- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

The Des Moines Register. Sept. 18, 2015

Stop demonizing Americans using food assistance.

Although the GOP presidential debates have featured little discussion about poor Americans, politicians have numerous options for helping them. From increasing the minimum wage to tax credits to funding libraries, there’s an action every politician can get behind. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s idea for lending a hand: Make low-income people pee in a cup.

During a recent visit to Iowa, the Republican presidential candidate reiterated his support for making people who apply for food stamps undergo a drug test. The objective, he said, is to ensure they are clean so they can get jobs. He ignores the fact that the majority of able-bodied Americans using the food assistance program do work. In fact, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has proven effective in supporting work, according to data analyzed by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: More than 80 percent of recipients work in the year before or the year after receiving SNAP.

Yet Walker told The Huffington Post: “It’s not a punitive thing; it’s a progressive thing.”

Actually, it is a not-allowed-by-federal-law thing. It is also a demonize-the-poor thing. But his effort is hardly a surprise.

Republicans have repeatedly advocated drug testing for Americans applying for cash welfare. Courts have repeatedly put a stop to the practice. And the lessons learned from these ordeals contradict the stereotype that people who rely on public benefits are addicted to drugs.

A 2011 Florida law required anyone seeking cash welfare to undergo a drug test. During the few months before a judge issued an injunction, more than 4,000 applicants submitted to a drug test. Only about 100 failed. Welfare recipients actually use drugs at lower rates than the general population.

An especially noteworthy twist on the Florida story: The law specified that the state must reimburse applicants who passed the drug test. Taxpayers doled out more than $100,000 for those payments. Instead of saving a penny, the entire charade ended up costing the state. Ultimately a federal judge struck down the law for trampling on Floridians’ Fourth Amendment rights.

Yet wasting taxpayer money, evidence and those pesky constitutional rights don’t matter much to those on a mission to portray the poor as scofflaws sponging off the system.

Interestingly, Walker and politicians have not demanded bodily fluids from other Americans who benefit from publicly funded programs. They don’t target seniors on Medicaid, corporate executives enjoying tax incentives, farm subsidy recipients or children eating free lunch at school. We’ve heard no demands for drug tests to receive a Social Security check or Pell grant. But if you’re a financially struggling American seeking a meager amount of federal money in the form of cash welfare or food stamps, these politicians are thirsting for your urine.

It’s not because the poor are using more drugs or abusing public benefits. It’s not to help them get jobs. It’s not to save taxpayer money. It’s because stereotyping this group of Americans is easier than actually helping them.

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The Quad-City Times. Sept. 18, 2015

Regents betray their pick.

Iowa Board of Regents members seeking attention for the University of Iowa certainly achieved their goal. The Regents’ appointment of businessman J. Bruce Harreld as U of I president galvanized attention on the Regents’ grand experiment to supplant academic leadership with business savvy to oversee the University conglomerate.

Count us among those empathetic to the Regents’ dilemma. The last University of Iowa president was consumed with fundraising and rebuilding after a devastating flood, experience that no academic could be expected to bring to the post. Sally Mason struggled mightily with HR issues and a perception of indifference to sexual assault victims.

None of these was a purely academic issue.

So we understand why the Regents sought broader-based experience. But we’re struggling to understand the Regents’ ham-handed process that brought just one business candidate to campus and wound up saddling their selection with unneeded political baggage he’ll lug throughout his tenure.

It begins with new disclosures of Harreld’s special invitation way back on July 8, to speak to a group that included members of the selection team and Regent Bruce Rastetter, a Branstad appointee who has politicized the Regents’ processes and reputation.

Harreld was the only finalist with the business credentials ultimately favored by the Regents. The remaining three came with stellar academic records, which it now appears were far less important to the Regents.

It also appears Rastetter recruited Gov. Terry Branstad to respond personally to Harreld’s question to the Regents about the governor’s support of the university. If there was any doubt about the political linkage between Rastetter’s Regents’ role and the governor, Branstad’s phone call eliminated it. The sequence of events gives every impression of favorable treatment and foregone conclusion for Harreld’s hiring.

Faculty member Elizabeth Heineman articulated faculty concerns quite clearly in her Des Moines Register column: “Does this mean we cannot imagine someone from the business world as an effective university leader? No. It means the university community concluded, after assessing his resume and his performance during his campus visit, that this particular candidate was not equipped for the job.”

These academics don’t need their advanced degrees to see through the charade. The faculty senate recorded a vote of no confidence in the Regents - not Harreld. U of I student government voted the same. Both groups specifically pledged to work with Harreld.

Harreld is lucky to have their support. The Regents did him no favors.

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Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. September 18, 2015

Shoebox organizers, donors show Iowa’s heart.

Examples of small ideas that blossomed abound.

In the business world, consider Bill Gates and Steve Jobs’ innovations or John Deere’s breakthrough with his first steel plowshare. From the realm of kindness, consider Florence Nightingale, a compassionate, bedside nurse who changed how health care is delivered around the world.

Indeed, inspired concepts grow when seasoned with commitment and passion.

Steve and Liz Thorpe returned in 2001 from Texas with information about the “Children of the Dump” in Chinandega, Nicaragua, and about an initiative to help, the Shoebox Project.

Steve took the idea to the Waterloo Downtown Rotary Club and members signed on.

“My wife and I were touched by the need. We also knew people in Iowa are pretty generous,” Thorpe said.

The first effort launched in 2002 and finished with 1,500 shoeboxes delivered.

Since then, the club and thousands of other volunteers and donors not affiliated with Rotary have shipped more than 500 tons of needed and thoughtful goods to Nicaragua. The next shipment will go out soon with distribution scheduled in early December.

The Rotary Club’s work, though, encompasses more than boxes filled with pencils, notebooks, sandals, soap, toothpaste and a few inexpensive toys. The program in Chinandega since inception expanded to include construction of hundreds of new homes, support for 14 schools, a 20-bed hospital and eight-station dialysis unit and food for kids who attend classes.

A shelter for pregnant women opened in 2003 and the center now serves about 1,600 young mothers annually. Their future otherwise likely would have been quite bleak, according to Thorpe.

“Most of those women would have had their babies on a dirt floor,” he said.

Thousands of people in several states and Ontario assist the Shoebox Project based in Waterloo. But as Thorpe points out, only about 1 in 5 belong to a Rotary club. The others just recognize the great need and are willing to lend a hand.

“It’s just so amazing how many people say, ‘Yeah, I can do that,’” Thorpe added.

The Rotary club works through Hope and Relief International, a foundation based in the U.S., to get financial donations to Nicaragua. There, the Chinandega Foundation helps manage and supervise the effort.

Dollars go a long way in Nicaragua. Room, board and college tuition for a year, for example, costs just $1,430, according to Thorpe.

To date, the Rotary club has helped 45 kids graduate college. Another 33 are enrolled this year.

So if you’re looking for a way to exercise your benevolent spirit, consider the Shoebox Project. More information is available online at www.waterloorotary.org.

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The Dubuque Telegraph Herald. Sept. 18, 2015.

Fair Chance legislation deserves just that.

We used to say that when Iowa’s two long-serving senators - Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin - agreed on a piece of legislation, you could bet on it being good for Iowans. Those two reside on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and for them to support the same side of an issue meant it was likely something that made common sense.

Today we have a new example of an issue that brought together two political opposites - Iowa’s new Republican senator, Joni Ernst, and Wisconsin’s Democratic senator, Tammy Baldwin. Like Harkin and Grassley, Baldwin and Ernst represent two different spheres, and where the two worlds intersect is bound to be legislation worth serious consideration.

Such is the case with the Fair Chance Act - bipartisan legislation written to help people convicted of a crime re-enter the work force. Known as “ban the box” legislation, the change would prohibit federal contractors and federal agencies from asking applicants whether they had any criminal history until the last stages of the hiring process. At first blush, this might raise some concerns. Some will say, “Why should a convicted criminal be on equal footing for a job interview as someone who has never committed a crime?”

Those who see it that way need to look a little deeper.

More than 7 million people are in prison or on parole in the United States. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world. Corrections facilities and personnel cost the U.S. $74 billion annually. Most convicted criminals serve only a year or two. And then what?

Maybe after some time in prison, a person wants to try again to be a contributing member of the community. Maybe they want to do right by their family and stay out of trouble. To take that path, it all begins with a job. And very often, that is where the path dead-ends.

Too often employers dismiss without consideration any applicants with a criminal history. “Once a criminal, always a criminal,” they figure. “I don’t want to introduce a criminal element to my workplace,” they believe.

Then what happens? That person who wanted to change his or her life is struggling mightily because he can’t find a legitimate means to earn money. So he (or she) turns back to the life he knows and the behaviors that have helped him get by before.

Now the employer still needs to fill a vacancy. A former criminal has returned to a life of crime. The streets are no safer. Where is the win in that scenario?

The Fair Chance Act doesn’t ask employers to be blindfolded to criminal histories, just that the information be withheld until the applicants have a fair shot at presenting themselves.

This isn’t bleeding heart stuff, there is evidence of this law’s positive impact. Several states and cities already have such a policy. Here’s what happens: Recidivism goes down. The cycle of crime is broken in those cases. Communities are safer.

A person who has served time for a crime might be the person most likely to work hard to make a positive contribution. Yet getting hired to prove that can be a huge obstacle. Without a fair chance, the punishment for past mistakes continues.

Some of the country’s biggest employers already have figured out this law makes sense and have “banned the box” on their own. They include: Walmart; Target; Bed, Bath & Beyond; and Starbucks.

If two elected officials as ideologically different as Baldwin and Ernst can each see the importance of this issue, it’s worth a closer look by everyone. Congress should ban the box and pass the Fair Chance Act.

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