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Staff Editorials

Why the Savannah port project is important to North Georgia

    Ninety-nine percent of the time when someone comments on government, it’s negative. So it’s good to take note when something works - and with the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project we need to celebrate.
    Two times in recent months we have heard North Georgia government leaders (Rep. David Ralston, Blue Ridge, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Gainesville) talk about how this project isn’t just important on our coast, but  crucial to businesses in our mountains.
    At first it may seem a minor project, the harbor is only being dredged down another five feet – from 42 to 47 feet deep. But the impact is massive to economies across the Peach state.    When complete, the extra depth will allow supertankers that use the Panama Canal to be loaded and unloaded in Georgia -- rather than some other port in another area.
    The deepening of the port and all the related shipping that goes with it is being called the largest economic development and job creation initiative in the state and across the southeastern region in recent history.
    Congressman Tom Graves (14th District) said, “This project is vital to our state and the country in many ways, but in simple terms, it means we’ll have new jobs and opportunities for a lot of Georgia families. Those supertankers will arrive at the harbor full of goods, and Georgia businesses will make sure they leave full. I applaud the Georgia delegation for working together to secure this victory for our constituents.”
    The project - with $662 million in federal funds and $231 million in state dollars committed to it - packs a massive wallop. Consider some of the figures put out by local leaders and by the Georgia Ports Authority regarding the project that has lingered for 14 years:
    • It will bring in $174 million in net annal benefits across the nation.
    • It will create 11,554 new jobs.
    • Georgia’s ports already support 352,000 jobs spread across the state - including virtually all companies that ship products.
    • More than 20,000 companies in the country rely on the Georgia ports for shipping.
    • One out of 12 Georgians work at a company that ships something or receives something coming through this port.
    • More than $2.5 billion in state taxes are derived from the port.
    • Every dollar spent on this project returns $5.50 in economic return.

    In addition to those figures, another number to consider is 16. All 14 Georgia lawmakers in the house and both senators voted for the project and praised it– evidence that full cooperation gets things done.
    This is something that was needed and makes sense financially and otherwise. It’s a tangible project everyone can understand: make the port deeper so bigger ships can dock here.
    It’s also important to note that unlike so much that goes wrong in Washington, the deepening project did not end up strangled by our ongoing feuds with neighboring states over drinking water – something that early on appeared to spell trouble.
    In the end Doug Collins (9th District Congressman) celebrated keeping these issues separate. “This legislation gives Northeast Georgia the freedom to plan for the future of our beautiful lakes as we see fit, and it gets Georgia farm produce out into the markets more efficiently,” he said. “ [It’s] a win for Georgia, it’s a win for American competitiveness, and it’s a win for the Constitution.”
    Even though it’s only five feet of muck from the bottom of our port, the impact on the state’s economy is huge and this five feet of muck shows what could happen if government works together and sticks to the issue in front of it.

Energy drinks and soda aren’t “nutrition assistance”

    A few weeks ago we ran a feature about photographer Al Clayton, a Pickens County resident whose pictures of poverty in the Deep South were instrumental in the passage of the Food Stamp Act of 1964. The photos are heart wrenching – filthy children stand next to barren, moldy refrigerators; toothless mothers are surrounded by mouths they can’t feed.
    About 30 years before the Food Stamp Act was passed, the Food Stamp Program was implemented as a way to use surplus food (usually produce or other dietary staples such as grain) from America’s farmers to help feed the nation’s poor. 
    Fast forward to present day. The 47 million people currently using food stamps – an $80-billion-a-year federal program now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [S.N.A.P.] – can ironically spend their allotted money (all of it if they want) on things that can hardly be considered “nutrition,” or on luxury items many working Americans can’t afford.
    Case in point - a reporter with bought $100 worth of Halloween candy one week with food stamps to test the system. S.N.A.P. recipients can also buy soda, energy drinks and bakery cakes (one Progress employee knows a couple that bought their wedding cake using S.N.A.P.).        

The only items off the table are alcohol, tobacco and “hot items” at in-store delis. Some states even allow EBT cards (what you use to make food stamp purchases) to be used at fast-food restaurants.
    S.N.A.P., which makes up the lion’s share of the Farm Bill budget and awards participants an average of $133 a month per person or  $289 per household, needs to be reformed.     We’re not questioning its necessity because food stamps truly are a safety net for America’s poor. We are grateful the program is here to help people in need – but it should not contribute to national health problems like obesity and diabetes that are more common among the poor, or allow recipients to spend taxpayer money on Monster energy drinks or five packages of Ding Dongs.
    If there are no rules once you’re approved for S.N.A.P., what’s the motivation to come off?
     Critics argue that telling people what they can and can’t eat is being paternalistic - but people on food stamps already have some (if only a few) limitations on what they can buy, and programs like WIC are very limiting. There should be no difference.
    And if you are spending our taxpayer money then we do have a right to dictate the terms including what you buy.
    S.N.A.P. - which claims to feed America’s hungry with healthy food options - actually offers next to no data to support their claim. In a Washington Times piece a reporter investigates what’s being spent with food stamps (veggies vs. chips or grape soda vs. milk) and how much is being spent at each retail store – what they found was that the government keeps this information very close to the hip.
    “Americans spend $80 billion each year financing food stamps for the poor,” the article says, “but the country has no idea where or how the money is spent.” Argus Leader, a South Dakota newspaper, went so far as to sue the USDA for the information.
    Why the secrecy? Because with any government-funded program the lobbying that goes on behind the scenes plays a huge role in public policy. Mega corporations like Walmart, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Co. and industry trade leaders like the American Beverage Association, National Association of Convenience Store Operators and other junk food giants spend millions  to keep S.N.A.P purchases unrestricted because they are such huge beneficiaries. 
    An investigative reporter with Eat Drink Politics found that while most details about S.N.A.P money stay secret, “In two years,” she finds, “Walmart received about half of the $1 billion in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma.”
    Maintaining a blinders-on approach to what S.N.A.P. beneficiaries are allowed to buy - coupled with a total absence of transparency from the federal government about what is being bought - makes the program suspicious and ineffective.
    We support S.N.A.P., but it needs a major overhaul including increased transparency and common-sense limitations on what can be bought.

It’s a bonding thing: Cheering for the home team has surprising benefits

    Getting behind the Dragons – or the Falcons or the Dawgs (but definitely not the Yellow Jackets) may be beneficial to your health.
    Whether your favorite sports team is the local high school football or softball teams or the NFL, NBA, or MLB, cheering for a team sport is all about coming together in the name of good times as part of a community. And that’s a good thing. Bonding over sport - the highs and lows of the game - strengthens ties and gives us a sense of family. When we identify with a local team we instantly build connections to those around us - and that is great for our overall wellbeing.
    According to a Gallup poll, 64 percent of us Americans are pro football fans, 54 percent love college football, 41 percent call ourselves fans of college basketball while 38 percent are fans of professional basketball. And it’s not just men. As of 2010, women make up 44 percent of the NFL fan base. And the number of people who enjoy those “other” fall sports are growing too.
    The bonding we do with friends and others we may meet while sitting in the stands cheering can bring us together and make us more than strangers that happen to live in the same area. Rooting for – or against – a certain team provides us with some common ground that otherwise may be hard to find in daily life. While some of us may have more interest in the sporting event itself and what is happening between the yard markers, baselines or on the basketball court, a family or group of friends can just as well enjoy the conversation, the laughs, the highs and the lows of the competition.
    Research shows us that maintaining a strong social network, especially with healthy pals, improves our chance of living longer by 50 percent - and who wouldn’t want that? Sharing good times with friends - like at a sporting event - can even reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease and help us cope with stress. So even if the team we’re pulling for loses, at least we have our friends or neighbors in the stands to cheer us up and help forget about it over some laughs. Being a sports fan can benefit us both emotionally and psychologically and studies show fans that identify with a local team have higher self-esteem and are less lonely.
    Like the beer commercial that says “It’s only superstitious if it doesn’t work” while showing men lined up in a row on a couch with color-coordinated  socks while another group rubs each others’ heads just before their team attempts a field goal, it’s the commonality of a sporting event that’s just plain fun. And even non-sports fans can enjoy the comradery that comes along with cheering on a team, especially a local team with kids giving it their all in support of their school.
    Beyond the bonding aspects, watching sports can motivate us to keep up with our own workouts and maybe burn an extra calorie or two on the treadmill after we watch that local cross country runner sprint across the finish line for a personal best. Even if we can’t run 26 miles after watching the New York marathon, we might just be inspired to hit the pavement and churn out an extra 3-miler that week. 
    If you’re looking for some spectating opportunities this weekend, check out the Dragons on their home football field at PHS Friday night or our local cross country runners as they host the biggest running event of the season at Roper Park Saturday morning and see what a fun and exciting time you can have cheering them on.
    Get out there and jump up and down in the stands or on the sidelines, do some fist pumps, throw your arms in the air after an amazing play or performance. And remember - it’s good for you.

Government shutdown is hijacking of America

    Last week some members of the Progress staff were on vacation, camping at Vogel State Park. While there they rode over to Brasstown Bald as the middle schoolers among the group had learned about it being the highest point in Georgia.
    But rather than a geography lesson, the kids got a lesson in politics. Vogel is a state park and was open and crowded, while Brasstown is operated by the United States Forest Service and was padlocked at the front gate.
    It is enraging that petulant government leaders in Washington have led us to a point where our natural attractions are locked – “Sorry kids, some people feel it is really important to defund ObamaCare, so they have locked up all the parks.”
    Carter’s Lake has closed campsites, and boat ramps were closed for nearly a week – as if the childish attitudes of people in Washington should mean we can’t go fishing in Georgia.
    Another member of the Progress staff was similarly affected by the shutdown as a planned trip to the West Coast with a highlight tour of  Alcatraz became a trip without a highlight - the historical prison is shuttered.
    In the greater scope of things, ruined vacations are small issues in terms of the government shutdown.
    Some of the more serious consequences were 800,000 federal employee paychecks. Services related to everything - from pregnant women nutrition through the WIC program to the yearly flu shots from the CDC - are at risk.
    The worse case scenarios have a global financial meltdown if the federal debt ceiling isn’t raised later this week. Even though the debt ceiling is a different topic, it is lumped in with the previous sequester and current shutdown. But the real issue isn’t parks or federal services, the real issue is ObamaCare - otherwise known as the Affordable Care ACT (ACA).
    Some conservatives have made it plain that they want (at the least) portions of the ACA defunded/repealed in exchange for them doing jobs they were elected to do – operate the nation.
    Congressman Doug Collins expressed on his website, “Until we can bolster enough votes to repeal ObamaCare in its entirety, the House of Representatives must do what it can to defund smaller portions of this destructive bill.”
    Pickens’ other congressman has been similarly steadfast in maintaining that the shutdown is necessary because ObamaCare is vastly not to his liking. On ABC’s This Week, Congressman Tom Graves would never clearly answer the question about how far he was willing to push it with the shutdown for a chance to repeal ObamaCare, but it was plain he wasn’t going to give in any time soon.
    Graves kept referring to the American family facing “horrible impacts” from ObamaCare as though that justified delays and defunding other parts of government that have nothing to do with healthcare.
    Not all of the GOP are as committed to the cut-off-the-nose-to-spite-face plan. Paul Ryan,  a popular Republican leader and vice presidential nominee last go round, published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, offering many common sense measures involving general budgets and short terms fixes but did not tie his plan to the repeal of the ACA.
    It should be noted that the Affordable Care Act was duly passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President – exactly the way students learn that government enacts laws. The Affordable Care Act was then sent to the Supreme Court and they upheld it.
    Like it or not, the ACA has been passed, signed, ratified and is taking effect. Around 2.8 million Americans went on the federal government websites to find out about enrolling in the plans the first week they were available – obviously there are plenty of people out there who want at least an opportunity to see if it will work.
    If ObamaCare is the flop some predict, it will be obvious soon enough, but to declare it a disaster before it even starts and then take it out on other departments is a shirking of the duty we entrusted in the people we elected.

Even online, Think before you share

    When news broke last week of a possible sexual assault against a student at Pickens County Middle School, it spread through our community like wildfire. Facebook posts from people claiming knowledge of the event – and its horrible impact on the student – were everywhere.
    Social media like Facebook can be helpful in getting information out quickly to a large audience and it can be a place of support for friends and family, but it also has the potential to do far more harm than good. Social media can be extremely hurtful when used without ample consideration of the consequences of what is posted.
    And it also provides the fastest way to spread inaccurate information to the greatest number of people with the least restraint.
    In many situations, online posts - even well-intentioned ones - can create distractions to people already dealing with a tragedy.
    Last week just moments after we posted Superintendent Perry’s letter about a possible assault at the school, there were comments – which we deleted – that gave specific information about the sex of the victim and the physical injuries. These comments came too close for comfort in identifying the child and presented very personal aspects of  the assault. No one has the right to post to thousands of followers on a Facebook page what the child went through as a result of the assault and the ensuing medical trauma.
    Remember, we live in a small town and even narrowing down the victim’s gender and age goes a long way towards letting people know who was hurt by this outrageous act.         Authorities were extremely careful not to release the fact that the student was a special education student at PCMS because there is such a small pool of students, compared to the larger school population, who would fit that description. Ultimately the victim’s father provided that information in a television interview with the Atlanta media. Parents may have that right to divulge such information to the world about their child, but no one else does.
    True community journalists, the school system and the authorities working this case are held to higher standards regarding what statements are issued. Anyone with a keyboard, unfortunately, can say whatever they think without facing any scrutiny in the real world.
    Anyone with an internet connection can spout off any thing, any time, but keep in mind, “with much power comes great responsibility.”
    Law enforcement and school officials went to great lengths to prevent the identity of the victim from becoming public, not only to adhere to the law but also because they were trying to do the right thing in this small community.
    False rumors can spread quickly and complicate an investigation, requiring police to take extra time to set the record straight. Their jobs are further complicated when interviewing potential witnesses and they have to decipher whether the witness knows something firsthand or only because they read it at Facebook.
    In addition to disseminating unintentional information about victims of crime, Facebook postings can also lead to straight up false information. While not just online, the Saturday rumor that an arrest had been made had no basis and was not accurate at all.
    Remember, just because you think you “know” something to be a fact, doesn’t mean it really is. And if you do know a bona fide fact, please think before you share it.