<![CDATA[PolicyMatters Journal - PMJWire]]>Tue, 16 Dec 2014 13:52:34 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[If You're Going to San Francisco...Be Sure You Can Pay the Rent]]>Tue, 02 Dec 2014 15:00:02 GMThttp://www.policymattersjournal.org/pmjwire/if-youre-going-to-san-franciscobe-sure-you-can-pay-the-rent
Image source: Flickr user kyle.kelley29

Sarah Wilson is a first year MPP candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

While walking through a San Francisco BART station recently, I was struck by a novel sight: an advertisement was printed directly onto the walls and floor of the station. “Why be caught in the same outfit twice?” it asked. On top of the ad, adjacent to this inquiry, a man was curled up, asleep on a makeshift bed of filthy odds and ends. It was a powerful answer to the advertisement’s question.

It was also one of the greatest contradictions of the storied city made flesh. San Francisco is one of the most progressive communities in the United States, but it’s also the city with the most dramatically increasing income inequality and the second highest gap between the average incomes of its poorest and wealthiest residents, according to a report released by the Brookings Institution.

It’s also become the city with the highest rents in the United States and the city with the smallest number of homes within the economic reach of middle-class families, according to report by the chief economist at Trulia, a real estate focused firm. Oscar Wilde once said, “It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world.” While many still find the city delightful, and many still flock to it, it’s become difficult to afford to live in it. With another year that saw protests aimed at the booming tech industry and its perceived effects on the housing market drawing to a close, and another election that saw several housing and development related measures in the rear view mirror, now is a good time to think about the issue.

Late last year, Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of SPUR, a Bay Area non-profit organization focused on a number of issues including housing and planning, wrote a piece for the Atlantic’s City Lab, detailing how the city got to where it is. He contrasts San Francisco with Seattle. Where San Francisco has added only 1,500 new rental units per year in the last two decades, Seattle has added 3,000 units within its existing urban area. As demand for the units that do exist has boomed, supply has remained relatively fixed. Consequently, price has gone up.

The fact that buildings themselves can’t go up may be part of the problem. An article that appeared on Business Insider earlier this year pointed out that while much of the furor over rising rents has been directed at tech firms and the effect their employees have had on demand (busses transporting Apple, Google and Yahoo employees from city centers to their Silicon Valley offices were surrounded, picketed and, in one instance, pointedly vomited on by protestors in San Francisco and Oakland), the city has a less obvious, but equally serious, supply side problem. The Business Insider article pointed out that while the city, packed onto a peninsula and bridled by ocean and hills, has nowhere to grow but up, many current zoning regulations forbid the kind of tall buildings that could create much needed housing. Meanwhile, the city’s 19th century warehouses and factories, short structures spread wide, are blocking the construction of buildings with more space for tenants.

"While San Francisco is struggling to stay affordable amid the economic boom, less fortunate communities across the country might call this a good kind of problem. In cities where declining industrial sectors have not been replaced by..."
While San Francisco real estate remains in almost too high demand, other American cities face a very different problem. These cities are mainly the smaller ones with declining industrial bases that have not been replaced by new, tech-based businesses and that the interstate highway system has bypassed. Communities across the country have seen their downtown areas sputter and fail, turning into wastelands of empty shop fronts and deserted streets. These communities face a different kind of planning conundrum: should they focus on downtown revitalization or refocus their efforts on attracting big box stores and other large-scale commercial development to open spaces on their outskirts?

In an excerpt from the book Happy City featured on the website Salon, the work of Joseph Minicozzi and the firm Public Interest Projects is described. In an effort to spur interest in reviving the downtown area of Asheville, N.C., the firm looked at the amount of property and sales tax revenues the community stood to gain from a repurposed downtown building and a big box store on the edge of town. What they were trying to get at was how much bang per acre these two types of commercial development could generate. The numbers indicated that the downtown building would pump as much as seven times the money into community coffers as the sprawling new development. The same held true when they looked at the number of new jobs created per acre.

It’s worth thinking about as communities across the country strive to improve the lives of their residents.

As GSPP students begin the search for summer internships and jobs, those with an interests in planning, housing and economic development have a lot of avenues to explore.

Inspired? Confused? Outraged to your very core? Feel free to leave a (respectful) comment below or to submit your own post to either Paula.Wilhelm or BChristopher (at) Berkeley.edu






<![CDATA[Foreign Aid: Turning on the Faucet]]>Wed, 26 Nov 2014 15:00:01 GMThttp://www.policymattersjournal.org/pmjwire/foreign-aid-turning-on-the-faucet
Image Source: OECD – Development Assistance Comittee http://www.oecd.org/dac/stats/totaldacflowsataglance.htm
PictureImage Source: WaterAid Global Annual Report 2013-2014 http://www.wateraid.org/us/who-we-are/annual-reports
Connie Ballesteros is a second-year MPP candidate at the Goldman School, and a new blogger for The Wire.

There has always been significant controversy surrounding foreign aid. So far global aid has failed to effectively fight poverty, which clearly indicates a need to rethink current approaches.

The image above shows what Official Development Assistance (ODA) looks like for 2011 and 2012 (includes government-to-government aid and government donations to multilateral institutions from 29 member countries of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, or DAC). 

Total ODA in 2012 was over $120 million dollars. “Education, Health and Population” was the most popular category for donor governments, followed by “Other Social Infrastructure” (includes social welfare services, employment policy, housing policy, culture and recreation, among others)  and “Economic Infrastructure” (things like transport, communications and energy provision).

Critics point out that many of the receiving countries are plagued with corruption, and the aid they receive is used to support corrosive institutions. Since the expansion of foreign aid in the 1960s, assessments of the impact of these funds on their recipients have been mixed: there are success stories, but also dramatic failures. In general, foreign aid has been shown to have a definite impact on education and health in some countries. However, the effect on poverty is less clear. 

Angus Deaton is a Princeton professor and leading microeconomist.  In his book The Great Escape, he argues that aid has played a detrimental role in the democratic and economic development of poor nations. When aid is targeted towards the governments of poor countries—particularly small ones—instead of directly to communities in need, funds are often directed to special interests and not social objectives. This leads to unintended negative consequences, e.g. subsidizing corrupt or violent regimes. Along the same lines, Deaton argues against the provision of arms to corrupt governments. Instead, foreign aid should target gun reduction and create incentives for governments to act in the best interests of their populations.

To address these problems it is important to change the way donor countries think about, and target, the aid they award. This requires in-depth changes in the way donor countries structure their aid programs, and a more hands-on approach to aid provision, driven by long-term considerations. Deaton recommends changing the type of aid offered. He suggests that instead of directly financing projects which are then managed by foreign governments, donor countries should offer technical knowledge and capacity building tools to both individuals and governments.

A big problem with rethinking aid this way is that indicators get messy. It becomes harder to measure success because success no longer takes the form of dollars producing a tangible good or service. Under this new approach, funds are directed towards improvement of institutions, which take longer to develop. Yet to create lasting effects on quality of life and access to resources, local governments will eventually have to pick up the slack and guarantee sustainable service provision. Future aid should focus on building institutional capacity over time, rather than providing services or resources in the short-term.

Another criticism made by Deaton refers to the pressure constituencies of high-income countries place on their representatives to donate resources to developing countries. This pressure encourages short term, ineffective projects that provide representatives with easy ways to satisfy their constituencies. Society as a whole, and donors in particular, would be deeply misguided in continuing to fund this cycle, inattentive of the consequences discussed here. Governments report on the amount of aid money meant to alleviate poverty, but there is little evidence on the actual effect of those resources on the quality of life of poor populations. That is why Deaton states that in order to improve the effectiveness of aid, donors and donor governments need to increase their knowledge of what’s really happening to the resources offered to developing countries. If donors are better informed, then they will demand more accountability about the type of projects being funded, and how much is being spent on what.

However, changing perceptions will take time. The pressure from constituencies, the aversion to long term projects and the ease of implementation under current practices continue to encourage project-based giving with few restrictions. Changing the nature of aid as proposed by Deaton requires greater involvement on the part of both donor governments and aid recipients. Because of these challenges, I don’t anticipate radical change in this approach in the next decade.

If that is the case, and aid continues to be directed toward projects rather than institutional development, I think the provision of clean water and basic sanitation is one area with big potential for significant long term benefits, combined with tangible and immediate results. Clean water and sanitation improve health and nutrition, and are strongly correlated with disease prevention. In developing countries, diseases such as cholera, dengue and malaria are linked directly to water quality. Lasting infrastructure investments for clean water and sanitation would improve the wellbeing of both the young and adult poor.

So far, however, water aid projects are underrepresented among foreign assistance initiatives. According to wateraid.org, 748 million people in the world don’t have access to safe water, and 2.5 billion don’t have access to adequate sanitation. This is an incredibly large number. According to Deaton there were 800 million poor in 2010. And yet out of the $133.5 million official aid dollars in 2011, the average yearly donation of water and sanitation related aid reported by the OECD was only $12,000.

Catarina de Albuquerque, the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, recently published On the Right Track. She identifies 10 criteria for assessing best practices in relation to water rights and sanitation in developing countries. De Albuquerque outlines the challenges faced by developing countries when addressing water and sanitation issues, and divides the solutions into four categories: legislative and regulatory frameworks, financing and budgeting, planning, and monitoring. Donor governments might provide aid for all four components, or focus on one according to their preferences.

The best thing that can happen for recipient countries is for donor governments to rethink the ways they provide assistance to the world’s least developed economies. While they’re working toward that change, redirecting aid toward the provision of clean water and basic sanitation will improve health outcomes and create lasting infrastructure investments that benefit several generations, without inadvertently financing additional ills.

<![CDATA[Quit playing games with my health care]]>Tue, 25 Nov 2014 22:03:28 GMThttp://www.policymattersjournal.org/pmjwire/quit-playing-games-with-my-health-carePictureImage courtesy of pixabay.com
Paula Wilhelm is a first-year MPP/MPH candidate at the Goldman School and the School of Public Health.  She is not a legal expert, or an impartial journalist . . . just a believer in affordable health care and accountable government.    

One week into 2015 open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act, and the prognosis is mixed. While Healthcare.gov appears to be functioning well, HHS announced last Thursday that “back end” deficiencies had led to inaccurate reporting of the numbers of Americans who enrolled in health coverage in 2014.  The 7.3 million number I cited in a previous post has been revised down to 6.7 million.  The error raises troubling questions about the data-analysis capabilities of the federal website.  

But perhaps the most troubling questions center on the state of our democracy.  

Exhibit A: Speaker Boehner’s response to the President’s announcement of executive actions on immigration. Last week’s news cycle closed with the news that Boehner and the House are suing the Administration.  Not (yet) over immigration, but over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.*  Yes, the lawsuit has been in the works since the House approved it in July, but the filing date is hardly a coincidence.

The lawsuit exemplifies the bizarre logic and reckless devaluation of taxpayer dollars we can expect for the foreseeable future, now that 36.3% of the nation’s voters have handed the legislative branch to the GOP.  

Does the House suit pose a real threat to Obamacare?  I want to say no, in keeping with Democratic talking points about the “baseless” nature of the lawsuit and the and the difficulty the GOP experienced finding a lawyer willing to take the case.  

Then again, a couple of weeks ago I would have said the same thing about the Virginia-based challenge to health insurance subsidies for federal exchange consumers.  Now, in an unusual move given the lack of conflict in lower-court rulings,** the Supreme Court has agreed to hear that case.

So here I am, reiterating something that’s been said by many more knowledgeable than I: a successful blow to any one of the ACA’s key provisions--the individual mandate, the subsidies, the insurance reforms--may very well create a “death spiral” for the law.  

Opponents of the ACA have a simple and potentially devastating strategy.  Dramatically decreasing the number of insured, by axing subsidies or mandates, is the fastest and surest way to send premiums through the roof. Render health insurance unaffordable for most Americans, and the political obstacles to repealing the law melt away.  

The worst-case scenario for Obamacare haters is two more years of coverage growth. Even modest success in increasing access to affordable care is likely to insure the law’s preservation, regardless of the composition of Congress or the identity of the next President.  Elected officials can’t claw back benefits from millions and live to . . . throw more fundraisers.  

But the courts, on the other hand, are apolitical.  Right?  

Last week, I listened to E.J. Dionne point out that fixating on the political gamesmanship around immigration policy utterly ignores the impact of such government actions on human lives.  

Given the chance, I’d offer similar reminders to the judges and Justices reviewing Obamacare.  Americans who need health care deserve much, much better than frivolous lawsuits and politically-motivated attacks that hinge on typos.***  I’d like to think maybe, just maybe, our courts will weigh our shared humanity more carefully than have the elected officials who claim to represent us.

Inspired? Confused? Outraged to your very core? Feel free to leave a (respectful) comment below or to submit your own post to either Paula.Wilhelm or BChristopher (at) Berkeley.edu

* Specifically, the House lawsuit challenges the postponement until 2016 of the employer mandate for firms between 50 and 99 employees.  It also contests the legality of the allocation of federal funds to pay premium subsidies (one GOP talking point casts the subsidies as corporate handouts for insurance companies).  Both rather contrarian positions for a party that likes to tout its policies as business-friendly.           

**That is, to my knowledge there have been no conflicting rulings on this particular case, King v. Burwell. A similar but separate case, Halbig, was decided against the government by the D.C. Circuit in July. That ruling was vacated in advance of a December rehearing.  

***Yes, Congress and those who drafted the law should have been more careful.  Yes, they really should fix their linguistic error now that it's been noted.  But the arguably misleading use of the word "State" in the PPACA text is only a problem, and a weapon, in the hands of those with no qualms about eliminating health benefits for people under 400% of the poverty line in order to make some kind of nonsensical statement about the Obama Administration. (Did I mention this is an opinion piece?)