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25 Ideas for Working Families in America

The Roosevelt Institution

Today's Dispatch is devoted to exploring some of the innovative policy ideas of the student-run think tank, The Roosevelt Institute - many of which can be implemented by state legislatures and local governments.

The Roosevelt Institution, founded in 2004, is a national network of student-run progressive think tanks. Their more than 70 campus chapters serve as a forum for research and discussion of policy issues, and are linked into the policy process through the help of the national organization. Given their distributed structure and young membership, the Roosevelt Institute is uniquely situated in the think tank arena.

Every summer the organization meets to select three current policy challenges as the focus for the coming year. Throughout the following year chapters research the year's policy challenges, meet with legislators and experts, and write policy proposals. Regional policy conferences meet, where students present their proposals and are judged by a panel of experts.

The year's best proposals are then collected and published as briefing memos in the Institute's three 25 Ideas volumes and released at the yearly Roosevelt Policy Expo. The 25 Ideas series is then distributed to legislators, members of Congress, advocacy groups, and local organizations. This year's policy challenges were:

 

  • Working Families in America

     

     

  • Increasing Socioeconomic Diversity in Higher Education

     

     

  • Solving the Energy Crisis

     

    In addition to their 25 Ideas series, the Roosevelt Institution publishes the Roosevelt Review, an annual journal of the best student policy research from around the country.

    From stagnant wages to the soaring price of health care and housing, working families in America are being left behind despite recent economic growth. Although the minimum wage recently rose and states are forwarding bold health care reform strategies, much still needs to be done to return the promise of America to the millions who have been left behind. As the editors of 25 Ideas for Working Families in America note:

    "Historically, work was the pillar upon which family life rested. However, with more single parent or two breadwinner households, longer hours, job insecurity, and limited health and retirement benefits, we believe that work has become an impediment to family life."

    25 Ideas for Working Families in America covers a range of issues, from the local to the national level, including:


    Predatory Payday Lending Reform

    The increase of financial stress on working families has only been compounded by the growth of so-called "payday lenders," predatory loan sharks who offer small short-term loans at extreme interest rates (up to 400%). The predatory loan industry has almost tripled in size since 2000, presenting a major threat to borrowers who often get stuck in an endless cycle of debt-inducing poverty.

    The Yale students writing for 25 Ideas examine states that have been both successful and unsuccessful in tackling predatory lending. They found that laws targeting specific loan lengths are easily circumvented, while universal APR caps have been effective, especially in conjunction with credit counseling services. Specific recommendations include:

     

  • Placing APR caps on all loans

     

     

  • Instituting "cooling off" periods between multiple loans

     

     

  • Capping loan rollovers at two

     


    Indexing the Minimum Wage

    As mentioned before, rising household costs, inflation, and a stagnant minimum wage have placed America's working families in a bind. The federal minimum wage was recently increased, but only by 70 cents above the 1997 level, bringing the matching yearly salary to just over $12,000.

    Thankfully a number of states have taken the lead in guaranteeing better wages to their residents. In fact, 34 states have raised their minimum wages above the previous federal rate. However, such increases gradually lose effectiveness as inflation grows. Some forward thinking states have tackled the problem by indexing their minimum wage to inflation. By indexing the rate to inflation, wages keep their real value over time and necessary increases are insulated from political interference. Indexing has already passed in Florida, Vermont, Washington, and Oregon, and has shown evidence of positively impacting the local economy.


    State Earned Income Tax Credits

    Although wage increases seem to be moving at both the state and federal level, low income workers are still badly in need of financial assistance. Since 1975, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has been used to combat poverty while rewarding work for low wage earners. Those earning below a certain threshold are given a credit on their taxes. This credit is refundable, meaning that particularly low earners pay no income tax or receive a refund.

    Already, numerous states and a handful of municipalities have instituted their own EITCs. 25 Ideas lists some key steps states can take to increase the effectiveness of their Earned Income Tax Credits:

     

  • Make refundable any EITCs that are not already

     

     

  • Expand qualification criteria in reflect larger families

     

     

  • Raise income qualification levels

     

    25 Ideas for Increasing Socioeconomic Diversity in Higher Education

    From income inequalities to the navigation of arcane student aid bureaucracies, America's educational system, especially higher education, does not deliver the promise of an equal chance to advance. Even among high testing high school students, social, cultural, and economic obstacles make higher education unattainable.

    25 Ideas for Increasing Socioeconomic Diversity in Higher Education presents a breadth of policy solutions, from the school district to the federal government, on how to address the impediments to an accessible and affordable education. But as the editors themselves are the first to admit, "Simply put, there is no silver bullet." Here are a few of the ideas.


    Non-University Options for Post-Secondary Education

    While a high school diploma won't get you very far these days, a four year B.A. program is not always the right answer for everyone. For many students, local vocational, trade, and associate programs are more appropriate and significantly more affordable. Moreover, many schools also offer programs that transition interested students to four year institutions.

    However, stigmas on non-four-year programs have marginalized such institutions, especially when it comes to funding. By fully embracing alternative post-secondary schools, states can spread the promise of higher education in an affordable way that produces badly needed skilled workers. Important steps to supporting non-university options include:

     

  • Developing relationships between university alternatives and K-12 schools

     

     

  • Sharing resources between university alternatives at four year schools

     

     

  • Promoting university alternatives as an integral part of a state's educational system

     


    In-State College Tuition for Undocumented Students (DREAM Act)

    The state of limbo in which undocumented workers live is only surpassed by that of their children. These students have grown up in the U.S. but have no legal status through no fault of their own. Such students who show promise ought to be afforded the opportunity of higher education available to their documented classmates. As Amherst student Raj Borsellino explains, the policy behind the DREAM Act is simple:

    "By qualifying all high school graduates in Iowa as in-state residents, despite their legal status, we can allow many more students to attend college and become productive members of society."

    California, Texas, and New York have already enacted versions of the DREAM Act. A similar bill passed the Iowa House but was delayed in the Senate, and a Connecticut version passed the legislature only to be vetoed by the Governor.

    25 Ideas for Solving the Energy Crisis

    In the last few years, the nation's energy system has come to the to the forefront of political and policy debates. Rising electricity and fuel rates, dependence on foreign oil, and the economic and environmental benefits of new green technologies have all contributed to the chorus of reasons to plan for our energy future.

    From local conservation efforts to federally funded research, America is finally waking from it's complacent slumber following the oil crisis. 25 Ideas for Solving the Energy Crisis explores some of the proposals for addressing energy in the 21st Century. As it's editors note:

    "The challenge is multidimensional and solutions must be implemented at different levels of government, on different time frames, on different scales, and in different regions."


    Decoupling

    The economics of traditional electric utilities has long been at odds with the societal goal of conservation. The production and distribution of more energy meant more profits. But recently enacted "decoupling" policies are an inexpensive and effective way to encourage conservation at the utility level.

    By replacing the traditional volume-based profit model with one that pays fixed costs plus a predetermined return on investment, utilities are given an incentive to increase efficiency. In California, this has stabilized risks to both consumers and producers, and the efficiency savings benefit both groups.

    For more on decoupling in the states, look for the Monday, September 10th Stateside Dispatch dedicated to the subject.


    Hybrids

    Efficient use of electricity and renewable generation address part of our energy problem, but any comprehensive approach must address automotive fuels. Cellulosic ethanol and fuel cell research are moving us in the right direction, but are not ready for commercial applications. As we transition from fossil fuels to the new energy economy we must take advantage of fuel-electric hybrids as a cost-effective and efficient stepping stone.

    Brandon Avrutin of Middleburg College suggests transitioning New York City taxis to hybrid models, though this proposal could easily apply to state, federal, rental, and other automotive fleets. In fact, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently introduced a hybrid taxi program as part of his PlaNYC environmental plan. Hybrid cars cut emissions in half and pay back the initial technology investment in gasoline savings. Since transportation accounts for almost 1/3 of total U.S. carbon emissions, implementation of hybrid fleets would make a significant impact in reducing overall emissions. Future efforts could:

     

  • Estimate future savings given rising gasoline prices

     

     

  • Negotiate bulk purchase discounts for hybridizing fleets

     

     

  • Factor in the social cost of carbon into fiscal estimates

     


    Energy Efficiency

    Along with increasing energy efficiency from the utility industry, consumer energy efficiency is the cheapest and easiest way to reduce stress on the environment and the nation's energy infrastructure. A number of the 25 ideas tackle consumer energy efficiency from a variety of angles, including:

     

  • Loans and bonds for upgrading schools and public buildings

     

     

  • Energy efficiency standards for new buildings

     

     

  • Education campaigns about residential energy efficiency