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.

Responding to the climate threat will take an all-hands-on-deck approach that combines policies at the national level with coordinated actions by state and local governments. To support climate policymaking, climate scientists create detailed models of climate change risks at the local level. But fashioning publicly supported responses to climate threats is a major political challenge. As part of any effective response, state and local officials will need to interact with and represent the concerns of diverse constituencies. Policymaking will be shaped by public concerns about climate change, public understanding of the shifts in behavior necessary to manage the threat, and public support for different climate policy options.

To help understand citizen attitudes, we created the “Yale Climate Opinion Maps” – an interactive online tool supported by a peer-reviewed scientific article published in Nature Climate Change. Our online tool provides estimates of what Americans believe about climate change, their perceptions of climate risks and support for policy options, with breakdowns for all 50 states, 435 congressional districts, and 3,000+ counties in the United States.

Measuring Public Views

Recent years have brought a proliferation of polls that document national beliefs about climate change with a single number. For example, surveys indicate that 63% of Americans believe that global warming is happening. However, existing polls provide, at best, a limited view of the distribution and variation of opinions at the local scales relevant for many decision makers. Imagine we did a national survey of 2000 Americans that included 50 Americans from the state of Texas. Unfortunately, averaging the responses of these 50 Texans could not provide an accurate estimate of average climate beliefs in Texas – because the Texans who happened to be polled would usually not be a good representation of the range of views held by all Texans. Furthermore, for many smaller areas across the country, such as a rural county, there would not usually be a single respondent from that area in a national poll. more...

A newly naturalized citizen displays her certificate. U.S. Navy photo.
A newly naturalized citizen displays her certificate. U.S. Navy photo.

Current debates about immigration reform focus on whether or not there will be a “path to citizenship” for the eleven million undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States – and, if so, how long the road will be. Citizenship brings new rights and opportunities for individuals and families, and the country as a whole also has a stake in drawing into full citizenship both legal and undocumented newcomers. Otherwise America may face growing gaps in life chances among groups with different immigration and citizenship statuses. Across many decades of U.S. history, grants of citizenship, or refusals, have been used to incorporate masses of newcomers from Europe and exclude others, such as those from many Asian countries. Today, citizenship status has again become an axis of inequality that exacerbates other disparities grounded in class and race. Denying undocumented immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, opportunities to get on a path to citizenship is one obvious source of continuing inequality. In addition, my research shows that barriers to citizenship status also exist for many newcomers with legal permanent resident status – so-called “green card” holders. The difficulties these immigrants face magnify inequalities in American society as a whole.

Access to Citizenship for Legal Residents

Citizenship can, in principle, be obtained by immigrants who already have “green cards,” or documents that demonstrate their legal permanent status in the United States and meet a range of criteria. Access to permanent legal residency itself is restricted. Most commonly, immigrants obtain green cards through close relatives who are already citizens or permanent residents. Many others do so through employment or by claiming refugee status. Residents of countries that are relatively underrepresented in the United States may be able to win green cards in a lottery. Once they gain permanent legal resident status, most immigrants must wait five years to apply for citizenship – and they then must pay hefty fees, fill out detailed applications, and undergo interviews and testing by immigration officials, all before, finally, attending a swearing-in ceremony that makes their newly gained citizenship official. Some legal residents have a slightly easier path. Those married to U.S. citizens wait three years instead of five, and members of the military may currently apply when they enlist. In response to anti-immigrant measures at national, state, and local levels, applications for citizen status have increased in recent years. Nevertheless, fewer than half of immigrants in the U.S. have become citizens, and the U.S. take-up rate is much lower than rates in sister immigration destinations such as Canada and Australia.

Who Gains Citizenship?

Commentators noting the low uptake of U.S. citizenship have raised concerns about the loyalty of new immigrants and difficulties in the naturalization process. In addition, uneven citizenship intersects with and exacerbates other dimensions of inequality in American society. In a study of data from the U.S. Census, I found that immigrants with less than high school education are increasingly less likely to be citizens compared to more educated immigrants. In 1970, the level of education did not make much difference for whether immigrants had become citizens, but by 2000 a large education gap had appeared. Immigrants with higher levels of income are also more likely to gain citizenship. In short, during an era when inequality has grown overall in the United States, citizenship status is being attained much more unequally by more and less privileged legal residents.

Racial disparities are also growing. Hispanic immigrants, whether black or white, have the lowest levels of citizenship, while non-Hispanic blacks and whites, as well as Asians, all gain citizenship at about average rates. This finding cannot be explained away by the higher representation of Hispanic immigrants among the undocumented, who are not eligible for citizenship; even among legal Hispanic permanent residents, the uptake of citizenship for the largest group, Mexicans, is low. By countries of origin, the lowest proportions gaining citizenship are found among Guatemalan, Mexican, and Salvadoran immigrants, and the highest proportions occur among immigrants from Vietnam and the Philippines.

Why Uneven Access to Citizenship Matters

It is unfortunate that access to citizenship is increasingly paralleling other disparities in U.S. society, because citizenship status promises access to the full civil liberties and rights, making immigrants almost equal to native-born Americans. The right to vote and to run for most political offices is reserved for citizens. For individual immigrants, citizenship expands job opportunities across the economic spectrum – opening posts ranging from state-licensed cosmetician to police officer and making it possible to compete for government fellowships, grants, and contracts. Citizenship also allows newcomers to bring other family members through reunification rules, and eases connections between the United States and immigrant countries of origin. For the immigrants who may fall on hard times, citizenship status improves access to welfare benefits. Perhaps most important, citizenship provides a sense of security and permanency by fully protecting immigrants from threats of deportation.

Citizenship benefits not only newcomers and their families, but also communities and the nation as a whole. For example, because Hispanics are often not citizens, this minority group, now the largest in the United States, has much less political clout than its sheer numbers might suggest. Although legal resident noncitizens can and do engage in political activity, their inability to vote and run for office reduces their political efficacy; and along with undocumented immigrants, they are at risk for deportation. The estimated twenty-two million noncitizen immigrants add up to a troubling indicator for the health of American democracy, because these people live, work, raise families, and contribute to their communities, but are excluded from the innermost circle of membership in the nation. Hundreds of thousands of legal resident immigrants become eligible to apply for citizenship every year. And comprehensive immigration reform, if Congress acts, it could put many currently undocumented on the path to citizenship in the future. Everyone who cares about reducing socioeconomic and racial inequalities in the United States should want to address inequalities in citizenship acquisition by legal residents and support full access to citizenship for the undocumented.

Sofya Aptekar is in the sociology department at UMass–Boston. She is the author of The Road to Citizenship: What Naturalization Means for Immigrants and the United States.

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