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

During these perilous economic times, we must protect the ‘unbanked’

York Dispatch

May 6

Everyone knows these are tough times.

For the poorest among us, however, the suffering inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic is exponentially more painful.

For those folks, the recently approved $2.2 trillion economic rescue package can be a vital lifeline for survival.

About 30 million American workers have filed for unemployment insurance in the six weeks since the pandemic shut down much of the U.S. economy.

Under the recently approved economic rescue package, the government began sending $1,200 for each individual, $2,400 for each married couple and another $500 for each dependent child to poor and middle-class families across the United States.

To smooth the delivery of the payments, which started in April, the government launched an online portal for people to provide their banking information for direct deposit. Those folks got their payments much more quickly.

No bank account, no quick relief from mounting bills

That system, however, offered nothing to people without savings or checking accounts, who are disproportionately low-income.

Those folks had to wait for paper checks. As a result, those most in need could wait many weeks for their payments.

The “unbanked” are at risk: To add insult to injury, once those folks finally get their checks, many of those “unbanked” citizens will have to resort to check-cashing services that charge absolutely outrageous fees to those who can least afford them. A $1,200 check, for instance, can cost more than $25 to cash at such services.

That may not sound like all that much, but for people living on an economic razor’s edge, it’s money they desperately need. That money can feed a family of four for a day, and when your family is living day to day, that is critical.

The reasons that people are “unbanked” vary.

Some can’t pass a standard background check to open a checking account because the banking system views them as too risky. Others are reluctant to open bank accounts because they feel like they’ve been burned by the system in the past and are leery of trusting any institutions with their cash.

Millions impacted: Regardless of the reasons, the fact of the matter is that millions are impacted.

Approximately 8.4 million U.S. households were considered “unbanked” in 2017, meaning no one in the household had an account, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Another 24.2 million households were “underbanked,” meaning they might have a bank account but members of the household also used an alternative financial service for money orders, check cashing, international remittances, payday loans and pawn shop loans, usually at exorbitant costs.

Those services have been rightly criticized for being highly predatory and marketing disproportionately to people of color. Roughly 17% of black households and 14% of Hispanic households were without a bank account in 2017, compared with just 3% of white households and 2.5% of Asian American households, the FDIC said.

Bring more folks into banking system: We wholeheartedly agree with the advocates who say the federal government should use the pandemic payments as an opportunity to bring more people into the banking system via Bank On accounts, which are FDIC insured, cost $5 or less a month and do not allow overdrafts or charge insufficient-fund fees. The accounts can be used for direct deposit, purchases and paying bills.

Otherwise, long lines at check-cashing stores could stretch into the fall and pose serious dangers to our public health.

Our legislators at both the state and national level should also consider bills that would make it harder to take advantage of the “unbanked.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed to all of us the large number of our neighbors who are living paycheck to paycheck. The economic rescue package was drafted to help just those folks.

Now, we need to do everything we can to make sure they receive all of the money to which they are entitled.



Trump ducks accountability

The Scranton Times-Tribune

May 6

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, so does President Donald Trump’s crisis of credibility, fueled by his fear of accountability in an election year.

Last week, the White House precluded Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, from testifying before a House committee about the administration’s response to the pandemic.

It also precluded testimony from anyone on its pandemic task force. The farcical explanation for this blackout is that the officials simply are too busy fighting the pandemic to spend time testifying. They were not too busy to stand idly behind the president for hours on end, day after day, as he conducted his daily briefings/political pep rallies. And, while rejecting House testimony for the officials, the White House cleared them to testify before Senate committees. The difference, of course, is that Senate committees have Republican majorities. Trump characteristically whined that Democratic House committee members are “Trump haters.”

The war on accountability also continued in the dead of night Friday, when Trump fired Christi Grimm, principal deputy inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, who had detailed widespread shortages of crucial equipment and supplies to help fight the virus, thus contradicting Trump’s claim that there were no such shortages.

Grimm’s dismissal was just the latest in an ongoing purge by which anyone in the administration who dares to document the truth is canned when the truth embarrasses Trump. That, of course, makes his governance an embarrassment in itself.



Time for truth: Courts should disclose records in 1946 lynchings

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

May 5

After far too long, lynching became a hate crime under federal law earlier this year. This nation’s history of lynchings haunts our nation. Understanding that history is vital to avoiding similar acts in the future.

In a ruling released March 27, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck a blow to disclosure of the facts and circumstances of the lynching of four young black people in July 1946 near Moore’s Ford Bridge in Georgia. The court decided in an 8-4 vote that grand jury evidence and testimony from the case could not be released because of secrecy requirements.

It’s an awful decision, and the court should reconsider. If not, the U.S. Supreme Court must reverse the decision and open the grand jury evidence to historians, journalists and the public.

Lower courts had ruled in favor of disclosure. The Associated Press and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with other news organizations, submitted a brief in support of disclosure.

Invoking grand jury secrecy is absurd when all the suspects in the lynchings are dead and most known witnesses are gone. The public interest in disclosure about this case is overwhelming. It was one of the last mass lynchings in U.S. history and may have involved at least one powerful Georgia politician, Eugene Talmadge, who was in an election battle to reclaim the governor’s seat.

At the very least, his racist politics may have encouraged the lynch mob.

The two black couples were tied to trees and shot 60 times. One of the black men was accused of assaulting a white man. He was on bail pending trial when the lynching occurred. Local law enforcement did a shoddy job of investigation, so President Harry Truman sent in the FBI. The FBI was stymied by lack of cooperation from local law enforcement and the community. Black people were too scared to talk.

The lynchings never resulted in a conviction. A grand jury refused to indict any of the suspects in 1946. A second investigation that lasted from 2001 to 2016 failed to turn up enough hard evidence to charge anyone. Some of the suspects were living at the time of the later investigation, but they refused to talk to Georgia authorities or the FBI.

There is no good reason to keep the grand jury transcripts and other evidence about the lynchings sealed. The courts should make this information available to the public. The blood of the victims calls out for disclosure. Their suffering must not be forgotten. If disclosure causes political or personal reputations to suffer, so be it.

Justice now is impossible. But the courts should allow understanding of what happened to four young people in July 1946.



Our post-pandemic transit challenges will require regional solutions

The Philadelphia Inquirer

May 6

SEPTA, PATCO, and New Jersey Transit say a strong working relationship has long been the norm among them. But the COVID-19 pandemic is creating a new normal in which all three mass transit agencies face public health, ridership, and revenue challenges.

With the regional economy shut down and many former commuters working from home, the three transit agencies each has lost about 90% of their riders. Ninety percent. That freefall is likely to prompt a messy scramble for survival that could test the ability to work together. SEPTA went from having a $7 million surplus in February to projecting a $150 million deficit for both the current and next fiscal year. The Trump administration’s stimulus program has provided SEPTA with $644 million; PATCO, $41 million; and NJ Transit, $1.4 billion. (The bulk of NJ Transit’s network serves North Jersey commuters.)

Transit advocates point out that the federal stimulus is a stop-gap, not a sustaining infusion. The agencies are using most of it to keep running — as well as covering unexpected costs of personal protection equipment, sanitizing vehicles, and other expenses. They should be setting aside some of those federal dollars to pay for short- or long-term planning.

When, how, and how efficiently their respective services are resumed will have an immediate impact on hundreds of thousands of passengers whose lives have been disrupted by the coronavirus. Reliable mass transit also is key to the long-term economic recovery of the city and its Pennsylvania and New Jersey suburbs.

Strengthening coordination among SEPTA, PATCO, and NJ Transit can only help as the three agencies face the challenge of rebuilding public confidence that taking a bus or train is not a threat to their health. Simple steps such as installing dispensers for hand sanitizers in stations, as PATCO is now doing, will be beneficial; SEPTA’s pre-shutdown plan to reconfigure its bus system will be crucial. And NJ Transit’s underutilized Atlantic City Line, which interfaces with PATCO and SEPTA, needs more frequent service to become practical for regular Philly-bound commuters.

Some riders are likely to continue working from home. Social distancing arrangements will limit seating capacity and could mean running more trains or buses to safely carry even a diminished ridership. This would make coordination of schedules or other cooperation among the agencies even more important than before. One thing is clear: The systems as we have known them are likely to be dramatically altered. The goal should be to make sure that the changes are the result of strategy and planning and not a collection of panicked reactions to the economic crisis.

SEPTA, PATCO, and NJ Transit do have nonvoting seats on the board of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and also participate in the commission’s Regional Technical Committee. The city of Philadelphia has good relationships with all three. But a separate, stand-alone working group of the three agencies would be a united voice for additional federal help for transit as well. When the pandemic subsides, the need for a safe and reliable mass transit will remain. Working together, SEPTA, PATCO, and NJ Transit will be better able to meet that need.



Elected officials should heed former President George W. Bush’s message on COVID-19


May 5

As of Monday afternoon, Pennsylvania had seen 50,092 cases of COVID-19 and 2,458 deaths, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Lancaster County had 1,991 confirmed cases and, according to county Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni, 201 deaths.

As part of an event titled “Call to Unite,” former President George W. Bush released a video message over the weekend about this “challenging and solemn time in the life of our nation and world.”

The video, less than three minutes long, imparted a powerful message about how we should be facing the “remorseless, invisible enemy” that is COVID-19. In its resolutely apolitical tone and content, it seemed like a relic from another time.

Bush thanked the medical professionals “risking their own health for the health of others.” He noted that officials “at every level are setting out the requirements of public health that protect us all, and we all need to do our part.”

He noted that “empathy and simple kindness are essential powerful tools of national recovery.”

And he urged Americans to remember “how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat. In the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants — we are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together, and we are determined to rise.”

If you haven’t watched the video in its entirety, we’d urge you to do so. We’d urge elected officials, in particular, to watch it.

We’ve watched with dismay the politicization of COVID-19.

Republican state lawmakers clearly are unhappy with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf because he shut down most Pennsylvania businesses last month, and because his plan to reopen the commonwealth in phases doesn’t reopen it quickly enough.

“Disagreeing with ideas doesn’t inherently make someone partisan,” as Republican state Sen. Ryan Aument, of Mount Joy, tweeted Monday.

Aument is correct about this, and correct in his assertion that Wolf should have been more transparent in his decision-making.

But the tenor of the rhetoric has been decidedly partisan.

And somehow, the narrative has become roughly this: You’re an anti-business liberal if you’re worried about states and businesses opening too soon. Or you’re a heartless conservative if you are pushing for businesses and states to reopen.

In reality, conservatives as well as liberals worry about being infected and sickened by COVID-19, and about their loved ones getting ill, too. And liberals as well as conservatives have been laid off or fear losing their small businesses.

As Bush said, the remorseless enemy we face is COVID-19, not one another. It’s an enemy that has required us to take unprecedented and economically painful measures.

Most Americans — including most Pennsylvanians — support those measures. It’s precisely because they do that you won’t find them unmasked and rallying at the state Capitol.

A bipartisan consensus of Americans “opposes a rapid ‘reopening’ of the economy,” according to a new national survey led by researchers from Harvard Kennedy School, Northeastern University and Rutgers University. “Only 7% support immediate reopening of the economy, and the median respondent supports waiting four to six weeks.”

A Pennsylvania poll found similarly bipartisan views of the measures taken to limit the spread of COVID-19 in this commonwealth.

Harper Polling found that 74% of those surveyed between April 21-26 agreed with Pennsylvania’s closure of nonessential businesses; 82% agreed with the closure of schools; and 82% agreed with the state’s stay-at-home order, which will be partly lifted in 24 rural northern counties Friday.

Asked when they will return to normal activities — such as eating out and participating in large social gatherings — after state and federal authorities lift restrictions, only 20% said “immediately.” Fifty-three percent said “after some time has passed and coronavirus cases have declined significantly,” and 21% said “when a vaccine has been successfully deployed.”

That reluctance isn’t based on unfounded fears. It’s based on a keen awareness of the obstacles we will face in returning to some semblance of normality — however eager we may be to return to it.

In a hearing held Monday, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said Lancaster County won’t be able to move soon from the Wolf administration’s “red” phase into the “yellow” phase — in which some work and social restrictions would be lifted. This is because, Levine said, Lancaster County is “still having significant community transmission.”

The hearing was co-chaired by Republican state Sen. Scott Martin, of Martic Township, who chairs the Senate Local Government Committee.

In response to Levine, Martin pointed to the significant number of cases in Lancaster Township nursing homes, while noting that many other parts of the county are rural.

But LNP ' LancasterOnline reports that while most COVID-19 deaths indeed have been in Lancaster and Manheim townships, there have also been 34 deaths in other parts of the county since April 21, according to data reported by the county coroner, Dr. Diamantoni, and recorded on the county’s website.

The townships that have had COVID-19 deaths include Rapho, East Hempfield, East Cocalico, Providence, Salisbury, Paradise, Penn and Warwick.

We haven’t checked the political affiliations of those we know have succumbed to COVID-19; there’s no need. Because no matter their circumstances — Democratic, Republican, independent, rural, urban, suburban, elderly or middle-aged — they were our neighbors.

Their loved ones remain our neighbors.

And as former President Bush said, our charge is simple: “We serve our neighbor by separating from them.” We keep in mind “that the suffering we experience as a nation does not fall evenly.”

And we see one another as human beings, as fellow Americans and Pennsylvanians, who rise and fall together, and are determined — no matter how long it takes — to rise.