How Congress Wants to Bring Sex Education Back to the Dark Ages

As the deadline for Congress to pass the budget deal—or else shut down the government—looms closer, our elected officials have found themselves embroiled in yet another battle. This time around, an important sex education program that benefits low-income teens and women of color is at stake, as conservatives threaten to gut the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (TPPI).

Although we have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of teen pregnancies, the United States still experiences higher rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) than other Western countries. Despite this fact, current conservative proposals would cut funding for TPPI by nearly 90 percent. This critical program, which represents one of the two major federal funding streams for comprehensive sex education, works to reduce the number of unplanned teen pregnancies through increasing access to medically-accurate and age-appropriate evidence-based programs, contraception, and reproductive health care services. But instead of backing this successful model, Congress would increase funding for Abstinence Only Until Marriage programs (AOUM) by $10 million, despite the fact that states with abstinence-only education have the highest teen birth rates.

Many AOUM programs (also known by the misleading term “Sexual Risk Avoidance” programs) advance deeply problematic gender expectations and generally ignore the needs of LGBTQ youth or stigmatize homosexuality. They also often provide medically inaccurate information, undermining students’ ability to make safe and informed choices.

This misguided effort by conservatives to gut TPPI fails to address the immediate causes of teen pregnancy. The U.S. has high rates of unplanned pregnancy and STIs relative to other nations likely because we have lower rates of contraceptive use. By contrast, comprehensive sex education, which TPPI helps to provide, increases contraception usage and particularly benefits teens, who are disproportionately likely to experience unplanned pregnancies.

Unlike abstinence-only programs, TPPI also works to address racial disparities in access to comprehensive sex education by specifically focusing on the African American and Hispanic communities. These communities are less likely to receive comprehensive sex education—if any at all—and face higher rates of poverty. Economic deprivation is known to make it more difficult for teens of color to access contraception and other sexual health services. The result is that Hispanic and black youth have the highest teen pregnancy rates—more than double that of white youth—and are disproportionately likely to contract STIs.

We have to avoid treating teen pregnancy prevention as a silver-bullet solution to ending poverty.

The facts clearly show that it is counterproductive for Congress to slash funding for evidenced-based programs while pouring more resources into programs that we know are ineffective. Moreover, it is inequitable, as cutting TPPI funds would specifically harm the students who already face limited access to comprehensive sex education and reproductive health care services.

But while the correlations between poverty, race, and teen pregnancy are undeniable, we have to avoid treating teen pregnancy prevention as a silver-bullet solution to ending poverty. A 30-year study from the University of Pennsylvania that followed 300 teen mothers from Baltimore found that teen childbirth was not the major cause of their economic difficulties. This finding has been supported by Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine who also note that, “teen birth itself does not appear to have much direct economic consequence.” Rather, women who grow up in poverty are likely to live in poverty their entire lives regardless of whether or not they have a baby as a teen or wait until they are older.

But regardless of its effectiveness as an anti-poverty measure, the work of TPPI to reduce the prevalence of STIs and unplanned pregnancy is valuable. The program promotes equality among teenagers and increases students’ agency. Moreover, TPPI is ushering in an important paradigm shift by funding comprehensive sex education aimed at empowering young people to parent when they decide they are ready; this contrasts with the dangerous notion of using contraceptives to reduce the number of poor children, an idea popular among some moderate and conservative politicians that brings to mind a dark history of forced sterilizations and state control over the bodies of low-income women.

Instead of gutting effective programs, our elected leaders should adopt a broad strategy to ensure young people can reach their full potential. While programs like TPPI that fund comprehensive sex education are a central part of this work, the government must also invest in jobs and adopt strong anti-poverty policies in order to bring about more opportunities for social mobility.

The clock is ticking for Congress to act. We need politicians that will fight for the sexual health and empowerment of teenagers, not contest the very existence of the institution they serve.




Minneapolis Shootings Show That Communities Need Resources, Not More Policing

The recent shootings of Black protesters by white vigilantes in Minneapolis—and the ensuing anemic response by local police—are symptoms of a culture of racism that devalues Black lives. It is clear to many of the residents of Minneapolis and beyond that police do not make them safer. We need to reimagine community safety as something very different from policing and mass incarceration.

As members of Minneapolis’ Black community staged a peaceful protest against what one relative of Jamar Clark called his “execution-style” killing by police, a masked man—accompanied by three accomplices—shot five Black Lives Matter protesters outside of a police station.

Activists who were on the scene say that police nearby did nothing to protect the protesters and that it took approximately 15 minutes for ambulances to arrive.

The shooting of peaceful protesters by white vigilantes is terrorism, plain and simple. The victims were shot as they exercised their right to free assembly. The horrific act should have been met with a state response that takes these ongoing threats seriously and did not perpetuate the devaluing of Black life. Instead, the response by the City demonstrates that the policing and criminal justice systems in Minneapolis are irredeemably broken.

The police in Minneapolis were aware of threats to the protesters but took no action to avert this tragedy. All four suspects managed to get away after drawing guns and shooting five protesters only a block away from the Fourth Precinct police station. Activists reported that during the chaos of the shootings, not only did police fail to protect the demonstrators, but they taunted and maced them. In the past week, the Minneapolis Police Department further escalated tensions by using a chemical irritant against protesters.

The shootings in Minneapolis took place on the same week as the one-year anniversary of the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. They also occurred the week that first-degree murder charges were filed against a Chicago officer in the merciless shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.  Indeed, Minneapolis is the latest example that our criminal justice and policing systems are not designed to keep Black communities safe. All around the country, Black people are finding that they are as under-protected as they are over-policed.

We must address not only this current crisis but the root causes that created it.

We need to reimagine community safety as something very different from policing and mass incarceration.

We need meaningful community control of police and support for Black communities to address safety concerns. Communities are experts in the type of policing they need and must have the power to set police priorities, determine policing tactics, and make hiring and firing decisions. Police departments in San Francisco and Newark have introduced programs in which local communities have a meaningful say in setting priorities for the department, but there are currently no existing ideal models for community control of local police.

We need to ensure that our communities are protected not only from white vigilantes, but from other forms of violence ignored by the state, including poverty, a dearth of employment opportunities, failing education systems, homelessness, and a lack of mental health services. We know that investments in education, affordable housing, mental health services, restorative justice programs, and higher wages are vital for rebuilding these traumatized communities.

The United States spends $100 billion annually on policing alone—this despite a steady decline in crime rates. Growth in corrections spending has outpaced growth in expenditures in other critical areas. State spending on higher education rose by less than six percent between 1986 and 2013, yet corrections spending jumped by 141 percent.

If all of the energy and resources that go towards policing and incarceration were instead redirected toward these basic needs and opportunities, we would see a kind of safety we have not seen in this country since its original sin.

Legislators and state officials have stripped our communities of basic resources, preyed and profited on our exploitation, and continue to fill prisons while shutting down schools. The killing of Jamar Clark and the terrorist event in Minneapolis are the latest symptoms of our great American tragedy.




Tax Negotiations Cannot Leave Working Families High and Dry

Congress has a lot on its plate before it breaks for the holidays. In addition to agreeing on a way to fund the federal government, one of its most important tasks is to forge a compromise on a range of tax credits for businesses and workers. Debates about the tax code are riddled with jargon and technicalities. Too often, compromises start to sound like minor disagreements over a balance sheet. But in fact, the decisions Congress must make during this tax debate will either help stabilize hardworking families or push millions of them into poverty. As Congress tries to cut a deal, they should support the everyday working people who rely on our tax code—especially the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC)—to make ends meet in an economy that isn’t working for many of us.

It’s working people like Joanna who have real stakes in the current debate. Joanna has two children—a 14-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. She works full-time as a cashier on the third shift at her local deli. She earns the current minimum wage in New Jersey—$8.38 per hour—which means she makes just over $17,000 annually. To say she struggles to make ends meet is a great understatement.

“I have to pick and choose my battles when it comes to paychecks,” she says. “I sacrifice whatever I may need or want because my children come first.”

Joanna receives the EITC and CTC, both of which are intended to encourage work and offset federal payroll and income taxes for working households.

“It lifts a burden off my back,” Joanna says. “I’m able to catch up on all our bills…I was able to get my children coats for the winter, shoes that will last them for a while, school clothes and underclothes all at once. It’s a lifesaver.”

Congress must now decide whether to make key parts of the EITC and CTC permanent as part of a broader tax package that primarily benefits corporations. If they let key provisions of these credits expire at the end of 2017, Congress will be cutting Joanna’s family income by over $1,500 per year. That’s income that makes a real difference in the lives of Joanna and her children.

“The thought of [losing income from the tax credits] has been stressing me out,” she says.

Joanna isn’t the only one who is worried. If Congress lets these provisions expire, nearly 50 million Americans, including 25 million children, would face a loss of income. In 2018, 16 million people would either fall into poverty, or fall deeper into poverty. In New Jersey, where Joanna lives, 219,000 families and 435,000 children would be impacted if Congress cuts these credits.

Moreover, these tax credits don’t just mitigate poverty and economic hardship in the short-term—they have tremendous positive effects on children’s long-term health and success. After significant increases in the credits in the 1990s, there was substantial improvement in the health of new born children. Indicators of child wellbeing such as low-weight births and premature births improved, as did indicators for the health of the mothers of these children. Research has also shown that the EITC and CTC improve the educational outcomes for children according to a variety of indicators, including academic test scores. Children from families receiving these tax credits are also more likely to attend college and earn more as adults.

In short, these tax credits are public policies that work—and work very well. Right now, Congress is debating how to extend more than 50 tax credits and incentives. Many of these are costly credits for big corporations. In fact, out of the $400 billion in proposed tax benefits, two-thirds would go to businesses. If Congress considers making these business credits permanent, they must also make key improvements to the EITC and CTC permanent for working people like Joanna.




Paul Ryan’s (Accidental) Case for Raising the Minimum Wage

Today, Paul Ryan gave his first major policy speech as Speaker of the House of Representatives. He spoke for nearly half an hour about “the millions of people stuck in neutral… 45 million people living in poverty.”

While Ryan pushed many of his favorite myths about the safety net, he also inadvertently made one of the strongest cases to date for raising the minimum wage and investing in policies to help people balance work and caregiving.

Indeed, in his grand finale, Ryan called on Congress to:

“Push wages up. Push the cost of living down. Get people off the sidelines. I could think of no better way to restore confidence in the American economy.”

Bravo, Speaker Ryan. We couldn’t agree more. Now, if only we knew how to do these things…

Oh, wait. We do!

How can we “push wages up”?

It’s called raising the minimum wage. And luckily for Speaker Ryan, over 75 percent of Americans support raising the federal minimum wage to $12.50 by 2020.

But wait, there’s more.

As Speaker Ryan so eloquently points out, our minimum wage is a poverty wage and not nearly enough for working parents to support their families, leaving many with no choice but to turn to public assistance to make ends meet.

“So say you’re a single mom with one kid. You’re making minimum wage. You’re on food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, and other assistance.”

So, by raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 as the Murray-Scott bill would do, not only would 35 million Americans get a raise, but we would also save nearly $53 billion over the next 10 years in SNAP alone.  

Unfortunately Ryan has voted against raising the minimum wage at least 10 times since he’s been in office.

So, how can we “push the cost of living down”?

Paul Ryan is correct when he says that the cost of living is rising. But families with young kids often face the tightest squeeze of all. Childcare expenses have skyrocketed; the average annual cost for center-based childcare is now more than tuition and fees for a public 4-year college in 31 states and DC. And low-income families spend an average of nearly 14% of their annual income on diapers alone.

What these families need is affordable, high-quality childcare—which also helps parents work—and a stronger Child Tax Credit to help alleviate the squeeze of stagnant wages and rising costs.

And, finally, how can we “get people off the sidelines”?

While there’s obviously a lot that policymakers can and should do on this one—including investing in job creation and removing barriers to employment for people with criminal records and people with disabilities, a major piece of the puzzle is ensuring access to paid family and medical leave.

Speaker Ryan has led by example on this important issue—well, for himself anyway. But, in opposing legislation that would help families access up to 12 weeks of paid family leave, he’s left other working parents high and dry.

The U.S. stands alone among developed nations in failing to guarantee access to any form of paid family leave. But research has shown that when women are able to take paid leave, they are more likely to be working; to have higher wages 9-12 months after their child is born; and to avoid turning to public assistance.


Interestingly, a major theme of Speaker Ryan’s speech was about how conservatives need to push new ideas to cut poverty and boost opportunity. “Our number-one goal for the next year,” he said, “is to put together a complete alternative to the Left’s agenda.”

Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell him that his speech didn’t actually contain any new ideas on tackling poverty and boosting opportunity – only the same old stuff conservatives have been pushing for years such as block grants and cuts to effective programs.

Instead, at his poverty summit on January 9th, Speaker Ryan should endorse raising the minimum wage and adopting work-family policies. To borrow his hashtag of choice, that would make us a #ConfidentAmerica.



First Person

Where Martha Stewart and I Went to Prison Was No ‘Camp Cupcake’

I was a 60-year-old woman when I was first incarcerated in 2010 at Alderson Federal Prison Camp (FPC), one of the few federal women’s prison camps in the United States. A month before I entered prison, my friend Russ Rothman called to tell me Martha Stewart had served her time there when she was 63. He had googled Alderson, nicknamed “Camp Cupcake,” and had found they had tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool—more like a country club than a prison, he said. Russ assured me I would be okay…and instructed me to bring my racket.

My mother had Martha Stewart on her mind too. Not realizing that Martha had actually gone to trial and lost, she said, “Martha Stewart pled guilty and went to prison for six months. Why don’t you plead guilty, go to prison, and get this nightmare over with. You can’t beat city hall.” My mother also used my love of watching 24/7 TV news in her efforts to persuade me. She said, “At least you will get cable TV in prison. I didn’t get that in Auschwitz.” I had no words.

Ultimately, my mother was right: I couldn’t beat the government’s charges of tax evasion and mail fraud, even though I was innocent. And so, eight years after Martha went to prison, my case went to trial and I was convicted. But from the moment I entered Alderson, I realized it was no country club. After being fingerprinted and having my mug shot taken, I was given “newbie” clothes, that is, the clothes inmates wear for the first day only. The slip-on sneakers were two sizes too large; the bra had as little material as a G-string and didn’t hold my breasts in place. The oversized outfit could have fit two women.

After this initial intake, I waited with three other new arrivals in a freezing cell in the Receiving and Discharge (R & D) building. We got the prison bag lunch of a bologna sandwich, cookies, an apple, and a water. When we missed dinner, we got another bag of bologna sandwiches.

Soon after our arrival, R & D officers gave each of us a large laundry bag which contained a blanket, two sheets, soap, shampoo, a comb, a toothbrush, and, most importantly, “Maximum Security” deodorant.

Photo provided by author
Photo provided by author

The R & D building was separated from the sleeping quarters (the “units”) by a long stretch known as “Hallelujah Hill.” For some, this nickname was a reference to its proximity to the prison chapel, but for the older crowd, making it to the top merited a shout of “Hallelujah.” During my first trek to the Admissions and Orientation (A & O) units, I was forced to stop several times to catch my breath while carrying the heavy laundry bag. I lagged far behind the younger women.

During my first two weeks in prison, I went through orientation with thirty other women. Correctional officers showed us a film on the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and emphasized there was to be no lesbian sex. I understood that to mean lesbian sex was the only kind of sex that merited punishment, as opposed to some of the contractors’ well-known proclivity for sexually abusing prisoners. They also lectured us on the rules of the compound, the different facilities, and told us we had to work.

In Alderson, everyone was required to work in the kitchen for their first 90 days. That is, everyone but Martha Stewart, who requested but was denied kitchen duty. I suspect she was refused because this chore might have given her an inkling of pleasure within the miserable prison environment. She was instead assigned instead to the humiliating task of mopping the floors and cleaning the toilets of the warden and other higher-ups.

My first job at the Alderson kitchen was cleaning floors after the lunch and dinner shift. Although I worked seven or eight hours a day, I earned only $5.25 during my first month. There were also few accommodations based on age—elderly women were given the exact same jobs as younger women; even older women who could barely walk had to endure the long work hours. And after our work was done, we were not permitted to go back to the unit between lunch and dinner. We were not allowed to read, do crossword puzzles, knit, play cards, or sleep. Instead, everyone had to spend long hours in plastic seats attached to the table. As an older woman, this took a real toll on me physically.

Any basis for incarceration is outweighed by the negative consequences older adults experience behind bars.

After my days of kitchen duty were up, I got transferred to the landscaping department, which meant that, at the age of 60, I was charged with the backbreaking work of mowing the lawns in the hot summer and shoveling snow in the winter. Once, I was assigned a heavy 1950s-style lawnmower but could not get it started without assistance. When I went to push it, I couldn’t even move it an inch.

After I went to landscaper and asked for a different assignment, he gave me a broom and instructed me to sweep the streets. I cleaned the road of rocks but quickly realized that the area would be filled again as soon as a truck came by. And so, I asked the officer if I could remove the stones and put them far from the road. He replied, “But then you would have nothing to do.”

At an age where working a physically demanding job for seven- and eight-hour days was grueling, I served as the Sisyphus of Alderson, sweeping rocks off the streets only to see my work undone by passing vehicles. My experience is far from unique. While there are 75,000 prisoners over the age of 60 that are under the jurisdiction of correctional authorities, accommodations that take into account the reality of aging behind bars are all too rare.

What I’ve come to realize is that although older people do commit crimes that warrant punishment, there are few reasons, public safety or otherwise, to incarcerate elders. Certainly, any basis for incarceration is outweighed by the negative consequences we experience behind bars. Instead, we need alternatives to incarceration that acknowledge that older people are too vulnerable a population to be held in our prisons and jails.

As for Martha Stewart, well, Martha was lucky. She went home to a billion dollar company. But as for me, I’m homeless, broke, and living proof that Alderson is no “Camp Cupcake.”