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 www.sarahgalli.com.

Image via Thinkstock

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Daily Digest - March 11: What is the GDP of the Internet?

Mar 11, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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The Benefits of Internet Innovation are Hard to Spot in GDP Statistics (The Guardian)

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The Benefits of Internet Innovation are Hard to Spot in GDP Statistics (The Guardian)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz explains why technological innovation has little effect on measurements of economic success, even though most agree that it improves quality of life.

This is What a Job in the U.S.’s New Manufacturing Industry Looks Like (WaPo)

Lydia DePillis profiles one of the rising number of temp workers at factories in Tennessee, for whom the return of manufacturing hasn't meant the return of solid middle-class jobs.

Finding Home: Voices of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program (The Century Foundation)

Stefanie DeLuca and Jessi Stafford examine the program's successes in moving families from low- to high-opportunity neighborhoods through two families' stories. They suggest this could break the cycle of poverty.

Let Them Eat Dignity (TAP)

Republicans think that accepting government handouts harms the soul, says Paul Waldman – but only if you're poor. No one talks about the lack of dignity in the mortgage interest deduction.

More Evidence That SNAP Caseloads Have Started Falling (Off The Charts)

For the fourth straight month, Dottie Rosenbaum reports, food stamps have dropped compared to the previous year. Critics can stop worrying about out-of-control safety net spending.

Schools Across the Country Offering Universal Free Lunch (MSNBC)

Ned Resnikoff reports on districts adopting community eligibility for school lunch: if over 40 percent of students qualify, then the entire district can get rid of the paperwork and give every student free lunch.

No, Americans Are Not All To Blame for the Financial Crisis (TNR)

Subprime mortgage holders shouldn't be blamed for today's economy, writes Dean Starkman. He places all the fault with Wall Street and the culture of profit above all.

When the 1 Percent Opposes Long-Term Economic Growth (The Week)

Ryan Cooper suggests that the wealthy care about long-term growth only as far as it helps them. When pro-growth policies would probably mean higher inflation, they don't see an urgent need for growth.

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What Les Misérables Can Teach Us About Paul Ryan's Poverty Plan

Mar 7, 2014Nell Abernathy

Conservatives who say getting a job is the answer to poverty fail to acknowledge the realities of low-income work.

Conservatives who say getting a job is the answer to poverty fail to acknowledge the realities of low-income work.

Les Misérables returned to Broadway last week, just in time for Victor Hugo’s tale of poverty and redemption to provide some context for thinking about the poverty report Rep. Paul Ryan released Monday. With a history of more than 6,000 Broadway performances and a Hollywood spin-off starring Anne Hathaway, the lavish musical has probably engendered more popular sympathy for the down-and-out than any progressive politician sticking to her talking points ever could.

When the resident villain, Inspector Javert, castigates characters who can’t find jobs, can’t feed children, can’t escape a past mistake, with his motto, “honest work, just rewards,” the American viewing public – conservative and progressive alike – laugh bitterly at his naïveté. “They are trying,” we want to shout at the stage.

But what if you live in a society where honest work doesn’t always lead to just rewards? This question, at the center of upheaval for both the characters and the society Les Mis portrays, is also worth asking in 21st century America.

The central flaw of Ryan’s report is his assumption that a job will lift incomes for poor Americans. Progressives agree that work should provide a path out of poverty, but given the dysfunction of our current labor markets, we know that Ryan's assertions hit the same false notes as Javert’s.

It is impossible to talk about poverty in the U.S. without addressing the fact that today work does not guarantee economic security.

Of the 26 million working-age adults living in poverty in 2012, more than 10 million were working full- or part-time. (This is according to the Official Poverty Measure used by Ryan, though most anti-poverty advocates, including me, prefer the Supplemental Poverty Measure.) Two-thirds of children in poverty live in a household with at least one working adult. But with the minimum wage stagnating at nearly 25 percent below its historical value, and part-time work at historic highs, a job in America no longer means independence. More than half of fast-food workers rely on one of the public assistance programs mentioned in Ryan’s report, according to an analysis from the UC Berkeley Labor Center. Nearly a quarter of the total workforce relies on public programs.

There are 16 million poor adults who aren’t working. Ryan suggests they are stuck in a “poverty trap” of federal programs that create disincentives for work. Incentives aren’t the whole story (there are plenty of Jean Valjeans out there facing structural disconnection from the labor market), but I will concede that incentives are a part of the problem. Indeed, research shows that single mothers must often choose between a bad job with no benefits or a meager government check that at least allows them to care for their children.

The conservative solution has been to cut government support in order to force workers into poverty-level work. This was the philosophy behind the 1996 welfare reform law, which Ryan’s report trumpets as one of the great successes in the war on poverty. Welfare reform did raise incomes for some of the American poor, but as my colleagues Andrea Flynn and Ellen Chesler write in a forthcoming paper, “increases in employment and wages moved many women off welfare, but also failed to enable them to achieve long-term economic independence” because the work they took on did not allow them to complete their education or provide health care benefits.

Progressive solutions to poverty include a range of policies designed to make work a true pathway out of poverty. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would lift 900,000 people out of poverty, according to the conservative CBO report, or nearly 6 million, according to Arindrajit Dube’s review of 12 different minimum wage studies. Paid family leave can help single moms stay in the workforce and earn higher wages. Recent reviews of California’s 10-year-old paid leave policy show that women who have paid leave work 16 percent more weekly hours and make 5 percent more in hourly wages than women who don’t. A government-funded work program could reintegrate the 3.8 million adults who have been out of work and looking for more than 27 weeks, and has been supported by conservative economists who understand that sometimes the down-and-out need a hand finding “honest work.” None of these policies were mentioned by Congressman Ryan, nor did he even acknowledge the state of work in America.

I believe Mr. Ryan is sincere in his attempt to propose solutions to poverty. Javert himself is ultimately a sympathetic character, eager to do his duty. The problem with Javert, and some conservative leaders, is that they cannot tolerate a world of nuance and moral ambiguity where truisms like “honest work, just rewards” are insufficient answers to societal challenges.

With so many Americans living in poverty, including 22 percent of our children (the highest child poverty rate among rich countries), we should have an honest debate about which policy responses are effective and which are not. The reality of low-income work must be part of that debate.

Nell Abernathy is the Program Manager for the Roosevelt Institute's Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.

 

Image via Thinkstock

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Daily Digest - March 7: Holding Banks to a Higher Standard

Mar 7, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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What's the Deal: How to Make the Financial System Safer for Everyone with Mike Konczal (YouTube)

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What's the Deal: How to Make the Financial System Safer for Everyone with Mike Konczal (YouTube)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal explains why banks need higher capital standards to prevent another collapse and discusses the economic reform issues that the Roosevelt Institute will be working on throughout 2014.

Obama's Budget and the Politics of Poverty (To The Point)

Mike Konczal speaks with Warren Olney about how the parties aim to split the budget for anti-poverty programs. The GOP would increase funding for some programs, but at the cost of others.

Paul Ryan Accidentally Makes the Case Against Means-Testing (MSNBC)

When Paul Ryan brings up a child who feels unloved because he gets free lunch instead of a brown-bag lunch, Ned Resnikoff sees an opening for giving all students free lunch.

Together, New Haven Activists and Leaders Strike Back Against Wage Theft (In These Times)

For the first time, local police brought larceny charges against an employer who shortchanged his workers. Melinda Tuhus says these steps will help to protect low-wage workers, including undocumented workers.

Unions and Job Security (PolicyShop)

Matt Bruenig counters a recent argument that unions can't provide real job security anymore. He says the point isn't absolute job security anyway, but safety from firing without cause.

The Foreclosure Nightmare Isn’t Over Yet (MSNBC)

Suzy Khimm reports on one family's five-year fight against foreclosure in Maryland. Policies requiring mediation have kept them in limbo, as have the mortgage servicer's repeated runarounds.

Democrat Says CFTC's Low Budget 'Sucks' (The Hill)

Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) says that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission's lack of sufficient funding could be very dangerous if it handicaps enforcement, reports Tim Devaney.

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Daily Digest - March 6: Washington State Points the Way on Wages

Mar 6, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Highest Minimum-Wage State Washington Beats U.S. Job Growth (Bloomberg)

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Highest Minimum-Wage State Washington Beats U.S. Job Growth (Bloomberg)

Victoria Stilwell, Peter Robison, and William Selway report that Washington hasn't just shown higher job growth – it also has lower poverty rates, and the supposedly vulnerable service industry is growing.

Minimum Wage Raise Would Reduce Food Stamp Spending By $46 Billion Over Decade: Report (HuffPo)

A new report from the Center for American Progress analyzes how higher wages would reduce need, writes Dave Jamieson. Raising the minimum wage would decrease the "culture of dependency" that Republicans decry.

The U.S. Economy's Big Baby Problem (The Atlantic)

The American birthrate has hit a new record low. That wouldn't be a big deal, writes Derek Thompson, if our economy didn't rely so heavily on families' consumer spending.

Over 2 Million People Now Without Unemployment Benefits (MSNBC)

The number of long-term unemployed workers in the U.S. keeps growing, and Ned Resnikoff says it's looking less and less likely that Congress will reauthorize their extended unemployment insurance.

When Regulation Threatens, Bankers Predict Doom For Main Street (ProPublica)

Jesse Eisinger explains how banks are trying to chip away at financial reform by negotiating behind the scenes on little-known issues. Going after collateralized loan obligation rules doesn't get much public scrutiny.

Does America Need a Robin Hood Tax? (Pacific Standard)

Kyle Chayka says a financial transactions tax could raise enough money to fight many social problems. Focusing such a tax on high-frequency trading would also curtail the banks' worst excesses.

It’s Still Paul Ryan’s Party (WaPo)

Greg Sargent calls out Ryan's hypocrisy in claiming the president's budget contains no attempt at compromise. Ryan's budget seeks even less common ground, with absolutely no funds for Democratic priorities.

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Daily Digest - March 5: Are the GOP's Plans Anti-Poverty or Anti-Poor?

Mar 5, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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The New GOP Poverty Efforts Are Impractical, Incoherent, and Inhumane (TNR)

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The New GOP Poverty Efforts Are Impractical, Incoherent, and Inhumane (TNR)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal explains the problems with the Republican focus on cutting costs and eliminating government programs. The president’s anti-poverty plan, while flawed, makes more sense.

The Partisan Divide Over the Earned Income Tax Credit (MSNBC)

Timothy Noah writes that the GOP now classifies any kind of government aid as “dependence,” even the EITC. That means the working poor can no longer count on any bipartisan support.

Obama's Budget: Help for Workers, Taxes for the Rich (CNNMoney)

Jeanne Sahadi says the president's budget proposal centers on tax reforms that help low- and middle-income workers. She lays out the minor changes this would mean for the wealthiest Americans.

Budget Day and Why That Matters–A Lot! (On The Economy)

It's true that many of the top-line budget numbers were set by the Murray/Ryan plan that ended the shutdown, but Jared Bernstein says the president's budget is about political aspirations.

The Real Poverty Trap (NYT)

Paul Krugman counters an assumption from Paul Ryan's poverty report, explaining that work effort doesn't guarantee social mobility. But reducing inequality increases mobility, so social safety net programs remain key.

Exclusive: Report Finds Taking A Paid Day Off When Sick Is A Privilege Of The Wealthy (ThinkProgress)

Bryce Covert looks at a new report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, which shows the vast gap in access to paid sick leave between low-income workers and wealthier workers.

New on Next New Deal

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

Focusing on strengthening neighborhoods and healing communities is a far more effective solution than sentencing minimums, write Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Chicago City Network members Janaè Bonsu and Johnaè Strong

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Daily Digest - February 28: The Deficit's Going Down. Will the Economy Go With It?

Feb 28, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Federal Budget Deficit Falls to Smallest Level Since 2008 (NYT)

Annie Lowrey reports on the sharp decrease of the deficit, which she ties to growth in tax revenue thanks to the improving economy as well as the surprising slowdown in health care costs.

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Federal Budget Deficit Falls to Smallest Level Since 2008 (NYT)

Annie Lowrey reports on the sharp decrease of the deficit, which she ties to growth in tax revenue thanks to the improving economy as well as the surprising slowdown in health care costs.

Budget Deficits Shrinking at the Expense of Economic Recovery (Blog of the Century)

Andrew Fieldhouse writes that policies focused on growth could have achieved the same reduction of the deficit with a far healthier economy, but instead, we have austerity policies.

The Mobility Myth (New Yorker)

American economic mobility has never been particularly high, says James Surowiecki, so public policy should focus on raising the standard of living of ordinary workers instead.

Governors Move to Block Farm Bill’s Food Stamp Cuts (MSNBC)

By raising heat subsidies linked to food stamp eligibility, the governors of Connecticut and New York have ensured hundreds of thousands of households will get a reprieve from cuts, writes Ned Resnikoff.

Not a Single Home Is for Sale in San Francisco That an Average Teacher Can Afford (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Karen Weise reports that a tight real estate market and dwindling pay for teachers are causing the problem, and it isn't good for the school system when teachers can't afford a place to live.

Why Ivy League Schools Are So Bad at Economic Diversity (The Atlantic)

Robin J. Hayes says that elite universities have a singular view of what a high-achieving applicant looks like on paper – and that view overvalues the opportunities provided by wealth.

Are Unions Necessary? (LA Times)

It's unions, writes Michael Hiltzik, that have secured most of the major workplace protections that help all workers, unionized or not. Who else will push for new improvements to labor law?

New on Next New Deal

Beyond Black History Month: A Roosevelt Institute Reading and Viewing Guide

As Black History Month comes to a close, the Roosevelt Institute suggests books, films, and more to continue the discussion and reflection on race in the U.S.

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Daily Digest - February 27: Raising Wages the Rooseveltian Way

Feb 27, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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FDR Set the Terms for Labor Executive Orders (Reuters)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren praises President Obama for following FDR's path with his recent executive order raising the minimum wage for federally contracted workers..

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FDR Set the Terms for Labor Executive Orders (Reuters)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren praises President Obama for following FDR's path with his recent executive order raising the minimum wage for federally contracted workers..

This Is How You Fix Ailing Public Pensions (Time)

Rana Foroohar draws out some key points from the Roosevelt Institute's conference on the public pensions crisis, including the need for fewer high-risk investments and campaign finance reform.

  • Roosevelt Take: The conference showcased a forthcoming study by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Rob Johnson, who wrote about additional possible solutions to the pensions crisis.

Christie, Scott Walker and the Assault on Workers’ Pensions (The Nation)

For Republican governors with hopes of the presidency, attacking public pensions under the specter of Detroit is a strategic key, write Bob and Barbara Dreyfuss.

Tom Perkins Is Winning: The Rich Already Vote More (TPM)

William W. Franko, Nathan J. Kelly, and Christopher Witko point out that voter turnout already has a class bias, which results in state governments that are less responsive to public opinion.

Stop Currency Manipulation and Create Millions of Jobs (EPI)

By ending currency manipulation, when countries shift exchange rates to influence the costs of trade, Robert E. Scott says the U.S. would not only create jobs but would also lower the deficit.

The Home Mortgage Business, Where Cheaters Always Seem to Prosper (TAP)

David Dayen explains how Ocwen, a mortgage servicer, has managed to build an entire business around harmful and sometimes even fraudulent behavior toward homeowners.

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Daily Digest - February 24: What We Didn't Bargain For

Feb 24, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Obama is Showing Some Guts on the Budget. Don't Celebrate Just Yet. (TNR)

The president would put chained CPI, a method of calculating Social Security increases that is popular with Republicans, back on the table at any hint of a Grand Bargain, says Danny Vinik.

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Obama is Showing Some Guts on the Budget. Don't Celebrate Just Yet. (TNR)

The president would put chained CPI, a method of calculating Social Security increases that is popular with Republicans, back on the table at any hint of a Grand Bargain, says Danny Vinik.

The Grand Bargain’s Dead. What Now? (MSNBC)

Without a Grand Bargain on the budget, Suzy Khimm says that fundamental disagreements on benefits programs will have to wait until at least after midterm elections, and maybe even until 2016.

Why Wage Hikes Should Be All the Rage (Policy Shop)

As states, cities, and big retailers like Gap Inc. move forward to raise wages, Amy Traub argues that this piecemeal approach helps some workers and keeps the national conversation going.

UAW Demands Labour Board Review Volkswagen Plant Vote (The Guardian)

The appeal focuses on the "firestorm of interference" from outside groups and Tennessee politicians, reports Dominic Rushe. The union lost narrowly, and the appeal could lead to a new election.

Can These College Football Players Actually Unionize? (MoJo)

As football players at Northwestern University begin the unionization fight with a hearing at the Chicago regional National Labor Relations Board, Matt Connolly explains the process and potential complications.

Wisconsin’s Legacy for Unions (NYT)

Steven Greenhouse reports on how a Wisconsin law gutting the powers of public-sector unions to collectively bargain has changed things for those workers. No surprises: it's not looking good.

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In 'Nuestro Texas,' A Call for Human Rights in Reproductive Health Care

Feb 4, 2014Andrea Flynn

A new report on access to reproductive health care in the Rio Grande Valley highlights the human rights violations happening right in the U.S.

A new report on access to reproductive health care in the Rio Grande Valley highlights the human rights violations happening right in the U.S.

During the past three years, more than 150,000 women in Texas have lost access to reproductive health services, thanks to a relentless barrage of laws and policies that have shuttered 76 family planning clinics across the state. A disproportionate number of those women live in the Rio Grande Valley, a region with extreme health disparities and some of the nation’s highest levels of poverty and unemployment.

Cover of the Nuestro Texas reportA recent report – Nuestra Voz, Nuestra Salud, Nuestro Texas – co-authored by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) illustrates the dire impact that three years of draconian policies have had on women in the valley. During a briefing at the Roosevelt Institute last week, Katrina Anderson, Human Rights Counsel at CRR, and Jessica González-Rojas and Diana Lugo-Martinez, NLIRH’s Executive Director and Senior Director of Community Engagement, shared the report’s findings and conveyed the stories and experiences of the more than 180 local women they have interviewed.

Nuestro Texas stands out because it illustrates the deeply personal impact of the state’s restrictions and regulations, but it is also unique because it frames Texas women’s rights as fundamental human rights issues, using international standards – a framing infrequently used when addressing women’s health in the United States.

Communities across Texas are feeling the acute pain of the rapid destruction of a once robust public health infrastructure, and the most harm has been done along the state’s Southeast border with Mexico. Nine of the Valley’s 32 health clinics have closed, and those remaining open have curtailed hours, reduced staff, increased fees, and eliminated some services. Before the cuts, public clinics in the valley served nearly 20,000 patients. Today they serve just over 5,000.

Nuestro Texas tells the stories of women who now seek care in Mexico, or purchase black-market medications, or forgo family planning and medical care altogether because the barriers of cost, travel, and immigration status are simply too great. Women live with the anxiety of undiagnosed and untreated breast lumps, cervical pain, sexually transmitted diseases, and a host of other adverse health issues.

Beyond declining access to family planning and a full range of women’s health care services, abortion services have all but disappeared in the Valley thanks to the sweeping anti-choice legislation passed last year by the state legislature in Texas. As a result, reports of incidents of self-abortion are becoming commonplace, because without other options women will take the termination of unplanned pregnancies into their own hands, as they did for decades before abortion was legalized in 1973. Even before the 2011 budget cuts and recent abortion restrictions, the estimated rate of self-induced abortion in Texas was more than twice that of the nation overall, and the rate along the border was more than five times greater than the national rate. Recent articles by Andrea Grimes (RH Reality Check) and by Lindsay Bayerstein (The New Republic) illustrate the dire consequences of regulating reproductive health care into obscurity.

Despite the profound stresses women in the valley now endure, at the Roosevelt Institute briefing González-Rojas maintained that they are not simply “victims of systemic barriers.” They are using their voices to advocate for the health and rights of women and families. Outreach workers help navigate immigration and transportation barriers so that women can access needed care in Mexico, if necessary. They host community meetings where women can share their frustrations, fears, and experiences. They teach self-breast exams and educate about the warning signs of sexually transmitted diseases, even though there are few clinics to see women who may need care.

González-Rojas explained that framing women’s rights as human rights has positioned reproductive health as a family and community issue, one that requires multiple voices and solutions to address. Focusing on human rights has empowered women in the valley to organize and mobilize for policy change. They teach communities about immigration, health, and economic policies and encourage them to fight back by protesting, petitioning lawmakers, and – when possible – by voting. Lugo-Martinez said Valley residents have become engaged and excited about human rights and are routinely sharing copies of the landmark 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights at community meetings.

“Women in the Valley will not rest until they can get care when and where they need it,” González-Rojas said. Nor should we remain complacent, for it would be wrong to assume that what is happening in Texas will stay there. “Texas is the epicenter of bad reproductive health policy, but it is also the incubator of those policies. What happens in Texas really matters,” said Anderson.

States across the nation are now following Texas’s lead in significantly restricting women’s access to reproductive health care. Nuestro Texas demonstrates the urgency of accelerating legal and policy trends across the country, as conservative legislators pursue an unrelenting anti-choice, anti-women’s-health agenda. 

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. She researches and writes about access to reproductive health care in the United States. You can follow her on Twitter @dreaflynn.

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