Monday, September 29, 2008

Protecting The Vote: Live From Main Street Columbus

By Laura Flanders

Voter registration deadlines are just over a week away in many states. Polls open in just over a month. In an election that could well be decided by new voters, voter registration efforts are in overdrive. But signing people up might be the easy part: after that, there's voting. As the last two elections have shown, just showing up at the polls isn't a guarantee of a smooth ride to the ballot box.

In 2000 and 2004, all across the country, thousands of voters were removed from the rolls, without their knowledge, in official purges of voter lists. On Election Day in 2004, boxes of registrations remained unprocessed in at least two cities we know about -- Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio. On the radio that election night, I received calls from Columbus voters who had stood for hours in line because of a shortage of voting machines in the inner city, even as, in nearby wealthy suburbs, voters were able to cast their votes in a matter of minutes. As one caller put it, "Jim Crow isn't dead."

Election protection and voting rights should be central to any conversation about the '08 vote. But a lot of tough questions are getting lost in horse-race coverage. And many voters are wondering -- again -- if their vote will be counted. In contrast to most advanced democracies, the right to vote isn't conveyed automatically with citizenship or coming of age in the United States. Voters have to prove themselves and there are no end to the challenges, from felon disenfranchisement laws to monolingual ballots and a myriad of ever-changing rules which differ from election to election and district to district. Come voting day, voters rely on minimally-trained poll-workers overseeing a myriad of voting systems. Disturbing doubts remain about the security of electronic voting and the privately-owned technology many districts rely on to tally votes.

Fed up with waiting for officials or Parties to do the work, this year, as never before, citizens' groups, and voting rights organizations are taking early action to protect the vote. A few months back, national voting rights groups charged officials in Kansas, Michigan and Louisiana of illegally purging voter lists. Voters whose homes are in foreclosure are also concerned that their status might be used at the precinct to challenge their right to vote. The states with the highest foreclosure rates, Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Colorado, are also swing states where the election could hinge on tiny margins. Meanwhile, in Michigan, the ACLU has just filed a federal lawsuit against state electoral officials over statewide voter purge programs they claim would "disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Michigan voters" -- many of them college students. Thanks to independent reporting and activist organizing, the Department of Veterans Affairs was recently forced to reverse its policy that would have stopped voter registration drives at hundreds of VA hospitals serving injured and homeless vets.

While the media focus on the candidates, voting rights advocates are focusing on the future of our democracy. It’s falling to nonprofit outfits like the Advancement Project to distribute state-specific "know the facts" palm cards to poll workers in many states. And organizers are fanning out. Twenty-three states allow early voting. Ohio has a "golden week" -- September 30 to October 6 -- in which people can register and vote all in the same day. The organizers recommend voting early. Avoid the lines and the worst of the chaos.

Will citizen activism decide an election? It just might.
Flanders is the host of GRITtv and Live From Main Street. Live From Main Street Columbus: Will Your Vote Count? is a virtual town hall exploring how the issues of voting rights and election security affect every day Americans. For more a full schedule of events, visit
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 9/08

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What’s That Smell? Burning Trash Isn’t Clean Fuel

By Debra Fastino and Lee Ketelsen

It’s commonly known that burning anything isn’t good for the environment, because whatever you incinerate doesn’t actually disappear. Wafting through the air, pollutants often become even greater health hazards. That is why Massachusetts took great strides toward a cleaner environment when it imposed a moratorium on new incinerators in 1989. The state made the right decision to emphasize recycling and waste reduction, which is far better for the environment and the economy than burning garbage.

The policy still makes sense today, considering what we know about climate change and the need for clean energy. However, Governor Patrick’s administration is now looking into lifting the ban on new incinerators. Such a move would tarnish our state's efforts to clean up the environment with clouds of toxic smoke.

State environmental officials, under the justification of looking for alternative energy sources, are investigating a new generation of incinerators. These so-called trash-to-energy facilities include "biomass" incinerators. Trouble is these modern-era incinerators pose similar public health hazards and drawbacks as the traditional ones. There is no evidence that the new trash-to-energy technologies can work or are environmentally safe.

Trash-burning facilities are by definition a dirty technology, creating pollution and contributing to climate change. Waste-to-energy is actually a waste of energy. Burning trash is not a renewable energy source – it ends up costing more to generate electricity than at a coal, nuclear or hydropower plant.

Look at where the seven currently operating mass-burn trash incinerators in the state are located -- Agawan, Haverhill, Millbury, North Andover, Pittsfield, Rochester, Saugus. They can inflict pollution and blight on poorer, more urban communities who generally lack the clout to fight off their placement. Not to mention the fact that building more incinerators would only undercut successful recycling and waste reduction efforts by destroying, rather than reusing, high volumes of valuable materials. Communities could be faced with the prospect of having to burn recyclable materials in order to meet an incinerator's required level of input.

Recycling and waste reduction is cleaner, saves energy and natural resources, and creates many more jobs in the Commonwealth than new incinerator technologies ever will. An aggressive statewide public education campaign can boost recycling efforts, the same way public education helped cut down on tobacco use. The state already raises the money needed for such a campaign, from uncollected 5-cent bottle deposits, to the tune of $20 million to $25 million per year. A portion of that would pay for a vibrant waste reduction and recycling program -- if state officials agree to use the money for its original purpose.

Governor Patrick’s passage of the Green Communities and Global Warming Solutions Act was a step in the right direction for green energy. The Green Communities Act increases energy efficiency programs, allows for renewable energy to participate on a more even playing field, and creates incentives for communities to invest in green initiatives. The Global Warming Solutions Act requires the Commonwealth to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the science-based levels, 80 percent by 2050.

So we are surprised the governor would consider undoing all his great work for a cleaner environment by lifting the ban on incinerators. We hope that he will follow his own clean energy example and strongly support a renewed focus on recycling and waste reduction, and consign burning garbage to the trash heap of bad ideas.
Fastino is an organizer and co-director of the Coalition for Social Justice. Ketelsen is New England Director of Clean Water Action.
Copyright © 2008 by the Massachusetts Forum.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Revitalizing Our Communities and the Environment

By Susan Estep and Bethanie Walder

After all those fights over “jobs versus the environment,” people have finally realized that the color of money and the color of environmental protection are on and the same: green.

The emerging green economy is all the rage in political and media circles, and especially in discussions about how to fix the ailing economy while also fixing some of our energy/climate problems. But this new economy, at least as currently envisioned, is quite urban, and energy focused. What about rural America? What about forests, rivers, grasslands, and deserts that need restoration, and the economic benefits of that?

We’ve spent more than a century extracting resources from our public lands and it’s time to invest some resources back into these special places. In addition to putting rural people back to work healing the land, expanding the green economy to include restoration of our natural environment will also restore clean drinking water, hunting/fishing opportunities, rural property values and other outdoor recreational access.

People who live in rural communities can already clearly understand the connection between restoring a century-old building for a new use and reclaiming an old mine site or road in order to have clean, clear drinking water. It’s these types of activities that make up a restoration economy.

Revitalizing community assets and reclaiming natural resource assets bring benefits to workers, communities, wildlife, wildlands and water quality. The restoration economy is about creating high-wage, high-skill jobs for the environment, and getting rural communities past the old resource extraction, "jobs versus the environment" debate.

Three primary things will help create a restoration economy:
  • Rebuilding community infrastructure helps maintain vital, vibrant, welcoming communities. A well-maintained rural downtown can prompt private residents to also invest in upgrading or maintaining their private property, thus improving the overall conditions of the community.
  • Investing in projects to restore degraded agricultural lands and provide more opportunities for local farming can ensure access to high-quality, lower-cost, safe, local food that does not destroy the very land that supports that food production.
  • Restoring natural areas -- forests, deserts, grasslands, watersheds -- is an investment that will provide jobs while also ensuring that our public lands are as resilient as possible to the unknown impacts of climate change. Reclaiming unneeded logging roads, for example, provides high-wage, high-skill jobs to excavator and bulldozer operators -- the same people who helped build those roads. And reclaiming roads also restores clean drinking water, excellent wildlife habitat, and plentiful fisheries for residents and tourists alike.
Investing in restoration makes sense during this difficult economic downturn. During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to put Americans back to work and rebuild local economies. As Congress discusses new economic stimulus, they should consider packages that provide jobs to people, instead of just sending them one-time “stimulus checks” to spend at big box stores. An economy built on long-lasting, well-paying jobs can be sustainable. Any future stimulus should focus on creating new “green-collar” jobs that restore our natural environment (making it more resilient to the impacts of climate change); rebuild local, sustainable, community agriculture; and retrofit buildings to be more energy efficient and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Current discussions about green jobs, however, tend to focus almost exclusively on energy/climate connections.

But in natural areas, restoration is happening on the ground: In March, we stood atop a bluff, with about 500 other people, watching enormous excavators remove the Milltown Dam. As the excavator operators opened a bypass channel, we watched the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers run free for the first time in 100 years. The temporary channel turned into a massive river as what remained in the reservoir emptied and the dam became irrelevant to these rivers. But the Milltown Dam remains extremely relevant to the communities that surround it -- as hundreds of workers have found fulltime, albeit temporary, employment on this $100 million restoration project. The multi-year project will leave Missoula and the surrounding communities with more jobs and a stronger economy, clean water (100 years of toxic mining waste were stuck behind the unstable dam and are now being removed from the site), and restored rivers that will dramatically increase property and amenity values in the area.

It would be great to hear elected officials bring restoration into the green jobs discussion. It’s already happening, just at a limited scale. It’s time to invest in urban and rural green jobs alike and put people to work restoring and revitalizing our communities and our environment.
Estep is a member of the Women Donors Network. Walder is executive director of Wildlands CPR, a national organization working to restore healthy watersheds and rural jobs by building a strong restoration economy.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 9/08

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

All Chicagoans Should Benefit from Olympics, Not Just a Privileged Few

By Jay Travis and Diane Doherty

Eulonda Cooper is in the eye of the storm. A spirited, hard-working mother of four who lives in an affordable rental unit in the Kenwood Oakland community, she is being denied the safety and security that any hard-working American deserves. She sits on the local school council of two elementary schools and is a member of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

In a community that has rapidly gentrified since the mid-90s, she is concerned about the impact the Olympics would have on the price of housing in her neighborhood. Many of the people she knew in the neighborhood are gone; priced out due to escalating rents or moved out due to the CHA Plan for Transformation, which resulted in the loss of over 3,000 rental units. "The Olympics cannot be used as a tool to finally push all of us out. I want my children to live in stable, quality housing in this neighborhood." For her, the fear that the Olympics could mean very real.

The convenient opinion is that the people who have lived in this community for decades -- hard-working, law-abiding citizens who work as bus drivers, single parents, teachers, nurses aides, security guards, police officers and other honorable professions...need to go. The Olympics are an opportunity to finally invest in the communities that have suffered through municipal, state, and federal disinvestment.

We have been concerned about this issue for a long time. Community groups have organized forums since January, and residents have clearly expressed their concerns around being left out of the Olympic process. Community members have met with local aldermen, the department of planning, and Chicago 2016 representatives to express these concerns, but to no avail.

This led to the formation of Communities for an Equitable Olympics 2016 (CEO 2016), a coalition of community and labor organizations, working together to win enforceable community benefits in conjunction with Chicago’s Olympics bid. Members include Action Now, American Friends Service Committee, Brighton Park Neighborhood Coalition, Centers for New Horizons, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Grassroots Collaborative, Illinois Hunger Coalition, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, MAGIC, Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations, Service Employees International Union Healthcare IL/IN. We have come together to form a broad and deep coalition of South Side and city-wide groups organizing for justice and equity.

One major area of concern is Chicago’s plan to build the Olympic Village at the site of Michael Reese Hospital. Mere minutes from downtown, the 37-acre plot represents a potential bonanza for the city and developers and the prospect of hosting the games provides the city with an excuse to secure the prime lakefront property. The plans for Michael Reese set the stage for a land grab that will push out low-income residents and seniors in the area. The city plans on building over 7,000 units of housing at the site -- regardless of whether we win the bid for the games -- sending local property taxes and rents skyrocketing. With all that’s at stake, we know that it will take a broad and deep coalition to move our efforts forward -- to ensure that South Side communities not only survive in the coming years, but thrive.

Members of CEO 2016 have been intensively organizing and strategizing around the core platform of our campaign, which stipulates that affordable housing, living wage jobs and workers’ rights, transportation, public subsidy accountability, public space, education and public safety are among the issues that the city and Chicago 2016 need to address. To effectively do this, the community must be at the table. In a true mixed-income community, the institutions that impact our quality of life must be a high level of efficiency for all residents, regardless of race or economic status. As a society, we have failed at this.

In the last few weeks, over 500 community residents organized by CEO 2016 have come out in support of a process that incorporates the voices of the communities that will be directly impacted by the games. And that number is growing, as grassroots leaders insist on a seat at the table. Chicago cannot develop billion-dollar plans for the South and West Sides without any real community input.

So, in the Mid-South community that has experienced 12 school closings since 1997 and is being rapidly gentrified, the Olympics should not be used as a tool to complete the process of removing working and low-income families from the neighborhood. In essence, the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid is about the future of African-American and Latino families on the South Side of Chicago who are in jeopardy of being swept out as Chicago expands the Loop south.

Every Chicagoan should benefit from the Olympics, not just a privileged few.
Travis is executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and Doherty is chair of Grassroots Collaborative.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Illinois Editorial Forum.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Building a Foundation for Success

By Sharen Hausmann

A new school year is underway and with it brings continued hope and excitement, particularly for the youngest of learners.

For many children though, that excitement is replaced by nervousness -- they are not ready for school.

By most national estimates, about a third of the children who are starting school aren’t ready. Unfortunately, by the time they reach third grade, many of these students will still be falling short of what their schools expect them to be learning.

As they make their way through grade school, middle school, and high school, many under-achieving youngsters will continue to lag behind what their classmates are achieving and their schools are requiring. Worse yet, they will fall far short of what the job market will be demanding at a time when the new economy places a premium on high skills and the ability to adapt to new technologies.

Helping these youngsters get on the path to success is a crucial challenge for Georgia educators. Fortunately, research points the way to solutions. Neuroscience demonstrates that the brain’s development is nearly 90 percent complete by the time a child is five. Moreover, the most rapid brain development takes place during the years from birth to age three. Educational research reveals that children who have benefited from excellent early care and pre-kindergarten education programs are well-prepared for school and do better in the first three grades. And economists report that investments in children’s early years will reap great returns in reduced drop-out and retention rates, increased graduation rates, and, eventually, improved worker productivity.

This research explains why it is so important to ease the transition from preschool to kindergarten by making sure that children are ready for school and schools are ready for children. Acting on this insight, the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta’s Early Learning Division -- Smart Start -- is working to improve the transition to school for children from three to six years old. In May, 2003, Smart Start was awarded $4 million over five years by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for a new initiative -- SPARK Georgia -- that gets children ready for school and schools ready for young children.

SPARK Georgia works to create partnerships to serve vulnerable children from 3 to 6 and their families in communities of Central DeKalb, Norcross and Gwinnett. With guidance from early learning providers, educators, policymakers, business leaders, and community members, the initiative uses several strategies to serve all of the adults involved in caring for children.

In order to prepare children for school, parent educators conduct home visits to family, friends, and neighbor caregivers. They offer pointers for early learning activities. They conduct health, vision, dental, and literacy screenings. And they offer appropriate books and toys to enhance school readiness, and connect caregivers in small groups. Nearly half of the children and families served speak a language other than English, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Kurdish, Somalian, and Arabic.

In order to prepare schools for children, SPARK Georgia organizes Partnerships for School Readiness Councils to link caregivers, school personnel, and communities to work toward a smooth and successful transition to school and improve the culture within the schools. Funded by the federal Early Learning Opportunities Act, the Refugee and Immigrant Family and Child Project provides English as a Second Language classes to caregivers.

In addition to families, communities and schools, the project also works with the business community. For instance, Smart Start Georgia recently received a grant to expand literacy programs and screenings and provide additional materials to caregivers in the targeted communities, using literacy strategies and professional development for early care professionals, parents, and other caregivers. Funding from private foundations will also increase the number of caregivers and children served by the Learning Van, staffed by child care specialists who demonstrate and loan educational toys, books, and equipment to caregivers in a variety of settings including apartment complexes.

In order to succeed in school and in life Georgia’s children must have a strong foundation for learning. Encouraging children to play and explore helps them learn and develop socially, emotionally, physically and intellectually. Programs like SPARK Georgia will go a long way to build that foundation and should be expanded state-wide so all children can benefit.
Hausmann is vice president of early learning for Smart Start, the early childhood division, United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Georgia Forum. 9/08

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Important Life Decisions Are Private Family Matters

By Friedrike Merck

Sarah Palin and I have a lot in common. We were athletes and both became hockey Moms, we have held public office in small towns, we like to fish, (I am proud of my marksmanship skills but just can't seem to rustle up what it takes to shoot for sport one of God's creatures), we both have a can-do attitude and serious spiritual lives but we disagree when it comes to matters of privacy and family planning.

Maybe it's my independent New England roots or the tolerant Quaker in me that planted the simple belief that personal choices across a range of important life decisions, like when to have children, are absolutely a private family matter. The choices other people make about the size and timing of their family unit is never anyone else's business and to talk about it, where I come from, is called gossip. Neither is it anyone else's business how a family chooses to cope with the issues of dignity in dying, that's morbid prying. It is no one's right, in this country at least, to insist that there is only one way to believe in or to name a Higher Power, that there is only one way to honor the sanctity of life, that's the kind of holier than thou attitude that drove our ancestors from distant lands to this place of hope for individual liberty.

Lately we've heard the phrase "it's a private family matter" being used to protect the innocent children of candidates, which I am all for, but it has sounded more like a shield to prevent the media from talking about politicians' parading families than it does a sincere belief that we should all be protected from the uninvited bright lights, the opinions and will of others, including the government. I must have missed something along the way but, since when did women's medical decisions, and we women know that pregnancy is both a spiritual and medical condition, stop being a "private family matter?"

Instead of honoring the private discussions between women and their families, between families and their doctors, between people and their God, self appointed groups want to dictate the final say in matters they have no business being in. This dangerous meddling is happening in many areas of people's lives, from government intrusion into the private discussion of when a member of one's family should die to leaders who profess to know the mysteries of life itself. From birth control and emergency contraception availability to deciding whether an unplanned pregnancy should be continued our privacy is being taken from us because someone else claims to know better about how we should conduct our lives. At every step there are individuals, strangers, trying to gain control over our "private family matters" and I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Republicans and Democrats polled by the Women Donors Network show overwhelming support for allowing people to control their own fates in hospitals and at the doctor's office. Just as no one tells us which church to attend, which car to buy or how many guns we can own, we don't want to be limited in our medical choices. Voters across the country strongly believe that they should be able to make their own important life decisions for themselves and their families. A majority of Americans believe that government's role is to provide information, access and services to ensure that we can make these choices responsibly. If politicians can rightly demand a safe space for their "private family matters" then they ought to afford us the same courtesy and keep their noses out of other people's business and bedrooms.

As the next weeks unfold, voters across America should know where candidates stand, not just about "choice", the now polarizing code word for abortion, but more about candidates positions' on a range of common but important life decisions. We must hear the thinking of those hoping to lead this country on critical topics like affordable and readily available birth control, accurate sexuality education and how they define and defend the lines of decency and privacy not only for themselves but for all of us. Yes, the mother from Alaska and I share many similarities but regarding important life decisions, personal family matters, I only claim to know what's best for me and my family.
Merck is a portrait artist, a member of the Women Donors Network and a grateful mother
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 9/08

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Using Pseudo-science At HHS

By Kathleen C. Barry

I thought the battle for women's rights had largely been won but the extremists are coming out of the closet with their real agenda, the assault on birth control. This fringe has won converts for its warped pseudo-science at the Department of Health and Human Services, where a proposed rule would codify that anyone receiving federal funding could not be required to provide birth control under the basis that it might violate their religious views.

The new rules would mean that all health care providers -- including pharmacists and medical staff at hospitals and clinics, medical schools and even family planning centers -- could refuse to provide all forms of contraception. Women’s rights are being put at the whim of their providers who could now claim a “conscience” clause to refuse to cover birth control in medical plans or provide pregnancy prevention to rape victims.

It seems the debate over women's reproductive rights has come full circle, so that women are once again forced to argue for their right of self-determination. Every day, Americans face important life decisions, with outcomes that will reverberate for years: how to afford health care; how to die with dignity, how to talk to teenagers about sex; when and what kind of contraceptives to use; when to have a baby and whether it is safe to have more than one child. This debate is really about more than contraception, it's about life decisions and whether women get to make them for themselves.

How did this happen? With nine out of every ten American women using contraceptives, you'd think we were out of the Dark Ages. It's a small minority of activists who are pushing for these extreme measures. The Women Donors Network, together with Communications Consortium Media Center, conducted research and found that 91 percent of voters agreed that couples should have access to birth control. Voters believe, by 83 percent, that we should respect people's ability to make their own life decisions, including when to have a child -- and not impose our values and views on them.

The extremists' agenda is designed to strip woman of self-determination. We cannot allow the intractable debate on pregnancy termination to overshadow our right to prevent a pregnancy. Under the proposed HHS rule anyone -- the doctor, the pharmacist, the receptionist -- could deny a woman the right to contraception.

Given that contraceptives prevent unintended pregnancies, you would think that the anti-abortion crowd would be the biggest promoter of birth control. Not so, because their real target is to end family planning. It's time to move on to the critical issues about reproductive health and sexuality that face all of us every day -- issues such as access to contraception and cervical cancer prevention. Let's agree to disagree about abortion, but certainly prevention of unwanted pregnancy can be a common ground goal most Americans can agree upon.

The public has only until September 25 to send comments to HHS about the proposed rule. Send your comments to The proposed HHS rule should die a swift death and the anti-women activists should back off, allowing the rest of us to move on.
Barry is a board member of The Women Donors Network, a national network of progressive women donors, and a founding member of their Reproductive Rights Initiative.

Georgia is Pushing Gun Law Boundaries in Wrong Direction

By Alice Johnson

A few months ago, Georgia made it legal for people with permits to carry firearms in a concealed manner into state parks and recreational areas, onto public transportation and into restaurants that serve alcohol.

The General Assembly passed these very serious public safety provisions even though no committee ever held a meeting about them. There was no scrutiny by any professional law enforcement personnel or restaurant owners, never any opportunity for public comment.

The language was added in a conference committee on the last day of the session -- a committee that met without posting any notices, in a room in the basement of the Capitol, without openness or oversight. And 60 percent of legislators voted for it two hours before the session ended on the most hectic and chaotic day, as the clock wound toward midnight and the end of the General Assembly for another year.

Currently, the Senate Firearms Law Study Committee is preparing to remove what is left of the “public gathering” section that the new law decimated -- making it possible for firearms to be carried in churches, in schools, on college campuses and in government-owned buildings. Their plan is to allow carrying concealed handguns anywhere, at any time, by anyone who can pass a fingerprint background check and pay the $15 application fee the state requires.

Does it make sense to do these things? Is there a public safety imperative that justifies these changes in the law? Can we trust a permit holder to shoot straight, know safety rules and practice emotional good judgment when no training is required to get a permit? Why do these kinds of crazy bills get passed?

At the first meeting of the Senate firearms study committee only one person was allowed to testify about gun policy -- a member of the pro-gun group that pushed for the new law.

There are places where carrying a concealed weapon by anyone other than law enforcement should not be allowed. No guns in airports, or bus stations or on buses or trains. No guns at athletic events and political rallies. No guns in church or temple or mosque. No guns in schools or on college campuses. No guns in places where large groups of people gather -- street festivals and parades and government meetings.

People who carry guns expect to use them. Using a firearm is a very calculated action for which law enforcement officers must retrain every year. They train on keeping their emotions under strict control. They practice scenarios to identify the difference between a homeless person reaching for his identification and reaching for a gun. They must prove they can shoot their weapon accurately, and they must know all the laws.

Many law enforcement personnel spend their whole career never having discharged their weapon because they know what else to do to defuse a violent situation.

Guns in schools make the least amount of sense. It would be a serious hazard if teachers and other school employees carried them in our high schools and elementary schools. But there is an effort to allow that as well.

And what about guns on college campuses where there is binge drinking and a high incidence of depression?

How do laws like this get passed? It’s simple. Many legislators are looking to get re-elected. Gun groups are big players in the special-interest influence game -- hiring expensive local lobbyists, spending money on lavish dinners and golf outings, offering assistance for election campaigns. They will run candidates against someone who didn’t vote the way they wanted. Sometimes they use other groups to hide their activities. They will use any tactic to get their way.

Recently it was discovered that the NRA had paid a woman to spy on gun-violence-prevention groups -- to earn their trust and then use it to defeat their efforts. The gun-violence-prevention movement is led by people who have lost loved ones to gun violence, people in groups with no potential for financial or political gain, people who never forget even for a day the loved one they have lost.

What kind of people would stoop to spying on and lying to these survivors? Only those who would put gun-industry profit ahead of everything else.

And nobody can think this is good policy.
Johnson is the executive director of Georgians for Gun Safety.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Georgia Forum. 9/08

Severe Poverty Hiding Behind the Brighter Headlines

By Carol Spruill

The Census Bureau recently announced the good news that the official poverty rate in 2007 was "not statistically different" from 2006.

But upon digging deeper into the Census Bureau’s full 71-page report the “not statistically different” poverty rate was an overall national increase from 12.3 percent to 12.5 percent. This meant that the number of additional people living on incomes below the poverty line in this country had increased in one year by over 800,000.

In addition, the increase in real income and the decline in the number of families without health insurance were misleading. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, both statistics compare poorly to 2001. Despite six years of economic growth, the income increases have gone disproportionately to the wealthy. The number of people without health insurance did decline from 15.8 percent in 2006 to 15.3 percent after at least seven years of increases. However, this success in 2007 was due mostly to states expanding their child health insurance programs, a largesse that may be eroding in tough economic times. Meanwhile, the percentage of those with employer-sponsored health insurance continued to decline. Employer-based health insurance coverage was 61.3 percent in 2002 and has dropped to 59.3 percent in 2007.

Year after year, most of the headlines on poverty focus on the overall rate. The public is concerned, but only a little, when we read that 12.5 percent are in poverty, even though that is more than one out of 10 people and the poverty line itself is widely acknowledged to be inadequate and outdated. Yet subcategories of the poor yield an even more disturbing picture.

In 2007, the percentage of children under 18 in poverty was 18 percent, up from 17.4 percent the year before. The percentage of children under 6 living in poverty grew from 20 percent in 2006 to a "not statistically different" 20.8 percent in 2007. This means that one out of every five preschool children lives in poverty. Most shocking of all is that over half of our nation's families headed by a single-female parent with children under 6 are in poverty. That percentage grew from 52.7 percent in 2006 to 54 percent in 2007. This percentage would be even higher if the Census Bureau combined the statistics on this type of family composition with ethnicity, since African-Americans and Hispanics experience much higher rates of poverty.

Finally, our usual casual look at poverty does not include monitoring the status of the "severely poor." The Census Bureau defines them as those having an income of not more than half of the poverty line. In 2007, 5.2 percent, or 15.6 million people, lived on an income below one-half of the poverty line, which was the same percentage as the year before. The severely poor are a full 41.8 percent, or nearing half, of all who live in poverty. This means that in 2007, when the poverty line for a family of three was $17,170, a severely poor mother and two children were living on less than $8,585.

Solutions to poverty are plentiful. While they need to be tailored for the multiple causes of poverty, some are obvious and generic. We could choose among adequate child-care subsidies so single mothers could earn a living, more subsidized housing, increased earned-income tax credits for the working poor, access to health care, or many more avenues of assisting people to prosperity. But before we can find the will to establish solutions, we have to go beyond the headlines and acknowledge just how many people are so desperately poor.
Spruill is a Senior Lecturing Fellow and Associate Dean for Public Interest and Pro Bono at Duke Law School.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum. 9/08

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Why North Carolina Needs A Pay Equity Study

By Polly Williams

The recent passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act in the U.S. House of Representatives has drawn national attention to the continuing disparity between women’s earnings and men’s. Equal pay for equal work is fair -- we all seem to agree on that -- yet women’s wages continue to lag behind. The gender gap has narrowed so that women now make 77 percent of what men do, yet even recent gains for women only appear because men’s average earnings rate went down.

Since our state government, with about 90,000 employees, is North Carolina’s largest employer, wage disparities between men and women are, or should be, of prime concern to legislators. Yet The Studies Act of 2008 failed to include the proposed Pay Equity Study Commission. The proposal would have resulted in a study of wage disparities by both gender and race. Four such proposals have been introduced in recent years, without result.

But ever since 1982 various reports have indicated that a thorough study of gender wage disparities, followed by action, is in order. In 1982 “Patterns of Pay in State Government,” a report from the Office of State Personnel discovered a pattern of white males overrepresented in higher salary grades, and blacks and women overrepresented in lower salary grades. A bill for a comparable worth study was passed but afterwards attacked so bitterly that it was repealed the next year. Legislative reform as a result of the report: none. Twenty years later, in 2002, a report from the North Carolina Justice Center revealed the same pattern of disparities between male and female wages. As a result a bill for a pay equity study commission to analyze data and make recommendations to improve gender equity in wages in state employment received a hearing before the House Government Committee and was granted unanimous approval. But there was no studies bill that year.

Moving on to more of this ho-hum record, in 2004, we find the Office of State Personnel undertook a special emphasis project: “Female Employment in North Carolina State Government.” The data section showed that female employees made up 49 percent of the workforce subject to the Personnel Act but were 71.4 percent of those in low wage occupations (African-American women were clustered in the lowest wage jobs). Two bills sponsored by Representative Deborah Ross proposed measures for study and reform; part of one bill which raised the entry-level salary of a state employee by almost $2,000 did pass; the pay equity study commission, however, was not approved, nor were measures addressing accountability of managers for wage disparities.

The figures from the Office of State Personnel in 2007 indicated that white men make up a little more than one-third of the workforce subject to the Personnel Act but are over 50 percent of those in the very top salary grades. Meanwhile black women who are less than 20 percent of the workforce are overrepresented in the lowest grades.

Two questions arise here. One is whether women are paid as well as men in the same jobs. A study would give a rough answer and permit further analysis. The other question is whether positions mostly occupied by women pay less than positions mostly occupied by men even when job skills and credentials such as education and experience are comparable. Or another potential explanation is that women sometimes might need even more credentials to be hired for jobs that pay less than men’s. Here is where we especially need a study -- not to see whether women aren’t ambitious, are in and out of the job market, or whether they really prefer to stay home with the kids -- but whether one female-occupied job requires more and pays less than one somewhat-comparable male-occupied job.

Pay disparities between women and men won’t be wiped out overnight. But let’s see some progress here in the direction of fairness. A Pay Equity Study Commission could discern and define problems and point the way toward some changes that would move our state government toward being the model employer it ought to be.
Williams is a retired university professor and a volunteer at NC Justice Center. More information about NC Women United may be found at:
Copyright (C) 2008 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum. 9/08

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Art Drives the Vote in Missouri

By Sue McCollum

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a giant squid?

When you look up in the sky while driving Missouri’s highways during the next few weeks, don’t be surprised if you see something unusual. You won’t catch a glimpse of Superman, but you may encounter a giant squid brandishing gas pump nozzles like a six shooter, Captain America or a field of sunflowers--all super-sized images with one central message: to encourage Missourians to register and vote in this November’s election.

Featuring the work of eight contemporary artists, 70 billboards with the language, “Vote: Your Future Depends On It” and, began appearing across Missouri in the beginning of September. Look for the billboards on major highways across the state and in urban areas like Kansas City, Springfield, Cape Girardeau, Hannibal, St. Louis, Kirksville and Columbia. The billboards are sponsored by Art the Vote, an initiative of the Missouri Billboard Project, which is using art to inspire voter registration and voting in this November’s election.

The billboard images, sometimes subtle, sometimes provocative, reflect the artists’ thoughts on many of the key issues facing our state and nation, including fuel prices, the environment and the war. The billboards were created by seven nationally renowned artists and the winner of an Art the Vote online billboard competition. Four of the artists are Missourians--Tom Huck, Peregrine Honig, May Tveit and competition winner Karen Kay. The other artists, Annette Lemieux, Willie Cole, Mark Newport and Martha Rosler are known for their political artwork.

Like all art, the images on the billboards may receive mixed reviews. Some may like it. Some may not. But, whether you like the art or not, we all can agree on the importance of the billboard’s message and the artists’ desire to inspire young voters to register and vote this fall.

In many respects, young voters have the most at stake in an election because they will live the longest with the consequences of any particular administration’s decisions. Yet, as an age-based voting bloc, they don’t act like it. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the 2006 election, only 22 percent of eligible voters, ages 18 to 24, voted. That means more than 75 percent of eligible young voters didn’t vote. Despite having the most to gain or lose, these young voters chose not to participate. By contrast, 63 percent of adults 55 and older voted in 2006.

In the 2004 presidential election, 72 percent of the eligible voters 55 or older voted. Though young voters visited the polls in this contest more than in 2006, their participation paled in comparison to other age-based voting blocs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 47 percent of eligible voters ages 18 to 24 years went to the polls in 2004.

One of the main reasons for the difference in voting rates stems from weak voter registration. Fewer young voters register. Only 58 percent of eligible young voters registered in 2004; whereas 79 percent of citizens aged 55 and older registered. The two greatest reasons eligible young voters cited for not registering: a lack of interest in the election or involvement in politics and missing the registration deadline.

The goal of Art the Vote is to make this fall’s election interesting to young people and to make voting fashionable, hip, the thing to do. If eight artists can engage young Missourians and inspire their interest in this election, Art the Vote will have successfully used art as a gateway to political involvement and voting. In addition to the billboards, Art the Vote is coordinating voter registration activities at arts and cultural events throughout the state this fall.

The next time a giant squid grabs your attention, remember that October 8 is the last day to register to vote in Missouri before the November 4 election. Register and vote: our future depends on it.
McCollum is a co-founder of Art the Vote, an initiative of the Missouri Billboard Project, a nonpartisan effort organized to encourage potential voters to vote by supporting the creation of art that draws attention to public policy issues. To see all billboard artwork and for more information on Art the Vote go to
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Missouri Forum. 9/08

The Politics of Teenage Pregnancy

By Joan Lamunyon Sanford

Much has been said about 17 year-old Bristol Palin’s pregnancy and the so-called “right” decision she made to choose parenting over abortion. But we should remember that what is the right decision for Bristol may not be the right decision for all young women with an unplanned pregnancy.

Bristol is fortunate to have loving parents who support her decision, and all of our youth deserve the same. Loving parents who will support them in whatever decision they make. Sadly, this is not always true.

The decision about how to resolve an unplanned pregnancy, whether through abortion, adoption or parenting is a deeply personal decision for a young woman. Most talk to their parents or other trusted adults, including their clergy. Many seek prayerful guidance from their own religious or spiritual traditions. The notion that their religious tradition would insist that they continue their pregnancy is inaccurate. The mainline Protestant and Jewish denominations that are members of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice support a woman in making what ever is the best decision for her, including abortion, according to her faith and her life circumstances.

Bristol is also fortunate that she has access to affordable pre-natal care, and that her family has the resources to make sure she has the support she needs to finish high school. Again, not all of our youth have these options, especially in primarily rural states like Alaska or New Mexico.

The Palin family has requested privacy for themselves and Bristol during this difficult time, something we all should have, even though Governor Palin has chosen to put her family and their values under a spotlight. Bristol and her future husband should be treated respectfully, but we as a nation now have the opportunity to learn more about an issue that most of us and most candidates would rather not face, our country’s high teen pregnancy rate, the highest for all industrialized nations.

So before you make your decision about any candidate, state or federal, ask them if they support medically accurate, comprehensive sexuality education for our youth. We have a moral obligation to provide our youth with the best and most accurate information so that if they become sexually active, they can make an informed decision to protect themselves from unplanned pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Punitive, mandatory parental notification or consent laws do not reduce abortion and teen pregnancy; they only drive youth without loving, supportive parents to desperate measures when they are facing an unplanned pregnancy. Young women who do not inform their parents may have very sound reasons. Often they fear physical abuse or abandonment, or their pregnancy may be the result of incest. Compassion demands that we not subject them to more trauma.

We should all work to provide our youth and their families with all of the resources they need to make their best decisions regarding sex and sexuality, in keeping with their own faith and values.
Sanford is the executive director of NM Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 8/08