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Analysis, background reports and updates from the PBS NewsHour putting today's news in context.

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    APRIL 09, 2014 -   discussion panel, Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement: Views from the Front Line, held at the the Civil Rights Summit at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, April 9, 2014.  The LBJ Library and Museum celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passage.  (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    HARI SREENIVASAN: President Barack Obama is calling civil rights leader Julian Bond a hero who helped change the country for the better. Bond died Saturday in Florida.

    Grandson of a slave and son of a college president, Bond attended Atlanta’s Morehouse College, where he was a student in a philosophy class taught by Martin Luther King Jr.

    In the 1960s, Bond help lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, planning nonviolent protests throughout the segregated South. At the age of 26, Bond was elected to the Georgia state legislature and served there 20 years. He made a run for Congress, but lost an epic race to fellow civil rights activist John Lewis, in 1986.

    He was also the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which advocates for justice and equality, and later chairman of the NAACP, and served more than a decade in that post.

    Two years ago, Bond spoke at the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    JULIAN BOND: We are still being tested by hardships and adversity, from the elevation of stand-your-ground laws to the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act. But, today, we commit ourselves, as we did 50 years ago, to greater efforts and grander victories. Thank you.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Julian Bond was 75.

    To discuss the legacy of Julian Bond, I am joined via Skype from Martha’s Vineyard by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, a civil rights pioneer in her own right whose relationship with Bond goes back to their days at SNCC.

    When you heard the news, what went through your mind?

    ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Well, I wasn’t even a little bit ready to lose my good friend and constituent, because — because Julian has lived in Washington now for more than 25 years, and been a champion, among other things, of statehood for the District of Columbia.

    I saw him only a few months ago, when he came right after Ferguson when I had a forum at Howard University to discuss racial profiling. And I wanted to have Julian come because I wanted to have this conversation, Julian and me with these students, in order to let them know we were in touch with their movement and we understood their movement, it was different than our movement, and that their movement showed that our movement need to be updated, because for all the achievements of our movement, we had not touched racial profiling.

    What Julian managed to do was something that most of us who were in SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, didn’t do. He managed to spend his entire life in civil rights, not the sentimental civil rights of our SNCC days, but the civil rights of our time. And that’s why he was so respected and such a sought-after speaker.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Can you give us an idea of the contributions that he has made that most of us in this generation now might not recognize?

    ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Well, if you think about it, from the generation of SNCC people, those of us who were in the student movement, there were two or three that achieved some kind of prominence afterwards.

    Marion Barry became the mayor of the District of Columbia — John Lewis, who still is an icon of the civil rights movement, Julian Bond — and I am running out of names.

    The fact is not everybody survived those SNCC days. It took a lot out of people. It almost destroyed some people. So, Julian wasn’t only a survivor of SNCC. He went on to grow the civil rights movement.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: What are you going to miss most about him?

    ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I’m going to miss having a national spokesman, when something happened on our rights, to speak out for the country.

    There are really very few leaders like that who are nationally known, who are nationally prominent, and who are nationally appreciated across the generations. And, somehow, he managed not to stop serving until the end of his life. That is quite a life to have lived.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, thanks so much for joining us.

    ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Always a pleasure.

    The post Grief and gratitude: Friends remember Julian Bond’s life of service appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    EDGARTOWN, Mass. — The White House is launching a new $5 million initiative to combat heroin use and trafficking of the drug, particularly in states along the East Coast.

    About half of the money will fund a program to link public health and law enforcement agencies, with the goal of prioritizing treatment for drug users over punishments. Monday’s announcement comes amid a spike in heroin use and deaths in the United States.

    The rise in heroin use has become a frequent topic in the 2016 presidential campaign. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton recently held a forum in New Hampshire on drug addiction, an issue she said voters have been frequently raising as she’s campaigned in the early voting state.

    The post White House launches initiative to combat heroin use appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Experts investigate at the Erawan shrine, the site of a deadly blast in central Bangkok. A bomb on a motorcycle exploded on Monday just outside a Hindu shrine in the Thai capital, killing several people, including foreign tourists, media reported. Photo by Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

    Experts investigate at the Erawan shrine, the site of a deadly blast in central Bangkok. A bomb on a motorcycle exploded on Monday just outside a Hindu shrine in the Thai capital, killing several people, including foreign tourists, media reported. Photo by Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

    A bomb exploded inside a popular Hindu shrine during the evening rush hour Monday in Bangkok killing at least 16 people and injuring more than 80 people, according to wire reports from the Thai capital.

    The Erawan shrine is a major tourist landmark. It is located at Rajprasong intersection, the center of many political demonstrations in recent years, according to the Associated Press.

    A second bomb was found at the scene but has been detonated, a spokesman for Thailand’s ruling junta said.

    “We still don’t know for sure who did this and why,” Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters. “We are not sure if it is politically motivated, but they aim to harm our economy and we will hunt them down.”

    Secretary of the National Security Council said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the former army chief, was closely monitoring the situation.

    The last major bombings in Bangkok occurred at the end of 2006 on New Year’s Eve, when a series of bombs at the celebrations around killed at least 3 people and wounded dozens. There was speculation that supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra carried out the attacks in revenge; however, the bombings were never resolved.

    The post Bomb blast at major Bangkok Intersection kills at least 16 appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Last winter Boston received record snowfall, this winter residents may be in for another one as The Old Farmer's Almanac has predicted another winter with freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

    Last winter Boston received record snowfall, this winter residents may be in for another one as The Old Farmer’s Almanac has predicted another winter with freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

    Don’t say we didn’t warn you. The 2016 Old Farmer’s Almanac forecasts an unusually harsh winter this year for most of the nation.

    The almanac, which is published annually and uses a secret forecasting formula it says is traditionally 80 percent accurate, has been in use since 1792 and remains one of the oldest and one of the most popular reference guides in the U.S.

    The 2016 almanac, out today, warns the U.S. should prepare for extremely cold temperatures and lots of snow this winter. It says the Northeast can expect below-normal temperatures, the South will have above-average snowfall, and the Midwest will have less snowfall, but temperatures will be below-normal. The Pacific Northwest will see their biggest snowfall in mid-December, early to mid-January and mid to late February.

    The secret forecasting formula, now locked in a black box in New Hampshire, was devised by the founder, Robert B. Thomas, who believed the weather was influenced by the magnetic storms on the surface of the sun, or sunspots.

    The formula has been updated over the years using new technologies and modern scientific calculations. Predictions employ the study of solar activity, prevailing weather patterns and the atmosphere. The almanac also looks at weather trends and events by comparing past weather conditions with current solar activity.

    Although originally created for recording and predicting astronomical events, today the Old Farmer’s Almanac does more than predict weather patterns. Readers can also learn about gardening, recipes, the best days to fish, among other helpful tips.

    For more details about this coming winter, check out the almanac’s long ranging predictions.

    The post Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts cold and snowy winter appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A night in a hospital isn't likely to be restful. But as hospitals chase better patient ratings and health outcomes, an increasing number are rethinking how they function at night so that more patients can sleep relatively uninterrupted. Photo by Getty Images

    A night in a hospital isn’t likely to be restful. But as hospitals chase better patient ratings and health outcomes, an increasing number are rethinking how they function at night so that more patients can sleep relatively uninterrupted. Photo by Getty Images

    It’s a common complaint — if you spend a night in the hospital, you probably won’t get much sleep.

    There’s the noise. There’s the bright fluorescent hallway light. And there’s the unending barrage of nighttime interruptions: vitals checks, medication administration, blood draws and the rest.

    Peter Ubel, a physician and a professor at Duke University’s business school, has studied the rational and irrational forces that affect health. But he was surprised when hospitalized at Duke in 2013 to get a small tumor removed at how difficult it was to sleep. “There was no coordination,” he said. “One person would be in charge of measuring my blood pressure. Another would come in when the alarm went off, and they never thought, ‘Gee if the alarm goes off, I should also do blood pressure.’”

    “From a patient perspective,” he added, “you’re sitting there going, ‘What the heck?’”

    As hospitals chase better patient ratings and health outcomes, an increasing number are rethinking how they function at night — in some cases reducing nighttime check-ins or trying to better coordinate medicines — so that more patients can sleep relatively uninterrupted.

    The American Hospital Association doesn’t formally track how many hospitals are reviewing their patient-sleep policies, though it’s aware a number are trying to do better, said Jennifer Schleman, an AHA spokeswoman.

    And, though few studies specifically link quality of shut-eye and patient outcomes, doctors interviewed said the connection is obvious: Patients need sleep. If they get more of it, they’re likely to recover faster.

    Traditionally, hospitals have scheduled a number of nighttime activities around health professionals’ needs — aligning them with shift changes, or updating patient’s vital signs so the information is available when doctors make early morning rounds. Both the sickest patients and those in less serious condition might get the same number of check-ins. In some cases, that can mean patients are being disturbed almost every hour, whether medically necessary or not.

    “The reality for many, many patients is they’re woken up multiple times for things that are not strictly medically necessary, or … multiple times for the convenience of staff,” said Susan Frampton, president of Planetree, a nonprofit organization that encourages health systems to consider patient needs when designing care.

    Changing that “seems like kind of easy, low-hanging fruit,” said Margaret Pisani, an associate professor at Yale School of Medicine. She is working with other staff at the Yale hospital to reduce unnecessary wake-ups, using strategies like letting nurses re-time when they give medicines to better match patient sleep schedules, changing when floors are washed or giving nurses checklists of things that can and should be taken care of before 11 p.m.

    Not only is the push for better patient sleep part of a larger drive to improve how hospitals take care of their patients, but it is fueled in part by measures in the 2010 health law tying some Medicare payments to patient approval scores. As more hospitals try to improve those numbers, experts said, more will likely home in on improving chances for a good night’s sleep.

    “There’s a movement toward patient-centered care, and this is definitely a part of it,” said Melissa Bartick, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

    That focus makes sense, since federal patient approval surveys specifically ask about nighttime noise levels. A number of hospitals initially struggled to get good scores on that, said Richard Evans, chief experience officer at Boston-based Massachusetts General Hospital.

    His hospital instituted quiet hours — a couple of hours in the afternoon and between six and eight hours at night, depending on the hospital unit, in which lights are turned low and staff encouraged to reduce their noise levels. It also encourages staff members to consider whether patients really need particular care at night before waking them. “We’re trying to [increase awareness] that patients need to rest, and we need to structure our care as much as possible to allow that to happen.”

    It’s hard to delineate the degree to which such efforts have affected patient approval scores, Evans said. Anecdotally, though, patients have expressed appreciation, he added.

    The Department of Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System is taking this concern even further. In addition to quiet-time restrictions, in which they try to reduce the use of noisy equipment, staff chatter and things like phone volume, patients can opt to have lavender oil sprayed in their rooms or an evening cup of herbal tea to facilitate sleep.

    All of these kinds of changes can help, said Planetree’s Frampton. But they don’t get at the real problem for most patients.

    “Low scores on quiet-at-night [questions on patient surveys] are not because it’s overly noisy … but because patients are woken up repeatedly,” she said. “Their sleep is disturbed so they’re lying awake.”

    To address that, hospitals may need to look at less obvious questions. At New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, doctors are rethinking when they prescribe medicines as well as what kind, said Rosanne Leipzig, a professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine and who practices at the hospital. For instance, some antibiotics can be given at six-hour intervals rather than four-hour intervals, reducing the need for nighttime interruptions. And some drugs usually given every six hours can instead be given four times a day during the hours patients are usually awake.

    The hospital is also working to develop a system to classify patients who need repeated checks from the medical staff, such as those who might face imminent health threats or are at risk for serious infections such as sepsis. For those patients frequently checking vitals is important, even if patients sleep less, Leipzig said. But not every patient’s condition requires that they be roused every four hours, she added.

    About half of all patients woken up for vitals checks probably don’t need to be, according to a 2013 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. The study suggests waking those patients may contribute to bad patient results and dissatisfaction, and could increase the odds of patients having to come back to the hospital.

    Another study, published in 2010 in the Journal of Hospital Medicine, looked at efforts to encourage patient sleep — particularly by rescheduling activities, nighttime checks and overnight medication doses so as not to wake patients. That paper, co-written by Bartick, the Harvard professor, found a 49 percent drop in the number of patients who were given sedatives. That can have the added benefit of improving patient outcomes, since sedatives are associated with dangerous side effects such as falling or hospital delirium or confusion.

    “Sleep disruptions are actually not benign as far as patients are concerned,” said Dana Edelson, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and an author on the 2013 study. “We’re putting them at unnecessary risk when we’re waking them up in the middle of the night when they don’t need to be.”

    And possibly making the recovery a bit more difficult.

    “Patients will tell you, ‘I was so exhausted, I couldn’t wait to get home and go sleep,’” said Yale’s Pisani.

    Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

    The post Why won’t hospitals let patients sleep? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Renminbi Photo by Thomas Ruecker/Getty Images

    Global stock markets have been on a roller coaster ride since Tuesday, when China’s central bank abruptly devalued the yuan. Photo by Thomas Ruecker/Getty Images

    What’s happening to China’s yuan?

    The yuan usually changes in value a fraction of a percentage point in a day. But on Tuesday, China’s central bank abruptly devalued the yuan by nearly 2 percent — the largest single-day drop since 1994. On Wednesday, China’s central bank devalued it by another 1.6 percent and on Thursday, 1.1 percent. Since Friday, when the yuan took a turn and appreciated .1 percent, the yuan has stabilized.

    Global stock markets have been on a roller coaster ride since Tuesday, as the world tries to understand what the currency move means.

    Why would China weaken its currency?

    First, a bit of background.

    China’s economy, the world’s second largest after the U.S., has been slowing down. For decades, the country had what many said was an unsustainable growth rate. In 2014, investments made up 48 percent of economic activity; in most countries that number is between 15 and 30 percent. Recently, there has been a slowdown in property investment, construction has lagged, and consumer spending is down. Then in June, China’s stock market crashed, and the government stepped in to reign in selling. In less than a month, shares fell by nearly a third.

    China’s growth rate has dropped to 7 percent, a high number almost anywhere in the world, but low in a country that averaged 10.6 percent growth in 2010… and some economists wonder if the real number is actually lower.

    Unlike most countries that allow the value of their currency to be determined in world markets, China’s government uses the U.S. dollar as a benchmark against which they manage their currency’s value — a policy dating back to the mid 90s. However, in the past two years, as the U.S. dollar appreciated in value, China’s economy slowed, making it increasingly difficult for the government to justify pegging the yuan to the dollar.

    The move to depreciate the yuan was twofold. First, with exports slumping, officials were under pressure to try to boost them. Chinese products are cheaper as a result of the depreciation, making it more appealing for other countries to import Chinese products.

    Second, China has been under a lot of pressure by the United States and the International Monetary Fund to allow their currency to be valued by the market. It’s part of broader financial market reforms by China to rebalance its growth and generate more consumption-driven growth. “Having China grow in a balanced and sustained manner is good for China and the world,” said Eswar Prasad, professor of trade policy at Cornell University and a former IMF official. And that’s in America’s interest: if China increases domestic consumption, they will import more from the U.S.

    Hold on, I don’t understand. Is China manipulating its currency, or is it allowing it to fall according to the market?

    “The 2 percent move was something that was orchestrated by the Chinese central bank,” said Prasad, referring to the Tuesday’s devaluation. “Then they allowed the market to decide from there. The depreciation was something that the market wanted.”

    A slowing economy would normally depreciate a country’s currency. The nearly 2 percent drop orchestrated by the People’s Bank of China jumpstarted a move in the direction the market had been trying to pull it. The central bank might allow the currency to depreciate further, but they have also said that they won’t allow it to go too much further. On Thursday, in an attempt to quell growing concerns, Chinese officials said that their currency is not in free fall and that the bank maintains the power and authority to intervene and stabilize the yuan if need be. On Friday, the People’s Bank of China appeared to do just that, stabilizing the yuan in order to quell concerns from global markets as well as to smooth things out in their own financial markets, said Prasad.

    In other words, the People’s Bank of China has adopted a “managed float” regime.

    OK, so how is this affecting the global economy?

    Well, China’s timing doesn’t exactly suit the rest of the world. Stock markets fell globally initially, rebounding a bit on Thursday and again on Friday following China’s assurance that the yuan isn’t in a free fall. Businesses that compete with China for exports or that have significant sales in China saw their share prices take a hit. Last week European stocks had their “worst week in six” but bounced back on Monday.

    “[China is] doing exactly what the U.S. wanted at a time that is convenient for them and not for the global economy,” Prasad said. And when you have an economy as big as China’s, it affects the rest of the world.

    “So you have the world’s second largest economy, which has been this big tailwind for global growth… suddenly sputtering,” Mike McDonough, chief global economist at Bloomberg Intelligence, told Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour Wednesday. “So this tailwind is becoming a headwind. That’s the real concern. It’s not the devaluation.”

    The devaluation signals that something is wrong, and that’s what sent stock markets on their roller coaster ride, Prasad said.

    First, by devaluing their currency, people thought “China was throwing in the towel.” That is, the Chinese central bank must know something that rest of the world does not — that the Chinese economy must be worse than we think.

    Second, countries fear a currency war. “There’s a lot of volatility in stock markets around the world, because they fear that other countries will depreciate their currency,” says Prasad. The cheaper a country’s currency, the more competitive its exports. With such a weakened yuan, China is a “fierce competitor” — more so than ever.

    It’s possible that countries will depreciate their own currencies in order to compete with China, but the likelihood of a currency war depends on whether or not the yuan continues to depreciate.

    Who’s taking the biggest hit?

    Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Korea, Thailand, and Malaysia are likely to be hardest hit. They export a lot to China, but with a weakened Chinese economy, there is less demand for their goods. Korea, Thailand and Malaysia are facing a double whammy in that they often compete with China to export cheap goods to the rest of the world.

    What does this all mean for U.S. markets?

    Caught off guard, stock markets opened lower on Tuesday and dropped even more Wednesday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping 277 points before heading back to its original standing. On Thursday, likely in response to China’s government saying they will not allow a free fall of the yuan, the market steadied. And since Friday, with the stabilization of the yuan, it appears that markets have gotten off the roller coaster ride — for now at least — and are returning their attention to other matters.

    Still, there are lingering concerns that the devaluation of the yuan could hurt the recovery for U.S. companies that export to China, because their products will be more expensive for Chinese consumers to buy. Additionally, exports from China are going to be cheaper for U.S. consumers, which is going to hurt U.S. manufacturers.

    Not only that, China has been the biggest driver of global growth since the Great Recession, so if China is slowing down, the world may be as well.

    That sounds scary! What does this mean for me?

    “At this stage it’s way too early to tell,” Prasad said, “Short term is a little dicey, long term looks a little better.”

    If a currency war does begin, it might not necessarily hurt U.S. consumers. If everyone depreciates the value of their currencies, the U.S. dollar will grow stronger. A stronger dollar means cheap imports, less expensive vacations abroad and lower interest rates. So even if the Fed raises interest rates in the fall, Prasad predicts that they will stay low in the long term, which would be good for mortgages and auto loans.

    “Cheap imports and low interest rates are going to be a big benefit to the average American household,” Prasad explained. “So the benefits are going to be widespread, but the pain is going to be very concentrated in some sectors that could face very significant job losses and loss of economic momentum.”

    The post Your guide to China’s devaluation of its currency appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    The six-year graduation rate for Pell grant recipients at UCLA is 88 percent. Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

    In a recent estimate of Pell grant recipients in the U.S., only 39 percent of the 1.7 million students in its sample earned a bachelor’s degree in six years. At UCLA, pictured, that rate is 88 percent. Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

    She was in the second semester of her freshman year at the University of California, Berkeley, when Monica Mata started to worry she might never make it to graduation.

    But Mata managed to overcome academic struggles and personal challenges to reach her junior year, and now she’s confident she’ll graduate, thanks in part to help from a federal Pell grant based on her family’s low income.

    If she does get to the finish line, she will avoid the fate of a huge proportion of her fellow recipients of federal Pell grants.

    graduation-gapA Hechinger Report analysis of Pell grant graduation rate data from a cross section of colleges and universities — which is not otherwise publicly reported anywhere — suggests that billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded Pell grants nationwide go to students who never earn degrees.

    And while some schools with large numbers of Pell recipients have strong graduation rates for those students, the ones receiving the biggest share of the money often do not.

    The government itself does not collect this data, meaning that, since 2000, taxpayers have spent $300 billion on Pell grants — the nation’s single most expensive education program, awarded based on family earnings to help low-income students get access to higher educations — with no way of knowing how many of the recipients ever actually earned degrees.

    In a quirk of federal policy, individual institutions do have to disclose the graduation rates of their students who receive Pell grants, when asked. And while some resisted doing so, or released them only in response to public-record requests, the Hechinger analysis of 30 of the largest private and 50 of the largest public universities — and tens of thousands of Pell grant students — shows that more than a third of Pell recipients at those schools hadn’t earned degrees even after six years.

    pell funding“We’re talking huge amounts of money and huge numbers of people,” said Richard Vedder, an economist and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

    Related: Americans making under $30,000 can already send their children to college for free

    Pell grants cost taxpayers $31.4 billion in fiscal year 2015, more than double what was spent on them in 2007. Since then, the maximum award has increased by more than $1,200 per student per year and the number of students applying for the grants is up by 7 million.

    The program has grown so fast that Republicans have proposed freezing the maximum annual Pell award at the current $5,775 for the next 10 years. The money given to the students first goes to the college to pay tuition and fees, and anything left over can be used for books and living expenses. Unlike loans, Pell grants do not have to be repaid, whether or not a student ever graduates.

    Most recipients of Pell grants come from families earning less than $40,000 a year.

    In January 2014, Congress gave the Department of Education 120 days to produce, for the first time, Pell grant graduation rates for every university and college in the country. The department finally released the months-overdue report in November, but did not break down the information by institution, citing problems with the data, and was only able to analyze 70 percent of Pell recipients. Only 39 percent of the 1.7 million students in its sample earned a bachelor’s degree in six years.

    Graduation data by school

    But every college should already know Pell grant graduation rates. The 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act requires them to tell prospective students the graduation rates of Pell recipients if asked, but does not require that they give those figures to the U.S. Department of Education. The federal education data system has no plans to collect the information from schools, and does not enforce the disclosure mandate.

    “I don’t think that anybody has checked on whether [the schools] are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. That’s partly why these policies don’t work,” said Andrew Kelly, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who coauthored a 2011 study that found just a quarter of a randomly selected group of 150 schools provided their Pell grant graduation rates when asked.

    When the Hechinger Report asked the nation’s 50 largest public and 50 largest private colleges and universities for the data, several private universities repeatedly ignored the requests; 30 ultimately responded. One, the University of Dayton refused to disclose the figure on the grounds that the request came from a media outlet and not a student.

    Several public universities required formal public-records requests; one, the University of Texas at Austin, charged $54 for the information. (Its six-year graduation rate for Pell recipients was 45.4 percent.)

    Related: The financial aid policy that shuts out millions of students

    Of those schools that did respond, the average six-year graduation rate for all students was 70 percent, higher than the national average of 59 percent. For Pell grant recipients, the graduation rate was 66 percent. The more Pell students an institution enrolls, these statistics show, the lower their likelihood of graduating.

    Of the six schools in our sample with more than half of the student body receiving Pell grants, the highest graduation rate for those students in six years was 57 percent, at Georgia State University. By contrast, of the eight schools where Pell students made up only 15 percent of the student body, the lowest graduation rate was 77 percent at the University of Maryland College Park.

    There are many reasons students who receive Pell grants never finish. At many universities and colleges, the money doesn’t cover the full cost of tuition, fees, and other expenses, and some students don’t have the resources to pay the rest. Others arrive from low-performing public high schools less well prepared than their higher-income classmates.

    Whatever the reason, there’s no central database to consult to know what taxpayers are getting for their $31.4 billion-a-year investment, or for Pell students and their parents to easily compare their likely success at one institution versus another.

    At 15 of the 80 colleges and universities studied by Hechinger, Pell recipients graduated at a higher rate than their classmates who did not receive Pell grants, though at only nine of those schools was the difference larger than 1 percentage point.

    At Lindenwood University, in Missouri, for instance, 60 percent of Pell Grant students graduated, compared to 45 percent of all students. At Utah’s Weber State University, the Pell graduation rate was 48 percent, five percentage points higher than for the total student body.

    But at a much higher number of schools, the graduation rate for students receiving Pell grants lagged far behind that for other students. At the University of Alabama, where 18 percent of students get Pell grants, just over half of the Pell recipients graduated in six years, compared to 67 percent of all students. Forty percent of Liberty University students get the federal grant, but only half of them graduate within six years, compared to 68 percent of all students at the Virginia-based school.

    The graduation rate alone isn’t enough to know how much federal Pell money is going to students who don’t earn degrees. Calculating that would require knowing the award amounts and how long a student was enrolled before dropping out.

    Related: Changing the incentives for colleges to enroll and graduate low-income students

    But it would be useful information to have, experts said, particularly for low-income students trying to pick a school where they would be most likely to succeed.

    “Right now, there’s not really a way for students to evaluate, ‘How does a student like me do at this institution?’” said Carrie Warick, director of partnerships and policy for the National College Access Network.

    She and many others said that if schools are following the disclosure rules required by the Higher Education Opportunity Act, it shouldn’t be difficult to incorporate that number into federal data reporting systems.

    “There’s a real concern in Congress about not increasing burden,” Warick said. “This shouldn’t create an additional burden. They’re already supposed to be tracking this information.”

    In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics, the branch of the Department of Education that collects and publishes data from colleges, did an internal review of Pell grant graduation rates by institution in 2006 that was not publicly distributed, according to Mark Schneider, who was the commissioner of NCES at the time.

    “I was just trying to do a proof of concept,” Schneider said. “I showed it could be done and it could have been done years ago.”

    Now a vice president at the American Institutes for Research, Schneider said he still believes that someday these numbers will be published and easily accessible. But while that may be good news for students, not everyone will be happy about it, he said.

    “I believe that one of the things that’s going to happen when we get Pell graduation rates,” he said, is that “we’re going to be really, really sorry we have them because they’re going to be so bad.”

    This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

    PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

    The post Billions in Pell Grants go to students who never graduate appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    An additional 220,000 potential victims had information stolen from an IRS website as part of a sophisticated scheme to use stolen identities to claim fraudulent tax refunds, the IRS said Monday. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    An additional 220,000 potential victims had information stolen from an IRS website, the agency said Monday. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    WASHINGTON — A computer breach at the IRS in which thieves stole tax information from thousands of taxpayers is much bigger than the agency originally disclosed.

    An additional 220,000 potential victims had information stolen from an IRS website as part of a sophisticated scheme to use stolen identities to claim fraudulent tax refunds, the IRS said Monday. The revelation more than doubles the total number of potential victims, to 334,000.

    The tax agency first disclosed the breach in May.

    The thieves accessed a system called “Get Transcript,” where taxpayers can get tax returns and other filings from previous years. In order to access the information, the thieves cleared a security screen that required knowledge about the taxpayer, including Social Security number, date of birth, tax filing status and street address, the IRS said.

    The personal information was presumably stolen from other sources. The IRS believes the thieves were accessing the IRS website to get even more information about the taxpayers, which could help them claim fraudulent tax refunds in the future.

    “As it did in May, the IRS is moving aggressively to protect taxpayers whose account information may have been accessed,” the IRS said in a statement. “The IRS will begin mailing letters in the next few days to about 220,000 taxpayers where there were instances of possible or potential access to ‘Get Transcript’ taxpayer account information.”

    In all, the thieves used personal information from about 610,000 taxpayers in an effort to access old tax returns. They were successful in getting information from about 334,000 taxpayers.

    The IRS said it is notifying all potential victims and offering free credit monitoring services. The IRS is also offering to enroll potential victims in a program that assigns them a special ID number that they must use to file their tax returns.

    The IRS believes the thieves started targeting the website in February. The website was shut down in May.

    On Monday, the IRS did not identify a potential source of the crime. But in May, officials said IRS investigators believe the identity thieves are part of a sophisticated criminal operation based in Russia.

    It wouldn’t be the first time the IRS has been targeted by identity thieves based overseas.

    In 2012, the IRS sent a total of 655 tax refunds to a single address in Lithuania, and 343 refunds went to a lone address in Shanghai, according to a report by the agency’s inspector general. The IRS has since added safeguards to prevent similar schemes, but the criminals are innovating as well.

    The IRS estimates it paid out $5.8 billion in fraudulent refunds to identity thieves in 2013.

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    Video produced by Anthony Amos. 

    For Camisha Jones, the managing director of Washington, D.C.-based poetry organization Split This Rock, poetry helped give voice to the experience of chronic illness.

    Jones first ventured into the spoken word community in 2010 at a writing workshop at Slam Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. That community helped her develop a poetic voice, and with its encouragement she began performing, she said.

    The poem “Ode to a Chronically Ill Body” developed slowly over time as Jones dealt with a difficult period of fibromyalgia. “The pain was invisible and so it felt like I was carrying this burden that no one really understood,” she wrote in an email to the NewsHour.

    Fibromyalgia, a musculoskeletal condition that has been called an “invisible disability,” causes chronic pain, fatigue and psychological distress; 5 million people in the U.S. live with the fibromyalgia and its origins are unknown. The majority of people with the condition are women, and adults who have it are 3.4 more likely to develop depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Jones’ experience with fibromyalgia made her question and rethink the ability of language to express pain. “Even when I told people I was hurting, words seemed so insufficient to explain how much pain I was pushing through each day. I felt isolated and frustrated by the lack of language for what I wanted to express,” she said.

    Finding that language is an important step in empowering poets who live with chronic illness, she said. “In a world that champions fast-paced productivity, people who live with chronic illness can feel stigmatized,” she said. “Poetry helps alleviate that stigma by providing a medium for people to speak out unashamed about chronic illness and for those who hear those poems to deepen their awareness.”

    Jones said that open mics, readings and calls for submissions on the body and chronic illness can help poets with disabilities speak out. More grants and funding opportunities for these poets would also help amplify their voices, she said.

    Ode to a Chronically Ill Body
    This bodyllllis one long moan

    My feetlllllllllllllllla landscape of mines
    My legslllllllllllllllltwo full pails of water I spill
    llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllat the weight of
    My backllllllllllllllwhere the sharpest knives are kept
    My handslllllllllllla scatter of matcheslllllready to spark into flame

    This bodylllllllis lightning
    lllllStrikes the same placellllllmore than twice

    This bodylllllllis a fistllllllllllllllllllllllllllpounding its own hand
    This bodylllllllcrumples like paper
    lllllllllllI crumplellllllike paperlllllllllllbecause of this body
    This bodyllllllljust wantslllllllland wantsllllllllland wants
    This body
    lllllllllllllSays stop
    lllSays go
    lllllllllllllSays stop
    lllSays run
    lllllllllllllSays stop
    lllllllllllllSays STOP
    This body islllllllla stubborn traffic lightlllllllllllstuck on red
    This body will
    lllllllllllllllhave what it wantslllllllOr it is
    lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllblasphemouslllllllltantrum down every grocery store aisle
    This bodyllllllllllllmakes an embarrassmentllllllof me
    This body is
    llllllan embarrassment
    llllllllllllllThen pleasurelllllllllllllllThen hunger
    lllllllllllllllllllllllllllThen defenderlllllllllllllThen defendant
    llllllllllllllThen carriage
    lllllllllllllllllllllllllllThen coffin
    This body isllllllllllTupperware with its secretsllllllllsealed tight
    This bodylllllllllllllscrapeslllllllllllllland falls
    Then gets back upllllllllagainlllllland again
    llllllllllllllllIt’s all I gotllllllto get back up withlllllllllagain
    This bodylllllllllis an oceanlllllllllof oil spillllllllllall over me.

    Camisha Jones is Managing Director at Split This Rock, a national non-profit focused on socially engaged poetry. A 2013 National Poetry Slam participant, her poems can be found or are forthcoming in “Rogue Agent,” “pluck!,” and “The Quarry,” Split This Rock’s poetry database. She is also published in “Let’s Get Real: What People of Color Can’t Say and Whites Won’t Ask about Racism” and “Class Lives: Stories from Across Our Economic Divide.”

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    Protesters hold up signs on top of a closed business in Ferguson, Missouri on August 10, 2015. Photo by Rick Wilking / Reuters

    Protesters hold up signs on top of a closed business in Ferguson, Missouri on August 10, 2015. Photo by Rick Wilking / Reuters

    hutchins2Editor’s note: The PBS NewsHour will livestream Thursday’s 2015 Hutchins Forum, “Black Millennials: They rock, but can they rule?”

    Watch the live forum here Thursday, August 20 at 5 p.m.

    Since arriving on this land nearly 400 years ago, black people and our African ancestors have never realized true equality. Through centuries and generations — even as singular individuals achieved admiration, adulation and even acceptance — black people have been treated through various systems as less than equal by the white power structure.

    Those blacks who have been able to beat the odds are seen as exceptions, even as others in the community are continually denigrated. The evolution from being property to citizens with equal opportunity and full protections has not completed its cycle. There are disparities that still exist in all facets of life for blacks — from education to the criminal justice system, housing to unemployment and many other issues in between.

    “In 30 years, people of color will be the majority. But what does that mean, specifically for the black community?”

    In 30 years, people of color will be the majority. But what does that mean, specifically for the black community? The power structure is still generally controlled by white men, and the hurdles that have been placed in the way of opportunity for people of color broadly, and blacks specifically, have created an advantage for those in power that they will not relinquish easily. Racism and prejudice still pervade our lives; laws are created regularly in states across the country that make it harder for people to ascend to power roles or eschew their current oppressive situations.

    These are challenges that must be met with concrete solutions. While hope for a better future abounds, the wheels of progress at times turn slowly. The expectation that racial or economic parity will be achieved in that time span would be a hope far beyond reaching.

    However, there are things that are within reach. Criminal justice reform is receiving bipartisan attention even as the number of casualties grows. But with real commitment to address this one facet of inequality, other areas are likely to be positively impacted as well.

    In the age of the first black president, we know that political power can create change. Even in the absence of a fully-functioning Voting Rights Act, we have to realize that our power to shift the status quo lies not only in the streets, but in every place where that status quo is exclusionary, by deliberate design or disparate impact. We must continue to confront these issues and not rely solely on our increase in the population, but rather, our ability to change policies and gain power.

    The post The 400 year struggle for black equality doesn’t end with #blacklivesmatter appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar (center) shakes hand with South Sudan's President Salva Kiir (black hat) during a peace signing attended by leaders from the region in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa on Aug. 17. Kiir failed to sign the peace deal, saying he required more time to review it. Photo by Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

    South Sudan’s rebel leader Riek Machar (center) shakes hand with South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir (black hat) during a peace signing attended by leaders from the region in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa on Aug. 17. Kiir failed to sign the peace deal, saying he required more time to review it. Photo by Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

    South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir postponed signing a comprehensive peace agreement meant to quell more than a year and a half of fighting on Monday, leaving in limbo regional efforts to end the deadly conflict.

    A power struggle between Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar erupted in violence in December 2013, when Kiir accused Machar of an attempted coup.

    Civilians were caught up in clashes between the dueling armed groups. More than 10,000 people have been killed so far and at least 1.4 million people displaced, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

    The two leaders have repeatedly signed cease-fires, but the violence has continued.

    The East African coalition leading peace efforts between South Sudan’s warring leaders — called the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD — gave the two leaders an Aug. 17 deadline to sign an accord.

    IGAD’s peace plan is the most comprehensive one yet, and Kiir said Monday he needs 15 more days to review it and come back with changes.

    He objects to the power-sharing arrangement, which would give Kiir more power at the national level but Machar more control over oil-producing states, said Ambassador Princeton Lyman, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa and a former State Department official who is now with the U.S. Institute of Peace.

    “That’s the kind of arrangement if you had an understanding about peace and each side didn’t have an army, it would make sense. But until you don’t have two armies fighting each other, that kind of division of power is probably unacceptable,” he said.

    The plan also requires setting up commissions, passing legislation, setting up donor funding and integrating the military — all on “extremely tight timelines,” said Lyman. “It’s not very realistic from that point of view. But most of all, it rests on the president being Kiir and the vice president being Machar, jointly making all these decisions.”

    The agreement lacks any international oversight or direct responsibility of the parties to move the process forward, he said. And now that Kiir has delayed signing the plan, the Obama administration must decide if it will move to sanctions or other forms of pressure — something President Barack Obama reportedly raised during a trip to Africa last month, Lyman said.

    Meanwhile, some South Sudanese activists, who have long discounted Kiir and Machar’s ability to ever reach an agreement, said the solution needs to come from within.

    “Even in a best-case scenario, peace will never come from Addis Ababa,” said David Deng, research director of the South Sudan Law Society, a civil society organization. “The most that these few leaders can do is agree to stop fighting long enough for South Sudanese to sit down — in South Sudan — and figure out how to live together without killing one another. Until there’s an appetite and demand for peace from the people, the conflict will continue.”

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    Georgia State University opened a Scholarship Resource Center in 2011 to help students looking for  financial assistance. Photo courtesy of Georgia State University.

    Georgia State University opened a Scholarship Resource Center in 2011 to help students looking for financial assistance. Photo courtesy of Georgia State University.

    At the start of each semester, the financial aid money appeared in Sana Ahmed Malik’s account. The federal and state funds typically covered the cost of tuition, with a little left over for books and living expenses. But the fall of her fourth year at Georgia State University, something wasn’t right.

    “I kept refreshing my account over and over because I was thinking ‘when is my refund going to show up?’”

    When her account did update, instead of a surplus, Malik had an outstanding balance.

    Adding a second major in management to her original marketing major had stretched Malik’s college career past the 127-credit-hour limit on the Georgia HOPE scholarship that had, until then, covered more than 80 percent of her tuition.

    “That’s when I completely freaked out, because I didn’t know what to do,” she said. Malik had always worked while in school to pay rent. It simply wasn’t enough to cover tuition.

    graduation-gapHer remaining tuition was paid with a federal Pell Grant, which go to students from households with high financial need. More than 75 percent of the grants do to students whose families earn less than $40,000 a year. Malik had nowhere to turn to cover the shortfall.

    Some semesters, nearly 1,000 Georgia State students like Malik — students in good academic standing and on track to graduate — faced this same problem: an outstanding tuition balance, usually less than $1,500 but too expensive for these students to cover, according to Timothy Renick, vice president of student success and enrollment management at Georgia State University.

    “The state of Georgia has fairly harsh rules about how we treat students who haven’t paid full tuition and fees,” he said. “The attorney general says if they haven’t paid full tuition and fees, we have to drop them from their courses.”

    And that’s exactly what happened to most of those students on the first Friday of classes each semester. Until 2011. That’s when the university’s president, Mark Becker, and his wife made a $40,000 donation for scholarships. The Beckers didn’t want the money to flow into an existing program; they wanted it to be used for something different.

    It became the seed funding for Georgia State’s Panther Retention Grants, which Malik learned about when she went to the Scholarship Resource Center on campus hoping to find a solution to her sudden tuition problem.

    Their tracking and intensive academic advising of students meant university staff knew exactly what to do with that the Beckers’ donation.

    “These students are academically eligible and ready to go,” said Allison Calhoun-Brown, assistant vice president for student retention at Georgia State. “They have the classes that they need, they’ve been advised and have everything it takes to be ready to move forward. Except they have a small gap in ability to pay, and so they’re basically out. Having full knowledge of that, we knew that small grants could make a huge difference.”

    In fall 2011, advisors began making phone calls to the students being dropped for nonpayment. They started with students closest to graduation and those with the smallest unpaid tuition balances. They verified that these students met the criteria of unmet financial need (a federally-defined term). And they told them to keep showing up for class; their remaining tuition bill would be paid off. The calls continued until the money ran out.

    “Students hung up on us,” Calhoun-Brown said. “They didn’t believe we were calling from the university, and we were here to help.”

    If Malik hadn’t gone looking on her own for a solution in the scholarship center, she would likely have received such a phone call last fall.

    “It’s a tremendous burden when you have to worry about how you’re going to pay for school, when we’re already worried about graduating, doing well in classes, and what we’re going to do after — getting a job or going to grad school,” she said.

    Instead of dropping as many as 1,000 students from classes each semester, Renick reports the number is now closer to 300 or 400. Since 2012, Georgia State has awarded 4,287 retention grants with an average award amount of $900, Renick said. More than 60 percent of recipients who were seniors have graduated within a year, and more than 75 percent of other recipients were still enrolled at Georgia State a year later.

    The school has been lauded in recent years for using data to boost retention and graduation rates. Between 2011 and 2013, the overall graduation rate rose to 53 percent from 47 percent. More than half of students come from households with incomes low enough that they qualify for Pell Grants, and nearly half are African-American or Latino. While these groups are less likely to graduate than their white and affluent peers on most campuses, at Georgia State that’s no longer the case.

    A centralized data system is what makes the retention grants possible.

    “If you’re dropping a student on a Friday, you can’t tell them two weeks later that you have a grant for that. You have to be nimble and get the information to students immediately,” Renick said. “In the past it would have taken staff trying to correlate and work things out, it wouldn’t have worked for students trying to get back into classes and keep up with the work.”

    That’s part of what makes the Panther Retention Grants an important potential model for schools that are trying to keep lower-income, first-generation students on track to complete their degree, according to Sarah Bauder, a senior program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation focused on higher education.

    “There’s an upward trend of looking at student data,” she said. “But the culture of higher education is still very siloed. The bursar’s office — which is very black or white, you pay the bill or you don’t — doesn’t talk to the financial aid office, which may have extra money, and that office isn’t talking to registrar’s office, so they wouldn’t know if the student dropped a class.”

    Plenty of other colleges and universities offer small grants to students with an unexpected financial shortfall. But at most of those schools, students have to know the grants are available and apply for them.

    At Georgia State, “students don’t have to self-select, they don’t have to identify an emergency,” Bauder said.

    The program is paying off for the school, too. A student could be dropped for failing to pay $400, but their account total might be as high as $12,000, Calhoun-Brown said. Once they’re dropped from classes, Georgia State loses the $11,600 the student already paid.

    That’s why the university contributes general fund money to the program now. The rest comes from donors, who Renick said like to know relatively small contributions can make a meaningful difference.

    The retention grants do come with a few strings attached. Students have to meet with an academic advisor to make sure they’re on the shortest path to their degree, and they’re required to complete online financial literacy training.

    “They make sure they have a plan to cover any other shortfalls,” Calhoun-Brown said. “That really helps because we’re not just giving them the money and saying hopefully this won’t happen the next time — that’s wishing on magic.”

    That training has changed the way Ahmed handles her finances.

    “Ever since my fiasco, I’ve been very careful in terms of examining my financial situation and examining my student accounts. I know a lot of students don’t do that — especially in my scenario when you think everything’s funded,” she said. “I’m a lot more financially literate now.

    PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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    Lenny Robinson in the Batmobile at the annual Hope for Henry Superhero Celebration for kids at Children's National Medical Center (Children's Hospital) in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Hope for Henry

    Lenny Robinson drives his “Batmobile” at the annual Hope for Henry Superhero Celebration for kids at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. in 2012. Photo courtesy of Hope for Henry

    Lenny Robinson, known for dressing up as Batman to cheer up sick children, died Sunday after being struck by a car on Interstate 70. He was 51.

    Robinson, who lived near Baltimore, was able to cash in on his a successful cleaning business. With time and money at his disposal, he decided to dedicate his time and money toward helping children with severe illnesses.

    Lenny Robinson with a patient at the annual Hope for Henry Superhero Celebration for kids at Children's National Medical Center (Children's Hospital) in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Hope for Henry

    Lenny Robinson with a patient at the annual Hope for Henry Superhero Celebration in 2012. Photo courtesy of Hope for Henry

    In order to achieve this, Robinson spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a custom-made “batsuit,” and on altering his Lamborghini to look like the Batmobile. He would then take both to hospitals, visiting children as the caped super hero. Laurie Strongin, executive director of the non-profit organization Hope for Henry, which Robinson frequently worked with, said that’s just how he was.

    “He was one of those special people who wanted to leave the world a better place than he found it, and this was the way that he decided to do that,” Strongin said. “The kids would see him and see his car, and all of a sudden it was like they weren’t sick and they weren’t in the hospital, they were in the presence of a hero.”

    Robinson gained notoriety in 2012, when police pulled him over because of a problem with his license plates. At the time, Robinson was in full costume and driving his Batmobile, en route to entertain some children. Video of his encounter with police went viral, and even made it onto “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

    There should be an embedded item here. Please visit the original post to view it.

    Robinson was killed Sunday after pulling over to the side of the highway near Hagerstown, Maryland, following car trouble. He was checking his engine when the Lamborghini was struck by another vehicle. The Lamborghini then hit Robinson, who was pronounced dead at the scene.

    Robinson’s story has been gaining popularity on social media. In one post on Facebook, Daniel Katz, a a professor of Education at Seton Hall University shared this remembrance: “[I]n an age when a lot of rich people indulge themselves in ways that harm a lot of people, what a wonder it is to find someone very wealthy, eccentric as hell, but in a way that made the world just a bit better.”

    Strongin says her organization has been receiving condolences since his death.

    “I’ve been getting e-mails and calls and texts and people crying all day long,” Strongin said. “Everyone is devastated. Whoever had the opportunity to meet him or know about his work knows that they lost a hero today, there’s nobody else like him.”

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    More than 40 members of the 300 Men March — a Baltimore-based grass roots group that’s trying to bring attention to the violence in “Charm City” — completed a 35-mile overnight walk to Washington, D.C. It was their longest journey yet.

    The men began their on-foot excursion Sunday night, and didn’t stop until they reached the National Mall this afternoon.

    The group was founded two years ago, before riots and protests erupted in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray. On Friday nights, they canvass high-crime areas to recruit Baltimore youth and spread their anti-violence message.

    This July, Baltimore saw a total of 45 homicides, making it the deadliest month since August 1972. In May, 300 Men March founder Munir Bahar talked to PBS NewsHour about the organization’s mission to promote and instill peace across the city.

    “We got to stop killing each other,” Bahar told Hari Sreenivasan.

    Watch our full report from May on the 300 Men March.

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    In a week that marked the one-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown, a Twitter handle emerged to commemorate another painful moment in America’s history, the Watts Riots.

    On Aug. 11, 1965, the arrest a 21-year-old black motorist by a white California Highway Patrolman sparked an uprising that left 34 people dead and 1,000 injured. Six days later, on Aug. 17, the riots ended. The twitter account @wattsriots50 has been tweeting the events that occurred during that deadly week in South Los Angeles in real time, just fast forwarded 50 years.

    The account has been chronicling key moments by the hour that led to the massive casualties and 4,000 arrested over 6 days.

    The project was created by California Endowment’s Sons and Brothers in partnership with Community Coalition of South LA to provide context to the 1965 event through a medium that is accessible to everyone, especially younger people. Historical accounts by elders, photographs, newspapers and footage was provided by the Watts Library to accurately and realistically depict the events.

    The anniversary also happens to coincide with the one year anniversary of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, inviting a comparison between the events.

    “We know the past is connected and the same questions asked 50 years ago are coming up today,” Evangeline Reyes, program officer with the California Endowment said. “In South LA, people of color are marked as threats, interactions with police can be frequent and dangerous.”

    The @wattsriots50 tweets nearly resemble the real time tweets that came out of twitter accounts associated with Ferguson and Baltimore.

    It was the arrest of black motorist Marquette Freye on suspicion of drunk driving by officer Lee W. Minikus that sparked the uprising that led to the riots. Some of the tweets from the account describing these events are included below:

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    Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy announces steps under the Clean Air Act to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants during a news conference in Washington June 2, 2014. The U.S. power sector must cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, according to federal regulations unveiled on Monday that form the centerpiece of the Obama administration's climate change strategy. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts    (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ENERGY ENVIRONMENT) - RTR3RVE6

    Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy announced steps under the Clean Air Act to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants during a news conference in Washington on June 2, 2014. The administration today announced a plan to cut methane emissions from U.S. oil and gas production by half over the next 10 years. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Tuesday proposed cutting methane emissions from U.S. oil and gas production by nearly half over the next decade, part of on ongoing push by President Barack Obama to curb climate change.

    The administration’s target is to cut methane from oil and gas drilling by 40 to 45 percent by 2025, compared to 2012 levels. The move was not unexpected; officials had set the same goal in a preliminary blueprint in January. Still, by moving forward with the official proposal, Obama is adding to a list of energy regulations that have drawn applause from environmentalists and ire from energy advocates.

    To help meet the goal, the administration issued a rule cutting emissions from new and modified oil and natural gas wells, along with updated standards for drilling to reduce leakage from wells on public lands.

    The rule would require energy producers to find and repair leaks at oil and gas wells and capture gas that escapes from wells that use a common drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

    Officials estimate the rule would cost industry from $320 million to $420 million in 2025, with reduced health care costs and other benefits totaling about $460 million to $550 million.

    “Today, through our cost-effective proposed standards, we are underscoring our commitment to reducing the pollution fueling climate change and protecting public health while supporting responsible energy development, transparency and accountability,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement.

    The administration is expected to finalize the rules next year shortly before Obama leaves office.

    Methane, the key component of natural gas, tends to leak during oil and gas production. Although it makes up just a sliver of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, it is far more powerful than the more prevalent gas carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. That makes methane a top target for environmentalists concerned about global warming.

    With his presidency drawing to a close, Obama has been in a rush to propose and then finalize sweeping regulations targeting greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

    The methane rule follows a landmark regulation Obama finalized earlier this month to cut carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants by 32 percent. The plan, the centerpiece of Obama’s climate change strategy, drew immediate legal challenges from power companies and Republican-led states.

    Obama also has proposed regulations targeting carbon pollution from airplanes and set new standards to improve fuel efficiency and reduce carbon dioxide pollution from trucks and vans.

    In total, Obama has set a goal to cut overall U.S. emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent over the next decade, as he seeks to leave a legacy of using the full range of his executive power to fight climate change and encourage other countries to do the same.

    Katie Brown, a spokeswoman for Energy In Depth, an oil industry group, said methane emissions from fracking are already declining because of improved drilling techniques.

    “Cheap natural gas has delivered substantial climate benefits that came largely from voluntary reductions by industry and technological innovation,” she said. “Federal regulations, especially if crafted poorly, could inflict more pain on the men and women who work in the oil and gas industry.”

    The administration said the rule would apply only to emissions from new or modified natural gas wells, meaning thousands of existing wells won’t have to comply.

    Environmentalists say that the ambitious goals announced under the proposed rule would be difficult to meet without targeting existing wells.

    David Doniger, climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, called the new rule “a good start.” But Doniger said, “EPA needs to follow up by setting methane leakage standards for existing oil and gas operations nationwide.”

    Janet McCabe, acting assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation, told reporters that the new rule could reduce emissions by as much as 25 to 30 percent by 2025. She did not specify how the remainder of the 45-percent goal would be met, but experts said the administration would likely rely on voluntary efforts, state regulations and an Interior Department rule covering drilling on public lands to meet that target.

    The methane rule comes one day after Obama approved a final permit allowing Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean off the Alaska coast. Environmental groups have criticized the move, saying the permit clashes with the message Obama will deliver when he visits Alaska this month to emphasize the dangers of climate change.

    The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that U.S. Arctic waters hold 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Shell is eager to explore in a basin that company officials say could be a “game changer” for domestic production.

    Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday opposed Obama’s decision to allow drilling in the Arctic Ocean, writing in a Twitter post that “The Arctic is a unique treasure. Given what we know, it’s not worth the risk” of a major spill to allow drilling.

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    Photographer Dominic Phillips leads a virtual tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawaii. Screen grab from Google+

    Photographer Dominic Phillips leads a virtual tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawaii. Screen grab from Google+

    For the sick or disabled, the world outside can feel out of reach. For millions of Americans who are bound to their homes, the idea of strolling along the Seine in Paris or hiking the rim of a Hawaiian volcano is a dream.

    But a Canadian photographer thinks he can deliver “virtual tours” that are about as close to the real thing as you can get. John Butterill’s non-profit Virtual Photo Walks works by connecting disabled viewers with a network of photographers.

    Butterill came up with the idea one winter day when he was out exploring near his home in Kawartha Lakes, Ontario. “My hands were getting cold and I couldn’t carry my phone and camera at same time.” So, he slid his phone in the camera’s hot shoe and mounted it on top. At that moment, he realized the possibilities. “People could see through the phone what I could see through the viewfinder and that’s how it came about.”

    Canadian photographer John Butterill delivers “virtual tours” for his non-profit Virtual Photo Walks, which works by connecting disabled viewers with a network of photographers. Photo by Google video

    Canadian photographer John Butterill delivers “virtual tours” for his non-profit Virtual Photo Walks, which works by connecting disabled viewers with a network of photographers. Screen grab from Google

    The next day, he invited 8-year old Domenic Garufi, a friend’s son who was in the hospital battling Crohns colitis disease, on a “photo walk.” Domenic’s father, Frank Garufi, wrote in a blog post that it was the perfect distraction from painful infusion treatments. “For the hour that John braved the harsh weather conditions … my son didn’t have to worry about blood pressure cuffs squeezing his arm too tight, the uncomfortableness of having tubes stuck through his arm, the drip rate of the medicine “burning” him.”

    The viewers are connected to the photographers using Google+ or Zoom video conferencing tools. The photographers take direction from the participants who ask them to snap photos of their choosing.

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    Even with the wide availability of live streaming apps like Twitter’s Periscope, Butterill says Virtual Photo Walks creates a unique community for people who share something unusual — a sense of isolation. “The seniors and the long term disabled are a kind of like a forgotten element of our society.”

    I first learned about Virtual Photo Walks when I was working on a story, airing on the NewsHour tonight, about a palliative care doctor in rural northern California who uses video conferencing technology to help seriously ill patients remain in their homes. The doctor, Michael Fratkin, saw an opportunity to connect his patients with Butterill’s photographers and had just announced a partnership between his organization Resolution Care and Virtual Photo Walks.

    “As we face disability or even the approach of our death, many people experience a new way of seeing,” Fratkin said.

    Butterill is now working with Fratkin’s patients to create “virtual bucket lists.” “We ask them where they want to go and what they would like to see and we’ll take them there,” Butterill said.

    Forty-four-year-old Rich Schlesiger, a former Humboldt County, California, sheriff’s deputy whom we feature in our NewsHour broadcast story, always wanted to go to the pit of a car race track. Now with brain cancer, he stays close to home with his wife and three children. So, Butterill, with some help from Verizon, arranged a virtual visit to an IndyCar race in Milwaukee with race car drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves.

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    Jamie Todd of Floral City, Florida, also an IndyRace fan, tries to catch as many photo walks as he can. Todd has congenital rubella syndrome which causes him extreme pain, exhaustion and other debilitating ailments. “It’s nice for us disabled people to connect with each other and see something we don’t usually get to see. It helps us get our minds off our current situations.”

    The experience is equally gratifying for landscape and fine art photographer Karen Hutton. “I’ve been blessed to see, photograph and experience some of the most awe-inspiring places. Sure, I can share them with the world through my word … but getting to actually bring people with me who may never get to see these places in person? That’s what makes me happiest,” she said. “There is nothing like getting to share the real-time (gasp) of Paris, the jewel of Lake Tahoe or the ancient ruins of Hovenweep with the folks who come with me in Virtual Photo Walks. We talk, we laugh … and share incredibly special moments that simply wouldn’t happen any other way.”

    Landscape and fine art photographer Karen Hutton's view of Notre Dame in Paris. Photo courtesy of Karen Hutton

    Photographer Karen Hutton’s view of Notre Dame in Paris. Photo courtesy of Karen Hutton

    Tonight, watch PBS NewsHour’s report on how telemedicine tools can serve critically ill patients in rural communities.

    You can participate in a live virtual walk at 1 p.m. EDT Wednesday at Honokohau Harbor Hawaii with photographer Dominic Phillips. Viewers can join by signing up on the Virtual Photo Walks website.

    The post Giving the disabled and homebound a chance to ‘hike’ a volcano appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Video shot and produced by Jordan Vesey and Matt Ehrichs.

    “This is where it all happens,” says Chicava HoneyChild as she opens the door of her dressing room and ushers us inside. She removes her floor length fur coat and hangs it on a wire rack filled with costumes.

    It’s three hours before showtime, and performers apply makeup and fake eyelashes along a wall of mirrors bordered by exposed frosted bulbs. In one corner is an oversized bouquet of fake yellow flowers and a worn upright piano. Splayed out on two couches are parts of an elaborate glittering headdress, two silk fans, and a six-foot-tall sunflower prop.

    Suddenly, the performers start to disrobe, changing into costume. My colleague blushes and asks if he should give them some privacy.

    “You do know you’re here to film burlesque right? This is kind of what we do,” one woman jokes, snapping her rhinestone bra into place.

    This is Brown Girls Burlesque, a New York based burlesque company for women of color with a mission to “entertain, educate, titillate and liberate.”

    Chicava HoneyChild performing at the Howard Theater, Washington D.C.  Courtesy of Sunday Soiree Burlesque  photography, Devon Roland

    Chicava HoneyChild performing at the Howard Theater, Washington D.C. Courtesy Sunday Soiree Burlesque photography, Devon Roland

    “Hot-cha girls.” “Strip tease darlings.” “Exotic dancers.” These are just some of the words producers have used to bill burlesque performers over the years. Decked in sequins, glitter, and six-foot ostrich feathers, the glamorous vixens of the vintage nightclub know how to captivate our attention. Burlesque dates back to the mid 19th century, but it experienced a decline in the 1970s and 80s. In the past 20 years, the so-called “neo-burlesque” movement has seen a resurgence in popularity. Neo burlesque companies are often run by women, for women, and frequently incorporate contemporary attitudes about feminism and sexuality into their acts. The artform has cultivated a devout following in cities across America.

    While some have dismissed burlesque as little more than glorified stripping, defenders of neo-burlesque say it is about reclaiming society’s objectification of women. It’s not what you’d see at a stripclub — dancers remove clothes, but never get completely naked. They use costumes, music and parody to tell stories. Some shows are intellectual, some are political, and some are pure comedy.

    Recently, neo-burlesque companies have emerged, devoted specifically to showcasing performers of color. Chicava HoneyChild is the proprietress and creative producer of one such company: Brown Girls Burlesque in New York City, which was founded in 2007.

    This modern practice of burlesque stands in stark contrast to burlesque in the early part of the 20th century. During the Victorian era, burlesque appeared in the third act of a musical variety performance, featured alongside minstrel shows and vaudeville comedy routines. Performers would usually use farce to satirize common political beliefs or literary works. The term burlesque comes from the Italian word burla, referring in theater to a practical joke or comedic interlude in commedia dell’arte performances. It was a highly profitable form of highbrow theatrical entertainment.

    Since the mid 19th century, African-American performers have been part of the vaudeville, minstrel and burlesque traditions in America. Yet these forms of entertainment often parodied and trivialized the African-American experience for cheap laughs. In the 1920s, “Black and White” burlesque revues became popular, with one act featuring white performers and the other act black performers. Performances were as segregated as America was at the time.

    Black and White Revue poster courtesy  of BurlyQNell - Janelle Smith collection.

    Black and White Revue poster. Photo courtesy of BurlyQNell the Janelle Smith collection

    A cast photo of a 1920 mixed race show called "Folly Town" in New York.  Photo courtesy of BurlyQNell the Janelle Smith collection.

    A cast photo of a 1920 mixed race show called “Folly Town” in New York. Photo courtesy of BurlyQNell the Janelle Smith collection

    As audiences integrated, white troupes began to hire one or two performers of color that they could bill as “featured attractions.” However, these burlesque dancers were publicized as “exotics” with producers using descriptors like “jungle fever” or “voodoo mistress” on posters and playbills. Frequently, women of color were only booked if they performed acts which reinforced racist stereotypes.

    Jean Idelle, one of the first African American women to perform in an all white burlesque troupe, poses for the camera.

    Jean Idelle, one of the first African-American women to perform in an all-white burlesque troupe, poses for the camera.

    Given this historical context, the inclusion and celebration of performers of color within the current neo-burlesque landscape remains contentious. Brown Girls Burlesque was established in part due to the lack of diversity in the burlesque scene.

    What once was a form of seedy entertainment is now, supporters say, being transformed into performance art. For many burlesque dancers of color, the striptease has been reclaimed as a declaration of independent womanhood, body positivity, and self-love. Many performances are intended to create discourse about serious topics like race, sexual identity, and gender through the naked female form, performers say.

    “For black women–sexualized or other–to intellectually take to the stage and own yourself, that is very revolutionary,” HoneyChild said. “The African-American woman’s experience in America is very much one of sexual dominance or of being dominated. And so to perform and take that back and have that expression is a political act.”

    One of HoneyChild’s favorite pieces to perform is called “Jezebel.” The dance tackles the practice of placage, a recognized system in 18th century Louisiana, in which French and Spanish men entered into common-law marriages with women of African and Indian descent, known as placeés. Under legal contract, white men would pay for the education and living costs of any offspring conceived by the union. These unions, also called “left hand marriages,” led to the creation of a prominent middle class of free people of color in Louisiana.

    In her performance, HoneyChild plays Jezebel, a creole placeé getting ready for a night with her white suitor. A maid waits on her, indicating the middle class stature that placeés enjoyed during the antebellum period. HoneyChild’s performance juxtaposes Jezebel’s social and economic freedom with her role as a concubine considered inferior to white women. The performance is meant to show how the economic stability and freedom of these women of color was frequently tied to their sexual commodification. As such, the striptease is a profoundly bittersweet testament to the endurance of survival.

    Other Brown Girls Burlesque performers have taken on more contemporary political issues. The Japanese-Jewish performer ExHOTic Other explored the immigrant experience in a showcase entitled “Culture Classics.” She performs a striptease to “God Bless America” until she is wearing nothing but a sign hanging from her neck that says “A Brown Body.” She yanks at the sign, pulling it off to reveal another that says “The Enemy.” Her demeanor changes from triumphant to sad to angry as she pulls off sign after sign, each more insulting than the next. Suddenly she frantically looks for her clothes, covering her body with her hands. She then climbs into an orange jumpsuit and tries to lift the U.S. flag above her head, struggling as if it were a heavy weight. She finishes the act by tangling herself in the flag until it chokes her and she falls to the ground, dead, as the national anthem swells.

    “Sometimes when things are very painful, like the legacy of slavery in America, the only way to work through them is to laugh at them. To turn them into something not so intimidating and painful,” said Dainty Dandridge, one of the founders and performers of Chocolate City Burlesque and Cabaret, an all-black burlesque troupe founded in November 2014 in Washington, D.C. “Burlesque felt like a way for me to take that and own it and break it apart.”

    Dainty Dandridge performs in Washington D.C.  photo courtesy Emily Cohen photography

    Dainty Dandridge performs in Washington D.C. Photo courtesy of Emily Cohen Photography

    Che Monique, a co-founder of the troupe and one of its performers, said she often goes to burlesque performances where she doesn’t relate to the humor or music. Brown Girls Burlesque was different.

    “I went to one or two Brown Girls Burlesque shows, and they were legitimately life-altering,” she says. “Black people don’t even know that burlesque could be for them. It has to speak to you and include you potentially before you can even go out and be a part of it.”

    Both Chocolate City and Brown Girls Burlesque were originally founded as a response to the lack of opportunities for women of color to perform within neo-burlesque communities.

    Monique said she was drawn to create a burlesque community specifically produced by and for women of color.

    “It is challenging with burlesque, because burlesque is all about fantasies, right?” she said. “But most of the tropes we have about fantasies are absolutely racist. Like any ‘Arabian Nights’ fantasy, or any harem fantasy, any geisha fantasy. Maybe they are not racist inherently, but they are definitely racially and culturally charged.”

    As the neo-burlesque movement continues to grow, many hope that performances will inspire more performers of color to join. But there is still a need for comfortable spaces for performers of color to practice their art, Dandridge said. Mainstream neo-burlesque remains predominantly a white middle class phenomenon.

    Back at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, the audience is whistling and clapping. Two couples on a double date inch closer together in their red velvet booth. A group of women in the front row can’t stop laughing as the dancer on stage throws her clothes at them. Now she is kneeling on the floor, bending backward, shimmying with her whole body. Four burlesque performers who have already completed their acts are dancing semi-clothed in the aisles of the theater.

    “I don’t want to see any of you in your seats. Get up and dance!” HoneyChild says over the mic.

    Everyone at the first row of tables in the pub stands up, clapping to the rhythm of the bass. The chandeliers on the ceiling shake, and the champagne flutes wobble on the tables.

    “I want to help young girls hold themselves differently, not place the judgement of their value in other people’s hands,” HoneyChild told us. “If you give me a teenager, I will give you back a very difficult woman, with very high standards.”

    The post How performers of color are ‘revolutionizing’ burlesque appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Piggy bank from above. Photo by Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

    Larry Kotlikoff answers your Social Security questions. Photo by Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

    Boston University economist Larry Kotlikoff has spent every week, for over two years, answering questions about what is likely your largest financial asset — your Social Security benefits. His Social Security original 34 “secrets,” his additional secrets, his Social Security “mistakes” and his Social Security gotchas have prompted so many of you to write in that we feature “Ask Larry” every Monday. Find a complete list of his columns here. And keep sending us your Social Security questions.

    Kotlikoff’s state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its “basic” version. His new book, “Get What’s Yours — the Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security Benefits,” (co-authored with Paul Solman and Making Sen$e Medicare columnist Phil Moeller) was published in February by Simon & Schuster.

    Watch Larry explain how Paul and his wife could collect an extra $50,000 in Social Security benefits:

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    Michael – Cambria, Calif.: I am 63 until October and a marginally self-employed artist. My wife is employed nearly full time with an employer matching 401 (K) and two small retirement checks from previous employment. Each of us have a traditional IRA. My wife is 61 until September. Our combined annual taxable income is around $40,000 to $50,000.

    My benefit is $1,600 a month if taken now, $2,015 if taken at 66 and $2,600 if taken at 70. I estimate that it would take until about age 77 to break even if I wait to 66 to claim, or age 80 to break even by waiting until age 70 compared to claiming now. I would like to take the early option and put part of the money each month into a traditional or Roth IRA to help offset the long-term loss of early filing.

    So in a nutshell, we want to start me on Social Security now, put $1,200 a month of my early benefit on a construction loan and mortgage and put the remaining $400 a month into a traditional IRA or Roth IRA.

    Can you describe the pros and cons of this idea and how a traditional versus Roth IRA would work in our situation?

    Larry Kotlikoff: This is a terrible idea. You can’t count on dying on time. You can’t count on any risky investment paying off.

    Social Security rewards us for waiting to collect in two ways.  First, it rewards us for the risk of not collecting anything when we wait, because we may die before we collect, or we may die soon after we start our delayed collection. Second, it rewards us for investing with Social Security. That is, not taking the money now means leaving it with Social Security, and Social Security is nice enough to effectively pay us interest on it. Social Security pays us roughly 3 percent above inflation for leaving our money with them in addition to compensating us for the risk of not getting anything or much back because we die too young.  

    That’s three times higher than the market yield on long-term inflation-indexed bonds. So even if you want to do a break-even analysis, waiting until 70 makes much more sense for anyone. But break-even analysis is completely the wrong thing to consider when it comes to Social Security, which is an insurance product, not an investment product. With an insurance product, you need to worry about getting maximum coverage for the catastrophe that will hit, which in this case is living to 100. So stop trying to beat the market, and keep working. You’ll want to get a full spousal benefit on one of your work records. I can’t say which one without more information on your wife’s primary insurance amount.

    Anonymous- Jacksonville, Fla.: I am 59 in June this year, and my wife was 63 in February. She has fibromyalgia, and her family has had a history of dying early — most in their late 50s. I want her to quit and enjoy our nine grandchildren before her health deteriorates too much and she cannot. She has not worked at jobs where there was any retirement. I have an IRA around $400,000 and my 401(k) at about $150,000. I can collect on it at 59 1/2. We have a mortgage at $1,500 a month, a car payment at $400. I want to try and take just enough of my retirement and let her wait on at least 66 to claim hers. I have always earned more. How can I maximize our retirement?

    Larry Kotlikoff: I’m very sorry to hear about your wife’s health condition. You may want to file for your retirement benefit early, when your wife reaches her full retirement age. This will allow her to take her full spousal benefit and wait until 70 to collect her own retirement benefit. But her maximum, not her expected age of death, is critical for deciding what to do. So is the relative size of your earnings histories.

    Jim – Fla.: My wife turned 66 in February, and I just turned 66 in April. From “Get What’s Yours” it seems that I should file and suspend for my retirement benefit and then my wife should file for her spousal benefit until age 70. (My benefit at age 70 is around $3,424 a month; my wife’s benefit at age 70 is around $993 a month.) My current benefit would be about $2,594 a month so her spousal benefit would be about $1,297 a month. Does that sound like the correct strategy for us? I assume that she would take this until I turn 70 then file for her retirement benefit. I also assume that once I take my retirement benefit, she can no longer take the spousal benefit and must take her retirement benefit. Correct?

    By the way, loved the book!

    Larry Kotlikoff: Glad you liked the book. Yes, your strategy is correct. Your wife will collect the larger of the two benefits — her spousal benefit and her retirement benefit — at age 70. So, in your case, she will just continue to collect her full spousal benefit.

    K.M. – Woodinville, Wash.: I am 63, and my husband is 65. At this point we are not sure when he will begin taking his Social Security benefits, but definitely not before age 66. Can I begin my own benefits at age 64 and then switch to spousal benefits at age 66? (If I am assuming correctly, it would be 50 percent of his full retirement age benefit. This would be more than my full retirement benefit at age 66.)

    Larry Kotlikoff: You can take your retirement benefit early, but the minute that you or anyone else files for a retirement benefit (even if they immediately suspend its collection), that person gets transported to excess benefit hell, where they can no longer get a full spousal benefit, full divorcee spousal benefit, full widow(er)’s benefit, full divorcee widow(er)’s benefit, full child-in-care spousal benefit or full mother (or father) benefit. So when you reach 66, you can either suspend your own retirement benefit and take your excess spousal benefit or you cannot suspend your retirement benefit and take your excess spousal benefit. Doing so will require your husband to file for his retirement benefit (and, if he wants to collect starting at 70, to suspend it upon filing). Either way, you will get your excess — not your full spousal benefit — which may well be zero. If your husband filed now, the story would be even worse. You’d be deemed to be filing for your excess spousal benefit at the same time as you file for your retirement benefit, and then it too would be reduced. In short, your plan is suboptimal. You should probably wait until 66 — full retirement age — and collect a full spousal benefit and then take your own retirement benefit at 70. Your husband should file and suspend when you hit 66 and then take his retirement benefit at 70. This assumes he’s the higher earner. If not, you might want to file for your retirement benefit when he reaches full retirement age so he can file for a full spousal benefit. At 70, he’d file for his retirement benefit. You would then suspend your retirement benefit at 66 and restart it at 70.

    Iannette – Apple Valley, Calif.: I was wondering if I can apply for survivor’s benefits now? I will be 60 years old in November. My husband died in 2011. So can I apply now, or do I have to wait until I am 60 to do it?

    Larry Kotlikoff: You can file now as in doing the paper work, but if you take your survivor benefit now it will be permanently reduced. That may be the best thing to do — take that benefit now and wait till 70 to collect your own retirement benefit. Or it might be better to take your own retirement benefit at 62 and take your widow’s benefit either at full retirement age or sometime earlier than that depending on whether or not your husband took his own retirement benefit early. Just be sure you are maximizing your lifetime benefits.

    Janet – Normal, Ill.: My husband has been on Disability since 2006. He will be 59 in May 2015. I plan on retiring in June 2016 at the age of 61, taking half of his Social Security when I turn 62 a few months later and letting my benefits increase. (One half of my husband’s benefits is only $300 less than my benefit at 62.) Then at age 66, I’d flip over to my benefits. Is there a penalty if I do this?

    Larry Kotlikoff: You can’t do this. You will be subject to deeming and forced to take your retirement benefit early. You’ll collect a reduced retirement benefit plus your excess spousal benefit, which sounds like it will be zero from what you wrote. In short, your plan is the worst possible option. The best thing to do is wait until full retirement, take just your spousal benefit and then at 70 take your retirement benefit. When your husband hits full retirement age, he can suspend his retirement benefit (his disability benefit turns into his retirement benefit at that point) and then he can restart his retirement benefit at 70. This assumes you both can live a very long time.

    Bethanne: Between 2008 and 2009 my husband and I lost our retirement and life savings in the economic meltdown. We owned a construction business for 25 years and had to close it, because no one was building. We were each 56 at that time. No one was hiring either as businesses were closing at a record pace, so we had to use our savings to survive for four years.

    My husband began taking his Social Security last year at age 62. He is suffering from arthritis and joint issues, and he didn’t feel he could continue to work, let alone the fact that no one would hire him at his age. We weren’t sure if he could apply for disability or not, so we opted to take early Social Security. I am eligible for early Social Security in January, and we’re not sure what our options are at this point. We feel strapped since we lost our retirement ($500,000) and have had a hard time starting over at our ages. We feel we planned, but the economy tanked and then it was gone. What could you suggest to maximize our options?

    Larry Kotlikoff: I’m so sorry to hear this. The recession of 2008 was just terrible and didn’t have to take place. I suggest you both try to find some less physically demanding jobs and that you wait, if at all possible, until full retirement age to take your spousal benefit and take your own retirement benefit at 70. You husband should suspend his retirement benefit at full retirement age and restart it at 70. This assumes you both live long lives.

    The post Should you collect Social Security early and invest your benefits? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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