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2019
March
25
Monday

Talk to people about their work and you often hear they are encouraged to team up with people who don’t think like them. The reason? Better ideas and stronger problem-solving tend to come from mixing it up with folks of diverse outlooks. The same might apply to our political arena, whose stridency has led Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, to write about what he calls America’s “culture of contempt.” 

Here are some interesting bits related to this:

The Atlantic, with PredictWise, mapped U.S. counties to see where political tolerance and intolerance feature most strongly. Higher intolerance, it found, correlated with urban living and higher levels of education, along with a generally whiter and older population. Suffolk County in Massachusetts, which includes Boston, topped that category, in part because of residents’ isolation from political diversity, intentional or not. At the other end were upstate New York’s North Country and parts of North Carolina. People there saw more marriages and friendships that crossed political lines.

Such relationships yield benefits. A new paper in the journal Nature Human Behavior says the more diverse the ideologies of contributors to popular Wikipedia entries, the higher the quality. Why? They had to make sharp arguments based on good facts. And an essay in the popular Farnam Street blog underscored the point by invoking survival: “[Thought diversity] means we have a wider variety of resources to deal with the inevitable challenges we face as a species.”

Now to our stories, which look at our obligations to the youngest victims of war, the qualities that can attract voters, and making the tax code friendlier to childless low-income workers. 

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1. Mueller report stokes political rift. Could it inspire some unity too?

In the wake of the Mueller report, it’s useful to remember that at the investigation’s core is a value – the goal of untainted elections – that Americans of both parties should care about.

Amelia

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In the short run, America’s divisions may well get worse. Sunday’s release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s main conclusions, as summarized by Attorney General William Barr, could widen gulfs of suspicion and misunderstanding. Where Republicans are claiming victory and seeking a probe of the investigation’s alleged political origins, Democrats are clamoring for the whole Mueller report to be made public.

But the longer run may be a different story. The point of Mr. Mueller’s probe was to protect the U.S. electoral system from interference by a foreign power, as much or more than to put culpable individuals in jail. The investigation publicly identified two main Russian efforts to influence the election, one involving social media and disinformation, the other hacking into Democratic computers. Both led to bombshell indictments of Russian nationals.

They may not completely see it now, but both of the two big parties that govern America have a vested interest in defending the nation against this kind of foreign attack. 

“We have common interest in American democracy,” says legal expert Andy Wright. “Being interfered with by foreign powers ... I think we all share some values on that.”

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1. Mueller report stokes political rift. Could it inspire some unity too?

What happens now to America’s divisions?

In the short run they may well get worse. Sunday’s release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s main conclusions, as summarized by Attorney General William Barr, could widen the gulf of suspicion and misunderstanding between the nation’s polarized political factions.

Republicans are triumphant that the threat of a conspiracy indictment for President Donald Trump or his family members or associates has evaporated. Some are in no mood for forbearance and are urging the GOP leadership to push turnabout investigations into the alleged Democratic origins of a deep state conspiracy against the president.

Democrats are downcast that the special counsel investigation apparently isn’t going to push Mr. Trump out of office, or hobble him with serious legal accusations. Many want to see the whole Mueller Report and supporting documents – a paper pile they suspect will portray the president in a harsher light.

But the medium or long run may be a different story. The point of Mr. Mueller’s probe was to protect the United States electoral system from interference by a foreign power, as much or more than to put culpable individuals in jail. Attorney General Barr’s summary notes that the investigation publicly identified two main Russian efforts to influence the election: one involving social media and disinformation, the other hacking into Democratic computers. Both led to bombshell indictments of Russian nationals, including officers in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.

They may not completely see it now, but both of the two big parties that govern America have a vested interest in defending the nation against this kind of foreign attack. That urges a bipartisan effort lest the legitimacy of the 2020 vote come into question.

“We have common interest in American democracy. Being interfered with by foreign powers ... I think we all share some values on that,” says Andy Wright, an attorney who managed investigation issues for Vice President Al Gore and later served as associate counsel in the Obama White House.

Senator Graham’s push

On Monday, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina showed something of how this short/long term split on divisiveness might work out in practice.

Senator Graham, a close ally of the president and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said at a press conference that he wants to investigate alleged abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act at the start of the FBI’s Russia inquiry. He called on Mr. Barr to appoint a new special counsel to investigate the “other side of the story” – whether the Obama administration unlawfully obtained a FISA warrant to spy on a Trump associate as a way to help Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

Democrats have long considered the FISA fixation as a diversionary tactic that relies on misreading the evidence that caused the FBI to begin its probe. An effort by Mr. Graham to flip from an investigation of the current president to renewed attention on the previous administration is sure to inflame partisan tensions on Capitol Hill.

At the same time, Mr. Graham talked about how Russia’s real aim in its election hacking efforts was to turn Americans against each other, and that they’d “done a pretty good job of it.”

“They’re still doing this, and one of the things I want to take away from this whole endeavor is to try to find ways to fix it,” Mr. Graham said.

The political system is now critical US infrastructure in the same sense that the power grid and financial system are, and the vote tallying process needs to be hardened, the Judiciary chairman said. Social media can be co-opted to spread lies and insert corrupted information into the nation’s streams of discourse.

“If we don’t take that from this investigation, that the Russians tried to do it and they’re going to keep trying, then we missed a real big point,” Mr. Graham said.

A summary, and cries for more

Mr. Barr released his four-page summary of Mr. Mueller’s main points on Sunday night. He said the special counsel had found no conspiracy between Russia and the president or any Trump-related officials. Mr. Mueller drew no conclusions as to whether Mr. Trump had obstructed justice in the probe. Mr. Barr and his deputy Rod Rosenstein concluded that the Mueller report had insufficient evidence to charge Mr. Trump on that question.

Democrats pointed out that the summary released so far contains only a smattering of Mr. Mueller’s own words – 100 or so. While most accept the conclusion about no conspiracy, they want to see supporting evidence, especially on the question of possible obstruction. Why did Mr. Mueller make the decisions he did?

There is no foreseeable scenario under which Democrats will be satisfied with less than virtually complete access to Mr. Mueller’s work, says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.

“We are just coming to the end of phase one. Phase two is going to be much more legalistic and drawn out,” says Dr. Engel.

By inserting himself into the process of releasing Mueller’s information, Mr. Barr has set himself up as a sort of movie critic, he says.

It’s as if you’ve seen a trailer for a blockbuster movie, and it looks really interesting, according to Dr. Engel. Then Mr. Barr steps on screen to tell you he’s seen the whole thing already and you don’t have to, because it’s a bust.

Former Obama White House attorney Andy Wright says he’s disappointed in the continuing partisan attacks on Mr. Mueller’s legitimacy. On Sunday in his first public remarks on the release of Mr. Barr’s summary, Mr. Trump denounced the work of Mr. Mueller – a Republican appointed by a Trump-appointed Republican official – as an “illegal takedown that failed.”

Mr. Wright says he’d like to see the evidence Mr. Mueller collected about both the collusion and obstruction threads in his investigation. He’d like to know specifically what cases Mr. Mueller has handed off to regular Justice Department prosecutors, and if there are further counter-intelligence findings beyond those Mr. Barr discussed.

It’s true that there’s “a ton we don’t know,” Mr. Wright says. “Just a ton.”

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2. As ISIS falls, Syrian hospital struggles to care for its children

As the world digested the fall of the ISIS caliphate, our reporter in Syria was deeply moved as she spent time with one group facing particular challenges: the innocent children of jihadists.

Amelia
Dominique Soguel
Caregivers and a nurse tend to malnourished children, many of them the offspring of foreign fighters and their spouses, March 16 in Al-Hassakeh, Syria. The children were evacuated from Al-Baghouz, the last sliver of land on the Euphrates River held by the Islamic State.

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They come from all over the world but are citizens of no nation. The children of foreign ISIS fighters and radicalized mothers, they have been brought to Al-Hikma Hospital from the Al-Hol refugee camp in eastern Syria. All show signs of moderate to acute malnutrition. The hospital says it has received more than 1,000 tiny patients from that camp since February, when the U.S.-led coalition pinned down Islamic State fighters in the last remnants of the caliphate. Every day since then has witnessed at least one fatality, if not more, says Saad Ali, the hospital director.

For the international community the children represent a real challenge. Unlike their parents, it is impossible to classify them as a security threat. “We get inquiries all the time from governments exploring the possibility to bring them back,” says a humanitarian worker. “The governments have made it very clear: ‘We want to sneak them in.’”

“Our responsibility is to receive and treat them like any patient,” says Mr. Ali. “But we are a country at war, where we are lacking everything. On top of everything else we have to carry this burden for other countries.”

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As ISIS falls, Syrian hospital struggles to care for its children

Tucked away within the heart of a bustling souk in northeastern Syria lies a hospital treating dozens of babies, gravely ill survivors of the final siege against the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate.

The majority are the children of foreign fighters and mothers who subscribed to a radically hard-line interpretation of Islam.

All show signs of moderate to acute malnutrition: loose skin on emaciated bodies even for those whose rosy complexion hints at recovery. For others, whose cheeks are especially hollow and jaw lines sharp, warm pink blankets and fortified formula seem unlikely to do the trick.

They come from all over the world but are citizens of no nation.

“Often we don’t know who the father is in the first place,” explains Saad Ali, the director of Al-Hikma Hospital in Hassakeh city. “Some have no mothers. There are so many nationalities. But here we don’t care if they come from Uzbekistan or the United States; we proceed as a hospital.”

The children have been brought to Al-Hikma, which was founded in 1986 as a private medical establishment, from the Al-Hol refugee camp in eastern Syria. Their black-clad mothers, who wear the most conservative of Islamist garments, are considered a security risk and are immediately returned to the camp after dropping off their children, if allowed to come at all.

The hospital administration says it has received more than 1,000 tiny patients from that camp since February, when the U.S.-led coalition pinned down Islamic State fighters in tight but tough terrain on the banks of the Euphrates River.

Every day since then has witnessed at least one fatality, if not more, says Mr. Ali. “The vast majority of our cases are malnutrition,” he says. “About 10 percent of the cases are shrapnel.”

The hospital was already struggling to cope in a country at war, where most of the health system has been destroyed and medical personnel routinely and deliberately killed.

Divided territory

It sits on a street divided between forces loyal to the government in Damascus and forces loyal to the Autonomous Administration, the governing structure overseeing parts of northeast Syria that Kurds refer to as Rojava. A Syriac Christian militia mans the checkpoint between the two, closest to the hospital entrance.

A hospital official reminds visiting journalists that they are in the “Syrian Arabic Republic.” While the flags of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and its dominant Kurdish militias fly over much of the city, in this area the shutters of shops have been painted over with the Syrian flag.

The patients at Al-Hikma mirror the diversity of Syrian society, with men sporting traditional Arabic, Kurdish, or Western garb and women donning anything from shapeless niqabs to office outfits, heads veiled or uncovered.

The hospital became so pressured and overcrowded as a result of the young new arrivals that another floor had to be hastily built. Nearly 80 children have been divided between two rooms at the top of fresh concrete stairs.

In one room, smaller babies lie in neat rows of white rocking cradles. None of these cradles rock except for the one closest to a caregiver, who is busy bottle-feeding.

Against the back wall, toddlers stick their feet and arms through the bars of magenta cradles. Some sulk in silence; others cry loudly to be held.

Among the babies, Osama puckers and watches the world wide awake. Mohammed sleeps soundly next to him. Both boys are thin but on the mend. Next to them, Razan fights an infection. Her scalp bandaged, her eyes flutter furiously as her frail body tries to throw off a wool blanket. Nasreen sleeps on her back, toes resting on a pack of therapeutic food. Next to her, an emaciated Sarah lies completely still, her gaze lost in space.

“She was even worse when she arrived,” notes a nurse, whose charges range from two months to three years old. She strives to transmit a sense of warmth and safety. The caretaker to child ratio is a respectable 1 to 6. “What can we do other than treat, feed, and bathe them? What fault do they have in all this?”

‘We want to sneak them in’

For the international community – jubilant after the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces declared “total” victory Saturday in the fight to crush the last crumb of the caliphate – these children of ISIS represent a real challenge. Unlike their parents, it is impossible to classify them as a security threat. Still, they fall predictably low on the priority list.

“There a lot of unaccompanied minors, as a lot of people were lost in the chaos [in the final battle against ISIS at Al-Baghouz],” an international humanitarian worker says, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

“Governments have made it clear that it is easier to bring the babies back without their mothers,” she adds. “The really complicated cases are mixed nationalities. We get inquiries all the time from governments exploring the possibility to bring them back. The governments have made it very clear: ‘We want to sneak them in.’ ‘We don’t want a song and dance.’”

The International Rescue Committee warned this month that the Al-Hol camp was at a breaking point. Since December, 120 deaths have been reported either en route to the camp, shortly after arrival, or following referral to a hospital. Some 80 percent of them are children under the age of 5, according to the latest figures of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Al-Hol now houses about 74,000 people, two-thirds of them women and children who stayed or were forced to stay with ISIS until the bitter end.

“The Islamic State isn’t truly over,” commented a Syrian humanitarian worker wryly. “It has just been squeezed into this camp. The caliphate has been simply relocated.”

‘Now we serve the whole world’

More than 240 unaccompanied children are at the camp where conditions are dire by all accounts. Women end up caring for children who are not their own.

“All of these people are human beings who are entitled to humane treatment,” International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer said Friday after returning from northeast Syria. “Let’s not allow fiery rhetoric around the foreign fighters blind us to the suffering arising out of the humanitarian emergency.… Showing moral courage in the face of public anxiety and political pressure is hard. But we are better than this.”

The nationalities of the children at the camp and hospital reflect the diversity of those who were drawn by the promise of an Islamist utopia that devolved into a reign of terror: the Maldives, France, Germany, and Tajikistan are but a small sample of the range of the nationalities on the radar of those catering to these children.

“We used to serve all Syria; now we serve the whole world,” jokes Yusra el-Issa, a nurse at the hospital with a ready smile and quick sense of humor.

“We don’t deal with the politics,” stresses Mr. Ali. “Our responsibility is to receive and treat them like any patient. But we are a country at war, where we are lacking everything. On top of everything else we have to carry this burden for other countries.” 

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3. Challenge for 2020 Democrats: How to rise above the pack

In the “ideas primary,” presidential candidates are vying to show voters they have the right stuff. But there are other ways to stand out: charisma, toughness, compassion. And the ability to bring in the bucks.

Amelia

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It’s early in the 2020 presidential race, and the Democratic field is crowded. Very crowded. How does a candidate stand out? Some are flooding the zone with well-articulated policy ideas (Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker). Some are showing their fundraising prowess (Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders). And some could position themselves as tough enough to take on President Donald Trump (Joe Biden, if he runs).

Democratic voters are witnessing the most diverse presidential field in American history. The result is already a robust debate about what it means to be a Democrat today as the candidates unveil policies to address inequalities in U.S. health care, income, and gender and race relations, as well as caring for our planet. But pitching policy proposals hardly guarantees success. The path to political defeat is paved with 10-point plans. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

Plus, it’s early. “A lot of people are going out to see the candidates because they don’t know” what it will take to beat Mr. Trump, says Kathy Sullivan, the Democratic National Committeewoman for New Hampshire. “It could be toughness. It could be hope and change. It could be, is this person unifying? It could be all of the above.”

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Challenge for 2020 Democrats: How to rise above the pack

Elizabeth Warren, the senior senator from Massachusetts, is on a tear, teeing up one policy proposal after another.

In recent weeks, Senator Warren has proposed a “wealth tax,” the breakup of Big Tech, universal child care, a housing plan, and an end to the Electoral College. She can speak at length on universal health care and the Green New Deal and has authored sweeping ethics legislation. She’s also on board to study reparations for the descendants of slaves.

Within the crowded Democratic presidential field, Ms. Warren has carved out a niche as her party’s’ “issues candidate” – at least for the sheer volume of her proposals and her ability to articulate them. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has also won praise for “meaty policy talk.” But it hardly guarantees success. The path to political defeat is paved with 10-point plans. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

“Issues are the natural language of politics, but they’re not really as important as people think,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “It’s rare that people vote for an agenda or a set of plans. They vote for people. And the most important way to distinguish yourself is as a person, by forging some kind of emotional connection with voters.”

That’s how President Donald Trump succeeded: by connecting with voters, Mr. Mellman says. “I mean, he had an idea or two, like a wall,” he says, playing down the import of President Trump’s “America First” message on immigration and trade. “But he certainly didn’t have detailed policy proposals.”

The historically large Democratic field – 16 candidates and counting – has fostered a robust debate about what it means to be a Democrat today and what type of candidate is best equipped to unseat Mr. Trump. 

The party’s activist base has moved leftward, as Democratic primary voters and candidates more readily entertain policies that would expand government’s role in Americans’ lives than even four years ago. The goal, they say, is to address inequality and save the planet. But moderate Democrats have also built up clout in the party after they won GOP-held House seats in suburban districts across the country last November – a key part of the Democratic takeover of the House.

The end of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation, which found no collusion and was inconclusive on possible obstruction of justice by Mr. Trump, will also test the candidates. Each must decide how much focus to place on the aftermath, including congressional Democrats’ push for release of Mr. Mueller’s full report. 

On the issues, ideology could well matter eventually, as Democrats sort through their choices. For now, though, the most immediate challenge for each Democratic candidate today is to distinguish oneself enough to keep the fundraising dollars coming and qualify for the first debates in June.

Establishing distinction

Being distinctive can take many forms. Race, gender, experience, and yes, policy positions, can help. But charisma – specifically the ability to make voters feel you care – can go a long way. See Bill Clinton in 1992 and his “I feel your pain” moment and candidate Barack Obama’s aspirational mantra of “hope and change.” Today, matching charisma with social media skill and fundraising chops could be a winning formula.

The secondary role of policy views shows up in voter surveys. The latest Morning Consult poll asking Democrats to rank their first and second choices for president finds that supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden (polling first, though still not a candidate) most often pick Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., as their second choice and vice versa. Yet the two men represent quite different points on the political spectrum. Senator Sanders, who has held elective office as an independent since 1981, is a self-described democratic socialist, and Mr. Biden is more mainstream progressive.

So early in the cycle, this poll reflects name recognition more than anything, says Kathy Sullivan, the Democratic National Committeewoman for New Hampshire.

“But also,” she says, “I think people accept that most Democrats have a minimum threshold of acceptability on the issues.”

Moreover, Ms. Sullivan says, the highest priority for Democrats is to nominate whoever would have the best shot at defeating Mr. Trump. The process of figuring that out is still just beginning.

Opportunities abound for breakout moments. Pete Buttigieg, the 30-something, married gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, did so well in a recent CNN town hall that he received a wave of online donations and is on track to qualify for the Democratic primary debates that begin in June. A candidate must log donations from at least 65,000 people and 200 unique donors in 20 states, which Mr. Buttigieg has done, but candidates must also meet a threshold in polls to qualify.

Some Democrats say they’re donating small amounts to multiple candidates because they want to see them tested on the debate stage.

The debates themselves present a major opportunity to shine. But they also hold potential peril. For established, older candidates like Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden (if he runs), the newer faces that will surround them have the potential to upstage them. For former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, already a phenom for record-breaking fundraising – $6.1 million – in his first 24 hours as a candidate, the debates will be a test of policy chops.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says she was “a huge fan” of Mr. O’Rourke’s when he ran against Sen. Ted Cruz last year and almost beat him in solid-red Texas. “But you should know some of the basics,” Ms. Lake says of Mr. O’Rourke as a presidential candidate. “You have to offer an alternative to Donald Trump.”

Still, as with Mr. Trump and President Obama, the camera loves Mr. O’Rourke, and the modern-day “celebrification” of politics is hard to fight. “Beto-mania” has also sparked a “Beto-backlash,” particularly from some Democratic women, who complain that none of the six women in the race got nearly the media attention Mr. O’Rourke did when he announced. But then neither did the other male candidates.

PHOTOS: AP; GRAPHIC: Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Avoiding the albatross

Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang is staking his candidacy on one big idea: “universal basic income” for every American adult. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is all about climate change. He’s also the only sitting governor in the race so far, alongside one former governor, John Hickenlooper of Colorado. Gov. Steve Bullock – a popular Democrat in red Montana – also may jump in.

Time was when governors were considered top prospects for president. But the election of Mr. Obama showed how to win the top job as a senator, despite thin executive experience, and the election of Mr. Trump showed that even a background in politics isn’t necessary.

And so a Democratic field featuring six senators, other current and former elected officials, and a couple of nonpoliticians is alive with cries for attention. It is also by far the most diverse presidential field in American history, when accounting for race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, and life experience.  

“So how do you distinguish yourself, really, from this pack?” asks veteran Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “And more important, how do you distinguish yourself in such a way that, as a Democrat, you don’t put an albatross around the party’s neck?”

This is where ideology and policy views could become increasingly important. If the Democrats nominate someone who is easily tagged as a “socialist,” that gives Mr. Trump a major opening. It is an argument he is already making, as he sees Sanders poll well and freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a member of Democratic Socialists of America, command outsize attention for her ideas.

Iowa kicks off the Democratic nomination process with party caucuses on Feb. 3, 2020. Mr. Fenn points to a recent poll out of Iowa that found more than half of likely caucusgoers would be satisfied with a presidential candidate who wants the United States to be more “socialist.”

“That might play among Iowa caucusgoers, but not around the country, folks,” Mr. Fenn says.

In New Hampshire, whose first-in-the-nation primary follows the Iowa caucuses, the battle to break out is fierce. Chris Galdieri, a political scientist at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, has seen many of the candidates up close.

“[Governor] Inslee is trying to break out on the strength of an issue, climate change,” says Professor Galdieri, who saw the governor address college students. “They really responded to it. He has some potential there as a sleeper candidate.”

Ms. Warren’s distinction, he says, is not just in laying out policies, but also in explaining how to make them happen. “Contrast that with others who might sound more aspirational, but there’s no follow-up,” Mr. Galdieri says.

Then there’s the question of toughness. Mr. Trump won in 2016 in part because he came across as a fighter, analysts say. Mr. Biden, if he runs, might try the same tack. He has suggested in the past that he would “beat up” Mr. Trump if they were in high school and he heard him making lewd comments about women.

“A lot of people are going out to see the candidates because they don’t know” what it will take to beat Mr. Trump, says Ms. Sullivan, the Democratic committeewoman in New Hampshire. “It could be toughness. It could be hope and change. It could be, is this person unifying? It could be all of the above.”

PHOTOS: AP; GRAPHIC: Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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4. Childless workers often lose out on tax credits. Not with this program.

At a time when wide income inequality can seem intractable, we found an Atlanta experiment that’s testing the promise – and limits – of expanded tax credits for poor workers.

Amelia

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The Earned Income Tax Credit has moved millions of Americans out of poverty – and it’s won some bipartisan support because it assists the poor without discouraging work. People in low-wage jobs can get an income boost through tax credits, even if they owe no income tax.

Now, some lawmakers hope Congress can expand the program, which currently does little for workers without dependent children. And some small-scale experiments are showing what that might mean for reducing inequality.

A nonprofit effort called Paycheck Plus has been tested since 2014 in New York City and Atlanta. It is helping to ease the bite of poverty for people like Keith Hardrick, who qualified for a payout of $1,500 to supplement his wages of $12,000 last year.

But researchers say tax credits are at best a partial fix for bringing people from the sidelines into the labor force. “Tax incentives are a good thing ... but they’re not going to solve the problem of getting people into the labor market and training up their skills,” says Lawrence Katz at Harvard University.

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Childless workers often lose out on tax credits. Not with this program.

After Keith Hardrick quit his job last year as a school social worker, his income took a dive. As he figures out his next career move, he’s tapped into the gig economy, recharging electric scooters for a startup company in Atlanta. All told, he earned around $12,000 in 2018.

But this year’s tax season smiled on Mr. Hardrick. Not because of President Donald Trump’s tax cuts, which mostly accrue to corporations and high earners, but because he had enrolled in a three-year experimental program that tests what happens when single workers on low incomes receive more generous annual tax refunds.

In the first two years, Mr. Hardrick didn’t see any benefits because his income was too high. This time, though, he qualified for a payout of $1,500. He plans to use the money to change residences this month, and to set up his new place while paying some bills.

“It helps people who need a little extra,” he says of the program, as he sits at the nonprofit On The Rise Financial Center. “It’s like a stimulus package.”

The program in Atlanta mimics the Earned Income Tax Credit, a federal initiative that is credited with moving millions of families out of poverty by providing a supplement to low wages.

Unlike that program, however, it is targeted not at parents but at adults without dependent children, who get the short end of the EITC stick. By doing so it fits squarely into the national debate over how to reduce inequality while promoting work and responsibility in an era of often-stagnant wages. It’s a debate that animates the crowded left field of Democratic presidential aspirants and other officeholders, as well as conservatives who see EITC as a pro-work policy that is preferable to welfare.

“Not every policymaker loves it but it does have broad support,” says Caroline Schultz, a senior associate at MDRC, a New York-based nonprofit that ran the EITC-style program in Atlanta and New York in partnership with public and private organizations.

Potential bipartisan appeal 

Proposals to expand the $71 billion EITC have come from both sides of the aisle. In 2016, President Barack Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan both called on lawmakers to change the tax code so that workers who aren’t raising children can qualify for more cash. The EITC is a “refundable” tax credit, meaning it can provide a benefit to people even if they owe no federal income tax. The Obama and Ryan proposals would have raised the maximum refund and phased it in more quickly. But Congress left the EITC unchanged when it passed the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed by Trump.

Since then, Democrats in Congress have drafted ambitious anti-poverty bills that lean on the EITC for fiscal redistribution. The GAIN Act, with big increases for qualifying families and for single adults like Mr. Hardrick, has been sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and in the House by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. And Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has also proposed an expansion of the EITC and other refundable tax credits, including for middle-class families.

“There’s good reason to think we haven’t exhausted the benefits of the program,” says Hilary Hoynes, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of California, Berkeley who has studied the EITC’s effects on the poverty and health of low-income families.

The EITC dates back to 1975 but has since been expanded several times under Republican and Democratic presidents. Many states also offer refundable tax credits for low-income filers, with varying degrees of generosity.

The toolkit for reducing inequality 

Of course, this is just one way to address inequality. Experts say that if the U.S. wants to help people near the bottom of the income ladder, a range of approaches can help, from raising minimum wages to offering targeted support for things like housing, transportation, or education. But many also say programs like EITC fill an important role, boosting incomes without making it more expensive for people to be hired or discouraging them from working.

Under the federal code, a single mother with two children can claim a credit of up to $5,828 for 2018, with the benefit phased out above $46,703. However, low-income adults without dependent children have a much lower income cut-off ($15,570) and stingier payouts.

This was the group that MDRC recruited for its program, called Paycheck Plus. In New York, it assigned 6,000 childless adults at random into two groups. From 2014, the first group of 3,000 was given assistance with filing their tax returns and could claim the existing credits. The second group was told about Paycheck Plus, helped to file tax returns, and offered a maximum refund of $2,000 with eligibility of up to $30,000 in income, on top of any state and federal credits that they received.

In Atlanta, where the program began in 2015, there were 2,000 workers assigned to the control and 2,000 to Paycheck Plus groups. All refunds were paid after the IRS tax deadline in April.

Low-paid workers often cycle in and out of eligibility for programs like EITC as their incomes and family situations change. Policymakers usually try to phase out benefits so that workers don’t face a sharp cut-off that could discourage them from taking jobs or working longer hours.

“Any program you want to target to low-income people you have to phase out in some manner. So there’s always concern that people would cut back,” says Cynthia Miller, a senior fellow at MDRC and lead author of a 2018 evaluation of the New York trial.

In New York, MDRC found that enrollees in Paycheck Plus had higher after-tax earnings and saw a reduction in severe poverty compared to the control group. Noncustodial parents, typically men, were more likely to make child support payments when they got bonuses.

(In Mr. Hardrick’s case, he has two school-aged children who live with their mother. He says he doesn’t have to make support payments but contributes to their household budget.)

A boost in employment? Partially.

MDRC researchers point to an encouraging uptick in employment of disadvantaged men in New York. This category of workers, which includes men who were formerly in jail or prison, have largely fallen out of the formal labor market, says Ms. Miller of MDRC. “There’s a lot of interest in [the question of] how do we pull them back in?”

Still, with the exception of these disadvantaged men, the overall effect of the New York program on male employment was zero, whereas female workers responded across the board by working more, giving a modest boost to overall employment rates, up 1.9 percentage points.

This isn’t a surprise, says Lawrence Mead, a professor of politics and public policy at New York University. Women tend to respond better to pro-work incentives like the EITC, which was part of President Bill Clinton’s 1990s welfare reforms, of which Professor Mead was a prominent supporter.

He’s skeptical that tax refunds can have the same effect on men, particularly those who don’t live with their children, and advocates mandatory requirements for welfare that force more men to take employment. “The idea that incentives cause men to go to work is false,” he says.

Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard University and co-author of the MDRC report, says he had expected to see modest gains in employment led by women. He was pleased to see a demonstrated cut in poverty. “Among programs to help a group of hard-working, low-income individuals it seems to do a reasonable job of transferring money,” he says.

And while the bump in work for disadvantaged men was positive, he agrees that it will likely take more than the promise of tax refunds to significantly increase their employment. An expanded EITC combined with occupational training and other labor-market interventions would be a more effective pro-work way to tackle poverty.

“Tax incentives are a good thing and they’re easy to implement, but they’re not going to solve the problem of getting people into the labor market and training up their skills,” says Mr. Katz.

Help for tight family budgets

For Shakira Hightower, a parent liaison at an elementary school in Atlanta, her cash bonus from Paycheck Plus has helped her to develop a side project from her full-time job. She is setting up a nonprofit to help professional families in her community. On her current salary of $23,000, she qualified for a $1,300 payout for the past two years and she expects a similar amount this time.

Ms. Hightower is a single mother with two sons who are in college, so she no longer receives the EITC benefit paid to custodial parents. But she lives on a tight budget and says that Paycheck Plus has been a welcome boost.

MDRC plans to publish its findings from Atlanta this summer. Ms. Schultz says Atlanta’s results may differ since its economy has lower wages and a cheaper cost of living than New York.

The reality remains that one in five workers earned less than $11.40 an hour in 2017. For full-time workers that is the equivalent of $22,800 a year. The EITC can bolster incomes and lure some workers back into the labor market, but even some fans say it’s no substitute for other steps to ensure that labor gets a bigger share of the economic pie.

“If you’re already a minimum wage worker working full-time, the EITC is going to reduce your poverty but not change your employment rate,” says Ms. Hoynes, who sits on an advisory board at MDRC.

“At the end of the day,” she says, “we’re trying to identify policies to increase wages – and earnings.”

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5. To invite progress, change who’s in the room

This next story shows the power of conversation to find solutions – especially when it’s between decision-makers and the “everyday experts” in communities.

Amelia
COURTESY OF NICOLE FISHER
Cohear is an organization that brings together regular citizens and policymakers in Cincinnati to discuss a variety of issues. The group’s aim: for the meetings to produce better decisions for all involved.

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To the hyperbolic and divisive speech found in some political conversations, call it an antidote: A group in Cincinnati is facilitating meetings of the minds between decision-makers and real citizens.

Big-ticket projects can engender controversy, as they have in Cincinnati over a new soccer stadium and a hospital expansion. This is where the group Cohear steps in, taking seemingly opposing sides and giving them a chance to bridge the gap. “There is expertise in living something every day,” says founder Dani Isaacsohn. “What [Cohear] is trying to do is help decision-makers access and learn from that expertise and insight.”

Jennifer Foster attended a conversation between bus riders with disabilities and officials from the local transit authority this past September. “It’s been a blessing to actually see and be heard,” she says.  

Cohear has been bringing together citizens and decision-makers, but it has yet to address how to turn these early conversations into long-term, sustainable relationships. That’s next, says Mr. Isaacsohn. “These conversations, it’s a spark for [change], but you have to sustain engagements – put oxygen into that spark and turn it into a real, lasting relationship.”

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To invite progress, change who’s in the room

When Aiden Lenox attended a meeting last year to talk about anti-bullying efforts in Cincinnati’s public schools, the high school sophomore expected to describe how he started a chapter of We Dine Together, a national initiative that promotes inclusive spaces for students to eat lunch.

What Aiden didn’t expect was for Mike Moroski, a Cincinnati Public Schools board member, to approach him after the meeting and suggest introducing his club across the district.

“It was exciting, and it really meant a lot to me to think that there’s other people, especially in authority, that would be inspired and interested in sharing [the program] with other folks in other schools,” says Aiden, who attends Walnut Hills High School.

This exchange of ideas, this collaboration, is exactly what Dani Isaacsohn had in mind when he started Cohear, the group that organized the discussion. 

Cohear has a simple objective: to help policymakers make better decisions by empowering members of their community.

“These conversations are getting different people in the room with people in positions of power,” says Mr. Isaacsohn, who has worked on several political campaigns and as a community organizer. “By changing who’s in the room, you’re changing what decision-makers are exposed to and are hearing, and you’re actually getting better insights.”

COURTESY OF NICOLE FISHER
Work on political campaigns helped inspire Dani Isaacsohn to create Cohear.

Two years ago, Mr. Isaacsohn received a grant from the city of Cincinnati to start Cohear, originally called Bridgeable. Since then the group, which is now privately funded, has hosted dozens of conversations – between refugees and a city council member, between African-American children and the assistant police chief. The result is a network of hundreds of “everyday experts.” 

“There is expertise in living something every day,” Mr. Isaacsohn says. “What [Cohear] is trying to do is help decision-makers access and learn from that expertise and insight.”

Cohear’s efforts are part of a larger trend of engaging ordinary people in brainstorming and problem-solving. And the kind of collaborative approach that Cohear emphasizes can offer an antidote to the often hyperbolic and divisive speech found in today’s political conversations.

Cincinnati, like many other communities, has been engulfed in such divisiveness in recent years. Several big-ticket projects, including a new soccer stadium and a hospital expansion, engendered plenty of controversy. 

Such projects are often managed by private or quasi-governmental organizations whose leaders are not elected, diminishing the role residents have in decisions that affect their lives. But this is where Cohear steps in, taking seemingly opposing sides and giving them a chance to bridge the gap. 

“I think a face-to-face interaction injects the humanity into the conversation,” says Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who used Cohear to set up a dialogue with refugees and is one of the group’s advisers. “[Cohear] puts people into a place that can be more honest, more open, and more vulnerable, and that makes for a richer interaction.”

Building a network

Part of what makes Cohear notable is the people attending its meetings. According to data collected at the end of every conversation, more than 60 percent of participants – most of whom are women – had never been to a meeting before, and nearly 75 percent of them are people of color. 

For Jennifer Foster, who has a disability that complicates her bus commute, it was “amazing” to help shape policy that is integral to her life.

“It’s been a blessing to actually see and be heard,” says Ms. Foster, who attended a conversation between bus riders with disabilities and officials from the local transit authority this past September. 

Ms. Foster has attended several conversations, and whenever Cohear starts a new project, she often suggests people she knows. 

Well-connected people like Ms. Foster are invaluable to Cohear. Mr. Isaacsohn credits this style of organizing to the work he did for former President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign in Ohio.

“[We] were empowering and training volunteers, who were owning their effort in their neighborhood and becoming catalysts for change and learning tools that they could apply in the future,” he says.

Bringing about change

Mr. Moroski, the school board member, was initially skeptical of Mr. Isaacsohn’s claims of authentic conversations, but the longtime educator quickly became a believer. After conversations about anti-bullying efforts, Cohear produced a detailed report that synthesized its many findings, such as the students wanting more peer-to-peer mediation of bullying and more clubs like We Dine Together to build each other up. 

Mr. Moroski was shocked. “That’s not the first place adults go,” he says. “The adults go to suspension, as opposed to how can we empower these young people to handle it not on their own, but give them the skills they need to handle it and then also create a system where it’s obvious who to go to.” 

Nearly 50 students, teachers, parents, and principals participated in these conversations. When asked if they wanted the efforts to continue, they all said yes. Mr. Moroski is excited for the challenge.

“How do you create a chain of command that is not only authentic, but has results that parents, students can see and that is meaningful and impacts behavior? It’s just difficult,” he says. “We’re trying to get better at it, and Dani helped us.”

Although Cohear has seen some success in bridging the initial gap between decision-makers and others, they have yet to address how to turn these early conversations into long-term, sustainable relationships.

That’s next, says Mr. Isaacsohn.

“This is something that is really hard and very few people [have] figured it out, so we get a chance to try and work on it,” he says. “These conversations, it’s a spark for [change], but you have to sustain engagements – put oxygen into that spark and turn it into a real, lasting relationship.”

• For more, visit wecohear.com.

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The Monitor's View

Why Americans need a peek at the Mueller report

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If top members of Donald Trump’s campaign did not conspire or coordinate with Russia during the 2016 election, why didn’t they? Americans may want access to the Mueller report to find out, especially if the lack of collusion was the result of any virtue in Trump lieutenants. Perhaps hidden in the report are their motives for at least acting rightly.

While they may have welcomed meddling by Russia, nonetheless they decided not to assist the Kremlin despite having met or communicated with Russian agents many times. Some critics may find any positive motives difficult to believe, but if they did exist – and they helped prevent collusion with a foreign power – then such information might help prevent future foreign intervention.

The fact that no Americans were indicted speaks to something about a strong belief in the sovereignty and equality of U.S. democracy. If Trump officials did decide to protect the free debate of US citizens without foreign intervention, they acted in their community’s interest.

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Why Americans need a peek at the Mueller report

According to Attorney General William Barr, the main conclusion of the nearly two-year investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller is that members of Donald Trump’s campaign did not conspire or coordinate with Russia in its meddling in the 2016 election. While that negative finding is a great relief, Americans may want something else from the report, such as how to prevent future foreign interference. They might want to know if the Trump campaign’s lack of collusion was the result of any virtue in Mr. Trump’s top lieutenants.

Perhaps hidden in the report are their motives for at least acting rightly, such as trust and respect of U. S. democracy. While they may have welcomed meddling by Russia to win the election, nonetheless they decided not to assist the Kremlin, either tacitly or directly, in trying to spread distrust toward candidates and disrupt the American electoral system. And they may have done so despite having met or communicated with Russian agents dozens of times as well as receiving offers by Russians to assist the Trump campaign.

If their reason was not a fear of breaking a law, perhaps their motive came out of civic loyalty and honesty toward their political community called U. S. democracy. Some critics may find such motives difficult to believe, but if they did exist – and they helped prevent collusion with a foreign power – then such information in the report can be a lesson for Americans.

Last year, Mr. Mueller’s office indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies on charges of conspiracy to subvert the election. The fact that no Americans were indicted on similar charges speaks to something about a strong belief in the sovereignty and equality of democracy. If Trump officials did decide to protect the conditions for free debate among U. S. citizens, then they acted in their community’s interest.

“All politics is local,” the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill once said. And he might have added, all politics relies on local virtues. Perhaps opening the Mueller report to the public can serve a noble purpose.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Working through ‘the problem of evil’

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Today’s article explores the idea that preventing violent attacks starts with redefining evil as a distortion of reality and recognizing that everyone has God-derived rights of self-government, reason, and conscience.

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Working through ‘the problem of evil’

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Another headline, another mass attack against the innocent. And in the wake of it, a remarkable, powerful response of love and compassion and forgiveness. Again and again, an individual act of hate impels a global outpouring of caring for each other.

But with each incident, there is a yearning to prevent instead of simply console. And while practical steps may have their place, the most pressing need is to remove the hatred behind such attacks. Is that even possible? And an even deeper question arises for those communities of faith where many of these tragedies have occurred. If God is good and loving, how can these acts of violence be explained? It is the age-old wrestling with “the problem of evil,” as several individuals shared after their fellow worshippers were targeted (“After New Zealand terror, the faithful grapple with big question: Why?” CSMonitor.com).

These are deeply wrenching questions. But from both the small and the significant healing experiences in my own life gained through the study and practice of Christian Science, I’ve come to have real hope we can face the problem of evil and begin to work through it.

Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the healing system of Christian Science, was no stranger to immense tragedy. She endured years of chronic illness and personal loss herself while her country wrestled with polarization that plunged it into civil war. She knew firsthand that ignoring evil is not an option.

Going back to the Bible as a time-tested resource for consolation and inspiration, she found that the healing of both physical disease and moral depravity requires questioning the way we look at reality. Yes, God is good, loving, all-inclusive, and supreme. This spiritual revelation is the baseline of reality – everything in and of the infinite and ever-present divine Spirit.

Logically, evil doesn’t fit into the universe that an all-loving God creates, which is eternally and purely good. So evil must be redefined not as a reality but as a mesmeric distortion of it. The limited, human perspective on life accepts that distortion as real, with us as mortal, fragile, and vulnerable. So the way to eliminate evil is to see beyond the surface view of life based in matter and discover more of our real life in and of God.

This requires rejecting the boasts of evil as real and inevitable, and more of understanding God’s allness – and our safety and wholeness within that allness. But we can’t just think it; we need to live it. Setting aside time with God each day in prayer and study allows us to feel the reality of God’s goodness in the core of our being. We glimpse the magnitude of God’s goodness and our spiritual nature as God’s children, as Jesus told us we are. Whatever contradicts good is entirely unnatural and inherently unworthy of any of us. And we can help one another rebel against such injustices with the laws of God, overruling any claim against our safety, health, or integrity.

With this radically different understanding of evil as a mental deception concealing what is good and true, Mrs. Eddy takes a deep dive into this topic of mesmerism in the chapter “Animal Magnetism Unmasked” in her textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” She affirms: “Mankind must learn that evil is not power” (p. 102).

More and more, as we recognize God’s goodness as the fundamental reality, we learn to see through evil’s claim to power and effectively resist it. Whatever needs correction in human consciousness is brought to light by prayer and healed through divine Love. This is the Science of Christianity, neutralizing the effects of evil in society and promoting instead “affection and virtue in families and therefore in the community” (Science and Health, pp. 102–103).

Science and Health also includes a spiritual “Declaration of Independence.” It proclaims our universal freedom from mesmeric influences. Each of us is endowed by God “with inalienable rights, among which are self-government, reason, and conscience” (p. 106). This is what we must claim for ourselves and for everyone else as well.

Self-government, reason, and conscience. These inalienable rights antidote the senseless violence being perpetrated against many by a few. Self-government from a spiritual perspective begins with a mental yielding to the fact that no one is ever outside God’s jurisdiction. Reason sees through the manipulating pull of personal agendas and perceived injustices to the actuality of God’s love unifying us with one another, as children of the same universal Parent. Conscience speaks loudly and irresistibly to restrain us from all that would tempt us to believe in more than one God, more than one Mind, informing us what is right and impelling us to do it.

Human effort is insufficient to break through the mental nature of evil. We can’t do this on our own. What Jesus taught and lived so effectively is the eternal Christ – that is, “the divine image and likeness, dispelling the illusions of the senses; the Way, the Truth, and the Life, healing the sick and casting out evils” (Science and Health, p. 332). Christ enables us to see more of God’s nature defining all of us.

As we persistently pray to recognize our true rights derived from God, we recognize and honor them in each other. We see through what divides to what unites. We love with a Christ-power that proactively steamrolls hatred and delusion.

Whether we begin with the friction in our homes or offices, or pause as we read headlines of tragedy to take a stand against it, our prayer and effort to see good as the reality for all has impact. It encourages us; it strengthens us; it alerts us to take whatever actions may be needed. We begin to discover that no one is outside the boundless circle of divine Love, and that evil was never within it. Moment by moment, thought by thought, God’s infinite goodness is a practical, provable truth that is able to heal and redeem here and now.

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Viewfinder

Boxing Day

Phil Noble/Reuters
Britain’s Prince Charles visits a boxing gym in Havana, Cuba, March 25. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall landed in Havana on Sunday, marking the first British royal trip to the communist island nation. Boxing has long been a major pastime throughout Cuba, even through a decades-long ban on professional boxing imposed by Fidel Castro in 1962 that was lifted in 2013.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( March 26th, 2019 )

Thanks for starting your week with us. Tomorrow, we’ll look at how people eager to quickly help those affected by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique and Zimbabwe have turned to GoFundMe campaigns – with some unintended consequences.

Monitor Daily Podcast

March 25, 2019
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