Episode 09: Too Toxic for Fox

Farewell, Bill O’Reilly! Plus, how taxes became a four-letter word, the importance of chosen families, and Mississippi’s phantom cash assistance program. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.

With Bill O’Reilly finally booted from Fox News following a string of sexual harassment accusations, Rebecca kicks off this week’s episode with a proper farewell to him, featuring Rebecca Lenn of Media Matters for America (and per usual, Jeremy Slevin). Next, on the heels of Tax Day, Vanessa Williamson, author of Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes, unpacks how taxes became a four-letter word — and how Americans really feel about paying their taxes. Later in the show, Mara Pellittieri shares the story behind her powerful essay “I’m a Queer Woman. My Best Friend Is a Gay Man. We Almost Got Married Anyway” — and how the legal system doesn’t gel with chosen family. And finally, with nearly 99 percent of low-income Mississippi residents who apply for income assistance turned away empty-handed, Bryce Covert of ThinkProgress joins to explain what’s behind these alarming numbers.

This week’s guests:

Rebecca Lenn, Media Matters for America
Vanessa Williamson, the Brookings Institution
Mara Pellittieri, TalkPoverty.org
Bryce Covert, ThinkProgress

For more on this week’s topics…

A comprehensive list of Bill O’Reilly’s worst offenses (yes, such a document exists). 
For more on the unexpected tax attitudes of Americans, check out Vanessa Williamson’s book as well as her New York Times Op-Ed
Mara Pellittieri’s essay on chosen families can be found at TalkPoverty.org.
Bryce Covert’s investigative article on cash assistance in Mississippi is online at ThinkProgress.

This program was released on April 21, 2017.



REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, I’m your host Rebecca Vallas. The show is powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. On the heels of Tax Day and the Tax March, this week I’m speaking with Vanessa Williamson, she’s the author of Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes. We’ll talk about how taxes became a four-letter word and how Americans really feel about paying their taxes. Next, the story behind a powerful essay titled “I’m a Queer Woman. My Best Friend is a Gay Man. We Almost Got Married Anyway.” Mara Pellittieri and her friend Jon Bongard talk about the financial implications of growing up in families that didn’t accept their queer identities, and how our legal system doesn’t gel with chosen family. Finally, almost 99 percent of low-income Mississippi residents who apply for income assistance are being denied help. What’s behind these alarming numbers? Bryce Covert of ThinkProgress joins. But first, I’m joined by Rebecca Lenn of Media Matters and Jeremy Slevin as always, to say a proper goodbye to our old friend, Bill O’Reilly. Lenn, thanks for joining the show, we’ve missed you.

REBECCA LENN: Thank you for having me, I’ve missed you guys too.

VALLAS: So Bill O’Reilly, huh? It’s finally happened. The big day is here. He is no longer with Fox News. Tell us, how did this all unfold, I think people are probably aware that it has more than a little to do with sexual harassment, but how did we actually get to this point?

LENN: Well, I just, we at Media Matters still just can’t believe that he’s officially out. I mean, here is a guy who truly is the king of primetime blowhards. And he’s reportedly walking away with $25 million, and that’s a hell of a lot more than what he and the network paid in settlements to the women accusing him of sexual harassment. So on April 1st, the New York Times wrote that O’Reilly and 21st Century Fox, which as you know is Fox News’ parent company had paid out at least $13 million dollars in settlements with five women reporting sexual harassment by O’Reilly. And you know, the long story short you guys, is after weeks of relentless activism from progressive organizers across the movement, advertisers, mega-advertisers, not just small advertisers, pulling their ads from the O’Reilly Factor time slot, of more courageous women coming forward to share their own reports of misconduct by O’Reilly, hundreds of sexual violence survivors asking Fox to do better, O’Reilly had been deemed too toxic for Fox. And you know, it’s important to note that network executives didn’t make this decision of their own volition, right. They were forced to act. I mean, they had, these guys had years to address serial sexual harassment at their network among, you know, not to mention many other things from the network —

VALLAS: Well they had years to address it but it’s also, I will ask this as a question, is it fair to say that in a lot of ways the network was complicit because they continued to fork over money that was really hush money to keep the women who were bringing him to court again and again over sexual harassment quiet?

LENN: Precisely, exactly. And so there’s that complacency and then they enabled the culture of harassment there. And you know, it took a movement wide effort to pressure advertisers to drop the show, which then forced them to act. I mean, and they acted, honestly, out of protecting their bottom line. You know to this day, we don’t believe that they made this decision based on you know, the principle of addressing such a widespread sexual harassment epidemic. So it’s really unbelievable.

JEREMY SLEVIN: You guys have been working on this for years, right? How long has this campaign, pressuring advertisers to drop from O’Reilly’s program, how long has this been going on and what made it come together this time?

LENN: Well, honestly the New York Times’ deep dive on the $13 million dollars in settlements was definitely a trigger and fuel to the fire. But there has been an ongoing campaign to toxify O’Reilly to the teeth. I mean we’ve been monitoring his rhetoric for so many years. I mean, he’s been on the airwaves for so long and you know, other partners throughout the progressive movement have piled on. There was a few years ago we had the Drop Fox campaign, a number of major advertisers dropped from Fox at large and you know, hopefully we have other advertisers consider dropping Fox at large moving forward. We’ll definitely keep you posted on that. But you know, it wasn’t just the last two weeks that I would argue that pressure network executives to make the decision they made on O’Reilly. I think it’s been years in the making of toxifying O’Reilly and making him even more of a target as a primetime giant of this scrutiny, and important scrutiny.

VALLAS: So now that we’re finally here, and it is sexual harassment that has taken him down, it could have been one of many things I think is fair to say. But part of why we desired to commemorate this man’s departure from Fox is in no small part to do with the fact that he has been one of the worst offenders when it comes to poverty shaming on the airwaves. So Jeremy and Lenn, should we maybe remember some of the greatest hits? I feel like there is probably more than we have time for but you know, I’d like to start with that time, remember that time, that good old time when Bill O’Reilly on air denied that child hunger exists in the United States. He actually went so far as to call child hunger “A total lie. All the things that poor people have,” he said, “prove that America doesn’t really have destitution anymore.” So Bill O’Reilly for you, folks. But Lenn do you have any personal favorites of poverty shaming or other objectionable commentary from Mr. O’Reilly?

LENN: Oh my gosh, Vallas, do you have another two hours? Do you guys have another two hours —

VALLAS: Let’s cancel the rest of the show.


LENN: Oh OK, alright, that sounds good. Oh man, boy, there are a hell of a lot more to highlight. You know, I think honestly degrading those who are not like him has certainly been one of his career highlights. I mean if you aren’t paid in the millions of dollars, if you’re not a white privileged male like himself, you’re pretty much a threat — OK, I’ll stop there. I’m going to think of a few highlights. I mean, you know, you couple this downplaying hunger, downplaying the severity of poverty in the country with his ongoing attacks on food stamps and other anti-poverty programs. Definitely no shortage of those. O’Reilly at one point claimed that increasing funding of food stamps has nothing to do with stimulating the economy. And we all know that studies and experts have said time and time again that food stamps are among the most stimulative of government programs. And he’s also been a big proponent of calling for unconstitutional mandatory drug tests for welfare recipients. And you know, don’t get me started on the attacks that he has made time and time again on the homeless.

VALLAS: Well, I am going to get you started because he has actually called homeless people criminals who are urinating and defecating in the streets. That’s what he thinks about homeless people.

LENN: And did you know that according to O’Reilly that homeless people always want to get drunk and high and are just too lazy for their own good?

SLEVIN: I think one of the worst, a lot of these, the homeless stuff, the food stamps segments, he had his producer Jesse Watters do these man on the street interviews and [inaudible] Jesse Watters is getting a promotion now, right? Even though O’Reilly got fired. And one of the first, I think when I, I think it was a shining moment for Media Matters because they really elevated this when O’Reilly had Jesse Watters profile this surfer dude in California who is apparently gaming the system and using food stamps to buy lobster. And it kind of solidified —

VALLAS: The guy who became the so-called ‘food stamp surfer.’

SLEVIN: Yeah, the food stamp lobster surfer who became the symbol of what is this lie about people who need nutrition assistance.

LENN: Mhm, yeah.

SLEVIN: And the other one that comes to mind, this was the homeless — this was I think maybe this year, a couple months ago he had Jesse Watters go into the streets of New York and find homeless people including someone in the street and basically shame them and mock homeless people.

VALLAS: On camera.

SLEVIN: On camera to their face in an effort to say DeBlasio, the mayor of New York is ruining New York by allowing homelessness to run rampant.

VALLAS: I really appreciate, Jeremy, that you’ve taken us out of just remembering the greatest hits but also into why this matters, right. Because what this does, and we should say it’s not just Bill O’Reilly. And so part of the conversation we need to have is also what comes next. But before we get to that important part of the conversation, the types of frames and the types of stereotypes that Fox, through Bill O’Reilly, has promoted and continues to promote, that shapes how people think about populations, about issues like poverty and about, and then shapes how they feel about the potential solutions that need to be put in place.

SLEVIN: And I think he was kind of like a precursor in a lot of ways to our current president.

VALLAS: To Trump, yeah.

SLEVIN: I mean he normalized open bigotry and punching down on marginalized populations.

VALLAS: He said that blacks are quote, “ill-educated and have tattoos on their foreheads.” He also once upon a time, talking about Congresswoman Maxine Waters said, “I didn’t hear a word that she said because of her James Brown wig.”

SLEVIN: This was just last month.

LENN: Mhm. And he got a lot of heat for that, it was unbelievable.

VALLAS: And deserved it. But that wasn’t what took him down.

LENN: Exactly. And adding to that, all this criminalizing narrative of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the incredible leadership of that particular movement. It’s just astounding. And yeah, that did not push Fox executives to push him off the air.

SLEVIN: I think those examples, to tie it back to the broader point, he normalized almost explicit racism.

VALLAS: And actually, misogyny.

SLEVIN: Explicit misogyny, which he, we now know, acted on rampantly.

VALLAS: He said, feminists should not be allowed to report on Trump because quote, “Trump is the antithesis of feminism.” Well, he got the second part —

SLEVIN: You have a whole, the full master list of these offenses.

VALLAS: I do because of Media Matters, who made a lovely list for us and so I’m using that. But thank you Lenn. He got that half right, Trump is in a lot of ways the antithesis of feminism. But to say that reporters who are women should not be allowed to, and who believe in equality for women, should not be allowed to report on anti-woman president? Sorry, I’ll take it down a notch. But suffice to say, getting us back to the kind-of where do we go from here piece, Lenn, so he’s out at Fox we think. He’s been paid a golden parachute, the sum of which as you pointed out, exceeds all of the settlements to his victims of sexual harassment. It wasn’t his coverage of poor people and his misleading statements and offensive statements about black people and women that actually took him down. It was the, we believe, the sexual harassment scandals. But where do things go from here when it comes to coverage like what Fox leads on that is just such garbage, but is so important both in how it fills people’s heads, and as Jeremy pointed out, can normalize and legitimize whole hateful ways of thinking and types of rhetoric in the era of Trump. Where do we go from here with Bill out?

LENN: Oh, amen Vallas. It’s absolutely welcome news that O’Reilly is off the network, right? But looking ahead, as you said it doesn’t, his ousting definitely doesn’t absolve the network of other wrongdoings. On not just the sexual harassment front but being a clearinghouse of misinformation that really does shape both electoral and legislative outcomes, especially around issues on the economy and tackling poverty in the United States. So, first and foremost, we’ve got other serial misinformers stacking Fox News’ primetime slots now that he’s gone. Jeremy already mentioned that Jesse Watters is getting a place in a primetime panel slot on the network. That should be fun.

Fox announced that host Tucker Carlson, who is a neo-Nazi alt-right favorite on the network and has had his own history of attacking women and survivors of sexual assault, he will be taking over O’Reilly’s prime time 8 PM slot. And Carlson has also had a long record of attacking those who live in poverty and downplaying the severity of economic struggles faced by millions of Americans and more. And then, not to mention, the guys responsible for covering up the sexual harassment epidemic at the network over the years, and greenlighting a sham investigation into the matter —

Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy — are still at the helm of the network. And so we are doing all that we can to expose that the problem isn’t just isolated to O’Reilly, it’s the network at large. And you know, Jeremy as you mentioned, the network gave birth to Trump. All the garbage that we’ve seen the network spew since it launched in 1994, under both Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes’ rhetoric, has given rise to the hateful and misogynistic and toxic masculinist fervor that fueled Trump’s campaign and fuels his administration to this day. So looking ahead, it’s Fox News at large. We’ve got to keep pounding away at the fact that the network has gotten our country to the place that is now.

VALLAS: Time flies when you are remembering the times that Bill O’Reilly has been racist, sexist and also hateful towards people who are struggling to make ends meet. But if you want that full list you can go to MediaMatters.org and look at the greatest hits of Bill O’Reilly as he’s on his way out hopefully with the door hitting him on the butt. Rebecca Lenn is with Media Matters for America. Thank you for the work that you do Rebecca and for joining us. We can hear all the great work happening at Media Matters in the background because you guys are hard at work trying to ensure that we can actually trust our media. Jeremy Slevin, as always, thank you for being here too. Don’t go away, next up I speak with Vanessa Williamson. She has a new book out looking at how Americans really feel about paying taxes. Stay tuned.


VALLAS: Welcome back to Off-Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. Vanessa Williamson recently authored a book called Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes. She joins the show next to talk about how taxes became a four-letter word and what Americans really want when it comes to tax policy. So it’s often said that tax has become a four letter word — a dirty four letter word that is — and your research actually finds something very different. That people widely view paying their fair share of taxes as a civic duty. Tell me a little bit about your research and overall what some of your findings are.

VANESSA WILLIAMSON: So over the last six years, I’ve looked into American’s tax attitudes. I looked at them in surveys, in interviews. I looked at how they vote on tax issues and I’ve looked at public statements about taxation. And I’ve just been struck by the extent to which Americans views of taxes are just so different from the conventional wisdom. So, it doesn’t mean that people are necessarily happy about where they think their money is going or everything that’s happening in Washington, but people see being a taxpayer as a civic responsibility. As evidence of being the kind of person who contributes to their community. And when you think about it, it’s obvious. I mean, how often have you heard someone say, “Oh, I pay my taxes. I’m a taxpayer.” So you know, that commitment is a way of saying that you are the sort of person who gives back to the people in their neighborhood, the people in their community and the sort of person who deserves to be listened to by their government.

VALLAS: And you actually point out in a New York Times op-ed that you wrote last year that just 3 percent of Americans disagree with the sentiment that paying their fair share of taxes is a civic duty, and you point out for reference that that’s half the share of Americans who believe that the Apollo moon landing was faked. But part of what I would actually love to get into is you point out in your work that the Boston tea party is often misremembered as an early instance of anti-tax fervor. You point out that that’s actually not at all what the Boston tea party was about. Give us a little bit of a history lesson.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, so this is a funny thing. I think that we tend to view history through the lens of the present and so there is so much anti-tax fervor, particularly on the right in America at the elite level, that we forget that history’s often very different from our sort of modern concerns. So the Boston tea party is probably best understood as opposition to a tax cut, and in particular opposition to a corporate tax cut. Colonists in the United States were very upset that the British government wanted to provide sort of a special tax privilege to a particular company, a company sort of deemed too big to fail. And this was the British East India Tea Company. And so the colonists who did not want to have their market flooded with this particular kind of tea that was going to come in at below local rates of payment. They didn’t want their market flooded, they didn’t want a monopoly, and so they went into Boston Harbour and threw the tea into the harbour.

And so what is really to me, if it has an echo in the modern context I mean to be a little ahistorical, it’s much more like Occupy than the Tea Party. And for years it was not even called the Boston tea party it was the called ‘the destruction of the tea.’ So this sort of anti-corporate property destruction, becoming a touchstone for the right is actually extremely ironic.

VALLAS: And you actually got the idea to write this book and to do this research during the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009. How did they take that sort of misrememberance of history and channel it into their movement?

WILLIAMSON: So that’s exactly right. My last book looked at the origins of the Tea Party and the effect of the Tea Party on the Republican party as a whole — really particularly looking at how grassroots and the elites and the conservative media worked to push the party rightward. But I was at a Tea Party rally and I was just struck by how often these people who were very very angry and frightened about what they thought their government was doing, still regularly described themselves as taxpayers and really stood on being a taxpayer as kind of a public standing, right. I’m the sort of person who the government should be paying attention to and my interests are not being met.

VALLAS: So a lot of what you’ve looked into in your research is not just about what it feels like to be a taxpayer or the connection between being a taxpayer and doing one’s civic duty but also fairness. There’s a big current that runs throughout your work of tax fairness. And that’s a lot of what actually gets people mad about taxes. It’s not, you find, how much they’re asked to contribute. It’s much more widespread that people get angry about the feeling that the wealthy aren’t paying their fair share. Tell us a little bit about how that plays out in the conversations you had with taxpayers and in the survey research.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah so if you ask Americans what bothers you most about paying taxes, 14 percent say nothing in particular. About three-fifths will say either that corporations aren’t paying their fair share or that the wealthy aren’t paying their fair share. What percentage say the amount that they’re personally paying? 7 percent. Right, so that’s a really very small percentage of the public who sees their own tax costs as the sort of the primary motivator of their attitudes about taxes. And so what that means is that people aren’t particularly opposed to the idea of paying taxes for public goods. In fact, people commonly refer to it as a way of contributing to their communities. It’s like being a good neighbor, paying your taxes. But they are concerned that, you know, this is an important civic responsibility that I’m fulfilling. Of course the corollary of that is to be very angry when you think someone else isn’t paying their fair share.

VALLAS: And a recent NPR poll actually released just this past week really seconded that finding and put some updated numbers to it, finding that as many as 75 percent of Americans —

and that’s across the board so that’s going to include people no matter how they feel politically and who they voted for in November — but 75 percent of Americans believe that millionaires should be paying more in taxes.

WILLIAMSON: That’s exactly right. You can ask that question about whether people at the top should be paying more any number of different ways. You can call it heavy redistributive taxes on the rich. You can really push the language very far and still find large majorities in favor of raising taxes at the top.

VALLAS: Now there was a moment in the presidential campaign this past year that really kind of brought all of this to the fore. And it was a moment during one of the presidential debates, it was between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and there was a moment where Trump sort of came out and bragged. He bragged that avoiding taxes, that figuring out how not to pay taxes was evidence that he was smart. He was literally bragging about avoiding paying taxes. And you point out and you argue that that moment in the campaign really, it symbolized, and I’ll use your words here, “a fundamental divide between President Trump,” and he was then candidate Trump, “and the electorate on a core question of civic responsibility” — yet he won anyway.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah I mean one of the, on any number of issues I think you could say President Trump’s moral standing is rather different from the average American’s, and yet he still became president. I mean, the really interesting thing to me about what Trump said is it represented a break, not just between Donald Trump and the sort of general American public, but between Donald Trump and previous generations of Republican leaders. You know it’s been common on the right to say that, you know, government doesn’t work very well and to hold sort of an anti-tax position. Everyone remembers Grover Norquist and his tax pledge, that taxes should never be going up. But that didn’t mean that Republicans typically said it was okay not to pay your own taxes, right. You’ll remember that Mitt Romney got in a lot of trouble over this. His tax rate was comparatively low and he insisted repeatedly that his tax rate had never fallen below I think it was 13 percent, right. But he insisted again and again that his taxes were high enough to be acceptable. So this represents a real break in the Republican tradition as well as the Democratic one to this new stance that getting out of paying taxes is okay or even admirable. That is not how Americans have felt over the last 40 years and it will be very interesting to see if Trump’s attitudes change minds.

VALLAS: Do you see hypocrisy in the pride that President Trump takes in avoiding paying taxes and the strong drive towards “we must be cutting all kinds of spending.” And it doesn’t seem like it’s really driven in his rhetoric by a desire to reduce deficits explicitly, but we saw in his so-called skinny budget released earlier this year, I mean it was really sort of a scorched earth budget cutting almost everything except for defense spending. Do you see hypocrisy there?

WILLIAMSON: Well I think that one of the most interesting things about the legislative agenda that we’ve seen this year is the extent to which when cuts to government services become obvious they become extremely unpopular. And we saw this with the effort at ACA repeal. You know this legislation has never been overwhelmingly popular with the American public. It’s poorly understood and it’s seen with a great deal of suspicion. And the Republicans had really hung their hats on dismantling it. Well when push came to shove, and people were actually going to lose a government benefit that they recognized, it turns out that those things were pretty important to people and they were something people were willing to fight for.

VALLAS: So take us back, we were talking a little bit about the Boston tea party and some of the misrememberance there. It’s not an accident or a coincidence that there’s a tremendous gap.

between how Americans feel about paying taxes — and even about actually having their taxes increased or about millionaires for example paying more — and where elected officials in Washington, but also in state and local government, are and what they feel about whether it’s actually kosher, or something they can seriously consider let alone run on, to say that increasing taxes is part of what they plan to do. What got us there, how much of this is a story about Grover Norquist?

WILLIAMSON: So I think that there’s a strong, you know I was saying before that sometimes history is remembered through the present. I think there’s a, for the current generation of politicians, there’s a very strong memory of a particular period in American history the sort of Reagan Revolution and particularly the tax revolt. This was an event that started in California with a very strong measure to cap property taxes. It spread to other states, and it’s had huge impacts on state budgets ever since. And I think people sort of viewed that moment as evidence that Americans are unwilling to pay for government services. They see government as wasteful and they’re just not willing to pay the bills. But what’s interesting is since that period, so that was the late 70’s and early 80’s. If you look since then, there has been a steady increase over decades in the frequencies of which voters at the state level have voted to increase taxes. So we see this over time, a steady increase to, when you reach the last 15 years, if you put a measure on a state ballot to raise taxes, you’re as likely as not to see that measure pass. So voters, confronted with the opportunity to literally raise their own taxes are taking that opportunity very frequently.

VALLAS: And actually more frequently than they did in the past. You find in your look back at the history on this.

WILLIAMSON: That’s exactly right. So there’s been a real shift. And I think one thing that really matters is if politicians are willing to make the case for a tax increase to pay for something people care about, right. So I think there is some new evidence suggesting that if you put a tax increase on the ballot and talk about the fact that you know, at a state and local level, that money is going to schools, that money is going to hospitals and other roads. Things that are just tremendously popular locally. People are willing to make a calculation and be like yeah, you know, I’ll chip in a little extra for those services that I believe we need to have.

VALLAS: And thinking about the state and local consequences of some of this. Despite this broad willingness by the American people to pay more in taxes, even if it means they’re paying more, not just other people are paying more. There is this just broad fear, we were talking before we started taping about my remembering back to my legal aid days in Philadelphia. When the city was trying to figure out how to fund itself. And one of the ways that it — and this is before Ferguson — one of the levers that they started to pull was aggressively going after largely low-income people black and brown people in the city through fines and fees that these folks could not afford to pay. But that were basically a tax by another name for coming into contact with the criminal justice system. They were going to great lengths not to use taxes because of tremendous fear of what would happen to them at the ballot box.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah I think that is a real problem of not being willing to be honest about taxes. Not being willing to trust the American people to be capable of having a budget and thinking about that and thinking about costs and tradeoffs. I think we need to respect the citizenry a little more when it comes to taxes. Particularly because when we don’t, we end up with these kinds of consequences These sort of backdoor tax systems that are extremely unfair, extremely regressive and also, you know, undermine what should be the primary responsibility of the police which is keeping a neighborhood safe. And you know, turning them into a tax collector by the backdoor, that’s just not why anyone would join the police force, it’s not what we want to see in our communities. And so I think that, you know, if I could make a recommendation to politicians at a state and local level, have a little faith that you can tell your constituents, here’s what we got to buy, here are the things we’re going to spend the money on. And you can convince them that it’s a good idea to spend that money and, you know, not just in ballot measures, but you see it in surveys too. Americans are willing to vote for tax increases, are willing to say taxes should be increased, even on themselves for all kinds of major social priorities. In terms of education, in terms of healthcare, in terms of infrastructure, I think that’s a case you can take to the American people.

VALLAS: And of course another context where this plays out on the regular is Social Security. There’s this broad and widespread and across party lines and across income levels support documented by poll after poll that Americans are not just interested in strengthening benefits and expanding Social Security, which is wildly popular, but they’re also willing to pay more in taxes to see that happen. And a piece of that being either raising or eliminating the payroll tax cap, which would mean that millionaires and billionaires would be paying in all year long just like the rest of us. But people willing to see their own payroll taxes increase. So I guess my question to you, in the final couple minutes that we have is, how do we close that gap? How do we get to a point where people in Washington and particularly elected officials, but also elected officials at all levels of government start to recognize that not only is raising taxes not politically toxic but it’s actually what their voters are asking for?

WILLIAMSON: I think it’s going to be a long conversation. I find it quite difficult to convince people here in Washington that you know, maybe give the American people a little more credit. But on the particular issue of the payroll tax, I think that’s an excellent example right. This is a tax that is frankly, very expensive for working people. But it is also regularly the most popular tax that people pay. Now how can that be possible? It’s because people see the cost right there on their paystub, and they see the benefit. They know that it’s coming and they think of it as a fair benefit because it’s going to people who have worked and chipped in. So it’s kind of a miracle, and the way I talk about it in my book, is sort of a miracle of tax infrastructure. That you manage to make a tax easy to understand and the benefits easily associated with it and you know, when I asked people about, you know, people remember the taxes on their pay stub, as a general rule. They remember the payroll taxes. But when they talked to me about it, they didn’t have much to say about the tax, they just wanted to talk about the benefits, right.

So I think you can create universal programs with broad-based tax bases to support them. And, you know, when you do that you create the most popular government programs we have. Social Security is the only federal program that I’ve found that gets the level of approval that you see for local services like schools, roads and hospitals. The only federal program that’s up there with those kinds of numbers is Social Security.

VALLAS: Well, here’s hoping that folks in Washington are reading your book. Vanessa Williamson is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes. Vanessa, thanks so much for joining the show.

WILLIAMSON: Thank you.


VALLAS: You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. “I’m a Queer Woman. My Best Friend is a Gay Man. We Almost Got Married Anyway.” Such is the title of a piece written by my friend and colleague Mara Pellittieri. She’s the deputy editor of TalkPoverty.org, but she’s also an amazing writer who I feel very privileged to have on the show talking about this powerful piece. Mara to kick this off and to help explain what’s packed into that title, I would love if you would read the first couple of paragraphs of your piece.

MARA PELLITTIERI: Sure. So, when I was 18, I almost married my best friend.

I don’t mean that in the sugary-sweet “we’re so emotionally intimate that we have silent, meaningful conversations by staring into each other’s eyes” kind of way that people usually mean it when they write about marrying their best friends in their wedding vows. Chances were pretty low that we’d ever end up romantically involved; our orientations made that a non-starter. But we almost got married anyway, because our parents couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help us pay for our sophomore years of college. My financial aid advisor told me marriage was the least-bad way that we could make ourselves legally independent. Our other choices were “join the military” or “be 24”, so we got engaged during winter break.

VALLAS: So I’ll stop you there because I also want to say that we’re incredibly lucky not just to have you in studio talking about this piece, but also to have your best friend of this story, Jon, on the line joining to help tell what happened. So Jon, thank you so much for joining the show as well.

JON BONGARD: Absolutely, great to be here.

VALLAS: So I want you both to help us understand what brought this situation to this point, where as a queer woman and a gay man, you were seriously considering marriage and actually got so far as getting engaged. And Mara, maybe you help us kick that off.

PELLITTIERI: Sure. So by the time Jon and I cooked up our super clever teen marriage plot, we were; Jon, does like two, three years sound right for how long we’d been taking care of each other?

BONGARD: Absolutely.

PELLITTIERI: Yeah so for two or three years, we had been kind of pinch hitting for each other’s parents. So my own family had a lot of financial problems, a lot of mental health problems, a lot of addiction problems and it meant that taking care of me or my brothers was just not really an option for my mother. Jon was the one who kind of stepped in, in a lot of ways. So part of that is that I couldn’t and actually never learned how to drive a car. I don’t have my driver’s license. So Jon and his bright turquoise Jeep was the way that I actually managed to get to school or get to doctor’s appointments. I’m pretty sure you drove me to work more than a handful of times. And I think that started right around when you were coming out, right? You were about 16?

BONGARD: Yes, that’s right. So that bright turquoise Jeep is pretty much the reason Mara and myself became such good friends — just convenience of transportation [LAUGHTER], friends of friends, hanging out. And you know what became of driving to work, or to school I should say, we were in high school, everyday evolved into a friendship and evolved into a co-dependency. Nothing negative about it between us, of course, but the negatives of our own lives definitely drove us closer to each other to help each other out. So it all came from the turquoise Jeep, you could say though.

VALLAS: Well and Jon, Mara mentions that she had a tough upbringing and a really tough family situation with some very real stuff there. But you did as well. What was your situation wherein Mara became family for you?

BONGARD: You know my situation differs greatly from Mara’s. Whereas hers kind of evolved with this persistent and overwhelming negative in our youth. Whereas mine, I grew up with great loving parents, a brother and sister, everything was great to go, and so I was around 17 when I started to struggle with the idea of coming out to my parents and exposing who I was to my family. And as that evolved, and as it became realized by my family, my life began to spin to that negative spiral that Mara was already semi-trapped in at that point. So it’s a different evolution, but it’s definitely, it brought us to the very same spot where we had to figure out a way to continue on, and it led us closer together.

PELLITTIERI: I at that point had the kind of dubious honor of being the town gay. I came out really young, I was about 13 or so. And there just, there had been a couple of gay men, I think I was kind of everyone’s first lesbian. So, I think by the time Jon was coming out, I was the only example that his parents knew of another queer person. So the place that they went at the time was a pretty common belief ten years ago and for some people still today, which was that I basically recruited Jon and made him gay. Right, like I took their good Christian boy and turned him queer.

VALLAS: You then, you move on throughout your piece, Mara, to tell the story of using a very specific phrase, which is ‘chosen family.’ That you and Jon became each other’s chosen family. And that has significance not just in this moment today but there is also historical significance.

PELLITTIERI: Sure so, this is something that queer people have been doing for as long as we’ve known that queer people exist. So we know for sure that LGBT people are more likely to be poor, they’re more likely to be rejected by their families. I think people kind of forget now that we have a right to get married, that there are a lot of other rights that we lack. And I think they certainly don’t realize that as it becomes normalized, right, as it becomes less of a big deal, kids are coming out much younger. Which, on the one hand, it’s great. It means that the prolonged struggling with the idea of coming out gets cut down, but it also means that kids are coming out when they are still really vulnerable and really financially dependent on their parents. So about half, I believe the stat is still right, that about half of LGBT youth when they come out are still facing a really negative reaction from their parents. And that puts the risk of being rejected by their families really really high. So we know based on LGBT homeless youth population, that even though we’re guess that somewhere between 3 and 6 percent of the population is LGBT, 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT. Right, so we really really disproportionately represented there. And what happens when you get rejected by your family or when you have an enormous public health crisis that doesn’t get addressed by the government for a decade, then people do what they need to to survive and people need support from other human beings.

So we’ve been cobbling together what we now call chosen families, but in different centuries, in different decades, we had all sorts of different language we attached to this. So there’s this history in like the 1800s of women living in what we called romantic friendships. They wrote these really beautiful, deeply passionate erotic letters to each other that people just kind of dismissed as being cute and sweet, right — “what lovely letters they write.” And we saw it as the number of women going to college increased around the turn of the century, right. More and more women were going to school and they were coming from these like well to do middle class families to be able to do so, so they’d graduate from college and not need to get married and choose not to. And so they started living in what we called Boston marriages. So they would graduate from the women’s college in Boston and couple up together and lead very happy manless lives together [CHUCKLES].

And then we saw it take off even more around the 1960s through the 1980s with what we call house and ball culture. So people formed these houses in a couple of major cities that they would use to compete in these enormous underground drag shows, and being accepted into a house was a really big deal. Both because it meant that you were considered at a certain level of prestige, right, you were good enough to be in that house, but also that house cared for everyone. The house had a mother and it had a father and it had siblings and they all really took care for each other in a way that most people’s families had not been willing to do so. So I think what Jon and I did for each other at the time felt crazy. I remember a couple of our friends in particular being livid that we were talking about the idea of getting married as teenagers and doing I think what a lot of people thought of as like, subverting traditional marriage. Right, we like weren’t respecting it. But what we were doing was exactly what queer people have done doing for centuries.

VALLAS: And in some ways, what you were contemplating doing was, is it fair to say it was blowing people’s minds even more than the concept of gay marriage?

PELLITTIERI: The idea that queer people would marry each other if they couldn’t marry their partners? I think that was pretty unsettling for folks. Like there are a couple stories about a few ways that we had to sort of twist the law to make it work for us. And one that’s kind of common is the idea of queer folks marrying people in ways that the government sanctioned but didn’t match romantic relationships. One of the others that really throws people for a loop is the idea of adult adoptions. So people for a long time, not in huge numbers, but a big enough percentage of people would actually adopt their partner. So according to the law they’d be their parent, but in reality they’d be their partner.

VALLAS: So Jon, the end of the story is that you guys didn’t get married. And you ended up heading down different paths and now you’re in the Navy which is part of why we have you by phone. How did the story end up ending? How did you guy navigate this difficult situation without actually moving forward with getting married?

BONGARD: Well the end of the story, it seems clear like we’re in different cities, different coasts, and there’s a lot of disconnect between us. The thing about Mara and I though — even though we never did get married and we never did fulfill our government legalized marriage at the time — the way our lives work, I mean we have such a commonality. Even with our friends back home and the way we always reunite every year annually, there’s a lot of consistency with that. And that chosen family grew from Mara and myself into a lot of other people as well, with our friends. So the difference and the drive apart never really happened. Sure, time and space is everything. But we’re both very successful and we’re definitely both very pleased with the paths we’ve chosen. We just weren’t willing at that age to not choose a path, or to end homeless on the street. And just becoming one of another number of statistics because we couldn’t figure out a solution that would work for us.

VALLAS: And Mara, part of what makes this piece so powerful is not just how amazing the writing is, and I’m praising you to your face so I’m going to watch you blush as I say this because I know you well and I know how you are. But it’s not just the writing, it’s of course the fact of putting faces on an all too common set of issues and problems that are really woven into the fabric of our legal system. That teenagers, in the situation that you and Jon were in, could find yourselves confronted with the only option being to get married even though, not only were you not romantically interested in each other, but one of you was a queer woman and the other was a gay man.

PELLITTIERI: Right, and we were 18. We were teenagers.

VALLAS: You were babies. You were babies. But help us sort of take that from the one story that is your story and into the where do we go from here? How can we make sure this doesn’t happen for other people in the future?

PELLITTIERI: Sure. So I mean, I think the thing about this story is that it’s kind of a couple different policy issues getting smashed together. The one that we definitely felt most acutely at the time was the way that financial aid systems worked. So, because Jon’s parents were not willing to continue helping him pay for college and because my parents were not able to do so, we didn’t have a way to apply for the financial aid that would let us stay in school, right. The way that you do that, you have to submit the FAFSA form that has all of your parents’ financial documents. And in both of our cases, but for different reasons, our parents would not give us the information that we needed. So the way that I eventually ended up being able to stay in school was that I essentially harassed a dean into giving me a pass on that. They found a separate grant that let me through, but a lot of people are not that fortunate. They’re not fortunate enough to hit the one guy that’s got a tender heart, or that you just annoy the hell out of until he needs you to get out of his office, that’s going to give you a pass. So for sure some kind of adjustment to the financial aid process that gives kids who have been neglected or who are estranged from their parents a way to apply for aid independently would be helpful. Legal aid which I know is near and dear to your heart.

VALLAS: And yours as well Mara.

PELLITTIERI: Sure, it’s definitely another way to go. We didn’t realize that what we had on our hands was a legal issue, which is true for most of the people who are facing legal aid issues. We didn’t know that what we actually needed was a lawyer that would help us get some kind of financial independence. Or who would be able to help us apply for the benefits that I would have been eligible for that would have made it easier to stay in school.

VALLAS: And there are broader policy implications as well if I’m not misreading the situation, which is that LGBT folks broadly can encounter challenges with the fact that they have chosen family, but that those people don’t meet the legal requirement to be considered family. Whether it’s for purposes of paid leave or being able to visit someone in the hospital, these are ways that our society and our legal system hasn’t caught up to what is not even a new tradition or pattern, as you explained the history, but is something that is very important and very rooted for the LGBT community.

PELLITTIERI: For sure, for queer Americans and also for people who have served like Jon does, it’s been a huge issue for service members who end up doing a lot of work to care for the people that they’ve been in combat with. A lot of the people that are getting care, whether it’s PTSD or whether some kind of physical trauma that you need support for, are the people from your unit. And they have really limited protections as well that they would definitely benefit from if they were able to say: “My brother from combat is actually my brother in real life and I need to take time off so that I can help him get better.”

VALLAS: And I imagine Jon, that’s something that you see firsthand.

BONGARD: Oh absolutely. Even to extend that thought, just significant others. Sure we don’t have that statute where the significant other can enter a hospital, but my hospital that I have to attend if I were to get injured is on a base. And my significant other doesn’t have access to that base. So it brings into play a whole lot of other factors that trickle down into, well, if this person is the equivalent of your spouse, unmarried or because of the gender not recognized, your [inaudible] freedoms and your ability to actually habitate as a normal person.

VALLAS: Well I want to thank you both for being willing to share a personal story and really to take a trip down memory lane through some stuff that was difficult for both of you. But I really appreciate your willingness to be so open about this story and for you, Jon, to be willing to jump on the phone from across the country to also take a trip back many years. So you can find Mara’s piece at TalkPoverty.org, and Mara Pellittieri is one of, I should say this, one of the unsung heroes on our team who everybody should be aware of as one of the anchors of Talk Poverty and the work that it does. So Mara, thank you so much for joining the show and Jon thank you for being willing to join from afar.

PELLITTIERI: Thanks for having us.


VALLAS: You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. In 2016 about 12,000 low-income Mississippi residents applied for cash assistance through a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. Of those applicants, just 167 were ultimately awarded benefits, an acceptance rate as low as 1.42 percent. Here to discuss Mississippi’s enormous rejection rate for TANF and what it means for other state TANF programs around the country is Bryce Covert, she’s the economics editor at Think Progress and she co-authored a piece at Think Progress uncovering this issue. Bryce, thank you so much for coming back on the show.

BRYCE COVERT: Thanks for having me on.

VALLAS: So tell me a little bit of this story. You started to look at some numbers in Mississippi and you found a really disturbing trend. What’s going on there?

COVERT: Yeah, it’s actually funny the way we came across it. My co-worker Joshua Israel and I were actually going to states and asking about their welfare drug testing programs. It’s something we’ve done every year to look into how much states are spending, what it’s actually doing. And as part of that, Mississippi just sort of divulged this factoid which is, as you laid out, this extremely low acceptance rate into its cash welfare program. So we went back and double checked with the state to make sure that was indeed the right number and they said yes, and then we tried really hard to dig into what is actually going on. And what we’ve actually discovered that this is not a new phenomenon. In 2011 the rejection rate shot up to 89 percent, so 89 percent of people who applied that year to TANF were rejected and then basically each year since then it’s been gradually inched up.

And what’s really mysterious is that 2011 is this this inflection point. Between 2003 and 2010, about half of applicants were being rejected, which is in and of itself a pretty high rate. I mean about half the people who are needy and low-income in the state were trying to get some pretty meager cash assistance and were being turned away. But then all of a sudden in 2011 it just shoots up such that basically no one is getting on this program. And the state will not tell us why. We tried really hard to get the state to explain this to us and they wouldn’t. We looked through documents that they send to the federal agency that oversees TANF and none of it really explained it. And in the end we sort of came away empty handed, we can’t really nail down exactly what it is that’s led to this huge rejection rate.

VALLAS: To put this in context, you take a look nationally to see, is this going on at this level anywhere else. And you find that no other state in the country has a rejection rate that’s this high. The closest you find is Texas, which actually does come somewhat close, it has a 89.7 percent rejection rate of TANF applicants in 2015. But the numbers you found in Mississippi are so stark that you actually showed them to the TANF expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Liz Schott, and she didn’t believe the numbers until she could actually see the underlying data.

COVERT: Yeah, she had seen similar data before and she said to me, “Honestly I discounted it as just bad garbage data.” She said, “This looks wrong.” And to her point, part of the problem with TANF is that it is so localized in states and there’s so little accountability at the federal level that comparing data across states is tough because they are reporting it in different ways — some of them aren’t reporting it. But I said to her “No, we know in fact that these are the numbers for Mississippi” and she said “I’m just, I’m blown away.” And she also tried very hard to figure out what is it that’s happening and she came up, she said, “I’m just stumped. I really don’t know what it is that Mississippi changed in 2011 that means that virtually everyone who applies is rejected.

VALLAS: You asked the state several times for an explanation. They sent you sort of a blanket statement that has lots of words and doesn’t really say much of what they, a non-explanation explanation of what changed. But officials have also not responded to state lawmakers asking the same question. So what, if you had to speculate, what’s going on here? How much of this is a policy change that they’re hiding and how much of this is a story about bureaucratic disentitlement?

COVERT: So I, with a caveat that I don’t know for sure what’s going on, my hunch is that whatever change is something that’s just not an official policy change. There’s no eligibility requirements or anything like that the state changed that line up with this huge rejection rate. There’s nothing in the documents that they send to the federal government outlining their policies and their policy changes. So it’s likely something more like a culture change or a goal setting change. Something like where they’re going to the caseworkers who at an individual level are working with people to either get them on or not get them on the program. And saying something along the lines of, “Our goal is no one signs up.” Or, “Our goal is to reduce the number of people who get on.” Or whatever it is, and then you know, it’s just people sort of carrying that out. You know, caseworkers have a lot of influence and power when it comes to this. They are either able to help people get through an extremely onerous and bureaucratic process to get on TANF or they’re able to stymie that, and it could just be happening at that level. But we don’t know for sure, we really don’t know.

VALLAS: Well, something that you point out in your article is that this is obviously a tremendous and really devastating story from Mississippi specifically and for low income families in Mississippi. But that there are really much larger implications here, and particularly as pertains to the story of TANF. Probably important to tell a little bit of the history, which your article does about what happened in 1996 that made TANF into the program it is today and what block granting and sending a program like this to the states means when it comes to who is helped, who isn’t helped and how states can actually get away with what you tell in the story in Mississippi.

COVERT: Yeah so block granting sounds extremely dry and I apologize to listeners who are bored by that term. But what happened in 1996 is that basically welfare cash assistance, which is now called TANF, was completely revamped. Before it was an entitlement, so it meant that if you qualified, if you had a low enough income and you met the other criteria, you were entitled to get some cash assistance. It also was a program where if a lot more people joined in a particular state; there was a recession, for example, and a lot of more people needed help, the federal government would step in and help share the increase in costs because state budgets are extremely inflexible. What changed in 1996 is now there is no entitlement, so states are able to basically with wide discretion change who is eligible, how they determine that, how they keep people from getting on the program. And then when it changed to a block grant the federal government started handing states a fixed amount of money and saying 
“You deal with it.” So if need goes up like it did, for example, during the great recession, many states can’t really meet the increased need and TANF rolls really did not rise to the challenge of the recession and help a lot of people.

And what’s going on in Mississippi is an example of why this structure is really problematic. What’s happening is that the federal government is handing these bags of cash over to the states to administer, and then really not instituting much oversight, many requirements or sort of guardrails around this program. Such that the federal government knows what Mississippi’s rejection rate is but it has no capacity to step in and say, you know what, you need to be covering at least this many people, or making sure this many people are assisted through your program. It’s just, there is so little accountability, and states are incentivized not to help people out because they’re able to sort of move the TANF money they get from the federal government around to other purposes. And if you have fewer people who enroll, that means there is more money to move around. So the incentives are lined up such that you know, you’re getting more money if you’re keeping people from getting in this program and you really don’t have to account to anyone if you have really low numbers of poor people on the rolls. And I think in Mississippi, that’s just become sort of a perfect storm.

VALLAS: So in short, we end up with a program that not only serves dramatically fewer families who are in need today than it did before the block grant was put in place, but it also ends up being a program with no accountability, no transparency and no oversight whatsoever. Bryce Covert is the economics editors at Think Progress. You can find her article, “Mississippi is Rejecting Nearly All of the Poor People Who Apply for Welfare and the State Won’t Explain Why” at ThinkProgress.org. And a shout out to her co-author on that piece as well, Josh Israel. Bryce, thank you so much for doing this important reporting and for coming back on the show to tell us the story.

COVERT: Thanks for having me back on.

VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s episode of Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas. The show is produced each week by Eliza Schultz. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @OffKilterShow. And you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the We Act Radio network, or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.


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