When a community needs to build a new school or a jail, it sells bonds on the municipal bond market. The bonds are a city’s promise to pay. But if one city doesn’t pay up in full, does bond money dry up for everybody else?
“I think it depends a lot on the city,” says Kim Rueben, a public finance economist at the Urban Institute.
Rueben says some Michigan cities have to pay a premium in the bond market because they’re in the same state as Detroit. Many of them have the same problems. Ditto for some rustbelt, Midwestern cities:
"So, other places that are seeing similar demographic trends, in terms of aging populations and declining populations,” says Rueben.
What about cities without these problems? They can still sell bonds, but they have to work harder, according to Lisa Washburn, managing director of Municipal Market Advisers, a bond research company.
Washburn says investors are justifiably skeptical: “So you want to know ahead of time what kind of risk you’re taking on.”
Still, Washburn says, there is a lot of demand for municipal bonds. Once investors decide they’re safe, that is.
The Community Eligibility Provision, part of the National School Lunch Program, was signed into law by Barack Obama in 2010. It enables school districts in which 40 percent of children or more are eligible for free lunches to skip paperwork requirements and offer free meals to all students, regardless of their household income. Some educators say the provision could lower stress levels for low-income kids and help them focus on learning.
"Sometimes they worry about not having enough money to pay for their meal," says Dora Rivas, Executive Director of the Food and Child Nutrition Program for the Dallas Independent School District. "I think this is going to be a great benefit to them."
Rivas adds that paying for meals for all students in the district means officials will no longer have to spend time and money processing papers for families applying for the lunch benefits.
"Our funds are going to producing the meal instead of all the paperwork," she says.
The National School Lunch Program costs the government nearly $12 billion a year, a reflection of a troubled economy in which many working parents are unable to make ends meet.
"Most of the kids in the free and reduced price meals program are kids whose parents are working, working full time at very low wages, or working part time," says Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. On an average school day, Weill says, some 21.5 million kids eat a free or reduced-price lunch.
Even though the economy is improving, there are still about 3 million Americans who have been out of work for six months or more. Plus, research indicates that the longer they are out, the tougher it will be for them to get back into the workforce. Making matters worse: when they do find work, it often doesn't last.
Lori Barkley Struckman knows what that's like. At the end of 2011, she lost her job as an office administrator. For the next two years, she bounced around jobs that were temporary or part-time.
"I had five different jobs. But nothing full-time," she says.
Struckman finally landed a full-time position as an office administrator at a Twin Cities law firm earlier this year. Her rocky road to recovery would not surprise researchers like Alan Krueger, a professor of economics at Princeton University and former White House chief economist.
"The long-term unemployed, when they do find work, it's often inconsistent, it's often part-time, they often find a job that doesn't last very long," says Krueger.
Krueger and fellow researchers looked at government surveys of Americans who said they'd been out of work for six months or longer at some point between 2008 and 2012. When those individuals were surveyed again more than a year later, only 36 percent had landed work. Of that group, only 11 percent had steady, full-time jobs.
Krueger says a lot of these folks end up suffering the same setbacks, and unsteady employment, as new workers.
"If you look at workers just starting out, a lot of the jobs they find don't work out, they're transitory, it's a mismatch," he says. "They don't get along with the employer or their skills aren't right for the job."
And sometimes the stress of having been out of the workforce for a long time persists, making it hard to hold onto a new job.
"There's a lot of spiralling of all sorts of things, trouble with the children, trouble with finances, which affects every piece of your life. Do you still have health insurance? Were you able to keep your house? All those things are so stressful; you're just treading water," says Mary White, a job counselor with a nonprofit called HIRED in St. Paul.
Lori Barkley Struckman is familiar with some of those stresses. A layoff she suffered a decade ago, well before her more recent jobless spell, coincided with her divorce. When she returned to work back then, she was easily distracted.
"You're still thinking about all the other turmoil that's going on in your life. It's hard for you to concentrate. So that is a real task to just make yourself go, 'Okay you're here to work. Give it up,'" she says.
Faced with poor job prospects or additional layoffs, many long-term unemployed give up looking for work. Krueger's collaborator, Judd Cramer, a doctoral student in economics at Princeton University, says the expiration of extended unemployment benefits has contributed to that trend.
"We've seen the rate at which the long-term unemployed have exited the labor market has risen," Cramer says.