Temporary Assistance for Needy Families' logo.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families’ logo.

As the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act marks its twentieth anniversary, researchers are still exploring the impact of this law, called “welfare reform.” Although this law’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program helps some groups of poor people, it leaves others without any stable cash support. One group seriously at risk consists of low-income single mothers with children who end up with no incomes from either welfare or paid jobs. Researchers call them “economically disconnected.”

Why Should We Care?

Low-income mothers and children who have have no documented cash income of their own may be eligible for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, yet many do not get those benefits. This is a cause concern, because families suffer when they have no cash at all. And we can also ask whether these programs are sufficiently accessible to those in most need. Available data show that “take-up rates,” that is, use of benefits, fell to about 30 percent in 2009 for eligible families. In 1990, moreover, studies found that about ten percent of low-income women subsisted without any cash; but the proportion rose to more than 20 percent by 2010.

Such “disconnected mothers” with little or no income are among America’s most economically vulnerable people. They are more likely than other low-income single mothers to live in public housing as opposed to apartments, and they experience severe hardships, sometimes even going without food. Prior studies have identified a number of reasons why certain poor women become so cut off from both work and public cash assistance. Many find it hard to get or keep jobs, because they lack childcare or transportation, or because they have to care for an ill family member. Many of these women also suffer physical and mental health problems that prevent them from working; or they have few opportunities due to limited work experience, learning disabilities, and low levels of educational attainment. more...

Robert Templeton Drawings and sketches related to the trial of Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, New Haven, Connecticut.. 1971. Bibliographic Record Number: 2026728 Call Number: JWJ MSS 33
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Record #2026728.

Since the late 1980s, a new type of “special court” has emerged in the United States. These are problem solving courts that aim to provide treatment instead of punishment – attempting to reduce future contacts with the criminal justice system. Drug courts were the first type to emerge and have proliferated by the thousands over the last three decades. In turn, the drug court model spawned a variety of specialty courts focused on other issues, including problems of mental health and domestic violence and the challenges faced by military veterans. As these new specialty courts have spread across the country, researchers have investigated their effectiveness and probed to see why many offenders seem to do well in such programs. Here I summarize what has been learned so far.

How Specialty Courts Operate

Each specialty court provides programming that is designed to address underlying issues that bring groups of offenders to court in the first place. Drug courts, for example, offer services that support sobriety, such as individual and group counseling and twelve-step programs. They also require participants to appear for frequent drug tests. Mental health courts provide access to a psychiatrist and to psychotropic medication as well as to individual and group counseling. Where needed, specialty courts attempt to connect offenders to additional services such as help with housing and education as well as training for employment. more...

The state of state restrictions, 2014. © David Freyermuth, TheManeater.com. Click for original. http://www.themaneater.com/stories/2014/3/12/missouri-general-assembly-bills-push-abortion-rest/
The state of state restrictions in March 2014. © David Freyermuth, TheManeater.com. Click for original.

State laws limiting funding for abortion and requiring additional steps for women seeking abortion have been enacted for almost four decades, but more new restrictions were put in place between 2011 and 2013 than in the entire previous decade. At times, new enactments add new restrictions on top of older ones, such as lengthening the time periods in laws that require delays for women seeking abortions from 24 hours to 48 or 72 hours. Laws of this sort not only mandate that women seeking abortions must wait after hearing state-mandated information, they often require the information to be delivered in person rather than over the phone, so women have to make two visits. As of February 2016, 27 states mandated waiting periods, four of them with a 72 hour delay; and 13 states had rules that necessitated two visits.

Research on Utah’s 72-hour Waiting Period

Arguments rage about these laws. Advocates in support of them maintain that waiting periods are necessary to ensure that abortion providers will give women the time and opportunity to change their minds, while others argue that the logistical difficulties caused by waiting periods and two-visit requirements may prevent women from having abortions they want. Who is right? So far, researchers have not developed sound evidence about women’s actual experiences with these laws.

To help address this research shortfall, we, along with colleagues, have studied Utah’s 72-hour waiting period law, which in 2012 became the first 72-hour mandate to go into effect. Our study recruited 500 women who came for the required first abortion information visit at four family planning facilities in the state. Women completed iPad surveys before receiving the state-mandated information and any abortion counseling the facility routinely provided. Three weeks later, the women completed telephone follow-up interviews. more...

Most of what we know about Title IX compliance and non-compliance comes from press accounts, not scholarly research.
Most of what we know about Title IX compliance and non-compliance comes not from scholarly researchers, but from press reports and data collected by the Office of Civil Rights.

Title IX, the U.S. civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, is one of the most significant steps toward gender equality in the last century. By requiring schools to provide equal opportunities regardless of sex, the law intervenes to ameliorate disparities at the institutional level. President Obama concisely summarizes Title IX’s importance: “From addressing inequality in math and science education to preventing sexual assault on campus to fairly funding athletic programs, Title IX ensures equality for our young people in every aspect of their education.”

Despite the law’s importance – as well as the fact that it has been on the books for over 40 years – we have insufficient information about patterns of alleged violations and ultimate dispositions. Existing research has tracked the changing scope of the law and its overall effects on higher education. For example, how have issues like peer harassment come to be defined as forms of discrimination subject to Title IX enforcement? And how has Title IX affected the U.S. educational system and student experiences – for example, by creating new athletic opportunities for women, fostering gender parity in science and math programs, and mandating that colleges and universities set up procedures for handling sexual harassment allegations? more...

Shoppers at North Bonneville, WA's "Cannabis Corner," a municipally-owned retail marijuana shop. Image via TheCannabisCorner.org.
Shoppers at North Bonneville, WA’s “Cannabis Corner,” a municipally-owned retail marijuana shop. Image via TheCannabisCorner.org.

Don Stevens is the mayor of North Bonneville, Washington, a town of about 1,000 people on the banks of the Columbia River near the Oregon border. Using authority granted by a state statute, Stevens established a retail marijuana outlet owned and operated by the town. He wears a shirt that says “Reefer Madness is not a documentary,” and his business cards list his job title as “The Marijuana Mayor.” Stevens thinks North Bonneville’s outlet is the only one of its kind in the country, but that is likely to be only temporarily true. North Bonneville’s initiative is part of a broader movement to legalize marijuana, regulate its distribution, and reap benefits for governments.

The Spread of Marijuana Legalization

As of January 2016, the states of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska had authorized the sale and consumption of social marijuana. Twenty-three other states permitted use of marijuana for medical purposes. Governments benefit, not just by reducing crime but also from new revenues. According to the Washington Post, Colorado expected revenues of over a billion dollars in 2016. The realities of economic competition suggest that legal marijuana eventually will become as commonplace as alcohol.

Legalization also makes sense as good public policy. In his 2016 state of the state speech, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin proposed to allow the sale and possession of small amounts of marijuana. He acknowledged that drug addiction was a threat to Vermont’s social fabric and blamed pharmaceuticals such as OxyContin “which lit the match that ignited America’s opiate and heroin addiction crisis.” But Shumlin argued that marijuana falls into a different category and “should be authorized and regulated by the state.” He asked lawmakers to cooperate with him to develop legislation “that thoughtfully and carefully eliminates the era of prohibition that is currently failing us so miserably.”

Outright prohibition fails because demand for marijuana distorts the economics of legal production. A January 2016 report from the Associated Press described the exportation of marijuana from Colorado to other states, noting the various creative methods used in this distribution, such as “the one in which authorities say 32 people used skydiving planes and posed as licensed medical marijuana caregivers and small business owners to export tens of thousands of pounds of pot grown in Denver warehouses, usually to Minnesota.” This operation made more than $12 million in four years according to criminal indictment, because profits follow the trail of illegality. As Governor Shumlin argues, legalization will reduce the economic incentives for marijuana smuggling. more...

torbakhopper, Flickr CC
torbakhopper, Flickr CC

The 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Fisher v. University of Texas, clarified when and how it is legally permissible for U.S. colleges and universities to use an applicant’s race or ethnicity for admissions decisions. According to the Court, an institution may only use race as an admissions criterion – engage in what has been called “affirmative action” for admissions – when “no workable race-neutral alternatives” would yield the same benefits of racial diversity. That is, affirmative action is only permissible when colleges and universities can prove that there are no other feasible methods for making admissions decisions that would achieve the same results.

In 2015, the Supreme Court decided to rehear the Fisher challenge. At the heart of the case now under consideration are the vaguely defined terms “workable” and “race-neutral.” Despite a lot of ambiguity about what the Court thinks those terms entail, universities have been tasked with the challenge of establishing alternative admissions methods that are both race-neutral in the eyes of the courts and workable to ensure a racially diverse student body. Is that possible? I conclude that currently fashionable alternatives to affirmative action – such as the use of non-racial characteristics of applicants as predictive proxies for race – have substantial limitations. Often, the alternatives are unworkable or raise important new legal or social concerns. more...

Back in October 2014, pollster Robert Jones pointed out that white evangelicals were declining as a percentage of the U.S. population, even in the South – which could have been bad news for Republicans who count on loyal support from white evangelical voters. Starting in November 2014, Jones predicted, evangelical population decline could start tipping close races to Democrats in Bible Belt states like Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. But Election Day on November 4th proved Jones wrong. White evangelicals turned out at high rates and played a major role in handing Republicans decisive victories in Senate races across the country. White evangelicals may be declining as a percentage of the population, but because they flock to the polls when Democratic constituencies often stay home, they still rule the midterms. more...

Photo by Sarah Goslee, Flickr CC https://flic.kr/p/drck21
Photo by Sarah Goslee, Flickr CC

Strict voter identification laws are proliferating all around the country. In 2006, only one U.S. state required identification to vote on Election Day. By now, 11 states have this requirement, and 34 states with more than half the nation’s population have some version of voter identification rules. With many states considering stricter laws and the courts actively evaluating the merits of voter identification requirements in a series of landmark cases, the actual consequences of these laws need to be pinned down. Do they distort election outcomes? more...

Photo by Ed Schipul, Flickr CC. https://flic.kr/p/e3anpY
Photo by Ed Schipul, Flickr CC.

A very large number of Americans are held in jails and prisons – some 762 out of every 100,000 residents. Although the United States has only five percent of the world’s population, it holds one quarter of all the world’s prisoners. However, the social burdens occasioned by so much imprisonment are not borne equally by all segments of the American population. According to recent estimates, one of every 15 black men is held in jail or state or federal prison, compared to one of every 106 white males. This racial disparity has a big impact on the life fortunes of white and black men – contributing to gaps in many domains, ranging from jobs and family life to health and mortality.

But the social reverberations of mass incarceration do not stop with the prisoners themselves. The consequences can be even greater for children, family members, and associates attached to those who are imprisoned. A burgeoning research literature suggests that having a family member sent to prison damages the mental and physical health of those left at home. The imprisonment of a family member means one less person to contribute to household support, increasing stress and making everyone less economically secure.

Although researchers have documented these indirect social impacts from imprisonment, they have been unable before now to estimate how many adult women and men are connected to an inmate – and therefore, have not been able to specify the scope of negative consequences faced by people tied to America’s prisoners. Now, for the first time, data from the 2006 General Social Survey make it possible to estimate the reach and wider social impact of the U.S. prison system. We use this data and build on previous studies to explore the impact of imprisonment on the family members and associates of black and white prisoners. more...

Wind farm arguments can generate a lot of hot air. Photo by Charles Carper, Flickr CC. https://flic.kr/p/efdEkv
Wind farm arguments can generate a lot of hot air. Photo by Charles Carper, Flickr CC.

Climate policy advocates want to increase public support for renewable energy. Because renewable energy is a low-carbon source, substituting it for coal in electricity generation can help reduce carbon emissions in the United States. This approach gains credibility with experts and advocates as the cost of renewable electricity generation declines and renewable portfolio standards spread in U.S. states. Following President Obama’s August 2015 announcement of his Clean Power Plan, the various U.S. states gain important responsibilities for planning and implementation. We can expect to see more campaigns in the states to boost the use of renewable energy in the American power sector. In Paris, recently, the United States pledged to lower carbon emissions, and public support will be needed to make sure this promises is actually met.

Advocates frame renewable energy in ways they hope will appeal to the broader public, calling it a home-grown source that avoids pollution and never runs out. Wind and solar power are touted as clean and abundant resources that can help make America “energy independent” and create “green jobs.” As the Natural Resources Defense Council puts in on its website, this kind of electricity “comes from natural sources that are constantly and sustainably replenished. The technologies featured here will make our families healthier, more secure, and more prosperous by improving our air quality, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, curbing global warming, adding good jobs to the economy and – when they’re properly sited – protecting environmental values such as habitat and water quality.”

Such positive arguments are not the end of it, however, because opponents of electricity generation from renewable sources are bound to have their say in a democratic setting. Opponents warn the public that using renewable sources will increase electricity prices make supplies unreliable, because the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. Conservative consultant Rupert Darwall declared in The Wall Street Journal that electricity generation from renewables “does not produce jobs, growth or prosperity.” more...