcare to be care that consumes no more than 7% of a household’s income. By that definition, the parents of an infant in Indiana would need to bring in $171,429 to “afford” high-quality care. Few households in Indiana meet that bar (around 8%, if we want to be more precise), especially early in their working lives, when, of course, they are more likely to have young children. 
  • INDIANAPOLIS — When I first met Aliyah, we commiserated about the transition to being a mother of two children. “I’m up all night with him,” she said, indicating the adorable, swaddled newborn lying beside me on the couch before turning to point at the four-year-old zipping around the room, “and then he gets up every morning at six, so I’m up with him in the morning.”  Motherhood is miraculous. It’s also not for the faint of heart. Neither is pregnancy. From the inappropriately named “morning” sickness that can strike at all hours and make it difficult to hold down food, to dizzy spells, to swollen ankles, to an alarmingly increasing chance of maternal death, pregnancy carries serious consequences and risks for women who endure it. As a state and as a nation, we have rightly turned our attention to policies that mitigate those risks. Gov. Holcomb and his team have prioritized reductions in maternal and infant mortality. This means paying more attention to how women, especially women of color, and their babies are treated. While it is great to see conversations about access to and the quality of health care women receive while pregnant, we are neglecting an important driver of poor health outcomes for pregnant women and their babies: Work.
  • INDIANAPOLIS – I thought the name rang a bell. Judge Kavanaugh wrote the decision in PHH Corp. v. CFPB, declaring the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) unconstitutional, a decision later reversed by the full D.C. Court of Appeals. Congress established the CFPB in the wake of the financial crisis to hold banks and other financial service providers accountable to American consumers, and it serves as both a rule-making body and enforcement agency.  Now that it has returned over $12 billion to student loan borrowers, homeowners, and credit card holders in its short lifetime, it has a number of enemies. Judge Kavanaugh appears to be among them. Following his nomination to the Supreme Court, I went back to read his decision. Kavanaugh is certainly no fan of the consumer watchdog agency, and his assertions about the agency should give us pause. Arguing that the CFPB’s power was “massive in scope,” Kavanaugh went on to argue that the director “possesses more unilateral authority – that is, authority to take action on one’s own, subject to no check – than…any other officer in any of the three branches of the U.S. Government, other than the President.” This is an ironic – and almost laughable – statement in the context of Kavanaugh’s exercise of judicial authority to overturn a CFPB enforcement action. 
  • INDIANAPOLIS –  It’s about time. 

    On July 11, the U.S. Senate Committee on Social Security, Pensions and Family Policy held a landmark hearing on paid family leave. This hearing was long overdue and extremely critical to working families’ health and economic security. The U.S. is one of the only developed countries that does not offer some form of paid leave for family caregiving or serious illness, and just 15% of working people in the U.S. have paid family leave through their employer. Here in Indiana, only 37% of working people have access to and can afford the unpaid leave provided under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.  This means that nearly one in four women in the United States return to their cubicles, factory floors, or storefronts within two weeks of giving birth. It means that seriously ill children are left alone in hospital beds while their parents feel compelled to remain at their desks or cash registers.
  • INDIANAPOLIS – We all want financial services that propel us toward our goals – a home, an education, a small business, a dignified retirement. But in today’s increasingly complex financial marketplaces, some companies exploit consumers, often denying their victims the opportunity to reach those goals, or even sending them backwards. Abuse and deception in financial marketplaces affects whole communities, not just individuals, and it should not take an advanced degree in finance to avoid the pitfalls, so it makes sense for consumers to have a watchdog. And they did, until recently. From 2011-2017, Hoosiers could depend on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Established in the wake of our still-recent financial collapse, the CFPB went after the banks, student loan servicers, debt collectors and others who took advantage of consumers. It recovered about $12 billion for consumers in principal reductions, cancelled debts or monetary compensation against unfair or deceptive lenders.
  • INDIANAPOLIS – In April, we learned that three Indiana localities have the dubious distinction of being in the top 20 U.S. cities with the highest eviction rates. The newly established Eviction Lab, spearheaded by “Evicted” author and researcher Matthew Desmond, tells us that Fort Wayne (13th), Indianapolis (14th) and South Bend (18th) see people pushed out of housing at higher rates than most cities. In Indianapolis, that equates to more than 30 households evicted per day. These statistics shine a spotlight on Indiana’s housing crisis and bust the myth of the Midwest’s affordability, at least for low-income families. Forty-two percent of renter households in Indiana are cost-burdened, defined as spending 30% or more of gross income on rent and utilities. Rent-burdened households are more likely to be evicted, have less to spend on other basic needs like food and medical care, and more frequently must rely on food assistance and other safety net programs. On the flip side, stable housing has a host of benefits, especially for children, who are less likely to be placed in foster care and switch schools less often.
  • INDIANAPOLIS  – On Sept. 14 last year, I eagerly awaited the release of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data. All summer, I had been researching the gender wage gap and looked forward to putting the finishing touches on the Institute’s report, “Wages, Wealth, & Poverty: Where Hoosier Women Stand and Ways our State Can Close the Gaps.”  My initial calculations that day came as a shock. Even as the nation saw a small narrowing of the gender wage gap, Indiana’s gap widened two percentage points from 24 to 26%, an annual difference of $12,717 between the median full-time male and female workers.  Attention to Indiana’s pay gap and the many high-profile “me too” announcements occurring around the same time led me to think that the 2018 legislative session might bring some positive policy changes for working women. And sadly, it didn’t – but not for lack of good bills.  A substantial portion of the gender wage gap cannot be explained away by occupation, experience, or education. Researchers suggest this reflects pay discrimination, and other states have taken steps to provide women with the tools to challenge these disparities. Retiring Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, once again filed a bill to help remedy pay discrimination by strengthening Indiana’s weak equal pay law. 
  • INDIANAPOLIS  – Despite a new poll showing that nearly nine in 10 Hoosiers want payday loan reform, the General Assembly had been pushing forward with new a predatory loan product. When the Indiana Institute for Working Families set its 2018 legislative agenda, we focused on modest and achievable policy solutions that would right the ship for Hoosier families who are underwater financially: Make sure pregnant women in physically-demanding jobs can continue to work safely, because many lack sick days or family leave. Take small steps to fix problems with our nutrition assistance and TANF programs. Get more kids into prekindergarten classrooms and adults into educational programs that lead to higher-paying jobs. Many of the bills we hoped to see advance never received a hearing have died. And Instead, there’s momentum on a different “solution” for struggling working families: bigger, longer payday loans. Indiana is one of several states that crafted a payday loan law in the early 2000s. Payday lenders were given a limited exemption from our criminal loansharking law to make two-week loans under the premise that these loans would be expensive to make due to their short-term, one-time nature. However, research is now clear: these loans, which top out at 391% APR, are almost never a two-week, emergencies-only deal.

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  • 65% of Hoosiers voted in November election
    “We continue to see that candidates and issues drive turnout. Presidential elections tend to have higher turnout rates. That held true this year with 65% of Hoosiers turning out to vote, the highest percentage we’ve seen since 1992.” - Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, releasing totals for the Nov. 3 election which saw 4.7 million Hoosiers vote. In 2016 and 2012, voter turnout was at 58%. In 2008, 62% of registered Hoosiers voted in the General Election. Hamilton and Wells Counties had the highest turnout in the state with 75% turnout, followed by Greene, Hancock, Whitley at 74%.
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  • Trump and Biden priorities

    With American pandemic deaths crossing the 250,000 threshold, President Trump made calls to Michigan local election officials and is inviting legislators to the White House, while President-elect Joe Biden was talking to stressed out front line medical workers. That explains their priorities. Trump is attempting to undermine the American election system, with a Reuters/Ipsos Poll showing that 68% of Republicans now believing the election was "rigged."

    There are Republicans beginning to speak up (though none from Indiana). “Having failed to make even a plausible case of widespread fraud or conspiracy before any court of law, the President has now resorted to overt pressure on state and local officials to subvert the will of the people and overturn the election," said Sen. Mitt Romney. "It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American President.” And Sen. Ben Sasse said, "President Trump lost Michigan by more than 100,000 votes, and the campaign and its allies have lost in or withdrawn from all five lawsuits in Michigan for being unable to produce any evidence. Wild press conferences erode public trust. We are a nation of laws, not tweets.” The damage to our most precious American cornerstone is stunning, disgusting and sad, and the whole world is watching. - Brian A. Howey, publisher

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