Geography: The Latest Front in the Class War

Upward Mobility Across America

At the heart of today’s political gridlock is a sense of disconnect. Too many Americans feel disconnected from their government, their economy, and even their fellow citizens.

Gone is the collective bond that united us in war and in peace, the sense that we rise together and fall together. In its place is a deeply divided America.

We talk a lot about the partisan divide in this country, but we don’t talk enough about the geographic divide. The citizens who feel the greatest disconnect from collective institutions are often the ones who live farthest away from them.

The latest evidence of this fact comes from a new study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, a team that includes some of the most celebrated young economists in the country. They found that one of the greatest enemies of economic advancement was sprawl.

The more concentrated a city was, they discovered, the more likely its citizens were to climb the economic ladder. Conversely, the lower and middle classes had fewer opportunities to advance in cities that were more spread out.

The release of their findings just happened to coincide with the bankruptcy of Detroit, an episode that illustrated their point quite tragically. Detroit is one of the most spread out cities in America — and one of the most economically segregated. At its core, the average household earns an income that’s half of what suburbanites earn just outside the city’s borders.

This is yet another consequence of the extreme inequality that is rending this nation’s social fabric. Not only have the richest One Percent taken almost all of the income gains in the past thirty years, but they have isolated themselves in communities where they never have to see the pain of the 99 Percent they left behind. Walled up behind their iron gates, they become less and less aware of the struggles of the average American, until one day when the elites who run our country no longer know what our country even looks like anymore.

Nowhere is this disconnect more clear than Washington, D.C., which boasts six of the nation’s ten richest counties alongside one of its poorest cities. Our legislators never seem to notice that the people who need their help the most are in their own backyard.

The famous political scientist Robert D. Putnam made this case beautifully in a sad new essay about his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. He talked of how stable and connected the community once was and how that all disintegrated when the manufacturing jobs disappeared. He marveled at how far his classmates had come and how different their experience was from the poor generation that followed them.

Port Clinton no longer lives as one community but two.

“In the last two decades,” writes Putnam, “just as the traditional economy of Port Clinton was collapsing, wealthy professionals from major cities in the Midwest have flocked to Port Clinton, building elaborate mansions in gated communities along Lake Erie and filling lagoons with their yachts. By 2011, the child poverty rate along the shore in upscale Catawba was only 1 percent, a fraction of the 51 percent rate only a few hundred yards inland.”

In this fractured world, it’s easy to see how the average American would feel abandoned — by the government, by the economy, even by their own fellow citizens — and why they would distrust anyone who asks them to bind together in common cause.

I know whereof I speak. This month marks my seventh anniversary of moving from the country to the city. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and suburban Florida. Since then, I’ve lived in Philadelphia, New York, London, and Los Angeles. I’ve seen the world through two very different lenses, and I don’t blame the one for being suspicious of the other.

But we must overcome this disconnect if we are to rebuild these forgotten communities and resurrect our ailing economy. The more isolated we have become, the more we have all suffered. We must find ways to connect the rural and urban regions, whether through physical connections like high-speed rail or social connections like labor unions. We must work together, and that means we must put our trust where it has always done the most good: in each other.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Reader Request: Who Will Benefit from ObamaCare?

CBO Estimates vs. Actual Obamacare Premiums

A reader asks: Under ObamaCare, what will happen to the millions of people who don’t file tax returns, are illegals, etc? Will there be more uninsured than before? Will this new law raise the cost of health insurance?

The individual mandate does not apply to undocumented immigrants, who are also ineligible for Medicaid and the subsidies available under the Affordable Care Act. To answer the question that’s really on your mind: The new law does not allocate any of your tax dollars to them.

Where it does allocate tax dollars is to American citizens and legal immigrants who cannot afford health insurance. It’s true that some of these folks don’t file federal income tax returns because they don’t earn enough income. (They still pay a lot, however, in state, local, and payroll taxes.) They will not be eligible for the subsidies offered on the new exchanges because those subsidies come in the form of tax credits. However, if they work for a company that has more than 50 employees, they will be able to receive health insurance from their employer. If not, their fate likely depends on geography. So far, about half of the states have chosen to expand Medicaid eligibility up to 133 percent of the poverty line, all of which will be covered by federal funding. If you’re poor and uninsured and you live in one of the states that refused to expand Medicaid, you’re S.O.L., as the kids say.

By the time the ACA is fully implemented a decade from now, the Congressional Budget Office projects that it will reduce the number of Americans without health insurance by 25 million, leaving 31 million uninsured. That’s not a complete solution, but it sure is a giant leap in the right direction. It will certainly save thousands of lives.

The CBO also predicted that the ACA will lower the cost of health insurance for the individual market, where the exchanges and subsidies are targeted. Critics latched onto the prediction that people will pay 10 to 12 percent more, but that’s a misleading statistic. They’ll be paying more because they’ll be receiving more. The CBO predicts that people will be able to afford better plans; hence, the higher cost. When they compared policies with the same quality, the CBO found that premiums will fall by 14 to 20 percent — and that doesn’t include the subsidies from the government that will make the plans even cheaper.

As it turned out, the CBO was wrong: Under ObamaCare, premiums are falling more than 20 percent!

The first evidence of this success came in May when California announced the premiums that insurers will be charging on the individual market exchange next year. Plans that were supposed to cost $400 to $500 per month are actually going to cost $200 to $300.

And in case you thought California was a fluke, New York just released its individual market premiums for 2014, and they’re going to be 50 percent lower than what they are now!

The New York rates are even more newsworthy because they prove that the individual mandate is essential and cannot be postponed.

In 1993, New York passed a law requiring insurers to charge everyone the same price. As I noted in my op-ed last week, without an individual mandate, this is a recipe for extremely high premiums because healthy people will choose not to buy insurance, leaving only the sick people who are willing to pay high rates because they need the insurance so badly.

That’s exactly what happened in New York. For two decades, they’ve had the highest insurance costs in the country. Currently, only 17,000 people purchase health insurance on their individual market.

But all that will change in 2014 for one reason and one reason only: ObamaCare. The individual mandate and the subsidies will bring healthy people into the market, spreading the costs of health care among less expensive patients.

It’s important to remember that we’re only talking about the individual market. If you get insurance from your employer or the government, these numbers don’t apply to you.

It’s also important to note that someone has to pay for those subsidies. This fact alone has caused some confusion, so let me add one more myth to last week’s listMyth #5: ObamaCare will force everyone to pay higher taxes.

There are a few new taxes under the ACA, like 10 percent on indoor tanning and a higher penalty on non-medical withdrawals from Healthcare Savings Accounts, but the majority of Americans will never have to pay these taxes. The only taxpayers who will definitely face a higher rate are the richest 2 percent, who earn more than $200,000.

In other words, the cost of ObamaCare is far less than its critics would have you believe.