How Does the Federal Government Spend?

Most all of us at one time or another have complained or at least wondered about how the feds spend our hard earned tax money. We’ve all heard irritating stories about the Pentagon spending absurd amounts on mundane objects (here is an old LA Times article from 1986 on the topic of overspending in the Pentagon in particular mentioning a $7,622 coffee maker), pondered how the president spends his vacation time or had concerns about some other use of the public coffers that may be wasteful. After all, we don’t want our money spent frivolously or for some unethical government contractor to take advantage of such a huge, difficult to manage entity as the budget of the United States.

That’s where www.usaspending.gov/  comes in. As billed by the site itself: “USAspending.gov is the publicly accessible, searchable website mandated by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 to give the American public access to information on how their tax dollars are spent.”

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Masthead

So you can check on this information in multiple ways. As one example, you may see how much money is spent in the state of Tennessee.

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State of Tennessee

It can be broken down in various ways as well. As can be seen here Davidson County receives well more than 1/3 of the just over $40 billion allocated to the state for Fiscal Year 2017, with a figure of $15,351,958,126. The next county, Shelby, receives $1,620,940,881, and is the only other county to receive $1 Billion or more.

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TN County Breakdown

 

 

There are many more ways to look up information beyond state by state breakdown. This site is just waiting for your curious fingers to enter new search terms or click on the numerous links on the site.

Become the Master of your (Garden) Domain

This time of year many people’s thoughts turn to the outdoors and tilling their little plot of land. Those who feel a desire to share their knowledge with others may be interested in becoming a Master Gardener, a title that may be earned through the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture via the local Shelby County extension office here in Memphis.

What, you may ask, is a Master Gardener? The program exists as “a volunteer service program that serves state citizens with home horticulture information”. Essentially, those who desire to do so may complete 40 hours of training in the first year, directly from the local extension office, followed up by 40 hours of volunteer work directly in their own communities, helping people understand gardening issues better.

One may find detailed information from the application page, which has quick links to Who are Tennessee Master Gardeners?, What does a Master Gardener do?, How do I become a Master Gardener? and Where’s the nearest Master Gardener Program?

Even more, the Shelby County master gardeners have a website, on which you can learn more about their offerings around town. Caution, it’s full of many puns, such as their suggestion for you to “Leaf a message for the webmaster if you have any questions.”

So, if someone is interested in not only learning a lot more about gardening in their local area but in helping others do the same in a volunteer capacity then perhaps becoming a Master Gardener is the way to go.

All you ever wanted to know about government spending but were too afraid to ask.

Ex Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has opened a new site called https://www.usafacts.org/, which describes itself as “a new data-driven portrait of the American population, our government’s finances, and government’s impact on society.” It claims to be a non-partisan site that provides a public service.

Mr. Ballmer sees this endeavor as philanthropy, and also takes it seriously as an academic venture. The site has a team made up of experts from Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), the Penn Wharton Budget Model, and Lynchburg College that, the claim goes “help keep our data accurate and unbiased”. The site not only uses only numbers and data directly from government sources, but has a policy of information only: no judgments, no opinions—just the facts. They also intend to “engage a prominent accounting firm” to audit their processes and controls used to present the information on the site.

So, let’s say you want to see a breakdown of what was spent in 2014. You start with this screen:

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Once you decide to be curious about something else you follow the budget, which the site breaks down into categories found in the Constitution: Establish Justice and Ensure Domestic Tranquility, Provide for the Common Defense, Promote the General Welfare and Secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity.

2Choose which category that interests you, and you’ll be taken to the next screen that gives more detailed information. So, under “Promote the General Welfare” I chose “Health”. It gives raw numbers on the spending in that area,

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Then I can click to find an even more detailed breakdown of health spending.

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This site looks to become a go-to for seekers of accurate, helpful information on how the U.S. government spends our tax money.

If you’re interested in further reading NPR did a article on this site that may be found here.

Sorting Fact From Obfuscation

In these unprecedented times in U.S. politics it can be difficult to discern the truth from the spin. The site http://www.factcheck.org/ has taken up the mission of helping anyone who desires to do so. Their mission page states:

“We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding.

FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The APPC was established by publisher and philanthropist Walter Annenberg to create a community of scholars within the University of Pennsylvania that would address public policy issues at the local, state and federal levels.”

A quick perusal of articles prominent on the site the day I visited (4/28/17 for the curious) covered such topics as the insecticide chlorpyrifos, Trump’s spin on his first 100 days, Trump’s mischaracterization of President Obama’s purported role in forming the gang MS-13, White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s Hitler gaffe and the 2017 Webby award this site has won.

The site is easy to navigate and there are a few helpful ways to find specific information: you can peruse an archive by topic, search for a desired article or simply browse through the pages. There are additional links to similar and sister sites, ways to ask your own questions and links to other resources offered by the organization, such as ways to browse and view media appearances by their writers.

Fact Checking Claims for Nutritional Products

http://www.consumerlab.com/ Has the stated mission “To identify the best quality health and nutritional products through independent testing.” If you’re familiar with Consumer Reports, the leader for decades in unbiased testing of consumer products and services, then you understand what Consumer Lab is all about. They appear mostly to focus on products such as vitamins, herbal supplements and similar products. They have no advertising on their site, similar to the approach long practiced by Consumer Reports. They have a page on their site dedicated to a long list of various press releases, news stories and testimonials related to the foundation here. Additionally they have a “Where to Buy” page that helps people find where to buy products recommended on the site. Some online vendors pay a fee to be included on this page, but they receive no proceeds from sales through Consumer Lab. Suffice it to say, consumerlab.com appears to be the gold standard of information regarding effectiveness, safety and legitimacy of these products.

Memberships may be purchased by organizations such as libraries, or for around $40 a year individuals may subscribe to all articles on the site.

Taking a High School Equivalency Test in Tennesse

Taking a High School Equivalency test in Tennessee

Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the GED—it’s the test that for years we have known one could take to earn a high school diploma instead of graduating in the conventional sense. Did you know that the GED is no longer offered in the state of Tennessee? The new official test is the HiSET (High School Equivalency Test).

It can be a bit confusing to figure out how to take the official HiSET and earn a diploma, so here is the process, according to Customer Service for the HiSET test.  Essentially one is required to first take the official practice test for the HiSET. For Memphis here are the official sites where one may do so:

Building Address City Zip Phone
Idlewild Presbyterian Church 1750 Union Avenue Memphis 38104 844-721-8800
Midtown Church of Christ 1930 Union Avenue Memphis 38104 844-721-8800
Randolph Library – Memphis Public Library 3752 Given Avenue Memphis 38122 844-721-8800
Memphis & Shelby County Office of Re-Entry 1362 Mississippi Blvd. Memphis 38106 844-721-8800
Workforce Investment Network 480 Beale Street Memphis 38103 844-721-8800
Sexton Community Center 1235 Brown Avenue Memphis 38126 844-721-8800

Once the practice test is officially passed, the tester will receive the paperwork necessary to schedule and take the official test. Once the official test is satisfactorily passed then the individual is now a holder of an official diploma, valid in all states!

How Psychology Impacts Us Today

Psychology is always a hot topic, and it informs just about every area of discussion you can imagine. For that you can thank (or blame, considering your personal views) Sigmund Freud. He was not the first of his kind, as most would credit Wilhelm Wundt with that distinction (see Annenberg Learner for an informative timeline of Psychology as an academic discipline). No, Freud was not the first, but he remains the most well-known psychiatrist to most people on the street.

While Freud retains his status as the first name many think of in regards to psychology, most of the mental health profession has evolved well beyond Freud, both in theory and in practice. There are several different types of practitioners in the mental health disciplines, and this brief article will help you sort through the role of each.

Psychiatrist

The American Psychiatric Association states that “Psychiatry is the branch of medicine focused on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders.” This is a fancy way of stating that a psychiatrist is a Doctor; an MD or DO. Yes, you read correctly, a psychiatrist is a doctor in the same sense that your GP, surgeon or gynecologist is a doctor. The article above shares much good information about the particulars, but a psychiatrist attends four years of medical school before training for four additional years of residency. Psychiatrists work to include physical issues that may impact mental health, and as a doctor, a psychiatrist is the main mental health professional to prescribe any sort of medication.

Psychologist

As defined by the American Psychological Association, Psychologists have a doctoral degree, but that does little to tell what they do. Their practical applications are many and varied, from research, to testing and assessment to therapy; psychologists are an important cog in the wheels of mental health treatment. Ultimately the aim of most all psychologists is to help diagnose and treat mental illnesses and improve one’s mental health. A psychologist in private practice or working in a clinical setting typically is engaged in counseling more so than most psychiatrist have time to do, but there is no hard and fast rule that dictates this. Psychologists generally do not prescribe medications, though there are two current exceptions: “As of January 2009, properly trained and qualified, licensed psychologists in New Mexico and Louisiana are authorized to prescribe certain medications for the treatment of mental health disorders. In addition, there are many efforts within the field to expand this authority.”)

Psychiatric Nurse

Psychiatric nurse is one of the most transparent etymologies out there. This professional is a full RN specializing in psychiatric issues. They assist patients in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues and can also, like psychiatrists, prescribe medications. Their organization is the American Association of Psychiatric Nurses and they have a helpful informational link here.

Psych nurses may also earn a Master’s Degree and/or a PhD, and often engage in counseling with clients.

Therapists

Technically all three previously cited professionals conduct therapy, but often their main duties supersede the actual practice of counseling. For example, in certain areas the demand for psychiatric medication is so high that a psychiatrist either cannot take the time to conduct therapy or chooses to focus on diagnosis and prescribing. This article from the New York Times is a good start if you want to explore this issue. For professionals whose focus is counseling you have a variety of choices.

These professionals mainly focus on counseling, with individuals, couples, families and groups. Each of the below detailed disciplines requires a Master’s Degree at minimum and may progress all the way to a PhD if desired. Though the distinctions between these professionals are relevant, essentially you may receive quality care from any of the three: all are trained to properly diagnose and treat a range of mental health issues. They all have standard training that is very similar, and study many of the same experts, theories and traditions, while also branching out into areas that are unique to each.

Marriage and Family Therapist

Don’t be fooled by the title, an MFT is qualified to counsel anyone, not just couples and families. The difference with an MFT is their focus on Systems Theory, in this discipline pioneered to a great degree by MFT grandfather Murray Bowen, as a means of therapeutic change. Their organization is the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. https://www.aamft.org/iMIS15/AAMFT/Content/about_aamft/Qualifications.aspx

Licensed Professional Counselor

You will find LPCs anywhere there is a need for a therapist—community mental health centers, hospitals, substance abuse facilities, schools and more.

http://www.counseling.org/publicpolicy/whoarelpcs.pdf

Social Worker

Social Workers also spend much of their time conducting therapy in situations similar to MFTs and LPCs.

http://www.naswdc.org/

There are other specializations available to mental health professionals, such as music therapy or art therapy, to name just two. At the base, most every mental health professional you encounter will be qualified in at least one of the modes detailed above.