Monday, March 23, 2009

A student's reaction to the Obama Gender Agenda

This entire post is submitted by one of my students. I have not written or contributed to it at all [- EHI]

Here is an article that I found interesting from the National Women's Day 2009 website, that was in the week 7 of our weekly guides for this course.

How will women fare under Obama?

Barack Obama has stacked competent women around him at all levels of the administration, not just at the top level but also at the second and third layers.

Three of the fifteen members in his Cabinet are women, or not quite 20%. Obama is used to having strong women around him. Most of these positions are in the national security and economic issues arenas so are key positions.
- Hillary Rodham-Clinton, Secretary of State
- Hilda Solis, Secretary-Designate, Department of Labor
- Janet Napolitani, Secretary, Department of Homeland Security

And there are further powerful women in critical roles:
- Christina Romer, Chair, Council of Economic Advisors
- Susan Rice, United States Ambassador to the United Nations
- Lisa Jackson, Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency

So exactly what can women expect from the Obama Administration. What will the US Gender Agenda really look like? Well the Obama Adminstration has set a clear agenda for women and it is as follows.

- Fixing the Nation's Health Care System
- Empowering women to prevent HIV/AIDS
- Supporting research into women's health
- Fighting Cancer
- Reducing health risks due to mercury pollution
- Supporting stem cell research

Reproductive choice:
- Supporting a woman's right to choose
- Preventing unintended pregnancy

Preventing violence against women:
- Reducing domestic violence and strengthening domestic violence laws
- Fighting gender violence abroad

Economic issues:
- Fighting for pay equity and encouraging retirement saving
- Expanding paid sick days
- Investing in women-owned small businesses
- Protecting social security

National security:
- Caring for women veterans

- Renewing efforts to tackle underlying problems causing poverty
− Raising the minimum wage and helping low-income workers

- Protecting title tax
- Expanding early childhood education and improving schools
Making college more affordable

I found this website very empowering for women. I believe that Obama is going to be a wonderful, helpful, intelligent, empowering President. From this website, along with everything else that I have seen from him or heard of him, he seems to want to help the underprivileged and minorities. President Obama himself is a minority, so I think that is why he is so apt to want to help minorities, and even those in need. He does not seem to have ever been in poverty himself, but he can empathize with those who have been there. I think that his expectations and efforts are extremely commendable. If President Obama actually comes through with all of his plans, I believe that the US will definitely become a better place to live.

In regards to the issues mentioned on this particular website, I personally cannot wait for his plans for the US Gender Agenda to pass. Health care in the U.S. is a very touchy, long, difficult subject to get into, because there are so many different viewpoints on how to correct the health care system so that everyone can obtain it, even if not equally. I believe that the whole Obama administration has their hands full when it comes to fixing the Nation's Health Care System. I say good luck on that one. I currently do not have health care myself. My daughter has the Public Aid card, but I cannot afford health insurance myself. My job only offers health care for full time employees, but does not ever want to give anyone 40 hours a week to make anyone full time. It's a catch 22, and I know that it is like that at a lot of jobs. Also, I am not married, so I cannot go on my husband's insurance. I honestly hope that the Obama administration does come up with the perfect idea to make everyone happy, or at least content, with the nation's health care system.

Also in regards to women's issues, the Obama administration states that they will prevent unintended pregnancies and support a women's right to chose. Being a woman, I believe that these are two very important and overlooked issues in most presidential campaigns. Dealing with giving support to a women's right to chose is a very touchy subject, but needs to be addressed by presidential candidates. So does pregnancy. In today's society there are so many teenage pregnancies and other issues dealing with unintended pregnancies. I believe that there should be more affordable birth control, more education dealing with birth control, more sex education, and more education to explain all the options available for pregnant women. I really hope that the issues will be discussed and addressed by the Obama administration in the aspect of preventing unintended pregnancies and supporting a women's right to chose.

Another issue that I found in this website that the Obama administration is going to tackle and is of extreme importance in today's society is poverty. I believe that President Obama and his administration is serious when they state that they want to raise minimum wage to help low-income workers, and renew efforts to tackle underlying problems causing poverty. That issue should be the main focus, to renew efforts to tackle underlying problems that cause poverty. A lot of presidents and people before Obama have just taken the “band-aid” approach to tackling the issue of poverty. They always pushed it under the rug and let it be, or tried to help people after they have been in poverty for long periods of time. I believe that it is time we have someone in office that actually has the mentality to look at the root of the problem instead of trying to cover up or fix it after it is too late. If Obama is actually serious about looking at the underlying problems that cause poverty, then I believe he will definitely be able to educate people, and hopefully try different tactics to get people out of poverty and help them stay out. Hopefully, he will reform the Public Aid and Welfare systems to only help those in need, but to also help them obtain and maintain employment, while also helping with education about birth control and child care, as well as social security and retirement. There are many issues that poverty presents for our nation, and I am very glad that we finally elected such a powerful, intelligent, empathetic, and wonderful President as Barack Obama.

Minimum Wage Policy

This suggestion at the website inspired a student reaction:

Raise the Minimum Wage to $9.50 an Hour by 2011:
Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe that people who work full-time should not live in poverty. Even though the minimum wage will rise to $7.25 an hour by 2009, the minimum wage's real purchasing power will still be below what it was in 1968. As president, Obama will further raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2011, index it to inflation and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit to make sure that full-time workers can earn a living wage that allows them to raise their families and pay for basic needs such as food, transportation, and housing -- things so many people take for granted.
Here is the student's reaction:

I believe that raising the minimum wage is an excellent idea and way overdue. I agree that people working full-time should not have to live in poverty. The current minimum wage is way below the poverty line. In an article in ( the poverty line for a family of four in 2001 was $18,267 a year. Which is $8.75 an hour if working full time? I believe that people want more than just enough to get by on. The American Dream is more than “just enough.” If an individual works in a full time position and still can not afford their basic needs, it leads to hopelessness. In my opinion, individuals who feel hopeless are more likely to give up, live off of the in-kind benefits, resort to illegal activities, or give in to the escape of alcohol and drugs, all of which contribute to poverty.

I hope that the minimum wage will indeed be indexed to inflation, and not just be raised to the $9.50 an hour amount and then forgotten for several years or shelved by the next administration.

This reminds me of a couple passages from "The Wealth of Nations" by Adam Smith (1776). I'll quote them here. First, this:
It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, or merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks, which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him, but the necessity is not so immediate.

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and every where in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor above their actual rate. To violate this combination is everywhere a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbors and equals. We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things, which nobody ever hears of...

And secondly, and most significantly, there was this:
A man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him. They must even upon most occasions be somewhat more; otherwise it would be impossible for him to bring up a family, and the race of such workmen could not last beyond the first generation. Mr. Cantillon seems, upon this account, to suppose that the lowest species of common laborers must every where earn at least double their own maintenance, in order that one with another they may be enabled to bring up two children; the labor of the wife, on account of her necessary attendance on the children, being supposed no more than sufficient to provide for herself. But one-half the children born, it is computed, die before the age of manhood. The poorest laborers, therefore, according to this account, must, one with another, attempt to rear at least four children, in order that two may have an equal chance of living to that age. But the necessary maintenance of four children, it is supposed, may be nearly equal to that of one man. The labor of an able-bodied slave, the same author adds, is computed to be worth double his maintenance; and that of the meanest laborer, he thinks, cannot be worth less than that of an able-bodied slave. Thus far at least seems certain, that, in order to bring up a family, the labor of the husband and wife together must, even in the lowest species of common labor, be able to earn something more than what is precisely necessary for their own maintenance; but in what proportion, whether in that above mentioned, or in any other, I shall not take upon me to determine.
So, what does it cost to maintain oneself and also bring up a child? In our city in 2009 you would need at least $500 per month for the smallest apartment with utilities. I believe an adult and child could eat well enough on a budget of $200 per month. If we're merely talking about survival, food and shelter are all they would need, but I suppose a bike, enough money for some bus passes and an occasional taxi ride, some money for clothing, and that sort of thing would perhaps create a need for another $200 or so. So, something just under $1,000 per month would be enough for survival. In a typical month a person might work 160 hours. To earn $1,000 per month working full time, they would need to be earning $6.25. In fact, the federal minimum wage is $6.55, but will go up to $7.25 in July. Here in Illinois the state minimum wage went up to $7.75 in July of 2008, and it will go up to $8.00 in July of 2009.

So, it looks to me as if we have minimum wages that are at the level that Cantillon and Smith thought were "natural" and "necessary" for workers.

If you think we ought to be more generous, and mandate a minimum wage that allows a single income-earner to raise a household with one adult and three children out of poverty, then you must consider the 2009 poverty threshold for a family of three (which is $18,310), and divide by a reasonable number of hours to expect a person to work in a year of full-time labor (a reasonable 1,850 hours would require a minimum wage of $9.90, and a more toil-and-work-diligently American full-time standard of 2,000 hours per year would require a wage of $9.16).

Are there any studies that indicate that people lose jobs when we set a minimum wage? That is a standard argument against minimum wages. Well, there are some studies that show the opposite influences (raising minimum wages increases employment). Here is a list of ten articles that, judging by the abstracts and other information I could gather, seem to have evidence about minimum wages:

The Effect of Minimum Wage on Youth Employment and Unemployment in Taiwan
Author: Chuang, Yih-chyi
Source: Hitotsubashi Journal of Economics v47, n2 (December 2006): 155-67

Minimum Wages and Poverty with Income-Sharing
Author: Fields, Gary S.; Kanbur, Ravi
Source: Journal of Economic Inequality v5, n2 (August 2007): 135-47

On the Empirics of Minimum Wages and Employment: Evidence for the Austrian Industry
Author: Ragacs, Christian
Source: Applied Economics Letters v15, n1-3 (January-February 2008): 61-64

Do Minimum Wages Have a Negative Impact on Employment in the United States?
Author: Bazen, Stephen
Source: Economie Publique n17 (2005): 41-58

Minimum Wages and Employment
Author: Neumark, David; Wascher, William L.
Source: Foundations and Trends in Microeconomics v3, n1-2 (2007): 1-186

Minimum Wage Effects on Labor Market Outcomes under Search, Matching, and Endogenous Contact Rates
Author: Flinn, Christopher J.
Source: Econometrica v74, n4 (July 2006): 1013-62

Minimum Wages, Inequality and Unemployment
Author: Adam, Antonis; Moutos, Thomas
Source: Economics Letters v92, n2 (August 2006): 170-76

The Minimum Wage Can Harm Workers by Reducing Unemployment
Author: Lee, Dwight R.
Source: Journal of Labor Research v25, n4 (Fall 2004): 657-66

Minimum Wage Policy and Employment Effects: Evidence from Brazil
Author: Lemos, Sara
Source: Economia: Journal of the Latin American and Caribbean Economic Association v5, n1 (Fall 2004): 219-52

Minimum Wage Impacts on Youth Employment Transitions, 1993-1999
Author: Campolieti, Michele; Fang, Tony; Gunderson, Morley
Source: Canadian Journal of Economics v38, n1 (February 2005): 81-104

Reaction to post at about Rev. Warren

A student included this post from the website for their policy proposal analysis exercise:
I am so very saddened by the choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation. I cannot fathom your insensitivity on this matter. I have been such a strong supporter of you and for you to disrespect gays and lesbians in the way you have is a slap in the face to all those supporting human rights. My wife was disabled and very active in the disability right movement yet she believed that to oppression of one group is to oppress of all. I fear that this is a continuation of all our oppression

Would you have chosen someone that advocates segregation to deliver the invocation, or someone that denies the holocaust, or someone who strongly advocates the cloistering of all people with disabilities? Yet you have someone like Rick Warren with his open and strong anti gay views to deliver the opening remarks at your inauguration.

I am shocked and saddened Mr. Obama. I hopped for so much more from you.

Carl Doering
The student wrote this response:

I would have to say that I agree with the poster. I really think that it is a slap in the face to all of Obama’s gay and lesbian supporters. If he would have chosen someone else who was denying the holocaust or was a person who discriminated another group, all hell would have broke lose. By Obama choosing who he did to deliver the inaugural invocation, it made a lot of people question how much equality he really wanted. Or maybe he does want equality, just not for gays and lesbians? Who knows, only time will tell us. We will have to watch and see how everything unfolds. I still am a big Obama supporter and I think he will do just fine.

Here is some of my response to the student:

Okay, let’s look at this policy.

Carl Doering is suggesting that Obama ought to have a policy of supporting the rights of persons to have the state recognize same-sex marriages. And, as a corollary of that policy, Doering is suggesting that Obama should only allow ministers who agree with that policy to give inaugural invocations. You are agreeing, and suggesting that by allowing a person who was a vocal and powerful opponent of equal rights for homosexuals (Warren endorsed Proposition 8) Obama has made a policy blunder.


Rick Warren is one of those persons who bases his ethical beliefs and ideas about what is right and wrong on the New Testament of the Bible, which includes some letters supposedly written by the Apostle Paul in which male homosexual behaviors seem pretty clearly to be condemned. There are many Americans who share Rick Warren’s beliefs, and I notice that Warren bases his public opposition to gay marriage and his support for Proposition Eight on the idea that “majority rules.” He points out that “most Americans” say marriage is, by definition, an institution that joins a man and woman. Warren also says that only 2% of Americans are homosexual (a reasonable estimate), and he says that such a small minority shouldn’t be allowed to push their views on the great majority of Americans (he ignores the fact that a much larger minority of us want the 2% to be allowed to marry persons of the same sex with government recognition).

Carl Doering is suggesting that Obama’s choice of Warren is an insult to many of Obama’s supporters. Mr. Doering compares the invitation of Rev. Warren to a hypothetical invitation to a racial segregationist, a holocaust denier, or a person who rejects the values of “least restrictive environment” and “inclusion” in terms of how we as a society treat persons with disabilities.

What is the underlying ethical expectation here? What value or state of goodness are you and Mr. Doering suggesting Obama has violated? It seems that Mr. Doering is concerned that Obama has violated expectations of loyalty, and has betrayed persons who had a reasonable expectation that Obama would not invite persons with conservative religious views based on Biblical (or Qur’anic) scriptures to give a prayer or invocation at the inauguration. Mr. Doering and you evidently also make a distinction between the odious view that people of different racial phenotypes or ethnic heritages ought to be kept apart, and the widely accepted view that politicians ought to maintain a sort of ideological purity, and avoid any inclusion of political leaders with morally reprehensible views in situations that would seem to offer honor, respect, or collaboration with those misguided leaders. For example, should Obama shake the hand of Hu Jin Tao of China when meeting him at international gatherings, when the Chinese government represented by Hu has enforced a tyrannical rule over Tibetans and supported the genocidal government in Sudan?

A series of questions rises to mind:

1) Many Republican leaders, and quite a few Democrats, share Rev. Warren’s views about marriage. Some Republicans, including Senator John McCain supported Proposition 8. So did the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and so forth. So, should Obama have ruled out Catholics, Mormans, Orthodox Jews, etc. from being allowed to give an invocation at the inauguration? Should he have politically vetted the person giving an invocation to make sure their politics were okay, and they had no history of supporting conservative Republican positions?

2) The president serves in two roles: the President is both the leader over the executive branch of the government and the head of state. In places such as England and Canada these roles are split, with the monarch acting as the head of the state (figurehead for the nation) and a prime minister acting as the head of the government. As Obama fills his role as an occupant of an office that takes on certain ceremonial and institutional roles as a symbol of our nation, should he apply his role as the head of government to apply political standards to his decisions as head of state? Is the inauguration an aspect of the president’s head of state duties more than a manifestation of head-of-government responsibilities?

3) Clearly Americans have reached a near consensus on issues such as racial segregation (about 85% to 90% favor integration in principle, if not in practice). Almost all of us know the truth that the German Nazi party and European supporters of it’s military regime on the European Continent conspired and acted to destroy (kill) the Jewish, Gypsy, Communist, Pacifist, Disabled, Mentally Ill, and Homosexual populations of Europe. Almost all of us think that public resources should enable persons with disabilities to be included in mainstream American life and not excluded or given unnecessary socially-imposed handicaps. On these issues a speaker who was vocal in opposing the American near-consensus would be odd. Yet, a majority of Americans seem to share Rev. Warren’s position. Those of us who disagree with Proposition 8 may be offended by such opinions, but while a majority of our fellow citizens hold to those views, is it appropriate for us to claim that their views are as out-of-date and morally wrong as those 19th century apologists for slavery who said it was sanctioned in the Bible? The opponents against gay marriage seem to be making a claim that their religions give them a monopoly on the definition of a term, “marriage,” and they are not mounting successful efforts comparable to Proposition 8 to force the government to stop recognizing same-sex domestic partnerships or civil unions (I’m sure they might like to, but those wouldn’t have sufficient political popularity outside of places like Utah and Oklahoma). It is only the government recognition of this term “marriage” that has these people riled up, am I right?

4) Do you think that since some religions accept same-sex marriage and some clergy conduct marriage ceremonies between same-sex couples, that the government must therefore recognize those marriages? Isn’t this a matter related to the First Amendment prohibiting the establishment of state religions? And if so, isn’t it a matter to be settled by courts, and isn’t it the case that courts will eventually reflect changing standards in the general population? How is this different from our government’s refusal to allow plural marriages or bigamy, when such marital relations are permitted in some religious traditions?

5) As a matter of policy, a political leader should to some degree try to achieve purity, and show ideological loyalty to supporters. That is, a politician needs to have certain ideals, moral standards, and sentiments that they use to guide their behaviors and political acts. Also as a matter of policy, a political leader needs to create positive working relationships with the opposition. As Saul Alinsky suggested, we should have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. Everyone can be a collaborator when we have aligned interests, and even a close ally can become an opponant on a particular issue. Are there many people who would oppose Obama on issues such as gay rights and women’s reproductive choice, but might support Obama on increasing spending for medical research, cutting the defense budget, and helping us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by introducing a cap-and-trade carbon emission limit that would double energy costs? It might make good political policy sense to reach out to our opponents on gay marriage if we can win them into a supportive relationship with us on other issues where they are so far neither friends nor foes.

6) Was inviting Rick Warren to give his invocation really likely to have benefits in terms of winning over the middle ground of potentially supportive Evangelicals and serious Christians who mildly support Republicans, and were those benefits greater than the losses of support from Obama’s anti-Proposition-8 base?

Incidentally, another question is whether Rev. Warren was able to give a good invocation. Here is the text of his prayer (taken from the official Catholic Church website
Almighty God, our Father, everything we see and everything we can’t see exists because of you alone. It all comes from you, it all belongs to you, it all exists for your glory. History is your story. The Scripture tells us, ‘Hear, oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one’ and you are the compassionate and merciful one and you are loving to everyone you have made.

Now today we rejoice not only in America’s peaceful transfer of power for the 44th time, we celebrate a hinge-point of history with the inauguration of our first African American President of the United States. We are so grateful to live in this land, a land of unequaled possibility, where the son of an African Immigrant can rise to the highest level of our leadership. And we know today that Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses are shouting in heaven.

Give to our new president, Barack Obama, the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity. Bless and protect him, his family, Vice President Biden, the Cabinet and every one of our freely elected leaders.

Help us, oh God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race or religion or by blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all. When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you, forgive us.

When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us. And as we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches and civility in our attitudes—even when we differ.

Help us to share, to serve, and to seek the common good of all. May all people of good will today join together to work for a more just, a more healthy, and a more prosperous nation and a peaceful planet.

And may we never forget that one day, all nations, all people will stand accountable before You. We now commit our new president and his wife, Michelle, and his daughters, Malia and Sasha, into your loving care.

I humbly ask this in the name of the One who changed my life—Yeshua, Esa, Jesus, Jesus—who taught us to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Incidentally, another good invocation (Recessional) is this one by Rudyard Kipling, which seems appropriate:

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fair Wages and College Educations

A week or so ago when I was watching President Obama talk about the recession on virtually every television network there was one thing he said that truly struck me and made me think of a conversation we’d had in class weeks prior. He spoke about how important it was to get people jobs as janitors, auto-mechanics, in factories – typically “blue collar” jobs. In class the question had been posed as to whether or not people in those jobs deserved the same pay scale as people with master’s degrees or beyond. I believe depending on the job, people with skilled trades deserve to be paid the same amount of money as someone who spent years in college. For the most part, these people have been to some sort of trade school or are comfortable doing a job that no one else wants to do. Janitors for instance – I wouldn’t want to have their job for anything in the world. And President Obama made a good point that without those people our country wouldn’t have grown to what it is today. America was founded on hard work and while some people with high educational status work incredibly hard day to day – for the most part those who work what would be considered medial jobs work harder than someone working in a fortune 500 company. Without someone working in a factory we wouldn’t have things like cars, computers, or even food. Sometimes the people at the bottom are the most important.

Let’s see, I think about two-thirds of Americans over 25 have some post-secondary education or training, maybe with a few courses at a community college, or a certification program at a beautician school, or training in a skilled trade apprenticeship program. About a third of Americans over 25 have a bachelor’s degree (it’s actually less, but the cohort that is growing up now will see the 1/3rd mark of college graduations). I think it’s about 6% or 7% of the population that has either a master’s degree, a post-college professional degree, or a doctorate, with the doctorates being about 2% of the population. In other words, two-thirds of our population works without a college or graduate school diploma. So, it does make sense for our president to talk about the jobs where people can earn a living without having a college degree. That is, after all, the condition for most of us.
Wages are set by a combination of factors, with supply and demand being pretty important. Collective bargaining and unions can drive up wages, as can policies that set minimum wages. Employers can also keep wages down, especially in times of high unemployment. Other factors that relate to how well a job pays include:
Responsibility needed. Greater responsibility requires higher pay.
Dirtiness and danger: the more awful a job is the fewer who will want to do it, and so the pay will increase, and there may also be a bit of sympathy as well, and those who set pay may think a person risking their life or putting up with terrible working conditions deserves a bit of hardship pay.
Training needs: Lots of training will generally command higher wages, while a job anyone right off the street can do will get lower wages.
Skills and strengths needed. If only the strongest or most dexterous 10% or the smartest or most clever 10% of the population will even be able to do the job because it requires extraordinary aptitude in some ability, then your labor supply is reduced and the wages generally will be higher.
Difficulty of the work. Easy work is easy to do, and wages are lower, while more demanding tasks generally require a higher pay incentive.
Tendency of the work to be dominated by men or women. Work that women generally do gets paid less, all else being equal, compared to work that men do. Men’s work is seen as more deserving of a living wage, since men are out to provide for their families, while women are just out to get a bit of extra income. Of course we’re not supposed to think this way, but I believe this is the explanation for why nurses, social workers, and elementary school teachers make so much less than engineers, mechanics, computer programmers, and so forth. We need to overcome this assumption that men are the providers and women aren’t, and that takes some conscious questioning of our gender roles and expectations.
A job that requires extraordinary personal attributes, advanced and lengthy training, and is generally difficult, dangerous, and unpleasant should command the highest salary, while work that is easy, pleasant, and requires no special aptitude, training, trustworthiness, or experience will generally command the lowest salaries. A college education is to some degree a proxy for intelligence and responsibility. People who are flighty and less committed are unlikely to graduate, as are people with sub-normal intelligence. But, college training also changes people in ways that make them generally better in their social skills and problem-solving abilities. There are actually some fairly good studies that compare equivalent groups of people who graduate college and those who don’t attend, and these studies suggest that college educations have an independent and significant influence on many aspects of life that are greater than the admissions standards and selectivity of college admission alone.
But yes, our economy is now structured in such a way that we need a vast army of service workers and laborers who need no vocational training in college. College educations may be useful to many of these people in terms of making them better citizens, happier marriage partners, wiser parents, and better-informed consumers. Probably just about anyone with both intelligence and commitment/ambition at average levels or higher could make it through some form of college education and benefit from it, even if there was no vocational or direct financial advantage.
A serious problem comes when we think of college education as merely a vocational training system. I think about one-fifth to one-quarter of college educations ought to be directly vocational, although perhaps as more than half of the courses one takes in the final two years ought to have a connection to one’s career if one wants to work in a specialized field such as engineering, natural sciences, computer programming, finance, medicine, law, social work, education, and so forth. College is also a system of producing an elite leadership segment of the general population in a democracy. Those with college educations ought to be leaders in consuming news about their communities and governments, and then getting involved in influencing policies and conditions in their communities and governments. So, college works as a system to help a democracy remain healthy. We need critical thinkers and people who know how to make themselves well-informed so we don’t lapse into a dictatorship or elect too many idiots into powerful offices.
College also helps people with personal growth and development, so that after completing their education they are better friends, marriage partners, parents, neighbors, and so forth. College generally enriches a society by improving the people within the society, so that you can have better experiences in your interactions with people you meet. College also plays a role in helping people become very good at a few basic skills related to writing and reading, understanding science, and generally communicating. Finally, college is supposed to help people become familiar with a core set of values and ideas that have contributed to the institutions of a society. In this way college indoctrinates people with certain values such as tolerance, openness, inquisitiveness, and civic engagement. At the same time, college graduates are taught to question and doubt, and this helps foster counter-cultures and experiments in alternatives.
So, university educations perform many roles, and it would be a mistake to think of college education as a way to help individuals increase their earning potential. College in our democratic society is mainly concerned with creating a better society, with advances in social organization as well as science and technology, and a flourishing mental and aesthetic life. I see no reason why college graduates should necessarily be expected to make much more than persons who prefer to stick to vocational education in a lucrative career.
In fact, powerful people often set wages for reasons that have very little to do with the actual jobs or the value of the work done. We can see this with the bonus pay packages given to people in certain financial companies. Their work may require significant responsibility and some training and intelligence above average, but their labors are certainly not worth the thousands of dollars per hour they earn when one averages out their salaries and bonuses out over their hours of actual work. They earn this money simply because they or their friends or associates in similar lines of work are responsible for setting their salaries. A similar thing happens in business or university administrations. Supervisors, vice-presidents, directors, deans, and chancellors clearly need to have more responsibility and experience than other faculty or workers, and their jobs are difficult and somewhat unpleasant. So, they should earn more than faculty or front-line workers. It seems fair that administrators could earn double what faculty or front-line workers earn. But in fact, when administrators set their own salaries, they inflate their estimations of how valuable administrative work is, and they tend to set their salaries at three or four times the wages of front-line workers and faculty, and in some sectors of the economy the administrators and directors have such a sense of entitlement that they set their own wages at ten times or a hundred times the salaries or wages of the people who work under them.

War on Drugs and Marijuana Legalization

The following comment about the legalization of Marijuana was posted on the discussion board at the website:
“It is high time that marijuana be either legalized or at the very least decriminalized. This prohibition is only empowering drug dealers to push real drugs like cocaine and heroin on our children. Marijuana has never in recorded history killed anyone. It is less addictive than caffeine, and can be grown for responsible personal use for next to nothing. All the while alcohol, and tobacco (the real gateways drugs) which kill millions a year and ruin families lives are legal? Its also ironic that the "Partnership for a drug free America", which runs all those anti marijuana commercials is actually a conglomerate of multibillion dollar pharmaceutical companies and used to include all the major alcohol/tobacco companies. Obama himself admittedly smoked Marijuana growing up and he's our next president. He probably wouldn't be though had he been caught and had a drug charge along with all his federal financial aid for college revoked. The people of the united states are ready for a change with regards to marijuana prohibition and they showed that by making it the #1 question on your community poll. In Massachusetts on Nov 4th, more people voted for marijuana decriminalization (which passed) than voted for Obama to become president. If given the opportunity i think you will see this is not a fluke.”
I agree with many of the comments made in this statement. The only one that I think may be questionable is when he states “Marijuana has never in recorded history killed anyone.” I am not sure that this statement is legitimate. I think this comment is relevant since Springfield has recently decriminalized marijuana. Although I do not smoke, I do not see anything wrong with marijuana. I have been told that I cannot really have an opinion about it until I have experienced it, but I disagree. To me, it does not seem any worse than drinking alcohol, and seems a lot safer than other drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, which are also mentioned above. I am all for marijuana being legalized, with certain limitations such as: age limit, amounts in possession, and operating machinery, driving, and working under the influence.

I’d really like to know what the tax benefits we could get by legalizing it would be. We could release many people from jail and probation, and police could devote more time to cocaine and crystal methamphetamine dealers. If marijuana were legalized I’d like to tax the heck out of it. Aren’t there any studies that make creditable estimations of the economics involved with marijuana legalization? I remember I had an economics professor at Washington University (Dr. Fred Raines) who was quite active in the marijuana legalization movement, and I bet he had some models and forecasts.

I agree with your logic, that you can judge the merits of a substance without trying it. I haven’t fought in any wars, but I have read war memoirs and studied books about war, and I have reached the conclusion that war is awful, and should be avoided. I haven’t smoked, used drugs, or developed a habit of getting intoxicated with alcohol, yet I can look around me and see that in general, tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs do net harm in society, and are generally bad (alcohol and marijuana have benefits, but if I could wave a wand and make them vanish from the Earth, I’d do so without hesitation).

With drug policy we have a clash between an idea of doing noble policies that are good for public health and the actual implementation of such policies. As it turns out, when we try to execute a law that forbids the use of a popular and only mildly harmful substance (mildly harmful to many people, benign to many others, but extremely harmful to a handful of people who become hard-core addicts), we run into the trouble of enforcing something that is a bother to most people.

If we had a way of instantly issuing electronic tickets of $40 to anyone who ever drove their car more than 5 miles-per-hour over a speed limit we’d have a similar problem of people being angry and outraged at the inconvenience. There would be a decline in traffic fatalities, and that would be worth it, but the costs of inserting little computer sensors that recorded a driver’s speed and sent a radio signal to indicate when a fine was to be charged would be a burden on all the car purchasers, and there would be a thriving black market in ways of evading the system.

I think with the inclusion of marijuana in the war on drugs we’re getting a similar backlash from the users and the friends of the users. My questions is: when will the federal policy change? There has been grassroots activism for changes in marijuana laws, but this activism hasn’t generated the legal reform yet, at least not at a federal level. Is this finally about to change?

Mortgage Lending and Borrower Education

My reaction is to the policy that we suggested in class. I think it would be wise for the lender to require consumer education. Too many people in our country feel that it is their right to own a home. This is not a right, but rather, a privilege. It is a privilege that should come with a wise, informed realization of what financial responsibility comes with owning a home. It is the purchaser’s responsibility to find out what type of mortgage he/she is applying for and what interest rates apply. It is the consumer’s right, however, to have adequate information regarding the reality of owning a home.

I fully believe that if we had a policy implemented to help consumers become aware of how loans work many people now would not be in the foreclosure state. Lenders, too, would be regulated with this policy. It would be interesting to see how many foreclosures could be prevented with regulated loan bail-outs for the banking community. It is the lender’s responsibility to think twice before approving an unrealistic loan to a consumer. I honestly think that in the end, this policy would benefit both consumers and lenders.

The policy you chose to evaluate was one that would mandate consumer education about loans and mortgages for anyone getting a loan. I am unable to see how the federal government can have any justification in the Constitution for mandating such training. If the home mortgage loan is in some way involved with federal home loan guarantees, then yes, requiring consumer education could be part of the strings attached to whatever federal backing is given to mortgage lenders. There could also be a stipulation that the government would only provide certain services for banks when those banks had all mortgage borrowers complete consumer credit education classes.

The Federal Reserve Banks (which aren’t really part of the government, although their governing board is appointed by the government) did in fact try to educate borrowers about home ownership. The Department of Housing and Urban Development also provided good educational materials about home ownership, and supported community development corporations in their efforts to educate low-income credit-worthy potential mortgage borrowers.

What we have here is an essential problem. You are correct that a borrower has a responsibility to become well-informed and self-educated about mortgage debt and how housing loans work (although why this isn’t taught in middle school math classes escapes me). You are also correct that borrowers had a duty to notice how credit-worthy their borrowers were. In the case of our current crisis, lenders were able to quickly sell their home loans to financial wizards who would aggregate the home loans and sell bundles of mortgages as home lending derivatives. Since very few Americans traditionally default on their home loans, these derivatives were considered quite safe. And, since most home loans have borrowers paying 5% to 7% interest, these derivatives could yield investors 4% to 5% annual returns quite safely. Also, there had been no sustained or significant drop in housing prices in recent history (in living memory of the young people who were making, selling, or buying these home-loan-backed derivatives).

In 2005-2006 housing prices stopped rising. In Florida, Arizona, and Nevada the prices started to decline rapidly. In 2006-2008 prices for homes declined all across the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards, as well as in some “hot” real estate markets inland. Many speculators, including common middle-class people, had been buying investment properties or flipping homes, and these people were left with homes that were dropping in value, and no there were no willing buyers. This acted as a sort of trigger, and some of the mortgage-backed securities no longer looked safe, but people in the investment community weren’t sure just how unsafe those derivatives were. Were they worthless, or worth 50%, or 90% of what people had thought they were? No one knew.

A general credit-bubble that had increased consumption and consumer demand began to deflate as housing prices fell, and demand declined, but production was initially high, leading to a glut of products, softer prices, and falling profits. This in turn forced companies out of business. Big companies shrank, closing offices or outlets where sales were especially low. The resulting increase in unemployed persons added to the numbers of the unemployed whose jobs depended upon the housing market. Those in home construction or the financial paper-shuffling associated with home buying-and-selling (bankers, loan officers, mortgage brokers, real estate agents, law offices specializing in home sales, etc.) lost income, and this further eroded demand and hit retail sales. Suppliers of materials for home construction or infrastructure development that had been built to accommodate housing booms in places like Florida, Arizona, and Nevada began to lose business, and lumber mills in Georgia, Oregon, and other places shut down, swelling the ranks of the unemployed.

The very rapidly increasing unemployment rate (unprecedented since the 1970s in the rapidity of its growth) caught many people unprepared. As demand slumped, whole industries began to fall apart, including auto manufacturing and sales, construction equipment manufacturing, luxury goods, furniture, travel, and high-end restaurants. More people lost jobs, and many of these people found that they had been living from paycheck to paycheck, and had not enough reserve savings to pay their mortgages on time. Worse, in many places people found that their debt on their homes was now far more than the homes were worth. In recent recessions a person who had been laid off could quickly sell their home to raise money to help them get through the tough time. Home prices were generally stable or increasing, so people could cash in their homes and move to a cheap apartment until a new job came along. Now, however, with people having no money to gain from selling their homes, that avenue of escape was closed off.

Although the media plays up the idea that there are irresponsible lenders and borrowers, and indeed there certainly are many of those, I suspect that the vast majority of the persons facing foreclosure are merely typical Americans who have lost jobs and are unable to find new ones, and are unable to make payments on their homes, and are unable to sell their homes because housing prices have taken them from having $160,000 debt on a $210,000 home to having that same debt on a home that is now valued at $140,000 (or some variation on this).

When median house prices rise to over four or five times the median household income in an area, how are you going to be able to sell those homes? Mortgage lenders had to adopt new standards and lend people more money in those areas where the housing markets would have priced typical middle-class people out of traditional systems of home lending. So, in California or Florida or Virginia banks might give a family with an income of $70,000 a loan for $240,000 when in the past they would have only wanted to give a loan for $160,000 to such a household. So long as the $280,000 home the family bought with that money was likely to continue growing in value and become worth $300,000 in a year or two, this seemed safe. But, now that the house is worth $210,000 rather than $280,000 or $300,000, and now that one of the two income-earners in the family is unemployed and the household income has dropped from $70,000 to $40,000, the situation has become horrible for everyone concerned.

I like the idea of giving people education about home loans, and I think that such policies might be helpful in reducing the really crazy kind of lending to unqualified people that took place. But, I think the bigger segment of the foreclosure crisis is based on the American tendency to live on credit, and save very little. People were told to buy the largest home they could afford because housing prices always go up and housing is a good investment. And in fact, many people made fortunes on the growing costs of homes, and this fact was widely publicized. Given that situation, how many Americans would save 10% of their income in case of a recession where they would lose their job? Where would they save that money, in a safe investment that gave 5% interest? That would seem like a stupid thing to do when one could use that money to buy a much nicer home and then make 8% or 10% interest on the appreciation of the home while in the mean time enjoying living in it. Or, one could invest in the stock market, which had 10-year average annual return rates of 10%-15% (because of the rapid growth in equity prices in the late 1990s and for a couple years between 2003-2006). Now the stock market has declined by over 40% in a year, and housing prices have dropped nationally by nearly 10% on average across the country, and by over 30% in some areas.

This problem isn’t really reducible to a case of greedy and irresponsible home mortgage borrowers. Yes, such people exist, and it’s fun to think of them getting punished for their greed and ignorance. That is one reason why I showed pictures of people’s belongings scattered on the lawns and sidewalks of their former homes as the law-enforcement people moved them out onto the street. And a policy to help ignorant people become more enlightened will help somewhat. But, you can’t hardly lay the blame for the 30-year credit bubble economy on the backs of the 2%-3% of home mortgage borrowers who bought more than they could afford with the “help” of usurious loans from unscrupulous lenders.

I blame the baby-boomers and my generation X cohorts for generally failing to read enough history to realize that capitalism is prone to cycles of boom and bust. We had parents or grandparents who lived through the Great Depression, and their stories were there for us to hear if we asked. And if we did ask, we might have reflected on what they told us and thought to save 10% or 15% of our incomes instead of spending 102% of our incomes and living well, but building up resulting debts on cars, homes, and credit-card purchases.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Feeling good about policy

Sometimes the government spends money to boost a feeling of good will and joy in celebration of our country. This sort of policy provides employment for artists, and stimulates the economy. This is done officially on the patriotic holidays such as Independence Day, Memorial Day, Presidents Day, and Veterans Day. For example, public fireworks displays are a morale-boosting expenditure, as are the various military bands. Here is a film clip that presents one of the cartoons the government funded to celebrate the 200th birthday of the nation. It's the sort of thing children such as myself were exposed to in the 1970s.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Unemployment at 8.1%

This morning I heard someone on the news predicting that unemployment in February might have climbed as high as 7.9%, and I thought to myself, it's not going to be that good, we've gone above 8%. And indeed, when the February figures were announced shortly thereafter, the national unemployment rate is 8.1%. You need to back to 1983 to find a report with a higher national unemployment rate, although we approached this level in the 1992 recession (where the worst unemployment rates was 7.7%.

Growing up as a student in high school and college in the 1980s, I grew up learning about unemployment rates of 10% (1982-1983). And even in college in the late 1980s, the unemployment rate seemed "great" when it was got down to 5.5%, and briefly even 5% (in 1989). So, I sort of had the idea that the "normal" range for unemployment was between 5% and 8% or so. Then, I lived through the 1990s. After the 1992 recession the unemployment rates kept dropping, and they slowly dropped all the way to 2000, by which time we had rates of 3.8% & 3.9% for some months. In the George W. Bush administration we had rates go up from 4.2% to 6.3% (in the summer of 2003), but then rates dropped back down to 4.4% (exactly two years ago, in March of 2007).

The thing is, a year ago we were still at 4.8%, and we the economy has been shedding jobs at a horrific rate. In the last six months (September '08 to February '09) the rates went 6.2%, 6.6%, 6.8%, 7.2%, 7.6%, 8.1%. That doesn't look to me like we're seeing any sort of slow-down. Looking back and the historical data for the start of that ugly recession in 1981-1983 I don't even see any 6-month period with a growth in unemployment like this. And in the past recessions the increases in the unemployment rate slow down before they hit the top, and then they sort of hang out at the high unemployment rates for a while and very slowly improve.

Clinton came into office in 1993 after unemployment had peaked (at 7.8% in 1992), and in this first year in office with a Democratic Party-controlled Congress the unemployment rate only went down from 7.3% to 6.6%. By the end of Clinton's second year in office unemployment had only dropped to 5.6%.

I guess what I'm thinking is that employment recoveries from peaks of unemployment take years (two or three, at least). Also, this recession is on track to be as bad as the one Ronald Reagan inflicted on us in the early 1980s. It took about two years for unemployment to drop back down from the high of 10.8% (in the winter of 1982-1983) to a rate around 7.2% (the rate in December of 1980, Carter's last full month in office). It then took a little over two additional years for unemployment to get to 6.3% (finally seen in April of 1987), which was the rate we had in January of 1980, the start of Carter's last year in office.

Well, I'm more optimistic about the president and congress we have now. The people running the nation now are far more likely to find solutions than the people we had running the show in the early 1980s.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

International Women's Day

It's International Women's Day later this week (I think on the 8th). I don't know of any events in Springfield to honor the day (aside from our class this afternoon, where we'll discuss social welfare policies and women).  But, the International Student Association is holding a game night, which sounds like a celebration, and that starts at 6:00 (when most of my students start their evening class) in the Student Center.  And on Friday there will be a Women's Retreat at HCOM at 2:00 p.m.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Understanding politics and Truth over Happiness.

Jodie Allen and Richard Auxier of the Pew Research Center have put up an article at the Atlantic Monthly's online site about how the public receives messages from the president.  This article gives some excellent insights into how the public respond to a president's speech or press release.

The article makes a reference to "Happy Talk," which will hopefully call to mind the scene and song from the musical South Pacific.  An apt use of a cultural reference if ever I saw one.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A student reaction paper on social work education and ethics

I found George F. Will’s article from the Washington Post, “Code of Coercion” quite interesting. Some good points are brought up in the article such as whether or not a certain field or program of education should even come with a so called set of ideological “rules”. Sure there are codes of ethics and guidelines for conduct in most professions, but these are not absolute, and surely don’t mean the same thing to everyone.

Yes, there are four main questions I think we need to consider. 1) Are there ideological rules in the NASW code of ethics? 2) Should there be ideological rules in the NASW code of ethics? 3) If there should be ideological rules in the NASW code of ethics, does the code of ethics have the right rules, is it missing some, and does it have some that should not be included? 4) Are social work students supposed to subscribe to the NASW code of ethics, or merely be familiar with it?

The answers are: 1) yes, there are ideological rules in the NASW code of ethics. 2) Yes, there ought to be ideological rules, because professions have ideologies (or at least they ought to have ideologies). For example, in medical ethics doctors must subscribe to an ideology that they will do no harm to a patient. That is why ethical physicians will not assist in administering the poisons in lethal injection executions, although they will certify that a condemned prisoner has died. This is an ideology that doctors must preserve and protect the life and health of their patients, because by definition, that is what doctors do. Social workers should also have an ideology that defines what it is that social workers do, or ought to do. 3) The question of whether the NASW code of ethics includes the correct rules is one that is debatable, and is in fact debated within social work. I personally don’t object to any specific ideological rules in the present form of the code of ethics, but I think in certain places emphasis is misplaced, and I would change it in some ways, because I think it could be improved. There could be a substantial discussion of which values or ideologies in the code of ethics are in fact objectionable or wrong. George Will did not engage in such a discussion, so his contribution is not useful on that score. As I read it, the NASW code of ethics is not especially objectionable, and I struggle to understand how a fair-minded person familiar with the role of social work in society could object to the ideology enshrined in the code of ethics. 4) Social work students must be familiar with the code of ethics. They must be familiar with it in part because if they violate certain points of the code of ethics they could be punished or disciplined.

I have intimate familiarity with three schools of social work, and at none of these three were students required to subscribe to the code of ethics or make any sort of statement of belief or values in which they endorsed the NASW code of ethics. In fact, I had a Catholic field supervisor in my own MSW training who emphasized ethics as one of his top priorities, but told me he was not a member of NASW and would not become a member because he did not agree with 100% of the NASW code of ethics, and so he instead belonged to other professional social worker associations. The ideologically controversial portions of the NASW code of ethics are not the points that would be brought up and used against a social worker in a disciplinary setting. That is, no one objects to the ideology around duties to clients and professional responsibilities to clients, and that is the part of the ethical code where violations can land you in trouble. It is in the more broadly-worded exhortations for social workers to believe in and advocate for certain types of things that some people take issue, and these are not the sort of ethical rules where violations do direct harm to clients. At least that is how it appears to me.

A major point in Will’s article is that the National Association of Scholars did their research on ten major public universities and found that social work students are encouraged to be as liberal as possible for the most part. Their examples could be extreme cases, but they do make a good argument anyway. I personally believe that to some extent people seeking a degree in social work must have an open mind and a true desire to help everyone, no matter what they may have done, or what walk of life they are from. Some people may call that liberal, but I just call it what I truly believe is right, and it is what I desire to do.

Their examples are not merely extreme cases. In fact, their examples are false. That is, some of their examples just didn’t happen, and are in essence, lies.

I wonder whether a good argument can be based on falsehoods and false propositions. I often engage in mind-experiments to create hypothetical situations, and then suggest that if we faced a situation such as the one I have imagined, we would then need to make certain decisions. In fact, these hypothetical situations may be far from realistic; they aren’t based on actual facts, so the situations I ask people to consider might be unlikely. But at least I make it clear I’m engaging in hypothetical mind-experiments and explain the degree to which my imagined situations are based on my suppositions or knowledge about actual facts. Anyway, my purposes are mainly to get people to think about things and reach their own conclusions. The National Association of Scholars is not merely trying to make people think about social work education: they are actively attacking the Council on Social Work Education and the National Association of Social Workers, and trying to change education policies related to social work.

Being open to all ideas and arguments, and then thinking critically about the ideas and arguments, weighing them, and reaching conclusions based on reason, evidence, values, and so forth is in fact the only “ethical value” of liberal education (take a look at various official defining statements about liberal education made by professional associations of university administrators or faculty, and you’ll confirm this is true). That is, we are supposed to be open-minded, and that “liberal” aspect of education is about being broadly informed and willing to listen to alternative points of view, and isn’t very closely connected to the idea of “liberal” as in liberal political ideologies. Libertarians, for example, are usually good advocates for a liberal education and open-mindedness, but when it comes to economic and social welfare policies, Libertarians are the opposite of the political liberals. I think you’re correct that the National Association of Scholars was conflating the two meanings of liberal. Social work has traditionally been built upon a base of liberal education, and the ideals of liberal education related to open-mindedness and liberty (client autonomy) are certainly enshrined within the spirit and ideology of the social work profession.

However, I do not think it was right that Emily Brooker, a social work major from Missouri State University, was penalized because she objected to advocating for homosexual foster homes and adoption based on her religious beliefs. What happened to accepting everyone, religious affiliations included? Ms. Brooker may very well have no qualms with homosexuality, and be ready and willing to help those who cross her path. This particular subject just happened to be something she was not comfortable advocating for.

I agree with you. But I don't trust the N.A.S. presentation of the facts in this case. I personally would oppose any decision by the social work department or any school of social work to force students to advocate for policies that the students personally oppose. There are so many important issues where social work is speaking out for justice and improved policies, and I reckon it should be easy to find something else a student could advocate for. Acceptance of sexual orientations that differ from the mainstream is an important aspect of social work, but we draw the line at some forms of sexual desire (social workers don’t advocate for laws allowing incest, or sex with minors). If some members of our profession haven’t come as far as the profession as a whole in accepting homosexuality, I see no reason to make that one issue a point of contention and punishing the individual social work student or social worker.

If a student doesn’t want to advocate for same-sex couples being allowed to adopt children, then let the student advocate for better training for foster parents, larger stipends for foster parents, bigger tax breaks for domestic adoptions, or greater generosity for adoptive parents who accept a child with chronic health problems or disabilities into their families. These are other important issues, and if we lose a social worker who could advocate for these worthy causes merely because she or he doesn’t want to advocate for some aspect of gay rights, we’ve wasted an opportunity. At least, that is how I see it. (Incidentally, I personally do advocate for gay rights, and have spoken out in favor of same-sex couples being allowed to adopt children.)

I think it is possible to be a good but imperfect social worker if one is racist, homophobic, sexist, nationalistic, chauvinistic, sexually libertine, or prejudiced against persons with disabilities. These are all faults and weaknesses, but it is possible to do some forms of social work where such weaknesses will not destroy one’s ability to provide excellent services and behave according to the code of ethics.

As a social work student thus far I have been taught that it is necessary to set our own values and beliefs aside in order to fully and effectively help our clients. In Ms. Brooker’s case, advocating for this subject was forced upon her, and in any respect I don’t believe that is how the future social workers of the world should be brought up. No one should be forced to do anything they are not comfortable with. We wouldn’t expect or want our clients to feel as if our beliefs are being forced on them so it is only fair not to force social work’s “liberal” beliefs on those that are not yet ready or willing.

You make a good point about our professional duties to set our personal values aside. Perhaps this means that it would be a useful and appropriate exercise to ask a social work student to do something that went against their personal beliefs.

Student reaction paper on crime and punishment.

Here is a student paper that elicited some thinking on my part:

Last week in class we discussed California letting out 1/3 of the prison population within the next three years. I looked at some other articles online and the reasons for this idea is not only due to over population, but also because of poor health care and mental health care inside the prisons. Also, the sources I found online stated that California’s prison authority need to add more amenities to the prison for the prisoners’ well being.

I do not agree that jail should be full of special amenities that everyday people get. Jail is not supposed to be the life of luxury that they could have on the outside. They are there for a reason, and with most of them being parole violators they will most likely end up right back in jail. I do not think that letting these people go is the answer to their money problems and I think that they need to look elsewhere, such as public assistance—who has it and should they? I believe that setting these people free does not set the right example for the youth. To me it says that if you go to jail there might be a chance you get out because the state cannot afford for you to be housed in jail. I think that the federal judges should re-think their decision on letting 57,000 inmates free.

One of your arguments is that releasing prisoners will reduce the threat of jail time as a punishment, and particularly you mention that youth will have reduced fear of being sent to jail. I am not a criminologist, but I’ve had enough exposure to research on violent offending to understand that the threat of punishment is often not strongly considered by offenders. The more salient fact for offenders is the likelihood that they will in fact be caught and punished at all. That is a variable that can be influenced by good forensic police work more than sentencing practices and prison conditions. Secondly, I wonder very much whether the fear of long prison sentences is very closely related to probable length of sentencing. I mean, I doubt the probability of a four-year spell in jail is twice as scary to a potential offender as the probability of a two-year sentence. And the probability of an eight-year sentence isn’t likely to be significantly more dissuasive than a four-year sentence. I’m just guessing about that, but I wonder if shorter sentencing for some crimes would be helpful in reducing prison overcrowding, and could be accomplished without significantly reducing the fear people have of being sentenced to jail time.

I’m also curious about the possibility of house arrest and parole. As you point out, many in jail were released on parole and then were sent back to jail for parole violations. I’d very much like to read a study of why people violate parole and what happens when people do violate parole. If it is the case that offenders violate parole by blowing off meetings with their parole officers or possessing guns or selling drugs, then that deserves one sort of response, but if they violate parole by missing a meeting with their parole officer because they lack transportation, or they are tested and found to have used marijuana, or they leave the county for a day to visit a relative in a different part of the state, then those sort of parole violations seem to warrant a less strict response than the more serious parole violations, and I don’t know if parole violations are in fact treated differently with respect to the seriousness of the crimes and types of parole violations.

Another thing I wonder about is the cost of having close supervision of offenders in non-prison settings like house arrest. Could we have people sleep at home (with electronic monitoring to ensure that they remain home), and report to treatment-detention centers every day for 40-hours of rehabilitative study, work, and treatment each week as if they had jobs, and then give them furloughs on weekends? This would be a punitive system that would involve a greater emphasis on rehabilitation, and for offenders who weren’t considered a menace to society, it might be just as safe for the non-offending population. You might have jobs for therapists, social workers, teachers, coaches, and other helpers in the rehabilitation-detention centers, but you would have fewer jobs for prison guards. I’d like to see studies of alternative treatment and punitive systems, with evidence about what such things do to recidivism, how many people under alternative sentencing commit property or personal crimes (of violence), and then look at the costs of alternative sentencing relative to imprisonment.

The thing I’m getting at here is that a pragmatic view is to look at costs and results, and try to ignore our sense of outrage and anger at people who break the law. Yes, it’s human and natural to want revenge. Any social worker who helps clients plagued with addiction would like to see drug dealers removed from society forever, or even shot (I’ve fantasized about just killing all the drug dealers, but it’s just a fantasy, and I’d never actually advocate it or approve of it if this daydream were acted upon). And so, when we think of people in jail, we think of people who threaten us or threaten our property or undermine our society, and we're angry about that.

In fact, a very high percentage of persons in jail have been sentenced to relatively long jail terms for relatively minor crimes, drug possession for example. How long should a person spend in jail if they are found to be in possession of some heroine, cocaine, marijuana, or methamphetamine? How long should a person spend in jail if they steal and do property damage that costs someone $600 to repair and recover? When a person tries to steal my radio I’d like him to spend several months in jail for the audacity of trying to take my property, but if I stop and think about it, it would cost society hundreds of times the value of my radio to put the thief in jail for a year. It might be far more cost-effective to let the thief spend only a few weeks in jail, and then sentence the thief to a year of rehabilitation services that would try to change his or her life and make him or her a productive and law-abiding citizen. It wouldn’t be as punitive, but as a practical matter, I wonder about the relative costs and the chances for a better outcome for myself, my society, and the thief. Although our brains react to retribution and revenge the same way they react to satisfying thirst or hunger, why should we let such instinctive desires dictate our policies?

Your reaction doesn’t reflect on these issues. You are reacting only to the surface issue of justice, and you are thinking about the punitive aspects of incarceration. Yes, of course punishment is necessary because it does in fact have power to prevent many people from doing crimes. It is also necessary because it helps those of who are law-abiding have faith in our system of justice, that people who harm us will endure harm themselves as retribution for their transgression. But beyond the punitive aspects of the justice system we must consider other aspects of justice and social improvement, practicality, and costs. Are punishments fitting to the crime? Are punishments fair or are they cruel? What are “extras and amenities” that prisoners should be denied, and what are basic services and conditions that prisoners deserve?

There may also be pragmatic issues about what prisoners can get. Perhaps prisoners don’t deserve movies, television, video games, books, an aesthetic environment, or tasty and nutritious food; but in fact, if they do get a certain level of these things they may be more likely to behave passively and develop better self-images of themselves as dignified human beings who are too good to fall down to pattern of life where they would again commit crimes. And, if you deny those good things you may be cultivating a sense of resentment, cruelty, and malice in the prisoners, so that when they are finally released they will swiftly commit crimes if they think they can get away with them. This is a question of fact (we need research to answer what in fact will happen), that would have a bearing on pragmatic decisions about what we should do for prisoners. If research shows that it’s better (cost-effective, reduces recidivism, cheaper, yields better outcomes for everyone concerned) to give prisoners certain amenities, you then will need to decide whether you want to hold to a principle that prisoners should be kept at a level of high dissatisfaction and discomfort while incarcerated because prison is punitive, or whether you want to save money and improve outcomes by treating prisoners with levels of kindness, support, and rehabilitative services.

A good example is education. Outside of jail people must pay for college education, and people go deep into debt to fund their college studies. If we offered college education to prisoners, the prisoners would have no way to pay. But, what if it turns out that when prisoners are educated and earn college degrees the result is that they are better behaved in prison, and when they get out their recidivism is reduced by 75%, and also when they get out they tend to end up earning better incomes and becoming taxpayers rather than welfare recipients? Let’s imagine the results of providing college education to prisoners were in fact this good, then we might compare the costs of giving college educations to prisoners or not giving college educations to them and discover that providing a college education to prisoners saves taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars per each prisoner over a lifespan. Then what will we do? If such a situation were true, it would make pragmatic and economic sense to give free college educations to prisoners who had the ambition and ability to earn such an education. But, it would also be terribly unjust, because law-abiding people who never go to jail don’t usually get free college educations. The program of prison college education would create perverse incentives that would encourage people to commit crimes and go to jail so they could get free college educations (at least it would reduce the fear people would have of the punishment of incarceration).

Would the answer be to make college education free to everyone outside jail in order to make college educations for prisoners fair? But college education, although mostly a public good, is also somewhat a private good, and it make sense to ask a student to bear some of the cost of their college education, since they will reap the largest gain from their own college education. (I think it’s fair to ask college students and their families to pay between 10% and 40% of their college education expenses, and let the public make up the difference with taxes and spending since college-educated citizens generally make society a better place fore everyone). So, college outside of prison should probably not be free, and the issue of college education within prison would always be one that raises issues of pragmatism in conflict with fairness. How can we give away for free something to a person who violated the rules, while the person who obeyed the rules must pay for the same good?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Student Reaction Paper on Nature and Causes of Poverty

My comments are in blue, and the student's work is in black typeface.

After reading Chapter 8 about the Nature and Causes of Poverty, the one thing that stuck out in my mind related to the myths about poverty that we seem to continue to perpetuate. I think if you ask people what poverty looks like to them, or what image they hold of the type of people who receive assistance programs, they will generally remark that it is minority single women with many children, or lazy people who would rather collect money from the government rather than earn it themselves. I wonder why these beliefs are the ones we so quickly come to equate with poverty rather than a truer picture. Is this because most people are uneducated about this issue or are Conservatives driving this? You can never get an accurate perspective from the media. You either have a conservative or liberal point of view. I read the article about Mark Rank and his studies on poverty. His research really flies in the face of what many believe to be true about poverty. If two-thirds of us will receive assistance from a welfare program at some point in our lives and 58% of Americans experience at least one year of poverty between the ages of 20 and 75, then how is it that we only identify this to be a problem for a small segment of society? Rank and Hirschl have empirical data to support their assertions. Why is this not a better known fact in our society?

Mark was asking the same thing informally after he gave a talk in New Orleans in January of this year. He was saying how the data he and his colleagues had collected proved that most of us went through a time at some point in our lives when we were poor and were receiving means-tested welfare. This then implied that the people who received welfare were not a special sub-class of American. On the contrary, most Americans at some time collect welfare. So, it can’t be the case that welfare recipients are generally lazy, undeserving, or dependent. In fact, Rank’s research shows that most of us get welfare at the times you would expect, right when we are young, and freshly out of school and getting a start in life. That is a time when we’re more likely to earn low wages, or have children and new families while simultaneously starting at the lowest rungs in our careers. Then, if we get in a divorce or meet with some accident or economic disaster (becoming unemployed), we tend to go on welfare for a short period. Also, when we are first born, it’s more likely we’re being born into a family of young parents who are early in their careers, so as young children we’re likely to be on welfare. But most of us get off welfare, and we only are ever receiving it once, or maybe twice in our lives. This is clear, and when you think about it, it’s not really very surprising.

Rank said something to the effect of, “yeah, I can show this research to politicians, but then they’ll point to some report from the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute and tell me, ‘yeah, I hear what you’re saying, but there is this report over here that says something closer to what I believe, so I’ll go with this other report instead of yours.’” And he’s right. For ever carefully-crafted study done by a non-ideological scholar who is just intellectually curious about what the facts are one of the conservative think-tanks will generate a biased and methodologically sloppy report that sounds good and fits into the world-views of the people who don’t want to know what is really going on. Of course the left is also guilty of sometimes giving credence to weak and biased scholarship, but Rank is no ideologue, and I know other scholars like him who really just care about practical solutions to problems and want to get good information into the hands of the public and decision-makers. These are people who are open to suggestions and solutions no matter the source or ideology that generates them, but they care about the craft of doing good scientific work and getting the facts right. And you look at the junk generated by the conservative think tanks (well, some of it is in fact rather good, but there is a higher ratio of junk and garbage to good information that comes out of places like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, and you’ll get more accurate stuff from the best peer-reviewed academic journals or the more neutral think-tanks, or the Congressional Budget Office, or whatever).

It’s true that there are some long-term hard-core welfare dependent people out there. They may be about 4% of the population. But think about things like the rate of intellectual impairments and disabilities (mental retardation), and consider the rates of serious chronic mental illness like schizophrenia, and right there you have over half of the hard-core welfare-dependent. Throw in the people with chronic illness, physical disabilities, and all the people who are not quite mentally retarded but are almost meeting the diagnostic criteria, or the people with personality disorders that make it hard for them to hold jobs, or the people with mild psychotic disorders, serious post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addictions, moderate mood disorders, and other issues that make it difficult for them to work, and you end up with almost the full 4% of hard-core long-term welfare dependent right there.

And there are people who really are stuck because of a few poor choices, an environment that makes it harder for them, and continuing barriers to success. How about a person from a historically-oppressed ethnic group whose parents and grand-parents and ancestors were discriminated against, and so this person comes into the world and joins a family that hasn’t had a chance to accumulate much in the way of financial assets or higher education. Then, this person happens to be reared in an area of concentrated poverty, surrounded by many peers who drop out of school or get involved with illegal activities. Then, as a young person, this hypothetical person makes some bad choices in early romantic relationships, and becomes a teen-age parent with a partner who is abusive and unfit as a spouse or parent. Then, instead of getting a good education (if that is even possible given the poor schools available to this person), this hypothetical person gets a sub-standard education, isn’t encouraged to develop a love of learning, and takes low-wage jobs with no future in them. And, because the person is from a bad neighborhood, and because employers are wary of hiring someone with such an ethnic background, this person has difficulty getting better jobs. And, the person is somewhat demoralized and stressed out by economic and personal responsibilities, a fairly dysfunctional family or origin, and some friends and family who run into problems with drugs and the law. Partly because of these problems, the hypothetical person’s work performance is barely adequate, and they get laid off or fired, or the place where they work closes. And so it goes, year after year. This is a mentally and physically person of average intelligence who just has all the odds stacked against them, and their income bounces between $8,000 and $16,000 per year, which keeps them under poverty or near poverty, and so they get Medicaid, Food Stamps, and perhaps WIC. Such a hypothetical person is plausible, don’t you think? Yeah, we can blame the person for some bad decisions related to love and romance, and some poor parenting decisions perhaps. The person wasn’t very much into academic stuff, and has found it difficult to hold a job for more than a few years at a time, partly because the jobs they have held have been uninspiring. Surely there must be many people in this situation, and if they fall prey to unscrupulous lenders, con artists, abusive lovers, manipulative family members or friends, and various other problems, they’re going to have a hard time getting out of poverty. Are they in some way undeserving because they only work 1,000 hours per year at $8.50 instead of the 1,900-2,000 that many of us do for $15-$25 per hour?

The standard conservative point is that if this hypothetical person would just work harder, be smarter in the jobs they take, and look for opportunities, and make canny choices, they would be able to get out of poverty. Yeah, that is true. The top quarter of people in a situation like I’ve described probably have the intelligence, the luck, or the work motivation and social skills to help themselves eventually get out of poverty forever. But I think most people given the sort of life I’ve described just don’t have the exceptional personal resources or the luck of circumstances that will bring them into a lasting prosperity and financially flourishing lives.

I think the attitudes that much of America holds about poverty and the people in poverty really divide us. Our textbook discusses the different views held by Conservatives, Liberals and Radicals. I believe that one of the ways we can address poverty is by making information like the longitudinal study conducted by Rank and Hirschl more widely known to create a more unified approach to helping people out of poverty. I realize that is a reach, however, until everyone realizes that we are ALL best served by helping people leave poverty, we will continue to argue our positions about who is to blame and never make any progress in this endeavor.

And one of Rank’s points is that welfare does help people out of poverty. Most people who use WIC and Food Stamps and TANF and Unemployment Benefits and Medicaid only use these for months or a few years, and then they move on up. When you look at the people who don’t ever move up, or move up and then fall back down into poverty, you usually find people with extraordinary problems in their lives.

I remember watching a documentary by Morgan Spurlock and his fiancée titled "30 Days". You may be familiar with another documentary he did, "Supersize Me." In "Supersize Me," Spurlock ate nothing but items on the McDonald's menu for thirty days and reported the physical effects this had on him. In "30 Days," he and his fiancée experienced what it is like to be one of the working poor. After they both secured jobs, they quickly found that they were unable to make ends meet. They both decided to get second jobs and found that one visit to the emergency room sent them spiraling into this pit of debt that they could never really recover from. It was not hard for them to see the toll this takes on relationships, and could not imagine having to care for children in this situation. Maybe if we all experienced this, we might not have such animosity towards the poor in our country. Given our current economic climate, it is not hard to imagine.

Social workers shouldn’t have animosity toward the poor. We may be more realistic and tough when we consider the needs of the poor, because we’ll encounter the cheats and free-riders. We’ll work with deceptive clients and see people who abuse the system. So, we’ll know that there isn’t much romantic or noble or healthy about poverty. We’ll come to understand the gray areas and see the issues of poverty, crime, addictions, family problems, mental health, prejudices, economic injustices, and structural problems. They all relate, and there are no simple solutions or simple explanations. But no, we won’t feel animosity toward the poor. We’ll feel solidarity toward most of those in poverty, and we’ll be on their side. Not in some paternalistic way where we arrogantly think that we know best and can show them what they ought to do because they’re stupid and ignorant. Rather, we’ll help work with their strengths and help them find their abilities and wisdom, and we’ll advocate for them and push for them and encourage them along with some practical and useful help. That’s what social work training and the social work profession is about. And you’ll see, as you work with those in poverty, that many of them are very hard working. Many of them are brilliant, and given alternative circumstances, many of them could be big successes in economic realms of our society. They are held back because they are caring for friends, family, or children, or a mental illness or health problem is keeping them back, or they made a few reckless choices as adolescents and they fell so far behind they have never yet caught up, or they got tripped up by drugs, or messed up by a bad love or toxic family of origin (you'll have many clients who have survived abuse and neglect, even incest). It's hard to feel too much animosity against people who have survived in the face of such odds and had to deal with such hardships.