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

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...

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
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.
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.
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..., creative commons., creative commons.

Getting a college degree is an increasingly expensive endeavor and many students struggle to make ends meet while they are in school. Although the rising cost of college tuition and fees receives a great deal of public attention, students face other costs, too – including often hefty payments for living expenses, textbooks, and transportation to and from classes. These inescapable extra costs constitute half to three-quarters of total college expenses, and when students cannot afford to cover them, they often struggle to focus on school work and spend less time in the classroom. In dire cases, students may find themselves without a secure place to live or enough food to eat.

Financial aid for college students is meant to help cover the extra expenses, but aid packages often fall short because of chronic underfunding and complex bureaucratic administrative hurdles. Researchers and practitioners have found that when students run into short-term financial problems, college financial aid offices often have difficulty responding quickly.

In addition to traditional financial aid programs, there is also a need for emergency assistance. Promptly responsive emergency aid programs can help keep students enrolled, perhaps allowing more of them to complete studies and receive degrees. In a recent research project we used surveys and interviews to examine such programs, aiming to better understand how they operate and when they succeed. Our work lays the groundwork for much-needed additional evaluations. more...

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

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

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

Photo by Jamison Wieser, Flickr CC.
Photo by Jamison Wieser, Flickr CC.

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

Photo by amira_a via Flickr.
Photo by amira_a via Flickr.

Cities cannot flourish without regular investments to create and repair “infrastructure” – everything from roads and sewer systems to services such as libraries, police forces, and counselors in local high schools. Citizens and businesses alike depend on such shared facilities and services. In the middle of the twentieth century, the U.S. national government and many states helped cities develop infrastructure. Grants were often increased during economic downturns, when localities faced fiscal stress yet the cost of public borrowing was low.

But since the 1970s, American cities have been largely on their own to build and sustain infrastructure – in an era where opponents of taxes agitate to cut back public revenues. Desperate to fund vital projects, cities have turned to special “redevelopment” agencies run undemocratically by small boards of business elites and public managers. These agencies arrange private financial investments to build the facilities needed by new private business ventures – like a shopping center or a big warehouse facility. more...

Photo by Daniel Latorre, Flickr CC.
Photo by Daniel Latorre, Flickr CC.

With sagging voter turnout, plummeting trust in government, and multi-billion dollar elections, U.S. democracy is marred by chasms between government and citizens. Gaps may be greatest at state and local levels, where voter turnout is especially low and citizens only rarely attend public meetings or contact local elected officials about policy decisions. Against this backdrop, communities across the country are experimenting with “participatory budgeting” – a reform that lets residents of cities, towns, and districts decide how to allocate taxpayer dollars.

By giving communities real decision-making power in a collaborative process, participatory budgeting can strengthen ties between citizens and officials. First implemented in Brazil in 1989, it has been employed by more than 1,500 cities worldwide and made its U.S. debut in Chicago in 2009. This reform has won support from the White House and officials of all political stripes, as well as from social justice coalitions like the Right to the City Alliance. more...