Adoption subsidies and home-schooling can be lethal combination

blue ribbonTaxpayers are funding adoption subsidies that sometimes provide a generous, supplemental income to abusive parents.

It’s an unintended consequence of a well-meaning law. Until the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, foster parents were discouraged from adopting children because foster care payments ended once the adoption went through. The new law gave an adoption subsidy close to what was received in foster care payments. It was for those who had a lot of love to give—but maybe not the financial resources—to adopt hard to place children out of foster care.

Foster parents, though, are closely monitored. Those with full adoptive parental rights are not.

A hard to place or special needs child is defined as a Caucasian child who is eight years of age or older, a minority child who is two years or older, or a child with physical, mental or emotional problems. According to the North American Council on Adoptable Children, parents who adopt a hard to place child out of Iowa’s foster care system may receive monthly payments of up to $500 – $900, depending upon their special needs status.

That’s for one child. Multiply the money when more children are involved. The subsidy is an entitlement, and the adoptive family’s income is not considered when negotiating financial support.

For the average family trying to provide a loving home for these children, the subsidy is likely not enough. And, it’s not why they do it. Most want to give these forgotten kids a permanent home and a good start in life. The subsidies are just one tool they can use to help provide for the well-being and needs of their adopted children.

On the other hand, abusers see foster kids as dollar signs. These adoptive parents use subsidies as supplemental income that will benefit themselves—not the children. If money didn’t come attached to the kids, there would be little interest in adopting them.

Once the adoption goes through, abusive parents can use home-schooling as a method to isolate these unwanted children and conceal neglect and abuse.

Three recent cases in Iowa show the vulnerability of these children. Natalie Finn, 16, died of emaciation. Malayia Knapp, 17, ran away from her home, reported abuse to the police, and is a survivor. Sabrina Ray, 16, was found dead in her home. Initial reports are that she was severely malnourished.

All three girls were adopted out of foster care and being home-schooled by parents, who were receiving adoption subsidies.

These cases have been so distressing that in an effort to find a fix, some want all parents who home-school their children to submit to new regulations.

But home-schooling, alone, is not the problem. Many children, from all walks of life, are achieving excellent academic results and are thriving in the home-schooling atmosphere.

Adoption subsidies, alone, are not the problem either. Many children have found a loving and permanent home with a family that would not be possible without this financial support.

The problem is the potentially lethal combination of the two. Isolation plus money equals a fraud that can kill. And taxpayer dollars are funding it.

When there’s public money involved, there needs to be transparency. If parents are accepting adoption subsidies, it should be under the condition that the children be enrolled in public or private schools. It’s not enough for Iowa’s Department of Human Services to become involved after a complaint is filed. One visit does not compare to regular observations from the public or private school system.

Whenever tragedy strikes, there’s a tendency to overreact. We don’t need to shut down home schools or discontinue adoption subsidies. Both do a lot of good. We do, though, need to look at the link between home-schooling and adoption subsidies.

It’s a false narrative to say that Natalie Finn fell through the cracks. It implies that she was an unfortunate enigma, but that all is well everywhere else. And all the while, Malayia, Sabrina, and an unknown number of other children suffer.

It’s not a crack. It’s a chasm, and it demands a policy change.

It’s time to go for the gold in education

gold-medal-usaEducation reform and the reduction in poverty must be tackled simultaneously to improve our education system.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development launched the Program for International Student Assessment in 2000 as a tool to assess education achievement on an international level. In 2000, there were just 41 countries reporting data. That year, the United States ranked 16th in reading, 20th in math, and 15th in science. Finland, Canada and New Zealand took first, second and third in reading while Hong Kong, Japan, and the Republic of Korea took the top three spots in math and science.

The 2015 PISA report included data from 70 countries. The United States ranked 23rd in reading, 39th in math and 25th in science. Singapore and Hong Kong were the education heavyweights.

Americans are more competitive than that. We want the gold, the silver, or at least the bronze—not 39th.

But when it comes to education, we tend to lose our all-in, competitive drive to succeed and instead fall back on protective, territorial natures.

New Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has received blistering opposition from teachers’ unions and others. Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association, said that she is, “…dangerously unqualified and lacks the experience we demand…”

But teaching experience hasn’t historically produced exceptional results in this leadership role. During the first 15 years of the PISA report, Rod Paige, a former superintendent for the Houston Independent School District, served as Education Secretary during the Bush Administration and Arne Duncan, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, served for the Obama Administration. Going from 20th in math out of 41 countries in 2000 to 39th in math out of 70 countries in 2015 is not an improvement, despite having very qualified and experienced educators at the helm.

DeVos gave a less than stellar performance at her confirmation hearing, but one theme that stood out was her desire to empower parents. Nobody cares more about the education of our children than their parents. Maybe it’s time to allow them greater decision-making through school choice. If private schools were to receive public funds, though, it should be required that these institutions—just like public schools—be non-selective in accepting students and be accountable and transparent through standardized and reported testing.

The competitive scramble for those finite, public dollars could affect infrastructure. High performing schools may expand. Low performing schools may close. One thing that won’t change is that we will always have parents who want the best for their kids, students who want the opportunity to realize their full potential, and teachers who want to help them reach their dreams. The particular building in which they accomplish that is less important.

But even a monumental decision to implement school choice wouldn’t solve the poverty factor. Teachers have been telling us for a long time that student poverty is one of the greatest challenges they face in successfully educating our youth.

According to both the OECD and UNICEF, the United States has one of the highest relative (less than one-half the nation’s median income) childhood poverty rates among developed nations. The argument that poverty is affecting the success that teachers have in the classroom has merit, and it’s not the job of the educator to fix that. That responsibility belongs to our legislators.

Legislators must do everything possible to bring good-paying jobs to their state. For those families still struggling in low-paying jobs, an immediate increase in the minimum wage to $9.00 could be a real help. Small businesses have shown that reasonable increases can be absorbed.

It’s tough to instantly produce good-paying jobs, but raising the minimum wage is entirely within their power. Until legislators increase the minimum wage, they cannot sincerely say that they are doing their part to improve education.

We must do something different to better compete at the international level on education. School choice has been talked about for decades. Perhaps the time has come to act instead of talk. Trusting parents, instead of the government, to make education choices for our youth might be the sea change that is needed.

If we can make bold moves and reduce poverty, maybe we could even medal at the 2030 PISAs.

 

“Buyer beware” is necessary to help contain health care costs

value-and-priceSome people, who had never cast a ballot before, voted in this past election solely as a protest to the financial burden that Obamacare had placed upon their families. Voting is a good tool, but there’s something more immediate that can produce good results in containing health care costs—taking personal responsibility.

Consumers think in terms of caveat emptor, or buyer beware, when purchasing all sorts of goods. Not much is purchased without asking, “What’s this going to cost and what value will I receive?”

That basic question gets left out many times when purchasing (non-emergency) health care services. In the past, individuals didn’t see the need. Most insurance plans had small deductibles.

But that’s changing, particularly in the individual health insurance market. Opting for $5,000 or $10,000 deductibles is necessary, just to get the monthly premium down to an affordable rate.

There are, though, a couple of things that all individuals can do to help reduce health care costs.

Get used to asking your doctor for an estimate on what a particular procedure will cost. Having the money talk with your physician might feel a bit uncomfortable, but those feelings dissipate when you realize the damage that can be done to your pocketbook by remaining uninformed.

For example, knee and hip replacements are becoming increasingly common among our aging population. What’s not common is any type of standardized pricing for this procedure. Insurance provider, Blue Cross Blue Shield, in its report called, “A Study of Cost Variation for Knee and Hip Replacement Surgeries in the U.S.,” found that total knee replacement surgeries could vary between $16,772 and $61,585 within the same geographical market.

Asking a few questions could save not just hundreds or thousands of dollars, but tens of thousands of dollars.

After receiving an estimate from your provider, utilize price transparency websites as much as possible to verify that estimated costs are within an acceptable, average range. Although price transparency in the health care field has been met with some legal challenges, most states are continuing to move forward with providing or referring some type of informational system.

The Health Care Incentives Improvement Institute monitors states and their health care price transparency efforts. In its annual “Report Card on State Price Transparency Laws,” it gave Iowa a “F.”

Iowa is not alone. Only seven states were given passing grades. Many failed because pricing data collected was insufficient or in an incorrect format, quality of care data was left out, websites were not easily navigable, or sites were not even up and running at the time the report was issued.

Iowa does not have a state all-payer claims database. The Iowa Hospital Association does provide some pricing comparisons on its website, www.iowahospitalcharges.com, but its data is based upon prices charged, not actual payment received from negotiated insurance contracts. It also lacks quality of care comparisons.

Still, it can be of some help. After first searching for “musculoskeletal system,” and then selecting knee replacements, its data show that even within the Cedar Valley there can be a $10,000 swing in average charges for knee replacements of comparable difficulty.

More information is better, but having some comparison data is better than having none at all. It’s a start.

A knee replacement surgery is a high-cost procedure. Patients may fall into the trap of thinking that pricing doesn’t matter because the $5,000 or $10,000 deductible will be exhausted, and insurance will pick up the rest. But many insurance plans require a patient co-pay percentage of ten or 20 percent, after the deductible has been reached, which can become quite costly. Many other procedures will fall below the deductible threshold, meaning the patient will pick up 100 percent of the tab.

If all health care consumers got into the habit of making smart purchasing decisions, premiums and deductibles could come down for everyone.

It may seem harsh to arm yourself with a “buyer beware” mentality in the health care field. Health care, after all, is no more onerous than any other industry.

At the same time, it’s no less.

Beware of comprehensive legislation

comprehensive

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“Comprehensive” is the dirtiest word in legislative language.

We’ve had comprehensive health care reform, which is a success mainly by the measurement of increased government spending. There’s talk of comprehensive immigration reform, which would likely be an overkill solution. And some counties in the state are using the comprehensive approach to increase the minimum wage through automatic, annual increases that are usually too steep and objectionable to pass.

Comprehensive is code for, “Let’s really screw this up.” Instead of focusing on a single, fixable issue, comprehensive legislation keeps adding to the bill until it either becomes unpassable or it passes, but creates additional problems.

The biggest, single issue that needed fixing in the health insurance world was to eliminate underwriting for pre-existing conditions. According to The Statistics Portal, in 2014 about 84 percent of our population received health insurance through either Medicare—insurance for the elderly, Medicaid—insurance for the poor, or through group workplace plans. About six percent purchased health care off the individual market. The remaining 10 percent were uninsured. Many of the uninsured likely had a pre-existing health condition and were denied insurance. This is the one group we needed to help. The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, provided that help, but the 2,700 page bill created more problems by doing so.

Before Obamacare, those who purchased health care off the individual market were self-sufficient and paid for their own health insurance—without the help of taxpayer subsidies. Because premiums are higher in Obamacare, insurance has become unaffordable to this group that had previously paid their own way. More than 85 percent of Obamacare enrollees receive some type of financial assistance. That means taxpayers are helping to support not only those who were being underwritten, but now also many who were previously self-sufficient.

Comprehensive immigration reform is a talking point on the campaign trail. The one problem that needs fixing with immigration in the country is that our laws are not being enforced. There’s been a reason for that. Employers are benefiting from cheap labor provided by undocumented workers, and consumers are benefiting by purchasing the cheap goods they’re producing. In some ways, we’ve all been part of the problem.

But we don’t need comprehensive immigration reform. Simply enforce the laws we already have, particularly for those who illegally migrate to our country and then commit felonies. After we’ve neglected our laws for decades, it may be too late—logistically and morally—to deport millions of productive human beings who have assimilated to our nation’s core values. But strong leadership can make it clear to the world that arriving in the United States will now be through legal methods only. Others will be deported.

Then there’s the minimum wage conundrum. Because our state legislators failed to solve the problem, some counties in Iowa have grappled with the issue. Comprehensive ideas about multiple, steep increases through successive years are making it hard for local leaders to find consensus. For some, the only acceptable solution is a guaranteed path to $15.00 per hour. Meanwhile, there are workers languishing at $7.25 an hour who could really benefit from even a modest increase right now.

Don’t elected officials work every year? Can’t a reasonable increase to $9.00 per hour be made now and then discuss a future increase in—the future? Work now and work later. That’s what most people do. Elected officials can do the same.

Politicians like to use the comprehensive sound bite, suggesting that it’s the only way to solve a problem. But the effect is the opposite. Either nothing gets done, or there’s a solution overkill that causes more problems than it solves.

We can accomplish more, without going comprehensive.

Drug testing welfare recipients isn’t the best idea

drug test

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Drug testing welfare recipients is an idea that doesn’t go away. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 15 states have passed this type of legislation and another 17—including Iowa—have proposed it.

It has plenty of public support. Based upon both Rasmussen and Huffington Post polls, more than half of Americans want to see welfare recipients drug tested.

And yet, the program hasn’t proven to be a great success.

Many states that are experimenting with this policy are prudently choosing not to test every welfare recipient because of possible legal challenges of invasion of privacy. That means only those who are legitimately suspected of using drugs can be tested. With no better method to solidify suspicion, most of these state agencies are simply asking welfare recipients to complete questionnaires. It explains why some of these states have drug tested only a small percentage during the rollout of their program. And from that small number, very few are testing positive.

Besides having a hard time legally testing welfare recipients, there are costs to consider. Administering the program doesn’t happen for free. The financial burden of the program can outweigh any savings. Doing no drug testing could cost taxpayers less.

But just because drug testing welfare recipients isn’t the best idea, it doesn’t mean that lawmakers should ignore what’s at the heart of the matter.

Working people perceive that some individuals are gaming the welfare system, and lots are angry about it.

You don’t have to watch cable news to know that the country has become increasingly divided. One growing division seems to be between the working, tax-paying class and able-bodied individuals who don’t work and receive taxpayer assistance.

In reality, many who are receiving food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid health insurance are working. They just don’t earn enough to support their families. The Family Investment Program (FIP) provides cash payments to families, but it has a five-year, lifetime limitation. Many receiving FIP benefits are required to work at least part-time hours or enroll in some type of program to further their education. According to the Department of Human Services, a single parent with two children receives just $231 per month in cash assistance if the parent is working 20 hours a week at the minimum wage rate of $7.25.

I believe that what working people want more than mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients is seeing able-bodied individuals make the effort to support themselves. The public assistance program is designed to do that.

But there are two things that could improve the system.

Increase the minimum wage to $9.00 per hour. A modest increase in the minimum wage could do so much good for families and could be enough to get some off of welfare programs, decreasing the number that taxpayers support. And history has shown that even small businesses can adjust to minimum wage increases when they’re reasonable.

Secondly, enforce the rules we have. Last fiscal year, the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals recovered $17 million in fraud as a result of welfare eligibility investigations. That’s a big number, but likely doesn’t represent the total dollar amount of deceit that may be out there.

And although FIP benefits can be extended to families beyond five years through a hardship exemption, the exception should be rare and compelling. Those specific dollars should be reported separately so taxpayers can know if the five-year lifetime maximum benefit becomes simply a lifetime benefit.

Give people a chance to move off of welfare by increasing the minimum wage, and do everything possible to maintain integrity in the public assistance program we have.

Maybe then, we’d have fewer taxpayers wanting drug testing of welfare recipients—which is largely a failed policy.

Path to voting for felons is reasonable

The debate over disenfranchised felons misses the mark. There’s a lot of indignation about lost voting rights, but it’s really a story about the lack of transparency and lack of desire.

felon voting

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Democrats and Republicans have made the issue a political football. Most Democrats assert that voting is a right—not a privilege—that should be restored immediately after being released from prison. Its belief system is helped out by the fact that many felons are low-income individuals who tend to vote Democrat. Many Republicans view voting as a privilege belonging to law-abiding citizens. The notion is that by choosing to commit a felony, an individual makes a simultaneous choice to lose voting rights. Those rights can be restored after release from prison by completing an application process, but some believe these potential Democrat voters may not go through that effort.

Both political parties want control of the vote, but what does the average, newly-released felon want?

There are dozens of agencies, charitable organizations and ministries designed to help a felon reenter society. Some help with basic needs of food, clothing and housing. Others help with employment opportunities and everything that goes along with getting that first job, like obtaining a new driver’s license.

What’s been getting missed, is the conversation about how to restore voting rights. As soon as the prison doors swing open, the Iowa Department of Corrections should be required to notify all released felons of the process required to restore voting rights and offer assistance if needed.

The tragedy isn’t that voting rights were taken away because of the crime committed. It’s that the process to restore those rights isn’t transparent.

It’s the spark that eventually led to the current Griffin v. Pate firestorm. Kelli Jo Griffin, a convicted felon, didn’t know about the, “Application for Restoration of Citizenship Rights.” She thought her voting rights would be automatically restored after her debt to society was paid. Better communication might have helped to avoid the lawsuit that is being argued before the Iowa Supreme Court.

It shouldn’t be a secret on how to be a voter in Iowa. Understanding how to restore voting rights should be as common as knowing how to get your driver’s license back after it has expired. Most people know that once a license is expired, an individual must spend a fair amount of time and effort to restore driving privileges. One must pass a written and driving test, and provide supporting documentation of identification. People know the rules. And if it does expire—for anyone, felon or non-felon—individuals will exert the effort needed. Because driving is important to them.

The U.S. Department of Transportation states that about 87 percent of the driving-age population has a license. Compare that percentage with the 42 percent of individuals who, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, exercised their right to vote in the 2014 elections.

Citizens in this country care about voting about half as much as they care about driving.

Transparency is the first tool to combat the disenfranchising of felons. Information on how to restore voting rights should be made available at the time of release and assistance provided if needed.

Then comes the tougher part—desire. In the state of Iowa, it takes desire on the part of the felon to become a voting citizen again by making the effort to pay restitution, complete the application process, and provide supporting documentation. The newly-streamlined application has 13 questions. They’re basic, fact-based questions like name, address and date of birth, as well as date of crime, conviction and release.

I believe in second chances. Kelli Jo Griffin does too. She’s part of the 42 percent who want to vote.

Armed with knowledge and effort, her goal could have been met a long time ago.

The not-so-nice part about free college tuition

There’s no doubt about it. Many who attended a public university following the 2008 recession shouldered a great, financial burden for their education. When state budgets shriveled up with the economic downturn, public universities took a hit in funding. That translated into higher tuition nationwide and a trillion-dollar student loan debt.

college grad

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Iowa was not immune to this problem. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the state of Iowa (adjusting for inflation) decreased funding for higher education by 22 percent during this time. Despite that decrease, it had the fifth smallest tuition increase of 50 states. That means Iowa universities did a better job than most, in delivering a cost-effective education during the recession. And while the state of Iowa is showing signs of resuming more adequate funding of our public universities, it is still struggling—like other states across the nation—with budget constraints.

These tumultuous years have led Democratic presidential contenders, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, to offer a correction by making promises of free college tuition for all.

Sanders wants, “the best educated workforce in the world,” with college that is tuition-free. He plans to accomplish this by having Wall Street speculators pay for it. Clinton wants to see, “…incomes rise and ensure Americans get ahead and stay ahead,” with college that is tuition-free, although her plan asks students to work 10 hours per week. It would be paid for by requiring states to meet higher education funding requirements and by reducing or eliminating certain tax deductions of high-income earners. Both candidates believe a college education is an entitlement—whether or not students or their parents are financially independent or financially struggling.

This all sounds very nice, but there are three big problems with these niceties.

Making our colleges tuition-free won’t give us what Bernie Sanders wants—the best educated workforce in the world.

Based on feedback from employers, our colleges are not adequately preparing graduates. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “The majority of employers feel that colleges and universities must make improvements to ensure graduates’ workplace success. Fully 58% think improvements are needed to ensure graduates gain the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in entry-level positions at their company… and an even larger portion (64%) think improvements are needed to ensure that graduates have the skills and knowledge needed to advance within their company.”

Promises to make college tuition-free might give us the most degreed workforce in the world, but there’s no correlating evidence that it would provide the best educated workforce.

Secondly, making our colleges tuition-free won’t give us what Hillary Clinton wants—rising incomes. There are insufficient, high-paying jobs for recent college graduates. The Pew Research Center reported from a 2012 study that about 28 percent of recent graduates were underemployed—either working part-time or working in a low-paying, full-time job.

Getting through college, without any debt, may be helped by providing free tuition. But unless we are able to produce high-paying jobs, we may just have more graduates who are dissatisfied and underemployed.

The third problem is the message.

We’re a generous people in this country. For those who show a financial need, taxpayers have historically helped to fund tuitions through Pell Grants. What grants don’t cover, student loans, part-time jobs, and scholarships can fulfill.

But to tell our high school graduates that they are all entitled to a tuition-free college education could be harmful. Your very first lesson as an adult shouldn’t be that the world owes you something.

There’s a more reasonable approach to solving the trillion-dollar student loan debt. Allow graduates to refinance loans at available, lower interest rates as recommended by both Sanders and Clinton. Also, graduates can now enter repayment agreements that don’t exceed 10 percent of their income—no matter how high the student loan debt. And, we can continue Pell Grants.

It’s possible to provide needs-based solutions without going overboard by starting another entitlement program with lots of potential, negative consequences:

  • Free tuition at public colleges could make it tougher for private colleges to compete.
  • Charitable giving by generous donors could diminish because if college is free, what would be the point of offering scholarships?
  • The grading system could be dangerously dumbed down to make sure students meet minimal, government-mandated GPAs, in order to keep free money flowing to colleges.
  • It could create another bloated government agency, in which the cost to administer the program diminishes any positive effects.

The recession has been a rough ride for many individuals, not just college students. It’s tempting to latch on to campaign promises of free stuff, but it doesn’t solve the root of the problem.

Efforts to improve the education process and improve the economy in order to produce high-paying jobs—that graduates are qualified to fill—would pay bigger dividends.

It’s the better message for students.