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VIDEO: Take Steps 2024 raises $200K for IBD Support and Research

The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation hosted Take Steps 2024, drawing the largest crowd in years, according to organizers. Individuals diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), their caregivers and healthcare professionals gathered to celebrate the latest fundraising achievements.

FreeHer protesters call on Biden to ‘Bring Moms Home’ from prisons and jails

The peaceful protest emphasized that this Mother’s Day, nearly 150,000 incarcerated mothers will not be able to celebrate because they are separated from their children.

In Photo: Anti-war group distributes free vegan food to combat poverty, hunger

The Washington chapter of Food Not Bombs distributes free vegan food every Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at McPherson Square.

Supreme Court takes up the case involving a BMW, a robbery and blown deadlines

The Supreme Court will determine whether it is “better late than never” after the government missed key deadlines ordering a criminal defendant to forfeit property.

Photos: Martin Luther King Jr. peace walk commemorates a legacy of equality and justice

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was honored in D.C. with a vibrant peace rally and parade featuring the annual MLK Peace Walk, which emphasized unity, social change, and a poignant call to end violence.

Video: A night at the Museum, in Washington

Video: A night at the Museum, in Washington

WASHINGTON — The National Gallery of Art opened up its doors last Thursday night for an evening of music and dancing. The theme of the event was "Sheroes," in celebration of women's history month.The event also offered a preview of the Smithsonian American Women's...

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Video: Drawing history, one sketch at a time

Ashburn, Va. — William Hennessy has worked  as a court artist for over 40 years. He began in 1982, covering the Senate before C-SPAN coverage began.

Currently, he covers the U.S. Supreme Court and has covered major historical moments, from Ketanji Brown Jackson’s appointment to the Court, to President Bill Clinton’s presidential impeachment. 

In the video below, Hennesssy describes his creative process and why he’s passionate about his work.

Watch the video report here:

Sanders, Braun press on railroads to guarantee 7 days of paid sick leave

WASHINGTON – Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) on Thursday demanded that railroad companies guarantee seven days of paid sick leave for their employees — something Sanders had on his agenda last Congress without much success.  

“We are here today to send a very strong message to the CEOs in the rail industry – and that is the American people are sick and tired of the type of corporate greed we are seeing in that industry,” Sanders said during a press conference Thursday inside the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee room. 

Late last year, Congress voted to intervene to avert a railroad strike amid worries of a supply chain disruption. The congressional intervention binds the unions and railroads to a contract brokered by the Biden administration in September 2022 that had some days off but was very restrictive. Several unions had rejected the contract because it did not include paid sick leave. 

Several union leaders joined the two senators in demanding this agreement from their companies. 

Doug Vanderjagt, vice president of East Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen shared the experiences of rail workers across America, which include grueling schedules including working on-call at all times with few personal days. When sick, workers must either use those leisure days, take unpaid time off and risk future disciplinary consequences, or go to work sick. 

“What they are asking for is not a rogue idea, they are asking for quality of life benefits that they have earned hundreds of times over,” Vanderjagt said. 

Sanders noted the industry made $22 billion this year in profits and spent $20 billion on stock buybacks and dividends. 

“In my view if the industry can afford to spend over $20 billion in stock buybacks and hand out huge dividends to their wealthy shareholders, they can afford to provide rail workers with at least seven paid sick days,” Sanders said. 

Two days ago, two unions were able to strike a deal with CSX, a major rail company, giving 5,000 workers 4 days of paid sick leave. 

Braun said issues like this should be “common sense” that the industry and unions decide itself through bargaining. 

“It looks like the industry may get this worked out and that’s ideally the way it should be done,” Braun said. “Collective bargaining is there for that reason,”

Sanders, however, is ready to take the issue to the Capitol yet again. 

In November, the House passed a proposal championed by Sanders to guarantee paid sick days but the bill was filibustered and ultimately failed in the Senate. The bill had the support of six Republicans including Braun. 

“I have news for executives in the rail industry, if they think those of us in Congress who voted for seven days of paid sick days for workers are going to forget about this issue,” Sanders said.

Sanders added that if the companies don’t make an agreement with unions to provide additional sick days, he plans to hold a Senate hearing as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to investigate.

Consumer advisory committee recommends government require prompt ticket refunds in wake of flight disruptions

WASHINGTON — A consumer group is recommending that the Department of Transportation require airlines and ticket agents to provide prompt refunds to travelers in the event of cancellations or significant delays. 

The Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee made the recommendation on Thursday as part of the department’s rulemaking process. This is its first meeting after breakdowns in airline transportation during the holiday season. Southwest Airlines faced the most notable backlash after a large winter storm disrupted its internal scheduling systems in late December, leading to more than 16,000 flight cancellations.  

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, the committee’s chair and state and local government representative, said recent events have reaffirmed the importance of the committee. 

“Complaints to my department about airline travel are at an all-time high,” Nessel said Thursday. “I’m just really hopeful that this committee has the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in terms of airline travel and the experience that consumers have because people are losing faith in the system.” 

No federal laws require airlines to compensate passengers for delayed flights or incidental expenses. Instead, individual airlines are in charge of creating their policies. 

ACPAC, however, recommended the DOT codify a policy that would ensure refunds if consumers did not accept alternative transportation. The committee was formed in 2012 after an act of Congress and is responsible for assessing, improving and expanding consumer protection programs. 

The latest recommendations define a canceled flight as one that the carrier did not operate after it was published in the Computer Reservation System. They define a significantly delayed flight as one that is more than three hours late for domestic flights and more than six hours late for international flights. 

Other notable recommendations the ACPAC approved include a standard for major ticket agents to refund credit card payments within seven days and all other types of payment within 20 days. It also recommended the DOT require airlines and ticket agents to issue non-expiring travel credits for some consumers who are unable to travel because of certain illnesses. 

The deputy general counsel of the industry group Airlines for America, Doug Mullen, abstained or voted against every recommendation except the one ensuring refunds. 

The DOT does not have to accept the committee’s recommendations. But Blane Workie, the assistant general counsel for DOT and the committee’s federal officer, said the committee would prioritize it because the committee included “significant stakeholders.” 

The ACPAC also provided guidance on transparency for baggage fees and change and cancellation fees. It considered recommendations from ticket agents, who said they should only have to provide consumers with fee information “upon request.” 

The committee’s consumer representative, John Breyault, who is also vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League, expressed concerns with this approach. He said most travelers are not aware of specific costs.  

“You may leave the consumer with an incorrect understanding of what the cost is going to be,” Breyault said. “That information particularly, on baggage fees, is not insignificant. We’re talking $35 per bag now on domestic itineraries.” 

Breyault also applied his reasoning to change and cancellation fees and said everyone is entitled to the same information, whether they call in person or try to book online. 

Mullen said the proposed changes would crowd ticketing sites with an overload of information.“Is that something that passengers are interested in? Is it something that people want?” Mullen asked.

He said he abstained from voting because he wanted to wait for more information.

The remaining three committee members agreed consumers should be prompted to disclose whether they plan to travel with bags before they buy tickets, and receive the baggage fee disclosures following their answer. They also agreed that airlines should display change and cancellation fees in a consistent fashion and that customers should not be able to opt out of seeing those fees. 

Lawmakers, advocates prepare to move forward with toxic exposure legislation

WASHINGTON –– When Jen Burch first returned from a tour in Afghanistan nearly a decade ago, she was seriously sick.

Her temperature was so high that it was flagged going through the airport en route to Okinawa, her home base at the time. When she arrived, she took a cab straight to the ER, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia and bronchitis. Since then, Burch has endured painful migraines, post-traumatic stress disorder and significant weight loss as a result of toxic exposure. 

“You know when you turn the car on and all the lights come on? That’s how I felt,” Burch said.

Toxic exposure occurs when military members are exposed to harmful chemicals and toxins while serving. For Burch, it was burn pits in Afghanistan. For Vietnam veterans, it was Agent Orange. For World War II veterans in Japan, it was radiation. Exposure to such toxins can cause wide-ranging, long-term health impacts. 

But the U.S. government has historically moved slowly to address such conditions. Following the Vietnam War, it took over a decade of advocacy and lawsuits to prompt the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to recognize the damaging effects of Agent Orange. 

Now, over 20 years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, granting benefits to toxic exposed veterans is gaining momentum. President Joe Biden addressed it during the State of the Union, announcing nine new medical conditions the VA will link to toxic exposure. Both the House and Senate have passed varying versions of toxic exposure legislation.

“For one of the first times, it feels like we’re being seen,” Burch, now an advocate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said. “It’s been a journey. I’ve been out of Afghanistan for 10 years now. But there’s other vets who have been out even longer, who have been battling this for much longer than I have, that have gone through some pretty tough hardships to get where they are. Unfortunately, some veterans have died.”

Differing Legislation

Many lawmakers and advocates alike want to get toxic exposure to the president’s desk. But the path forward is uncertain. The legislation passed by the House, the Honoring Our PACT Act, is markedly different from the legislation passed by the Senate, the Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans’ Act. 

The House version, the Honoring Our PACT Act, expands health care coverage for over three million veterans and draws presumptive connections between 23 different illnesses and toxic exposed service members. 

The Senate version, Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act, however, doesn’t link any medical conditions to toxic exposure, instead expanding the timeline for eligibility for VA health care to 10 years after service and training VA service providers to look for toxic exposure. The act is just one segment of a three-part legislative push, with plans to address connections between illness and service and expand benefits in the future. 

With two different bills, veterans’ advocates and lawmakers are divided on where to go from here. Rosie Torres, founder of the veterans’ advocacy organization Burn Pits 360, said the expanded eligibility in the Senate legislation doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s a delay tactic,” Torres said. “That delay, deny, wait until you die tactic on behalf of the government, just to say, ‘We won’t give you compensation and the burden of proof will still be on you, but here’s some more health care.’ We know that the onset of these conditions [can be] more than 10 years. It’s not always 10 years, it could be 20 years when these issues start to surface.” 

Burch called the House version the “most comprehensive” legislation Congress has ever created to address toxic exposure. She worries that the Senate’s idea of passing a three-part plan is not enough, saying breaking apart the legislation runs the risk that it might not pass in the future.

“You get the whole package there,” Burch said of the House version. “It’s not this cut-up part. [After] Vietnam, it took years, decades to get stuff passed and it would just be these tiny pieces. Instead of waiting decades and just slowly running smaller packages, let’s do it all now in one big one.”

Some leaders of the American Legion, however, said they would support either piece of toxic exposure legislation. Ralph Bozella, chairman of the American Legion’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission, said the two different acts don’t have to compete, saying he will be happy as long as toxic exposed veterans receive expanded health care.

Lawmakers Grapple

Now, it’s up to lawmakers to figure out which piece of legislation to move forward with.

The Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans’ Act passed unanimously in the Senate, while the Honoring Our PACT Act passed unanimously among House Democrats. The latter didn’t perform as well among House Republicans, however, only garnering 34 votes in favor.

For some Republicans, the price is a sticking point. The House version would cost $208 billion over the following decade, while the Senate version would cost less than $1 billion.

Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has frequently criticized the price tag of the House legislation. In a March 3 statement, Bost took issue with the House passing the Honoring Our PACT Act rather than taking up the Senate’s legislation. 

Instead, House Democrats’ shoved the deeply flawed policies and wildly expensive costs of the PACT Act through the House with no regard for finding common ground,” Bost wrote in the statement. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), however, condemned the idea that the cost should deter Congress from passing the House version. She said what the act will do for veterans should outweigh any price concerns. 

“This is a cost of war that we should recognize when we go,” Pelosi said in a March 2 press conference outside the Capitol.  “And that is – there should be no question. Because this is not going to be expensive, it’s going to be worth it.”

In a statement, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee said Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) has been working closely alongside Ranking Member Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and colleagues in the House to get “bipartisan, comprehensive toxic exposure legislation” through Congress as soon as possible. 

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Moving Forward

Regardless of which legislation veterans’ advocates support, many are at a consensus: they want greater acknowledgement of toxic exposure, and they want it signed into law soon.

Torres, a supporter of the House version, said she feels the bill has the support of the White House and President Biden, who spoke about expanding presumptions during the State of the Union. Now, one priority of hers is to change Republicans’ minds that the bill is “fiscally irresponsible.”

American Legion National Commander Paul Dillard noted that cost concerns remain a dividing factor. But his colleague Bozella said they remain heartened by the bipartisan support for toxic exposure. 

“This battle is not going to be a battle because it’s non-partisan,” Dillard said. “Both chambers [were] all jumping in, so I think we’re in the right direction.”

Burch, now over a decade removed from her service in Afghanistan, was heartened by the passage of the House legislation. But she’s not ready to let the momentum slow anytime soon.

“Now the push is there,” Burch said. “It lifts your spirits, and it’s like, ‘Okay, we got a victory. Let’s keep going.’”


WASHINGTON – A day after President Biden’s State of the Union, a Texas judge issued a temporary restraining order, blocking the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) from investigating two parents for providing gender-affirming health care to their 16-year-old transgender daughter.

The restraining order only applies to the Doe family and its lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU of Texas and Lambda Legal on Tuesday. However, District Judge Amy Clark Meachum will consider a request for a broader injunction next Friday. 

Advocates are encouraging at-risk families to seek legal assistance prior to any potential investigations.  

“This is a critical victory and important first step in stopping these egregious and illegal actions from Texas officials,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for trans justice with the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project, in a press release. “We are relieved for our plaintiffs and ready to keep fighting to stop the governor, commissioner, and DFPS from inflicting further harm on trans people and their families and communities across Texas.” 

After Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s call to consider gender-affirming health care for minors as child abuse under state law — and Gov. Greg Abbott’s public support of the opinion — parents supporting trans children were put at legal risk, with some even considering moving out of state. 

President Biden condemned anti-trans legislation in Texas and nationwide in a statement released on Wednesday. 

“Elected leaders in Texas have launched a cynical and dangerous campaign targeting transgender children and their parents,” Biden said. 

Abbott and Paxton’s push to consider parents’ provision of gender-affirming health care to minors is “government overreach at its worst,” the president added. 

“The Governor’s actions callously threaten to harm children and their families just to score political points. These actions are terrifying many families in Texas and beyond. And they must stop,” he said. 

Biden also referenced his State of the Union promise to always have transgender Americans’ backs, adding that he and the first lady “will continue to fight for a future where all children can thrive.”

Medill News Service spoke with Erin Reed, a trans right advocate and transgender woman, on what the above federal guidance and provision of resources mean for her community. Reed had previously told MNS that Biden’s remarks on “LGBTQ+ Americans” during the Tuesday address were hopeful but not enough.  

“This mobilization of federal resources feels like a breath of air in the middle of this experience where it feels like we’re just drowning in legislation targeted towards trans people,” Reed said. “There’s more morale now, and it seems like people are hopeful now.”  

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra called the current treatment of transgender Texans “discriminatory” and “unconscionable” and encouraged Texans to contact the Office for Civil Rights to report their experience if feeling unsafe or threatened. 

 “At HHS, we listen to medical experts and doctors, and they agree with us, that access to affirming care for transgender youth is essential and can be life-saving,” Becerra said. 

HHS has released guidance on how local governments can use state child welfare agencies to “advance safety and support for LGBTQI+ youth,” as well as guidance on illegality of denying health care based on gender identity, as well as restricting doctors and health care providers from providing medical assistance. 

“I definitely still don’t have any hope on legislation, on the Equality Act, anything like that,” Reed said. “Our best bet is through a mixture of state and local laws where these laws can be passed, and then executive branch guidance and support and mobilization of resources and enforcement of federal law in non-discrimination and constitutional protections that we have.”

More details and resources can be found in the HHS statement

Both the Texas and federal decisions come as a variety of advocates across the nation – including immigration and trans rights – demanded Congress and Biden actually take action, rather than reiterate promises of protection. 

“I want to see the follow through,” Reed said.

Health Action Conference Tackles Intersection Between Health Access and Racial Justice

WASHINGTON – A father slept by his sister’s side as she cried in the hospital after losing four of her limbs to unchecked diabetes.

The family didn’t have insurance, so they couldn’t have treated her condition earlier. 

Laura Guerra-Cardus witnessed their struggle first-hand as a med student in Texas. The experience pushed her to fight against the reasons why many Americans lack medical coverage and access to health care. 

“I was constantly struck by times when medicine could only provide bandaid solutions for problems with much deeper roots, like poverty and racial injustice,” said Guerra-Cardus.

Health advocates like Guerra Cardus, policy makers and activists from across the country gathered virtually on Tuesday to listen to panel conversations on the multifaceted issues that surround health and racial inequity, and to engage in workshops about social media activism, new technologies for campaign strategizing and lessons from the COVID-19 vaccine.

“COVID-19 has made it impossible to ignore everything that is wrong with this balkanized and still badly broken healthcare system, where people of color are the first to get sick, yet last to get access to care, and in the frontlines when it comes to discrimination,” said Frederick Isasi, executive director of Families USA, which hosts the conference.

Panelists noted how racial injustice, a large factor in health care inequity, encompasses many issues including reproductive rights, disability rights and housing security.

“You can see [it during the] pandemic, in which people with disabilities are seen as expendable and disposable, and that has everything to do with racism, eugenics and who is deemed worthy of survival and who is not,” said Ola Ojewumi, founder and director of Project ASCEND.

The problem of systemic racism becomes even more complicated with housing. The history behind the housing market and current practices of gentrification have been rooted in race-based discrimination, according to Sidney Betancourt, a housing advocacy organizer for the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“We know there’s been studies shown that depending on your zip code, that will be a determinant of your health outcomes later on in life,” Betancourt said.

The activists who should be leading the solutions to these problems, explained reproductive rights organizer Monica Simpson, are those who are people of color, who are disabled or who are themselves impacted because these populations have lived experience that can inform their work.

“People are understanding that we do not live single issue lives,” said Simpson, executive director at SisterSong. “Audre Lorde told us that. And now we’re seeing what that looks like in practice.”

As an example of how intersectionality can be applied to advocacy, Ojewumi pointed to the rallying of disability activists through social media. 

By connecting large groups online voicing similar concerns over the ableism of Center for Disease Control and Prevention policies, disability rights activists were able to sit down with the CDC director and discuss potential harms towards their high risk community.

With a growing need for affordable medical care and lowered prescription drug pricing, the benefits of Biden’s proposed Build Back Better bill were emphasized by several speakers including the president himself, in a pre-recorded keynote address.

“I’m sure what ultimately comes out of this Congress will not fulfill our hopes nor our needs, but we must secure all of the progress we can achieve when we can achieve it,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas).

During Tuesday’s closing remarks, Laura Guerra-Cardus received the award of Health Justice Advocate of the Year for her work as deputy director of the Children’s Defense Fund in Texas. She spoke on the health coverage gap and urged health advocates and activists at the conference to continue their fight to close it.

“What I know is that the pendulum doesn’t just swing back our way,” Guerra-Cardus said. “It’s not something we ride on passively when we are down. We don’t just sit, we organize. We build power and we pull the pendulum back towards justice.”

Video: Local businesses concerned about Sunday’s anti-vaccine-mandate rally

WASHINGTON – Sunday’s anti-vaccine-mandate rally at the National Mall has local business owners concerned, especially after posts on social media suggested some attendees plan to enter stores to challenge the District’s mandate. 

“It’s hard enough with regular folks sometimes just coming in not wanting to show their cards,” said Tony Tomelden, owner of The Pug, a local bar on H Street NE.  

Called “Defeat The Mandates: An American Homecoming,” the march is about protesting the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, not the vaccine itself, according to Trevor FitzGibbon, communications consultant for the march. 

“This is about unifying people of all stripes to come together and oppose the idea that forced vaccinations on people isn’t okay,” said FitzGibbon. 

While most businesses aren’t planning to board up or close doors for the day, fear lingers in the air, especially after the January sixth Capitol insurrection. 

“We’re all just vaguely more on edge after one six,” said Tomelden.

Watch the video report here:


Census report on child support payments doesn’t account for income disparity

WASHINGTON — A semi-annual U.S. Census Bureau report on child support payments for the year 2017 fails to take into account the circumstances of parents with different levels of income, a practitioner said this week. 

“We want to help people to have an appreciation for the difference between somebody who was deadbeat, meaning they had funds, they have the obligation to pay financially for their children, they had the means to do it. And for whatever reason they choose not to do and not to pay,” said Joe Jones of the Center for Urban Families, “versus another group of dads who are low income, who are simply dead broke, and they have an obligation to pay, they want to pay, they don’t have the means to do so.”

While there is mention of higher income individuals in the report, there is no explicit discussion of how child support orders can impact people with lower income — particularly when the orders exceed their means. 

This data —  which is often used by other federal agencies and officials to determine funding and resource allocation — serves as a good starting point for learning about the receipt of child support payments but needs additional work to have true impact, according to Jones, the founder and CEO of the Maryland-based community center. 

For starters, the report could have practical influence if used by state officials, for example the National Conference of State Legislatures, to reform some child support policies. 

“The one thing you don’t want to do is to have a child support order so outlandish that it makes a person destitute because it strips that person of all their income,” Jones said. “We were able to get signed into law, the self sufficiency reserve, which basically says you can only create a child support order based on documented income. So that practice is no longer allowable, because it’s a law.”

“But you think about the amount of debt that has accrued over time, and whether or not it’s in a community’s best interest, to allow a population of people to have that level of debt that can never be collected,” he said.

Restricted zoning harms communities of color, experts say

WASHINGTON – Restrictive zoning policies are a chief force behind the nation’s continued housing shortage, experts said at a Bipartisan Policy Center panel on Tuesday.

“We are experiencing the longest economic expansion in history (and) at the same time, seeing the fewest units produced on record,” said Up for Growth CEO Mike Kingsella. 

According to the legislative advocacy organization’s 2018 report, from 2000 to 2015, the U.S. fell 7.3 million homes short of meeting housing needs. This means that for every 10 new households formed, the housing market has only responded with approximately seven new homes, Kingsella said. 

“We have systematically under-produced housing relative to housing needs,” he added. 

This is due in part to exclusionary zoning, or policies made with the intent to exclude and separate housing uses, according to Kingsella. 

Studies show that these policies that restrict low-cost, high-density housing can act as “geographical segregation” by disproportionately impacting low-income people and communities of color. While wealthy, often white families, can live in ideal neighborhoods with ample access to transportation and other amenities, little affordable options push others out. 

“The originators of many of these policies had the segregation of not only real estate and housing types in mind, but also the folks that inhabit it,” Kingsella said. “(It’s) really an exclusionary and dark park of our nation’s land use in housing market history.” 

People of color have faced compounded hardships during COVID-19, which has exacerbated the housing crisis. Lost and reduced income has made paying rent difficult. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that between last September and October, 28% of Black renters and 18% of Latino renters were not caught up on rent – compared to only 12% of white renters. 

“It was motivated by…desire for very explicit racial segregation. Also there was a very clear desire for class separation,” said University of Georgia professor Sonia Hirt about the chief motivations behind zoning laws’ implementation in the U.S.

Hirt emphasized the connection between homeownership and generational wealth. 

“The home is actually a very important part of wealth creation for the American middle class,” she said.

Without homeownership opportunities, it can be difficult to escape generational wealth gaps, Kingsella said. 

“Certainly, in areas that are historically redlined there are, in general, a lack of homeownership opportunities,” he said. “So there is a compounding effect in terms of the racial wealth gap going back to many of these barriers that are stymieing housing production writ large.”

The impacts of restrictive zoning policies on housing options is evident in places like Connecticut, which has the highest rate of income segregation in the country.

“91% of Connecticut is zoned for single-family housing,” said Sara Bronin, a Cornell professor and founder of the nonprofit coalition Desegregate Connecticut. “In this entire state we have 2% of our land that allows for multi-family housing – which really is the process that would enable that housing to be built.” 

Desegregate Connecticut created the Connecticut Zoning Atlas to visualize state zoning and districting and reveal inequities — the first of its kind online interactive to be done on a statewide basis. 

Kingsella pushed back against the often-used argument that affordable housing harms local economies. 

“(Up For Growth) found that the U.S. GDP could increase to the tune of $2.4 trillion cumulatively over a forecast period of 20 years,” he said. 

Looking forward, Kingsella said the good news is that “Congress has recognized that the housing underproduction is a national issue.”

“The quantity of legislative proposals aimed at dealing with this are increasing, and we’re encouraged by the momentum that we’re seeing,” he said, citing the excitement about the Housing Supply and Affordability Act, which is part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better framework. 

If Democrats end up moving forward with efforts to pass incremental versions of the president’s signature legislative agenda, the HSAA would provide $1.75 billion for a planning grant program that would enable cities to reform zoning codes.

Lawmakers: Elderly and Disabled Americans Struggle Most With Financial Literacy

WASHINGTON – Lower financial literacy among Americans, especially those 65-and-older and those with disabilities, creates challenges for long-term money management, experts and nonprofit leaders told lawmakers on Thursday.

“Seniors end up as greeters at Walmart when they should be enjoying the golden years of their lives,” said Dorothea Bernique, founder and executive director of Increasing H.O.P.E. Financial Training Center.

Bernique blames a lack of knowledge, money and money management skills.

Increasing “just-in time” financial literacy – getting guidance as they’re making decisions such as claiming social security, enrolling in Medicare and annuitizing a 401(k) – can be pivotal for seniors and those with disabilities.

And though the focus of the Committee on Aging Panel is older Americans, the lawmakers and experts also discussed resources at the federal, state and local levels to promote financial literacy for all age groups, even young students, as financial knowledge among U.S. adults has decreased over time.

“In 2009, 42% had high financial literacy,” said Gerri Walsh, Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) senior vice president of Investor Education. “By 2018, only 34%, and an early look at the 2021 data collection suggests levels have fallen slightly further.”

Yet Americans with disabilities face additional concerns, including higher spending and less access to financial education.

“To have a disability, it just simply costs more,” said Thomas Foley, executive director of the National Disability Institute, told MNS.

Precisely an additional $17,690 a year, if the individual with disabilities cannot work, according to research by the institute.

“Making sure that not only that there are policies in place to remove these barriers to financial inclusion, but then that the financial education materials and curriculum are… accessible to people with disabilities,” Foley said.

But Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said for certain individuals, improved financial education does not mean improved financial wellbeing.

“Low income families navigating a thin social safety net that gives them too little help, all the education and counseling in the world can’t magically make two plus two add up to ten,” Warren said.

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., raised doubts on increasing financial education at the federal level.

“I look at the federal government, it’s really nice to see a place dispensing that valuable information, maybe prefacing a little bit in terms of what it tries to preach,” Braun said.

This year, the committee has zeroed in on financial literacy as the focus of its annual bipartisan report, released on Thursday.

For Hmong farmers, access to COVID-19 funds hampered by multiple challenges

Madison resident and farmer Mylia Vang didn’t apply for some of the $100 million in COVID-19 relief grants for Wisconsin farmers because she didn’t know the money existed.

Vang, 44, who makes between $20,000 and $30,000 per year selling asparagus, zucchini and other vegetables she and her husband grow on 3 acres of leased land in Verona, said she doesn’t usually keep up with the news because English is not her primary language. And no one reached out to her to share the information before the deadlines for two rounds of grants in 2020 and 2021 passed.

“I had no idea,” Vang said.

Vang’s experience is not unusual among the state’s large Hmong population, according to advocates for the state’s largest Asian ethnic group. Technology and language barriers, as well as the lack of a specific advocacy organization for Hmong farmers, made accessing the grants a challenge for many, said Phil Yang, a Dane County farmer who migrated to Wisconsin from Laos with his family more than 30 years ago.

Yang was able to access $10,000 in grants, which he said helped his operation survive the pandemic. But he also holds a doctorate and speaks fluent English.

“It’s easy,” said Yang, 48, of the application. “We get money every time.”

Yang was elected to the Dane County Farmers’ Market board of directors right before COVID-19 hit. He’s the first Hmong person to hold the post. Since the beginning of his tenure, Yang said, he has found it a challenge to convince Hmong vendors to upgrade their business models.

Many Hmong vendors don’t accept credit cards nor use mobile payment systems such as Square, Yang said.

Yang said he recently explained the benefits of credit cards to one vendor who refuses to accept card payments. Yang said the vendor worries he will have to pay more in taxes, which is why his stand is cash-only.

“On average, about 80% of our sales come through credit cards,” Yang said of his bakery. “They don’t understand what this means to them.”

Pandemic costs

Wisconsin is home to the third-largest Hmong population in the United States, according to U.S. census data. Some 6,000 Hmong live in Dane County, according to the 2011-2015 American Community Survey, and farming is a primary or secondary source of income for many.

In the 1970s during the Vietnam War — known as the “Secret War” within the Hmong community — the first generation of Hmong arrived in the U.S. as refugees fleeing Thailand and Laos. Many of them had been farmers at home, and they settled in Wisconsin because of the region’s rich farmland.

During the pandemic, many Hmong farmers could not sell their products because all the farmers’ markets were closed, said Hmong Institute Board President Mai Zong Vue.

Vue said she helped set up meetings between Hmong farmers and buyers from a local food bank to make up for the hit to farmers’ incomes.

“As a result, a few Hmong farmers were able to be a vendor and sell it to them,” she said. But she said it took a lot of work because there’s no formal support system in Dane County that works to connect Hmong farmers to resources.

“Everything from data to documentation to advocacy and a formal (outreach) group is nonexistent,” she said.

Also to help farmers find buyers when outdoor markets closed, Groundswell Conservancy community director Yimmauj Yang helped set up a small market in Dane County last May.

In collaboration with the Center for Community Land Trust Innovation, Yang’s team opened up the space to local vendors, free of charge.

“In order to limit the barriers, we have to replicate,” she said. “There’s no pivoting that needs to be done in terms of online technology.”

Yimmauj Yang, who is Hmong, has relatives who are farmers. Also because of her work that focuses on advocating for land access, she said she’s well connected among the Hmong farming community.

During the pandemic, none of the farmers she spoke with knew there were relief funds for farmers, she said. And when she told them about the application, they weren’t meeting the gross income to receive those funds.

The first round of funding required a gross annual income of $35,000, which was too high for many small-scale Hmong farmers, Yang said. A second round of funding lowered the income requirement to $10,000 a year. Both rounds were capped at farms making $5 million.

“I know many, many farmers who make less than $10,000,” she said. Those farmers still won’t be eligible to apply, she said.

Thinking about what’s next

The support system for Hmong farmers looks much different in Minnesota. A Twin Cities-based nonprofit, the Hmong American Farmers’ Association, has been working to address language and knowledge barriers since 2011, said HAFA executive director and co-founder Janssen Hang. The group does extend membership to some farmers in western Wisconsin.

The group offers several programs such as business development trainings and crop growing workshops, and it helps connect Hmong farmers with alternative markets such as schools and hospitals. During the pandemic, HAFA applied for six grants and most recently was approved to receive $600,000 that it will divide among farmers and put toward the group’s community farm, Hang said.

Having the farmers’ group has “really changed the dynamic,” Hang said.

For Hmong family farmers growing and selling produce as a second source of income, there’s less incentive to think long-term, Phil Yang said.

While Yang can still remember riding water buffalos and harvesting rice with his mother in Laos during the 1980s, many young people are leaving the industry to pursue jobs elsewhere. So there’s less reason to plan for sustained growth, he said.

What’s more, Yang said due to a lack of translation services, many Hmong farmers think grant-writing is like producing a 20- to 30-page paper. Many Hmong farmers are turned off by their idea of the process and say they don’t have time, he said.

Sweeping relief packages from the top are well-intentioned, said Yimmauj Yang, but there are barriers at every step in the pipeline. “It’s not trickling down.”

Published in conjunction with The Wisconsin State Journal

VA home loan program popular among veterans gets bad rep from sellers

WASHINGTON – Although the Department of Veterans Affairs backed a record 1.44 million homes loans for veterans and service members in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, members of Congress and veterans’ advocates said Wednesday that sellers remain leery of VA-backed loans due to misinformation about the difficulty of appraisals.

Sellers are less likely to accept VA-backed offers than conventional ones, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors released earlier this year. While 89% of sellers said they were likely to accept an offer from a buyer using a traditional bank loan, only 30% said they would do the same for a VA-backed purchaser.

Misinformation about VA appraisals, which many sellers believe are more complicated than regular appraisals because homes must meet a series of minimum property requirements determined by the VA, has contributed to a prejudice against VA-backed loans, Veterans of Foreign Wars Associate Director Erica DeVito told a House Veterans’ Affairs Economic Opportunity Subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

“Many veterans attempting to purchase a home using a VA loan are finding they simply cannot compete,” said Subcommittee Chairman Mike Levin, D-Calif.

But sellers’ fears aren’t totally misplaced. The average wait time for an appraisal conducted by the VA is 14.8 business days, said VA Loan Guaranty Service Acting Executive Director John Bell. Non-VA appraisals can take less than two days to process,

The VA has 6,000 appraisers nationally, according to Bell, but advocates on Wednesday called for a bigger workforce and suggested paying workers more as an incentive.

“There’s a shortage of certified appraisers, and VA appraisers are even harder to find,” said National Association of Realtors President Leslie Rouda Smith.

Of the NAR’s 1.5 million members, fewer than 1% are formally certified to work with veterans, active service members and eligible military spouses to find the best housing options for themselves and their families, she said.

Higher inspection standards among VA appraisers also deter sellers from accepting VA-backed offers, said DeVito. 59% of sellers said stricter inspection requirements reduce the attractiveness of the VA loan, according to the NAR survey.

DeVito said the VA should do more outreach among veterans and sellers to dispel myths about the home loan program.

“The trepidation of sellers to want to entertain offers from a VA purchaser [is] clearly an issue,” said Levin. “We have to make sure that people are competitive.”

Published in conjunction with Logo



Medill Today | March 14, 2024