Is the WPA Invisible to Millennials?

Apr 8, 2013Elizabeth Pearson

The products of the WPA are all around us, but their history has been erased.

The products of the WPA are all around us, but their history has been erased.

The fact that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) is today remembered as an exceptional moment in American economic policy is evidence of the serious blind spots Americans have developed in the way we think about government. Even Millennials, who have experienced perhaps the worst impacts of the current recession, have often celebrated entrepreneurship as a solution to their employment woes, rather than calling for the robust public action that has always been a part of effective responses to economic crisis.

But making the case that addressing the jobs crisis requires much stronger public investment will have to go beyond advocating for larger stimulus packages or revived public employment programs — we must also challenge myths of economic recovery, both past and present, that render activist government invisible.

The unfamiliarity of the WPA’s activist-government legacy is startling in light of its truly vast scope. In his history of New Deal public works projects, historian Jason Scott Smith notes that in addition to employing 8.5 million people, the WPA built over 480 airports, 78,000 bridges, and almost 40,000 public buildings. In my own town of Berkeley, California, the list of WPA projects is long: two city parks, several high-school buildings, post-office murals, the former University of California Press building (now being renovated to house the Berkeley Art Museum), a city library, and the planting of 15,000 trees.

With so many tangible reminders of the impacts of public investment right in front of our eyes and under our feet, why isn’t the memory of government economic intervention  more present? Part of the answer lies in a much broader erasure of government from our lives — from the mis-recognition of publicly-subsidized success as individual initiative to the deliberate concealing of government spending as private savings. Political scientist Suzanne Mettler calls this new type of social infrastructure “the submerged state”: invisible benefits delivered to citizens through the tax code or as subsidies to private companies rather than as more visible direct spending. The home mortgage interest deduction is a (very expensive) government spending program, but most Americans would be truly puzzled to hear that they live in publicly subsidized housing.

Given this context, it’s no wonder that many Millennials believe that entrepreneurship, creativity, and technological innovation will provide the foundation for economic recovery. But the start-up economy can no more build 78,000 bridges than it can create the close to 9 million jobs needed to match growth in the labor force since the start of the recession. Well-designed public policies alone will not convince young people — or Americans more generally — of the need for a progressive economic agenda modeled on the WPA. We must also literally map the interventions of the past. Only by making the legacy of public investment more visible can we push back against myths that mute the powerful role government has repeatedly played in leading economic recovery.

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

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Defunding Political Science Research is the Wrong Kind of Big Government

Mar 26, 2013Elizabeth Pearson

By cutting off research funding for ideological reasons, Republicans in Congress have turned themselves into thought police.

By cutting off research funding for ideological reasons, Republicans in Congress have turned themselves into thought police.

In a vote last Wednesday, the U.S. Senate took the unprecedented step of prohibiting the National Science Foundation (NSF) from funding political science research, except on topics “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” The amendment’s sponsor, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, frames the defunding of political science research as part of a broader deficit-reduction agenda, but in fact his approach to shrinking government only perpetuates the worst sort of big government: the kind that polices the ideas it doesn’t like.

Although the amendment’s passage came as somewhat of a surprise to observers — Republicans in Congress are long-time foes of political science, but previous efforts to limit NSF funding have been unsuccessful — scientists from a host of disciplines have been quick to condemn the dangerous implications of the vote.

The arguments against this assault on basic science research are many. The funding is a tiny portion of the federal budget but supports a huge portion of political science work. NSF-funded research in political science supports robust public debate by collecting comprehensive, high-quality data that is then accessible to the public and journalists. And, although some political scientists have expressed optimism that almost any piece of research could be framed to fall under the new mandate, Gregory Koger noted in a piece on The Monkey Cage the particular irony that “in order to receive support for careful scientific testing of causal claims one might have to make unsubstantiated claims about how one’s research is linked to U.S. economic or security interests.”

But the greatest harm done by the Senate’s approval of this amendment comes in the type of government that it promotes. The National Science Foundation represents exactly the type of “big government” worth embracing: a government that champions robust public investment in the advancement of knowledge while demanding that these knowledge claims be rigorously tested and peer-reviewed in order to deserve public dollars. NSF grants in political science clearly meet these standards, even funding the work of Nobel Prize laureates such as Elinor Ostrom. In an ironic testament to their democracy enhancing effects, NSF political science grants even helped produce some excellent research on congressional oversight cited by none other than Tom Coburn, who is apparently a fan of federally funded political science research when it serves his interests.

In fact, Coburn’s anti-science agenda represents the sort of big government actually worth fighting against. While cloaking their effort to starve political science research funding as a struggle against wasteful spending, Coburn and other Republicans who share his agenda promote a government that polices knowledge production and attacks ideas it finds threatening. (Coburn is particularly opposed to research on American’s attitudes toward the Senate, which he seems to think require no additional study, stating in his own press release on the amendment’s passage, “There is no reason to spend $251,000 studying Americans’ attitudes toward the U.S. Senate when citizens can figure that out for free.”)

Of course, Republicans attacking political science are quick to claim they support government investment in other types of science — the kind that can cure cancer and doesn’t criticize Congress in the process. This selectivity about which ideas should be supported and which are simply wasteful is short-sighted given the practical benefits of such research. But singling out specific types of research for divestment is more troubling for its ideological implications than for its practical flaws.

As a Nature editorial from last summer argued, when moves to cut off political science funding sponsored by Representative Jeff Flake were making their way through the House, “The fact that he [Flake] and his political allies seem to feel threatened by evidence-based studies of politics and society does not speak highly of their confidence in the objective case for their policies. Flake's amendment is no different in principle to the ideological infringements of academic freedom in Turkey or Iran. It has nothing to do with democracy.”

There are debates worth having about the value of academic research in society, and even about the merits of publicly funding particular research agendas. Clearly policymakers have a responsibility to argue over how to invest public funds most effectively. But let’s be clear: politicians are not interested in engaging in such a debate. The amendment cutting off NSF political science funding was included in a continuing resolution passed to avoid a government shutdown and passed by a voice vote. The whole story would be comical — Congress using arcane procedure studied only by political scientists to defund political science research — if it weren’t so troubling.

Such a move isn’t part of Congress’s legitimate role overseeing federal spending. Rather, it speaks to a willingness on the part of politicians to let ideological opponents of important research strengthen the kind of government we should all be worried about: one that decides in advance what kinds of ideas are worth public investment.

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

 

Capitol dome image via Shutterstock.com.

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Building the Infrastructure for a Lasting Progressive Coalition

Nov 21, 2012Monika Johnson

In order to sustain the progressive coalition that re-elected President Obama, we can create spaces for civic engagement among young Americans at the local level.

In order to sustain the progressive coalition that re-elected President Obama, we can create spaces for civic engagement among young Americans at the local level.

Young voters surprised pundits and Republicans again this year as we turned out in record numbers to vote, joining key constituencies including African Americans, Hispanics, and women to reelect President Obama. Composing 19 percent of the electorate, up from 18 percent in 2008 and 12 percent in 2004, young Americans demonstrated their importance to a growing progressive coalition.

Many question, however, whether our diverse and unprecedented coalition will be able to build on this foundation and sustain the power of our ideas and values throughout our lifetimes. Or, like the Reagan coalition after 1990, are we fated to fracture as a political force by 2016? Some suggest that the strong generational power of today’s 18-30-year-olds will become inconsequential as the hype dies down and we grow up. Our next steps are critical.

Young progressives are a distinct and large population that favors pragmatic problem-solving, opportunity for all, justice and equality, and government’s promotion of such ideals. Identifying more strongly with values than with a political party, we are a significant portion of President Obama’s alliance. Yet given the diversity of the Obama coalition, someone must lead productive grassroots dialogue, finding a broader progressive voice. As members of the largest and most diverse generation in American history, young progressives are the best candidates for the job.

Rather than waiting 30 or 40 years to see how this pans out, let’s write the story ourselves today. Young people are powerful influencers of elections, and we’ve built a strong foundation on which to stand. But it’s up to us to define citizenship for our generation and maintain a unified commitment to progressive values to solidify the political shift.

One lacking aspect of Reagan’s group of committed, conservative supporters was a shared vision of active citizenship and a space within which to exercise it. When the candidate went away, they left. With our core values gaining increased momentum, civic engagement is more important today than ever.

The renaissance of bold millennial progressivism will not be realized in the federal offices of Washington, but on America’s sidewalks and street corners. Generations before us used Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, consciousness raising groups, and bowling leagues to facilitate civic infrastructure; today, we must take a critical look at how we support people and ideas to build a better America for all. Our model is still being formed, but we need to build an infrastructure that will make the progressive coalition last beyond the campaign cycle.

With this in mind, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline is capitalizing on a unique moment in history to engage young people in activating progressive ideas across the nation. Obama for America led a national dialogue throughout the election on what values shape our nation, but constructive exchangement must continue in the context of community action. In order to do this, we need to create spaces to facilitate the exchange of ideas on the local level, engaging all demographics of the progressive coalition. By leading conversations on local issues in 15 cities, we are supporting and empowering individuals to be active citizens and translate the national dialogue to the community level.

The Pipeline chapter in New Orleans, LA is holding discussions among young progressives about public policy issues in its city. The members pick a new topic every few weeks, build a diverse group of people working in different fields, and engage in dialogue about potential solutions for problems facing their neighborhoods. The result is better informed, more engaged people, a community of progressives, and a platform for influence.

In San Francisco, CA, the Pipeline chapter convened tech start-up leaders to create a space to refine ideas for social entrepreneurship. By creating a local space to support young people enacting innovative ideas, members are building an infrastructure for progressives outside of politics. Moreover, they are engaging individuals from both the public and private sectors.

Creating progressive infrastructure will ultimately yield decisions that change our economy and society. For example, I was struck recently when a relative turned down a lucrative deal because the organization was enacting anti-gay policies in conducting business. In making this decision, he took a stand for what he believed in and created a ripple effect that will influence that business’s chances of success.

Hands-on opportunities to connect constituencies and build a progressive community are also sprouting up across the nation. Organizations such as the Future Project are creating innovative ways to connect young people with students and inspire brighter futures. At Groundswell, organizers are helping community members leverage their collective buying power to bolster the local clean energy sector. Like Pipeline, both of these organizations are leveraging the power of the diverse progressive coalition.

To borrow from Roosevelt Institute President Felicia Wong, who spoke to a group of us young progressives last weekend in Hyde Park, NY, “Great ideas and great people rise up together.” Before we begin the next campaign cycle, let’s think critically about how civic engagement translates progressive values into change. When dozens, hundreds, thousands of local actions take place and we create a shared space to support them, we catalyze progress. If the conversation on what ideas and values shape our nation stagnates, we risk losing the foundation progressives have built over the last five years.

Monika Johnson is the co-Chapter Head for the Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline in Washington, DC and a member of the Pipeline Advisory Committee.

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Obama’s Second Term: Time for More Ambitious Foreign Policy

Nov 8, 2012Brad Bosserman

The first term was spent playing defense. Now it's time to get on the offensive with an ambitious foreign policy agenda.

Tuesday night’s election results were a powerful endorsement of President Obama’s leadership. Though exit polls seem to indicate that foreign affairs played only a minor role in the decisions of most voters, the president has a remarkable opportunity to reassert American leadership in his second term by outlining and executing an ambitious global agenda.

The first term was spent playing defense. Now it's time to get on the offensive with an ambitious foreign policy agenda.

Tuesday night’s election results were a powerful endorsement of President Obama’s leadership. Though exit polls seem to indicate that foreign affairs played only a minor role in the decisions of most voters, the president has a remarkable opportunity to reassert American leadership in his second term by outlining and executing an ambitious global agenda.

The last four years have been characterized by a largely safe and conservative foreign policy that was focused on cleaning up two wars that his administration inherited and addressing a global terrorism threat in need of containment. For the most part, the president has done an admirable job on both fronts and has exercised deft, competent, and thoughtful leadership across a range of foreign policy decisions. However, when given opportunities to make big, ambitious plays, he has consistently chosen to play it safe. The response to the Arab Awakenings could be much more powerful, with policy leadership and a political push equal to the historic opportunities in the region. The European monetary union remains in perpetual near-crisis, but the president has elected to play a supporting role. The U.S. trade agenda, most notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has made slow and steady progress, but has remained largely absent from the president’s broad narrative of promoting American values and strategic vision.

In order to accomplish this, the administration will need to fully come to terms with the “rise of the rest” and ascension of middle-income countries on the world’s stage. Strong American leadership in this new world will require reimagining the architecture of global governance. Some of this is underway with the increased reliance on the G20 rather than the G8. But more will have to be done to incorporate other nations substantively into the fabric of the IMF, World Bank, and Security Council. Additionally, we will need to craft new institutions that can coordinate collective action and truly make the United States an indispensable super partner in addition to being a super power. The U.S. is well positioned to lead this movement, but it must choose to seize that mantel and responsibility.

In President Obama’s second term, he should also double down on expanding the benefits of trade, openness, and economic growth in the developing world. There is perhaps nothing that can do more to solidify and secure long-term U.S. interests abroad than to help usher in a new world of opportunities for everyday people living in volatile and tumultuous regions. Families in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East want what everyone wants: decent jobs, safe communities, educational opportunities, and a real path for their children to realize their full potential. Simon Rosenberg has observed, “FDR and his fellow progressives took on the challenges of their day and built the domestic programs and international institutions that ushered in an era of unrivaled prosperity and stability.” The challenge facing today’s progressives is no less important.

This administration has talked up many foreign policy accomplishments over the last four years, but the president has a real opportunity over the next four to leave a lasting legacy by reasserting a 21st century liberal internationalism. With the partisan congressional dynamics largely unchanged after the election, it is certainly possible that gridlock over domestic policy will create incentives for the president to focus more attention on a more ambitious foreign policy. I hope that he does.

Bradley Bosserman is a member of the DC chapter of the Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline and a Foreign Policy Analyst at NDN and the New Policy Institute, where he directs the Middle East and North Africa Initiative.

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A President Should Run the Country Like a Household, Not a Business

Oct 22, 2012Minjon Tholen

Romney and his conservative colleagues have made it clear that they care more about bottom lines than investing in people's lives.

Romney and his conservative colleagues have made it clear that they care more about bottom lines than investing in people's lives.

In last week’s presidential debate, Governor Romney said he will make a great president because he is a businessman and has run companies. He might know how to make a profit and possibly balance a budget like he promises. But running a country is not just about balancing the budget – which, by the way, he likely wouldn’t be able to do any better than President Obama – and it is definitely not about making a profit.

President Obama is not trying to run America like a company. He has a background in community organizing and is trying to run the country like a community, like a family, a household. A nation is not just a material system of capital, investment, and revenue. It directly affects the human lives of each and every American. Households are invested in every family member, as their shared living space, culture, history, and lineage binds them together for life. In companies, on the other hand, employers and employees are generally tied together by monetary relationships.

A few years ago, I met a member of the Pan-African Parliament at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. We had a conversation about how to encourage women to participate in politics. She said she talks to women living in the villages in her country, and they typically respond that politics is not for them, as they “only” know how to run a household. The member of Parliament then told them that if they can run a household, they can run a country. Think about it: you have to work together and negotiate with your spouse or partner to make decisions and get things done (bi-partisanship), understand and respond to the needs of the various family members (constituencies), and do so strategically with limited resources (budgeting, redistribution, long-term investments).

This is President Obama's strength. Sure, he hasn’t been a perfect president – if such a thing exists. But I trust him as a leader. I believe he truly cares about all constituencies, especially those who have traditionally been disenfranchised. He understands the strategic, long-term social and economic benefits of investing in quality education, efficient universal healthcare, healthy lifestyles, fair distribution of resources, and respect and equal rights for every individual. He understands that a country is only as strong as its weakest link and that leveling the playing field for everyone facilitates equal opportunity and empowerment for individuals as well as for the entire country. He understands that creativity, innovation, and progress are promoted by leveraging our rich diversity. His commitments and policies regarding healthcare, gender equality, poverty, education, and immigration, for instance, give us the feeling that he is everyone’s president.

Governor Romney, on the other hand, recently made it very clear that it is not his job to be concerned about 47 percent of Americans. He implied that almost half of the country does not take responsibility for itself and that he won’t be able to convince it otherwise. But most people want nothing more than to be economically independent, and the fact that some are not is more a reflection of social inequalities than of their characters. As most parents know, to raise your children to be self-sufficient and productive members of society, they need to develop skills and gain knowledge. They need to be invested in; they need opportunities for personal and professional development.

David Brooks argues, "People are motivated when they feel competent. They are motivated when they have more opportunities. Ambition is fired by possibility, not by deprivation." Deprivation of opportunity -- an unleveled playing field -- does not create self-sufficiency and actually fosters dependency on others, including on the government. For all the conservative rhetoric about economic self-sufficiency and individual freedom, President Obama seems to get this logic better than his opponent, with a long-term plan to empower all Americans and with strategic budget decisions that will set us on the road to economic recovery, deficit reduction, and a more equitable society. Republicans say they so greatly value “the family as the cornerstone of society,” yet they disregard the factors that promote economically independent, educated, healthy, and thriving individuals and families.

By not raising taxes, cutting capital gains, and reducing the corporate income tax, Governor Romney is catering to big business and the wealthy and their interest in making a profit. Like companies, Republicans are focused on their own bottom line and the bottom lines of those they consider stakeholders in the conservative political ideology, rather than on the empowerment of all the American people. I’m sure Governor Romney is a wonderful husband and father. It just doesn’t seem like he would be a true family man when it comes to 100 percent of the American family.

Minjon Tholen is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and the Training & Development Specialist at Cook Ross Inc.

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The Michigan Clean Energy Roadshow: Success Stories Pave the Road for a Clean Energy Future

Sep 12, 2012Cory Connolly

Michigan, once the industrial capital of the United States, has the opportunity to create jobs and economic opportunity while paving the way forward for a clean energy future. 

Michigan, once the industrial capital of the United States, has the opportunity to create jobs and economic opportunity while paving the way forward for a clean energy future. 

In 2008, the state of Michigan made a commitment to clean energy, to the environment, to economic opportunity, and – most of all – to people. Public Act 295, passed in 2008, set the framework for the development of Michigan’s clean energy economy by establishing a renewable portfolio standard (RPS). A renewable portfolio standard (also called a renewable electric standard or clean energy standard) mandates that electric providers generate a certain percentage of electricity from renewable resources by a set date. For Michigan’s RPS, the percentage was 10 percent and the date was 2015. A renewable portfolio standard is the most popular strategy for promoting the development of clean energy sources like wind, solar, and hydro in the United States today. There are 28 other state-level renewable portfolio standards in the U.S. with varying goals and timelines.

At the federal level, in 2011, President Obama called for a “clean energy standard” of 80 percent by 2035 and a similar act called the “Clean Energy Standard Act” was proposed this past spring in the Senate. This past week at the Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party endorsed such a standard as well. Global investment reached $263 billion in 2011, and is expected to continue to grow. A national RPS or clean energy standard has the potential to make the United States a leader in the global clean energy market, and Michigan has the potential to lead this charge. 

In Michigan, the adoption of an RPS has caused a significant uptake in clean energy installations and investment in the industry. Since 2008, Michigan has installed over 1,200 megawatts of new generating capacity – that’s enough power to run 240,000 homes. While the numbers are exciting, in Michigan the clean energy economy is about more than just numbers and figures – it’s about the people and the opportunities behind clean energy. Two weeks ago, I traveled Michigan as a part of MiGrid, a Michigan-based company, and we started telling the story of the state’s clean energy opportunities through the Michigan Clean Energy Roadshow. The MiGrid team visited over 25 clean energy sites and interviewed over 25 business owners, experts, and Michigan residents. Highlighting the successes of Michigan’s RPS and other clean energy efforts in the state, MiGrid is educating, engaging, and empowering people and helping to build clean energy jobs and economic opportunities.

Without a doubt, Michigan’s 2008 RPS is one of the most modest in the country; however, it was designed with that intention. In 2008, a more aggressive RPS wasn’t politically feasible, so policymakers chose an incremental approach that could serve as a proof of concept for Michigan. Currently, Michigan only receives 3.6 percent of its energy from renewable sources, but is on pace to increase that to 8.4 percent by 2013 and to 10 percent – the RPS goal – by 2015. This incremental approach has proven not only that clean energy can succeed in Michigan, but that Michigan is ready for an even more ambitious approach to clean energy moving forward – as is the rest of the country.

In fact, clean energy has been a bright spot in the Michigan economy. Home to an industry cluster of advanced battery manufacturers, Michigan is reclaiming its place in the automobile industry. In 2010, according to Clean Edge, Michigan had the most clean energy patents of any state. And, according to Environmental Entrepreneurs, Michigan, with 1,319 anticipated jobs created, ranked fourth among states in new clean energy jobs this quarter.  In total, according to a recent Bureau of Labor and Statics report, Michigan is home to over 80,000 “green collar” jobs.

While these industry-wide statistics speak loudly, possibly the most convincing evidence of Michigan’s clean energy economy are the numerous wind and solar installations popping up across the state. Whether it’s the recent solar installation at IKEA in Canton, wind turbine blades coming through the port in Muskegon, or the introduction of solar at Ypsilanti’s Corner Brewery, there are stories of clean energy all over the state. Innovative manufacturers and companies are also redefining Michigan’s economic landscape. The Detroit-based PowerPanel is a prime example; the new company is manufacturing an innovative combined solar hot water and solar photovoltaic panel that simultaneously generates electricity and hot water.  Energetx Composites, a company highlighted in this year’s State of the Union, was started by the owners of S2 Yachts – a manufacturer of Tiara Yachts and Pursuit Boats – and now manufactues wind turbine blades. These are just a handful of the types of success stories that were captured during the Michigan Clean Energy Roadshow and that continue to provide a foundation for a more radical energy transition in Michigan. 

Building from these successes, the Michigan Energy, Michigan Jobs campaign (also known as 25 by 25) is supporting a more ambitious path forward for Michigan. Included as a ballot initiative this November, the campaign is supporting an increased RPS or RES of 25 percent by 2025. Included in November’s election as a ballot initiative, the 25 percent by 2025 is anticipated to attract 10 billion dollars in investment to Michigan and create 74,000 jobs. Such an increase would nearly double the clean energy jobs in Michigan and may show what job-creating potential a clean energy standard could have nationally. Additionally, for Michigan, the initiative would reduce the $1.7 billion that Michigan spends importing coal from out of state each year. As Michigan’s installed clean energy capacity nearly triples in the next three years, the clean energy economy will continue to move forward with or without the passage of the ballot initiative. However, the passage of 25 by 25 this November would catapult Michigan to the forefront of the clean energy economy in the United States and, in turn, help the United States compete globally.

From seeing these businesses, job creation, and installations and hearing their stories throughout the state, it is clear that a transition to clean energy is inevitable in Michigan. Still, citizens and policymakers in many cases remain unaware of the economic opportunity and stories behind clean energy. As Skip Pruss points out in a recent op-ed in the Detroit Free Press, Michigan has the opportunity lead in this sector, but it must seize it.

The clean energy economy should be about people, and therefore it should start with people. Through increased awareness of and familiarity with clean energy systems, Michigan residents and Americans more generally will be able to fully engage in the clean energy economy. A recent report documents the “contagious” nature of solar installations: “there is a positive, statistically significant, causal effect of previous nearby installations on a household’s decision to adopt solar panels…A one percent increase in the zip code installed base leads to approximately a one percent increase in the zip code adoption rate.” As the report points out, the results of increased exposure to clean energy systems add up. Taking this idea to a broader level, broadcasting and uncovering the successful strategies and the benefits of clean energy in Michigan can serve to stimulate growth in this sector in other states and at the national level.

Clean energy, in Michigan and across the globe, has the potential to transform how economies work and where and how energy is generated. This November, when Michigan votes on the 25 by 25 ballot initiative, it won’t be determining whether clean energy has a place in Michigan; what will be on the line is the degree and the trajectory of Michigan’s clean energy transformation. Michigan was once one of America’s industrial capitals with the automotive industry. Can it pave the way forward again?

MiGrid will be releasing videos, interviews, and pictures from the Michigan Clean Energy Roadshow in the coming weeks. For more information about the MiGrid and the Roadshow please go to to mi-grid.com

Cory Connolly is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow focusing on the development of the clean energy economy and a member of MiGrid.

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Single Women Voters Need One Voice, But Not One Issue

Aug 27, 2012Suzanne Kahn

Not so long ago, single women weren't just an important voting bloc  they were an organized group that made specific political demands.

Not so long ago, single women weren't just an important voting bloc  they were an organized group that made specific political demands.

This political season, single women keep finding themselves at the center of political firestorms. Both parties and the media have recognized that single women are one of the country’s fastest growing demographics and a potentially crucial voting bloc. As the New York Times recently wrote, single women lean strongly toward Obama in polls, but they are not reliable voters, often feeling like politics don’t address their everyday concerns.

Democrats hope to turn single women out by reminding them of the party’s defense of reproductive rights—a job Republicans like Todd Akin make easy. Republicans, in turn, claim that women should and do care about more than their reproductive rights and will turn to the GOP when they consider the bad economy. Absent from this debate is any sense that single women might have some very specific demands beyond reproductive freedom that are not addressed in either party’s appeals.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the number of single women in this country also grew dramatically. A rising number of divorces and increasing economic opportunities for women outside of marriage created new constituencies. Finding their access to economic resources—from credit to pensions—severely limited in a political economy built around the assumed norm of a nuclear family, these women organized. They formed groups like the Older Women’s League and the Alliance for Displaced Homemakers, which demanded legal reform to give single women access to badly needed resources. They proposed creative solutions to the problems single women faced on a day-to-day basis – for example, new ways of calculating Social Security benefits based on a couple’s shared earnings.

These women organized for a number of reasons. Looser divorce laws meant that women who never expected or wanted to be single found themselves suddenly without partners after a lifetime of dependency on their husbands. In this new position, they ran up against laws and customary practices that blatantly discriminated against women. Divorced women, who had paid family credit card bills for years, could not get cards on their own. Women who divorced after less than 20 years of marriage lost access to Social Security benefits. Health insurance companies actively discriminated against women without husbands by charging them far more to purchase an insurance plan. Newly divorced women discovered institutions putting up roadblock after roadblock as they tried to put their lives back together. So they organized—not only within existing women’s organizations, but also by creating their own.

It was, of course, a political moment that fostered identity politics. The burgeoning women’s movement created spaces for single women to meet and discover their shared problems. It also provided organizational support for single women to organize. The National Organization for Women, for example, created special committees to address the problems facing divorced women, widowed women, and never-married women.

Single women identified equal access to credit, affordable health insurance, pension rights, affordable childcare, Social Security reforms, and much more as single women’s issues. They approached these issues not in a general way, but with very concrete demands to address the specific challenges they faced. They proposed specific laws to give women credit access, to reform the Social Security system so that married women were not treated exclusively as dependents, and to provide affordable childcare so that women could work. These organizations won important victories, like the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, but they also left unfinished work, such as the fight for quality, affordable childcare.

Many commentators have pointed out that reproductive rights are deeply tied to economic rights for women, and they are. But a real appeal to single women as voters would recognize the many other ways to improve single women’s economic fate, like paid maternity leave and labor laws that protect the many women who work in the service economy.

Single women today, like those in the 1970s and 1980s, are strapped for time as well as money. Asking that single women create brand new organizations is a tall order. But our absence from the political scene as vocal, self-organized participants has allowed the parties to adopt a severely limited vision of women’s demands.  

Suzanne Kahn is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and a Ph.D. student in history at Columbia University.

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Environmentalism Can't Succeed Without Good Citizens and Good Consumers

Aug 7, 2012Nick Santos

Individual action alone won't solve our environmental problems, but neither will giving up on responsible consumer habits.

Individual action alone won't solve our environmental problems, but neither will giving up on responsible consumer habits.

"Story of Stuff" creator Annie Leonard has posted a new video, titled "The Story of Change," in which she argues that it's not responsible consumers but good citizens – those who vote, participate, take action, and generally show up – who create environmental change. The video is quite good, but I disagree that one is better than the other. In fact, for us to get the changes we need, we’d do best to vote with both our dollars and our ballots. Leonard says as much, but the video and her recent piece in the New York Times’"Room for Debate" series send a mixed message that discourages individual-level action. The argument environmentalists should be making loud and clear is that we must have good individual consumption habits and civic participation if we hope to succeed.

The central argument reflected in the video and by all the Times debaters is that individual actions are a tiny piece of the puzzle and that consumers who take individual action are more likely to feel an “illusion of progress” and think they have done their part without having any significant impact on the larger environmental problems we face. These are important considerations, but sending the message to consumers that their contributions “don’t add up” is dangerous both for our environmental impacts and for the viability of our civil participation. Consumers who take individual action are invested in the movement – an advantage that should not be overlooked. In addition, the environmental problems we face are ultimately linked to consumption, and we must address consumption in order to adequately fix them.

The first problem, as any climate change organizer can tell you, is that getting people to make the leap from individual economic and social impacts to grassroots organizing is no simple task. Leonard is right that making a connection to a larger movement is incredibly important, but the crux of organizing remains the individual – individuals who are so convinced of the problem that they take time out to show up and participate. To get to that stage, individual action is critical – it keeps us focused on the problem and raises awareness of the solution. Still, we can and should still tie these personal efforts to effective campaigns and political action. For an example of this done right, look no further than 350.org, whose organizational voice and message, as seen in the staging site and resources it provides for local organizers, strengthen the movement's foundation and inspire people to engage their community on the ground.

The second issue is cultural.  We have a serious consumption problem that legislation cannot eradicate, even while it can significantly reduce the damage of each bit of consumption. In reality, we have to buy less, not just buy smarter, if we want to do our part. So while taking action and demanding better government regulation tackles many of the problems associated with producing and disposing of products, environmentalists and consumers in general need to go much further in addressing the consumption problem itself.

This is where individual consumer purchasing adds up. In addition to reducing impacts, making real shifts in corporate behavior, and setting examples for other conscious consumers, individuals who make responsible purchasing decisions literally and figuratively invest in the sustainability movement. And we need that if we expect people to show up, vote, talk to their neighbors, or otherwise take civic action. Enough of us already profess to support issues like climate change, but when we don’t feel like it’s a part of our lives, it can drop off the radar. Participating in individual purchasing keeps these issues front and center in the public consciousness.

Some of these consumers are at risk of considering their purchasing to be their entire contribution to the movement, as the debaters contend. But if they do, then that’s our failing as environmentalists in not making the appropriate connection between civic and economic action. Leonard is trying to correct these problems, and I applaud her for it, but it won’t work if consumers get the impression that they should stop their personal investment in sustainability, as Leonard’s message often suggests. We need to help these two types of critical action work together if we want either of them to have a chance of success.

Nick Santos is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow working on climate change education. He runs Environmental Consumer, a nonprofit, and works with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

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Three Reasons the GOP Should Have No Beef With Meatless Mondays

Jul 30, 2012Nick Santos

Cutting back on meat is healthier for us and for the environment, but Republicans are more concerned about the health of corporate profits.

Cutting back on meat is healthier for us and for the environment, but Republicans are more concerned about the health of corporate profits.

Not content to keep Congress from doing anything about climate change, the GOP showed last week that it will also go out of its way to keep anyone else from taking action. The USDA sent a tip to employees to take the Meatless Monday challenge, a one-day-a-week commitment to forgo meat. They explained that cutting back on meat is more healthy (true) and more environmentally friendly (also true) than the large quantities of meat Americans regularly eat. In no time at all, this newsletter was picked up by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which stated that the claims about cutting back on meat are false. And from there, the Republican spin machine kicked into high gear.

The NCBA release made it to Senator Jim Moran of Kansas and into a speech by Senator John Barasso of Wyoming. It even found its way into one of Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley’s more comprehensible tweets, in which he pledges to eat more meat to make up for “stupid USDA recommendation abt (sic) a meatless Monday.” They all claim it’s an attack on the rancher’s way of life, and disappointingly, the USDA backpedaled. To their credit, they kept it simple and only said that “USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday.”

This is an absurd controvery over such a small issue, but it highlights a larger problem: Republicans are once again burying their heads in the sand on science and health. So let’s start with the facts.

 Fact #1: Meat production emits an outsize amount of greenhouse gases compared with crop production. In short, meat and dairy are, as a whole, a larger climate problem than other foods. Red meat in particular has a significant impact, followed by dairy. Switching a little bit of meat for a bit more grains, fruits, and vegetables will reduce the climate impact of anyone who participates.

(Graph from “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States” – Weber and Matthews, 2008.)

Fact #2: Meat in moderation is far more healthy than the amount of meat typically associated with the American diet. Research continually confirms this. Cutting back on meat provides numerous health benefits, including a longer lifespan and reduced risk of illnesses like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Fact #3: Skipping meat is not an attack on rural America as Cattlemen’s Beef Association is claiming. People don’t just stop eating entirely if they skip meat. Is my home garden an attack on ranchers? No. If we’re going to talk about rural America, then let’s note that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, crop production generates more economic output than livestock production. And while we’re at it, we might also note that crop production creates more jobs than livestock production. It’s not that one is better than the other, but by skipping meat, people are only switching from one very significant economic sector to another.

This attack on the USDA and Meatless Monday is ridiculous on every level. The recommendation appeared in a relatively small, internal newsletter for employees – they weren’t exactly screaming it to the world through a megaphone. What’s especially disappointing is that Meatless Monday is an apolitical organization. They aren’t advocating policy or suggesting that any of their recommendations be legislated. They make sensible recommendations for people’s health. They are not extreme in the least bit; they’re the very definition of moderation and are now being attacked by groups with extreme agendas.

One last thing – the cherry on top of this little manufactured controversy. Four United States presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt and others from both parties, observed meatless Mondays and encouraged the rest of the country to do so as well. It was seen as a sign of patriotism for all Americans to do their part. So when and how did we lose our pride and unity in the name of excess and industry profit?

Nick Santos is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow working on climate change education. He runs Environmental Consumer, a nonprofit, and works with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

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Magnet Schools: A Happy Medium Between Creativity and Accountability for School Choice

Jul 19, 2012Amy Baral

 

For those interested in school choice but worried about resources and accountability, magnet schools may provide a solid third option.

 

For those interested in school choice but worried about resources and accountability, magnet schools may provide a solid third option.

My previous posts on school choice have focused on two distinct types: the first, encompassing inter- and intra-district school choice, simply allows parents a choice of existing schools either in their home district or within a greater regional area. The second type, charter schools, creates an entirely new set of innovative and specialized schools that are completely autonomous from the school district. Magnet schools offer a mix of these two options, creating innovative programs within the “typical” public school system.

With charter schools facing their fair share of criticism, magnet schools may be a viable and sustainable alternative. While magnet schools are certainly not new to the education reform debate, they provide a school choice option that offers innovative programs and a diverse student body while maintaining accountability and strengthening neighborhood schools.

Magnet schools were first used as a desegregation alternative to busing. The idea was that if a segregated district could create innovative schools centered on a specialized type of education (for example, a school focused on foreign languages or math and science), a variety of public school students from different neighborhoods and backgrounds would be attracted to it and it would become integrated. Today, magnet schools are viewed less as a desegregation tool and more as a superior public school option for students.

Magnet schools are strikingly similar to charter schools. Both provide innovative educational opportunities and both face criticism from those who worry about the schools hogging resources. Critics of magnet schools worry that magnet schools skim the best talent from the school district, including both students and teachers, while leaving the other schools in the district to deal with less motivated students and teachers. Some critics also argue that magnet schools take resources away from struggling neighborhood schools. If magnet schools take all of these things away, the argument goes, the neighborhood schools are left with the struggling students and fewer resources to help them.

But magnet schools go much deeper than charter schools and may actually be more sustainable. Charter schools operate independently from school districts, which provides them with more freedom and opportunity at the expense of accountability. In the worst cases, charter schools fall into the hands of people whose goal is the financial bottom line and they aren’t held accountable for mediocre performance. On the other hand, magnet schools are an inherent part of the school district. An important distinction between magnet schools and charter schools is that magnet schools operate under the control of the local school district. What distinguishes a magnet school from standard public schools is that its curriculum is based on a common theme and the school can enroll students from across the district or regional area. They create opportunities for innovation within the school district while following the district’s accountability structure.

Magnet schools are a way to provide innovative educational options and integrated schools as a way to boost student achievement. Many magnet schools have innovative curriculums with an emphasis on foreign language, science, math, technology, or the arts. They may also have long school days and stricter codes of discipline. Most importantly, a primary goal for magnet schools was and still is to move beyond the traditional neighborhood school and bring together students from across a school district or geographic area to create a diverse learning experience.

An example of a school district that has widely implemented magnet schools is my home school district, the West Hartford Public Schools in West Hartford, CT. West Hartford has two magnet schools, Charter Oak International Academy (elementary school) and Smith STEM School (elementary school). Charter Oak’s magnet focus is on the international student population and the cultures and societies of the world. Smith focuses on STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math. Both Smith and Charter Oak are located in what are arguably West Hartford’s poorest and most diverse areas, on its border with the city of Hartford.

The magnet school structure of both schools ensures that the children attending them are drawn from the neighborhood but also from the other areas of West Hartford, ensuring greater socioeconomic and racial diversity than if the schools were solely neighborhood schools. Further, the magnet structure of these schools allows them to implement innovative experiences for the students, including extended day (longer school day programs), early access to foreign languages, and early access to hands-on science experiments. Just check out the school profiles for Charter Oak and Smith. West Hartford’s magnet schools certainly have not skimmed talent or funding from the other West Hartford schools, but have instead provided innovative learning experiences in the tough neighborhoods of the town.

For critics of charter schools who are supporters of school choice, magnet schools are an option that allows for innovative programs and a diverse student body while maintaining accountability and strengthening neighborhood schools.

 

Amy Baral is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow performing legal and policy research on the Boston Public Schools, focusing on access to quality education and school choice. She is also a 1st year law student at Boston University School of Law.

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