Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Monday, August 23, 2010
In case you missed it: The economy is kind of in the dumps. With unemployment still uncomfortably high and real wages stagnating, lots of progressives are trying to figure out ways to kick-start the economy.
Demos and The American Prospect (TAP), in its forthcoming collaborative special report, have noted that though Congress has passed a $26 billion jobs bill earlier this month, they want the Obama administration to do something about the jobs problem as well. In a call today with bloggers and reporters, they outlined some ways Obama could kick-start jobs without congressional intervention.
As I mentioned earlier today, one of the themes that gets repeated in discussions about the economy is to push for more education. But as TAP founder and Demos senior fellow Robert Kuttner notes in the introduction, "It’s true that well-educated U.S. workers have been better defended against these trends. On the other hand, economists report that tens of millions of Americans with college degrees are already performing jobs that don’t require a college education. It is neither feasible nor necessary for every American to get an advanced degree as a defense against faltering earnings."
As Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute said on the call, "We can expect real wage decline for a number of years to come."
But before young people panic about the state of the economy, there is a possible solution: The Obama administration to use its power to award government contracts to leverage better jobs in the economy. According to the report, the government spends $500 billion on goods and services through government contracts each year—affecting roughly one in four jobs in all of the U.S. economy.
It seems Congress has given the administration the power to place conditions on those contracts—and the courts have backed them up. Ann O'Leary, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP) senior fellow, notes that "This authority has been used by many presidents for many years." The Johnson administration once used government contracts to leverage widespread affirmative action policies, not just on the contracts procured by the government but company-wide. In a video for the CAP website, O'Leary noted that contracts could be used to create more family-friendly policies for workers.
In the TAP/Demos report, David Moberg that investigates current government contracts with companies like the meal ration manufacturer, Wornick, which pays their employees less than $10 an hour. Few of Warnick's employees are able to afford the company's health insurance plan. This is one instance in which the Obama administration could use its power of awarding contracts to place requirements of fair wages and good benefits on the companies from which it solicits services.
Of course, the report also argues that if the Department of Labor also put its effort into more strictly cracking down on violations of existing labor law, like some of the reports of Wal-Mart misclassifying warehouse workers as temporary employees. Though the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) has fallen to the bottom of the pile of legislative priorities this congressional session, the report argues that "a lot is possible without EFCA."
Ultimately the report tells the story that leveraging better job isn't just something we should sit by and hope employers will be good enough to do on their own or something that we necessarily have to rely on a dysfunctional Congress to take care of. The Obama administration has the power to create a progressive jobs agenda. The question is if they will use it.
Today the Washington Monthly released its annual college issue online. There's a lot of good stuff in there, including its alternative school ranking that it has compiled since 2005. The universities that top the Monthly's list aren't necessarily the Ivy League schools like Harvard or Princeton, schools that continue to attract more and more applicants while admitting the same number of students and thus see their acceptance rates spiral downward.
Instead, the schools in the Monthly's rankings are schools that provide a means of social mobility and actually contribute research that's useful to society at large. Unsurprisingly, the top three schools on the Monthly's ranking of schools nationally come from the University of California system: San Diego, Berkeley, and UCLA. In fact, state schools tend to perform pretty well on the Monthly's rankings overall, leaving those private schools typically ranked highly in the U.S. News & World Reportrankings to dwindle further down the list.
The important thing that the Monthly is putting forward with its college issue is that the writers and editors are encouraging us to think more critically about what America wants out of colleges more generally. The answer, all too often, seems often to be that more education in America is better — after all, President Barack Obama issued a challenge to Americans to commit to "at least one year of higher education or advanced training." But we can't just stop at encouraging students to get more education. We also need to look at the quality of that education.
The Monthly's articles ask some critical questions about what higher education is and what it should do. They examine how some schools, dubbed "dropout factories," turn high-performing low-income high school students into college dropouts saddled with debt. They ask why George Washington University suddenly got a whole lot more expensive even if their students graduate with career earnings potentials on par with those who graduated from cheaper schools like the University of Virginia or the University of Maryland. They also look at some good models for making higher education better, like the University of Minnesota's Rochester campus, which is integrating undergrads more directly into its research and creating better learning opportunities for its students.
The articles published by the Monthly ask the question of what we actually want our higher education system to do. The answer isn't just throwing more money at it, although affordability and access are both really important pieces of the puzzle. Advocates for affordable college education experienced a huge victory when Congress passed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), legislation that put subsidies toward Pell grants rather than toward less good federal loan subsidies, earlier this year. But a victory like SAFRA, as important as it is, isn't the end of the story. The real goal is to make college — including community colleges and other non-traditional higher ed opportunities — work better for students.
Friday, August 20, 2010
This weekend in the New York Times Sunday magazine, they're featuring an article titled, "What Is It About 20-Somethings?: Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?" by Robin Marantz Henig. Oh boy. Here we go again.
Let's face it: The New York Times doesn't exactly have a great track record for talking about young people. Their coverage of Millennials seems to range from Tom Friedman's accusation of lazy young people in his now-infamous "Generation Q" column to its constant coverage of "hipsters" in the paper.
But this weekend's magazine cover story actually looks at all kinds of factors for "growing up," including the science behind brain development. "Neuroscientists once thought the brain stops growing shortly after puberty, but now they know it keeps maturing well into the 20s," Henig writes. The idea that young people reached a point of maturity at 18 or 21 — or even 25 — seems to be an outdated one from a scientific perspective.
The article also looks at many of the "traditional" markers for adulthood: "completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child." Henig notes that psychologists and sociologists are beginning to recognize that such rigid milestones may no longer be relevant in the modern day.
In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had, by the time they reached 30, passed all five milestones. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so. A Canadian study reported that a typical 30-year-old in 2001 had completed the same number of milestones as a 25-year-old in the early ’70s.
They're beginning to call this longer period of transition between adolescence and adulthood "emerging adulthood," or a time when many of these milestones aren't for everyone. After all, fewer women than ever are having children and the average age of marriage is creeping ever upward (in addition to the LGBT folks who aren't allowed to marry in most states).
The whole idea of milestones to adulthood seems silly in a modern culture. Financial independence might be the only admirable goal when it comes to getting young people to transition from adolescence to adulthood. But with the economy in the dumps and young people experiencing higher unemployment than the rest of the working population, such a marker these days seems an impossible standard. As Anna North at Jezebel writes, "Maybe what we need is not to define a new phase of life but to accept that life doesn't really have concrete phases."
The article does note that the idea of parents supporting their children (instead of the way it was a century ago, when children generally helped support their families) is nearly universal these days:
According to data gathered by the Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a research consortium supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, American parents give an average of 10 percent of their income to their 18- to 21-year-old children. This percentage is basically the same no matter the family’s total income, meaning that upper-class kids tend to get more than working-class ones. And wealthier kids have other, less obvious, advantages. When they go to four-year colleges or universities, they get supervised dormitory housing, health care and alumni networks not available at community colleges. And they often get a leg up on their careers by using parents’ contacts to help land an entry-level job — or by using parents as a financial backup when they want to take an interesting internship that doesn’t pay.
The stereotype of Millennials as a generation that is entirely dependent on his or her parents for all needs — ranging from looking for jobs to paying for rent — is tiresome. It's also insulting to young people who come from poorer families.
The difference here is a matter of scale. Young people from worse-off families are contributing to their children's futures, but they can't contribute nearly as much as their wealthier counterparts. As long as young people are entering the job market with different advantages, the disparities between the rich and poor seem ever more evident — especially when unemployment among college grads is so much lower than college or high school dropouts.
Rather than thinking of all Millennials as young people are overly privileged, it might be worth our time to consider those who, even with their parents' help, still qualify for Pell grants and can’t afford that prestigious unpaid internship.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Today over at RH Reality Check, 18-year-old Clayton MacDougall writes about why reproductive justice is important to him:
For me, reproductive rights are synonymous with human rights. I can't think of any greater, or more important human right than the right to control your own body. In the United States no significant movement threatens to infringe on individual rights more than the movement to control women's reproductive systems. The implications of that lack of respect for and diminishment of privacy, individual rights, and human dignity for all people everywhere are intolerable. The focus on controlling women's bodies devalues them as individuals, and as members of society, and the extreme gravity of that injustice strongly compels me to action with or without immediate personal stake in the issue.
It's great to see a young man like MacDougall write about his push to be supportive of choice, and I agree with him that human rights by necessity need to include giving women autonomy over their own bodies.
But then MacDougall writes on how Millennials more broadly perceive choice:
Most of my pro-life peers do not subscribe to the absolutism of the anti-choice fringe, and many will defend others' right to come to their own moral and ethical conclusions just as they did, making them as pro-choice as I am. The principle Voltaire articulated when he said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” is making a great comeback in my generation, as we acknowledge the subjective nature of our own conclusions about how best to think and act.
Unfortunately, I think MacDougall might be overly optimistic in this depiction. His peers may identify as "pro life," but don't want to create public policies that prevent it. That perspective isn't uncommon among those who identify this way. But it is not these more moderate anti-choice folks who are running the show.
The "anti-choice fringe" that MacDougall describes is the part of the anti-choice movement that is the most powerful. They're the ones that push for the so-called personhood amendment to get put on the ballot in Colorado, something that could ultimately outlaw many types of birth control and challenge Roe v. Wade in court. They're the ones that lobbied Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) on the health care reform bill, ultimately causing a compromise on restricting abortion coverage in private insurance.
The "anti-choice fringe" counts on this confusion between personal choice and public policy. The idea is that they will sway voters by making them think about what they personally would do, rather than thinking more broadly about the repercussions of such policies on the lives of women and their partners.
I don't mean to attack MacDougall. I'm really glad he wrote the piece he wrote. As I've said before, I find it really important to include men in the debate on reproductive health issues. I want to encourage him to continue his work in the pro-choice movement as he enters college.
But MacDougall goes on to write, "Tolerance is the greatest weapon against the moral absolutist anti-choice fringe, and most of my generation, both willing to have abortions and not, wield it very well." Perhaps I'm too cynical, but much of the compromises that have happened on choice issues in the last few years have come in the name of trying to seek "common ground." In the end, compromise on abortion means placing real barriers on poor and rural women's access to abortion and other reproductive health services. The term compromise is great until we consider on which points we're actually willing to compromise.
I struggle to think that that tolerance among a movement controlled by those who seek to restrict abortion by any means — even if that translates into increased risk of women's lives and health — are thinking about tolerance in the way that MacDougall is.