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News brief: September jobs data, Biden's marijuana pardons, student loan fraud

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

After a hot summer in the U.S. job market, economists are on the lookout for less growth.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

That would actually be welcome news for the Federal Reserve, which is trying to get inflation under control. We'll get the latest numbers on September's job market later this morning.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now with a preview. Scott, what do forecasters think we'll see in today's jobs report?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Analysts are predicting another solid month of job growth in September, maybe a little bit slower than August, when employers added 315,000 jobs. The unemployment rate is expected to hold steady at a low 3.7%. By most measures, this is still a very hot job market. But we are starting to see some signals that it may be cooling just a bit. And as you mentioned, that would be a good thing as far as the Federal Reserve is concerned.

MARTINEZ: And why is that?

HORSLEY: The Fed has been worried that the job market's been running too hot, that there's been more demand for workers than there are people to fill those open jobs. And the resulting competition for workers has been pushing up wages at an unusually fast pace. Of course, ordinarily we think of rising wages as a good thing for workers. But it can also push up inflation. So the Fed has been looking for a better balance between help wanted signs and job seekers. We got an encouraging sign earlier this week when a report came out of the Labor Department showing job openings actually dropped by about 10% in August, even as hiring held pretty steady. Economist Nela Richardson, who's with the payroll processing company ADP, says that's kind of the sweet spot for the central bank.

NELA RICHARDSON: I think this is good news for the Federal Reserve, that you are seeing some softening in early stage demand but still continuation in hiring.

MARTINEZ: Richardson mentioned softening. Any particular industries where we see that?

HORSLEY: Certainly anything that has to do with housing, construction, mortgage financing. Obviously, we've seen a big rise in mortgage interest rates, as the Fed has cracked down on inflation. That's led to a slowdown in the housing sector. We're also keeping an eye on manufacturing. A survey of factory managers that came out this week showed they're somewhat less eager to hire people than they've been in the past. Tim Fiore, who conducts that survey for the Institute for Supply Management, says that's because factory orders are starting to slow down a bit. And managers are not sure they're going to need as many workers in the coming months.

TIM FIORE: I think we definitely have a slowdown here. And it's really hard to hire somebody this month and, three, four months from now, let them go. So you know, people are being a lot more cautious.

HORSLEY: Now, Fiore says he's not seeing a lot of layoffs in factories. But some manufacturers are imposing hiring freezes. And when people quit, they're not being replaced as quickly. Now, keep in mind, manufacturing is a pretty small slice of the overall job market. And a separate survey of managers on the service side of the economy did not show any similar slowdown in hiring. So we could continue to see job gains at restaurants and retail shops and other service-oriented businesses.

MARTINEZ: Anything else you'd be looking for in today's report?

HORSLEY: Yeah. As of this summer, the U.S. had replaced all the jobs that were lost in the early months of the pandemic. And ADP's Richardson says additional growth from here is going to depend in part on how many more people come off the sidelines and start looking for work.

RICHARDSON: The more people who come back to the labor market, the more likely we'll see some loosening in hiring conditions and a continuation of these steady gains.

HORSLEY: We saw a big influx of workers in August, when nearly 800,000 people joined the workforce. So I'm going to be watching to see if that encouraging trend continues. If it does, that would be another positive sign for the Federal Reserve. And it could take a little more pressure off inflation.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: President Biden has pardoned everyone convicted in federal court of simple marijuana possession.

FADEL: Biden said it's a step toward addressing racial bias in drug sentencing. And he urged governors to follow his lead - pardon those convicted on state charges of simple pot possessions, where there are far more convictions.

MARTINEZ: Let's talk about this with NPR's Eric Westervelt. Eric, criminal justice reform groups have long, long called for a pardon for federal pot possession. What's been the reaction among these advocacy groups?

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Yeah. Good morning. Groups I talked to are elated. They're a little surprised. They didn't know this was coming. And they say this is long overdue policy change. Many called it hugely important that a president is taking federal action to sort of destigmatize marijuana. And they think it could mark the start of a major change in federal policy toward the drug. I talked with Erik Altieri. He's executive director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which has pushed for this kind of change for decades.

ERIK ALTIERI: Today was a huge step in the right direction and, really, a historic move to see coming from a sitting president of the United States.

WESTERVELT: I mean, in all, 19 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of pot. Altieri notes that means more than 40% of the U.S. population today lives somewhere where marijuana is legal. Five more states are going to vote on legalization in midterms coming up in just a few weeks. Thirty-eight states in all have legalized medical use of cannabis. So in many ways, these advocacy groups say the White House is finally catching up with these enormous social and political changes that have taken place in the states around cannabis over the last 20-plus years.

MARTINEZ: Well, let's talk about the impact a bit, because these presidential pardons directly affect a relatively small number of people that are caught up in America's long war on drugs.

WESTERVELT: That's right. It's the state level where the vast majority of these low-level pot convictions are, about 98% in all. The federal pot possession pardons will impact about 6,500 people across the country and a few thousand more in the District of Columbia. You know, and officials told me no one is currently serving time in federal prisons solely for simple marijuana possession. And we should note, the pardons don't apply to people convicted of distributing or selling marijuana. But I talked with Lenore Anderson. She's president of the reform group the Alliance for Safety and Justice. And she told me, look; this move will start to unwind the racial inequities and, really, often devastating ripple effects on people's lives these convictions can have.

LENORE ANDERSON: For jobs, for housing, loans, occupational licenses. In many ways, old records can lead to a lifetime of post-conviction poverty. And that's not good for public safety. And it's not good for the economy.

WESTERVELT: But she concedes this is really a highly symbolic move, in many ways. It's about using the bully pulpit of the White House, setting a tone that other states might follow.

MARTINEZ: And, Eric, the president stopped short of calling for full decriminalization. But he said his administration is going to review the federal classification for marijuana. What would that entail?

WESTERVELT: Yeah. Marijuana is currently listed as a Schedule 1 drug alongside heroin and other hard drugs, narcotics driving the nation's addiction and overdose epidemics. Pot's also classified even higher than that of fentanyl and methamphetamine. The president said that current classification of pot, quote, "makes no sense." So he's asked his secretary of Health and Human Services, along with the attorney general, to review a possible change to that classification. Advocates hope that review eventually leads to a full de-scheduling of cannabis and repealing it from the Controlled Substances Act. But we're far away from that. Repealing pot from the federal act would, you know, involve Congress taking action. That would be a much tougher road there, including opposition from many Republicans who still view pot as a dangerous drug that should be highly regulated by the feds.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Eric Westervelt. Eric, thanks.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: If you have student debt, maybe this is something you've experienced recently, a suspicious voicemail about your student loans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're just giving you a call in regards to your student loans.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: In order for you to qualify, you must apply within the next 24 hours.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's urgent that you return my call to complete your application prior to when payments resume.

FADEL: Nobody legitimate is calling you to demand you apply for student loan forgiveness. These are scams. And these calls have been rampant since President Biden announced his plan for federal student loan forgiveness. Now the White House is working to crack down on the scammers.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Meg Anderson joins us now to tell us more. Meg, what types of scams are borrowers seeing?

MEG ANDERSON, BYLINE: Yeah. So in addition to calls like the ones you just heard, borrowers are getting texts and emails from people trying to get their personal information or asking them to pay a fee. And, yeah, to be clear, borrowers don't have to do anything yet in order to benefit from Biden's plan to cancel up to $20,000 in their loans. But there's been very little information from the government about how to apply, what the application will look like or when it will be released. I spoke with Betsy Mayotte. She runs a nonprofit that advises borrowers. And she says, because so many people are potentially eligible for this relief - it's about 40 million - that that has opened up the floodgates to fraud.

BETSY MAYOTTE: I saw scam activity as early as the afternoon of the day they made the announcement on August 24.

MARTINEZ: Wow, so right away. Then what's the White House planning to do to deal with these scammers?

M ANDERSON: So first, they're focusing on holding scammers accountable. To do that, the White House says it's going to increase communication between the Education Department and other key federal agencies, like the Federal Trade Commission. The government is also planning to send borrower complaints directly to states so they can act faster to stop scams, too. Here's Richard Cordray. He's in charge of the branch of the Education Department that handles student loans.

RICHARD CORDRAY: We want to be on top of this so that we are hitting the scams in real time and knocking them out, and making sure people have the right information to go to the right place to get the relief they deserve.

M ANDERSON: But a lot of this effort to prevent fraud falls heavily on the shoulders of borrowers.

MARTINEZ: How can borrowers, then, protect themselves?

M ANDERSON: So first, don't pay anyone who is promising you student loan forgiveness. The official application is going to be free. Don't give out personal financial information over the phone to an unknown caller. Borrowers use an ID to log into their loan account. Don't share that. And if you do get scam calls or if you fall for one, which happens, don't be embarrassed. But you should report it. And you can do that online at reportfraud.ftc.gov.

MARTINEZ: Meg, wouldn't it be helpful if the Education Department actually released forgiveness applications? I mean, what have they said about this? It seems like that would make a lot of sense.

M ANDERSON: Yeah. So I put that question to Cordray this week. And he said they're working at warp speed to get a clear and easy application out. But they still haven't released any more concrete details on when that'll be. Mayotte, who runs the loan advising group, said releasing the application will be helpful in some ways. But...

MAYOTTE: If I know the scammers, they'll use that as an opportunity, too. The application is out. Let us help you to make sure you don't miss it.

M ANDERSON: She called it a Catch 22. Scammers are thriving in the waiting period. But the fear is they'll thrive afterwards, too.

MARTINEZ: Just don't answer the phone. That's the solution. NPR's Meg Anderson. Meg, thanks.

M ANDERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.