Monday, April 28, 2008

Juan’s Story: Undocumented But Not Un-American

Watch a video of Juan telling his story.

By Sally Kohn

The first thing I noticed about Juan when I met him is his presence. For a young man, just graduated from high school --- that period when most of us were shy and awkward at best --- Juan is confident and vocal, the kind of person with clear potential to be a leader in whatever field he might choose.

The second thing you notice about Juan is the sadness in his eyes. His country, the only home he has ever known, decided his potential is irrelevant --- that no amount of talent and passion and vision and drive could ever overcome the fact that he and his family once crossed our nation’s borders without permission. It’s as though Juan the person doesn’t exist without Juan the paperwork. In our country, he’s treated as a number --- one to be reduced or feared.

Fear is one of the dominant motivating and manipulating forces in politics today. Some have tried to convince us that we should be afraid of immigrants, exploiting our fear about our jobs, healthcare and the economy, while pointing fingers at immigrants and saying they’re the cause of our problems. These are problems that have existed for years, deep flaws in the distribution of wealth and opportunity in our society, and undocumented immigrants are just the latest scapegoats. Fear is used to distract us while the real problems only grow.

The other motivating force is usually pity. But that’s not the answer either. Pity is equal parts compassion and isolation --- a sort-of thank goodness that it’s not me in his shoes. Pitying Juan would rob him of his dignity and power --- and absolve ourselves of responsibility.

What else, then? The most mutually respectful of emotions, where your fate is entwined with another’s, where you could never be truly safe if they are in danger, truly free if they are imprisoned, truly happy if they are unhappy -- we call that love. I don’t just mean romantic love. I mean the moral, even spiritual love --- a deep feeling of connection to other human beings, that their struggles are our struggles, their pain our pain, and that no one person’s happiness or security or hopes for the future can be rightly put above any one else’s. Just as the interests of billionaires should not be put ahead of people who are starving or losing their homes, one person’s claim on the American dream should not be put above anyone else’s by simple virtue of the geography of birth.

At what point did we close the borders on the American dream? The ideal of America has never been perfect in practice --- our present is still stained by a past of Native American extermination, slavery and sexism. Yet we have always marched toward inclusion, sometimes slowly, sometimes begrudgingly, but always bending the arc of our nation toward justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed. When did the arc start flattening out? Did we decide we’ve dished out just enough love and justice or that there’s not enough to go around? In a nation founded on the idea that freedom and equality and opportunity are renewable resources and the more the merrier, have we achieved “peak love” and tapped out?

The writer CS Lewis wrote, “We love to know that we are not alone.” And we are not alone. And as a nation, we are blessed by the bounty of generation upon generation of immigrants who have come to our borders and our shores to make a better life for themselves and, in so doing, make a better country for us all. It is the nation that, despite its hiccups and growing pains on the path to justice, is one that we should be proud to love. And Juan, like millions waiting at the gates of the American dream, loves his country and asks for our love in return.

Kohn is a senior campaign strategist for the Center for Community Change.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 4/08

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Who Really Pays for Taxes in North Carolina?

By Meg Gray Wiehe

Two workers arrive at the office at 8 am. By 8:34, one of the workers has earned enough money to pay his share of state and local taxes for the day. The other worker must keep going for another 17 minutes to earn enough to pay his share. The difference between these two workers is their income, but not in the way you make think.

In North Carolina today, it is the state’s poorest taxpayers who pay the highest share of their incomes in state and local taxes and the wealthiest taxpayers who pay the least.

State and local taxes pay for many of the things that keep North Carolinians safe and enhance their quality of life. These include physical structures like roads, jails, and school buildings, and services like health care, education, and restaurant inspections.

Because these investments benefit everyone, each North Carolinian should contribute an appropriate share of his or her income to pay for them. It should be a common goal that all North Carolinians pay similar shares of their incomes in state and local taxes. A good case can also be made that wealthier taxpayers should contribute a greater share of their incomes.

However, the situation today is the exact opposite of this ideal. In 2007, the bottom 20 percent of North Carolina households, with an average annual income of $10,000, paid 10.7 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes. In the same year, the top 1 percent, with an average annual income of $970,000, paid only 7.1 percent. The responsibility of paying local and state taxes falls hardest on those with the least ability to pay.

North Carolina’s state and local tax system on the whole is unfair, or “regressive.” North Carolina relies primarily on income, property and sales taxes to fund state and local services. The income tax is the largest of North Carolina’s combined state and local revenue sources. This helps to lessen the overall “regressivity” of the state’s tax system, but it is not enough to offset the impact that the sales, excise and property taxes have on the poorest households. A fair tax system should be structured such that the combined impact of all tax sources results in households with higher incomes paying the greatest share of income in state and local taxes.

The “regressivity” of North Carolina’s tax system has a serious impact on the state’s ability to collect adequate revenues. The majority of state income is concentrated in the wealthiest households, and the incomes of the top 1 percent are growing at a much faster rate than any other income category. Because North Carolina’s state and local tax system primarily targets working families who have seen their wages stagnate and have the least ability to pay, state revenues are in danger of lagging behind. Unless the state makes some key tax policy changes, we will certainly face serious budget problems in the future.

Changes that would require wealthy households to pay their fair share are essential to the state’s success. If we were to change the state and local tax system to require the wealthiest 1 percent of households to pay as much of their income as the poorest 20 percent do, the revenue yield would have been $589 million in 2006.

One way to improve tax fairness is to expand the sales tax base to include more personal services (used more by the wealthy) and use the revenue gains to lower the overall sales tax rate. Another is to increase the size of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to offset the impact of the sales tax on low-income households.

Changes can also be made to the property tax to benefit low-income homeowners and renters. The preferred approach, used in more than 30 states, is a refundable “circuit breaker” credit that would return a portion of property taxes low-income homeowners and renters pay through a refundable credit on their state income tax form.

Ideally, when lawmakers consider any changes to North Carolina’s current revenue system, they should account for the impact the change will have on low- and moderate-income taxpayers. If fairness is not at the center of every tax policy debate, reform efforts will fall short on achieving long-term adequacy. Focusing on fairness will help the state meet its needs without relying on those with the least to contribute.
Gray Wiehe is a policy analyst at the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center and the author of a special report entitled “Who Pays Taxes in North Carolina?”
Copyright (C) 2008 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum. 4/08

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Mind the Pay Gap

By Mary Beth Maxwell

Recent headlines reveal what many of us already know -- Americans are witnessing the highest inflation rates seen in over 20 years. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food prices climbed nearly five percent in 2007, and as housing and energy costs skyrocket out of control, working families are getting squeezed. In these difficult times, we should also be reminded that women face even greater financial struggles when weathering this economic storm.

With the observance of Equal Pay Day on April 24, we mark how far into each year a woman must work to earn as much as a man did in the previous year. Recent wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not give cause for celebration. In 2007, women earned only 80 cents for every dollar a man earned. This pay gap was substantially greater for minorities, with African-American women making only 70 cents and Hispanic women making only 62 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. While women are more reluctant to negotiate salaries and are often employed in underpaid professions, one grim reality remains -- gender-based discrimination still inherent in our society has largely caused the pay gap that persists today.

Although women can’t always rely on their employer to give them equal pay for an equal day’s work, they can count on union representation to help close the gap. That’s a dirty little secret most employers don’t want their workers to know – just ask educators at the Ithaca City School District in Ithaca, N.Y. In 2002, hundreds of teaching assistants and teacher aides, 90 percent of them female, had a starting pay of only $6.72 an hour. Putting pressure on the school district to end these poverty wages, the educators organized a union and bargained a contract, receiving a 50 percent raise in starting salary to $10.05 an hour. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data indicates that when women are members of unions, they make the same pay as men who are not, a clear indication of the benefits unions can provide in helping improve the financial security of women.

At a time when union membership presents us with a chance to narrow the wage gap and move toward greater equality, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is vital. Set to be reintroduced in Congress next year, the bill will give workers a more direct path to freely and fairly form a union if they so choose. Since employers often resist organizing campaigns with illegal tactics used to intimidate and scare workers, this legislation will also hold anti-union employers accountable for violating federal labor laws through tougher penalties and greater enforcement.

The wages of many working women have already improved thanks to union membership, but even more women stand to gain ground if this proposal is passed. For example, in the retail food industry union members earn 31 percent more than non-union employees. Overall, the employer contribution to health insurance premiums and pension coverage is more than twice as high for union members as for non-union members. By breaking down the barriers workers face when attempting to join a union, the ability of women to reach the American dream through fair and equitable compensation will be heightened.

That is, if lawmakers next year have the conviction to pass the legislation. While the Employee Free Choice Act overwhelmingly passed the House this session, the Republican leadership killed the bipartisan version of the bill in the Senate. Members of Congress will soon have the opportunity to hear from Americans wanting their elected leaders to take another step toward income parity through passage of this legislation. As the cost of rent, gas, health care and other necessities continues to rise, women who often are the sole breadwinners for their families can’t afford another stalemate of this critical bill in Congress next year.
Maxwell is the executive director of American Rights at Work
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 4/08

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

How the Christian Right Goes Wrong

By Cristina Page

New research reveals that female students in programs that promote abstinence exclusively are more likely to get pregnant than those in programs that teach about the full range of contraceptives as well as abstinence. The news, published in the April issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, is just the latest proof that the $1.5 billion dollar “just say no to sex” experiment on our teens has failed. And while Christian conservatives defend their approach even in the face of this latest devastating news, it’s time to ask them one simple question: Shouldn’t the results matter?

At current rates, half of all teenagers will have sex before graduating high school and 95 percent will before marrying. These statistics infuriate the abstinence-until-marriage proponents. Their hope is that, by keeping teens in the dark about protection, ignorance will somehow lead to temperance. Those most committed to the abstinence approach seem to have paid most dearly though. Earlier findings by researchers at Yale and Columbia Universities revealed that teens taking part in virginity pledge programs (they pledge to stay virgins until marriage) are more likely than their non-pledging peers to engage in risky unprotected sex. The study also showed virgin pledgers were six times more likely to have oral sex and male “virgins” are four times more likely to have anal sex than those who do not take the pledge. These “virgins” had the same rate of STDs as other teens but were much less likely to be treated for them.

Southern school districts, which are five times more likely to use the abstinence-only approach than northeast schools, have much to show for investing in the abstinence-only. Today, southern states lead the nation in the acquisition of STDs, are home to the highest rate of new HIV/AIDS cases, and have the highest percentage of teen mothers in the country. The damage is so staggering that 17 states have opted to reject federal funding for abstinence only. In the long term, they concluded, the costs of their failure outweigh any benefits.

Abstinence is not the only policy that Christian conservatives pursue despite evidence that it doesn’t work. In fact, much of the movement’s policies have, even by their own standards, led to perverse outcomes. Consider the drive to outlaw abortion. Last year, 11 states moved to ban abortion immediately and create a case to test Roe vs. Wade in the Supreme Court. But, if ending abortion is the goal, banning abortion is quite possibly the worst strategy. The countries with the highest abortion rates in the world are those that have banned abortion. Take Latin America, where most countries have outlawed abortion yet have the same rate or- as in the case of Peru, Chile and the Dominican Republic -- rates twice as high as the United States. And where on earth have the lowest abortion rates been achieved? In countries with the strongest pro-choice policies; like the Netherlands, Germany and Italy where abortion is not only legal, but in several cases available free of charge. This pro-choice policy/lower abortion rate trend has been true in our country as well. We witnessed the most dramatic decline in abortion in the history of our country under our first pro-choice president, Bill Clinton. These declines continue today and notably where it is falling sharpest is where the strongest pro-choice policies, namely prevention through wider access to contraception, have been adopted.

And while banning abortion has failed to stop abortions, limiting abortion rights has also produced undesired outcomes. A favorite tactic of the “right to life” movement is to impose mandatory delay policies on abortion. A woman must receive information about her right to an abortion and then must wait 24 to 48 hours before receiving a procedure. Sounds harmless enough. However, while these policies have had little effect on the frequency of abortion they have dramatically increased late term abortions. In the year after Mississippi passed a mandatory delay law, second trimester abortion increased statewide by 53 percent. Nearly half the number of women presenting for an abortion late in pregnancy these days cite pro-life restrictions as the cause.

The danger of policies guided by ideology is that the means often are the end. There is no better example of the deleterious effects of policies based on wishful thinking than in the reproductive rights debate. We need to respect people’s ability to make their own life decisions and not impose our values and views upon them. If Americans were to set aside the catchy sound bites and suspiciously simplistic reasoning and instead judge by results, most would find the pro-choice movement is a more comfortable home for their stated values.
Page is the author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex and spokesperson for
Copyright (C) 2007 by the American Forum. 4/08

Collaborative Mental Health Policy is Best for Alabama

By Amy Hinton

For many years, mental health advocates have complained that mental health policy is made in a vacuum. The tendency is to treat mental health as if it were an island, separate and distinct from any of the other legitimate functions of government. It is not.

Several state agencies, including the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Youth Services (DYS), recently participated in the first phase of a multi-year collaborative strategic planning grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. It gave Alabama the opportunity to explore ways to reduce the number of adults and juveniles with mental health and/or substance abuse disorders that come into contact with law enforcement and the state criminal and juvenile justice systems. The goal is to not only reduce the numbers, but also to improve early identification efforts that would appropriately route persons with mental illness into the correct social service delivery system.

Many state agencies are being forced to deal with mental health issues in much the same way as an entertainer tries to keep multiple plates spinning on sticks during a vaudeville show. This is neither an effective nor efficient use of Alabama’s limited policy and planning resources. The concept of collaborative policymaking regarding mental health issues is relatively new and unfamiliar to most state agency leaders who may feel the issue has little relevance to their particular service area. Nothing could be further from reality. Mental health is an important policy issue that touches every major service area in state government.

Every day, in jails and prisons across Alabama, law enforcement officers find themselves responsible for individuals with serious mental illnesses and/or substance abuse and addiction. Lacking qualified medical staff and access to appropriate medications for inmates, correctional facilities are ill-equipped to serve as de facto mental health treatment centers. We should look to Alabama’s existing mental health and drug courts, which have evidenced promising results in diverting offenders with mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders into appropriate services.

Gov. Bob Riley recently invited the Annie E. Casey Foundation to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the state juvenile justice system. It was discovered that more juvenile offenders in Alabama are committed to DYS for property crimes than for violent offenses. Numerous juvenile judges acknowledged that

these commitments are usually inappropriate, but community-based adolescent substance abuse treatment resources are lacking statewide. Many juvenile offenders are removed from their families and committed to DYS to access substance abuse treatment resources unavailable in their communities.

The lack of training and professional development for public school personnel regarding early identification of mental health and substance abuse disorders ties the hands of the individuals who could be the most effective in early identification of juveniles with mental health needs. County and municipal governing bodies and State Department of Education officials need to be brought to the table to discuss how to integrate mental health into their policymaking activities.

Three problems exist that, if rectified now, could generate significant cost savings for Alabama.

First, serious deficiencies exist in data collection that would help state agencies identify individuals with mental health needs entering or being released from state correctional facilities and community corrections programs.

Second, too many individuals are incarcerated because the mental health and/or substance abuse service delivery systems in their communities are inadequate or nonexistent. It costs more to institutionalize someone than to provide community based services.

Third, the money that was previously spent on institutional mental health services did not follow patients into the community during the wave of psychiatric hospital closings that occurred nationwide beginning in the 1970s and 1980s. This has resulted in inadequate budgets for community-based services that are being accessed by increasing numbers of people each year.

The importance of adequately funding community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment services cannot be understated. Alabama should encourage these efforts between state agencies who deal with mental health issues every day.
Hinton is an advocate and public policy consultant specializing in mental health policy and former mental health services provider, who most recently served as project coordinator for Phase One of the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Project at the Alabama Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Alabama Forum. 4/08

Friday, April 04, 2008

Gas Gouging and Green Jackets

By Martha Burk

Paid at the pump lately? Who hasn’t, and we’re paying more with each tank. Gas is up a quarter a gallon in the last two weeks alone, but don’t expect big oil to feel your pain. The moguls at ExxonMobil, the fattest of the petroleum cartel cats, will squander several millions of your fuel dollars sponsoring the Masters golf tournament and entertaining their buddies during the April 8 to 12 festivities.

The Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, is famous for its top notch course, beautiful azaleas, members in green jackets -- and sex discrimination. A female may be good enough to take the Oval Office, but no woman is good enough make it through the front gates of Augusta National as an equal. Even after a national argument five years ago that played out from network TV to kitchen tables, the boys in green refused to allow women members into their exclusive club. They’re still standing firm.

Augusta National lost its TV sponsors for two years over their refusal to admit women, but ExxonMobil came to the rescue, stepping up to the sex-segregation plate with a new multi-year contract to underwrite the Masters broadcast. Female shareowners are outraged, and have filed stockholder resolutions demanding that the company account for the number of dollars spent at Augusta and other venues that discriminate on the basis of gender. The resolutions state the obvious -- the company wouldn’t do it if the subject was race. But apparently the boys in the boardroom (there are only two women out of 13) don’t think sex discrimination is such a big deal. Management sent out a letter last month urging stockholders to vote against this simple demand for disclosure.

But don’t think the company isn’t trying to woo women’s dollars while thumbing its nose at the principles of fairness and equality. In a breathtaking act of corporate hypocrisy, last month ExxonMobil also ran a nationwide full page color ad in the New York Times touting its celebration of International Women’s Day, and its support for women rising in the ranks of business -- in Africa. The ad cost only a few hundred thousand -- several million less than the Augusta sponsorship. Guess they think female newspaper readers are a cheap date.

Women at ExxonMobil are not buying the stonewalling by company management on the Augusta National issue, and women at other firms involved with the club continue to complain of sex discrimination to national women’s rights groups. Attitudes that begin on the golf course naturally spill over to the office, where women say they are passed over for promotion, paid less, and even sexually harassed at many of the companies these guys head. The National Council of Women’s Organizations has been making sure women at the green-jacketed CEO companies get a little payback. The group helped women employees at Morgan Stanley sue that company two years ago for discriminatory employment practices. They recently got a settlement for $46 million. And importantly, they got a change in company policy that expenses and entertainment at discriminatory clubs will no longer be underwritten with company dollars.

Exxon ought to listen to this canary in the coal mine. Women -- no doubt including some of its own employees -- are fed up. The company’s record-breaking bottom line has been fattened by their work. That bottom line has also been pumped up by female customers who must drive to get to work, school, church, and the grocery store. So whether you’re a woman behind the wheel or a man who cares about the women in your life, the next time you need a fill-up, consider what you’re really paying for when you choose one brand over another.

While ordinary people struggling to balance their checkbooks, the corporate guests of ExxonMobil are struggling to get another drink at the company-sponsored open bars in Augusta, Georgia. And oh yeah, the corporation gets to deduct every penny. Hold that thought. It just might cause you to drive to the next pump a little further down the block.
Burk is author of Your Money and Your Life: The High Stakes for Women Voters in ‘08 and Beyond
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 4/08

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

PSA: Can You Hear Us Now?

Public Service Announcement on Verizon's rejection of services to NARAL Pro-Choice America based on their deeming the organization's mission "too controversial."

Public Service Anncmt: Truly Value Motherhood

A Public Service Announcement by Martha Burk, distributed by American Forum, chronicling various social policies from inadequate maternity leave to equal pay.

Public Service Anncmt: The Real Estate of Women's Health

This Public Service Announcement, distributed by NWEF, focuses on the battle over real estate for women's reproductive health centers.