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US to Go Ahead with Democracy Project

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By Bert Wilkinson
Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News

For most of this year, the U.S. government has been toying with the idea of plowing money into nongovernmental civic organizations and political parties in Guyana to help them strengthen democracy at the local level largely because the system has gradually broken down over the years.

The U.S. has set aside a grant of $1.5 million for the various groups to tap into, allowing them to build local organizations that could run community affairs rather than have political parties dominate the situation.

But once Ambassador Brent Hardt announced plans for the project, the administration of Guyanese President Donald Ramotar offered up spirited opposition to it, saying it allowed for zero input from the Guyanese government. The administration proclaimed that it wanted absolutely no part in its implementation.

Ramotar’s governing People’s Progressive Party and the U.S. have a long and bitter history of political engagement dating back to the CIA’s well-publicized involvement in Guyana in the ʼ60s as it had successfully destabilized the then left-leaning PPP administration.

Race riots at the time claimed the lives of more than 150 people, large parts of the capital were destroyed by fire and civil service strikes brought life to a standstill. So any move by the U.S. to involve itself openly in local politics is quickly seen as an effort to once again destabilize a still paranoid PPP.

In the past week, the level of suspicion and distrust between the two sides boiled over into an interesting exchange between Hardt and government.

Guyanese Cabinet Secretary Roger Luncheon said that the government had rejected the project out of hand because it was presented to them as a done deal, and they were simply asked to sign on the dotted lines. “Cabinet had no option but to pull the plug,” said, calling the United States’ actions grievous.

Hardt said that it was not an offer and that it was going ahead as planned—whether or not the government got involved.

“The project contractor is on the ground. We will engage with those stakeholders who wish to engage. We will continue to work in that spirit. We hope government will find a way to work with us. We have had over one dozen meetings. From the onset of this proposal, we have worked diligently to involve the government and have been working to get the government input on this project.”

Hardt and other western ambassadors are concerned that no local elections for the city and five towns have been held since 1994 and that the system is completely broken down and needs reinvigorating with fresh polls. The envoys have even led garbage removal campaigns in the city to make the point.

Kanye West Faces Lawsuit Over "Bound 2" Sample

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By Alexis Taylor
Special to the NNPA from The Afro-American Newspaper

Ricky Spicer was just 12 years old when he sang about being “Bound” to fall for the girl of his dreams on the 1971 album “2+2+1= Ponderosa Twins Plus One.”

Now 56, the retired Cleveland native has resurfaced–not to restart his career but to defend his old work from “Yeezus.”

Spicer filed a lawsuit on Dec. 23 against Kanye West, who he alleges sampled his voice without his authorization or consent to produce the song “Bound 2.”

Roc-A-Fella Records, Inc., Universal Music Group, Inc., Island Def Jam Music Group, Rhino Entertainment Company doing business as Rhino Records, and Kanye Omari West are all listed as defendants in the suit.

“Mr. Spicer was the lead vocalist when the group recorded ‘Bound.’ His voice can distinctly be heard throughout the song, including its chorus, which contains the following words sung by Mr. Spicer: ‘Bound, bound; Bound to fall in love,” Spicer’s suit alleges.

Spicer is demanding a trial by jury in a Manhattan Supreme Court, according to documents released by the New York County Clerk.

According to the complaint, Spicer is the only member of Ponderosa Twins Plus One both living and able to take up the issue, as Alvin and Alfred Pelham are deceased and Kirk and Keith Gardner are both currently in prison.

The lawsuit alleges that Spicer was never adequately compensated for his recordings as a child with Ponderosa Twins Plus One, though he did go on to work briefly with Gladys Knight and James Brown.

According to court documents, Spicer was listening to the radio one day this year when he heard his own voice singing back to him.

“The chorus, which contains Mr. Spicer’s lead vocal, is heard at least four times throughout ‘Bound 2’ including the beginning, middle and end of the song,” the complaint states. “Mr. Spicer’s voice is sampled exactly as he recorded it and his voice, altered by the defendants, is also heard several times.”

The song is the final track on West’s sixth studio album, “Yeezus,” which according to court documents sold more than 327,000 copies during its first seven days on sale.

Spicer seeks an immediate injunction to stop “any further unauthorized use or exploitation of plaintiff’s name,” along with damages, reasonable costs, and attorney fees.

Immigration Reform Logjam on Capitol Hill Can End Early in New Year

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By Tony Best
Special to the NNPA from the New York Carib News

There may be some light at the end of the long stalled comprehensive immigration reform tunnel in Washington, a development that can bring relief to hundreds of thousands of Caribbean immigrants in the U.S.

And the Black Institute, the New York Immigration Coalition, members of the Congressional Black Caucus in New York City — Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clarke in Brooklyn, Gregory Meeks in Queens and Charlie Rangel in Manhattan – along with millions of foreign-born residents across the U.S. are keeping their proverbial fingers crossed that at last the immigration measure that has been bottled up by Republicans in the House of Representatives may spring to life in 2014.

The civil war that has broken out between America’s conservative lawmakers and their financial backers outside of the House of Representatives and the Senate is likely to have the salutary effect of breaking the logjam that has prevented the House leadership from bringing the immigration bill to the floor of the chamber for debate and ultimately a vote, say analysts and lawmakers.

There is now talk of a bipartisan deal to legalize the more than 11 million people living in the country as undocumented immigrants, residents who are out of status.

Although House Speaker John Boehner, the person mainly responsible for the immigration bottleneck has not spoken about his intention but has chastised extremist conservative forces in and out of Congress for their opposition to the recent budget deal agreed to by the Republicans and the Democrats, outside Republican groups have complained that his sharp attacks on the right was simply clearing the way for immigration reform to be placed high on the Congressional agenda in the New Year when Congress reconvenes after the Christmas recess. Indeed, Heritage Action, a fund-raising and lobbying group that has supported many Tea Party Representatives complained openly that Speaker Boehner’s verbal assault blast on certain right-wing backers of his party, accusing them of losing “all credibility” with the American people said in a statement that the House leader was clearing the political deck to place immigration reform on the docket for consideration.

Just as important, Boehner added a prominent immigration expert, Becky Tallent, to his staff, presumably to pave the way for a debate on the reform proposals. She had worked with U.S. Senator John McCain on his immigration reform plan that eventually failed to gain traction several years ago.

“It seems very unlikely that Becky would have gone to work for the Speaker on this unless there was a serious plan to move on this in the New Year,” said Ted Alden, a specialist on immigration at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a major Hispanic immigration voice on Capitol Hill has hinted that that his party would consider a deal in order to get the immigration bill moving.

“Some have suggested that the way you thread the needle for Republicans between the immigration reform the majority of the country wants, which include a pathway to citizenship, and the Republican number one priority, which is opposing what President (Barack) Obama is for, is to offer a compromise that includes something less than citizenship,” he said.

“I don’t think this is a good idea because citizenship is important, but I don’t think it is a deal breaker either,” he added.

What’s being talked about is a plan for legalization that would stop short of citizenship. That would satisfy several Republican lawmakers who are opposed to anything that appears to be amnesty for the undocumented.

“Democrats have to put policy ahead of politics,” insisted Gutierrez. “If we as a party go the route of what’s best for us politically in the short run, there is very little incentive to resolve the immigration issue.”

President Obama too seems to be in a mood for compromise, saying he could live with a vote in the House that calls for Republicans to vote separately on key elements of the reform measure while avoiding passage of a single bill, the one approved by the Senate.

Feds Likely to Rein in For-Profit Colleges

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By Charlene Crowell
NNPA Columnist

As higher education costs continue to increase faster than most consumers’ income, college loan debt has now topped $1.2 trillion. Even so, most consumers would agree that its cost is worth the chance to climb the ladder of economic mobility. One area where the cost may be too high, however, is at for-profit colleges where high-cost debt often leads to a degree with little or no chance of gainful employment.

Last month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued new guidance on deceptive practices by private vocational schools. It warned against misrepresenting teacher or enrollment qualifications, the nature of courses, the availability of financial aid, and the availability of jobs for graduates. Additionally, FTC’s Vocational School Guides addressed the use of deceptive diplomas or certificates, and placing classified ads that appear to be “help wanted” ads.

“The FTC’s new guidance on vocational schools identifies some of the most deceptive practices by for-profit colleges,” said Maura Dundon, the Center for Responsible Lending’s (CRL) Senior Policy Counsel. “For-profit colleges that mislead students about their expected salaries, job placement, or the quality of the education should take notice that they are violating the FTC Act. The guidance does not technically extend to all for-profit colleges, but it is a warning to the whole industry about deceptive recruitment.”

In 2012, for-profit colleges sued and were successful in overturning related Department of Education rulemaking affecting institutions offering career education programs. In response, the Department unfolded a thoughtful approach to engage various stakeholders in a negotiated rulemaking process.

Representatives from a cross-section of interests were appointed and charged to help the Department craft these gainful employment rules. Deliberations would include things such as repayment rates, caps on loan debt, default rates and borrower relief. A written reference guide was prepared and shared that identified related meeting dates, time requirements, rules of engagement and expected outcomes.

As expected, the negotiations were heated and the last scheduled negotiating session ended without consensus, as well as a threat of a lawsuit and two letters signed by more than 60 Members of Congress (MCs) with distinctly opposing views.

In fact, Rep. Elijah Cummings [D-Md.] showed up at the last rulemaking session to support the rulemaking effort and offered his perspective.

“We need these rules to ensure students get what they bargained for, an education that will help them find a good job in the field they study,” said Cummings. “Too many have left these schools with nothing to show for their time and money other than insurmountable debt. If these institutions are truly committed to educating students from under-served communities, they need to be equally committed to demonstrating positive outcomes for those students.”

Thirty-three of Cummings’ colleagues also supported a letter to the Department of Education that urged finalization of gainful employment regulation.

“More than ever, we need a rule that ends federal financial aid for programs that consistently leave students – our veterans, working parents, and other Americans struggling to build new lives – without decent incomes and with insurmountable debt,” stated the Congressional letter signed by Congresspersons from 16 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Washington State.

The Department of Education is expected to proceed with rulemaking even though the for-profit colleges continue to organize opposition. Any proposed rule will include an opportunity for public comment.

Everyone supporting more for-profit school regulation should make their voice heard. The level of public support expressed will only strengthen the likelihood of strong action. Every letter, brief or long, will help consumer protections. Additional information on the Department’s gainful employment negotiated rulemaking is available at: http://rspnsb.li/1cOU4AB.

Students that take on significant debt deserve a meaningful education that results in likely employment opportunities. Further, federal financial support should not go to schools that fail their students. Tell your Representative that a strong rule is needed to ensure fairness and real educational opportunity.

Charlene Crowell is a communications manager with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org.

U.S. Winning the 'War on Poverty'

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By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Nearly 50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty, a new report finds that robust social safety net programs are slowly leading the nation to victory.

According to the report, “Trends in Poverty With an Anchored Supplemental Poverty Measure,” the poverty rate has dropped 40 percent since 1967, as a result of provisions such as housing vouchers, free school lunch unemployment benefits, Social Security, food stamps, and more. Without these programs, the researchers find, the percentage of Americans living in poverty would be twice as high.

“Our research tells us that these programs are important for families struggling to put food on the table and find adequate shelter,” says study co-author Christopher Wimer, a research scientist at the Columbia Population Research Center. “For a family of four our measure puts the poverty threshold higher at about $25,000 a year, which is not going to go so far.”

The Census Bureau introduced the official poverty measure (OPM) in 1963 to aid in distributing federal aid. At that time it was based on income and the cost of food. Today, the measure is based on a family’s size, cash income, and ages of its members.

The study’s authors say that it’s an outdated and insufficient measure—not only are there non-cash types of income (such as food stamps or housing subsidies), but also the OPM excludes tax burden, and only considers families linked by blood, marriage, or adoption (same-sex partners or cohabiting couples with children, for example, do not count as family).

It seems the Census Bureau picked up on these deficiencies; in 2010 it introduced the supplemental poverty measure (SPM). This measure uses an improved threshold, a more inclusive tally of a family’s expenses and resources, and a broader definition of “family.”

Although the SPM is only intended for research use (the OPM is still used for federal spending), the authors contend that it offers a better picture of American poverty.

According to the OPM, the poverty threshold is around $23,000, and has been since the late ‘90s. The SPM offers a higher threshold, largely because it reflects changes in cost of living more acutely—and it also means more people qualify as poor.

To study poverty trends over the last 45 years, the researchers used today’s SPM threshold and applied it to American families’ household data since 1967 (adjusting for inflation). That year, the official poverty rate was 14 percent; and it hasn’t changed much since then, lingering between 11 and 15 percent over 45 years of data. But with the SPM, the poverty rate has steadily declined—in 1967 it would have been 26 percent. It’s come down to 16 percent as of 2012, which means that poverty has fallen 40 percent since 1967.

The measure also reveals the impact of anti-poverty programs and policies by examining the effect of taxes (tax requirements, breaks, and credits) and transfers (in-kind federal income, such as housing vouchers and free school lunch). Without including taxes and transfers in the SPM measure the poverty rate would have been 27 percent in 2012. In other words, tax breaks and safety net programs have saved 13 percent of lower-middle income Americans from poverty.

Elise Gould, an economist with think tank nonprofit, Economic Policy Institute also believes in the potential of this measure.

“We absolutely see that if we look at measures—even just the OPM—that if it had not been for these economic programs more people would be in poverty. All these programs like sick days, housing vouchers, child care credits, help lift people out of poverty,” she says. “And the SPM is absolutely the best thing today to examine that. Trying to recreate it back in time is a great undertaking.”

The researchers also calculated SPM-based poverty rates for the elderly, working age people, children, and for those in deep poverty (who live on 50 percent or less of the poverty threshold). Taxes and transfers have kept deep poverty around five percent since the ‘70s. Without them, that rate would be closer to 15 and 20 percent.

This study comes at a time when media spotlight has focused on the rising tide of poverty, especially for urban children. But this month Congress approved nearly $40 billion of cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) over the next decade, starting last month. One in seven Americans will be affected.

“It’s not that we’ve solved the problems through these programs—there’s still 15 or 16 percent of the country living in poverty under our measure,” Wimer says. “But our research shows that programs like SNAP do a decent job of helping families meet their food costs, which clears room in the budget to pay rent.”

Gould, who also studies economic mobility, believes that while safety net programs are essential, they’re only half the battle.

“Government support has done an incredibly good job in helping people, but pre-tax and pre-transfer income for people really hasn’t changed a lot,” she explains. “You have to really think of ways to increase people’s income and that usually means better wages. When the economy is not doing a great job of serving and providing jobs for ordinary people, the government has to step in. With both aspects, you can do a fair amount to alleviate poverty in this country.”

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