The Struggle to Restore Voting Rights for Former Prisoners—and a Telling Success in Rhode Island

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Even after felons pay their dues to society and leave prison, America sidelines them from the public square. Parolees and probationers are often perceived as undeserving of citizen benefits, and they have little power to assert their rights. Not only do governments often deny felons public resources such as Food Stamps, subsidized college loans, public housing and professional opportunities like licenses and contracts, it is also common for U.S. states to deny former prisoners the right to vote and otherwise exercise full and free citizenship.   (more…)

How Community Health Centers and Millions of Uninsured Are Hurt by the Refusal to Expand Medicaid in Texas

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The state of Texas leads the nation in the percentage of residents lacking health insurance. In 2012, nearly a quarter of the state’s population went without health coverage, some 6.4 million people. Texas alone is home to 13% of all uninsured Americans, with poor and low-income people the most affected. More than ninety percent of well-off Texans have health insurance. But the ranks of the uninsured include more than two out of five impoverished Texans—as well as more than a quarter of individuals earning modest incomes in 2014 between $11,670 and $46,680 (or between $19,970 and $79,880 for a family of three). (more…)

How America’s Engorged Prison and Surveillance System Threatens Civic Trust and Democracy

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Over the past four decades, criminal justice in the United States has taken a sharp disciplinary turn. Muscular new policies and stronger efforts to root out and punish violations have pulled an ever-larger number of citizens into an expanding apparatus of state surveillance, custody, and control. As a growing body of research documents, the results have been far-reaching transformations of American society unlikely to fade any time soon. (more…)

The Truth About Health Reforms, Jobs, and the Economy

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When the Congressional Budget Office issued its latest report about the Affordable Care Act in early February, public reaction was sharp—and mostly focused on a drop of worrisome news in a sea of encouraging findings. On the good news side, the report found that insurance premiums are considerably lower than previously anticipated by the Budget Office, and that health reform is now projected to cost $9 billion less than previously estimated. And it debunked worries about a legal provision designed to buffer insurance companies from risk; it is not at all a “bailout,” as some have claimed, and indeed the federal government is projected to take in billions more than it spends. These and other encouraging findings were overshadowed by attention to another projection—that reform may reduce employment and worker hours by the equivalent of about two million full time positions in 2017. (more…)

Empowering School Districts and Parents to Use Tutors Effectively

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School districts across the United States are spending millions of dollars on tutors to help economically and academically disadvantaged students outside of regular school hours. Large numbers of disabled students and those learning English receive such help. Significant funding comes from the federal government. The No Child Left Behind law that Congress passed in 2002 requires public schools whose students do not make adequate progress over three consecutive years, according to standards set by their state government, to offer extra academic assistance to children in low-income families, including private tutors. Almost half of all schools across the United States failed to make adequate progress in 2010-11—up from 20 percent of schools in 2006. (more…)

How Low-Income People React to Online Applications for Welfare Benefits

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Across America, a growing number of state welfare agencies are using the Internet to communicate with current clients and people who need to apply for benefits. Some websites simply offer information, but others include complex tools meant to tell applicants if they are eligible for various kinds of benefits and let people submit applications.

Welfare administrators like the movement toward online applications, but what do low-income people think? My research takes a close look at the perspectives of clients and potential clients for today’s version of welfare, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. (more…)

Do Term Limits Encourage Legislators to Ignore Constituents?

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The idea that legislators work on behalf of their constituents and cast votes in accordance with constituency opinion is central to our understanding of how democracy is supposed to work. Political science research often considers whether representatives actually function this way—and new questions arise when legal term limits come into the picture. In recent times, Congress and state legislatures have gotten very low approval ratings from the public, and some reformers have pushed term limits—rules that prevent legislators from seeking re-election after one or more terms—as a remedy.

Legislative term limits are celebrated by proponents as a way to increase electoral competitiveness, limit the “incumbency advantage,” and ensure greater accountability by elected officials. But critics argue that term limits can actually make legislators less responsive to constituents, by allowing representatives to abstain from votes and shirk their duties. We have looked into this issue and found that term limits don’t necessarily lead to avoiding votes. Legislators’ goals for their future careers and the types of votes at issue matter more than term limits alone. (more…)

How Unlikely Allies Can Roll Back America’s Prison Boom

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To many liberal critics, America’s swollen prisons have grown like a rapacious weed—one entirely immune to efforts to hack it back. The growth of incarceration seems inexorable and irreversible, driven by a combination of cynical politics, racial inequalities, and lobbying by corporations, unions, and towns that profit from the prison business.

These self-reinforcing dynamics are very real, but they are not cause for despair. In fact, there is reason to hope that the political momentum is turning against our over-reliance on cuffs and cages. The U.S. prison population declined each year from 2009 through 2012, and the number of new inmates admitted to state and federal prisons has reached a 12-year low. States from Texas to New York have taken aggressive steps to curb their prison populations, and even the U.S. Congress is entertaining sweeping reforms. There is no more important force in this reversal of political fortunes than the willingness of conservatives to take a more critical look at our prison system. (more…)

How (and Why) to Build a Better Measure of School Quality

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For the past decade since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, policymakers and the public have had access to standardized test scores for all public schools. This allows schools to be evaluated and compared with more than anecdotes or comments passed by word of mouth. Still, changes in student test scores constitute a very narrow measure of what schools do and how well they do it. Overreliance on this one measure alone can misrepresent or even stigmatize otherwise effective schools. My colleague Anil Nathan and I have used a range of data collected in Massachusetts to develop a more comprehensive picture of school effectiveness. We aim to offer better tools to reformers working to improve schools and make them more accountable – and provide parents better information as they make enrollment decisions for their children. (more…)

The Prison Boom and the Increased Risk of Homelessness for Black Children in the United States

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Not long ago, accounts of homeless people in America focused on single white men, who indeed made up the majority of those without a sure place to live. A skid row lifestyle, drug and alcohol abuse, mental health problems, and a lack of social ties to people not themselves homeless—these were the realities for homeless white men. But homelessness in America took an unexpected turn starting in the 1980s, when the share of women and children on the streets began to grow.

By now, the United States has unthinkably high numbers of homeless children. Roughly two of every hundred American children find themselves without a home in any given year. Rates of child homelessness are higher in cities, and black children are especially at risk. In New York City, for example, black children are up to 35 times more likely than white youngsters to have lived in a homeless shelter at some point during the last year. (more…)