Content Tagged: policy priorities

Revisiting Obamacare

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February 26, 2014

The LA Times reported today that “another attempt at Obamacare ‘reform’ blows up”.  I hadn’t read up on the Affordable Care Act in a few days, so I went searching, and found some interesting information.  If you’ve been having your students follow along on the ACA debates in Congress, here’s another chapter.

The quick and dirty story is that the Save American Workers Act introduced in late 2013 was shot down by a budget analysis by our friends at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  Two items of note in the CBO analysis:  the bill would increase the number of uninsured people, and would cost the federal government a lot of money in the process.  Fox Business confirms the information the LA Times reported, as does MSNBC.  Having students read articles from different newspapers about the same topic could be a great lesson in bias and sourcing, by the way.

Economist Paul Krugman is talking about the ACA on his blog at the New York Times website, and on February 14, economist Greg Mankiw posted his comparison between the ACA and Romneycare on his blog.

Fox News reports that there are now 4 million people enrolled in the ACA,  but the Huffington Post says that there is a growing number of the uninsured who are mistrusting of the ACA and are not enrolling because of the “hype”.

This sparks another great opportunity to look at rhetoric, politics, and decisions that are made that affect the national budget.  Have students look at all of the data – what is rhetoric and what is truth?  How can you tell?


The Unemployment Dilemma

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January 7, 2014

Although the recession officially ended, the United States is faced with unemployment rates that are still seen as “too high” – and still have a large number of people receiving unemployment benefits.  Many of those benefits ran out at the end of 2013, and Congress and the President have been haggling ever since on what to do.

With the agreement of the Senate today to extend long term unemployment benefits, it could be another great opportunity to bring to your students the idea of balancing the budgets and policy priorities.  The full Congress still must approve, but President Obama has put his full support behind passing the bill.

UFR Lesson 1.5 is on Balancing the Federal Budget, but focusing in on Activity 3 would bring your students into the world of balancing the budget in the short term.  Have students analyze the political cartoon at the beginning of Activity 3, and compare them to the cartoons below.  What kind of policy priorities are being shown by Congress’ activity?

A few other resources:

Bill Day, 2013


Jimmy Marguiles, 2013




More Murray-Ryan Budget Cartoons

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January 3, 2014


In the last couple of weeks, there has been a huge increase in the number of political cartoons poking at the Murray-Ryan Budget Plan.  The October 13 blog shows some great ways to bring political cartoons to students with authentic, critical analysis.

Use the Mini-Lesson on Federal Budget Basics in the UFR Economics Lesson 1.5 to help out on basic vocabulary on the federal budget and what it means to balance a budget – or if that’s even desired.


R.J. Matson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2013


Steve Breen, San Diego Union-Tribune, 2013



Joe Heller, Green Bay Press-Gazette, 2013


Michael Ramirez, Investors Business Daily, 2013



Gary Varvel, Indianapolis Star, 2013



Murray-Ryan Budget Cartoon Roundup

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December 27, 2013


The advent of the 2013 Murray-Ryan budget agreement has brought a great opportunity for political cartoon analysis in the classroom.  The October 13 blog outlines some great ways to bring political cartoons to students through authentic, critical analysis.  Close reading, followed by asking what students see and think is happening, and then asking about the author’s point of view leads to a thorough analysis!

Michael Ramirez, 2013

Nate Beeler, 2013

Adam Ziglis, 2013

Mike Luckovich, 2013

Steve Sack, 2013

Nate Beeler, 2013






Measuring Inequality

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December 5, 2013

How do you measure the wealth/income gap?  Although seemingly a straightforward question, as with many things, the real answer is: it depends.  Every once in awhile, a video comes across Facebook feeds showing the “real” inequality of income in the United States.  Then, there are blog posts like this one from the Wall Street Journal, looking at the income gap.  So, as educators, we look for what we think is a reliable source, and come up with this statement and visual from the 2010 census showing the share of household income by quintile.

How can we tell what’s “true”?

Income inequality is a measurement of the distribution of wealth.  It compares households across a region (or country, or the world), and is traditionally measured by economists using the Gini coefficient.  A Gini coefficient of zero means that everyone earns the same income, and a coefficient of one means that one person holds all the income and everyone else has zero.  Why do we care?  Income inequality measures are used to justify policy aimed at income distribution, including taxes, Social Security overhauls, Medicare and Medicaid, and health care decisions. For example, if we, as a society, think that we must change Social Security to be more “fair”, that would more than likely lead to an increase in personal income taxes.  What effects do these decisions have on us as citizens and consumers?

Many beliefs about income inequality tie in to political and economic beliefs about the role of government.  Is it the government’s responsibility to ensure that the Gini coefficient is at a “good” point?  Who decides that point?  What trade-offs must occur in government and society in order to decrease inequality of the distribution of wealth?

One reoccurring theme in the UFR curriculum notes that the national budget reflects national priorities.  Although it would be very easy to link income inequality to UFR Lesson 1.4 (Taxation), it is also an implicit part of the lesson in 1.1 (Social Security and the National Debt), 1.2 (Medicare and the National Debt) and, when graphs and charts are used for analysis, encourages student growth of analytic critical thinking skills.  An overarching question of “Is it the government’s responsibility to ensure that there is equal distribution of wealth?” could be a point to return to throughout a unit on the national debt.  Student answers may change throughout the unit, or throughout the course, depending on what data is gathered and analyzed.

So, there’s the formal economics of income inequality.  But, the question remains:  how can we tell what’s “true”?  After all, data is analyzed differently by disparate groups.  How could this be brought into the classroom to determine (1) reliability of sources, (2) reliability of data, (3) reliability of reporting, and (4) the reliability of using these resources to guide national policy?

This could be a great connection not only to having students learn about income inequality, but also building skills in map and graph interpretation, and bias in sourcing.  Teachers could start by pulling different sources – the video mentioned in the first paragraph, the WSJ blog, and the census data, as well as sources found on your own.  Encourage students to take some time to do a close read on the information from different sources.  Students should also read the comments on the blog from the WSJ, where people disagree with the blogger’s opinion, or how the Gini is determined, or even when the Gini is determined (Before taxes?  After taxes?).  How do all of these effect what we see as the Gini coefficient?  What does it mean to be a reliable source?  Which data set is “true”?  Which data set should be used to help guide federal policies to decrease income inequality, which President Obama has stated is a goal for his next three years in office?

Other resources for teaching income inequality:



Fears of Social Security and Medicare’s Demise

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April 24, 2012

The annual report on Social Security, published Monday, stated that the retirement program “is on track to go bankrupt three years earlier than expected if reforms are not made,” reports Rachel Younglai and Glenn Somerville for Reuters.  The funding for Medicare similarly appears to be depleting quickly.  Social Security, the report projected, would begin to run out of money for retirees’ pension checks in 2033, while Medicare would run out of funding entirely by 2024.

These projections relate closely to the fact that baby boomers, 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, began retiring last year.  As they continue to do so, the strain on both Social Security and Medicare will increase.

Younglai and Somerville quote two trustees of Social Security as warning lawmakers that they must act quickly in order to prevent the demise of the program.  Because a large portion of the funding for Social Security comes from payroll taxes, a current suggestion for how to keep the program afloat is to raise payroll taxes.  Right now, the payroll tax on employers and employees is 12.4 percent.  The recommendation is to raise the percentage collected to 16.7.  This 4.3 percent increase is estimated to cover the growing costs of Social Security so that the benefits will continue to be paid in full.

Congressmen also have considered raising the retirement age or cutting certain benefits to the wealthiest citizens.  Because of the impending elections, however, it is unlikely that any decisions will be made regarding these issues, Younglai and Somerville report.  The most urgent issue, trustees of the Social Security fund reported, was the disability insurance program, whose funding likely will be depleted by 2016.

In terms of Medicare, Republicans are pushing to overhaul the entire program, while Obama and the Democratic party claim that his new health care plan has added eight more years of life to its funding.  Because both political parties strongly disagree on a solution, Younglai and Somerville explain again that it is unlikely for any changes to be made before the next election.

Bringing the Article into the Classroom

Teachers may begin by asking the students how the article relates the current U.S. economy to funding both Social Security and Medicare.  Why does the state of this country’s economy influence the funding of these two federal programs?  What other issues does the article point out as influencing the potential demise of Social Security and Medicare?  The teacher may also ask students to come up with alternative federal budgets, tax plans, or even Medicare and Social Security distribution plans that take into account the depleting funds.  Finally, the teacher may ask students how the issues raised about Medicare and Social Security relate to the federal budget and federal deficit.


New Battles Over the Budget

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April 18, 2012

Despite the fact that automatic cuts to the federal budget still are set to begin in January, House members continue to propose alternative plans.  The most recent proposal comes from the Republicans: a call for $34 billion in cuts to the food stamp program over the next decade, reports Brian Faler in Businessweek.

This proposal comes as part of a larger plan to make $261 billion in spending cuts proposed last month by House Republicans.  This proposal came with an order to a number of congressional committees to come up with spending cuts recommendations by April 27.  This food-stamp cut is on proposal coming from that request.

According to Faler, the food-stamp program will cost about $80 billion this year.  House Agriculture Committee Charman Frank Lucas is quoted as saying that this plan will make the food-stamp program more efficient: “It’s basically closing loopholes; it’s tightening things up; it’s reflecting the budgetary times we’re in.”

In response to this proposal, Democrats expressed outrage, Faler reports.  Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, explained: “We’re literally going to take it out of the mouths of babes.”

Representative Sander Levin, another Democrat, similarly scolded the Republicans for such a plan: “In their zeal to cut taxes for the very wealthy, House Republicans continue to put the burden on the backs of children, the elderly and the disabled.”

Retirement benefits also are a target for cuts in this Republican proposal, reports Faler, though he speculated that food stamp cuts would be “among the most contentious proposals.”

Bringing the Article into the Classroom

After reading this article in class, a few general questions to ask students are: does this article seem to present a bias?  Is there a difference between biased reporting and reporting that focuses on a single group’s opinion?

More specifically, this article lends itself to a discussion on the different ways the government may or may not operate during an election year.  In the article, Frank Lucas is quoted as saying that: “Everything that happens in an even-number year is always an election issue.”  What do students make of this quote?  Do they agree or disagree with him, and why?  You may even give students an opportunity to speculate what the discussions surrounding the budget would be if it were not an election year.  Another point of consideration is: is it possible to avoid turning every issue into an “election issue” in an even-number year?


Ben Bernanke Talks Deficit Reduction

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February 8, 2012

Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve Chairman, expressed concern to legislators over the spending cuts and tax increases scheduled for 2013, reports Suzy Khimm for the Washington Post.  In his testimony on Tuesday, Bernanke discussed the current economic climate and gave his projections for the coming year.  He noted that, while the country’s economy has recovered more slowly than everyone had hoped, he remained optimistic for the coming year.

Forecasts given for 2012’s unemployment rate predicted a number far higher than what has proven to be true thus far.  According to the most recent jobs report, the United States added 243,000 jobs in January.  These additions brought down the unemployment rate to 8.3%.  Bernanke attributed this decrease, at least in part, to the recent revival of manufacturing in this country: “US manufacturers have become increasingly competitive on a global stage.”

Despite his lauding American manufacturers, Bernanke’s overall message was grim: he believed that the 2013 drastic fiscal changes (the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the spending reductions triggered by the Budget Control Act) would slow economic recovery further.  Senator Pete Sessions (R-Ala.), questioned Bernanke and his claim that it was less important to reduce the deficit than to continue to encourage recovery and growth.  Bernanke’s response was simple: “What we want to do is have a credible, strong plan so that the economy doesn’t hit a huge pothole.”  Bernanke thus encouraged a deficit reduction plan that could phase in over a longer period of time than the automatic one set for January 2013.

In the Classroom

This article may be used in a variety of ways.  It may be introduced simply as a way to keep students apprised of the opinions being heard by Congress about the budget deficit.  It may also be used to introduce Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve, if you have not done so previously.

The article also may be used in a debate on the merits of the current plan for deficit reduction.  Bernanke provides an argument against the plan – he says that it occurs in too short a time and will slow overall economic recovery. What do your students think? Which topic is more important: economic recovery or deficit reduction? Is it possible to have one without the other?


The State of our Economic Union

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January 25, 2012

On Tuesday night, President Obama addressed Congress in the annual State of the Union speech.  The transcript of his speech may be found here. In just under an hour, Obama called attention to his accomplishments, described his plans for the future, asked Congress to try to overcome partisan difference to get things done, and invoked the American Dream as the ideal to which our country is striving.

During the speech, Obama only mentioned the federal deficit twice.  The first mention was buried within the first ten minutes.  He declared: “American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s.  Together, we’ve agreed to cut the deficit by more than $2 trillion.  And we’ve put in place new rules to hold Wall Street accountable, so a crisis like this never happens again.”  In this mention, the agreement to cut the deficit seems to be just another of his many accomplishments.  It merely is part of a list, sandwiched between job creation and new regulations for Wall Street.

The second mention is much more informative and complete. He explains:

“When it comes to the deficit, we’ve already agreed to more than $2 trillion in cuts and savings.  But we need to do more, and that means making choices.  Right now, we’re poised to spend nearly $1 trillion more on what was supposed to be a temporary tax break for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.  Right now, because of loopholes and shelters in the tax code, a quarter of all millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households…As I told the Speaker this summer, I’m prepared to make more reforms that reign in long-term costs of Medicare and Medicaid, and strengthen Social Security, so long as those programs remain a guarantee of security for seniors.  But in return, we need to change our tax code so that people like me, and an awful lot of members of Congress, pay our fair share of taxes.”

According to Obama, the key to lowering the deficit is twofold: the government needs to act more frugally and reform policies that are expensive, and it needs change the tax code so that wealthier citizens pay more.

If your students were not required to watch the State of the Union, you could assign students to read parts of the speech or articles describing the speech.  Due to the fact that the State of the Union may be found on so many different media, you may assign students to pick one medium to watch/read/listen to the speech.

You may begin a discussion on Obama’s speech by asking: how did Obama first bring up the government debt? Why does he mention it within the context in which he does?  When else does Obama address the federal deficit, and what does he propose to address the deficit?  Why did Obama only dedicate two sentences to addressing an agreement made by Congress that took months to decide?  What do you, as students, think about his proposals? What are alternatives to what he proposed?

Because Congress currently has a Republican majority, many critics claim that Obama will not be able to get any of his proposals done during his last year of this term.  Others say that this State of the Union was the Obama’s response to the Republican primary candidates’ criticism.  What do your students think about these two criticisms?


Why Should Students Care about the U.S. Debt Panel?

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November 2, 2011

“It’s the economy, stupid,” the phrase popularized in the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign, may need slight revision.  Yes, it certainly is the economy, but right now, it’s the debt.  And while high school students are anything but stupid, they may need some reminding as to why they should care about the looming deadline for the Joint Selection Committee on Deficit Reduction

Heidi Przybyla’s recent article for Bloomberg explores the consequences of the automatic cuts if the Committee is unable to create an alternative.  James Jones, an Oklahoma Democrat, is quoted as saying: “I don’t think Congress on either end understands the consequence of their inaction… You’re creating a generational war.”

War? Who is fighting?

On one side, we have Social Security and Medicare; on the other, child health and education programs.  Though one may think that all of these programs will take a hit with the $1.2 trillion cut, some may be hit harder than others, Przybyla explains.  The programs that will be hit hardest, she posits, will be those serving the young. 


Przybyla points first to the strong lobbying of the AARP who, in the first six months of this year, spent $9.7 million on said lobbying.  Second, she notes the fact that Social Security and Medicare are “mandatory entitlement spending that automatically grows as the retiree populations increases,” while spending for many children’s programs is determined annually.  Furthermore, the Children’s Defense Fund, in stark contrast to the AARP, spent $48,245 during all of last year. 

Already, trends in federal spending indicate which generation has been “winning” this war: “In 2008, per capita federal spending on those 19 and younger was $3,660, compared with $23,900 for those 65 and older, according to a report by Urban Institute and Brookings in Washington,” reports Przybyla. 

How children may lose

 A recent study by the Federal Funds Information for States stated that the U.S. Department of Education may have its budget cut by $3.5 billion.  The Head Start program may lose up to $799 million.  The study also mentioned potential budget cuts for child welfare services and child-care. 

In the Classroom

This article introduces a number of important aspects of the political process.  Teachers may use this article to introduce the concept of “lobbying,” who lobbyists are, and how interest groups play a role in lobbying.

With regards to interesting the students in this current budget crisis, teachers may use this article to explore what it might mean for their particular school if the Department of Education lost that much funding.  Students may be asked to research how much money, on average, a school in their district receives, what percentage of the federal budget their district is, and then how much money their school could lose based on the cut.  The project could culminate in examining the costs of the school: how much the desks cost, the printers cost, etc., and what the school might not have without federal funding.

Have the students consider the following questions: how does the action (or inaction) of the federal government affect me?  How does it affect the nation as a whole?  If you were a member of the Congressional committee, what trade-offs (between Social Security and Medicare on one side, and child health and education services on the other) would you make? Would you try to cut equally from the benefits for seniors and children, or would you cut more from one than the other?  What information would you need to be able to make an informed decision?