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Study Contradicts Political Grandstanding On Welfare Spending

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—A new working paper series finds that poor parents who receive unconditional cash allocations are more likely to spend that money on their children.

The study by professors Lauren Jones, Kevin Milligan, and Mark Stabile of University of Toronto and University of British Columbia runs counter-intuitive to the headline-grabbing notion that poor parents waste government provided funds on tobacco, alcohol, strip clubs, casinos, tattoos, or steak and lobster.

In a twelve year study, using Canadian data, they found that for ever extra dollar low-income families received, there was an increases in purchases on child care, food, rent and education.

The findings of the survey also contradict anecdotal opinions that unconditional cash transfers result in increased spending on tobacco, alcohol or other taboo items.

Alabama is one of at least 37 states that have added additional restrictions above what is already Federally prohibited on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) cash benefits through electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards according to the NCSL.

State law prohibits those receiving public assistance from using the funds on alcohol, casino, tattoos, body piercing, psychic services, and adult entertainment. However, it does not limit what can be spent on firearms or weapons related purchases.

In nearly every industrialized country, no-strings-attached allowances are given to low-income families to help with the cost of childrearing. However, according to several reports, this is an idea that has gained little attention in the US, where the trend is to place more restrictions on spending, according to the study. 

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Under Alabama’s Republican supermajority, lawmakers have added to the existing Federal bans on using TANF dollars.

But, there is no proof that Alabamians receiving TANF funds are actually purchasing lottery tickets, or peering into the future though the use of psychics.

Regardless, the law in on the books.

Twelve years of  data shows that most individuals receiving assistance are good stewards of the limited funds they receive, and that these negative headlines are misleading and not based in facts.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Health

Black people are dying more often from COVID-19 in Alabama

Chip Brownlee

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Black people are being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus in Alabama, according to new data released by the Alabama Department of Public Health.

The Department of Public Health’s data shows that about 44 percent of the verified COVID-19 deaths in Alabama so far have been among black people, but black people make up only about 27 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Black people also account for a disproportionately larger number of confirmed cases of the virus, the health department’s data shows. About 36.6 percent of confirmed cases in the state that have been investigated by epidemiologists have been among black people.

“You can hypothesize that they may have some of these chronic illnesses,” said Dr. Selwyn Vickers, the dean of the UAB School of Medicine. “You could also worry that they just don’t get access. They don’t get to the hospital as early, and so it’s probably multiple reasons.”

via Alabama Department of Public Health

The area of Alabama with the least access to health care, the Black Belt region, is also the area of the state with the largest black population. Many of the counties in this region of the state have no hospital.

In this area of the state, testing was slow to get off the ground initially, Alabama State Health Officer Scott Harris said in an interview last week.

“We’ve really made an effort beginning [last] week in the Wiregrass and in the Black Belt, because we were just not seeing numbers there like we expected we would see,” Harris said. Harris said the department worked to get dedicated testing sites in those Central Alabama counties.

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The health department began releasing demographic data Tuesday. It will continue releasing that data daily, it said.

The data also shows that at least 41 percent of the state’s deaths so far have been among people younger than 65 years old. About 59 percent of the deaths have been among those in the 65-plus age bracket that is most vulnerable to the virus.

Most of the state’s deaths have been among those with underlying medical conditions like chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease or some combination of underlying conditions, the data shows.

At least 315 medical workers — about 15.7 percent of the state’s confirmed cases — have tested positive for the virus. At least 56 nursing home employees and 51 long-term care facility residents have tested positive, according to the Department of Public Health.

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Crime

Deadline extended for Alabama prison bids due to coronavirus

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday announced that because of the COVID-19, she’s giving a two-week deadline extension for submission of proposals to build then lease three new prisons to the state.

Those proposals had been due by April 30 but the two developer teams – Alabama Prison Transformation Partners and CoreCivic – will have until May 14 to file their proposals, according to a press release from Ivey’s office Tuesday.

The decision to extend the proposal submission deadline came after discussions with two groups about the impacts each are experiencing because of COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, according to Ivey’s office.

“I am steadfastly committed to the strategic effort to build three new men’s correctional facilities – this ‘Alabama solution’ is a direct result of our dedication to implement actionable solutions that address long-standing challenges facing our prison system,” Ivey said in a statement. “Given the unforeseen circumstances associated with COVID-19, it is in the best interest of the state of Alabama to grant this extension so that the developer teams have adequate time to perform required due diligence and to prepare thorough and thoughtful proposals.”

Ivey’s plan to build three new prisons is part of her solution for fixing the state’s overcrowded, deadly prisons, which remain under threat of a federal lawsuit if state officials don’t address what the U.S. Department of Justice has said are violations of inmates’ Constitutional rights to protection from violence and sexual assault.

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a statement that the spread of COVID-19 “has only further demonstrated the critical need for new correctional facilities in Alabama.”

“As we have stated before, overcrowded conditions within the Department’s dilapidated facilities create increasingly challenging circumstances to ensure inmate and staff health and safety,” Dunn said. “The developer teams expressed the need for an extension – due to work and travel restrictions implemented in the wake of this national health crisis – and we fully supported the extension.  Improved prison infrastructure, increased staffing, and stronger rehabilitation programs will allow for transformational results.”

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Crime

Public defender working to free some inmates in Birmingham jail amid COVID-19 crisis

Eddie Burkhalter

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At least six people in the Jefferson County Jail had their paroles revoked after serving time in state prisons for non-violent crimes, and as the threat of COVID-19 inside jails and prisons increases, some are working to get them out before it’s too late.

The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles told APR on Tuesday, however, that the bureau doesn’t have the authority to release those inmates.

Adam Danneman, lead attorney at the Jefferson County Public Defender’s Office, is concerned with the bureau’s assertion.

“They’re only in because of the violations filed by the Parole Board,” Danneman said of those state inmates in the Birmingham jail. “And they’ve already revoked these people.”

ADOC on March 20 announced a 30-day moratorium on taking prison transfers from county jails in an attempt to stave off a COVID-19 outbreak in state facilities.

Danneman told APR on Tuesday that his office is working to get released those who have already served time for non-violent offenses, were out on parole and who were picked back up on mostly technical violations.

“We’re lucky in Jefferson County that our judges and our DA and our sheriff’s department have all collaborated and used some common sense, proactive measures in this crisis to keep as many of our at-risk, non-violent citizens out of harm’s way as much as possible,” Danneman said.

Now he’s hoping the state’s Pardons and Paroles Board does the same, by releasing those who can safely be released before the deadly virus spreads behind the fences.

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It’s a matter of when, not if, Danneman said of the likelihood of COVID-19 cases in the Jefferson County Jail.

“I hope I’m wrong. I hope it never comes into the jail, but if it does it’s going to be bad,” Danneman said.

There’s been no positive COVID-19 case among state inmates as of Monday, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), but an administrative employee at one prison has tested positive for the virus.

As of Monday, 30 state inmates had been tested for the virus, but there were still seven test results pending, according to ADOC.

Criminal justice reform advocates and legal experts have been sounding the alarm for weeks over the threat of an outbreak of the virus in jails and prisons.

Older inmates and those with medical conditions are at much greater risk from serious complications and death from the novel coronavirus, health experts warn.

“The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles does not have the authority to release these offenders,” wrote Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles spokesman Terry Abbott, in a response to APR on Tuesday.

Abbott said that the Parole Board has revoked parole on six of seven inmates APR inquired about, who are awaiting transport back to the Alabama Department of Corrections to serve their sentences. The seventh inmate’s case is to come before the parole board this week, Abbott said.

It was unclear Tuesday how many state inmates were serving in county jails after having their paroles revoked for technical violations. Abbott said that number would change daily and would also involve people who have already had parole revoked and are awaiting transfer to a state prison.

Nancy Aichele, 53, is among those state prisoners serving in the Birmingham jail, where she’s been since January 24. Aichele had already served more than 18 years of a life sentence for an escape charge when she was picked up on a parole violation.

Aichele was charged with escape for walking out of an ADOC facility, without injuring anyone, after being convicted and sentenced to 3 years in 1990 for forging an $80 check, according to court records. The escape charge resulted in a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

After she was released on parole, Aichele was charged with obstruction, which triggered her parole violation and returned her to serve the remainder of her life sentence.

The obstruction charge was later dropped, according to court records, but the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Board revoked her parole regardless.

Willie Toyer, 55, is also in the Jefferson County Jail and was sentenced to life on a 1996 marijuana trafficking charge.

Toyer was paroled after serving 22 years and six months, but his parole was revoked for two subsequent drug charges in March; a possession charge and a misdemeanor charge of possessing prescription pills.

Toyer’s case is to go before the Pardons and Paroles Board this week, according to the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

Leo Cain, 64,  was sentenced to life in 1994 on a first-degree robbery charge from 1992. He served almost 22 years before being paroled, which was revoked after he was charged with misdemeanor obstruction for giving false information to law enforcement.

Danneman said a parole officer had told Cain that his parole wouldn’t be revoked if he pleaded to the misdemeanor obstruction charge, but after he agreed to do so he was arrested and returned to serve the rest of his time regardless.

Danneman said he’s concerned about Cain because of his age, which puts him at greater risk of death from COVID-19.

“He’s not somebody who needs to be incarcerated right now, if at all,” Danneman said.

Shannon Blackman, 54, received a life sentence for a 1996 burglary and had served 23 years before being paroled. She’s had no new criminal charges, but her parole was revoked on a technical violation for not reporting to a parole officer.

Had she been charged with burglary today under the state’s new sentencing guidelines she would likely serve no more than 18 months, Danneman said.

“She’s done 23 years on it, hasn’t committed a new offense and is still getting revoked,” Danneman said.

On Sunday a man serving in jail in New York died from COVID-19, becoming the first jail inmate in that state to die from the virus.

Michael Tyson, 53, was serving for a technical parole violation when he died from COVID-19. He had failed to report to his parole officer, according to The City.

There were more than 500 COVID-19 cases in New York city jails as of Sunday, according to the news agency. 

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Congress

Jones asks for faster COVID-19 emergency payments

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, asked the Treasury Secretary on Tuesday to expedite direct assistance payments to citizens amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

In a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Jones and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., expressed concern that CARES Act payments made through paper checks to some citizens would not be mailed until April 24. The senators asked that debit cards be mailed instead, thereby speeding up assistance.

“It is our understanding that payments made electronically can be distributed quickly, but the Internal Revenue System (IRS) must print paper checks and mail them separately. As a result, we encourage the Treasury Department to offer a targeted group of Americans the option of receiving their direct assistance payment on the Direct Express debit cards, which are used for other federal benefits like Social Security and Veterans Affairs benefits,” the senators wrote.

“While a slight lag between Congressional action and the support arriving to workers is understandable, the Treasury Department must act expeditiously to get these funds to their intended recipients,” the letter continues.

The $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package includes payments of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child. The first round of payments are likely to begin around April 13 and will be directly deposited into the accounts of those who filed taxes in 2018 or 2019.

Social Security beneficiaries who did not file taxes in recent years but who receive their benefits through direct deposit are to receive the emergency payments around 10 days after the first round of payments, also through direct deposit. Paper checks will then be mailed to other individuals.

The letter’s full text: 

April 7, 2020

The Honorable Steven T. Mnuchin

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Secretary of the Treasury

U.S. Department of the Treasury

1500 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, D.C. 20220

Dear Secretary Mnuchin,

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act included economic relief to Americans in the form of direct cash payments to provide support during this unprecedented public health and economic crisis. In order to provide this much-needed assistance directly and quickly, we request the Treasury Department utilize its Direct Express debit card as one method, at the option of the individual, for disbursing these payments as an alternative to paper checks.

We were alarmed by the Washington Post report on April 2, 2020, that “$30 million in paper checks for millions of other Americans won’t start being sent out until April 24, as the government lacks their banking information. And some of those checks won’t reach people until September.”[1] Americans should not have to wait five months to receive their checks.

While a slight lag between Congressional action and the support arriving to workers is understandable, the Treasury Department must act expeditiously to get these funds to their intended recipients. These direct assistance payments are aimed at assisting American workers in covering the cost of essentials household items, including rent and mortgage payments, outstanding bills, and food to feed their families.

It is our understanding that payments made electronically can be distributed quickly, but the Internal Revenue System (IRS) must print paper checks and mail them separately. As a result, we encourage the Treasury Department to offer a targeted group of Americans the option of receiving their direct assistance payment on the Direct Express debit cards, which are used for other federal benefits like Social Security and Veterans Affairs benefits.[2] Using debit cards could be limited to Americans eligible for this program not already signed up for direct deposit, have a bank account, or require a paper check.

As Americans across the country practice social distancing to contain the spread of COVID-19, we support delivering benefits automatically to as many people as possible and request that debit cards be offered as an option to distribute the assistance payment. Debit cards are a safer method of delivery than paper checks. Paper checks will force Americans to leave their homes to deposit the funds and can be a source of fraud. We appreciate your consideration of this request to keep Americans safe during these challenging times.

 

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