Timber!

Moderated by Rick Badie

Georgia has more timberland for commercial use than any other state in the nation – over 24 million acres. Today, an executive for an advocate agency highlights the value the state’s forest lands provides citizens and stresses the importance of maintaining certain provisions in the country’s tax code to ensure future economic contributions. Authors of the other column explain the Human Needs Index, a new tool to help communities identify and address poverty.

Tree-filled state benefits us all

By Andres Villegas

Whether you’ve flown over our state or driven through it, you probably think of Georgia as a state filled with trees. And it is. But you may not realize that more than 90 percent of those trees – so crucial to the air we breathe, the water we drink and many of the jobs on which Georgians are dependent – are owned by private landowners. As Congress considers how to reform our country’s tax code, there are provisions that are critical to keeping Georgia full of these economically and environmentally important forestlands.

Of the 24.3 million acres of forest in Georgia, 91 percent are privately owned – more than any other state in the nation. Forest landowners – large and small – invest in managing healthy forests that benefit every Georgian. These are called “working forests” because they increase the economic vitality of the state and provide environmental benefits to every citizen.

Working forests support more than 133,000 jobs across Georgia and provide an annual $28.9 billion boost to the state’s economy. But the impact isn’t limited to rural Georgia. According to the Georgia Institute of Technology, forest landowners and forestry-related industries provide $3.8 billion in total economic output, $861 million in wages and salaries and 13,880 jobs to the 10 core counties that comprise metro Atlanta as defined by the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Georgia is covered in more trees today than 75 years ago, thanks to markets for working forests. Working forests are planted, harvested and replanted to produce the raw materials for common consumer products we use every day – and, increasingly, as a source of energy. While these forests are growing, they are also working to sequester carbon from the air, filter our drinking water and provide habitat to thousands of animals – a value estimated by the University of Georgia at $37.6 billion annually. As long as the landowners can harvest trees and replant them, we can look forward to the economic and environmental benefits they provide.

Current tax provisions include allowing landowners to deduct the annual costs associated with growing healthy, sustainable timberlands. According to research by F&W Forestry Services that analyzed the impacts on a typical Georgia forestland owner, removing these provisions would reduce returns and cash flows by almost one-third. Without healthy markets for trees and fair and reasonable federal tax policy that recognizes the long-term investments and responsible land management of forestland owners, we risk losing timberlands permanently to development.

In a recent letter to U.S. House of Representatives leadership on the Ways and Means tax writing committee, Reps. Buddy Carter, Sanford Bishop, Lynn Westmoreland, Austin Scott, Doug Collins, Jody Hice , Rick Allen and Tom Graves said eliminating these provisions “would amount to an effective tax increase for hundreds of rural communities still struggling to rebound from the recession and would create uncertainty for the future of 470 million acres of privately owned forests and the many economic and environmental benefits they currently provide.”

A healthy and vital forestry economy is essential to Georgia. We should expect federal policy to support an industry that helps our economy and our ecosystem. The current timber tax provisions are a great example of how Washington can help, not hinder, growth and prosperity in our state.

Andres Villegas is president of the Georgia Forestry Association.

A tool to address poverty

By David Jeffrey and Amir Pasic

Statistics about the health and wealth of Americans hold a vexing paradox. Steady signs of improvement are regularly reported on the news. Unemployment continues to decline. Consumer confidence is generally on the rise. The housing crisis appears to have stabilized. The price of oil has given many a freedom to go and do what has been absent in recent years.

As encouraging as many of the signs are, they also can be misleading. National averages, by their nature, obscure regional differences.

Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said, and the visit of Pope Francis recently reminded us, that “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

As a nation, we are compelled not to overlook our most vulnerable citizens. To be fair, prevailing statistical tools such as the national unemployment and poverty rates have always made it difficult for policymakers to even know precisely where individual pockets of vulnerability exist.

But today, it is possible to see poverty in America with greater clarity and to do something about it.

A new, more-nuanced tool offers hope that policymakers and social services providers now can better understand the country’s most acute areas of need more quickly and effectively. It is called the Human Needs Index (HNI).

Developed by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and The Salvation Army, the HNI focuses not on income, as the Census Bureau report does, but on consumption – a far more illuminating picture of how people are doing in their day-to-day lives. It’s not about their means; it’s about whether their means are adequate to the fundamental needs of life.

A standardized index, the HNI includes seven types of services representing basic human needs: meals provided, groceries, clothing, housing, furniture, medical services and assistance with energy bills. The data that make up the index are comprehensive, derived since 2004 from The Salvation Army’s provision of services in thousands of communities, urban and rural, in every region of the country.

With the HNI in hand, timely information can now inform and complement anecdotal evidence in directing resources to alleviate human need in America.

The HNI tells us about regional variations in poverty and how best to focus efforts. For example, an analysis of the data showed that, in 2014, the country overall was at its lowest point of need since 2004, but several parts of the country are still experiencing acute need. Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., have yet to recover to their pre-recession levels of need.

The HNI can also provide information about the specific needs that persist in each region. Do people have adequate housing, but too little to eat? Can they clothe themselves and their children but can’t pay their heating bills? Do they have to forgo other basic needs to get medical services?

With a clear picture of the geography and the nature of real, tangible needs in our country, policymakers can gain new insights into how best to alleviate poverty with new vigor and effectiveness.

More timely information also can improve how we address poverty in the years ahead. The precise means by which government will address it are the subject of the coming elections. But the duty to exert ourselves to alleviate poverty is beyond politics. Our nation is only as strong as our weakest citizens. The Human Needs Index provides leaders across the political spectrum with a valuable tool as they assess how to make America stronger in the years ahead.

Commissioner David Jeffrey is national commander of The Salvation Army USA.Amir Pasic is dean at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

 


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