Kalena Thomhave

Kalena Thomhave is a writing fellow at The American Prospect. Her email is kthomhave@prospect.org.

Recent Articles

Simplifying the Tax Code, or Simply Trickle-Down Economics?

The Senate’s tax bill drives up the deficit, which could enable the same tax-cutting Republicans to inflict drastic cuts to the social safety net.

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
trickle-downers.jpg Senate Republicans may try to quickly move their tax proposal to a vote this week, attempting to score the GOP’s first legislative victory before the opposition can thoroughly mobilize. It’s a nightmare bill, and most Americans don’t support the tax reform proposal (though of course, wealthy Republican donors do). This isn’t surprising, since the tax plan is a tax cut for the rich, and stands to hurt the poor by threatening their health care as well as essential social programs. Back when Trump revealed the original GOP plan, he said he wanted to “make the tax code simple, fair, and easy to understand.” To simplify the tax code, Republicans have trumped up their ( not quite ) doubled standard deduction, while eliminating personal exemptions and other deductions (which the increased standard deduction may not completely offset). But the effect of these individual changes is slight when compared with the key piece of the tax plan,...

The GOP Tax Plan Expands the Child Tax Credit -- for the Wealthy

Though an expanded child tax credit could sharply reduce poverty, the GOP is instead focused on strengthening the (upper-income) American family.

(Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/Sipa via AP Images)
One of the most lamentable failures of the repugnant Republican tax plan is the Child Tax Credit proposal. Though the possible expansion of the CTC had been hailed as bipartisan relief for struggling families, this proposal is just one among many that will boost the rich without doing much of anything for the poor. And the conservative reasoning supporting this CTC model is particularly insidious. Expanding the CTC was a pet project of Ivanka Trump, who has long attempted to pass herself off as a champion of women and a moderate voice in her father’s ear, a nonsensical notion in light of her inaction to advocate for the feminist issues she says are important to her. Praising the tax plan, Ivanka said it “takes a big step in terms of helping the American family with the high cost of raising children.” By “the American family,” she meant the wealthy American family. The current CTC gives up to a $1,000 tax credit for each child in an eligible working family...

Revving Up Rural Public Transit

Small communities create unique transportation programs that reduce reliance on cars and improve residents’ local connections.

Fredlyfish4/Creative Commons
screen_shot_2017-07-19_at_4.28.52_pm.png When the sun rises over Plainview, Nebraska, Arnold Oltjenbruns is already up and ready for work. Beginning at 7:30 A.M., he picks up the kids that he drives to school. “I like hauling the kids the best,” he says. “As soon as they get in the van they’re talking away, and telling me what’s going on.” Oltjenbruns drives Plainview’s “Handivan”—a small, accessible van that provides public transit for Plainview’s 1,200 residents. Whether he’s taking people to school, medical appointments, stores, (or to a nursing home in a neighboring town so that one gentleman could visit his girlfriend), Oltjenbruns and the Handivan can be the difference between isolation and strong social ties in the small northeastern Nebraska city. Oltjenbruns, a retired farmer, had recently moved to Plainview. He wanted something to do with his free time, took the volunteer job, and got certified to drive...

Medicaid Malpractice

We knew it would happen, but that doesn’t quite reduce the sting.

In September, I wrote about a proposed waiver to Kentucky’s Medicaid program, which would foist work requirements on recipients (among other patronizing indignities like premium payments and “health incentives”) and would devastate Kentucky’s large newly insured population. Those work requirements directly conflicted with the federal Section 1115 waiver guidelines, which govern what’s allowable in Medicaid waiver requests.

This week, at a National Association of Medicaid Directors conference, Seema Verma, head of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, indicated that states could request waivers that would permit officials to impose work requirements as a condition of receiving Medicaid. Which means, according to Kentucky’s Medicaid Director Stephen Miller, the state’s waiver request will be approved “soon.”

Verma defended the changes this way: “Believing that community engagement requirements do not support the objectives of Medicaid is a tragic example of the soft bigotry of low expectations consistently espoused by the prior administration,” she said.

The “soft bigotry of low expectations”? This phrase brings two thoughts to mind.

First, what about the hard bigotry of requiring people to prove their worth to receive health care? That’s what Medicaid “community engagement requirements” (read: work and volunteer requirements) represent. These requirements would force the poor and low-income people who would be subject to these rules (and most of whom are already working) to prove that they are worthy of assistance—in this case, worthy of having good health.

Such requirements often include difficult reporting requirements like documenting each hour of work, and limited flexibility if family or other emergencies arise. They are based on the flawed assumption that people in poverty are lazy—a stereotype that has been disproven again and again.

Second, work requirements just don’t work. So, “low expectations”?

My low expectations have nothing to do with poor people who receive Medicaid, and everything to do with Republicans who make false claims about how “hard work” will improve people’s lives, based on inaccurate ideas of who is poor and why.

I have low expectations that unemployed people who receive Medicaid will be able to find good work—not because they aren’t motivated to find work, but because the abysmal unemployment that plagues many areas in Kentucky and other states will be ignored by Republicans.

The consequences (and causes) of poverty don’t help either, like limited formal education, lack of employable skills, and lack of access to transportation. And since the Trump administration ended rules that would have made it easier for people on welfare to participate in job training, I also have low expectations that Republicans will facilitate participation in such programs.

Plus, even though most people on Medicaid work, many of those jobs are in retail, food service, and construction—sectors that often have variable and inconsistent payroll hours. It’s challenging to meet arduous reporting requirements, like the 20 hours of work per week requirement proposed in Kentucky, if one week you’re scheduled for 25 hours but the next you get 10. And Kentucky nonprofits have already indicated they don’t have the capacity to create new volunteer positions for anyone who wants one.

In short, I have low expectations that any policy that is based on false assumptions about the poor will in any way help them in escaping poverty. Instead, these policies, which reinforce stereotypes of the lazy poor person, are designed simply to push people off of assistance programs in order to limit welfare, decrease the size of government, and save money.

Remember that under past administrations, work requirements were at odds with Medicaid waiver guidelines. So what did the Trump Medicaid officials do? They simply rewrote the rules. “Seemingly, they did that so they could push through Kentucky’s waivers and other waivers after that,” says Dustin Pugel, research and policy associate at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

In her conference remarks, Verma said, “The thought that a program designed for our most vulnerable citizens should be used as a vehicle to serve working-age, able-bodied adults does not make sense.” The problem with this statement is that poor working-age, able-bodied adults are some of our most vulnerable citizens. But in Kentucky, Medicaid expansion allowed this population to finally access health care. New Medicaid recipients began accessing preventative services, and were more likely to seek care for chronic conditions like diabetes. The state got healthier.

The Trump administration is putting those gains into jeopardy—as it will for any Medicaid expansion state that is granted a waiver. In Kentucky, “the changes will result in at least 95,000 fewer people covered, primarily because they can’t keep up with the requirements,” says Pugel. Medicaid provides health care for low-income people. The Trump administration twists this objective into nothing more than shaming the poor.

Retirement Savings Crisis Continues to Take a Back Seat on Capitol Hill

The Republican tax plan doesn’t touch 401(k)s as feared, but these accounts still don’t meet the retirement needs of most Americans.

Ron Sachs/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
trickle-downers_35.jpg The recently-released tax plan did not include the proposed changes to 401(k) contribution limits discussed in this article, likely due to the backlash against the initial idea. Yet as Thomhave explains here, most Americans do not use 401(k)s as a vehicle for their retirement savings. Earlier this year, the Trump administration and the Republican Congress began eliminating measures that could have bolstered Americans' abilities to save for retirement beyond inadequate 401(k) plans. One of the many dubious particulars of the Republicans’ new tax proposal is the way they’re considering paying for it: reducing Americans’ ability to save for their retirements through 401(k)s. The GOP’s plan is to offset the huge cost of tax cuts for the wealthy by limiting tax-deferred contributions into traditional 401(k)s, whittling down a benefit that already does too little to help most Americans prepare for retirement. 401(k) plans are the most popular...