End of 2019 MO Legislative Session Allows Advocates to Turn Attention to Federal Issues

With the General Assembly adjourning the 2019 Legislative Session on May 17, social justice advocates in Missouri now have more opportunity to focus on important federal issues. Unfortunately there are many situations where policy changes are being promoted that would lower the quality of life in Missouri communities and reduce safety net funds available to the most vulnerable among us. This month let’s look at two important emerging issues – proposed changes to the U.S. Census form and a new way to calculate inflation in the updating of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).

The Importance of an Accurate U.S. Census Count

As this month’s Empowering You newsletter was receiving its final edit on June 27, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) handed down its long-awaited decision on whether the Department of Commerce may include a citizenship question as part of the 2020 U.S. Census. Fortunately Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, said the explanation for adding the question offered by the Trump administration “appears to have been contrived.” He also stated, “Reasoned decision-making under the Administrative Procedure Act calls for an explanation for agency action. What was provided here was more of a distraction.”

Roberts, however, left open the possibility that the Department of Justice could bring back an explanation that would still allow SCOTUS to approve having the question added. Still, many legal experts (for example Cary Coglianese, a law professor who directs the Penn Program on Regulation at the University of Pennsylvania, quoted in this NY Times article) do not believe that will happen in time to force the question onto the 2020 U.S. Census form.

Some experts estimated that the question would have resulted in as many as 6.5 million people declining to fill out and return their Census forms, leading to a highly inaccurate count. Having an accurate count is very important to each state, including Missouri. The data from the U.S. Census is used to determine:

  • How many members of Congress we have;
  • How many Electoral Votes Missouri gets; and 
  • Appropriations levels for Medicaid, Medicare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), highway planning and construction, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Section 8 housing, Head Start, and many more federal programs. 

Those of us who care about access to basic human needs know that a severe undercount could mean that communities with low incomes have less funding for health care, education, housing subsidies, food assistance, and other basic needs. That concern led nearly 150,000 persons to submit comments to the Department of Commerce with regard to the citizenship question, with 99.1 percent opposing it, according to our national allies at the Coalition on Human Need (CHN). 

CHN, in a blog post, attributed the campaign for a citizenship question to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross who argues that the Department of Justice needs the statistics in order to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. However, CHN staff members state that an undercount would make the Voting Rights Act harder to enforce, not easier. U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman called Ross’ action a “pretextual or sham justification.”   Three U.S. District Judges – from California, Maryland, and New York – have ruled against Ross, but the case was then fast-tracked to the Supreme Court where the outcome was less clear.

Two legal arguments were especially crucial in the presentation to SCOTUS: 1) Did Ross and the Department of Commerce violate the Administrative Procedure Act, by acting in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner? And 2)  Does the citizenship question violate the enumeration clause and 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which states, in part, “Representatives….shall be apportioned among the several States…according to their respective Numbers…,” elsewhere requiring a count of “the whole number of persons in each state,” whether or not they are citizens. 

Empower Missouri felt it was very important to join CHN in opposing the citizenship question, and we thank members of our advocacy network who joined us filing a comment, passing information along by social media, or other actions. We will join with Missouri Foundation for Health, the United Way and other allies in the “Stand Up and Be Counted” campaign to ensure an accurate count. Watch our Twitter and Facebook accounts for actions to join in this important effort. 

Trump Administration Proposes Change to Inflation Calculation

On May 6, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a notice requesting comments on changing the methodology for updating the federal poverty line for inflation. It suggests using an alternative, lower measure of inflation than the traditional Consumer Price Index (known as the CPI-U) — either the “chained” CPI or the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index. This would result in lower poverty thresholds, with the gap between the current and proposed measure increasing each year.

  • According to our national partners at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Coalition on Human Need, the policy’s impact would be small at first but would grow. By the tenth year, millions of people would lose eligibility for, or receive less help from, health and nutrition programs: 
  • Hundreds of thousands of seniors and people with disabilities would lose or receive less help from Medicare’s Part D Low-Income Subsidy, meaning they would pay higher premiums for drug coverage and pay more out of pocket for prescription drugs.
  • Hundreds of thousands of children and adults would lose comprehensive coverage through Medicaid or CHIP.
  • Millions of Affordable Care Act marketplace consumers would receive lower premium tax credits, meaning they would pay higher premiums. 
  • Significant numbers of low-income households, primarily in working families, would lose eligibility for federal nutrition assistance programs including SNAP, WIC, and free school meals. 

In the official comment that Empower Missouri filed with the OMB on June 18, we stated:

Your administration will do great harm to Missourians with low incomes if you focus on a general measure of inflation that takes all households into account. The measures you suggest include those with incomes that are adequate to purchase basic human needs and those who are wealthy enough to have much discretionary income. However, consumption patterns of households with low incomes  — and their ability to respond to changes in prices by changing their consumption — is different from those of households with adequate and excess income as relates to basic human needs. A recent study shows that inflation rises faster for households with low incomes than for the population as a whole. Therefore your proposed change is erroneous and must not be implemented.

Thanks to the many organization in Missouri that joined us in filing comments. By doing so we have helped to create a record of concerns that federal agencies generally have to show they have appropriately considered before taking action to implement a policy change. Otherwise, courts may judge actions by those agencies as “arbitrary and capricious.” We will keep you informed as this issue continues to develop. 

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