Assessing FOIA – Kuriyama/Thorne revision

On the verge of a second Obama term, the country is, understandably, looking ahead: What will the economy look like over the next four years? What about healthcare, jobs, the conflict in Afghanistan? But it’s worth stopping for a moment to look back – at the promises the President made when he first took office, and whether or not he’s lived up to his own stated goals.

On the President’s very first full day in office, he issued a memorandum asking federal officials to “usher in a new era of open government,” and make the workings of the government more transparent and accessible to the average citizen.  He wrote: “In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government.” Later that day, in an address to the new Cabinet and White House staffers, the President added: “I expect members of my administration not simply to live up to the letter but also the spirit of this law.”

We decided to take a look at how three of the largest and most headline-making federal agencies – the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense – have handled their FOIA requests over the course of President Obama’s first term in office. Has their responsiveness, their processing time changed over the past four years? And what can we gather about the administration’s transparency, based on these changes?

According to a Bloomberg investigation, in 2009, “cabinet agencies employed exemptions 466,402 times, a 50 percent jump from the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency.” The number of exemptions have since declined by nearly a quarter, but are, as Bloomberg notes, “still are above the level seen during the Bush administration.”

In a recent twist, at least 25 federal agencies have been outsourcing parts of the FOIA fulfillment process to private corporations – an arrangement worth over $26 billion in FY2012 alone. Some of the companies aren’t even based in the United States, making them exempt from a number of the FOIA fulfillment guidelines. Yet these contractors are responsible for making crucial decisions like what data to release, what to redact, and when to make it available (or not). This development raises pressing questions about what government transparency really means in the Obama era – questions we hope to start addressing with this story.

FOIA DATA

Veterans Account for Higher Proportion of Homeless in Rural, Western States

By Ezra Eeman, Lothar Krause and Lindsey McCormack

Among the many policies that will continue under the newly re-elected Obama administration is the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015. However, with over 67,000 veterans estimated to be homeless in 2011, the goal remains elusive.

Veterans have long been overrepresented among the homeless. Nationwide they are about 10 percent of the general population, but comprise almost 14 percent of the homeless adult population, according to a VA report. Five states—California, New York, Florida, Texas and Georgia—account for more than half the total veteran homeless in the country. A different picture emerges by taking homeless veterans as a percentage of the total homeless population of each state.

Interactive Map

What Makes People Happy in the Happiest States?

By Albert Brea and Kevin R. Convey

What is happiness?

And, more importantly, what are the elements of happiness – the things that make us happy?

These are hardly idle questions. Since the beginning of civilization, they have occupied philosophers, formed the basis of religions and bedeviled leaders of every stripe. More recently, they’ve animated the hit parade, crowded best-seller lists and kept the waiting rooms of mental health professionals overflowing.

Indeed the most common answer to one of life’s most elemental questions – “Why are we here?” – is “to be happy.” Still, that answer begs the question: What goes into making us happy?

As we enter what for some is the happiest time of the year – featuring, in rapid succession, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day – and what for others is the gloomiest period of the year, the subject of happiness and its components takes on renewed interest.

Every year, the Gallup Organization conducts a detailed poll on the subject of happiness in the United States, measuring dozens of variables and producing a portrait of happiness by state. We wanted to know how the age-old metrics of health, wealth, and wisdom –-Ben Franklin’s “healthy, wealthy and wise” nostrum correlated with happiness by state. And though Franklin didn’t mention it, we were also curious about the role religion plays in happiness.

Here’s how we visualized those questions — and our answers:

What Makes People Happiest in the Happiest States

So, clearly, Ben Franklin was right about some of the components of happiness: Our measures of health, wealth and wisdom correlated strongly with states’ happiness as ranked by Gallup.

And it’s fortuitous that a tacked-on question we almost didn’t ask because Franklin didn’t ask it – the impact of religion on happiness – tied our findings up nicely.

Our discovery that states with the highest numbers of religious residents tended to score low on the happiness index seemed counter-intuitive until we examined it in the context of our earlier findings. Presto: The most religious states ox iframe link:were also largely states that ranked low on measures of health, wealth and wisdom.

The exact relationship of religion to this package of negative variables remains as unclear as the chicken-and-egg conundrum. Do people living in states afflicted by low health, employment and education indicators seek out religion for solace or do more deeply religious tend to be less healthy, less employed and less educated?

That’s one that even Franklin might have a tough time with.