Image from Mark Rain via Flickr Creative Commons
Image from Mark Rain via Flickr Creative Commons

One of the most important cases the Supreme Court reviewed this year was United States v. Texas, which ruled on challenges to two Obama administration initiatives – Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents and an expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – that would have affected up to five million people. In November 2014, President Obama announced Executive Actions that included additional temporary protections for immigrants who arrived as children (also referred to as “DREAMERS”) and a new program for parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. The programs would allow them to remain in the country and apply for work permits if they have been here for at least five years and have not committed felonies or repeated misdemeanors. These actions have been on hold since early 2015, when a district court issued a preliminary injunction in response to a challenge brought by Republican authorities in Texas and ultimately joined by 25 other states. The actual focus of the case was quite mundane: Texas argued that it would suffer significant financial damages if required to subsidize the cost of driver’s licenses to those qualifying for the s new programs. However, the larger context was an unwillingness to allow the President to enact policy change following years of blocked and failed efforts at immigration reform at other governmental levels.

The Supreme Court was unable to reach a decision in June. The case resulted in a 4-4 tie, an unusual but not unexpected result given the current makeup of the court following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia and reflecting the politically divisive nature of the case. This means that the decisions of the lower courts remain in place and the two initiatives are blocked, for now. more...

St. Agnes Medical Center, Fresno, CA. Photo by David Prasad, Flickr CC.
St. Agnes Medical Center, Fresno, CA. Photo by David Prasad, Flickr CC.

Catholic hospitals are a large and growing part of the U.S. health care system. Considerable public funding flows to these institutions, but they deny many reproductive health services and some kinds of end of life care to their patients. Catholic rules limit care in far-reaching ways, well beyond what many patients and health care providers understand or expect. These realities raise important issues about the future of religious restrictions in U.S. health care.

Restricted Care in a Growing Sector

Between 2001 and 2011, the number of Catholic hospitals increased by 16%, while public and secular not-for-profit hospitals decreased. One in six patients in the United States is cared for in a Catholic hospital, and in 2015, seven of the country’s 12 largest nonprofit hospital systems were Catholic. Although Catholic hospitals provide the same amount of charity care as non-Catholic hospitals, in terms of the percent of total revenues, they provide less care to Medicaid recipients than other kinds of hospitals.

Like other hospitals, Catholic institutions receive considerable public funding, yet they limit patient care to fit the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. As a condition of employment or medical privileges, doctors, nurses, and other clinical personnel are required to follow these directives when caring for patients in Catholic facilities. more...

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 in January 2016.

Americans are engaged in a great gun war, one that has raged for at least four decades. The war has intensified to the point where citizens cannot agree on the most basic facts. How many guns do Americans own? Does carrying firearms do more harm than good? Do firearm regulations work?

Although the answers are hotly disputed, most Americans share the goal of reducing our unconscionably high rate of gun violence. In a politically challenging environment, it makes sense to pull together what is known about guns and gun violence and look for policy approaches that could garner broad support. more...

Stats presented at the 2014-2015 Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research. Click for original.
Stats presented at the 2014-2015 Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research. Click for original.

The United States and Mexico are political allies and neighbors with intertwined economies. They both need and at times compete for talent, capital and investments in new technologies. In 2013, the Obama and Peña Nieto administrations launched the High Level Economic Dialogue, a cabinet-level vehicle for deeper engagement on economic issues, and the Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation and Research, a parallel effort to increase academic and scholarly exchanges between the United States and Mexico. Part of this effort involves cooperation with non-governmental actors to encourage meaningful exchanges among students, faculty and staff from U.S. and Mexican educational institutions at all levels of higher education.

Academic exchanges between countries are critical for robust collaborations in education, research and technological and economic innovation. Regular exchanges and movement of faculty and students back and forth promotes cultural understanding and deeper understandings of each country’s educational and research practices and technologies. Researchers learn about the lines of inquiry that drive innovation in both countries. Over the long term, transnational social and academic networks are strengthened – as has happened before through academic exchanges such as those orchestrated between the United States and Russia and the United States and China.

What are the key challenges and opportunities for leaders trying to strengthen academic ties between the United States and Mexico? Some answers can be found in institutional surveys conducted at Rice University in 2013 and 2014. The results show that, so far, transnational exchanges are hampered by limited communication, inadequate funding, and perceptions of insecurity in Mexico. But important opportunities remain to make progress in the future. more...

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

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...

Image by aisletwentytwo via Flickr CC
Image by aisletwentytwo via Flickr CC

When they work well, democratic governments make laws to protect people from harmful things that they cannot prevent on their own. This is the basic role of good government, yet the American public hears a constant drumbeat of anti-regulatory messages from conservative politicians and think tanks and influential business organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. According to these groups, regulations are almost always bad for the country, because they interfere with “free” market activity and inhibit investment and job growth.

But the arguments against sensible regulations are not valid empirically or in principle. Much evidence shows that the benefits of regulations vastly outweigh the costs. Furthermore, anti-regulatory claims rest on faulty ideas about the economy and democratic governance.

Wrong Empirically

For many years, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget has systematically studied the costs of regulation. Looking at more than 100 major regulations over the ten-year period ending in 2010, it found that benefits were three to ten times greater than costs. For every regulatory agency considered, benefits exceeded costs. As the Office reported to Congress in June 2014, the economic benefits of federal regulations totaled in the hundreds of millions of dollars over the previous decade, while the costs were a mere fraction of that total.

Many other studies have also shown that regulations have little impact on employment – or else a slight positive effect on balance. Businesses find ways to deal with new regulations. When automobile companies were required to reduce air pollution, for example, they started using catalytic converters. Car prices rose slightly, perhaps leading to some job layoffs, but employment grew overall as more workers were hired to make, sell, and install the converters.

Wrong about How the Economy Really Works

In Econ 101, students learn that, in theory, a pure market consisting of large numbers of independent buyers and sellers will produce goods and services in optimal amounts at the lowest possible prices. In this ideal pure market world, rules restricting buyers or sellers can only distort the optimal distribution of goods and services. However, this abstract academic lesson tells us little about the real world, because pure market conditions almost never exist in actual commerce. Real-world markets differ from theoretical models in markets in several ways – and good regulations can help those imperfect markets work better:

  • Real-world customers often lack complete information about products they might buy, or have difficulty understanding technical terms describing goods like cars, pharmaceutical drugs, and mortgages. Consumer protection regulations help by requiring companies to spell out the features and risks of their products.
  • In the real world, markets are often dominated by one or a small number of sellers, who can limit production and force customers to pay artificially high prices. Anti-monopoly regulations can insure greater competition and fairer prices.
  • Unregulated markets do not take social costs into account. Unimpeded by public rules, anything-goes markets give us air and water pollution, employment discrimination, exposure to pornography by children, and other harmful results that most people in society abhor. Democratic governments can put in place rules that force sellers to avoid or limit such unacceptable consequences of market activities (called “negative externalities”).

In addition to the departures from “pure free market” theory that almost all experts understand, the new field of behavioral economics has discovered clear evidence that peoples’ preferences are strongly influenced by how choices are presented to them. For example, experiments show that people’s plans about retirement programs vary depending on whether they have to “opt in” or are automatically enrolled and have to “opt out.” Corporations spend billions to influence consumer preferences and set up choices to maximize profits, so it hardly seems out of line for governments to use product information rules to ensure optimal consumer information and beneficial options for citizens.

Wrong about Good Governance

Throughout American history, governments have subsidized businesses and established conditions for markets to function. But periodically, as Americans experienced unacceptable harms from market practices, they have insisted that public authorities override protests from profit-seekers and step in to secure the public interest. Examples of such public-interest regulations include laws to outlaw child labor, building code regulations to ensure stable construction and prevent catastrophic fires, food and pharmaceutical regulations, environmental protections, and laws to prevent irresponsible mortgage lending. Those who claim that all such regulations are unwarranted are implying that governments should only maximize private profits, not protect the environment and ensure public health and security. This makes little sense.

Claims that regulation is bad for business are wrong – because the interests of more companies are well served by regulations in the public interest. To sell their products, businesses depend on public confidence that products will not harm people. Businesses also benefit when all of them have to meet the same standards, so some firms cannot undercut others. Even when some businesses are in fact disadvantaged by proposed regulations—such as coal-fired power plants required to limit pollution—others will benefit, such as firms promoting wind and solar power.

Not all regulations are effective or achieve their purposes. Some are too restrictive, while others are weak or improperly implemented. But that does not mean that all regulation is harmful. Although society benefits from well-functioning markets, critics are wrong to claim that all government regulations are bad for business. To produce optimal results for firms and citizens, America needs a balance between markets free from unnecessary impediments and public rules to prevent businesses from inflicting grievous harms on people and the environment.

USDA Photo by Bob Nichols
USDA Photo by Bob Nichols

Education beyond high school is increasingly necessary for a good job, and so growing numbers of people are paying ever-rising prices to attend college. Yet many are not completing degrees. Food insecurity should be added to the list of factors contributing to this shortfall. Our work suggests that too many undergraduates are struggling to afford sufficient nutritious food – and current policies provide insufficient support. An expansion of the National School Lunch Program to help college students could help many more complete their degrees. more...

E-Verify is a government program meant to verify workers' documents. Many believe it is ineffective and discriminatory. Photo by LongIslandTwins, Flickr CC.
E-Verify is a government program meant to verify workers’ documents. Many believe it is ineffective and discriminatory. Photo by LongIslandTwins, Flickr CC.

Controversies about “identity theft” are at the center of U.S. immigration enforcement. During a 2008 federal immigration raid at a Kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, for example, authorities arrested 389 undocumented immigrants for “aggravated identity theft” – claiming that they had knowingly and intentionally used the identities of others without their consent. In Arizona, meanwhile, state authorities expanded the definition of “identity theft” to include the use of fake documents to obtain employment. Since that happened in 2008, the Maricopa County Sheriffs’ Office has arrested more than 700 undocumented workers on such charges.

Although identity theft is widely decried, the majority of undocumented immigrant farmworkers say they actually obtain work authorization documents through loans – that is, through voluntary arrangements to obtain work documents. My findings on this topic come from interviews I conducted with 57 immigrant farm workers and six labor supervisors. In response to my queries about how undocumented immigrants get the documents they need for employment, and with what effects on their work conditions, many workers explained that direct supervisors often initiate loans of identity documents. The supervisors can profit personally even as they recruit workers for agricultural companies or contractors. more...

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...