Monday, December 17, 2007

Forum looks at New Hope's plan for making work pay

from The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


Washington - "There's no magic bullet" to end poverty, said Julie Kerksick, executive director of the New Hope Project in Milwaukee, at a Washington forum on how to reduce poverty.

But, she said, we can tell you how to make work pay.

The forum was convened by the Hamilton Project, named after the first U.S. Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton,and sponsored by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Begun as an experiment in the mid-1990s, New Hope is at the heart of a nationwide proposal to lift people out of poverty through work.

The point, said Greg J. Duncan of Northwestern University, is to have a social contract rather than a welfare program.

In Milwaukee, people in the program who work full time receive benefits such as supplemental earnings, assistance with child care and health insurance. This combination of benefits helps lift them out of poverty, he said.

Duncan proposed that the program be expanded across five states.

John Karl Scholz, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a visiting scholar at Brookings, said he wants to see "people get on the right track early in life" by getting and keeping a job. Two ways to make this happen, he said, are to expand the federal program that provides a tax credit on income from a low-wage job and to offer wage supplements.

The Hamilton Project estimates that 36 million people who work full time are mired in poverty because their wages aren't enough to live on.

Your day in court: Sen. Russ Feingold is worried that Americans are losing their constitutional right to go to court.

More and more companies require people to sign contracts with mandatory arbitration clauses in employment and credit card agreements, HMO contracts and securities broker contracts, he said.

These clauses are slowly eroding an individual's legal protections, Feingold said, forcing people to choose between accepting binding arbitration or relinquishing a job or service. Feingold chairs a congressional subcommittee on the Constitution.

At a hearing Wednesday, Fonza Luke, a nurse in Birmingham, Ala., said she was fired by Baptist Health Systems for insubordination after refusing to sign an agreement giving up the right to go to court. She was an employee for nearly 30 years.

Luke filed discrimination claims with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and in federal court, but her claims were denied.

"I did everything I could to keep my right to go to federal court," she told the subcommittee, "but the courthouse doors were closed when I got there."

Feingold introduced the Arbitration Fairness Act this year to ensure that people can make a choice between arbitration and going to court.

The bill would render unenforceable pre-dispute agreements that require arbitration of a consumer, employment or franchise dispute and disputes under civil rights laws.

Keeping data public: Sen. Herb Kohl has long been concerned that some companies deliberately keep health and safety information from the public.

In 1994, Wisconsin resident Fred Barbee told Kohl that years after his wife died from a defective artificial heart valve, he learned that the valve manufacturer had settled dozens of lawsuits in which the defects were disclosed.

Because litigants were forced to sign a secrecy agreement about the defects, the valves stayed on the market.

Last week, Kohl re-introduced the Sunshine in Litigation Act, legislation that has come close to passing in the past, his spokeswoman said. The bill would prevent court secrecy and the hiding of important information and "restore the appropriate balance between secrecy and openness," Kohl says in a statement.

Giving money to vets: Military men and women injured and disabled in combat could soon be able to collect compensation even if they've been on active duty less than 20 years.

Twenty years of service is required for those payments.

A provision in the defense bill authored by Appleton's Rep. Steve Kagen gives vets who were forced to retire because of an injury suffered while on active duty the right to collect combat-related service payments.

The House of Representatives approved the bill Wednesday. The Senate followed suit Friday.

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