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Why President Biden can’t make states vaccinate teachers — or anyone else



WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden wants to vaccinate teachers to speed school reopenings, but more than half the states aren’t listening and haven’t made educators a priority — highlighting the limited powers of the federal government, even during a devastating pandemic.

“I can’t set nationally who gets in line, when and first — that’s a decision the states make,” Biden said while touring a Pfizer plant in Michigan on Friday. “I can recommend.”

Under the Constitution, the powers of the federal government are far-reaching but not all-encompassing. States have always retained control over public health and safety, from policing crimes to controlling infectious disease, including distribution of coronavirus vaccines that Washington helped create and whose supply it controls.

That the U.S. has the world’s highest death toll from the pandemic has renewed criticism of the federalist system that has allowed the states to do as they please, with very different approaches and very different results.

“There’s a pretty strong argument that the confusion we’ve created has, in fact, cost human lives,” said Donald Kettl, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and author of “The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work.” “We pay a pretty high price sometimes for letting states go their own way.”

He added: “The founders were very conscious of the fact that it was a collection of states that had succeeded in winning the Revolutionary War. If you roll that forward, you end up with this patchwork of different vaccine priorities, mask mandates and lockdown rules, because the federal government cannot force states to do things.”

The feds and the states have been in a near-constant tug-of-war for 230 years — sometimes violently, as during the Civil War — often refereed by the Supreme Court, which has ruled that it’s the states that have “the authority to provide for the public health, safety, and morals” of their residents.

The federal courts — not the federal government — have been able to exert their will over the states on issues from school desegregation to abortion to voting rights. But schools, abortion clinics and elections are still run or regulated by the states.

The federal government has spent the past two centuries trying to come up with creative ways to push its agenda on the states, sometimes by dangling the promise of federal funding as a carrot — and the threat to withhold it as a stick.

For instance, to build the Interstate highway system, the feds promised to foot 90 percent of the bill if states put up just 10 percent. The catch was that the roads had to abide by regulations that started small — bridges needed to be tall enough to allow tanks to pass under, to cite one requirement — but quickly grew to encompass the nationally uniform system of roads we take for granted today.

During the oil crisis of the 1970s, when gas prices skyrocketed amid tensions in the Middle East, Congress wanted Americans to slow down to conserve fuel. But it couldn’t institute a national speed limit, so lawmakers tried to compel the states do it, passing a law to withhold highway funding from states that didn’t set the maximum speed limit at 55 mph. (Congress repealed the law in 1995.)

Washington pulled a similar move in 1984, when it forced states to raise the drinking age to 21 if they wanted highway money.

But just as often, the courts have pushed back against what they view as Washington overreach.

“When you boil it down, the delivery of public health interventions resides, really, at the state and local level,” said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. “That’s been the model since very early on in our republic.”

The Affordable Care Act is a hodgepodge of incentives and mandates because, in part, it was built to comply with the complexities of American federalism, by, for example, giving states the responsibility to set up their own insurance exchanges.

The Supreme Court nearly killed the law for unconstitutionally coercing states to expand their Medicaid programs. The court found a workaround, like the highway funding trick, in which the Medicaid expansion became a federal incentive, instead of a federal mandate. But 12 states have still legally refused to join the expansion.

When it comes to fighting infectious diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides guidance on health issues to states, which delegate much of their authority even further to counties and municipalities.

“In the positive sense, this means the system can be responsive to local conditions based upon the people who know them best,” Michaud said. “But it also leaves open the possibility for inequality and greater risk from the virus because of the lack of a coordinated and effective response.”

Last year, South Dakota defied federal guidelines against mass gatherings to allow a massive motorcycle rally to proceed. It has since been linked to more than 250,000 coronavirus infections around the country.

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, Philadelphia allowed a massive parade to proceed and its death toll surpassed 10,000, while St. Louis banned mass gatherings and kept its death toll below 700. Washington played little role in that pandemic — the CDC wasn’t even formed until 1946 — and President Woodrow Wilson never made a public statement about the virus, which killed more than 650,000 people in the U.S.

Today, states can institute mask mandates, but many questioned the constitutionality of Biden’s proposed national mandate. He ended up, instead, issuing mask mandates for federal property and interstate travel, like planes and buses, over which the courts have long ruled that the feds have authority.

The CDC legally can’t force states to roll out Covid-19 vaccinations with any particular priority, said Sarah Gordon, an assistant professor of health law and policy at Boston University.

“They are actually quite limited in what they can do,” Gordon said. “The federalist separation of national versus local public health authority in the U.S. has, repeatedly, hamstrung rapid and effective pandemic response.”

In theory, Biden could cut vaccine supplies to states, which former President Donald Trump threatened to do in response to criticism from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but it would cause an uproar, and the new administration has, instead, chosen a simple formula of allotment based on each state’s adult population. And it can set up its own vaccination centers in regions with eligible populations it’s trying to target.

But even some Democratic governors have chosen to ignore federal guidelines and set their own vaccination priorities.

The CDC calls for vaccinating all essential workers, including teachers, before moving on to those under 75. But several states have chosen to vaccinate people over 65 and those with pre-existing conditions first.

“We are going to rely on the CDC definition of an essential worker. But that’s a lot of people, including teachers,” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont told the Hartford Courant’s editorial board. “I’m not sure you move grandma to the back of the line so you can move [teachers] forward.”

Jon Valant, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies education policy, said Biden’s most effective tool to push states to vaccinate teachers might be the bully pulpit.

“What the federal government can do is mostly a combination of guidance, cover and pressure,” he said. “Teachers unions can be a lightning rod, and if you’re prioritizing teachers because the CDC or the federal government says to, it helps to protect you from critiques.”

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'So much for Project Fear!' 1,000 EU firms plan UK move – Brexit-hating Ireland tops list



PROJECT FEAR has been completely dismantled after stunning new analysis found around 1,000 EU-based financial services firms are looking to open their first office in the UK – with Brexit-hating Ireland topping the list.

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Nicola Sturgeon to defy Boris Johnson strategy as June 21 reopening 'tricky' to deliver on



NICOLA STURGEON is likely to defy Boris Johnson’s plans for lockdown easing in England as she will not give dates on when it will be over, an expert has said.

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A minimum wage raise by Congress to $15 an hour would change lives — as it changed mine



If you watch the debate on Capitol Hill, the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour seems like little more than a skirmish in a larger fight between opposing politicians. But for me and my co-workers, it means something else entirely: the difference between poverty and dignity.

When you’re making only $8.50 an hour — that’s less than $18,000 a year — you have to make very hard choices.

I’ve been working at a McDonald’s just outside Chicago for over a decade now. When I began in 2010, I was young and easy to exploit. It paid me $8.50 an hour, and I was often forced to do work “off the clock.” For example, if my job was to work the cash register, I had to come in 15 to 20 minutes before the shift officially began to count the register and then do the same thing at the end of the shift. That could end up being an extra hour of work for no pay.

While working there, I got pregnant and had my son. Being a single mom is hard enough. But constantly working to support him and still not having enough to live on can put you in a dark place. When you’re making only $8.50 an hour — that’s less than $18,000 a year — you have to make very hard choices.

To afford housing, I moved into a basement-level apartment that frequently flooded, damaging my things and putting me in a constant panic. Almost all our money beyond rent and utilities went to food. But my son is lactose intolerant and needs special milk that costs $6 a container. What do you do when you can’t afford to keep your child healthy?

Adriana Alvarez with her son, Manny, in February 2020 in Chicago.Fight for $15 and a Union

When my boy had a major growth spurt, necessitating new shoes and clothes, there was no way I could get him what he needed and also take care of myself. For clothes, I use my mom’s hand-me-downs. She didn’t want to make me feel bad, so she would say she bought an outfit for herself and then claim it didn’t fit.

During that time, my son and I were unable to do almost anything fun. No going to the movies and no “luxuries” like ice cream or toys. We were essentially quarantining: We stayed home all the time out of financial necessity. The one exception? Going to the park because it was free.

Fortunately, things started to improve. Not because McDonald’s raised my pay out of the goodness of its heart, but because we left it no choice. In 2014, after some of us were offered a measly 10-cent raise, we were outraged. Around that time, an organizer approached me and asked whether I knew about the Fight for $15 campaign. He educated me about my rights and explained that being forced to work off the clock was illegal. I informed my co-workers, and they were outraged, too.

You might wonder whether I was scared to lose my job if I spoke out or protested. The answer is that I was so angry about being exploited and living in poverty conditions despite holding down a job that I decided to go for it. We started with basic house meetings, just five of us at first. Those meetings slowly got bigger and bigger, which raised our hopes and made it clear that we weren’t alone in this fight. Eventually, I even hosted a meeting myself, though I had no chairs and just one two-seater sofa in my apartment. I’ll never forget when 15 people crammed into my apartment, eating pizza and standing in solidarity.

After taking our fight both to McDonald’s and to state officials, we started to see real change. Chicago raised its wage to $13 and then $14, and now it will be $15 in July. On the state level, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker took our side and signed a bill into law that will phase in a $15 minimum wage over the next few years. I was at the State Capitol the day the measure passed and will never forget that moment the rest of my life. We were so nervous but so excited. It gave us the energy to keep on fighting — and the confidence that, one day, we would also win our demand for a union.

Fifteen dollars an hour was a rallying cry that grew out of the first fast-food strike in New York City in 2012, but it still isn’t enough. The living wage for someone like me — a single mom in Chicago — is actually $32.90, according to a living wage calculator produced by MIT. That means that by its estimation, I would need more than twice what I’m paid now to cover the bare-bones costs of housing, food, transportation, health care, child care and other basic needs.

Still, we started by battling for $15. As we did so, we would keep hearing the same arguments from wealthy corporations and their advocates who opposed our efforts. First, they claimed burgers would have to be more expensive if wages went up. Then they claimed jobs would have to be cut.

Here’s the truth: These corporations have so much money stored away in their pockets whether we get $8.50 or $15. When they pay us a living wage, they can still keep their prices low — the key to their business model and the reason their customers go to them in the first place — and still have massive profits.

It can be done. It should be done. They just don’t want to do it.

In the end, we know these false claims were nothing more than scare tactics. As far as I saw, the McDonald’s I work at did not change its burger prices or cut jobs after my salary almost doubled. While minimum wage increases sometimes come with small price increases, they are negligible compared to the benefit they give to millions of exploited workers. And though many studies show that essentially no employment is lost when the minimum wage goes up, even if we lose a few jobs, maybe that means folks no longer have to work two and three jobs because they can survive on one.

After our organizing victories, my wage increased to $14.50. Suddenly I was able to arrange exciting outings for my son. I took him to something called Winter Wonderfest at Chicago’s Navy Pier, where he ice skated, rode indoor roller coasters and did a bunch of other fun activities we had never heard about. We finally were allowed to have fun. I had a blast, and so did he. Our lives were transformed.

The pandemic came and my hours got shortened because customers could no longer eat indoors. Thank goodness my wage was higher when that happened.

Then the pandemic came and my hours got shortened because customers could no longer eat indoors. Thank goodness my wage was higher when that happened. I can’t even imagine what my life would be like if my hours had been reduced and I was still making $8.50.

One bright spot of the pandemic is that it highlighted the importance of the work my colleagues and I do. We were labeled as essential workers. But since the federal minimum wage hasn’t gone up since 2009, tens of millions of us across the country are still being paid as low as $7.25 an hour. It’s time for members of Congress to act.

My story proves lives will change when it does.

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