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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Nigeria’s President Meets With Schoolgirls Who Escaped Kidnappers

By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times

JOHANNESBURG — Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Tuesday met with a group of schoolgirls who escaped from the terrorist group Boko Haram and the parents of the abducted girls, about 100 days after nearly 300 girls were seized.

But there were troubling signs that Nigeria’s battle against the insurgency remains bogged down, with Boko Haram occupying the town of Damboa in recent days and raising its flag after killing dozens of people and driving nearly all the residents away.

Activists reported that more than a dozen villages in eastern Nigeria have been conquered in recent months. Tens of thousands of people have fled in the northeast of the country, including some 15,000 people from Damboa, Agence France-Presse news service reported.

Nigerian officials report at least 100 people were killed in Damboa, south of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri. However, exact casualties weren’t known with insurgents still in control.

The fall of Damboa is seen as a major humiliation for the military, which has recently claimed an important victory: flushing insurgents out of the nearby Sambisa forest. Military spokesman Chris Olukolade told journalists Monday that the army would soon regain control of the town.

Some 219 schoolgirls kidnapped from the town of Chibok in April are still in captivity, with fears many of them have been forced to marry insurgents or convert to Islam.

Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened to sell the girls “in the market” and referred to them as “slaves” soon after the kidnapping but has since released videos calling for a swap of jailed Boko Haram fighters in return for the girls.

Tuesday’s meeting in Abuja, the capital, between the president and Chibok residents came at the urging of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who met Jonathan last week. The meeting was supposed to happen a week ago but was postponed by the parents, who said they needed more time to gather and organize.

At last week’s postponement, Jonathan released a press statement describing activists for the hashtag “BringBackOurGirls” as “psychological terrorists” and accusing them of using the crisis to score political points.

Jonathan met 177 representatives from Chibok, including some of the girls who managed to escape from Boko Haram, parents of abducted girls and village leaders, The Associated Press reported.

Borno Gov. Kashim Shettima was also at the meeting. His spokesman, Reuben Abati, told journalists after the meeting that it was “a very successful event.” He said the president assured the girls that the authorities were doing everything possible to rescue the abducted teenagers.

Abati posted pictures of the meeting on his Twitter account.

The president called for patience, cooperation, and understanding.

“Anyone who gives you the impression that we are aloof and that we are not doing what we are supposed to do to get the girls out is not being truthful,” Jonathan told the gathering, according to a statement from Abati.

“Our commitment is not just to get the girls out, it is also to rout Boko Haram completely from Nigeria,” he said. “But we are very, very mindful of the safety of the girls. We want to return them all alive to their parents. If they are killed in any rescue effort, then we have achieved nothing.”

AFP Photo / Wole Emmanuel

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Hollywood Film Brings Torture Back Into The Light

Scenes of prisoner abuses in Zero Dark Thirty, the Kathryn Bigelow film on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, have reawakened a debate over the United States’s use of torture that should have been fully and publicly vetted long ago.

Whether the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogations program, a.k.a. torture, “worked,” is the question being kicked around, as if that should matter in a nation committed to human rights.

Knowledgeable commentators have taken both sides. Jose Rodriguez Jr., who oversaw the agency’s counterterrorism operations at the time, says the harsh techniques elicited information that did contribute to locating bin Laden. Opposing that view are Michael Morell, acting CIA director, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who each blasted the movie as inaccurate and misleading.

Feinstein said a just-completed 6,000-page committee study highly critical of the CIA detention and interrogation program under President Bush demonstrates that information gained from mistreating prisoners did not play a significant role in finding bin Laden.

But since the report is classified, we can’t see for ourselves. You would think that once there is a blockbuster Hollywood movie depicting the CIA’s torture program, it’s no longer a secret. Releasing the report would be a valuable service by both clearing up these questions and as a “how could we go so wrong?” lesson.

The secrecy bespeaks a deep humiliation at how America reacted to the al Qaeda threat with CIA black-site prisons, extraordinary renditions and prisoner mistreatment. We don’t want to be reminded of what we did, whether it occasionally “worked” or not. In those dank cells, our once-proud principles of due process and the rule of law were reduced to rubble. Our self-image of the American character was indelibly stained.

Even the federal courts don’t want to go there. To keep innocent torture victims from suing, they have accepted fatuous claims asserted by both the Bush and Obama administrations that it would jeopardize national security.

Typically at year’s end I give out the “Freeby” award to the person or institution that did the most to advance civil liberties. This year I look beyond our borders to a courageous stand against the CIA’s mistreatment of prisoners. The European Court of Human Rights gets the “Freeby” for finally giving Khaled El-Masri a measure of justice.

Earlier this month, the court handed El-Masri, a German national, a victory against Macedonia for its complicity in his torture within the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program nine years ago. America was not directly on trial, but our guilt was clear.

On Dec. 31, 2003, El-Masri was detained after his name was found to be similar to that of an al Qaeda suspect. Macedonian officials held him incommunicado for 23 days at America’s request. After that, he was turned over to the CIA at Skopje Airport, where the court found that he was severely beaten, stripped and forcibly sodomized with a suppository and flown to Afghanistan. For months El-Masri was held in a cold, unheated cell at the “Salt Pit,” a secret CIA-run prison. Even after it became evident his detention was a mistake, El-Masri wasn’t immediately released. Finally at the end of May 2004, he was taken and dumped at a roadside in Albania, left to find his way home to Germany.

Since then, El-Masri’s efforts to get justice in U.S. courts have failed. The “state secrets” defense defeated any consideration of his claim. Astoundingly, the United States has never apologized for what happened to him or even publicly acknowledged it.

So if anyone wants to debate the efficacy of Zero Dark Thirty-style torture, let’s do it with the full record before us. Make the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report public so we can read about all of the people like El-Masri who the CIA put into its black-site prisons. Give us a full description of what happened to them and how that “worked.” The record is likely so shockingly disturbing that continued secrecy over it has less to do with national security than national shame.

(You can respond to Robyn’s column at blumner@sptimes.com.)

Photo credit: AP/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., Jonathan Olley, File

Some Companies Resorting To Extremes To Dodge Obamacare

For millions of Americans, all they really want for Christmas is decent health care coverage. It’s a wish they’ve repeated over and over, and now it will come true. Obamacare has withstood the legal and political onslaught of its enemies. On January 1, 2014 — just over one year away — it will arrive.

Americans of all ages, healthy and sick, will join their counterparts in every other advanced nation by having access to affordable health insurance. Hallelujah.

Joyous good tidings, indeed. But lurking in the background, like a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge about to snatch the last lump of coal from Bob Cratchit’s pitiful warming fire, are some of the nation’s largest employers of low-wage workers plotting to make their employees’ lives harder.

Think it’s tough getting by on $10 per hour? Just wait until corporate executives finish slashing the hours of their restaurant, hotel and retail workers to under 30 per week. That’s the plan. By slighting workers the hours they need to make any kind of decent living, employers will be able to dump their health insurance obligations under Obamacare onto taxpayers.

In the most high-profile case, Darden Restaurants, the Orlando-based owner of Olive Garden, Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse, announced that it was testing a plan to deny workers full-time schedules; however, the public outcry over such a policy forced the company to back down. Darden told the Orlando Sentinel in October that keeping employees at 28 hours a week was one possible way to “address the cost implications health care reform will have on our business.”

Under the Affordable Care Act, beginning in 2014, employers with 50 or more full-time employees must provide affordable health insurance to their workforce or pay a penalty of up to $3,000 per worker. The loophole is that the rules don’t apply to part-time workers, defined as someone who works less than 30 hours on average per week.

For instance, Pillar Hotels & Resorts, a company that controls hundreds of franchise hotels, including Sheraton and Holiday Inn, was reported by the Wall Street Journal to be embarking on a plan to hire more part-time workers to limit health care costs. CKE Restaurants, Inc., the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, also told the Journal that it is now hiring part-time workers to replace full-timers who have left. And these are just the companies who are willing to fess up.

Part-time workers will get health care coverage, but you and I will pay for it. Under Obamacare, people making up to four times the federal poverty rate ($92,200 for a family of four) will qualify for federally subsidized health insurance from an online exchange, and expanded Medicaid will be available to everyone making under 133 percent of the poverty rate ($30,657 for a family of four) in states that opt to participate.

Then there’s Walmart. As the nation’s largest private employer, and a notoriously low-paying one at that, no story of employer iniquity would be complete without it. Walmart already employs a disproportionate number of workers who supplement their wages with government benefits for the poor, especially Medicaid. Now the retail giant may be shifting even more of its health care costs onto the rest of us.

In Walmart’s 2013 “Associate’s Benefits Book,” employees hired after Feb. 1, 2012 who work less than 30 hours a week will be denied employer-sponsored health coverage, according to Alice Hines of the Huffington Post. This is worrying because workers have little control over their schedules. Company spokesman Randy Hargrove rejects Hines’ insinuations. He says that Walmart is “not looking to cut hours.” But considering the company’s track record, it strains credulity to think managers won’t cut costs this way in the long run.

Remember how the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” looked so foreboding? Well, in one year, health care security will be the nation’s Christmas gift to itself, but what mischief will befall low-wage workers as a result? Only the nation’s Scrooges can say.

(You can respond to Robyn’s column at blumner@sptimes.com.)

(c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photo by Ron Dauphin via Flickr.com

GOP Voter Suppression Continues

It really is no secret that Republicans want to make it harder for people to vote. Some are even upfront about it.

In 2011, Mike Bennett, then a Republican senator from Bradenton, Fla., told his colleagues during a debate on an elections bill that voting shouldn’t be easy: “The [African] people in the desert, who literally walk two and three hundred miles so they can have the opportunity to do what we do, and we want to make it more convenient?” (His Africa comments were rated a “Pants on Fire” falsehood by PolitiFact.)

Well, Bennett got his wish. In 2012, Florida voters resembled those in the Third World. In a disastrous election that caused President Barack Obama to remark that, “we have to fix that,” people in Miami-Dade County waited up to seven hours to vote during a contracted early-voting period prescribed by that 2011 election bill that became law. On Election Day, some voters were in line past midnight. And get this, Bennett is the newly elected supervisor of elections in Manatee County and has since defended the law.

Then there’s Charlie Webster, who was Maine’s GOP chairman when he made the paranoid charge last year that the state should repeal Maine’s same-day registration because it’s “how the Democrats have managed to steal elections.” Webster’s deluded assertion to the Portland Press Herald was that Maine’s same-day voter registration allowed Democrats to bus in “Job Corps people,” referring to a federal job training program for low-income young people. “[Democrats] move ’em around to wherever they have a tough seat,” Webster claimed.

Equal frankness came from New Hampshire Republican lawmaker William O’Brien, who, as state House Speaker last year, pushed for a law to end the state’s same-day voter registration and prohibit most college students from using their school addresses to vote. He was caught on tape telling a Tea Party group that the change was needed because young people end up “voting as a liberal.” The effort failed.

Since the midterm elections of 2010, almost every state where Republicans took political control made a concerted push to make voting harder for groups whose demographics lean Democratic, such as minorities and college students. Republicans publicly claim the rules are to prevent voter fraud — a problem that essentially does not exist for in-person voting. But Jim Greer, the disgraced and indicted former Florida Republican Party chairman, admitted that Florida’s early voting limits were to tamp down Democratic votes, not due to any problem of voter fraud.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit group specializing in election issues, no fewer than 25 new laws and two executive actions were passed in 19 states over the last two years to make it more difficult for eligible Americans to vote. Courts came to the rescue by blocking many of the most restrictive laws. But these aggressive state efforts to reduce voter registration, contract early voting and raise burdensome voter ID requirements show the states can’t be trusted. For the integrity of America’s democratic process, these efforts warrant a national response.

America needs to modernize and standardize elections by passing a new “motor voter”-type law. That law passed in 1993 to expand the franchise by telling states to make voter registration available in DMV and social services offices.

Currently in the U.S. Congress, the Voter Empowerment Act is a 21st-century fix to our election mess. Among other advances, the VEA would automate voter registration in a way that could bring more than 50 million additional eligible voters onto the rolls, while saving millions of dollars and reducing opportunities for fraud, mistakes and manipulation. Voters would stay registered even if they moved, since registration updates could be instantaneous.

But with Republicans committed to blocking efforts to make voting easier, the VEA is DOA. Unless Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives and retain the Senate, there is no reason to hope that our elections will improve.

(You can respond to Robyn’s column at blumner@sptimes.com.)

(c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photo credit: AP/J. Pat Carter, File

GOP Defeated By Single Women

As Republicans continue to reflect on what went wrong on Nov. 6, they should think back on a scene in February, when U.S. House Republicans organized a grandstanding hearing on contraception coverage under Obamacare, in which they proclaimed it an affront to an employer’s religious freedom.

Democrats were allotted only one witness and chose Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, who intended to speak out on the consequences of losing contraceptive coverage. But she was barred from testifying by Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican committee chairman, because she was “not qualified,” while a panel of men — some in religious collars — were.

That was the moment when America’s women were reminded of what is at stake in American elections in which one major political party enthusiastically embraces the agenda of the Religious Right.

We American women know how recent and tenuous our grip is on our reproductive rights. Anyone watching HBO’s Boardwalk Empire knows the travails of Margaret Thompson, the wife of wealthy Nucky, as she struggles against the Catholic Church, ignorance, fear and the law in the 1920s to bring sex education and contraception to women.

It wasn’t until 1965 that the U. S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of married people to possess contraception in this country, a right that wasn’t extended to unmarried people until 1972 — four years after the Beatles released the “White Album.”

So it’s not such a surprise that this year’s election, according to a Gallup survey, resulted in a 20-point gender gap, the largest in history, with President Obama winning women by 12 percentage points while Mitt Romney won men by 8 points. Obama’s win among unmarried women was a whopping 38 points. Call it the Republicans’ Carrie Bradshaw problem, or for a younger generation, their Selena Gomez problem. Either way, they won’t solve it until they stop using women’s bodily autonomy as a political pawn.

During the election post-mortem, Republicans have blamed their loss on decreased support among Hispanic voters and voters who live in an urban core. Romney even blamed his defeat on Obama’s “gifts” to the moochers. But they’re missing the pink elephant in the room. Women made up 53 percent of the electorate, and most of us won’t support a candidate who promises to transport the country back in time when it comes to our essential right to control our lives.

Romney lost women by swallowing whole the Religious Right agenda, including its attacks on overseas family planning services. He promised to reinstate the Mexico City policy and to defund the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Every Republican president since Reagan has adopted the Mexico City policy, which cuts off federal money for any international family planning organization that provides abortions or promotes abortion services. Without those U.S. funds, some family planning clinics in poor countries and remote areas have had to close. Both Clinton and Obama repealed the policy.

Romney’s stance on UNFPA mirrors that of Bush II, who withheld $235 million of congressionally allocated UNFPA funding over the course of his presidency on baseless grounds that the group supported coercive abortions in China. Since Obama came to office, about $40 million per year has been restored.

The backwardness of the Republican anti-family-planning agenda is hard to put into words, so let’s put it into numbers. According to the just-released UNFPA report, “By Choice, Not By Chance: Family Planning, Human Rights and Development,” an estimated 222 million women in the developing world lack access to reliable family planning. This alone leads to 63 million unintended pregnancies every year.

If all of the world’s family planning needs were met, there would be 26 million fewer abortions. And if women in developing countries could space their pregnancies three to five years apart, it could reduce infant deaths by 46 percent. Republican efforts to defund family planning groups belie any real concern for “life,” revealing instead the party’s antipathy toward contraception and women’s sexual freedom.

This 1920s-era thinking subordinated our mothers and grandmothers and continues to afflict women around the world. If Republicans want to win national elections, they need to realize that American women don’t intend to relinquish their hard-won reproductive rights, not ever.

(You can respond to Robyn’s column at blumner@sptimes.com.)

(c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photo credit: AP/David Goldman

Ryan Calling The Kettle Black With Medicare Scare Tactics

The Medicare “death panels” bogeyman is back, reintroduced by, of all people, Rep. Paul Ryan, the man who would reform the Medicare entitlement. What did Bill Clinton say about “brass”?

It was last month at the Republican Party’s happy hunting grounds known as The Villages, a retirement community outside Orlando, Fla., that the vice presidential hopeful told the assembled crowd that Obama “puts a board of 15 unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats in charge of Medicare, who are required to cut Medicare in ways that will lead to denied care for current seniors.”

Ryan is feeding seniors’ fears over rationed government care but fails to fess-up to all the rationing he has in store.

First, let’s sweep away misconceptions about the “Independent Payment Advisory Board,” (note the word “advisory”) to which Ryan is referring. This is a key Medicare cost-containment provision of the Affordable Care Act and a part of why the solvency of Medicare’s primary trust fund is eight years longer under Obamacare than without it.

Here’s how the board works: Fifteen experts in health care, including consumers and seniors — not government bureaucrats — appointed by the president but confirmed by the Senate, would be charged with finding new efficiencies in Medicare’s medical delivery and payment system. If increases in Medicare costs exceed a targeted amount — growth in the nominal GDP plus 1 percent after 2017 — the board must offer ways to rein those costs in. But the elected, accountable Congress has the last word. It can adopt the recommendations or reject them as long as it offers an alternative way to contain the rate of growth.

Contrary to Ryan’s claims, the board cannot ration care, raise taxes or premiums, or restrict benefits to bend Medicare’s cost curve.

This studied approach preserves Medicare’s safety net features while forcing Congress to be fiscally responsible, similar to the commission that helps close redundant military bases. It should be applauded by Ryan, who claims to be a fiscal conservative.

Except no true fiscal conservative would vote to put two wars, tax cuts for the wealthy and the Medicare prescription drug benefit on America’s credit card, or help scuttle the bipartisan $4 trillion deficit reduction deal from the Simpson-Bowles commission, or propose a fiscal plan that includes generous tax cuts to the rich and no balanced budget for at least another 28 years — all of which Ryan has done.

So, while not a true fiscal conservative, he is opposed to government rationing care, right? Not really.

Ryan’s budget blueprint, the one passed by the House in March, is a manifesto of government-rationed care, a modern-day Magna Carta Libertatum to Ryan’s philosophy that freeing Americans from debilitating government aid is the only way their productive potential will be fully realized. Ryan introduced it by saying he doesn’t want America’s safety net programs to become “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”

Ryan’s freedom agenda includes “vouchercare” through which Americans who become Medicare-eligible in 10 years would have the freedom to hunt for private health insurance with a rationed voucher that inevitably won’t keep up with medical inflation.

For middle-class seniors needing a nursing home placement paid for by Medicaid, Ryan gives them the freedom to cover the average $80,000 annual price tag or find some other living arrangement, by transforming Medicaid’s open-ended guarantees into a rationed block grant to the states and cutting funds 35 percent by 2022.

Poor families would have the freedom to either find decent paying jobs or go hungry, since their access to food stamps would be rationed. Ryan would block grant that program, too, and institute a time limit.

The man has taken as an injunction Janis Joplin’s famous lyric that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Where FDR would grant us freedom from want, Ryan gives us freedom from help. But at least there will be no “unaccountable bureaucrats” subverting Medicare; Ryan will have already done that job for them.

(You can respond to Robyn’s column at blumner@sptimes.com.)

Photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak, File

(c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

House GOP Lays Out Its True Beliefs For All To See

In one tidy package, the Republican leadership in Congress has presented their priorities to the American people: Protect millionaires, industrial polluters, gouging doctors and fossil-fuel refiners, while sacrificing the interests of federal workers and the long-term unemployed. Those were the highlights of the Republican-controlled House plan that passed Tuesday to salvage the payroll tax holiday.

Congressional Republicans say it’s a crime against all that is sacred (read Grover Norquist) to ask millionaires to pay one bit more in taxes, but they were reluctant to extend a payroll tax holiday that would add about $1,000 to the average working family’s pay next year. House Speaker John Boehner had to lard up the extension of the payroll tax cut with what has been called “ideological candy” to line up his party’s stalwarts.

What goodies did they choose?

The biggie was the proposed Keystone pipeline from Canada to refineries in Texas. Boehner tied middle-class tax relief to speedy approval of the 1,900 mile pipeline, even as the State Department said a delay is needed to study routes that bypass a huge aquifer under Nebraska and other states. To Republicans, clean drinking water is a luxury.

It’s a lot like their philosophy on clean air, which is why they added polluter protections to the bill to block air-emission rules on industrial boilers and incinerators that release mercury and other toxins.

Nice, huh? Would you really want to live in the world they create?

Then there’s this little giveaway to doctor-owned hospitals. Even as Republicans say that curbing waste is necessary to taming health care costs, their leaders protect special interests. Study after study has found that doctors tend to order more medical tests and procedures when they have a financial interest in a hospital. The 2010 health reform law cracked down, but House Republicans rode to the rescue.

They’ve proposed loosened restrictions, which would allow more doctor-owned hospitals to open if construction had already begun by the end of last year, or to expand if they were already operational. This would increase federal health-related spending by $300 million over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Never mind what such excessive medical intervention does to patient health.

Government largesse for doctor-owned hospitals is one thing. Helping to keep the long-term unemployed afloat financially, well, that’s a step too far. The Republican plan would renew extended federal unemployment benefits that are set to expire at the end of the year, but it would shorten their availability by more than half of the current maximum. Due to the way extended federal unemployment is designed, states with the highest unemployment would suffer the biggest cuts in benefits.

It doesn’t seem to matter that we have a historic crisis of long-term unemployment, with 5.7 million Americans out there who haven’t found a job in at least 27 weeks. Republicans think the unemployed, who average $289 a week in benefits, aren’t hungry enough. Their plan will surely change that. And to make the process of applying for unemployment benefits as undignified as possible, the Boehner bill would allow states to drug test all applicants if they chose to.

As for paying for the payroll tax holiday, congressional Republicans threw themselves against the Democrats’ plan to impose a 1.9 percent surtax on incomes above a million dollars. What the House passed instead was an extended freeze on wages for federal workers. For Republicans, holding wages down for middle-class workers is always preferable to asking for sacrifice from the nation’s wealthiest households, although they did include a provision that would raise the cost of Medicare for affluent seniors.

Obviously Boehner knew that his plan, which passed 234 to 193 with 10 Democrats joining all but 14 Republicans, was not going anywhere. The Democrat-controlled Senate wasn’t going to agree and neither was President Barack Obama. Instead Boehner used the bill as a platform to show voters what Republicans stand for.

It couldn’t be any clearer.

(You can respond to Robyn’s column at blumner@sptimes.com.)

(c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Thank You For Paying Your Taxes, Saving Lives

Today I am turning my column over to Keira Scholz, a 23-year-old married mother of a 15-month-old son, who recently wrote a thank you note to American taxpayers on her blog. Keira describes — better than any columnist could — how paying taxes toward America’s social safety net makes this a great, generous nation that wisely invests in the next generation. With her permission, I’ve condensed and adapted her note (you can find the full post at www.tinyurl.com/dear-taxpayer), but otherwise I’ll let Keira do the talking:

Dear American Taxpayers,

I am a daughter of a meth-addicted, uneducated single mother of six children. Since 1987, you have supported me as you paid your taxes. You are the sole reason I am alive today. I am writing to thank you for doing it.

From the moment my single, young mother found out she was pregnant with me, to the time I graduated from college, the taxes you have paid have been my bread and butter, my warmth and shelter, my health and happiness. I was born in a clean, safe hospital with competent doctors because of Medicaid. I was vaccinated, diagnosed, treated, medicated and consistently checked because of your tax-paid public assistance.

I was fed nutritious food and vitamin-fortified cereals to keep malnourishment at bay thanks to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. My mother learned how to provide varied meals for my growing body because of the resources and education WIC offered. Later in life, I subsisted entirely on the meals provided by food stamps as my source of food at home. But at school, I was offered a free breakfast and lunch, and sometimes that was my only meal for the day.

Sometimes we could not afford to heat our home — and state-run and funded programs paid for our warmth in the winter. When we could not afford rent, we lived in government-subsidized housing. These houses were a little sparse, but they were always clean, always safe and always in good repair.

I was educated because of the public education system. Because of public transportation and a library in each city I lived in, my grandmother and I would ride the bus to the library every Saturday. I was exposed to the idea of further education — college — because of the characters in those books and because of the librarians I befriended. I also had school counselors and teachers who guided me along the way, encouraging college and lifetime learning, so that by the time I graduated high school, I knew that was my goal. I knew it would better my life.

When I was taken into foster care at fifteen years old, I lived in safe foster homes with volunteer foster parents. Your taxes paid reimbursements for my housing, food and clothing there, as well as the medical and mental health services. I was seen by a case worker a few times a month so that I always had someone to report to if anything was awry. I was defended in court by a guardian-ad-litem free of charge, so I had someone to state my case.

I went to a state-funded university and was only able to attend by the grace of scholarships and federal Pell grants.

Had I been born any other time, in any other country, I would not have lived to be 23. I would have died over a lack of a vaccination. I would have died without oxygen at birth. I would have died cold in winter. I could have died in a filthy neighborhood. I could have died hungry and malnourished.

Thank you for the gift of life. I hope to give back, starting today, with a heart full of gratitude, when I say: Thank you, for paying your taxes.

Note: Keira has an associate degree and is pursuing a bachelor’s in psychology at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah. She says that she hopes to be a teacher or counselor, contribute to society and pay taxes.

(You can respond to Robyn’s column at blumner@sptimes.com.)

(c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.