Feb 22, 2011

Americans Used to Agree on Public Funding for Family Planning. What Happened?

I have a guest post today on Slate's XX Factor blog about the history of Title X, the federal family planning program that House Republicans would like to eliminate. Check it out! I'll elaborate on it here in the next day or two, because it turns out to be hard to summarize my dissertation in 600 words.

100 Years Later, We Know Their Names

There's a haunting story in yesterday's Times about a researcher who has finally managed to compile a list of all 146 people killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 100 years ago. The haunting part of it is that nobody had managed to do so earlier. I had no idea that until now there were at least 6 people who died in the fire but had never been identified. A researcher named Michael Hirsch has spent the last few years combing at least 30 newspapers from the early 20th century, correlating missing person reports and death notices with public records, charity reports, and descendants' stories to compile the most accurate and complete list to date of those who died in the fire.

This story is a harsh reminder of the anonymity of immigrants' and poor people's lives in early 20th century urban America. All of those who died had relatives and friends in New York at the time who knew they were missing after the fire, but their bodies were burned beyond recognition and their disappearances weren't tracked, even with the enormous amount of publicity that the fire received at the time. Plus, the relatives' grief may have prevented earlier positive identifications. The Times mentions one family who put a notice about a missing relative in the Forward, the Yiddish newspaper, saying that "We believe that he survived the fire, but from great fear and being upset he went mad and is wandering the streets."

It's tragic that it took so long to find these names, but better late than never, I suppose.

Feb 21, 2011

On Wisconsin

I've been inspired by what's going on in Wisconsin over the past week. It's exciting to see some serious labor and progressive activism, for once, and also to see that some Democrats have the spine to stand up to horrendous Republican proposals. It's clear that governor's proposal is just an attempt to decimate one of the last strongholds of organized labor in the country - the public sector - and I'm glad to see how many people all over the country have responded with horror. Did you hear about the pizza place in Madison that's delivered 1,000 pizza orders to the protestors at the state capitol, paid for by supporters all over the country?

Wisconsin has a long history of progressivism so it makes sense to me that this fight is happening there, but it's also why it's incredibly infuriating that the governor is such a rabid conservative. Wisconsin was the home of Victor Berger, the first socialist elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (in 1910),  as well as leading Progressive politician Robert La Follette and many of the other major voices of the Progressive movement in the early twentieth century. It was the birthplace of many labor laws and other reforms that we take for granted today, including the nation's first worker's compensation law. La Follette and the other Progressives fought the political power of railroads and other big corporations by breaking up monopolies and taxing corporate profits, helped create one of the nation's strongest public university systems, and regulated factory safety and work hours. Milwaukee had socialist mayors from 1910 until 1941.

I hope that the current effort to erode the collective bargaining power of Wisconsin's public employee unions doesn't set the kind of precedent that the 20th century progressive reforms did. What has upset me most about the whole situation was seeing pictures of the counter-demonstrators who came out yesterday to yell at the union activists. I hate that we have a political climate right now that pits "taxpayers" against "workers," failing to recognize that they are often the same people, and that those "workers" provide services that the "taxpayers" need, want, and appreciate. It is in all of our interests to make sure that public workers are well-compensated, not least because they help set a model of compensation that includes full benefits and retirement packages. I recognize that most American workers don't get those things anymore, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't all get them. The answer is not to demand the destruction of the few remaining jobs that provide a real safety net, but to demand that ALL of us get that kind of a safety net.

Feb 18, 2011

Reminder: Women Are Capable of Carefully Considering Their Decisions

New Hero Alert: Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who last night stood up on the floor of the House of Representatives and told abortion opponents that, having had a late-term abortion herself, "for you to stand on this floor and suggest that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought, is preposterous.” Thank you, Rep. Speier, for reminding all of us of something that should be obvious: that women have brains, consciences, and values, and they use all of those things to decide whether or not to carry their pregnancies to term.

Feb 15, 2011

Playing Chicken With Women's Health

Now that the Republican House is up and running, as part of the GOP's pledge to focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs,” they’ve decided to target…wait for it… women’s health. Did you know that America’s unemployment crisis was caused by too many low-income women having access to high-quality gynecological care?

In all seriousness – some illustrious members of Congress have decided that a great way to cut the deficit would be to cut the funding for women’s health care that’s provided through a legislative provision called Title X of the Public Health Service Act. Title X provides grant money to health care providers to subsidize care for poor women. Nearly 5 million women get care from nearly 5,000 health care centers through this program. 

So what’s the problem? Well, for some conservatives, there are several. The general problem is that this care comes under the rubric of “family planning,” and conservatives don’t like to think that women are independent enough to have access to birth control and to be able to make wise decisions about how to use it. Never mind that along with birth control comes preventive gynecological care, screening for diseases like diabetes and hypertension, counseling about safer sex, and other primary care that poor women often don’t get anywhere else.

The specific problem is that about a third of these women get their care through Planned Parenthood clinics. Conservatives Do Not Like Planned Parenthood.

No Title X money has ever gone to pay for abortion care, and indeed Planned Parenthood and other recipients have to enact all kinds of artificial barriers within their practices in order to make sure that’s true – but they do so, in compliance with the law. Nevertheless, conservatives are just sure that Title X money is funding abortions. That’s their line, anyway, but I’m pretty sure the problem isn’t just abortion: it’s the whole idea of women having control over their own bodies and reproduction (and, therefore, their own lives) that freaks out lots of conservatives.

I’m writing my dissertation about Title X and other government programs that pay for family planning services for low-income women, and here’s why: in 1970, when Congress passed Title X, it did so *unanimously* in the Senate and by an overwhelming margin in the House of Representatives. At the time, supporters called access to birth control a “fundamental human right” for women. If there’s anything about the Nixon years that I’m nostalgic for, it’s this: the broad acceptance of the idea that women should be able to decide when they have kids. That  just doesn’t seem so radical, but apparently now, 40 years later, House Republicans think it is.

Feb 8, 2011

Jezebel on Women's "Fitness" Magazines

I've decided to start posting some of the best things I read on the interwebs here (and not just because it's easier than coming up with my own stuff to say all the time), so here's the first:

As a woman who loves running and other forms of exercise because they make me feel strong and help save me from my own head, I particularly appreciated this Jezebel takedown (er, analysis) of women's so-called "fitness" magazines. I wish there were good women's running magazines out there, or a good women's equivalent of Outside, which seems to specialize in putting half-naked men on the cover alongside headlines like "Road Tested: The World's Manliest Minivan." But alas, we're stuck with crappy magazines that tell us how to lose weight and look pretty while we exercise.

Here are a couple of choice excerpts from the Jezebel post:
We've long suspected that "fitness" is secret ladymagcode for "neurotic thinness," and a perusal of three of this month's "health" and "fitness" offerings- Self, Fitness, and Women's Health has shown that there's some serious subliminal self-worth eroding shit going on. Readers are sold the idea of being healthy and strong and fit and end up with a stack of weight loss ads and splashy graphics about having pretty hair. The pervasive "lose weight" message is fed to us like a dog pill slathered in peanut butter, and we're expected to just take it and go happily scampering off.
Women's fitness magazines are packaged and sold as an alternative to the sex obsessed man pleasing tips of the Cosmos of the world, but they're the same shit in a different package. They're still telling us that the way to be happy is to be conventionally attractive and thin and firm and toned, to occupy the socially acceptable amount of space. They're not about pleasing yourself; they're about pleasing others, and their suggestion that they're anything beyond that is insulting and condescending. Where's the magazine that promises to help you squat 150 pounds by June? Where's the guide to starting your own football league? Where's the secret to eating foods that will satisfy you after pounding out a 10 mile half marathon training run?

Cultural Divide: Motherhood Edition

I saw this headline today and rolled my eyes: "Mothers-to-Be Are Getting the Message." I assumed it was either yet another article about neurotic upper-middle class women or yet another article offering undue advice for pregnant women. But it turns out it was neither: it's about a highly successful program (text4baby) that sends regular text messages to women who have a hard time accessing prenatal care and don't read the piles of What to Expect books that accumulate in wealthier homes. The messages offer timely advice, based on the mother's due date, on topics like nutrition, finding doctors, and preparing for birth. A broad coalition of women's health providers and organizations have worked together to design the program, and the CEO says that they are designed to be supportive rather than moralizing: "We worked on tone," she said, "so the messages sound like they're coming from a friend. Not 'you should do this' but 'have you thought about this?'" 96% of women who get the text messages say they would recommend the program to their friends.

My reaction to the program – both initially and upon reading more carefully – made me think about the broad cultural divide between rich and poor, relatively speaking. (Maybe it’s better to say it’s a divide between the highly-educated cultural elite and the rest of America?) The most recent explosion of public discussion about mothering came in reaction to Amy Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother, which contains advice (some tongue-in-cheek) about how to raise highly-educated, successful, ambitious children ready for admission to the Ivy League. What a different target audience, though, than the mothers in the text4baby program.

This division reminds me of something else I’ve been hearing about recently: in the midst of national concern about our failing public schools, there is a new movie making the rounds that critically examines the highly pressurized environment of wealthy suburban and private schools. From the movie’s website: “Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.” I haven’t seen the movie, but from what I’ve read it’s an impassioned indictment of one segment of our society's obsession with college applications, and the resulting distortions of adolescents’ lives.

Both of these cases highlight for me the extreme disconnect between different Americans’ experiences because of class, geography, and educational access. I don’t think we can successfully address many of our most pressing social and political problems unless we start to bridge the gap between those experiences.

Feb 7, 2011

Food for Thought

I was talking with someone yesterday who became a teacher in the mid-1960s and has been one ever since (and a brilliant one at that - she was my kindergarten and first grade teacher). She said that she thinks one of the things that happened to public education in the last half-century is that, after the women's movement helped open doors to a wide range of careers for women, our schools lost a lot of their best teachers and would-be teachers. Because teaching had been one of the only careers easily available to college-educated women, many of the smartest and most ambitious women from the pre-1960s generations became educators. After the women's movement, though, many of those women turned to other careers, not least because they saw teaching as one of the old-school "women's jobs" that were symptoms of a more sexist age.

I'm not sure what I think of this hypothesis, so I'm throwing it out there. Do you think that a broadening of women's career options was one of the many reasons the quality of public education declined in the past 40-ish years?

Feb 5, 2011

"Not My Earmarks!" Is the New NIMBY

Shocking revelation: turns out that people like government spending that benefits them, just not government spending that benefits other people. Around the country, people are discovering that the Tea Party candidates they elected to Congress are keeping their campaign promises to eliminate earmarks, but voters hadn't really thought about what that would mean for the earmarks that benefited their own communities.

So here we have the classic "not in my backyard" problem turned inside out. That problem occurs when people think things ranging from integrated schools to sewage treatment plants are good for society, in theory, but don't want to actually have them in their own neighborhoods. This problem is that they think that government spending is bad, in theory, but they DO want to have it in their own neighborhoods.

Taxation and government spending are really at the crux of organized society, it seems to me: we all pool our resources in order to pay for the things that a society needs but individuals can't provide. When we say that we don't want our tax dollars going for earmarks for people across town, or across the country - but we do want earmarks for ourselves - aren't we in effect saying that we don't want to be part of a society with those people across town or across the country?

Feb 4, 2011

The Myth of Reagan's Tax Cuts

Great story on NPR this morning about the enduring myth that Ronald Reagan refused on principle ever to raise taxes. Grover Norquist, for instance, claims that "we're spending too much, not taxing too little. It can be turned around. It was, in fact, when Reagan cut taxes. Tax hikes are what politicians do when they don't have the determination or the competency to govern."

Here's the trick, though: Reagan did cut taxes severely in his first year in office - but then he raised them 11 times before his presidency was over. As historian Douglas Brinkley, the editor of Reagan's diaries, explains, "Ronald Reagan was never afraid to raise taxes. He knew that it was necessary at times." Over time, these tax increases sliced his original tax cut in half.

Why did Reagan have to raise taxes? Because, try as he might, he couldn't find a way to cut the federal budget enough to make up for the revenue lost to his 1981 tax cuts. Sure, he decimated lots of important federal programs - but he raised the defense budget so much that he was faced with a choice of higher taxes instead of a higher deficit. He chose the taxes.

Republicans today, though, who claim to be his heirs, seem to be making the opposite choice. They refuse to even consider tax increases* and continue making exaggerated claims about how they're going to cut federal spending.

I recently attended a presentation by some distinguished historians about studying the 1980s, during which they made the point that the whole decade is overshadowed by the larger-than-life mythical persona of Ronald Reagan. David Stockman, Reagan's budget director, now talks about Reagan-worship as a kind of religion, and Brinkley says that calling Reagan only a tax-cutter is "outright revisionism, if not fabrication of history."

For us to really understand the 1980s, and for us to make progress today, we have to stand on the solid ground of reality, not myth. And that reality is that governments need money, and it's painfully obvious to everyone right now that they don't have enough of it. We cannot possibly cut spending enough to significantly cut the deficit while still funding necessary programs; we will have to find new ways of raising revenue. And that will mean tax increases of some kind, and the sooner we can all agree on that and start debating what kind of tax increases we want, the better off we will be.

* I put an asterisk on this because one of the major things that's left out of the conversation about tax increases is other ways that our governments (federal, state, and local) raise revenue. These are things like the lottery (accounting for $17 billion in 2006), highway tolls, fees for services (did anyone else's car registration costs just go up?), and the like. All of these are regressive taxes, costing proportionally more of a poor person's income than of a rich person's, and some of them - like the lottery - draw revenue overwhelmingly from poor people, who should least be paying it. These revenue sources are often hidden from public view in our discussions of "taxes," and people who argue for tax cuts are then shocked - shocked! - when their highway tolls go up.

Feb 3, 2011

Ensuring Real Reproductive Choice for All Women

The NY Times reports today that the Obama administration is trying to figure out a way to require health insurers under the new health care law to pay all birth control costs – that is, to eliminate co-pays and deductibles for birth control. This is another sign of what a terrifically pro-choice president we have right now: he not only wants to protect abortion rights but he also wants to ensure that all women have a truly robust set of choices they can make about reproduction.

There’s an interesting class dimension to this. The federal government already pays for low- or no-cost birth control services for low-income women through various programs that have been in place since the mid-1960s. Now the Obama Administration seems to be recognizing that adequate birth control can be cost-prohibitive even for women whose incomes aren’t low enough to qualify for the existing federal programs. 

At the same time, though, we’re faced with a Republican Party that is trying to eliminate all abortion coverage from private insurance plans by implementing tax penalties for any plans that continue their coverage. As David Waldman explains at Daily Kos, there is a bill pending in the House of Representatives that would eliminate the current tax-deductibility of any health insurance plan that covers abortion. Right now, if an individual or an employer pays for health insurance, that payment earns various tax credits and deductions. But if this legislation is enacted, any insurance plan that includes abortion coverage would no longer be eligible for those deductions. Since that would be a huge cost to individuals and to employers providing health benefits, the end result would be that those consumers would demand that insurance companies exclude abortion coverage in order to retain the tax-deductible status of their plans.

Moreover, the bill would write the Hyde Amendment into permanent law. This Amendment, which prevents Medicaid and other federal money from paying directly for abortion services and therefore has tremendous effects on poor women, has been on the books since 1977 but currently has to be renewed every year, which at least provides pro-choicers an opportunity to make their case. But the new law would end that yearly renewal and permanently forbid the federal government from spending money on abortion services.

I also worry about some aspects of this Obama Administration effort to end out-of-pocket costs for birth control. My basic concern is that people exaggerate the direct effects of making birth control widely available. As the Times says, about half of all pregnancies in America are unintended, but that has not changed substantially in a while, and it’s not clear from the past fifty years of experience that the broader availability of birth control alone reduces the incidence of unintended pregnancies. Helping women attain reproductive self-determination is a complex process that involves their educational attainment, economic prospects, sexual relationships, and status in society, which can't be accomplished with a daily pill, no matter how cheap that pill is.

Most importantly, the article concludes with a claim by a Brookings Institution scholar that “We have rigorous evidence that every dollar invested in family planning saves more than a dollar in welfare and social service costs for children that result from unintended births.” This claim is nearly fifty years old and was one of the main reasons that the federal government began to subsidize birth control services for poor women in the mid-1960s. In this case, it's entirely irrelevant since the proposed regulations have nothing to do with government expenditures, but instead are about how private insurance companies spend their money. The fact that it even came up in this context indicates how much we stigmatize poor women's (i.e. welfare recipients') reproduction and see it as a cause of our society's problems. 

I’m all for the universal accessibility of high-quality birth control and family planning care, but I worry a lot about seeing birth control as a panacea for very complex problems. Affordable, safe, and reliable birth control must be available to every American woman, but that is only a first step to ensuring that all women have reproductive autonomy. And it’s time to stop seeing women’s reproductive decisions as a component of fiscal policy. Whatever the effect on the government’s bottom line, access to high-quality family planning services is something we as a society should provide to all women.

Feb 1, 2011

"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised": A Clarification

As I watch the revolution unfold in Egypt, I find myself with lots to learn and not a ton to say because I just don't feel like I understand the situation well enough to contribute to the conversation. But I have heard, more than once, a reference to Gil Scott-Heron's song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," because of the use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. For instance, one of my favorite historical bloggers, Historiann, wrote a post called "The Revolution Will Be Tweeted and Facebooked As Well As Televised," and on All Things Considered last night Michele Norris said, in a report on Al-Jazeera's coverage of Egypt, "so the revolution was televised."

But I think these references are missing the point. The song's message was that people would have to get up off the couch and participate because "the revolution will not be televised....The revolution will be live." It was a critique of the numbing effect of the mass media, represented in 1970 (when Scott-Heron wrote the song) by television and advertising. Twisting it to say that the revolution will be televised/tweeted/internet-ed subverts the enormity of what's happening in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. The internet may be an organizing tool, but the revolution is not just being tweeted: it is happening live, right now, and hundreds of thousands of people have gotten off their proverbial couches to join in.