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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.

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.

America needs NATO allies who share its renewed dedication to maintaining an orderly world

By george f. will
America needs NATO allies who share its renewed dedication to maintaining an orderly world

GEORGE F. WILL COLUMN

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

(For Will clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By George F. Will

WASHINGTON - In 1995, when Serbians chained some U.N. personnel in Bosnia to military targets as human shields, the U.S. secretary of state was mystified. Warren Christopher said: "It's really not part of any reasonable struggle that might be going on there." Anesthetized by their belief that peaceful reasonableness is natural among nations, statesmen from civilized nations often adjust slowly, if at all, to contrary evidence, which is always abundant.

In 2008, Vladimir Putin sent forces into the South Ossetia region of Georgia to support Russian separatists. When Georgian forces counterattacked, Putin launched (Robert Kagan later reported) a "full-blown invasion, with tens of thousands of troops, fighter aircraft and elements of the Black Sea Fleet all pre-positioned." NATO, undiscouraged, in 2010 issued a cheerful 40-page "Strategic Concept" that said NATO-Russia cooperation "contributes to creating a common space of peace." NATO, wanting "a true strategic partnership," would "act accordingly" and "with the expectation of reciprocity" from Putin's Russia. NATO would seek a "constructive partnership based on mutual confidence, transparency and predictability."

In the subsequent 11 years, Russia's behavior has become predictable. It has invaded Donbas before annexing Crimea, thereby partially dismembering Europe's geographically largest nation, Ukraine, which Russia still menaces with military deployments. It has prolonged the slaughter in Syria by intervening in its civil war. It has assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, Putin's domestic enemies in Russia and abroad.

Last month, the authoritarian Belarusian regime of Alexander Lukashenko pioneered a new form of air piracy, sending military aircraft to force a commercial airliner to land in Belarus, where a passenger, a dissident Belarusian journalist, was arrested. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it is "very difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow." Brian Whitmore of the Atlantic Council notes that "the Russian and Belarusian air defense systems are deeply integrated, as are their militaries and security services." Putin's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Belarus's action was "reasonable."

Russia continues "hybrid warfare." For example, the Financial Times reports on a Montreal-based website that calls itself an independent research organization, but actually is, the U.S. State Department says, "deeply enmeshed in Russia's broader disinformation and propaganda ecosystem." One of the website's May headlines said: "Covid-19 Vaccines Lead to New Infections and Mortality: The Evidence is Overwhelming." This is biological warfare at one remove.

So, at this week's one-day summit, NATO unlimbered its heavy parchment artillery. It labeled Russia's actions a "threat." Evidently, however, Russia is not sufficiently threatening to require stopping the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will deepen Europe's, and especially Germany's, dependence on Russian energy. Of the 30 NATO members who subscribed to the banal "threat" label, it is probable that only the United States, Britain and five smaller nations will in 2022 spend the 2 percent of their gross domestic product on their militaries that is the minimal target that NATO adopted seven years ago to be reached by 2024.

When NATO was assembled in 1949, it was all about Europe. Its first secretary general, Lord Hastings Ismay, famously said it was created to "keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." Today, the memory of the Soviet Union that nurtured Putin haunts and motivates him; he calls its death "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." President Biden has wisely reversed his predecessor's order reducing U.S. forces in Germany. But although that nation has Europe's largest economy, in 2022 it probably will, as usual, fall at least 25 percent short of NATO's defense spending target.

NATO's 2010 "Strategic Concept" contained not a word about China. At this week's summit, however, NATO said China now poses "challenges." That is a remarkably anodyne characterization of activities that include:

Shredding commitments regarding Hong Kong's autonomy and suffocating liberty in one of the world's great cities. Escalating incursions by Chinese military aircraft into Taiwan's air defense identification zone. (Tuesday marked the largest yet -- 28 planes, including four nuclear-capable bombers.) Militarizing, contrary to public assurances, artificial islands in the South China Sea, through which up to a third of global seaborne commerce passes. And inflicting what the United States has formally identified as genocide on the Uyghurs, more than 1 million of whom are in concentration camps, enduring forced labor and worse.

One purpose of Biden's trip to Europe was to reassure allies that the United States is ready to resume its responsibilities regarding the maintenance of an orderly world. Now, some comparable reassurances from allies would be timely.

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George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

Biden should make his success abroad a platform for progress at home

By david ignatius
Biden should make his success abroad a platform for progress at home

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, June 18, 2021, and thereafter

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By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden planned during his first year in office to govern from inside out, healing America's internal wounds and then turning to the world. But after a successful week of summitry abroad, maybe it's time for Biden to reverse the flow - and make his foreign success a platform for progress at home.

Biden took a simple strategy overseas, summed up in the buzz phrase, "America is back." He could trumpet a receding covid-19 pandemic and sharply rising economy to back up his claim. World leaders, even the truculent Russian President Vladimir Putin, seemed to buy into his framing of issues.

Biden finally seems to be realizing that less is more. The meandering, maddeningly loquacious personality of his years as a senator and vice president is less evident. He spares his words and avoids the woolly soliloquies that sometimes bordered on self-caricature. Instead, he offers a scrappy pragmatism, as in the phrase he repeated abroad: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating."

Biden in office is quite different from his genial public persona, insiders say. He can be brusque, short-tempered and demanding. He's like the patriarch of an Irish Catholic family - doting on some and sharp with others. He has the most disciplined chief of staff in decades in Ron Klain, a rigid backbone to Biden's ambling and sentimental manner.

The Biden foreign policy team set the table carefully for the past week's meetings, flattering each audience to encourage buy-in with the United States' agenda. The message to allies wasn't just the United States' return, but their centrality in the alliance, too. And for a Putin who craves the respect only an American president can confer, Biden offered the pre-summit fluff of calling him a "worthy adversary."

The respectful treatment of someone Biden had earlier called a "killer" rankled some critics. But diplomacy isn't talk radio. It's about achieving specific, limited goals, and in that respect, Biden's nonconfrontational approach seems to have succeeded.

Putin flexed his muscles before the summit, but so did Biden. Russian maneuvers near the Ukraine border brought sharp U.S. warning statements (and military movements) that rankled the Russian leader. A ransomware attack from inside Russia against the Colonial Pipeline led to a rare display of America's own extraordinary cyber capabilities, in the covert retrieval of cryptocurrency paid to the blackmailers.

The Biden team had a theory of the case about Putin. A sullen, isolated Russia was becoming increasingly reckless and dangerous. Its relationship with America needed "stability and predictability." Thus, the White House sought a series of conversations - on strategic weapons, cyberattacks and regional conflicts. As Biden stressed Wednesday after the Geneva summit, these discussions will be a test of Putin's intentions. "We'll find out," Biden said, if Putin actually wants a less dangerous world.

The sublime practitioners of Russia summitry, President Richard M. Nixon and his chief diplomat, Henry Kissinger, saw it as a triangular exercise with China as the third player offstage. Nixon and Kissinger used the 1971 opening to Beijing as leverage in their bargaining with Moscow. Today, the balance is reversed. By engaging an isolated Russia, Biden strengthens his position (with European allies, as well as Russians) for dealing with China, the only real peer competitor to the United States.

One underappreciated success on this trip was German support for tough language about China in the NATO communique. Germany exports so much to China that Berlin was wary of antagonizing the Chinese; German willingness to accept the first-ever NATO warnings to China probably stems partly from Biden's easing of sanctions against German companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia. He got criticism for that, too, but it was sensible prioritization.

Biden's next challenge, after the successful summits, is to pass key parts of his domestic legislative agenda over objections from Republicans who seem, weirdly, more antagonistic toward him than Putin. He should use the same tactics that worked in his trip abroad. Negotiate with his adversaries but remind them of his hard options. Be a pragmatic centrist, not bipartisan. Make them worry about the political dangers of obstruction.

An outside-in strategy would use Biden's new strength on the international stage to challenge Republicans: When the whole world seems to be celebrating the fact that America is back, does the GOP really think it can remain in its own bubble of resentment and lies?

When Europe and Asia are uniting with Biden to contest Beijing's agenda, do Republicans really want to appear, with their recalcitrance, as China's best friends? And really, is the GOP so brain dead it imagines - after the obsequiousness of Donald Trump - it can criticize Biden as soft on Russia?

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Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost

Under Biden, American diplomacy is back. But America isn't.

By fareed zakaria
Under Biden, American diplomacy is back. But America isn't.

FAREED ZAKARIA COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, June 18, 2021, and thereafter

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By Fareed Zakaria

"America is back," Joe Biden kept repeating on his first trip abroad as president. It's a fair description of what he accomplished -- a restoration of the United States' role as the country that can set the global agenda, encourage cooperation and deter malign behavior. So, American diplomacy is back -- but is America? That's a more complicated question.

The United States' influence has always been built on a combination of power and purpose. Biden went into this trip with two significant achievements under his belt. First, he ramped up vaccinations so far and so fast that the United States is the first major country to enter a post-pandemic world. Second, he passed a massive relief bill that will ensure that the U.S. economy has a roaring recovery.

But prosperity alone is not enough to lead. President Donald Trump presided over a booming economy before the pandemic, yet polls showed that most leading nations neither respected him nor the United States under his leadership.

The Biden team has led by focusing on the big issues on which U.S. allies agree: strengthening ties among free countries, combating climate change, deterring Russian aggression in various forms, stepping up to the challenge from China. It was a far cry from the behavior of Trump, who reveled in denigrating NATO and its members.

The meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was not a "superpower summit," as some in the media described it. Russia is not a superpower. Its economy doesn't even crack the top 10 and is in decline on many key measures. But the country, spanning 11 time zones, has one of the world's largest arsenals of nuclear weapons, a robust military and a United Nations veto. Under Putin, it has been eager to play the role of spoiler on the international stage -- annexing territory in Europe for the first time since 1945, engaging in cyberattacks on a massive scale, and pursuing and assassinating dissidents even if they live abroad.

Biden handled the meeting with his Russian counterpart with professionalism and skill, prompting Putin to call Biden "a very experienced" statesman and "a balanced, professional man" (in contrast to his recent comments about Trump being a "colorful individual" who made "impulse-based" decisions). Despite Trump's fawning behavior toward Putin, Putin might recognize that it is better to have a calm and rational U.S. president than a mercurial and unpredictable showman. For its part, Washington's goal toward Russia should not be ceaseless hostility but rather some kind of stable relationship in which problems can be discussed, negotiated and managed.

The biggest news out of the Biden-Putin meeting involves cyberspace. The problem of cyberattacks, cybercrime and ransomware has grown exponentially. And yet governments have appeared either unable or unwilling to do much about it. When North Korea launched a devastating cyberattack on Sony Pictures in 2014 to punish it for a movie satirizing Kim Jong Un, destroying 70 percent of the company's computers, the U.S. government did little in response.

Biden has moved policy in this realm significantly forward, for the first time signaling that the United States would be willing to use its considerable cyber capacities to retaliate against a Russian attack. Biden gave Putin a list of 16 critical systems that should be considered off limits, hinted that the retaliation could take the form of crippling Russia's oil pipelines, and agreed to have U.S. and Russian experts begin discussing these issues to define some rules of the road. This a policy shift that is likely to last.

It was a trip with modest but realistic goals, most of which were achieved. The United States is perceived once more as a constructive force in the world, with an astonishing rebound in its approval ratings across the globe, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

But the story is not entirely positive. One aspect of the United States' power remains substantially diminished: its role as a beacon of democracy. Among countries surveyed, 57 percent of people said the United States is no longer the model for democracy it used to be. Young people worldwide are even more skeptical about America's democratic institutions.

In one fundamental way, things look worse now than in prior periods of crisis. After Watergate, many were surprised that the world looked up to the United States for facing and fixing its democratic failures. It was a sign of the country's capacity to course-correct. But imagine if after that scandal, the Republican Party, instead of condemning Nixon, had embraced him slavishly, insisted that he did absolutely nothing wrong, and settled into denial and obstructionism and proposed new laws to endorse Nixon's most egregious conduct? Imagine if the only people purged by the party had been those who criticized Nixon?

The decay of American democracy is real. It's not a messaging or image problem. Until we can repair that, I'm not sure we can truly say America is back.

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Fareed Zakaria's email address is fareed.zakaria.gps@turner.com.

Obamacare lives! Now, Democrats should do right by those who fell through its cracks.

By catherine rampell
Obamacare lives! Now, Democrats should do right by those who fell through its cracks.

CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, June 18, 2021, and thereafter

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By Catherine Rampell

Obamacare lives to fight another day. That's thanks to the Supreme Court's ruling Thursday that quashes the latest (and hopefully last) effort to kill the Affordable Care Act. Tens of millions of Americans helped by this law -- the poor, people with preexisting conditions, those without employer-sponsored insurance -- can breathe a sigh of relief.

Happily, Democrats can also start playing offense again: They can concentrate on expanding, rather than simply maintaining, health coverage. Democratic lawmakers appear ready to go, with their $6 trillion reconciliation package expected next week set to include provisions that would lower the Medicare eligibility age to 60 and expand the program's benefits.

These aren't bad ideas, exactly. But they're not what Democrats should be prioritizing. At least, not if the goal is to insure as many people as possible, while Democrats still maintain slim congressional majorities.

Instead, their top agenda item should be helping people in the "Medicaid coverage gap" -- that is, the millions of poor people who fell through Obamacare's cracks.

Obamacare created a few different programs that together were supposed to nearly eliminate the country's shameful uninsurance problem. Among the most important was the Medicaid expansion, which lowered the income eligibility threshold for this public health insurance program.

More than a decade after the 2010 law passed, though, 12 states, most of them Republican-controlled, still refuse to adopt the expansion, and the Supreme Court has ruled that they can't be forced to do so.

This was not what wonks had predicted. By opting out of the federally subsidized Medicaid expansion, after all, states have left lots of money on the table. Choosing not to expand also left about 2.2 million of these states' poor residents without a pathway to affordable insurance coverage. These are people who make slightly too much money to qualify for Medicaid but too little to qualify for premium subsidies in the individual marketplace.

They're mostly people in the South and people of color.

The $1.9 trillion fiscal relief plan that passed in March attempted to entice those 12 holdout states into participating by offering them even more cash.

So far, though, GOP officials seem unable to overcome their deep antipathy toward the "Obamacare," brand, no matter how much money the feds throw at them. Even in Missouri, where voters decided to expand Medicaid through a 2020 ballot measure, the Republican governor has refused to do it. (This may be a cautionary tale for other Biden proposals that would require red states to opt in, such as his initiatives for free preschool and community college.)

So what else could be done to help the millions who are uninsured? Congress has a few options.

One is to expand Obamacare's existing individual-market subsidies, to make everyone in that "gap" population eligible for fully subsidized coverage. Maybe lawmakers would add some wraparound services, too, so that these marketplace plans are as generous as Medicaid.

Another is to create a "public option," or a new federal public health insurance program. This might be a broad program that anyone could enroll in or perhaps one that narrowly targets only the people in the Medicaid gap.

On Thursday, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Tex., proposed another alternative, through legislation that would allow counties and cities to bypass their state governments and expand Medicaid on their own. (Assuming state governments don't stand in the way, of course, which is probably a risky assumption.)

There are pros and cons to each path. Marketplace subsidies could probably be set up fastest; the public option would probably be cheaper. Some safeguards would be necessary though to ensure that states that previously expanded Medicaid don't just dump everyone onto this new federal backstop. That transition would be costly and disruptive, as Brookings Institution fellow Matthew Fiedler points out. But the obstacle is not insurmountable.

You might wonder: Why focus on the Medicaid coverage gap, rather than lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60? Yes, lowering the Medicare age would help some people newly gain insurance. But 92% of the population in that 60-to-64 age range already have insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Those in the Medicaid coverage gap -- whether they're old or young -- almost by definition don't. So you're "not getting that much juice for the squeeze," as University of Michigan law professor Nicholas Bagley put it.

Of course, 60- to 64-year-olds live everywhere, including in blue states; the poor people in the Medicaid gap live almost exclusively in states controlled by Republicans. Which might explain why there's been more energy among Democratic lawmakers for one proposal over the other.

In theory, Democrats could pursue both policies. But they seem to have limited appetite for getting anything done on health care in the near future. If that changes, by all means, they could and should do more. In the meantime, they should focus their firepower on those whom Obamacare failed most: the red-state poor.

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Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

Both parties look at immigration and ask: What's in it for me?

By ruben navarrette jr.
Both parties look at immigration and ask: What's in it for me?

RUBEN NAVARRETTE COLUMN

FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE

(For Navarrette clients)

By RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.

NOTE: This is the latest in a series of columns by Ruben Navarrette titled IMMIGRATION IMPASSE. Here is a full description of the series that you could put at the beginning or end of the columns in italics. Feel free to shorten for space if needed.

(BEG ITAL)IMMIGRATION IMPASSE: It's America's great paradox. This is the land of immigrants, and yet Americans have never liked immigrants. Today, we don't just have a broken border and a broken system. We also have a broken discourse. It's no wonder we can't solve our immigration problem. We don't even know how to talk about it. When Americans look at the U.S.-Mexico border, or peek into the kitchens of their favorite restaurant, or come clean about who is doing the chores in their own homes, they see different realities. This series -- written by the grandson of a Mexican immigrant who has covered the issue for 30 years -- takes a clear, honest and unflinching look at why America's grand promise to take in the "huddled masses" and "wretched refuse" has been so difficult to keep.(END ITAL)

SAN DIEGO -- The immigration issue has a magical power. It takes politicians -- in both parties -- and shows us who they really are, as opposed to who they pretend to be.

If you're an elected official, and you see immigrants and refugees as a threat to people like you, you're going to try to keep them out.

On immigration, Democrats can be worse than Republicans. Give me Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush over Bill Clinton and Barack Obama any day of the week.

And politicians in both parties have short memories.

Remember when Republicans like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions asserted the supremacy of the federal government? Once upon a time, they insisted that the U.S. Constitution gives Uncle Sam -- and not "sanctuary states" like California -- the right to sculpt immigration policy.

Apparently, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has amnesia. The Republican is running for reelection in 2022, but he likely also plans to compete for the GOP nomination for president in 2024. He will milk the immigration issue -- and what he calls Democrats' "open border" policies -- for all its worth.

This week, Abbott announced that he is sidestepping the federal government and putting a $250 million down payment on a state-led project to build "hundreds of miles" of border wall along the state's international boundary with Mexico.

Everything is bigger in Texas, and that includes the hypocrisy of Americans who complain about illegal immigration even as they benefit from the labor of illegal immigrants.

I lived in Texas for five years, in what is often called the "recession-proof" city of Dallas. Mexican immigrants helped fortify the city's economy. Since the 1990s, the Big D has been a full-fledged immigrant city with a humming economy that lures people to North Texas from around the world.

On behalf of those Latino immigrants who saved the Lone Star State, let me say: "You're welcome, Texas." (BEG ITAL)De nada(END ITAL).

Meanwhile, you can be sure that Abbott isn't the only politician -- in either party -- with an eye on 2024.

In the event that President Joe Biden doesn't run for reelection, Vice President Kamala Harris is ready. She has skills, but she also has deficiencies. The immigration issue brings both to the surface.

On the positive side: Harris' political adroitness is excellent, and her survival instincts are sharp. She knows how to promote herself and her life story, as she shapes a narrative that she's "woke" enough to lead America to enlightenment and sensitivity in the 21st Century.

On the negative side: She has a thin skin, and she doesn't take criticism well. Lately, she has lashed out at reporters when pressed about why someone tasked to solve the border crisis avoids visiting the border.

This is more than just a GOP talking point. This week, a Texas Democrat -- Rep. Henry Cuellar -- also said Harris should visit the border to get a first-hand look at the problem.

Yet the vice president stubbornly refuses to budge. This has become a whole big thing. Now, if Harris eventually goes to the border, it'll be a media spectacle rivaling former President Richard Nixon's visit to China.

You would think Harris wouldn't be so clumsy on immigration given that she was billed to voters as "a daughter of immigrants." Harris' father was born in Jamaica, and her mother was born in India. She should have more empathy for those who aren't lucky enough to be born on U.S. soil, forcing them to give up everything to get here as fast as they can.

And when folks from Central America are fleeing violent gangs who threaten their sons and daughters, it's not helpful for the vice president of the United States to callously tell them: "Do not come" because the administration will hold the line against "illegal migration."

Who said anything about illegal? This lesson may have gotten past Harris in law school, but -- as critics on the left pointed out -- the process of would-be refugees coming to the U.S. to apply for asylum is 100% legal.

In an attempt to change the subject, Harris this week tried to put forth a kinder and gentler face. Pulling back from the right-wing and lurching toward the middle, she called on Congress to create a path to U.S. citizenship for the undocumented young people known as Dreamers.

It seems that Central American migrants aren't the only ones who are quick on their feet. Determined not to have her presidential ambitions squashed by the immigration issue, Harris is a moving target.

- - -

Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His podcast, "Ruben in the Center," is available through every podcast app.

(c) 2021, The Washington Post Writers Group

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