A protest for the rights of fast food workers at the University of Minnesota, April 15th, 2015 Photo by Fibonacci Blue
A protest for the rights of fast food workers at the University of Minnesota, April 15th, 2015
Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr.com

And What Can Be Done To Make Jobs and Family Life More Predictable

For decades, work-family activists have pressed for policies to give workers flexibility. Some workers, most of them relatively affluent, have seen gains. They have won the ability to adjust their schedules, to choose how many days a week to work, and even to work from home. But as my colleague Dan Clawson and I document in our new book, Unequal Time, many employers in the United States are turning the concept of work schedule flexibility on its head. For employers using disturbing new tactics, “flexibility” means that employees – especially low-wage workers – must come in whenever the boss wants and can be sent home whenever demand is slack.

Unpredictable Schedules and Insufficient Hours 

News stories have featured the chaotic schedules of young people working in retail, cleaning, and fast food jobs – many of whom must come to work with just one day’s notice or work split shifts. About a third of young adults do not know their schedule more than a week in advance. But similar problems are faced by workers of all ages. Unpredictable schedules are becoming the new normal for many U.S. employees – ranging from low-wage nursing assistants to well-paid physicians. In the retail and health care sectors, many workers must call in the night before to find out if they will be needed – and if they will earn the wages they have counted on getting. At a nursing home we studied, for example, one out of three shifts turned out to be different from the official schedule planned in advance. more...

The San Diego Tijuana border.  Photo by Kordian bia Flickr.com
The San Diego Tijuana border
Photo by Kordian via Flickr.com

Donald Trump has made immigration into a front-burner issue in the 2016 presidential election, in ways that encourage unworkable, politically hyped solutions appealing only to a hard-core minority of voters. Released on August 16, Trump’s six-page immigration program blended appeals to nationalism, populism, and nativism with sketchy policy ideas based on little understanding of the realities of U.S. immigration. Given Trump’s rise in the polls, the rest of the Republican primary field is reacting to his claims, so it is important to specify their inadequacies.

Repealing Birthright Citizenship

Taking a step that some other GOP candidates have been hesitant to fully endorse for fear of alienating Latino and moderate voters, Donald Trump declares that he would “end birthright citizenship” – the principle that babies born in the United States are automatically citizens. Trump wants to look tough on the “anchor baby” problem, the notion that undocumented pregnant women try to gain legal status by giving birth in the United States. The general public probably does not realize that the undocumented parents have to wait 21 years, until their child born in the U.S. grows up, to file an application on their behalf. Most immigrants come for jobs, not to have babies, so abolishing birthright citizenship would do little to reduce undocumented entries. In an equally deceptive move, Trump tries to make abolishing birthright citizenship sound easy, neglecting to mention that it would require amending the U.S. Constitution, a protracted process that has happened only 27 times in all of our nation’s history. Birthright citizenship was first established by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution adopted in 1877 to ensure full citizen status for African-American ex-slaves; and it was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 1898. more...



Health care providers who perform abortions routinely use ultrasound scans to confirm their patients’ pregnancies, check for multiple gestations, and determine the stage of the pregnancies. But it is far from standard – and not at all medically necessary – for women about to have abortions to view their ultrasounds. Ultrasound viewing by patients has no clinical purpose: it does not affect the woman’s condition or the decisions health providers make. Nevertheless, ultrasound viewing has become central to the hotly contested politics of abortion.

Believing that viewing ultrasounds will change minds, opponents of abortion – spearheaded by the advocacy group Americans United for Life – have pushed for state laws to require such viewing. So far, eighteen states require that women be offered the opportunity to view their pre-abortion ultrasound images, and five states actually go so far as to legally require women to view their ultrasound images before obtaining an abortion (although the women are permitted to avert their eyes). In two of the five states that have passed such mandatory viewing laws, courts have permanently enjoined the laws, keeping them from going into effect.

As the debates continue to rage, both sides assume that what matters for an abortion patient is the content of the ultrasound image. Abortion opponents believe the image will demonstrate to the woman that she is carrying a baby – a revelation they think will make her want to continue her pregnancy. Ironically, supporters of abortion rights also argue that seeing the image of the fetus will make a difference. They say this experience will be emotionally distressing and make abortions more difficult. Paradoxically, such arguments from rights advocates reinforce assumptions that fetuses are persons and perpetuate stigma about abortion procedures. more...

Steven Depolo, Flickr Creative Commons
Steven Depolo, Flickr Creative Commons

In early June 2015, the Missouri state legislature voted to remove thousands of families, including 6,400 children, from the state’s cash assistance program for the poor. The new law reduces the state lifetime limit for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from 60 to 45 months, cuts cash benefits in half for those who do not work, and redirects a significant portion of welfare funds toward programs that encourage marriage and alternatives to abortion.

Why has Missouri made these changes now? Since the U.S. Congress acted in 1996 to change welfare funding rules and give states greater discretion, many states have taken steps similar to Missouri. My research suggests that racial dynamics drive these cutbacks – but not in ways many suppose. Demography and attitudes are insufficient explanations; the political context matters.

Race and Welfare Policymaking

Why have some states imposed welfare restrictions in recent years while others have retained more generous programs? Previous studies reveal a clear pattern: the higher the proportion of African Americans receiving cash welfare benefits, the more likely states are to adopt restrictive welfare policies. But not all racially diverse states have adopted punitive reforms and some predominantly white states have taken very restrictive approaches to welfare. Race clearly influences welfare politics, but how?

To answer this question, I examined the policy decisions that state legislatures made immediately after the 1996 national reforms transformed American anti-poverty policy. That law imposed new time limits, work requirements, and penalties on recipients of welfare benefits. After Congress gave states new flexibility to design their own programs, some states adopted the most generous policies allowed by federal law, while others imposed far more restrictive policies. To understand the decision-making processes better, I closely examined a number of states which had large minority populations at the time.

What I found was surprising: Legislators’ decisions about welfare policy were heavily influenced by the political debates simultaneously raging in their states. When these other debates were rife with racial tensions, legislators enacted punitive welfare reforms. But when coterminous debates were not racialized, lawmakers tended to adopt more generous welfare programs. In other words, lawmakers used restrictive welfare changes as a strategy to appease white voters who felt threatened by other racial conflicts happening in the same period. more...

A facetious gun control ad near Boston's Fenway Park. Photo by Jason Paris via flickr.com.
A facetious gun control ad near Boston’s Fenway Park. Photo by Jason Paris via flickr.com.

Ten years ago, the state of Florida beefed up its “stand your ground” law – a law allowing a person who harms or kills another, often with a gun, to escape prosecution by claiming that he or she felt threatened and acted in self-defense. In other words, Florida’s law – and many others like it – lets assailants go free merely by asserting their belief that the use of force was necessary to prevent serious harm or death to themselves or bystanders. Those who assert such beliefs become according to Florida law “immune from criminal prosecution and civil action.” Prosecutions are not entirely ruled out, but authorities must meet very difficult standards to pursue cases.

Since 2005, about half of all U.S. states have passed Florida-style laws, or very similar ones. The National Rifle Association has led the charge, arguing that stand your ground laws will improve public safety and protect honest citizens.

By now, however, there is clear and compelling evidence that such laws have failed to improve public safety – and have encouraged mayhem reminiscent of America’s old Wild West. Laws allowing claims of self-defense have existed for over a century, but Florida’s new law and its imitators dramatically alter the law enforcement equation. According to David LaBahn of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, investigations of civilian killings are now often hamstrung by legal protections greater than those afforded police officers who use lethal force.

The Florida Experience

Florida’s 2005 law was invoked in nearly 200 shooting cases through 2012 – a majority of them involving fatalities. The cases were documented by the Tampa Bay Times:

  • The Florida law’s chief beneficiaries were “those with records of crime and violence.” Nearly 60 percent of those making self-defense claims after killing someone had been arrested at least once before; a third had been accused of violent crimes or drug offenses; and over one-third had illegally carried guns or had threatened others with guns.
  • In seven of every ten stand your ground cases, the person killed was unarmed – and in 79 percent of the cases, the assailant could have retreated to avoid the confrontation.
  • Shooters who invoked stand your ground claims under Florida’s 2005 law succeeded in escaping prosecution two-thirds of the time.

guns across americaSimilar Trends in All Stand Your Ground States

Moving beyond Florida alone, other studies have documented equally worrisome trends:

  • Reporters at the Wall Street Journal studied “justifiable homicides” nationwide from 2000 to 2010. They found that such killings increased by 85 percent in states with Florida-style laws (even though some states have more limited versions of stand your ground rules on the books). The increase occurred even though overall killings, adjusted for population growth, declined during this same period. According to the Journal investigation, more than 80 percent of the “justifiable” killings involved guns, compared with 65 percent of other killings where claims of justification were not made.
  • For the same period, researchers at Texas A&M University found no evidence in data from the Federal Bureau of Investigations that stand your ground laws deterred crimes, including burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault. Instead, in states with newly buttressed stand your ground laws on the books, the homicide rate increased by eight percent – which in human terms added up to about 600 additional homicides annually.
  • Drawing on different data, a 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research study found Florida-type laws associated with a 6.8 percent increase in homicides.
  • An Urban Institute study found significant racial disparities in “justified” killings between 2005 and 2010. In states without stand your ground laws, killings were ruled justified in 29 percent of instances where the shooter was white and the victim was black (with much lower rates of justification for white on white, black on white, and black on black killings). By contrast, in states with stand your ground laws on the books, white on black killings were accepted as justified 36 percent of the time (with more modest upticks in findings of justification for the other kinds of cases).

Time to Rethink Laws Undermining Public Safety

The evidence is clear: Expanded stand your ground laws combined with more gun-carrying increases unnecessary violent confrontations and deaths. With more than 11 million Americans now licensed to carry guns, we need policies to defuse or avert public confrontations – and police and prosecutors must be able to conduct full investigations when incidents occur. A February 2015 American Bar Association report urges states to scale back legal immunity and restore the “safe retreat” standard in public places – a standard that requires people who feel threatened to avoid confrontation if they can do so safely. Since the beginning of 2015, legislators in ten states, including Florida, have introduced such measures. But many reform proposals are stalled, and 13 states are actually deliberating bills that would fortify stand your ground practices.

Long ago, Americans north and south acted to contain the dangers of open gun-toting and free-wheeling confrontations. As early as 1686, New Jersey enacted a law against wearing weapons because they induced “great Fear and Quarrels.” In the 1700s, three states passed no-carry laws. In the 1800s, as interpersonal violence and gun carrying spread, 37 states joined the list of those enacting restrictions. Alabama’s 1839 law was titled, “An Act to Suppress the Evil Practice of Carrying Weapons Secretly.” This history makes the current popularity of gun-carrying and stand your ground laws all the more mystifying. Apparently, twenty-first century Americans must now re-learn lessons their ancestors took to heart long ago.

This brief was prepared for the Scholars Strategy Network by Robert J. Spitzer, State University of New York at Cortland. Spitzer is the author of Guns across America: Reconciling Gun Rules and Rights (Oxford University Press, 2015).


In recent decades, the United States has seen a spectacular rise in deportations, with local police forces authorized by the federal government to identify undocumented immigrants for summary removal. More than 11 million undocumented people across the country – including up to one in ten adult workers in the state of California – faced this threat in their daily lives.

To assuage the human costs, President Barack Obama outlined a plan in November 2014 to provide temporary protection to many undocumented migrants. Building on his earlier efforts to set priorities, the President specified that officials would henceforth seek to deport “felons, not families,” “criminals, not children,” “gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.” In short, under the new policy, various kinds of immigrants deemed good would be protected from deportation. Well-intentioned city leaders, bureaucrats, and police would need to sort out the good immigrants from those vilified as criminals.

These well-intended steps are meant to alleviate the trauma that the threat of deportation has imposed on millions of law-abiding migrants. But how do the binary divisions work out in practice? My research, based on a year of observations in southern California plus 75 in-depth interviews with undocumented Mexican migrants, suggests that efforts to divide good from bad people in migrant communities can have pernicious as well as helpful effects. more...

Photo by Francisco Osorio Flickr CC
Photo by Francisco Osorio Flickr CC

Latinos living in the United States comprise the largest number of immigrants of any racial or ethnic group – and for this reason, many Americans presume that immigration is the issue that matters most to Latino citizens and residents. But is that true? Do Latinos themselves view immigration as their top concern, and if not what other issues are high on their political agenda? My research tackles this question, which is important for understanding the potential political influence of the largest and fastest growing minority group in the United States. more...

The Live Below the Line Campaign encourages people around the world to try to live on a poverty-level wage.
The Live Below the Line Campaign encourages people around the world to try to live on a poverty-level wage.


Poverty is commonly explained as a matter of joblessness, while work for wages is viewed as a pathway out of poverty and toward upward mobility. Indeed, since the end of open-ended welfare benefits in 1996, U.S. public assistance presumes that creating incentives for poor adults, including mothers, to enter the paid labor force is the best way to reduce poverty and dependence on government. Yet many citizens do not understand that most poor adults already work. In fact, by some accounts the so-called working poor outnumber the non-working poor in the U.S. Effectively reducing poverty therefore requires addressing the problems of those who work yet remain poor. more...

The American Friends Service Committee's ARCA farm program trains developmentally disabled adults in farming professions. Photo by AFSC/Karla Zarate-Ramirez via Flickr.
The American Friends Service Committee’s ARCA farm program trains developmentally disabled adults in farming professions. Photo by AFSC/Karla Zarate-Ramirez via Flickr.

People with developmental and intellectual disabilities face many obstacles in getting access to the same rights and opportunities as people without disabilities. Depending on the state where they live, Americans with intellectual and developmental disabilities have a number of options to find suitable employment. Various state agencies work together with the Department of Rehabilitation, social workers, and other supportive groups to help disabled people hold jobs that make them self-sufficient. “Employment First” is the goal for a growing movement of advocates and officials who see this as the best route forward for disabled adults, but a closer look at the realities suggests that many disabled people need extra support along with jobs.

Employment First proponents claim that individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities have a right to work in the community at the same wages as other employees. Although this is a worthy claim, individuals suffering from disabilities often need supported employment. They can benefit from job coaches or other trained professionals who can assist them in finding and holding posts. And such extra help may need funding, because many employers are reluctant to pay equal wages to people who often need extra support.

Legal Changes and Looming Challenges

Heretofore, many disabled clients have been employed at group sites holding contracts to provide services such as janitorial or landscaping work. Revenues from the contracts pay for client wages, supplies, and the services of job coaches. But recently word came down that governmental agencies will soon require that disabled clients earn at least minimum wages – a situation that leaves many organizations helping people with developmental disabilities worried about adequate funds to cover the increased wage costs.

In response, advocates are now urging increases in funding for agencies that provide services to clients with developmental disabilities. However, if this quest for extra funding falls short, group job sites providing opportunities for workers with developmental disabilities may be unable to cope with new costs. Contracts could be lost, thus leaving persons with developmental disabilities without employment.

Confusion in Store for Many of the Developmentally Disabled

Various sheltered workshops are closing due to governmental mandates – and that can be a very traumatic and confusing experience for workers with developmental and intellectual disabilities. When workshops close, attempts are made to procure employment for as many clients as possible in the larger community. But it is often difficult to find such regular jobs, leaving quite a few people with developmental and intellectual disabilities at risk of persistent unemployment. That, in turn can lead to depression, because many disabled people, like others, find self-esteem and dignity in work and the accompanying daily routines.

Persons with developmental disabilities are often creatures of habit who find reassurance in routine. For decades, many of them have been working in the same workshop or at the same group site. To close down such settings can spur widespread trauma. Professionals need to consider the cognitive levels of the individuals they serve and take into account just how much disruption people can handle. Even if changes are for the benefit of many people with developmental disabilities, are the costs in emotional trauma and loss of jobs for others worth it? Some developmentally disabled people do not even understand the concept of money or understand how to earn and spend wages like others in the community. What the severely disabled do comprehend is how they are treated when they are allowed to work like others they know. In our society, what people do for a living becomes central to their identities and this is just as true for the disabled as for others. Hardly anyone could cope with having such a core part of their identity stripped away, yet current changes in public policy threaten exactly that for many severely developmentally disabled Americans.

The Search for Solutions

However, there are two sides to every set of new problems and challenges. Many advocates for the disabled deplore the idea that disabled workers should be paid sub-minimum wages. They see this as exploitative, and pressures from them help to explain the public policy changes now happening. But even if the basic argument here is correct, there are risks as well if the new rules about prevailing wages force developmentally disabled workers out of any jobs at all.

Are there good solutions to the new dilemmas? Many of the sheltered workshops perform time studies where a client is tested next to a supposedly typical worker. They set lower prevailing wages for disabled people depending on their percentage of the productivity of non-disabled workers. But these tests take about five minutes and consist of timing the client to see how fast they can perform a certain task. Is it really fair to set lower hourly or daily wages this way, given that in real workplaces, many employees slow down for stretches or take breaks?

Much more research and professional consultation is needed to work out these issues, but the challenge is arduous. Given variations in federal and state policies, what works for one state may not comply with regulations in other states. Devising and implementing new ways to support disabled workers within the new wage rules will be a balancing act among the states and between the states and the federal government.

Clearly, Americans with developmental disabilities have the right to work and to earn fair wages like others in society. But researchers and caring professionals have a ways to go to find the best ways to achieve this goal. Fresh ideas are needed, and extra funding is bound to be required from public agencies and nonprofit groups as well as businesses, if the United States is to do right for its disabled citizens, including those who are developmentally hindered and thus especially vulnerable.

Gwendolyn Barnhart is an advocate of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She is a PhD candidate in psychology at Walden University.

Sen. Dick Durbin speaks at a Chicago event celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ADA. Photo by Daniel X. O'Neil, Flickr CC.
Sen. Dick Durbin speaks at a Chicago event celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ADA. Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil, Flickr CC.

Activists, political leaders, and the general public view the Americans with Disabilities Act as one of the most important pieces of U.S. civil rights legislation. The law unquestionably improved the lives of people with disabilities in many ways, especially by enhancing their access to businesses and public places. But it has fallen short of one of its major goals: to boost employment and earnings. Twenty-five years later, the employment rate among people with disabilities is still considerably lower than among those without disabilities; and when people with disabilities do find jobs, they earn substantially less than those who have no disabilities.

My colleague Michelle Maroto and I have looked into why the Act fell short in this important respect, especially given that similar legislation, including the Civil Rights Act, accomplished more in reducing discrimination in the workplace.

Why Did the Act Fall Short?

In the scholarly literature and public documents and testimony, there are two hypotheses about why the Americans with Disabilities Act failed to improve employment and earnings. The unintended harms perspective argues that, by requiring workplaces to make changes for employees with disabilities, the law unintentionally discouraged hiring. And the judicial resistance perspective faults Congress for leaving much of the law’s enforcement in the hands of the courts, whose actions or delayed actions undermined effectiveness.

Both of these possible explanations presume that institutional contexts – the market economy, the court system – influence how legal intentions get translated into real-world outcomes. Scholars who pay close attention to the influence of institutions believe that labor market outcomes (and other economic outcomes) are shaped by more than just supply and demand. Federal and state legislatures, enforcement agencies, and the courts engage in activities that also influence economic outcomes that policymakers have tried to affect. Thus, proponents of the judicial resistance argument, for instance, suggest that court decisions distorted Congressional intentions and often undercut the role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in applying the Americans with Disabilities Act to various workplaces.

What Our Research Shows

My colleague and I sought to untangle the roles of legal requirements, state and federal institutions, and individual characteristics in shaping trends in employment and earnings among people with disabilities from 1988 to 2012. We used nationally representative data about workers from the U.S. Current Population Survey, and also examined Supreme Court decisions and state-level data on complaints about disability issues registered with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Our study cannot shed light on what would have happened if the national law had never been passed, but we can use comparisons across time, across types of workers, and across the states to establish some trends and explanations.

In 2012, adults with disabilities had an employment rate that was 40 percent lower than adults with no disabilities, even after we took into account differences among people in education, family situation, and other characteristics that could influence employment.

  • Employment gaps between people with disabilities and others increased both during periods of economic slowdown and times of economic growth.
  • People with disabilities earned about 33 percent less than people without disabilities in 2012, even after taking into account other relevant characteristics – and the earnings gap has remained largely unchanged over twenty-five years.
  • Better-educated individuals with disabilities fared better than others in both employment and earnings. Having a college degree seems to have had a protective effect for people with disabilities, helping them to overcome possible negative perceptions among employers.
  • Earnings among people with disabilities were greater in unionized workplaces and those with health benefits.

Patterns of enforcement mattered – in states, courts, and the federal bureaucracy:

  • Higher levels of enforcement activity by the courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were negatively associated with employing people with disabilities.
  • States also legislated against discrimination. Regardless of economic conditions, employment rates for people with disabilities were reduced by 4.4 percentage points in states that were slower to act.
  • Earnings were not affected by enforcement, and only slightly affected by state legislation.

Moving Forward

Our analysis showcases the importance of thinking about the politics following the passage of landmark legislation, not just the politics leading up to it. Our data lend some credence to both the unintended harm and judicial resistance arguments about why implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act failed to markedly improve employment and earnings. In 2008, Congress took note of these shortfalls by passing amendments intended to strengthen the impact of the original law. Future research needs to monitor the impact of these amendments. In the process, close attention should be paid to how legal provisions and rulings influence ongoing decisions by employers. In addition, our study underlines the importance of reducing educational barriers for people with disabilities, doing all that can be done to help them gain training and degrees. So far, educational gains have done the most to help Americans with disabilities overcome barriers in the labor market.

David Pettinicchio is a sociologist at the University of Toronto. He studies inequality and public policy, considering how outsiders and elites interact to make or stymie social change.