Tuesday, February 12, 2008

When Uncle Sam Plays Cupid

By Jean Hardisty

(Click here to listen to a Public Service Announcement distributed by American Forum, denouncing marriage promotion as an approach to fight poverty.)

Romance and marriage proposals are in the air on Valentine's Day. Unfortunately, cupid isn’t the only matchmaker hard at work this season. An increasing number of low-income women find themselves pushed to the altar -- not by their relations or suitors, but by the federal government.

“The Department of Health and Human Services is not going to run a dating service,” declared Wade Horn in the early days of the George W. Bush administration. But Horn, a leader of the rightist “fatherhood movement” during the 1990s, introduced policies promoting marriage as a cure for poverty while running HHS’ Administration for Children and Families from 2001 to 2007. Despite his “dating service” denial, Horn saw to it that government grants powered a multimillion-dollar marriage industry made up of secular and faith-based groups which encourage low-income women -- especially welfare recipients -- to marry and bring a father into their families. Needless to say, the administration applies only the most narrow and traditional definition of “family”.

Grants made to marriage promotion programs have ballooned while at the same time federal benefits have been cut for all low-income families and those unable to meet their own needs

The scale of government funding for this inane and completely unproven bit of social experimentation is alarming. The 2005 Deficit Reduction Act allocated $100 million annually for marriage promotion programs and $50 million for fatherhood programs over fiscal years 2006 - 2010, or a total of $750 million. The administration’s Charitable Choice Fund -- which in 2004 had a budget of $2 billion -- also makes grants to promote marriage, as does its $30 million Compassion Capital Fund. Many of these millions serve to fuel the expansion of conservative evangelical organizations.

Why is HHS in the marriage business? The conservatives who run administration policy falsely imply that welfare recipients are young African American women of loose sexual morals, who can be saved from their poverty and sin only through the restoration of the traditional father-headed nuclear family. Given the inaccurate and offensive stereotypes that undergird these policies, it should perhaps come as no surprise that there is no solid evidence from the social sciences that marriage results in a higher income for poor women. Indeed, contrary to the administration’s assumptions, marriage is not a magic bullet that will raise a low-income woman and her children out of poverty. Given the individual circumstances of their lives, marriage may actually be an unwise choice for many poor women. That is why most of the programs funded by government grants fail to produce the desired results; they are based on ideology rather than sound social policy.

When it comes to Bush marriage promotion programs, reducing poverty is just a smokescreen for constructing conservative -- and anti-feminist -- family structures. The administration has worked hard to eliminate those few anti-poverty programs that remain standing after the conservative revolution that began with Ronald Reagan. Proven methods, such as subsidized housing, education stipends, health care, day care, and job training programs, have all been cut under the Bush administration. Even the federal implementation of the Violence Against Women Act would be cut by $120 million under President George W. Bush’s 2009 budget proposal.

Marriage is a highly personal decision, not the business of government. Would middle class women and men tolerate this kind of government interference in their personal lives? Not for a minute. Do you solemnly swear to resist this illegitimate intrusion into the intimate lives of our fellow citizens? I do.
Hardisty, a political scientist, is senior scholar at The Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, President Emerita of Political Research Associates, and author of PRA’s new report, Pushed to the Altar: The Right Wing Roots of Marriage Promotion.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Abstinence-Only Defies Voters’ Priorities

By Dr. Charles Jaynes and Margery Engel Loeb

A year ago, Governor Rick Perry showed great leadership when he issued an executive order requiring the state's sixth grade girls to get the HPV vaccine, to prevent cervical cancer. It was a bold move for a state that is conflicted about how best to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

But, if Gov. Perry truly wants to stop the spread of STDs, he will change the state's policy that allows teaching abstinence-only sex education. Recent studies have revealed that an abstinence-only plan won't stop the spread of STDs or decrease the rates of teen pregnancy.

Texas teenagers lead the nation in birth rates, and, as new figures from the National Center for Health Statistics show, after 14 years of steady decline, teen pregnancy rates went up 3 percent across the country in 2006. To many public health officials and educators, the cause for the increases in pregnancy was apparent: since 1996 the only federal funding available to states for sex education is for "abstinence-only" curricula.

Meanwhile, not only have teen pregnancy rates gone up but so have instances of STDs. Lubbock, for example, for 10 years led the nation in the number of Chlamydia and gonorrhea infections, one-third of which came from 15 to 19 year olds. Sexually active teenagers are no longer provided with information on how to prevent pregnancy or the spread of STDs. A rash of studies have also shown that the programs do not succeed in stopping or even significantly delaying teen sex. Despite this, Congress extended funding for "abstinence-only" sex education for another six months.

But a growing number of states have drawn a line on continuing with "abstinence-only" sex education. This year alone 18 states chose to forgo federal funding, and send a message to Washington that we only want to spend our money on effective programs that really protect our children. Texas also needs to voice our concerns to Washington.

While Texas law offers the option of teaching an “abstinence plus” curriculum -- which would include some lessons on birth control -- few schools use this option because the federal dollars are restricted for the abstinence-only lessons, and the money for the “plus” part has to be raised separately.

The criteria for "abstinence-only" programs demand great sins of omission; the only means of pregnancy prevention taught is that of abstaining from sexual activity. Ditto for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

Some of the lesson plans, in their zeal to support abstinence, actually disparage the usefulness of other form of protection, planning or prevention. We need to help our teens learn how to make responsible decisions by arming them with complete information that they will use for the rest of their lives.

Most parents agree it's simply unrealistic to believe that you can stop all teens from having sex by telling them "not to do it," especially when studies report that 60 to 70 percent of teens are sexually active by age 19. That's why 88 percent of voters, according to recent research commissioned by the Women Donors Network, together with Communications Consortium Media Center, agree that "comprehensive sex education should be taught in schools that includes information about abstinence, contraception, and how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS." Eighty-one percent of voters surveyed support a much broader discussion on health issues.

The hard-core activists who push the abstinence-only agenda -- even in light of new evidence that it is not effective in reducing sexual activity, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections -- comprise fewer than 10 percent of voters. Why should they alone get to make educational decisions that could have grave consequences for other people's children?

The reasonable majority of parents who want their children to receive an appropriate and informative form of sex education can no longer afford to stay silent on the issue. States are pushing for change because they would rather put money into programs that work, and not be forced by the federal government into funding unsuccessful plans.

It is crucial for parents to speak to their elected officials and school boards about the need for comprehensive health and sex education. If parents want their children to be presented with accurate health information so that they can make responsible choices about important life decisions -- like when to become a parent -- then that reasonable majority of parents needs to make themselves heard.
Jaynes is a practicing obstetrician gynecologist in Victoria, Texas. Loeb is a board member of the Women Donors Network and leads their project on reproductive and other health issues.

Learning Starts At Birth

By June St. Clair Atkinson and Stephanie Fanjul

To truly prevent the dropouts of tomorrow, our work begins at the very start: the day a child is born. Why? Because children are born learning, and if we wait until third or first grade or even kindergarten to pay attention to what they've missed, it's already late in the game.

Research tells us that at least half of the educational achievement gaps between poor and non-poor children already exist by the time they start kindergarten. A child's brain works on a "use it or lose it" principle, and synapses not stimulated early on will be discarded and more difficult to reconstruct later. Like starting five spaces behind the starting line, the bigger the gap when children start school the harder it becomes to close in the intervening years.

Recognizing this, North Carolina educators and policymakers had the foresight to launch Smart Start, an early child hood program and More at Four, a high-quality pre-k program that serves 4-year-old children who are at risk. The two programs work together to ensure that, from birth, children have the developmental opportunities they need to be successful in school. But now we need to go a step further.

We have brought together early childhood and school leaders, parents and communities to take this next step forward, launching the NC Ready Schools Initiative. This is part of a national initiative that focuses on the early years that span from age three to grade three.

Last June the State Board of Education adopted the Ready Schools definition and endorsed the recommendation that all elementary schools link with a community planning team to conduct a ready schools assessment as part of their School Improvement Planning process. It endorsed the North Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children "Power of K" position paper clarifying what kindergartens should be like -- not the pushed-down academic structures often resulting from the pressures of accountability and No Child Left Behind.

Research from states where Ready Schools' programs are further along shows that such programs are helping to increase reading scores significantly -- from 49 to 70 percent passing rates for African American first graders in Montgomery County, MD -- and to decrease proficiency gaps based on race and ethnicity. In addition, more careful consideration is going into who serves in a principal's role in the elementary grades. If that person does not have training in child development and the early years, pilot participants are providing professional development in those areas.

An emphasis on the crucial learning period from birth through the early grades can also help ensure the success of existing programs such as No Child Left Behind, which have a heavy focus on academics and accountability.
It is imperative for educators to understand that they can teach academic content in developmentally appropriate ways for young children. We also know, that as critical as pre-K for at-risk students is, without sustained focus and appropriate instruction, these children may experience "fade out" -- or a loss of learning gains -- by grade three. Thus, the notion of "book-ending" education -- focusing on children of high school age and very young children -- is important to our ultimate goal of success for all students.

North Carolinians can be proud of their history as educational innovators -- from opening the first public university in the nation to starting the first Governor's School to pioneering school-based accountability. But given all of this effort what can citizens make of the state's continual problem with school dropouts and a high school graduation rate that still shows approximately one-third of all ninth graders failing to graduate from high school within five years?

With the introduction of the NC Ready Schools Initiative, combined with our existing efforts through Smart Start and Governor Easley's More at Four Program to enhance early childhood education, North Carolina has an excellent chance of reversing those high school dropout numbers and continuing to reduce the achievement gap. We can't start soon enough -- because when it comes to educating North Carolina's children, this is one test we cannot afford to fail.
St. Clair Atkinson Ed.D., is the state superintendent of North Carolina. Fanjul is president of The North Carolina Partnership for Children, Inc.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

What’s the Next Step for Health Care

By Lydia Pendley

There is a small window of opportunity for New Mexico to take the next important step toward real health care reform that will lead to a rational, affordable system of health coverage and health care for all people living in the state.

There is still time in the 2008 legislative session for action, if our legislators have the political will to create the infrastructure that will lead to a sound, evidence-based plan for health care for all by the longer 2009 legislative session.

The proposal to create a New Mexico Health Care Authority is an appropriate and well-thought out next step. The Health Care Authority would be charged with conducting policy analysis and creating evidence-based information about health care financing, delivery systems, and overseeing and implementing health care reform in New Mexico.

It would incorporate the Health Policy Commission staff expertise and would build on the initial cost comparison of three health coverage models completed last summer by Mathematica. It would be charged to develop by January 2009 an action plan for the legislature to consider that would achieve affordable, quality health care for all people living in New Mexico.

A Health Care Authority will be an effective means to real health care reform if it is created in a way that ensures:

  • It is independent from control of any single branch of government;

  • It is independent from control of health care industry financial interests;

  • It has no presupposition that health insurance reform is an appropriate strategy for health care reform; and

  • It is charged, through legislation, to address health care reform comprehensively, including provision of comprehensive benefits, funding mechanisms that assure affordability and cost containment, portability of coverage, consolidation of actuarial pools, impact of federal programs/regulations, transparency of health costs, health care data reporting and collection.
The authority must have the ability to address not only health coverage but also cost containment and how the delivery system can be accessible and provide quality care.

There are a variety of health care reform-related proposals before the legislature, and the debate and negotiation is intense with legislators, the governor, state government officials and advocates having a variety of opinions and supporting different options for getting us closer to health care for all New Mexicans.

The Health Care for All Campaign supports the creation of the New Mexico Health Care Authority as the best option to making progress toward real health care reform. We need to start with an entity that can work on these issues over the long term, independent from political or health care industry pressure and can draw on needed expertise from all sectors to develop, with strong public input, the best health care reform plan giving all people living in New Mexico access to affordable, quality health care.

The people of New Mexico must let their voices be heard. The state must provide a way forward with health care reform, out of the morass of political interests, confused messages and claims, and untested strategies for reform. Reform will not happen unless we raise our voices and demand that the broken system be fixed.
Pendley is a member of the Health Care for All Campaign and the co-group leader of RESULTS-Santa Fe.