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Entries in poverty (3)

Thursday
Sep202012

In America, Our Inalienable Right to Vote is in Jeopardy

@RHRealityCheck

The right to vote is an illusion for me: I have been allowed to vote only once in my more than two decades as an emancipated adult. But while I have never been completely at peace with this disenfranchisement, it is the consequence of my personal choice to migrate early and often: my home country, Denmark, extends only limited democratic rights for citizens living abroad.

It is, however, not a choice for the millions of U.S. citizens who will not be allowed to vote in the upcoming presidential election, either because they have been convicted of a felony, or because they are excluded from voting through voting roll purges, strict voter ID laws, or existing or new restrictions on when and how eligible citizens are allowed to vote.

These restrictions on who is allowed to vote and how are based on two erroneous assumptions.

The first and most easily dismissed assumption is that voter fraud is rampant in the United States, requiring stricter regulations on new voter registration, voter ID requirements, and limits on voting hours. This notion is so obviously false that it has been debunked numerous times by independent watchdog organizations and in the mainstream media. Latest figures show that about one in 16,000 registered voters might have a problem, though some issues are neither intentional nor malicious but rather the result of people moving, changing their signature, or misspelling the name of the city in which they live.

Unfortunately, widespread voter fraud is a notion that has traction with those who already believe the United States consists of the deserving and the undeserving. In this way, some commentators conflate welfare recipients, urban residents, and individuals likely to engage in voter fraud. More damningly, non-governmental groups ostensibly working to verify voter registers across the country have seemingly been targeting counties with predominantly minority populations, or low-income communities, using methods that have been discredited by government agencies, such as the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.  Just this weekend, the New York Times reported that some are so focused on proving fraud that they fabricate the proof. As a result, hundreds of legitimate voters have been purged from registers.

These efforts are usually partisan. The ongoing case in Ohio, in which the state government is seeking to strike down early voting in selected districts and for selected populations, has the possibility of preventing more registered Democrats than Republicans from accessing polls on non-work days.

The second assumption behind the exclusion of voters in the United States is that voting is a privilege and not a human right. International human rights treaties define the equal right and opportunity to vote and to be elected in genuine periodic elections as key to democracy, peace, and human dignity. And while the United States is historically reluctant to sign on to international human rights obligations, the U.S. Senate accepted the ongoing obligation to implement the right to vote as defined in international law in 1992.

To be sure, some will say that the millions of convicted felons who are excluded from voting for life have brought it upon themselves and do not deserve to participate in democracy. No amount of data showing the disproportionate (and perhaps intentional) impact of this policy on communities of color will convince this group that those convicted of crimes should not be excluded from voting. The notion that voting as a human right means there can be no distinction between the deserving and the undeserving will also not have any impact: people who believe that those convicted of felonies should lose all rights for life do not believe in human rights at all.

So far, politicians have assumed they have support for voter ID laws because some three-quarters of the U.S. population poll in favor of these laws. However, the same polls show an almost equal concern among the population that legitimate voters will be excluded from the polls in November. The difference between these two concerns is that the latter is real and the former is largely fabricated, as is the worry that those convicted of felonies are undeserving of the right to vote.

More to the point, ensuring the right to vote should not be based on polling data. The U.S. government—including both the executive and the legislative branches—has the obligation to ensure that the right to vote is more than an illusion for all U.S. citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, home, or history of conflict with the law.

Friday
Feb242012

Sensationalizing Drug Use in Pregnant Women: How the Media Perpetuates Racist and Ineffective Policies

@RHRealitycheck

Well before anyone could be certain of how Whitney Houston died, several news outlets rushed to describe her as a “crack cocaine user.” And in all likelihood many will think of the popular singer as succumbing to illegal drugs, even if alcohol eventually is found to be more closely related to her demise.

This is not all that different from how the media deals with infant and child health.

Regardless of the actual causes behind low birth weight, infant mortality, and early childhood health issues, media reports are sure to blame the “crack baby syndrome” or, more recently, women’s abuse of prescription pain killers.

This kneejerk reaction is unhelpful for a number of reasons.

First of all, a pregnant woman’s use of illicit drugs is neither the only nor the most damaging pregnancy phenomenon from the point of view of infant health.

Take, for example, legal drugs, such as alcohol and cigarettes. Peer reviewed research shows that over-consumption of alcohol can cause fetal alcohol syndrome (linked with permanent mental retardation), whereas cocaine seems to act only as one contributing factor in some pregnancies to increase non-permanent risk factors such as low birth weight. Approximately twice as many pregnant women drink alcohol frequently as use illicit drugs frequently during their pregnancies.

Epidemiological research published in the mid 1990s shows that the use of tobacco products in the United States at the time was responsible, each year, for tens of thousands of tobacco-induced miscarriages, infants born with low birth weight, infants who require admission to neonatal intensive care units, as well as an estimated 1900 to 4800 infant deaths. Though smoking has gone down over the past decades, around 17 percent of adult women in the United States still smoke, and generally continue to smoke during their pregnancies.

Even drugs administered to women who are in fertility treatment have been associated with low birth weight and premature birth.

Or let’s set aside drugs altogether. Malnutrition in pregnant women is one of the main causes of low birth weight and infant mortality worldwide. In this sense, it is worth noting that food insecurity and hunger has grown steadily in the United States since the start of the latest financial crisis in 2008. (Food insecurity exists whenever the availability of nutritionally-adequate and safe foods or the ability to acquire foods is limited or uncertain). According to the latest figures, about 17.2 million households in the United States suffered food insecurity in 2010, the highest number ever registered. Yet the government’s food stamp program is increasingly under attack by pundits and politicians.

Secondly, even a superficial read of arrest and prosecution figures for drug use during pregnancy reveal such a severe race and class bias that the very legitimacy of the approach must be questioned.

Since 1985, 80 percent of the more than 200 pregnant women or new mothers in over 20 states who have been arrested and charged with crimes related to substance use during pregnancy were black or Latina. In 2000, research in Pinellas County in Florida found that while white women and women of color used illegal drugs at comparable rates, black women were 10 times more likely than white women to be reported for child abuse related to substance use during pregnancy. That same year, data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed that while black women had a higher overall rate of illicit drug use than white women, most women who use illegal drugs during pregnancy were white. Even so, 41 of the 42 women arrested in South Carolina under a mandatory drug testing program were black. (The program was suspended in the mid-1990s because of allegations of racial discrimination).

Meanwhile, research published in 2006 shows that newborns with white mothers are much more at risk of alcohol and tobacco exposure than newborns with black or Latina mothers.

Moreover, in many cases women with private health insurance are not mandatorily tested for illicit drug use during pregnancy. In this sense, poverty itself is what singles a pregnant woman out for persecution. It is no coincidence that the main focus for drug prosecutions for pregnant women in the United States is crack cocaine, a drug almost exclusively used by the resource-poor. As Whitney Houston herself famously said in an interview in 2002: “I make too much money to ever smoke crack.”

The point here is not that pregnant women should use cocaine, or that the government—and society as a whole—does not have a legitimate interest in ensuring infant and child health.

The point is that the prosecution of drug use in pregnant women does nothing to fulfill a legitimate policy goal and in fact seems to be racially motivated—at least in the implementation—rather than spurred by a concern for children.

In fact, if the objective is to improve infant and child health, efforts to overcome poor nutrition, alcohol addiction, lack of adequate health care, physical abuse, and/or homelessness would make for much better investments. Sadly, such policies don’t make for as sensational news.

Thursday
Dec222011

Americans Demonstrate Changed Attitudes Towards Poverty Since the 2008 Economic Crisis

@RHRealityCheck

If you are poor, chances are it is your own fault. At least that’s what Americans thought in 2001. In a National Public Radio poll from that year, about half of those surveyed said the poor are not doing enough to pull themselves out of poverty.

Now, one would think that since the recent economic crisis predictably has led to increased poverty people would start blaming circumstances more than the poor. This has not been the case in the United Kingdom. A recently published survey shows that Brits over time have become more likely to blame poor people themselves for their financial trouble. From 1986 to 2009, the proportion of people who attribute poverty to laziness and lack of willpower has grown to a little under 30 percent, with the proportion blaming “injustice in our society” conversely falling.

People’s attitudes towards poverty to some extent determine sentiments about health care, welfare benefits, and other collective interventions. Not surprisingly, the UK study found that more and more Brits believe government benefits are too high.

In the United States, the picture is, perhaps surprisingly, a bit more nuanced. The 2001 NPR poll shows that attitudes about welfare at that time were determined by the income of the person asked. Those who made more than twice the poverty level were almost twice as likely as those closer to being poor to say that welfare recipients had easy lives and could do very well without the benefits if only they tried.

This difference is significant. Since household income has been declining over time (and proportionally fewer individuals earn more than twice the poverty level), the silver lining of the 2008 crisis might be that more Americans start seeing poverty for what it is: not something anyone “deserves.” This could even help bring about more coherent anti-poverty policies when politicians, many of whom seem to want to appeal to the “poor people are lazy” sentiment as a way to obtain votes, realize their constituents understand reality better than they do.

And poverty is, in fact, becoming reality for more and more people in the United States.

In 2010 more people were recorded as living in poverty than in any of the previous 52 years for which rates have been published: 46.9 million (representing 15 percent of the population). About 17.2 million households were registered as food insecure for that same year, meaning they didn’t have consistent dependable access to enough food. This, again, is the highest number ever recorded in the United States. Even percentage-wise, poverty rates in 2010 were the highest they had been since 1993.

And poverty is not just something people “are,” something that might be inconvenient and often frustrating (though it surely is both of those things in copious amounts).

Poverty is a very real obstacle to exercising human rights, bringing with it substandard housing, under-resourced schooling, lack of health care, and at times unsafe neighbourhoods, as well as many other disadvantages. Children are particularly affected, since years of poorer quality education and potentially unhealthy living has consequences that to some extent continue even after a family pulls out of poverty—which only some ever do.

And not only is poverty an obstacle to exercising rights. It is also, in many cases, caused by rights violations. Four million more women than men live in poverty, and both African-Americans and Hispanics are over-represented amongst the poor. In 2010, women earned 77 cents to every dollar earned by men. For black women that figure is 68 cents, for Hispanic women 59. Unemployment rates fluctuate enormously according to sex, race, and marital status. Women constitute 65 percent of all part-time workers.

To be sure, everyone is ultimately responsible for how they deal with their circumstances, and some individuals pull out of poverty despite multiple odds stacked against them. But many more do not. This is not because poverty is inevitable. It is because it generally requires support for health care, education, housing, anti-discrimination initiatives, and other interventions at least partially sponsored by the government. Without addressing the growing poverty in the United States through collective action based on human rights, chances are that if you are poor you will stay poor. Through little fault of your own.