- Posted byon January 29, 2014 at 1:39 PM EDT
The State of the Union address provides the American public with the opportunity to hear directly from the President about his vision and agenda for the year ahead. For nearly three decades, remarkable individuals who represent the themes and ideals laid out in the State of the Union Address have been invited to join the First Lady to watch the speech. The guests who were invited to sit with the First Lady represent the stories of millions of Americans across the country, who are working hard to better their communities, improve their own economic outcomes and help restore opportunity for all.
This year, four of these guests were Latino, reflecting the stories of our families and our country.
One of these guests was DREAMer and immigration reform advocate, Cristian Avila. Cristian, 23 and from Phoenix, Arizona, fasted for 22 days as part of the Fast For Families demonstration on the National Mall. The President, Vice President, First Lady, Cabinet, and Senior Administration officials visited Cristian and other fasters in November to express support for common sense immigration reform. Last year, Cristian received temporary relief from deportation through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). With the hope of one day joining the US Marine Corps, Cristian exemplifies the President’s commitment to continue pushing Congress to take up and pass comprehensive immigration reform this year.
Another guest of honor was Aliana Arzola-Piñero, a fourth grader from Puerto Rico, who attended the 2013 Kids State Dinner. She participated in the 2012 Healthy Lunchtime Challenge hosted by the First Lady. Even at her young age, Aliana is a fierce advocate for healthy eating and an active lifestyle for kids.
- Posted byon January 24, 2014 at 7:47 PM EDT
Last week, I visited Pine Mountain State Park in southeastern Kentucky, along with Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers, to announce the expansion of USDA’s StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity initiative into three new Appalachian states—Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia—and one state in the Delta region, Louisiana.
I believe that USDA and its partners have the tools to expand opportunity and better serve those living in persistent poverty in rural America. Our StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity initiative, which helped to inform President Obama's recently-announced Promise Zones, is about doing just that—rallying available tools and technical assistance and targeting these resources to the areas where they are needed most.
Through StrikeForce, we’ve partnered with more than 400 community organizations, businesses, foundations, universities and other groups to support 80,300 projects and ushered more than $9.7 billion in investments into rural America. Expanding StrikeForce support to these four additional states will help leverage USDA resources with the unique expertise of community leaders, business, foundations and other groups working in rural Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia.
President Obama has also recognized the unique challenges of rural poverty with his new Promise Zone initiative. For example, in addition to receiving StrikeForce support, the Kentucky Highlands in southeastern Kentucky has also been targeted as a Promise Zone area. Promise Zones are part of the President’s plan to create a better bargain for the middle-class by partnering with local communities, faith-based organizations, foundations, and businesses to create jobs, increase economic security, expand educational opportunities, increase access to quality, affordable housing, and improve public safety.
- Posted byon January 24, 2014 at 6:55 PM EDT
Ed. note: This is cross-posted from the Department of Homeland Security
Earlier this morning, Secretary Jeh Johnson joined USCIS Acting Director Lori Scialabba to welcome 468 new U.S. citizens at a special Naturalization Ceremony held at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, Va.
Secretary Johnson administered the Oath of Allegiance and delivered remarks to the citizenship candidates and their families and friends in attendance.
Among the men and women participating in today’s ceremony was Staff Sergeant Oscar Roberto Chavez, an active duty member of the U.S. Air Force, who Secretary Johnson thanked for his service and recognized as a model for other candidates.
As Secretary Johnson underscored, the United States has a strong tradition as a welcoming nation, and DHS is committed to promoting the lawful immigration process, expediting administration of immigration services, and promoting the integration of lawful immigrants into American society.
Clark W. Stevens is the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security
- Posted byon January 8, 2014 at 1:28 PM EDT
Ed. Note: This blog is cross-posted from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Spread across the Four Corners region of the American Southwest, the Navajo Nation is home to up to 175,000 members of the Navajo Tribe. Tribal members live scattered across more than 27,000 square miles of land stretching from northeast Arizona to northwest New Mexico to southeast Utah.
It’s a place where many roads have never been paved, many buildings don’t have a formal postal address and thousands of families remain cut off from the electrical grid. At least 60 percent of homes don’t have landline telephone service even though wireless signals are often spotty or nonexistent. The 911 system often cannot track where people are calling from during an emergency. And high-speed Internet access has been almost entirely unavailable.
Data from the National Broadband Map, which is maintained by NTIA in collaboration with the Federal Communications Commission, show that less than 4 percent of the population living in Navajo Nation territory has access to even the most basic wireline broadband speeds of 3 megabits per second downstream.
But with a $32 million grant from NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is bringing a modern wireless communications system to a region that has been all too frequently bypassed by amenities that most Americans take for granted.
Established in 1959 to deliver basic utility services, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority today is one of the largest utilities owned and operated by an American Indian tribe. It provides water, sewage, electricity, natural gas, solar power and communications services to tens of thousands of customers across the Navajo Nation. And now the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is signing up its first customers for a new 4G LTE wireless broadband network funded largely by the federal government.
Covering 15,000 square miles, the new network consists of 59 wireless towers, 43 base stations, 60 microwave links, 550 miles of fiber and 20 miles of fiber or microwave connections into buildings. BTOP paid for much of that infrastructure, as well as a leased fiber-optic connection that runs 180 miles from the edge of the Navajo Nation in Farmington, N.M., to Albuquerque - linking the entire system to the Internet.
Working with wireless partner Commnet, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is offering wireless voice and data services for residential customers at speeds of up to three megabits per second. Customers can sign up for mobile access, as well as a fixed-wireless service that plugs into a home computer. The utility is also connecting local schools, hospitals and other anchor institutions, including 49 tribal “chapter houses,” at speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second.
Walter Haase, general manager of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, says the wireless broadband network “opens up a whole new set of opportunities that don’t exist today” for the Navajo Nation. Medical specialists located on Navajo territory and beyond will be able to consult electronically with patients living in remote corners of the region. Local schools will be able to live stream Web video and other educational resources from the Internet to supplement the existing curriculum. College students will be able to take online classes and connect with professors at major universities without leaving their ancestral homeland. And tribal members will be able to set up online businesses or telework instead of having to travel long distances to get to a job.
Eventually, Haase says, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority hopes to interconnect the wireless broadband network with smart grid meters serving its residential electricity customers in order to set up a 911 system that will know automatically where someone is calling from in an emergency.
Altogether, NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program has invested in more than 50 projects that are benefiting tribes by building networks in parts of Indian Country that have historically lacked adequate telecommunications infrastructure. NTIA has also funded public computer centers, digital literacy classes and one-on-one Internet training programs in a number of Native American communities.
Some of the federal awards went directly to tribes themselves, including the Ute Indian Tribe in Utah, the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Nevada and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in Upstate New York. Others went to tribal institutions such as the College of Menominee Nation in Wisconsin and, of course, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.
The push to close the digital divide in Indian Country – which includes some of the most remote reaches of the nation - is no easy task. National Broadband Map data show that only 54 percent of the population in Indian Country has access to basic wireline broadband speeds of 3 megabits per second downstream. That compares with 94 percent of the U.S. population as a whole. And only half of Indian Country population has access to 6-megabit wireless speeds, compared with 91 percent of the population as a whole.
But with support from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, these federally funded projects are helping to narrow the gap and ensure that tribal communities can share in the benefits and opportunities brought by the Internet.
Jean Rice is a NTIA Program Officer at the Department of Commerce
- Posted byon January 8, 2014 at 12:00 PM EDT
In mass shootings and in the everyday shootings that plague communities across the country, far too many Americans have been severely injured or lost their lives or a loved one as a result of gun violence. Over the last few years, a series of gun-related tragic events galvanized our country and led this Administration to redouble our efforts to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous individuals.
Over the past year, the Administration has taken several steps to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is used to run background checks on those who buy guns from federally licensed gun dealers to make sure they are not prohibited by law from owning a firearm. Just this month, the President took two new executive actions that will help ensure that tens of thousands of missing mental health records are added to the background check system. The Administration also continues to call on Congress to pass common-sense legislation to expand background checks. To date, background checks have prevented over two million guns from falling into the wrong hands.
While the President and the Vice President will continue to do everything they can to reduce gun violence, we know efforts to prevent gun violence at the state and local levels – at community centers and recreational facilities, schools, faith-based centers and by other various community leaders often have the most impact. The leaders who are creating change know that when 90% of the American public supports common-sense gun safety legislation, those 90% need to stand up. Every day, these individuals are stepping up in big ways in our communities to make sure that all Americans can feel safer when they put their children to bed each night, and when they step outside with their families in the morning.
Today, we’re asking you to help us identify and honor state and local leaders taking innovative approaches to support gun violence prevention measures and make our communities safer by nominating a Champion of Change for Gun Violence Prevention by midnight on Sunday, January 12th. Nominees may include:
- Community leaders who worked to prevent gun violence and build safer communities.
- Citizens who encouraged responsible gun ownership.
- Advocates who fought for stronger state and federal gun laws.
- Community leaders who helped to organize grassroots efforts around this issue.
- Citizens who created innovative tactics to engage the public to reduce gun violence.
- Community/youth development programs discouraging gun violence and college students’/groups’ efforts on campuses.
Click on the link below to submit your nomination (be sure to choose Gun Violence Prevention in the "Theme of Service" field of the nomination form).
We are looking forward to hosting this event and to highlighting the great work communities across the country are doing to advance the health, safety and well-being of the American people.
Rumana Ahmed is the Executive Assistant to the Director of the Office of Public Engagement.
- Posted byon January 2, 2014 at 12:11 PM EDT
Today is a new day for the millions of Americans who finally have the security that comes from quality, affordable health coverage. And those who already have health insurance will have better, more reliable coverage than ever before. Beginning on January 1, insured Americans won't be forced to put off a check-up or worry about going broke if they get sick.
While there is much more work to be done, beginning today, no family will be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition like high blood pressure or asthma. Women can no longer be charged more than men for the same coverage. No American will have to worry that losing a job means you can't get health coverage. And small businesses may qualify for more financial help to pay for new affordable coverage options for their employees.
The challenges in our health care system were decades in the making and won't be solved overnight, but now more than 6 million Americans have been enrolled in Marketplace or Medicaid coverage and are getting peace of mind, knowing that they can get the care they need without losing everything they've worked and saved for.
New Benefits and Consumer Protections Begin Today
· Protections for People with Pre-Existing Conditions: Up to 129 million Americans with pre-existing conditions no longer have to worry about being denied health coverage or charged higher premiums because of their health status.
· New Insurance Options: Many previously uninsured Americans have new health insurance options through private health plans in the Marketplace or Medicaid in States that have opted to expand it. Nearly 6 in 10 of Americans who were uninsured could pay $100 or less per month for coverage.
· No More Annual Caps on Health Benefits: Millions of Americans no longer have to worry about having their health benefits cut off after they reach an annual dollar limit on benefits.
· Comprehensive Coverage: Health plans in the individual and small group markets are now required to cover ten categories of essential health benefits – including emergency services, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance use disorder services, and prescription drug coverage. As a result of these new protections, approximately 60 million people will gain expanded mental health and substance use disorder benefits and/or parity protections.
Millions of Americans Have Already Benefited from the Health Care Law
· Free Preventive Services: 71 million Americans on private insurance have gained coverage for at least one free preventive service such as mammograms, birth control, and immunizations in 2011 and 2012. In the first eleven months of 2013, an additional 25 million people with traditional Medicare received at least one preventive service at no out of pocket cost.
· New Insurance Options for Young Adults: Over three million young adults have gained health insurance because they can now stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26.
· No More Lifetime Caps on Health Benefits: 105 million Americans no longer have to worry about having their health benefits cut off after they reach a lifetime dollar limit on benefits.
· Protections for Children with Pre-Existing Conditions: Parents of the 17 million children with pre-existing conditions have had the security of knowing their children could no longer be denied health coverage due to their health status.
· Saving Seniors Money on Prescription Drugs: Since the health care law was enacted, more than seven million seniors and people with disabilities have saved an average of $1,200 per person on prescription medications as the health care law closes Medicare’s “donut hole.”
· Cutting Back on Premium Increases: Insurance companies must submit premium increases of 10% or more for review by experts. Last year, 6.8 million Americans saved an estimated $1.2 billion on health insurance premiums after their insurers cut back on planned increases as a result of this process.
· Premium Dollars That Work for Consumers, Not Just Insurers: Consumers have saved $5 billion over the past two years due to a new requirement that insurance companies have to spend at least 80% of premium dollars on care for patients (at least 85% for large group insurers). If they don’t, they must send consumers a rebate. Last year, 8.5 million enrollees received rebates averaging $100 per family.
· Coverage for Some Americans with Severe Pre-Existing Conditions: The federal Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan gave tens of thousands of Americans who were previously unable to get health insurance due to pre-existing conditions the security of coverage before plans were available in the Marketplace.
· Expanding Access to Care in the Community: Using funds available through the Affordable Care Act, community health centers are expanding access to care by providing primary care services, establishing new sites, and renovating existing sites. Health centers served approximately 21 million patients in 2012
Phil Schiliro, Office of the Chief of Staff
- Posted byon December 20, 2013 at 12:06 PM EDT
Ed. Note: This blog is cross-posted from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Last year, the Department of the Interior established the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations to implement important land consolidation requirements set forth in the historic Cobell Settlement Agreement. That agreement provided for a $1.9 billion fund to consolidate lands that have become fractionated, over time, across Indian Country. By establishing the Buy-Back Program, the Department made a commitment to work together – with tribes and individual Indian land owners alike– to address the negative impacts of land fractionation in Indian Country.
Fractionation of ownership affects more than 93,500 land tracts on more than 150 Indian reservations. These tracts often have hundreds, sometimes thousands, of owners that must each be consulted before even basic decisions can be made about use of land and resources.
Over the next 10 years, the Buy-Back Program will make purchase offers to willing sellers in an effort to make land more usable and prevent further fractionation. By doing this, Interior will help expand tribal economic development opportunities across Indian Country, and, in turn, restore tribal control over tribal lands and resources in order to build towards true tribal self-determination and ultimately strengthened tribal sovereignty.
In our first year, the Department has focused on establishing the building blocks of program success. Nation-to-Nation conversations have been critical to this development, and have helped us make significant policy decisions about the Program. This past month, we released an Updated Implementation Plan, which incorporates suggestions and responds to comments received through multiple tribal consultations and one-on-one meetings.
We have heard from tribal leaders that we must implement the Buy-Back Program in a fair and equitable manner, moving quickly to ensure that we reach as much of Indian Country as possible. Additionally, we sought independent analysis from The Appraisal Foundation, the nation’s foremost authority on appraisal standards to ensure a high quality valuation process would be used.
Tribes also expressed the need for predictability and transparency on the timing of implementation efforts. In response, the Department expanded its implementation strategy by opening up a solicitation period through March 2014, during which tribes with jurisdiction over the most fractionated locations are invited to submit letters of interest or cooperative agreement applications for participation in the program. This solicitation puts much of the timing in the hands of tribal governments and will allow the program to move on a quicker timeline.
And, in a historic step this week, Interior announced that the very first purchase offers have been sent. After working closely with Oglala Sioux leadership, landowners on the Pine Ridge Reservation – one of the most fractionated locations in the United States – will be receiving purchase offers this week. Individuals with interests at the Makah Indian Reservation will receive offers as well.
We know the challenge ahead is mighty, but we are working hard to ensure that this incredible opportunity for Indian Country is not wasted. Change will not be implemented overnight, but ultimately the Program will restore lands to tribes and place decision-making over these lands back into the rightful hands of tribal governments. Our Nation-to Nation partnerships have been critical to the work that has gotten us to today and we look forward to our continued work together.
Kevin K. Washburn is the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior and a member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma.
- Posted byon December 16, 2013 at 4:46 PM EDT
Ed. Note: This blog is cross-posted from the U.S. Department of the Tresaury.
The Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor last June, invalidating a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, has given rise to crucial protections to same-sex married couples nationwide. In August, Treasury and IRS helped to clarify the federal tax implications of Windsor by determining that all legal same-sex marriages will be recognized for federal tax purposes. Today, Treasury and IRS made significant progress in further promoting tax equality by issuing a new, related notice.
In follow-up to the Windsor decision, this notice addresses how the rules for cafeteria plans, flexible spending accounts (FSAs), and health savings accounts (HSAs) apply to individuals with same-sex spouses. A cafeteria plan provides participants with an opportunity to receive certain benefits on a pre-tax basis. Similar to the way in which individuals can choose among several options in a cafeteria, cafeteria plan participants can choose among at least one taxable benefit and one qualified benefit.
Taxpayers typically must make pre-tax elections under a cafeteria plan before the beginning of the plan year and cannot change their elections until the following year. Because the Windsor decision was issued mid-year, this notice permits changes to elections for same-sex married couples during the plan year that includes the date of the Windsor decision. Accordingly, under this notice, sponsors of cafeteria plans could permit employees to choose to enroll same-sex spouses in health coverage in the middle of a plan year, even though mid-year enrollments would otherwise be prohibited.
In our prior notice on Windsor, we provided transition relief to employees who elected to pay for their own health coverage on a pre-tax basis, but were previously required to pay for their same-sex spouses’ coverage on an after-tax basis. That transition relief allows employees in this situation to treat the cost of the same-sex spouse coverage as having been paid on a pre-tax basis by excluding the cost of same-sex spouse coverage from their income. The notice clarifies that this relief will apply through the end of the current cafeteria plan year.
Also, before Windsor, FSAs were not permitted to reimburse expenses incurred by the same-sex spouse of an employee. Based on the notice, a cafeteria plan could choose to reimburse qualifying expenses incurred by same-sex spouses and their dependents before the date of the Windsor decision, provided the expenses were incurred after the couple was married but not earlier than the beginning of the cafeteria plan year that includes the date of the Windsor decision. The notice also explains how the limits on contributions to HSAs and dependent care FSAs apply to individuals with same-sex spouses.
This notice underscores the Administration’s continued commitment to providing equal access to federal benefits, regardless of sexual orientation.
Betsy Bourassa is a Media Specialist at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.