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Herd immunity is love

By Monica Hesse
Herd immunity is love
Composite image of six still-life photographs of maternity clothing inside a home. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Tori Ferenc

It turns out there's only one maternity parka in the state of Maryland, which I learned when my friend Caitlin offered it to me. She'd inherited it from her friend Mollie, who inherited it from another friend, and back and back and back. At some point this coat must have been purchased but that could have been in 2004 or 1977. The style was basic (black, puffy, hooded) and designed for a particular, temporary set of circumstances: you are pregnant, and it is cold.

A week after that conversation my friend Kristy arrived with a box of spandex-waisted jeans. My sister-in-law mailed roomy pullovers; a neighbor brought by two sundresses along with a bag of greens from the farmers market.

My friend Danielle was due the same month I was but still went to the post office to send her favorite sweater from earlier pregnancies, saying Texas weather wasn't cold enough to warrant her keeping it. That's what she said, but Texas this year had freak snow and ice storms that left much of the state frozen without power for weeks, including Danielle's house, so I think she did need the sweater but decided that I needed it more. She knew that while I hoped this would be my first child, it wasn't my first pregnancy; the others ended in miscarriage, and so I didn't have the optimism to buy my own maternity clothes.

Have you ever heard of that alleged Ernest Hemingway story - the one written to prove tremendous pathos could be packed into just six words? "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." One way to guarantee that you won't end up selling unused baby shoes was to refuse to buy them in the first place.

These borrowed clothes, though? They had been worn, and worn well. They were the charmed garments of women with successful outcomes. Maybe they would protect me.

These were absolutely ludicrous things that I told myself, mantras that I realized were ludicrous even while repeating them.

- - -

In the middle of my second trimester, trucks began hauling vaccines all around the country, to hospitals and clinics and repurposed stadiums. Grandchildren helped their grandparents book appointments, churches organized vans, Krispy Kreme organized giveaways.

Five percent of the population got the shot, then 15, then 30; meanwhile my pregnancy app said I was carrying a pear, then a pomegranate, and then a pineapple in my borrowed maternity clothes. And I realized that science had given me a vocabulary for the superstition I had developed about my lucky wardrobe: I was trying to achieve herd immunity.

Aren't we all? Dr. Anthony Fauci gave a magic number, 70 percent, and suddenly there was a way to quantify how much of America needs antibodies before everyone gets to be safe. Suddenly every person you meet - the cashier, the mechanic, the chiropractor, the soccer dad - is someone who is either working toward 70 percent or is not, someone who can either protect you or can't, or who isn't even inclined to try.

"You go ahead and get one," a vaccine-hesitant acquaintance told me back in April. "But if it really works, then I shouldn't have to get one, too."

But that wasn't how it worked, I sputtered. Public health doesn't work if we consider only our own immune systems. Some people won't generate antibodies in response to the vaccine. Some aren't eligible to receive it. Every new infection gives the virus an opportunity to change in a way that will make other people's vaccinations less effective. The goal isn't for me to do what's best for me; the goal is to do what's best for everyone, including a bunch of people I've never met. That's how we open schools and eliminate travel restrictions and allow hospital visitors. That's how we get to the other side of this: by being part of a herd.

And that became the question of the back half of the pandemic: Do you believe you are part of a herd? Do you believe our fates are connected? Do you acknowledge that if you have a driver's license, the government already has more private information about you than it would if you join a vaccine registry? Can you understand that if you say you're waiting for more data on vaccine safety, you are also making other people less safe?

Herd immunity isn't just a goal, it's also a mind-set. It's a mind-set that says we are in this together because the alternative, that we are alone in our giant maternity parkas, is almost too horrible to bear.

- - -

I have never spent more time thinking about vulnerability than I have the past eight months. I thought about it when the vaccine was released but not yet recommended for pregnant people, which meant relying on others to make appointments that I couldn't make myself. And yet, I was still pregnant.

I thought about it when, with still-muddled data, I signed up for Pfizer anyway, and then signed up for the CDC's self-reported study of pregnancy and the vaccine, and then checked the box saying that my arm still hurt and I still had body aches and chills but, yes, I was still pregnant.

I thought about it when mask recommendations were lifted for the vaccinated, wondering how many of the bare faces I was now seeing belonged to truly vaccinated people and how many belonged to those who never planned on getting the shot, and took the news of relaxed masking rules as a free pass. It didn't matter so much for me right now, but it did for the millions of children and immunocompromised adults. It would for me, later, when toting an unvaccinated baby, because for now I was still pregnant.

Here is where my metaphor of spandex pants and puffy coats and Pfizer-induced night sweats completely falls apart. Because borrowed maternity clothes are tangible, but their magic is symbolic. Vaccine immunity is intangible, but the magic (which is to say, the science) is real.

The only thing they have in common is that both represent the best kind of herd mentality: a desire to belong to something bigger than yourself. To be grateful for what others have been through and passed along. To want to pass it along yourself - or, in the case of the virus, prevent it from being passed.

Vulnerability can arrive all at once, after all. One day you are a protector. The next, you need protection. Pregnancies end, masks slip, outbreaks break out. What happens to your body often has nothing to do with you, but with a series of events or decisions made months ago, back and back and back. You can look at a sudden onslaught of vulnerability as a sign that you are weak, or you can look at it as a sign that you recognize this only works - immunity, society, living, life - when we all see weak spots and immediately rush to surround them with strong ones.

You can look at that protection as charity, or you can look at it as a patriotic duty, or you can look at it, as I came to, as love.

In my ninth month of pregnancy, here is what I think about the borrowed outfit I am wearing, assembled from the hand-me-downs of three different friends. I think they are not magical clothes. Of course they're not. There is nothing I could wear or not wear, buy or not buy that would change any outcome.

But damned if I didn't love putting on Caitlin's pants. It's not the pants that are lucky, but the messaging behind them: that if you have a herd, they will keep you immune, in body and soul, however they possibly can.

Someone in this tiny Md. town won $731 million, and everyone wants a piece

By Marc Fisher
Someone in this tiny Md. town won $731 million, and everyone wants a piece
Coney Market owner Richard Ravenscroft chats with customers as he leaves with a delivery order. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.

LONACONING, Md. - There haven't been a lot of big wins in this little town tucked between gentle green mountains in Maryland's far western reaches. Coal brought work, then took it away. The railroad meant prosperity, then stopped running. They made glass here, and then they didn't.

These days, the line of cars at the First Assembly of God food giveaway is so long that the volunteers split each box into two smaller portions to feed more families.

But over the past few weeks, Lonaconing - the locals call it "Coney" - has acquired a new shine, a glint of gold in iron country. Sometime in late January, someone bought a Powerball lottery ticket at the Coney Market, and that ticket's six numbers won the big one - $731 million, the biggest jackpot ever in Maryland and the fifth-richest payout in U.S. history.

That someone lives in Lonaconing, according to the mayor and the owner of the market. But because Maryland is one of seven states that allows lottery winners to remain anonymous, and because the winner is no fool, the identity of that someone isn't public.

The fact that someone in this town of 1,200 people (just 400 families, actually, down by half over the past 50 years) is suddenly Midas-rich has caused some strange things to happen.

An anonymous letter circulated naming a 76-year-old grandfather of seven and his longtime partner as the winners. Besieged with requests for free money, they denied being sudden multimillionaires.

Gold diggers poured into town. People showed up from Georgia and Ohio and Arkansas, asking for a piece of the prize to care for an ailing relative, or to save their struggling farm, or to pay for that European trip they've yearned to take.

A woman in Georgia wrote to the owner of Coney Market asking him to buy her a couple of chain saws for her farm. Another supplicant wanted a piece of the lottery winnings to get her driveway paved.

"They say, 'If you don't ask, you don't get,' " said the guy being asked, Richard Ravenscroft, who owns the market. "People don't know the winner's name. I'm the person whose name they do know, so they ask me."

People from thousands of miles away have sent money in envelopes asking the market staff to send them lottery tickets from the lucky shop. (Lottery sales at the market, usually a modest $4,000 a week, briefly soared, then returned to earth, Ravenscroft said.)

Out-of-towners drove through the mountains to bet the very same set of numbers that the big winner had wagered on: 40, 53, 60, 68, 69 and Powerball 22. (Some folks in town thought the winning numbers might be the ages of the winner's family. No: The jackpot combination was a random set of numbers selected by the lotto machine.)

A man from Northern Virginia showed up to ask Ravenscroft to reissue a purportedly winning lottery ticket that the man had lost. The man stayed in the shop for an entire day, and state police had to stop by to make sure things didn't get too crazy.

It's not just outsiders making a fuss about the big money. People up and down Main Street are eager - "some are pretty impatient about it," says Debbie Bennett, Coney Market's manager - for the winner to donate a pile of cash to improve life in a town where the poverty rate of 24 percent is more than double the statewide number.

The No. 1 need, many say: Clean up the "Coney water," the local name for the skanky H2O that sometimes bubbles up from underground right into people's basements. "Mine water," some call it, rising from old coal shafts into the houses of people whose fathers once worked those tunnels.

Or: Fix the streets. Help the struggling shopkeepers. Put some cash in the pockets of seniors who can't get by on $500 a month in Social Security.

But the first thing on most minds is the simplest question of all: Who won? The golden ticket was purchased in January, and the winner - winners, actually; it's a group of unknown size that calls itself the "Power Pack" - claimed the award in late May. (The $731 million will end up being $367 million because the winners chose a lump-sum payment rather than 30 years of installments, plus the feds and the state take a hefty share as taxes.)

By now, many people think there ought to be some sign that someone has come into a substantial chunk of change.

"Everyone is still, 'Who is it?' " said Bob Fazenbaker, 67, who's retired from the auto parts store up the road from the market.

"We think it's the person who keeps saying that's not who it is," said Bennett, the market manager. "If it's who people think it is, they've had a lot of visitors on their property lately. They've been going around different places, casinos, spending money at Rocky Gap and Nemacolin."

Some people say they've noticed a new car or two at one house or another. Some people point to someone who's spruced up the front of the house. Some people profess not to care, but they seem to be outnumbered by people who say they know for sure who won.

On the other hand, Bennett said, "We all could be wrong."

Happily, a number of people in Coney who definitely did not hit the Powerball jackpot nonetheless feel like winners.

At the market, employees are a little bit flusher. The Maryland Lottery bestows a $100,000 bonus upon the store that sells the winning ticket, and Ravenscroft, the owner, "gave us girls some of the money, all 11 of us," Bennett said.

Depending on how many hours they work, they got anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a couple thousand.

Ravenscroft put the biggest share of the bonus into expanding the market - a new kitchen and a bigger seating area for folks to try the new menu item (ham salad, joining tuna salad and chicken salad among the sandwich offerings).

But some of the new equipment just sits in the store, waiting until the owner can find workers to put it all together.

"We can't find nobody to work because everybody's staying home collecting unemployment," Bennett said.

The mayor, John Coburn, says Lonaconing is a winner because the jackpot "put the town on the map," bringing in visitors, generating worldwide publicity.

Coburn, who owns the florist shop and the pizza place on the same street in this one-traffic-light town, has gotten a firsthand taste of people's passion for free money: Strangers kept calling his stores, asking - even demanding - that the mayor give them some of the winnings.

"We heard from homeless shelters, refugee centers, people wanting to build a church," he said. "People asked me for a new car. I tried to be polite, but I had to say, 'Please stop calling.' It really showed me a different perspective on people with an entitlement, that they somehow deserve some of that money."

Alas for Lonaconing, its government won't get a penny from the lottery because Coney Market, a barn-red emporium right at the entrance to town, actually sits one block outside the city limits, so the share the state gives to the local government where the ticket was sold - a windfall of several million bucks, the mayor says - will go instead to Allegany County.

At the store, things are slowly returning to normal. The parade of out-of-towners asking for free cash has thinned, Ravenscroft said, though some still show up with letters they want him to pass to the lottery winner.

"I throw them in the trash," he said.

Lonaconing's needs remain acute, so great that some residents say even a most generous lottery winner couldn't turn things around.

"The coal mine closed, then the timber left, then the train left, and everything was gone," said Robert Lee Fazenbaker, an 84-year-old retired miner, railroad man and furnace operator who saw each of his careers vanish. He's been getting by mainly on Social Security and the federal government's covid relief payments, and he's worried about what happens when they stop. But he doesn't want anything from the lottery winners. As he sees it, somebody got lucky. Good for them, he says. They don't owe us anything.

"Trump gave us money; Biden gave us some, too," he said. "OK, good, but there's still no jobs. We can't all win the lottery."

Nearly everyone in Lonaconing who thinks they know who won names the same couple, Wilbur Miller and Nancy Winebrenner.

"They're good people, and they deserve it, and we're happy for them," said Bennett, the store manager.

"Everybody respects them," said Gloria Cooper, who manages the food giveaway at the church. "They're very private, and nobody resents them."

The anonymous letter that made its way around town named the couple. The mayor was quoted in a local paper embracing the theory.

Whereupon Miller and Winebrenner were besieged with requests for cash, gifts, charitable donations and meetings.

It got to the point that they felt they couldn't leave their house. They asked the authorities for help. They hired a lawyer to look into the harassment. Finally, they wrote a letter to the local paper, the Cumberland Times-News.

"We are writing to clear up a rumor that has circulated about the winners of the Maryland Powerball for $731 million," Miller and Winebrenner wrote. "Sadly enough, we are not the winners of this drawing. We do not have this ticket!"

The couple suggested that "everyone take a better look in your glove boxes, consoles of your cars or the pockets in your coats. Who knows, maybe you are the ticket holder."

The letter continued: "We have no idea how this false rumor started, but we are writing this so it will stop."

It did not.

But it should, the mayor says, because he knows that Miller - who did score $10,000 last year on a scratch-off lottery ticket that he bought at Coney Market - cannot be the big winner.

The proof: On the May afternoon when the winner traveled to Baltimore to claim the award, "Wilbur was with me all that afternoon," Coburn said. "He didn't leave town. He's not the guy."

Miller and Winebrenner did not reply to requests for comment, but the mayor said the tales told about his longtime friend are bogus. Yes, Miller has gone to casinos, but "he's always done that, before and after the lottery," Coburn said. No, Miller hasn't altered his lifestyle; in fact, he still works every day - he's a truck driver, collecting metal and hauling it to the junkyard.

Some people don't buy the denials.

Miller and Winebrenner "used to come get food - no more," Cooper said.

Still, sure as she is that they're the winners, Cooper says the new millionaires shouldn't feel any obligation to support the rest of Lonaconing. As a steady stream of cars arrive to pick up boxes of sweet potatoes, onions, apples, squash and cucumbers, people talk more about being grateful for what they have than about wanting or deserving anything from the Power Pack.

"We love the Lord," Cooper said, "and He sends us what we need. And President Trump sent us cheese and milk and hot dogs - the Democrat just sends us vegetables. President Trump put a letter in each one of these boxes saying he's thinking of us. People kept those notes from President Trump, put them up on their walls. That's who people depend on, not the Powerball winner."

Around town, people still trade clues. Idle gossip, says the mayor.

If the winners "keep their current lifestyle, we'll never know who it is," Coburn said. "But what good is winning it if you can't enjoy it?"

Back at the market, Ravenscroft arrives with money from the bank so his cashiers can make change, then picks up sandwiches to deliver them to the school - lunch for the teachers.

He has a theory about the winner's identity, but he's not naming names. The person he suspects used to come into the shop to buy lottery tickets ahead of every drawing. The person hasn't been back since the big one.

A steady stream of people enter the market to buy their shot at a different life. A sign on the front window shows the latest Powerball jackpot tally: $20 million.

The winner can't hide forever, Ravenscroft figures. Win millions, and you're going to want to spend some of it. Then the pressure from friends and family and neighbors and gold diggers will become impossible.

"We'll find out who the winners are," the shopkeeper says, "when they quietly move away."

Pockets of unvaccinated Americans threaten to prolong pandemic

By Kristen V Brown
Pockets of unvaccinated Americans threaten to prolong pandemic
A healthcare worker administers a dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a walk up vaccination site in San Francisco on Feb. 3, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris.

As much of the country emerges from masking and social distancing, undervaccinated pockets in the U.S. still threaten to bring the virus roaring back.

Less than 25% of the population is fully vaccinated in at least 482 counties, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data by Bloomberg News. Many of these counties are more rural and less economically advantaged than the rest of the U.S., and a majority of their voters in the last presidential election chose Donald Trump, according to the analysis of 2,700 U.S. counties.

Though more than 174 million Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine, accounting for about 64.6% of the adult population, such averages belie stark gaps in vaccination rates at a local level. With more contagious versions of the virus like the delta variant taking hold, this creates opportunities for further spread.

Hidden pockets of low rates of vaccinations at the local level have been a challenge before in the U.S. "When you start to look at communities, you start to really unveil very, very low vaccination rates that tend to get averaged out when you're looking at the entire country or even on an entire state," said Maimuna Majumder, a health informatics researcher at Boston Children's Hospital. Viruses don't spread at a national or statewide level, she said, but among friends, family and neighbors in a community, passing it to each other as people go about their daily lives.

The country's past experience with measles, for instance, shows just what it's up against with Covid. The World Health Organization declared in 2000 that measles had been eliminated from the U.S. Yet in 2014 amid declining childhood vaccinations, more than 600 cases appeared. Even so, overall measles vaccination rates hadn't changed significantly in well over a decade.

After a high-profile outbreak of measles was traced back to Disneyland in early 2015, Majumder examined local data. It turned out that the vaccination rates in the communities affected by the Disneyland outbreak ranged from 50 to 86% - far lower than statewide or national averages, and also below the vaccination threshold needed to keep the measles from spreading. More digging revealed almost half the counties in 43 states had vaccination rates below that threshold, with huge variations. The pockets of under-vaccination explained the outbreak where the averages could not. In 2019, the U.S. had the biggest measles outbreak in recent years, with more than 1,200 cases.

"I didn't think we should be ignoring this problem before this pandemic began. I think it's even more important now," she said.

A lack of easy access to the vaccine is likely responsible for some current hesitancy, according to Majumder. Though the vaccine is free, factors other than price can get in the way for some.

"These are people who won't be able to take time off either to get the vaccine or recover from any side effects they may incur," Majumder said.

But a large group of holdouts, she said, are likely skeptics of the Covid vaccine. Polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that about 13% of Americans plan to avoid the vaccine no matter what, while another 12% say they are waiting before making a decision and 7% will get vaccinated only if required.

"We need to disentangle what percentage of these under-vaccinated pockets are due to skepticism and true hesitancy and what percentage is really due to access still being an issue," she said.

Investigating the root causes of hesitancy in these pockets can yield important insights, said Timothy Callaghan, who studies rural health at Texas A&M University. Political affiliation, he said, is often only part of the story. "There are a lot of other factors at play," he said.

Texas, for example, has a lower vaccination rate than a blue state like Connecticut, but also a larger rural population and more people of color, two other factors for which polling suggests hesitancy is more common.

Not all pockets, moreover, line up neatly with statewide demographics. New York state, for example, has been a leader in vaccinating its population with more than 67% of adults having received at least one dose of a vaccine. On Tuesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said that enough adults had been vaccinated for the state to lift its remaining pandemic restrictions.

Bloomberg's analysis revealed pockets where less than 25% of the population were vaccinated, the average population was 64,000 compared to 1.29 million in more vaccinated areas. The median annual income in these places was $48,600 compared to $66,100 in vaccinated areas. And of those in less vaccinated areas, 72.1% voting in the last presidential election cast their ballots for Trump.

"If certain groups are less likely to vaccinate, it makes it more likely that Covid-19 will continue to be a high risk in certain communities," Callaghan said. "And if Covid continues to spread in certain areas and then people go to visit those areas, they become at risk."

To address this hesitancy, the most important task may be to dig deeper into the myriad reasons people are opting out of vaccination.

"The first thing is to recognize that a sort of one-size-fits-all approach isn't going to work," Callaghan said.

- - -

Bloomberg's Drew Armstrong and Andre Tartar contributed to this report.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

The justices were unanimous on the Fulton case. So of course no one's happy.

By kathleen parker
The justices were unanimous on the Fulton case. So of course no one's happy.

KATHLEEN PARKER COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, June 20, 2021, and thereafter

(For Parker clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Kathleen Parker

The Supreme Court's unanimous ruling Thursday in favor of religious freedom over a hypothetical scenario in which a Catholic charity might deny a same-sex couple's request to foster a child was, it would seem, a win for everyone.

Here's why: Catholic Social Services (CSS), the plaintiff in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, can go back to helping children find foster homes and will not (for now) be forced to abridge their religious beliefs or abandon the heroic work they've done for decades.

Same-sex couples can continue to foster children through 29 other Philadelphia agencies that have no religious restrictions.

As it turns out, no same-sex couple had actually sought the services of CSS when the city of Philadelphia severed its contract with that agency following a Philadelphia Inquirer report about the organization's policy.

So, who's not happy? Oh, just about everybody.

The crux of the case was whether CSS was discriminating against same-sex couples in violation of the city's Fair Practices Ordinance. In the court's opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote: "The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless it agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny, and violates the First Amendment." (Strict scrutiny is the legal standard that laws or regulations must further a "compelling government interest" and must be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.)

Roberts also noted that same-sex couples have other options. If a same-sex couple were to approach CSS, the agency would simply refer them elsewhere. In an interesting twist, CSS doesn't object to certifying gay or lesbian individuals as (BEG ITAL)single(END ITAL) foster parents or to placing gay or lesbian children. Roberts wrote that even the "weighty" consideration of gays' rights to "dignity and worth" can't justify denying CSS an exception for its religious exercise.

Religious liberty advocates concede that the CSS victory ultimately may prove ephemeral. A different set of facts could be presented in a future challenge, resulting in a different outcome. This is precisely why liberal justices were able to get onboard with Roberts's side of the argument and why the more-conservative members of the court -- Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas -- were disappointed by the narrow scope of the ruling.

Conservatives were disappointed that the court chose not to overrule a precedent from the 1990 Employment Division v. Smith case, which held that laws that only incidentally burden religion and that were essentially neutral and generally applicable weren't subject to "strict scrutiny." Conservatives had hoped the court would overturn Smith in Fulton, which would have been a bigger triumph for religious liberty advocates.

Alito wrote scornfully that Roberts's opinion was based on a procedural glitch and "might as well be written on the dissolving paper sold in magic shops." The ruling was "a wisp of a decision that leaves religious liberty in a confused and vulnerable state," he added.

Who knew? Alito is one of those guys who looks like he's daydreaming about creek fishing with his grandpa when he's really plotting an assassination.

Gorsuch similarly took aim at the court's "studious indecision" about Smith. He wrote: "Perhaps our colleagues believe today's circuitous path will at least steer the Court around the controversial subject matter and avoid 'picking a side.'"

So much for majority unity.

On the other side, where the religion of nondiscrimination can be as uncompromising as many other faiths, city officials and LGBTQ advocates and lobbyists are upset by the outcome, even though nothing has changed by it, except that CSS can go back to helping continue to help children now. Where's the harm? Not one gay or lesbian individual or couple will suffer because one foster-screening agency, hypothetically, would now refer them to another, nonreligious organization. This falls under the dictum: Go to another bakery.

I suppose one can conclude that when the justices rule unanimously, not much has really happened. And we may as well admit that justices are people, too. Gorsuch's contempt notwithstanding, picking sides can be agonizingly complex, especially when one's moral grounding is in conflict with secular ambitions.

This must be why the founders created a First Amendment to guide us, seemingly in the hope that future generations would lean heavily toward religious liberty as often as possible.

This go-around, I'd say the justices did OK.

- - -

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

Taking on racism and crime should be the same fight

By e.j. dionne jr.
Taking on racism and crime should be the same fight

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

Advance for release Monday, June 21, 2021, and thereafter

(For Dionne clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only. Repeats to addtopper with release date of Monday, 6/21

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON - We must fight racism and fight crime at the same time. We must reform policing and make policing more effective. And we must battle any demagoguery that casts demands for justice as concessions to criminality.

Harmonizing these goals is morally urgent as the movement for change ignited by police killings of Black Americans runs headlong into public alarm at a wave of murders across the nation.

It's important in politics, too. A review of why Democrats lost seats in the House last year by Rep. Sean Maloney, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, found that Republican attacks against the "defund the police" slogan proved more potent than Democrats had anticipated.

A report by the centrist think tank Third Way, the Collective PAC and Latino Victory concluded that "where Defund the Police had a significant impact, it was as a part of culture-based attack on Democrats that sought to stoke fears among voters about any candidate with a 'D' after their name."

Concerns about crime cross party lines. In New York City, which holds its mayoral primary on Tuesday, a poll of likely Democratic voters found that, collectively, crime and public safety was by far the top concern of the party's voters, listed by 46%. Reopening the economy and affordable housing followed well behind at 30% each; stopping the spread of covid-19 drew 24%, and battling racial injustice 20%.

When you talk to Democratic politicians searching for a principled path forward, one name pops up again and again. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, has both personal and political reasons to push for police reform as part of a strategy for restoring order.

"In the communities that I represent, no one wants to go back to the days of 2,000-plus homicides, which we all lived through in the midst of the crack-cocaine epidemic," Jeffries told me. "Nobody that I know in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in East New York . . . into Coney Island, Brownsville and certainly in other traditionally African American neighborhoods across New York City wants to go back to those days or anything close to it."

The core of his argument: "Public safety and justice in policing are not mutually exclusive. We can do both, and we must do both."

"The fundamental objective of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is to try and shift the mind-set of policing from a warrior mentality to a guardian mentality," said Jeffries, a champion of the bill who has endorsed police reformer Maya Wiley in the New York mayor's race. "When members of law enforcement engage with communities of color, having adopted a warrior mentality, then some individuals they encounter tend to be viewed as enemy combatants. And when that occurs, things can go wrong, as was the case in the death of George Floyd."

The guardian vocation that Jeffries preaches stresses community collaboration and would "lift up public safety for the good of everyone involved."

Behind the "defund the police" slogan, Jeffries argues, "was a legitimate discussion . . . about where resources should be spent in areas beyond law enforcement in terms of the societal problems that many police officers are inappropriately asked to tackle." But it implied far more than that to many voters, and Jeffries said it is easy to "weaponize" the words "to taint all Democrats" as promoters of "lawlessness and disorder."

Like many in his party, Jeffries sees a shift around the politics of policing because many Republicans are "now serving as apologists" for the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol, thus "standing up for the type of lawlessness, disorder and attack on police officers that we witnessed."

But he also wants Democrats to show how crime can be reduced by tough action on guns and community-based policy innovations. As an example, he points to the work of "violence interrupters" who walk their neighborhoods.

"They have the credibility and authentic connections to people in high-crime neighborhoods to de-escalate conflicts before incidents occur," he says, and before "the police are called into a highly confrontational situation." In New York, a study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that violence interrupters helped reduce crime in the East New York and South Bronx neighborhoods.

Efforts of this kind would be bolstered by President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan, which includes $5 billion over eight years for evidence based violence-prevention programs.

The good news is that the twin crises of racial justice and rising crime are calling forth a wave of fresh thinking, well reflected in The Washington Post editorial board's "Reimagine Safety" project.

The bad news is that innovative ideas won't even be debated if our rancid politics pushes voters to choose between justice and security. So pay attention to Jeffries: He is fully engaged because the people who will suffer most from this false choice are the constituents he represents.

- - -

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

A pair of surprises from Amy Coney Barrett

By ruth marcus
A pair of surprises from Amy Coney Barrett

RUTH MARCUS COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, June 20, 2021, and thereafter

(For Marcus clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Ruth Marcus

WASHINGTON -- Two of the biggest cases before the Supreme Court this term had also been languishing the longest on the court's docket before they were finally decided on Thursday. The justices swatted down a third -- and presumably final -- attack against the Affordable Care Act. Then, they said the city of Philadelphia couldn't exclude a Catholic social services agency from certifying potential foster parents because the group said its religious beliefs wouldn't allow it to assess same-sex couples.

The court's delay in issuing opinions -- both cases were argued in November -- conjured understandable fears of dueling, angry and fractured opinions. Justices' tempers can be short at the end of a term, but some particularly sharp sniping between two liberals, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, and conservative Brett Kavanaugh, added further to the suggestion that something momentous was afoot behind the scenes.

Instead, both cases were decided on narrow grounds and with solid majorities. In the Affordable Care Act case, the court, ruling 7 to 2, found that those challenging the law hadn't been injured and therefore didn't have standing to sue. In the foster parents case, the court was unanimous in concluding that Philadelphia had violated the religious rights of the Catholic group, but six justices (three liberal, three conservative) declined to take the additional step of overruling a controversial precedent.

At a moment when the court's conservative majority has been bolstered, this reticence -- this judiciousness -- is a welcome development. That's not to pretend some damage hasn't already been done or to predict that this restraint will last: The court has important opinions still to come this term, on the Voting Rights Act, union organizing, anonymous charitable contributions and the First Amendment rights of students.

Next term promises to be even more consequential, with abortion and gun-rights cases already accepted, and the court weighing whether to review a challenge to affirmative action in higher education. No one should be under the impression that this is anything but a distinctly conservative bench. But how far and how fast the six-justice conservative majority is willing to go remains unknown.

Notably, the newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, did not join with the two dissenters in the ACA case -- Justices Samuel Alito Jr. and Neil Gorsuch -- and she staked out a middle-ground position in the foster-care case as well. I've been a Barrett worrier, especially about her willingness to overturn precedents that she believes were wrongly decided. But to the extent that Barrett may be aligning with the Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Kavanaugh conservative faction of the court, not with the more extreme Thomas-Alito-Gorsuch wing, that is good, if tentative, news.

In the ACA case, California v. Texas, the dissenters not only would have found that the plaintiffs in the case had standing to sue, notwithstanding the flimsiness of the supposed injury to them, they would have gone even further, ruling that the individual mandate to obtain coverage was unconstitutional and that the entire law had to fall as a result. This is a radical position inconsistent with the court's own precedents on when an unconstitutional provision should be severed from the rest of the law.

It is a welcome signal that Barrett balked at going along, nor did she sign on to a grudging concurrence by Justice Clarence Thomas, who said he would have agreed with the dissenters on the issues of constitutionality and severability if the plaintiffs had shown they had standing to challenge the law.

Behind the 9-to-0 outcome, the Philadelphia foster care case, pitting rights of religious freedom against those of same-sex couples, was even more fraught. Barrett again opted against joining the most conservative faction, a surprising development given her academic writings that justices should be willing to jettison constitutional cases they believe were wrongly decided.

The dispute presented a tempting opportunity to overturn Employment Division v. Smith, a 1990 case that has come in for considerable conservative criticism, despite its having been authored by Antonin Scalia and generating a dissent from liberal justices William Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Harry Blackmun.

That case involved Oregon employees denied unemployment benefits after being fired for using peyote, part of the religious practices of the Native American Church to which they belonged but illegal under Oregon law. The court held that laws that "incidentally" burden religion do not violate the constitution as long as they are "neutral" and "generally applicable."

In the foster-care case, Fulton v. Philadelphia, the three most conservative justices (Alito, Gorsuch and Thomas), argued that the court should take the plunge and overrule Smith. The six-justice majority, in an opinion by the chief justice, said the court didn't need to go that far, because Philadelphia's rule wasn't, in fact, generally applicable. "The creation of a system of exceptions under the contract undermines the City's contention that its nondiscrimination policies can brook no departures," Roberts wrote.

Barrett, in a concurring opinion joined by Kavanaugh, expressed her doubts about Smith but said that since all the justices agreed that Philadelphia's conduct violated religious rights in any event, there was "no reason to decide in this case whether Smith should be overruled, much less what should replace it."

I may not have much occasion to say this, but here goes: Good for you, Justice Barrett.

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Ruth Marcus' email address is ruthmarcus@washpost.com.

I think retirement would be just perfect for Justice Breyer - or anyone else!

By alexandra petri
I think retirement would be just perfect for Justice Breyer - or anyone else!

ALEXANDRA PETRI COLUMN

Advance for release Saturday, June19, 2021, and thereafter

(For Petri clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Alexandra Petri

WASHINGTON -- You know what's fun? Retirement!

I'm not just talking to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. I'm talking to everyone, a group that happens to include Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer!

Totally unrelated, of course, to anything Mitch McConnell has said lately, or, indeed, ever, but don't you think it might be nice to take things just a little bit slower? Isn't your job just eating away at you, a little bit? Have you ever thought about retiring?

Consider your day, whoever you are: You work hard. You supervise a hard-working staff. You have to spend all day solving problems and all night not speaking to partisan groups, unless you really want to! Your brow is furrowed with care and toil, and you probably cannot even choose the outfit you wear to your place of employment! Do you really wish to do this until the day you die?

Nonsense! You could be sitting by a pleasant lake. You could be reclining on a beach on a thick, absorbent towel. You could be reading, just for pleasure, not (to pick one random example) a grueling brief but just . . . a book of your choosing. You could watch "The Sopranos," either for the first time or again! You could awaken on each new day and see stretching before you a world of possibilities, where you owed no one your time or your company.

To whom does your life belong, ultimately? Your country, yes, but also yourself! Life is made of so many precious, individual moments that cannot be replaced. Do you really wish to spend the remainder of your existence forced to sit in a room with a man named Neil with whom you disagree? You do not need to perish in the traces! You are not a Victorian cab horse! You are a free individual who could retire any time he wanted!

You know what they say: You win the rat race, you're still a rat. You get appointed to a rat seat on the highest rat court in the land, and you're still a rat. It was almost certainly unnecessary to tailor the saying in that way, because I'm addressing all kinds of people, not just Justice Breyer! But there's more to life than work, is what I'm trying to say.

I am not saying that you couldn't keep working, of course, if you wanted to. You are clearly competent to do whatever you would like. But if I could retire right now, I wouldn't hesitate. The point is to retire when you are still in the prime of life and capable of extracting pleasure from it, when you could still plausibly take up golf, or another new hobby that is not golf, or dissenting.

Now, obviously, it is bad when things look partisan. No one is disagreeing about that. But you know what really appears partisan? When the Senate blocks the confirmation of a qualified nominee because Mitch McConnell wants to so that one president gets to appoint three whole conservative justices to the Supreme Court! That seems pretty partisan! Maybe it would appear a little partisan to retire before that would certainly happen, but not more partisan than it would both appear to be and be, in reality, if it did happen.

Just something to consider! A metaphor for why retiring is good -- or, in one specific case, a literal scenario you are dealing with!

Also something to consider: windsurfing! You could really enjoy that!

Not that I would pressure you. I would never presume to pressure you! And, as we established, you're probably just some guy whose retirement would not be partisan anyway. But also, just in case, if your job were one of the few hinges on which our republic hangs, and if Mitch McConnell said he would not allow it to be filled were he in charge of the Senate, why, I would certainly consider whether it wouldn't be nice to retire!

Retire when you can relax and know for sure that somebody who isn't -- hypothetically -- Ted Cruz will be taking your position! That's what I would do! Personally! I am, of course, speaking generally. But if you happen to see yourself in what I've described, I hope you will take it to heart and consider retirement, Justice Breyer -- or, indeed, anyone else!

- - -

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

I was an Obamacare critic. It isn't as bad as I thought - or as good as my opponents expected.

By megan mcardle
I was an Obamacare critic. It isn't as bad as I thought - or as good as my opponents expected.

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

Advance for release Saturday, June 19, 2021, and thereafter

(For McArdle clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Megan McArdle

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court has saved Obamacare -- again. Thursday's ruling in California v. Texas marks the third time that John Roberts Jr.'s court has rescued the law from an existential threat (though this threat was by far the weakest). Since no other legal challenges appear on the horizon, and even the feistiest Republicans have given up talking seriously about repeal, it seems safe to say that Obamacare we shall always have with us.

That's a bit personal for me, since I was one of Obamacare's most committed critics. Obviously, I failed to convince the rest of you. This seems an apt time for a bit of self-reflection: Was Obamacare really as bad as I thought it was going to be?

In a lot of ways, the answer is no. But that's often because it wasn't as good as my opponents expected, either, which I think most would readily admit.

My critique boiled down to four main points: First, I doubted we would improve our overly complex, balkanized health-care system with yet another major program that would make it even more complicated. Second, I feared committing more than $100 billion to new spending every year, at a time when we hadn't even figured out how to pay for existing entitlement programs. Third, I worried that having the government subsidize even more of our medical bills would lead to price pressure, particularly on pharmaceuticals and medical devices, which in turn would reduce incentives for innovation. And fourth, I simply didn't believe many of the claims supporters were making -- explicitly or implicitly -- about Obamacare dramatically reducing health-care costs or bankruptcies or infant mortality, or improving life spans.

Eleven years on, that first worry seems overblown. Our system is still a Rube Goldberg-esque kludge, but not noticeably more so than in 2010. As for the effect on innovation, well, Pfizer and Moderna just brought two new cutting-edge vaccines to market in less than a year. And while I'm certainly worried about a fiscal crisis, Obamacare is the least of our worries, since no politician in either party appears to believe that government spending and government revenue have any relation to each other, or ought to.

On the fourth point, however, I think that my predictions have largely been vindicated. And that this is one major reason the others haven't been.

Obamacare's supporters talked a lot about illnesses contributing to more than half of all bankruptcies, which implied there should have been a sharp decrease in 2014, when Obamacare's major coverage provisions took effect. There wasn't.

Obamacare's supporters frequently cited America's abysmal infant mortality rate, which implied that once Obamacare was in full swing, infant mortality should decrease sharply. It didn't.

Obamacare's supporters claimed that tens of thousands of people were dying every year because they didn't have health insurance, which implied that by 2019, our overall mortality rate should be substantially lower than it had been in 2009, with a noticeable kink around 2014. Instead, mortality rates, which had been trending downward, leveled off around that time.

Obamacare's supporters talked a lot about reducing health-care costs, or at least the rate at which they were growing. Sadly, no.

Partly that's because those claims were always oversold; research performed in the years since suggests that offering people health insurance has more measurable impact on their financial health than their physical health, and that medical bankruptcies may be driven less by medical bills than by income loss, a problem Obamacare doesn't address. But there's another reason neither those optimistic promises nor my pessimistic prophesies bore fruit: We were all wrong about an even bigger question.

In 2011, Doug Elmendorf, head of the Congressional Budget Office, testified that by 2021, 24 million people would be buying their insurance on the Obamacare exchanges. It's fair to say that both Obamacare's friends and foes assumed the number would be at least that high, if not higher. In reality, the most recent data suggest it's half that.

The Medicaid expansion has been more in line with projections, but it, too, is smaller than expected, in part because the first time the Roberts court rescued Obamacare, it ruled that the federal government had to let states opt out of expanding their programs. And that, in turn, has lessened the pressure for the government to exert more stringent pressure over health-care delivery or prices. Most of Obamacare's gestures in that direction were less effective than hoped, or died on the vine.

That's not to say Obamacare did nothing; the percentage of Americans who are uninsured has fallen from 16.7% in 2009 to 9.2% in 2019. That's a substantial achievement, which even the program's harshest critics should acknowledge. But even its most zealous boosters should be willing to admit that the program the Supreme Court saved this week is far from the revolutionary transformation its architects envisioned.

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Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

Just because the world is opening back up doesn't mean your wallet should

By michelle singletary
Just because the world is opening back up doesn't mean your wallet should

MICHELLE SINGLETARY COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, June 20, 2021, and thereafter

(For Singletary clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Michelle Singletary

Your company wants you back in the office in just a few short weeks, but you fear you'll need a new post-pandemic wardrobe to accommodate the weight you gained from all that comfort-snacking over the past year.

You stopped, for the most part, wearing makeup. You made your own coffee. You let your hair grow out long - and gray - and now you're fretting about having to make room again in your budget for barbershop or beauty-salon expenses.

And as more people get vaccinated, the wedding receptions, parties and reunions are back on, making you feel like you need to lavish money on presents, airline tickets and restaurant tabs.

A year of forced austerity is now giving way to post-pandemic spending sprees.

The New York Federal Reserve's latest Survey of Consumer Expectations found that expectations for median household spending growth rose to a high of 5% in May, up from 4.6% in April. "The increase was broad-based but more pronounced among respondents with annual household incomes of more than $100,000," the report said.

Personal savings rates throughout the pandemic increased for a lot of families, even while millions were struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

The pressure is back on to spend money on clothes, eating out and social experiences. For those who have the financial ability to splurge, here are five reasons to avoid returning to pre-pandemic spending sprees.

1. Consumer prices are still rising.

Prices grew 5% from a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was the largest 12-month increase since August 2008. Prices for new and used cars and trucks, household furnishings, airline fares and apparel continue to drive inflation, the bureau reported. The cost of eating out rose 4% relative to the same month last year.

I get it. You're eager to eat out and hit the malls. But be careful that your pent-up demand for shopping doesn't derail the financial progress you made in the past year. With rising prices, if you must spend, spend less.

Consider putting off a major expenditure until prices stabilize. The beaches will still be there next year.

2. Saving is still paramount.

Since pandemic shutdowns took effect, Americans have saved an average of 18.3% of after-tax income every month, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That's almost two and a half times the 2019 average of 7.5%. The savings rate hit a record high of 33.7% in April 2020.

What financial resources could you tap if you lost your job or had a significant disruption in your income?

"One common measure of financial resiliency is whether people have savings sufficient to cover three months of expenses if they lost their primary source of income," according to a Fed report on the economic well-being of U.S. households. ". . . Forty percent of adults who were laid off in the past 12 months could not cover three months of expenses by any means were they to lose their job or government benefits."

This crisis is passing, but another will come along. Don't forget the lesson learned, which is that having more savings can help you better weather a job loss or disruption in your income.

3. Your retirement savings still need a boost.

Many workers not yet retired are fairly pessimistic about their retirement finances, according to the latest data from Gallup's annual Economy and Personal Finance survey. Gallup found that only a slim majority of non-retirees in the United States expect they will have enough money to live comfortably in their retirement.

"Although three-fourths of non-retired adults had at least some retirement savings, about one-fourth did not have any," this Fed said in its report on economic well-being. Thirty-six percent of working adults thought their retirement savings were on track, while 45% said they were not and the rest were not sure, the Fed said.

Consider this: Social Security was the most common source of income in retirement in 2020. The average monthly benefit for retired workers is $1,544.

If you were able to cut your spending during the pandemic, hopefully you directed some of that money into an IRA, 401(k) or similar retirement plan. If you did, don't pull back. And here's some incentive. Fidelity Investments said workers' commitment to invest, coupled with stock market performance, pushed average retirement account balances to record levels in the first quarter of 2021. Some folks even became 401(k) millionaires.

4. Your debt is still too high.

In the past 12 months, many people have reduced their credit card debt, the Fed report said. Thirty-four percent of credit card borrowers with outstanding debt owed less debt in 2020 than a year earlier, compared with 26% who had more debt.

Think about it. With stay-at-home orders, you finally had to admit to yourself that you did have money in your budget to make a dent in your debt. Don't impede your progress by ditching your aggressive debt reduction.

5. There will still be unexpected expenses.

A lot of people are $400 away from a financial setback, according to the Fed.

If you had a $400 or more in emergency expenses, how would you cover it?

When asked this question, many people said they would have the cash. But others would need to cover it using a credit card or by borrowing the funds from a friend or family member. This isn't ideal, but at least they could come up with the money.

However, 12% of all adults said they would be unable to pay the expense by any means, the Fed said.

There are those who won't be going on a spending spree. They were struggling even before the pandemic and still are. But this past year exposed spendthrifts who had the means to do better with their finances. If that's you, don't stop your pandemic penny-pinching just because the world is opening up.

- - -

The Washington Post's Andrew Van Dam contributed to this column.

- - -

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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