Originally published Jan. 13, 2015

A few decades ago, going to college seemed to be the surest route to the American dream, a path to greater opportunity for most young people. Yet today the U.S. system of higher education is evolving into a caste system with separate and unequal tiers. To be sure, more students from all backgrounds attend college and graduate with valuable degrees. But far too many from low-income and middle-class families depart early with no degrees and crippling levels of student debt. U.S. higher education as a whole is increasingly reinforcing rather than reducing class differences—and federal and state government policies need to change course. 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.

Originally published July 26, 2015

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.

Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr
Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

Originally published in June 2013.

Immigration – and public policies to manage it – arouses strong emotions and fierce social and political battles, not just in the United States but in most other countries across the world. Why is this true? Each nation has its own issues that inspire or enrage, of course, but there are widespread, underlying patterns that can be identified and taken into consideration by reformers.

Reformers trying to facilitate immigration are often locked in battles with groups that want to place limits on international migration. Combatants start from very different world views – not only emphasizing different values but almost speaking different languages. To avoid destructive backlashes, reformers must understand and respect the values and perspectives of all groups involved in public debates, as we can see from a closer look at the United States. more...

Originally published June 17, 2014

Many municipalities across the United States have taken measures to keep homeless people and panhandlers out of sight in public spaces. Legislators and government officials justify such steps as necessary to protect the public against unsafe or provocative conduct by “street people.” But some previous studies suggest that many Americans who have frequent interactions with street beggars see them in more benign and nuanced ways. To learn more, I did interviews and collected questionnaire responses from passers-by who recounted their reactions to recent interactions with beggars. My methods allowed me to tap the meanings these interactions hold for people who pass beggars on the street – meanings not usually captured in quantitative studies. more...

Originally posted August 4, 2014

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?


Originally published March 17, 2015

Media stories about measles outbreaks in California and Arizona have featured prominent politicians weighing in with conflicting messages. Should vaccination be required for all children with few exceptions? Are vaccines safe? Should parents have a choice – when refusing vaccines can put their own and other people’s children at grave risk? The stories are dramatic, but scholars and public officials warn that it is dangerous to turn vaccination into a political football. Other widely publicized controversies reveal that the insertion of politics into media coverage can be hard to reverse, as it may undermine public trust in doctors and public health officials.

Political Controversy Sticks

Our research examines two recent politically charged health controversies – the 2009 dust-up over mammography screening guidelines and the 2006-2007 debate over whether middle schools should require girls to get vaccinated against infections by the human papillomavirus (“HPV” for short). Specifically, we found that local and national media coverage did not start with a focus on political controversy. But once news stories started to highlight partisan arguments among political leaders, political controversies became the focus of subsequent coverage. more...

Planned Parenthood's Spanish-language website.
Planned Parenthood’s Spanish-language website.

Originally posted June 29, 2016

In early September 2015, Blanca Borrego, an undocumented Latina immigrant accompanied by her two daughters, arrived at a women’s health clinic in Texas for a routine gynecological exam. Sitting in the waiting room for nearly two hours, Blanca’s anxiety and impatience grew to the point where she almost walked out of the office. Eventually, Blanca was met by local law enforcement officials who escorted her out of the clinic in handcuffs for allegedly using a forged driver’s license during patient intake. Blanca’s eight-year-old daughter watched in tears while her mother was taken away and a deputy told Blanca’s eldest daughter that their mother would face deportation. Blanca remains in county jail on a $35,000 bond.

Scenarios like Blanca’s – highlighting the impact of race, class, and immigration status on reproductive rights – are not always brought to the fore. Although reproductive rights activists say they advocate for all women, difficulties faced by white, middle-class, heterosexual women get more attention than those experienced by women of color, immigrant or transgender women, or those with disabilities. However, a movement for reproductive justice has emerged by and for women of color that offers new possibilities to bring previously neglected issues to light. Key challenges include tackling the reproductive experiences of Latinas – and looking for ways to do more to address their needs in reproductive health care and policy.

Latina Realities

Understanding Latinas’ reproductive lives requires understanding how many forms of disadvantage intersect and create reinforcing disadvantages. more...

Photo by Jamison Wieser, Flickr CC. https://flic.kr/p/65rTBv
Photo by Jamison Wieser, Flickr CC.

Originally published February 16, 2016

In June of 2015, the United States Supreme Court answered a question affecting millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans—by declaring that the right of same-sex couples to marry is protected under the U.S. Constitution and no state may deny that right. Like many previous issues, the gay marriage issue has polarized American public opinion, and so there is the same possibility that a Court decision for minority rights could lead to widespread backlash and outright refusals to obey. That is what happened following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing racial segregation in schools and in the aftermath of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision establishing abortion rights. In many states and localities, we can assume that the current Supreme Court ruling for gay marriage may also spark pushback from politicians, religious organizations, and interest groups. This brief draws on theories about backlashes to Supreme Court rulings to suggest how movements for minority rights can respond. more...

Image from Graham Lees via Flickr Creative Commons
Image from Graham Lees
via Flickr Creative Commons

Originally published February 25, 2016

Most politicians and journalists discuss immigration laws and reforms – everything from comprehensive immigration reform to border fences – in ways that imply only individual immigrants are affected. But immigration laws that claim to target individuals in certain statuses – such as undocumented individuals – regularly have broader social consequences for families, neighborhoods, and work groups where, of course, immigrants and citizens are intertwined in daily life. This intermingling of citizens and immigrants is visible in all corners of American life, from university campuses to fast food restaurants and neighborhood parks. Immigration laws, especially punitive laws, affect those settings when co-workers and neighbors are deported or withdraw from social life in an attempt to avoid detection.

Nowhere are the reverberations of punitive immigration laws and policies more strongly felt than in family homes with immigrant parents, spouses, or children. Because families so often include people of different legal statuses, mixed-citizenship families provide a unique lens through which to study the true reach of laws regulating both citizenship and non-citizenship. Through these families’ experiences, we see the spectrum of immigration laws’ effects on families and communities. My research on mixed-citizenship couples allows me to explore the full range of direct and indirect effects of laws that appear to target only non-citizen immigrants but actually affect many citizens at the same time. more...

Demonstrations about abortion were front and center at the Texas State Capitol in 2013. Ann Harkness//Flickr CC.
Demonstrations about abortion were front and center at the Texas State Capitol in 2013. Ann Harkness//Flickr CC.

Originally published October 19, 2015

The American abortion debate features “pro-life” activists wielding pictures of fetuses and “pro-choice” advocates telling horror stories about women forced to travel for hundreds of miles to access safe abortions. The struggle seems an irresolvable moral conflict – and both sides claim to be “pro-women.” Pro-choice organizations advocate that abortion be kept legal and made increasingly accessible because women have the right to privacy in matters of reproduction. Pro-life groups argue that the acceptance of abortion unjustly pits women against their children.

My research takes stock of activists on both sides – and identifies those that focus not just on the moral aspects but also on the socioeconomic context of abortion. In fact, abortion is mainly an issue for less privileged women, and if more pro-life and pro-choice groups recognized the economic realities, there would be possibilities for compromise.  more...