How Fathers’ Imprisonment Undercuts Children’s Readiness for School—Especially Hurting Black Boys

Over the past four decades, the United States has sent astonishingly high numbers of its citizens to prison—especially poor minority men. The price has been paid not just by the imprisoned men themselves, but also by their communities and families, including very young children.

On any given day, approximately 2.7 million children are estimated to have a parent in prison or jail. When we also take into account children who have fathers previously in jail or prison, it turns out that nearly one of every ten U.S. residents under 18 has been affected by parental imprisonment. Researchers like me are just beginning to look into the impact of fathers’ imprisonment on children’s preparation to learn when they start attending school. For all American children, doing well at school is crucial. Early gaps lead to growing inequalities in U.S. society as a whole.

About 1 in 10 American kids has a father who is in or has been in prison. How will it affect their life chances?

About 1 in 10 American kids has a father who is in or has been in prison. How will it affect their life chances? Photo via Flickr CC (click for original).

Why School Readiness Matters

“School readiness” is an idea developed by scholars to indicate how well prepared pre-school children are to learn in formal classrooms. It refers both to cognitive skills—such as understanding words and numbers and the ability to solve problems—and to such behavioral skills as the ability to pay attention, follow directions, and control emotions like anger or frustration. (more…)

How Emergency Managers and Community Organizations can Cooperate to Handle Disasters

In May of 2013, Oklahomans in the area around Moore and Oklahoma City were hit by two strings of devastating tornados. In Moore in particular, one could see the swath of total destruction carved through the city and across the interstate highway. Schools, shopping areas, and entire neighborhoods were totally destroyed. After the initial shock, people immediately asked, “how do we rebuild our lives and our community?” Government organizations leapt into action to assist in rescue operations, provide emergency medical services, and coordinate assistance. Alongside these public agencies were many nongovernmental, community organizations that offered services ranging from debris removal to shelters for people who had lost their homes.

After tornados devastated Moore, in short, the whole community, not only public officials, stepped up to propel the rebuilding process. For disasters to come in many other places, my research explores how community organizations, including those new to emergency management, can similarly support efforts to respond and rebuild. (more…)

Attacking Iran’s Nuclear Facilities Would Likely Radicalize the Islamic Republic’s Government and Politics

USS Firebolt, USS Thunderbolt, and USS Whirlwind are on patrol in the Arabian Gulf. Photo by Official Naval Forces Central Command via Flickr CC.

As the international community pressures the government of Iran to forego the possibility of developing nuclear weapons, the United States and Israel are both considering air strikes to cripple Iran’s nuclear infrastructure if a negotiated solution fails. All participants in the current debate recognize that there would be repercussions in Iranian domestic politics – but discussion has been conceptually hobbled by a narrow focus only on a popular “rally round the flag” effect. Iranian popular reactions would matter, of course, but in authoritarian regimes like Iran, the most important political fault lines are not between the regime and the masses but within the political elite itself. United elites can always crush popular rebellions, as the Iranian elite did in 2009. Furthermore, the course of the regime will be set by shifting balances within the elite.

The analysis I have done with my colleague Jacques Hymans suggests conservative elites in the Islamic Republic and their domestic political supporters would be galvanized and empowered by foreign military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program. Supporters of military strikes hope that, after the brief rally around the flag effect in Iranian domestic politics, a more salutary democratic transition might occur. But on the contrary, the probable result would be a renewal of Islamic revolutionary radicalism – very harmful to the long-term interests of the United States and regional stability. (more…)

Lessons from Rwanda’s Quest for a Just Response to Genocide

Gacaca court judges in Rwamagana. Photo by Elisa Finocchiaro via Flickr CC.

The United States grapples with tough issues of crime and punishment, but the challenges pale next to those faced by the small, poor nation of Rwanda following state-sponsored genocide in 1994. In the wake of atrocity, Rwanda had to bring massive numbers of wrongdoers to justice, even as it tried to restore peace and a measure of trust to shattered communities. When existing judicial institutions became overwhelmed, Rwanda fashioned a new system, adapting traditional community mechanisms of justice and reparation to cope with the modern crisis. Lessons from this experience might help America find new ways to combine punishment and social healing.

Challenge and Response in Rwanda

The 1994 genocide left Rwanda with over a million citizens dead, millions more displaced, and societal institutions in shambles. Violence had been orchestrated by a group of political leaders who encouraged ordinary Rwandan citizens to participate by forming self-defense groups, spreading propaganda, and instilling fear. After the violence ended, the United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to try those deemed most responsible for atrocities. But this tribunal could handle only a fraction of the perpetrators, leaving tiny Rwanda overwhelmed with the reality that upwards of one million of its citizens had committed genocidal crimes. Meanwhile, many survivors had lost their entire families and all of their belongings yet were still expected to live in the same communities with those responsible for their losses. (more…)

How Policy Analysis Can Inform Efforts to Improve Social Programs

Photo by Follow Donna Benjamin via Flickr CC.

According to the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers, all professional social workers have a responsibility to promote improvements in policies related to social justice and welfare. Social policies create programs and set regulations and funding levels that profoundly affect the welfare of the disadvantaged, disempowered groups served by social workers. When social workers go beyond carrying through existing policies and regulations to call for improvements, they are engaged in what is called “policy practice.”

This brief draws insights and recommendations from three leading textbooks listed in the recommended readings, synthesizing what they have to say about the key ingredients of effective policy practice – problem identification, coalition building, campaigning, legislative advocacy, and monitoring implementation. To inform advocates and analysts alike, the brief offers a concise encapsulation of current wisdom about what it takes for a coalition of diverse allies to enact and implement legislation addressing an important social problem. (more…)

Why Politically Active Billionaires Threaten the Health of Democracy

Billionaires - Reflections on the Upper Crust

The richest one percent own about one-third of all assets in America and about four-fifths of assets around the world – and wealth concentration is growing. Sharply skewed financial resources lead not only to lives of luxury amid want; they also afford the ultra-rich extraordinary influence over elections, public policy, and governance. In my new book Billionaires, I take a close look at the growing political clout of billionaires and the ways in which they have pioneered activist forms of politics and philanthropy. What does billionaire political activism mean for the health of democracy – here in the United States and across the globe?


The Dangers of Invoking Cultural Explanations in the Fight against Sexual Assaults on College Campuses

Vandals made a few changes to this sexual assault awareness ad. Photo via i100.

The Obama administration has made fighting sexual assaults on college campuses a national priority. Relying on a 2007 web-based survey administered by the Centers for Disease Control, the White House asserts that one in five college women will be sexually assaulted. In its January 2014 “Renewed Call to Action,” the White House Council on Women and Girls declared that sexual assault happens on college campuses because “our culture still allows it to persist.” Schools contribute to rape culture by not holding perpetrators accountable. “To make our campuses safer,” concludes the Council, schools must step up their enforcement mechanisms and federal agencies must make sure they are “living up to their obligations” to punish perpetrators.

Although the White House’s concerns for student safety are laudable, the culture argument undermines the presumption of innocence. Alternative approaches to the social complexities of sex on campuses might do a better job of encouraging more mutually respectful sexual encounters while protecting individual rights.


In Dealing with Iran, the Best Option for Israel is to Strike First—Diplomatically

[Israel] courtesy of Edoardo Costa via CC

Searching for a solution to curb Iran’s nuclear military ambitions, the United States is leading international negotiations likely to come to a head before long. As these discussions have proceeded, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken almost every opportunity to express consternation over the possibility of any agreement enshrining a nuclear détente between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. He has good reason for concern, because, as seen from Jerusalem, a truly comprehensive deal that would fully and irreversibly dismantle Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons does not seem plausible. From Netanyahu’s perspective, the partial deals appear as fool’s bargains, likely merely to postpone and complicate inevitable military action against Iran’s nuclear complex.

For anyone worried that an Israeli military strike against Iran would unleash an incalculable risk of conflicts in Middle East and world politics, this sounds like bad news. Even if a newly negotiated agreement between the United States and Iran comes packaged with some mild sweeteners for Israel, it probably would not be enough to compensate for what Israel views as an existential threat from a hostile Iranian regime. From this perspective, Israel’s best current move is to play the spoiler, to search for ways to undermine evolving diplomacy, and if that move fails, send the Israeli Air Force to bomb Iran.

Rhetoric and Reality in the “All Charter” Approach to School Reform in New Orleans

Photo courtesy of timlewisnm via CC

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the devastated city of New Orleans entirely reinvented its system of public schools – by eliminating neighborhood schools and creating a city-wide system of competing, privately managed schools formally open to children regardless of where they live. State authorities spurred this transformation by rating most preexisting schools in the city as “failing” and using the state-run Recovery School District to take control of such schools away from the Orleans Parish School Board. All public school teachers were fired and their contracts nullified. In the weeks after Katrina, school reformers set up charter schools funded with public dollars but managed by private companies or nonprofit organizations. New Orleans became a nearly all-charter city, allowing for what many have called a “grand experiment” in school reform.


Using Alternatives to School Suspension Can Improve Student Success and Community Safety

Barring students from school is all too common in America. Across the country, schools turn to suspension as the preferred solution to many different kinds of student misconduct ranging from fighting to skipping school. Of course school authorities have to take action when students engage in serious misbehaviors. But an accumulation of evidence suggests that schools would do well to find alternative ways to proceed in many situations. Alternatives to suspension can do a better job of correcting student misbehavior – and may also improve safety for everyone at school and in the broader community. On their own, some school leaders are already taking important steps to reduce reliance on suspensions.

Suspensions Can be Ineffective and Harmful

Research shows that suspension is often a temporary solution that may exacerbate the problem it is intended to address. Suspension often seems like a good way to remove troublemakers from the scene of difficulties, improve security, and focus attention from parents and authorities on student misbehaviors. But there are also clear downsides. Suspension isolates students and increases time spent out of school for students who may already have records of truancy. (more…)