Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Vatican pre-rejects any Pro-Choice Ambassadors

Reportedly President Obama had three potential candidates to the U.S. ambassador post to the Vatican, one of whom he was considering, Caroline Kennedy.

But its now reported in U.K. newspapers that the Vatican sources would block any appointment that is pro-choice.

Since when does a person personal stance on reproductive rights make them ineligible for an ambassador position? Especially since the ambassador is there to represent the president, not themselves. And when we do allow the Vatican, or any foreign nation, to dictate who our representative should be and what their own personal political stances are.

Last week the Raymond Flynn, a former US ambassador to the Vatican, announced his opposition to Kennedy based on her pro-choice stance.
"It's imperative, it's essential that the person who represents us to the Holy See be a person who has pro-life values. I hope the President doesn't make that mistake," he told the Boston Herald. "She said she was pro-choice. I don't assume she's going to change that, which is problematic."
And for our part we hope President Obama doesn’t kowtow to this sudden demand that our ambassador’s pass some new litmus test.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The U.S. is Leaving Iraq but Where Are We Leaving Iraqi Women?

By Yifat Susskind

If you haven’t thought about the Iraq War as a story of U.S. allies systematically torturing and executing women, you’re not alone. Likewise, if you were under the impression that Iraqi women were somehow better off under their new, U.S.-sponsored government.

In the spring of 2003, Fatin was a student of architecture at Baghdad University. Her days were filled with classes and hanging out in her favorite of Baghdad’s many cafes, where she and her friends studied, shared music, and spun big plans for successful careers, happy marriages, and eventually, kids.

Today, Fatin says that those feel like someone else’s dreams.

Soon after the U.S. invasion, Fatin began seeing groups of bearded young Iraqi men patrolling the streets of Baghdad. They were looking for women like her, who wore modern clothes or were heading to professional jobs. The men screamed terrible insults at the women and sometimes beat them.

By the fall, ordinary aspects of Fatin’s life had become punishable by death. The “misery gangs,” as Fatin calls them, were routinely killing women for wearing pants, appearing in public without a headscarf, or shaking hands and socializing with men.

As the occupying power, the U.S. was legally obligated to stop these attacks. But the Pentagon, preoccupied with battling the Iraqi insurgency, simply ignored the militias’ reign of terror.

In fact, some of the most treacherous armed groups belonged to the very political parties that the US had brought to power. By 2005, the Pentagon was giving weapons, money and military training to these Shiite militias, in the hope that they would help combat the Sunni-led insurgency.

Fatin’s closest encounter with the militias occurred when armed men burst into her university classroom one morning, threatening to kill any female student without a head scarf. After that, young women dropped out in droves. The next semester, Fatin’s parents refused to allow her to re-enroll.

While the Pentagon was arming militias bent on brutally ousting Iraqi women from public life, the U.S. State Department was busy brokering the new Iraqi Constitution. Hailed as “progressive” and “democratic” in Washington, the new Constitution designates religious law, which discriminates against women, as the basis of all legislation. It also restricts women’s rights by upending one of the most progressive family status laws in the Middle East -- a law that Iraqi women fought for and won in 1959, before Saddam Hussein took power.

For Fatin, the bitter irony is that her new Constitution, courtesy of the USA, destroyed women’s rights that were once guaranteed in Iraq, even under the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein.

Fatin has now been out of school and unemployed for more than three years. Her mother, a pharmacist, and her aunt, trained as a veterinarian, have also been unemployed for years now and are too afraid to try to find work.

Here in the U.S., we’ve rarely heard the story of the Iraq War told from the perspective of women. So what are Iraqi women saying on the sixth anniversary of the US invasion? The same thing they’ve been saying since 2003: end the occupation. Polls consistently show that a majority of Iraqis want US troops out.

We’ve been told that if the U.S. withdraws, violence would again soar in Iraq. That’s a compelling argument for those of us who care about the suffering that the U.S. has already visited on Iraqi women and their families. But Iraqis themselves, who have the best grasp of their security situation, say that U.S. troops are causing, not confronting, violence. In multiple polls, most Iraqis say they would feel much safer without U.S. troops.

Who can blame them? Since the invasion, over a million Iraqis have died violently and four million have been driven from their homes. The resources that women need to care for their families -- electricity, water, food, fuel, and medical care -- have become dangerously scarce, sometimes totally unavailable.

This week marks six years since the U.S. invaded Iraq. In that time, women have not only faced with mounting violence -- they have also organized a movement to confront US occupation and violence against women.

Looking for a way to speak out against the repression she witnessed, Fatin joined the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). In partnership with MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization based in New York, OWFI has worked to promote women’s human rights, creating a network of women’s shelters to protect women fleeing violence.

The women of Iraq are creating the foundation on which a peaceful and just future will be built. It’s time we started listening to them.


Susskind is the communications director of MADRE: Rights, Resources and Results for Women Worldwide.


Copyright © 2009 by the American Forum. 3/09

Monday, March 09, 2009

Children are Victims of Prostitution, Not Criminals

By Anne Harper

Like most parents of girls, I have had the good fortune to have pretty well-behaved daughters who finished high school and entered promising career paths. But some families are not so lucky.

Their teens may be struggling with a host of problems from learning disabilities to drug dependency. Recently we have discovered some more extreme problems: as many as 300 girls are sexually exploited commercially in Georgia each month --at escort services, hotels, online and on the streets -- according to recent results of an independent tracking study. That is more than twice the number of girls who die in car accidents in a year in our state.

The Juvenile Justice Fund (JJF) has mounted a campaign called “A Future. Not a Past” to address this sexual exploitation -- seeking to demonstrate that adolescents who are sucked into prostitution are victims of adult criminal behavior, rather than criminals themselves. Georgia is considering two proposals to expand the definition of child abuse to include sexual exploitation of children by others than parents and care givers. This change will enable health professionals and other adults report to authorities any suspected prostitution of minors, thus providing a good start toward identifying girls who need protective services.

But funding those services in the current economy is a challenge. One of the proposals identifies an innovative source of revenue that will not add a penny to the state budget. The proposal includes a $5 fee on patrons of adult-entertainment venues, fees that would go to a Crime Victims Emergency Fund for restorative programs for sexually exploited minors. The rationale for this fee comes from a 2005 report published by the Atlanta Women’s Agenda which found a spatial correlation between adult strip clubs and the availability of children for hire for sex. Another study commissioned by the JJF verified these findings.

Naturally the proposal faces some opposition -- but from an odd quarter. Some Republicans have complained that this fee is a tax and, as loyal Republicans, they oppose all new taxes. Kaffie McCullough, the JJF campaign director, comments, “This will not cost the taxpayers a cent. There are 45 adult clubs in Georgia and we estimate that if each one has 100 patrons a day, this fee will raise about $8.2 million.”

While holding the adult entertainment industry responsible for the secondary effects of their services is somewhat controversial, “A Future. Not a Past” campaign advocates are determined to create a dialogue among a broad swath of business, civic and religious leaders about measures to end child prostitution, particularly focusing public attention on curbing the male demand for sex from younger victims.

The faith-based communities have stepped up their support by founding a religious coalition called StreetGRACE to link and maximize their resources across communities that are trying to meet the needs of these young teens. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and many other friends of children who want to end the sexual exploitation of adolescent children delivered 300 white roses to legislators last week, symbolizing the number of girls affected.

We must speak out now to help the many adolescent girls in our communities who have been forced into prostitution by adults seeking to take advantage of teenagers’ youthful confusion and financial vulnerability. Certainly the adult entertainment club fees are a smart first step to raise the funds to help address the prostitution of young women so that they are routed to treatment and re-started on the road to a future, not a past.
Harper is a former school board member who leads a management consulting practice. For more information please visit
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Georgia Editorial Forum. 3/09

Friday, March 06, 2009

High Cost Lenders Profit from Desperate Times

By Rebecca Lightsey

As more businesses close and unemployment lines lengthen, a virtually unregulated sector of the Texas economy continues to rake in huge profits by providing high-cost payday and auto title loan services that often drag desperate families deeper into financial crisis.

A Texas-based provider of such loans recently reported record-breaking annual revenues topping $1 billion and a net income of $81 million.

So how do small-dollar loan companies make this kind of profit in the middle of the nation’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression?

In Texas, the answer is clear: they exploit a loophole in state law that allows them to operate as unregulated “credit services organizations” (CSOs).

In 2005, there were fewer than 100 CSOs in Texas. Today, nearly 400 payday, auto title, and other lenders operate more than 2,000 CSO storefronts offering high cost small loans across the state. CSOs in Texas were originally established to control credit repair businesses; however, in the past few years, small dollar lenders are operating as CSOs under a statutory loophole that allows them to obtain “an extension of consumer credit” for borrowers.

Unlike other lenders in Texas, CSOs are not subject to any limitation on the fees they can charge. CSOs routinely offer loans with costs exceeding 500 percent Annual Percentage Rate (APR) -- making these loans among the most costly in the country.

At the same time, CSOs also are able to sidestep licensing and enforcement by the state’s Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, which holds other Texas consumer lenders accountable.

Borrowers stung by these CSO loan deals, with high fees and onerous terms, find it almost impossible to escape a widening sinkhole of debt.

One Austin woman recently reported taking out two payday loans totaling $1,800 from registered CSOs. Because she is not allowed to pay down the principal without paying the loan in full, she must pay over $400 every two weeks to renew the loans. Despite taking a second job and already paying $600 to retire the first $1,000 loan, she still owes $1,200 on it, and the second loan, still unpaid is racking up its own renewal fees.

Texans take out an estimated $2.5 billion in loans through CSO payday lenders each year and pay an additional $500-$600 million in annual fees.

Low-income Texans, primarily working women and minorities, disproportionately use payday loans. According to a recent Texas Appleseed survey of low-income payday borrowers, 58 percent of those borrowers could not pay off their loan, plus fees and interest, by the next payday.

Financial regulators in Florida and Michigan recognized this CSO scheme as an evasion of existing laws against predatory lending, and some CSOs, still operating in Texas, closed up shop in those states.

Congress imposed a 36 percent APR rate cap in 2007 on all payday and other short-term loans to the military, and 15 states and the District of Columbia have a similar provision in place for all residents. Already, some Texas cities -- including San Antonio, Richardson and Mesquite -- have passed ordinances restricting the rapid growth of CSOs within their city limits.

Now, it is time for state lawmakers to protect Texas consumers and hold CSOs accountable to the same regulatory standards that apply to mainstream lenders. Texas has a long-held tradition of opposing usury --lending money with excessive interest rates and fees -- and CSOs should not operate as the exception to the rule.
Lightsey is executive director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public interest law center.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Texas Lone Star Forum. 3/09

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Virginia Should Opt Out on ‘Choose Life’ License Plates

By Jessica Bearden

During the recently concluded legislative session, the General Assembly passed a bill to authorize “Choose Life” license plates that now awaits consideration by Governor Kaine. Funds generated from the plates will be distributed to so-called “crisis pregnancy centers.”

There are over 70 crisis pregnancy centers in Virginia, and you’ve most likely seen their advertisements—billboards that read “Pregnant? Scared? We can help.” Many people mistakenly believe that these centers do nothing more than provide materials and support to women who have made the decision to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term.

In reality, they have an extreme anti-choice agenda and often misinform and mislead women about their options. Though they assume the impartial, authoritative trappings of modern healthcare, their function is primarily political—to berate and coerce those women they call “abortion-minded” into carrying the pregnancy to term. A review of the materials produced by crisis pregnancy centers and several investigative reports about them reveal several of the deceptive and coercive tactics most commonly employed by crisis pregnancy centers.

First, crisis pregnancy centers give women medically inaccurate information about abortion, claiming the procedure is dangerous and can cause breast cancer, infertility and extreme mental health problems, such as suicidal tendencies. There is no legitimate scientific evidence to support any of these claims. In fact, first-trimester abortions are among the safest surgical procedures performed in the United States. Less than 0.5 percent of women obtaining abortions experience a complication, and the risk of death associated with abortion is about one-tenth that associated with childbirth. In addition, the medical community has firmly established that no link exists between abortion and the development of breast cancer, and that having an abortion does not affect the psychological well-being of women over time.

Second, in an effort to delay a woman’s decision to have an abortion until it is too late to do so under Virginia law, crisis pregnancy centers often tell women that they will probably miscarry anyway, so they should wait to make a decision about what to do. Not only does this effectively prevent women who want to terminate their pregnancy from exercising their constitutionally protected right to do so, it also encourages women who may decide to carry their pregnancy to term to delay seeking critical prenatal medical care.

Further, in their zealotry, crisis pregnancy centers frequently fail to maintain the professional neutrality that is a commonly accepted tenet of counseling. For example, in an investigative report compiled by NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, crisis pregnancy center staff were documented offering congratulations for a positive pregnancy test, and one crisis pregnancy center staffer became very aggressive with an investigator and yelled at her for making a “terrible decision” when she refused to return to the center. In addition, because crisis pregnancy centers are often staffed by volunteers who are not medical professionals, they sometimes give inaccurate information about basic reproductive health issues, such as the effectiveness of contraception, the difference between emergency contraception (which prevents pregnancy) and RU-486 (which causes a medical abortion), and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections.

Women are entitled to accurate, comprehensive and unbiased medical information with which they can make their own decisions.

If the anti-choice movement really wanted to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country, then they would work with the pro-choice movement to increase access to contraception and comprehensive sexuality education—real solutions that will lower the rate of unintended pregnancies and reduce the need for abortion.

Funding anti-choice centers that manipulate and coerce women does nothing to accomplish this goal—and make no mistake, the license plates have the potential to generate thousands of dollars in revenue for these organizations (Florida’s DMV reports that in that state, the “Choose Life” license plate generates over $65,000 a month for crisis pregnancy centers).

We should support legitimate, comprehensive reproductive healthcare clinics instead of crisis pregnancy centers whose missions have nothing to do with healthcare and everything to do with a political agenda. Hopefully, the governor will remember this when the license plate proposal reaches his desk.
Bearden is political and policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Virginia Forum. 3/09

All the Right Turns

By Kathleen Rogers

In today’s confusing and disheartening economic landscape, it’s more important than ever to navigate carefully -- and make the right turns. At least, that’s what shipping giant UPS is doing. After implementing a “right turn” strategy (taking more right turns than left to avoid idling in left turn lanes) UPS has saved over 30 million miles of driving -- including three million gallons of fuel and $600 million dollars a year from the change -- not to mention countless tons of carbon emissions. The rest of us can learn from this strategy and start our own “right turn” campaign.

UPS, however, isn’t the only big green giant: Wal-Mart, the second largest procurer of energy only to the U.S. government, has made a pledge to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy; to create zero waste; and to sell greener products. The retailer is also building skylight/dimming system into its new stores. As daylight increases, skylights allow Wal-Mart to dim the lights or even turn them off, thereby reducing the demand for electricity during peak hours. This system results in an annual savings of about 250 million kwh a year, enough to power approximately 23,000 homes. Corporations like Hewlett Packard, Toyota, and even British Petroleum have taken steps toward greening their production. And J.P. Morgan Chase is investing $2 billion of its own capital to fund renewable energy projects such as wind farms and solar in 17 states. Chase believes an investment in renewable energy will help revitalize rural communities and by creating jobs and increasing the local tax base. More and more, companies are finding that simple green solutions are attractive.

These forward-thinking companies are part of a movement we can dub “the Green Generation” -- a new way of thinking and doing business where sustainability takes precedent, as the most efficient strategy emerges as the most economical. Similar to the “greatest generation” that met the challenges of World War II, the Green Generation seeks to break with the past and includes companies, as well as ordinary people, who are engaged in individual and collective activities to improve their health, to better their schools, and to participate in building a solution to urgent national and global issues, such as climate change. The Green Generation wants to put people to work -- building a better, greener world.

What makes a better world? Smarter, more efficient, corporations -- the kind that see their success intertwined with the greater good, and realize that a move to energy efficiency saves resources, and with it money and jobs. Smarter, more efficient investments in growing sustainable markets -- from alternative energies like solar power, wind power, and geothermal energy to green farming, green schools, and public transportation. A nationwide move toward energy efficiency could create 5 million new jobs in the U.S. alone -- and many millions more worldwide.

Now that’s a turn for the better -- for our economy, our environment, our individuals and our industries. The Green Generation sees their commitment to fight climate change as the responsibility of both communities and corporations, as a movement both personal and unapologetically political. Good too, because now’s our chance: President-elect Obama has already committed to an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050; with the Green Generation’s support, both Congress and corporate America will be hard-pressed not to push for more sustainable practices in all industries. “Green-outs” will replace bailouts as we mandate that companies that want public assistance -- like the auto industry -- change to accommodate the public’s need for high-efficiency products that cost less to maintain.

Every time humanity comes to a crossroads, after all, we achieve our next greatest accomplishment to date. Between 10,000 and 5,000 BC we needed more food; hence the Neolithic Revolution and the foundations of modern agriculture. The end of the 20th century was marked by a need to disseminate information all over the world, leading to the Digital Revolution. And now, fluctuating fuel prices and a struggling economy mean that efficiency is, finally, everything. Our Green Generation Revolution, led by our Green Generation, is here. There’s a new bottom line in town, and it’s green. Companies and consumers, that make all the right turns toward sustainability will have no trouble getting there. As individuals, we can realize that less can give us far more -- more opportunities for creativity, more opportunities for invention, more chances for success, and more reasons to appreciate the interconnection between our economic and environmental health.


Rogers is the president of Earth Day Network.


Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 2/09

Friday, February 27, 2009

Hope in Unlikely Places: Citizen Solutions

By Eleanor LeCain

In his address to Congress, President Obama acknowledged that hope is found in unlikely places; now he can tap into people in those unlikely places to renew America.

People expect the president to solve an array of formidable challenges like creating good-paying jobs, providing health care, strengthening energy independence, and improving public schools.

Fortunately, the president can draw on the experience of the most accomplished Americans, not only the well-known wise men and women selected for the Cabinet, but regular people who solved these problems in their own communities.

Just about any problem anywhere has been solved by someone somewhere. The challenge is to identify these solutions, incorporate them into national policies, and help states and local communities put proven solutions into practice.

As a former state senator President Obama knows he can find solutions in surprising places -- for instance:

• IN EDUCATION -- Urban schools have drop-out rates of up to 50 percent and college-bound rates of only 10 percent. Yet, Deborah Meier founded Central Park East, a public high school in Harlem where 90 percent of students graduate, and 90 percent of graduates attend college.

• IN CRIME -- Two million people in prison costs about $50 billion a year, plus the cost of building prisons and wasted lives. Despite the expense, over 70 percent of released inmates commit crimes again and return to jail. But at Delancey Street rehabilitation center in San Francisco, criminals and drug addicts turn their lives around and become productive citizens. There’s no cost to taxpayers since the center is financed by businesses run as training programs by the residents.

• IN HEALTH AND SCIENCE -- About one million people have autism and severe problems with language and social interaction. Yet, The Son-Rise Program in Sheffield, Massachusetts has helped hundreds of families enable children and adults with autism to improve in all areas of learning and communication, sometimes experiencing dramatic improvement.

Solutions like these are all over the country. But currently there is no systematic way to identify and build on best practices in the social sector. Successful business innovations are often adopted by other companies, but that’s rarer for social innovations.

A White House Office for Solutions would be a clearinghouse for projects that are already working in fields such as education, prison reform, environment, and energy. It would provide a vital link between the creativity of the American people and the government.

The White House Office for Solutions would launch a nationwide treasure hunt inviting citizens to find the best of what’s working in their area. For example, educators can report on the best schools. People in community safety groups can report on the best ways to reduce crime.

Citizens become Solution Scouts, discovering breakthrough solutions and reporting them to the White House Office for Solutions. The Office would vet the recommended programs, sending the best to the appropriate federal agency.

Solutions would be made available to the public and elected officials nationwide through a website and regional conferences. For example, successful models of education would become available to governors, mayors, teachers and parents. In this way, a breakthrough anywhere can become a breakthrough everywhere.

By building on what works, we can dramatically improve the quality of life for millions of people and for billions of dollars less than we currently spend.

Just imagine: If even 10 percent of current prisoners were enrolled in a Delancey Street-styled rehabilitation center, we could help 200,000 people leave a life of crime and drugs and become productive members of society. And for $5 billion dollars less than we would have spent annually. Likewise, if just 10 percent of people with autism had access to programs like The Son-Rise Program, we could help about 170,000 people and their families nationwide experience dramatically better results for less than half of the current treatment cost.

The White House Office for Solutions would have broad appeal among Democrats, Republicans, Independents and others, moving us beyond partisanship to partnership. It would give substance to our yearning for change, and give all citizens an opportunity to help our country.


LeCain is a Washington, DC-based speaker and writer, the president of the World Innovation Network which identifies and builds on solutions to social problems, and a former Massachusetts Assistant Secretary of State.


Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 2/09

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Is This the Plan to Save the Day?

By Dana Beasley Brown

As a mother, I’m fed up with the questionable choices made by the leaders who are entrusted to serve and protect their citizens. As a resident of Kentucky, I need to know that our leadership is willing to invest in the life that my son will have here. I need to know that when he’s old enough to go to school, he’ll have every opportunity to learn and succeed as well as his friends in Maryland and his cousins in California.

And I need to know that the air he breathes and the water he drinks is just as safe here as it is anyplace else and that he will experience a community in which people are treated fairly and justly.

Three little pieces of news led me to believe that perhaps a change had come to the Commonwealth and that we were on our way to a Kentucky I could be proud of. First, our elected officials started echoing Rep. Jim Wayne’s call for a comprehensive tax overhaul. Second, some House Republicans proposed a plan to expand the sales tax to a few of our untaxed services. Third, after years of watching our children’s class sizes swell, our teachers' pay fail to keep up, our justice system and health services leave more and more people behind, and our colleges become unaffordable, even Senate President David Williams admitted that we need new revenue.

These three little pieces have allowed me to think that a positive change would come to our state. Like many Kentuckians, I was hopeful about the likelihood of real reforms.

Unfortunately, however, the closed doors that hid away the negotiations among House, Senate, and executive leadership also prevented them from hearing the call for change coming from across the state. So instead, we get a plan to raise the cigarette tax by 30 cents, a retail sales tax on alcohol, and deep budget cuts.

That’s the plan that’s supposed to save the day?

The legislature has a short memory. As easy as it is to blame the severity of Kentucky’s budget needs on the economic crisis, it isn’t accurate to do so. We had known about the revenue shortfall last year, but the legislature didn’t do anything about it except to make another round of budget cuts, some deeper than the three rounds of cuts before that.

And although Gov. Beshear acted surprised to learn of that shortfall, the legislators knew better. The legislature-commissioned Fox Report confirmed back in 2001 that Kentucky’s tax system was out of date and could not sustain a basic level of services. Years of bad choices have left us with chronically underfunded programs, unaffordable higher education, abandoned school programs, and unenforced environmental laws.

The legislature, once again, has made a big mistake. We now have a tax structure that asks the lowest income-earners to contribute about 10 percent of their income to state and local taxes, and asks the wealthiest to contribute not even 6 percent.

It's the low- and middle-income earners -- not our state's wealthiest, with incomes above $300,000--who are being hurt the most by our economic recession. Balancing our budget on their backs has never been fair, and now it seems especially unwise. Why aren't we moving toward solutions that make our tax structure more balanced and, therefore, more sound?

Instead of adding some patchwork taxes that, in their weakness, will do very little for the public good, our elected officials could have moved us closer to a tax structure that reflects our values of fairness and cooperation.

Where’s the real revenue reform that the Commonwealth so badly needs? Our taxes fit into the old trend. They are relics of a time when people bought into the falsity of small government connoting efficient government. Continuing to move in this direction will dig us deeper into the situation we are in right now, suffering from unemployment, extractive industries, and facilitating policies that don’t work.

We all want our state to be efficient. But we won’t make it efficient by continuing the practices that make it ineffective. Our state government can only be efficient if it is able to do the work that we have charged it to do—help us protect and educate ourselves so that we can all realize our potential to succeed. Efficiency takes some investment. Our leaders can choose to support these investments, or they can choose--as they have--to only do what makes our budget legal.

I want our leaders to make better choices. I want them to invest in a better Kentucky.
Beasley Brown lives in Bowling Green with her husband and 1-year old son. She is member of the Economic Justice Committee of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Kentucky Forum. 2/09

Friday, February 20, 2009

Our Social Safety Needs Mending

By Irasema Garza

The current government social safety net that was built for a growing economy has stretched to its breaking point.

While Congress has acknowledged the dire circumstances working and middle-class families now face, little attention has been paid to those on the brink of the economic precipice: poor families facing the expiration of government assistance, with no jobs on the horizon and all avenues for help closing off.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will prevent many from falling off the cliff; however, many decisions that will affect the neediest families will be left to the states. To effectively buoy working families and children coping their way through this crisis, we must rethink how we provide assistance to those who need it most.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) has been the government assistance of last resort for our nation’s poorest families for over a decade. Current rules for TANF set a 60-month lifetime limit for assistance, and allow states to set shorter limits, as nearly a quarter of them do. While some exemptions to the time limit are permitted and some states continue to provide aid with state funds, thousands of families lose their benefits solely because they reach that limit. The vast majority, 90 percent by some studies, of adult TANF recipients are women, many of whom are taking care of children or disabled relatives. With the unemployment rate at its highest in years, these families are finding their benefits expiring just when jobs are incredibly scarce for experienced workers, much less those lacking a high school diploma or a consistent work history, as many TANF recipients do.

TANF benefits enable families to get by and subsist, not save; the women, children and men currently falling off the rolls are slipping into a very vulnerable situation wherein homelessness, hunger and abuse become par for the course. And families are indeed slipping off, by the thousands. Despite a 12-month recession and record unemployment, 18 states cut their welfare rolls last year.

Amid the largest U.S. economic downturn in decades, the number of individuals and families receiving cash assistance is at or near a 40-year low. The very structure of the welfare system -- in which states receive federal funds in fixed block grants and must shoulder any increase (or savings) -- has created a perverse incentive for states to discourage people from accessing the program and move recipients off the rolls as quickly as possible. Even in good economic times, this proves damaging for struggling families. In the current economic environment, it is downright debilitating and it further burdens communities and local resources by emptying food pantries and filling homeless shelters.

Fortunately, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes federal funds to supplement state TANF costs. Congress should go further, however, and suspend time limits during the crisis, thereby protecting poor women, children and men from falling into the abyss of joblessness, homelessness and hunger. Extending time limits will not eliminate rules which require recipients to be involved in a work-related activity 30 hours a week; it merely guarantees that people following the rules are not thrown off the rolls. Moreover, states must step up and focus on expanding their welfare programs during the crisis, as opposed to maintaining a status quo in which participation is discouraged. Similarly, states should utilize that increased funding for training, education and child care so that TANF recipients have the best possible chance to get and keep jobs during this precarious time.

Modifying the TANF program during this time is critical to the basic stability of millions of low-income women and families. Now is not the time for ideological grandstanding. At a time when more people than ever are falling through the cracks, our social safety net needs serious mending. For the millions of families moving closer to the edge with each passing week, time is running out.
Garza is the president of Legal Momentum, the nation’s oldest legal advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the rights of women and girls.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 2/09

Friday, February 13, 2009

Volunteer DTV Extension Wreaks Havoc

By Karen Toering

Do we love TV too much? Maybe.

But for nearly all American households, television provides more than mindless entertainment. It's also our most important lifeline for news and information.

According to Nielsen Media Research, 98.6 percent of American households have at least one TV set. And a Project for Excellence in Journalism study shows that more of us get our picture of the world from local TV news than from any other single source.

That is why Congress voted earlier this month to delay the biggest change in over-the-air television in nearly 50 years -- the federally-mandated switch to digital television. Congress pushed back the date from Feb. 17 to June 12 because there are still far too many people who are unprepared for the transition.

Congress left a loophole, however: local broadcasters across the country were given the option to transition earlier. In many large cities, stations have opted to delay their digital shift until June 12, giving viewers another few months to prepare. Stations in rural areas and mid-sized cities have opted to switch on Feb. 17. In Washington State, those cities include Bellingham, Yakima, Spokane and the Tri-Cities.

Whenever stations switch to digital, the effect will be the same: TVs that use set-top or rooftop antennas will no longer work without a new digital converter box (cable and satellite subscribers will not be affected).

Millions of people are aware of the changeover, but just as many are confused by just what the transition means for them. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights estimates that some 21 million households will automatically be cut off from television, our primary news and information source.

Many of these households are people of color, senior citizens, people with disabilities and those who depend on programs in languages other than English.

Community-based DTV assistance centers set up in various cities have responded to questions from people confused about whether they need to buy a new television (they don’t), or about problems with hooking up the boxes, or with antenna problems.

In these troubled economic times, many TV viewers have been slow to switch because of the perceived expense. Cable companies have been running confusing ads touting their pay-tv service as the simplest way for households to manage the DTV switch.

The most affordable solution is to get a converter box which will allow old TVs to receive the new digital signals. A federal government program is providing two $40 coupons toward the purchase of a converter box to every American household. Those interested in receiving the coupons can apply at or by calling 1-888-DTV-2009.

Converter boxes are available online for as low as $40 -- but in Washington state, most retailers are generally charging $60 or more for the boxes.

Adding to the stress for some consumers is the fact that there is now a substantial waiting list for those government coupons -- nearly 26,000 people in Washington state are on that list. But the stimulus package recently passed by Congress included additional funding to get those coupons moving again.

In order to help make this switch go smoothly for everyone, electronics retailers need to provide low-cost boxes; it's also up to the federal government and community partners to work together to provide more thorough education and outreach to keep seniors, people with disabilities and low-income consumers from being left behind.

But it’s not just up to the government. We all have a role to play. The extension will give some of us more time to figure out what we need to do to successfully make the transition. If you haven’t already applied for a coupon -- you should do it. If you have an extra coupon that your family won’t use -- donate it. And if you have a family member or friend who isn’t ready -- help them.
Toering is coordinator of the Seattle DTV Assistance Center, a project of Reclaim the Media, at
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Washington Forum. 2/09

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Health Care Reform Would Boost Economy

By Heidi Topp Brooks and Lydia Pendley

This year's multi-billion dollar bailouts of the banking and auto industry were meant to give the impression that these huge infusions of cash would buoy the economy and result in better circumstances for all. But many of us were left wondering where exactly those hundreds of billions of dollars would go and how exactly that would translate into improved conditions for regular Americans and New Mexicans.

The state of the economy and the repercussions from these drastic measures will no doubt be President Obama’s top priority. Rather than focus on more massive bailouts to huge industries, the administration must focus on a long-neglected issue that, once addressed, would not only give a boost to businesses large and small, but have real results for struggling Americans. That issue is health care reform.

The emotional and moral arguments for reforming our broken health care system are well known, but expanding the public role in health care to make sure that every American has coverage makes good economic sense too. Businesses have seen their private insurance costs almost double in recent years. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, employer-sponsored premiums for family coverage have soared from $6,438 in 2000 to $12,680 in 2008. In New Mexico average annual health insurance premiums rose 92.3 percent from $6,222 to $11,967 between 2000 and 2007. As a result, many businesses, especially small businesses, are being forced to cut insurance for their employees. The employees, when forced to choose between a job with no insurance or no job at all, will often choose the paycheck.

When these employees join the ranks of the 45 million other Americans, including 440,000 New Mexicans, who are uninsured, they subject themselves to the very real risk of falling into debt due to medical care. A recent report from the Commonwealth Fund found that 72 million people have problems paying their medical bills or are in medical debt, the most vulnerable of whom are the uninsured. Another report by an Emory University economist finds that unpaid hospital bills cost $45 billion a year, with much of the burden being shouldered by those with insurance. A recent Harvard Law School study found that half of all home foreclosures have medical causes, with nearly one-quarter of all home foreclosures due to unmanageable medical bills.

President Obama himself has acknowledged the need to reform health care and invest in publicly funded programs to help alleviate the financial crisis. While announcing Tom Daschle as the new secretary of health and human services, Obama stated, "the time has come — this year, in this new administration — to modernize our health care system for the 21st century; to reduce costs for families and businesses; and to finally provide affordable, accessible health care for every American." He added that health reform, "has to be interwoven into our economic recovery program…This can't be put off because we're in an emergency. This is part of the emergency!"

It is heartening to hear that Obama recognizes that health care reform and economic recovery cannot be disassociated. He can affirm his commitment to these two issues by working with Congress early on in his administration to pass legislation that supports and expands public programs like Medicaid, Medicare and the State Children's Health Insurance Program to make sure that every American has access to quality health care, and that American families do not have to add unavoidable medical costs to their list of economic woes.

New Mexico can take its own immediate action toward real health care reform by establishing a truly independent Health Care Authority that will take on the job of developing a comprehensive health care reform action plan by September 2010 for accessible and affordable health care for all people living in New Mexico. The Health Care Authority should be independent from legislative, executive or vested financial interests and accountable to the people of New Mexico and charged to develop sustainable methods to finance a health care system that incorporates the best strategies from the public and private sectors, including community rating, measures that assure portability of health coverage, and implementation of guaranteed coverage regardless of previous health conditions.

New Mexico and the nation's dismal economic conditions make it more urgent than ever to take bold action to bring about health care reform. New Mexico cannot afford to wait. We must start to by creating the Health Care Authority.
Brooks is an attorney, student in UNM's Masters in Public Health program, and longtime citizen activist on hunger and poverty with RESULTS. Pendley is a member of the Health Care for All Campaign and the co-group leader of RESULTS-Santa Fe.
Copyright © 2009 by the New Mexico Editorial Forum. 2/09

Monday, February 02, 2009

State of Mississippi's Children

By Rhea Bishop

Mississippi is once again failing its children.

The Children’s Defense Fund’s recently released State of America’s Children 2008 report highlights how far we have to go in Mississippi to protect our children. Even in the midst of the current economic downturn, Mississippi must continue to invest in our children if we are ever to move up from the bottom of the nation’s economic ladder.

Here’s what we learned in the report:

Once again, Mississippi has the highest percentage of children living in poverty at almost 3 in 10 (the national rate is 1 in 6). The vast majority of Mississippi families living in poverty are working families. The federal poverty line for a family of four in 2008 was $21,200.

Race still affects poverty. Although children of all races live in poverty, a black child in Mississippi is more than twice as likely to be poor as a black child in New Jersey.

About 1 in 9 or nearly 9 million children are uninsured nationwide; 121,000 or almost 15 percent of Mississippi children are uninsured. Among uninsured children nationwide, 9 out of 10 have at least one parent working. Six out of 10 live in two parent families.

Nationwide, about 28.3 million children are enrolled in Medicaid and 7.1 million are enrolled in CHIP. In Mississippi, 422,183 children are enrolled in Medicaid. Although 54 percent of the Medicaid recipients in Mississippi are children, less than one-fourth of Medicaid payments are for health care for children. While it costs Mississippi Medicaid $5,506 per average recipient, it costs Medicaid only $1,496 to provide medical coverage for a child.

Mississippi has the highest rate of infant mortality in the country. Of all babies born in Mississippi in 2007, 477 or 10.3 per thousand newborns died. Mississippi also has one of highest rates of low-birth weight babies in the nation. More than 10 percent of Mississippi babies are born with a low birth weight – putting them at risk for neonatal health problems and death.

Maternal deaths resulting from complications of pregnancy and childbirth are also among the highest in the nation. Mississippi’s has an overall maternal death rate of 21.5 per 100,000 live births. The maternal death rate for black mothers is almost three times the rate for white mothers.

Mississippi is one of the top three states for births to teenage mothers. The teenage pregnancy rate has increased in 2006 and 2007 to 41 births per thousand teens age 10-19 in 2006 and 43 births per thousand in 2007. From 2001 to 2005, the teen pregnancy rate in Mississippi was under 40 per thousand. Nonwhite teens in 2007 were more likely to get pregnant at a rate of 53.8, compared to 32.9 per thousand white teens.

Only about 3 percent of eligible babies and young children are enrolled in Early Head Start programs; 26,657 children are enrolled in Head Start in Mississippi. Over two-thirds of mothers of young children in Mississippi work. The Urban Institute has calculated that 2.7 million people nationwide would be lifted out of poverty if child care assistance were provided to all families with young children whose incomes are below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line.

Finally, the number of children receiving food stamps nationwide has been increasing yearly since 2000. In Mississippi, 207,351 families with children receive food stamps. About 75 percent of the children in public school in Mississippi receive free or reduced-price lunch.

We can and must do better for our children. State leaders have pledged to fully fund K-12 public schools and Medicaid; we must hold them to that promise. We all know that this will be a tight budget year at the Capitol. But, the budget should not be balanced on the backs of poor children.
Bishop is deputy director of the Children’s Defense Fund.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Mississippi Forum 2/09

Friday, January 30, 2009

Investing in Our Human Infrastructure

By Riane Eisler

Over half a million people lost their jobs last month. There’s no question we need a job-creation plan. The real question is what kind of plan will most quickly stimulate the economy and at the same time provide the best long-term investment for our nation.

President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Job-Creation Plan should be used to massively invest in our human infrastructure. Study after study shows that when our nation invests in its people, starting in childhood, the economic benefits are enormous.

By creating, subsidizing, and providing training for jobs in childcare, early education, healthcare, eldercare, and other “caring industries,” as well as supporting caring work in homes, we quickly stimulate the economy, help families, radically reduce poverty and violence, reward women’s economic contributions, save billions in crime and prisons, and develop the “high quality human capital” needed for our post-industrial economy.

Our economic crisis is an opportunity to lay foundations for a sustainable and equitable economic system instead of just trying to patch up an economy based on unsustainable consumerism, consumer debt, and environmental practices. The current economic meltdown is not due simply to the globalization of unregulated capitalism. The problem goes much deeper -- and so must the solutions.

The financial return on investing in caring jobs and home activities is huge. We need a new economic system that really works -- both in the short and long term. To make the job creation plan more effective we must consider that:

• America and the world are in the midst of a sea change as we shift from the industrial to the knowledge/information era. Many of the jobs being lost in manufacturing and other fields will be gone for good as we move toward more automation and robotics. Our most effective investment is in human capital development, starting in childhood and continuing all through life.

• A job-creation program component that focuses on the work of caring and caregiving will stimulate economic recovery and develop high capacity human capital capable of pioneering new frontiers of innovation across the board in every sector of society: culturally, socially, technologically, and environmentally.

• Neuroscience shows that the quality of childcare directly affects the development of human capacities and potentials; caregiving produces what economists call “public goods” and should be economically valued as civic work.

• The hi-tech green jobs and infrastructure construction jobs proposed by the job-creation program as currently formulated are still largely “men’s work.” Yet the time has passed when male “heads of family” were the sole breadwinners. The majority of families are two wage-earner families or woman-headed families. An effective economic stimulus program also provides jobs, training, and subsidies where the female labor force is concentrated: childcare, education, healthcare, eldercare. Studies show that women buy 80 percent of household goods: the food, clothing, and other essentials that keep the core economy going.

• Support of “caring work” will radically reduce poverty and violence, and their enormous economic, social, and personal costs. In the U.S., as in most nations, the poor are disproportionately women and children.

• As the Baby Boomers age, demand for eldercare is rapidly exceeding services available. The job-creation program must address this urgent need by supporting good eldercare in both the market and household economies.

• Millions of Americans are going uncared and undercared for. We have a huge caring gap from cradle to grave. A more broadly defined job-creation program will help close this gap at the same time that it stimulates the economy and trains both women and men for the work that is most urgently needed for a healthy economy and society.

• Creating a new cabinet post or advisory council for high capacity human development will facilitate the reordering of social priorities and the implementation of a new economic agenda appropriate for the post-industrial era -- and a more equitable and sustainable future.

The economic stimulus plan should be a bridge to the kind of economy and society we want and need: one where caring for humans and the planet is the primary economic driver. Good care and education for children is an essential investment in our nation’s future work force, and hence our future quality of life.

Investing in human infrastructure will not only rapidly stimulate our economy; it will lay foundations for a new economic era where our most precious resources -- people and the natural environment -- are nurtured, sustained, and thrive for generations to come.
Eisler is author of The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future, now in 23 languages, and most recently The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics. She is president of the Center for Partnership Studies. For more information, see
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 1/09

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Better Nutrition Equals Better Education

By Kathleen Rogers

Cafeteria food has always been the brunt of kids' jokes. Many of us remember the grilled cheese sandwich that stuck to the plate when you turned it upside down, and the egg soufflé that jiggled when you poked it. But even that is a far cry from what's served now.

In the midst of a growing childhood obesity crisis, school food now means federally subsidized chicken nuggets, low-grade hamburgers, french fries, hot dogs and pizza. "Cooking" usually involves a centralized kitchen similar to a fast food assembly line.

According to Ron Haskins, senior fellow of Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, "behind the overcooked vegetables and steam-table pizza that American children confront each school day is an industry that rivals defense contractors and media giants in its ability to bring home the federal bacon." That industry is agribusiness -- and, via the National School Lunch Program, it has a chokehold on our kids.

The commodities-driven National School Lunch Program, meant to feed 60 million children healthy food, has instead turned into a major public health threat. The most vulnerable in our society are suffering the most severe consequences, including epidemic levels of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses. While we need to be able to include more children in the School Lunch Program, we also need to be able to feed them higher-quality, more nutritious food, or else we are defeating the purpose of the program.

Over the past three decades, rates of obesity in the U.S. have more than doubled among children ages 2 to 5 and more than tripled among those ages 6 to 11. Today, approximately 9 million U.S. children over the age of 6 are considered obese. America's overweight teens consume an average of 700 to 1,000 calories more than they are required each day.

The National School Lunch Program and its affiliated programs have unmatched size and scope, serving more than 35 million lunches every day in almost every school in the U.S., costing taxpayers more than $8.5 billion. Close to 20 million K-12 students receive up to two meals a day, five days a week. The program was recently expanded to include all children enrolled in Head Start and child nutrition programs. The summer food service program feeds 18 million low-income children.

Where does agribusiness come in? Schools participating in the National School Lunch Program receive cash subsidies and commodity foods for each meal served plus bonus commodities from agricultural surplus. The program’s authorizing language requires that participating schools serve the most abundant commodities -- mostly milk and meat, with few fruits and vegetables. In fact, the ties between the government and the commodities industry, aided and abetted by poor nutritional choices by state and local food service officials, trumps federal nutritional guidelines resulting in menu offerings that resemble fast food.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture purchases hundreds of millions of pounds of pork, beef, and other animal products as well as surplus corn and wheat primarily as an economic benefit to agricultural interests. This might have been a defensible idea a century ago, when a third of our population worked as farmers; now, only 2 percent of our workforce is in agriculture. However, to help 2 percent of our citizens, these commodities are donated to the School Lunch Program and other food assistance programs. Unfortunately for our children, many of these foods are unhealthy.

Next year, The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, which includes school lunches, will expire and the renewal battle will begin. We must dramatically improve the federal nutrition requirements that guide this program, weaken the ties between the School Lunch Program and the commodities markets, revolutionize the quality of food in our schools, label the salt, fat, and sugar content of each meal served, and educate school officials, regulators and the American public about the School Lunch Program and its potentially disastrous implications for our children's health.

We need a Congressional mandate for higher nutritional values for the School Lunch Program to improve the quality and types of food that are served in K-12 schools, with an emphasis on local foods and organics. However, that's useless unless we complement it with revamped nutrition curriculums for children and parents so that they can learn the value of good nutrition in preventing disease.

Significant progress can and must be made in overhauling school lunches. It will take millions of voices to bring about this change. The cost to the next generation is too high for this battle to be lost.
Rogers is the president of Earth Day Network.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 1/09

Friday, January 23, 2009

Moving on to Common Ground

By Cristina Page

On the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Connecticut Catholic Conference announced its solution to the increasing rate of teenagers seeking abortion care in the state. They proposed abortion restrictions; specifically, limiting teenager's access to abortion by requiring parental notification. If the goal is lowering the abortion rate, this is the wrong approach.

Studies show that restricting access to abortion often has little-to-no impact on the rate of abortion but instead does something far worse: increase the number of late term abortions. In Mississippi, after passage of a favorite pro-life restriction, mandating a waiting period before a woman can receive an abortion, researchers discovered the second trimester abortion rate had increased by a whopping 53 percent. In 2000, Texas lawmakers required parental consent before a teenager could have an abortion. Researchers soon discovered a spike in second trimester procedures obtained by 18 year olds. Many 17 year olds simply opted to wait to have the abortion until they could do it privately.

Call it the pro-life paradox: the strategies of the anti-abortion movement -- wherever tried -- fail to produce "pro-life" outcomes. The trend is true globally. The countries with the highest abortion rates are those that that have outlawed abortion. Abortion is completely illegal throughout most of Latin America, but abortion rates in Peru, Chile and the Dominican Republic have been estimated to be more than twice the U.S. rate. Conversely, the countries with the lowest abortion rates are those with the strongest pro-choice policies, where abortion is legal and often even free of charge.

During the Clinton administration, pro-choice policies were implemented resulting in the most dramatic decline in abortion rates ever recorded. Through the eight years of the Bush administration, the anti-abortion movement set national policy, yet none of its strategies resulted in dramatic decreases in the abortion rate. Instead, teen birth rates are now spiking in 26 states and the rates of STDs are rising too. What the Catholic Conference is recommending for Connecticut is not new but rather a continuation of the old policies that have failed, even by "pro-life" standards.

That's why many pro-life people are now supporting pro-choice policies that have proven to prevent unwanted pregnancy and reduce the need for abortion. is an organization that is supported by many religious groups and pursues common ground approaches to reduce unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Their tag line is: "Finding real solutions to our high abortion rate based on results, not rhetoric." Reverend Rich Cizik, of the National Association of Evangelicals, explained the group's philosophy, "Let's all join together to be part of a positive strategy to reduce abortions in America that puts problem-solving above political posturing." Since one in five abortions is obtained by a teenager and 60 percent by women with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line, their platform is to favor policies that prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women, and assist new parents.

The new Obama administration and Democrat-controlled Congress have committed to the common ground approach as well. To signal their seriousness, on the first day the Senate returned to session, Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced the Prevention First Act. This common ground legislation is designed to increase access to both contraception and comprehensive sex education, as well as reduce unwanted pregnancies in the United States. President Obama marked the anniversary of Roe v Wade by stating, "While this is a sensitive and often divisive issue, no matter what our views, we are united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies, reduce the need for abortion, and support women and families in the choices they make. To accomplish these goals, we must work to find common ground to expand access to affordable contraception, accurate health information, and preventative services."

Americans, both pro-choice and pro-life, are eager to see progress on this most intransigent of political issues. According to a Faith in Public Life poll, the vast majority (83 percent) of voters, including Catholics (81 percent), believe elected leaders should work together to find ways to reduce abortions by helping prevent unwanted pregnancies, expanding adoption, and increasing economic support for women who want to carry their pregnancies to term. None of these approaches are part of the Connecticut Catholic Conference's recently released plan. However, if both sides of the abortion conflict pooled their talents, these common ground approaches would not only be tremendously successful but would also begin to heal the wound our country has suffered over this issue for far too long. At the very least, it's worth an honest try.
Page is the author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex and spokesperson for
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 1/09

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ending Wage Discrimination

By Lisa Grafstein

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision which changed the rules for determining how long an employee has to raise a claim of wage discrimination. The plaintiff in that case, Lilly Ledbetter, lost a claim for 18 years of discrimination, but has lent her name to a proposal which would correct the interpretation of federal law and allow victims of wage discrimination to recover a portion of what they have lost.

Before the Ledbetter case, courts -- including the Supreme Court -- had used a “paycheck rule,” which recognized that, when an employee is underpaid on a discriminatory basis, each paycheck that employee receives is affected by discrimination, and the statute of limitations for a claim therefore begins to run when a discriminatory paycheck is issued. In most cases, employees do not become aware of wage discrepancies until well into their employment. Moreover, we know that a pay decision continues to impact a worker over her earning years. The National Women’s Law Center has calculated that women 24 and younger start out earning 6 percent less than their male counterparts, but that gap increases over time, resulting in women 45-64 earn 71 percent of what their male counterparts earn.

A study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows the cost in real dollars: a typical college-educated woman who was between 45 and 49 in 2004 had lost over $440,000 (in 2004 dollars) since 1984 due to the wage gap. As Justice Ginsburg noted in the dissent in the Ledbetter decision: “even minor disparities will increase exponentially over time.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that women earn 76 percent of what men earn -- a gap that cannot be explained away by women’s career choices or other non-discriminatory bases, and is the cumulative effect of long-term wage disparities.

The Ledbetter decision discarded the paycheck rule, and held that a worker could not complain about wage discrimination that started more than 180 days before the initial complaint was made. The practical impact was that there would be no real remedy for wage discrimination, since very few people discover the wage disparity until well after being hired for a position, and still fewer would opt to sue a new employer over what would initially be a very small amount of money. The Lilly Ledbetter Act would reinstate the paycheck rule, allowing an employee to sue for up to two years of the wage difference, even if the initial salary decision was made earlier.

The central argument against the bill appears to be that it would invite litigation over decades-old claims. The law, however, is clear that no claim for damages can reach back more than two years; in other words, regardless of how many years a woman received lesser pay she cannot claim losses that occurred prior to two years before instituting a charge of discrimination.

Both sides in this debate raise the issue of the struggling economy as support for their argument. Those who oppose the proposal, however, are in the position of arguing that discrimination should be left unremedied because of the current economic crisis -- ignoring the very real impact disparate wages have on women as workers and consumers. Without the Lilly Ledbetter Act, employers have no incentive to examine their wage practices -- past and present -- to determine whether some of their employees are not being fairly compensated.

The Lilly Ledbetter Act has already passed the House and will be voted on by the Senate soon. President Obama has pledged to sign it. It is well past time to end wage discrimination, and to send a firm signal condemning the practice.
Grafstein is a private practice attorney in Raleigh.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum. 1/09

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

English Only Amendment; How Not to Unite a Community

By Nancy Stetten

I have been a teacher all of my life. For a number of years I taught English to immigrants. I experienced firsthand the frustration of trying to communicate without a common language. I was always impressed though with how difficult it was for the adults to learn English, and how hard they struggled to master it to become better, more informed members of their communities.

Proponents for the English-Only Metro Charter Amendment though, say that by promoting English-Only, communities will be more united under a common language. This makes absolutely no sense. Communities are only made stronger due to their differences and by a willingness to come together despite those differences to make it a better place for everyone. This amendment seeks to divide communities. It is bad policy for Nashville and can send a problematic precedent for the rest of the state.

While early voting for the English-Only Metro Charter Amendment has begun, it is very important to understand what the proposal means and what it is trying to accomplish and why it is bad for the state.

Let’s see what it says sentence by sentence.

“English is the official language of the metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.”

This language is unnecessary. English is already the “official and legal language of Tennessee.”

“Official actions, which bind or commit the government shall be taken only in the English language.”

Again, unnecessary. All bills and resolutions are already written in English.

“…and all official government communications and publications shall be in English.”

What does this mean? Metro government has taken steps to provide information in languages other than English in cases where it believes that this makes our government function more efficiently. To overrule all of these decisions ties the hands of government workers trying to do their jobs and raises barriers to effective communication.

“No person shall have a right to government services in any other language.”

Our country has fought to get rid of categories of people who are denied rights. Why would we want to deny rights to a new class of people now?

“All meetings of the Metro Council, Boards, and Commissions of the metropolitan Government shall be conducted in English.”

Once again, unnecessary. This is already the case.

“The Metro Council may make specific exceptions to protect public health and safety.”

There are two problems with this. First, getting measures through Metro Council is cumbersome and time consuming. And second, it is impossible to list all of the specific cases which could endanger public health and safety. Misunderstandings over law or intention can rapidly escalate to a violent confrontation. In fact, failure to communicate itself is one of the greatest risks to public health and safety.

“Nothing in this measure shall be interpreted to conflict with federal or state law.”

Saying this does not make it so. In fact, the proposed charter amendment is in conflict with the constitution and federal law. Non-English speaking citizens have a right to government services under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and immigrants over 50 can become citizens even if they don’t know English. There is no doubt that if the English-Only Amendment is passed, it will surely be challenged in court.

A community achieves unity by treating all of its members as equal before the law, not by dividing members into two legal categories -- one receiving government services and the other denying them. At a time when we should be bringing communities together, the English-Only proposal only seeks to tear them apart.
Stetten is a former ESL teacher and a current researcher at the Tennessee Department of Education and a volunteer at Park Avenue Elementary School, where she teaches science and gardening.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 1/09

Monday, January 05, 2009

To Achieve Change President-Elect Obama Needs to Bet on Women

By Linda Tarr-Whelan

President-elect Obama has now moved swiftly to name talented and creative people to Cabinet-level offices and the key members of the White House team. But a nagging thought keeps coming back to me: Why isn't he naming more women to bring our experience, creativity and energy to address the problems that face us?

Until only recently it looked like Obama's Cabinet-level composition held only three women. But the announcement that Gov. Bill Richardson will not be taking the Commerce Secretary slot leaves an open position to fill, and one more chance for diversity.

Whereas the presidents of Chile and Spain, also elected as change candidates, appointed women to one-half of their Cabinet seats, Obama has named (including Richardson), 12 men of 15 Cabinet-level departments heads. Leaving his team very diverse in terms of race and ethnicity -- but not in gender. This is a diminished representation from both Bush presidencies and the Clinton administration.

More important than numbers is the talent that is missing and how out-of-step we are compared to the rest of the world in terms of who leads and why it matters. Since 1995 the global standard has been at least one-third women at power tables to revitalize economies and advance democratic participation.

Here we are stuck or moving backwards compared to the rest of the world.
The U.S. is ranked 27th on the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Report and 71st in terms of women's representation in Congress. Outside of government representation at the current rate increase it will take women 73 years to reach parity on corporate boards.

Why does Obama -- and all of us -- need more women making decisions?
Women "get it" about the importance of education and have gone to school in droves. Women now earn 58 percent of college and master's degrees and are at least even in professional and Ph.D programs. Women-owned businesses, despite persistent obstacles, generate sales equal to the gross domestic product of China. Women make 80 percent of the consumer decisions. As almost one-half of the workforce and the bulk of nurses and teachers, women are the secret to achieving improvements in the economy, education and health care.

Failing to maximize the power and potential of women as leaders for change is neither smart politics nor good business. Women were the majority of all voters -- and with a 7 percent gender gap over men voters, the majority of Obama voters. In part that was because the campaign specifically addressed pressing problems in women's lives where there has been little action for decades -- family and work, health care, equal pay and violence.

I've had my time to serve in government. Based on my experience, I would recommend a plan recently presented to the Obama-Biden transition by the heads of 38 prominent women's organization who represent 14 million women. They proposed the creation of a Cabinet-level Office on Women reporting directly to the president, an Inter-Agency Council on Women and an Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach.

As the former head of the White House Office on Women's Concerns for President Carter, I know first-hand the importance of the coordination between the president, the administration and women across the country.

In the Clinton administration, as the CEO of a nonprofit, I worked closely with Betsy Myers, later head of Women for Obama, and others who headed the Office of Women's Outreach. All of us found it difficult to deliver the president's agenda for women without Cabinet status. In my role as ambassador I met women ministers from around the globe and saw how their work informed progress for women and their countries and participated in the work of the very effective Inter-Agency Council on Women.

All of these offices were cut out by the Bush administration -- our next President will face a clean slate and a pressing need. President-elect Obama -- and all of us -- will be well-served by taking on board the full recommendation of an integrated approach on women led by a Cabinet-level Office on Women.

An Obama administration will move the whole country forward when it effectively tackles existing inequities, eliminates possible disparate impacts of supposedly "gender-neutral" policies and taps the full potential of our women. Women are not a special-interest group. We are the current and future talent for the economy, the anchors for most families and the change agents for a better future.

Women have embraced the Obama call for change. Now we want to be sure it happens.
Tarr-Whelan is a Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow on Women’s Leadership. Her book, “Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World” will be published in 2009. She is the former Ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 1/09

Friday, January 02, 2009

Medicaid Reform: Yet Another Barrier To Care

By Toni Waters Woods

On Thanksgiving Day 2006, my father, James "Buzz" Waters, was waiting to be disenrolled from the Medicaid reform pilot program in Duval County so that a high-risk cardiologist in Alachua County would see him. Jacksonville cardiologists referred my father to the Alachua doctor because apparently there was not a high-risk cardiologist in the Duval County Medicaid reform program. This wait proved to be fatal.

Before Medicaid reform my father would have been able to immediately make an appointment and be seen by the cardiologist in Alachua county. Two years ago the state introduced a pilot program to North Florida and Broward county that required more Medicaid recipients to join Medicaid HMOs. Proponents of the pilot claimed that Medicaid Reform would result in increased choices of health plans and providers. But by forcing more Medicaid patients into Medicaid HMOs it has instead created new barriers to care. In fact patients are now unable to access specialists who accept Medicaid but are outside reform plan networks without experiencing unnecessary and sometimes fatal delays. Because the specialist my father needed to see was not part of Duval county's Medicaid reform network, he had to waste precious time going through the disenrollment process before he could even make an appointment with the out of network high risk cardiologist. New Medicaid plan enrollments only start at the beginning of the month. As a result, the time frame for effectuating disenrollment from a plan is a frustrating and ludicrous obstacle for high-risk patients who have immediate needs that cannot wait. My father didn't make it to December 1. He died on that Thanksgiving Day, November 23.

Examples like my father's highlight the problems with forcing more high-risk Medicaid patients into Medicaid HMOs. Which is why I'm concerned when I hear the state is considering expanding the pilot program to the entire state. Medicaid reform in the state of Florida is not working for many patients. "Reform" has not only failed to solve the old problems, but it's created a slew of new ones. The reform program’s limited provider networks puts people with complex illnesses at risk. There are many documented stories like my father's about patients stuck in a spiral of red tape and rules that have led to further medical complications. Reading these stories is heartbreaking at times. A letter sent last year to the Florida Medicaid director from Florida CHAIN and Florida Legal Services highlighted many of the problems patients were having. A woman with diabetes was denied coverage for her insulin, goes into diabetic shock and almost dies; a man with severe mental illness ended up in the hospital because of coverage denied for his medications; a child with disabilities was unable to access critical therapies because of a lack of providers.

There are many policy arguments on all sides of the Medicaid reform issue. But we should listen closest to those who must navigate the complex maze of rules that Medicaid reform has put into place: the patients.

In a report from the Agency on Health Care Administration, it says Medicaid reform "seeks to improve the value of the Medicaid delivery system." I do not believe that happened in my father's case and I do not believe that the value has been improved for many of Florida's citizens, whether patients or taxpayers.

Managed care companies require profits and increasing amounts of reimbursement from the state. These needs are difficult to reconcile with the health care needs of high-risk and very sick Medicaid patients. Notably, in recent months managed care companies threatened to leave the program but changed their minds only when the state gave in to their demands to reduce proposed cuts from 5 percent to 3 percent. Decent health care should be not be judged by the balance sheet, but by the health of its patients.

One step in the right direction would be to permit emergency disenrollment procedures for Medicaid patients needing to access care not available through reform plans. Those protections were not in place for my father. Florida certainly should seek greater choices, access and flexibility for its Medicaid patients, but it should do so by reworking the fatally flawed reform program first, not by expanding it.
Woods is a resident of Duval County.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Florida Forum