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Roots and Branches

One of the most difficult lessons for those of us raised in individualistic cultures is recognizing the difficulty of solving problems that are symptoms of broken systems.

A recent report from NPR offered a great illustration.

Research shows that kids who have tough childhoods — because of poverty, abuse, neglect or witnessing domestic violence, for instance — are actually more likely to be sick when they grow up. They’re more likely to get diseases like asthma, diabetes and heart disease. And they tend to have shorter lives than people who haven’t experienced those difficult events as kids.

When University of Florida Dr. Nancy Hardt consulted Medicaid records, she made a map that showed exactly where Gainesville children were born into poverty. Eventually, she showed the map to show it to Alachua County’s sheriff, Sadie Darnell, who—it turned out—also had a map. Hers was a thermal map of high crime incidence, and it showed that “the highest concentration of crime in Gainesville was in a square-mile area that exactly overlaid Hardt’s poverty map.”

Those crimes included significant levels of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect.

A visit to the area turned up numerous health-related issues: poorly maintained subsidized housing, with tarps covering leaky roofs. Mold and mildew spreading across stucco walls. Poor families that often had trouble getting enough to eat.

There was also an almost total lack of services, including medical care. (The closest place to get routine medical care for the uninsured–and most people in the area were—was the county health department, a two-hour bus trip away.)

The doctor and sheriff also teamed with civic groups to open a family resource center in 2012. Its play area is open to children all day, and there’s a food pantry, free meals, a computer room, AA meetings, and a permanent health clinic.

Initial reports suggest that these measures are improving health and reducing the incidence of crime in the area. But as heartwarming as this story is, it also offers a stinging rebuke to policymakers who refuse to invest public dollars in systemic efforts–who seem unable to grasp the human and fiscal costs of persistent social neglect.

We have copious research confirming that the dollars spent on systems that help children—abating environmental hazards like lead contamination, combatting urban asthma, addressing food deserts, providing safe and enriching early childhood care—ultimately save many more dollars that we don’t have to spend later on medical care, remedial programs, welfare payments and prisons.

We also have depressing research confirming how difficult it is for those born into poverty to escape it; despite those Horatio Alger stories, admonitions about “pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps” and belief in the “American dream,” social mobility in the U.S. is far below that of industrialized countries that do provide these social supports.

Farmers understand that the crop you get depends not just on the seeds you plant, but also how well you fertilize and water them. It isn’t so different with children.








Your Tax Dollars at Work

One hundred and sixteen million dollars. That’s the amount that Education Week reports will be made available this year to Indiana’s voucher schools. Needless to say, that’s also the amount that will be taken away from Indiana’s public schools.

Two new reports detail the exponential growth of the state’s school voucher program: One is the annual report issued by the Indiana Department of Education, the other comes from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, which is based out of Indiana University’s School of Education.

The article notes that Indiana has been steadily expanding its voucher program since it was first created in 2011.

Recent changes include raising the threshold on income eligibility, lifting the participation cap on the program, and opening the program up to students who were already enrolled in private schools. For example, the legislature passed a bill in 2013 making students zoned to schools graded “F” in the state’s accountability system eligible for vouchers even if they had never attended their local public school.

For the current school year, fewer than 50 percent of students in the voucher program had previously attended a public school. In other words, we taxpayers have generously taken over the cost of private schooling for  parents who had previously been footing their own bills. At the same time that our public schools–especially in urban areas–are being starved of resources.

Voucher programs in Indiana and Ohio have some of the least restrictive income-eligibility requirements in the country.

And I’m sure it’s just a coincidence in our “buckle of the bible belt” state, but 94% of the schools participating in the voucher program are religious schools.

Honest to Goodness. Indiana.

They’re Not Even Pretending Anymore

It’s getting harder and harder to justify naked greed with “because liberty!” slogans.

As In These Times reports

Republican lawmakers in Michigan plan to introduce an ALEC-backed bill that would ban “community benefits agreements” (CBAs), one of the few options local activists have to fight for equitable development. A CBA is a contract between community groups and developers of publicly subsidized projects. In exchange for community support, a developer might agree to offer quality jobs, living wages, affordable housing or environmental protections. ALEC’s CBA ban, which specifically prohibits a local minimum wage, would be unprecedented.

So let me get this right–in the name of “freedom” and “limited government,” this measure would have government tell cities and developers what sorts of agreements they will be permitted to negotiate.

It bears emphasizing that this bill targets publicly subsidized projects.

If a city is subsidizing a development, it seems only reasonable to attach some “strings” to that subsidy–to condition public investment on compliance with measures protecting the public interest. ALEC begs to differ.

Evidently, ALEC believes that it is no longer necessary to engage in the charade of claiming that the cronies sucking at the public’s you-know-what are thereby doing cities a favor.

We the Taxpayers are just supposed to thank the private developers for being willing to take our money.

I’m so old, I remember when CCC stood for something other than Corrupt Crony Capitalism.





Measles as Metaphor

Whatever one’s views of the anti-vaccination “movement” (full disclosure–mine run from incredulous to angry), its growth, and the current epidemic of measles that has resulted, offers a vivid metaphor for the basic tension that underlies liberal democratic governance.

Our system, as I tell my students, restrains and limits government, especially when laws threaten to infringe on fundamental human rights–religious or political beliefs, free speech and the like. Government is absolutely prohibited from interfering with an individual’s beliefs, and must demonstrate a compelling purpose before interfering with conduct based upon those beliefs.

One of the enduring debates in a liberal democracy concerns where we draw that line–under what circumstances do we allow government to require or prohibit behavior that is based upon an individual’s deeply held belief?

Another way of asking that is: how much danger must the behavior pose to others before government interference is permissible?

With respect to vaccination, many states have historically accommodated religious objections because relatively few people have harbored those objections, allowing the rest of us to develop what doctors refer to as “herd immunity.” A few non-immunized people in a population that is 95% vaccinated pose little threat to the rest of us, and it thus costs us little or nothing to accommodate their beliefs.

Legal scholars have suggested a similar calculus was at play when the Supreme Court, in Yoder, exempted the Amish from laws requiring that children attend school until age 16; whatever one’s opinion of that decision, it affected very few people. Had the impact been wider, the decision would probably have been different.

The current effort to exempt “bible-believing Christians” from compliance with otherwise applicable civil rights laws raises the same issue. Religious folks have absolute liberty to believe whatever they want about gay people or black people or Jewish people or whoever. But do those beliefs entitle them to engage in discriminatory behavior that is contrary to America’s cultural and legal commitment to civic equality? Can they claim a religious privilege to behave in ways that we collectively deem destructive to our social health?

If my “sincere” beliefs required me to blow up your headquarters building, or sacrifice my newborn, few people would argue that I should be allowed to act upon those beliefs.

If your religious (or just uninformed) decision to forego vaccinating your child is shared by enough people to pose a health risk to other children in a classroom, shouldn’t government be able to exclude your child from that classroom?

If your demand for “religious liberty” includes your right to breach the social contract and refuse to do business with certain of your fellow-citizens, shouldn’t government be able to rule such behavior out of order?

It’s all about where we draw the line.

False Equivalence

When my children were little, cries of “He started it!” and “He did something worse!” were staples of household debate.

I think about those arguments between four and five year olds when I hear complaints from the political Right about the “liberal media,” and retorts from the political Left about “false equivalence.” Most genuine journalists ignore both, figuring–reasonably enough– that if both extremes of the political spectrum are unhappy, they probably got it right.

That said, I was struck by a comment made by David Niose during a recent interviewNiose is legal director for the American Humanist Association and a past president of both the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America.

In his remarks, Niose shared his concerns over the disproportionate influence of corporations on American politics, and especially on the current upsurge in anti-intellectualism (an unfortunate American mainstay), but along the way, he also made a point worth considering about the relative influence of the crazies on the Right and Left. As he noted, anti-intellectual left-wingers, such as Marxists invested in “dialectical materialism” and other Leftist ideologues who insist on doctrine over facts, are routinely dismissed and politically irrelevant. Meanwhile, Republicans who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old can and do get elected to political office.

Extremists and zealots of any stripe are equally dangerous, but in the U.S., the political Left has rarely gained much traction. (And no, raising the ire of Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin doesn’t make one a Leftist–I doubt either of them could define socialism.) Over the past quarter-century, however, the Crazy Right has become positively mainstream in many areas of the country.

The nutso Right and Left may exhibit equivalent insanity and ignorance, but only one of them currently influences–and debases– the national narrative.