Report Links SNAP to Lower Health Care Costs

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By: Andrea Sears

HARRISBURG, Pa. – A new report links access to SNAP benefits to improved health and lower health care costs.

The paper, published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, compiles studies of the health status of low-income people who receive assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and those who are eligible for benefits but not enrolled in the program.

According to Brynne Keith-Jennings, a senior research analyst at the Center and co-author of the report, those studies indicate that people receiving benefits are healthier and less likely to need medical services.

“SNAP participants spent about 25 percent less per year than nonparticipants in health care costs,” she explains. “A similar study looked at seniors in Maryland and found that they were less likely to be admitted to nursing homes.”

The Trump administration has proposed cutting SNAP by $192 billion over 10 years. But the paper suggests cutting benefits could harm health and raise health care costs.

Some of the studies cited in the paper used data going back to the ’60s when the food stamp program began. Keith-Jennings notes that those studies found long-term health benefits.

“Children who grew up in counties with food stamps grew up to be healthier than those who didn’t,” she points out. “They were less likely to have, for example, metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of diseases like heart disease.”

About 70 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children, and a quarter are in households with seniors or people with disabilities.

Other studies have shown that those who receive benefits are more likely to take their prescription medications.

Keith-Jennings fears that cuts would force more people to choose between food and medicine.

“If they were to lose their SNAP benefits or get less in SNAP benefits, they might be forced to make that trade-off again, which could make it harder for them to be healthy,” she says.

Keith-Jennings adds that SNAP benefits increase food security, help families purchase healthier foods and free resources for health-promoting activities.

Political Gerrymandering Argued in PA Supreme Court

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By: Andrea Sears

HARRISBURG, Pa. – The state’s highest court Wednesday heard arguments in a case that could redraw congressional districts in Pennsylvania.

Eighteen Democratic voters, one from each of the state’s congressional districts, argued that the gerrymandering of their districts has been so extreme it deprives them of their right to fair elections.

Pennsylvania is generally considered a “purple” state by political pundits. But according to Suzanne Almeida, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, GOP candidates have had a consistent, unfair advantage since 2011 when Republicans redrew the map.

“If you just look at the outcome over the last three election cycles, we’ve had a 13-to-5 split – Republicans to Democrats – regardless of what party registration looks like in any of those specific districts,” Almeida said.

Republicans contend that Democrats are not prevented from supporting the candidates of their choice, and that courts have never established a limit on political considerations in drawing district lines.

District lines drawn to favor one party are now being challenged in several states. Almeida said Pennsylvania’s congressional map is considered the most extreme example of political gerrymandering in the country.

“These maps are drawn with the intent to ensure that one party who is in power stays in power,” she said. “And when that happens, that takes away the will of the voters.”

One district’s lines are so convoluted it has been described as an outline of Goofy kicking Donald Duck.

A federal court recently ordered North Carolina to redraw district lines after determining that political gerrymandering in that state violated the U.S. Constitution. Almeida said she believes such lawsuits are part of a resurgence of interest in democracy.

“These challenges are a really great way for people to see how their votes have been manipulated and how their impact has been manipulated in elections,” she said.

If the Pennsylvania court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, a new map would have to be set by February 21 for the May 15 primary election, or the primary could be delayed until the end of July. More information is available here.

DEP to Reduce Power-Plant Water Pollution

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Andrea Sears

HARRISBURG, Pa. – The Department of Environmental Protection has agreed to a settlement to reduce toxic water pollution from 10 coal fired power plants.

In settling a lawsuit brought by environmental groups, the DEP has agreed to a schedule to update and draft new water permits for the plants, that have been operating with expired permits.

Discharges from those power plants include pollutants like arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury that end up in rivers and streams. George Jugovic Jr., vice president of legal affairs at PennFuture, says federal law requires power plants to renew their permits every five years.

“As those permits are renewed, the limits in the permits will be ratcheted down, meaning less pollutants will be discharged from the power plants as new technologies to control those pollutants become available,” says Jugovic.

Under the settlement, the DEP plans to have permits for all 10 power plants finalized by March of next year.

Larger rivers like the Susquehanna are sources of drinking water, and even smaller streams are used for recreational fishing. Jugovic points out that pollutants in power plant discharges can accumulate over time.

“The fish in the streams ingest these pollutants,” he says. “They are stored in their fatty tissue, and then humans eat the fish and ingest those toxic pollutants.”

Arsenic is a known carcinogen, mercury is highly toxic, and lead is especially harmful to children.

Jugovic says coal fired power plants are among the most polluting industries in the state. While getting the DEP to enforce the requirements of the Clean Water Act won’t solve all the pollution problems, he sees it as a step in the right direction.

“One of our prime objectives is to lead Pennsylvania into a clean energy economy, and one of the ways we do that is by holding dirty energy companies accountable,” says Jugovic.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit included the Sierra Club and the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper.

Reduction of Women’s Prison Population Slower the Men’s

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By: Andrea Sears

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Prison populations are dropping in most states, but a new study finds that the number of incarcerated women is not falling as fast as it is for men.

Nationally, the total prison population peaked around 2009.

The study, compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, shows that most states have made progress in reducing their overall prison populations over the past 10 years, but incarceration rates for women have generally stayed about the same.

According to Wendy Sawyer, the report’s author, one reason may be that women in prison may receive harsher punishments for rule violations than men do for similar infractions, extending their sentences.

“When three quarters have mental health problems and three quarters of those also have substance use disorders, and two-thirds of them have a history of physical or sexual abuse, you’re talking about a population that really needs a lot of treatment and a lot of services more than they need punishment,” she stresses.

In Pennsylvania, incarceration rates are falling for both men and women, but they are falling faster for men.

Women are a relatively small percentage of the prison population, but since 1978 their numbers have increased at twice the rate of men.

And Sawyer says the impact of incarceration can be much more severe on women inmates.

“Women in state prison are more likely to be primary caretakers of children,” she points out. “They already are starting out with more economic difficulties so it may have an even greater effect of marginalization on those women and their families.”

The report recommends steps such as increasing use of diversion strategies, decriminalizing offenses that don’t threaten public safety and increasing the funding for indigent defense as ways to further reduce incarceration.

And Sawyer points out that ignoring what is happening in women’s prisons works against a state’s efforts to decarcerate.

“If they’re seeing success overall, that may actually be happening just among the men’s population,” she states. “Meanwhile the women’s population continues to grow, just unnoticed.”

Sawyer adds that developing alternatives to incarceration that are less harmful to women should be an urgent priority in every state.

Limited Progress Toward Ending Illegal Police Stops in Philadelphia

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By: Andrea Sears

PHILADELPHIA – The number of police stop-and-frisk encounters with Philadelphia pedestrians is declining, but the latest data shows racial disparities persist.

Numbers from the first six months of last year show that since 2010 there’s been a 50 percent drop in stops overall. But 69 percent of those stopped were African-American, although they are less than half of the city’s population.

According to Mary Catherine Roper, the Deputy Legal Director of the ACLU, the Philadelphia Police Department claims it’s because that’s who they encounter in high crime neighborhoods.

“But our experts’ analysis say, no, black men get stopped more often in every neighborhood, no matter the crime rate and no matter whether they are the majority of the population or a minority in the population,” she says.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross has implemented new accountability processes and increased training for officers.

The data was gathered under the terms of a 2011 consent decree. Since then, illegal stops, in which police have no reasonable suspicion of a crime, have declined to just 20 percent of all stops in the city. But Roper says that’s not good enough.

“There should be zero percent of stops where the police cannot offer a legal reason for the stop,” she stresses. “We are now seven years into this litigation. It’s past time for that problem to be fixed.”

The data also shows that the percentage of illegal frisks has not gone down since 2016.

Frisking is only allowed when police have a reasonable suspicion that the person is carrying a weapon. But Roper points out that weapons were found in only one percent of all frisks.

“If you’re not finding a weapon in almost any of the pat-downs you do, then it seems you’re very bad at identifying when somebody has a weapon and you’re patting down the wrong people,” she argues.

The ACLU says the police department needs to identify and sanction officers who make illegal stops and take action to end racial disparities.

Fracking Linked to Low Birthweight Babies

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By: Andrea Sears

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Pregnant women living near fracked gas wells are more likely to have a low birthweight baby – that’s the finding in a new study from Princeton University.

The researchers compared standard birthweight records collected by Pennsylvania hospitals with the locations of the parents’ homes. Low birth weight has long been considered an important indicator of later health problems.

Princeton economics professor Janet Currie says they found a strong correlation – that the low birth weights were highly localized and much more likely to be found right next to the well sites.

“What is surprising is, we found a fairly large effect for people living very close; but by the time you got to two miles away, we did not detect any effect,” she notes.

The industry argues that air pollution from gas wells and equipment such as compressor stations disperses quickly after it’s released.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is finalizing tighter regulations for emissions from new oil and gas facilities.

But Patrice Tomcik, with Moms Clean Air Force, notes that the new rules don’t cover wells, compressor stations and pipelines already in service.

“We need a solution for reducing the methane pollution from these existing sources that are sickening our families today,” she says.

Emissions of methane, the main component of natural gas, also carry other pollutants including volatile organic compounds. Tomcik says about 1.5 million Pennsylvanians live within half a mile of oil and gas facilities.

Beth Weinberger, a public health consultant with the Environmental Health Project, says previous research indicates preterm births and similar issues may be due to volatile organic compounds such as benzene, or small, soot-like particles such as those found in diesel exhaust, pollutants associated with drilling operations.

“We know much of what’s in the emissions, and in each of the studies, the researchers have found associations between exposure to gas drilling and birth outcomes,” Weinberger says.

The Princeton research suggests keeping drilling away from homes, through zoning or well set-back rules.

Solar Power Continues to Grow in PA

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By: Andrea Sears

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Solar power is growing in Pennsylvania as individuals, businesses and communities take action to reduce carbon emissions.

Since the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, local and state efforts to combat climate change have become critical.

According to Jason Grottini, director of design for Envinity, a clean energy company, Pennsylvania is creating incentives to encourage both commercial scale solar installations and smaller systems for home and business.

“We have very strong net metering laws, which allows homeowners and businesses to sell their excess power back to the utility,” says Grottini. “We recently passed some legislation that all the renewable energy that our public utilities are required to generate must come from inside Pennsylvania.”

He adds improvements in efficiency and reductions in the cost mean those who install home based solar systems can expect an 8 percent to 10 percent return on their investment.

Critics complain that the growth in renewable energy depends on government subsidies and incentives. But Ed Perry, an aquatic biologist with the National Wildlife Federation, points out that the very profitable fossil fuel industry gets plenty of government help every year.

“They get over $15 billion a year in tax breaks that are built right in to the tax code,” he says, “so that they don’t have to go back to Congress each year, like the wind and solar industry does, to get these tax credits.”

He says tax incentives for renewables are not special treatment – instead, they level the playing field.

Scientists estimate that to avoid the worst impacts of climate change will require reducing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. Perry notes that even with cancellation of the federal mandate to reduce carbon emissions, progress continues.

“Already, despite the fact that the Clean Power Plan is not in effect, Pennsylvania is on that path,” says Perry.

Forty-two mayors nationwide have adopted the goal of achieving 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2035.