Hate Sites Using the Wider Abortion Argument to Spread Racism and Extremism

By Anthony Crider; cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 20:37, 9 April 2018 (UTC) – Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally, CC BY 2.0,

White supremacists are using the debate around women’s reproductive rights to promote racist and extremist agendas, finds a new study released today – following news on Friday that millions of women in the US will lose the constitutional right to abortion.

US white nationalists are heading on to a Neo-Nazi website, ‘Stormfront’, in order to recruit more people to their way of thinking. Whilst online they describe abortions by white women, as ‘murder’ and look to “weaponize” the procedure. However, the extremists reason abortion by non-white women as ‘acceptable’ or even ‘desirable’ because, they argue, the procedure could solve threats to white dominance – including the “urgent need to limit third world populations”.

The findings, published in the peer-reviewed journal Information, Communication & Society, come following a detailed computer-aided analysis of more than 30,000 posts, spanning over two decades on the site.

The study authors warn that their evidence highlights how white extremists “weaponize” abortion arguments to attract recruits, using the political debate as a gateway argument that invites them to dive deeper into white male supremacy ideology.

“Our study shows that science, medicine, and conspiracy theories meet on the dark corners of the internet,” says lead researcher Dr. Yotam Ophir at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, USA.

“The result is the creation and spread of dangerous racist and misogynistic ideas. These are often born in extremists’ platforms, but have spilled over into mainstream politics and discourse.”

Abortion rights are a fiercely contested issue in the US. On Friday, the Supreme Court overturned its 50-year-old Roe v Wade decision, in a judgment that therefore entitles individual states to ban the procedure.

Specifically, in this research, Dr. Ophir and his team wanted to better understand how white nationalists not only use abortion debates online to further their cause, but also apply different moral standards to whites and non-whites.

By analyzing posts made between 2001 and 2017 on Stormfront – a discussion board founded by former Ku Klax Klansman, Don Black – the authors found a marked difference in the way far-right extremists conceptualized abortions for whites versus non-whites.

Abortions among white women were described as ‘murder’. Using an entire topic labeled ‘avoid abortions’, Stormfront users accused white women considering terminations as being “deeply unethical” and even “treasonous” to the white race and their gender role. For example, talking about abortions among white women, a user stated that “abortion is the worst thing of all, it is killing a child. Killing a child is worse than bringing him/her up without a father. Adoption is always an option”.

Whereas with non-white women, posts often excused abortion: in order to limit non-white populations.

The authors say that such discourse could be used to recruit members and to “normalize extreme, racist ideologies”.

To protect the public, Dr. Ophir says people, including children, need better tools to navigate the “misleading information environment that is the 21st century”.

Additional themes identified on Stormfront included “The Great Replacement conspiracy theory” – a supposed plot to replace white people with non-white immigrants that is said to have inspired the Buffalo grocery store killings suspect.

Something, which Dr. Ophir and colleagues argue needs more attention from the mainstream press, as they are concerned there is a spread of the ‘great replacement conspiracy’.

“Potential solutions should not end with social media and the internet. We also need to pay more attention to the rise of such conspiratorial thinking among television channels like Fox News and prominent political figures,” he says.

Stormfront posts analyzed by the team were supplied to the researchers by the Southern Poverty Law Center and by other academics.

The site is focused on propagating white nationalism, antisemitism, and islamophobia, as well as anti-Hinduism, anti-feminism, homophobia, transphobia, Holocaust denial, anti-Catholicism, and white supremacy. As of 2015, the Stormfront website was estimated to have more than 300,000 registered members.

How American Cities Can Promote Urban Agriculture

In his original plan for the city of Philadelphia, William Penn declared that every home should have ample space “for gardens or orchards or fields, that it may be a green country that will never be burnt and always be wholesome.” Before militiamen or throngs of protestors, the Boston Common nourished grazing cattle. Urban agriculture has cropped up again and again in cities throughout American history – from “relief gardens” for the poor in the 19th century, to “victory gardens” of World War II – and for good reason. If embraced and encouraged, urban agriculture can create economic, cultural, environmental and educational benefits. In recent years, various cities have developed good urban agriculture programs. By distilling their successes and struggles, my colleagues and I identify a series of best practices in this area.

Tailoring Programs for Varied Communities

“Urban agriculture” is an umbrella term encompassing a wide array of practices. Good programs take account from the start of community preferences that vary. Beekeeping or backyard chickens, for example, might be considered progress in Portland but backwardness in Baltimore. Controversies often arise, but they offer opportunities for dialogue. When disputes erupted about the 140-acre Hantz Farms proposal in Detroit, for example, officials convened public meetings to fashion a vision of urban agriculture. Cities like Portland and Vancouver have formed urban agriculture task forces composed of private citizens, government representatives, and organizational partners to advise the cities on planning and code issues.

In most cities, urban agriculture of some form is already practiced, whether regulations officially enable it or not. It is important to take stock of these existing operations and practices. Important elements to consider include: the number of gardens and gardeners, their demographics, the type and location of existing gardens, popular agricultural practices, and where space exists to expand urban agriculture. Numerous cities have benefited from conducting “urban agriculture land inventories,” in which mapping professionals use satellite imagery and public records to determine which publicly-owned plots are best suited to urban agriculture.

Communities should develop an independent agency or department to manage urban agricultureBecause urban agriculture is a multi-faceted process, many city agencies currently regulate its disparate aspects; Parks, Public Works, Environmental Protection, Sustainability, Health and Sanitation, Land Banks, and other departments all have their hand in working with growers. Centralizing this authority under one department can streamline regulation and simplify the process of establishing gardens and farms. Boston’s Grassroot program, Chicago’s Neighborspace program, and New York’s Green Thumb program are all excellent examples.

Municipalities should audit existing codes and laws. Although most relevant regulations will be found in local zoning ordinances, other codes might have unexpected effects on urban agriculture – including ordinances regulating produce sales, market stands, shade trees, and noise. In Los Angeles, a near-forgotten, yet narrowly-worded, 1946 “Truck Gardening Ordinance” threatened to limit agricultural sales exclusively to vegetables before it was amended by the city’s governing body. Municipalities should also be aware of state and federal regulations that might affect agriculture policy decisions. Right to Farm laws typically operate at the state level and may restrict localities. Notably, Detroit and other large cities in Michigan had to postpone regulation of urban agriculture until they were exempted from their state’s Right to Farm rules.

Ways to Facilitate Urban Agriculture

Although public sentiment should determine where urban agriculture is appropriate, there are opportunities to incorporate some form of agriculture or gardening in every land use zone. Cities from Seattle to Philadelphia have incorporated urban agriculture into existing land use codes. Small acreage projects unlikely to create nuisances include backyard gardens typical of single family homes and should be permitted virtually anywhere. Yet large acre, high nuisance projects – such as multi-acre urban farms relying on heavy machinery or animal husbandry – are better suited for the city edges or industrial zones.

While permitting urban agriculture outright in this fashion has proven successful, other creative ways that cities have enabled urban agriculture include:

  • Creating new zones for urban agriculture specifically, as in Boston and Cleveland.
  • Permitting urban agriculture as “conditional” or “accessory” rather than primary use. This allows local planning and zoning boards to maintain control over how such uses are developed, without restricting them. However, this approach can become too cumbersome and likely to disproportionately burden applicants with fewer resources.
  • Land can be directly supplied — through adopt-a-lot programs and leasing underused spaces to citizens or qualified urban farmers. Offering flexible, medium- to long-term leases is critical, as security of land is vital to the success of urban farms.

Good Management to Sustain Citizen Projects

Finally, municipalities must take steps to ensure that citizens practicing urban agriculture do so responsibly. Some of the most effective approaches include:

  • Passing or revising codes that limit the use of pesticides and fertilizers
  • Enforcing time restrictions on the use of noisy farm equipment (although this is not typically an issue on small plots where hand tools are most common)
  • Providing training opportunities through city departments or local cooperative extension services
  • Requiring preliminary testing of land and monitoring of soil toxicity, soil nutrition, and any utility lines running through a property
  • Offering  access to rain barrels or municipal water hookups
  • Including urban agriculture in all future urban planning efforts, including master plans.

How Environmental Policies Can Promote Economic Growth

The Trump administration had been working hard to roll back the nation’s environmental regulations on the grounds that they are an economic burden on business. But evidence from California tells a very different story. For the past half century, California has been the richest U.S. state – even as it has led the United States in coastal protection, restricting oil drilling, regulating automotive emissions, promoting energy efficiency and, most recently, curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

From 2013 to 2016, California grew more rapidly than any other state – to become the world’s sixth largest economy. Not only have rapid economic growth and stringent environmental regulations proved compatible, many of California’s environmental regulations have promoted economic growth and benefitted businesses.

A History of Innovative Environmental Policy

California was the first government in the United States to impose pollution controls on motor vehicles. The campaign to do so was strongly supported by the Los Angeles business community, most notably its powerful real estate developers. They feared that unless the city’s air quality measurably improved, it would become more difficult for the city to attract new residents and businesses.

Thanks to the steady strengthening of both state and federal automotive emissions controls, air quality in Los Angeles dramatically improved. During the 1970s Los Angeles averaged 125 Stage I smog alerts per year, but it has not had a single one since 1999. In 2015, the city recorded its lowest smog level since reporting began. It is hard to imagine that Los Angeles would have continued to grow so substantially or become the center of the world’s entertainment industry as well as the location of so many high income communities had its air remained so hazardous.

California’s pollution controls grew out of a long history of collaboration between policymakers and business firms. In fact, California’s businesspeople and policymakers have been working together since the 19th century. To promote tourism in the Golden State, steamship companies wanted to safeguard Yosemite and the Southern Pacific Railroad became advocate of protecting the sequoias of the Sierra.

Most recently, California businesses have backed the state’s wide-ranging initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. California’s historic 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act mandated a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. It was backed by more than 200 individual firms and business associations, including the state’s high-technology and venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. By 2006, nearly $2 billion in venture capital had been invested in clean technology. As one state policymaker noted, “The legislation . . . sends a signal to people that there is a market where people can invest. . . So what started as an environmental issue in 2001 or 2002 has garnered a lot of business support.”

Economic Benefits of Smart Environmental Policies

Promoters of economic growth in California rightly see that regulations have opened doors for innovative businesses and reduced costs for citizens and enterprises alike:

  • Thanks to the state’s promotion of renewable energy, 1,700 solar companies are based on California. The state accounts for half of the rooftop solar installations in the United States and a quarter of the nation’s solar energy jobs. Renewable energy mandates have been strongly supported by the state’s unions because of the jobs they create. All told, more than 500,000 people are employed in the state’s growing renewable energy sector.
  • The state’s Advanced Clean Cars Program and its zero-emission mandates have led Californians to buy or lease more than 200,000 pure electric vehicles. This represents roughly half of all such vehicles registered in the United States, and has made California, along with China, the world’s largest market for this new automotive technology. Thanks to Tesla, California has become the center of electric vehicle technology, with several other auto manufactures opening design facilities in the state.
  • Between 1974 and 2014, energy consumption per person in the United States increased by nearly 75 percent, while California’s per person energy consumption has remained nearly constant. The state’s energy-savings program, building codes, and appliance efficiency standards have reduced the energy bills of Californians by nearly $90 billion and have also saved the expense of constructing what could have been up to 50 new power plants.

In 2010, two Texas-based oil companies launched a California ballot initiative to roll back the state’s climate change commitments. Tellingly, this effort met with strong business opposition, especially from California’s clean technology sector, which by then had investments worth $6.6 billion. According to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group – whose participants reap worldwide revenues of more than $2 trillion – “our members believe that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels presents an opportunity to transform the economy from one based on coal, oil, and gas to one that runs on clean renewable energy.”

California as a Model

The experience of America’s most populated and currently rapidly growing state challenges the claim that environmental protection hurts the economy. Often jointly backed by businesses and citizens groups, California’s environmental policy leadership has nourished prosperity, truly laying the foundations for the making of a “Golden State.”

As Washington now tries to retreat in environmental policymaking, more states can learn from what California has accomplished. Policymakers, advocates, and others concerned about economic growth and competitiveness should work to strengthen regulations and create new opportunities for firms that stand to benefit from a “greener” growth trajectory. When a state protects its scenic beauty, improves its air quality, reduces its energy use, and promotes renewable energy, it not only protects its environment, but also becomes a more inviting place to live, work, visit, and invest.

New Preschool Program in Oregon is a Model for the Nation—But Challenges Remain

By Mary King and Lisa Dodson

In November 2020, voters in Multnomah County, home to the city of Portland, resoundingly approved the creation of a new, universal preschool program—a program that could serve as a model for desperately needed preschool and childcare investments for the entire country. All three- and four-year-olds in Multnomah county will be able to attend a free, year-round, universal, high quality preschool program that meets their needs as well as those of most families, providers and staff, and local businesses. Key elements include a wide range of choices for families as well as living wages and professional supports for providers and workers. The program is slated to be equitably funded by a local income tax on the highest income households.

Two big challenges remain: ensuring that families with “non-traditional” work schedules are included, and significantly increasing public investment in facilities to allow preschools to expand well beyond church basements and providers’ homes. Those working non-traditional hours are disproportionately low-income, women, people of color, and often “essential workers” without whom our society and economy would not function. Federal childcare initiatives must address the needs of families with such work schedules, or the families that most need public child care will be left out.

A Universal Model that Serves Diverse Needs

Universal preschool programs benefit all children and lead to better outcomes than means-tested programs for the most disadvantaged children. Means-tested programs such as Head Start seek to deliver services only to households with low incomes. Although means-tested programs “target the poor,” universal programs bring children and families from across the socioeconomic spectrum together, challenging ongoing race, ethnic and class segregation that erodes democracy. Universality also inspires broad support to maintain adequate funding. After fifty well-regarded years, Head Start is still available—but only for a fraction of eligible families, and even then, often only part-time and part-year. High quality preschool and child care is out of reach for the large majority of families who already face the high cost of housing, health care, and student debt with stagnating wages. Importantly, universal preschool is both a two-generation anti-poverty program and a powerful boost to economic development, because it returns $9.45 to the community for every dollar spent.

Families raising young children are diverse and need a wide range of options. Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will offer choices of:

  • language and cultural contexts, including Afro-centric and other alternatives,
  • types of setting, including family childcare providers, public schools and free-standing centers, and
  • schedules, including school year and year-round, full and part-time, weekend days as well as week days, with up to 50 hours a week for families that need or want longer days

Children with disabilities will be included, facilitating earlier identification of health issues and treatment. Expulsions, now too common in preschool settings particularly for children of color, will be prohibited, requiring that the system provide supportive interventions to meet all children’s needs.

Fair Pay and Professional Support for Providers and Workers

Currently, U.S. family childcare providers, preschool teachers, and childcare workers earn poverty wages with few benefits and often cope with difficult working conditions. The result is high turnover; the loss of skilled, experienced and dedicated workers to jobs that better support their families; and damage to the quality of care. High quality child care depends on the ongoing relationships caregivers develop with families, children, and co-workers.

Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will pay teachers comparably with kindergarten teachers, doubling their current salaries. The wage floor for assistant teachers and other classroom staff will be set at nearly $20 an hour when the program starts in Fall 2022, with pay levels adjusted to reward increasing skills, training and experience. Continuing professional development will be geared to the schedules of the low-income working parents who are over-represented among preschool workers. Should workers wish to join a union, employers will be required to remain neutral.

Funding universal high quality child care is within reach. Over the past 40 years, U.S. economic gains have been concentrated on an ever smaller group of the wealthy, while responsibility for paying for our infrastructure and public services has been shifted from the affluent to the working and middle classes. Reversing such trends, Multnomah County’s preschool program is to be funded by a county income tax on approximately eight percent of households at the top. Combined federal, state, and local income tax rates for such households will still fall far below the top tax federal income tax rates in place for the much of the 20th century, from the 1930s through the 1970s.

Unmet Challenges

Multnomah County intends to offer preschool up to ten hours a day and on weekend days, but has not committed to other “non-traditional” hours. Employers demand “non-traditional” work schedules for the three occupations expected to add the most jobs between 2019 and 2029: home health and personal care aides, fast food and counter workers, and restaurant cooks. Many retail and hospitality positions also entail low wages and employer insistence that workers maintain “open availability,” and healthcare, construction, and gig workers struggle with work schedules that make it very difficult to find child care.

Multnomah County will pay fair wages to everyone working in the classroom, but will not supplement the pay of people working in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs that pay too little to retain skilled people in the face of a more attractive alternative. The county plans to support some infant and toddler programs, but won’t be able to overcome the severe shortage of affordable, quality care for these age groups, likely to be exacerbated by competition from a preschool system offering better compensation. Finally, preschool and child care is now crowded into inexpensive or public spaces; serving all children well will require a significant investment in physical facilities.

Despite such continuing challenges, Multnomah County’s Preschool for All offers a national model, with its variety of choices to families, living wages for all classroom staff, and an equitable approach to public funding. Each of these aspects needs to be included in any new federal program. In addition, a new federal program should aspire to offer high quality child care to families struggling with difficult work schedules, until labor legislation is revised to place limits on such unpredictable schedules. Strategies will also need to be implemented to improve the wages of workers in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs.

What the U.S. Government Can Do to Address Energy Insecurity

By Sanya Carley and David M. Konisky

Energy insecurity—defined as the inability to pay one’s energy bill or avoid utility disconnection—is a pervasive and growing problem in the United States. Approximately 4.7 million low-income households were unable to pay an energy bill over the past year, 4.8 million received a notice for utility disconnection, and 2 million were disconnected from the electric grid, according to a recent study. Energy insecurity is disproportionately borne by people of color, as well as households including small children or individuals that rely on electronic medical devices.

Without access to electricity and other energy services, people cannot maintain adequate body temperatures, keep perishable food or refrigerable medicines cold, and power electronics like e-learning or medical devices. People experiencing energy insecurity face impossible tradeoffs between paying their utility bills and purchasing other necessities, such as food or healthcare services, and may resort to risky financial decisions (like using payday lending) or dangerous heating behaviors (like burning trash, using ovens for space heating, and relying on space heaters).

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress and state governments provided some protection for U.S. families from the worst consequences of energy insecurity. The CARES Act provided financial support through direct cash assistance and enhanced unemployment to many Americans facing material hardship. At the same time, almost 30 states banned energy utilities from disconnecting their customers due to a lack of payment. These protections, however, have largely been diminished as the pandemic continues. As of the start of February, only seven states and the District of Columbia still had emergency utility disconnection protections in place—with five set to expire before April. And while these critical supports fade, our research shows energy insecurity is deepening across the country, and likely to get even worse.

Energy Insecurity is Pervasive—But Cash Assistance Helps

Since the onset of the pandemic, we have conducted surveys of a nationally-representative sample of 2,000 households with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Their responses reveal that millions of low-income Americans are struggling to pay their energy bills and avoid electric utility disconnection. From May through August, 21% of the households we have surveyed reported not being able to pay at least one monthly electricity bill, nearly 15% received a shutoff notice, and 6% had their service disconnected. There are also large racial disparities in energy insecurity. When compared to low-income white households, Black and Hispanic households are about 2 times more likely to be unable to pay their energy bills and between 3 and 8 times more likely to have their electricity shut off, respectively.

During the summer months, our survey further revealed that nearly one in five low-income households had to forgo other basic necessities such as buying groceries or accessing medical care to pay an energy bill. Others chose to delay payments to energy utilities, which means deferring payments (often with late fees) to the future. Nearly 40% of respondents indicated that they have at least some utility debt. In cases where utility disconnection protections are lapsing, consumers that carry debt may face immediate disconnections, which are typically accompanied by steep disconnection fees and subsequent reconnection charges.

Importantly, our analysis of the survey responses shows that households that received cash assistance from the federal government had lower rates of energy insecurity. For example, recipients of emergency assistance from the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and people that received a CARES Act check were less likely to miss paying a bill or face the risk of service disconnections. These programs, therefore, effectively reduced energy insecurity in our sample of low-income households.

What Can Government Do Now?

Energy insecurity is a chronic problem for millions of Americans that will require long-term solutions to alleviate material hardship, improve the energy efficiency of homes, reduce energy burdens, and carefully consider how to protect vulnerable populations from utility disconnection. The COVID-19 pandemic has indisputably made matters worse and there are several things that policymakers should immediately do to alleviate the burden of energy insecurity:

  • The federal government should impose a national moratorium on energy utility disconnections so that no Americans lose access to critical energy services until the economic disruption from the pandemic eases. A federally-mandated moratorium on disconnections can provide much needed protections while superseding the patchwork of temporary state protections. In the absence of a national moratorium, governors should put state-level protections in place.
  • Congress should more deeply invest in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program to provide eligible Americans with short-term, emergency cash assistance to pay energy bills so as to avoid disconnections, and more significantly invest in the Weatherization Assistance Program to improve the efficiency of their homes for the long-term.
  • States should revisit their long-standing utility disconnection protection policies now that we have learned more about the prevalence of energy insecurity across the United States, both in general and for vulnerable populations in particular.

Researchers Quantify the Role of the Pandemic in the 2020 U.S. Elections

In the media, a prevalent narrative is that Donald Trump lost the 2020 elections because of the way he handled the COVID-19 pandemic. Several researchers determined that Trump would have won the electoral vote and lost the popular vote, as he did in 2016, if the pandemic had not occurred or if it had been mitigated.

Interestingly, not all the evidence supports the thesis that the handling of the crisis hurt Trump’s re-election, and quantitative evidence to support this narrative is limited.

In a new paper, Quantifying the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, in the European Physical Journal, a team led by Maurizio Porfiri, Institute Professor at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, put forward a spatial, information-theoretic approach to critically examine the link between voting behavior and COVID-19 incidence in the 2020 presidential elections. While they concurred with prior research that there were correlations between the two factors, they found that such an association points in the opposite direction from the accepted narrative: in counties that experienced fewer COVID-19 cases, Trump lost more ground to Joe Biden.

“A tenable explanation of this observation is the different attitude of liberal and conservative voters toward the pandemic, which led to more COVID-19 spreading in counties with a larger share of Republican voters” said Porfiri.

Key to the analysis is a way of quantifying uncertainty in statistical models. By using a novel spatial data modeling approach, and computing conditional mutual information between two processes (a target process like voting behavior and a second process, in this case, COVID-19 incidence), Porfiri, et. al., were able to infer spatial (geographic) connections.

This approach enabled them to determine the influence that epidemiological and economic processes might have had on voting behavior, as well as the spatial interactions that encapsulate the social and political fabric of the country.

From the analysis of county-level data, the investigators, including Pietro de Lellis of the University of Naples Federico II and Manuel Ruiz Marín of the University of Cartagena, Spain, uncovered a robust association between voting behavior and prevalence of COVID-19 cases.

The researchers determined that COVID-19 cases were negatively associated with the variation in the total vote count, whereby a larger increase in participation was observed in counties that were less affected by the pandemic, and a smaller increase in those that suffered the most from COVID-19. When it comes to the difference in votes between the two parties, they found that Biden’s margin was higher in the counties that suffered the least from COVID-19. However, counties where Biden gained the largest margin were not identified by COVID-19 prevalence.

They also found that there were more likely to be large increases in the electoral participation and in Biden’s margin in counties that suffered more job losses; likewise, they found less participation and more support for Trump in counties that experienced smaller increases in unemployment rate.

“Our work demonstrates the value of spatial information-theoretic tools towards uncovering the mechanisms underlying government elections and, more generally, the socio-political fabric of a country. This is critical to support decision-making processes in urban sciences, in a context where our cities face dramatic changes due to environmental and sociotechnical stressors, such as climate change and social justice,” added De Lellis.

The research was partially supported by the National Science Foundation. It was also part of the collaborative activities carried out under the programs of the region of Murcia (Spain): “Groups of Excellence of the region of Murcia, the Fundaci ́on Seneca, Science and Technology Agency.” De Lellis was supported by the program “STAR 2018” of the University of Naples Federico II and Compagnia di San Paolo, Istituto Bancodi Napoli — Fondazione, project ACROSS. M. Ruiz Mar ́was supported by Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovaci ́on y Universidades.

Why State Spending on Higher Education May Not Improve the Economy in Many States

In recent years, the idea of tuition-free colleges and universities in the United States has made its way into mainstream political debates. In many ways, this idea makes good economic sense. Federal subsidies that help state governments eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at public universities shift tax burdens to the federal government. This, in turn, levels burdens across states in both taxes and the cost of higher education.

However, federally subsidized free college tuition would risk worsening economic inequality among states. Although states should take steps to enlarge access to higher education, state investments in higher education must be accompanied by — or preceded by — policies to improve job opportunities and living standards in low-income states. Otherwise, only those states that are already ahead will reap the economic benefits of greater federal investments in higher education. Inequalities across states would get worse. This brief explains the contradictory imperatives at work.

Why Investing in Higher Education is Beneficial

Higher education is a good that society should provide on the basis of need rather than allocating only according to people’s ability or willingness to pay. This should not need to be justified on economic grounds. Although there are a number of good reasons for state governments to invest in higher education, some are economic while others cannot be reduced to fiscal considerations. Broader social benefits include lower crime rates, improved public health, and stronger familial and social relationships. Furthermore, in addition to providing such quality of life and societal benefits, higher education prepares students for active citizenship and community leadership.

Compelling economic benefits also come from investment in higher education. Such state spending increases human capital – the combination of knowledge, productivity, and creativity that produces economic value. This in turn improves state economies and productivity. Research shows that state economic performances rise with the proportion of residents holding bachelor’s degrees. And the stronger the state’s economy, the more it spends on higher education.

When Investing in Higher Education is Not Economically Beneficial

However, not all states enjoy the same benefits when they increase access to higher education. The economic returns from investment in higher education are not felt right away; they tend to take at least four years to show up. And long-term investments like those required for higher education are often harder to implement in low-budget states with lagging economies. Such states are doubly disadvantaged, because their less robust economies often offer poorer job prospects and living standards to graduates. Troubled economies are often on the losing end of the “brain drain,” in which many graduates from colleges in states with poor job markets move to other — usually more prosperous — states after graduation.

In the short term, state economies can benefit more from efforts to increase the number of college graduates who move into the state, or stay after graduation, than from policies that subsidize increased enrollments at in-state universities. Such enlarged enrollments will only improve a state’s economy if the number of new enrollees at in-state institutions far outweighs the number of graduates who leave the state, or if the graduates who remain become so productive that they more than compensate for those who leave.

Validating this logic, data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and the U.S. Census do reveal that states that spend more on higher education do attract and enroll more students in their colleges and universities, but do not necessarily enjoy the economic benefits of a well-educated workforce and general population. Regardless of spending on higher education, states with the most employment opportunities and highest expected earnings generally enjoy the greatest returns on human capital. No matter where people go to college, those “good jobs” states are the ones that will reap the economic benefits.

Implications for Investments in Higher Education

Although these findings are good news for already prosperous states, they do not bode well for states with lagging economies. These states are not only likely to miss the economic benefits of ramping up investments in higher education; their current investments likely benefit the already better-off states that attract their graduates. What is more, when states with lagging economies invest in higher education and cannot retain graduates or attract them from other states, they are often unable to attract other forms of private or public investments necessary to spur economic regeneration. In short, they cannot catch up.

There are, however, reforms that could alleviate economic burdens on poor states while still lowering financial barriers to higher education.

  • States with less robust economies can provide incentives for graduates to stay, such as programs that link tuition remissions to commitments to work in-state for some number of years. Other useful steps include housing incentives for graduates who remain and university-sponsored internships that pair undergraduates with possible future employers.

  • Instead of subsidizing enrollments, national-level subsidies could help low-income states invest in higher education and reduce the disparities of higher education costs and tax burdens across states. Moving the tax burden to the national level makes sense, given state-to-state migration of college graduates. State-funded higher education systems, however, offer protections against federal overreach about what gets taught at universities. Steps to shift the tax burden must also include protections for local and state educational control to ensure federal funding does not narrow the range of ideas deemed acceptable for debate and discussion on campus.

Few debate the value of higher education. Yet as policymakers work to reduce inequality across the country, they must be sure to craft policy solutions that truly keep poor states from falling further behind. By shifting investments in higher education to the national level and making greater efforts to reduce inequalities among states, policymakers can help ensure a more equitable future and a stronger democracy for the United States as a whole.

The Partisan Gap Among Women in Elective Office in 2020 and Beyond

The 2020 elections saw robust gains for Republican women in state legislatures and Congress. Republican women increased their numbers from 13 to 31 in the U.S. House of Representatives, and from 662 to 729 in state legislatures nationally. The impressive performance of Republican women in elected office led CBS News to label 2020 as “The Year of The Republican Woman.” To those who believe that American democracy will be stronger—more legitimate, more representative, and produce better policy outcomes—if its members more fully embody the diversity of the American population, the gains for Republican women were welcome news.

Since the early 1990s, almost all of the gains for women in state legislatures and Congress have occurred on the Democratic side of the aisle, resulting in a dramatic partisan gap. Overall, Democrats contribute 72% of the women in the 117th Congress, and a similar pattern exists at the state level. Women will never reach parity in elective office unless both Republican women and Democratic women increase their numbers. And while many associate “women’s issues” with a progressive policy agenda, the reality is that close to half of American women lean in a more conservative direction and typically support Republican candidates.

The Structural Causes of the Partisan Gap

The causes of the partisan gap—the steady success of Democratic women and the plateauing of Republican women’s representation—have not been the product of Donald Trump’s election or any single election cycle. Rather, they are driven by long-term structural changes to the U.S. electoral environment. Research has examined how American partisan politics have undergone ideological, regional, and racial realignments over the past half century, but insufficient attention has been paid to the consequences of these realignments for women’s representation. Each of these realignments has contributed to the growth of the partisan gender gap by creating conditions that help Democratic women run and win while erecting obstacles for Republican women.

  • Southern partisan realignment: The heavily conservative climate of the South used to act as a barrier for women in both parties, but as conservatism has become concentrated almost exclusively on the Republican side of the partisan aisle, the Southern electoral landscape only acts to constrain the election of Republican women. Even though the South is the region where the Republican Party does the best, southern Republican women hold relatively fewer of their party’s seats (15% of Republican state legislators in the South are women, compared to 21% nationally.) Republican women have their lowest levels of representation in heavily Republican states that enjoy the most opportunities for building seniority, which is critical for attaining party leadership positions and wining higher office.
  • Racial realignment: The South no longer hinders the representation of Democratic women in a parallel manner. In fact, Democratic women have made remarkable gains in southern states, making up 42% of southern Democrats in Congress and of Democrats in southern state legislatures—with women of color leading the surge. Women of color have made gains in Congress and state legislatures at a faster rate than white women, a pattern that has benefitted the Democratic Party almost exclusively since over 90% of women of color in elective office are Democrats. In the 117th Congress, women are 43% of the Members of Congress of color, whereas they are only 22% of the white members of Congress. A similar pattern exists in state legislatures, especially in the South.
  • Ideological realignment: Although at one point in the 20th century, the Republican Party was arguably more progressive on issues of gender equality than the Democratic Party—it embraced the Equal Rights Amendment in its platform before the Democrats did for example—the parties have undergone a significant realignment. Today the Democratic Party is vocal and active in making gender parity in elective office a goal. The party is also comfortable making specific efforts to recruit women, and its decentralized open culture has enabled outside groups, most notable EMILY’s LIST to act as a recruiting arm of the party. The Republican Party’s more hierarchical culture, as well as its individualistic ideology which rejects the idea of explicit female recruitment as problematic “identity politics,” tends to reproduce white male majorities and leaves groups interested in recruiting Republican women in a precarious and weakened position.

The Partisan Gap in 2020 and Beyond

The modest success of Republican women in 2020 is in part due to women in the Republican Party—especially Representative Elise Stefanik—defying Republican traditions to call out the lack of women in the party as a problem and specifically recruit and fund women candidates, starting early in the 2020 election cycle. Republicans also benefited from having a more diverse group of women candidates. Republican women of color in Congress increased from one in the 116th Congress to five in the 117th Congress. If Republicans continue with such efforts, they may continue the gains made in 2020. However, the huge prior advantage of Democratic women over Republican women coupled with high re-election rates will make the closing the partisan gap a steep challenge.

It remains unclear whether Republican Party leaders are interested or able to make sustained efforts to recruit more women candidates, especially those of color. The Republican Party has pushed one of its women members, Liz Cheney, out of a leadership position and failed to elect the widow of a deceased Republican member to an open seat in Texas. Indeed, the regional, racial, and ideological forces behind the partisan gap for candidates and office holders portend a further widening, not narrowing, of the partisan gap among women in elective office—unless Republican leaders across the board to take strong, proactive steps are taken to counteract those forces.

Permanent Twitter Ban of Extremist Influencers Can Detoxify Social Media

Banning right-wing extremists from social media can reduce the spread of anti-social ideas and conspiracy theories, according to Rutgers-led research.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interactionexamined what happens after individual influencers with large followings are banned from social media and no longer have a platform to promote their extreme views.

“Removing someone from a platform is an extreme step that should not be taken lightly,” said lead author Shagun Jhaver, an assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Science at Rutgers-New Brunswick. “However, platforms have rules for appropriate behavior, and when a site member breaks those rules repeatedly, the platform needs to take action. The toxicity created by influencers and their supporters who promote offensive speech can also silence and harm vulnerable user groups, making it crucial for platforms to attend to such influencers’ activities.”

The study examined three extremist influencers banned on Twitter: Alex Jones, an American radio host and political extremist who gained notoriety for promoting conspiracy theories; Milo Yiannopoulos, a British political commentator who became known for ridiculing Islam, feminism and social justice; and Owen Benjamin, an American “alt-right” actor, comedian and political commentator who promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and anti-LGBT views.

The researchers analyzed more than 49 million tweets referencing the banned influencers, tweets referencing their offensive ideas, and all tweets posted by their supporters six months before and after they were removed from the platform.

Once they were denied social media access, posts referencing each influencer declined by almost 92 percent. The number of existing users and new users specifically tweeting about each influencer also shrank significantly, by about 90 percent.

The bans also significantly reduced the overall posting activity and toxicity levels of supporters. On average, the number of tweets posted by supporters reduced by 12.59 percent and their toxicity declined by 5.84 percent. This suggests that de-platforming can improve the content quality on the platform.

Researchers say the study indicates that banning those with extremist views who are promoting conspiracy theories minimizes contentious conversations by their supporters. The data from the study will help social media platforms make more informed decisions about whether and when to implement bans, which has been on the rise as a moderation strategy.

“Many people continue to raise concerns about the financial benefits from advertising dollars tied to content that spreads misinformation or conducts harassment,” said Jhaver. “This is an opportunity for platforms to clarify their commitment to its users and de-platform when appropriate. Judiciously using this strategy will allow platforms to address the problem of online radicalization, a worthy goal to pursue even if it leads to short-term loss in advertising dollars.”

Future research is needed to examine the interactions between online speech, de-platforming and radicalization and to identify when it would be appropriate to ban users from social media sites.

Why Performance-Based Funding Fails to Improve College Graduation Rates – and How States Can Do Better

The number of students who enroll in college and take on debt without receiving a college degree is striking. Of all students enrolled in America’s public four-year universities, less than 60 percent will graduate with a degree within six years. Even fewer enrollees graduate from two-year colleges, where only about 30 percent earn a credential within three years. To put this in perspective, over the past 20 years, more than 30 million students have enrolled in U.S. colleges only to drop out without receiving a degree or certificate.

What can be done? In response to what many call the “completion crisis,” lawmakers in more than 30 states have implemented performance-based policies that fund universities based on how many students they graduate instead of, or in addition to, how many they enroll. The underlying logic is simple: if colleges have an incentive to graduate more of the students they enroll, they will invest more to help their students actually earn degrees.

The Weak Performance of Performance-Based Funding

Despite the intuitive appeal of performance-based funding, research evidence suggests these policies do not produce intended boosts in student graduation rates. In fact, after gathering all of the published, peer-reviewed research on the topic and combining it into one model, my colleagues and I have demonstrated that performance-based funding has, on average, zero impact on the number of students making it to graduation. Even more concerning, we find that the average performance-based funding policy reduces college access for underrepresented groups of potential students. This happens because college administrators raise admissions standards in hopes of narrowing admitted enrollees to only those most likely to make it to graduation.

Our results do not say that every kind of performance-based funding is bound to fail at improving college graduation rates, only that current policy designs in the vast majority of states are not accomplishing the intended policy goals. To make improvements in the future, we need to understand why such an intuitive and well-intentioned type of program so clearly fails to help more students graduate from college.

Oversights in Current Policies

My research pinpoints three areas where performance-funding policies fail to align with reality and thus prove ineffective.

  • Failure to recognize competing stakeholders. For changes in state funding of colleges and universities to shift the priorities of university administrators, state legislatures would have to be the most important source of support. But this does not reflect current realities in higher education, because most institutions have multiple competing stakeholders ranging from donors and state regents to accreditation agencies and prominent politicians, all of whom can introduce competing pressures.
  • Colleges and universities have unequal capacities to improve graduation rates. Research has shown that institutional capacities and student populations at community colleges are vastly different from those found at well-resourced research universities. Some colleges may be able to provide expanded student support, but others cannot. Indeed, many public two-year colleges are already underfunded and serve predominantly disadvantaged students. If the goal is to increase the quality of educational services, slashing appropriations to already struggling institutions could make the situation even worse for their students and teachers.
  • Financial incentives may have limited and unintended impacts. Financial incentives may not be enough to impact complex outcomes and can lead to unintended consequences, such as reducing access to college for minorities and low-income people. In many fields of social policy, scholars have documented such patterns. For example, when hospitals have implemented performance-based funding models, health outcomes were not improved, instead surgeons and physicians misdiagnosed more patients and tried to avoid those with the greatest needs. Similarly, when policymakers tied funding for school teachers to standardized test results for their students, teachers narrowed instruction to tested areas rather than helping students learn to become critical thinkers.

How To Improve College Completion Rates

Taken together, real-world challenges make improving graduation rates much more complicated than many performance-based funding policies presume. So what should concerned policymakers do? There are two main ways forward.

  • If a state is determined to use performance-based funding formulas for its public institutions, policymakers should design the formulas to encourage colleges and university leaders to target enhanced supports on the most vulnerable student populations. Recent research shows that performance-based funding can direct financial bonuses to institutions that provide access and extra supports to underserved student groups. Carefully designed policies can alleviate some of the negative side-effects of performance-based funding, by ensuring access to less privileged students as overall graduation rates are improved.
  • More fundamentally, policymakers should address the root cause of the problem, not the symptoms. The number one reason so many students drop out is that college has become less affordable for many lower and middle-class families.

Indeed, instead of pursuing policies that manipulate incentives for institutions, state legislatures and others would be well advised to invest in need-based financial aid and other programs to help needy students stay in college until they graduate. Addressing the underlying issue of college affordability for low-income and middle-class families will not only improve completion rates, but also strengthen state and local economies. In turn, more students earning degrees will swell the ranks of skilled workers, boost economic growth and business profits, and generate more tax dollars to invest in education and other public necessities in the future.

Why Growing Urban Inequality is as Much About White Affluence as Minority Poverty

American cities have long been unequal places – with big class and racial gaps that often overlap. Residents of particular neighborhoods often experience many severe deprivations all at once. Scholars try to understand these overlapping urban inequalities by mapping concentrations of racial and ethnic groups along with those areas that experience concentrated poverty, using U.S. Census data to identify areas that are both majority non-white and where more than 40% of residents are poor.

But the other side of the urban inequality story receives less attention. Although concentrated poverty in America’s urban centers has garnered much interest from researchers and policymakers, much less attention is paid to areas of concentrated white affluence. A failure to look at both sides of growing urban inequality is problematic because the growing advantages enjoyed by affluent white urbanites often come at the expense of imposing ever greater disruptions and disadvantages on poor, minority residents.

The Growth of Racially Concentrated Urban Poverty

According to Joseph Cortright and Dillon Mahmoudi, economists and regional development experts at City Observatory, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods across the United States has tripled since 1970. “This growing concentration of poverty,” they conclude, “is the biggest problem confronting American cities.” Furthermore, as my own research in Lexington, Kentucky has shown, racially concentrated areas of poverty are not only at an all-time high, they have also been underestimated for a long time.

Racially concentrated poverty is especially worrisome because it clusters the most disadvantaged people together and multiplies their troubles. Residents of such areas must deal with more health problems and crime, educational deprivation, and lower life expectancies. To address these problems, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has tried to disperse poor people to less disadvantaged areas. In partnership with cities across the country, the Department has undertaken projects like the demolition and redevelopment of public housing. This approach has the effect, however, of placing extra burdens on the most vulnerable, poor, and marginalized urban residents.

What is more, my research in Lexington demonstrates that areas of racially concentrated poverty have expanded, not shrunk, as the city has implemented this kind of plan to disperse poverty. My findings suggest the unworkability of policies that attempt to alleviate concentrated poverty simply by dispersing poor people. For example, HOPE VI is a program that was developed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1990s. In Lexington and other areas, this plan aimed to revitalize the public housing projects in U.S. cities by converting them into mixed-income developments – housing that serves not only low-income but also moderate- and high-income residents as well. But so far, this approach has not worked.

In Lexington, HOPE VI projects were built on the former sites of the Bluegrass-Aspendale and Charlotte Court public housing projects. These efforts demolished more than 1000 public housing units and opened the areas to new, mixed-income housing. But this redevelopment failed to reduce concentrated poverty. The problem, of course, is that moving the poor around in space does not make them any less poor. In Lexington, areas of racially concentrated poverty have actually grown over time, as poor residents simply clustered in other parts of the city after being displaced. In turn, the “redeveloped” neighborhoods they left behind have begun to gentrify with an influx of young, predominantly white urbanites. The failure of this approach in Lexington and elsewhere flows from the obvious fact that displacing poor people is a misconceived spatial solution to problems that are fundamentally social.

The Flipside of Concentrated White Affluence

As concentrated urban poverty continues to grow, especially for racial minorities, it represents only one side of the story of rising U.S. urban inequality. It is equally important to consider the flipside of racially concentrated affluence. Alongside growing urban poverty, cities have also experienced the growth of disproportionately white neighborhoods with median household incomes more than twice those of the citywide median. Indeed, in Lexington, racially concentrated affluence is not only far more prevalent than racially concentrated poverty, it has been this way for a long time.

Affluent areas rarely, if ever, receive the same amount of critical scrutiny as neighborhoods populated by poor people of color. It might seem obvious that policymakers see little to worry about for affluent areas. Yet these wealthier and whiter neighborhoods are implicated in the spread of urban poverty. For one thing, as my research shows, over 40% of all residential properties in Lexington’s poorest areas are owned by people outside of those neighborhoods. The already limited financial resources or poor renters flow out to the bank accounts of richer owners living in other areas around the city, or even beyond the city’s borders. Outward flows of money not only reproduce poverty in poor neighborhoods, they can also subsidize wealthy white enclaves at the city’s fringes. Consequently, even though racially concentrated poverty and affluence seem very different, analysts need to keep in mind that the social and economic forces creating both are in many ways intertwined. Understanding the basic and dynamic connections between places and sets of social conditions allows analysts to avoid the misleading either/or dichotomies that too often mark discussions of the causes of urban inequalities.

Rather than seeing concentrated poverty as the opposite of gentrification or other manifestations of urban inequality, these processes should be understood as part of the same system – where poor, non-white residents and neighborhoods are repeatedly put at a disadvantage and drained of resources, while at the same time affluent, mostly white people and their neighborhoods gain more advantages and extra resources. Extreme urban poverty and affluence may seem worlds apart, even in the same city, but they are actually intertwined by complex economic and social linkages that researchers must investigate so policymakers can take them into proper account.

Police Training Needs Urgent Reforms, New Report from American University Reveals

The instructional models that are used to train police officers across the U.S. at the academy, in-service, mid-rank, and leadership levels are in many cases antiquated, inadequate, and in critical need of immediate transformation, according to a new report released by American University’s School of Public Affairs (SPA). Entitled “Re-Envisioning Police Training in the U.S.: Rejecting the Status Quo, Speeding the Pace of Progress Toward a True 21st Century Model”the report is being released on the website of both SPA and the International Association of the Chiefs of Police.

“Today, policing in America is at a transformative juncture when all aspects of policy, practice, and mission are being examined by the very communities they serve,” said Vicky Wilkins, Dean of the School of Public Affairs. “How police officers are trained is the most important factor that dictates how successfully the sworn officers across the U.S. serve their communities.”

Working closely with police, members of non-government organizations and community leaders, and academic experts, the authors of the report identified significant gaps in training that require immediate attention. They urge a major overhaul in training course content at all levels to ensure that officers are better prepared to face complex, life- threatening situations.

The authors of the report emphasize the importance of the training of mid-rank officers and the training of agency leaders to ensure that they are prepared to boldly address constantly emerging issues, for example IACP’s First Line Leadership or Leadership in Police Organizations. Speaking about mid-rank training for police officers, John Firman, professor of practice and co-author of the report, said: “Thousands of newly-minted supervisors receive little or no training in the complexity of their new roles. It is of paramount importance that they receive in-depth training as they go through the difficult transition to supervising former peers and as they learn conflict-resolution skills to address community, organizational, and officer concerns.”

The authors of the report met and held discussions with career police officers, scholars of criminal justice, and community leaders from across the country during a symposium convened by AU SPA’s Department of Justice, Law and Criminology and the Key Leadership Institute.

“This report is an important work that offers a multi-disciplinary approach to a national issue,” said Falls Church Virginia Police Chief Mary Gavin, a member of AU’s Police Training Advisory Committee. “Creating strong bonds among police, community leaders, and experts in the academia is essential to develop evidence-based solutions for training police officers.”

How Inequality and Politics Influence Government Responses to Natural Disasters

By Fernando Tormos, Gustavo García-López, and Mary Angelica Painter

After a hurricane strikes, governments and electric utility companies go to work restoring a sense of normalcy to their communities. Typical disaster recovery efforts include providing food and shelter to the displaced and medical services to the injured, and turning the power back on. While governments and electric utility companies claim that they do not give preferential treatment to specific groups while performing these services, people on the ground have questioned whether such a claim is true in practice. Who is right? When disasters occur, do governments and utility companies place a priority on helping some while neglecting others?

The 2017 hurricane season provides ample evidence of the inequalities that mark disaster recoveries. Within one month, hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria devastated communities in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, making that season one of the costliest to date and one of the deadliest in U.S. history. Hurricane Maria caused a complete power outage in Puerto Rico, the largest blackout that America has ever incurred. This outage is a tragic natural experiment that provides a unique opportunity to understand prioritization during disaster recovery processes. Although a variety of factors determine the groups to which governments and utility companies are most responsive, our research shows that social vulnerability and support for the ruling party are key predictors.

Some Communities are More Vulnerable to Disasters

Everyone is vulnerable to disasters, but some are more vulnerable than others. Vulnerability refers to a community’s exposure to risk, loss, and harm; in particular, social vulnerability describes how resilient a community is, and how the attributes of a particular population will shape not just the impact of a disaster, but also dictate that population’s ability to recover from it. Socioeconomically marginalized groups exhibit marked social vulnerability: they tend to be less prepared for disasters, experience greater impact from those disasters, and—tellingly—also elicit less government responsiveness during disaster recoveries.

Our research shows that, in practice, socioeconomic conditions and partisan politics influence responses to disasters—even though governments and utility companies claim to prioritize the needs of critical infrastructure like hospitals and emergency operation centers. We employed statistical models to explain the distribution of power restoration crews after hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, and showed that communities with greater numbers of socially vulnerable people waited longer for crews to begin working in their neighborhoods. Our research also found that power restoration crews took fewer days to reach communities that supported the ruling party than those that did not.

How Can Governments and Utility Companies Improve Disaster Recoveries?

To create a more level playing field, governments and utility companies can take steps to achieve equity in disaster response, and save lives in doing so.

  • Prioritize vulnerable communities: Current disaster resource distribution practices tend to leave those in the greatest need behind. Governments and electric utility companies can reduce loss of life and suffering by officially prioritizing vulnerable communities, as they do with critical infrastructure.
  • Invest in disaster preparedness in vulnerable communities: Inequality during disasters is often a reflection of existing inequalities. Governments and utilities can enhance disaster preparedness through greater investment in vulnerable communities on flood prevention, modernizing electric grids, and transitioning away from a heavy dependence on fossil fuel for energy generation.
  • Monitor political disparities: Utility companies and governments tend to coordinate disaster recoveries without much oversight from the communities they are serving (since those communities without power and have a reduced capacity to communicate.) Increased monitoring of how disaster resources are distributed can bring public scrutiny to bear on disaster response, and reduce the tendency to give preferential treatment to communities that are politically supportive of the ruling party.

Preparing for and Recovering from More Frequent Extreme Weather

Climate change is expected to make extreme weather more frequent and damaging. When hurricanes strike, outages will ensue. These outages are more than just inconveniences; they tend to result in loss of life, increased hospitalizations, medical supply shortages, and disruptions of healthcare systems. Socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, and especially those people within them who rely on electricity-dependent medical equipment and procedures like ventilators and dialysis, are exposed to greater risks and tend to wait longer for restoration. Prioritizing vulnerable communities during disaster preparedness and recovery holds the potential to reduce loss of life and alleviate their burden of powerlessness.

Why Independent Redistricting Commissions Should Draw Electoral District Maps

The drawing and redrawing of electoral districts – which happens every ten years after the Census – is a hotly contested ritual in American politics. At the center of these disputes is partisan gerrymandering, a process in which elected officials draw electoral districts to increase the likelihood their own party will win more seats in the legislature. The redistricting cycle following the 2010 Census has cast a bright light on such practices. After most states drew districts to one party’s advantage, some 240 legal challenges have been filed against the resulting district maps. Critics of partisan gerrymandering are pushing for more neutral ways to draw electoral districts, while defenders of the current system argue that redistricting is always an inherently political exercise.

Are there ways to ensure that districts fairly represent communities and avoid extreme political contentiousness about the drawing and redrawing electoral districts? My research shows that independent commissions present one viable option for eliminating extreme partisanship and serving the public interest in drawing neutral maps.

Renewed Interest in Districting by the Courts

On one hand, the courts have been willing to step in and strike down maps that dilute the ability of a minority group to elect a representative, or when a map violates the standard of equal population. On the other hand, the courts have been reluctant to overturn maps on partisan grounds. While judges have expressed unease about district maps drawn to favor one party over another, they have been unable to articulate an objective standard for evaluating when these maps create unfair advantages for one party over another.

Recent legal challenges, though, may present the courts with sufficient evidence to evaluate the partisan skew in a given district plan. The Supreme Court recently heard a case from Wisconsin where the legislative map was challenged, in part, because social scientists have developed a new set of indicators that suggested the map unfairly advantaged the Republican party. One such indicator, called “the efficiency gap,” is the ratio of a party’s “wasted votes” to the total number of votes cast – where a “wasted vote” is a ballot cast for a candidate who lost or a surplus ballot cast for a candidate who was already going to win. When the efficiency gap is very large, it indicates that one party wasted a large portion of its votes, often because the districts were unfairly drawn. Evidence of a large efficiency gap was persuasive enough that a lower court declared the Wisconsin map unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also heard a challenge to one congressional district in Maryland on the grounds that Republican voters were deprived of First Amendment rights to free association by a district plan that advantaged the Democratic Party.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently threw out the congressional map there and drew a new map for the 2018 midterm elections. In a novel development in redistricting litigation, the map was rejected solely on the basis that it violated sections of the state constitution, with no reference to the U.S. Constitution. This decision could usher in a new era of state-level judicial review of district plans, realizing Justice Felix Frankfurter’s famous concern about the courts entering the “political thicket” of adjudicating district plans. Perhaps the most tangible risk is that the state courts could be inundated with partisan challenges to redistricting plans.

Why Independent Commissions Make Sense

Rather than depend on the courts, history teaches that independent commissions can help avoid partisan conflicts or favoritism in district plans. Examples abound. Concerns that elected officials might manipulate monetary policy led to the creation of the independent Federal Reserve, and the Interstate Commerce Commission was set up to parry interferences by partisan and railroad interests. Congress handed reapportionment authority to the Census Bureau after politicians failed to reapportion the House after the 1920 Census.

The power to draw districts after each Census could be delegated to an independent redistricting commission. As they exist in Arizona and California, such commissions are completely divorced from the state legislature and therefore able to produce maps without the pressure to further or hinder the electoral fortunes of particular representatives or parties. Such concerns are always front and center when legislatures draw district plans. In contrast, social science research shows that commission-drawn plans set the stage for fairer and more competitive elections, and tend to avoid legal challenges.

How can the states institute independent redistricting commissions? Citizens in Arizona and California created their independent commissions directly, through ballot initiatives passed between 2000 and 2010. Most commissions in the West were created through ballot initiatives. Efforts to reform the redistricting process are currently underway in 18 states, and the possibility of creating independent redistricting commissions should be part of these discussions.

But many states cannot proceed by ballot initiatives or referenda. Creating an independent commission in Pennsylvania, for example, would require two consecutive legislatures to pass an identical bill which would then be submitted to the voters for their approval. Beyond a purely state-by-state approach, Congress could amend the Uniform Congressional District Act of 1967 and mandate that all U.S. House districts be drawn by an independent commission with rules and procedures to safeguard the public interest – such as having unelected civil servants select commission members and stipulating that districts must respect the integrity of cities and counties. New federal legislation could take lessons from pioneering states. The Arizona and California commissions demonstrate the value of independence, but the Arizona commission in particular focuses too much attention on a single nonpartisan commission chair. The California commission, by contrast, has four members of the commission that are neither Democrats nor Republicans and the position of the chair rotates among all members.

U.S. Gun Violence Increased 30% During COVID-19 Pandemic

Gun violence increased by more than 30% in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study by Penn State College of Medicine researchers. The researchers said that stress, domestic violence, lack of social interactions and greater access to firearms might have contributed to the increase.

According to the researchers, these findings come at a time when many hospitals remain inundated with COVID-19 cases and face challenges related to limited resources, such as blood products, intensive care beds, personal protective equipment and staffing. They said gun violen2nd ce increases the burden on health care systems that are already in high demand. The researchers also warn that if gun-related incidents continue to rise, hospitals may experience additional strain.

The researchers obtained data on shooting deaths, suicides and gun-related injuries from the Gun Violence Archive. They analyzed daily incidents in each state, as well as the District of Columbia, from February 2019 through March 2021. They compared incidents reported before the pandemic (February 2019 through February 2020) to gun violence reported during the first year of the pandemic (March 2020 through March 2021).

According to the findings, 28 states, including Pennsylvania, experienced a significantly higher number of shootings during the first year of the pandemic. In some states such as Minnesota, Michigan and New York, the rate of gun violence rose by more than 100%. Meanwhile, Alaska was the only state to see significantly lower rates of gun violence during the pandemic.

According to the researchers, added stress and worry, along with fear and uncertainty may have fueled an increase in gun sales. Based on data from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, there was a 41% increase in handguns sold in March 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. According to the researchers, all of these factors may have led to the increase in gun-related injuries and deaths during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has yielded harmful ripple effects that need to be addressed,” said co-lead investigator Dr. Paddy Ssentongo, assistant professor at the Penn State Center for Neural Engineering. “The spike in gun violence in the era of COVID-19 comes as a stark reminder that we can’t afford to ignore it any longer. Now is the time to focus on this public health crisis.”

“Our data reinforces the need to promote multiple interventions — vaccinations, testing, contact tracing, masking and ventilation — to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, and in doing so, hopefully we can mitigate the downstream effects,” said co-investigator Dr. Jennifer McCall-Hosenfeld, associate professor, Departments of Medicine and Public Health Sciences.

Penn State researchers Anna Ssentongo, Emily Heilbrunn, Dr. Joshua HazeltonDr. John Oh and Vernon Chinchilli contributed to this research. Claudio Fronterre from Lancaster University and Dr. Shailesh Advani from Georgetown University School of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health also contributed to this research.

The researchers declare no conflicts of interest or specific funding for this research.

Read the full study in Scientific Reports.

The “Money in Politics” Debate and Effective Ways to Improve Local Democracy in America

Ideally, local governments as the smallest jurisdictions in the American political system allow citizens to engage in a direct and substantive way. Local elections are one way this happens, as citizens select about half a million elected officials, one for every 450 adults, to serve in more than 85,000 U.S. local governments. But despite their potential to serve as entry points for average citizens, local elections suffer from the same campaign issues as state and national elections, including issues about the role of money in politics. And reform efforts to date have not done enough to limit the impact of resource disparities among contending candidates.

The Role of Money in U.S. Elections – Including Local Elections

Past research on money in U.S. electoral politics has concluded that raising campaign money is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. Very few candidates win without spending at least some threshold amount, but spending more than the opponent does not guarantee victory. Candidates cannot actually “buy” an election by spending exorbitant amounts.

These patterns hold true for most local elections as well. Even though the raw dollar amounts are less, on a per-voter basis local elections are just as expensive as state or national contests. In other words, local candidates spend just as much money communicating their message to each voter. In most mid-sized and large cities, candidates need to assemble campaign funds to be competitive. Only in the smallest cities and towns – those with less than 10,000 registered voters – do candidates routinely run successful campaigns without campaign funds. Similarly to state and national elections, though, raising more money than opponents is not decisive. Wealthy, high-spending candidates are common on a local level, but they do not have a great track record of electoral success. A sizable minority of local election victors – perhaps slightly over one-third – prevail despite being outspent by their opponents.

Although it’s easier for candidates to jump into races, local elections are not more competitive than state or national elections – and most local as well as higher-level incumbents win re-election (in one study, 80% of city council incumbents win). In general, local elections resemble state and national contests. Except in scattered small places, they do not live up to their potential to be grassroots, citizen-driven affairs where money has little relevance.

Campaign Finance Reforms at the Local Level

Some cities have implemented campaign finance reforms to limit the influence of money – but without much-proven success:

  • New York and Los Angeles have public matching fund programs lauded by reformers to provide public funding to candidates who accept voluntary expenditure limits. The intent of these programs is to reduce the amount of money in elections, level the playing field, and encourage more candidates to run. However, there is scant evidence that public matching funds have much effect. After a typical “novelty effect” in the first election reforms were put in place, similar numbers of candidates run in contests that are about equally competitive. Incumbents win just as often. And candidates circumvent limits by relying on independent spending by outside groups.
  • Similarly, although legal contribution limits may reduce the number of large donations given directly to local candidates, there is little evidence that they reduce the overall amounts of money in local elections. Candidates find ways around such limits through independent group expenditures or by “bundling” contributions from multiple donors.
  • It is still too early to draw firm conclusions from Seattle’s “democracy voucher” program, which provides four twenty-five dollar vouchers to every registered voter, so that he or she can donate to participating City Council candidates. The program started in 2017, and after the novelty effect wears off, it may run into the same problems as public funding programs: many candidates may choose not to participate; the funding may not be enough to run competitive campaigns; and independent expenditures may be used to skirt the intent of the law.

Better Paths Forward

So what can be done to reduce harmful influences of money in local elections? To answer this question, problems must first be accurately diagnosed. Local candidates need money to pay for advertising, the single largest expenditure for most local candidates. Because so few voters pay much attention to local races, candidates really do need resources to get their messages out. Realistic and effective reforms could aim to reduce, not just donations, but candidates’ need to pay for advertising. Efforts to limit money in local elections are bound to fail without addressing the underlying reasons candidates must raise and spend campaign funds in the first place.

Public funding – whether matching funds, “clean elections,” or Seattle’s Democracy Vouchers – addresses the need to pay for advertising by providing taxpayer subsidies to candidates. Even though this is a reasonable approach, the voluntary nature of these programs limits their effectiveness. Some candidates may join these programs and accept their rules to get public funding so they can advertise, but many may choose to rely on private donations instead. What is more, there is little public appetite for diverting taxpayer money to candidates who fill voters’ emails and mailboxes with appeals and flyers.

A better approach is to reform campaign finance not by limiting the amount of money candidates raise and spend, but by reducing the need for candidates to pay for advertising. This means finding ways to engage citizens in local elections or providing more, and better, information to those who are engaged – or both. So far, efforts such as registration drives and voter information websites have not shown much promise. But there are other experiments that can be tried to enhance local democracy. For example, elections might become more interesting if they involved events to let citizens deliberate over contentious local issues or hear solutions to local problems offered by community groups. Candidates could be asked to reply. Even though it is not clear what can be done to reduce the need for candidates to use paid advertising, reformers should turn their attention to that key expense. Maybe money donated in local politics is not as much the issue as how money is used – and should be used – to maximize citizen interest and engagement.

How Focusing on Teen Pregnancy as a Personal Moral Failing Deepens Social Inequality

In the 1980s and 1990s, concerns about teen pregnancy voiced by policymakers and pundits helped garner support for welfare reform – as the public reached a consensus that teen pregnancy contributes to poverty and was encouraged by overly lenient welfare programs. Resulting welfare changes in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 imposed strict lifetime limits on the number of months a poor family can receive assistance while making it harder for impoverished families to qualify and remain eligible for aid. This policy was supposed to reduce welfare dependency by promoting work, reducing out-of-wedlock and adolescent pregnancies, and promoting marriage.

However, studies show that the age at which a person gives birth is not causally related to poverty or negative health outcomes for the parent or child. Teen pregnancy is a symptom of poverty, rather than its cause. While the 1996 law is credited with reducing the welfare rolls, experts argue that it has also increased the number of Americans living in at the deepest level of poverty. Declines in adolescent pregnancy cannot be attributed to that policy shift. If anything, welfare reform may have increased the rate of adolescent pregnancies among welfare recipients.

Welfare Reform and Shifting Perspectives on Teen Pregnancy

After the 1996 passage of welfare reform, conversations about teen pregnancy that had previously included attention to urban conditions, unemployment, inadequate health care, and the shortcomings of public education turned to an almost-exclusive focus on adolescent sex and the personal and moral failings it supposedly represents. My research examines political discourse, popular culture, and national and local efforts to prevent teen pregnancies to better understand why teen sex and childbearing remain central to popular culture and policy debates, despite research showing that teen pregnancy is a symptom of poverty and not a cause. I further examine why there has not been a reevaluation of welfare policy despite the documented shortfalls of earlier reforms. And I also probe how these two phenomena may be related.

Moral arguments have featured prominently in debate about adolescent sex since the 1970s, when teen pregnancy was first named as a special problem. Before the 1996 welfare legislation, however, the moral aspect was one of many. Only since then have the personal moral responsibilities of teen parents become the only lens through which responses are discussed.

Who Shapes Images of Teen Pregnancy and Why?

Some of the same voices that narrowed the discussion of welfare reform in the 1990s still shape discussions today. In 1996, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (recently renamed Power to Decide) was founded as a counterpart to welfare reform. Power to Decide remains influential and is guided by leaders who helped popularize the overly-narrow view that teen pregnancy is largely a moral issue. In addition to helping enact welfare reform, these politicians and social scientists changed the debate about teen pregnancy. But to what end?

By studying shifts in public portrayals of teen pregnancy as a problem in national debates and in the activities, social media output, and television contributions of Power to Decide, I discovered that the moralized focus has specific effects:

  • It removes teen pregnancy from the context of welfare. Whereas the issue was almost exclusively part of political debates about the welfare system in the 1980s and 1990s, in subsequent decades it is discussed primarily within debates about sex education and abortion.
  • It paints the issue as an equal-opportunity problem. No longer is teen pregnancy represented as primarily plaguing Black and Latina communities. In shows like 16 and Pregnant, which has a mostly white cast, as well as in online games with multicultural characters and public service announcements with high-profile celebrities such as Bristol Palin, teen pregnancy is now publicly portrayed as equally affecting all races and classes.
  • It depicts burdens of teen pregnancy as primarily physical and emotional. Stress on the pains of childbirth and the strains of parenthood for young relationships displaces earlier discussions of the potential impacts of teen pregnancy on a young person’s economic self-sufficiency and educational attainment.

Such shifts in public discussion fail to account for race, class, and the importance of social institutions in shaping the rate and experience of adolescent pregnancy. If U.S. systems of education, welfare, taxation, criminal justice, and health care are not portrayed as contributing to this problem, they will be left out of proposed solutions. The current focus on personal morality avoids addressing any societal roots or remedies. Instead, politicians and advocates informed by the rhetoric of the 1996 welfare reform offer attractively packaged information about sex and morality – often safely conveyed on the Internet – as their response to teen pregnancy. Questions of racism, inequality, and the inadequacies of the social safety net do not arise. In effect, public framings of teen pregnancy as a personal and moral problem blink at systematic racial disparities and leave low-income Americans vulnerable as inequalities widen.

Better Approaches

Focusing on teen pregnancy as a moral failing distracts citizens, policymakers, and advocates from addressing the real problems in young people’s lives. Instead, the priorities should be:

  • Reducing discrimination against pregnant young women and young parents in schools.
  • Providing comprehensive sex education and reproductive health care to all young people, not in the name of stigmatizing certain pregnancies but to equip adolescents with the knowledge and tools to make informed choices about sex and reproduction.
  • Replacing earlier failed welfare programs with economically redistributive measures to help people in difficult life circumstances – and boost the resources of marginalized communities.

The Case for Ending the Anonymity of Egg & Sperm Donations in the United States

Egg and sperm donations in the United States have long proceeded under the cloak of secrecy. Twenty-five years ago, when I first started interviewing patients who used donors to conceive a child, many intended parents struggled with whether eventually to tell their child about the nature of his or her conception. While some professionals in the fertility industry advised that this was a parent’s personal decision, others encouraged disclosure, and still others recommended never telling a child how they were conceived. The last approach dovetailed with the industry standard that required donor anonymity. In subsequent years, my research has led me to conclude that mandatory donor anonymity is problematic – not only for the children conceived with donor help, but also for donors themselves and the people who created their families with donor assistance.

After a boom in the late 1980s and 1990s, the use of donor sperm and eggs continues to expand in the United States – and increasing numbers of donor-conceived adults are going to want access to their biological information, including access to the identities of the people who helped create them. The United Kingdom has abolished donor anonymity. Why has the United States not followed suit?

How Does Anonymity Affect Donors and Donor-Conceived Children?

Many professionals in the fertility industry maintain that mandatory open donor identity would reduce the number of people willing to come forward to provide eggs and sperm. In countries that have national registries and have abolished donor anonymity, these fears have not borne out. In the United Kingdom, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority reports that the number of sperm donors has increased since anonymity was banned; and since ending donor anonymity, Australia and Sweden have also seen increases in donors volunteering.

In the United States, given that donors are compensated – indeed, egg donors are substantially compensated – the financial incentive alone is enough to ensure that people will still come forward to provide gametes for other people’s children, even if their identity is revealed to the children born from their gametes. Many donors prefer an end to anonymity. In my current research project, I have to date interviewed over 90 donors and collected 190 online surveys. Only a handful of egg donors, I find, want to remain anonymous in perpetuity – yet the majority reported they were told anonymity was their only option.

Many sperm and egg donors go to great lengths to meet their genetic children, turning to DNA tests, online registries, and ancestry websites in their searches. Meanwhile, the first generation of children conceived via banked sperm or donated eggs are now young adults, who have their own feelings about donor conception and their own desires for forging connection, or not, with their donors. Some experienced emotional fall-out from being told later in their childhood they were donor-conceived or discovering it themselves after having the truth was concealed for of their lives.

In my conversations with donor-conceived people, those who seemed most at ease were told at a young age and continued to hear their conception story as they matured. People who were told as adolescents or later, or discovered the “secret” on their own, report feeling a sense of betrayal at having been lied to by the parents they were supposed to be able to trust. For families who decided not to inform their donor-conceived children, the secrecy appears to have been largely rooted in the stigma and shame many people feel about infertility and the inability to have a biological child.

Dealing with the Downsides of Anonymity Falls to Individuals

In a quest for identity, many donor-conceived adults report using a combination of techniques to find their donors. Some sign up on registries, such as the Donor Sibling Registry. This service charges a $200 lifetime fee for donors and donor-conceived people to sign up and search for matches, using the donor identification numbers that clinics, sperm banks, or egg donation agencies assign. Others have turned to free online sites – such as donorconception.com – that help donors, donor-siblings, and donor-conceived children find each other by combining donor information, direct-to-consumer genetic tests, and ancestry registries.

Essentially, anonymity is already obsolete; U.S. policy simply has not caught up with modern technology. The rise of direct-to-consumer genetic testing increases the likelihood of donor-conceived children finding their genetic parents, whether the donor wants that to happen or not. If anyone in a donor’s family does a test and registers on a website like ancestry.com, chances are good a donor-conceived child can find them. While such consumer testing and ancestry sites do raise privacy concerns about the public availability of genetic information, they make it virtually assured that anyone can be found.

The Need for a Donor Registry

Many fertility industry professionals have voiced concerns about how a registry would function given U.S. patient privacy law. The industry’s fear that registries reduce donors has not borne out in other countries that have implemented them. And by now, offering anonymity as an option misleads prospective donors into believing that their privacy can be guaranteed, when it cannot. With anonymity increasingly a non-viable option, it is time to consider establishing a national registry for egg and sperm donors. Not only would such a registry make it easier for people to find biological kin, it could also provide other advantages:

  • A registry could keep track of the number of live births per donor in the same geographic area, to reduce the risk of unions between donor-conceived biological siblings.
  • For egg donors, a registry could track completed egg donation cycles to reduce the risk of donors going through more cycles than is considered safe.
  • A registry would allow researchers to track egg donor health to better understand complications and give women considering egg donation more information for their decisions.

Challenging Assumptions About the Use of Contraception by U.S. Muslim Women

By Henna Budhwani and Kristine Ria Hearld

Contraception is complicated. Reproductive health scholars can comfortably weigh the protective benefits of condom use compared to the convenience of intrauterine devices. However, for most people, contraception continues to be a sensitive subject not appropriate for casual conversation – and consequently many Americans lack an adequate understanding of their contraception options. Likewise, even the best-intentioned clinicians know little about how minority communities engage with reproductive healthcare and utilize contraception. Due to these knowledge gaps, providers of contraceptive services often struggle with how to approach family planning with individuals from minority populations, particularly those belonging to highly stigmatized groups that are underrepresented in scientific research. This can be especially true for “culturally conservative” populations of clients, among whom sex itself is stigmatized and sexual health is not freely discussed in the home or the doctor’s office.

Knowledge gaps are especially prevalent about the reproductive health behaviors of Muslim women, arguably one of the most understudied populations in the United States. This dearth of research is not surprising, given that Muslim women are part of a religious minority group that experiences ongoing intersectional stigma and discrimination in American public life. Because past studied have sometimes taken advantage of minority and marginalized populations, groups such as Muslim women may be suspicious of researchers and wary of divulging personal information, particularly on sensitive topics like contraception use.

Nevertheless, good research is needed, because in its absence, pernicious assumptions can take the place of actual evidence – and myths can misinform clinicians and policymakers as well as the general public. Social scientists therefore have a pressing calling to conduct research that may ultimately dispel harmful myths and give voice to a group of women missing from academic discourse. Our work examines this set of issues, contraception use and reproductive health preferences, in Muslim women in the United States. We collected information from Muslim women themselves about their lives, and our findings refute presumptions that women in this population typically experience low bodily autonomy and high sexual risk factors.

Path-Breaking Research from the Muslim Women’s Health Project

In 2015, the Back of the Envelope mechanism at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health funded a grant to collect exploratory data from Muslim women across the United States. Our research team developed an online survey that included measures of stigma, mental health, and contraceptive use among participants. Respondents were women who self-identified as Muslim and who were at least eighteen years old and current residents of the United States. To be sure, online surveys have limitations – for example, American Muslim women who did not have a computer in their home or did not regularly use the Internet would likely not have been exposed to the survey at all. Nevertheless, one major benefit of online surveys is their ability to engage difficult-to-reach populations, including respondents in stigmatized populations, minority enclaves, and groups fearing persecution. Data from our respondents, including participants from Muslim subgroups, were analyzed to identify notable barriers and facilitators to various kinds of contraception use – namely use of oral contraceptive pills, condoms, intrauterine devices, and reliance on withdrawal during sex.

In the United States as a whole, some national estimates suggest that 62% to 75% of women of reproductive age use contraceptives. Rates of contraception use by women in Muslim majority countries varies widely, from a low rate of use by 38.5% of reproductive-age women in Pakistan and to a high rate of use by 62.3% of such women in Indonesia. Because of these statistics, we assumed Muslim women in the United States would use contraceptives at a higher rate than their counterparts in Muslim majority countries, but at a lower rate than other women in the wider-population of Americans.

Results from our survey showed that our hypotheses were wrong. We found that almost 80% of eligible Muslim respondents used some form of contraception. As we delved further into characteristics of our sample, we realized that the women who responded to the survey tended to be highly educated (over half had completed graduate or professional school) and had relatively high incomes (43% had a household income of over $100,000 annually). They also had high rates of health insurance coverage, given that fewer than six percent were uninsured. A deeper investigation through multivariate analysis showed that education and income were more important to understanding contraception use than religion, ethnicity, or even immigrant status (whether a respondent was born in the United States or elsewhere).

Essentially, our inquiry found was that when the social playing field is leveled through higher education, increased income, and full access to health insurance, contraceptive utilization increases – even among populations that are predominantly foreign-born and where people may be religious or hail from culturally conservative communities where women hold a secondary social status. Such factors are typically associated with low contraception use, but in our study, we found these factors could be counteracted by positive social conditions associated with empowerment.

Why Policymakers and Advocates Should Further Overall Improvements

When officials or advocates aim to boost contraceptive use by racial and ethnic minorities in order to reduce unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, it may be valuable to address community conditions holistically. Working patient by patient in health care settings can be helpful, but this approach is limited in scope, costly in time, and influences only the identified, targeted health behaviors. The better approach may be to expand women’s overall access to advanced educational opportunities that can lead to socioeconomic success and improved quality of life – even for women who belong to culturally conservative communities. Overall empowerment, we conclude, is the best way to increase rates of contraceptive use and ensure better life choices and opportunities for women in all communities.

Democrat-Led States Tended to Have Stronger Response to COVID-19, Which Improved Health Outcomes, Study Shows

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — States with Democratic leaders tended to have responded more strongly to COVID-19 and have seen a lower rate of the spread of the virus, according to new research led by faculty at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Binghamton University Professor of Political Science Olga Shvetsova and her colleagues wanted to gain a clearer understanding of how politics affect COVID-19 outcomes. The researchers used data on public health measures taken across the United States to build an index of the strength of the COVID policy response. They combined this index with daily counts of new COVID cases, along with political and other variables that they thought were relevant to the dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic and governments’ response to it. Using this dataset, they assessed the effects of policies on the observed number of new infections and the difference between the policies adopted in Republican-led and Democrat-led states.

This study connects the aggregate strength of public health policies taken in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in the U.S. states to the governors’ party affiliations and to the state-level outcomes. Understanding the relationship between politics and public health measures can better prepare American communities for what to expect from their governments in a future crisis and encourage advocacy for delegating public health decisions to medical professionals.

“The state governments led by Democrats, on average, took stricter measures than the state governments led by Republicans, and the states with stricter measures had the virus spread much slower,” said Shvetsova.

The difference between the policies made in Democrat-led states and those made in Republican-led states corresponded to an about 7-8 percent lower rate of the spread of the virus.

According to the researchers, these conclusions reinforce the findings of previous studies that application of public health policy was politicized for COVID-19, and this affected health outcomes.

“The main lesson of this research is that better public health requires a less partisan approach to the making of public health policies,” said Shvetsova.

Additional researchers and institutions on the study included: Andrei Zhirnov from the University of Exeter, Frank Giannelli from Rutgers University, Michael Catalano, and Olivia Catalano.

The paper, “Governor’s party, policies, and COVID-19 outcomes: Further Evidence of the Effect,” was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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