Universal Basic Rent?

And a campaign to bring free prison + jail calls to New York state

Hi all,

I hope you’re having a nice October. I have two new freelance stories to share.

1. One is a new piece in The Atlantic raising the question: what if instead of a cumbersome housing voucher program that involves landlords signing contracts with the federal government, we instead gave cash assistance directly to renters?

The voucher program has been around since the 1970s, but this question of what would happen if we paid renters cash directly actually hasn’t been really studied since the 1970s. That’s starting to change. In this story I report on a new discussion taking place at HUD around the idea, as well as a new study launching in 2022 in Philadelphia to test the concept. Giving cash to renters isn’t a panacea to our housing woes, but it could provide more accessible relief to people, as well as be potentially empowering to low-income tenants. We saw in the pandemic that the government can cut checks to individuals when it wants to.

Landlords complain a lot about red tape. One benefit of studying this cash assistance idea, as Phil Garboden, a sociologist I interviewed for the story put it, could be to disentangle whether the landlord’s problem is really bureaucratic hassle, or if it's an aversion to renting to poor people. You can read that story here.

I published a second story last week in New York Focus on a new legislative effort in New York to make prison calls for the incarcerated and their families free. This follows on the heels of Connecticut, which became the first state to pass such a law earlier this year. (You can read my past coverage on Connecticut’s campaign here.)

Incarcerated New Yorkers pay some of the steepest rates for jail calls in the nation, as high as $9.95 for a single 15-minute call! And many New York counties take large massive kickbacks from those jail calls. Just under two-thirds of revenue from the average jail call goes into NY counties’ coffers, according to research published this year by the Prison Policy Initiative. In 22 New York counties, that figure stood at at least 80 percent.

What this means in practice is that a state effort to make prison calls free will likely face resistance from municipalities and/or sheriffs who currently rely on the revenue they extract from families trying to keep in touch with their incarcerated loved ones. That’s not an insurmountable problem, and morally it’s abhorrent. But it is a political one advocates expect they’ll face in the coming months. You can read the full story here.

Thanks for reading and supporting independent journalism. If you like this kind of work consider sharing this newsletter or becoming a paying-subscriber. I’ve got a few more pieces in the works coming soon!

In the fight for reproductive rights, don’t forget Medicaid expansion

Like probably many readers of this newsletter, I’ve been following the developments around Texas’s new abortion law with a deep pit in my stomach. A lawmaker in Florida already introduced a copy-cat bill, and other GOP-led states have expressed interest in following suit. For those who haven’t been following, SB8 is Texas’s new 6-week abortion ban that also allows private citizens to sue to enforce the ban, incentivizing them even with $10,000 bounties.

Perhaps also like many of you, I’ve been having trouble keeping straight all the various headlines that were coming out about abortion developments in other states and on the federal level. The Biden administration had lifted an FDA restriction on medication abortion, easing access during the pandemic! New digital startups were mailing abortion pills nationwide! The U.S House of Representatives passed a bill to protect abortion providers and ban medically unnecessary restrictions like mandatory waiting periods and ultrasounds!

So I started reporting this story trying to understand what these more positive seeming developments meant for people living in states that are very hostile to abortion. This piece for The Intercept is my attempt to organize that research for you, as well as lift up something that is often missing from this conversation. Many states with some of the harshest abortion restrictions are also the ones that have not yet expanded Medicaid, leaving some 800,000 women of reproductive age in the so-called “Medicaid gap.”

Affordable access to birth control is not a replacement for affordable access to abortion. I live in Washington D.C. and have both. But it is a fact that many people who have unintended pregnancies lack access to the effective contraception they want, and would use if they had insurance that covered it.

There’s a real chance to expand to expand Medicaid for those living in the 12 holdout states in the reconciliation package Congress is currently negotiating. I looked at some of the top proposals to do so, and tried to clarify where some of the debate exists on that front. But to be clear, even if Congress does expand Medicaid, equitable access to reproductive healthcare won’t exist until the Hyde Amendment—which prohibits federal Medicaid funding from covering most abortions—is overturned. And for now, Joe Manchin has said any package has to maintain Hyde.

You can read that story here.

Have a great weekend!


On publicly funded elections

A state-level effort to raise money for climate finance, one union's vax mandate, and more on Medicare Advantage

Hi everyone,

This month actually marks four years since I went full-time freelance!? I am amazed it’s been that long already. I started this Substack in March 2018 to help aid me in that effort, and I thank you all so much for your readership and support. I can’t say the journalism industry has gotten more friendly in that time, unfortunately, but I am going to keep doing the work as long as I can. If you want to help a bit more with that:

Share Rachel's Notebook

Some new journalism:

1. Yesterday in Bloomberg Businessweek I published a story on the state of publicly-funded elections. This is an idea that’s been around for over a century, with bills to publicly-fund congressional elections around since the 1950s. According to the Congressional Research Service, proposals were passed twice by the Senate in 1970s — largely seen as a response to the Watergate scandal — and three times by both the House and Senate in the late ‘80s and early 90s, but none of these ever made it into law.

While Congressional proposals have failed, today there are at least 27 public financing programs in mostly Democratic states, cities and counties, with models varying from vouchers, direct grants, and small-dollar matching programs. Washington D.C., where I live, launched a public financing program for the first time in 2020, and I spoke with one council candidate who won and likely wouldn’t have run without it.

U.S Supreme Court decisions like Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 and Citizens United in 2010 helped hasten the infusion of money into politics by ruling that campaign spending limits restrict protected speech. Republicans tend to see public financing as wasteful taxpayer giveaways, designed to fix a political system that isn’t broken. Advocates for public campaign financing say the programs can stem corruption, empower the non-rich, and help diversify our politics by lowering the barriers to run.

Polls on public financing have long been pretty variable. Most Americans think money in politics is out of control, but they’re typically less keen to have their own tax dollars go to fixing the problem. There’s another bill in Congress right now to publicly fund congressional candidates, that’s included in the omnibus voting package known as H.R.1. To avoid the political blowback that would come with using taxpayer dollars, the program would be financed through a new fee on criminal and civil fines, fees, and settlements with banks and corporation.

In somewhat surprising news: a smaller version of the program was included in the Senate’s compromise voting rights package introduced this week. That’s a big deal, and while the compromise (it’d be just for House elections and only if a state’s chief elections officer opts the state in) isn’t as robust as the House version, it would be a major milestone if this were passed into law. And historically some places that have passed programs have then expanded them over time, including recently New York City and San Francisco. You can read that story here.

2. I have a new story in In These Times looking at a legislative effort to create a voluntary check-off option for Massachusetts residents to donate through their annual tax returns to the Least Developed Countries Fund, an international fund to help low-income nations adapt to the climate crisis. 

Readers of this newsletter know I’ve been interested in the issues of international climate finance (that is, the transfer of money to low-income countries so they can reduce their carbon emissions and respond to threats of climate change) and I’ve written before about the Biden administration’s lagging commitments and the Green New Deal’s blind spot on this. (Today the OECD actually released new figures on the amount of funding ‘mobilized’ between 2013-2019.)

This Massachussetts measure, while absolutely could not replace the need for federal contributions, could still make it the first state in the nation to legislate in support of climate finance, and if it passes, and other states follow suit, that could raise a significant amount of additional funds. One Boston-based climate activist I spoke to who is helping to support the bill noted that members in their group (like most Americans) just really hadn’t engaged much on this issue before. They supported environmental justice, but hadn’t really extended those values internationally. If I have any Massachussetts readers, the bills are pending, H.2833 in the House, and S.1796 in the Senate. You can read the story here.

3. A few weeks ago I broke news for The American Prospect that the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, a building trades union that represents 140,000 active and retired craftspeople in the U.S. and Canada, was coming in clear support for vaccination mandates for its staff, its national collective-bargaining unions, and its affiliated local unions. They went further than other unions, which have generally stated that any vaccine requirement should be negotiated first at the bargaining table.

I talked to the union president, and tried to put the IUAPT’s decision in context of other union vaccine developments/debates. The labor movement continues to be divided over this, notably with police unions among the most opposed to requirements.

Thousands of police officers (and people generally) have started seeking religious exemptions to the Covid vaccine. I recommend this smart piece in the New York Times on how that’s playing out, even as major religious denominations are essentially unanimous in their support for vaccination.

4. Back in June I published a story in The Intercept on a proposed shift in New York City to move 250,000 municipal retirees off traditional Medicare onto “Medicare Advantage” — which is a privatized version of the program. Medicare Advantage started in the early 2000s, and today 24 million Americans are currently enrolled in such plans, or 43 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries, but we actually know shockingly little about the plans and how they work for patients. Employers love the plans, because they save them money, and private health insurance companies love the plans, because they actually still get paid by the government when seniors use fewer healthcare services.

The groups for whom Medicare Advantage may be far less… advantageous… are taxpayers and retirees, especially those retirees with complex health needs. While my June piece was about how retirees were trying to stop New York City’s shift, in July the city formally approved the change, which takes effect in January 2022. In a co-authored piece with a reporter from New York Focus, a nonprofit news site that covers New York state, I did some follow-up reporting on everything we know at this point about the details of NYC’s proposed Medicare Advantage plan. You can read that Intercept story here.

That’s it for now. Have a great rest of your week and just reiterate, always feel free to pitch me things you’re paying attention to! I can’t always do them, but they’re always helpful and some of my favorite stories I’ve done in the last few years have come out of conversations with readers of this newsletter. Thanks again.

How Delta Upended Back-to-School

Last week I sent out a newsletter with some informal thoughts on Covid and schools; today I have a few more formal things to share.

Today in The New Republic I wrote about the shift from the spring’s rosy optimism around in-person learning, to what we have now, which is an unfortunately chaotic, anxious and threatening back-to-school season.

How’d we get here?

Now while some have undoubtedly been warning about this for months, by and large the expectation was that with ample time for vaccinations and replenished budgets to spend on Covid-19 mitigation, safe in-person learning was in reach, at least by the 2021-22 school year. Some leaders were so confident in the trajectory of the virus that they announced back in May that virtual learning would be no longer an option come fall.

Then Delta came. And more polarized masking politics. And more CDC screw ups. And lower-than-hoped vaccination rates. And new questions about needing boosters. And general resistance to mandating vaccinations.

Many school districts have avoided putting remote contingency plans in place, still hoping that somehow everything will work out like they hoped. Others are scrambling this month to figure it out, with students no doubt to pay the price for sluggish action.

It’s a huge bummer that we’re not at tunnel’s end yet, but… we’re not.

You can read that here.

For those who might be new to this newsletter, I thought I’d share the other major pieces I’ve reported on Covid and schools over the last year:

I also recommend reading Chalkbeat, an invaluable news source for me and I think has had consistently excellent schools coverage throughout the pandemic.

Thanks for reading and supporting this work,


The U.S.'s role in helping poorer countries reduce CO2 emissions + a top congressional district Democrats hope to flip

and some more Covid thoughts

Hi. I hate that we seem headed back to a time where the seriousness of Covid begins to overwhelm all else. I am deeply frustrated about this. I’m frustrated that the CDC director acted surprised that the unvaccinated took off their masks when the CDC eased its mask-wearing guidance in May. I’m frustrated that it’s taken so long to do vaccine mandates, and that the FDA is slow-walking its authorizations.

Anyway, I haven’t yet written anything formal but I’ve been following the school reopening discussions, which are now entering a hard, new kind of chapter. The U.S. is now averaging 124,000 cases a day, up 118% percent over last two weeks, with deaths also doubling in that period. There are states like Florida and Texas that are literally banning school mask mandates, relying on shoddy research and embarrassing “parents’ rights” claims.

While most everyone would prefer to have all children back in the classroom, it’s clear that a lot of families are not going to feel comfortable sending their kids back while vaccination rates remain what they are and while kids under 12 are ineligible for the vaccine.

If you’re reading this and wondering why families might be reticent to send their kids back to school even if kids are much less likely to be hospitalized or die from Covid, you’ll recall that many young children live in homes with seniors and immunocompromised people. There’s been a lot of discussion about how they should be prioritized soon for booster vaccines, and today there was also a concerning article that the Pfizer vaccine may be significantly less effective in protecting against Delta infection than Moderna (though still very effective at preventing serious illness + death).

Parents worry about the health and safety of their children, but they’re also worrying about the health and safety of their own parents, of themselves, their siblings, their co-workers and neighbors. For some families they’ll want to wait until they get those booster shots, or just general vaccination levels go up. We’ll see what happens; I know most districts were very relieved/happy to be done with the exhausting and difficult task of hybrid and/or virtual learning, but I think it could be fairly untenable soon to force unvaccinated students back in areas of high-spread, especially as so many offices are pushing back their reopening plans.

I’m in favor of mandating the vaccines for all school staff and students, and I’m glad more private employers and the federal government has been moving (too slowly, but at last) in that direction. California today came out in favor of requiring vaccines for all teachers or to get regular testing. D.C. where I live came out for it yesterday.

I’m also glad more unions are getting on board. AFT president Randi Weingarten came out in favor of vaccine mandates this past weekend. My old editor Harold Meyerson had some thoughtful pieces on vaccine mandates + unions that I’d recommend.

Other school districts are admirably trying to do all that they can to make a return to school safe.

Chicago announced this last Friday:

And remarkably leaders in school districts in Texas and Florida are vowing to defy their state bans on mask mandates, penalties be damned.

Emily Oster, a high profile economist who emerged as a vocal advocate of the safety of in-person learning, announced on Twitter over the weekend that she’ll be stepping back from the policy conversation around school reopening. (She’s since deleted her tweets but for reference:

I find this tweet and its timing full of chutzpah but we digress :)

Now to share some articles…I have two new stories in The Intercept:

1. First story is on the lacking commitments the Biden administration has put forward so far to help poorer, less-resourced countries adapt to the climate crisis. This was published before the new IPCC report, but needless to say, it’s quite relevant to that, because poorer countries are expected to contribute nearly 90 percent of all emissions growth over the next two decades. Helping them transition to a clean energy is essential, and many of the people who could face the worst effects of a burning planet live in places that have done the least to contribute to the crisis we’re in.

The United States is the largest historical emitter of emissions, and the president talks often of environmental justice and global leadership, but the U.S. is not so far paying its fair share to this worldwide effort. It’s always going to be easier for politicians to sell "more jobs for Americans" as a pitch for climate spending but if we're serious about the climate crisis (and environmental justice) then international climate finance is essential. You can read that story here.

2. Second story is a shorter politics piece, looking at a district in upstate New York that Biden won handily in 2020, and Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and Obama won in 2012, but has elected a Republican to represent them in Congress since 2014. Democrats have had a hard time unseating him (John Katko) but are feeling more optimistic about 2022 to flip the seat. I wrote on the only Democrat in the race so far. You can read that here.

Thanks for reading, for subscribing and for sending me ideas as you come across them!

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