The Story of Atalissa Highlights America's Long-Term Care Problem

Mar 11, 2014Sarah Galli

America's health care system neglects people who require long-term care and denies them the opportunity to lead full, rewarding lives.

Since the moment my brother was rendered a quadriplegic in a diving accident when we were teenagers, I have maintained a constant, silent stress in my body. I am worried about health complications inherent in a paralysis injury, terrified for what happens when my parents are no longer able to serve as Jeff’s primary caregivers.

America's health care system neglects people who require long-term care and denies them the opportunity to lead full, rewarding lives.

Since the moment my brother was rendered a quadriplegic in a diving accident when we were teenagers, I have maintained a constant, silent stress in my body. I am worried about health complications inherent in a paralysis injury, terrified for what happens when my parents are no longer able to serve as Jeff’s primary caregivers.

My brother is, aside from requiring constant care for his injury, in good health. My parents have done an exceptional job of keeping his life, unlike his cervical vertebrae, stable.

We are, in many ways, lucky.

The same cannot be said for a group of men my father’s age in Atalissa, Iowa.

In a groundbreaking feature released last weekendThe New York Times profiled a group of Iowan men with intellectual disabilities who were forced to perform backbreaking hard labor for more than 30 years, housed in filth by "caregivers" who did nothing of the kind. These men, who worked in a slaughterhouse for hours on end, with no treatment or support for their disabilities, lived in a schoolhouse so squalid they had to cover their dinner plates to protect them from cockroaches. Many still have chronic health issues resulting from such neglect.

Wrote Times reporter Dan Barry, “Every morning before dawn, they were sent to eviscerate turkeys at a processing plant, in return for food, lodging, the occasional diversion and $65 a month. For more than 30 years. Their supervisors never received specialized training; never tapped into Iowa’s social service system; never gave the men the choices in life granted by decades of advancement in disability civil rights. Increasingly neglected and abused, the men remained in heartland servitude for most of their adult lives.”

Since they were discovered in 2009, advocates and social workers have worked to give these men a sense of freedom seemingly granted to everyone but individuals with disabilities. These men each lost over 30 years of their lives because Iowa failed to protect them from their designated protectors. Families were told Henry’s Turkey Service was the best option for their sons and brothers. Instead, these men were as much prisoners as the turkeys they were told to tear apart.

Reports of barbaric conditions surfaced every few years; no action was taken.

A few men tried to escape; one, Alford Busby Jr., ran away during a 1987 snowstorm: “Local officials searched the wintry landscape without success. Three months later, during the spring thaw, a farmer found a body along a field’s fence row, a quarter-mile from the main road. Mr. Busby was 37, or maybe 43. 'Mentally retarded man wandered away from home in subzero temperature,' his death certificate says, citing hypothermia.”

The men were rescued five years ago. They now receive Social Security and Medicaid, they have homes to live in and care for them, and they are paid wages for jobs worked. They have the freedom to meet new people, date, and live a life they’ve chosen.

The Times piece exposed my greatest fear: what will happen when my parents are no longer able to provide for Jeff, when my brother will have to join the ranks of thousands of Americans who require 24/7 care and lodging somewhere separate from their chosen home.

My father spent the summer as an embedded journalist in Baghdad a few years ago, and because my mother couldn’t work her full time job and also fill the holes in nursing care normally covered by my dad, my brother was forced to stay temporarily in a nursing home. I would travel from Manhattan to see him in Rhode Island, and attempt to hide my tears until after I’d left. A nurse came over at the end of one such visit, and in what she intended to be a moment of trust between us, gave Jeff a kiss on the cheek. I wanted to tackle her to the ground, furious that this stranger was playing at false intimacy with a young man she knew nothing about.

Instead, I choked back tears and left my twentysomething brother in his room, a bright young man relegated to living in a home with elderly residents in a system that treats them all as if they're just waiting to die.

President Obama proposed the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) program as part of the Affordable Care Act, which offered voluntary long-term care insurance. But that support (granted to eligible workers after five years, not taking into account exceptions for those whose disabilities preclude employment) capped out at a lifetime cash benefit of $75 a day/$27,000 per year. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, the average yearly expenses for someone with a high-level spinal cord injury run an average of $181,328, not including indirect costs.

The CLASS Act has since been repealed and replaced with a long-term care commission; there is no word on what recommendations will come, nor when.

The Christopher & Dana Reeve Paralysis Act, passed in 2009, aimed to further scientific research and improve “quality of life” and rehabilitation options for individuals living with paralysis. But there has not yet been comprehensive legislation to protect Americans with chronic spinal cord injuries as their caregiving options change over time. There is no mechanism to support independent living for someone with a high-level injury, and no understanding that an otherwise healthy, capable person should not be relegated to the same care granted to the elderly. 

Curt Decker of the National Disability Rights Network said the Iowa story “is what happens when we don’t pay attention.” I read about the men of Atalissa and I mourn for the years lost, taken away from these sons and brothers.

And I wonder who will care for mine.

Sarah Galli is the Political Action co-chair of Women’s Information Network (WIN.NYC). She is also the Founder & Executive Producer of Born for Broadway, whose mission is to raise funds for paralysis research through special events, education, and advocacy. For more information, please visit

Image via Thinkstock

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Prevention Over Punishment: The Push to Reduce Gun Violence in Chicago

Mar 4, 2014Janaè BonsuJohnaè Strong

Chicago should seek new methods of violence prevention that strengthen neighborhoods and focus on healing, because these methods are more effective and more cost-effective.

Chicago should seek new methods of violence prevention that strengthen neighborhoods and focus on healing, because these methods are more effective and more cost-effective.

It’s no secret that gun violence has long been a major problem in Chicago. An astronomical number of lives have been lost, the social fabric of communities has been compromised, and as a result, both morgues and prisons have continued to fill up. That gun violence is a problem is something on which everyone – liberals and conservatives alike – can agree. The grounds get muddy, however, in identifying and implementing an effective solution.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration have been pushing for a more “tough on crime” strategy to reduce gun violence in Chicago, with mandatory minimum sentencing for illegal gun possession. The original proposed Senate Bill 1342 (now House Bill 5672) included a minimum sentence of one to three years for any person caught with an illegal weapon. ‘Gang affiliation’ – which is determined at the discretion of a judge – would lead to an escalated minimum. In addition, there are currently five new bills (HB 3770 - 3774) that have been introduced by Rep. Michael J. Zalewski (D) to the Illinois General Assembly that may very well have been drafted and introduced with good intentions to deter gun violence and other crime, and keep those who engage in it off of the street. However, components of the House package are unduly punitive. For example, HB 3770 raises the Unlawful Use of a Weapon (UUW) charge to an Aggravated UUW for an individual who has committed a forcible felony as a juvenile. Thus, instead of facing a misdemeanor charge with up to one year of jail time, a defendant faces a class 4 felony that carries a sentence of up to three years of prison time, plus a fine of up to $25,000, because of a crime committed in their youth. Taken together, HB 5672 and similar legislation pose a mirrored threat that will disproportionately affect communities of color and further depress local and state budgets by funneling much needed resources into the city jails and state prisons.

A substantial body of research shows that mandatory minimums have little to no effect on crime, which even its proponents seem to accept: they expect these laws to reduce arrest rates for violent crime by only 0.6%. Aside from that, more incarceration could produce more problems than it actually solves. Many Chicago communities of color grapple with high unemployment and neighborhood instability. More incarceration would further exacerbate these issues at a steep price. In Illinois, if mandatory minimum legislation such as HB 5672 does pass, it will likely cost Illinois close to $2 billion over 10 years, and add to an overcrowded prison system. And more money for “corrections” leaves less for interventions that actually work.

In Chicago, community members and activist organizations that are no longer willing to watch the silent war against minority communities are contesting these bills through direct action campaigns and policy advocacy. These organizations include, but are not limited to the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), Community Renewal Society, and Project Nia. Mirroring the progressive direction of the Obama Administration and other politicians including Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) by moving away from mandatory minimums, these organizations are advocating for funds allocated to subtractive policies to instead be used for empirically based preventative solutions to violence in Chicago communities. Two major initiatives in the works to prevent violence are 1) the expansion of youth employment in communities especially affected by violence as a preventive measure and 2) the implementation of restorative justice peace hubs as an alternative to incarceration.

BYP100 and Project Nia are working towards proposing a youth jobs bill that may look similar to the National Youth Administration (part of the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal). The bill will focus on scaling up existing employment and training programs that have been proven effective such as One Summer Chicago Plus as well as dropout and violence prevention programs such as Becoming A Man (BAM). The bill will push for the reallocation of resources to help communities most impacted by violence implement various proven and promising employment and mentoring interventions across the entire state of Illinois. These programs reduce gun violence and strengthen communities economically and socially.

In addition to the push for youth employment, Community Renewal Society is currently spearheading the Reclaim Campaign, an initiative that urges the Cook County justice system to fund community based restorative justice hubs and mental health and drug rehabilitation programs through money saved from the release of Cook County nonviolent detainees. The campaign advocates alleviating jail overcrowding and reversing the trend of warehousing individuals who pose little threat to public safety by relying more on release with personal recognizance and electronic monitoring. Less bodies in the jails can free up dollars to fund the peace hubs, which are proposed to act as a coordinating referral center in the community where offenders, victims of crime, family members, and other impacted residents can appropriately handle conflict without further violence. The restorative justice approach offers a promising alternative to retributive justice that we have seen fail us for decades.

These solutions outline a need for economically just measures and attention to community healing and restoration over imprisonment. Most importantly, these solutions begin by looking within the community and empower people to change the policies governing their homes and neighborhoods, which is the best way to achieve real social change.

Janaè Bonsu is a Lead Coordinator for the Chicago City Network of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline and a Master’s student at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration.

Johnaè Strong is a Master’s student in the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) and Lead Facilitator of the Chicago City Network of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline. 

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Snowed Under: When Keeping Schools Open Puts Low-Income Students Further Behind

Feb 18, 2014Sarah Pfeifer Vandekerckhove

New York City's public schools may provide hot lunches, but keeping them open in a snowstorm does no good if students aren't able to attend.

New York City's public schools may provide hot lunches, but keeping them open in a snowstorm does no good if students aren't able to attend.

On January 22, New York City saw its third major snowstorm in just three weeks. Despite nearly a foot of snow in the city and treacherous travel conditions, NYC Department of Education Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced schools would remain open. Even so, just 47 percent of New York City’s 1 million public school children made it to school that day.

Last week, as another snowstorm made its way toward the New York City metro area, Fariña and de Blasio repeated that decision, simultaneously proclaiming travel hazardous and schools open. This time attendance was even lower at less than 45 percent.

Fariña has defended her decision to keep schools open in these bleak conditions by arguing that it is critical for the many poor students who depend on school for hot meals. But her argument is misguided, as it fails to acknowledge that those very students are the ones who have the greatest difficulty getting to school in inclement weather. Most are more likely to live and/or attend school in the outer boroughs of New York City. The Bronx and Brooklyn, home to the highest percentage of NYC K-6 public school students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, suffer from greater lack of access to public transportation and slower snow clean-up, which makes getting to school all the more difficult.

Source: New York State Well Being Indicators for 2010-2011 school year.

Aside from the physical danger it creates, keeping schools open when students can’t get there only serves to put these students further behind academically. As the Education Week blog pointed out after the January 22 snowstorm, keeping schools open despite low probability of attendance can mean disadvantaging the students who stayed home or inconveniencing the teachers and students who were present.

The low-income students in whose interest Fariña claims to work – those who theoretically benefit from school being open for the hot meals – already face enough of an achievement gap at school, performing worse academically than their middle- and upper-class counterparts. They don’t need one more reason to fall behind. Students from low-income families also suffer from Summer Slide, a phenomenon in which students experience summertime learning loss due to lack of educationally enriching resources and opportunities.  

Last Thursday’s public school attendance numbers not only showed results worse than the January 22 attendance numbers, but also demonstrated that the attendance rates disproportionately affect the outer boroughs. The Bronx and Brooklyn had 37 percent and 44 percent attendance rates, respectively, both below the total New York City average. (Staten Island had the lowest attendance rate at 26 percent).

Source: New York Department of Education

At a Bronx school only 15 percent of the students showed up, many leaving before lunch, according to one teacher. And Bedford-Stuyvesant Preparatory High School in Brooklyn recorded just 6 percent attendance while 37 Manhattan schools recorded attendance of over 80 percent.

For Fariña, as the leader of the nation’s largest school system, to close schools due to inclement weather is inevitably a tough choice with many complicating factors – as de Blasio pointed out, it has happened just 11 times in the last 36 years. But when less than half of the city’s students are able to attend school, and boroughs with the highest numbers of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch record some of the lowest attendance rates, it’s clear that simply keeping schools open for students who need the hot meals doesn’t add up.  

Sarah Pfeifer Vandekerckhove is the Roosevelt Institute's Director of Programmatic Operations.

Image via Thinkstock

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Finding Affordable Housing Solutions in Boston

Feb 18, 2014Gavin O Brien

Innovative solutions are needed to solve the serious problem of housing affordability in the Boston area.

Innovative solutions are needed to solve the serious problem of housing affordability in the Boston area.

The housing affordability crisis is reaching dramatic levels in Massachusetts. Case in point: according to The Boston Foundation’s Greater Boston Housing Report Card, “during the last eight years, the cost of living in Greater Boston has increased twice as fast as the median household income of homeowners and three times faster than the median household income of renters.” Affordability is a problem for 40 percent of homeowners in the area. For many families, owning a home is not even an option. The U.S. Census ranks Massachusetts 44th in homeownership and also 44th in income equality. These two rankings are not coincidental.

Homeownership increases social mobility and acts as a buffer against falling into poverty. For example, as an inheritance, a home can improve the economic outlook for future generations. Homes also have strong symbolic value as a key component of the American Dream. For these reasons, increasing access to homeownership is an important tool in the fight against inequality in America. Federal policies like the home mortgage interest deduction provide large financial incentives for homeownership. Other incentives and assistance may be needed.

Comprehensive efforts to maintain and increase the availability of affordable housing must involve all levels of government, in addition to nonprofits like local community development corporations. The private housing market will continue to drive up prices, so there is a need for creative solutions that avoid or reduce normal market pressures.

For example, cohousing or cooperative arrangements can allow for cost sharing and rent moderation. In a limited equity cooperative, members buy shares of a corporation that owns the housing. The corporation makes decisions democratically, can pay for building improvements, and removes the profit motive from property ownership. The value of a share is limited. There is, however, need for more bank financing of housing cooperatives, which could be addressed through state regulations or the use of community development financial institutions (CDFIs) – locally-based financial institutions targeting underserved populations.

Another possible solution is affordable housing trust funds operated at the city level, which are financed through property taxes, government funds, or fees levied on building developers. The trust funds can subsidize construction of new housing and provide direct subsidies to homeowners. The city of Somerville near Boston operates such a fund that loans money for down payments to first-time homebuyers and renters.

Affordable housing solutions must also involve local colleges and universities. Greater Boston has a large student population. Graduate students in particular are increasing in number, which drives up the cost of housing for student and non-student residents alike. City government could work with colleges to construct additional low-cost student housing to alleviate some of this upward price pressure.

High housing prices affect the ability of young professionals and families to remain in the Boston area. This in turn reduces the city’s economic and social potential.  Pipeline Greater Boston is organizing a series of discussions to examine possible solutions to housing issues that affect these groups. There is a need for civically engaged young people in Boston to implement new policy ideas and address the housing crisis that is affecting them, their neighborhoods, and the city as a whole.

Gavin O'Brien is a recent graduate of Brandeis University's Master of Public Policy program and a core member of the Greater Boston City Network of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline.

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To Restore the New Deal, Government Must Earn Young Americans’ Trust

Aug 29, 2013Rachel Goldfarb

The Greater Boston network of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline hosted a discussion on the State of the New Deal, and what needs to change for Millennials to support similar programs today.

The Greater Boston network of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline hosted a discussion on the State of the New Deal, and what needs to change for Millennials to support similar programs today.

On Tuesday night, the Greater Boston network of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline gathered for a panel discussion on “The State of the New Deal,” reflecting on President Roosevelt's historic achievements and considering what could come next. Pipeline, a national network of young people in their 20s and 30s collectively organizing to engineer innovative policies and promote effective civic leadership in their communities, convened a multigenerational panel to discuss what’s become of the New Deal safety net, and what would be needed to create similar programs today.

The program opened with David Woolner, a Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Resident Hyde Park Historian, providing some historical context: FDR's legacy, the political environment of the day, and how the New Deal was perceived when it was happening. One of the most important thing he noted was that FDR worked in a far less politically divided era: some of the strongest supporters of New Deal programs were moderate Republicans. It’s much harder to pass any legislation in today’s Congress.

Following his keynote, Woolner joined Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow Nona Willis Aronowitz and Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network National Field Strategist Joelle Gamble for a panel moderated by Roosevelt Institute President Felicia Wong, where they expanded the discussion to today's issues: health care, student debt, Occupy, low-wage work, and more. They probed at the relationship between Americans and their government today, which is often one of distrust and skepticism. As Woolner explained, with the dismantling of much of the New Deal in the Reagan era, government was no longer a creator of economic opportunity.

Aronowitz focused on the question of economic security, posing the question of why Millennials should trust government to work for them. “They're craving … this baseline of economic security,” and aren't seeing any way to get it, she said. Were government to help create that baseline, it would be easier to see the potential for other New Deal-style programs. She was also skeptical of the Occupy movement, noting that while the Tea Party and Occupy are frequently compared as political extremes, the anti-establishment and anti-leadership nature of Occupy means that they have limited political power. Meanwhile, Tea Party Republicans like Ted Cruz work against more moderate policymakers to prevent legislation and control the right's agenda.

Gamble presented the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's “Government By and For Millennial America” project as proof that it is possible to create a government that would speak to Millennial ideas and needs. This government would be an innovator, a lawmaker, and a steward of the common good, and would truly engage all citizens. Unfortunately, she noted, for most Millennials their first real encounter with government systems is with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and federal student loans. FAFSA is often seen as a frustrating system, and student loan servicers as even worse. Woolner noted in his introduction that “what Roosevelt accomplished was a complete transformation of the relationship between the federal government and the American people,” and it's hard to imagine a similarly positive relationship today – especially if the student loan system is how people form their impression of government.

The question and answer session demonstrated the insight and engagement of the audience. The Affordable Care Act was a topic of serious discussion, and Aronowitz pointed out that for many middle-class Millennials, it doesn't seem to help much. Woolner passed the mic to James Roosevelt Jr., Franklin and Eleanor’s grandson and an attorney who works on health care, who argued that “if Obamacare succeeds, it will be the New Deal success of our lifetime.” His comment echoed one of the common themes that threaded through the discussion: Millennials need some proof that these programs will help before they will buy in fully. If the Affordable Care Act does lower costs and make insurance more accessible, it could lead to broader support of other programs, like infrastructure-based jobs programs.

After the event, I spoke with some attendees who are involved in Boston-area politics. They seemed to mostly agree: buy-in is tough. Creating change is tough. But the people I spoke to and those posing questions seemed determined to work together and create something new. They want to trust in government to create the safety net needed for that baseline of economic security that Aronowitz brought up early on. They want government to demonstrate that it’s ready to be an equal partner in decreasing economic inequality. It’s just a matter of figuring out the next steps toward that goal.

For more information on Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline, visit their website. The Pipeline | New York network will be hosting a screening of the documentary “My Brooklyn” on September 16th at Brooklyn Borough Hall. Click here for more information and to RSVP.

Rachel Goldfarb is the Roosevelt Institute Communications Associate.

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Why Trayvon Is Inspiring America to Put Stand Your Ground Laws on Trial

Jul 16, 2013Naomi Ahsan

The Zimmerman verdict could spark a nationwide movement to challenge "self-defense" laws that support racism.

The Zimmerman verdict could spark a nationwide movement to challenge "self-defense" laws that support racism.

Immediately following George Zimmerman’s acquittal on all charges brought against him for killing Trayvon Martin, mass protest began in the streets and on social media, evoking the great mobilizations for civil rights in American history. While many trials invite public scrutiny and speculation through intense media coverage, few others so clearly illustrate the racial tensions that connect the present with the embarrassing and ugly pieces of America’s past. The Zimmerman trial offers a status update on systemic racism in the United States and calls for attention to and action on Stand Your Ground laws. It also reminds those working for social justice of what litigation can and cannot accomplish, challenges us to consider how public safety measures can serve all Americans, and plainly illuminates the need for greater legal and political empowerment of young men who look like Trayvon Martin.

Stand Your Ground bills have been passed by over 30 states, based on a campaign that began in Florida in 2005 led by the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). (ALEC went on to disavow advocacy for Stand Your Ground in 2012.) These laws provide immunity from criminal and civil proceedings to people who “stand their ground” and use potentially deadly force instead of retreating if they reasonably believe doing so is necessary to “prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” They are alternatively known as “Castle” laws based on Castle doctrine, which traditionally provides for defense in a home and is named based on the saying, “a man’s home is his castle.”

While Stand Your Ground was not invoked by the Zimmerman defense, the case has raised the law’s profile because it is the reason that Zimmerman was not arrested until almost two months after he killed Trayvon Martin. Florida Stand Your Ground law requires police to have specific evidence refuting a self-defense claim in order to arrest someone claiming self-defense as the basis of their violent actions, shifting accountability to law enforcement from people who use force in the name of “self-defense.” There is a growing realization that Stand Your Ground serves to promote anti-black racism — both in who is perceived as threatening and whose claims of feeling threatened are legitimized.

According to a federal lawsuit brought by Markel Hutchins that challenges Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law, some courts have “accepted the race of a victim as evidence to establish the reasonableness of an individual’s fear in cases of justifiable homicide.” The lack of specificity in circumstances justifying the use of deadly force leads to Americans of color being disproportionately targeted by such force. Stand Your Ground is more likely to be applied in cases of white-on-black crime. Hutchins also claims that the law does not equally protect him and other black Americans acting in self-defense. According to the Tampa Bay Times, people in Florida who kill a black person walk free 73 percent of the time in Stand Your Ground cases, while those who kill a white person go free 59 percent of the time.

Marissa Alexander, an African American woman, was not protected by Florida’s Stand Your Ground law when confronting her ex-husband, who was violating his restraining order and had a documented record of domestic violence. For firing a single warning shot as she “stood her ground,” even though the shot did not injure anyone, Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Stand Your Ground thus failed to serve a black woman who was being threatened by a man who was known to have abused her.

The Zimmerman verdict is not only disappointing because it seems wrong that killing Trayvon Martin, who was innocently walking along in his hoodie on the wrong street at the wrong time, should go unpunished. It is also because an institution of justice seems to have affirmed the racism in Zimmerman’s suspicion and pursuit of Trayvon – racism evidenced by Zimmerman’s history of dozens of “emergency calls“ to the police to report suspicious black men, including one incident where the “suspicious black male” in question was between seven and nine years old.

But while offensive to contemporary American morality, racism is not a crime. In fact, racist thought and speech are protected in American courts of law by the First Amendment, an application of Voltaire’s principle of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Our foundational legal doctrines are ill-suited to today’s tasks of addressing issues of race advantages and disadvantages to achieve an authentically equal and just society. This is one reason that our courts are often not ideal tools for policy change.

The Department of Justice is investigating Trayvon Martin’s killing, and the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights launched an investigation into the racial bias of Stand Your Ground laws in May. While a lawsuit proceeds to challenge Stand Your Ground in Georgia, there is also the possibility that the Martin will family will bring a civil suit to challenge the constitutionality of Stand Your Ground in Florida.

In the meantime, grief, outrage and worry in reactions to the Zimmerman trial could prove effective and meaningful in motivating new race consciousness and appropriate action. Americans can civically engage and establish a productive discourse to scrutinize Stand Your Ground; increase awareness of the law and of related rights, especially in communities of color; and get involved in state legislative processes to demand alternative policies on public safety and permissible use of guns. The creeping proliferation of Stand Your Ground legislation and its flaws, which are only now starting to be recognized, underlines the importance of these steps as well as the need to increase the diversity of Americans who vote and serve the country as attorneys and elected officials.

Naomi Ahsan is a Research and Program Associate at the Center for Community Change and is Director of Programming for the DC chapter of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline.


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The Egyptian Coup Isn't the End of Democracy. It's a Demand for Justice.

Jul 16, 2013Reese Neader

By deposing Morsi, the Egyptian military is responding to the people's calls for democracy and economic growth.

By deposing Morsi, the Egyptian military is responding to the people's calls for democracy and economic growth.

In the summer of 2011 I was serving as policy director for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, organizing thousands of students across the U.S. to build community change. 2011 was also the year of the Egyptian Revolution. Inspired youth had banded together across the country and across ideologies to protest and overthrow the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Because I had a proven background in youth organizing, the State Department sent me to Egypt in late July 2011 under their “Speakers and Specialists” program to train youth opposition leaders in grassroots organizing and political communication and to support Egypt’s hopeful transition to democracy. What I learned there has made me more optimistic about the outsing of President Mohamed Morsi than many other Americans.  

It was a deeply humbling and life-changing experience, and thankfully I’ve managed to keep in touch with some of the friends I made during my travels. To honor their friendship and support a sensible response to the recent coup in Egypt, I want to speak out against the false narrative that Egypt is experiencing the “death of democracy.” In truth, Egypt’s military has served as the guardian of the Egyptian Revolution. The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood is an exercise of the will of the Egyptian people, and it was a necessary action to advance the country’s hopes for prosperity and democracy.

The most important thing to remember as you watch events unfold in Egypt is that the United States government invests more than $1 billion a year in the Egyptian military. The Egyptian military has a very deep relationship with the U.S. military and a massive ownership stake in Egypt’s economy. It will never act strongly against the interests of the United States because it cannot afford to lose its support. For the same reasons, the Egyptian military, as well as the civilian elite of the country, want Egypt to be a stable, prosperous, and moderate Islamic republic that is closely aligned with the United States.

Clearly that insight doesn’t speak to the concerns of Americans who view the recent coup in Egypt as the disruption of burgeoning democracy. But those concerns misconstrue the reality of what happened in Egypt in 2011. The Egyptian Revolution was a popular coup overseen by the Egyptian military. Egypt’s military leadership guided the transition to civilian governance by forging a power-sharing agreement with the Muslim Brotherhood after they won elections that were overseen by a provisional government controlled by the Egyptian military. Yes, it is true that the Brotherhood and other hardline Islamist groups won a landslide popular vote in mostly free and fair elections. But their victory wasn’t the result of popular democratic mobilization as we think about it here in the U.S. The Muslim Brotherhood is an extremist group that has a tremendous advantage at organizing political support in a country rife with economic and social poverty.

In the developing world, extremism thrives in places where people have nothing to lose and nowhere to go. Where governments fail to serve their citizens, informal support networks arise to provide the basic services that the government does not: food, jobs, education, health care. And in exchange for providing those services, extremist organizations demand total loyalty from the citizens they service. Hamas and Hezbollah are both terrorist organizations that have been democratically elected to represent the territories they control, not because the citizens of Gaza and Lebanon are supportive of Islamic extremism, but because they depend on these patronage networks.

Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood has been organizing in the neighborhoods of Egypt for over 50 years, providing social services that the government did not in an effort to win support for its ideology. And it, along with other Islamist groups like the Salafis, was the only organized opposition to the Mubarak dictatorship. When Mubarak was deposed, and there was a popular call for swift elections, who was going to win? It was never a question: the only organized opposition group that had a proven track record of providing services to the people. 

The Muslim Brotherhood’s extreme incompetence at governing was dividing the country along sectarian lines and led Egypt to the brink of a severe economic crisis. While the citizens of Egypt grew desperate from economic hardship and social strain, the Egyptian military elite grew concerned with the direction of civilian governance and orchestrated a takeover that will minimize casualties and guide the country toward economic growth and stable, moderate democratic governance.

Currently, there is bipartisan clamoring for the suspension of foreign aid to Egypt. While it is highly likely that these are hollow threats, the suspension of foreign aid to Egypt would be disastrous for U.S. geopolitical interests in the region. U.S. aid to Egypt ensures a strong military partnership, tacit influence over the direction of Egyptian governance, and peace and high-level cooperation between Egypt and Israel. Giving up that leverage because a popular revolt deposed a radical Islamist government would be a tremendous blow to our long-term interests in the region.

The U.S. government pays lip service to supporting democratic mobilization in the Middle East. If it wants to do this without creating instability that extremists can use to their advantage, we need to build relationships with regional leaders to forge civil society and support strong economic growth. And that will inherently involve “choosing sides.” Anyone in the West who thinks that the Arab World is defined by popular support for radical Islamism needs only look to the massive protests that destroyed the Muslim Brotherhood. The people of the Middle East want economic opportunity, democratic representation, and integration with the global community.

In response to the coup, the Gulf States (staunch U.S. allies) have pledged $12 billion in assistance to the new Egyptian government. This will allow the provisional government, which is being directed by Western-educated, liberal technocrats, to continue the provision of desperately needed public subsidies while providing an infusion of cash for investment in job creation. Already, the Egyptian military is in the process of organizing another constitutional convention and continuing to support the construction of a provisional government that will lead the country toward adoption of the national blueprint for governance drafted by civilian authorities.

Instead of decrying the “death of democracy” and publicly scolding Egypt’s military leadership, the United States needs to react with patience and calm support. It is easy for us to forget that democracy is never easy and the process is always messy. The massive wave of protests that brought down the Muslim Brotherhood represents the will of the Egyptian people. In the eyes of the people of Egypt, their revolution continues. We should respect their voice. Vox Populi Vox Dei - the voice of the people is the voice of God. 

Reese Neader is the founder and director of Forge Columbus and the former Policy Director for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.


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Policy Note: Are Less-Visible Taxes Really the Answer?

Jul 1, 2013

Download the policy note (PDF) by Elizabeth Pearson

In a new policy note, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow Elizabeth Pearson examines the factors that shape American attitudes toward taxation. She makes the case that public opinion about taxation is malleable and that progressives should focus on raising awareness of the purpose of taxation and the benefits taxes will produce rather than how they are designed.

Download the policy note (PDF) by Elizabeth Pearson

In a new policy note, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow Elizabeth Pearson examines the factors that shape American attitudes toward taxation. She makes the case that public opinion about taxation is malleable and that progressives should focus on raising awareness of the purpose of taxation and the benefits taxes will produce rather than how they are designed.

Read the policy note: "Are-Less Visible Taxes Really the Answer?" by Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow Elizabeth Pearson.

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When a Surplus is Really a Deficit

Jun 3, 2013Elizabeth Pearson

States are showing budget surpluses, but that doesn't mean that everything has been fixed post-recession.

States are showing budget surpluses, but that doesn't mean that everything has been fixed post-recession.

News of surging income-tax revenues and surprise budget surpluses has brightened statehouses over the past few weeks, but it’s worth asking whether we should be thinking of these revised fiscal projections as surpluses at all. After all, current state surpluses are the product of deep cuts to higher education, delayed repair to basic infrastructure, and unfunded pension liabilities — in fact, these surpluses are better viewed as evidence of serious, structural budget deficits.

For one thing, welcome news from the states comes with the disclaimer that much of the revenue surge prompting headlines is due to one-time revenues caused by taxpayers with capital gains and other types of non-withheld income accelerating income into the 2012 tax year as they anticipated higher federal income-tax rates in 2013.

But the larger cause of current budget surpluses is the deep cuts state governments imposed during the recent recession. For instance, states are now spending 28 percent less per student on higher education compared to when the recession began in 2008. The recession also produced more dramatic losses in state government jobs than in any other downturn over the past fifty years. State-government spending cuts and job losses have dragged down the economy, slowing recovery and prolonging the jobs crisis.

States (with the exception of Vermont) have legal requirements to balance their budgets each fiscal year, and therefore do not have recourse to deficit spending. One reason recent cuts were so deep is that states relied disproportionately on spending cuts rather than revenue increases to balance their budgets during the recession — and because federal recovery aid to states expired in mid-2011 even as states struggled to cope with increased obligations due to the economic collapse.

As states cut to the bone to survive the recession, prolonged under-investment eventually produces misleading surpluses. Meanwhile, it is perversely harder to actually see the budget gaps that states grapple with each year. At the federal level, recessions produce annual deficits and increase the size of the federal debt, prompting political wrangling over sustainable solutions. As ideologically charged as these debates can be, they at least engage a visible target: no matter whether the federal books balance in any given year, we still confront the costs of past wars and economic downturns in arguments over the size of the public debt.

But, because states don’t have the option of deficit spending, budget gaps at the state level are effectively internalized through cutting services, laying off employees, and delaying improvements. Each year’s painful shortfalls are solved through cuts that swiftly and quietly become a “new normal.” With no mounting debt to remind us of these structural imbalances, past years’ debts seem to disappear — but in fact they are leaving lasting impacts on states’ abilities to underwrite economic growth in the long term.

Hollow as they are, today’s surpluses are being cited in states like Wisconsin to call for permanent tax cuts that will start the austerity cycle anew by generating future shortfalls that can then be “solved” by new cuts. Such efforts come on the heels of attempts in several states to abolish income taxes during the past legislative session — and fly in the face of the simple fact that, while state tax revenues now have three years of growth under their belt, they still have not surpassed their pre-recession levels. Advocating tax cuts when state revenue remains below pre-recession levels would be laughable if it were not so dangerous. This recession has impacted state tax collections far worse than in past recessions, and even if current revenue growth rates continue it could take years for revenues to catch up to pre-recession levels, adjusted for population growth and inflation.

More responsible discussion of revenue increases and “surpluses” has revolved around whether funds should be set aside in state rainy-day funds or used now to restore services. These are important conversations to pursue. But we must also consider a broader conversation about state budgets as a reflection of our public priorities. As states rebuild in the wake of the recession, which public investments will support economic growth and meet fundamental needs for safe infrastructure, quality education, and services for vulnerable citizens? Viewed in this light, today’s improving bottom line is a step in the right direction but still falls far short of both pre-recession goals and our broader common priorities. In other words, we are still faced with severe deficits.

Seizing on recent changes in state tax collection is the wrong place to focus these broader discussions. Instead, we need to be talking about revenue increases and much-need tax-system modernization like extending the sales tax to services and digital goods. Revenue increases have always been part of the state government toolkit when it comes to balancing budgets — Republican and Democratic policymakers alike recognized this fact as recently as the 1960s and 1970s when they repeatedly adopted major new taxes to invest in their states. Remembering this bipartisan legacy can be an important part of making the case for responsible tax reform at the state level.

When surpluses are the result of dramatic cuts to services and unprecedented job losses, they shouldn’t be considered surpluses at all. We can cheer the good news of growing state tax collections while pursuing broader measures of fiscal health, most notably a budget that balances with our priorities.

Elizabeth Pearson is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley.


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What is the Crash Generation?

Apr 29, 2013Nona Willis Aronowitz

Down but not out, Millennials who came of age during the Great Recession could reshape the American economy and society.

The economy is personal. It colors our decisions about everything: when to have kids, what city to move to, who to vote for, who to sleep with. And nobody knows this better than the biggest generation in history: the Millennials. These 80 million Americans have come of age during the worst economic recession since the Depression, an experience that will have profound repercussions on our lives—and our political consciousness.

Down but not out, Millennials who came of age during the Great Recession could reshape the American economy and society.

The economy is personal. It colors our decisions about everything: when to have kids, what city to move to, who to vote for, who to sleep with. And nobody knows this better than the biggest generation in history: the Millennials. These 80 million Americans have come of age during the worst economic recession since the Depression, an experience that will have profound repercussions on our lives—and our political consciousness.

I call us the Crash Generation. For many of us in our twenties, 2008 was a period awash in exhilarating highs and terrifying lows. The words “depression,” “economic crisis,” “mass layoffs,” and “foreclosures,” along with “hope,” “change,” and “Obama,” all clogged the headlines and made their way into whiskey-fueled party conversations. Washington and the media had never been so frank about the cataclysmic proportions of a financial crash. And a candidate had never kicked young voters into such high gear like Barack Obama, who seemed to reflect the seismic demographic shift our generation was heralding. The mythic American dream-bubbles were bursting for young people at the exact moment we had begun to wield our political influence. That second half of 2008 was our JFK assassination. Our Vietnam. Our Great Depression. 

Study after study finds that Millennials are “materialistic” or obsessed with money. But really we're obsessed with the money we don’t have; put in political terms, we’re class-conscious. Thanks to Occupy Wall Street and Mitt Romney’s slipups, the concept of income inequality is finally part of the public conversation. The economic patterns of the past few decades, with the financial crisis as their crescendo, have yielded an atmosphere ripe for a youth-led social movement that hinges on our bottom lines. Because of our sheer numbers, we have enormous potential to transform waves into tsunamis, and we have already flexed our political muscle in two elections. Those of us who came of age when the bubble burst, particularly the downwardly mobile “privileged poor,” have a tangible common experience, a renewed indignation.

But too often, this indignation often has nowhere to go, and is enveloped in our frenetic lives of multiple jobs, demoralizing underemployment, or joblessness—the constant physical and emotional stress of keeping our heads above water. Years later, the status quo has not budged. We haven’t done much to shrink the income gap or encourage upward mobility. We haven’t gotten our leaders to address anemic state budgets, deregulation, unions’ decline, freelancers’ precarity, shrinking wages, student debt, or the insane cost of living in major cities. All those economic pressures have primed this era for an economic shift. Yet those same pressures limit our freedom to protest or push for policy changes. In other words, we’re pissed—but we’re paralyzed by the very forces we’re pissed about.

Right now, most of the permanent underclass feels politically frozen: When one missed paycheck means descending into poverty without a safety net, unions and political activism seem like a low priority. Educated young people are frozen, too—caught in the privileged-poor paradox. Our meager (or nonexistent) paychecks incite righteous anger—especially when we think of our middle class parents’ luck at their age—but they also choke our very ability to organize, create, and take risks. As our wages fall, our degrees lose value, prices of food and rent rise, and workdays expand, we have less and less time to read a book, to join a rally in the next town over, to hop a bus to Washington, to even have a hours-long discussion about politics with our friends. Most Millennials aren’t starving, Great Depression-style, but they are starved for a low cost of living and a baseline of economic freedom.

Here's the good news: For every 10 twentysomethings seized with frustration, there’s one pushing the conversation forward and coming up with compelling solutions, however flawed or nascent. This seething discontent signals the start of a major shift. The fizzling of Occupy Wall Street, for instance, shouldn’t depress us; Roosevelt Institute fellow Dorian Warren recently reminded me that if this is our civil rights movement, we’re only in 1957—a year after the Montgomery bus boycott. So far, our empty wallets and our denial have hindered our ability to meaningfully influence policy, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen soon.

Some people think that entrepreneurship, not government policy, will save Millennials. The truth is, not everyone has the support and connections to launch their own business or score a job at a scrappy start-up. Besides, start-up culture and economic reform aren’t mutually exclusive. In a post-recession era, both social change and entrepreneurism stem from being able to live securely and cheaply. A 2008 study from the RAND Corporation found evidence of "entrepreneurship lock," where workers resist leaving firms offering health care due to the high premiums of the individual health insurance market. Compare this reticence to places like Norway: When journalist Max Chafkin visited the country in 2010, he reported on a spate of Norwegian entrepreneurs who not only were happy to pay high taxes, but attributed their penchant for risk-taking to a strong social safety net. (There are also more entrepreneurs per capita in Norway than in the United States. Same with Canada, Denmark, and Switzerland.)

Millennials are starting to realize that if their lives are going to improve, there needs to be policy that addresses unemployment, student debt, and income inequality. Young people like the ones striking outside McDonald’s in New York, or the students who won a minimum wage hike in San Jose, or the ones in Roosevelt’s Pipeline and Campus Network across the country—they’re all updating historic social movements (and the policies they’ve pushed) that have improved the lives of middle and working class Americans. 

The future movers and shakers of the Crash Generation have a modern sensibility. We’re Internet natives. We’re optimists. We believe in community and the “sharing economy.” We’ve all but settled the culture wars. But we also have faith in the idea of government, if not its current reality, and we’re not afraid to engage with successful historical models.

Nona Willis Aronowitz is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow. Join her tomorrow night at the Roosevelt Institute for a Crash Generation salon on "Why Millennials Should Care About Family Policy," with guest speaker Sharon Lerner of Demos. She will also be moderating a panel on paving the path to good jobs at A Bold Approach to the Jobs Emergency on June 4th.


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