How Better U.S. Food Policies Could Foster Improved Health, Safer Jobs, and a More Sustainable Environment

Image from Niall Kennedy via Flickr Creative Commons

U.S. efforts to ensure safe and healthy food are falling short. Even as more than 49 million Americans lack access to adequate nutrition, corporations are aggressively marketing unhealthy foods that contribute to epidemics of diet-related diseases. Many of the 30 million workers in the food industry face unsafe conditions and do not earn enough to support themselves and their families. The production and transport of food often spurs pollution and global warming.

In classic economic theory, when markets fail to meet human needs, government steps in to protect the public. Today’s U.S. public food programs and regulations amount to an incoherent and ineffective jumble – but fixing them could contribute to a healthier, more prosperous and sustainable American food economy. (more…)

$2-A-Day Poverty in the United States

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Is it possible for people to live on $2 a day? This is a question most think applies to bygone centuries or impoverished Third World nations. But it turns out to matter for the 21st century United States as well. The U.S. welfare reform enacted in 1996 ended rights to cash assistance for poor families with children. Instead, welfare in America now gives cash assistance for a limited time only. Able-bodied people who apply for welfare must quickly try to find paid employment and participate in activities directly related to preparing for work. In the new system, extra benefits and tax credits go to low-income people with jobs. But what happens to those who cannot find employment – especially during prolonged periods of joblessness like the aftermath of the recent Great Recession?

To find out, we used data from the U.S. Census Bureau from 1996 to 2011 to study U.S. households with children getting by with a daily income of $2 or less, per person – adapting the poverty indicator used across the globe by the World Bank. (more…)

Why America’s Food is Still Not Safe

Image from Jasmine via Flickr Creative Commons

Each year, 48 million Americans suffer from illnesses caused by dangerous microbial pathogens lurking in the food they eat. For most people, food poisoning just leads to temporary stomach aches or diarrhea. But the effects can be much more serious. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 125,000 Americans are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from pathogens in our food. Estimates of the cost of food borne illness exceed $75 billion a year – taking into account the cost of health care and lost time on the job for people who get sick. The actual suffering and economic cost could be much greater, because many incidents of mild illness caused by tainted food go unreported.

That eating dinner can result in disability or death comes as a shock to most Americans. Most of us believe that the United States fixed these problems more than a century ago, after Upton Sinclair’s famous book, The Jungle, revealed the ghastly facts about unsafe methods of commercial food processing for a mass market economy. But in fact, the rules and regulations we assume will protect us are inadequate. Duplication and gaps in government responsibilities leave Americans highly vulnerable to a variety of risks from industrial food production. (more…)

Forward or Back on Voting Rights? A Research Compendium

I Voted Photo courtesy Letta Page

Photo courtesy Letta Page.

A Scholars Strategy Network Scholar Spotlight.

In a democracy, the equal right to vote should be sacrosanct, but across the country many states are throwing up new obstacles to voting.

SSN experts probe why this is happening – and explain how constructive reforms could enlarge voter participation and insure the integrity of U.S. elections

In 2013, in Shelby v. Holder, a divided Supreme Court invalidated a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had required states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to seek federal approval before making changes to their voting rules. Given a free hand, Texas, Mississippi, North Carolina and other states jumped to pass new rules that have the effect of making it harder for many minority and low-income citizens to vote. The impact will be felt immediately in those states, but the issue matters to Americans everywhere. As Yale University’s Marcus Anthony Hunter explained in the Washington Post on Martin Luther King Day, “Voter Suppression is a Threat to All.”

A CONVENIENT UNTRUTH

Fraud by individual voters in the modern United States is vanishingly rare, so the claim that new voter restrictions are necessary to combat such fraud does not hold water. Yet just because an idea is demonstrably false does not mean that it cannot powerfully shape public policy. New SSN briefs unravel what is really going on.

The Misleading Myth of Voter Fraud in American Elections
Lorraine C. Minnite, Rutgers University-Camden

A review of thousands of prosecutors’ records and media reports shows that the average American is more likely to be hit by lightning than to commit individual fraud at the polls.

Convincing Evidence that States Aim to Suppress Minority Voting 
Keith Gunnar Bentele and Erin O’Brien, University of Massachusetts Boston 

New voter restrictions are most likely in Republican-controlled states where growing groups of African American and Latino voters are turning out to vote in increasing numbers. (more…)

How To Increase Voter Turnout in Communities Where People Have Not Usually Participated in Elections

Mobilizing Inclusion Cover

Voter turnout among members of different groups of Americans varies widely, with Latinos and Asians generally lagging behind other groups. Blacks usually fall in between, with turnout usually ahead of other minorities but behind whites—although black participation surged in 2008 and 2012 in response to the historic candidacy of Barack Obama. Additional segments of the American public also vote less than they might, including lower-income citizens and youth.

Low levels of voting matter, because election results are supposed to reflect the preferences of all Americans. In addition, recent trends indicate that Latinos, if they vote at their full potential, have considerable capacity to influence election outcomes, increasingly at the national as well as state and local level. Getting out the Latino vote was a crucial part of the Obama 2012 reelection strategy, and activists striving to boost Democratic Party prospects in Texas are spending tens of millions of dollars registering eligible Latinos. Understanding how to motivate voting by Latinos and other under-engaged citizens is thus of concern to candidates and parties as well as scholars.

How Can Reluctant Voters Be Mobilized?

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To Understand Elective Officeholding by Minorities, Look at Who Runs for Election, Not Just Who Wins

In 2011, @kissmei'mpolish created a graphic to compare the overall US demographics (in the outer arc) with the demographics of the House (middle ring) and Senate (inner ring). Click to see more on Graphic Sociology.

In some ways, the United States has made great progress toward including men and women from minority backgrounds in elective offices. A black president sits in the White House; the 113th Congress includes two Asian American and two Latino Senators along with 44 black and 30 Latino members of the House. More than one thousand minorities sit in state legislatures, 13 percent of the total; and the ranks of black and Latino mayors have also swelled. Yet despite this progress, gains for minorities in U.S. elective offices have failed to keep up with the presence of racial and ethnic minorities in the national population—and the shortfall is growing.

What explains this gap in representation? Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, social scientists have investigated minority underrepresentation from a demand perspective—that is, they have asked how the attitudes and behaviors of voters influence the chances of minority candidates to win elections and take office. However, minorities cannot win elections if they do not run, so my research also focuses on the prior, critical issue of the supply of minority candidates. To what degree is representational imbalance due to too few minority contenders? (more…)

Why Jobless Americans Experience Deep and Prolonged Distress

Photo by David Shankbone via Flickr

Many American workers have not yet regained their footing in the aftermath of the Great Recession, yet unemployment insurance has become politically controversial even though jobs are still scarce. Critics claim that America’s unemployment insurance program “subsidizes leisure” by “paying people not to work.” Some critics have lampooned extended unemployment benefits for supposedly turning “our social safety net into a hammock.” Congressional Republicans deferred to such criticisms in January, 2014, when they blocked the sort of renewal of long-term unemployment aid that has been traditional after previous severe economic downturns. As a result, roughly one million of the long-term unemployed saw their benefits abruptly cut off.

How much truth is there in these criticisms of unemployment benefits? By easing the financial harm of job loss, does unemployment insurance actually undermine people’s desire to find work? Does it make work less attractive or encourage the jobless to enjoy their added “leisure” time?

To address these questions, I used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to track thousands of people over time as many experience events that change their life circumstances—not just job loss, but other disruptions such as changes in income, giving up their house, suffering a debilitating illness or injury, having a child, and watching children leave the family nest. What comes through loud and clear in my study is that job loss is a severely disruptive occurrence that proves psychologically devastating to many people who experience it. The effects can also persist long after formerly unemployed people find new jobs. (more…)

Why Taming Corporation Promotion of Dangerous Consumer Products Is Vital to improving Public Health

Image from Robert VerBruggen via Flickr Creative Commons

Chronic diseases and injuries are the leading causes of premature death and preventable illnesses in the United States and around the world. Injuries cause many unnecessary deaths among young adults and children. Traffic crashes hurt 50 million worldwide each year, and firearms and alcohol are also leading threats. Meanwhile, half of all Americans suffer from chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer that account for seven out of every ten deaths and eat up three-quarters of health care dollars. By 2030, chronic diseases will cause more than three quarters of deaths worldwide, costing some $47 trillion over the next two decades.

Conventional wisdom attributes the growth of injuries and chronic illnesses to seemingly inevitable causes such as population aging and changing lifestyles. Such forces are at work, of course, but it is the task of public health scientists like me to probe more deeply.

A closer look reveals that many unnecessary injuries and chronic health problems are spurred by what might be dubbed the “corporate consumption complex” – a network of consumer products companies, financial institutions, trade associations, and public relations firms that deliberately urges people to buy unhealthy foods and unsafe products. In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned that the military industrial complex posed a danger to our democracy and well-being. Today, the consumption complex constitutes a similarly grave threat. (more…)

How Discrimination Hurts Health and Personal Wellbeing

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Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the United States has used the force of nationwide law to prohibit discriminatory treatment in the job and housing markets, in government and educational institutions, and at stores and facilities serving the general public. Many legally proscribed forms of exclusion and ill treatment are directed against people because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, age, and disability status. To this day, efforts continue to extend protections to additional groups, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

Core American values of fairness and equality inspire nondiscrimination measures, but there is also an important health rationale. Research has repeatedly confirmed what common sense suggests: when people are subjected to discriminatory acts ranging from subtle putdowns to outright harassment or exclusion from opportunities, their personal wellbeing suffers. Discrimination contributes to health inequalities – and fighting bias can reduce them.

The Harmful Effects of Discrimination

Discrimination typically refers to unfair treatment of people on the basis of social identities defined by race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion. Many Americans report facing discrimination that constrains their livelihood – for example, when they are unfairly fired or denied a job or promotion, when they are denied a bank loan or medical treatment, or when they are discouraged by a teacher from pursing further education. Banned by law, such blatant forms of discrimination also affect victims’ health by depriving them of jobs, medical treatments, and other benefits and opportunities that keep them out of poverty and open doors of opportunity. (more…)

Race and Penalties at the Frontlines of Welfare Reform

Photo by Justin Garner via Flickr.com CC

In 1996, the United States fundamentally changed the rules of welfare for the very poor. Instead of giving cash benefits to poor mothers, the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program emphasized moving recipients quickly into the paid labor force, no matter how low the wages. The federal government gives states funds to support public assistance, but in return for temporary assistance and very limited services, clients must prove they are completing work activities and looking for employment. The new approach assumes that poor people mismanage their lives and need to develop greater self-discipline to become self-sufficient. Front-line administrators set clear behavioral expectations, monitor compliance, and use incentives to encourage compliance. When rules and incentives do not work, case-workers must apply penalties – up to and including the termination of aid altogether.

Today as in the past a high proportion of welfare clients come from racial minorities. In the tough new U.S. system, how do front-line welfare administrators decide which clients should be sanctioned for misbehavior? My colleagues and I have done research to nail down the answers. (more…)