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Associated Press

Posted on January 27, 2014 at 6:02 AM

Wealth gap: A guide to what it is, why it matters and why everyone seems to be focused on it

WASHINGTON (AP) — From the White House to the Vatican to the business elite in Davos, Switzerland, one issue keeps seizing the agenda: the growing gap between the very wealthy and everyone else.

It's "the defining challenge of our time," says President Barack Obama, who will spotlight the issue in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. A Gallup poll finds two-thirds of Americans are unhappy with the nation's distribution of wealth. Experts say it may be slowing the economy.

Why has the issue suddenly galvanized attention? Here are questions and answers about the wealth gap — what it is and why it matters.

Q. Hasn't there always been a wide gulf between the richest people and the poorest?

A. Yes. What's new is the widening gap between the wealthiest and everyone else. Three decades ago, Americans' income tended to grow at roughly similar rates, no matter how much you made. But since roughly 1980, income has grown most for the top earners. For the poorest 20 percent of families, it's dropped. Incomes for the highest-earning 1 percent of Americans soared 31 percent from 2009 through 2012, after adjusting for inflation, according to data compiled by Emmanuel Saez, an economist at University of California, Berkeley. For the rest of us, it inched up an average of 0.4 percent. In 17 of 22 developed countries, income disparity widened in the past two decades, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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AP-GfK Poll: Negative views of health rollout ease as more sign up; consumers still skeptical

WASHINGTON (AP) — Memo to the White House: The website may be fixed, but President Barack Obama's new health insurance markets have yet to win over most consumers.

Negative perceptions of the health care rollout have eased, a new Associated Press-GfK poll finds. But overall, two-thirds of Americans say things still aren't going well.

Of those who've tried to sign up, or who live with someone who has, 71 percent have encountered problems. But the share reporting success jumped to 40 percent from a meager 24 percent in December.

"Everything is not perfect; it takes time to work out the glitches," said Carol Lyles, a homecare provider from Los Angeles who was able to get coverage as a result of the law. "If done right, I believe it will provide the services that are needed."

The poll comes with about 60 days left in open enrollment season. The administration is playing catch-up to meet its goal of signing up 7 million people in new insurance exchanges that offer subsidized private coverage to middle-class households. So far, the markets have attracted an older crowd that tends to be more costly to cover. Younger people in the coveted 18-34 age group are still mainly on the sidelines.

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Syria opposition claims no progress on Syria aid convoy, prisoners' release

GENEVA (AP) — Syria's opposition says there has been no progress on aid convoys reaching a besieged city in central Syria and the release of prisoners from government jails.

Opposition spokesman Monzer Akbik says talks on a political transition in Syria are beginning Monday regardless. "We will start talking about a new Syria," he told reporters in Geneva as the government and opposition delegation sat down again with a U.N. mediator for talks.

A tentative agreement was reached Sunday to let women and children leave a blockaded part of the old city of Homs. But Akbik described it Monday as a "moral outrage" and said people trapped in the city should receive aid inside their city and then have the freedom to leave or stay.

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The winter abides: Midwest, Ohio Valley up for another round of below-zero temps, wind chills

CHICAGO (AP) — Another winter day, another below-zero high temperature for many parts of the Midwest — at least, it seems that way. The deep chill has returned, bringing with it wind chills ranging from the negative teens to 40s, school cancellations and sighs of resignation from residents who are weary of bundling up.

A persistent weather pattern that's driving Arctic air south will drop temperatures for about 2½ days, starting overnight Sunday. Actual temperatures will range from the teens in northern Kentucky to double-digits below zero in Minnesota, but wind chills will be even colder — minus 43 in Minneapolis, minus 23 in Chicago, minus 18 in Dayton, Ohio, minus 14 in Kansas City, Mo., and minus 3 in Louisville, Ky.

"I'm sick of it," Chicago resident Matt Ryan, 19, said Sunday on his way to his family's home in the suburb of Oak Park.

"I came home to steal a scarf from my parents," he said. Ryan's plan for Monday, when the high is forecast to be a mere minus 4 degrees and the wind chills could dip to 40 below: Dress in layers, carry hand warmers and wear long underwear.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Scott Blair stopped short of calling the latest round of cold part of the polar vortex, a system of winds that circulate around the North Pole.

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After weekend shooting, Maryland mall set for reopening with memorials, more security

COLUMBIA, Md. (AP) — The mall where a Maryland teenager gunned down two people before killing himself was set for a somber reopening Monday under increased security as police worked to figure out why the shooting took place and whether the gunman knew either victim.

Investigators found a journal belonging to Darion Marcus Aguilar, 19, but they would only say that it "expressed general unhappiness." The contents, however, were enough for an officer looking into the disappearance of Aguilar on the day of the shooting to worry about the teen's safety.

Police said Aguilar took a taxi to the Mall in Columbia in suburban Baltimore on Saturday morning and entered the building near Zumiez, a shop that sells skateboarding gear. He went downstairs to a food court directly below the store, then returned less than an hour later, dumped the backpack in a dressing room and started shooting.

Shoppers fled in a panic or barricaded themselves behind closed doors. When police arrived, they found three people dead — two store employees and Aguilar.

The shooting baffled investigators and acquaintances of Aguilar, a quiet, skinny teenager who graduated from high school less than a year ago and had no previous run-ins with law enforcement.

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Daft Punk, Macklemore & Lewis top socially conscious Grammy Awards that leaned left of center

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Grammy Awards celebrated outcasts and outsiders, lionizing a couple of French robots, white rappers and a country gal espousing gay rights, and a Goth teenager who's clearly uncomfortable with the current themes in pop music.

The Recording Academy's voters mined some of pop music's biggest hits to send an open-hearted message, awarding French electronic music pioneers Daft Punk for teaming with R&B legends to make a hybrid album that celebrated both genres, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Kacey Musgraves for espousing gay rights and Lorde for her anti-swag message to the masses.

Daft Punk and collaborator Pharrell Williams won four awards, including top honors album and record of the year, and best new artists Macklemore and Lewis matched that with four of their own. Lorde won two awards for her inescapable hit "Royals."

Beyond their awards, each offered one of the more powerful moments at the Sunday night ceremony at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Lorde performed "Royals" wearing black lipstick and fingernail polish with little production, standing in opposition to the large-scale presentations from some of the night's other performers. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo of Daft Punk continued the celebratory feel of their hit, record of the year "Get Lucky," by asking Stevie Wonder to join them with Williams and Nile Rodgers in a colorful performance. And Macklemore and Lewis invited 33 couples, including some of the same sex, to get married with Madonna serenading them and Queen Latifah presiding.

The moment brought tears to the eyes of Keith Urban and though the robots don't reveal themselves or speak in public, they had feelings about it, too, asking producer Paul Williams to relay their thoughts.

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Collaborations make for a mixed night at the Grammys Awards

A teenager from New Zealand and two French "robots" shall lead them.

What makes music special is its seeming randomness, of magic moments coming from where you'd least expect them. Sunday night's Grammy Awards proved that. In a room filled with music history and industry powerhouses, Lorde and Daft Punk took major awards. And there were other moments, too — some moving, some boring, some baffling, some just plain fun.

Here are some of the thrills and clunkers the 56th annual Grammy Awards offered:

MUSIC TO OUR EARS: An emotional performance of "Same Love" by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis with Mary Lambert, featuring dozens of couples exchanging vows. Guest Madonna seemed a bit wobbly, but her "Open Your Heart" fit nicely with the sentiment.

SOUR NOTE: What's the point of assembling an odd rock super group with Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age and Lindsey Buckingham for the finale and cutting them off mid-song?

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In State of the Union, Obama to help frame economic argument for Democrats for 2014 elections

WASHINGTON (AP) — There's only so much that President Barack Obama can do to help his party this year. Six years in, he's less popular than before, and aside from fundraising, his value on the campaign trail is limited, especially in the places that matter most for Democrats.

But the president can set the tone — and in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama will deliver the opening salvo in a yearlong fight for control of Congress. Although not explicitly political, the speech before millions will frame an economic argument that Democrats hope will resonate with voters in races across the country.

"It will be interpreted as the Democratic agenda," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. "He can frame up the 2014 choice."

That choice, as Obama portrays it, is between an America where all segments of the population have opportunities to improve their lot and one where prosperity is disproportionately enjoyed by a select few. In the run-up to the State of the Union, Obama has persistently sought to focus the nation's attention on trends of inequality and lower social mobility that he's pledging to address in his final years in office.

To be sure, not every Democrat will echo Obama's themes in their own campaigns. Many may focus on niche, regional issues or their personal characteristics. But with the economy still a top issue for most voters, Democrats see issues of economic fairness and expanding access to the middle class as their best chance to reach a broad swath of the population that feels left behind by the sluggish economic recovery.

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Brain-dead, pregnant Texas woman taken off life support; unclear if case will spark law change

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — A very public battle over the fate of a brain-dead, pregnant Texas woman and her fetus has ended quietly and privately, as she has been taken off life support and her family prepares for her burial.

John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth complied Sunday with a judge's order to pull any life-sustaining treatment from Marlise Munoz, who was declared brain-dead in November, but kept on machines for the sake of her fetus.

Munoz was removed from the machines shortly afterward and allowed to die. The fetus, which was at 23 weeks' gestation, was not delivered.

The hospital's decision brought an apparent end to a case that inspired debates about abortion and end-of-life decisions, as well as whether a pregnant woman who is considered legally and medically dead should be kept on life support for the sake of a fetus, per Texas law. Anti-abortion activists attended Friday's court hearing and spoke out in favor of trying to deliver the fetus.

Whether the Munoz case leads Texas to change the law remains unclear. In recent years, the Legislature has enacted several new anti-abortion restrictions, including setting the legal guideline for when a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks — a milestone Marlise Munoz's fetus passed about three weeks ago.

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A Super Bowl best served cold: Broncos, Seahawks arrive in an Apple that's anything but baked

JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) — Leave it to Peyton Manning to put everything in perspective.

"The Super Bowl is a big deal," the Broncos' record-setting quarterback said Sunday after his team arrived in a frozen Big Apple — well, across the icy Hudson River in New Jersey, actually.

Well, yeah, it's only the biggest sporting event in America, a quasi-national holiday. That's not lost on the four-time NFL MVP and owner of one Super Bowl title.

"I know how hard it is to get here," he added. "I know how much time and sacrifice our team has made in order to have this opportunity to play in this game. We were excited to get on that plane. We were excited getting off that plane, and we are looking forward to being here all week and, hopefully, playing a good game next Sunday."

It will take more than a good game to beat the Seahawks, of course. Seattle brings the stingiest defense in the league to the Super Bowl. It's a juicy matchup between an unstoppable force led by Manning (55 TD passes, 606 points) and an immovable object (231 points allowed, ranked first in overall and passing defense).

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