Americans live in an aging society. As the Baby Boomers born after World War II retire, older people will become a larger segment of the U.S. population for at least the next two decades. Demand for federally funded Social Security and Medicare benefits will grow, and all fifty states will also face big challenges meeting the needs of elders. Our research shows that some states will do better than others in providing attractions and supports that matter for America’s graying citizens – and women serving in state legislatures will often be leaders in devising public policies that further care for the elderly in ways that improve the quality as well as length of life.

Previous research has documented that female state legislators are more interested than their male counterparts in supporting education and other public programs that meet the needs of families with children. To be sure, research to date leaves much more to be learned about the conditions that translate a female legislative presence into extra support for families. Democratic Party control of legislatures may magnify women’s influence, and so may an active women’s movement in any given state.

In addition to asking how women’s presence in legislatures translates into more support for families, we should also wonder about the extent of female legislative support. Does women’s legislative impact extend to policies that aim to help elders as well as younger families with children? And, if so, do states with more women in their legislatures actually prove to be better places for older people to live and flourish? We have investigated these issues as part of a broader project comparing state-level public policies that help people at various stages of aging.

Women Legislators and Age-Friendly Policies

Of course, the needs and concerns of older people are not all the same, and they tend to change as aging proceeds. Relatively young retirees often look for more meaningful pursuits than those possible in earlier stages of their educational or occupational lives, whereas older retirees become more concerned about maintaining their health and having access to high quality medical care. The oldest people may need long-term care and thus be interested in both its accessibility and quality. Government support for home and community-based care is especially valued by feeble seniors who hope to stay out of nursing facilities. The needs and concerns of older people are constantly in flux.

Taking these varied priorities into account, we have identified and measured four key ways in which public policies in the fifty U.S. states make a difference for older residents – and we have checked to see if women in state legislatures tend to further each kind of public policy.

  • Do states offer meaningful life pursuits through volunteer opportunities and supportive communities?
  • Do states deliver quality health care for senior residents through Medicare-supported services from physicians and hospitals?
  • Do states make high-quality facilities for long-term care accessible and affordable through Medicaid (which is jointly governed and funded by states and the federal government)?
  • Do states adapt Medicaid to offer long-term care and services in the home and in community venues to aging residents who require extra daily help?

When we compare states according to how well they perform in these areas, legislatures with proportionally more women do make a difference, it turns out. For three of these four varying kinds of state efforts, we found that, as the proportion of state legislative seats held by women increases, so too does state support for age-friendly policies. In one policy realm, however, a greater female presence is associated with a less age-friendly outcome: states with more women in their legislatures are less likely to support accessible, high quality nursing home facilities funded by Medicaid. But this downside goes hand in hand with what might be considered an upside in the eyes of many older Americans, because states that do less to foster nursing facilities tend to support home and community-based forms of long-term care. Many seniors want non-institutional kinds of care, so it may well be that women legislators are more in tune with the preferences of their states’ older residents than are their male counterparts.

Age-Friendly Policies Make a Real Difference

Hip hip hooray for women legislators! Photo by Salvation Army USA West via
Hip hip hooray for women legislators! Photo by Salvation Army USA West via

In our comparisons of the U.S. states as sites for meaningful, healthy aging, we went beyond just tallying up different kinds of community facilities and public programs – to see if different policies add up to real-life differences for older people. In key respects, the answer is yes; different state policies do matter. States with strong community supports and volunteer opportunities do enhance the sense that life is meaningful for older residents, and good quality health care through Medicare is positively and strongly related to life expectancy. Healthier seniors live longer in states with good quality care. In addition, both accessible, good quality nursing facilities and community-based long-term care programs also lengthen lives and improve the quality of life for older men and women.

A clear bottom line thus emerges from our research exploring political, policy, and social patterns across the U.S. states. A stronger presence of women in state legislatures turns out to be good for older men and women. Just as female legislators weigh in on behalf of meeting the needs of families with children, they also appear more likely than male legislators to further policies that make a real difference in medical care and community support for senior residents. As the United States moves deeper into an era where support and care for older people will be an ever more central concern in society and public policy, the growing presence of elected female legislators will almost certainly help the United States face these issues and find family-friendly solutions. Toward the end of life as well as at its beginning and during the middle, women in office seem sensitive to the practical concerns of families and individuals in need of support. Across America, the states whose voters more often send women to serve in their legislatures are therefore likely to be the states best prepared to meet the growing challenges of an aging population.

Joanne Connor Green is in the political science department at Texas Christian University. She studies the role of gender in politics.

Charles Lockhart is in the political science department at Texas Christian University. He studies the differences of social programs across the United States.

“Welfare” as it now exists in the United States aims to provide a short-term safety net for very needy families with children and prepare adults to get jobs. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families law passed by Congress in 1996 said that cash assistance should be limited to no more than five years (sixty months) over a lifetime. But states were allowed some flexibility to extend this limit for up to one-fifth of their welfare recipients who face unusual problems.

Until last year, the state of Maine took advantage of this flexibility to provide extended help to less than 15% of its caseload. Some people could continue to get benefits if they complied with all welfare rules, including the rule about seeking or preparing for employment. But in 2011, the Maine legislature voted to make the sixty-month limit virtually absolute. Exceptions would be granted only if people were awarded a special hardship extension due to coping with disability, domestic violence, or the need to care for a disabled family member.

When the new law took effect in 2012, more than 2,000 Maine families were affected. About 44% requested hardship extensions, but only a quarter of all people scheduled for termination got the exception. Since January 1, 2012, more than 1,500 Maine families, including 2,700 children have lost cash benefits. Who are these families and what are their circumstances? To answer this question and consider whether welfare has adequate protections for the most vulnerable, I surveyed a sample of 54 Maine families whose benefits were stopped and did some additional in-depth personal interviews to probe people’s experiences more deeply.

What We Know about Families Who Need Long-Term Welfare Assistance

A 2010 study found that most families receiving welfare in Maine do so for a short time, typically about 18 months. People needing longer-term help usually had less than a high school education and were coping with personal ill-health or family disabilities. Those with less than a high school education, personal ill-health, or family disabilities often need longer-term help.

Findings from other states tell the same story. Research studies consistently show that a small subset of recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families require specialized assistance and ongoing support to be able to provide for their families, because they are grappling with one or more severe difficulties such as physical or mental health problems, caring for a disabled child, the aftermath of domestic violence, or educational deficits and learning disabilities.

The Lives of Impoverished Maine Families Who Lost Benefits

The families I surveyed for the Maine Time Limit Study look like those all across America who ask for more than temporary welfare assistance. More than two-fifths of the Maine respondents losing assistance in 2012 had less than a high school education; 39% reported they had a work-limiting disability, and 26% reported a child or other dependent with a disability.

After benefits were cut off, many of these respondents, including families with children, were left facing increasingly draconian circumstances.

  • Very low incomes. The typical (“median”) income of families losing assistance was $260 a month, or $3,120 a year – which equals only 16% of the federal poverty level.
  • Very low wages, if any. The average wage for the respondents who were working at the time they filled out the survey was $9 per hour.
  • Sometimes no money. About 40% had no income at all after losing cash assistance.
  • Barriers to finding or holding jobs. Survey respondents who were not working pointed to barriers ranging from personal health issues or the need to care for a disabled family member, to a lack of affordable childcare, inadequate skills for the available job opportunities, and the overall scarcity of jobs.
  • Photo by DrivingtheNortheast via
    Photo by DrivingtheNortheast via

    Disruptions in daily life. Nearly 70% of the terminated families reported that they had to go to a food bank after losing benefits; more than one in three lost a utility service, such as electricity. One in five reported being evicted from their home and having to relocate, often to overcrowded living conditions or to a homeless shelter.

Some findings in our study seemed surprising, given that Maine provides educational programs to welfare recipients and still allows very needy people to apply for hardship exceptions to the five-year limit. But such extra help had not reached many of the respondents I studied:

  • Three-quarters of those who said they needed more education to find a job did not have a high school diploma, yet only a handful had participated in an educational or training program sponsored by Maine’s welfare system.
  • One in four respondents said they did not understand they could apply for a hardship extension – and many of those who knew they could apply said that their caseworkers discouraged them from doing so.

What Should Be Done?

If welfare in Maine – and beyond – is to meet its core objectives of protecting families and enabling employment for people who can work, several new steps are clearly called for:

  • Improve assessment of health problems and family or educational barriers to employment, so that they can be addressed earlier, well before families hit the five-year limit.
  • Ensure more effective administration of applications for “hardship” extensions, so that people clearly qualified for such help do not fall through the cracks.
  • Make hardship extensions possible for welfare recipients who cannot find jobs – due to high unemployment in their area or because they lack a high school diploma, speak little English, or suffer a learning disability.

Sandra Butler is in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. She researches long-term financial security for women.

Appalling gang rapes in places ranging from New Delhi, India, to Steubenville, Ohio, ignite public outrage and raise concern about violence against women. The problem is persistent and widespread. In the United States, one in six women is sexually assaulted during her lifetime, and one in five experiences domestic violence at some point in her life. In Europe, women face a far higher risk from assaults than from cancer or terrorist acts. Facilitated by ideas positing female subordination, violence against girls and women violates human rights and harms children. It creates tremendous costs and inhibits economic and social progress for everyone.

The kinds of policies that can reduce violence against women are well known – but not all countries adopt them. What makes governments respond to the problem of violence against women? Why do some countries adopt policies earlier than others? To unravel the factors at work, our research probes developments in 70 countries between 1975 and 2005. We conclude that international norms and autonomous feminist organizational efforts are the keys to getting the problem of violence against women on the agenda and prodding governments to take action.

Policies That Work

We know how to stop violence against women. Experts, activists and more than 180 governments have agreed in principle on the most important steps that can be taken:

  • Instead of relying on general laws about murder or assault, adopt laws that name violence against women as a specific crime.
  • While prosecuting abusers, provide counseling, shelters, and other housing and legal assistance to help women recover from family abuse or leave abusive relationships.
  • To improve victims’ experiences with public agencies, provide special training and create units of police, social workers, judges, and other professionals dedicated to dealing with violence against women.
  • Educate the general public to raise awareness of the scourge of violence against women and spread knowledge of laws against such violence.
  • Make specific, extra efforts to help particularly vulnerable groups of women, such as immigrants, rural women, and women from disadvantaged racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The Role of International Norms and Autonomous Women’s Advocacy

Photo by DFID - UK Department for International Development via
Photo by DFID – UK Department for International Development via

Today, people across the globe see violence against women as a violation of human rights – but this is a relatively recent development. Combating violence was not always seen as central to women’s rights advocacy or human rights efforts. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 failed to mention violence against women, and when the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, it did not mention fighting violence against women as a priority for action. Today’s global consensus about this issue reflects the growing influence of feminist advocacy and ideas.

The key to change has been autonomous feminist mobilization in national and transnational settings. Research reveals that broad transformations – such as economic development, political democratization, or changing societal attitudes about gender roles – do not, in and of themselves, push the issue of violence against women to the fore. Women in high office do not suffice, and mixed-gender organizations such as political parties or government bureaucracies may not recognize this priority – unless feminist groups organize on their own to push for remedies.

Feminist organizations can promote international and regional agreements, conventions and declarations – such as the 1994 Inter-American Convention on Violence Against Women, and the 1995 Platform for Action adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Feminists have cooperated across national boundaries to create such conventions, which turn out to be helpful in shifting public opinion within many nations.

International treaties make the most difference when local activist organizations can invoke their provisions and push for relevant domestic measures. In many nations, women’s organizations have raised awareness about rights recognized by transnational treaties and invoked treaties to help train judges, police, and other officials. Pointing to international agreements can help activists mobilize support, alter the expectations of domestic actors, and lobby national legislatures to change discriminatory laws.

Lessons for the Future

Our work points to specific, practical lessons for policymakers, international development efforts and organizations hoping to combat violence against women. Governments must be prodded to recognize this problem and do more to reduce assaults against girls and women. Organizations and allies must be persistent in trying to influence policymakers.

  • Especially when regionally focused, international agreements can be important tools to advance women’s rights, but their effectiveness depends on actions by autonomous women’s groups operating within each nation and local context.
  • General-purpose, mixed-gender organizations usually will not do enough to advance women’s rights and safety. Of course, political parties, government agencies, and human rights organizations can be important allies, but real progress in combating violence and advancing specific rights for women depends on initiatives by autonomous civil society organizations devoted to such goals. Supporting and nurturing such feminist organizations is a critical mechanism for advancing women’s rights across the globe.

S. Laurel Weldon is in the political science department at Purdue University. She studies public policies and social movements with a focus on global women’s rights.

Mala Htun is in the political science department at the University of New Mexico. She studies states’ creation of gender, race, and ethnicity inequality.

The United States is among the world’s leaders in imprisoning its citizens – a dubious distinction. America’s prison population has grown more than fivefold since the early 1970s. Minorities have been disproportionately affected, with African Americans incarcerated almost six times as the rate for whites, and Hispanics at twice the white rate. In great detail, scholars have spelled out the negative social consequences of the prison boom. Ex-felons struggle economically and often cannot vote. Their communities lose political clout. Saddest of all, the families and innocent children of prisoners suffer diminished health and life chances.

But what caused rates of imprisonment to shoot upward in the first place? Explanations abound, yet many obscure as much as they reveal because they either ignore or minimize the consequences of crime. Americans of color are more likely to be incarcerated – and they are also more likely to be victims of violent crime. My research explores the political and policy consequences of the facts about victimization. How did people of color, specifically African Americans, respond to rising crime rates? What role did black politics play in the development of mass incarceration?

Looking Closely at Harlem

Photo by striatic via
Photo by striatic via

Numerous studies connect mass incarceration to drug policy, and many identify the passage of the Rockefeller drug laws in May 1973 as a critical watershed in the spread of punitive criminal justice policies and the turn toward imprisoning more felons for longer times. My research looks
more fully at the social realities behind the enactment of new drug laws. Rather than focusing on Albany, the New York state capital, I look closely at Harlem, an African American community that was hit hardest by rising rates of crime and drug addiction. Using a variety of primary sources, I track how African American activists framed and negotiated the rising drug problem in their neighborhoods and pushed for certain policy responses. The black middle class, I show, did a great deal to shape the tough criminal justice policies that ended up propelling mass incarceration in America.

The Black Middle Class Grapples with Drug Addiction

By the early 1960s, drug addiction had become a huge problem in African American communities. More than half of all registered drug addicts in the United States were African Americans, and half of those narcotics addicts lived in New York state, mostly in New York City – where the problem was concentrated in a few neighborhoods. A high number of drug-related deaths, mostly deaths of blacks, were reported from upper Manhattan, in and around Harlem.

As crime rates increased, working and middle-class African Americans became understandably alarmed. Drug addicts and dealers, they felt, were dangerous to “respectable” or “decent families,” threats to the hard-won gains and orderly lives of “hardworking, good citizens.” Rising concerns could not be ignored by African American community leaders and politicians. By the late 1960s, many started lobbying Governor Nelson Rockefeller and other white politicians for more aggressive police responses to the drug threat. They called for more punitive anti-drug policies to protect “decent” members of the community.

Results from a New York Times poll taken in late 1973, after the most controversial Rockefeller drug laws were enacted, show that support for punitive anti-crime measures was widespread within the African American community:

  • Blacks were the group most concerned about crime and drugs, and African Americans and Puerto Ricans were the respondents least likely to report that their neighborhoods were safe (or safer than other neighborhoods in New York City).
  • 71% of Blacks favored life sentences without parole for drug “pushers.”
  • Furthermore, methadone treatment and heroin maintenance for drug addicts were not very popular ideas. Fifty-five percent of New Yorkers opposed the placement of methadone centers for addicts in residential areas, including 53% of blacks.

Throughout the 1960s, African American mobilization against the drug threat had tilted the political environment in a more punitive direction. Nelson Rockefeller exploited the opportunity afforded by widespread citizen concerns to push for the punitive drug laws, looking in the process for ways to improve his political chances in the Republican race for the presidency.

A Full Solution to the Prison Boom

As my research shows, the prison boom that took off from the 1970s cannot be attributed entirely to conservative political elite strategies or white backlash against African American civil rights gains. Working and middle-class African Americans confronted real threats from drugs and crime in their neighborhoods, and their demands for greater safety greatly influenced the punitive turn in U.S. criminal justice policies. It follows that pulling back on get-tough, mass incarceration policies requires addressing the community and cultural conditions that facilitate drug abuse and related criminal problems. Prison reform and revisions in sentencing guidelines are certainly part of the solution to excessive rates of imprisonment in the United States. But a full solution to mass incarceration and its sad effects must also deal with the violence and fear that urban working and middle-class African Americans experience. Necessary steps include: The prison boom cannot be attributed solely to conservative politics or racial discrimination.

  • Reducing chronic joblessness of young men of color in American cities, a key cause of crime and crime-related problems.
  • Rebuilding the civic infrastructure of urban communities by bolstering religious organizations and civic associations that can cultivate healthy remedies for urban poverty.

Strategic politicians will always either address or exploit popular fears for political advantage. The only way to change incentives for politicians is to reduce and prevent crime in the most ravaged neighborhoods – so that citizens, including minorities, will not demand get-tough policies or support carting many miscreants off to prison.

Michael Javen Fortner is in the political science department at Rutgers University-Camden. He studies the relationship between political development and race, ethnicity, and social class.

Democracy comes in many different forms, because communities and nations can devise various rules to shape elections and the processes of government decision-making. The specific rules chosen matter a great deal – especially the rules adopted for voting and elections. After all, who gets to vote, how, and when determine citizen access in a democracy – and decisions about such matters influence the balance of power in government and what public officials are likely to decide about war and peace, taxes and the economy, education, and social benefits. The outcomes of fights over the rules for elections can determine who has a seat at the table of government at all, and whose interests will matter or be ignored.

Limiting Majority Rule

Political elites in America have always understood just how much institutional rules matter. At the time of the nation’s founding, for example, the leaders who wrote the U.S. Constitution wanted to protect elite prerogatives against the threat that popular majorities might quickly and radically redirect policies. They created the Senate to represent small and large states equally, and they instituted such arrangements as the Electoral College (where state delegations rather than citizen majorities vote for the president and vice president).

Photo by mrsdkrebs via
Photo by mrsdkrebs via

Beyond Constitutional provisions, election arrangements have been repeatedly used to reduce the influence of particular segments of the population. For example, America’s system of electing single representatives from each Congressional or legislative district was implemented to defeat nascent workers’ parties early in the 19th century. Those parties might have won enough votes to select one of several representatives in a district, but they usually could not get 51% of the votes. In addition, at the turn of the twentieth century, many U.S. cities consolidated power in the hands of unelected city managers and moved it away from elected city councils thought to be overly influenced by popular interests.

Modifications of election rules that pose obstacles to popular participation are still very much in the spotlight:

  • Controversy swirls around “felony disenfranchisement” rules used by states to limit the voting rights not just of convicted felons currently in prison, but also of ex-prisoners who have completed their sentences and parole terms.
  • Heavy-handed gerrymandering of the boundaries of election districts is another currently controversial practice, as parties holding office in the states following each Census look for ways to protect or advance their candidates by redrawing districts in fine-tuned and often highly-contorted ways.
  • Shifts in voter registration rules, early voting rules, and rules about the kinds of identification citizens must show to vote are all currently debated because such practices can restrict and reduce participation, perhaps to the benefit of certain candidates or parties.

The Challenge of Eliminating Anti-Democratic Arrangements

Could Americans just decide to rule out all manipulations of election rules that unfairly restrict citizen rights? That sounds good, but it would not be easy to achieve for several good reasons:

  • Institutional permutations are almost infinite. Scholars have shown that even small shifts in voting rules and decisions about district boundaries can have a significant impact on which groups gain leverage in government. This can be seen with something as simple as the decision to allow early voting. Maybe some groups are helped or hurt by the days chosen, but the effects are subtle and usually outweighed by the benefits of greater participation.
  • Particular rules are not usually inherently “undemocratic.” Even the practice of felony disenfranchisement, which may seem to be on the shakiest ground, can be justified in democratic theory. What makes this practice so contentious in the United States right now is that felony convictions have been disproportionately higher for certain minority groups.
  • The way institutions function is highly dependent on the context. A practice that excludes groups in one setting may help them to achieve their goals in another. For example, the use of referenda can help minority communities bypass intransigent legislatures; but referenda can also be used against minority communities who do not have the resources or organization to mount effective campaigns.

Steps We Can Take

Democracies must have institutional arrangements and rules in order to function at all – so our goal cannot be simply to de-regulate the electoral process. We must also accept that any form of regulation will have effects on who can participate and how easily. Our goal should be to eliminate repeated, systematic bias against particular groups of Americans – and the way to do that is to make information about electoral rules and processes widely available to citizens and watchdog organizations. We can’t just get rid of the electoral process, but we can educate each other on the rules of how it functions.

Census data, for example, are very important to decisions about electoral rules – these data help people understand the composition and needs of different communities and the implications of decisions about election rules. But census data can be expensive to obtain, and tools to analyze political implications are often not available or easy to use. Computer software to reveal the implications of alternative ways to draw election district lines has been developed in recent years, but most applications are costly and hard to use without highly specialized knowledge. We should find ways to make census data easy to use with accessible software – so that many groups could easily figure out the implications of redistricting choices.

Electoral institutions are inherently complex, allowing insiders and elites to manipulate the rules in their own interests. We cannot get rid of the complexity, but we can include more voices to improve the chances that rules will maximize rather than restrict citizen participation.

Amel Ahmed is in the Political Science department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She studies electoral systems and its effect on democratic outcomes.

Empathy refers to a person’s ability to understand the emotions of others and share in their feelings. Researchers in many fields have shown that empathy – or its absence – matters greatly in many aspects of social life. For example, empathetic people are more likely to have strong ties to family members and others with whom they regularly work or interact. And individuals capable of empathy have higher self-esteem and enjoy life more fully. The flip side is also true: people who have trouble empathizing with others tend to suffer from poorer mental health and have less fulfilling social relationships.

Researchers are showing that empathy also matters in crime and punishment, and recent findings suggest important steps that can be taken to reduce juvenile delinquency and improve relationships between communities and police.

How Empathy Matters

My associates and I have reviewed recent research and done some additional analyses to pin down what is currently known about empathy – and perceptions of empathy – in the realm of crime and justice. When other factors, like age, sex, race, education, and income are taken into account, empathy turns out to matter in several ways:

Photo by Aislinn Ritchie via
Photo by Aislinn Ritchie via
  • Empathetic people are less likely to engage in delinquency or crime. But those who have trouble perceiving how others feel, and have difficulty sharing those feelings, are more likely to engage in wrongful acts – everything from minorjuvenile delinquency to the most serious of violent crimes.
  • Empathy affects how people think about crime and punishment in complex ways. People capable of empathy tend to support tough punishments for crime, but at the same time they are less likely to call for the harshest punishments, such as the death penalty.
  • Empathy and perceptions of empathy help to shape the interactions of police and members of the communities they are assigned to protect. Research on citizen interactions with the police has consistently indicated that the way officers behave determines how they are evaluated by people with whom they interact. When we probe in detail, it turns out community members have more positive evaluations of the police when officers communicate that they understand the issues that matter to community members. Studies specifically show that the police are more likely to be trusted and considered effective at their jobs when they display empathy with the community’s concerns.

Researchers have more to learn about how empathy and perceptions of empathy help to shape crime and interactions between citizens and agents of the justice system. But enough is known already to help us make improvements. Policymakers, police and courts, and nonprofit and community groups are already taking useful steps toward these improvements – and more can be done in several key areas.

Preventing and Dealing with Juvenile Delinquency

Few social issues are more pressing than heading off misdeeds by children and teenagers that lead to trouble with police and courts – and can set young people off on the wrong paths in adult life. Empathy research shows that we can make real gains by paying careful attention to how people think, feel, and perceive others in their surroundings, including how young people learn to identify with others and show concern for their feelings.

  • Reaching children early with efforts to help them understand how others feel can reduce the likelihood of youthful wrongdoing. Schools, for example, can do role-playing exercises that ask children how the others feel about a mishap.
  • When delinquent acts do happen, part of the response should go beyond punishment (and efforts to separate the perpetrator from misbehaving peers) to include educating the delinquent about victims’ reactions and feelings.

The Emotions of Criminals and Victims

When punishment is exacted for crimes, research suggests that society’s responses should consider the emotional reactions of victims and offenders. Punishments certainly need to be perceived by all citizens as just and appropriate to particular crimes. But overly harsh punishments – such as the death penalty or overly long prison sentences for relatively minor offenses – may not actually reduce future crimes. Other approaches might achieve more good. Unlike the death penalty, restorative justice measures may prevent future crimes while letting the victims and offenders heal.

In addition to efforts to prevent deficits in empathy among children and young people, criminal justice authorities can also look for ways to have criminals provide restoration to victims. Restorative justice measures – such as required community service, or having perpetrators learn about and teach others about the sad effects of misdeeds on families, friends, and themselves – might help to prevent future crimes and build confidence and satisfaction about the criminal justice system. Certain kinds of restorative justice can also promote a sense of healing among those victimized by crimes.

Take Account of Empathy in Police Training

This is one of the most promising areas for improvements. Curricula for the training and retraining of police can provide officers with ways to be more effective and improve community reactions to their efforts. Training can include steps to help officers learn about and show empathy for the concerns of the specific communities and neighborhoods where they work. Likewise, training can show new officers how to display their understanding of community values and needs when they interact with citizens. Showing such empathy, we know, increases trust and confidence in the police. And when citizens have greater trust in the police during daily interactions, officers get more cooperation and find it easier to protect themselves along with the communities they serve.

Chad Posick is in the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University. He researches the roles of emotions and behavior in delinquency and criminal justice.

In its landmark 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the United States Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. But the Court also explained that, like all other constitutional rights, this “right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.” Courts have subsequently worked to specify which kinds of firearms are protected for which groups of people – and to determine under what circumstances guns can be regulated. As issues are parsed, one has been too little explored: the question of whether some kinds of places, such as cities, can do more than others to regulate guns.

This omission is unnecessary and unfortunate. The Second Amendment can and should incorporate the longstanding and sensible practice of regulating guns differently in rural and urban areas. Firearm localism would help us move forward from the current stalled debate.

Recognizing the Urban-Rural Divide about Guns

Although most Americans agree on many Second Amendments precepts, “pro-gun” and “anti-gun” sentiments are not evenly distributed throughout the country.

  • Rural areas are centers of both gun ownership and strong opposition to gun regulations. This is understandable, given that rural people enjoy hunting and other recreational gun uses. Such pursuits are primary reasons for gun ownership in rural areas, along with the desire of many people to have means of self-defense in sparsely populated areas where police take a long time to arrive.
  • Yet gun violence exacts high human costs in cities, and hunting and other recreational uses for guns are less in vogue in urban areas. City-dwellers are less than half as likely as rural residents to own a gun, and they are twice as likely to support stronger gun controls.

Anyone familiar with today’s gun control debate knows how difficult it has been to bridge the divergent values and perspectives of rural and urban residents. For many Americans, in fact, guns are not just a policy question; guns symbolize distinct cultural values and ways of life. This makes compromise – even reasoned argument – difficult to achieve, frustrating both sides.

Localizing Second Amendment Doctrine

Yet America’s geographic divide about guns suggests a better way forward. One of the great virtues of the U.S. political system, after all, is the

Photo by pocketwiley via
Photo by pocketwiley via

space it offers for local self-governance. Under American traditions of local rule, if people in Montana want to shoot elk with rifles, that should not prevent people in Manhattan from trying to keep residents from shooting each other with handguns. Manhattanites should be able to establish gun regulations to address their own local issues without weakening rural gun rights, either in Montana or in rural upstate New York.

Of course, just because something might make for sensible policy does not make it constitutional. From the perspective of the Second Amendment, we must ask not what kinds of gun control are desirable, but what kinds are permissible. In the wake of Heller, at least two approaches to the issue of permissibility have emerged:

  • The majority of the Supreme Court Justices ruling in Heller approved “longstanding prohibitions” such as the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, suggesting that well-established laws have a special claim to constitutionality. And no characteristic of gun control in America is more “longstanding” than the stricter regulation of guns in cities. At the time of the nation’s founding, major cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York heavily regulated firearms. Boston, for example, prohibited people from keeping loaded guns at home. Similarly, in the supposedly “wild” nineteenth-century West, frontier towns had gun control laws stricter than any jurisdiction today. Even as guns were used for hunting and self-defense in the countryside, visitors to Dodge City and Tombstone had to check their guns at the city limits.
  • Another line of argument was developed by Supreme Court Justice Breyer in his dissent to the majority opinion in Heller, and similar arguments have appeared in many federal courts. This approach evaluates the constitutionality of gun control based on the degree to which a given law serves the public interest while protecting private interests. In this way of thinking, the case for local variation in permissible gun regulations is straightforward, because in fact cities and rural areas face different challenges with regard to guns, and their residents have different sets of concerns.

Moving Forward

The largest obstacle to allowing urban areas to have sensible gun controls is not constitutional but statutory. Over the past few decades, most states have passed laws forbidding municipal gun control. Such “preemption” laws do not reach all cities, nor do they forbid all controls, but they do represent an unfortunate break with longstanding American traditions of local self-rule. Especially now that the Supreme Court has articulated an individual right to bear arms, state-wide one-size-fits-all laws are no longer necessary or appropriate. Such state laws should be modified or repealed. Are city-wide laws a better idea than state-wide laws?

City limits are an important part of the story of guns in America, and the Second Amendment need not ignore this fact – good news for both sides of the gun debate. If we insist only on rigid national resolutions, rural residents may some day find their cherished Second Amendment rights diluted, as policymakers maneuver to find ways to allow some level of urban regulation in the name of safety – just as today’s urban-dwelling Americans are frustrated by the imposition of rural gun practices that make their lives less safe. Urban efforts to prevent handgun violence should be able to coexist with the understandable desire of rural residents to use very different kinds of guns for hunting and recreation. The urban-rural divide need not remain a barrier. It could instead make for better neighbors, by enabling a granular compromise that allows rural and urban Americans to regulate themselves and respect one another’s very different gun cultures.

Joseph Blocher teaches law at Duke Law School. He mainly studies free speech and control within the First and Second Amendments.

In many ways, America’s 2012 elections brought government as usual. As an incumbent president was reelected, his party gained nine House seats and two Senate seats – and women continued to be greatly under-represented in Congress.

Only twenty women are found among the 100 U.S. Senators, and 13 of these are the first women to represent their state. Women hold only 77 seats in the House, fewer than 18%. Four U.S. states have never sent a woman to Congress: Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi and Vermont. The U.S. ranks 77th among the world’s nations in women’s representation in the lower legislative chamber – right behind Sao Tome and Principe and just ahead of Madagascar. Not counting ties, the U.S. actually ranks 92nd.

Before the 2012 elections, USA Today had predicted another “Year of the Woman” given an “upward trend of female candidates for Congress.” What actually happened is better characterized as a relatively good year for Democratic women amidst continuing female under-representation. Although neither major U.S. party has nominated sufficient numbers of women for Congress, Republicans nominate fewer and when GOP women are nominated, they very often lose. The difference between the percentage of women in Democratic Congressional delegations and the percentage of women in GOP Congressional delegations hovered between 7% and 11% from 1993 to 2002, but now it has grown to a remarkable 19.5 %.

A Closer Look at the 2012 House Elections

The details of nominations and victories in contests for the House of Representatives in 2012 tell a lot about what has been happening to spur the partisan gender gap.

  • For the House, 118 Democratic women stood as candidates, a 30% increase from the 91 women who ran in 2010. But only 48 Republican women ran in 2012, just one more than stood for election in 2010. Democrats ended up accounting for almost three-quarters of the women running for election to the House in 2012, compared to two-thirds in 2010.
  • Electoral successes followed from the contrasting party nomination rates. In 2012, 58 Democratic women were elected to the House (ten more than in 2010). But only 19 Republican women won House seats in 2012 (down by five from 2010).

Lagging nominations and victories for Republican women were especially surprising, because the 2012 elections involved many districts reapportioned following the 2010 Census. New contenders for Congress have their best opportunities in newly drawn districts with no incumbents. In 2012, reapportionment produced eleven new House districts: two in Florida; four in Texas; and one each in Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington.

On the face of it, these new seats presented excellent opportunities for women to run without having to deal with a male incumbent – and the opportunities ought to have been especially good for Republican women, because their party dominates the Congressional delegations of every state with newly created districts except for Washington state. Overall, Democratic women run for election and gain more House seats than Republican women.

But the results for female Republicans fell short. Even as Democratic women did well in states that lost or did not gain seats, and also won three seats in newly created House districts in Arizona, Florida and Washington, Republican women did not make gains. No Republican women were nominated for open House seats in Georgia and South Carolina. One Republican woman ran for a House seat in Utah, but she lost. In Texas, where four new seats were added, three non-incumbent Republican women ran for election, but all were defeated.

What Would It Take to Achieve Gender Parity in Congress?

When 1992 was dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” the female Congressional presence doubled. But even if that suddenly happened again, women would still constitute only 35% of the House. American voters would still need to elect 64 more women to the House to achieve gender parity.

Could quotas for women help? Formal or informal quotas have boosted the presence of female delegates to both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. But quotas cannot do much to ensure nominations. Unlike parliamentary parties in many other nations, U.S. political parties do not have sufficient control over nominations nationwide to ensure rough gender equity. Even legal quotas of the kind used in some nations in Latin America, Europe, and Africa could not work to control nominations by state parties in the United States.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren. Photo by Leader Nancy Pelosi via
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren. Photo by Leader Nancy Pelosi via

The bottom line is that progress for women in the U.S. Congress rests on enhanced recruitment, plus extra material support for female candidates in each major party.

  • Democrats have recently launched projects to build on earlier gains. The junior Senator from New York, Kristin Gillibrand, has established the “Off the Sidelines” initiative to publicize women’s under-representation in Congress, encourage more women to run, and improve funding for them. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is sponsoring the “Women LEAD” project, chaired by House members Lois Frankel of Florida and Chellie Pingree of Maine “to build a network of people around the country dedicated to electing more women to the House of Representatives.” On the Senate side, Washington’s senior Senator Patty Murray started years ago to organize networks to encourage women candidates and now, as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, she is making special efforts to encourage and support female contenders for the Senate.
  • In 1982, the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee pledged the maximum campaign contribution to any Republican woman who won nomination or considered running for Congress. But in more recent years, the efforts of the Republican National Committee and women’s groups in the party have been largely exhortatory, leaving potential women candidates, like men, largely to their own devices in launching and funding campaigns.

The United States, in sum, continues to have an uphill climb toward ensuring equal representation for women in Congress; and much depends on faster progress by Republicans. To avoid falling still further behind, Republicans may have to revive earlier efforts at formal support, and launch new multi-pronged projects of the sort Democrats have recently created to expand their female contingents in the House and Senate.

Karen Beckwith is in the department of political science at Case Western Reserve University. She is the author, with Christina Wolbrecht and Lisa Baldez, of Political Women and American Democracy.

In his 2008 book The Street Stops Here, journalist Patrick McCloskey documented the successes of at-risk black young men at Rice High School in Harlem. For many years, this Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers overcame traditional gaps in educational achievement to get one hundred percent of its graduates accepted for college. Yet just three years after the book was published, the school closed due to financial shortfalls.

Overall, America’s Catholic schools are closing at a rapid rate. At their peak in the mid-1960s, more than 13,000 Catholic elementary and secondary schools enrolled twelve percent of U.S. school children. But by 2012, fewer than 7,000 Catholic schools enrolled about two million, or five percent, of U.S. school-aged children – and the future is likely to bring further contraction. Because Catholic schools have a long history of serving under-served minority and poor people, their decline reduces the U.S. Catholic Church’s ability to further social justice – and will likely reduce equality of educational opportunity.

Photo by Michael 1952 via
Photo by Michael 1952 via

The Catholic School Effect

In the 1970s and 1980s, scholars documented and debated the educational benefits children got from attending Catholic schools – including higher grades, better performance on standardized tests, and higher rates of graduation and attendance at college. What explained these benefits?

  • Some scholars argued that tight social ties between teachers and parents allowed Catholic schools to control misbehavior and reinforce positive norms for children. Yet the evidence was not conclusive because, unlike public schools, Catholic schools can expel or refuse to admit students who underperform academically or exhibit behavioral problems.
  • Documented benefits turned out to be greatest for urban and minority students, the kinds of youngsters who would otherwise have to attend the worst-performing public schools.

Looking at the next few decades in the United States, we can see that Catholic education could be especially important as the Hispanic population continues to increase. Most Latinos are at least nominally Catholic, and research has documented that their children often fall short in learning outcomes.

Why are Catholic Schools Declining?

If Catholic schools can make a positive difference – especially for vulnerable families – why are they in such sharp decline? Research points to several interrelated factors.

    • No More Nuns. Female religious orders have traditionally provided most of those who staff Catholic schools. At the peak, more than 100,000 sisters worked in schools, but today there are only about 6,500 still at work, less than one per Catholic school. Costs have risen sharply as new staffers replace nuns who seldom required additional salaries or benefits.
    • Rising Prices for Families. In 1970, nearly three-quarters of Catholic schools charged less than $100 in tuition (the equivalent of roughly $300 today), but by 2010 the average tuition was about $4000 at a Catholic elementary school and around $8000 for a high school. Including all the extras, costs per student at the elementary level have skyrocketed from roughly $1,500 to about $5,500 today. Not surprisingly, many parents cannot afford these higher prices and fewer are opting to send their children to Catholic schools.
Today, parents spend around $5,500 to keep their kids in a Catholic elementary school.
  • Faltering Commitment.  Some scholars suggest that, because American Catholics no longer face strong prejudices, the Church would like to withdraw from general education and use limited resources for strictly religious instruction.
  • The Sexual Abuse Crisis. In Catholic dioceses where large numbers of sexual abuse victims received financial settlements, subsidies to schools were squeezed. Data show that dioceses with a greater number of abuse incidents had more school closures between 2000 and 2010.
  • Less Focus on Supporting Upward Mobility. Given all of the problems just surveyed, some critics suggest that the Church may be turning away from providing Latino immigrants with the kind of support for assimilation and upward mobility it once offered to Irish and Italian Catholics. The Notre Dame Task Force on Participation of Latino Families and Schools found that the dioceses with the largest number of empty classroom seats were located around cities with the largest Hispanic populations. Since 1990, moreover, Catholic schools have served fewer African American students and more have closed in black areas.

Efforts to Sustain Catholic Schools

All Americans concerned about education should be keenly aware that the disappearance of Catholic schools leaves many parents and communities with fewer choices. Closures of underperforming public schools in struggling areas are sometimes presented as an opportunity to improve student achievement elsewhere. But Catholic schools have usually done an exemplary job of improving student achievement, especially for urban minorities, so their closure usually hurts families and neighborhoods. Often, close-by public schools must struggle to educate additional youngsters in systems that are already broken and woefully underfunded.

Some innovations hold promise for bolstering Catholic schools:

  • Making Catholic Schools Affordable. Proponents are working to create financial models that would allow families to use Catholic schools even if they cannot afford thousands of dollars in tuition. The Cristo Rey network of schools, for example, allows students to work one day a week for businesses or non-profit organizations that, in turn, cover their tuition.
  • Public Vouchers.  Voucher initiatives are controversial, and they exist only in few Catholic dioceses now. But studies show that parents will use vouchers at relatively inexpensive Catholic schools, rather than to pay higher costs at other types of private schools.

Carol Ann MacGregor is in the Sociology department at Loyola University New Orleans. She studies changes and consequences of religious affiliations in the United States.

“Green Revolution” is the label for concerted initiatives to increase agricultural production and prevent hunger and starvation in major regions of the world. Earlier efforts transformed agriculture in Mexico, India, and the Philippines – by facilitating the use of new technologies and commercial seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides to produce high-yield cereal grains. In 2006 two of the world’s largest foundations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, joined forces to launch the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

With the Gates Foundation alone contributing around one billion dollars by 2012, the stated goal is to reduce poverty by helping smallholder farmers, including women, gain greater access to markets, credit, and productivity-enhancing technologies to generate higher yields of staple food crops. In collaboration with African governments, multinational corporations, research institutes, and farmers’ organizations, the Gates Foundation is pushing market integration and the use of chemical fertilizers and commercial seeds (including hybrid and genetically modified seeds).

Scholars Debate the Pros and Cons

Not everyone is persuaded that this kind of new African Green Revolution is a good idea.

  • Supporters argue that the Asian Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s resulted in higher yields of major staple crops, lowered food prices, and a reduction in hunger and malnutrition. They see a similar expansion of modern agriculture as the key to elimination of poverty and hunger on the African continent.
  • But previous Green Revolutions also had downsides. India, which many consider to be a poster child of the first Green Revolution, did indeed improve agricultural yields and raise total agricultural outputs. Yet as Glen Davis Stone has pointed out, hunger in India continues apace, even as the government wrestles with the problem of overflowing granaries – because poor Indians, including many poor farmers and farm laborers, simply do not have the money to buy the food commercial agriculture has produced. Looking into one of the saddest downsides, A.R.Vasavi examined over 200,000 farmer suicides in India spanning more than a decade and found that indebtedness was a prime spur to such tragedies, as farmers get in over their heads trying to buy expensive commercial inputs. Most farmer suicides have taken place precisely in the regions where Green Revolution technologies were most heavily adopted. Some scholars of African agriculture have claimed that massive bankruptcies of small family farmers, faced with steadily rising costs for foreign produced seeds and fertilizers but volatile global prices for their crops, will pave the way for land grabs by foreign agribusiness investors.

Critics in Africa Voice Doubts

Malawian farmers. Photo by Find Your Feet via
Malawian farmers. Photo by Find Your Feet via

Powerful actors in Africa and the United States may be fully on board with the new Green Revolution, yet there is also a growing political debate about potential costs and how to counter-act them. Tanzania, for example, is one of the three main countries targeted by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Yet in that country, several prominent non-government organizations – including Haki Ardi and the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme – are raising questions about the assumptions and policy proposals of the new transnational initiative. Critics point to a range of issues, including the potential social and environmental pitfalls of mono-crop agriculture, the dangers of encouraging farmers to use genetically modified seeds, and the likelihood that high-cost inputs will lead to growing inequalities within African farming communities. Is it really a good idea, critics wonder, to make African farmers more dependent on foreign inputs provided by multinational corporations?

At the most basic level, Tanzanian and other African-based critics question the underlying Green Revolution assumption that high-tech, commercial agriculture is the best solution to Africa’s food security challenges. They point to threats to biodiversity when corporate producers of seeds, fertilizers, and other standardized commercial inputs move in and suppress traditional practices such as farmer-to-farmer seed exchanges. Such fears have substance, given that the Monsanto Corporation, a partner in the New Green Revolution effort, has a long track record in North America of fostering farmer’s dependency on their commercial seeds.

Struggles for Independence

Looking through the lens of deep-seated worries about international dependence and the aspirations of African peoples for true independence, critics can see the new Green Revolution as merely the latest “land grab” by foreign powers, part of a “new scramble” for land and natural resources across the continent. Pointing to the ecological devastation of African forests by foreign bio-fuel companies and land purchases by China and oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, African critics wonder whose interests are really served by a Green Revolution sponsored by commercially oriented donors and western philanthropic organizations.

Worries about inequality are also at the heart of the debate. If land concentration and indebtedness grow, critics ask, would the Green Revolution’s results really be beneficial to most Africans? Or would mono-crop agriculture based on the overuse of commercial fertilizers lead to negative consequences such as polluted water supplies, widespread soil degradation, and sharply rising poverty and economic inequality? Although poor, small-scale farmers may improve their yields, the higher costs they have to pay for externally produced commercial inputs may often reduce household incomes – and thus lead to even poorer nutrition, exactly the opposite of what Green Revolution proponents promise. Simply boosting agricultural production at the national level, in other words, does not guarantee food security and better nutrition for all families and households, as the history of India makes clear. Is the Green Revolution meant to help African countries gain independence, or for foreign powers to obtain more land?

Looking for Alternatives

As an alternative or a supplement to Green Revolution efforts, critics call for policies that pay careful heed to the class relationships that shape the impact of new technologies. Ideally, land should be distributed to small-scale farmers who get new support for informal seed supply and cultivation systems. Improvements in rural health care, education, and sanitation are also vital, along with fair trade rules to insure that the benefits of lower staple food prices and labor-saving technologies are passed along. Not just multinational profits and incomes at the top, but the incomes and economic security of laborers and small owners must rise as improved production grows. Only in that way can Africa as a whole win its fight against hunger and disease.

Ron Aminzade is in the sociology department at the University of Minnesota. He studies nationalism, race relations, sociology, democratic theory, and the sociology of higher education.