Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

Will Virginia Embrace the Coming Transportation Revolution or Thwart It?

A Lyft car. Idiosyncratic but revolutionary.

A Lyft car. Idiosyncratic but revolutionary.

by James A. Bacon

Has Virginia has given up any pretext of being a market- or innovation-friendly state? The Department of Motor Vehicles has issued cease-and-desist orders to the Uber and Lyft ride-sharing service and slapped the companies with a total of $35,000 in fines. Their offense? Operating order-a-ride-with-a-smart-phone services and giving traditional taxicab companies a good scare.

According to the Washington Post, DMV claims the two companies are operating in violation of state law (although it’s not clear from the article what provision of the law they are breaking). Here’s what a DMV spokesperson had to say:

Virginia DMV supports innovation. … DMV has been charged by the General Assembly to conduct a study of these transportation network companies. We are confident that the solution to transportation network companies operations will come out of the study and we hope that Uber and Lyft will actively participate in the study and be a part of creating the solution. In the meantime, Virginia DMV must fulfill its obligation to highway safety and enforce the law as it is currently written.

Uber and Lyft maintain that they are operating legally, and they will not obey the cease-and-desist order.

Bacon’s bottom line: This dispute is far more important than Virginians realize. It’s way more significant than a dust-up between local taxicab companies and the Silicon Valley up-starts who would compete with them. We are in the early phases of a transportation revolution. Right now, companies like Uber and Lyft are targeting the premium end of the market because that’s where the money is and where they can most rapidly recoup the cost of developing their software apps, administrative systems and algorithms for positioning their vehicles. Once those concepts are refined and proven in the marketplace, we will see them migrate downstream to other market segments. I recently highlighted Bridj, which is providing premium bus service in the Boston area fore highly competitive fares as an example of the next wave of innovation.

The logical culmination of this technology revolution will be the emergence of a wide array of transportation services with different mixes of convenience, price and amenities targeted to different population segments. People will enjoy a far broader array of transportation services than they do now, and it is entirely reasonable to expect new enterprises to begin serving low-income populations in neighborhoods that municipal bus lines do not now serve. This change will be driven by the profit motive — by entrepreneurs filling niches in the marketplace that are now ill-served by taxicabs and municipal bus lines — and will not require government subsidies.

While it may be appropriate to maintain basic minimum regulations — companies and drivers need to carry insurance, for instance — all government has to do is step out of the way. While cities from Chicago to Seattle are throwing up barriers to transportation innovation, Virginia should embrace the trend. DMV should back off while the General Assembly studies the issue. And the McAuliffe administration should make it a core plank of Virginia transportation policy to become the most hospitable state in the country for the likes of Uber, Lyft, Bridj and other heralds of the New Transportation.

High School Graduation Rate, Too Good to Be True?

graduation_rates

Over on the StatChat blog, Hamilton Lombard draws attention to the steady rise in high school graduation rates across Virginia. The percentage of graduating seniors was significantly higher in 2013 than 2008 for all major ethnic groups, most appreciably for blacks and Hispanics. That’s good news, as Lombard says, because a high school diploma opens up opportunities for higher paying jobs. This, along with the plummeting rate of teen pregnancies and drop in youth, bodes well for the employment prospects of lower-income citizens.

It’s less than clear, however, what accounts for the surge in graduation rates. Lombard doesn’t have a definitive answer. He suggests a possible link to the decline in teen pregnancies and youth crime, which allow students to remain in school and stay on track to graduate. Also, he observes, high youth unemployment rates may reduce the appeal of dropping out.

It’s even possible that drop-out prevention programs are working. However, there is one factor that I fear may account for much of the seeming improvement: Schools are engaging in more social promotion. The more the drop-out rate is followed as a measure of school performance, the more administrators have an incentive to push students through the system whether they meet the grade or not. We have seen how school officials increasingly encourage “teaching to the test” to improve standardized test scores. It should not surprise us if they were gaming the system to improve graduation rates as well.

Let me emphasize: I do not know that to be a fact. I hope that my fears are misplaced. But I think it’s something we need to dig into before we congratulate ourselves on the awesome improvement we’re seeing. We do no one any favors by giving students a degree if they have not mastered the body of knowledge required of a graduate — not employers, not students, not society at large.

– JAB

Combating Poverty with the Extended Family

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Graphic credit: Weldon Cooper Center. Click to enlarge.

by James A. Bacon

One of the central debates about poverty in the United States has been the degree to which public policy should promote marriage. Children raised in two-parent families are less likely to grow up in poverty, goes the conservative argument. It’s not the marriage but the higher levels of education and income associated with marriage that make the difference, couner the liberals. (See my spin on a new reported issued by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, “Who Needs Dad When You’ve Got Uncle Sam?“)

In an update to its original report, Weldon Cooper has published an amazing statistic: In 2011, one in ten Virginia children lived in a residential extended family — most often in the household of a grandparent but often with an uncle or aunt. These arrangements, which typically in response to a major life event such as a job loss,  illness, divorce of break-up, are usually temporary. Half end within a year. Megan Juelfs-Swanson, author of the blog post and co-author of the study, acknowledges the value of extended families:

By banding together, the members of extended families pool economic resources, which may help to keep them above poverty. Furthermore, combined human resources can reduce other costs. For example, when grandma and grandpa watch minor grandchildren, it not only frees other members of the household to work but also eliminates the need for paid childcare. In these ways, extended families can act as a buffer against poverty.

But there are limits to what extended families can accomplish, the blog post says: “While forming extended families undoubtedly improved the economic conditions of some children, two out of five children in extended residential families live in households that struggle to make ends meet.”

Along those lines, the Times-Dispatch published a poignant story Sunday recounting the travails of two homeless Richmond teens who bounced between mother, father, aunts, cousins and grandparents, all with varying ability and willingness to care for them. Both teens rotated between relatives to spread the burden. The Richmond school system has identified enough children living this way — 34 at present — that it has developed a classification for them — “independent, unaccompanied youth.”

Although I disagreed with the thrust of the original study, I applaud Juelfs-Swanson for publishing this new data. It steers the debate away from simplistic discussions of the role of the nuclear family in combating poverty to a more complex, more nuanced discussion of the role of the extended family. Nuclear families — single mothers and their children — are embedded within a larger network of family relations. The debate about poverty needs to take that reality into consideration.

Mobile Homes, Wealth Accumulation and the Poor

trailer_parkby James A. Bacon

Manufactured dwellings — mobile homes, trailers, call them what you will — are a major source of affordable housing in the United States. But a few market reforms would make them even more affordable to lower- and middle-income families and make them better vehicles for accumulating wealth. That was the message from a session Friday morning at the 2014 conference of the Congress of the New Urbanism in Buffalo, N.Y.

The great advantage of manufactured housing is that it costs less than site-built housing– $44 per square foot on average compared to $86 per square foot, not counting the value of the land, said Doug Ryan, director of affordable housing initiatives for the Corporation for Enterprise Development. But there are drawbacks. Many homeowners don’t own the land beneath their trailers and they cannot obtain long-term mortgage financing like other homeowners can. Also, zoning codes often marginalize manufactured housing, relegating trailer parks to undesirable locations, if permitting it at all.

Many problems with the industry originate from its origins decades ago when companies manufactured mobile trailers primarily as recreational vehicles. Over time, the trailers evolved into houses set in semi-permanent locations while campgrounds evolved into trailer parks. In 1976 legislation formally recognized the difference between “recreational vehicles” and “manufactured housing” but the underlying business model – RVs/mobile homes sitting on land owned by someone else – did not change.

Severing the connection between home ownership and land ownership created at least two big problems. First, trailer owners were subject to the whims of the landowner. In most states, trailer park owners could evict tenants for undesirable behavior or any other reason with only 30 days’ notice. If the landowner wanted to sell to a developer – boom – long-term tenants found themselves uprooted and forced to move to another location, if they could find one, at considerable expense.

Second, financing companies classified trailers as “chattel” property the same as RVs, which meant that homeowners could not access mortgage financing which charged lower interests rates and stretched out payments over longer periods. The second problem was tied to the first: The disconnect between the trailer and the land beneath it made it less desirable collateral for financiers.

Fortunately for mobile homeowners, a non-profit movement has arisen to address those problems. As Lisa Davis, program officer for the Ford Foundation, described it, reformers are moving across a broad front: changing the law to get manufactured housing titled as real estate; improving product quality with a focus on energy efficiency; solving the land-tenure problem; and reforming the financing system.

ROC USA, a not-for-profit enterprise, is addressing the land-ownership issue by converting trailer parks into land-ownership co-ops. It is impractical to subdivide trailer parks into individual lots for individual trailers, said Paul Bradley, president of ROC USA. But giving trailer tenants an ownership interest in a communal property does several positive things. It gives them equity ownership in the land, and it gives them security against the landlord selling the property and evicting them. Thirty years of experience has shown that homes in resident-owned communities sell faster and sell for more, allowing homeowners to build more equity.

Next Step Network is working on several initiatives to help trailer owners. The organization provides education and credit counseling to trailer buyers to ensure they make intelligent consumer decisions, and it works with the industry to make the costs and risks of ownership more transparent, said Dave Betler, marketing and operations specialist with Next Step. The group urges homeowners to look beyond up-front costs and look at life-cycle costs, which include energy payments. Manufacturing trailers to Energy Star specifications can lower monthly payments and increase re-sale value. Energy expenditures loom large for low-income families – twice the percentage of their income compared to average households.

Bacon’s bottom line: For the most part, I find these initiatives to be highly commendable. Instead of seeking government subsidies or engaging in social engineering, they are trying to make the market work more effectively. The goals of greater transparency and consumer education are laudable. Addressing the land-tenure issue by converting trailer parks into co-ops is inspired. Nudging the financial industry into providing mortgage financing sounds reasonable, although there may be complicating issues, such as the use of long-term mortgages that extend longer than the expected life of the trailer, that the panelists did not discuss.

The other reason I prefer this approach to many other affordable-housing initiatives is that it does not bilk taxpayer or turn lower-income people into wards of the state — it turns poor people into property owners and gives them a means to accumulate at least a small amount of wealth. That builds a much healthier society.

Brat and Cantor: Two Unsavory Choices

BratCantorWebBy Peter Galuszka

The hottest political race coming up is the Republican primary this Tuesday involving the 7th Congressional District now represented by Eric Cantor, a powerful conservative who is House Majority Leader and could possibly one day be Speaker of the House.

His opponent, college professor David Brat, has gotten much national attention because Brat is trying to out-Tea Party Cantor who tried to shed his Main Street background and led the insurgent Tea Party parade during their days of glory back in 2010.

But if you want to see just how intellectually barren both men are, read what they wrote in opposing columns in the Richmond newspaper this morning. They show just how out of touch they are and how they are dominated by a tiny group of hard-right fanatics who have split the state GOP.

Brat is an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in the quaint railroad town of Ashland that might be a set for a Jimmy Stewart movie.

He spends a lot of time debunking Cantor’s ridiculous claim that he is a “liberal” college professor but the very fact that he is doing this is a throwback to the Old Virginny days of yore. First, off, what is wrong with being a “liberal professor?” Are we supposed to have academics that pass a litmus test? Maybe Brat would have House UnAmerican Activities Committees on colleges to make sure that “liberal” professors don’t poison young minds.

Secondly, the use of the term is an exercise in euphemism that smacks of the Massive Resistance days when a candidate was accused of being a “social engineer” if he or she backed integration and civil rights.

And while Brat makes some fair points about Cantor masquerading as a budget hawk, his ideas on finally dealing with undocumented foreign-born residents are downright scary and are obviously intended as a populist ploy to the lower elements of voters.

Indeed, Brat’s column raises serious questions about just how well he understands economic reality, especially when it comes to immigration. Forces are aligning for some kind of long-overdue resolution of immigration. He claims Cantor backs amnesty for undocumented workers. (If so, what’s wrong with that?)

Brat paints a weird picture in which “illegals,” working in collusion with giant corporations, are stealing jobs from “real” Virginians. I won’t go into the borderline racist and nativist aspects of his statements. They smack of the older days of the No Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan that wanted to keep non-Protestants, such as Catholic Irish, Poles, Germans and Italians, or Chinese or Japanese, out of the country.

Strangely and even more troubling, Brat simply doesn’t understand the American labor market. One of the reason so many immigrants are in some sectors of the economy, such as construction and poultry processing, are because the jobs are dirty, messy and there aren’t enough native-American workers willing or able to do them. That is why turkey processing plants in the Shenandoah Valley have so many hard-working Hispanic immigrants. Ditto construction jobs.

At the other end of the spectrum, Professor Brat ignores the dilemma at the high-end of the economy. American universities are not producing enough software and other engineers so we have to import them through visa programs. Some companies are so hungry for foreign intellectual talent that immigrants end up working just across the border in Canada where it is easier to get visas although their efforts support American firms.

This may come as news to Brat in his little college town, but the world is becoming more global and, like it or not, there will be more foreign-born people working here and elsewhere. His complaint that illegals are getting soldier jobs that Americans might want is strange. The military needs to wind down after 13 years of war. One wonders if Brat even has a passport and has traveled overseas.

Cantor’s column is the usual Eddie Haskell boilerplate. He spends a lot of time tearing down the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have launched at least six unsuccessful assaults on it and still refuse to accept the Supreme Court’s decision of a couple of years ago.

Generously funded by the managed care industry, Cantor raises no alternatives to the current health care system that is plagued with overbilling, a lack of transparency and has cruelly prevented millions from getting coverage because of “pre-existing conditions.” Granted the roll out of exchanges was a mess last year, but health care sign ups have exceeded expectations in Virginia. The expected number was 134,800 in enrollment plans under the ACA. At the beginning of May it was 216,300.

Neither candidate talks about crucial issues such as income inequality, climate change or America’s changing role in world diplomacy. Neither talks about about poverty or smart growth or student debt.

Cantor is likely to win Tuesday but neither man seems worthy of leadership. They are just more evidence about how the right-wing fringe has been allowed to highjack the agenda. As this continues to happen, Virginia will be stuck in its ugly past.

Why Executive Fiats Are Needed

idiot gets shotBy Peter Galuszka

Two initiatives — one on the state and the other on the federal level– show just how untenable the politics of confrontation has become. It is forcing the executive side to take charge at the expense of the legislative.

Democrats Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Atty. Gen. Mark Herring are exploring ways to have the governor take emergency authority to continue operating the state of no budget is passed by June 30. Herring has brought in a constitutional ringer from the University of Virginia to help out.

Meanwhile, on Monday, President Barack Obama will unveil new rules to stem carbon dioxide pollution at electricity power plants. This will most likely involve some kind of cap and trade system that actually has worked for a couple decades for preventing emissions that contribute to acid rain.

Obama is late in promulgating the rules because King Coal and its well-paid lobbyists and members of Congress want to blunt the impact on coal-fired electricity plants that provide about 40 percent of the electricity in this country. They and the annoyingly boring global change naysayers have rendered Congress useless in addressing one of the most pressing issues of our time. Result? Gridlock.

So, Obama is taking executive power through existing law, namely air pollution laws that date back to Republican Richard M. Nixon.

It’s a shame that there can’t be intelligent discussion about either issue. In Virginia’s case, the stubborn resistance by conservative Republicans in the House of Delegates to expanding Medicaid has deadlocked action on passing a $96 billion two year budget.

Turns out that the fiscal situation is even more dire because of a $350 million shortfall this year in revenue which is the result of many wealthy Virginians taking advantage of capital gains tax law changes that made it better to ditch stocks last year as they did. The shortfall will only snowball if nothing is done. Localities and state employees will be severely impacted.

Hence McAuliffe is seeking out a Constitutionally-acceptable way to keep the government going regardless of what hard-liners like House Speaker Bill Howell do.

So, there you have it: rule but executive fiat. To be sure, in Virginia’s case, there are possible ways to get out of the mess, namely Republican Sen. Emmet Hanger’s compromise plan on Medicaid. But when it comes to global warming, forget it. The power of the Koch Brothers and the fossil fuel industry is simply too great. No matter what practically every climate scientist in the world says, we are having to answer to the deniers.

Hang on. June will be a lively month.

Sen. Emmett Hanger’s Good Idea

emmett-hangerBy Peter Galuszka

Could some seemingly small technical changes in legislative tactics and voting powers on an obscure commission clear the way for passing a state budget and expanding Medicaid in some form?

Sen. Emmett Hanger, a Republican senator from Augusta, thinks so. If he’s right, there could be a way out for both Republican House Speaker Bill Howell and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe who are taking the stubborn impasse right up to the wire of June 30.

Hanger is proposing technically separating Medicaid expansion to 400,000 lower income Virginians from the budget debate, but with a twist.

There would be legislation linked to the budget requiring changes in the voting of a legislative commission known as the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission (MIRC) which was formed in 2013 and must agree that enough positive change in the Medicaid program is taking place to allow expansion. It would most likely occur through private insurance exchanges of some type.

“By October of this year we might be able to begin some limited enrollments,” Hanger told me in an interview.

I called him because, frankly, I didn’t understand media accounts of what he was proposing although the reports indicated that there could be some kind of breakthrough involved. My undergraduate degree is in international relations and I used to study diplomacy. I realize that such types of granular give and take can bring tremendous progress. I am intrigued.

Of course, I could be dead wrong and Virginia will not pass a $96 billion, two-year budget, the state will lose its good bond rating, government will shut down at least in part, teachers won’t get paid and those caught in health care limbo between Medicaid and Obamacare will remain there.

Talking with Hanger gave me some perspective that I didn’t have and haven’t read in the Mainstream media.

First, he said that the General Assembly has already approved Medicaid expansion. It did so last year with former Gov. Bob McDonnell in office. But it also created the 10 member legislative Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission to identify problems and offer improvement suggestions for the state’s Medicaid program. No expansion can occur unless the commission approves. Hanger is chairman of MIRC.

By law, any expansion of Medicaid must be approved by a supermajority vote of the commission. That means that a majority of the five Senate members of the commission would have to say yes. Ditto a majority of the five House members.

Hanger’s proposal would make it a straight majority vote of six out of 10 members from both Senate and House sides. Plus, they won’t vote to approve expansion, only to disapprove it. In the meantime, MIRC would set clear metrics to benchmark what reforms are truly wanted.

Medicaid expansion would involve some kind of private health exchange (now dubbed “Marketplace Virginia”), and there would be added safeguards that there would be adequate copays by participants and ways to make sure that emergency rooms aren’t suddenly flooded with newly insured patients. He also wants a workable data system to keep track of patients and payments and other safeguards to prevent abuse. There are at least 17 categories of improvement areas.

The Senate would concede and use the House’s budget bill. The House would drop “Marketplace Virginia” from its bill and would concede that addressing additional Medicaid reforms would be required.

“Technically, it delinks Medicaid expansion from the budget bills,” says Hanger. But he adds that many seem to have forgotten that the General Assembly actually approved of Medicaid expansion last year “if a series of reforms were taken.” He says his plan would insure that just that happens and he believes it could happen quickly while the budget impasse is resolved separately.

He says that Howell, who has stubbornly resisted any Medicaid expansion this legislative session, seems amenable. So does McAuliffe.

The danger, of course, is that decoupling Medicaid from the budget bills takes away leverage points from both sides. Democratic Senator Dick Saslaw fears some kind of trick as do some Republicans.

My view is that sure there’s that risk, but it’s getting really late to keep playing chicken. My view also is that McAuliffe has done a hell of a lot more to compromise than Howell has.

Also, in my view, a private exchange is not the best way to go to expand Medicaid but the reality is that Virginia has a highly conservative legislature. Other conservative states such as Indiana have managed health care expansion through private exchanges, so I guess half a loaf is better than no loaf.

It seems that Hanger’s proposed deal might just get that, and not too late, either. It’s worth a look since the financial and health alternatives are truly terrible to contemplate.

Who Needs Dad When You’ve Got Uncle Sam?

poor_children

Raising children, a two-parent job

by James A. Bacon

Consider the following progression in logic:

- One in three Virginia children live in poverty or near poverty, and half of these children live in married families.

- Marriage alone does not protect children from poverty; indeed, there is little evidence that marriage, as opposed to influences associated with marriage such as the level of education, keeps children out of poverty.

- Rather than promote marriage, public policy should focus on building the “child support system” — cranking up enforcement of child support payments, allowing families that collect child support to continue receiving public support, ramping up Head Start and spending more on universal pre-K.

That’s the thrust of a paper, “New Insights into Childhood Poverty,” just published by the Demographics Research Group of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. The paper represents a major departure for the University of Virginia-based research center, which is best known for its anodyne analysis of demographic trends in the commonwealth. The idea that the best remedy for poverty is more government spending is likely to be a controversial one in Virginia. Actually, that’s an under-statement. While I believe the Demographics Research Group does a lot of useful work — I profile much of it on this blog — I think the group jumped the shark with this publication.

There is so much to object to that I barely know where to begin.

A liberal view of children, marriage and poverty

I will start the discussion by summarizing, as dispassionately as I can, the argument advanced by authors Anna K. Rorem and Megan E. Juelfs-Swanson. The paper can be seen as part of the growing liberal-left intellectual counter-attack on the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, at the heart of which was the belief that marriage played an important role in countering poverty. As the report quotes the Act:

Marriage is the foundation of a successful society… The increase in the number of children receiving public assistance is closely related to the increase in births to unmarried women … it is the sense of Congress that prevention of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and reduction in out-of-wedlock birth are very important Government interests.

The Act encourages the formation and maintenance of two-parent families by means of “marriage promotion programming.” The Commonwealth of Virginia reinforces the Act’s requirements by means of divorce education courses to encourage married couples to stay married.

The authors argue that marriage is no guarantee that children will stay out of poverty. True, as conservatives frequently observe, children living in households headed by unmarried mothers, or even by unmarried mothers living with a boyfriend, are statistically more likely than the children of married parents to live in poverty (less than $22,000 a year for a family of four, according to the federal poverty measure).

children_poverty_status
But the picture changes if you expand the definition to “near poor,” that is, making less $29,000. Many near-poor households, which encompasses a much larger group of married couples, have recently climbed out of poverty and half of them will recycle back within five years. Roughly half the children of families experiencing “economic insecurity” live in married families. “In other words, while marital status is relevant to rates of childhood poverty, marriage alone does not protect children from poverty.” Continue reading

Chart of the Day: University Graduation Rates

graduation_rate

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to increase the number of students graduating with college degrees in Virginia: enroll more students or improve the completion rates of students already enrolled. The brain-dead way is to enroll more students, regardless of their odds of graduating, with the hope that some will manage to earn their degrees. Such a strategy would require an expensive expansion of the higher-ed system and it would saddle a lot of young people with debt that they would find difficult to pay off should they never acquire that sheepskin. The smart way is to focus on improving results for students already enrolled.

I beat up on Virginia’s colleges and universities a lot, but I give the devil its due. One of the strengths of Virginia’s system of higher education is the high percentage of students who do graduate. According to data published by Tod Massa on the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) research blog, Virginia’s 70% graduation is the second highest in the country, tied with Iowa and trailing only Delaware.

The University of Virginia and College of William & Mary are standouts by this measure, with graduation rates around 90%. (What’s more, the vast majority of those graduate within four years.) The laggards, not surprisingly, cater to lower-income populations — African-Americans, in the case of Norfolk State University and Virginia State University, and Appalachian whites, in the case of the University of Virginia at Wise. In many instances, students from poor families may lack the financial resources to pay for years of tuition, fees and other expenses.

If Virginia wants to achieve the goal articulated by former Governor Bob McDonnell to graduate a cumulative 100,000 additional students from Virginia institutions by 2025, the most cost-effective path (for taxpayers and the students themselves) is to improve upon an already high graduation rate. That might be difficult for UVa and W&M — how do you improve on perfect? — but extra focus might be warranted for Virginia Commonwealth University and Old Dominion University as well as the three mentioned above.

– JAB

The Perils of Child Labor in Tobacco

tobacco child labor By Peter Galuszka

The humidity was wet as a warm washcloth one July morning at 4 a.m. some 43 years ago. I was an 18-year-old cub reporter working college summers at the Washington (N.C.) Daily News, a small afternoon newspaper on the fringe of North Carolina’s bright leaf tobacco belt.

About a dozen youngsters, maybe 10 years old, sleepily sauntered on the school bus used by the state employment agency hired by tobacco growers. The children were heading out to the tobacco fields where they’d spend the day working tobacco leaves.

They’d cut off the top of the flowering buds and eventually “prime” or cut bottom leaves first so they could be tied to sticks for placement in a hot, flue-heated barn. The point is to get the best smoking flavor but also the optimum amount of nicotine, which, of course, is the deadly and carcinogenic chemical that gives tobacco cigarettes their addictive kick.

Apparently, those kids in Bertie County N.C., might have thought the pin money they got from their hard field work might buy them candy or a movie ticket or a Coke at Hardees. But regularly handling tobacco leaves, it was later found out, exposes the kids to about 50 cigarettes-worth a day of nicotine and that causes the “Green Tobacco Sickness” which can involve nausea, vomiting and other maladies.

Using U.S. child labor to harvest tobacco is a time-honored tradition in the tobacco belt, especially in North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. But it is a dangerous business and young people shouldn’t be doing it, notes the Human Rights Watch.

Virginia is actually a fairly small producer of tobacco – only 7 percent – and only has about 895 tobacco farms that hire seasonally. But they rely on child labor and much of it does not involve alien workers.

Nicotine’s dangers have been highlighted more recently in electronic cigarettes which are a growing craze and now will be lightly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. One issue is that the e-cigs or “vapes” have small containers that hold nicotine although the user doesn’t get the other bad stuff in the smoke. The right amount of nicotine can be fatal if ingested by a child which is a concern if e-cigs are somehow broken apart if children play with them.

In the tobacco fields, the kids get into nicotine when they handle the leaves, which they do for hours at a time. There have been proposals to restrict working in tobacco fields to kids older than 16.

But guess who but the kibosh on that? That socialist Barack Obama, that’s who. His administration announced there would be no regulations on child labor in tobacco fields because of protests from tobacco growers.

Down South, some traditions never change.