Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York’s newspapers:

Congress, Do Your Job: Help Americans Without One

The New York Times

July 14

Unemployment benefits provide people who lose jobs with a little help for a little while. The money is not really enough to live on, by design: People are supposed to find a new job.

During an economic crisis, however, people can’t find jobs. They need money to live on.

Congress recognized this reality in March when it responded to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic by increasing unemployment benefits. But the expansion expires at the end of this month, even as the pandemic continues to rage. Congress, after dragging its feet for months, has all but run out of time to prevent a lapse in the distribution of extra aid.

The nation’s elected representatives need to act immediately to extend emergency benefits, and to authorize the extra aid to continue for the duration of the crisis.

Because crises are both inevitable and unpredictable — and because the federal government is slow to react whenever a crisis begins to unfold — the government also needs a set of rules that automatically switches the unemployment benefits program from normal mode to crisis mode, and back again, based on the evolution of economic conditions.

The need for more unemployment benefits is just part of a broader set of measures Congress must take to shore up the economy. State and local governments urgently need help, including funding for schools. So do businesses that the pandemic has shuttered, and health care providers it has overwhelmed.

But those who have lost jobs are singularly vulnerable — especially because pandemic job losses have been concentrated among low-wage workers with little money in the bank.

The program created in March has two main components. First, Congress expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits to include self-employed workers, gig workers and others who were previously ineligible. Americans deserve to have that adjustment made permanent: It moves the safety net of unemployment benefits more squarely beneath the modern work force. As of the end of June, more than 14 million American workers had qualified for benefits under the expansion out of a total of 33 million workers drawing unemployment benefits.

The second component of the rescue package gave unemployed workers a $600 weekly payment from the federal government on top of their standard unemployment check, which averages $373 a week, although the amount varies widely by state. The average recipient is thus getting nearly $1,000 a week. People also can collect the benefits for up to 39 weeks, up from as little as 13 weeks before the crisis.

Federal aid, including the expansion of unemployment benefits, has helped to stabilize the finances, and thus the lives, of millions of American households and the communities of which they are a part. It’s not as good as a job: Among other things, millions of people have lost their health insurance. But even as the pandemic has pushed unemployment to the highest levels since the Great Depression, research suggests the aid is preventing any meaningful increase in the share of families living in poverty.

These are individual benefits with societal impact. Workers on federal aid can afford to make rent payments, easing the pressure on landlords. They can afford to shop at local stores, supporting hard-pressed small businesses.

When Congress slapped a July expiration date on the program, there was reason to hope that the United States might have brought the pandemic under control by now. Other nations have done so. But the United States has failed to control the spread of the virus, and fear continues to curtail economic activity. The need for continued aid is undeniable.

The House of Representatives passed a bill in May that would extend the aid program through January, but few economic analysts expect the economy to recover by then — particularly as the first wave of the coronavirus continues to spread rapidly across the Sun Belt. While any arbitrary deadline risks another battle over reauthorization, a January deadline would be particularly fraught. After the Republican Party lost control of the White House in 2009, during the last economic crisis, congressional Republicans decided it was politically expedient to oppose federal spending that was needed to revive the economy. Democrats would be wise to take the lesson.

The size of the $600 bonus is also a subject of controversy. The figure was chosen because lawmakers wanted to provide workers with the money they would have earned, but the antediluvian conditions in many state unemployment offices made it impossible to tailor benefits. Instead, Congress picked a figure that would make the average worker whole.

The White House, and some congressional Republicans, are upset that some workers are getting more money than they earned in their former jobs. They argue this could discourage workers from seeking new jobs.

This is not an immediate problem: At the moment, the United States is suffering a lack of jobs, not a lack of willing workers. Moreover, there is a ready solution: a plan to reduce the payments as the economy recovers.

Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, introduced legislation early this month to continue the emergency aid on a state-by-state basis until the jobless rates in each state recede. Expanded eligibility would last until unemployment dropped to 5.5 percent. Expanded benefits would drop by $100 when the rate fell below 11 percent, and by another $100 each time the rate dropped by another percentage point, ending when the rate hit 6 percent.

Congress can avoid the need for similarly ad hoc policymaking during future crises by providing funding for states to fix the problems that have impeded the distribution of benefits — and by adopting rules to automatically expand and contract supplemental benefits.

Claudia Sahm, then a Federal Reserve economist, wrote in a paper published last year that the movement of the unemployment rate could be used as a reliable indicator. She found that since the 1970s, when a three-month average of the unemployment rate rose half a percentage point above the lowest rate during the previous year, the economy was in a recession.

Ms. Sahm, now the director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, has proposed using this “Sahm rule” as a trigger to initiate aid programs such as supplemental unemployment benefits. The emergency aid would then continue until the unemployment rate fell back to that threshold. In the current crisis, emergency aid would continue until the unemployment rate, now 11.1 percent, receded to 5.3 percent.

That would be a smarter way to provide workers with necessary and timely aid.



Offensive attempt to discredit Fauci


July 15

With many effective strategies available for protecting Americans from the coronavirus, President Donald Trump is employing one guaranteed to make things worse: Attacking the scientist whose knowledge and advice are trusted most by Americans.

Trump and White House officials are attempting to discredit Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s foremost infectious disease expert who, not coincidentally, has been speaking out more forcefully about America’s surging COVID-19 cases. Fauci is right to be concerned, Trump is wrong to denigrate him. But should Trump succeed in muzzling or sidelining Fauci, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo should be ready to hire the Brooklyn native in a New York minute.

The attacks on Fauci are not surprising. Trump’s administration routinely discredits and ignores science on environmental and climate change issues. This week it ordered hospitals to send COVID-19 patient data directly to the Department of Health and Human Services, bypassing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and increasing the chances the data will be politicized by the White House.

The disinformation campaign against Fauci is meant to undermine his credibility, his strongest asset in this war. One White House aide posted a cartoon mocking Fauci on social media. Trump ludicrously retweeted a baseless claim by TV game show host Chuck Woolery that “everyone” is lying about the coronavirus, naming the CDC and doctors. That appears to include Fauci, who long ago was banned from televised coronavirus task force briefings, his fact-based accounts at odds with Trump’s fantasies. Last weekend, White House officials, without attaching their names, released a list of bullet points — like opposition research done on a political foe — showing when Fauci’s guidance shifted over time.

But the list did not include the many times, even now, when Trump and other officials have uttered outright falsehoods about the coronavirus and the administration’s failure to control it. And, advice is bound to change when experts confront a new disease about which nothing is known and with which no one has experience. Fauci at least had the wisdom to change his guidance as new evidence emerged.

The same is true of the World Health Organization, which Trump wants to exit, partly because he says it was soft on China in the early days of the crisis. But so was Trump, who praised China’s hard work and transparency in battling COVID-19, and he downplayed the severity of the virus long after the WHO declared it a global emergency.

The WHO has problems. Created by its member nations, it is too beholden to them, has been slow-footed at times, and lacks funding. But its struggles are a reason to strengthen it, not abandon it. The WHO has done excellent work like eradicating smallpox and nearly eradicating polio. If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that we’re all in this together and must cooperate — like on a vaccine — to defeat it.

Trump should heed that lesson. Sensible steps derived from science by experts steeped in knowledge have a better chance of delivering us from the virus than fact-challenged tweets and proclamations.



Protect international college students from deportation

Syracuse Post-Standard

July 14

Today (July 14, 2020), a federal judge in Boston will hear arguments in a lawsuit filed by Harvard and MIT seeking to prevent the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency government from canceling study visas for international students whose schools conduct classes “online only” this fall.

The Trump administration issued the new rules without warning on July 6, throwing into chaos the carefully calibrated plans of colleges and universities trying to limit the number of students and faculty they bring back to campus in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.

The judge should see the Trump administration’s abrupt shift in policy for what it is: a strategy to pressure colleges to offer in-person classes whether or not they can do so safely, and a bald attempt to restrict legal immigration and keep out foreigners.

If the policy is allowed to stand, hundreds of thousands of international students will be marooned without educational options just weeks from the start of the fall semester. Many will be sent back to countries where the pandemic is worse. Others cannot return home even if they wanted to, due to travel restrictions imposed by other countries as the virus rages in some regions of the U.S.

The government’s policy is cruel, upending the lives and educations of international students. It is counterproductive, sending away a wealth of talent and brainpower that contributes to the vitality of U.S. communities, scientific research and the economy. It weakens the U.S. higher education system, which is the envy of the world.

It also directly harms colleges and universities in New York and Central New York. The state hosts roughly 124,000 international students, second only to California. These students spend $5.3 billion a year in New York.

Syracuse University has roughly 4,000 international students out of its total enrollment of 22,000. Cornell University says 24% of its 24,000 students are from other countries. The State University of New York, with 424,000 students systemwide, hosts 22,000 international students from 180 countries.

Syracuse and Cornell are among the many higher education institutions filing amicus briefs in support of the Harvard/MIT lawsuit. On Monday, 17 states and the District of Columbia also sued to block the new rule. New York Attorney General Letitia James said New York would sue, too.

This is an easy call on legal, public health and moral grounds.

The Trump administration did not give the affected parties proper notice of the rule change or take any public comments on its effects. The government has provided no justification for pulling the rug out from under international students.

Even if colleges and universities can manage to enroll international students in some classroom instruction, the students would become vulnerable to deportation if the coronavirus flares locally and a school has to pivot to online-only classes. Students who could not transfer to other schools or make other arrangements would become immigration scofflaws through no fault of their own.



For Anything Close To Normal To Return, Just Wear A Mask


July 15

It is good news that schools in Chautauqua County should be able to open in September with at least some form of in-person learning.

Now, the hard work begins.

School districts have until July 31 to submit reopening plans to the state Department of Education. There is much yet to be determined that interests many parents: how much of the school’s plan revolves in learning time outside of the classroom, how schools plan to get children to and from school, how school districts plan to disinfect schools on a regular basis and how districts that don’t have electronic devices for all students can make sure children have access to them by the time school begins.

The COVID-19 infection rate must be below 5% based on a 14-day average. If the infection rate is above 9% on a seven-day average after August 1, schools will close. The final formula decision will be made the week of Aug. 1-7.

Many children need to be in school both to learn and for emotional growth. The status of many families’ jobs relies on school being in session too. For all those carping about mask wearing and freedom should remember that too big an increase in COVID-19 infections, regardless of hospitalization rates, means the upcoming school year could be pulled away in the drop of a hat.

Not everyone loves Gov. Andrew Cuomo nor his policies. That’s fair. For many in our county Cuomo’s liberal policies make life feel like they are stepping in a bear trap with every step they take. The sound of the man’s voice, to many in our area, sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. Democrats don’t want to hear this, but conservatives have a point. The governor is far from perfect.

Conservatives, it’s also fair to say that Cuomo’s the governor and, right now, he makes the rules. No amount of complaining is going to change that fact.

If we want life to return to normal, including some semblance of a normal school year, it is incumbent on us to make sure the COVID-19 infection rate remains low. Wear a mask when you can’t social distance.



Colleges: online or in-person?

Plattsburgh Press-Republican

July 9

An ominous shadow looms over colleges nationwide, cast by the COVID19 pandemic.

Can America really send its students back to school to sit in crowded classrooms – and then in bars, dormitories and fraternity/sorority houses according to the students’ own consciences?

Apparently, the students and administrators aren’t the only ones mulling over the prospects.

While three-quarters of colleges and universities across the country have decided to reopen for classes this fall, thousands of instructors and professors have said they won’t be there to teach until their health is assured, according to an article in the New York Times.

In the North Country, where the virus has been and continues to be as under control as just about anywhere, this may not occur to people as much of an issue. But who can blame wary teachers?

They are being asked to walk into classrooms facing perhaps dozens of students whose judgment on how they spent their free time the night before is, as always, questionable.

As we’ve seen in the North Country, even the smartest and wisest of us have not made perfect decisions in every instance. Can we expect more of students 18 to 21 years of age who are finally handed their long-awaited freedom?

Many of us have wondered, from time to time, whether an in-person college education is actually better than an online one.

It seems as if it should be. After all, there you are in a classroom seeing and hearing an expert on the subject discussed, being able to ask questions and hear answers given to questions asked by others.

There has to be a significant benefit to being in that classroom and being part of the goings-on right there.

Some online colleges are offering electronic devices, yours to keep upon graduation. And some promise a bachelor’s degree in three years, instead of the four at conventional schools.

Is that degree worth the same amount upon graduation as one that costs more time, money and commitment?

But what if going to school means real danger to your health? Even your life? Would staying home and learning online, clearly safer, then become more attractive than going to classes?

According to the New York Times, the University of Southern California has reversed an earlier decision to reopen this fall for in-person classes. That’s because of California’s recent surge in coronavirus cases.

Many other schools are re-evaluating optimism on openings. SUNY Plattsburgh has not yet decided, considering various strategies. North Country Community College has announced it will open. We assume, though, that any decisions as of now are still subject to changes dependent on new developments.

But, until “normalcy” returns, could preferred education trend more toward online, despite the obvious disadvantages?

It’s going to take some very serious and well considered changes in college practices to make them appealing to everyone – professors, administrators and other employees, as well as students.