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data, statistics > USA > 2010s


economy, poverty, glass ceiling,

immigration, demographics, politics,

health, mental health, education,

weather, natural disasters

crime, drug use, gun violence, suicide,

miscarriages of justice, death penalty, prison






The state of capital punishment


With capital punishment dominating headlines,

PostTV looks at the latest statistics

on the death penalty in the United States,

and in the 21 other countries that executed inmates in 2013.


YouTube > Washington Post        2 May 2014
















Study Supports Suspicion

That Police Are More Likely

to Use Force on Blacks


JULY 7, 2016

The New York Times



The vast majority of interactions between police officers and civilians end routinely, with no one injured, no one aggrieved and no one making the headlines. But when force is used, a new study has found, the race of the person being stopped by officers is significant.

The study of thousands of use-of-force episodes from police departments across the nation has concluded what many people have long thought, but which could not be proved because of a lack of data: African-Americans are far more likely than whites and other groups to be the victims of use of force by the police, even when racial disparities in crime are taken into account.

The report, to be released Friday by the Center for Policing Equity, a New York-based think tank, took three years to assemble and largely refutes explanations from some police officials that blacks are more likely to be subjected to police force because they are more frequently involved in criminal activity.

The researchers said they did not gather enough data specifically related to police shootings to draw conclusions on whether there were racial disparities when it came to the fatal confrontations between officers and civilians so in the news.

The study’s release comes at a particularly volatile time in the relationship between the police and minority communities after high-profile fatal police shootings of African-American men this week in Louisiana and Minnesota prompted widespread outrage.

Portions of the episodes, both captured on video and released publicly, have intensified calls for police reform as many departments across the nation have been slow to deploy body cameras or to mandate changes in officer training standards after the high-profile deaths of a number of African-Americans at the hands of police officers in the past two years.

African-American activists who have demanded greater police accountability since the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., set off days of rioting, said Thursday that the study was critical to the conversation, but far from surprising.

“It’s kind of like, ‘Is water wet?’” said Aislinn Sol, organizer of the Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter. “But what we gain with each study, each new piece of information is that we are able to win people over who are on the fence. The evidence is becoming overwhelming and incontrovertible that it is a systemic problem, rather than an isolated one.”

The organization compiled more than 19,000 use-of-force incidents by police officers representing 11 large and midsize cities and one large urban county from 2010 to 2015. It is the sort of data the Obama administration and the Justice Department have been seeking from police departments for nearly two years, in many cases, unsuccessfully.

The report found that although officers employ force in less than 2 percent of all police-civilian interactions, the use of police force is disproportionately high for African-Americans — more than three times greater than for whites.

The study, “The Science of Justice: Race, Arrests, and Police Use of Force,” did not seek to determine whether the employment of force in any particular instance was justified, but the center’s researchers found that the disparity in which African-Americans were subjected to police force remained consistent across what law enforcement officers call the use-of-force continuum — from relatively mild physical force, through baton strikes, canine bites, pepper spray, Tasers and gunshots.

“The dominant narrative has been that this happens to African-Americans because they are arrested in disproportionate numbers,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, a founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity, based at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “But the data really makes it difficult to say that crime is the primary driver of this. In every single category, the anti-black disparity persists.”

The study found that the overall mean use-of-force rate for all black residents was 273 per 100,000, which is 3.6 times higher than the rate for white residents (76 per 100,000) and 2.5 times higher than the overall rate of 108 per 100,000 for all residents.

For those who were arrested, the mean rate of use of force against blacks was 46 for every 1,000 arrests, compared with 36 per 1,000 for whites.

The Obama administration has been nudging police departments to adapt de-escalation tactics and to fix broken relationships with poor and minority communities across the nation, which typically experience far more intensive policing because of what are frequently higher crime rates.

But because police departments often refuse to release use-of-force data that would illustrate such trends, the federal government has had a difficult time in determining whether police departments are employing force less often.

The federal government cannot generally compel police departments to hand over such material, and many local agencies say they do not require officers to submit use-of-force reports.

Other departments say they lack the resources to collect such information, and others acknowledge privately that they fear that the release of their data would subject them to unwanted scrutiny from the public and the federal government.

But when the Justice Department has had the ability to review use-of-force records, it has found evidence of abuse.

In Seattle, federal investigators found that one out of every five use-of-force episodes had been excessive.

In Albuquerque, the Justice Department determined that most police shootings from 2009 to 2012 had been unjustified.

Researchers for the center said Thursday that the compilation of the use-of-force material after years of failed efforts to determine whether racial bias was present represented a significant success. The data is so closely held by police departments that the agencies that cooperated with the project did so anonymously.

Though the 12 municipalities that provided data were not named, they represented a large urban county in California and 11 cities spanning the nation with populations that range from less than 100,000 to several million, with an average population of 600,000.

The center said that given the diversity of the municipalities — six are predominantly white, one is predominantly black or Latino, and five have populations in which no single racial or ethnic group represents 50 percent or more of the population — that the findings are likely to hold true for most other cities.

Cameron McLay, the police chief of Pittsburgh, said his agency had been among those to share its use-of-force data. He said use of force by his officers had decreased in recent years, but acknowledged that there remained concerns about disparities in use of force when it came to African-Americans.

“We are responsible for not just bringing down the crime rate, but for making people feel safe in their communities,” he said.


A version of this article appears in print on July 8, 2016,
on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline:
Study Supports Suspicion That Police Use of Force Is
More Likely on Blacks.

Study Supports Suspicion That Police Are More Likely to Use Force on Blacks,
NYT, July 7, 2016,






One Robber’s 3 Life Sentences:

’90s Legacy Fills Prisons Today


JULY 4, 2016

The New York Times



BURKEVILLE, Va. — Lenny Singleton is the first to admit that he deserved an extended stay behind bars. To fuel his crack habit back in 1995, he walked into 13 stores over eight days and either distracted a clerk or pretended to have a concealed gun before stealing from the cash register. One time, he was armed with a knife with a six-inch blade that he had brought from his kitchen.

Mr. Singleton, 28 at the time, was charged with robbery and accepted a plea deal, fully expecting to receive a long jail sentence. But a confluence of factors worked against him, including the particularly hard-nosed judge who sentenced him and the zero-tolerance ethos of the time against users of crack cocaine. His sentence was very long: two life sentences. And another 100 years. And no possibility for parole.

There is a growing consensus that the criminal justice system has incarcerated too many Americans for too many years, with liberals and conservatives alike denouncing the economic and social costs of holding 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails. And Congress is currently debating a criminal justice bill that, among other provisions, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders.

But a divide has opened within the reform movement over how to address prisoners who have been convicted of violent crimes, including people like Mr. Singleton, who threatened shop owners but did not harm anyone. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union favor a swift 50 percent reduction in prison populations, while conservative prison reform organizations like Right on Crime prioritize the release of nonviolent offenders and worry that releasing others could backfire and reduce public support.

Nonviolent drug offenders make up only about 17 percent of all state prison inmates around the nation, while violent offenders make up more than 50 percent, according to federal data.

As the prison population has increased sharply over the past 30 years, so too has the number of those sentenced to life. Mr. Singleton is among nearly 160,000 prisoners serving life sentences — roughly the population of Eugene, Ore. The number of such inmates has more than quadrupled since 1984, and now about one in nine prison inmates is serving a life term, federal data shows.

“People are celebrating the stabilization of the prison population in recent years, but the scale of mass incarceration is so substantial that meaningful reduction is not going to happen by tinkering around the edges,” said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates changes in sentencing policy.

The United States, which has about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, holds 22 percent of its prisoners, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, a research organization based in England.

Mr. Singleton’s prison term, which makes it likely that he will die behind bars, attracted little attention in 1996. It was common then for judges in Virginia and the rest of the country to impose long prison terms for crack-related crimes. Still, even hard-line prosecutors who were active during that period say Mr. Singleton’s sentence seemed unduly harsh for crimes in which no one was hurt.

“Crack cocaine scared the hell out of a lot of people,” said William G. Broaddus, a former Virginia attorney general who is now in private practice and had no role in the case. “It’s disappointing there wasn’t more consideration as to why this man did this. Do we really want to keep him in jail for the rest of his life? Having said that, it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that this judge meted out the sentence that he did.”

William F. Rutherford, the judge who sentenced Mr. Singleton, has been retired for years. During a recent series of interviews, he said he had no recollection of the case, but after he reviewed Mr. Singleton’s court files, he said he had no regrets about how he handled it.

“Under the circumstances,” he said, “it would not be unusual for me to give out that kind of sentence.”

Mr. Rutherford, who turned 89 in June, was known in Norfolk, Va., legal circles for his tough sentences, and he acknowledged that he was an intimidating presence on the bench.

“I’m a no-nonsense guy and I wouldn’t take any crap off of defense lawyers or anybody,” he said. “The people in jail did not like coming into Courtroom No. 7.”

D. J. Hansen, the prosecutor in Mr. Singleton’s case, said Mr. Rutherford “had a reputation for being one of the tougher judges” in the courthouse. Mr. Hansen, who is now a deputy commonwealth’s attorney in Chesapeake, Va., added that “Virginia is a hard state” when it comes to doling out punishments, and pointed out that he sought a life sentence for Mr. Singleton because of the serious nature of the robberies.

When compared with recent cases, Mr. Singleton’s sentence appears to be disproportionately harsh. The maximum penalty for second-degree murder in Virginia is 40 years, and people convicted in recent months of attempted murder and similar crimes have received sentences far shorter than Mr. Singleton’s. For example, Tamar Harris, 21, who shot and wounded a police officer, was sentenced in April to 23 years in prison, and Jermaine Rogers, 30, of Norfolk, who pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted murder, was sentenced in March to 10 years.

Mr. Singleton, 49, who is called “Pops” by other inmates here at the Nottoway Correctional Center in central Virginia, has largely forgotten the details of his weeklong crime spree. Unlike many of his fellow inmates, he does not claim he is innocent.

He recalled in an interview that before each robbery, he would smoke crack and drink a 12-pack of beer. In all, he got about $500.

“After I sobered up, I couldn’t believe what I had done,” he said. “I was like, ‘Damn, Lenny, what the hell?’”

Mr. Singleton played football at Langston University, the historically black college in Oklahoma from which he graduated, and later joined the Navy, but was kicked out for using drugs. In prison, he has attended substance abuse classes and become a devoted reader of self-help books from the prison library.

He works in a furniture plant at the prison and earns 80 cents an hour building furniture used in Virginia’s universities. But a percentage of his pay is subtracted for court costs and fines, and he still owes the state $1,800.

Last year, he married a high school classmate, Vandy, with whom he had lost touch. They recently compiled a book of their letters detailing his incarceration and her battles with cancer.

Mr. Singleton, who prison officials acknowledge has never committed an infraction behind bars, has filed for a conditional pardon with Gov. Terry McAuliffe, saying in part that his court-appointed lawyer failed to adequately represent him. Mr. Singleton said he had been unaware that he could be sentenced to life in prison until he had already pleaded guilty.

His lawyer at that time, Jon M. Babineau, said he was legally prohibited from discussing Mr. Singleton’s case because of Virginia’s attorney-client privilege laws, but said he had done his best to represent his client.

In a prison administrative office on a recent morning, Mr. Singleton said he had seen inmates convicted of murder and rape come and go, and was hopeful that he would not die in prison.

“I was out of my mind on drugs, but I wasn’t going to hurt anybody,” he said. “I was just after the money.”


A version of this article appears in print on July 5, 2016,
on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline:
A ’90s Legacy That Is Filling Prisons Today.

One Robber’s 3 Life Sentences: ’90s Legacy Fills Prisons Today,
NYT, July 4, 2016,
















Gun control – a Guardian investigation


America's gun problem

is so much bigger than mass shootings


To save the most number of lives,

it’s the everyday violence

– not just the mass shootings

that we need to prevent

by Lois Beckett , Rich Harris, Nadja Popovich,

Jan Diehm and Mona Chalab


















Big Money Rearranges

Its Election Bets


JUNE 4, 2016

The New York Times

SundayReview | Editorial



Like practiced horseplayers at a racetrack, wealthy campaign donors are adjusting their bets as the primary season ends and the political field narrows. This is particularly true of Republican megadonors who cannot abide Donald Trump and are thus doubling down on keeping G.O.P. control of the Senate as a firewall against a possible Democratic president, while investing heavily in keeping statehouses in Republican hands.

One constant is the vast amount of money sluicing through the political system in what is certain to be the most expensive election in the nation’s history. Experts estimate that campaign spending, which has risen inexorably in recent years, will easily surpass the $6.28 billion record set in the 2012 federal elections and could conceivably reach $9 billion, much of it for political advertising.

Both parties are busy exploiting the power of barely regulated super PACs to accept unlimited six- and seven-figure donations for candidates. At the same time, campaigns are concealing the names of other rich donors in “dark-money” operations palmed off as tax exempt “social welfare” agencies supposedly dedicated to doing good, not to bare-knuckle politics.

Prominent among the Republican super-spenders shying away from Donald Trump are the billionaire conservatives Charles and David Koch, whose political machine has invested $42 million-plus to keep control of the Senate. Other Republican contributors have also indicated a preference for spending on lesser races down the line rather than on the presidential campaign.

Some superstar check writers like Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, have no problem with Mr. Trump’s erratic policy proposals, bluster, and past vows to self-fund. Mr. Adelson is talking of a $100 million effort to boost Mr. Trump’s performance in the finale against Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump, having flip-flopped on a primary promise to shun wealthy donors, now seems only too happy to accept a pledge by Mr. Adelson and others to raise as much as $1 billion for his campaign.

For now, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, leads the fund-raising pack with a money machine that has sucked in more than $80 million in super PAC support. Democrats are not shying away from the big-check power of super PACs, creating a new $50 million operation started by major labor unions and the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. At the same time, Mrs. Clinton is campaigning on proposals to rein in the runaway money race. She says it undermines American politics.

What voters think of all this as the price of a particularly raucous display of democracy remains to be seen. But the power of money in politics has grown so much since the 2010 Citizens United decision that its presence is felt ever deeper down the ballot. Ominously, there has been a flood of special-interest money into state judicial races that raises questions about whether judges’ decisions might be affected, according to a Brennan Center for Justice study. The toughest race in Kansas this year is being waged by furious conservative Republicans aiming to oust four members of the state Supreme Court because of their decisions striking down the G.O.P. Legislature’s shortchanging of the state constitution’s school-aid requirements.

Shrewd big-money campaigns financed by the Koch brothers and others have upended the Democrats’ one-time dominance of state legislatures. There are now Republican majorities in 70 percent of two-party statehouses. That success, in turn, has created a farm system for the G.O.P.’s current control of Congress. There, the twin powers of big money and statehouse gerrymandering have made incumbents of both parties unbeatable 90 percent of the time, compounding the gridlock voters complain about. For all the job security, big donors are expected to drive this year’s congressional election spending well beyond the $3.8 billion record set two years ago. Much of this money will surely be wasted, further enriching the new breed of fat-cat campaign operatives, and further alienating voters with toxic advertising. But some of it may tip key races.

As the money torrent rises, it’s no coincidence that for the first time in history, most members of Congress are millionaires (268 of 534 House members), according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Republican control of the agenda has snuffed out Democratic proposals to control or at least disclose the true extent of the wealth now driving elections. Theoretically, this election should be a forum for dealing with this open invitation to political corruption. Unfortunately, big money’s main effect on the campaign so far has been a frenzied pace to raise and spend more of it.


Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion), and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.

A version of this editorial appears in print on June 5, 2016, on page SR8 of the New York edition with the headline: Big Money Adjusts Its Election Bets.

Big Money Rearranges Its Election Bets,
NYT, June 4, 2016,






U.S. Suicide Rate

Surges to a 30-Year High


APRIL 22, 2016

The New York Times



WASHINGTON — Suicide in the United States has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years, a federal data analysis has found, with increases in every age group except older adults. The rise was particularly steep for women. It was also substantial among middle-aged Americans, sending a signal of deep anguish from a group whose suicide rates had been stable or falling since the 1950s.

The suicide rate for middle-aged women, ages 45 to 64, jumped by 63 percent over the period of the study, while it rose by 43 percent for men in that age range, the sharpest increase for males of any age. The overall suicide rate rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, which released the study on Friday.

The increases were so widespread that they lifted the nation’s suicide rate to 13 per 100,000 people, the highest since 1986. The rate rose by 2 percent a year starting in 2006, double the annual rise in the earlier period of the study. In all, 42,773 people died from suicide in 2014, compared with 29,199 in 1999.

“It’s really stunning to see such a large increase in suicide rates affecting virtually every age group,” said Katherine Hempstead, senior adviser for health care at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who has identified a link between suicides in middle age and rising rates of distress about jobs and personal finances.

Researchers also found an alarming increase among girls 10 to 14, whose suicide rate, while still very low, had tripled. The number of girls who killed themselves rose to 150 in 2014 from 50 in 1999. “This one certainly jumped out,” said Sally Curtin, a statistician at the center and an author of the report.

American Indians had the sharpest rise of all racial and ethnic groups, with rates rising by 89 percent for women and 38 percent for men. White middle-aged women had an increase of 80 percent.

The rate declined for just one racial group: black men. And it declined for only one age group: men and women over 75.
A Growing, Widespread Toll

From 1999 to 2014, suicide rates in the United States rose among most age groups. Men and women from 45 to 64 had a sharp increase. Rates fell among those age 75 and older.

The data analysis provided fresh evidence of suffering among white Americans. Recent research has highlighted the plight of less educated whites, showing surges in deaths from drug overdoses, suicides, liver disease and alcohol poisoning, particularly among those with a high school education or less. The new report did not break down suicide rates by education, but researchers who reviewed the analysis said the patterns in age and race were consistent with that recent research and painted a picture of desperation for many in American society.

“This is part of the larger emerging pattern of evidence of the links between poverty, hopelessness and health,” said Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard and the author of “Our Kids,” an investigation of new class divisions in America.

The rise in suicide rates has happened slowly over many years. Federal health researchers said they chose 1999 as the start of the period they studied because it was a low point in the national suicide rate and they wanted to cover the full period of its recent sustained rise.

The federal health agency’s last major report on suicide, released in 2013, noted a sharp increase in suicide among 35- to 64-year-olds. But the rates have risen even more since then — up by 7 percent for the entire population since 2010, the end of the last study period — and federal researchers said they issued the new report to draw attention to the issue.

Policy makers say efforts to prevent suicide across the country are spotty. While some hospitals and health systems screen for suicidal thinking and operate good treatment programs, many do not.

“We have more and more effective treatments, but we have to figure out how to bake them into health care systems so they are used more automatically,” said Dr. Jane Pearson, chairwoman of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Suicide Research Consortium, which oversees the National Institutes of Health funding for suicide prevention research. “We’ve got bits and pieces, but we haven’t really put them all together yet.”

She noted that while N.I.H. funding for suicide prevention projects had been relatively flat — rising to $25 million in 2016 from $22 million in 2012 — it was a small fraction of funding for research of mental illnesses, including mood disorders like depression.

The new federal analysis noted that the methods of suicide were changing. About one in four suicides in 2014 involved suffocation, which includes hanging and strangulation, compared with fewer than one in five in 1999. Suffocation deaths are harder to prevent because nearly anyone has access to the means, Ms. Hempstead said. Death from guns fell for both men and women. Guns went from being involved in 37 percent of female suicides to 31 percent, and from 62 percent to 55 percent for men.

The question of what has driven the increases is unresolved, leaving experts to muse on the reasons.

Julie Phillips, a professor of sociology at Rutgers who has studied suicide among middle-aged Americans, said social changes could be raising the risks. Marriage rates have declined, particularly among less educated Americans, while divorce rates have risen, leading to increased social isolation, she said. She calculated that in 2005, unmarried middle-aged men were 3.5 times more likely than married men to die from suicide, and their female counterparts were as much as 2.8 times more likely to kill themselves. The divorce rate has doubled for middle-aged and older adults since the 1990s, she said.

Disappointed expectations of social and economic well-being among less educated white men from the baby-boom generation may also be playing a role, she said. They grew up in an era that valued “masculinity and self-reliance” — characteristics that could get in the way of asking for help.

“It appears this group isn’t seeking help but rather turning to self-destructive means of dealing with their despair,” Professor Phillips said.

Another possible explanation: an economy that has eaten away at the prospects of families on the lower rungs of the income ladder.

Dr. Alex Crosby, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he had studied the association between economic downturns and suicide going back to the 1920s and found that suicide was highest when the economy was weak. One of the highest rates in the country’s modern history, he said, was in 1932, during the Great Depression, when the rate was 22.1 per 100,000, about 70 percent higher than in 2014.

“There was a consistent pattern,” he said, which held for all ages between 25 and 64. “When the economy got worse, suicides went up, and when it got better, they went down.”

But other experts pointed out that the unemployment rate had been declining in the latter period of the study, and questioned how important the economy was to suicide.

The gap in suicide rates for men and women has narrowed because women’s rates are increasing faster than men’s. But men still kill themselves at a rate 3.6 times that of women. Though suicide rates for older adults fell over the period of the study, men over 75 still have the highest suicide rate of any age group — 38.8 per 100,000 in 2014, compared with just four per 100,000 for their female counterparts.


A version of this article appears in print on April 22, 2016, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Sweeping Pain as Suicides Hit a 30-Year High.

U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High,
NYT, April 22, 2016,






Handouts Are Often Better

Than a Hand Up


APRIL 7, 2016

The New York Times

The Opinion Pages

Op-Ed Contributor



WHEN we talk about how the United States can be more competitive with the rest of the world, childhood poverty rarely comes up. Yet America has a higher rate of childhood poverty than all but a few developed nations.

Children are America’s poorest age group. In 2013, more than 12 million children lived below the poverty line, which for a family of four is slightly more than $24,000 a year. This comes to roughly 17 percent of American children. A third of these kids are white, another third are Latino, and about one-quarter are black, while the rest are American Indian and Asian-American.

On average, children in poverty have lower I.Q. scores than their wealthier peers. Recent research has made it clear that just the stress of growing up in a poor family can be toxic to the growing brain.

It almost goes without saying that the cost to the American economy is severe. We need quick-acting, powerful solutions. Cash allowances, ideally paid to a child’s parents on a monthly basis, are a clean, direct way to raise a high proportion of children out of poverty.

The United States once had a welfare program — Aid for Families With Dependent Children — that provided cash to families in need, but A.F.D.C. was hardly generous. Not only were the benefits paltry, the incentives were perverse: If you worked, you frequently lost most or all of your benefits. According to calculations by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, A.F.D.C. pulled only 10 percent of children out of poverty in the 1990s.

Even so, many argued that without a work requirement, the program encouraged poor people to remain on welfare. In 1996, legislation put forward by congressional Republicans and ultimately supported by President Bill Clinton ended A.F.D.C. — “welfare as we know it” — and put Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in its place.

But the welfare payments to families with children under T.A.N.F. — in part because of the program’s rules about work and looking for work and in part because the time period during which you can receive welfare is capped — reach a much smaller number of families than A.F.D.C. did. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only 23 out of 100 poor families receive any T.A.N.F. benefits at all. In some states, which set their own rules for eligibility, remarkably few families get T.A.N.F. payments.

One result, according to the social scientists Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, is that in 2011, 1.5 million families with children lived on $2 per person a day. Though food stamps help ease the burden, they are inadequate. To survive, these families depend on food banks, collect aluminum cans for refunds, do the occasional odd job and live in crowded, unsafe quarters.

This is not to say that America has not tried to reduce poverty. Besides food stamps, the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit also aid poor parents substantially. The problem is that these programs still leave the rate of childhood poverty unconscionably high.

Per-child cash allowances may have the greatest impact. They do not change if you find work; they are generally larger than standard welfare payments; and they don’t have eligibility requirements.

Many other prosperous nations provide such allowances, as do some developing ones. Cash allowances in Europe and Canada, for example, are usually unconditional. In Canada the allowance is up to about $230 a month per child.

How is this money used? A book by Jane Waldfogel, a social scientist at Columbia, shows that in Britain the cash allowance is largely spent by parents on the needs of the children. The program has helped cut child poverty sharply there.

Other so-called natural experiments corroborate these findings. For example, a Cherokee tribe in North Carolina built a profitable casino and distributed a portion of its profits each year to every enrolled citizen. The cash raised families around the federal poverty line over it, increased school attendance and graduation rates, and decreased criminal behavior among teenagers.

A new study completed by researchers at Columbia (sponsored by the Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative, where I work) has extensively modeled just how much cash allowances could reduce child poverty in the United States.

The results are eye-opening. A per-child allowance of $2,500 a year for kids under 6 (leaving the child tax credit intact) would raise more than three million poor children out of poverty. Its annual cost, the researchers estimate, would be $17.7 billion.

Given the general stagnation of wages over the past several decades, it might well make sense to provide a cash allowance not just to the poor, but to all children. A universal child allowance in America of $2,500 a year would lift 5.5 million out of poverty, roughly reducing the poverty rate by a third. The price tag would come to $109.3 billion a year (reduced in part because higher-income families would pay income tax on the allowance).

To cut child poverty in half, it would cost us $200 billion a year, about 1.1 percent of gross domestic product, or one-fourth of the cost of Social Security. If America makes cutting childhood poverty a priority, it can afford to do so.

Why not just expand the child tax credit? That’s a good idea and perhaps more politically practicable. But the Columbia research shows that a dollar spent on cash allowances reduces child poverty more than the equivalent increase in the tax credit because the benefits reach the very poorest families, who don’t qualify for the tax credit. We should supplement new cash allowances with new jobs programs, but direct cash payments to parents is a widely tested and powerful weapon to combat the poverty that afflicts so many right now.


Jeff Madrick is director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative at the Century Foundation.

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A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 7, 2016, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Handouts Are Often Better Than a Hand Up.

Handouts Are Often Better Than a Hand Up,
NYT, April 7, 2016,






Prisoners Exonerated,

Prosecutors Exposed


FEB. 12, 2016

The New York Times


The Opinion Pages | Editorial


In 2015, 149 people convicted of crimes large and small — from capital murder to burglary — were exonerated. It is the highest yearly total since this grim form of record-keeping began, in 1989.

In that time, there have been at least 1,733 exonerations across the country, and the pace keeps picking up. On average, about three convicted people are now exonerated of their crimes every week, according to the annual report of the National Registry of Exonerations. The registry defines an exoneration as a case in which someone convicted of a crime is cleared of all charges based on new evidence of innocence.

The individual cost to those wrongly convicted is steep: Last year’s group spent an average of more than 14 years behind bars. Five had been sentenced to death. Amazingly, half of the exonerations involved cases in which no crime occurred at all — for example, a conviction of murder by arson that later turned out to be based on faulty fire science.

Equally eye-opening is the list of reasons behind these miscarriages of justice. For instance, 27 of last year’s exonerations were for convictions based on a false confession. This happened most often in homicide cases in which the defendant was a juvenile, intellectually disabled, mentally ill or some combination of the three. In nearly half of all 2015 exonerations, the defendant pleaded guilty before trial.

These numbers are a bracing reminder that admissions of guilt are unreliable far more often than is generally believed. Some defendants, especially the young or mentally impaired, can be pushed to admit guilt when they are innocent. Some with prior criminal records may not be able to afford bail but don’t want to spend months in pretrial detention or risk a much longer sentence if they choose to go to trial.

Official misconduct — including perjury, withholding of exculpatory evidence and coercive interrogation practices — occurred in three of every four exonerations involving homicide, and it was an important factor in many other cases as well.

As high as these exoneration numbers are, they still understate the scope of the problem, since not all cases involving misconduct come to light.

The good news is that Americans are starting to grasp the depth of the problem. The Innocence Project, now more than 20 years old, has shown again and again how many ways a conviction can be obtained wrongfully. And in-depth investigations of questionable murder convictions by popular shows like “Serial” and “Making a Murderer” have led to calls for greater prosecutorial accountability.

As technologies like DNA testing have become more widely used, some prosecutors’ offices have begun to take responsibility for correcting their own errors. In the last seven years, almost two dozen offices in 11 states and the District of Columbia have opened conviction-integrity units to re-examine old cases. But the units vary widely in effectiveness. Half have never exonerated anyone, while two, in Brooklyn and in Harris County, Tex., were responsible for one-third of last year’s exonerations.

It is good to see any degree of self-reflection and accountability from prosecutors, who wield enormous and often unreviewed power in the criminal justice system. It would be even better for them to put in place safeguards that would prevent wrongful convictions in the first place.


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A version of this editorial appears in print on February 13, 2016, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: Prisoners Exonerated, Prosecutors Exposed.

Prisoners Exonerated, Prosecutors Exposed,
NYT, Feb. 12, 2016,






The Death Penalty Endgame


JAN. 16, 2016

The New York Times



How does the death penalty in America end?

For decades that has been an abstract question. Now there may be an answer in the case of Shonda Walter, a 36-year-old black woman on Pennsylvania’s death row. On Friday, the Supreme Court met to discuss whether to hear a petition from Ms. Walter, who is asking the justices to rule that in all cases, including hers, the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

Ever since 1976, when the court allowed executions to resume after a four-year moratorium, the abolition movement has avoided bringing a broad constitutional challenge against the practice, believing that it would not succeed. In that time, 1,423 people have been put to death.

Yet there is no question that the national trend is moving away from capital punishment. Since the late 1990s, almost every year has seen fewer executions, fewer new death sentences and fewer states involved in the repugnant business of killing their citizens.

In 2015, there were 28 executions and 49 new death sentences, the lowest numbers in decades. Seven states have abandoned the practice entirely since 2004, for a total of 19 that no longer have the death penalty. Many others have not executed anyone for years. And only three states — Texas, Georgia and Missouri — were responsible for almost all of last year’s executions.

A majority of Americans still support capital punishment, but the percentage favoring it has dropped from around 80 percent in the 1990s to about 60 percent now. When polls offer a choice between death and life without parole, people roughly split evenly.

In the past 14 years alone, the Supreme Court has barred the execution of several categories of people: minors, the intellectually disabled, and those convicted of a crime other than murder. In that last case, decided in 2008, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court, “When the law punishes by death, it risks its own sudden descent into brutality, transgressing the constitutional commitment to decency and restraint.”

Taken together, these signs have led some abolitionists to conclude that the conditions for ending capital punishment entirely are now as favorable as they might ever be. That argument got a major boost last June, when Justice Stephen Breyer, in a long dissent from a 5-to-4 ruling that allowed Oklahoma to proceed with its inhumane lethal-injection drug protocol, suggested he would be open to a case challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.

In his dissent, which was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Breyer explained in detail how the death penalty was unreliable, arbitrary and racially discriminatory. He said it was no longer sufficient simply “to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time,” because the practice as a whole “most likely” violates the Eighth Amendment.

Shonda Walter’s case is the first to take up Justice Breyer’s challenge. Ms. Walter was convicted of murdering an 83-year-old man named James Sementelli. Her appointed lawyers put on no defense and offered no argument that might have spared her from a death sentence. Pennsylvania appeals courts agreed that she had inexcusably bad representation, but they still upheld her conviction and sentence. Since Ms. Walter does not fit the special categories of defendants who are shielded from the death penalty, her appeal is based on the claim that all executions violate the Constitution.

The justices may not grant Ms. Walter’s petition (others are also expected to be filed in the coming weeks), but they can no longer ignore the clear movement of history. They already have all the evidence they need to join the rest of the civilized world and end the death penalty once and for all.


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A version of this editorial appears in print on January 17, 2016, on page SR10 of the New York edition with the headline: The Death Penalty Endgame.

The Death Penalty Endgame,
NYT, JAN. 16, 2016,






The Children Left Behind

After Mass Shootings


NOV. 30, 2015

The Opinion Pages | Editorial



Since no amount of dead bodies seems enough to spur lawmakers to rein in access to guns, let’s focus on the living — the children gun violence leaves behind.

Start with the little boy and girl belonging to Jennifer Markovsky, a 35-year-old mother who was one of three people murdered last Friday during the latest mass shooting of 2015 — this time, a lone gunman’s hourslong siege of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. For the crime of accompanying her friend to an appointment at the clinic, Ms. Markovsky lost her life in the most brutal and pointless, yet entirely American, manner.

Here’s a thought for lawmakers who refuse to consider any meaningful legislation to reduce the daily carnage of gun violence across America: Thanks to your single-minded defense of unfettered gun rights at the expense of all reason and respect for life, there is an endless supply of children to be consoled. The other two victims of Friday’s assault — Garrett Swasey, a police officer, and Ke’Arre Stewart, an Iraq war veteran — also each had two children.

Of course, children aren’t the only ones who endure this unnecessary suffering. So do parents and grandparents. Grandchildren and nieces and nephews. Husbands and wives and brothers and aunts. Lifelong friends and beloved colleagues. Every life unique and irreplaceable, yet all equally defenseless in the face of a bullet.

But rather than taking action to address the full measure of destruction America’s gun violence inflicts, many politicians appear more comfortable offering rote words of shallow sympathy to the victims’ families, then jumping quickly behind distractions like the state of mental-health care in America. Was Robert L. Dear Jr., the suspect in last week’s shooting, mentally ill? Did he oppose abortion? Or was he just extremely angry?

The truth is, the characteristics of killers may vary, but the result is always the same — a massacre of the innocent, made possible by virtually unimpeded access to guns. Mr. Dear had several run-ins with the law and still had plenty of weapons at hand.

Many who oppose sensible gun-safety measures point to the 350 million or so guns already in circulation and say it’s too late to turn back now. Their chilling solution is for everyone to be armed, and ready to shoot, at all times.

Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado was right to call mass shootings “a form of terrorism.” Even as politicians and those in Congress pump up public fears at the supposed threat of refugees fleeing Syria, every day in America people — mostly white men — are walking into movie theaters, restaurants, churches, grade schools and health care centers armed to the teeth, determined to take as many people out as they can.

This is not an intractable problem. Countries from Australia to Britain have dealt with mass shootings quickly and effectively with better laws. As a result, more of their residents are alive today, and none of those laws have created the tyrannies that fuel the paranoid fantasies of some activists.

Even in America, where the Second Amendment provides robust protection of gun rights, there are reforms that modestly brave politicians could pass if they wanted to, including universal background checks; expanding the categories of people deemed too dangerous to have guns; funding research into gun violence; and gun buyback programs.

Instead, the rhetoric on this issue swerves between the irrational and the deranged. Consider a recent sampling from the leading Republican presidential candidates. Ben Carson said, “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” Donald Trump, who once supported expanding background checks, said the murders in the terrorist attacks in Paris were connected to France’s strict gun controls. Senator Ted Cruz suggested Mr. Dear could be a “transgendered leftist activist.” Days earlier he proudly announced the endorsement of Troy Newman, president of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, who has advocated the execution of doctors who perform abortions.

Meanwhile, the killings go on. More than once a day on average this year, mass shootings have destroyed lives and families. President Obama on Saturday said this endless ritual of murder is “not normal,” but that is precisely the problem: In America, it has become all too normal.


A version of this editorial appears in print on December 1, 2015, on page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: The Children Left Behind.

The Children Left Behind After Mass Shootings,
NYT, NOV. 30, 2015,






Rampage Killings Get Attention,

but Gun Violence Is Constant


OCT. 8, 2015

The New York Times



Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and now, a community college in Roseburg, Ore. One after another, mass shootings have horrified the nation, stoking debate about the availability of legal guns and anguish over the inability of society to keep weapons out of the hands of seething killers.

But such rampage killings are not the typical face of gun violence in America. Each day, some 30 people are victims of gun homicides, slain by rival gang members or drug dealers, trigger-happy robbers, drunken men after bar fights, frenzied family members or abusive partners. An additional 60 people a day kill themselves with guns.

In Chicago alone in September — the city’s deadliest month in recent years — there were 57 homicides, most by gunfire, and 351 were shot and wounded. In total, counting suicides, 33,636 people in the United States were killed by firearms in 2013, according to the latest federal data.

“Mass shootings focus the public’s attention,” said Garen J. Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine. “But we lose on the order of 90 people a day to firearms. We need to keep our eyes focused on the larger picture.”

Yet there is bitter disagreement over how to respond in this gun-saturated country and, especially in the current political campaign, over whether expanded, tougher background checks would make a difference.

Complicating any solutions is a stark reality about the origins of many of the guns used in crimes. Most of the up to 300 million guns in the United States, now kept by at least a third of American households, were bought legally, but few criminals obtained their firearms that way, turning instead to an underground market.

In the largest federal survey of prison inmates on the subject, done in 2004, only about 10 percent of convicts who had carried guns said they bought them from licensed dealers. Most said they bought them from, or traded with, relatives, friends or street acquaintances such as fences, drug dealers and gang members.

Gun theft is a major source of such weapons. Evidence suggests that at least 250,000 guns are stolen in home and store burglaries each year. Some criminologists say the number may be significantly higher.

Once weapons start circulating in this underworld, they tend to change hands frequently, said Philip J. Cook, a professor of public policy at Duke University.

Two years ago, Mr. Cook questioned 100 prisoners in the Cook County, Ill., jail about how they obtained weapons. Some of the Chicago-area inmates said they had purchased from traffickers from another state, or sent fellow gang members to Indiana or other states where gun laws are looser. Many of those questioned stressed the primacy of family, friends and fellow gang members as sources of guns. They said they were reluctant to deal with strangers, fearing a police sting or the purchase of a “dirty” gun that could link them to a crime.

In some gangs, the inmates said, gun sharing is common; 15 youths in a neighborhood might have access to four guns, as needed. Guns may also be given as gifts to friends or comrades getting out of prison.

Conservative opponents argue that controls on legal firearm sales cannot directly keep firearms away from criminals.

Yet applying background checks to private gun sales as well as commercial ones, with stronger criteria for denying purchases, remains a top goal of many gun control advocates and scholars who study firearms violence. They point to major gaps in the current system of checks as well as evidence that extending checks to private transactions can slow the flow of weapons into the underground market.

The issue has flared up in the presidential campaign. President Obama and some Democrats — Hillary Rodham Clinton among them — have called for universal background checks as an important step. Many of the Republican candidates join pro-gun groups in arguing that such rules will hinder only law-abiding citizens.

A primary concern of those calling for expanded checks is the absence in most states of any vetting procedure when a gun is purchased from a private party — a friend, a seller advertising online, a small-scale seller at a gun show. By federal law, background checks are required only for purchases from licensed dealers; people with felony records or certain official records of mental illness are barred from buying.

A significant minority of guns are acquired legally but without background checks, which many authorities call a worrisome loophole. In a national survey of more than 2,000 gun owners, conducted this year by the Harvard School of Public Health and not yet published, 40 percent of owners said they had acquired their most recent firearm without a background check. While in some cases these guns were inherited or given by relatives, most of them were purchased, said Deborah Azrael, one of the study’s leaders.

Seventeen states have established their own checking system and also applied it to private handgun transactions.

Daniel Webster, an expert on gun violence at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research, cites two recent examples as evidence that expanded background checks can affect gun markets and violence.

In 2007, Missouri ended a decades-old system of background checks and licensing for handgun purchases, including private sales. According to research by Mr. Webster and colleagues, the change quickly led to an increase in gun diversions to criminals and to a 25 percent increase in firearm homicides over the three years that followed, while homicides committed by other means did not rise.

In contrast, Connecticut in 1995 extended background checks to private sales and established a handgun permit system. Over 10 years, the rate of gun murders fell by 40 percent.

“There is a connection between regulating the formal market and the number of guns that enter the underground market,” Mr. Webster said. A large share of violent criminals, he added, are “dirt-poor,” and to them, price matters.

Still, general controls on gun sales may do little, by themselves, to block a determined mass killer.

In the shooting last week in Oregon, in which Christopher Harper-Mercer killed nine people, all 14 of the guns available to him — either used in the attack or left at home — were bought legally by him or by a relative from a licensed dealer.

“This is the sort of killing you’re least likely to prevent with gun control laws, partly because the killers are so motivated,” said Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University.

But a new initiative in California is directed specifically at such people. In a law that will take effect in January, family members or the police will be able to ask a judge for a temporary gun violence restraining order if they see someone in an ominous emotional spiral, threatening violence and perhaps collecting weapons.

Disputes over civil liberties appear likely. But with legal procedures modeled on restraining orders for domestic violence, the law says, officials could obtain a search warrant and seize the person’s guns for a brief period, pending evaluation.

The idea builds on “threat assessment” efforts by some schools and police departments, which focus on people seen as threatening. Support for the idea grew after a deadly rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., last year.

Before the rampage, the family of the gunman, Elliot O. Rodger, had feared that he was becoming dangerous and had even notified law enforcement. Officers visited him but saw no evidence of mental illness that would warrant taking any action. They did not check his gun purchase records or search his home.

“If they had searched, they’d have found not only three guns, but 40 loaded magazines,” said Dr. Wintemute of the University of California, Davis.

“That would have just screamed, ‘Trouble coming!’ ” he said.

Rampage Killings Get Attention, but Gun Violence Is Constant,
NYT, OCT. 8., 2015,






A New Way to Tackle Gun Deaths


OCT. 3, 2015

The New York Times

SundayReview | Op-Ed Columnist

Nicholas Kristof


We’ve mourned too often, seen too many schools and colleges devastated by shootings, watched too many students get an education in grief. It’s time for a new approach to gun violence.

We’re angry, but we also need to be smart. And frankly, liberal efforts, such as the assault weapons ban, were poorly designed and saved few lives, while brazen talk about banning guns just sparked a backlash that empowered the National Rifle Association.

What we need is an evidence-based public health approach — the same model we use to reduce deaths from other potentially dangerous things around us, from swimming pools to cigarettes. We’re not going to eliminate guns in America, so we need to figure out how to coexist with them.

First, we need to comprehend the scale of the problem: It’s not just occasional mass shootings like the one at an Oregon college on Thursday, but a continuous deluge of gun deaths, an average of 92 every day in America. Since 1970, more Americans have died from guns than died in all U.S. wars going back to the American Revolution.

When I reported a similar figure in the past, gun lobbyists insisted that it couldn’t possibly be true. But the numbers are unarguable: fewer than 1.4 million war deaths since 1775, more than half in the Civil War, versus about 1.45 million gun deaths since 1970 (including suicides, murders and accidents).

If that doesn’t make you flinch, consider this: In America, more preschoolers are shot dead each year (82 in 2013) than police officers are in the line of duty (27 in 2013), according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI.

More than 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides, and most of the rest are homicides. Gun enthusiasts scoff at including suicides, saying that without guns people would kill themselves by other means. In many cases, though, that’s not true.

In Great Britain, people used to kill themselves by putting their heads in the oven and asphyxiating themselves with coal gas. This accounted for almost half of British suicides in the late 1950s, but Britain then began switching from coal gas to natural gas, which is much less lethal. Sticking one’s head in the oven was no longer a reliable way to kill oneself — and there was surprisingly little substitution of other methods. Suicide rates dropped, and they stayed at a lower level.

The British didn’t ban ovens, but they made them safer. We need to do the same with guns.

When I tweeted about the need to address gun violence after college shooting in the Roseburg, Ore., a man named Bob pushed back. “Check out car accident deaths,” he tweeted sarcastically. “Guess we should ban cars.”

Actually, cars exemplify the public health approach we need to apply to guns. We don’t ban cars, but we do require driver’s licenses, seatbelts, airbags, padded dashboards, safety glass and collapsible steering columns. And we’ve reduced the auto fatality rate by 95 percent.

One problem is that the gun lobby has largely blocked research on making guns safer. Between 1973 and 2012, the National Institutes of Health awarded 89 grants for the study of rabies and 212 for cholera — and only three for firearms injuries.

Daniel Webster, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University, notes that in 1999, the government listed the gun stores that had sold the most weapons later linked to crimes. The gun store at the top of the list was so embarrassed that it voluntarily took measures to reduce its use by criminals — and the rate at which new guns from the store were diverted to crime dropped 77 percent.

But in 2003, Congress barred the government from publishing such information.

Why is Congress enabling pipelines of guns to criminals?

Public health experts cite many ways we could live more safely with guns, and many of them have broad popular support.

A poll this year found that majorities even of gun-owners favor universal background checks; tighter regulation of gun dealers; safe storage requirements in homes; and a 10-year prohibition on possessing guns for anyone convicted of domestic violence, assault or similar offenses.

We should also be investing in “smart gun” technology, such as weapons that fire only with a PIN or fingerprint. We should adopt microstamping that allows a bullet casing to be traced back to a particular gun. We can require liability insurance for guns, as we do for cars.

It’s not clear that these steps would have prevented the Oregon shooting. But Professor Webster argues that smarter gun policies could reduce murder rates by up to 50 percent — and that’s thousands of lives a year. Right now, the passivity of politicians is simply enabling shooters.

The gun lobby argues that the problem isn’t firearms; it’s crazy people. Yes, America’s mental health system is a disgrace. But to me, it seems that we’re all crazy if we as a country can’t take modest steps to reduce the carnage that leaves America resembling a battlefield.

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A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 4, 2015, on page SR9 of the New York edition with the headline: A New Way to Tackle Gun Deaths.

A New Way to Tackle Gun Deaths,
NYT, OCT. 3, 2015,






Lessons From the Murders

of TV Journalists

in the Virginia Shooting


AUG. 26, 2015

The New York Times

 The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Columnist

Nicholas Kristof


The slaying of two journalists Wednesday as they broadcast live to a television audience in Virginia is still seared on our screens and our minds, but it’s a moment not only to mourn but also to learn lessons.

The horror isn’t just one macabre double-murder, but the unrelenting toll of gun violence that claims one life every 16 minutes on average in the United States. Three quick data points:

■ More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides every six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

■ More Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on battlefields of all the wars in American history.

■ American children are 14 times as likely to die from guns as children in other developed countries, according to David Hemenway, a Harvard professor and author of an excellent book on firearm safety.

Bryce Williams, as the Virginia killer was known to viewers when he worked as a broadcaster, apparently obtained the gun used to murder his former co-workers Alison Parker and Adam Ward in response to the June massacre in a South Carolina church — an example of how gun violence begets gun violence. Williams may have been mentally disturbed, given that he videotaped Wednesday’s killings and then posted them on Facebook.

“I’ve been a human powder keg for a while … just waiting to go BOOM!!!!,” Williams reportedly wrote in a lengthy fax sent to ABC News after the killings.

Whether or not Williams was insane, our policies on guns are demented — not least in that we don’t even have universal background checks to keep weapons out of the hands of people waiting to go boom.

The lesson from the ongoing carnage is not that we need a modern prohibition (that would raise constitutional issues and be impossible politically), but that we should address gun deaths as a public health crisis. To protect the public, we regulate toys and mutual funds, ladders and swimming pools. Shouldn’t we regulate guns as seriously as we regulate toys?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has seven pages of regulations concerning ladders, which are involved in 300 deaths in America annually. Yet the federal government doesn’t make what I would call a serious effort to regulate guns, which are involved in the deaths of more than 33,000 people in America annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (that includes suicides, murders and accidents).

Gun proponents often say things to me like: What about cars? They kill, too, but we don’t try to ban them!

Cars are actually the best example of the public health approach that we should apply to guns. Over the decades, we have systematically taken steps to make cars safer: We adopted seatbelts and airbags, limited licenses for teenage drivers, cracked down on drunken driving and established roundabouts and better crosswalks, auto safety inspections and rules about texting while driving.

This approach has been stunningly successful. By my calculations, if we had the same auto fatality rate as in 1921, we would have 715,000 Americans dying annually from cars. We have reduced the fatality rate by more than 95 percent.

Yet in the case of firearms, the gun lobby (enabled by craven politicians) has for years tried to block even research on how to reduce gun deaths. The gun industry made a childproof gun back in the 19th century but today has ferociously resisted “smart guns.” If someone steals an iPhone, it requires a PIN; guns don’t.

We’re not going to eliminate gun deaths in America. But a serious effort might reduce gun deaths by, say, one-third, and that would be 11,000 lives saved a year.

The United States is an outlier, both in our lack of serious policies toward guns and in our mortality rates. Professor Hemenway calculates that the U.S. firearm homicide rate is seven times that of the next country in the rich world on the list, Canada, and 600 times higher than that of South Korea.

We need universal background checks with more rigorous screening, limits on gun purchases to one a month to reduce trafficking, safe storage requirements, serial number markings that are more difficult to obliterate, waiting periods to buy a handgun — and more research on what steps would actually save lives. If the federal government won’t act, states should lead.

Australia is a model. In 1996, after a mass shooting there, the country united behind tougher firearm restrictions. The Journal of Public Health Policy notes that the firearm suicide rate dropped by half in Australia over the next seven years, and the firearm homicide rate was almost halved.

Here in America, we can similarly move from passive horror to take steps to reduce the 92 lives claimed by gun violence in the United States daily. Surely we can regulate guns as seriously as we do cars, ladders and swimming pools.

Gail Collins is on book leave.

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A version of this op-ed appears in print on August 27, 2015, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Learning From 2 Murders.

Lessons From the Murders of TV Journalists in the Virginia Shooting,
NYT, AUGUST 26, 2015,






The Nature of Poverty


MAY 1, 2015

The New York Times

The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Columnist

David Brooks


Lately it seems as though every few months there’s another urban riot and the nation turns its attention to urban poverty. And in the midst of every storm, there are people crying out that we should finally get serious about this issue. This time it was Jon Stewart who spoke for many when he said: “And you just wonder sometimes if we’re spending a trillion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, like, we can’t build a little taste down Baltimore way. Like is that what’s really going on?”

The audience applauded loudly, and it’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not really relevant.

The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money. Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded. As Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post has pointed out, in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person. If you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate.

Yet over the last 30 years the poverty rate has scarcely changed.

In addition, American public spending on schools is high by global standards. As Peter Wehner pointed out in Commentary, in 2011 Baltimore ranked second among the nation’s largest 100 school districts in how much it spent per pupil, $15,483 per year.

The Sandtown-Winchester area of Baltimore, where Freddie Gray lived, has not lacked for attention either. In the late 1980s, Baltimore’s then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke decided he would make the neighborhood a model of urban restoration. He gathered public and private actors like developer James Rouse and Habitat for Humanity. They raised more than $130 million and poured it into everything from new homes, new school curriculums, new job training programs and new health care centers. Townhouses were built for $87,000 and sold to residents for $37,000.

The money was not totally wasted. By 2000, the poverty rate in the area had dropped by 4.4 percent. The share of residents who lived in owner-occupied homes had risen by 8.3 percent, according to a thorough study by The Abell Foundation. But the area was not transformed. Today there are no grocery stores in the neighborhood and no restaurants. Crime is rampant. Unemployment is high.

Despite all these efforts, there are too many young men leading lives like the one Gray led. He was apparently a kind-hearted, respectful, popular man, but he was not on the path to upward mobility. He won a settlement for lead paint poisoning. According to The Washington Post, his mother was a heroin addict who, in a deposition, said she couldn’t read. In one court filing, it was reported that Gray was four grade levels behind in reading. He was arrested more than a dozen times.

It is wrong to say federal efforts to tackle poverty have been a failure. The $15 trillion spent by the government over the past half-century has improved living standards and eased burdens for millions of poor people. But all that money and all those experiments have not integrated people who live in areas of concentrated poverty into the mainstream economy. Often, the money has served as a cushion, not a ladder.

Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty. Renewal efforts in Sandtown-Winchester prioritized bricks and mortar. But the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.

Jane Jacobs once wrote that a healthy neighborhood is like a ballet, a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors.

In a fantastic interview that David Simon of “The Wire” gave to Bill Keller for The Marshall Project, he describes that, even in poorest Baltimore, there once were informal rules of behavior governing how cops interacted with citizens — when they’d drag them in and when they wouldn’t, what curse words you could say to a cop and what you couldn’t. But then the code dissolved. The informal guardrails of life were gone, and all was arbitrary harshness.

That’s happened across many social spheres — in schools, families and among neighbors. Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted. It is phenomenally hard for young people in such circumstances to guide themselves.

Yes, jobs are necessary, but if you live in a neighborhood, as Gray did, where half the high school students don’t bother to show up for school on a given day, then the problems go deeper.

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

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A version of this op-ed appears in print on May 1, 2015, on page A31 of the New York edition with the headline: The Nature of Poverty.

The Nature of Poverty,
NYT, MAY 1, 2015,






Income Inequality

Is Costing the U.S. on Social Issues


APRIL 28, 2015

The New York Times

Eduardo Porter


Thirty-five years ago, the United States ranked 13th among the 34 industrialized nations that are today in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of life expectancy for newborn girls. These days, it ranks 29th.

In 1980, the infant mortality rate in the United States was about the same as in Germany. Today, American babies die at almost twice the rate of German babies.

“On nearly all indicators of mortality, survival and life expectancy, the United States ranks at or near the bottom among high-income countries,” says a report on the nation’s health by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.

What’s most shocking about these statistics is not how unhealthy they show Americans to be, compared with citizens of countries that spend much less on health care and have much less sophisticated medical technology. What is most perplexing is how stunningly fast the United States has lost ground.

The blame for the precipitous fall does not rest primarily on the nation’s doctors and hospitals.

The United States has the highest teenage birthrate in the developed world — about seven times the rate in France, according to the O.E.C.D. More than one out of every four children lives with one parent, the largest percentage by far among industrialized nations. And more than a fifth live in poverty, sixth from the bottom among O.E.C.D. nations.

Among adults, seven out of every 1,000 are in prison, more than five times the rate of incarceration in most other rich democracies and more than three times the rate for the United States four decades ago.

The point is: The United States doesn’t have a narrow health care problem. We’ve simply handed our troubles to the medical industry to fix. In many ways, the American health care system is the most advanced in the world. But whiz-bang medical technology just cannot fix what ails us.

As economists from the University of Chicago, M.I.T. and the University of Southern California put it in a recent research paper, much of America’s infant mortality deficit is driven by “excess inequality.”

American babies born to white, college-educated, married women survive as often as those born to advantaged women in Europe. It’s the babies born to nonwhite, nonmarried, nonprosperous women who die so young.

Three or four decades ago, the United States was the most prosperous country on earth. It had the mightiest military and the most advanced technologies known to humanity. Today, it’s still the richest, strongest and most inventive. But when it comes to the health, well-being and shared prosperity of its people, the United States has fallen far behind.

Pick almost any measure of social health and cohesion over the last four decades or so, and you will find that the United States took a wrong turn along the way.

How did we get here? How do we exit?

As the presidential campaign draws the political debate to our national priorities, these questions must take center stage. As candidates argue over the budget deficit and the national debt, debate what to do about income inequality, address the problem of mass incarceration or refight the battles over the Affordable Care Act and the minimum wage, they should be forced to address how their policy wish list adds up to an answer.

Looking at how the United States compares with other nations is illuminating. As I noted in last week’s column, over the last four decades or so, the labor market lost much of its power to deliver income gains to working families in many developed nations.

But blaming globalization and technological progress for the stagnation of the middle class and the precipitous decline in our collective health is too easy. Jobs were lost and wages got stuck in many developed countries.

What set the United States apart — what made the damage inflicted upon American society so intense — was the nature of its response. Government support for Americans in the bottom half turned out to be too meager to hold society together.

The conservative narrative of America’s social downfall, articulated by the likes of Charles Murray from the American Enterprise Institute, posits that a large welfare state, built from the time of the New Deal in the 1930s through the era of the Great Society in the 1960s, sapped Americans’ industriousness and undermined their moral fiber.

A more compelling explanation is that when globalization struck at the jobs on which 20th-century America had built its middle class, the United States discovered that it did not, in fact, have much of a welfare state to speak of. The threadbare safety net tore under the strain.

Call it a failure of solidarity. American institutions, built from hostility toward collective solutions, couldn’t hold society together when the economic underpinning of full employment at a decent wage gave in.

The question is, Is there a solution to fit these ideological preferences? The standard prescriptions, typically shared by liberals and conservatives, start with education, building the skills needed to harness the opportunities of a high-tech, fast-changing labor market that has little use for those who end their education after high school.

Ensuring everybody has a college degree might not stanch the flow of riches to the very pinnacle of society. But it could deliver a powerful boost to the incomes and the well-being of struggling families in the bottom half.

And yet the prescription — embedded in the social reality that is contemporary America — falls short. In contemporary America, education is widening inequity, not closing it. College enrollment rates have stagnated for lower-income Americans. Sean Reardon from Stanford University notes that the achievement gap between rich and poor children seems to have been steadily expanding for the last 50 years.

On the left, there are calls to build the kind of generous social insurance programs, which despite growing budget constraints remain largely intact among many European social democracies. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, for example, is calling for an expansion of Social Security, paid for by lifting the cap on payroll taxes so the rich pay the same share of their income to support the system as everybody else.

That may be desirable, though at the moment, our greatest problems are not about the elderly. And at least for the foreseeable future, it remains a political nonstarter in a nation congenitally mistrustful of government. Just in time to kick off the presidential campaign, Republicans in the House and Senate were working on a budget that would gut Obamacare — most likely increasing the pool of the nation’s uninsured — and slash funding for programs for Americans of low and moderate income.

Yet despite the grim prognosis, there is hope. The challenge America faces is not simply a matter of equity. The bloated incarceration rates and rock-bottom life expectancy, the unraveling families and the stagnant college graduation rates amount to an existential threat to the nation’s future.

That is, perhaps, the best reason for hope. The silver lining in these dismal, if abstract, statistics, is that they portend such a dysfunctional future that our broken political system might finally be forced to come together to prevent it.

Email: eporter@nytimes.com; Twitter: @portereduardo

A version of this article appears in print on April 29, 2015, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Income Inequality Is Costing the Nation on Social Issues.

Income Inequality Is Costing the U.S. on Social Issues,
NYT, 28 APRIL 2015,






152 Innocents, Marked for Death


APRIL 13, 2015

The New York Times

The Opinion Pages | Editorial



However much Americans may disagree about the morality of capital punishment, no one wants to see an innocent person executed.

And yet, far too often, people end up on death row after being convicted of horrific crimes they did not commit. The lucky ones are exonerated while they are still alive — a macabre club that has grown to include 152 members since 1973.

The rest remain locked up for life in closet-size cells. Some die there of natural causes; in at least two documented cases, inmates who were almost certainly innocent were put to death.

How many more innocent people have met the same fate, or are awaiting it? That may never be known. But over the past 42 years, someone on death row has been exonerated, on average, every three months. According to one study, at least 4 percent of all death-row inmates in the United States have been wrongfully convicted. That is far more than often enough to conclude that the death penalty — besides being cruel, immoral, and ineffective at reducing crime — is so riddled with error that no civilized nation should tolerate its use.

Innocent people get convicted for many reasons, including bad lawyering, mistaken identifications and false confessions made under duress. But as advances in DNA analysis have accelerated the pace of exonerations, it has also become clear that prosecutorial misconduct is at the heart of an alarming number of these cases.

In the past year alone, nine people who had been sentenced to death were released — and in all but one case, prosecutors’ wrongdoing played a key role.

The latest was Anthony Ray Hinton, who on Apr. 3 walked out of the Alabama prison where he had spent almost 30 years, half his life, on death row. Mr. Hinton was convicted of two murders largely on faulty evidence that the bullets had come from his gun. His prosecutor at the time said he knew Mr. Hinton was guilty and “evil” just by looking at him. And later prosecutors continued to insist on his guilt even when expert testimony clearly refuted the case against him.

Why does this keep happening? In a remarkable letter to the editor published last month in The Shreveport Times, A.M. Stroud III, a former prosecutor in Louisiana’s Caddo Parish, offered a chillingly frank answer: “Winning became everything.”

In 1984, Mr. Stroud convinced a jury to convict a man named Glenn Ford and sentence him to death for murder. But Mr. Stroud now admits that because he was so focused on winning rather than on seeking justice, he failed to identify and turn over evidence that would have cleared Mr. Ford.

“How totally wrong was I,” Mr. Stroud wrote, apologizing to Mr. Ford — who spent 30 years in prison, 26 of those on death row — as well as his family, the judge, the jury, and the family of the murder victim, a jeweler named Isadore Rozeman.

This is little consolation to Mr. Ford, who was released in 2014 but is now dying from lung cancer that developed, and went untreated, while he wasted away in prison. (Last month a Louisiana judge denied Mr. Ford any compensation beyond the $20 debit card he received upon his release.) Still, Mr. Stroud’s powerful message is a rare admission of prosecutorial hubris and the outrageously high price many people pay for it.

Unfortunately, that message is unlikely to be heeded in places where it needs to be heard most — in Caddo Parish itself, for example, which sentences more people to death per capita than anywhere else in the country. Responding to the searing honesty of Mr. Stroud’s letter, the parish’s current first assistant district attorney, Dale Cox, offered up some candor of his own: “I’m a believer that the death penalty serves society’s interest in revenge,” Mr. Cox told The Shreveport Times. “I think we need to kill more people.”

The all-too-common mind-set to win at all costs has facilitated the executions of people like Cameron Todd Willingham or Carlos DeLuna, whose convictions have been convincingly debunked in recent years. And that mind-set led to the wrongful conviction of people like Mr. Hinton, Mr. Ford and Henry Lee McCollum, who was exonerated last year after spending three decades on North Carolina’s death row.

If not for the extraordinary after-the-fact efforts of lawyers, investigators, or just plain dumb luck, these men would be dead too, and neither Mr. Cox nor anyone else would be the wiser.

A version of this editorial appears in print on April 13, 2015, on page A18 of the New York edition with the headline: 152 Innocents, Marked for Death.

152 Innocents, Marked for Death, NYT,
APRIL 12, 2015,






Black Immigrants Have Quadrupled

Since 1980, Study Says


APRIL 9, 2015

The New York Times



The number of black immigrants in the United States has more than quadrupled since 1980, a new study has found, and that group is expected to make up an increasing share of the nation’s black population in the decades ahead.

The study, released Thursday by the Pew Research Center, found that 3.8 million black immigrants lived in the United States in 2013, and their share of the black population in the country “is projected to rise from 9 percent today to 16 percent by 2060,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, the director of Hispanic research at Pew and an author of the study along with Monica Anderson.

That differs from the Hispanic population, Mr. Lopez said, because the share of Hispanics in America who are immigrants is declining.

Part of the reasons for the growth has been a number of federal laws over the years that have eased restrictions on immigrants, particularly for nations that had been underrepresented.

Half of the United States’ black immigrants are from Caribbean nations like Jamaica and Haiti, and 9 percent are from South and Central American countries. But the primary driver of the growth from 2000 to 2013 was the 137 percent increase in African immigrants, who now number 1.4 million.

About 30 percent of the sub-Saharan immigrants who arrived during that period came as refugees or were seeking asylum, fleeing the violence and fighting in that region of the continent.

More than 80 percent of the nation’s black immigrants live in the Northeast or the South. The New York-New Jersey-Newark metropolitan area is home to 27 percent of the nation’s black immigrants, and the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metropolitan area has 12 percent.

“Africa has a relatively young population, and many worldwide migration projections project that Africans will play a wider role in worldwide migration going forward,” Mr. Lopez said. “We are starting to see some of the beginnings of that.”

Black immigrants have become increasingly prominent in American culture; in recent years, novels like “Americanah,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and “Open City,” by Teju Cole, featured immigrants from Africa as protagonists. The Pew study found that black immigrants over 25 are more likely than their American-born counterparts to have a bachelor’s degree and that all black immigrants are less likely to live in poverty.

Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University and the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” said that might be because many immigrants who leave their home country can afford to do so, and there are often prior social networks to ease their transition.

Black immigrants, Ms. Greer said, often identify strongly with their home countries even as they are settling here, instead of assimilating quickly as many other immigrant groups have done.

“We’re not seeing that same desire among black immigrants to just become black Americans,” Ms. Greer said, “because there are certain assumptions and stereotypes about becoming black Americans in this country, and so many black immigrants just prefer to maintain their ethnic identity in ways that we haven’t seen white immigrants in the past.”


Correction: April 12, 2015

An earlier version of this article misstated the location of Mexico. It is in North America, not Central or South America.

A version of this article appears in print on April 10, 2015, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Black Immigrants Have Quadrupled Since 1980,

Black Immigrants Have Quadrupled Since 1980, Study Says,
NYT, APRIL 10, 2015,






Blocking the Paths to Suicide


MARCH 9, 2015

The New York Times



Every year, nearly 40,000 Americans kill themselves. The majority are men, and most of them use guns. In fact, more than half of all gun deaths in the United States are suicides.

Experts and laymen have long assumed that people who died by suicide will ultimately do it even if temporarily deterred. “People think if you’re really intent on dying, you’ll find a way,” said Cathy Barber, the director of the Means Matters campaign at Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

Prevention, it follows, depends largely on identifying those likely to harm themselves and getting them into treatment. But a growing body of evidence challenges this view.

Suicide can be a very impulsive act, especially among the young, and therefore difficult to predict. Its deadliness depends more upon the means than the determination of the suicide victim.

Now many experts are calling for a reconsideration of suicide-prevention strategies. While mental health and substance abuse treatment must always be important components in treating suicidality, researchers like Ms. Barber are stressing another avenue: “means restriction.”

Instead of treating individual risk, means restriction entails modifying the environment by removing the means by which people usually die by suicide. The world cannot be made suicide-proof, of course. But, these researchers argue, if the walkway over a bridge is fenced off, a struggling college freshman cannot throw herself over the side. If parents leave guns in a locked safe, a teenage son cannot shoot himself if he suddenly decides life is hopeless.

With the focus on who dies by suicide, these experts say, not enough attention has been paid to restricting the means to do it — particularly access to guns.

“You can reduce the rate of suicide in the United States substantially, without attending to underlying mental health problems, if fewer people had guns in their homes and fewer people who are at risk for suicide had access to guns in their home,” said Dr. Matthew Miller, a director of Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

About 90 percent of the people who try suicide and live ultimately never die by suicide. If the people who died had not had easy access to lethal means, researchers like Dr. Miller reason, most would still be alive.

The public has long held the opposite perception. In 2006, researchers at the Harvard center published an opinion survey about people who jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. Seventy-four percent of respondents believed that most or all jumpers would have completed suicide some other way if they had been deterred.

“People think of suicide in this linear way, as if you get more and more depressed and go on to create a more specific plan,” Ms. Barber said.

In fact, suicide is often a convergence of factors leading to a sudden, tragic event. In one study of people who survived a suicide attempt, almost half reported that the whole process, from the first suicidal thought to the final act, took 10 minutes or less.

Among those who thought about it a little longer (say, for about an hour), more than three-quarters acted within 10 minutes once the decision was made.

“We’re very bad at predicting who from a group of at-risk people will go on to complete suicide,” Dr Miller said. “We can say it will be about 10 out of the 100 who are at risk. But which 10, we don’t know.”

Dr. Igor Galynker, the director of biological psychiatry at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, noted that in one study, 60 percent of patients who were judged to be at low risk died of suicide after their discharge from an acute care psychiatric unit.

“The assessments are not good,” he said. So Dr. Galynker and his colleagues are developing a novel suicide assessment to predict imminent risk, based upon new findings about the acute suicidal state.

“What people experience before attempting suicide is a combination of panic, agitation and franticness,” he said. “A desire to escape from unbearable pain and feeling trapped.”

Sometimes, depression isn’t even in the picture. In one study, 60 percent of college students who said they were thinking about ways to kill themselves tested negative for depression.

“There are kids for whom it’s very difficult to predict suicide — there doesn’t seem to be that much that is wrong with them,” said Dr. David Brent, an adolescent psychiatrist who studies suicide at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Brent’s research showed that 40 percent of children younger than 16 who died by suicide did not have a clearly definable psychiatric disorder.

What they did have was a loaded gun in the home.

“If the kids are under 16, the availability of a gun is more important than psychiatric disorder,” Dr. Brent said. “They’re not suicidal one minute, then they are. Or they’re mad and they have a gun available.”

Availability is a consistent factor in how most people choose to attempt suicide, said Ms. Barber, regardless of age. People trying to die by suicide tend to choose not the most effective method, but the one most at hand.

“Some methods have a case fatality rate as low as 1 or 2 percent,” she said. “With a gun, it’s closer to 85 or 90 percent. So it makes a difference what you’re reaching for in these low-planned or unplanned suicide attempts.”

Statistically, having a gun in the home increases the probability of suicide for all age groups. If the gun is unloaded and locked away, the risk is reduced. If there is no gun in the house at all, the suicide risk goes down even further.

Findings like these are far from popular. Taxpayers resist spending public money on infrastructure that they believe will not prevent people determined to die by suicide, and the political tide has turned against gun control. But growing evidence of suicide’s unpredictability, coupled with studies showing that means restriction can work, may leave public health officials little choice if they wish to reduce suicide rates.

Ken Baldwin, who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge and lived, told reporters that he knew as soon as he had jumped that he had made a terrible mistake. He wanted to live. Mr. Baldwin was lucky.

Ms. Barber tells another story: On a friend’s very first day as an emergency room physician, a patient was wheeled in, a young man who had shot himself in a suicide attempt. “He was begging the doctors to save him,” she said. But they could not.

A version of this article appears in print on March 10, 2015, on page D2 of the New York edition with the headline: Blocking the Paths to Suicide.

Blocking the Paths to Suicide, NYT,
MARCH 9, 2015,






Expansion of Mental Health Care

Hits Obstacles


AUG. 28, 2014

The New York Times



LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Terri Hall’s anxiety was back, making her hands shake as she tried to light a cigarette on the stoop of her faded apartment building. She had no appetite, and her mind galloped as she grasped for an answer to her latest setback.

In January, almost immediately after she got Medicaid coverage through the Affordable Care Act, she had called a community mental health agency seeking help for the depression and anxiety that had so often consumed her.

Now she was getting therapy for the first time, and it was helping, no question. She just wished she could go more often. The agency, Seven Counties Services, has been deluged with new Medicaid recipients, and Ms. Hall has had to wait up to seven weeks between appointments with her therapist, Erin Riedel, whose caseload has more than doubled.

“She’s just awesome,” Ms. Hall said. “But she’s busy, very busy.”

The Affordable Care Act has paved the way for a vast expansion of mental health coverage in America, providing access for millions of people who were previously uninsured or whose policies did not include such coverage before. Under the law, mental health treatment is an “essential” benefit that must be covered by Medicaid and every private plan sold through the new online insurance marketplaces.

The need is widely viewed as great: Nearly one in five Americans has a diagnosable mental illness, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, but most get no treatment. If the law’s goal is met, advocates say, it will reduce not only personal suffering but also exorbitant economic costs, like the higher rate of general health problems among those with mental illnesses, and their lost productivity.

Kentucky has been trying to overhaul its mental health system, partly by allowing private psychologists and social workers to accept Medicaid patients for the first time. The change is crucial, state officials say, because 85 percent of the 521,000 Kentuckians who got coverage through the state’s new insurance exchange this year were poor enough to enroll in Medicaid. Previously, only psychologists and social workers at community health centers like Seven Counties, which are quasi-governmental agencies, could provide outpatient therapy to Medicaid recipients here. Now, more than 1,000 private mental health providers statewide have signed up to treat Medicaid enrollees, according to the state.

But shortfalls in care persist. In Louisville, a city of 600,000 where The New York Times is looking periodically at the law’s impact, most new Medicaid enrollees are flowing to four adult mental health clinics run by Seven Counties. Calls to the agency’s access line, the starting point for new clients, are up by more than 40 percent this year, said Kelley Gannon, its chief operating officer.

Seven Counties declared bankruptcy last year in the face of spiraling pension costs, and a federal judge ruled that the agency could leave the state pension system. Ms. Gannon says the services it provides are not in jeopardy.
Continue reading the main story

The last time Ms. Hall had seen Ms. Riedel, in late June, they had talked about her plans to return to school with a Pell Grant and work toward an associate degree. But the next day, an eviction notice arrived in Ms. Hall’s mailbox. She had fallen behind on her rent and was being ordered to court. The coping techniques she learned in therapy — taking long walks and deep, slow breaths, for example — were not helping. Nor were the antidepressants and mood stabilizer that a Seven Counties psychiatrist prescribed. And her next therapy appointment was still more than four weeks away.

Ms. Hall is 52, with spiky, short blond hair and a deeply lined face that attests to a life roiled by stress. Addictions to alcohol and the anti-anxiety drug Xanax ended her marriage and gravely damaged her relationship with her son, who is now 27. She faced losing her small downtown apartment, and with no income at the moment other than a $600 monthly alimony check, her forward momentum was under threat.

“I haven’t felt this way since I got my divorce,” she said as she stamped out her cigarette, speaking fast and sweating in the damp morning heat. “Then, I went back to Xanax, and I don’t want to do that this time. I want to be able to handle this somehow.”


Treating the Community

Tana Jo Wright is doing her part to treat new Medicaid recipients with mental health problems. It is just not as easy as she would like.

A licensed clinical social worker, Ms. Wright opened her own practice last fall after working at a busy community clinic in the blighted West End of Louisville. In a tiny rented office with a vase of peacock feathers on her desk, she is seeing 15 clients, several of them new Medicaid recipients.

Like their physician counterparts, many private therapists refuse to accept Medicaid, which pays on average about 66 percent of what Medicare does. In addition, some therapists say, the paperwork takes too much time and the poor — who often experience more violence and trauma than those who are better off — are too challenging to treat. But Ms. Wright, 47, has a different outlook. She grew up in rural Lebanon, Ky., had a tumultuous relationship with her adoptive parents and was battered by a boyfriend at 16.

“Those experiences told me that people really need someone who will listen to them,” she said. “And I thought: ‘You can do that. You would be a good therapist because you know what people go through.’ ”

She has worked with drug addicts at a methadone clinic, with abused children and teenagers at Seven Counties, and with low-income adults at Family Health Centers, the clinic in the West End. Now that she is building her own practice, she sees more clients with Medicare and private insurance. But she said she remained committed to treating people on Medicaid, motivated by the therapists who agreed to see her when she was struggling.

“I believe in treating the whole community,” Ms. Wright said, “including people who can’t afford to pay.”

The new law is a big opportunity for mental health providers to reach more people of all income levels. But in Kentucky and the 25 other states that chose to expand Medicaid, the biggest expansion of mental health care has been for poor people who may have never had such treatment before.

Still, private providers face considerable headaches in taking on Medicaid patients, beyond the long-term deterrent of low reimbursement. Ms. Wright, for instance, is still waiting to be approved by some of the managed care companies that provide benefits to Medicaid recipients. Eager to build her client base, Ms. Wright has taken on a handful of new Medicaid enrollees for free while she waits for those companies to approve her paperwork.

“It’s been months and months,” she said. “It’s always there in my mind: Am I going to make it?”

Her clients, and the progress she sees in them, are her sustenance. There is a young man scarred by gang violence; an older woman whose daughter was murdered years ago; a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. And there is Sarah Davis, a Louisville native struggling to get past the bullying she experienced as a child and her negative feelings about her hometown.

Ms. Davis, 30, was teaching English in Japan when the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck in 2011. She came home, suffering nightmares and panic attacks and clashing with her parents as she tried to readjust. Earning less than $15,000 a year as a home health aide, Ms. Davis qualified for Medicaid under the new law. She heard about Ms. Wright from someone at a meditation session and has been seeing her once a week.

“So what’s happening?” Ms. Wright asked as Ms. Davis settled into a soft chair in her office one summer afternoon, tucking her legs underneath her.

They talked about Ms. Davis’s precarious finances and her trouble finding a job she loved. Then they returned to a familiar theme: Ms. Davis missing her life abroad and chafing against the realities of adulthood in Louisville, where she felt isolated and judged.

“My life used to be so beautiful and colorful, and I want that back,” she told Ms. Wright.

“There are some great things about this town if you open yourself up to experiences,” Ms. Wright countered as a small fan ruffled the peacock feathers.

Ms. Davis allowed that she had gotten back in touch with an old friend the previous week and struck up a conversation with a new neighbor. Ms. Wright, who has an emphatic laugh and a penchant for colorful “bling rings,” leaned forward and smiled.

“Two times you’ve told me you stepped out of your comfort zone. That is progress!” she said. “Take that in.”


Feeling Abnormal

As a teenage loner in Elizabethtown, Ky., Ms. Hall never felt normal. “I knew something was wrong with me,” she said, “but I didn’t know what.” She had a chronically ill mother and a domineering father. Always anxious, swinging between high moods and low, she started drinking heavily after she got married at 22.

Ms. Hall temporarily stopped drinking when her son was born a few years later. But then she became addicted to Xanax — “I was still numbing myself,” she said — and resumed drinking once her son started kindergarten.

Her husband divorced her in 2004 and married one of their friends. She made several suicide attempts, she said. After her father paid for her to go to rehab, she moved to Louisville in 2011 to live in a halfway house for recovering addicts. When she found the rental apartment last year, she sold her last asset, a car, so that she could afford the rent of $475 a month plus utilities. She was working at the time, running concession stands at sporting events, but making only about $500 a month.

By the beginning of this year, loneliness and grief about her severed relationships with her ex-husband, son and other family members threatened to swallow her again.

Without therapy, “I would have gone back to drinking and using drugs, because I was hurting so bad that there was nothing left for me to do,” she said. “I knew I would not live the rest of this year.”

In an interview, Ms. Riedel, 33, said that Ms. Hall’s therapy sessions had been successful because she had been so motivated — so desperate — to change.

“She’s still struggling with some pretty serious life issues,” she said, “but her attitude has changed so much. She’s so much more optimistic.”

As her outlook improved in recent months, Ms. Hall busied herself with other projects. Besides registering for community college and applying successfully for a Pell Grant, she used her new health insurance to get treatment for spinal stenosis, which causes pain and numbness in the legs and back, and forced her, she said, to leave her job. She also sought assistance from an agency that helps people with disabilities, which gave her some tuition money and is helping her look for jobs.

Even when adversity struck, Ms. Hall stayed purposeful. Within a day of getting the eviction notice, she gathered the names of a dozen organizations that might provide rent assistance, dialing one after the other from her mother’s antique rocking chair in her apartment. She did not find any organization willing to help pay her back rent, but her relentless research did lead to another option. For $248 a month, she could move to a privately operated “sober living” house. She started packing her apartment, but took a break one recent morning to attend a group-therapy session with Ms. Riedel.

“We haven’t really gotten to talk, and so much has happened,” she said. “I just want her to be proud.”

As of that morning in mid-July, Ms. Riedel’s schedule was booked six weeks out; her caseload had grown in the past year to 263 clients, up from 100 just a year before. But Seven Counties was hiring new therapists, Ms. Riedel said, and she hoped to soon return to seeing Ms. Hall once every two weeks.

Given the long waits for individual therapy sessions, Seven Counties is urging new clients to also try group therapy, for which there is no wait. Ms. Hall has sometimes attended Ms. Riedel’s weekly “Empowering Women” group, and at one recent session, she sat at an oval table with Ms. Riedel and four other women, paper and pen before her in case she gleaned something interesting. She was quiet as several of the others discussed their own problems: an abusive relationship; binge-eating; regret about growing old.

Finally, it was her turn. “Terri, how about you?” Ms. Riedel asked.

“Well, I got an eviction notice,” she said. “But I found a place, it’s for sober living. The woman who runs it accepted my application, but she wants to meet with me and talk first. I’m just praying everything goes well.”

A week later, things took another turn for the worse. Ms. Hall went home to Elizabethtown and stayed a day longer than she had planned to attend a family funeral. When she returned, she learned that she had lost the room in the sober-living house because she had not arrived on the appointed date.

She moved in temporarily with a neighbor, and then a friend, leaving her few possessions in the basement of her former building. She attended more group therapy sessions, thought about college starting and pictured herself in her first class: psychology. Last week, she finally returned to Ms. Riedel’s office, her hands shaking again as she unloaded weeks’ worth of tribulations. She talked about the pain of being judged by her family — if they knew about her eviction, she said, “they’d be madder than heck at me.” With Ms. Riedel’s support, she decided to stop contacting them for now.

She also discussed her fear of not finding a new home, and Ms. Riedel offered reassurance. “You are taking steps toward a career that will give you a steady income,” she said. “You are a very resilient person. I see this as you bouncing.”

The 45 minutes flew and they made another appointment, only two weeks away. Ms. Riedel said that in the meantime, she would see if Medicaid would pay for a caseworker to help Ms. Hall with things like finding housing.

“Are you feeling O.K. right now?” Ms. Riedel asked as Ms. Hall got up to leave.

“Yes,” Ms. Hall said, tucking away her appointment card. “I’ll be fine.”

A version of this article appears in print on August 28, 2014,
on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Expansion of Mental Health Care Hits Obstacles.

    Expansion of Mental Health Care Hits Obstacles, NYT, 28.8.2014,






The F.D.A.’s Blatant Failure on Food


JULY 30, 2014

The New York Times

The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Contributor



EVERY year, antibiotic-resistant infections kill at least 23,000 Americans and make another two million sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s why a recent ruling by the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals is so appalling.

It allows the federal Food and Drug Administration to leave an antibiotic used in animal feed on the market even if the agency openly states that the drug’s use is not safe and increases the risk of antibiotic resistance in people. This means that the dangerous misuse of antibiotics in industrial livestock and poultry can continue unabated.

For years industrial meat and poultry producers have fed healthy animals antibiotics to fatten them up fast. The antibiotics also prevent disease in what are often overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. This practice breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten us all.

The F.D.A. has issued a toothless voluntary guidance document for the industry, which requires no action to reduce antibiotic use and will therefore do little to nothing to stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Why should we be concerned? Because the superbugs bred on industrial farms can easily travel to us in our food — as in the recent antibiotic-resistant salmonella outbreak linked to Foster Farms chicken that has sickened over 600 people. The superbugs also get into our water and our soil. Some of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria can cause life-threatening infections.

While prescribing unnecessary antibiotics to people is one widely known cause of the problem, the C.D.C. and leading medical groups have identified the misuse of drugs in livestock and poultry operations as another important contributor. Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the C.D.C. director, has said of antibiotic resistance, “If we don’t act now, our medicine cabinet will be empty and we won’t have the antibiotics we need to save lives.” That’s a truly terrifying prospect.

And it’s one we don’t need to face. Although many industrial farmers claim that cleaning up their act will cost the rest of us at the cash register, responsible producers from Missouri to Denmark are already raising healthy livestock and poultry at competitive prices without the use of unnecessary drugs. Some mainstream food companies and their suppliers are starting to move in that direction, but it’s time all of the big meat and poultry firms joined them.

A fifth-generation pork producer, Russ Kremer of Missouri, is showing the way. In 1989, after an antibiotic-resistant infection from one of his pigs nearly killed him, he realized the danger of his antibiotic-dependent methods and decided to start over. He now raises pigs the natural way — free-roaming and without drugs — for his company, Heritage Acres Food. Today, buyers of his pork include Chipotle and Costco. He also leads a thriving pork cooperative, showing dozens of producers that they, too, can make similar conversions at a profit.

And Mr. Kremer is hardly alone. In Denmark, one of the world’s largest pork exporters, industrial farmers have cut overall antibiotic use by more than 40 percent while increasing production. The European Union, with its additional 27 member nations, also prohibits the misuse of growth-promoting antibiotics.

While the F.D.A. continues to drag its feet, it’s time for cooks and consumers to step in. We can play an important, proactive role in protecting against superbugs by changing the marketplace. Insist that your supermarkets stock meat and poultry raised without antibiotics. Demand that your restaurants do the same. An increasing number of major food companies, including Whole Foods, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Applegate and Panera Bread, have gotten on board, proof that as we vote with our wallets and our roasting pans, producers will rise to meet us.

Food should be delicious. It should also be good for you. We shouldn’t have to worry that we’re endangering our health each time we put a morsel of meat into our mouths. Rather than protecting the unsafe practices of the country’s animal agriculture industry, it’s time the F.D.A. followed its mandate and put America’s health first.

Ruth Reichl, a food writer and author, is a former restaurant critic for The New York Times and editor of Gourmet.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 31, 2014,
on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline:
The F.D.A.’s Blatant Failure on Food.

    The F.D.A.’s Blatant Failure on Food, NYT, 30.7.2014,






Too Hot to Handle


June 23, 2014
12:01 am
The New York Times


Hot weather kills more Americans than all other natural disasters combined, and the casualties continue to climb despite decades of warnings about how to recognize the signs of heat stress and take prompt corrective action.

With climate change, some experts predict ever-worsening summer heat waves and even more related illnesses and deaths. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that excessive heat caused by climate change could kill more than 150,000 Americans by the end of the century in the 40 largest cities.

“As carbon pollution continues to rise, the number of dangerously hot days each summer will increase even further, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of lives lost,” the council reported.

Extreme heat claims an average of 117 lives each year, but the real incidence is likely far higher. In addition, about 1,800 people die from illnesses made worse by heat, the council estimates.

“Death rates from many causes rise during heat waves that are related to heat but not reported as such,” said Dr. Christopher B. Colwell, director of emergency medicine at Denver Health Medical Center. “Lots of deaths that occur during heat waves are attributed to natural causes like heart attacks, kidney disease or respiratory disease.”

Especially at risk are the elderly, young children, athletes of all ages and weekend warriors whose bodies are not adapted to heat stress.

“As common as the problem is, it’s not common enough to grab people’s attention until it hits close to home,” Dr. Colwell said in an interview.

Even a high-profile death, like that of Korey Stringer, 27, a Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle who suffered heatstroke after a summer morning practice in 2001, has not prompted all coaches to take necessary precautions.

“Many coaches have held practices in the heat for years and no one died, so they think a bigger deal is being made of the problem than it really is,” Dr. Colwell said.

In the six years before Stringer’s death, 19 high school and college players died from heatstroke, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina. Too often, a player suffering from heat exhaustion, the first stage of a potentially life-threatening heat illness, is sent back on the field after a brief rest instead of being benched for the day or longer.

While deaths of healthy young athletes tend to be well publicized, the elderly are much more likely to succumb to extreme heat. Dr. Colwell explained that with age, the body’s ability to cool itself declines. Among other changes, blood vessels don’t dilate as readily to allow heat to escape, a problem made worse by conditions like congestive heart failure and peripheral vascular disease.

Many older people without air-conditioning or fans may not know when to get out of the heat, or they may be physically unable to leave an overheated dwelling.

Dehydration, a common problem among the elderly as well as among younger people who exercise strenuously, raises the risk of heat illness by diminishing the body’s ability to lose heat.

Medications taken by many older people also increase their vulnerability to heat stress, among them beta blockers prescribed for high blood pressure and anticholinergics used to treat lung problems and urinary incontinence.

Other drugs, too, can contribute to a hypersensitivity to heat, including lithium, tricyclic antidepressants, antihistamines and antispasmodics. Recreational drugs, like cocaine, amphetamines, PCP and alcohol, can be a problem as well.

Heat illness often occurs several days into a heat wave, as the effects on the body accumulate.

The body normally operates within a rather narrow temperature range. If body temperature rises above 105 degrees Fahrenheit, enzymes begin to break down and normal metabolic processes are disrupted. When Stringer collapsed, his temperature registered above 108 degrees.

Body heat is dissipated through four mechanisms: conduction, convection, radiation and evaporation. When the air temperature rises above 98.6 degrees, heat cannot be conducted away from the body unless a significant breeze creates a convection current, or windchill.

Heat radiates from the body when blood vessels are maximally dilated and the air temperature is lower than body temperature. But the most effective natural coolant is sweat; as it collects on the skin and evaporates, it draws heat from the body.

The risk of heat illness rises with the heat index, a combined measure of air temperature and relative humidity. When the humidity is high (or too much clothing is worn), sweat simply rolls off the skin without evaporating and cooling it.

Coaches, take note: depending on athletes’ ages, intensity of activity and degree of acclimatization, you should consider canceling practice and games when the heat index exceeds 105, experts say. City dwellers are most at risk during heat waves because paved surfaces, tall buildings and minimal tree cover enhance heat absorption, creating a “heat island.”

Heat illness is a form of hyperthermia, defined as a rise in core body temperature. But it does not respond to fever-reducing medications, making it extremely important to recognize heat exhaustion, an early sign of trouble. Common complaints include fatigue, dizziness, weakness, headache, nausea and muscle cramps.

Dr. Colwell explained that the brain’s cerebellum is especially sensitive to heat, which explains the early signs of a heatstroke: unsteady gait, confusion and disorientation. Heatstroke, characterized by a rise in body temperature above 104 degrees, has a death rate as high as 50 percent. Symptoms typically include a change in mental status, like delirium, seizures or even coma.

Among the elderly, heatstroke most often develops gradually, over several hot days. But among otherwise healthy people engaged in strenuous exercise, it tends to occur suddenly, within minutes to hours, which demands particular attention to early symptoms.

    Too Hot to Handle, NYT, 23.6.2014,






The Heavy Burden

of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder


JUNE 20, 2014
The New York Times
The Opinion Pages | Editorial


Post-traumatic stress disorder has reached staggering levels in the American military. An estimated 7 percent to 20 percent of all service members and veterans who have served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may have the disorder, and rising percentages of veterans from earlier conflicts are also afflicted.

The Departments of Defense and of Veterans Affairs have poured billions of dollars into treating the debilitating condition. Yet neither department really knows whether the treatments offered and applied are effective, according to a report issued Friday by the Institute of Medicine, a unit of the National Academy of Sciences, which had been asked by Congress to evaluate the programs.

The disorder is characterized by severe mental health problems — like repeatedly reliving a battlefield trauma, hiding from anything that might trigger those memories, and adverse swings in moods or thoughts — that persist for at least a month and impair functioning.

Such symptoms can occur soon after a traumatic event or not until years later. The disorder can last a lifetime, and it can impair physical and mental health, family and social relationships and the ability to perform a job.

Since October 2001, more than 2.6 million American military personnel have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. The proportion of service members who have PTSD increased from less than 1 percent in 2004 to more than 5 percent in 2012. In that year, some 500,000 veterans made at least two visits to veterans’ hospitals or clinics for outpatient care of the disorder; they made up 9 percent of all users of V.A. health services, up from 4 percent in 2002. The Defense Department spent some $294 million and Veterans Affairs some $3 billion on care for the disorder in 2012.

The agencies have combined to develop and disseminate clinical guidelines to help doctors choose the best treatments, such as various psychotherapies and pharmacotherapies that are backed by scientific evidence. Yet none of this knowledge is applied consistently. The Institute of Medicine said it was unclear what therapies most military members or veterans get and whether their symptoms improve as a result.

Although the departments have substantially increased their mental health staffing in recent years, the demand for services has increased even faster, causing yearslong waits for what V.A. doctors consider “minimally adequate mental health care.” Another impediment is lack of coordination between the two huge departments.

What is needed, the institute’s report says, is a better integrated approach and the collection of data to document which practices and treatments work best and how patients progress over the years. Those who have suffered mental trauma on the battlefield deserve the best care the nation can provide.

A version of this editorial appears in print on June 21, 2014,

on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline:

The Heavy Burden of Stress Disorder.

    The Heavy Burden of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, NYT, 20.6.2014,






The Great Divide

Stop Holding Us Back


June 7, 2014 2:30 pm
The New York Times
- A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web


This month, more than three million high school students will receive their diplomas. At more than 80 percent, America’s graduation rate is at a record high. More kids are going to college, too. But one-third of the nation’s African-American and Latino young men will not graduate.

In an era when there is virtually no legal work for dropouts, these young men face a bleak future. It is not news that the students who don’t make it out of high school largely come from our poorest neighborhoods, but the degree to which they are hyper-concentrated in a small set of schools is alarming. In fact, according to new research I conducted with my colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, half of the African-American boys who veer off the path to high school graduation do so in just 660 of more than 12,600 regular and vocational high schools.

These 660 schools are typically big high schools that teach only poor kids of color. They are concentrated in 15 states. Many are in major cities, but others are in smaller, decaying industrial cities or in the South, especially in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.

This seemingly intractable problem is a national tragedy, but there is a solution. In the high schools where most of the young men are derailed, the number of ninth-grade boys who desperately need better schooling and extra support is typically between 50 and 100. Keeping many or even most of those boys on track in each entering ninth-grade class in 660 schools does not seem impossible.
Brian Stauffer

If we know where to focus our efforts, we can put strategies in place that have shown promise, particularly over the last few years. While early childhood is critical, the most treacherous time for young African-American and Latino men is from ages 11 to 21. At the very moment they are the most developmentally vulnerable, the response from schools, foster care, the health system and child protective services gets weaker, while the response from the justice system is harsher. Their family responsibilities grow, and their neighborhoods turn meaner. Their middle and high school experience becomes make or break.

But the secondary schools these students attend are not specifically designed for them. It is not unusual for up to half the students to miss a month or more of school, and often more students are suspended in a year than graduate. In a 22-school sample that we studied closely, nearly all ninth-grade students were either too old for their grades, had repeated ninth grade, needed special education, were chronically absent or had academic skills at the seventh grade level or below. The norm in this environment is to fail classes and then repeat ninth grade. But most students do no better the second time around. Either they drop out then or they may briefly transfer to another school before dropping out later. This is a highly predictable, almost mechanical course, which is why we call those schools dropout factories.

We have also learned that most students who eventually drop out can be identified as early as the sixth grade by their attendance, behavior and course performance, according to studies by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins, where I am the director, and the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Using those indicators, it is possible to identify by the middle of ninth grade virtually everyone who will drop out. These young men are waving their hands early and often to say they need help, but our educational and student-support systems aren’t organized to recognize and respond to their distress signals.

In 2008, my colleagues and I decided to focus on those struggling sixth and ninth graders. What if we reorganized entire schools with teams of teachers who shared a common group of students? What if we added more time for English and math and offered coaching for teachers and principals? What if we welcomed students to school, called them if they didn’t show up and helped with homework? What if we used an early warning system that identified struggling students based on their poor attendance, behavior and course performance and then worked to get each student back on track?

To try to provide all that, we developed Diplomas Now, a partnership of three national nonprofits, which works with more than 30,000 students in 40 of the toughest middle and high schools in 14 big cities. (Although I am focusing here on boys, because they have lower graduation rates than girls, the program is coed.)

To evaluate our progress, MDRC, a social policy research organization, is conducting a randomized field trial. Initial indications are positive. In the 2012-13 school year, the program achieved a 41 percent reduction in chronically absent students, a 70 percent reduction in suspended students, a 69 percent reduction in students failing English and a 52 percent reduction in students failing math.

This is not an anomalous result. A recent study of public schools in Chicago shows that getting students back on track in the ninth grade leads to higher graduation rates and that African-American males in particular experience the greatest benefits when schools are reorganized to focus on ninth grade.

What do we need to do on a national scale? First, high-poverty secondary schools need to be redesigned with the special problems of their students in mind, with a focus on freshman year. In practice, this means starting new schools and transforming existing ones.

Second, early warning systems need to be instituted so that teachers and other committed adults can step in at the first sign a student is in trouble, whether it’s cutting class, mouthing off or floundering in English or math.

Third, we should employ additional adults to support students who need daily nagging and nurturing to succeed, especially during the key transitional years in sixth and ninth grades.

We also need the larger community, including local businesses and faith-based organizations, to mentor students by showing them how to set goals, apply to college and acquire workplace skills.

This sounds expensive, but it does not have to be, particularly if we stop wasting money on failed strategies like holding kids back in high school. Asking struggling students to repeat a grade under the same circumstances almost guarantees the same result.

We are already paying a lot for failure. On average, holding a student back costs $11,000. The 660 high schools that produce half of African-American male dropouts spend more than $500 million a year to retain more than 46,000 boys and girls in ninth grade.

There is an unexpected path forward, the outlines of which are in view. We can provide our most vulnerable children with a better chance for adult success. They deserve no less.


Robert Balfanz is a research professor

at Johns Hopkins University School of Education

and the director of the Everyone Graduates Center.

A version of this article appears in print on 06/08/2014,

on page SR5 of the NewYork edition with the headline:

Stop Holding Us Back.

    Stop Holding Us Back, NYT, 7.6.2014,






Depressed, but Not Ashamed


MAY 21, 2014
The New York Times
The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Contributors


ANN ARBOR, Mich. — MOST of our closest friends didn’t know that we struggled with depression. It just wasn’t something we discussed with our high school classmates. We found that we both had taken Prozac only when one of us caught a glimpse of a prescription bottle in a suitcase during a journalism conference last November. For the first time, we openly discussed our feelings and our use of antidepressants with someone who could relate. We took a risk sharing our experiences with depression, but in our honesty, we found a support system. We knew we had to take the idea further.

In the United States, for people between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Untreated depression is one of the leading causes of suicide. According to the National Comorbidity Survey: Adolescent Supplement, 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18.

We were not alone. We wondered why, with so many teenagers dealing with depression, it was still addressed in such impersonal ways.

As editors at our high school newspaper, we decided to fight against the stigma and proposed devoting a whole edition to personal stories from our peers who were suffering from mental illness. We wanted honesty with no anonymity.

We knew that discussing mental health in this way would be edgy, even for our progressive community in Michigan. But we were shocked when the school administration would not allow us to publish the articles.

With the help of other journalism students, we interviewed teenagers from around our school district who shared stories of depression, eating disorders, homelessness, prescription abuse, insomnia and anxiety. Many discussed their personal struggles for the first time. All agreed to attach their full name — no anonymity or pseudonyms. Following online recommendations of the Student Press Law Center, we asked the parents of each student to sign consent forms for the articles.

As we were putting the stories together, the head of our school called us into her office to tell us about a former college football player from our area who had struggled with depression and would be willing to let us interview him. We wondered why she was proposing this story to us since he wasn’t a current high school student. We declined her suggestion. We didn’t want to replace these deeply personal articles about our peers with a piece about someone removed from the students. After we asked her why she was suggesting this, she told us that she couldn’t support our moving forward with the articles.

From an administrative perspective, this made some sense. It is her job to protect the students to the best of her ability. She believed that the well-being of those who shared their experiences — and most important, their names — would be put at risk because of potential bullying. She also mentioned that she had consulted a mental health professional, who told her that reading about their own depression could trigger a recurrence in some of the students and that those who committed to telling their stories might regret it later.

Our school has a very tolerant atmosphere, and it even has a depression awareness group, so this response seemed uncharacteristic. We were surprised that the administration and the adults who advocated for mental health awareness were the ones standing in the way of it. By telling us that students could not talk openly about their struggles, they reinforced the very stigma we were trying to eliminate.

The feeling of being alone is closely linked to depression. This can be exacerbated if there is no one to reach out to. Though there are professionals to talk to, we feel it doesn’t compare to sharing your experiences with a peer who has faced similar struggles. And, most important to us, no one afflicted with a mental illness should have to believe that it’s something he should feel obliged to hide in the first place. If someone has an illness such as diabetes, she is not discouraged from speaking about it. Depression does not indicate mental weakness. It is a disorder, often a flaw of biology, not one of character.

By interviewing these teenagers for our newspaper, we tried — and failed — to start small in the fight against stigma. Unfortunately, we’ve learned this won’t be easy. It seems that those who are charged with advocating for our well-being aren’t ready yet to let us have an open and honest dialogue about depression.


Madeline Halpert, a junior,

and Eva Rosenfeld, a sophomore,

are managing editors at their high school newspaper

in Michigan.


A version of this op-ed appears in print on May 22, 2014,

on page A29 of the New York edition with the headline:

Depressed, but Not Ashamed.

    Depressed, but Not Ashamed, NYT, 21.5.2014,






A Better Economy, Still Far From Good


MAY 4, 2014
The New York Times
The Opinion Pages | Editorial


The good news from last week’s economic reports is this: April was the best month for job growth in quite a while. Employers added 288,000 jobs, bringing the average for the last three months to a respectable 238,000.

But let’s keep this milestone in perspective: wages remained flat, nearly 10 million unemployed people are looking for jobs, and millions more have become so disenchanted that they have given up on finding work altogether. That the unemployment rate fell to 6.3 percent in April from 6.7 percent a month earlier is due mainly to the fact that the number of people looking for jobs fell. The percentage of Americans 16 and over who are working or looking for work was just 62.8 percent, the lowest level since the late 1970s.

Moreover, even if job growth continued at last month’s solid, steady pace, the country would not have a labor market as healthy as the one it had before the recession started in December 2007 until the end of 2016, according to calculations by Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Put differently, it would take the economy nine years to recoup the jobs lost during the recession plus those needed to employ new workers during the slow recovery.

The economic recovery that began in June 2009 has been the weakest the country has experienced since World War II, according to an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. But it did not have to be. Lawmakers in Washington have repeatedly undermined the recovery by emphasizing deficit reduction rather than economic growth. They have also stood in the way of proposals that would have helped the unemployed and workers at the lowest rungs of the economy.

To take two recent outrages, the Republican-controlled House has refused to take up a measure passed by the Senate that would reinstate extended unemployment benefits to people who have been out of work for six months or more. The long-term unemployed make up more than one-third of everyone who is classified as unemployed — those out of work and looking for a job — but helping them strikes legislators like Tom Cole of Oklahoma as “pie in the sky.”

And last week, Senate Republicans blocked a vote on a bill that would have raised the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, from $7.25 an hour, which would help the working poor while providing a much-needed boost to the economy. But Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, would have you believe that giving the poorest workers a raise is a “stale, bankrupt, ineffective policy.”

People like Mr. Cole and Mr. Alexander speak as if the formal end of the recession five years ago put everything right. But everything is not right for the millions of Americans whose jobs, wages and livelihoods disappeared in those dark days.

A version of this editorial appears in print on May 5, 2014,

on page A22 of the New York edition with the headline:

A Better Economy, Still Far From Good.

    A Better Economy, Still Far From Good, NYT, 4.5.2014,






A Quick Way to Cut College Costs


MARCH 20, 2014
The New York Times
The Opinion Pages|Op-Ed Contributor


COLLEGE admission notifications have begun to arrive. With every thrilling acceptance comes something far less welcome: the heart-stopping reality of what it all costs.

Tuition has risen almost 1,200 percent in the last 35 years, and the sticker price for many four-year private colleges and out-of-state public universities exceeds $250,000. Even at state universities, the average four-year cost for residents is more than $80,000 for tuition, room, board and expenses. But every college offers need-based financial aid, right? Well, sort of.

A college aid package can be made up of three elements: grants (sometimes called scholarships), loans and work-study programs. The biggest single source of aid is the federal government — but in the form of loans ($68 billion, 37 percent of all aid, in 2013). About 5 percent of aid comes from states and a large part from the college’s own resources. Much of the college’s contribution comes in the form of a discount from the school’s already inflated tuition, which, with a straight face, administrators call a grant.

When colleges compute their aid packages, they start with a student’s expected family contribution — that is, what the government expects a family to be able to contribute, not what the family expects. The E.F.C. is calculated by the federal government based on data submitted by the family on the Fafsa form (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is mandatory if the student wants any sort of financial aid, even work-study jobs in the school cafeteria). The Fafsa’s complexity rivals that of a tax return, but it is less user friendly.

Weeks after submitting their Fafsa to the federal Department of Education, families are told what their expected contribution is. The formula itself is set by Congress. For most middle-class families, the number is shocking because it has little basis in real-life economics.

Consider a family of four, earning $100,000 in income and having $50,000 in savings. The E.F.C. says that this family will contribute $17,375 each year to a child’s college expenses. A $100,000 income translates into take-home pay of about $6,311 monthly. An E.F.C. of $17,375 means the family must contribute about $1,500 a month — every month for four years. But cutting family expenses by 25 percent every month is unrealistic.

Alternatively, the family could use its savings. But that would deplete their $50,000 before the start of the child’s senior year, leaving nothing for the proverbial rainy day, or for the second child’s education.

Financial advisers familiar with the peculiarities of the college aid world say there isn’t much they can do to help once families receive their E.F.C. As Ian Welham, the founder of Complete College Planning Solutions, told me, “When families see their E.F.C. number for the first time, most parents ask, ‘Is this for four years?’ I have to tell them, ‘No, that’s just for one year.’ I also have to explain that the E.F.C. is the minimum a family is going to pay. In many cases, they’re asked to pay considerably more.”

When colleges craft a student’s financial aid package, the school deducts the E.F.C. from the sticker-price tuition, room, board and expenses to establish a family’s need. It then allocates federal money the child is eligible for, and only last does it dip into its own resources, if the school has money available.

Private colleges have more flexibility. Because some of the wealthiest schools, like Princeton, have basically eliminated loans entirely from their packages for middle-class families, it can be less costly to attend a private college with a higher sticker price than a state university with lower tuition. State schools have smaller endowments and less money for financial aid.

But what about the huge federal scholarship programs Congress regularly trumpets? Most are not available to middle-class families; only federally subsidized loans are. And at 3.86 percent subsidized interest rates — plus loan origination fees — federal education loans are available on less attractive terms than car loans.

The largest and best-known scholarship program is the $34 billion Pell Grant. But 95 percent of all Pell Grants go to families earning under $58,875 annually. For the 5 percent of middle-class families who do get Pell grants, the average award is $2,500.

Congress has done little to help middle-class families. Seventy-one percent of college students graduated last year with an average of $29,400 in debt. Estimates suggest that parents have taken on almost as much.

Meanwhile, lobbying expenditures by colleges, universities and higher-education organizations have totaled more than a half-billion dollars over the past five years — the eighth highest special-interest category attempting to influence Congress.

I’m not suggesting that students and their parents shouldn’t contribute. But burdening students with huge loans and parents with depleted savings is a bad policy that is driven, in part, by unrealistic E.F.C.s.

“The E.F.C. gives colleges ‘plausible deniability,’ ” said Scott Farber, president of A-List Education, a tutoring and education consulting company. “It allows them to say, ‘We didn’t set these family contribution figures; the government did.’ That artificially high E.F.C. is essentially creating an artificial price support for colleges.”

Since Congress controls the E.F.C. formula, it makes sense for political leaders who are serious about controlling college costs and student debt to start by making the E.F.C. more realistic. But tinkering with the E.F.C. formula won’t be sufficient because there are so many problems with it. For example, it doesn’t take into consideration geographic differences in cost-of-living, or the lack of liquidity in one’s home.

So let’s get serious instead. Congress and the president should drastically cut the E.F.C. — by around 75 percent, to reflect the fact that since 1980 tuition has risen at nearly five times the rate of the Consumer Price Index. Doing so would force colleges to construct financial aid packages without the artificial price supports of inflated contribution numbers — and make paying for college less agonizing.



Steve Cohen is a lawyer at Kramer, Dillof, Livingston & Moore

in New York and a co-author of “Getting In: The Zinch Guide

to College Admissions & Financial Aid in the Digital Age.”


A version of this op-ed appears in print on March 21, 2014,

on page A29 of the New York edition with the headline:

A Quick Way to Cut College Costs.

    A Quick Way to Cut College Costs, NYT, 20.3.2014,






To End the Abuse, She Grabbed a Knife


MARCH 8, 2014
The New York Times
SundayReview|Op-Ed Columnist


ATLANTA — WHAT strikes one American woman in four and claims a life in the United States every six hours?

This scourge can be more unsettling to talk about than colonoscopies, and it is so stigmatizing that most victims never seek help.

Paula Denize Lewis, an executive assistant here in Atlanta, was among those who kept quiet about domestic violence, for that’s what I’m talking about. She tried to cover up the black eyes and bruises when she went to work, and when she showed up with her arm in a sling she claimed that she had fallen down the stairs.

Then one evening, she says, her alcoholic boyfriend was again beating her, throwing beer cans at her and threatening to kill her. She ran for a telephone in the kitchen to call 911, but he reached it first and began clubbing her on the head with it.

Lewis reached frantically into a kitchen drawer for something to defend herself with. “I grabbed what I could,” she said.

What she had grabbed turned out to be a paring knife. She stabbed her boyfriend once. He died.

Lewis was jailed and charged with murder. With the help of the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence, the charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter and she was sentenced to probation.

That episode underscores the way our silence and squeamishness about domestic violence hurts everyone. If there had been earlier intervention, Lewis might have avoided years of abuse and a felony conviction — and her boyfriend might still be alive.

Domestic violence deserves far more attention and resources, and far more police understanding of the complexities involved. This is not a fringe concern. It is vast, it is outrageous, and it should be a national priority.

Women worldwide ages 15 to 44 are more likely to die or be maimed as a result of male violence than as a consequence of war, cancer, malaria and traffic accidents combined. Far more Americans, mostly women, have been killed in the last dozen years at the hands of their partners than in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

American women are twice as likely to suffer domestic violence as breast cancer, and the abuse is particularly shattering because it comes from those we have loved.

“He’s the only person I’ve ever loved,” Ta’Farian, 24, said of her husband, whom she met when she was an 18-year-old college student. He gradually became violent, she says, beating her, locking her up in a closet, and destroying property.

“My family was like, ‘He’s your husband. You can’t leave him. How would you support yourself?’ ”

Still, she says, it became too much, and she called 911. Police arrested him. But she says that the day before the trial, her husband called and threatened to kill her if she testified against him, so she says that out of a mix of fear and love she refused to repeat in court what had happened. Her husband was let off, and she was convicted of false reporting of a crime.

Ta’Farian is now in hiding, fearful of her husband as well as of the courts; she dissolved into tears as she was telling her story, partly out of fear that her conviction could cost her the custody of her son. Ayonna Johnson, who works for the Women’s Resource Center, comforted her, saying: “You should not have gotten punished for trying to stay alive.”

Domestic violence is infinitely complex in part because women sometimes love the men who beat them: they don’t want the man jailed; they don’t want to end the relationship; they just want the beatings to end.

Women can obtain temporary protective orders to keep violent boyfriends or husbands away, but these are just pieces of paper unless they’re rigorously enforced. Sometimes the orders even trigger a retaliatory attack on the woman, and police officers around the country don’t always make such a case a priority — until it becomes a murder investigation.

One way of addressing that conundrum is mandated classes for abusers, like one run by the group Men Stopping Violence. One session I sat in on was a little like Alcoholics Anonymous in its confessional, frank tone, but it focused on domestic abuse. The men were encouraged to be brutally honest in examining their shortcomings in relationships; it’s surely more effective than sending abusers to jail to seethe at their wives and wallow in self-pity.

Sometimes there’s a perception that domestic violence is insoluble, because it’s such a complex, messy problem with women who are culprits as well as victims. Yet, in fact, this is an area where the United States has seen enormous progress.

Based on victimization surveys, it seems that violence by men against their intimate partners has fallen by almost two-thirds since 1993. Attitudes have changed as well. In 1987, only half of Americans said that it was always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or stick; a decade later, 86 percent said that it was always wrong.

A generation ago, police didn’t typically get involved. “We would say, ‘don’t make us come back, or you’re both going to jail,’ ” recalled Capt. Leonard Dreyer of the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office. In contrast, sheriff’s officers now routinely arrest the aggressor.

Three steps are still needed. First, we must end the silence. Second, we must ensure that police departments everywhere take the issue seriously before a victim becomes a corpse. Third, offenders should be required to attend training programs like the one run by Men Stopping Violence.

A young mom named Antonya Lewis reflects the challenges. She stayed with a violent boyfriend for years, she said, because he was the father of her daughters and was always so apologetic afterward — and also because that was what she had been told was a woman’s lot in life.

“My mom always told me to suck it up,” she said. But then her boyfriend beat her up so badly that he broke a bone near her eye and put her in the hospital. She told him that she was done with him, and when he continued to stalk her and threaten to kill her, she called the police — repeatedly — with little effect. Now she has moved to a new city and is starting over.

“I didn’t want my daughters to see him beat me,” she said. “I didn’t want them to think this is what a man can do to a woman.”

That, too, is progress.


A version of this op-ed appears in print on March 9, 2014,

on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline:

To End the Abuse, She Grabbed a Knife.

    To End the Abuse, She Grabbed a Knife, NYT, 8.3.2014,






Crime and Punishment and Obama


FEB. 23, 2014
The New York Times


I DOUBT any president has been as well equipped as Barack Obama to appreciate the vicious cycle of American crime and punishment. As a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s, he would have witnessed the way a system intended to protect the public siphoned off young black men, gave them an advanced education in brutality, and then returned them to the streets unqualified for — and too often, given the barriers to employment faced by those who have done time, disqualified from — anything but a life of more crime. He would have understood that the suffering of victims and the debasing of offenders were often two sides of the same coin.

It’s hard to tell how deeply he actually absorbed this knowledge. In the Chicago chapters of his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” Obama notes that in the low-income housing projects “prison records had been passed down from father to son for more than a generation,” but he has surprisingly little to say about the shadow cast by prisons on the families left behind, about the way incarceration became the default therapy for drug addicts and the mentally ill, about the abject failure of rehabilitation.

Still, when the former community organizer took office, advocates of reform had high expectations.

In March I will give up the glorious platform of The Times to help launch something new: a nonprofit journalistic venture called The Marshall Project (after Thurgood Marshall, the great courtroom champion of civil rights) and devoted to the vast and urgent subject of our broken criminal justice system. It seems fitting that my parting column should address the question of how this president has lived up to those high expectations so far.

I’ll begin by making his excuses. The president’s powers in this area are limited. The action (and there is a lot of it right now) is mostly at the state level. His first term was entangled in economic crisis and health care. This president has faced tireless and often petty resistance from the Republican House on almost every initiative. Historically Democrats have risked being Willie-Horton’ed if they don’t maintain a tougher-than-tough-on-crime posture. And African-American constituents — who are also disproportionately the victims of crime — are not necessarily bleeding-heart voters. In short, it was probably naïve to assume that Obama was going to be the Criminal Justice Reform President.

And yet Obama took office at a time of tidal shifts. The economics of imprisonment, the ebbing of crime rates, the horror stories of overcrowded penitentiaries and the persistent activism of reform advocates had begun to generate a public consensus that merely caging people is not a crime-fighting strategy. Fiscal conservatives alarmed at the high cost of incarceration, evangelicals shocked by the waste of lives, and libertarians who spotted another realm of government power abused have clambered onto what was once a liberal bandwagon. (How much those conservatives will be willing to invest in alternative ways of protecting the public — drug treatment, more intensive parole and probation programs, job training and so on — is another question.)

In his first term Obama did not make this a signature issue; he rarely mentioned the subject. But his proxy, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., was outspoken from the start. Six months into the first term, he was already at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York talking about the social costs of mass incarceration and pressing for policies that would divert low-level drug offenders to treatment and ease the re-entry of former prisoners into a productive life. In the last five years, Holder has become increasingly bold, and encountered little backlash. This month he exhorted states to repeal policies that deny felons the right to vote, policies that disenfranchise 5.8 million Americans, including nearly one in 13 African-American adults. He framed it not just as an act of compassion but as a way of re-engaging prodigal souls.

“By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes,” Holder said.

“All that sounds very good,” said Michelle Alexander, the legal scholar who wrote “The New Jim Crow,” a scorching 2010 indictment of the racialized war on drugs. ”And it is good, because for decades the rhetoric was running in the other direction. But if the rhetoric is not matched with action ... then it is fair to wonder whether the shift in rhetoric reflects significant shifts in public opinion in recent years, rather than a real commitment to these issues and a willingness to take political risks.”

In practice, the administration’s record has been more incremental than its rhetoric.

By the crudest metric, the population of our prisons, the Obama administration has been unimpressive. The famously shocking numbers of Americans behind bars (the U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s people, incarcerates nearly a quarter of all prisoners on earth) have declined three years in a row. However the overall downsizing is largely thanks to California and a handful of other states. In overstuffed federal prisons, the population continues to grow, fed in no small part by Obama’s crackdown on immigration violators.

The administration has some achievements to tout. Obama signed the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, and has put some muscle behind the Smarter Sentencing Act, two measures aimed at making drug-sentencing laws less absurd. Holder has issued guidance to prosecutors to avoid routinely seeking maximum sentences for low-level offenders — though it’s not clear yet whether prosecutors are going along. The administration created an Interagency Reentry Council that uses federal guidance to whittle away at the barriers to employment, housing and education so that released prisoners have some hope of becoming productive citizens.

At the same time, long after the War on Drugs has been recognized as a failure, there has been little serious effort to cut the number of federal drug prosecutions, or to shift money from incarceration to drug treatment. Alexander cites as a significant disappointment the continued federal reluctance to decriminalize marijuana, despite Obama’s acknowledgment to David Remnick of The New Yorker that pot is less harmful than alcohol and that the laws are mostly enforced against poor minorities. Another missed opportunity: he could have pushed more aggressively to fill district and circuit court vacancies with judges who would buck the status quo.

Obama has also been the stingiest of recent presidents in using his powers of pardon and commutation to undo the damage of the crack panic and of sentencing that keeps prisoners in lockup long past the age when they represent a danger. Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank with a justice reform agenda, points out that in his first term Obama pardoned one in 50 applicants while Ronald Reagan pardoned one in three. Late last year Obama commuted the sentences of eight drug offenders, out of more than 8,000 federal convicts serving time under outdated crack laws.

Obama is, we know, a cautious man, leery of getting ahead of public opinion and therefore sometimes far behind it. And some reform advocates argue that it made sense for Obama to keep a low profile until a broad bipartisan consensus had gathered. That time has come. Now that Obama-scorners like Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee and even Ted Cruz are slicing off pieces of justice reform for their issue portfolios, now that red states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky have embraced alternatives to prison, criminal justice is one of those rare areas where there is common ground to be explored and tested.

The Obama presidency has almost three years to go, and there is reason to hope that he will feel less constrained, that the eight commutations were not just a pittance but, as he put it, “a first step,” that Holder’s mounting enthusiasm for saner sentencing is not just talk, but prelude, that the president will use his great pulpit to prick our conscience.

“This is something that matters to the president,” Holder assured me last week. “This is, I think, going to be seen as a defining legacy for this administration.”

I’ll be watching, and hoping that Holder’s prediction is more than wishful thinking.


A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 24, 2014,

on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline:

Crime and Punishment and Obama.

    Crime and Punishment and Obama, NYT, 23.2.2014,






One Nation Under Guard


February 15, 2014
4:20 pm
The New York Times
The Great Divide


Another dubious first for America: We now employ as many private security guards as high school teachers — over one million of them, or nearly double their number in 1980.

And that’s just a small fraction of what we call “guard labor.” In addition to private security guards, that means police officers, members of the armed forces, prison and court officials, civilian employees of the military, and those producing weapons: a total of 5.2 million workers in 2011. That is a far larger number than we have of teachers at all levels.

What is happening in America today is both unprecedented in our history, and virtually unique among Western democratic nations. The share of our labor force devoted to guard labor has risen fivefold since 1890 — a year when, in case you were wondering, the homicide rate was much higher than today.

Is this the curse of affluence? Or of ethnic diversity? We don’t think so. The guard-labor share of employment in the United States is four times what it is in Sweden, where living standards rival America’s. And Britain, with its diverse population, uses substantially less guard labor than the United States.

In America, growing inequality has been accompanied by a boom in gated communities and armies of doormen controlling access to upscale apartment buildings. We did not count the doormen, or those producing the gates, locks and security equipment. One could quibble about the numbers; we have elsewhere adopted a broader definition, including prisoners, work supervisors with disciplinary functions, and others.

But however one totes up guard labor in the United States, there is a lot of it, and it seems to go along with economic inequality. States with high levels of income inequality — New York and Louisiana — employ twice as many security workers (as a fraction of their labor force) as less unequal states like Idaho and New Hampshire.

When we look across advanced industrialized countries, we see the same pattern: the more inequality, the more guard labor. As the graph shows, the United States leads in both.

Note that, in 1979 (shown by the pink dot), the United States was less unequal and employed less guard labor. In the graph, inequality in income takes account of payment of taxes and receipt of government transfers such as Social Security. (We measure inequality by the Gini index, a measure that varies from 0 for complete equality — that is, if all families have the same income — to a value of 1 if a single person has all of the income.) The data shown are the most recent for all nations on which comparable measures of inequality and guard labor are available.

For the same countries, guard labor is also more common where those starting out in life face a sharply tilted playing field, such as America, Britain and Italy. These are countries in which the income of a father is a good predictor of the income of his adult son. The countries with the least guard labor are those in which there is greater equality of economic opportunity by this measure: These are Denmark and Sweden, countries in which knowing the father’s income does not enable a very accurate guess of the son’s income when he grows up.

Nobody has a good explanation of why the United States is a standout when it comes to guard labor. Some of the differences in the guard-labor fraction across nations arise because, in many countries, the job of getting people to play by the rules is not left up to enforcement specialists. Anyone who has tried jaywalking in Germany will know what we mean: It’s not the police who are on your case, but your fellow pedestrians. In the United States, when the neighbor’s boisterous party is disturbing sleep, it’s often the police who will get the irate call, not the neighbor. Some of the increase in guard labor over the past century in America may reflect a shift from the informal enforcement of social norms to their enforcement by specialists in uniform.

Does the graph show that inequality causes a country to devote more of its labor force to guard labor? It is hard to be sure. It could be that people with a strong commitment to economic justice are, for some unknown reason, also more law-abiding, explaining the difference between Denmark and the United States. But the correlation evident in the graph could be evidence that economic disparities push nations to devote more of their productive capacity to guarding people and property. Fear and distrust of one’s neighbors and fellow citizens fuel the demand for guard labor. Economic disparities can contribute to both. Among the countries shown, a common measure of distrust of strangers is strongly correlated with both the guard-labor fraction and inequality.

Social spending, also, is strongly and inversely correlated with guard labor across the nations shown in the graph. There is a simple economic lesson here: A nation whose policies result in substantial inequalities may end up spending more on guns and getting less butter as a result.

Nobody doubts that the work of guard labor is essential. One of us, Samuel Bowles, knows this firsthand: His son-in-law is a corrections officer whose work is skilled, demanding and necessary. Every society divides its labor between those who produce things and those who guard the store. But how much guard labor is too much?

“You have money spent on guarding stuff rather than making stuff,” said Michael Hood, an economist at Barclays Capital. “There’s a large population standing around in blue blazers rather than engaged in more productive activities.” He was talking about Latin America, but could have been describing things in the United States.

“It is lamentable to think,” wrote the philosopher John Stuart Mill, in 1848, “how a great proportion of all efforts and talents in the world are employed in merely neutralizing one another.” He went on to conclude, “It is the proper end of government to reduce this wretched waste to the smallest possible amount, by taking such measures as shall cause the energies now spent by mankind in injuring one another, or in protecting themselves from injury, to be turned to the legitimate employment of the human faculties.”

This venerable call to beat swords into plowshares resonates still in America and beyond. Addressing unjust inequality would help make this possible.


Samuel Bowles, a research professor of behavioral sciences

at the Santa Fe Institute, is the author

of “The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution.”

Arjun Jayadev, an associate professor of economics

at the University of Massachusetts, Boston,

also teaches at Azim Premji University, Bangalore,

and works at the Institute for New Economic Thinking,

New York.

    One Nation Under Guard, NYT, 15.2.2014,






The Post Office Banks on the Poor


FEB. 7, 2014
The New York Times


ATHENS, Ga. — PEOPLE like to complain about banks popping up like Starbucks on every corner these days. But in poor neighborhoods, the phenomenon is quite the opposite: Over the past couple of decades, the banks have pulled out.

Approximately 88 million people in the United States, or 28 percent of the population, have no bank account at all, or do have a bank account, but primarily rely on check-cashing storefronts, payday lenders, title lenders, or even pawnshops to meet their financial needs. And these lenders charge much more for their services than traditional banks. The average annual income for an “unbanked” family is $25,500, and about 10 percent of that income, or $2,412, goes to fees and interest for gaining access to credit or other financial services.

But a possible solution has appeared, in the unlikely guise of the United States Postal Service. The unwieldy institution, which has essentially been self-funded since 1971, and has maxed out its $15 billion line of credit from the federal government, is in financial straits itself. But what it does have is infrastructure, with a post office in most ZIP codes, and a relationship with residents in every kind of neighborhood, from richest to poorest.

Last week, the office of the U.S.P.S. inspector general released a white paper noting the “huge market” represented by the population that is underserved by traditional banks, and proposing that the post office get into the business of providing financial services to “those whose needs are not being met.” (I wrote a paper years ago suggesting just such an idea.) Postal banking has a powerful advocate in Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, who has publicly supported the plan.

The U.S.P.S. — which already handles money orders for customers — envisions offering reloadable prepaid debit cards, mobile transactions, domestic and international money transfers, a Bitcoin exchange, and most significantly, small loans. It could offer credit at lower rates than fringe lenders do by taking advantage of economies of scale.

The post office has branches in many low-income neighborhoods that have long been deserted by commercial banks. And people at every level of society have a certain familiarity and comfort in the post office that they do not have in more formal banking institutions — a problem that, as a 2011 study by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation demonstrated, can keep the poor from using even the banks that are willing to offer them services.

Many will oppose the idea of a governmental agency providing financial services. Camden R. Fine, chief executive of the Independent Community Bankers of America, has already called the post office proposal “the worst idea since the Ford Edsel.” But the federal government already provides interest-free “financial services” to the largest banks (not to mention the recent bailout funds). And this is done under an implicit social contract: The state supports and insures the banking system, and in return, banks are to provide the general population with access to credit, loans and savings. But in reality, too many are left out.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1910, President William Howard Taft established the government-backed postal savings system for recent immigrants and the poor. It lasted until 1967. The government also supported and insured credit unions and savings-and-loans specifically created to provide credit to low-income earners.

But by the 1990s, there were essentially two forms of banking: regulated and insured mainstream banks to serve the needs of the wealthy and middle class, and a Wild West of unregulated payday lenders and check-cashing joints that answer the needs of the poor — at a price.

People need credit to increase their financial prospects — that’s the theory behind government backing of student loans and mortgages. The Latin root of the word “credit” is credere — to believe. But belief is something that mainstream lenders lack when it comes to assessing the creditworthiness of the poor. And yet establishing credit not only allows individual families and communities to grow wealth, but also allows our economy to do so. Everyone benefits.

There is, of course, a certain irony in the post office, cash-strapped and maxed out on credit, looking to elbow in on the business of check-cashing and payday-loan storefronts. And while the U.S.P.S. white paper stresses that its own offerings, rates and fees would be “more affordable,” a note of alarm is raised when it highlights the potential bonanza that providing financial services to the financially underserved could yield, stating that the result could be “major new revenue for the Postal Service” estimated at $8.9 billion a year. It’s a plan that could indeed save the post office, which last year recorded a $1 billion operating loss.

In this potential transaction between an institution and a population that are both in need, it would be wise to look back a century ago, at the last time a similar experiment was conducted. In 1913, the chief post office inspector, Carter Keene, declared that the postal savings system was not meant to yield a profit: “Its aim is infinitely higher and more important. Its mission is to encourage thrift and economy among all classes of citizens.” Any benefit to the post office’s bottom line should not come at the expense of those who can least afford it.


Mehrsa Baradaran is an assistant professor of law

at the University of Georgia, specializing in banking regulation.


A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 8, 2014,

on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline:

The Post Office Banks on the Poor.

    The Post Office Banks on the Poor, NYT, 7.2.2014,






The Gun Report, 1 Year Later


FEB. 3, 2014
The New York Times


It has been a year since my assistant, Jennifer Mascia, and I started publishing The Gun Report, an effort to use my blog to aggregate daily gun violence in America. Our methodology is pretty simple: We do a Google News search each weekday morning for the previous day’s shootings and then list them. Most days, we have been finding between 20 and 30 shootings; on Mondays, when we also add the weekend’s violence, the number is usually well over 100.

From the start, we knew we were missing a lot more incidents than we found. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after all, says that nearly 32,000 people are killed by guns each year. Slate, the online magazine, which tried to tally every gun death in the year after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., arrived at a number of 12,042, far higher than ours. (We include gun injuries as well as gun deaths.)

Part of the issue, as Slate has noted, is that it is impossible to track suicides using news media accounts — and suicides, according to the C.D.C., account for some 60 percent of gun deaths. But it was also obvious that a Google News search was bound to miss plenty of examples; that’s just the nature of the beast. Comprehensiveness was never really the point, though. Mostly we were trying to get a feel for the scale and scope of gun violence in America. A year later, it seems like a good time to take stock.

First, the biggest surprise, especially early on, was how frequently either a child accidentally shot another child — using a loaded gun that happened to be lying around — or an adult accidentally shot a child while handling a loaded gun. I have written about this before, mainly because these incidents seem so preventable. Gun owners simply need to keep their guns locked away. Indeed, one pro-gun reader, Malcolm Smith, told me that after reading “about the death toll, especially to children” in The Gun Report, he had come to believe that some gun regulation was necessary. He now thinks gun owners should be licensed and “should have to learn how to store guns safely.” No doubt he’ll be drummed out of the National Rifle Association for expressing such thoughts.

Second, the N.R.A. shibboleth that having a gun in one’s house makes you safer is demonstrably untrue. After The Gun Report had been up and running for a while, several Second Amendment advocates complained that we rarely published items that showed how guns were used to prevent a crime. The reason was not that we were biased against crime prevention; it was that it didn’t happen very often. (When we found such examples, we put them in The Gun Report.) More to the point, there are an increasing number of gun deaths that are the result of an argument — often fueled by alcohol — among friends, neighbors and family members. Sadly, cases like the recent shooting in a Florida movie theater — when one man killed someone who was texting during the previews — is not all that uncommon.

Third, gang shootings are everywhere. You see it in the big cities, like Chicago, Detroit and Miami, and you see it in smaller cities in economic decline like Flint, Mich., and Fort Wayne, Ind. Drive-by shootings are prevalent in California, especially Los Angeles and Fresno. As often as gang members shoot each other, they kill innocent victims, often children who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Among the readers who post daily comments to The Gun Report are a number of gun rights advocates. What has been astonishing to me is the degree to which they tend to dismiss inner-city violence, as if to say that such killings are unavoidable. The code word they often use is “demographics.”

It is unquestionably true that the most gun homicides occur in the inner cities — the anecdotes we collect in The Gun Report are confirmed by such studies as a May 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. And, yes, plenty of them are the result of gang violence. But why should that make them any less lamentable, or preventable?

There are an estimated 300 million guns in America, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. But to read The Gun Report is to be struck anew at the reality that most of the people who die from guns would still be alive if we just had fewer of them. The guys in the movie theater would have had a fistfight instead of a shooting. The momentary flush of anger would pass. The suicidal person might have taken a pause if taking one’s life were more difficult. And on, and on. The idea that guns, on balance, save lives — which is one of the most common sentiments expressed in the pro-gun comments posted to The Gun Report — is ludicrous.

On the contrary: The clearest message The Gun Report sends is the most obvious. Guns make killing way too easy.


A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 4, 2014,

on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline:

The Gun Report, 1 Year Later.

    The Gun Report, 1 Year Later, NYT, 3.2.2014,






Congress’s Temerity on Gun Safety


December 22, 2013
The New York Times


Despite lawmakers’ copious sympathy for the 26 victims of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, all members of Congress were able to manage in the way of gun safety as they left town was renewal of the ban on the manufacture of plastic firearms. This is a type of arcane weapon that figured not at all in the Sandy Hook Elementary School rampage in 2012, nor in the mass shootings featuring adapted weapons of war that have occurred on average every two weeks somewhere in America.

The measure is needed because guns made of plastic could render metal gun detectors ineffective. But it does nothing to control metal guns, and little to confront the awful challenge of Newtown and the nation’s ongoing history of gun carnage. In a politically safe gesture, both the House and the Senate voted by voice so members could duck individual accountability.

The process was a sad reminder of this Congress’s determined avoidance of meaningful laws controlling the lethal (metal) weapons regularly scourging the land.

An analysis of mass killings by USA Today found that the youngsters murdered in Newtown in rapid sprays of rifle fire were not alone. Nearly one-third of the victims of mass killings since 2006 have been children younger than 18 — 363 of them shot dead at an average age of 8 years old.

The grieving parents of Newtown were armed with facts like these when they visited Congress last summer to plead for gun safety. Their ghastly losses repeatedly drew tears from lawmakers but no determined action. Congress’s failure is part of the tragedy of Newtown.

    Congress’s Temerity on Gun Safety, NYT, 22.12.2013,






The Killer Who Supports Gun Control


December 14, 2013
The New York Times


A YEAR ago, America was shocked by the murder of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But momentum to take action has faded, and we still lose that many lives to gun violence every eight hours on average.

The price of our gun policy can be seen in this breathtaking statistic: More Americans have died from guns here in the United States since 1970 (nearly 1.4 million) than American soldiers have died in all the wars in our country’s history over more than 200 years (about 1.2 million).

Those gun killings have been committed by people like John Lennon (his real name, but no relation to the Beatles star), who, in 2001, used an assault rifle to shoot an acquaintance dead in a quarrel over drugs. Lennon is now locked up at Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, N.Y., and he underscores that while people kill people, so do guns.

“I do take responsibility for the murder; I’m sorry for taking his life, and all the life he could have had,” Lennon writes in an essay that he sent me out of the blue and that I’ve published on my blog. “But without a gun, I would not have killed.”

Lennon says that only “that perfect killing machine” of a gun assured that the murder would succeed.

“Could I have stabbed him?” he adds. “Strangled him? Bludgeoned him? If I had done so and he hadn’t died, why would that have made me less culpable than I am now, a man who swiftly and cowardly shot another man to death? A killer nonetheless, I hash these things out, in my head, in my cell, in Attica serving 28 years to life.”

Lennon does not deny that people will still try to kill each other without guns. Indeed, he knows that firsthand, for he writes about being the target of a revenge attack:

“He sneaked upon me in the prison yard like I sneaked upon his friend in a Brooklyn street. When I turned, I saw his arm swing for my neck. I weaved. Then I felt the piercing blows, as he gripped my shirt and dug into my side. Pressured by the blood-thirsty crowd, he stabbed me six times because I shot his friend to death. The ice pick didn’t do the job, though. He got away with it because we were in a blind spot of the yard, and I never told on him. Prison ethics. While my assailant’s intent was clear, the weapon he had access to was insufficient. Therefore I lived.”

“It’s clear that the only reason I’m alive is because my assailant didn’t have his weapon of choice,” he adds. “Can you imagine if we had access to guns in prison?”

Lennon says that he has been tempted to commit suicide but that hanging himself — the best option in prison — is grim and difficult. So he settles for living. Indeed, he notes the irony that it is only because he is in a safe refuge without guns that he has not been murdered or killed himself; at large, he believes he would be dead.

In quoting a murderer and publishing an essay by him on my blog, I’m not diminishing his crime or romanticizing it. But Lennon speaks a blunt truth that Washington politicians too often avoid.

“I’m all for the market system,” Lennon says, “but when the products are killing machines, why shouldn’t we tighten measures to keep guns out of the hands of people like me?”

He’s right. Take cars, which are also potentially lethal instruments ubiquitous in America. We’ve undertaken a remarkable half-century effort to make automobiles far, far safer — and that is precisely the model for what we should do with guns. We’ve introduced seat belts, air bags, prominent brake lights and padded dashboards. We’ve cracked down on drunken drivers, improved road layouts and railings, introduced graduated licenses for young drivers and required insurance for drivers.

The upshot is that we have reduced the vehicle fatality rate per 100 million miles driven by more than 80 percent — so that firearms now claim more American lives each year than vehicles.

We need to approach gun safety in the same meticulous way we approach safety in motor vehicles and so many other aspects of life: It’s ridiculous that a cellphone can require a code to use, but a gun doesn’t.

One of the heroes at Sandy Hook was Victoria Soto, a 27-year-old teacher who was killed while trying to hide and protect her students. It would be nice if Washington could show a fraction of that courage, but instead, on this issue of guns, politicians display paralysis and fecklessness. So, as Lennon writes, and he should know: “we parade through life to the relentless drumbeat of death.”

    The Killer Who Supports Gun Control, NYT, 14.12.2013,






Five Killings in New York

End a Lull in Murders


October 19, 2013
The New York Times


After a seven-day stretch in which no homicides were recorded in New York City, five occurred in 10 hours on Friday and Saturday.

Three killings occurred in the Bronx, and two in Brooklyn. As of Saturday evening, no arrests had been made.

Despite the five homicides, the number of killings this year is down over 25 percent compared with 2012. And last year, the city recorded its lowest annual homicide total, 419, in at least half a century.

The first killing occurred at 6 p.m. on Friday in the South Bronx. Two friends were standing in front of 680 Tinton Avenue near the John Adams Houses when a gunman opened fire, the police said. Tyrek Singleton, 28, of the Bronx was shot in the torso and pronounced dead at Lincoln Medical Center.

His 26-year-old friend, who was not immediately identified, was shot in the leg. He told investigators he did not know the gunman, the police said.

Two and a half hours later, two men were shot in the chest and killed in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the police said. The men were identified as Tevin Beckles, 21, and Randolph Williams, 37, both of Brooklyn. The police said Mr. Williams had 52 arrests, most of them drug-related.

At 2:15 a.m. on Saturday, police officers found Pablo Pagan, 40, dead with a gunshot wound to the head close to his home in the Arthur H. Murphy Houses on Vyse Avenue in the Bronx.

About three miles away and two hours later, police officers discovered Marco Castillo, 24, with a gunshot wound to the chest. Mr. Castillo was pronounced dead at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx.

The police said that Mr. Castillo was walking on Westchester Avenue when two men approached and one started a physical fight with him. When the man began to lose, the other man shot Mr. Castillo in the head and torso.


Emma G. Fitzsimmons contributed reporting.

    Five Killings in New York End a Lull in Murders, NYT, 19.10.2013,






Getting Older, Growing Poorer


October 5, 2013
The New York Times


The basic outlines of poverty in America are sadly familiar. At last count, 46.5 million people were poor — 15 percent of the population. Women and children, especially in single-mother families, were, as always, hit hardest.

Another group, people 65 and older, now seems vulnerable as well. In analyzing the recent Census Bureau report on poverty, researchers at the National Women’s Law Center found that from 2011 to 2012, the rate of extreme poverty rose by a statistically significant amount among those 65 and older, meaning that a growing number of them were living at or below 50 percent of the poverty line. In 2012, this was $11,011 a year for an older person living alone.

An additional 135,000 older women became extremely poor in 2012, raising the extreme-poverty rate in that group to 3.1 percent, And 100,000 older men were extremely poor in 2012, raising the extreme-poverty rate in that group to 2.3 percent In all, nearly 1.2 million people age 65 and up were classified as extremely poor in 2012.

The increase in extreme poverty requires utmost attention. For the most part, Social Security has protected older Americans from poverty. In cases where older people are poor, the afflicted often have been very old women, who have long outlived their spouses and any nest egg.

In the law center’s research, however, the increase in extreme poverty was concentrated in the 65-to-75 age group. Some of them could be among the long-term unemployed, whose jobless benefits have been cut or run out. Or they might be people who would generally qualify for public assistance in addition to Social Security but are having trouble getting those benefits in the face of administrative cutbacks at the state and federal levels.

The numbers alone don’t say why extreme poverty has risen or whether the rise will be lasting or fleeting. But other data echo the law center’s findings. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which tracks a larger sample than in its poverty report, shows an increase in poverty among those 65 and older, from 9.0 percent in 2010 to 9.3 percent in 2011 and 9.5 percent in 2012. That is not a record; poverty rates for that group have reached 9.9 percent

But it would be devastating if recent increases became a growing trend. For now, the best policy response is to do no harm. For example, budget proposals to cut Social Security’s cost-of-living benefit, ill advised in any case, would be especially unwise and untimely.

    Getting Older, Growing Poorer, NYT, 5.10.2013,






The annual toll from firearms in the US

is running at 32,000 deaths and climbing,

even though the general crime rate is on a downward path

(it is 40% lower than in 1980).







The Mismeasure of Poverty


September 17, 2013
The New York Times


THE Census Bureau reported yesterday that the poverty rate in America held stable between 2011 and 2012, at about 15 percent. According to the official measure, poverty today is higher than it was in 1973, when it reached a historical low of 11.1 percent.

To many, this dismaying fact suggests that taxpayers waste billions of dollars a year fighting a war on poverty that has been largely lost. As Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, said earlier this year, “We have spent $15 trillion from the federal government fighting poverty, and look at where we are, the highest poverty rates in a generation, 15 percent of Americans in poverty.”

But this position is wrong, for two reasons. The first is that the official measure is misleading — it measures only cash income, and it does not count benefits from many programs that help the poor. If they were counted, the rate would be closer to 11 percent.

Consider the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, which was first put into nationwide use in the 1960s. The immediate benefits are easy to calculate: a dollar of SNAP subsidies spent on food frees up a dollar for low-income families to spend on rent, utilities or other needs. When SNAP benefits are counted as income, they lift almost four million people above the poverty line.

And SNAP benefits not only reduce food insecurity and poverty this year; they also reduce poverty in the next generation. Recent research that tracked children into adulthood found that families’ access to food stamps improved their infants’ health and birth weight. Children who benefited from the program later posted better health, higher educational attainment, less heart disease and, for women, greater earnings and less reliance on welfare as adults.

The earned-income tax credit is also ignored in calculating the poverty rate. Yet this program offers working low-income families with children about $3,000 a year. When these tax refunds are counted, they reduce the number of people in poverty by about 5.5 million people.

Social Security benefits are counted in the official measure, but their large antipoverty effect receives little attention. Without these benefits, the elderly poverty rate would have been more than 44 percent, instead of the actual rate of less than 9 percent.

The next time critics of the safety net claim that we fought a war on poverty and poverty won, remind them that without these and other programs, poverty would be much higher.

But, says the critic, if all these programs have such broad effects, why has the poverty rate stayed so frustratingly stable? That’s the second flaw in the conventional wisdom.

All things being equal, such programs, whether we count them or not, should have reduced the official poverty rate across generations. But all things have not been equal. Although these programs help the poor, poverty remains high because inequality of economic outcomes has increased sharply since the 1970s.

Before income inequality took off, the poverty rate fell more rapidly with G.D.P. growth. But while the economy grew by 2.8 percent in 2012 and corporate profits went up as a share of national income, the earnings of full-time workers, median household income and the poverty rate barely changed.

Antipoverty programs do help, but their recipients don’t move forward because they no longer benefit much from that other great poverty-ameliorating factor, economic growth.

That’s not to say that growth is no longer necessary for reducing poverty. But in our gilded age of inequality, growth alone is insufficient.

A few changes would make a difference. First, a poverty measure that incorporated all anti-poverty policies would show that the safety net is more effective than critics say, and would show how painful cuts to those programs could be.

In fact, the Census Bureau has already developed a supplemental measure that reveals the importance of these programs to low-income families. But when it is released next month, it will receive far less attention than the official rate from policy makers and the press.

Second, more benefits from growth must reach the poor, and the best way to do that is through matching robust antipoverty measures with policies that lower the unemployment rate and increase wages. During the full employment years of the late 1990s, even low wages rose in step with productivity, and poverty fell more sharply than it had in a generation. A minimum-wage increase helped then, and an increase now would help again.

Lowering poverty means both recognizing the successes of safety net programs we now have and devising new policies that can spread the gains generated by economic growth. If we don’t, then we will continue to face poverty rates that are unacceptably high, and wonder why we can’t do anything about them.


Sheldon H. Danziger

is the president of the Russell Sage Foundation

and a co-editor of “Legacies of the War on Poverty.”

    The Mismeasure of Poverty, NYT, 17.9.2013,






Radical Life Extension


August 7, 2013
The New York Times


The United States — and indeed the world — is straining under the weight of an aging population, and that strain is only expected to grow.

Life expectancy at birth in this country at the turn of the 20th century was nearly 50 years. According to the United States Census Bureau, it’s now over 78. And by 2050, it’ll be over 80. Others estimate it could be even higher.

A 2009 report by the MacArthur Research Network on an Aging Society estimated that by 2050 “life expectancy for females will rise to 89.2-93.3 years and to 83.2-85.9 years for males.”

One of the authors of the study, S. Jay Olshansky, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said at the time: “The economic implications for the U.S. economy are huge. We estimated we would be spending $3.2 to $8.3 trillion more in today’s dollars than currently projected.”

The Census Bureau projects that the number of Americans over 65 will more than double by 2060.

And this top-heavy population pyramid may only become more warped. A 2009 study published in The Lancet predicts that more than half of babies born in 2000 in “countries with long life expectancies” will live past 100 years old.

All of this raises tricky economic and ethical questions about how a society survives and prospers when so many of its citizens are beyond what we currently conceive as working-age, and live longer in the twilight, when disease ravages the mind and body, and people are more likely to be dependent than independent.

For instance, think of the raging debates we are now having about entitlements in light of a rapidly aging population. How can they be shored up? Can they survive as currently constructed?

Think of the pension problems that cities like Detroit are experiencing. Will those pension liabilities become even more unsustainable as more people grow older?

Having examined Americans’ feelings about living substantially longer lives, the Pew Research Center released a report on Tuesday titled “Living to 120 and Beyond: Americans’ View on Aging, Medical Advances and Radical Life Extension.”

Most Americans hadn’t heard of radical life extension, but as the report explained, it’s the prospect — raised by scientists, bioethicists and other experts — “that advances in biotechnology and other fields could slow down or turn back the biological clock and allow many humans to live to 120 years or beyond.”

When asked if they’d like to live to be 120, most Americans said no, but most said that their ideal life span was between 79 and 100 years old, higher than the current average life expectancy.

Half thought treatments allowing people to live to be 120 would be bad for society, while 4 in 10 thought they would be good. Two-thirds thought that the treatments prolonging life would strain natural resources.

But aside from the economic and scarcity issues, there are ethical and theological issues.

Pew points out that longer life spans could have real effects on relationships and family structures, calling into question how and when people considered marriage and childbearing and care for the elderly.

And as they explain: “There are many ethical issues, too. At a very basic level, some fear life extension could fundamentally alter people’s sense of what it means to be human — and not for the better.”

How do people value life when death is increasingly delayed?

Before Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he led a theological commission that wrote: “Disposing of death is in reality the most radical way of disposing of life.”

That’s one religious view, although there are many others.

The point is that we are living longer and our life expectancies are predicted to keep rising. This presents real challenges for us as a society and an economy.

    Radical Life Extension, NYT, 7.8.2013,






Fast-Food Fight


August 7, 2013
The New York Times


The fast-food workers who have been walking off their jobs illustrate a central fact of contemporary work life in America: As lower-wage occupations have proliferated in the past several years, Americans are increasingly unable to make a living at their jobs. They work harder and are paid less than workers in other advanced countries. And their wages have stagnated even as executive pay has soared.

As measured by the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour, low-paid work in America is lower paid today than at any time in modern memory. If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation or average wages over the past nearly 50 years, it would be about $10 an hour; if it had kept pace with the growth in average labor productivity, it would be about $17 an hour.

In contrast, the median hourly pay of fast-food workers — most of whom are in their 20s or older and many of whom are parents — is less than $9 for front-line workers and just above $9 when shift supervisors are included. Not surprising, the strikers demanded better pay — $15 an hour — and the right to organize without retaliation.

Also not surprising, they have been motivated to act by the inaction of the nation’s leaders. Republicans are against a higher minimum wage, and Democrats are too timid. Legislation proposed by Congressional Democrats would raise the hourly minimum to $10.10 over nearly two-and-a-half years from the date of enactment. President Obama has proposed a similarly gradual increase to $9 an hour. Congress and the White House also squandered a chance to try to improve workers’ earnings prospects when they let right-to-organize legislation die years ago.

Activism among fast-food workers is almost certain to continue and is likely to spread to other underpaid workers. Most of the jobs lost during the recession were midwage jobs, while most of the new jobs have been lower paying. In addition to food-service jobs, big growth areas today include home care and retail sales, with median hourly wages of roughly $10 and $11, respectively. According to the Labor Department, six of the 10 occupations that are projected to add the most jobs by 2020 pay wages at the lower end of the scale.

At some point, as strikes continue, well-paid executives in low-wage industries will have to confront the fact that low worker pay is at odds with their companies’ upbeat corporate images and their self-images as top executives. (The chief executives of McDonald’s and Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, are among the nation’s highest-paid corporate leaders.)

Political leaders will likewise have to confront their own failures. The strikers did not ask for Washington’s help, but there is a lot that Congress and the Obama administration could do. In addition to raising the minimum wage, there needs to be more enforcement of fair labor laws, including crackdowns on employers that misclassify employees as salaried workers, independent contractors or interns in order to deny them overtime, benefits or other pay. It would help, too, for Congress to end the foot-dragging around implementation of a law passed years ago requiring disclosure of the ratio of chief executive pay to that of a company’s work force.

The Great Recession and the slow recovery have reinforced trends toward inequality and inadequate pay that were evident even before the last downturn. Fast-food workers are fighting back, in just cause.

    Fast-Food Fight, NYT, 7.8.2013,





U.S. Prison Populations Decline,

Reflecting New Approach to Crime


July 25, 2013
The New York Times


The prison population in the United States dropped in 2012 for the third consecutive year, according to federal statistics released on Thursday, in what criminal justice experts said was the biggest decline in the nation’s recent history, signaling a shift away from an almost four-decade policy of mass imprisonment.

The number of inmates in state and federal prisons decreased by 1.7 percent, to an estimated 1,571,013 in 2012 from 1,598,783 in 2011, according to figures released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the Justice Department. Although the percentage decline appeared small, the fact that it followed decreases in 2011 and 2010 offers persuasive evidence of what some experts say is a “sea change” in America’s approach to criminal punishment.

“This is the beginning of the end of mass incarceration,” said Natasha Frost, associate dean of Northeastern University’s school of criminology and criminal justice.

About half the 2012 decline — 15,035 prisoners — occurred in California, which has decreased its prison population in response to a Supreme Court order to relieve prison overcrowding. But eight other states, including New York, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, showed substantial decreases, of more than 1,000 inmates, and more than half the states reported some drop in the number of prisoners. (Figures for three states were estimated because they had not submitted data in time for the report.) The population of federal prisons increased slightly, but at a slower rate than in previous years, the report found.

Imprisonment rates in the United States have been on an upward march since the early 1970s. From 1978, when there were 307,276 inmates in state and federal prisons, the population increased annually, reaching a peak of 1,615,487 inmates in 2009.

But in recent years, tightened state budgets, plummeting crime rates, changes in sentencing laws and shifts in public opinion have combined to reverse the trend. Experts on prison policy said that the continuing decline appears to be more than a random fluctuation.

“A year or even two years is a blip and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but three years starts to look like a trend,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research group based in Washington. But he said that the rate of inmates incarcerated in the United States continued to be “dramatically higher” than in other countries and that the changes so far were “relatively modest compared to the scale of the problem.”

Most observers agree that the recession has played a role in shrinking prison populations. In 2011 and 2012, at least 17 states closed or were considering closing prisons partly for budgetary reasons, representing a reduction of 28,525 beds, according to a report by the Sentencing Project published last year.

But Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project, said that while fiscal concerns might have led to the turnaround in some states, the need to cut budgets had not been the deciding factor.

“They’re not simply pinching pennies,” Mr. Gelb said. “Policy makers are not holding their noses and saying we have to scale back prisons to save money. The states that are showing drops are states that are thinking about how they can apply research-based alternatives that work better and cost less.”

Changes in state and federal sentencing laws for lower-level offenses like those involving drugs have played a central role in the shift, he and others said, with many states setting up diversion programs for offenders as an alternative to prison. And some states have softened their policies on parole, no longer automatically sending people back to prison for parole violations.

But changing public attitudes are also a major driver behind the declining prison numbers. Dropping crime rates over the last 20 years have reduced public fears and diminished the interest of politicians in running tough-on-crime campaigns. And public polls consistently show that Americans are now more interested in spending money on education and health care than on building more prisons.

“People don’t care so much about crime, and it’s less of a political focus,” said Professor Frost, who is a co-author of a forthcoming book, “The Punishment Imperative.”

The result has been an unusual bipartisan effort to reduce the nation’s reliance on prisons, with groups like Right on Crime, devoted to what it calls the “conservative case for reform,” pushing for lower-cost and less punitive solutions than incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

Marc Levin, senior policy adviser for Right on Crime, described the change in conservatives’ position on parole violators: It used to be “Trail ’em, nail ’em and jail ’em,” he said, “but there’s been a move to say, ‘Yes, there’s a surveillance function, but we also want them to succeed.’ ”

Some of the most substantial prison reductions have taken place in conservative states like Texas, which reduced the number of inmates in its prisons by more than 5,000 in 2012. In 2007, when the state faced a lack of 17,000 beds for inmates, the State Legislature decided to change its approach to parole violations and provide drug treatment for nonviolent offenders instead of building more prisons.

In Arkansas, which reduced its prison population by just over 14,000 inmates in 2012, legislators in 2011 also passed a package of laws softening sentencing guidelines for low-level offenders and steering them to diversion programs.

“It’s a great example of a state that made some deliberate policy choices to say we can actually reduce recidivism and cut our prison group at the same time,” Mr. Gelb said.

Joan Petersilia, a law professor at Stanford and a co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, said in an interview last year that she thought Americans had “gotten the message that locking up a lot of people doesn’t necessarily bring public safety.” California’s example, she said, has also spurred other states to consider downsizing for fear of facing similar litigation.

But Professor Petersilia added that though the trend may have begun out of a need for belt-tightening, it had grown into a national effort to rethink who should go to prison and for how long.

“I don’t think in modern history we’ve seen anything like this,” she said.

    U.S. Prison Populations Decline, Reflecting New Approach to Crime,
    NYT, 25.7.2013,






All the Lonely People


May 18, 2013
The New York Times


OVER the last decade, the United States has become a less violent country in every way save one. As Americans commit fewer and fewer crimes against other people’s lives and property, they have become more likely to inflict fatal violence on themselves.

In the 1990s, the suicide rate dipped with the crime rate. But since 2000, it has risen, and jumped particularly sharply among the middle-aged. The suicide rate for Americans 35 to 54 increased nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2010; for men in their 50s, it rose nearly 50 percent. More Americans now die of suicide than in car accidents, and gun suicides are almost twice as common as gun homicides.

This trend is striking without necessarily being surprising. As the University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox pointed out recently, there’s a strong link between suicide and weakened social ties: people — and especially men — become more likely to kill themselves “when they get disconnected from society’s core institutions (e.g., marriage, religion) or when their economic prospects take a dive (e.g., unemployment).” That’s exactly what we’ve seen happen lately among the middle-aged male population, whose suicide rates have climbed the fastest: a retreat from family obligations, from civic and religious participation, and from full-time paying work.

The hard question facing 21st-century America is whether this retreat from community can reverse itself, or whether an aging society dealing with structural unemployment and declining birth and marriage rates is simply destined to leave more people disconnected, anxious and alone.

Right now, the pessimistic scenario seems more plausible. In an essay for The New Republic about the consequences of loneliness for public health, Judith Shulevitz reports that one in three Americans over 45 identifies as chronically lonely, up from just one in five a decade ago. “With baby boomers reaching retirement age at a rate of 10,000 a day,” she notes, “the number of lonely Americans will surely spike.”

There are public and private ways to manage this loneliness epidemic — through social workers, therapists, even pets. And the Internet, of course, promises endless forms of virtual community to replace or supplement the real.

But all of these alternatives seem destined to leave certain basic human yearnings unaddressed.

For many people, the strongest forms of community are still the traditional ones — the kind forged by shared genes, shared memory, shared geography. And neither Facebook nor a life coach nor a well-meaning bureaucracy is likely to compensate for these forms’ attenuation and decline.

This point is illustrated, richly, in one of the best books of the spring, Rod Dreher’s memoir, “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” an account of his sister’s death from cancer at the age of 42. A journalist and author, Dreher had left their small Louisiana hometown behind decades before and never imagined coming back. But watching how the rural community rallied around his sister in her crisis, and how being rooted in a specific place carried her family through its drawn-out agony, inspired him to reconsider, and return.

What makes “The Little Way” such an illuminating book, though, is that it doesn’t just uncritically celebrate the form of community that its author rediscovered in his hometown. It also explains why he left in the first place: because being a bookish kid made him a target for bullying, because his relationship with his father was oppressive, because he wasn’t as comfortable as his sister in a world of traditions, obligations, rules. Because community can imprison as well as sustain, and sometimes it needs to be escaped in order to be appreciated.

In today’s society, that escape is easier than ever before. And that’s a great gift to many people: if you don’t have much in common with your relatives and neighbors, if you’re gay or a genius (or both), if you’re simply restless and footloose, the world can feel much less lonely than it would have in the past. Our society is often kinder to differences and eccentricities than past eras, and our economy rewards extraordinary talent more richly than ever before.

The problem is that as it’s grown easier to be remarkable and unusual, it’s arguably grown harder to be ordinary. To be the kind of person who doesn’t want to write his own life script, or invent her own idiosyncratic career path. To enjoy the stability and comfort of inherited obligations and expectations, rather than constantly having to strike out on your own. To follow a “little way” rather than a path of great ambition. To be more like Ruthie Leming than her brother.

Too often, and probably increasingly, not enough Americans will have what the Lemings had — a place that knew them intimately, a community to lean on, a strong network in a time of trial.

And absent such blessings, it’s all too understandable that some people enduring suffering and loneliness would end up looking not for help or support, but for a way to end it all.


I invite you to follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/DouthatNYT.

    All the Lonely People, NYT, 18.5.2013,






For First Time on Record,

Black Voting Rate Outpaced

Rate for Whites in 2012


May 8, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The turnout rate of black voters surpassed the rate for whites for the first time on record in 2012, as more black voters went to the polls than in 2008 and fewer whites did, according to a Census Bureau report released Wednesday.

The survey also found that Hispanics and Asians continue to turn out at much lower rates than other groups, and that women turn out at higher rates than men. The increase in black turnout was driven in significant part by more votes from black women.

According to the Census report, 66.2 percent of eligible blacks voted in the 2012 election, compared with 64.1 percent of eligible non-Hispanic whites. An estimated two million fewer white Americans voted in 2012 than in 2008, just as about 1.8 million more blacks went to the polls, more than 90 percent of them voting to re-elect President Obama, exit polls showed.

“In 2008, we changed the guard. In 2012, we guard the change,” said Michael Blake, who ran the Obama campaign’s effort to reach out to black and minority voters, Operation Vote.

The overall turnout rate nationwide was 61.8 percent in 2012, a decline from 63.6 percent four years earlier. Researchers cautioned that their estimates might overstate how many people voted across all categories, because they are based on surveys in which people were asked whether they had voted — a “socially desirable” activity.

Some researchers cautioned against treating 2012 as a watershed moment for the black vote. For example, Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University — using the same data but with a slightly different calculation — determined that black voters first turned out at a higher rate than whites in 2008.

The increase in black turnout seemed to stem from both energized voters and a successful voter-mobilization effort by the Obama campaign and civil rights groups. Many black voters were motivated not only to protect the president, political organizers said, but also to demonstrate their own right to vote.

In several states, Republican legislators tried to increase voter-ID requirements, limit voting times and make registration more difficult, efforts that civil rights groups aggressively opposed.

“We are accustomed to people trying to deny us things, and I think sometimes you wake the sleeping giant, and that’s what happened here,” said Marvin Randolph, the N.A.A.C.P.’s senior vice president for campaigns.

Mr. Randolph cited an Obama campaign memo boasting that the black early vote was up by at least 17 percent in a series of battleground states that offered the option, including Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Colorado and North Carolina. “They stood in line so they wouldn’t get their vote denied,” Mr. Randolph added.

But geographic figures also suggest that black voters flocked to the polls even with little nudging from political organizers. Among the states where blacks had the highest turnout rates relative to whites were Republican bastions where neither campaign devoted many resources, like Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Thom File, the Census report’s author, said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, “Blacks for the first time in 2012 actually voted at rates higher than their eligibility would indicate.”

It remains unclear how lasting the increase in black turnout will be. Mr. Randolph acknowledged that 2016, when a black candidate may not be at the top of the ticket, would present more of a test.

Dan Pfeiffer, a top adviser to Mr. Obama, said in a Twitter message that it was “not written in stone” that the next Democratic nominee would generate the same enthusiasm, calling it a challenge for 2016 and beyond.

Democrats also face the challenge of raising turnout among Latino and Asian-American voters, both of whom voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama, while also holding on to their support as Republicans woo them.

For Republicans, the new data showed that the newly diverse electorate of recent years is likely to become only more so. In 2012, 73.7 percent of voters were white, according to the census, down from 82.5 percent in 1996.

The key to increasing Hispanics’ share of the vote is “closing the registration gap,” said Clarissa Martinez, director of civic engagement and immigration for NCLR, a Latino organization also known as the National Council of La Raza. The study, which showed that fewer than half of eligible Latinos voted in 2012, foreshadows their “tremendous additional potential,” Ms. Martinez said.

The study also found a significant gender gap, with women voting at a rate 4 percentage points higher than men. Among blacks, the gap was 9 percentage points.

    For First Time on Record, Black Voting Rate Outpaced Rate for Whites in 2012,
    NYT, 8.5.2013,






A Stunning Error in Mississippi


May 6, 2013
5:39 pm
The New York Times


Mississippi is scheduled to execute Willie Manning on Tuesday for his 1994 conviction for two murders. Mr. Manning is seeking DNA testing of hair, fingernail scrapings and other evidence connected to the crimes. His lawyers argue that no physical evidence links him to the crimes and that DNA testing could prove him innocent and identify another killer.

But last week, by 5-4, the Mississippi Supreme Court approved the state’s motion to proceed with the execution, having denied Mr. Manning’s motion for DNA testing last month by the same vote.

Since 1989 in the United States, there have been 306 people exonerated by DNA evidence after they were convicted, 18 on death row. In seven previous cases, DNA testing has exonerated men convicted and imprisoned in Mississippi. In each case, the killer left DNA at the crime scene.

Last week, the Justice Department provided extraordinary grounds for the state to allow DNA testing in the Manning case. In a letter to the prosecution and defense, the department said that testimony of an F.B.I. analyst who was a key prosecution witness “exceeded the limits of the science and was, therefore, invalid.”

That analyst testified that he could match a hair found at the crime scene to an individual with “a relatively high degree of certainty” and that the hair fragments collected from a victim’s car “came from an individual of the black race.” The Justice Department concluded that it was “error for an examiner to testify that he can determine that the questioned hairs were from an individual of a particular racial group.”

The F.B.I. has now offered to do the DNA testing requested by Mr. Manning, who is black. One dissenting opinion from the Mississippi Supreme Court said, “In asking the jury to convict Manning, an African American, of the murder of two white students, the prosecution seems to have placed great emphasis on the fact that hair samples, originating from an African American” were found in the car. The prosecution, however, did not connect the hair to Mr. Manning. Clearly, the Justice Department’s letter makes the emphasis placed on the hair samples deeply problematic.

Mr. Manning’s lawyers went back to the Mississippi Supreme Court on Monday to ask that the court stay his execution and set aside his convictions based on the Justice Department’s acknowledgment that the F.B.I. analyst’s testimony was false. That new evidence is crucial and stunning. The court should stay the execution and let the DNA testing go forward, but if it does not, then Gov. Phil Bryant must do that.

The whole case underscores the often racially discriminatory application of the death penalty in cases where the victims are white and the defendants are black, one of many reasons that capital punishment should be abolished.

    A Stunning Error in Mississippi, NYT, 6.5.2013,






Jobs, Wages and the Sequester


May 3, 2013
The New York Times


The employment report released on Friday showed some economic resilience. Job growth for March was revised upward to 138,000 new jobs, while the tally for April, at 165,000 jobs, was stronger still.

But both tallies represent a big drop from February, which showed a healthy gain of 332,000 jobs. One interpretation is that the sequester-induced economic headwinds that began in March are hurting job growth, which might otherwise have taken off this year. Seen in that light, the April report portends elevated joblessness and low wages for at least as long as the sequester lasts, and possibly longer, depending on the extent of the economic damage from the self-inflicted austerity.

At the average pace of job growth this year, it would take more than five years to return to the prerecession unemployment rate of 5 percent. It is doubtful that even the current pace can be sustained. The length of the average workweek dropped in April, to 34.4 hours, a sign that there is less work in the economy. That measure very likely overstates the demand for workers, because it includes only private-sector workers and does not capture the reduction in work hours for government workers furloughed because of the sequester. Another sign of weak labor demand is the increase in April, by 278,000, of the number of part-time workers who want full-time work.

New jobs are being added in low-wage fields typically filled by women — in restaurants and bars, retailers, temporary help services and home health care. In manufacturing and construction, typically higher-paying jobs filled by men, there was either no job growth or job losses. The biggest losses were in generally stable and decent-paying government jobs, with 11,000 positions shed in April, a chunk of them related to the sequester. Over all, the numbers suggest continued deep strains on families, even those whose breadwinners are employed.

For the 11.7 million who are unemployed — and especially the 4.4 million who have been out of work for more than six months — the picture is even bleaker. So far, 18 states have made cuts under the sequester to federal unemployment benefits, taking $39 a week on average from the typical benefit of about $300. That hurts those directly affected, but it also reduces demand in the economy. The likely result from these and other sequester cuts is job and wage stagnation.

    Jobs, Wages and the Sequester, NYT, 3.5.2013,






Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in U.S.


May 2, 2013
The New York Times


Suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade, prompting concern that a generation of baby boomers who have faced years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers may be particularly vulnerable to self-inflicted harm.

More people now die of suicide than in car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which published the findings in Friday’s issue of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In 2010 there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and 38,364 suicides.

Suicide has typically been viewed as a problem of teenagers and the elderly, and the surge in suicide rates among middle-aged Americans is surprising.

From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7. Although suicide rates are growing among both middle-aged men and women, far more men take their own lives. The suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.

The most pronounced increases were seen among men in their 50s, a group in which suicide rates jumped by nearly 50 percent, to about 30 per 100,000. For women, the largest increase was seen in those ages 60 to 64, among whom rates increased by nearly 60 percent, to 7.0 per 100,000.

Suicide rates can be difficult to interpret because of variations in the way local officials report causes of death. But C.D.C. and academic researchers said they were confident that the data documented an actual increase in deaths by suicide and not a statistical anomaly. While reporting of suicides is not always consistent around the country, the current numbers are, if anything, too low.

“It’s vastly underreported,” said Julie Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has published research on rising suicide rates. “We know we’re not counting all suicides.”

The reasons for suicide are often complex, and officials and researchers acknowledge that no one can explain with certainty what is behind the rise. But C.D.C. officials cited a number of possible explanations, including that as adolescents people in this generation also posted higher rates of suicide compared with other cohorts.

“It is the baby boomer group where we see the highest rates of suicide,” said the C.D.C.’s deputy director, Ileana Arias. “There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference.”

The rise in suicides may also stem from the economic downturn over the past decade. Historically, suicide rates rise during times of financial stress and economic setbacks. “The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period,” Dr. Arias said.

Another factor may be the widespread availability of opioid drugs like OxyContin and oxycodone, which can be particularly deadly in large doses.

Although most suicides are still committed using firearms, officials said there was a marked increase in poisoning deaths, which include intentional overdoses of prescription drugs, and hangings. Poisoning deaths were up 24 percent over all during the 10-year period and hangings were up 81 percent.

Dr. Arias noted that the higher suicide rates might be due to a series of life and financial circumstances that are unique to the baby boomer generation. Men and women in that age group are often coping with the stress of caring for aging parents while still providing financial and emotional support to adult children.

“Their lives are configured a little differently than it has been in the past for that age group,” Dr. Arias said. “It may not be that they are more sensitive or that they have a predisposition to suicide, but that they may be dealing with more.”

Preliminary research at Rutgers suggests that the risk for suicide is unlikely to abate for future generations. Changes in marriage, social isolation and family roles mean many of the pressures faced by baby boomers will continue in the next generation, Dr. Phillips said.

“The boomers had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way,” she said. “All these conditions the boomers are facing, future cohorts are going to be facing many of these conditions as well.”

Nancy Berliner, a Boston historian, lost her 58-year-old husband to suicide nearly two years ago. She said that while the reasons for his suicide were complex, she would like to see more attention paid to prevention and support for family members who lose someone to suicide.

“One suicide can inspire other people, unfortunately, to view suicide as an option,” Ms. Berliner said. “It’s important that society becomes more comfortable with discussing it. Then the people left behind will not have this stigma.”

    Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in U.S., NYT, 2.5.2013,






The Senate Fails Americans


April 17, 2013
The New York Times


For 45 senators, the carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School is a forgotten tragedy. The toll of 270 Americans who are shot every day is not a problem requiring action. The easy access to guns on the Internet, and the inevitability of the next massacre, is not worth preventing.

Those senators, 41 Republicans and four Democrats, killed a bill on Wednesday to expand background checks for gun buyers. It was the last, best hope for meaningful legislation to reduce gun violence after a deranged man used semiautomatic weapons to kill 20 children and six adults at the school in Newtown, Conn., 18 weeks ago. A ban on assault weapons was voted down by 60 senators; 54 voted against a limit on bullet magazines.

Patricia Maisch, who survived a mass shooting in Tucson in 2011, spoke for many in the country when she shouted from the Senate gallery: “Shame on you.”

Newtown, in the end, changed nothing; the overwhelming national consensus to tighten a ridiculously lax set of gun laws was stopped cold. That’s because the only thing that mattered to these lawmakers was a blind and unthinking fealty to the whims of the gun lobby.

The National Rifle Association once supported the expansion of background checks, but it decided this time that President Obama and gun-control advocates could not be allowed even a scintilla of a victory, no matter how sensible. That group, and others even more militant, wanted to make sure not one bill emerged from the Newtown shooting, and they got their way. A vast majority of Republicans meekly followed along, joined by a few nervous red-state Democrats, giving far more weight to a small, shrill and largely rural faction than to the country’s overwhelming need for safety and sanity.

Guns had not been on the president’s campaign agenda, but, to his credit, he and Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. came up with a solid package of proposals after Newtown that would have reduced the number of dangerous weapons on the street and in the hands of criminals. Mr. Obama traveled the country to promote it in 13 speeches, and he has spent the last weeks unsuccessfully trying to pry senators out of the pocket of the gun lobby.

The most important aspect of his proposal, in the eyes of many gun-control advocates, was the expansion of background checks, both because it closed an important loophole and because it seemed the easiest to pass. From 20 percent to 40 percent of all gun sales now take place without a background check, and the bill rejected on Wednesday would have required the check for buyers at gun shows, on the Internet and at other commercially advertised sales. It was sponsored by two pro-gun senators with the courage to buck the lobby, Joe Manchin III, a Democrat of West Virginia, and Patrick Toomey, a Republican of Pennsylvania.

The critical need for this measure was illustrated by a report in The Times on Wednesday that showed how easy it is for criminals to buy weapons on the Internet without a look at their backgrounds. One widely popular Web site contains tens of thousands of private postings of gun sales, and The Times’s investigation found that many buyers and sellers were criminals. Some of the guns have been used to kill.

A vote to continue this practice would be hard to explain to constituents, so lawmakers simply invented reasons to oppose background checks. Some insisted it would lead to a national gun registry, though the plain language of the bill prohibited that. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said it would raise taxes. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona said it would require checks even when a gun sale is posted on an office bulletin board. (There’s nothing wrong with that, but it wouldn’t.) Mr. Obama, after the vote, said those who made these arguments had “willfully lied.”

It’s now up to voters to exact a political price from those who defied the public’s demand, and Mr. Obama was forceful in promising to lead that effort. Wednesday was just Round 1, he said; the next step is to replace those whose loyalty is given to a lobby rather than the people.

“Sooner or later, we are going to get this right,” he said. “The memories of these children demand it, and so do the American people.”

    The Senate Fails Americans, NYT, 17.4.2013,






Immigrants in Solitary


April 1, 2013
The New York Times


Americans who are unfamiliar with the immigration justice system might be surprised to learn how much it skimps on actual justice. The notion of a fair day in court becomes only theoretical when immigrants lack attorneys, as most do, when their deportation cases are not reviewed by judges, as too often happens, and when they are locked up in prisons unable to see their families, even though they have been accused only of civil violations — and many have never been convicted of anything.

Then there are the times the system inflicts arbitrary cruelty. This happens when detainees are held in solitary confinement, an extreme form of punishment that risks causing severe mental damage. New federal data show that about 300 immigrants on any given day are held in isolation at the country’s 50 largest detention centers overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, many for 23 hours a day, sometimes in windowless cells barely bigger than bathroom stalls. And nearly half are isolated for 15 days or more.

Why ICE resorts to such extreme punishment is unclear. It could be for rule infractions, fighting or for detainees’ own protection, if they are seen as vulnerable to abuse, perhaps for being gay. In any case, ICE’s detention system — which handles about 34,000 people a day, and 400,000 a year — is not a model of humane incarceration. It’s a ramshackle network of private and public lockups, prone to abuses and lacking legally enforceable standards for how detainees are treated.

For those held for civil violations, solitary confinement is wildly inappropriate. Civil detention is imposed not as punishment, but simply to make sure somebody shows up for a hearing. Many detainees are victims of political oppression or human trafficking, many are only seeking better lives, some are ill. These are people America should be sheltering, not arbitrarily brutalizing.

The homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, has promised a review of solitary-confinement policies. If she doesn’t fix this, then Congress should step in, and now is the perfect time. Lawmakers are preparing a sweeping overhaul of immigration so that it meets the country’s economic needs. They should do just as much to bring the system in line with American values.

    Immigrants in Solitary, NYT, 1.4.2013,






Share of Homes With Guns

Shows 4-Decade Decline


March 9, 2013
The New York Times


The share of American households with guns has declined over the past four decades, a national survey shows, with some of the most surprising drops in the South and the Western mountain states, where guns are deeply embedded in the culture.

The gun ownership rate has fallen across a broad cross section of households since the early 1970s, according to data from the General Social Survey, a public opinion survey conducted every two years that asks a sample of American adults if they have guns at home, among other questions.

The rate has dropped in cities large and small, in suburbs and rural areas and in all regions of the country. It has fallen among households with children, and among those without. It has declined for households that say they are very happy, and for those that say they are not. It is down among churchgoers and those who never sit in pews.

The household gun ownership rate has fallen from an average of 50 percent in the 1970s to 49 percent in the 1980s, 43 percent in the 1990s and 35 percent in the 2000s, according to the survey data, analyzed by The New York Times.

In 2012, the share of American households with guns was 34 percent, according to survey results released on Thursday.
Researchers said the difference compared with 2010, when the rate was 32 percent, was not statistically significant.

The findings contrast with the impression left by a flurry of news reports about people rushing to buy guns and clearing shop shelves of assault rifles after the massacre last year at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

“There are all these claims that gun ownership is going through the roof,” said Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “But I suspect the increase in gun sales has been limited mostly to current gun owners. The most reputable surveys show a decline over time in the share of households with guns.”

That decline, which has been studied by researchers for years but is relatively unknown among the general public, suggests that even as the conversation on guns remains contentious, a broad shift away from gun ownership is under way in a growing number of American homes. It also raises questions about the future politics of gun control. Will efforts to regulate guns eventually meet with less resistance if they are increasingly concentrated in fewer hands — or more resistance?

Detailed data on gun ownership is scarce. Though some states reported household gun ownership rates in the 1990s, it was not until the early 2000s that questions on the presence of guns at home were asked on a broad federal public health survey of several hundred thousand people, making it possible to see the rates in all states.

But by the mid-2000s, the federal government stopped asking the questions, leaving researchers to rely on much smaller surveys, like the General Social Survey, which is conducted by NORC, a research center at the University of Chicago.

Measuring the level of gun ownership can be a vexing problem, with various recent national polls reporting rates between 35 percent and 52 percent. Responses can vary because the survey designs and the wording of questions differ.

But researchers say the survey done by the center at the University of Chicago is crucial because it has consistently tracked gun ownership since 1973, asking if respondents “happen to have in your home (or garage) any guns or revolvers.”

The center’s 2012 survey, conducted mostly in person but also by phone, involved interviews with about 2,000 people from March to September and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Gallup, which asks a similar question but has a different survey design, shows a higher ownership rate and a more moderate decrease. No national survey tracks the number of guns within households.

Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said he was skeptical that there had been a decline in household ownership. He pointed to reports of increased gun sales, to long waits for gun safety training classes and to the growing number of background checks, which have surged since the late 1990s, as evidence that ownership is rising.

“I’m sure there are a lot of people who would love to make the case that there are fewer gun owners in this country, but the stories we’ve been hearing and the data we’ve been seeing simply don’t support that,” he said.

Tom W. Smith, the director of the General Social Survey, which is financed by the National Science Foundation, said he was confident in the trend. It lines up, he said, with two evolving patterns in American life: the decline of hunting and a sharp drop in violent crime, which has made the argument for self-protection much less urgent.

According to an analysis of the survey, only a quarter of men in 2012 said they hunted, compared with about 40 percent when the question was asked in 1977.

Mr. Smith acknowledged the rise in background checks, but said it was impossible to tell how many were for new gun owners. The checks are reported as one total that includes, for example, people buying their second or third gun, as well as those renewing concealed carry permits.

“If there was a national registry that recorded all firearm purchases, we’d have a full picture,” he said. “But there’s not, so we’ve got to put together pieces.”

The survey does not ask about the legality of guns in the home. Illegal guns are a factor in some areas but represent a very small fraction of ownership in the country, said Aaron Karp, an expert on gun policy at the Small Arms Survey in Geneva and at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He said estimates of the total number of guns in the United States ranged from 280 million to 320 million.

The geographic patterns were some of the most surprising in the General Social Survey, researchers said. Gun ownership in both the South and the mountain region, which includes states like Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming, dropped to less than 40 percent of households this decade, down from 65 percent in the 1970s. The Northeast, where the household ownership rate is lowest, changed the least, at 22 percent this decade, compared with 29 percent in the 1970s.

Age groups presented another twist. While household ownership of guns among elderly Americans remained virtually unchanged from the 1970s to this decade at about 43 percent, ownership among young Americans plummeted. Household gun ownership among Americans under the age of 30 fell to 23 percent this decade from 47 percent in the 1970s. The survey showed a similar decline for Americans ages 30 to 44.

As for politics, the survey showed a steep drop in household gun ownership among Democrats and independents, and a very slight decline among Republicans. But the new data suggest a reversal among Republicans, with 51 percent since 2008 saying they have a gun in their home, up from 47 percent in surveys taken from 2000 through 2006. This leaves the Republican rate a bit below where it was in the 1970s, while ownership for Democrats is nearly half of what it was in that decade.

Researchers offered different theories for these trends.

Many Americans were introduced to guns through military service, which involved a large part of the population in the Vietnam War era, Dr. Webster said. Now that the Army is volunteer and a small fraction of the population, it is less a gateway for gun ownership, he said.

Urbanization also helped drive the decline. Rural areas, where gun ownership is the highest, are now home to about 17 percent of Americans, down from 27 percent in the 1970s. According to the survey, just 23 percent of households in cities owned guns in the 2000s, compared with 56 percent of households in rural areas. That was down from 70 percent of rural households in the 1970s.

The country’s changing demographics may also play a role. While the rate of gun ownership among women has remained relatively constant over the years at about 10 percent, which is less than one-third of the rate among men today, more women are heading households without men, another possible contributor to the decline in household gun ownership. Women living in households where there were guns that were not their own declined to a fifth in 2012 down from a third in 1980.

The increase of Hispanics as a share of the American population is also probably having an effect, as they are far less likely to own guns. In the survey results since 2000, about 14 percent of Hispanics reported having a gun in their house.


Allison Kopicki contributed reporting.

    Share of Homes With Guns Shows 4-Decade Decline, NYT, 9.3.2013,






Stubbing Out Cigarettes for Good


March 3, 2013
The New York Times



PERHAPS no public official was as synonymous with the antismoking movement as C. Everett Koop, who died last Monday at age 96. Dr. Koop, who worked tirelessly to turn America into “a smoke-free society,” did not live to see that goal reached. But the rest of us have the power to make it happen.

Fewer than one in five American adults smoke, a share that’s plunged by about half since the 1960s — an achievement due, in some measure, to Dr. Koop’s antismoking crusade as surgeon general, from 1981 to 1989. Revelations in the 1990s about tobacco companies’ cover-up of smoking’s dangers also played a role. So have a host of other strategies that have included consumer taxes, minimum ages for cigarette purchases, restrictions on smoking in public spaces and programs to help people quit. Continuing on the same path, with some luck, we might be able reduce the smoking rate a little more.

But that would still leave us with a profound public health tragedy: cigarettes continue to kill more than 400,000 Americans a year and cost untold billions in health care spending.

To its credit, the Food and Drug Administration has tried more aggressive approaches, including a recent effort to require hard-hitting graphic warnings on cigarette packages. That proposal, already the rule in dozens of countries, has been held up in United States federal courts over concerns that the ads might infringe on cigarette manufacturers’ First Amendment rights. But even if implemented, more scare tactics would not go far enough.

What we need is an all-out push to reduce smoking rates to well below 10 percent. The notion is nothing new to tobacco-control advocates, many of whom gathered last week in Cambridge, Mass., for a conference on the governance of tobacco, sponsored by Harvard with support from the World Health Organization.

But outside of such academic meetings and journals, little has been said about two possible approaches that could have an immediate impact.

One involves federal action; the other, state or local action. Both are made possible by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which President Obama signed in June 2009.

Under the act, the F.D.A. has the power to establish tobacco product standards including “provisions, where appropriate, for nicotine yields of the product.” The only limitation on this power is that the F.D.A. may not require that nicotine yields be reduced to zero. The law calls on the F.D.A. to apply public health criteria — “the risks and benefits to the population as a whole” — in designing its regulations. It also encourages the F.D.A. to create tobacco standards that will help existing users stop smoking and decrease the risk that nonsmokers will start.

The F.D.A. would be well within its authority to require nicotine content to be below addictive levels — an idea that originated with a 1994 article in The New England Journal of Medicine urging a nonaddictive nicotine standard.

Cigarette makers would lobby hard to block such a standard. But if the F.D.A. insisted on the change, and cigarettes ceased to be addictive, ample evidence shows that most smokers would quit or switch to less toxic nicotine products. Current nonsmokers, moreover, would be far less likely to become addicted.

Another part of the act affirms the authority of states and municipal governments to prohibit the sale, distribution and possession of — and even access and exposure to — tobacco products by individuals of any age.

This provides an opportunity for states, counties and cities to adopt the Smokefree Generation, a proposal by A. J. Berrick, a mathematics professor in Singapore.

The idea is simple: no one born in or after 2000 can ever be sold cigarettes. Under such legislation, which jurisdictions like the Australian state of Tasmania are considering, the vast majority of this cohort — the oldest are now 13 — would never begin smoking. It’s hard to imagine too many parents objecting, and it would be easy for retailers to enforce. In the United States, it would provide a useful focus for state and local public health officials to do something game-changing, rather than sitting on the sidelines waiting for Washington to act.

Critics will say that, even if a state or city passed such a law, would-be smokers could go to an adjoining one to buy cigarettes. But evidence suggests that border-crossing and smuggling would be minimal. States that have sharply raised their cigarette taxes, after all, have not only increased tax revenue but also reduced rates of smoking prevalence, even among nicotine addicts. Young people, who are generally not addicted (yet) and who tend not to have peers who smoke, are even less likely to chase cigarettes across state or county lines.

Some antismoking advocates who support existing approaches (smoking-cessation programs, higher taxes) fear that pushing for an “end game” — a smoking rate below 10 percent — is too ambitious. But then, banning smoking in restaurants, workplaces and bars was once seen as crazy, too. Sometimes, a little crazy goes a long way.


Richard A. Daynard is a professor of law at Northeastern University

and president of its Public Health Advocacy Institute.

    Stubbing Out Cigarettes for Good, NYT, 3.3.2013,






Drowned in a Stream of Prescriptions


February 2, 2013
The New York Times


VIRGINIA BEACH — Every morning on her way to work, Kathy Fee holds her breath as she drives past the squat brick building that houses Dominion Psychiatric Associates.

It was there that her son, Richard, visited a doctor and received prescriptions for Adderall, an amphetamine-based medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It was in the parking lot that she insisted to Richard that he did not have A.D.H.D., not as a child and not now as a 24-year-old college graduate, and that he was getting dangerously addicted to the medication. It was inside the building that her husband, Rick, implored Richard’s doctor to stop prescribing him Adderall, warning, “You’re going to kill him.”

It was where, after becoming violently delusional and spending a week in a psychiatric hospital in 2011, Richard met with his doctor and received prescriptions for 90 more days of Adderall. He hanged himself in his bedroom closet two weeks after they expired.

The story of Richard Fee, an athletic, personable college class president and aspiring medical student, highlights widespread failings in the system through which five million Americans take medication for A.D.H.D., doctors and other experts said.

Medications like Adderall can markedly improve the lives of children and others with the disorder. But the tunnel-like focus the medicines provide has led growing numbers of teenagers and young adults to fake symptoms to obtain steady prescriptions for highly addictive medications that carry serious psychological dangers. These efforts are facilitated by a segment of doctors who skip established diagnostic procedures, renew prescriptions reflexively and spend too little time with patients to accurately monitor side effects.

Richard Fee’s experience included it all. Conversations with friends and family members and a review of detailed medical records depict an intelligent and articulate young man lying to doctor after doctor, physicians issuing hasty diagnoses, and psychiatrists continuing to prescribe medication — even increasing dosages — despite evidence of his growing addiction and psychiatric breakdown.

Very few people who misuse stimulants devolve into psychotic or suicidal addicts. But even one of Richard’s own physicians, Dr. Charles Parker, characterized his case as a virtual textbook for ways that A.D.H.D. practices can fail patients, particularly young adults. “We have a significant travesty being done in this country with how the diagnosis is being made and the meds are being administered,” said Dr. Parker, a psychiatrist in Virginia Beach. “I think it’s an abnegation of trust. The public needs to say this is totally unacceptable and walk out.”

Young adults are by far the fastest-growing segment of people taking A.D.H.D medications. Nearly 14 million monthly prescriptions for the condition were written for Americans ages 20 to 39 in 2011, two and a half times the 5.6 million just four years before, according to the data company I.M.S. Health. While this rise is generally attributed to the maturing of adolescents who have A.D.H.D. into young adults — combined with a greater recognition of adult A.D.H.D. in general — many experts caution that savvy college graduates, freed of parental oversight, can legally and easily obtain stimulant prescriptions from obliging doctors.


    Drowned in a Stream of Prescriptions, NYT, 2.2.2013,






As Suicides Rise in U.S., Veterans Are Less of Total


February 1, 2013
The New York Times


Suicides among military veterans, though up slightly in recent years, account for a shrinking percentage of the nation’s total number of suicides — a result of steadily rising numbers of suicides in the general population, according to a report released on Friday by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The report, based on the most extensive data the department has ever collected on suicide, found that the number of suicides among veterans reached 22 a day in 2010, the most recent year available.

That was up by 22 percent from 2007, when the daily number was 18. But it is only 10 percent higher than in 1999, according to the report. Department officials described the numbers as “relatively stable” over the decade.

In the same 12-year period, the total number of suicides in the country rose steadily to an estimated 105 a day in 2010, up from 80 in 1999, a 31 percent increase.

As a result, the percentage of the nation’s daily suicides committed by veterans declined to 21 percent in 2010, from 25 percent in 1999.

“What’s happening with veterans is a reflection of what’s happening to America,” Jan Kemp, the national mental health director for suicide prevention at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said in an interview. “The suicide rate in America has been creeping up.”

Dr. Kemp said the fact that veterans accounted for a smaller percentage of the nation’s suicides suggested that improved outreach and suicide prevention programs might have had an effect.

But other experts said that for a variety of reasons — including the fact that many veterans have access to health care through the department — the suicide rate for veterans should be much lower than it is.

“This remains a crisis,” said Paul Sullivan, a founder of Veterans for Common Sense.

The new report does not provide a suicide rate for veterans, because the department is still refining that number, Dr. Kemp said. But she acknowledged that the rate was higher than for the general population, which is 12.4 suicides per 100,000 people.

Dr. Kemp said veterans tend to fall into higher-risk groups, which include: being male; living in a rural area, particularly in the West; and having access to firearms.

Past reports on suicide among veterans have been based on data collected by the federal government from only about a third of the states. But because of growing concerns about veteran suicide, the department asked every state to provide data on veterans.

The new report — which was previously described in The Washington Post — is based on a database built from information on more than 147,000 suicides in 21 states — a large enough number to develop accurate estimates for the entire veteran population, department officials said. Dr. Kemp added that the department now had data from 40 states and tentative agreements to receive information from the remaining 10.

Among the report’s other important findings was that male veterans who commit suicide tend to be older than nonveteran male suicides, with the largest number of veterans’ suicides occurring among men between 50 and 59. Dr. Kemp said the department intended to increase outreach to that age group.

At the same time, the new data suggested that veterans under 30 are committing suicide in smaller numbers than their nonveteran peers. That would seem to contradict theories that the recent wars have contributed to increased suicide among new veterans.

Somewhat surprisingly, the study confirmed an estimate first reported in 2008 that 18 veterans commit suicide each day. That figure had been viewed skeptically by many experts because it was not based on detailed data. But the new, more comprehensive data resulted in the same estimate.

    As Suicides Rise in U.S., Veterans Are Less of Total, NYT, 1.2.2013,






My Valuable, Cheap College Degree


January 31, 2013
The New York Times



MUCH is being written about the preposterously high cost of college. The median inflation-adjusted household income fell by 7 percent between 2006 and 2011, while the average real tuition at public four-year colleges increased over that period by over 18 percent. Meanwhile, the average tuition for just one year at a four-year private university in 2011 was almost $33,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. College tuition has increased at twice the rate of health care costs over the past 25 years.

Ballooning student loan debt, an impending college bubble, and a return on the bachelor’s degree that is flat or falling: all these things scream out for entrepreneurial solutions.

One idea gaining currency is the $10,000 college degree — the so-called 10K-B.A. — which apparently was inspired by a challenge to educators from Bill Gates, and has recently led to efforts to make it a reality by governors in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, as well as by a state assemblyman in California.

Most 10K-B.A. proposals rethink the costliest part of higher education — the traditional classroom teaching. Predictably, this means a reliance on online and distance-learning alternatives. And just as predictably, this has stimulated antibodies to unconventional modes of learning. Some critics see it as an invitation to charlatans and diploma mills. Even supporters often suggest that this is just an idea to give poor people marginally better life opportunities.

As Darryl Tippens, the provost of Pepperdine University, recently put it, “No PowerPoint presentation or elegant online lecture can make up for the surprise, the frisson, the spontaneous give-and-take of a spirited, open-ended dialogue with another person.” And what happens when you excise those frissons? In the words of the president of one university faculty association, “You’re going to be awarding degrees that are worthless to people.”

I disagree. I possess a 10K-B.A., which I got way back in 1994. And it was the most important intellectual and career move I ever made.

After high school, I spent an unedifying year in college. The year culminated in money problems, considerably less than a year of credits, and a joint decision with the school that I should pursue my happiness elsewhere. Next came what my parents affectionately called my “gap decade,” during which time I made my living as a musician. By my late 20s I was ready to return to school. But I was living in Spain, had a thin bank account, and no desire to start my family with a mountain of student loans.

Fortunately, there was a solution — an institution called Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J. This is a virtual college with no residence requirements. It banks credits acquired through inexpensive correspondence courses from any accredited college or university in America.

I took classes by mail from the University of Washington, the University of Wyoming, and other schools with the lowest-priced correspondence courses I could find. My degree required the same number of credits and type of classes that any student at a traditional university would take. I took the same exams (proctored at local libraries and graded by graduate students) as in-person students. But I never met a teacher, never sat in a classroom, and to this day have never laid eyes on my beloved alma mater.

And the whole degree, including the third-hand books and a sticker for the car, cost me about $10,000 in today’s dollars.

Now living back in the United States, I followed the 10K-B.A. with a 5K-M.A. at a local university while working full time, and then endured the standard penury of being a full-time doctoral fellow in a residential Ph.D. program. The final tally for a guy in his 30s supporting a family: three degrees, zero debt.

Did I earn a worthless degree? Hardly. My undergraduate years may have been bereft of frissons, but I wound up with a career as a tenured professor at Syracuse University, a traditional university. I am now the president of a Washington research organization.

Not surprisingly, my college experience has occasionally been the target of ridicule. It is true that I am no Harvard Man. But I can say with full confidence that my 10K-B.A. is what made higher education possible for me, and it changed the course of my life. More people should have this opportunity, in a society that is suffering from falling economic and social mobility.

The 10K-B.A. is exactly the kind of innovation we would expect in an industry that is showing every indication of a bubble that is about to burst, as Thomas K. Lindsay of the Texas Public Policy Foundation shows in a new report titled, “Anatomy of a Revolution? The Rise of the $10,000 Bachelor’s Degree.” When tuition skyrockets and returns on education stagnate, we can expect a flight to value, especially by people who can least afford to ride the bubble, and who have no choice but to make a cost-effective college investment.

In the end, however, the case for the 10K-B.A. is primarily moral, not financial. The entrepreneurs who see a way for millions to go to college affordably are the ones who understand the American dream. That dream is the opportunity to build a life through earned success. That starts with education.


Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute

and a former professor at Syracuse University.

    My Valuable, Cheap College Degree, NYT, 31.1.2013,






Obama Urges Speed on Immigration Plan,

but Exposes Conflicts


January 29, 2013
The New York Times


LAS VEGAS — Seizing an opening to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws, President Obama challenged Congress on Tuesday to act swiftly to put 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States on a clear path to citizenship.

But his push for speedy action and his silence on proposals to defer the opportunity for legal residency until the country’s borders are deemed secure provoked criticism from a Republican leader on the issue. The response suggests that reaching consensus on immigration law changes remained difficult despite a new bipartisan push since the November elections.

Speaking at a high school here in a state that has seen rapid growth in its Hispanic population, the president praised a bipartisan group of senators who proposed their own sweeping immigration overhaul a day earlier, saying their plan was very much in line with his own proposals.

Mr. Obama warned, however, that “the closer we get, the more emotional this debate is going to become.” He said that if Congress did not move forward “in a timely fashion” on its own legislation, he would send up a specific measure — something the White House has put off for now — and demand a vote.

The president’s speech immediately exposed potential fault lines in the coming debate. He said, for example, that there must be a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants “from the outset,” a statement that would seem at odds with the assertion by some senators that citizenship must be tied to tighter border security.

Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican seen as an influential party voice on an issue that cost Republicans in last year’s voting, said he was “concerned by the president’s unwillingness to accept significant enforcement triggers before current undocumented immigrants can apply for a green card.”

“Without such triggers in place,” he went on, “enforcement systems will never be implemented, and we will be back in just a few years dealing with millions of new undocumented people in our country.”

Although Mr. Obama did not say it in his speech, the White House is also proposing that the United States treat same-sex couples the same as other families, meaning that people would be able to use their relationship as a basis to obtain a visa — another element likely to be resisted by some conservative Republicans.

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, said in a statement that House Republicans “hope the president is careful not to drag the debate to the left and ultimately disrupt the difficult work that is ahead in the House and Senate.”

A senior administration official said the speech was the start of a concerted campaign to force Republicans to follow through on the bipartisan proposal. He predicted that given the president’s popularity with Hispanic voters, they would find it hard vote down a bill with his name on it.

Mr. Obama offered a familiar list of proposals: tightening security on borders, cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants and temporarily issuing more visas to clear the huge backlog of people applying for legal status in the country.

His speech, on the heels of the bipartisan Senate proposal, sets the terms for one of the year’s landmark legislative debates. These are only the opening steps in a complicated dance, and both the politics and the policy can be treacherous ground, as shown by the failed effort to overhaul immigration laws in the George W. Bush administration.

But the flurry of activity underscores the powerful new momentum behind an overhaul of the system, after an election that dramatized the vulnerability of Republicans on the issue, with Mr. Obama piling up lopsided majorities over Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters.

“Most Americans agree that it’s time to fix a system that’s been broken for way too long,” Mr. Obama said to an audience of about 2,000 high school students, many of them Hispanic. They applauded loudly when he mentioned the Dream Act, which offers amnesty to children of immigrants who are in the United States illegally.

In scrambling to present their blueprint on Monday, the day before Mr. Obama’s speech, the senators stole a march on the president. But their intent appeared less to undermine his efforts than to stake out their own role in drafting a comprehensive bill.

“It is a fascinating Washington horse race that you don’t always see, and a signal of the seriousness to get across the finish line,” said Angela Kelley, an expert on immigration at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group.

With the senators hoping to pass legislation by this summer, the White House has shelved, for now, plans to introduce its own immigration bill, officials said. Indeed, after two years of feuding with Congress, Mr. Obama finds himself in rare alignment with Democratic and Republican lawmakers on at least the need to address a major issue.

That is what made Mr. Obama’s speech such a novelty: rather than criticize Congress as do-nothing and obstructionist, as he did nearly every day during the campaign, he applauded the lawmakers for racing ahead of him, at least for a day.

Beneath the expressions of harmony, however, Ms. Kelley cautioned: “There’s so much they don’t agree on. There’s going to be a lot of soul-searching.”

Among the main differences is whether to make the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants contingent on stricter border controls and visa procedures.

Mr. Obama, in his remarks, emphasized that as long as immigrants registered with the authorities and fulfilled other obligations like paying their taxes, there should be no doubt that they would eventually obtain citizenship.

“If you’re able to meet some basic criteria,” he said, “then we’ll consider offering you the chance to come out of the shadows.”

Mr. Obama defended his record in securing the borders, saying that illegal border crossings had dropped 80 percent from their peak in 2000 because of increased patrols. Six unmanned surveillance drones now fly over the southwest border, in addition to 124 other aircraft.

Mr. Obama’s remarks differed little from the main points in his 29-page blueprint for overhauling immigration laws, which he issued last May and used as a plank in his re-election campaign. But his language was plainer and more forceful — speaking of a road to citizenship for illegal immigrants, for example, not merely to legal status.

The provision on same-sex couples was not in the blueprint, though an administration official said the Department of Homeland Security began using it in 2010 when deciding cases involving families.

The president’s goal, the officials said, will be less to underline differences with the bipartisan plan than to marshal public support behind comprehensive immigration legislation. Mr. Obama, having failed to achieve that in his first term, has put it at the top of his agenda for his second.

    Obama Urges Speed on Immigration Plan, but Exposes Conflicts, NYT, 29.1.2013,






The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy


January 26, 2013
3:41 pm
The New York Times
Opinionator - A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web


Politicians across the political spectrum herald "job creation," but frightfully few of them talk about what kinds of jobs are being created. Yet this clearly matters: According to the Census Bureau, one-third of adults who live in poverty are working but do not earn enough to support themselves and their families.

A quarter of jobs in America pay below the federal poverty line for a family of four ($23,050). Not only are many jobs low-wage, they are also temporary and insecure. Over the last three years, the temp industry added more jobs in the United States than any other, according to the American Staffing Association, the trade group representing temp recruitment agencies, outsourcing specialists and the like.

Low-wage, temporary jobs have become so widespread that they threaten to become the norm. But for some reason this isn't causing a scandal. At least in the business press, we are more likely to hear plaudits for "lean and mean" companies than angst about the changing nature of work for ordinary Americans.

How did we arrive at this state of affairs? Many argue that it was the inevitable result of macroeconomic forces - globalization, deindustrialization and technological change - beyond our political control. Yet employers had (and have) choices. Rather than squeezing workers, they could have invested in workers and boosted product quality, taking what economists call the high road toward more advanced manufacturing and skilled service work. But this hasn't happened. Instead, American employers have generally taken the low road: lowering wages and cutting benefits, converting permanent employees into part-time and contingent workers, busting unions and subcontracting and outsourcing jobs. They have done so, in part, because of the extraordinary evangelizing of the temp industry, which rose from humble origins to become a global behemoth.

The story begins in the years after World War II, when a handful of temp agencies were started, largely in the Midwest. In 1947, William Russell Kelly founded Russell Kelly Office Service (later known as Kelly Girl Services) in Detroit, with three employees, 12 customers and $848 in sales. A year later, two lawyers, Aaron Scheinfeld and Elmer Winter, founded a similarly small outfit, Manpower Inc., in Milwaukee. At the time, the future of these fledgling agencies was no foregone conclusion. Unions were at the peak of their power, and the protections that they had fought so hard to achieve - workers' compensation, pensions, health benefits and more - had been adopted by union and nonunion employers alike.

But temp leaders were creating a new category of work (and workers) that would be exempt from such protections.

To avoid union opposition, they developed a clever strategy, casting temp work as "women's work," and advertising thousands of images of young, white, middle-class women doing a variety of short-term office jobs. The Kelly Girls, Manpower's White Glove Girls, Western Girl's Cowgirls, the American Girls of American Girl Services and numerous other such "girls" appeared in the pages of Newsweek, Business Week, U.S. News & World Report, Good Housekeeping, Fortune, The New York Times and The Chicago Daily Tribune. In 1961 alone, Manpower spent $1 million to put its White Glove Girls in the Sunday issue of big city newspapers across the country.

The strategy was an extraordinary success. Not only did the Kelly Girls become cultural icons, but the temp agencies grew and grew. By 1957, Kelly reported nearly $7 million in sales; in 1962, with 148 branches and $24 million in sales, it went public. Meanwhile, by 1956 Manpower had 91 branches in 65 cities (and 10 abroad) and, with sales at $12 million annually, employed some 4,000 workers a day. In 1962, Manpower also went public, boasting 270 offices across four continents and over $40 million in sales.

The temp agencies' Kelly Girl strategy was clever (and successful) because it exploited the era's cultural ambivalence about white, middle-class women working outside the home. Instead of seeking to replace "breadwinning" union jobs with low-wage temp work, temp agencies went the culturally safer route: selling temp work for housewives who were (allegedly) only working for pin money. As a Kelly executive told The New York Times in 1958, "The typical Kelly Girl... doesn't want full-time work, but she's bored with strictly keeping house. Or maybe she just wants to take a job until she pays for a davenport or a new fur coat."

Protected by the era's gender biases, early temp leaders thus established a new sector of low-wage, unreliable work right under the noses of powerful labor unions. While greater numbers of employers in the postwar era offered family-supporting wages and health insurance, the rapidly expanding temp agencies established a different precedent by explicitly refusing to do so. That precedent held for more than half a century: even today "temp" jobs are beyond the reach of many workplace protections, not only health benefits but also unemployment insurance, anti-discrimination laws and union-organizing rights.

By 1967 Manpower employed more workers than corporate giants like Standard Oil of New Jersey and the U.S. Steel Corporation. Manpower and the other temp agencies had gained a foothold, and temporary employment was widely considered a legitimate part of the economy. Now eyeing a bigger prize - expansion beyond pink-collar work - temp industry leaders dropped their "Kelly Girl" image and began to argue that all employees, not just secretaries, should be replaced by temps. And rather than simply selling temps, they sold a bigger product: a lean and mean approach to business that considered workers to be burdensome costs that should be minimized.

For example, in 1971 the recently renamed Kelly Services ran a series of ads in The Office, a human resources journal, promoting the "Never-Never Girl," who, the company claimed: "Never takes a vacation or holiday. Never asks for a raise. Never costs you a dime for slack time. (When the workload drops, you drop her.) Never has a cold, slipped disc or loose tooth. (Not on your time anyway!) Never costs you for unemployment taxes and Social Security payments. (None of the paperwork, either!) Never costs you for fringe benefits. (They add up to 30% of every payroll dollar.) Never fails to please. (If your Kelly Girl employee doesn't work out, you don't pay.)"

Around the same time, the New York agency Olsten Temporary Help Services announced a new product: "The Semi-Permanent Employee." Comparing its innovation to the wireless, the phonograph and the telephone, company leaders presented the "Semi-Permanent" as "a new kind of temporary employee...not for days or even weeks, but for two- and three-month periods to help your business grow more profitably." This new "invention," Olsten told businesses, would boost profits by shrinking the payroll (to "a slim, trim personnel budget, not one which chokes profitability"); by smoothing over the ebb and flow of the business cycle ("you needn't carry 'dead wood' for months when business is slow"); and by cutting training costs (employers would get "trained personnel without having to engage in expensive and unprofitable retraining").

By peddling products like the "Semi-Permanent Employee," the "Never-Never Girl" and more, temp industry leaders promoted a model in which permanent employees were a "costly burden," a "headache" that needed relief. "Stop paying help you don't use," Western Services advised in 1969. It even urged employers to convert their own permanent employees to temps, as in a 1971 advertisement in The Personnel Journal: "Just say goodbye... then shift them to our payroll and say hello again!"

According to the temp industry, workers were just another capital investment; only the product of the labor had any value. The workers themselves were expendable.

Paradoxically, this model ran counter to the conventional management wisdom of the day. The same year that the "Never-Never Girl" appeared in the pages of national business journals, one of the best-selling management books was "Up the Organization: How to Stop the Organization From Stifling People and Strangling Profits," in which the former Avis Rent-a-Car president Robert Townsend argued for treating workers as valuable assets rather than headaches to be squelched. The "human relations" school of management touted employee satisfaction as the best route to boosting profits.

But temp industry leaders continued to encourage companies to "rent" workers rather than "buy" them. And perhaps even more persuasive than their arguments were the practical tools they were able to offer: thousands of low-cost temps, without the hassle of having to hire, train, supervise and fire them. Becoming lean and mean had never been easier, and thousands of companies began to go the temping route, especially during the deep economic recessions of the 1970s. Temporary employment skyrocketed from 185,000 temps a day to over 400,000 in 1980 - the same number employed each year in 1963. Nor did the numbers slow when good times returned: even through the economic boom of the '90s, temporary employment grew rapidly, from less than 1 million workers a day to nearly 3 million by 2000.

The temp industry's continued growth even in a boom economy was a testament to its success in helping to forge a new cultural consensus about work and workers. Its model of expendable labor became so entrenched, in fact, that it became "common sense," leaching into nearly every sector of the economy and allowing the newly renamed "staffing industry" to become sought-after experts on employment and work force development. Outsourcing, insourcing, offshoring and many other hallmarks of the global economy (including the use of "adjuncts" in academia, my own corner of the world) owe no small debt to the ideas developed by the temp industry in the last half-century.

A growing number of people call for bringing outsourced jobs back to America. But if they return as shoddy, poverty-wage jobs - jobs designed for "Never-Never Girls" rather than valued employees - we won't be better off for having them. If we want good jobs rather than just any jobs, we need to figure out how to preserve what is useful and innovative about temporary employment while jettisoning the anti-worker ideology that has come to accompany it.

Erin Hatton, an assistant professor of sociology

at the State University of New York, Buffalo,

is the author of "The Temp Economy:

From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America."

    The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy, NYT, 26.1.2013,






She’s (Rarely) the Boss


January 26, 2013
The New York Times


DAVOS, Switzerland

IT’S the annual conclave of the presumed powerful, the World Economic Forum in Davos, with the wealthy flying in on private jets to discuss issues like global poverty. As always, it’s a sea of men. This year, female participation is 17 percent.

Perhaps that’s not surprising, considering that global business and political leaders are overwhelmingly male. In America, only 17 percent of American Fortune 500 board seats are held by women, a mere 3 percent of board chairs are women — and women are barely represented in President Obama’s cabinet.

Indeed, I’m guessing that the average boardroom doesn’t have much better gender equality than a team of cave hunters attacking a woolly mammoth 30,000 years ago.

So what gives? A provocative answer comes from Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, who has written a smart book due out in March that attributes the gender gap, in part, to chauvinism and corporate obstacles — but also, in part, to women who don’t aggressively pursue opportunities.

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” Sandberg writes in the book, called “Lean In.”

“We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.”

Sandberg and I discussed the issue on a panel here in Davos, and I think that there is something real and important in what she says. When I lecture at universities, the first questions are invariably asked by a man — even at a women’s college. When I point at someone in a crowd to ask a question, the women in the area almost always look at each other hesitantly — and any man in the vicinity jumps up and asks his question.

A McKinsey survey published in April found that 36 percent of male employees at major companies aspired to be top executives, compared with 18 percent of the women. A study of Carnegie Mellon M.B.A. graduates in 2003 found that 57 percent of the men, but only 7 percent of the women, tried to negotiate a higher initial salary offer.

Sandberg, one of the most prominent women in corporate America, is not known as a shrinking violet. She confesses that when she was in elementary school, she trained her younger brother and sister to follow her around, listen to her give speeches and periodically shout: “Right!”

Yet she acknowledges that she has harbored many insecurities, sometimes shedding tears at the office, as well as doubts about her juggling of work and family.

When she joined Facebook as its No. 2, she was initially willing to accept the first offer from Mark Zuckerberg, the founder. She writes that her husband and brother-in-law hounded her to demand more, so she did — and got a better deal.

“I am hoping that each woman will set her own goals and reach for them with gusto,” Sandberg writes. “And I am hoping that each man will do his part to support women in the workplace and in the home, also with gusto.”

Yet I wish that there could be two versions of Sandberg’s book. One marketed to young women would encourage them to be more assertive. One marketed to men (and women already in leadership) would emphasize the need for structural changes to accommodate women and families.

Is Sandberg blaming the victim? I don’t think so, but I also don’t want to relax the pressure on employers to do a much better job of recruiting and promoting women.

Nature and social mores together make motherhood more all-consuming than fatherhood, yet the modern job was built for a distracted father. That’s not great for dads and can be just about impossible for moms — at least those who don’t have great wealth or extraordinary spouses.

Sandberg famously leaves the office at 5:30 most days to be with her kids, but not many women (or men) would dare try that.

Some people believe that women are more nurturing bosses, or that they offer more support to women below them. I’m skeptical. Women can be jerks as much as men.

But we need more women in leadership positions for another reason: considerable evidence suggests that more diverse groups reach better decisions. Corporations should promote women not just out of fairness, but also because it helps them perform better. Lehman Brothers might still be around today if it were Lehman Brothers & Sisters.

So, yes, let’s encourage young women to “lean in,” but let’s also change the workplace so that when they do lean in and assert themselves, we’re directly behind them shouting: “Right!”

    She’s (Rarely) the Boss, NYT, 26.1.2013,






Please Take Away My Right to a Gun


January 18, 2013
The New York Times


A FEW years ago, I awoke at 2:30 a.m. to more than a “rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” It was a full-force pounding of a body trying to break into my little house in Washington, D.C. It was the sound and scenario that, as a single woman living alone, I feared more than spiders in the house.

Because I was writing political speeches at the time, my BlackBerry slept on the pillow beside me. I grabbed it and looked out my bedroom window at the stoop below. There he was: tall, dark clothes, big. He backed up and then raced to the door, pounding his body against it. Then he kicked at it the way actors take boots to the heads of bad guys in the movies.

I dialed 911 and ran downstairs, my 100-pound Newfoundland with me.

I gave the dispatcher my address, let her know that I lived around the corner from a police station and said, “Please hurry.” She heard the loud noise and remained on the line with me.

I put the BlackBerry on speaker and pushed a heavy armchair toward the door. I watched as the wood expanded with each pound. The white paint splintered some. The deadbolt held at the top, but the bottom half of the door popped open, letting in the steam heat from the summer night. I took that chair and slammed it so the side pushed the door back in line with the frame. I held that chair with everything my 5 foot 3 inches had. My dog sat right by me on the rug, ready.

“The police are outside,” the dispatcher said.

I let go of the chair’s arms and thanked the woman for staying on the phone with me. I answered the questions from the police and looked at the drunk man in the back of the patrol car, kicking at the seats. When they left, I pushed the couch, chair, coffee table and even a lamp in front of the locked door. I did that every night for a week until a steel-gated security door was installed.

And then, I did more.

I considered buying a gun. The threat of violence rattles you like that. What rolled round my head after that dark morning was: what if I hadn’t heard the noise, what if it’s different next time? While I held that chair with all of my strength, I wished that I had had a gun because if he had gotten in, then I could have pointed it at him, maybe deterred him and if necessary pulled the trigger.

So I looked at guns. Some had mother-of-pearl handles and looked like something Mae West would use in a movie. Others were Glocks, shotguns and rifles. I had gone as far as to dial the number of the Metropolitan Police Department’s firearms registration division and begin the process. Then I stopped and put my BlackBerry down.

I remembered who I am.

I am one of the millions of people in this country who live with depression. I knew that in the gun registration form there would be a version of this question: Have you ever voluntarily or involuntarily been committed to a hospital? The answer is yes — voluntarily. But because my hospitalization was years earlier and I wasn’t in treatment at the time, I could have gotten a gun.

My depression appeared for the first time in the late ’90s, right before I began writing for politicians. It comes and goes like fog. Medicine can help. I have my tricks to manage and get through it. Sometimes it sticks around for a day or a week, and sometimes it stays away for a couple of years. But it never leads me to sleep all day, cry and wear sweat pants like the people in the commercials. You’d look at me and never know that sometimes my fight against the urge to die is so tough the only way I get through it is second by second; I live by the second hand.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 38,364 Americans lost that fight in 2010 and committed suicide; 19,392 used a gun. No one ever attempted to break down my door in the early morning again, but I had an episode when my depression did come back in full force in the early winter of 2009, after I made a career-ending decision and isolated myself too much; on a January night in 2010; and again in May 2012, after testifying in the federal criminal trial of John Edwards, my former boss. If I had purchased that gun and it had been in my possession, I’m not sure I would have been able to resist and would be here typing these words.

The other day, the president and the vice president announced their plans to curb gun violence in the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Conn. I agree with all of their measures. But I believe they should be bolder and stop walking on eggshells about what to do with people like me and those not even close to being like me but still labeled with the crazy term “mentally ill.” The executive actions the president signed to increase access and treatment are all good, although the experts will struggle with confidentiality and privacy issues.

But since most people like me are more likely to harm ourselves than to turn into mass-murdering monsters, our leaders should do more to keep us safe from ourselves.

Please take away my Second Amendment right. Do more to help us protect ourselves because what’s most likely to wake me in the early hours isn’t a man’s body slamming at my door but depression, that raven, tapping, rapping, banging for relief.

I have a better chance of surviving if I never have the option of being able to pull the trigger.


Wendy Button is a former political speechwriter.

    Please Take Away My Right to a Gun, NYT, 18.1.2013,






Not Even Close: 2012 Was Hottest Ever in U.S.


January 8, 2013
The New York Times


The numbers are in: 2012, the year of a surreal March heat wave, a severe drought in the Corn Belt and a huge storm that caused broad devastation in the Middle Atlantic States, turns out to have been the hottest year ever recorded in the contiguous United States.

How hot was it? The temperature differences between years are usually measured in fractions of a degree, but last year’s 55.3 degree average demolished the previous record, set in 1998, by a full degree Fahrenheit.

If that does not sound sufficiently impressive, consider that 34,008 daily high records were set at weather stations across the country, compared with only 6,664 record lows, according to a count maintained by the Weather Channel meteorologist Guy Walton, using federal temperature records.

That ratio, which was roughly in balance as recently as the 1970s, has been out of whack for decades as the country has warmed, but never by as much as it was last year.

“The heat was remarkable,” said Jake Crouch, a scientist with the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., which released the official climate compilation on Tuesday. “It was prolonged. That we beat the record by one degree is quite a big deal.”

Scientists said that natural variability almost certainly played a role in last year’s extreme heat and drought. But many of them expressed doubt that such a striking new record would have been set without the backdrop of global warming caused by the human release of greenhouse gases. And they warned that 2012 was probably a foretaste of things to come, as continuing warming makes heat extremes more likely.

Even so, the last year’s record for the United States is not expected to translate into a global temperature record when figures are released in the coming weeks. The year featured a La Niña weather pattern, which tends to cool the global climate over all, and scientists expect it to be the world’s eighth- or ninth-warmest year on record.

Assuming that prediction holds up, it will mean that the 10 warmest years on record all fell within the past 15 years, a measure of how much the planet has warmed. Nobody who is under 28 has lived through a month of global temperatures that fell below the 20th-century average, because the last such month was February 1985.

Last year’s weather in the United States began with an unusually warm winter, with relatively little snow across much of the country, followed by a March that was so hot that trees burst into bloom and swimming pools opened early. The soil dried out in the March heat, helping to set the stage for a drought that peaked during the warmest July on record.

The drought engulfed 61 percent of the nation, killed corn and soybean crops and sent prices spiraling. It was comparable to a severe drought in the 1950s, Mr. Crouch said, but not quite as severe as the legendary Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s, which was exacerbated by poor farming practices that allowed topsoil to blow away.

Extensive records covering the lower 48 states go back to 1895; Alaska and Hawaii have shorter records and are generally not included in long-term climate comparisons for that reason.

Mr. Crouch pointed out that until last year, the coldest year in the historical record for the lower 48 states, 1917, was separated from the warmest year, 1998, by only 4.2 degrees Fahrenheit. That is why the 2012 record, and its one degree increase over 1998, strikes climatologists as so unusual.

“We’re taking quite a large step above what the period of record has shown for the contiguous United States,” Mr. Crouch said.

In addition to being the nation’s warmest year, 2012 turned out to be the second-worst on a measure called the Climate Extremes Index, surpassed only by 1998.

Experts are still counting, but so far 11 disasters in 2012 have exceeded a threshold of $1 billion in damages, including several tornado outbreaks; Hurricane Isaac, which hit the Gulf Coast in August, and, late in the year, Hurricane Sandy, which caused damage likely to exceed $60 billion in nearly half the states, primarily in the mid-Atlantic region.

Among those big disasters was one bearing a label many people had never heard before: the derecho, a line of severe, fast-moving thunderstorms that struck central and eastern parts of the country starting on June 29, killing more than 20 people, toppling trees and knocking out power for millions of households.

For people who escaped both the derecho and Hurricane Sandy relatively unscathed, the year may be remembered most for the sheer breadth and oppressiveness of the summer heat wave. By the calculations of the climatic data center, a third of the nation’s population experienced 10 or more days of summer temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Among the cities that set temperature records in 2012 were Nashville; Athens, Ga.; and Cairo, Ill., all of which hit 109 degrees on June 29; Greenville, S.C., which hit 107 degrees on July 1; and Lamar, Colo., which hit 112 degrees on June 27.

With the end of the growing season, coverage of the drought has waned, but the drought itself has not. Mr. Crouch pointed out that at the beginning of January, 61 percent of the country was still in moderate to severe drought conditions. “I foresee that it’s going to be a big story moving forward in 2013,” he said.

    Not Even Close: 2012 Was Hottest Ever in U.S., NYT, 8.1.2013,






Growth of Health Spending Stays Low


January 7, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — National health spending climbed to $2.7 trillion in 2011, or an average of $8,700 for every person in the country, but as a share of the economy, it remained stable for the third consecutive year, the Obama administration said Monday.

The rate of increase in health spending, 3.9 percent in 2011, was the same as in 2009 and 2010 — the lowest annual rates recorded in the 52 years the government has been collecting such data.

Federal officials could not say for sure whether the low growth in health spending represented the start of a trend or reflected the continuing effects of the recession, which crimped the economy from December 2007 to June 2009.

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said that “the statistics show how the Affordable Care Act is already making a difference,” saving money for consumers. But a report issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, in her department, said that the law had so far had “no discernible impact” on overall health spending.

Although some provisions of the law have taken effect, the report said, “their influence on overall health spending through 2011 was minimal.”

The recession increased unemployment, reduced the number of people with private health insurance, lowered household income and assets and therefore tended to slow health spending, said Micah B. Hartman, a statistician at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

In the report, federal officials said that total national spending on prescription drugs and doctors’ services grew faster in 2011 than in the year before, but that spending on hospital care grew more slowly.

Medicaid spending likewise grew less quickly in 2011 than in the prior year, as states struggled with budget problems. But Medicare spending grew more rapidly, because of an increase in “the volume and intensity” of doctors’ services and a one-time increase in Medicare payments to skilled nursing homes, said the report, published in the journal Health Affairs.

National health spending grew at roughly the same pace as the overall economy, without adjusting for inflation, so its share of the economy stayed the same, at 17.9 percent in 2011, where it has been since 2009. By contrast, health spending accounted for just 13.8 percent of the economy in 2000.

Health spending grew more than 5 percent each year from 1961 to 2007. It rose at double-digit rates in some years, including every year from 1966 to 1984 and from 1988 to 1990.

The report did not forecast the effects of the new health care law on future spending. Some provisions of the law, including subsidized insurance for millions of Americans, could increase spending, officials said. But the law also trims Medicare payments to many health care providers and authorizes experiments to slow the growth of health spending.

“The jury is still out whether all the innovations we’re testing will have much impact,” said Richard S. Foster, who supervised the preparation of the report as chief actuary of the Medicare agency. “I am optimistic. There’s a lot of potential. More and more health care providers understand that the future cannot be like the past, in which health spending almost always grew faster than the gross domestic product.”

Evidence of the new emphasis can be seen in a series of articles published in The Archives of Internal Medicine, now known as JAMA Internal Medicine, under the title “Less Is More.” The series highlights cases in which “the overuse of medical care may result in harm and in which less care is likely to result in better health.”

Total spending for doctors’ services rose 3.6 percent in 2011, to $436 billion, while spending for hospital care increased 4.3 percent, to $850.6 billion.

Spending on prescription drugs at retail stores reached $263 billion in 2011, up 2.9 percent from 2010, when growth was just four-tenths of 1 percent. The latest increase was still well below the average increase of 7.8 percent a year from 2000 to 2010.

Federal officials said the increase in 2011 resulted partly from rapid growth in prices for brand-name drugs.

Prices for specialty drugs, typically prescribed by medical specialists for chronic conditions, have increased at double-digit rates in recent years, the government said. In addition, spending on new brand-name drugs — those brought to market in the previous two years — more than doubled from 2010 to 2011, driven by an increase in the number of new medicines.

“In 2011,” the report said, “spending for private health insurance premiums increased 3.8 percent, as did spending for benefits. Out-of-pocket spending by consumers increased 2.8 percent in 2011, accelerating from 2.1 percent in 2010 but still slower than the average annual growth rate of 4.7 percent” from 2002 to 2008.

    Growth of Health Spending Stays Low, NYT, 7.1.2013,






Social Security: It’s Worse Than You Think


January 5, 2013
The New York Times


CONGRESS and President Obama have pushed through a relatively modest stopgap measure to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” but over the coming years, the United States will confront another huge cliff: Social Security.

In the first presidential debate, Mr. Obama described Social Security as “structurally sound,” and Mitt Romney said that “neither the president nor I are proposing any changes” to the program. It was a rare issue on which both men agreed — and both were utterly wrong.

For the first time in more than a quarter-century, Social Security ran a deficit in 2010: It spent $49 billion dollars more in benefits than it received in revenues, and drew from its trust funds to cover the shortfall. Those funds — a $2.7 trillion buffer built in anticipation of retiring baby boomers — will be exhausted by 2033, the government currently projects.

Those facts are widely known. What’s not is that the Social Security Administration underestimates how long Americans will live and how much the trust funds will need to pay out — to the tune of $800 billion by 2031, more than the current annual defense budget — and that the trust funds will run out, if nothing is done, two years earlier than the government has predicted.

We reached these conclusions, and presented them in an article in the journal Demography, after finding that the government’s methods for forecasting Americans’ longevity were outdated and omitted crucial health and demographic factors. Historic declines in smoking and improvements in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease are adding years of life that the government hasn’t accounted for. (While obesity has rapidly increased, it is not likely, at this point, to offset these public health and medical successes.) More retirees will receive benefits for longer than predicted, supported by the payroll taxes of relatively fewer working adults than projected.

Remarkably, since Social Security was created in 1935, the government’s forecasting methods have barely changed, even as a revolution in big data and statistics has transformed everything from baseball to retailing.

This omission can be explained by the fact that the Office of the Chief Actuary, the branch of the Social Security Administration that is responsible for the forecasts, is almost exclusively composed of, well, actuaries — without any serious representation of statisticians or social science methodologists. While these actuaries are highly responsible and careful and do excellent work curating and describing the data that go into the forecasts, their job is not to make statistical predictions. Yet the agency badly needs such expertise.

With considerable help from the actuaries and other officials at the Social Security Administration, we unearthed how the agency makes mortality forecasts and uses them to predict the program’s solvency. We learned that the methods are antiquated, subjective and needlessly complicated — and, as a result, are prone to error and to potential interference from political appointees. This may explain why the agency’s forecasts have, at times, changed significantly from year to year, even when there was little change in the underlying data.

We have made our methods, calculations and software available online at j.mp/SSecurity so that others can replicate or improve our forecasts. The implications of our findings go beyond social science. As the wave of retirement by the baby boomers continues, doing nothing to shore up Social Security’s solvency is irresponsible. If the amount of money coming in through payroll taxes does not increase and if the amount of money going out as benefits remains the same, the trust funds will become insolvent less than 20 years from now.

To save Social Security, which has lifted generations of elderly people out of poverty, tough choices have to be made. One option is to continue raising the retirement age, perhaps to as high as 69 or 70. While the full retirement age is gradually increasing to 67 (for people born in 1960 or later) from 65, this increase is not enough to counterbalance the gains in longevity.

A second option is to increase payroll taxes, for example by taxing wages over $113,700, the current earnings limit. A third is to limit the annual cost-of-living adjustments, possibly by changing how those adjustments are calculated. A fourth is to reduce benefits — for example, by lowering the initial benefits for workers whose lifetime wages are above the national average (currently $43,000 a year). Other choices, in numerous combinations, are possible, too.

One factor that might be considered is new research suggesting that retirement itself, although popular, may reduce life expectancy by breaking lifelong routines and disrupting deep social connections. One might question how much government policy should actively encourage retirement, as opposed to merely making it an option.

Americans need to discuss these difficult choices — and the Social Security Administration needs the ability to improve its forecasting technology by adding statisticians and social science methodologists to help its actuaries institute more formalized quantitative and statistical procedures.

In 1983, after the last time the trust funds ran a deficit, the National Commission on Social Security Reform, led by Alan Greenspan and with members appointed by President Ronald Reagan and Congressional leaders, produced a report that led to changes in payroll taxes. But in the quarter-century since, there have been only modest changes in the program.

We know much more now about mortality and demography, and so an open debate today about Social Security’s future could be even more productive than it was then. The high levels of partisan strife may not make the present seem like the best time to reach a bipartisan agreement. But few issues are more important to more Americans, of both parties, and the longer we ignore the problem, the more disruptive any change will need to be to keep Social Security alive.


Gary King is a professor of government

and director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science

at Harvard.

Samir S. Soneji, a demographer, is an assistant professor

at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy

and Clinical Practice.

    Social Security: It’s Worse Than You Think, NYT, 5.1.2013,






And at the Bottom of the Wage Scale ...


January 4, 2013
The New York Times

Nearly a million low-wage workers in 10 states will get a modest raise this year. In Rhode Island, a new law has raised the state’s minimum wage by 35 cents an hour, to $7.75, which will work out to an average annual raise of $510 for 11,000 Rhode Islanders. In nine other states — Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — laws that peg the minimum wage to inflation will result in increases of 10 cents to 15 cents an hour, for hourly wages ranging from $7.35 in Missouri to $9.19 in Washington.

By contrast, the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009. In all, 19 states and the District of Columbia set their minimums above that level, providing a much needed lift for the lowest-paid workers.
But state efforts are no substitute for a higher federal minimum because the ability to earn a minimally acceptable income should not depend on where a worker lives.

Will Congress finally raise the federal minimum wage this year? It would be the least that lawmakers could do. In the fiscal cliff deal, lawmakers locked in big tax breaks for wealthy investors and for heirs of multimillion-dollar estates. At the same time, they allowed the payroll tax cut for low- and middle-income taxpayers to expire, without enacting new provisions to ease the blow. The lowest-paid workers will be hit the hardest. In the states that raised their minimum wage this year, much of the increase will be eaten up by the higher payroll tax. In the other states, paychecks will simply be smaller.

Efforts to raise the minimum invariably run into arguments that employers, especially small businesses, cannot afford to pay a higher wage. But the evidence shows that most low-wage employees work for large companies, which have largely recovered from the recession and have reinstituted generous pay packages for executives. As for low-wage workers at small businesses, many are waitresses and other “tipped” workers for whom the federal minimum wage is $2.13 an hour, where it has been since 1991. Clearly, there is ample room for an increase.

A related argument is that a higher minimum wage destroys jobs, especially employment for teenagers. But research shows that most low-wage workers are over the age of 20 and suggests that paying them a higher wage could actually create jobs by bolstering consumer spending.

A higher minimum wage is also an obvious way to counter the accelerating trend toward low-wage work and growing income inequality. For decades, various forces, including the decline in unionization and the global competition for jobs, have pushed down wages in the United States. But the situation has become worse in the last few years, as most of the middle-wage jobs lost during the recession have been replaced with lower-paid work.

Raising the minimum wage is always a fight. Congress has approved legislation to do so only three times in the last 30 years. President Obama promised to take on this fight back in 2008, when he called for a federal minimum wage of $9.50 an hour by 2011, indexed to inflation. It is past time to keep the promise.

    And at the Bottom of the Wage Scale ..., NYT, 4.1.2013,






America’s Retreat From the Death Penalty


January 1, 2013
The New York Times

When the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, it said there were two social purposes for imposing capital punishment for the most egregious crimes: deterrence and retribution. In recent months, these justifications for a cruel and uncivilized punishment have been seriously undermined by a growing group of judges, prosecutors, scholars and others involved in criminal justice, conservatives and liberals alike.

A distinguished committee of scholars convened by the National Research Council found that there is no useful evidence to determine if the death penalty deters serious crimes. Many first-rate scholars have tried to prove the theory of deterrence, but that research “is not informative about whether capital punishment increases, decreases, or has no effect on homicide rates,” the committee said.

A host of other respected experts have also concluded that life imprisonment is a far more practical form of retribution, because the death penalty process is too expensive, too time-consuming and unfairly applied.

The punishment is supposed to be reserved for the very worst criminals, but dozens of studies in state after state have shown that the process for deciding who should be sent to death row is arbitrary and discriminatory.

Thanks to the Innocence Project and the overturning of 18 wrongful convictions of death-row inmates with DNA evidence and the exonerations of 16 others charged with capital crimes, the American public is increasingly aware that the system makes terrible mistakes. Since 1973, a total of 142 people have been freed from death row after being exonerated with DNA or other kinds of evidence.

All of these factors have led the states to retreat from the death penalty in recent years — in both law and in practice. In 2012, Connecticut became the fifth state in five years to abolish the penalty. Nine states executed inmates, the fewest in two decades. Three-fourths of the 43 executions in 2012 were carried out in only four states. The number of new death sentences remained low at 77 — about one-third the number in 2000 — with just four states accounting for almost two-thirds of those sentences. While 33 states retain the death penalty on their books, 13 of them have not executed anyone for at least five years.

Those 13 states plus the 17 without the penalty means that 30 states are not carrying it out — and that includes California, which retained the death penalty in a November referendum vote. Almost one-quarter of the 3,146 death row inmates in the United States, as of October, are imprisoned in California, but that state has not executed anyone in seven years.

California’s chief justice said recently that the state’s official moratorium, which has been in place for six years, is likely to continue for at least three more because of problems with the execution method.

In January, executions are scheduled to take place in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas. As it happens, major reviews of the death penalty are under way in each of those states. The reviews are very likely to find that those states have failed to meet standards of fairness under the Constitution, just as reviews of the capital systems in other states have concluded in the last decade.

The large number of states no longer carrying out executions indicates a kind of national consensus. It points to “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” an idea that the Supreme Court has evoked in judging the constitutionality of punishments. The court used that analysis most recently when it ruled that mandatory life sentences without possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders even if they are convicted of homicide.

It should similarly recognize that under evolving standards capital punishment is cruel and unusual and should be abolished.

    America’s Retreat From the Death Penalty, NYT, 1.1.2013,






Stop Subsidizing Obesity


December 25, 2012
7:34 pm
The New York Times


Not long ago few doctors - not even pediatricians - concerned themselves much with nutrition. This has changed, and dramatically: As childhood obesity gains recognition as a true health crisis, more and more doctors are publicly expressing alarm at the impact the standard American diet is having on health.

"I never saw Type 2 diabetes during my training, 20 years ago," David Ludwig, a pediatrician, told me the other day, referring to what was once called "adult-onset" diabetes, the form that is often caused by obesity. "Never. Now about a quarter of the new diabetes cases we're seeing are Type 2."

Ludwig, who is director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center in Boston, is one of three authors, all medical doctors of an essay ("Viewpoint") in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association titled "Opportunities to Reduce Childhood Hunger and Obesity."

That title that would once have been impossible, but now it's merely paradoxical. Because the situation is this: 17 percent of children in the United States are obese, 16 percent are food-insecure (this means they have inconsistent access to food), and some number, which is impossible to nail down, are both. Seven times as many poor children are obese as those who are underweight, an indication that government aid in the form of food stamps, now officially called SNAP, does a good job of addressing hunger but encourages the consumption of unhealthy calories.

The doctors' piece, which addresses these issues, was written by Ludwig along with Susan Blumenthal, a former assistant Surgeon General and U.S.D.A. medical adviser, and Walter Willett, chair of Harvard's Department of Nutrition (and a stalwart of sound nutrition research for more than 30 years). It's essentially a plea to tweak SNAP regulations Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits, the program formerly and more familiarly known as Food Stamps) so that the program concerns itself with the quality of calories instead of just their quantity.

"It's shocking," says Ludwig, "how little we consider food quality in the management of chronic diseases. And in the case of SNAP that failure costs taxpayers twice: We pay once when low-income families buy junk foods and sugary beverages with SNAP benefits, and we pay a second time when poor diet quality inevitably increases the costs of health care in general, and Medicaid and Medicare in particular."

The argument that soda and other junk masquerading as food should be made ineligible for purchase by food stamps, as are alcohol and tobacco, is one that's been gaining momentum in the last few years. It's also one that has led to a split in what might be called the nutrition advocacy community.

On the one side are "anti-hunger" groups who want to maintain SNAP's status quo; on the other are those who believe SNAP must be protected but also that it must be adjusted to take into account the changes in agriculture, marketing and diet that have occurred since SNAP was born 50 years ago, changes that have led to the obesity crisis.

I'm in that second camp, as are the authors of this article, who make a case that the rift is artificial, though both sides share the same fear: if we advocate any tinkering with SNAP, it may make the program more vulnerable to cuts which it can ill afford.

But the reality is that some billions of SNAP dollars (exact figures are unavailable, but the number most experts use is four) are being spent on soda, which is strictly speaking not food, and certainly not a nutritious substance, and is a leading cause of obesity. Seven percent of our calories come from sugar-sweetened beverages, none of them doing any of us any good.

Though there were those who argued against including soda when food stamps were created, the most pressing need was to address calorie deficiency, and that remains important. But the situation is different now: we recognize the harmful properties of added sugar, the importance of high-quality nutrients in children has been better analyzed, and obesity is a bigger problem than hunger. So funding low-quality, harmful calories is detrimental to both funders and recipients.

"It's time," says Ludwig, "for us to realize that the goals of anti-hunger and obesity prevention are not at cross purposes. In fact poor quality foods can actually increase hunger because they are inherently less filling." A child will become hungrier, sooner, after consuming 200 calories from a sugary beverage, compared to an apple and peanut butter with the same calories.

What's to be done? How to improve the quality of calories purchased by SNAP recipients? The answer is easy: Make sure that SNAP dollars are spent on nutritious food.

This could happen in two ways: first, remove the subsidy for sugar-sweetened beverages, since no one without a share in the profits can argue that the substance plays a constructive role in any diet. "There's no rationale for continuing to subsidize them through SNAP benefits," says Ludwig, "with the level of science we have linking their consumption to obesity, diabetes and heart disease." New York City proposed a pilot program that would do precisely this back in 2011; it was rejected by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) as "too complex."

Simultaneously, make it easier to buy real food; several cities, including New York, have programs that double the value of food stamps when used for purchases at farmers markets. The next step is to similarly increase the spending power of food stamps when they're used to buy fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, not just in farmers markets but in supermarkets - indeed, everywhere people buy food.

Both of these could be set up as pilot programs by the USDA. Their inevitable success would lead to their expansion, and ultimately to better health for SNAP participants, who now number nearly 50 million. The impact of improving the diet of that many Americans would be profound; the impact of not doing so is tragic.

    Stop Subsidizing Obesity, NYT, 25.12.2012,






Shop Owners Report Rise in Firearm Sales

as Buyers Fear Possible New Laws


December 21, 2012
The New York Times


Rainier Arms, a gun dealer in Auburn, Wash., receives great Yelp reviews for its responsiveness. But a call to the dealer on Friday led to a full voice mail box, and an e-mail to its sales team drew this automatic response: “Thank you for contacting Rainier Arms for your AR-15 needs. Due to an overwhelming response to the latest political climate, we are experiencing longer-than-normal response times.”

At Bud’s Gun Shop in Maryland, a message on the Web site said that customer service was “completely overwhelmed” and it discouraged customers from calling or e-mailing.

And on GunBroker.com, an Oracle .223 that normally retails for around $650 had been bid up to $1,175 with three days left in the auction.

With gun-control legislation getting more serious discussion than it has in years, gun sales are spiking as enthusiasts stock up in advance of possible restrictions.

Gun sales have been increasing over the past five years, with marked increases around the 2008 and 2012 elections, and after mass shootings like the one in Aurora, Colo., and now in Newtown, Conn.

“The largest factor by far is fears over a potential change in gun laws — that’s what’s driving most guns enthusiasts or even first-time buyers to go buy a gun,” said Nima Samadi, senior guns and ammunition analyst for the research firm IBISWorld.

There is increasing demands for guns in the United States. Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted 16.45 million background checks for firearm sales through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a 14 percent jump from the previous year. In the first 11 months of this year, the bureau conducted 16.8 million background checks, a record since the system’s founding in 1998.

Since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, though, a few companies associated with gun sales have backed away. Cerberus Capital Management put the company that makes the Bushmaster, a gun used in the shootings, up for sale on Tuesday, saying, “The Sandy Hook tragedy was a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level.”

Dick’s Sporting Goods temporarily ceased selling all guns in its location closest to Newtown, and has also put a hold on sales of so-called modern sporting rifles, which include semiautomatic guns, nationwide.

And Deseret Digital Media, which owns KSL.com, a Web site that has been criticized by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for allowing unregulated gun sales, said it was suspending classified advertisements for guns.

Elsewhere, though, consumers are hurrying to buy guns, leading to some models being out of stock, warnings of shipping and customer-service delays, and significant premiums on assault rifles.

“We are seeing a total madhouse of buying everything in sight,” said Bob Irwin, owner of the Gun Store, a Las Vegas shooting range and retailer. Thursday, he said, was the largest sales day in the history of the store, which has been open for 30 years. “We have not only a run on the guns, but a run on ammunition.”

Mr. Irwin has begun limiting how much of some types of ammunition customers can buy, and he has canceled employees’ days off to handle the demand.

Walmart, the largest retailer of guns and ammunition in the United States, indicated that several semiautomatic guns were out of stock at locations across the country. Kory Lundberg, a spokesman, said the company was not sold out of guns altogether, but had low inventory in some situations. Walmart carries guns in about half its stores, and about one-third carry so-called modern sporting rifles, the category including the Bushmaster and other AR-15 weapons.

Other retailers around the country were selling out of guns and accessories. On Friday on ImpactGuns.com, the Bushmaster .223 was out of stock. Davidson’s, a supplier to gun retailers, placed a notice on its Web site that said it was seeing “unprecedented demand,” and at MidwayUSA.com, more than 100 parts for AR-15 guns were out of stock and on back order.

On AR15.com, a gun-enthusiast Web site, a user posted that a barrel for a gun disappeared from an online shopping cart overnight, and is now on back order. Another user, named warplg8654, responded, “Dealers can’t keep anything in stock for what I think are obvious reasons given the current political climate.”

When a user called JazzFan asked whether paying a $100 premium for a Stag Model 3 was a good deal, another user said that seemed “reasonable with all of the panic buying.”

Gavin Gear, the founder of the enthusiast site Northwest Gun, said gun owners were feeling “apprehension.”

“People are trying to think ahead, and if they want to own a particular firearm and they think it’s going to be outlawed or restricted, they’re more likely to buy now,” he said.

    Shop Owners Report Rise in Firearm Sales as Buyers Fear Possible New Laws,
    NYT, 21.12.2012,






Use of Death Sentences

Continues to Fall in U.S.


December 20, 2012
The New York Times


Thirty-six years after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, its use is waning, with prosecutors and juries preferring to sentence convicted murderers to life in prison without parole. New data for 2012 show that nine states executed inmates this year, the fewest in two decades, and the number of death sentences handed down this year — 80 — was about a third of the total in 2000.

“We have done polling on this, and the biggest reason is lingering doubt about guilt,” said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks executions around the country and released the numbers this week. “Between 90 and 95 percent of the people are aware that there have been exonerations based on DNA evidence.”

While a majority of states — 33 — still have the death penalty on the books, that number has also been on the decline. Connecticut banned capital punishment this year, the fifth state in five years to do so, following Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York. Twenty-nine states either do not have the death penalty or have not carried out an execution in five years.

In addition, four states with histories of executing convicted murderers — Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia — sentenced no one to death this year. Three-quarters of the 43 people put to death in 2012 were in four states: Arizona, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas.

Another major reason for the decline is that the death penalty involves enormous expense and numerous appeals; some prosecutors say they prefer life imprisonment.

Stan Garnett, the district attorney in Boulder County, Colo., wrote recently that as his state considered repealing the death penalty, he would like his fellow citizens to know that he was “not morally or philosophically opposed” to it. But he considers the death penalty impractical because it is expensive, time-consuming and often unfairly applied.

“A 1994 Colorado death verdict currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court has cost the state of Colorado nearly $18 million to fund through all the appeals,” Mr. Garnett wrote. He said his office’s operating budget is $4.6 million and prosecutes 1,900 felonies a year.

In California, a referendum last month seeking to end the death penalty because of its cost narrowly failed to achieve a majority. But the 47 percent of voters who supported the referendum represents a much larger number of Californians opposing capital punishment than ever before. The state has not carried out an execution in nearly seven years.

A year ago, the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, called for a re-evaluation of the death penalty system, saying it was ineffective. Asked if she supported the death penalty, she replied: “I don’t know if the question is whether you believe in it anymore. I think the greater question is its effectiveness and, given the choices we face in California, should we have a merit-based discussion on its effectiveness and costs?”

Texas executed 15 people this year, by far the most in the country. But for the eighth consecutive year it executed more people than it sentenced to death, signaling that fewer executions will be carried out in the future, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, in Washington. The total number of people on death row in the country is 3,170, down from 3,670 in 2000.

James S. Liebman, a law professor at Columbia University, said he had studied the death penalty’s use by county, rather than by state, because punishment is sought at the county level, and he found that 60 percent of the nation’s counties no longer seek it. In addition, he said, some counties that in the past had led the country in its use, like Houston, did not hand down a single death penalty this year.

“A lot of officials have come to the conclusion that if they are concerned about deterrence and protection of their citizens and the diminishing of crime, the death penalty is not a very good strategy,” Professor Liebman said. “The counties that use it are ones that tend to spend a lot less money on law enforcement, criminal justice and the courts. They are using it instead of modern law enforcement.”

Professor Liebman, like Mr. Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, noted that murders account for a small percentage of crimes, yet seeking the death penalty can take up most of a prosecutor’s budget. Death penalty cases usually involve two trials — one to determine guilt, and the other to decide on the death penalty — and better lawyers for the defense. In addition, prosecutors do not like to lose death penalty cases, so they tend to put in far greater effort and resources.

“If you get someone into jail, the likelihood of his committing murder will at least be lower,” Professor Liebman said. “In addition, most people on death row are never going to get executed. Death row incarceration is more expensive. It requires single cells because the inmates are considered more dangerous and more desperate.”

Mr. Dieter added: “Juries know that mistakes have been made and have lingering doubts about absolute guilt. Life without parole gives them an alternative.”

    Use of Death Sentences Continues to Fall in U.S., NYT, 20.12.2012,






National Rifle (Selling) Association


December 20, 2012

The New York Times


The National Rifle Association is scheduled to hold a news conference on Friday where it says it plans to provide details about its promise of “meaningful contributions” to prevent another a massacre like the one in Newtown, Conn.

We would like to believe that the N.R.A., the most influential opponent of sensible gun-control policies, will do as it says, but we have little faith that it will offer any substantial reforms. The association presents itself as a grass-roots organization, but it has become increasingly clear in recent years that it represents gun makers. Its chief aim has been to help their businesses by increasing the spread of firearms throughout American society.

In recent years, the N.R.A. has aggressively lobbied federal and state governments to dilute or eliminate numerous regulations on gun ownership. And the clearest beneficiary has been the gun industry — sales of firearms and ammunition have grown 5.7 percent a year since 2007, to nearly $12 billion this year, according to IBISWorld, a market research firm. Despite the recession, arms sales have been growing so fast that domestic manufacturers haven’t been able to keep up. Imports of arms have grown 3.6 percent a year in the last five years.

The industry has, in turn, been a big supporter of the N.R.A. It has contributed between $14.7 million and $38.9 million to an N.R.A.-corporate-giving campaign since 2005, according to a report published last year by the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit group that advocates greater gun control. The estimate is based on a study of the N.R.A.’s “Ring of Freedom” program and very likely understates the industry’s total financial support for the association, which does not publicly disclose a comprehensive list of its donors and how much they have given.

Officials from the N.R.A. have repeatedly said their main goal is to protect the Second Amendment rights of rank-and-file members who like to hunt or want guns for protection. But that claim is at odds with surveys that show a majority of N.R.A. members and a majority of American gun owners often support restrictions on gun sales and ownership that the N.R.A. has bitterly fought.

For instance, a 2009 poll commissioned by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that 69 percent of N.R.A. members would support requiring all sellers at gun shows to conduct background checks of prospective buyers, which they do not have to do now and which the N.R.A. has steadfastly argued against. If lawful gun owners are willing to subject themselves to background checks, why is the association resisting? Its position appears only to serve the interest of gun makers and dealers who want to increase sales even if it means having dangerous weapons fall into the hands of criminals and violent individuals.

Businesses and special-interest groups often cloak their profit motives in the garb of constitutional rights — think Big Tobacco and its opposition to restrictions on smoking in public places and bold warnings on cigarette packages. The Supreme Court has made clear that the right to bear arms is not absolute and is subject to regulations and controls. Yet the N.R.A. clings to its groundless arguments that tough regulations violate the Second Amendment. Many of those arguments serve no purpose other than to increase the sales of guns and bullets.

    National Rifle (Selling) Association, NYT, 20.12.2012,






The Great Gun Gag


December 6, 2012
9:00 pm
The New York Times


On national television, you can talk about the sordid details of your sex life, the depth of your religious piety or your belief that an organization that no longer exists, Acorn, stole the 2012 presidential election -- a fantasy held by half of Republicans. You can call climate change a hoax, you can say the moon landing never happened, you can even praise Alex Rodriguez, though you shouldn't.

But you cannot talk about the 300 million or more guns circulating in private hands in the United States. The most armed society in the world, ranked first among 179 nations in the rate of gun ownership, had 9,146 gun homicides in 2009. The same year, Canada had 173. But don't bring that up.

In Florida, it was against the law -- until the law was blocked by a federal judge last summer -- for hospital doctors to even ask about firearms ownership of victims, even though gunshot wounds account for 1 in 25 emergency room visits.

Conservatives complain about anti-free-speech vigilantes who keep incendiary voices of the right from being heard on college campuses, and they have a valid point. But some of these same First Amendment defenders are the first to smother any talk about the American weapons culture. The gun gag rules.

The latest public figure to face the shame shower is Bob Costas, the sports broadcaster who occasionally steps outside the chalk lines of the games he covers. Last Sunday, a day in late autumn devoted as usual to the lucrative violence of professional football, Costas spoke about a more tragic kind of violence. In passing on the words of a local writer, he wondered whether the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend might still be alive had guns not been so readily available. Belcher, who kept a handgun on the kitchen table and an assault rifle in the den, shot Kasandra Perkins, the mother of their infant child, and then himself last weekend.

Costas made his brief remarks at halftime of the Sunday night game. Within minutes, the censors went after him. Top Republicans called for his resignation. Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin, who are to reasoned argument what salt is to a slug, condemned him. And Herman Cain, the pizza guy who at one point led the Republican presidential primary field in the polls, passed on this tweet: "Excuse me, Bob Costas, but you are an idiot, so shut up."

Those last two words pretty much define the current climate regarding debate about guns and violence. In this country, it is the issue that dare not speak its name.

Costas said later he had nothing against the Second Amendment. But our gun culture more often than not leads to tragedy, he noted. In this, he was stating a fact, not an opinion. "Give me one example of an athlete -- and I know it's happened in society -- but give me one example of a professional athlete who by virtue of having a gun took a dangerous situation and turned it around for the better," he said.

My sentiments are with Costas. I've lost friends and family members to gun violence. Still, I have nothing against people exercising their Second Amendment rights. Adults can have all the guns they want, but please -- they should understand that their arsenal makes them less safe.

People with guns in the home are at a far greater risk of dying of homicide than those without, the American Journal of Epidemiology reported in 2004. For men, the likelihood of death by suicide is much higher if a gun is nearby. And 90 percent of suicide attempts by gun are successful; for willful drug overdoses, the rate is only 2 percent.

Understandably, people buy guns for self-defense. But a gun in the home is 12 times more likely to result in the death of a household member, or a visitor, than an intruder, a 2010 study by the official journal of the Southern Medical Association found.

For all those grim numbers, the United States is not the most violent society. Drug oligarchies and broken tribal nations are much more lethal places to live. But among the 23 wealthiest countries, the United States is easily the bloodiest: homicide gun rates are 19.5 times higher here than in any other high-income country, Politifact reported.

Going into a theater or a mall in America can be a risky thing, as recent mass shootings have shown. I just returned from Idaho, where people are buying guns at a record clip because of the delusional fear that President Obama is going to take them away. The safest place in Idaho, by far, is just inside the security line at the Boise airport, where a big sign warns people that they will soon be entering a mandatory gun-free zone.

How these basic truths came to be treated as unmentionables is a tribute to the gun lobby's power to strangle debate on even simple safety questions. At the same time, they have all but shut down public health research into gun violence.

For the politicians and pundits who do the gun industry's bidding, the First Amendment does not apply to the Second Amendment. It took a sportscaster, accustomed to parsing the nuances of a stunt blitz, to break the code of shameful silence.

    The Great Gun Gag, NYT, 6.12.2012,






States Cut Antismoking Outlays

Despite Record Tobacco Revenue


December 6, 2012
The New York Times


Faced with tight budgets, states have spent less on tobacco prevention over the past two years than in any period since the national tobacco settlement in 1998, despite record high revenues from the settlement and tobacco taxes, according to a report to be released on Thursday.

States are on track to collect a record $25.7 billion in tobacco taxes and settlement money in the current fiscal year, but they are set to spend less than 2 percent of that on prevention, according to the report, by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which compiles the revenue data annually. The figures come from state appropriations for the fiscal year ending in June.

The settlement awarded states an estimated $246 billion over its first 25 years. It gave states complete discretion over the money, and many use it for programs unrelated to tobacco or to plug budget holes. Public health experts say it lacks a mechanism for ensuring that some portion of the money is set aside for tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

“There weren’t even gums, let alone teeth,” Timothy McAfee, the director of the Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, referring to the allocation of funds for tobacco prevention and cessation in the terms of the settlement.

Spending on tobacco prevention peaked in 2002 at $749 million, 63 percent above the level this year. After six years of declines, spending ticked up again in 2008, only to fall by 36 percent during the recession, the report said.

Tobacco use is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States, killing more than 400,000 Americans every year, according to the C.D.C.

The report did not count federal money for smoking prevention, which Vince Willmore, the vice president for communications at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, estimated to be about $522 million for the past four fiscal years. The sum — about $130 million a year — was not enough to bring spending back to earlier levels.

The $500 million a year that states spend on tobacco prevention is a tiny fraction of the $8 billion a year that tobacco companies spend to market their products, according to a Federal Trade Commission report in September.

Nationally, 19 percent of adults smoke, down from over 40 percent in 1965. But rates remain high for less-educated Americans. Twenty-seven percent of Americans with only a high school diploma smoke, compared with just 8 percent of those with a college degree or higher, according to C.D.C. data from 2010. The highest rate — 34 percent — was among black men who did not graduate from high school.

“Smoking used to be the rich man’s habit,” said Danny McGoldrick, the vice president for research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, “and now it’s decidedly a poor person’s behavior.”

Aggressive antismoking programs are the main tools that cities and states have to reach the demographic groups in which smoking rates are the highest, making money to finance them even more critical, Mr. McGoldrick said.

The decline in spending comes amid growing certainty among public health officials that antismoking programs, like help lines and counseling, actually work. California went from having a smoking rate above the national average 20 years ago to having the second-lowest rate in the country after modest but consistent spending on programs that help people quit and prevent children from starting, Dr. McAfee said.

An analysis by Washington State, cited in the report, found that it saved $5 in tobacco-related hospitalization costs for every $1 spent during the first 10 years of its program.

Budget cuts have eviscerated some of the most effective tobacco prevention programs, the report said. This year, state financing for North Carolina’s program has been eliminated. Washington State’s program has been cut by about 90 percent in recent years, and for the third year in a row, Ohio has not allocated any state money for what was once a successful program, the report said.

    States Cut Antismoking Outlays Despite Record Tobacco Revenue,
    NYT, 5.12.2012,






U.S. Election Speeded Move

to Codify Policy on Drones


November 24, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.

The matter may have lost some urgency after Nov. 6. But with more than 300 drone strikes and some 2,500 people killed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the military since Mr. Obama first took office, the administration is still pushing to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified.

Mr. Obama and his advisers are still debating whether remote-control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United States, or a more flexible tool, available to help allied governments attack their enemies or to prevent militants from controlling territory.

Though publicly the administration presents a united front on the use of drones, behind the scenes there is longstanding tension. The Defense Department and the C.I.A. continue to press for greater latitude to carry out strikes; Justice Department and State Department officials, and the president’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, have argued for restraint, officials involved in the discussions say.

More broadly, the administration’s legal reasoning has not persuaded many other countries that the strikes are acceptable under international law. For years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States routinely condemned targeted killings of suspected terrorists by Israel, and most countries still object to such measures.

But since the first targeted killing by the United States in 2002, two administrations have taken the position that the United States is at war with Al Qaeda and its allies and can legally defend itself by striking its enemies wherever they are found.

Partly because United Nations officials know that the United States is setting a legal and ethical precedent for other countries developing armed drones, the U.N. plans to open a unit in Geneva early next year to investigate American drone strikes.

The attempt to write a formal rule book for targeted killing began last summer after news reports on the drone program, started under President George W. Bush and expanded by Mr. Obama, revealed some details of the president’s role in the shifting procedures for compiling “kill lists” and approving strikes. Though national security officials insist that the process is meticulous and lawful, the president and top aides believe it should be institutionalized, a course of action that seemed particularly urgent when it appeared that Mitt Romney might win the presidency.

“There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. With a continuing debate about the proper limits of drone strikes, Mr. Obama did not want to leave an “amorphous” program to his successor, the official said. The effort, which would have been rushed to completion by January had Mr. Romney won, will now be finished at a more leisurely pace, the official said.

Mr. Obama himself, in little-noticed remarks, has acknowledged that the legal governance of drone strikes is still a work in progress.

“One of the things we’ve got to do is put a legal architecture in place, and we need Congressional help in order to do that, to make sure that not only am I reined in but any president’s reined in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making,” Mr. Obama told Jon Stewart in an appearance on “The Daily Show” on Oct. 18.

In an interview with Mark Bowden for a new book on the killing of Osama bin Laden, “The Finish,” Mr. Obama said that “creating a legal structure, processes, with oversight checks on how we use unmanned weapons, is going to be a challenge for me and my successors for some time to come.”

The president expressed wariness of the powerful temptation drones pose to policy makers. “There’s a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that somehow we can, without any mess on our hands, solve vexing security problems,” he said.

Despite public remarks by Mr. Obama and his aides on the legal basis for targeted killing, the program remains officially classified. In court, fighting lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times seeking secret legal opinions on targeted killings, the government has refused even to acknowledge the existence of the drone program in Pakistan.

But by many accounts, there has been a significant shift in the nature of the targets. In the early years, most strikes were aimed at ranking leaders of Al Qaeda thought to be plotting to attack the United States. That is the purpose Mr. Obama has emphasized, saying in a CNN interview in September that drones were used to prevent “an operational plot against the United States” and counter “terrorist networks that target the United States.”

But for at least two years in Pakistan, partly because of the C.I.A.’s success in decimating Al Qaeda’s top ranks, most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan.

In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.

“Unless they were about to get on a flight to New York to conduct an attack, they were not an imminent threat to the United States,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is a critic of the strikes. “We don’t say that we’re the counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, but we are.”

Then there is the matter of strikes against people whose identities are unknown. In an online video chat in January, Mr. Obama spoke of the strikes in Pakistan as “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists.” But for several years, first in Pakistan and later in Yemen, in addition to “personality strikes” against named terrorists, the C.I.A. and the military have carried out “signature strikes” against groups of suspected, unknown militants.

Originally that term was used to suggest the specific “signature” of a known high-level terrorist, such as his vehicle parked at a meeting place. But the word evolved to mean the “signature” of militants in general — for instance, young men toting arms in an area controlled by extremist groups. Such strikes have prompted the greatest conflict inside the Obama administration, with some officials questioning whether killing unidentified fighters is legally justified or worth the local backlash.

Many people inside and outside the government have argued for far greater candor about all of the strikes, saying excessive secrecy has prevented public debate in Congress or a full explanation of their rationale. Experts say the strikes are deeply unpopular both in Pakistan and Yemen, in part because of allegations of large numbers of civilian casualties, which American officials say are exaggerated.

Gregory D. Johnsen, author of “The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia,” argues that the strike strategy is backfiring in Yemen. “In Yemen, Al Qaeda is actually expanding,” Mr. Johnsen said in a recent talk at the Brookings Institution, in part because of the backlash against the strikes.

Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistan-born analyst now at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said the United States should start making public a detailed account of the results of each strike, including any collateral deaths, in part to counter propaganda from jihadist groups. “This is a grand opportunity for the Obama administration to take the drones out of the shadows and to be open about their objectives,” he said.

But the administration appears to be a long way from embracing such openness. The draft rule book for drone strikes that has been passed among agencies over the last several months is so highly classified, officials said, that it is hand-carried from office to office rather than sent by e-mail.

    U.S. Election Speeded Move to Codify Policy on Drones, NYT, 24.11.2012,






Judicial Elections, Unhinged


November 18, 2012
The New York Times


This year’s round of state judicial elections broke previous records for the amounts spent on judicial campaigns around the country. The dominant role played by special-interest money — including money from super PACs financed by undisclosed donors — has severely weakened the principle of fair and impartial courts.

In Florida, for example, three respected State Supreme Court justices won their retention election battles, but only after they were forced to raise more than $1.5 million in total. They had put on expensive campaigns because they were targeted for defeat by moneyed conservatives who wanted to drive them off the bench for their supposed liberal views. The justices were absolutely right to fight back. Still, the bitter campaigns leave impressions of judicial partisanship and indebtedness to campaign donors.

Nationally, spending on television advertisements in state supreme court races reached nearly $28 million by Election Day, exceeding the $24.4 million in 2004, the previous record for a presidential election year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake, nonpartisan groups working for fair courts. Groups not connected to candidate campaigns paid for more than half of the TV ads run, compared with about 30 percent in 2010, making it much harder for candidates to control their own message.

In Michigan, where three of seven seats on the State Supreme Court were up for election, records were set for both spending and lack of accountability. The $3.2 million raised by candidates and reported to the Michigan Bureau of Elections was dwarfed by unreported spending by the political parties and outside groups interested in tilting the balance on the court. One ad run by an independent group against Bridget McCormack, a Democratic candidate for a seat on the court, featured the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan and suggested that Ms. McCormack’s legal work for a detainee released from Guantánamo Bay in 2007 showed support for terrorism. Ms. McCormack won the race.

Of the $15 million or so spent for TV ads in Michigan, 75 percent cannot be attributed to identifiable donors, notes Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which advocates changing Michigan law to bar undisclosed independent spending. That exceeds even the 2010 record, when half the total spending on Michigan Supreme Court races came from secret sources.

Regrettably, states that elect their top judges show no inclination to address these distressing trends by replacing judicial elections with systems of merit appointment that avoid retention votes. This year’s experience should at least hasten state efforts to revise rules for judicial recusal to take campaign contributions into account. Mandatory disclosure of all donations to a judicial race is also essential. Litigants cannot know when they should request that a judge step aside if they cannot tell whether their case involves a party that supported the judge’s campaign.

    Judicial Elections, Unhinged, NYT, 18.11.2012,






To Reduce Inequality,

Tax Wealth, Not Income


November 18, 2012
The New York Times


WHETHER you’re in the 99 percent, the 47 percent or the 1 percent, inequality in America may threaten your future. Often decried for moral or social reasons, inequality imperils the economy, too; the International Monetary Fund recently warned that high income inequality could damage a country’s long-term growth. But the real menace for our long-term prosperity is not income inequality — it’s wealth inequality, which distorts access to economic opportunities.

Wealth inequality has worsened for two decades and is now at an extreme level. Replacing the income, estate and gift taxes with a progressive wealth tax would do much more to reduce it than any other tax plan being considered in Washington.

When economists try to measure inequality, they typically focus on income, because the data are most readily accessible. But income is not always a good gauge of economic power. Consider a group of people who all have high incomes but differ widely in their wealth. Who’s going to get into the country club? Who’s going to have the money to finance a new venture? Moreover, income data may not reveal the true economic power of people who are retired, or who receive their pay in securities like stocks and options or use complex strategies to avoid taxes.

Trends in the distribution of wealth can look very different from trends in incomes, because wealth is a measure of accumulated assets, not a flow over time. High earners add much more to their wealth every year than low earners. Over time, wealth inequality rises even as income inequality stays the same, and wealth inequality eventually becomes much more severe.

This is exactly what happened in the United States. A common statistical measure of inequality is the Gini coefficient, a number between 0 and 100 that rises with greater disparities. From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the Census Bureau recorded Gini coefficients for income in the low 40s. Yet by 1992, the Gini coefficient for wealth had risen into the mid-70s, according to data from the Federal Reserve.

Since then, it has risen steadily, to about 80 as of 2010. In 1992, the top tenth of the population controlled 20 times the wealth controlled by the bottom half. By 2010, it was 65 times. Our graduated income-tax system redistributes a small amount of money every year but does little to slow the polarization of wealth.

These are stunning changes. The global financial crisis did make a dent in the assets of the wealthiest American families, but its effects for the bottom half were utterly destructive; the number of owner-occupied homes has fallen by more than a million since 2007. People in different socioeconomic strata are living ever more different lives, with dangerous results for society: erosion of empathy, widening of rifts and undermining of meritocracy.

American household wealth totaled more than $58 trillion in 2010. A flat wealth tax of just 1.5 percent on financial assets and other wealth like housing, cars and business ownership would have been more than enough to replace all the revenue of the income, estate and gift taxes, which amounted to about $833 billion after refunds. Brackets of, say, zero percent up to $500,000 in wealth, 1 percent for wealth between $500,000 and $1 million, and 2 percent for wealth above $1 million would probably have done the trick as well.

These tax rates would garner a small portion of the extra wealth America’s richest families could expect to accrue simply by investing what they already had. The rates would also be enough to slow — if not reverse — the increase in inequality. To see how the wealth tax would work, consider a family with $500,000 in wealth and $200,000 in annual income. Right now, they might pay $50,000 in federal income tax. With the wealth tax brackets described above, they would pay nothing. On the other hand, a family with $4 million in wealth and $200,000 in annual income would owe $65,000. Most families that depend on their wealth for their income would pay more, and most that depend on their earnings would pay less.

In fact, the majority of American families would receive an enormous tax cut. Some would owe only payroll taxes (for Social Security and Medicare) and state and local taxes every year, and others would pay less in wealth tax than they did in income tax. Taxes on earnings, capital gains, dividends and interest, all of which may distort decisions about working and investing, would disappear.

For most families, whose wealth may never reach $500,000, all disincentives to save would vanish. And families trying to accumulate a fixed amount of wealth for retirement or their children’s college fund could devote less of their incomes to saving, since in most cases the wealth tax would take a smaller bite of their interest, dividends and capital gains than the current income tax. Though the remaining minority of families subject to the wealth tax might end up saving less and spending more, this shift would also reduce inequality; the dollars they spent would be more likely to end up in the pockets of people with less wealth.

Scholars have recommended a wealth tax in the past, but not as a replacement for the income, estate and gift taxes. Indeed, phasing in the new tax would present some complications. People who already paid income tax on the money they used to buy their assets would not want to pay a new tax on them. Yet a reduced wealth tax — perhaps 1 percent in the top bracket to start — would collect less from many of them than the current income tax.

Naturally a cottage industry would spring up to help wealthy people lessen their exposure to the new tax. The federal government would need new rules for the reporting and valuation of assets, as well as new auditing processes. Levying the tax at the family level — perhaps parents and children up to a fixed age — might make it harder for the wealthy to reduce their tax liability by allocating their assets among multiple family members to reduce the wealth-tax liability.

By contrast, people with wealth tied up in property and small businesses might have real trouble coming up with enough cash to pay the tax. This is a problem that can be solved, or at least mitigated, by making payment periods flexible over several years. In addition, new financial products could offer cash for tax payments, either as loans or in return for partial ownership of assets — much like home equity loans do today.

States with income taxes would have to decide whether to switch to the wealth tax. Because some states collect tax from commuters who work within their borders but live elsewhere, an income tax might still be attractive. Yet rather than having two systems, it might be better to apportion state wealth taxes between the states where families live and work.

The benefits of the wealth tax would make these adjustments worthwhile. The economy would allocate opportunities more equitably and efficiently, and the tax system would become simpler. It would help working class people to realize their potential and ensure that society did not become unduly polarized. Of course, we can do much more to improve access to opportunity for all Americans. But a wealth tax would be a good place to start.

Daniel Altman, an adjunct associate professor of economics at the New York University Stern School of Business and a former member of the New York Times editorial board, is writing a book about what would happen if the United States defaulted on its debts.

    To Reduce Inequality, Tax Wealth, Not Income, NYT, 18.11.2012,






A Record Latino Turnout,

Solidly Backing Obama


November 7, 2012
The New York Times


Defying predictions that their participation would be lackluster, Latinos turned out in record numbers on Tuesday and voted for President Obama by broad margins, tipping the balance in at least three swing states and securing their position as an organized force in American politics with the power to move national elections.

Over all, according to exit polls not yet finalized by Edison Research, Mr. Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote while Mitt Romney won 27 percent. The gap of 44 percentage points was even greater than Mr. Obama’s 36-point advantage over John McCain in 2008.

After waiting in long lines in countless places — more than four hours at some South Florida polls — Latinos had such a strong turnout that it lifted them to 10 percent of voters nationwide, an increase from 6 percent in 2000. Latino leaders said their voters had cast ballots that ensured Mr. Obama’s relatively narrow plurality — fewer than 2.8 million votes — in the popular count.

“Latino voters confirmed unequivocally that the road to the White House passes through Latino neighborhoods,” said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, a top official at NCLR, the Hispanic organization also known as the National Council of La Raza, which joined in an extensive campaign this year to register and turn out voters.

Latinos’ greatest impact was in several battleground states portrayed by polls as close contests before Election Day. In Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, Mr. Obama won the Hispanic vote by big percentages that well exceeded margins of victory, exit polls showed. In each of those states, Latinos significantly increased their share of total voters, gaining influence that could be decisive in future elections.

In Florida, where Mr. Obama held a narrow lead on Wednesday in a race that had not yet been called, the president won among Latinos by 60 percent to 39 percent for Mr. Romney, among a group that now makes up 17 percent of the state’s voters.

Mr. Romney’s weak showing prompted Latino leaders to warn that Republicans could no longer afford to ignore or alienate Hispanics in national races. But they also immediately laid out an ambitious agenda for Mr. Obama, saying they expected to see jobs programs tailored to Latinos and quick action on legislation to give legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.

“The sleeping Latino giant is wide-awake and it’s cranky,” said Eliseo Medina, international secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, another group that played a central role in spurring Latinos to vote. “We expect action and leadership on immigration reform in 2013. No more excuses. No more obstruction or gridlock.”

In many states, Latinos did not wait for either the Democratic or the Republican campaigns to come to them. Instead they mounted coordinated voter registration and education efforts, giving them a degree of independence as a voting bloc and creating popular networks that they said they planned to mobilize again to bring pressure on the White House and Congress.

In Arizona, a conservative state known for tough immigration enforcement policies that Mr. Romney won handily, Latinos saw setbacks. A bid to unseat Joe Arpaio, the hard-line sheriff of Maricopa County, was declared to have failed. A Hispanic Democrat, Richard Carmona, apparently was defeated in a Senate race by Jeff Flake, a popular Republican who has served in the House of Representatives.

Records from the office of Secretary of State Ken Bennett showed Wednesday that there were 600,000 votes yet to be counted statewide.

Luis Heredia, the executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, said the outcome of many close races could not be determined without the counting of those ballots.

A crucial piece of Mr. Obama’s winning strategy among Latinos was an initiative he announced in June to grant temporary reprieves from deportation to hundreds of thousands of young immigrants here illegally. In a survey of 5,600 Latino voters on the eve of the election by ImpreMedia and Latino Decisions, a polling group, 58 percent said the reprieves had made them “more enthusiastic” about Mr. Obama.

Last month, Mr. Romney said that he would end the reprieves if he became president, a move that solidified the view among many Latinos that he was hostile to a program they liked. It gives young immigrants protection from deportation for two years and also work permits that allow them to be employed legally in this country for the first time.

A campaign led by young immigrants eligible for the deferrals was one of the most effective voter mobilization efforts.

“Even though we could not vote, we had many friends and family members who could,” said Lorella Praeli, advocacy director of the United We Dream network, a youth group that led a voter campaign.

In Arizona, a dozen groups teamed up to increase Latino voter registration and to add more Latinos to the state’s early-voting list, which entitles voters to receive ballots by mail at their homes. The number of Latinos on early-voting lists rose substantially, to 225,000 this year from 96,000 in 2008, said Petra Falcón, director of Promise Arizona, one of the groups in that effort.

On Tuesday, the groups dispatched monitors to poll sites where they knew many Latino voters would be casting ballots for the first time.

By midmorning, it had become clear that a lot of them were being forced to cast provisional ballots because officials could not find their names on the rolls. In a precinct in Tolleson, 300 out of 342 votes cast by 4 p.m. were provisional ballots, according to poll monitors assigned to the site. At Word of Abundant Life Christian Center in West Phoenix, 68 out of 123 voters had used provisional ballots by that hour.

Adilene Montesinos, a poll worker at Progressive Baptist Church in Mesa, said the problem had affected Latinos and also blacks. “There were so many, we almost ran out of provisional ballots,” Ms. Montesinos said.

Officials in Maricopa County, which accounts for more than half of the state’s voters, said the count of provisional ballots was not likely to begin until Monday. The officials said Wednesday that 344,000 ballots remained to be counted, among them 115,000 provisional ballots.

    A Record Latino Turnout, Solidly Backing Obama, NYT, 7.11.2012,






Increase Seen

in U.S. Suicide Rate

Since Recession


November 4, 2012
The New York Times


The rate of suicide in the United States rose sharply during the first few years since the start of the recession, a new analysis has found.

In the report, which appeared Sunday on the Web site of The Lancet, a medical journal, researchers found that the rate between 2008 and 2010 increased four times faster than it did in the eight years before the recession. The rate had been increasing by an average of 0.12 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 through 2007. In 2008, the rate began increasing by an average of 0.51 deaths per 100,000 people a year. Without the increase in the rate, the total deaths from suicide each year in the United States would have been lower by about 1,500, the study said.

The finding was not unexpected. Suicide rates often spike during economic downturns, and recent studies of rates in Greece, Spain and Italy have found similar trends. The new study is the first to analyze the rate of change in the United States state by state, using suicide and unemployment data through 2010.

“The magnitude of these effects is slightly larger than for those previously estimated in the United States,” the authors wrote. That might mean that this economic downturn has been harder on mental health than previous ones, the authors concluded.

The research team linked the suicide rate to unemployment, using numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Every rise of 1 percent in unemployment was accompanied by an increase in the suicide rate of roughly 1 percent, it found. A similar correlation has been found in some European countries since the recession.

The analysis found that the link between unemployment and suicide was about the same in all regions of the country.

The study was conducted by Aaron Reeves of the University of Cambridge and Sanjay Basu of Stanford, and included researchers from the University of Bristol, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the University of Hong Kong.

    Increase Seen in U.S. Suicide Rate Since Recession, NYT, 4.11.2012,






Little Federal Help

for the Long-Term Unemployed


November 1, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — In the economy-focused presidential campaign, the two candidates and their teams have scarcely mentioned what economists describe as not just one of the labor market’s most pressing problems, but the entire country’s: long-term unemployment.

Nearly five million Americans out of work for more than six months are left to wonder what kind of help might be coming, as the Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund and a bipartisan swath of policy experts implore Washington to act — both to alleviate human misery and to ensure the strength of the economy.

The pain of the long-term unemployed has persisted even as the overall jobs picture has brightened a bit and the unemployment rate has fallen to 7.8 percent. The new government report for October was due to be released Friday morning.

“The problem is incredibly urgent,” said Kevin A. Hassett, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign. “Spain had a financial crisis in the late 1970s and has never seen its unemployment rate drop back to where it was before that crisis. The unemployed become discouraged, and ultimately the employment to population ratio might take a permanent hit.”

On the agenda for the next Congress and the next president is ensuring that the unusually long spells of unemployment now afflicting jobless workers remain a temporary setback of the recession.

Economists warned that long-term unemployment could be transformed in the next few years into structural unemployment, meaning that the problem is not just too few jobs and too many job seekers, but a large group of workers who no longer match employers’ needs or are no longer considered employable.

“Skills become obsolete, contacts atrophy, information atrophies, and they get stigmatized,” said Harry Holzer of Georgetown University.

That has been the experience of millions of workers like Beatrice Hogg, 55, of Sacramento, a college-educated white-collar worker who has slid from the middle class into poverty.

Her last job — doing administrative work and advising students at a community college — ended in June 2009. Her unemployment benefits ended more than a year ago. She was evicted from her apartment in December and has been staying at friends’ homes and occasionally at train stations. Despite her efforts, she has been turned down for job after job after job, and is surviving on food stamps.

“I don’t enjoy being out of work,” Ms. Hogg said in an interview. “I don’t enjoy having to ask friends to give me rides or get things for me. I want to take care of myself. I’ve been on my own since I was 18 years old. It’s hard for me. It’s demoralizing. It’s hard to ask people for things when you’ve been independent the rest of your life.”

Stronger economic growth may help to whittle the ranks of the long-term unemployed over time, experts said.

“There must have been a lot of workers badly scarred by long bouts of unemployment in the Great Depression,” said Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution. “Even in 1939 we had unemployment somewhere around 14 percent, as we’d measure it today. A lot of people who were jobless had been jobless for a long, long time. But in the space of a couple of years those disadvantages looked like nothing given that employers had voracious appetites for workers.”

But many economists contended that policies to help the long-term unemployed are needed as well, to ensure that they have the skills necessary to compete for the jobs that the economy is adding — turning construction workers into oil-and-gas extractors and administrative assistants into home health care providers, for example.

In Washington, many politicians support measures for the long-term unemployed; few demand them.

Both Democrats and Republicans have proposed or supported revamping job-training programs, giving states more flexibility in using funds for the unemployed and providing credits to companies that hire workers who have been out of a job for more than six months, for instance.

The campaigns have offered their preferred policies as well. The White House put out a range of proposals to aid the long-term jobless as part of its stalled American Jobs Act legislation, a few of which made it into a bill extending a payroll tax cut this year. Mr. Romney has proposed, among other measures, creating “personal re-employment accounts” to give funds to unemployed workers for community college or vocational training.

But experts worried about a lack of urgency. Gridlock in Washington, the focus on cutting rather than spending, even the simple fact that discussing the topic can be depressing might leave the issue by the wayside, as it has been in the presidential and Congressional races.

“It’s not just the heat of the campaign” leaving the topic neglected, said Christine L. Owens, the executive director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for low-wage workers. “There’s a certain kind of fatigue when talking about long-term unemployment, and as a result there hasn’t been the level of attention and discussion that’s warranted.”

For new policies, “there is no political will, none whatsoever,” said Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas.

He noted that during the recession and the recovery, relatively few workers have cycled through unemployment, perhaps undercutting the problem’s political potency.

“There are fewer of us experiencing unemployment, but those who are out are out a lot longer,” Mr. Hamermesh said. “They then become increasingly isolated, which decreases the will to do anything, because they are a less important group.”

Statistics suggested that the long-term unemployment problem had begun to recede. The number of workers who reported actively seeking a job for more than six months fell to 4.8 million from 6.2 million in the past year, according to government data. The proportion of jobless workers who counted as long-term unemployed fell to 40 percent from its peak of 45.5 percent in March 2011.

But it remains a bleak situation. About 800,000 workers want a job but have simply given up looking, and so are no longer even counted as unemployed. About 1.7 million people have joined the disability rolls since the recession began at the end of 2007, an increase of 24 percent, as workers use the disability program as a backdoor safety net when their unemployment insurance runs out. After searching for a new position for a year, a worker trying to regain employment finds that his chance to do so in the coming month falls below 10 percent.

As seen in the debates and on the campaign trail, the problem has largely fallen off politicians’ list of priorities, even as the case for government action grows stronger.

When asked directly how to alleviate long-term unemployment in the second debate, Mr. Romney addressed joblessness in general before quickly switching topics to the Detroit auto bailout. Mr. Obama never addressed the question at all.


Annie Lowrey reported from Washington

and Catherine Rampell from New York.

    Little Federal Help for the Long-Term Unemployed, NYT, 1.11.2012,






Texas executes man

who murdered girlfriend

over money


 AUSTIN, Texas | Wed Oct 31, 2012
10:14pm EDT
By Corrie MacLaggan


AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A man convicted of fatally shooting his live-in girlfriend in 2003 after she refused to give him money was executed in Texas on Wednesday by lethal injection, said state officials.

Donnie Lee Roberts, 41, became the 35th person executed in the United States this year and the 12th in Texas. He was pronounced dead at 6:39 p.m. local time at the state prison in Huntsville, the state Department of Criminal Justice.

Just before he died, Roberts apologized, officials said.

"I am truly sorry," they quoted him as saying. "I never meant to cause y'all so much pain."

He added: "God knows I didn't want to do what I did. I loved your daughter. I hope to God he lets me see her in heaven so I can apologize to her."

His victim, dental assistant Vicki Bowen, 44, was found slain in her east Texas house in October 2003 when a co-worker, concerned that she had failed to show up for work, went to Bowen's home to check on her whereabouts, according to an account of the case from the Texas Attorney General's Office.

Roberts, who was a crack cocaine user, confessed to officials that he killed Bowen when she refused to give him money, the account said.

"I pointed the gun at her and I said, ‘If you'd just give me some money.' And she said, ‘No,'" Roberts told officials, according to the attorney general's account. "And then I said, ‘Look, it doesn't have to be this way.' That's all I remember saying to her. And the next thing I know, I shot her."

Roberts told a different story at his trial in 2004, saying that he picked up the gun because it was out of place, and that he saw what looked like another gun in Bowen's pocket.

Former probation and parole officers testified that Roberts, who had been convicted of armed robbery in Louisiana, fled from court-ordered supervision just months before Bowen's murder, the attorney general's account said.

During the penalty phase of his trial, jurors learned that Roberts had confessed to the 1992 murder of a man in Louisiana, the account said. He did not stand trial for that crime.

Texas has executed more than four times as many people as any other state since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.


(Reporting by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)

    Texas executes man who murdered girlfriend over money, NYT, 31.10.2012,






Want a Real Reason

to Be Outraged?


October 27, 2012
The New York Times


THE silliness began when Todd Akin claimed during his Senate campaign in Missouri that in the case of “legitimate rape,” women “shut that whole thing down” to prevent pregnancy. Then, a few days ago, Richard Mourdock of Indiana seemed to blame God for such pregnancies, saying this was “something God intended to happen.” I think God should sue him for defamation.

But our political system jumps all over verbal stupidity, while giving a pass to stupid policies. If we’re offended by insensitive words about rape, for example, shouldn’t we be incomparably more upset that rape kits are routinely left untested in the United States? And wouldn’t it be nice if Democrats, instead of just firing sound bites, tackled these underlying issues?

A bit of background: A rape kit is the evidence, including swabs with DNA, taken at a hospital from a woman’s (or man’s) body after a rape. Testing that DNA costs $1,200 or more. Partly to save money, those rape kits often sit untested for years on the shelves of police storage rooms, particularly if the victim didn’t come outfitted with a halo.

By most accounts, hundreds of thousands of these untested kits are stacked up around the country. In Illinois, 80 percent of rape kits were going untested as of 2010, Human Rights Watch reported at the time — embarrassing the state to begin a push to test all rape kits.

In Michigan, the Wayne County prosecutor, Kym Worthy, said she was shocked to discover more than 11,000 rape kits lying around untested — some dating to the 1980s. Worthy said that her office is now going through the backlog and testing those that are running into statute of limitations deadlines.

So far, of 153 kits tested, 21 match evidence in a criminal database and may involve serial rapists. But Worthy, who herself was raped while she was in law school, says the broader problem is indifference to sex crimes.

“Sexual assault is the stepchild of the law enforcement system,” she said. “When rape victims come into the criminal justice system, they are often treated poorly. They may be talked out of pursuing the case.”

The bottom line, Worthy said, is that “sexual assault is not taken as seriously as other crimes.” That — more than any offensive words — is the real scandal.

Kamala Harris, the attorney general of California, eliminated the rape kit backlog in state crime labs after she took office. “If you don’t test it, you’ve got a victim who is absolutely petrified, and you’ve got a rapist who thinks he got away with it,” she said. “There could be nothing worse as a continuing threat to public safety.”

The lackadaisical attitude toward much sexual violence is seen in another astonishing fact: Sometimes, women or their health insurance companies must pay to have their rape kits collected.

“No other forensic evidence collection is treated in this way,” said Sarah Tofte of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which has focused attention on the rape kit backlog. If her home is broken into, she notes, the police won’t bill her or her homeowner’s insurance company “for the cost of dusting for fingerprints.”

Yet another indication of cavalier attitudes: In 31 states, if a rape leads to a baby, the rapist can get visitation rights. That doesn’t happen often, but the issue does come up. In Massachusetts, a convicted rapist is suing for access to the child he fathered when he raped a 14-year-old girl.

One way to start turning around this backward approach to sex crimes would be to support the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry (Safer) Act, a bipartisan bill in Congress that would help local jurisdictions count and test their rape kits.

According to data from the Department of Justice, one person in the United States is sexually assaulted every couple of minutes. A slight majority of rapes are never reported to the police, and others are never solved. For every 100 rapes, only three lead to any jail time for the rapist, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

There has been plenty of outrage this year, justifiably, at the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and Penn State for averting their eyes from sexual abuse of children. Yet America as a whole typically does the same thing when it comes to the trafficking of teenage girls by pimps, which amounts to rape many times a day. The police often treat those girls as criminals, rather than victims, even as the pimps get away.

These problems are not insoluble, and we are seeing progress. Some prosecutors are going after pimps in a serious way, and according to surveys, sexual assault has fallen by 60 percent over the last couple of decades. Even the furor over the comments by Senate candidates shows that times are changing.

So, sure, let’s pounce on politicians who say outrageous things. But even more, let’s push to end outrageous policies. Routine testing of rape kits would be a good start.


I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground.

Please also join me on Facebook and Google+,

watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

    Want a Real Reason to Be Outraged?, NYT, 27.10.2012,






Obama, Romney and Their Parties

on Track to Raise $2 Billion


October 25, 2012
The New York Times


President Obama and Mitt Romney are both on pace to raise more than $1 billion with their parties by Election Day, according to financial disclosures filed by the campaigns on Thursday.

From the beginning of 2011 through Oct. 17, Mr. Obama and the Democrats raised about $1.06 billion, and Mr. Romney and the Republicans collected $954 million, including some money for the party’s Congressional efforts, setting up 2012 to be the most expensive presidential campaign in history.

But the sources of that money, raised over the course of a deeply polarizing campaign, echo the sharp divisions between the two men and their parties over issues like abortion rights, the role of government in regulating industry and the country’s economic future.

Wall Street has invested more heavily in Mr. Romney, a former financier who has pledged to repeal Mr. Obama’s new financial regulations, than in any presidential candidate in memory. Employees of financial firms had given more than $18 million dollars to Mr. Romney’s campaign through the end of September and tens of millions more to the “super PACs” supporting him.

Insurance companies, doctors and law, accounting and real estate firms are giving less to Mr. Obama and the Democratic National Committee than they did four years ago, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Yet donors in other industries have stepped in. With Mr. Obama making repeated trips to Silicon Valley and holding round tables with executives there, the technology industry has donated about $14 million to the president and the Democrats, substantially more than in 2008.

Retirees, the biggest single source of money for both sides, have given the Democrats much more than they did four years ago, as have employees of women’s groups, retailers and hospitals and nursing homes.

To make up for the loss of business money that flowed to his campaign four years ago, Mr. Obama has also turned to the very smallest donors, building an army of millions of supporters who have given as little as a few dollars each. About 4.2 million people sent donations to Mr. Obama and the D.N.C., his campaign said on Thursday, roughly one million more than in 2008.

Over all, 55 percent of the Obama campaign’s money through the end of September came in donations of less than $200, including from many people who have repeatedly sent in small checks over the course of the campaign. Just 13 percent of his checks were for $2,500, the maximum that donors are allowed to contribute for either the primary or general election.

Mr. Romney, by contrast, has cultivated business leaders and benefited from a Republican donor establishment that is eager to defeat Mr. Obama, raising an unprecedented amount of money from wealthy donors who gave the maximum allowed. Just 22 percent of his cash has come from donations of less than $200. Through the end of September, 45 percent of checks to Mr. Romney’s campaign were for the maximum $2,500 contribution.

Neither candidate is likely to raise as much money directly for his own presidential committee as Mr. Obama did in 2008. A flood of online donations that year, and support from many traditionally Republican donors, helped Mr. Obama raise $748 million for his presidential committee. The D.N.C. raised another $244 million, bringing the combined total to a little under $1 billion.

This time around, Mr. Obama, as an incumbent, has raised more of his total through the D.N.C., which can accept five-figure checks from each of Mr. Obama’s wealthiest supporters. By raising more money from his very biggest and very smallest donors, Mr. Obama has been able to offset his losses from the business world and from previous contributors who gave less or not at all this time, whether because of the recession or fading enthusiasm.

Mr. Romney, after becoming the presumptive Republican nominee in the spring, almost immediately began a fund-raising effort with the Republican National Committee, several state parties and the two Congressional campaign committees. Mr. Romney’s total through September included about $13.6 million that was raised for and transferred to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The overall totals do not include hundreds of millions of dollars being raised and spent by “super PACs” and other outside groups, mostly to benefit Mr. Romney and other Republicans. Groups aligned with Mr. Romney have spent $302 million on campaign advertising that they are required to disclose to the F.E.C., compared with about $120 million for groups aligned with Mr. Obama. Tens of millions of dollars more has been spent on issue advertisements whose precise costs are difficult to measure.

“As the Romney campaign and their ‘super PAC’ allies continue to outspend us on the air, we’re making every effort to expand our donor base heading into the final stretch,” said Adam Fetcher, an Obama spokesman.

Mr. Romney and the Republicans raised about $21.3 million more than Mr. Obama and the Democrats during the first 17 days of October, according to the disclosures filed on Thursday, as Mr. Romney rose in the polls and performed well in debates, emboldening his supporters.

Mr. Obama and the Democratic National Committee took in $92.4 million during that period, after surpassing Mr. Romney in August and September.

Mr. Romney and the R.N.C. raised $113.7 million over the same period, the final days for which the campaigns are required to report their fund-raising before the election on Nov. 6. Mr. Romney and his party also spent about $146.2 million during the first 17 days in October, slightly less than the $149.7 million spent by Mr. Obama and the Democrats.

While Mr. Obama’s team invested tens of millions of dollars early in the campaign to identify, contact and raise money from grass-roots voters, those expenditures have left the Republicans with more cash in the final weeks of the election that could finance a late surge of advertising. Mr. Romney and the G.O.P. ended the final filing period with $169 million in cash on hand, significantly more than the $123.8 million held by Mr. Obama and the Democrats.


Michael Luo and Derek Willis contributed reporting.

    Obama, Romney and Their Parties on Track to Raise $2 Billion, NYT, 25.10.2012,






Student Debt Debacles


October 24, 2012
The New York Times


Students who finance their educations through private lenders often wrongly assume that private and federal loans work the same way. In fact, they do not.

Most federal student loans have rates of 6.8 percent (or less) and offer broad consumer protections that allow people who lose their jobs to make lower, affordable payments or to defer payment until they recover financially.

Private student loans — from banks and other private institutions — typically come with variable interest rates and fewer consumer protections, which means that borrowers who get into trouble have few options other than default. Many borrowers did not learn about the differences between private and federal loans until after they became deeply indebted. And because of confusion about variable rates, they are sometimes shocked to learn what they owe when that first bill arrives.

The problem is serious because private student loans now account for $150 billion of the $1 trillion in total outstanding student loan debt in the country, according to the first annual report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s student loan ombudsman.

The report found that many loan servicers — the companies that collect the payments for the lenders — make it extremely difficult for student borrowers to manage their debts. Borrowers often have difficulty finding out how much they owe or getting information about their payment histories. Some struggling borrowers who need loan modification said that servicers forced them to pay more per month than they could possibly afford, without telling them the payments would not prevent default.

In some cases, those who made late or partial payments were subjected to unauthorized checking account deductions that then led to overdrafts and costly fees. One borrower learned that his loan was put into default when a parent who had co-signed for the loan filed for bankruptcy protection. He reported that he could get no information about how to cure the problem.

Slipshod loan servicing makes private student loans even riskier by increasing the likelihood that people will fall behind in payments. The bureaucratic errors and obstacles mean that conscientious borrowers who took out high-priced loans are not only saddled with crushing debt, they may also have their credit ruined — making it extremely hard to refinance their loans or get future loans to buy a home or start a business.

The federal government needs to open up refinancing and debt relief opportunities for these people, as it did for some mortgage holders. The bureau should also set national standards for loan servicers to require clear disclosure of conditions, advance notice of any changes in the status of the account and prompt resolution of customer requests for information. And borrowers who might be eligible for federal loans should be advised to examine that option before plunging headlong into private debt.

    Student Debt Debacles, NYT, 24.10.2012,






To Fight Crime,

a Poor City Will Trade In

Its Police


September 28, 2012
The New York Times


CAMDEN, N.J. — Two gruesome murders of children last month — a toddler decapitated, a 6-year-old stabbed in his sleep — served as reminders of this city’s reputation as the most dangerous in America. Others can be found along the blocks of row houses spray-painted “R.I.P.,” empty liquor bottles clustered on their porches in memorial to murder victims.

The police acknowledge that they have all but ceded these streets to crime, with murders on track to break records this year. And now, in a desperate move to regain control, city officials are planning to disband the Police Department.

The reason, officials say, is that generous union contracts have made it financially impossible to keep enough officers on the street. So in November, Camden, which has already had substantial police layoffs, will begin terminating the remaining 273 officers and give control to a new county force. The move, officials say, will free up millions to hire a larger, nonunionized force of 400 officers to safeguard the city, which is also the nation’s poorest.

Hardly a political battle of the last several years has been fiercer than the one over the fate of public sector unions. But Camden’s decision to remake perhaps the most essential public service for a city riven by crime underscores how communities are taking previously unimaginable steps to get out from under union obligations that built up over generations.

Though the city is solidly Democratic, the plan to put the Police Department out of business has not prompted the wide public outcry seen in the union battles in Chicago, Ohio or Wisconsin, in part because many residents have come to resent a police force they see as incompetent, corrupt and doing little to make their streets safe.

A police union has sued to stop the move, saying it is risking public safety on an “unproven” idea. But many residents, community groups and elected officials say that the city is simply out of money, out of options, out of patience.

“There’s no alternative, there’s no Plan B,” the City Council president, Frank Moran, said. “It’s the only option we have.”

Faced with tight budgets, many communities across the country are considering regionalizing their police departments, along with other services like firefighting, libraries and schools. Though some governments have rejected the idea for fear of increasing police response time, the police in Camden — population 77,000 — are already so overloaded they no longer respond to property crimes or car accidents that do not involve injuries.

The new effort follows a push by New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, a Republican, and Democratic leaders in the Legislature to encourage cities and towns to regionalize government services. They maintain that in a new era of government austerity, it is no longer possible for each community to offer a full buffet of government services, especially with a new law prohibiting communities from raising property taxes more than 2 percent a year.

Most municipalities have so far remained committed to local traditions, fearing a loss of community identity, but officials in Camden County say they expect others will soon feel compelled to follow the city’s example.

Camden’s budget was $167 million last year, and of that, the budget for the police was $55 million. Yet the city collected only $21 million in property taxes. It has relied on state aid to make up the difference, but the state is turning off the spigot. The city has imposed furloughs, reduced salaries and trash collection, and increased fees. But the businesses the city desperately needs to attract to generate more revenue are scared off by the crime.

“We cannot move the city forward unless we address public safety,” the mayor, Dana L. Redd, said. “This is about putting boots on the ground.”

Even union officials acknowledge that the contract is rich with expensive provisions. For example, officers earn an additional 4 percent for working a day shift, and an additional 10 percent for the shift starting at 9:30 p.m. They earn an additional 11 percent for working on a special tactical force or an anticrime patrol.

Salaries range from about $47,000 to $81,000 now, not including the shift differentials or additional longevity payments of 3 percent to 11 percent for any officer who has worked five years or more. Officials say they anticipate salaries for the new force will range from $47,000 to $87,000.

In 2009, as the economy was putting a freeze on municipal budgets even in well-off communities, the police here secured a pay increase of 3.75 percent.

And liberal sick time and family-leave policies have created an unusually high absentee rate: every day, nearly 30 percent of the force does not show up. (A typical rate elsewhere is in the single digits.)

“How do I go to the community and say ‘I’m doing everything I can to help you fight crime’ when some of my officers are working better hours than bankers?” the police chief, J. Scott Thomson, asked.

Chief Thomson, who is well regarded nationally, is expected to lead the new force. Though Camden County covers 220 square miles and includes 37 municipalities, the proposal calls for a division focused exclusively on the nine-square-mile city of Camden.

Camden, in the shadow of Philadelphia’s glimmering towers, once had a thriving industrial base — a shipyard, Campbell Soup and RCA plants along the waterfront. About 60,000 jobs were lost when those companies moved or shifted them elsewhere.

Nearly one in five of its residents is unemployed, and Broadway, once the main shopping strip, is now a canyon of abandoned buildings.

The burned-out shell of one house, a landmark built by one of the city’s founding families, has become a drug den.

This month, a heroin user there demanded that a passer-by give her some privacy to use it. “Can you show me a little respect?” she said. “I’m in a park.”

Camden reorganized its Police Department in 2008 and had a lower homicide rate for two years. Then the recession forced layoffs, reducing the force by about 100 officers.

The city has employed other crime-fighting tactics — surveillance cameras, better lighting, curfews for children — but the number of murders has risen again: at 48 so far this year, it is on pace to break the record, 58.

The murder rate so far this year is above 6 people per 10,000. By contrast, New York City’s rate is just over one-third of a person per 10,000 residents.

Many of the drug users come to Camden from elsewhere in the county, getting off the light-rail system to buy from the drug markets along what police call Heroin Highway in the neighborhood of North Camden.

“That is cocaine, that is heroin, that is crack,” Bryan Morton, a community activist, said recently as he used his car key to flick away empty bags while his 3-year-old daughter played nearby. This summer, Mr. Morton tried to set up the city’s first Little League in 15 years in nearby Pyne Poynt Park. Drug users colonized even the portable toilets set up for the players, littering them with empty glassine drug packets and needle caps.

Like other residents, he is resentful of the police union for making it so prohibitive to hire more officers. “The contract is creating a public safety crisis,” Mr. Morton said. “More officers could change the complexion of this neighborhood.”

John Williamson, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, blamed the city for creating the problems by shifting officers onto patrols, where they receive extra pay, from administrative positions. He said he was open to negotiation but believed that the city simply wanted to get rid of the contract.

“They want to go back to a 1930s atmosphere where employees and officers have absolutely no rights to redress bad management and poor working conditions,” he said.

Under labor law, the current contract will remain in effect if the new county force hires more than 49 percent of the current officers. So county officials say they will hire fewer than that. Nevertheless, they expect that the new force will eventually become unionized.

Officials say that simply adding officers will not make all the difference, given the deep suspicion many residents harbor toward the police. As the chief and his deputy drove through the Whitman Park neighborhood this month, people sitting on their stoops stood up to shake their fists and shout obscenities at them. When police officers arrested a person suspected of dealing drugs in a house on a narrow street in North Camden last year, residents set upon their cars and freed the prisoner.

The new county officers will be brought in 25 at a time, while the existing force is still in place, and trained on neighborhood streets, in the hopes that they can become part of their fabric and regain trust.

Ian K. Leonard, a member of the Camden County Board of Freeholders and the state political director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said he did not blame the union officials who won the provisions. But he said he believed that the contracts were helping to perpetuate the “most dangerous city in America” title that he and others hate.

“If you add police, it will give us a fighting chance,” Mr. Leonard said. “People need a fighting chance.”

    To Fight Crime, a Poor City Will Trade In Its Police, NYT, 28.9.2012,






The Human Cost

of the Second Amendment

September 26, 2012
8:30 pm
- A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web


Wisconsin, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine. We all know these place names and what happened there. By the time this column appears, there may well be a new locale to add to the list. Such is the state of enabled and murderous mayhem in the United States.

With the hope of presenting the issue of guns in America in a novel way, I'm going to look at it from an unusual vantage point: the eyes of a nurse. By that I mean looking at guns in America in terms of the suffering they cause, because to really understand the human cost of guns in the United States we need to focus on gun-related pain and death.

Every day 80 Americans die from gunshots and an additional 120 are wounded, according to a 2006 article in The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Those 80 Americans left their homes in the morning and went to work, or to school, or to a movie, or for a walk in their own neighborhood, and never returned. Whether they were dead on arrival or died later on in the hospital, 80 people's normal day ended on a slab in the morgue, and there's nothing any of us can do to get those people back.

In a way that few others do, I became aware early on that nurses deal with death on a daily basis. The first unretouched dead bodies I ever saw were the two cadavers we studied in anatomy lab. One man, one woman, both donated their bodies for dissection, and I learned amazing things from them: the sponginess of lung tissue, the surprising lightness of a human heart, the fabulous intricacy of veins, arteries, tendons and nerves that keep all of us moving and alive.

I also learned something I thought I already knew: death is scary. I expected my focus in the lab to be on acquiring knowledge, and it was, but my feelings about these cadavers intruded also. I had nightmares. The sound of bones being sawed and snapped was excruciating the day our teaching assistant broke the ribs of one of them to extract a heart. Some days the smell was so overwhelming I wanted to run from the lab. Death is the only part of life that is really final, and I learned about the awesomeness of finality during my 12 weeks with those two very dead people.

Of course, in hospitals, death and suffering are what nurses and doctors struggle against. Our job is to restore people to health and wholeness, or at the very least, to keep them alive. That's an obvious aim on the oncology floor where I work, but nowhere is the medical goal of maintaining life more immediately urgent than in trauma centers and intensive-care units. In those wards, patients often arrive teetering on the border between life and death, and the medical teams that receive them have fleeting moments in which to act.

The focus on preserving life and alleviating suffering, so evident in the hospital, contrasts strikingly with its stubborn disregard when applied to lives ended by Americans lawfully armed as if going into combat. The deaths from guns are as disturbing, and as final, as the cadavers I studied in anatomy lab, but the talk we hear from the gun lobby is about freedom and rights, not life and death.

Gun advocates say that guns don't kill people, people kill people. The truth, though, is that people with guns kill people, often very efficiently, as we saw so clearly and so often this summer. And while there can be no argument that the right to bear arms is written into the Constitution, we cannot keep pretending that this right is somehow without limit, even as we place reasonable limits on arguably more valuable rights like the freedom of speech and due process.

No one argues that it should be legal to shout "fire" in a crowded theater; we accept this limit on our right to speak freely because of its obvious real-world consequences. Likewise, we need to stop talking about gun rights in America as if they have no wrenching real-world effects when every day 80 Americans, their friends, families and loved ones, learn they obviously and tragically do.

Many victims never stand a chance against a dangerously armed assailant, and there's scant evidence that being armed themselves would help. Those bodies skip the hospital and go straight to the morgue. The lucky ones, the survivors - the 120 wounded per day - get hustled to trauma centers and then intensive care units to, if possible, be healed. Many of them never fully recover.

A trauma nurse I know told me she always looked at people's shoes when they lay on gurneys in the emergency department. It struck her that life had still been normal when that patient put them on in the morning. Whether they laced up Nikes, pulled on snow boots or slid feet into stiletto heels, the shoes became a relic of the ordinariness of the patient's life, before it turned savage.

So I have a request for proponents of unlimited access to guns. Spend some time in a trauma center and see the victims of gun violence - the lucky survivors - as they come in bloody and terrified. Understand that our country's blind embrace of gun rights made this violent tableau possible, and that it's playing out each day in hospitals and morgues all over the country.

Before leaving, make sure to look at the patients' shoes. Remember that at the start of the day, before being attacked by a person with a gun, that patient lying on a stretcher writhing helplessly in pain was still whole.


Theresa Brown is an oncology nurse and the author of

"Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life,

and Everything in Between."

    The Human Cost of the Second Amendment, NYT, 26.9.2012,






Reversing Trend,

Life Span Shrinks

for Some Whites


September 20, 2012
The New York Times


For generations of Americans, it was a given that children would live longer than their parents. But there is now mounting evidence that this enduring trend has reversed itself for the country’s least-educated whites, an increasingly troubled group whose life expectancy has fallen by four years since 1990.

Researchers have long documented that the most educated Americans were making the biggest gains in life expectancy, but now they say mortality data show that life spans for some of the least educated Americans are actually contracting. Four studies in recent years identified modest declines, but a new one that looks separately at Americans lacking a high school diploma found disturbingly sharp drops in life expectancy for whites in this group. Experts not involved in the new research said its findings were persuasive.

The reasons for the decline remain unclear, but researchers offered possible explanations, including a spike in prescription drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less educated white women, rising obesity, and a steady increase in the number of the least educated Americans who lack health insurance.

The steepest declines were for white women without a high school diploma, who lost five years of life between 1990 and 2008, said S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead investigator on the study, published last month in Health Affairs. By 2008, life expectancy for black women without a high school diploma had surpassed that of white women of the same education level, the study found.

White men lacking a high school diploma lost three years of life. Life expectancy for both blacks and Hispanics of the same education level rose, the data showed. But blacks over all do not live as long as whites, while Hispanics live longer than both whites and blacks.

“We’re used to looking at groups and complaining that their mortality rates haven’t improved fast enough, but to actually go backward is deeply troubling,” said John G. Haaga, head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging, who was not involved in the new study.

The five-year decline for white women rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in London.

The decline among the least educated non-Hispanic whites, who make up a shrinking share of the population, widened an already troubling gap. The latest estimate shows life expectancy for white women without a high school diploma was 73.5 years, compared with 83.9 years for white women with a college degree or more. For white men, the gap was even bigger: 67.5 years for the least educated white men compared with 80.4 for those with a college degree or better.

The dropping life expectancies have helped weigh down the United States in international life expectancy rankings, particularly for women. In 2010, American women fell to 41st place, down from 14th place in 1985, in the United Nations rankings. Among developed countries, American women sank from the middle of the pack in 1970 to last place in 2010, according to the Human Mortality Database.

The slump is so vexing that it became the subject of an inquiry by the National Academy of Sciences, which published a report on it last year.

“There’s this enormous issue of why,” said David Cutler, an economics professor at Harvard who was an author of a 2008 paper that found modest declines in life expectancy for less educated white women from 1981 to 2000. “It’s very puzzling and we don’t have a great explanation.”

And it is yet another sign of distress in one of the country’s most vulnerable groups during a period when major social changes are transforming life for less educated whites. Childbirth outside marriage has soared, increasing pressures on women who are more likely to be single parents. Those who do marry tend to choose mates with similar education levels, concentrating the disadvantage.

Inklings of this decline have been accumulating since 2008. Professor Cutler’s paper, published in Health Affairs, found a decline in life expectancy of about a year for less educated white women from 1990 to 2000. Three other studies, by Ahmedin Jemal, a researcher at the American Cancer Society; Jennifer Karas Montez, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar at Harvard; and Richard Miech, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver, found increases in mortality rates (the ratio of deaths to a population) for the least educated Americans.

Professor Olshansky’s study, financed by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society, found by far the biggest decline in life expectancy for the least educated non-Hispanic whites, in large part because he isolated those without a high school diploma, a group usually combined with high school graduates. Non-Hispanic whites currently make up 63 percent of the population of the United States.

Researchers said they were baffled by the magnitude of the drop. Some cautioned that the results could be overstated because Americans without a high school diploma — about 12 percent of the population, down from about 22 percent in 1990, according to the Census Bureau — were a shrinking group that was now more likely to be disadvantaged in ways besides education, compared with past generations.

Professor Olshansky agreed that the group was now smaller, but said the magnitude of the drop in life expectancy was still a measure of deterioration. “The good news is that there are fewer people in this group,” he said. “The bad news is that those who are in it are dying more quickly.”

Researchers, including some involved in the earlier studies that found more modest declines in life expectancy, said that Professor Olshansky’s methodology was sound and that the findings reinforced evidence of a troubling pattern that has emerged for those at the bottom of the education ladder, particularly white women.

“Something is going on in the lives of disadvantaged white women that is leading to some really alarming trends in life expectancy,” said Ms. Montez of Harvard.

Researchers offered theories for the drop in life expectancy, but cautioned that none could fully explain it.

James Jackson, director of the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan and an author of the new study, said white women with low levels of education may exhibit more risky behavior than that of previous generations.

Overdoses from prescription drugs have spiked since 1990, disproportionately affecting whites, particularly women. Professor Miech, of the University of Colorado, noted the rise in a 2011 paper in the American Sociological Review, arguing that it was among the biggest changes for whites in recent decades and that it appeared to have offset gains for less educated people in the rate of heart attacks.

Ms. Montez, who studies women’s health, said that smoking was a big part of declines in life expectancy for less educated women. Smoking rates have increased among women without a high school diploma, both white and black, she said. But for men of the same education level, they have declined.

This group also has less access to health care than before. The share of working-age adults with less than a high school diploma who did not have health insurance rose to 43 percent in 2006, up from 35 percent in 1993, according to Mr. Jemal at the American Cancer Society. Just 10 percent of those with a college degree were uninsured last year, the Census Bureau reported.

The shift should be seen against the backdrop of sweeping changes in the American economy and in women’s lives, said Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. The overwhelming majority of women now work, while fertility has remained higher than in European countries. For women in low-wage jobs, which are often less flexible, this could take a toll on health, a topic that Professor Berkman has a grant from the National Institute on Aging to study.

    Reversing Trend, Life Span Shrinks for Some Whites, NYT, 20.9.2012,






In California,

County Jails Face Bigger Load


August 5, 2012
The New York Times


FRESNO, Calif. — Standing on the footsteps of the Fresno County Jail, where he had just been released one recent afternoon, Juan Diaz rated the food inside a 2. The state prison at Coalinga, where he served three years on a weapons conviction, earned a 10.

Battle-hardened young men like Mr. Diaz, 33 — who is a member of the Bulldogs, the largest Hispanic gang in California’s Central Valley, and who spent the night in jail for missing a court date on charges of possessing a stolen car and methamphetamine — used to deride the downtown Fresno jail as “Club Snoopy.”

Spending years in jail instead of prison is an increasing possibility now, as California carries out the most far-reaching overhaul of its criminal justice system in decades. And that idea fills Mr. Diaz with dread.

“I’d go insane,” he said. “I would probably hang myself, seriously. I would probably do something stupid.”

Built for stays shorter than one year, the jail does not offer the kind of activities, work programs and amenities found in most prisons. “You’re stuck in a little cell,” Mr. Diaz said, while prisons with outdoor space provide plenty of “yard time.” Soup costs $1 here, compared with 30 cents at the canteen at Coalinga, which Mr. Diaz said he left in 2005. “My homie just got out a couple of months ago,” he said, “and the canteen went up only, like, 3 cents, 4 cents.”

Ordered by the United States Supreme Court to reduce severe overcrowding in its prisons, California began redirecting low-level offenders to local jails last October in a shift called realignment. Its prison population, the nation’s largest, has since fallen by more than 16 percent to 120,000 from 144,000; it must be reduced to 110,000 by next June.

Counties with already tight budgets are scrambling to house the influx of newcomers in facilities that were never designed to accommodate inmates serving long sentences, like a man who began serving 15 years for fraud recently in the Fresno jail.

Fresno County — a sprawling agricultural area surrounding the city, which is also facing financial problems and became a punch line for Conan O’Brien recently — is adding 864 beds to its chronically overcrowded jail. Under a longstanding federal consent decree that requires the Sheriff’s Department to release inmates when the jail reaches capacity, 40 to 60 people are let go early every day.

In a move watched by other states also facing prison overcrowding, California is handing its 58 counties money and leeway to decide how to handle the new arrivals. Liberal communities like San Francisco are using a greater share of the state money on programs and alternatives to incarceration. But most counties, particularly here in the conservative Central Valley, have focused on building jail capacity.

That troubles organizations on both sides of the political spectrum. Sheriff Keith Royal of Nevada County, the president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said members were worried about their capacity to provide “adequate treatment” in jails and about “litigation at the location level.” The American Civil Liberties Union warned that instead of making fundamental improvements to the criminal justice system, many counties risked simply repeating the state’s mistakes by reflexively putting people behind bars.

Criticized for its overemphasis on jails, a local committee overseeing realignment in Fresno recently approved using $848,000 from its state total of $20.8 million this year to expand drug rehabilitation programs for people released from jail. But even that relatively small amount is facing deep skepticism from the county’s Board of Supervisors, which will vote on the plan in September.

“Some people, you’re not going to change their behavior until they’re incarcerated and they have to pay the consequences,” said Debbie Poochigian, the chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors. “I believe we’re keeping our community safer because they’re not out there looking for their next victim.”

The county has used about 40 percent of its state money so far to reopen two of three jail floors that were closed a few years ago because of budget cuts. The priority, Ms. Poochigian said, should be to finance the reopening of the third floor. If Fresno runs out of space, she added, inmates could be transferred to jails in other counties or to private jails.

According to the Board of State and Community Corrections, the population in county jails rose by about 4 percent from an average of 71,293 in last year’s third quarter to 73,957 in the first quarter of 2012, the latest figures available. In Fresno, like elsewhere, about two-thirds are inmates awaiting trial.

Allen Hopper, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U. who co-wrote a study on the shift to jails, said the population at county jails could be significantly reduced by overhauling pretrial procedures. Many inmates, who present no risk, remain in jail simply because they cannot afford bail, he said, adding that alternatives like electronic monitoring and day reporting could free up jail space and save counties money.

But in counties where elected officials are afraid of appearing soft on crime, such alternatives are particularly sensitive.

“Everything is political,” said Sheriff Margaret Mims of Fresno County.

Sheriff Mims said she had become “less optimistic” about the shift to jails because of rising crime in the county, including burglaries and car thefts. Though law enforcement officials acknowledge that rising crime cannot be linked directly to the realignment policy, they say people engaging in nonviolent offenses like property crime no longer fear being sent to prison.

Despite Fresno County’s conservative attitude toward crime, the policy shift has fueled a debate about alternatives to incarceration by grouping various agencies in the committee overseeing the change, said Emma Hughes, a criminologist at California State University, Fresno, who is working as a consultant for the county.

Linda Penner, the chief probation officer and chairwoman of the realignment committee, said that having secured money to reopen two jail floors, the committee had the political room to approve the $848,000 for the rehabilitation program.

“Do I think we’re all getting on the same page in reckoning with the fact that we have to create alternatives to detention?” she said. “Yes.”

Inside the Fresno jail’s north wing, where the newly reopened facilities are, each floor is composed of six two-level “pods” housing 72 inmates. In one pod, men were lying on three-level bunk beds, watching television, playing cards or doing push-ups. They are given an hour a day at an indoor gym on each floor. Inmates in the jail’s older wings get only three hours a week, split between an indoor gym and a rooftop basketball court.

Violence among inmates has risen since the policy shift, Sgt. Terry Barnes said, attributing it to inmates’ realization that they might spend years in a place with few of the activities and amenities they enjoyed in prison.

“They’re very frustrated with the idea that this is it,” said Sergeant Barnes, a corrections officer who has worked at the jail for 24 years.

Outside the jail, David Otero, 35, was chaining his bicycle to a handrail before visiting his brother inside. Mr. Otero said he himself had spent seven months in the jail and 38 days at a state prison for a hit-and-run conviction in 2006. Prison had better amenities, he said, but there was “a lot more politics” there than in Club Snoopy.

His brother, who spent more than 10 years in prison on various drug convictions, was now serving his second year in jail for robbery, Mr. Otero said. He and his mother visit often, giving his brother money for the canteen.

“If he knows he’s a block away from his mom and his brother, who can visit him anytime, that’ll have a direct impact,” Mr. Otero said. “We’re just up the street.”

    In California, County Jails Face Bigger Load, NYT, 5.8.2012,






Corn for Food, Not Fuel


July 30, 2012
The New York Times


IT is not often that a stroke of a pen can quickly undo the ravages of nature, but federal regulators now have an opportunity to do just that. Americans’ food budgets will be hit hard by the ongoing Midwestern drought, the worst since 1956. Food bills will rise and many farmers will go bust.

An act of God, right? Well, the drought itself may be, but a human remedy for some of the fallout is at hand — if only the federal authorities would act. By suspending renewable-fuel standards that were unwise from the start, the Environmental Protection Agency could divert vast amounts of corn from inefficient ethanol production back into the food chain, where market forces and common sense dictate it should go.

The drought has now parched about 60 percent of the contiguous 48 states. As a result, global food prices are rising steeply. Corn futures prices on the Chicago exchange have risen about 60 percent since mid-June, hitting record levels, and other grains such as wheat and soybeans are also sharply higher. Livestock and dairy product prices will inevitably follow.

More than one-third of our corn crop is used to feed livestock. Another 13 percent is exported, much of it to feed livestock as well. Another 40 percent is used to produce ethanol. The remainder goes toward food and beverage production.

Previous droughts in the Midwest (most recently in 1988) also resulted in higher food prices, but misguided energy policies are magnifying the effects of the current one. Federal renewable-fuel standards require the blending of 13.2 billion gallons of corn ethanol with gasoline this year. This will require 4.7 billion bushels of corn, 40 percent of this year’s crop.

Other countries seem to have a better grasp of market forces and common sense. Brazil, another large ethanol producer, uses sugar instead of corn to make ethanol. It has flexible policies that allow the market to determine whether sugar should be sold on the sugar market or be converted to fuel. Our government could learn from the Brazilian approach and direct the E.P.A. to waive a portion of the renewable-fuel standards, thereby directing corn back to the marketplace. Under the law, the E.P.A. would first have to determine that the program was causing economic harm. That’s a no-brainer, given the effects of sharply higher grain prices that are already rippling through the economy.

The price of corn is a critical variable in the world food equation, and food markets are on edge because American corn supplies are plummeting. The combination of the drought and American ethanol policy will lead in many parts of the world to widespread inflation, more hunger, less food security, slower economic growth and political instability, especially in poor countries.

If the E.P.A. were to waive the rules for this year and next, the ethanol industry and corn farmers, who have experienced a years-long windfall, would lose out. Wheat and soybean farmers would also lose, because the prices of those crops have also been driven up: corn competes with soybeans for acreage and is substituted for wheat in some feed rations.

Any defense of the ethanol policy rests on fallacies, primarily these: that ethanol produced from corn makes the United States less dependent on fossil fuels; that ethanol lowers the price of gasoline; that an increase in the percentage of ethanol blended into gasoline increases the overall supply of gasoline; and that ethanol is environmentally friendly and lowers global carbon dioxide emissions.

The ethanol lobby promotes these claims, and many politicians seem intoxicated by them. Corn is indeed a renewable resource, but it has a far lower yield relative to the energy used to produce it than either biodiesel (such as soybean oil) or ethanol from other plants. Ethanol yields about 30 percent less energy per gallon than gasoline, so mileage drops off significantly. Finally, adding ethanol actually raises the price of blended fuel because it is more expensive to transport and handle than gasoline.

As the summer drags on, the drought is only worsening. Last week the International Grains Council lowered its estimate of this year’s American corn harvest to 11.8 billion bushels from 13.8 billion. Reducing the renewable-fuel standard by a mere 20 percent — equivalent to about a billion bushels of corn — would offset nearly half of the expected crop loss due to the drought.

All it would take is the stroke of a pen — and, of course, the savvy and the will to do the right thing.


Colin A. Carter is a professor of agricultural and resource economics

at the University of California, Davis. Henry I. Miller, a physician,

is a fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at the Hoover Institution.

    Corn for Food, Not Fuel, NYT, 30.7.2012,






Poverty in America:

Why Can’t We End It?


July 28, 2012
The New York Times


RONALD REAGAN famously said, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” With 46 million Americans — 15 percent of the population — now counted as poor, it’s tempting to think he may have been right.

Look a little deeper and the temptation grows. The lowest percentage in poverty since we started counting was 11.1 percent in 1973. The rate climbed as high as 15.2 percent in 1983. In 2000, after a spurt of prosperity, it went back down to 11.3 percent, and yet 15 million more people are poor today.

At the same time, we have done a lot that works. From Social Security to food stamps to the earned-income tax credit and on and on, we have enacted programs that now keep 40 million people out of poverty. Poverty would be nearly double what it is now without these measures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. To say that “poverty won” is like saying the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts failed because there is still pollution.

With all of that, why have we not achieved more? Four reasons: An astonishing number of people work at low-wage jobs. Plus, many more households are headed now by a single parent, making it difficult for them to earn a living income from the jobs that are typically available. The near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children — i.e., welfare — in much of the country plays a contributing role, too. And persistent issues of race and gender mean higher poverty among minorities and families headed by single mothers.

The first thing needed if we’re to get people out of poverty is more jobs that pay decent wages. There aren’t enough of these in our current economy. The need for good jobs extends far beyond the current crisis; we’ll need a full-employment policy and a bigger investment in 21st-century education and skill development strategies if we’re to have any hope of breaking out of the current economic malaise.

This isn’t a problem specific to the current moment. We’ve been drowning in a flood of low-wage jobs for the last 40 years. Most of the income of people in poverty comes from work. According to the most recent data available from the Census Bureau, 104 million people — a third of the population — have annual incomes below twice the poverty line, less than $38,000 for a family of three. They struggle to make ends meet every month.

Half the jobs in the nation pay less than $34,000 a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute. A quarter pay below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually. Families that can send another adult to work have done better, but single mothers (and fathers) don’t have that option. Poverty among families with children headed by single mothers exceeds 40 percent.

Wages for those who work on jobs in the bottom half have been stuck since 1973, increasing just 7 percent.

It’s not that the whole economy stagnated. There’s been growth, a lot of it, but it has stuck at the top. The realization that 99 percent of us have been left in the dust by the 1 percent at the top (some much further behind than others) came far later than it should have — Rip Van Winkle and then some. It took the Great Recession to get people’s attention, but the facts had been accumulating for a long time. If we’ve awakened, we can act.

Low-wage jobs bedevil tens of millions of people. At the other end of the low-income spectrum we have a different problem. The safety net for single mothers and their children has developed a gaping hole over the past dozen years. This is a major cause of the dramatic increase in extreme poverty during those years. The census tells us that 20.5 million people earn incomes below half the poverty line, less than about $9,500 for a family of three — up eight million from 2000.

Why? A substantial reason is the near demise of welfare — now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. In the mid-90s more than two-thirds of children in poor families received welfare. But that number has dwindled over the past decade and a half to roughly 27 percent.

One result: six million people have no income other than food stamps. Food stamps provide an income at a third of the poverty line, close to $6,300 for a family of three. It’s hard to understand how they survive.

At least we have food stamps. They have been a powerful antirecession tool in the past five years, with the number of recipients rising to 46 million today from 26.3 million in 2007. By contrast, welfare has done little to counter the impact of the recession; although the number of people receiving cash assistance rose from 3.9 million to 4.5 million since 2007, many states actually reduced the size of their rolls and lowered benefits to those in greatest need.

Race and gender play an enormous part in determining poverty’s continuing course. Minorities are disproportionately poor: around 27 percent of African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians are poor, versus 10 percent of whites. Wealth disparities are even wider. At the same time, whites constitute the largest number among the poor. This is a fact that bears emphasis, since measures to raise income and provide work supports will help more whites than minorities. But we cannot ignore race and gender, both because they present particular challenges and because so much of the politics of poverty is grounded in those issues.

We know what we need to do — make the rich pay their fair share of running the country, raise the minimum wage, provide health care and a decent safety net, and the like. But realistically, the immediate challenge is keeping what we have. Representative Paul Ryan and his ideological peers would slash everything from Social Security to Medicare and on through the list, and would hand out more tax breaks to the people at the top. Robin Hood would turn over in his grave.

We should not kid ourselves. It isn’t certain that things will stay as good as they are now. The wealth and income of the top 1 percent grows at the expense of everyone else. Money breeds power and power breeds more money. It is a truly vicious circle.

A surefire politics of change would necessarily involve getting people in the middle — from the 30th to the 70th percentile — to see their own economic self-interest. If they vote in their own self-interest, they’ll elect people who are likely to be more aligned with people with lower incomes as well as with them. As long as people in the middle identify more with people on the top than with those on the bottom, we are doomed. The obscene amount of money flowing into the electoral process makes things harder yet.

But history shows that people power wins sometimes. That’s what happened in the Progressive Era a century ago and in the Great Depression as well. The gross inequality of those times produced an amalgam of popular unrest, organization, muckraking journalism and political leadership that attacked the big — and worsening — structural problem of economic inequality. The civil rights movement changed the course of history and spread into the women’s movement, the environmental movement and, later, the gay rights movement. Could we have said on the day before the dawn of each that it would happen, let alone succeed? Did Rosa Parks know?

We have the ingredients. For one thing, the demographics of the electorate are changing. The consequences of that are hardly automatic, but they create an opportunity. The new generation of young people — unusually distrustful of encrusted power in all institutions and, as a consequence, tending toward libertarianism — is ripe for a new politics of honesty. Lower-income people will participate if there are candidates who speak to their situations. The change has to come from the bottom up and from synergistic leadership that draws it out. When people decide they have had enough and there are candidates who stand for what they want, they will vote accordingly.

I have seen days of promise and days of darkness, and I’ve seen them more than once. All history is like that. The people have the power if they will use it, but they have to see that it is in their interest to do so.


Peter Edelman is a professor of law at Georgetown University

and the author, most recently,

of “So Rich, So Poor:

Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.”

    Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It?, NYT, 28.7.2012,






Imagine a World Without AIDS


July 27, 2012
The New York Times


THE beginning of the end of AIDS? The article with that title jumped out at me last week, as I did my weekly table-of-contents scan of The New England Journal of Medicine. I wasn’t prepared for the flood of emotion that overcame me. The beginning of the end? Could it really be?

For those of us who did our medical training in the late ’80s and early ’90s, AIDS saturated our lives. The whole era had a medieval feel, with visceral suffering and human decimation all around. Death was vivid, brutal and omnipresent.

Bellevue Hospital, where I trained, was one of those city hospitals that felt like ground zero for the plague. Every third admission seemed to be a patient in his mid-20s who looked as if he’d arrived from Dachau or Biafra, with nary a T-cell to his name. Horrific Kaposi’s sarcoma ulcerated these patients’ bodies. P.C.P., a brutal form of pneumonia, strangled their breathing. Fevers and infections plundered every organ system. What few defenses their bodies mustered were pummeled into insignificance.

The utter relentlessness of the disease pummeled the doctors-in-training as well. It felt as if we were slogging knee-deep in death, with a horizon that was a monochrome of despair. Witnessing your own generation dying off is not for the faint of heart.

The 17 West AIDS ward in Bellevue was always full to capacity, so H.I.V. patients overflowed into the general medical wards, and of course swamped the prison ward, the tuberculosis ward, the pediatric ward and the emergency room. We even had a “spillover” ward, 12 East, reserved for the “actively dying.” The hospital had carved out a ward of private rooms — otherwise unheard-of in a city hospital — so that these patients could have a modicum of privacy in their final days. Needless to say, 12 East was also full to capacity, with a line of patients waiting for a room to “open up.”

If you’d grabbed a random intern toward the end of my residency in 1995, and asked her if she could envision the headline “The Beginning of the End of AIDS” in less than 20 years, she would have simply stared uncomprehendingly at you with bleary eyes. More than 50,000 Americans died of AIDS that year. By 2009, the number had edged under 20,000.

In the worlds of both medicine and metaphor, the narrative arc of AIDS has almost no peer. The transformation from hopelessness to pragmatic optimism is — scientifically speaking — nothing short of miraculous. Potent combinations of antiviral medications that brought patients off their deathbeds and back to life, viral load testing and H.I.V. genotyping that helped tailor treatment regimens, screening of the blood supply, aggressive public health campaigns, prevention of maternal-fetal transmission — we could hardly have envisioned the pace of development.

After years of disappointments, H.I.V. vaccine research is heating up again, as breakthroughs in the understanding of H.I.V. immunology have identified nearly two dozen potential vaccine candidates. The apparent H.I.V. cure as a result of a bone-marrow transplant in a man known as the “Berlin patient” has stimulated tantalizing gene therapy research.

The staggering progress of these past two decades leaves me breathless, and to be honest, almost teary-eyed. For nearly every other category of disease that afflicts my patients, the treatments are largely the same as when I was an intern. Yes, we have fancier stents for our cardiac patients, and more targeted chemotherapy for our cancer patients, but the overall paradigms have shifted only incrementally.

H.I.V. has been easier to target, in part, because it is caused by a single infectious agent — as opposed to the diverse factors that influence cardiovascular disease and cancer. And then there was the avalanche of resources and the galvanizing of public activism that served to concentrate scientific efforts in a manner never seen before. By no means do I wish to belittle the impressive advances in other fields of medicine, but our oncology wards and cardiac wards still do a brisk business.

AIDS patients in the hospital are a rarity now — they are more likely to be admitted for an ulcer or a heart attack than for an H.I.V.-related illness. The overwhelming majority receive their medical care in outpatient settings, like everyone else who is living with a disease rather than dying of a disease. AIDS has settled in next to hypertension and diabetes as one of those chronic conditions that patients deal with over the course of a lifetime.

“Over the course of a lifetime.” Now there’s a concept we never thought about back then.

There is still a long way to go, of course. The 19th annual International AIDS Conference just ended on Friday, and no one is underestimating the gravity of the challenges that remain, particularly in developing countries. But to even contemplate, however tentatively, the beginning of the end is something that my peers and I never imagined happening in our lifetimes.

I often think about grim days we spent doing rounds on 17 West and 12 East. I remember the slow and tortured deaths of our patients, their emaciated bodies disintegrating into nothingness before our eyes. More tears were shed on those wards than any I’ve worked in since.

And what happened? The 17 West AIDS ward became a regular medical ward. The 12 East dying ward was turned into offices. And then, this month, the inpatient AIDS service at Bellevue closed down entirely. If that doesn’t signify the beginning of the end, I don’t know what does.


Danielle Ofri, an associate professor at New York University School of Medicine,

is the editor of the Bellevue Literary Review and the author, most recently,

of “Medicine in Translation: Journeys With My Patients.”

    Imagine a World Without AIDS, NYT, 27.7.2012,






Don’t Shut the Golden Door


June 19, 2012
The New York Times


IMMIGRATION is in the headlines again, with President Obama’s decision last week to stop deporting young illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, and the Supreme Court’s approaching decision on the constitutionality of Arizona’s crackdown on undocumented migrants.

But too much of the public debate has focused on the legality of immigration without considering a more fundamental question: What effects has mass immigration had on American society?

As a result of the 1965 immigration act, which opened the door widely to non-European immigrants, 40 million foreign-born immigrants now live in the United States. They make up 13 percent of the population, the largest such proportion since the 1920s. More than half of these migrants are from Latin America and the Caribbean, although a study released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found that Asians overtook Hispanics in 2009 as the fastest-growing group of immigrants.

For the May issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, we commissioned some of the most meticulous research done to date about the effects of immigration on a cross section of American communities — urban, suburban and rural.

The scholars who participated were in remarkable agreement: while new immigrants are poorer than the general population and face considerable hardship, there is no evidence that they have reshaped the social fabric in harmful ways.

America is neither less safe because of immigration nor is it worse off economically. In fact, in the regions where immigrants have settled in the past two decades, crime has gone down, cities have grown, poor urban neighborhoods have been rebuilt, and small towns that were once on life support are springing back.

Scholars can’t say for sure that immigration caused these positive developments, but we know enough to debunk the notion that immigrants worsen social ills.

For example, in rural counties that experienced an influx of immigrants in the 1980s and ’90s, crime rates dropped by more than they did in rural counties that did not see high immigrant growth. Higher immigration was associated with reductions in homicide rates for white, black and Latino victims. In both Hazleton, Pa., which has a recent history of hostility toward immigration, and St. James, Minn., a much more welcoming community, migrants have also bolstered dwindling populations and helped to reverse economic decline.

In large gateway cities, immigration has been associated not only with a decrease in crime but also with economic revitalization and reductions in concentrated poverty. Data from the 2005 American Community Survey showed, for example, that the income of blacks in the New York City borough of Queens surpassed that of whites for the first time, a development driven largely by immigration from the West Indies.

Scholars found that immigrant youths in Los Angeles were involved in less crime and violence than their native-born peers in similar economic circumstances. Research also has shown that an increase in immigration in cities like San Antonio and Miami did not produce an increase in the homicide rate. Furthermore, social scientists found that people in immigrant communities in New York were less cynical about the law than were people in less diverse communities; they were also more likely to indicate that they would cooperate with the police.

If migration has had such beneficial effects, why, then, has there been such a persistent backlash?

Part of the answer surely lies in the social changes — language, political attitudes, religious mores — that immigrants bring, in addition to the effects of the recession. The leveling-off of migration, especially from Mexico, may bring a sense of relief to opponents of these social changes, but if the new research is any guide, the consequences of the slowdown may be the opposite of what the critics intend.

Comprehensive immigration reform — last attempted during the second term of President George W. Bush — should be a priority for whoever wins in November. Mr. Obama’s decision to exempt undocumented children who were brought to the United States by their parents from harsh deportation rules is an overdue, but welcome, first step.

Establishing a clear path to citizenship for undocumented adults, creating a more permissive guest-worker program, reducing unwarranted police stops of immigrants and preserving families rather than separating them through deportation are controversial ideas, but they deserve a hearing.


John M. MacDonald is an associate professor of criminology

at the University of Pennsylvania.

Robert J. Sampson is a professor of the social sciences

at Harvard.

    Don’t Shut the Golden Door, NYT, 19.6.2012,






Study: 2,000 Convicted

Then Exonerated in 23 Years


May 21, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON (AP) — More than 2,000 people who were falsely convicted of serious crimes have been exonerated in the United States in the past 23 years, according to a new archive compiled at two universities.

    Study: 2,000 Convicted Then Exonerated in 23 Years, NYT, 21.5.2012,






More than five million Americans

currently have Alzheimer’s.

Without an effective preventive,

the number will rise steadily as the population ages.

    A New Attack on Alzheimer’s, NYT, 20.5.2012,






There are around 90 guns for every 100 Americans yet,

despite 85 fatal shootings a day,

the mighty US gun lobby is as powerful as ever.

In the wake of Trayvon Martin's killing,

Gary Younge reports on the country's deadly attachment

to firearms

    America's deadly devotion to guns, NYT, 16.4.2012,






Black Students

Face More Discipline,

Data Suggests


March 6, 2012
The New York Times


Black students, especially boys, face much harsher discipline in public schools than other students, according to new data from the Department of Education.

Although black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection’s 2009-10 statistics from 72,000 schools in 7,000 districts, serving about 85 percent of the nation’s students. The data covered students from kindergarten age through high school.

One in five black boys and more than one in 10 black girls received an out-of-school suspension. Over all, black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.

And in districts that reported expulsions under zero-tolerance policies, Hispanic and black students represent 45 percent of the student body, but 56 percent of those expelled under such policies.

“Education is the civil rights of our generation,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a telephone briefing with reporters on Monday. “The undeniable truth is that the everyday education experience for too many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.”

The department began gathering data on civil rights and education in 1968, but the project was suspended by the Bush administration in 2006. It has been reinstated and expanded to examine a broader range of information, including, for the first time, referrals to law enforcement, an area of increasing concern to civil rights advocates who see the emergence of a school-to-prison pipeline for a growing number of students of color.

According to the schools’ reports, over 70 percent of the students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black.

Black and Hispanic students — particularly those with disabilities — are also disproportionately subject to seclusion or restraints. Students with disabilities make up 12 percent of the student body, but 70 percent of those subject to physical restraints. Black students with disabilities constituted 21 percent of the total, but 44 percent of those with disabilities subject to mechanical restraints, like being strapped down. And while Hispanics made up 21 percent of the students without disabilities, they accounted for 42 percent of those without disabilities who were placed in seclusion.

“Those are extremely dramatic numbers, and show the importance of reinstating the civil rights data collection and expanding the categories of information collected,” said Deborah J. Vagins, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office. “The harsh punishments, especially expulsion under zero tolerance and referrals to law enforcement, show that students of color and students with disabilities are increasingly being pushed out of schools, oftentimes into the criminal justice system.”

While the disciplinary data was probably the most startling, the data showed a wide range of other racial and ethnic disparities. For while 55 percent of the high schools with low black and Hispanic enrollment offered calculus, only 29 percent of the high-minority high schools did so — and even in schools offering calculus, Hispanics made up 20 percent of the student body but only 10 percent of those enrolled in calculus.

And while black and Hispanic students made up 44 percent of the students in the survey, they were only 26 percent of the students in gifted and talented programs.

The data also showed that schools with a lot of black and Hispanic students were likely to have relatively inexperienced, and low-paid, teachers. On average, teachers in high-minority schools were paid $2,251 less per year than their colleagues elsewhere. In New York high schools, though, the discrepancy was more than $8,000, and in Philadelphia, more than $14,000.

Many of the nation’s largest districts had very different disciplinary rates for students of different races. In Los Angeles, for example, black students made up 9 percent of those enrolled, but 26 percent of those suspended; in Chicago, they made up 45 percent of the students, but 76 percent of the suspensions.

In recent decades, as more districts and states have adopted zero-tolerance policies, imposing mandatory suspension for a wide range of behavioral misdeeds, more and more students have been sent away from school for at least a few days, an approach that is often questioned as paving the way for students to fall behind and drop out.

A previous study of the federal data from the years before 2006, published in 2010 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization, found that suspension rates in the nation’s public schools, kindergarten through high school, had nearly doubled from the early 1970s through 2006 — from 3.7 percent of public school students in 1973 to 6.9 percent in 2006 — in part because of the rise of zero-tolerance school discipline policies.

But because the Department of Education has not yet posted most of the data from the most recent collection, it is not yet possible to extend those findings. On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Duncan will announce the results at Howard Univerity, and from then on the data will become publicly available, at ocrdata.ed.gov.

    Black Students Face More Discipline, Data Suggests, NYT, 6.3.2012,






U.S. Poverty Rate, 1 in 6,

at Highest Level in Years


September 13, 2011
The New York Times


The portion of Americans living in poverty last year rose to the highest level since 1993, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday, fresh evidence that the sluggish economic recovery has done nothing for the country’s poorest citizens.

An additional 2.6 million people slipped below the poverty line in 2010, census officials said, making 46.2 million people in poverty in the United States, the highest number in the 52 years the Census Bureau has been tracking it, said Trudi Renwick, chief of the Poverty Statistic Branch at the Census Bureau.

That figure represented 15.1 percent of the country.

The poverty line in 2010 was at $22,113 for a family of four.

“It was a surprising large increase in the overall poverty rate,” said Arloc Sherman, senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “We see record numbers and percentages of Americans in deep poverty.”

And in new evidence of economic distress among the middle class, real median household incomes declined by 2.3 percent in 2010 from the previous year, to $49,400. That was 7 percent less than the peak in 1999 of $53,252.

“A full year into recovery, there were no signs of it affecting the well being of a typical American family,” said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard. “We are well below where incomes were in the late 1990s.”

According to the census figures, the median annual income for a male full-time, year-round worker in 2010 — $47,715 — was virtually unchanged from its level in 1973, when the level was $49,065, in 2010 dollars, said Sheldon H. Danziger, professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.

“That’s not about the poor and unemployed, that’s full time, year round,” Professor Danziger said. Particularly hard hit, he said, have been those who do not have college degrees. “The median, full-time male worker has made no progress on average.”

The youngest members of households — those ages 15 to 24 — lost out the most, with their median income dropping by 9 percent. The recession continued to push Americans to double up in households with friends and relatives, especially those ages 25 to 34, a group that experienced a 25 percent increase in the period between 2007, when the recession began, and 2011. Of that group, 45.3 percent were living below the poverty line, when their parents’ incomes were not taken into account.

“We’re risking a new underclass,” said Timothy Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research and Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “Young, less educated adults, mainly men, can’t support their children and form stable families because they are jobless.”



This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: September 13, 2011

An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect figure

for the number of people the Census Bureau

found to be in poverty in the Unites States.

The number is 46.2 million people, not 56.2 million.

    U.S. Poverty Rate, 1 in 6, at Highest Level in Years, NYT, 13.9.2011,







Gold milestones

on the road to record high


Wed Apr 20, 2011
8:44am EDT


(Reuters) - Gold struck a record high on Wednesday at slightly above $1,500 an ounce as a weak dollar buoyed sentiment in precious metals.

Following are key dates in gold's trading history since the early 1970s:

* August 1971 - U.S. President Richard Nixon takes the dollar off the gold standard, which had been in place with minor modifications since the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944 fixed the conversion rate for one Troy ounce of gold at $35.

* August 1972 - The United States devalues the dollar to $38 per ounce of gold.

* March 1973 - Most major countries adopt floating exchange rate system.

* May 1973 - U.S. devalues dollar to $42.22 per ounce.

* January 1980 - Gold hits record high at $850 per ounce. High inflation because of strong oil prices, Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the impact of the Iranian revolution prompt investors to move into the metal.

* August 1999 - Gold falls to a low at $251.70 on worries about central banks reducing reserves of gold bullion and mining companies selling gold in forward markets to protect against falling prices.

* October 1999 - Gold reaches a two-year high at $338 after agreement to limit gold sales by 15 European central banks. Market sentiment toward gold begins to turn more positive.

* February 2003 - Gold reaches a 4- year high on safe-haven buying in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

* December 2003-January 2004 - Gold breaks above $400, reaching levels last traded in 1988. Investors increasingly buy gold as risk insurance for portfolios.

* November 2005 - Spot gold breaches $500 for the first time since December 1987, when spot hit $502.97.

* April 11, 2006 - Gold prices surpass $600, the highest point since December 1980, with funds and investors pouring money into commodities on a weak dollar, firm oil prices and geopolitical worries.

* May 12, 2006 - Gold prices peak at $730 an ounce with funds and investors pouring money into commodities on a weak dollar, firm oil prices and political tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

* June 14, 2006 - Gold falls 26 percent to $543 from its 26-year peak after investors and speculators sell out of commodity positions.

* November 7, 2007 - Spot gold hits a 28-year high of $845.40 an ounce.

* January 2, 2008 - Spot gold breaks above $850.

* March 13, 2008 - Benchmark gold contract trades over $1,000 for the first time in U.S. futures market.

* March 17, 2008 - Spot gold hits an all-time high of $1,030.80 an ounce. U.S. gold futures touch record peak of $1,033.90.

* September 17, 2008 - Spot gold rises by nearly $90 an ounce, a record one-day gain, as investors seek safety amid turmoil on the equity markets.

* Jan-March 2009 - Gold-backed exchange-traded funds report record inflows in the first quarter as financial sector insecurity spurs safe-haven buying. Holdings of the largest, the SPDR Gold Trust, rise 45 percent to 1,127.44 tonnes.

* February 20, 2009 - Gold rises back above $1,000 an ounce to a peak of $1,005.40 as investors buy bullion as a safe store of value as major economies face recession and equity markets tumble.

* April 24, 2009 - China announces it has raised its gold reserves by three-quarters since 2003 and now holds 1,054 tonnes of the precious metal, boosting expectations it may add further to its reserves.

* August 7, 2009 - European central banks opt to renew their earlier agreement to limit gold sales over a five-year period, setting the sales cap at 400 tonnes a year.

* September 8, 2009 - Gold breaks back through $1,000 an ounce for the first time since February 2009 on dollar weakness and concerns over the sustainability of the economic recovery.

* December 1, 2009 - Gold climbs above $1,200 an ounce for the first time as the dollar drops.

* December 3, 2009 - Gold hits record high at $1,226.10 an ounce, with dollar weakness and expectations for central banks to diversify reserves into gold driving prices higher.

* May 11, 2010 - Gold reaches fresh record high above $1,230 an ounce as fears over the contagion of debt issues in the euro zone fuel safe-haven buying.

* June 21, 2010 - Gold jumps to a new high at $1,264.90 an ounce as underlying fears over financial market stability and sovereign risk combine with dollar weakness to push the metal through resistance at its previous high.

* Sept 14, 2010 - Gold climbs back to record highs, this time at $1,274.75, as global markets reflect renewed uncertainty on the economic outlook.

* Sept 16-22, 2010 - Gold hits record highs for five successive sessions, peaking at $1,296.10, as investors flock to bullion after the Fed signals it may consider further quantitative easing, weakening the dollar and raising fears over future inflation.

* Sept 27 - Spot gold prices touch the $1,300 an ounce mark for the first time.

* Oct 7 - Gold rallies to a record high above $1,360 an ounce as the dollar comes under pressure from building expectations for the U.S. Federal Reserve to take extra measures to keep interest rates low and prop up the economy.

* Oct 13 - Gold jumped to record highs near $1,375 an ounce as the dollar continued to languish, with the U.S. unit coming under pressure after minutes from the Fed's September meeting signaled the U.S. economy may need further stimulus.

* Nov 8 - Gold prices break through the $1,400 an ounce mark for the first time as haven buying prompted by renewed budget problems in Ireland more than offset a sharp dollar bounce.

* Dec 7 - Gold reaches a fresh record high above $1,425 an ounce, driven by fund buying ahead of year-end, jitters over the euro zone debt crisis and speculation for further U.S. monetary easing.

* January 2011 - Gold prices fall more than 6 percent in their worst monthly performance in over a year as a revival in risk appetite diverts investment to higher-yielding assets.

* March 1 - Gold recovers to hit a record high at $1,434.65 an ounce as unrest in Tunisia and Egypt spreads across the Middle East and North Africa, boosting oil prices.

* March 7 - Gold extends record highs to $1,444.40 an ounce as oil prices hit their highest in 2- years after protests are quashed in Saudi Arabia and as violence in Libya rages.

* March 24 - The resignation of Portuguese prime minister Jose Socrates pushes the euro zone debt crisis back to center stage, lifting gold prices to a record above $1,447 an ounce.

* April 20 - Gold climbed to a record high at $1,500.16 an ounce, supported by a weak dollar and concerns over a sovereign debt crisis.


(Compiled by Atul Prakash, Jan Harvey,

Himani Sarkar and Amanda Cooper)

    Factbox: Gold milestones on the road to record high, R, 20.4.2011,






The Rich Get Even Richer


March 25, 2012
The New York Times


NEW statistics show an ever-more-startling divergence between the fortunes of the wealthy and everybody else — and the desperate need to address this wrenching problem. Even in a country that sometimes seems inured to income inequality, these takeaways are truly stunning.

In 2010, as the nation continued to recover from the recession, a dizzying 93 percent of the additional income created in the country that year, compared to 2009 — $288 billion — went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers, those with at least $352,000 in income. That delivered an average single-year pay increase of 11.6 percent to each of these households.

Still more astonishing was the extent to which the super rich got rich faster than the merely rich. In 2010, 37 percent of these additional earnings went to just the top 0.01 percent, a teaspoon-size collection of about 15,000 households with average incomes of $23.8 million. These fortunate few saw their incomes rise by 21.5 percent.

The bottom 99 percent received a microscopic $80 increase in pay per person in 2010, after adjusting for inflation. The top 1 percent, whose average income is $1,019,089, had an 11.6 percent increase in income.

This new data, derived by the French economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez from American tax returns, also suggests that those at the top were more likely to earn than inherit their riches. That’s not completely surprising: the rapid growth of new American industries — from technology to financial services — has increased the need for highly educated and skilled workers. At the same time, old industries like manufacturing are employing fewer blue-collar workers.

The result? Pay for college graduates has risen by 15.7 percent over the past 32 years (after adjustment for inflation) while the income of a worker without a high school diploma has plummeted by 25.7 percent over the same period.

Government has also played a role, particularly the George W. Bush tax cuts, which, among other things, gave the wealthy a 15 percent tax on capital gains and dividends. That’s the provision that caused Warren E. Buffett’s secretary to have a higher tax rate than he does.

As a result, the top 1 percent has done progressively better in each economic recovery of the past two decades. In the Clinton era expansion, 45 percent of the total income gains went to the top 1 percent; in the Bush recovery, the figure was 65 percent; now it is 93 percent.

Just as the causes of the growing inequality are becoming better known, so have the contours of solving the problem: better education and training, a fairer tax system, more aid programs for the disadvantaged to encourage the social mobility needed for them escape the bottom rung, and so on.

Government, of course, can’t fully address some of the challenges, like globalization, but it can help.

By the end of the year, deadlines built into several pieces of complex legislation will force a gridlocked Congress’s hand. Most significantly, all of the Bush tax cuts will expire. If Congress does not act, tax rates will return to the higher, pre-2000, Clinton-era levels. In addition, $1.2 trillion of automatic spending cuts that were set in motion by the failure of the last attempt at a deficit reduction deal will take effect.

So far, the prospects for progress are at best worrisome, at worst terrifying. Earlier this week, House Republicans unveiled an unsavory stew of highly regressive tax cuts, large but unspecified reductions in discretionary spending (a category that importantly includes education, infrastructure and research and development), and an evisceration of programs devoted to lifting those at the bottom, including unemployment insurance, food stamps, earned income tax credits and many more.

Policies of this sort would exacerbate the very problem of income inequality that most needs fixing. Next week’s package from House Democrats will almost certainly be more appealing. And to his credit, President Obama has spoken eloquently about the need to address this problem. But with Democrats in the minority in the House and an election looming, passage is unlikely.

The only way to redress the income imbalance is by implementing policies that are oriented toward reversing the forces that caused it. That means letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthy and adding money to some of the programs that House Republicans seek to cut. Allowing this disparity to continue is both bad economic policy and bad social policy. We owe those at the bottom a fairer shot at moving up.


Steven Rattner is a contributing writer for Op-Ed

and a longtime Wall Street executive.



This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 26, 2012

Due to a typo, an earlier version referred incorrectly

to the distribution of income gains made

during the Clinton expansion.

Forty-five percent of the total income gains

went to the top 1 percent,

not to the top 11 percent.

    The Rich Get Even Richer, NYT, 25.3.2012,






Budget Deficit

to Reach $1.5 Trillion


January 26, 2011
Filed at 11:58 p.m. EST
The New York Times


WASHINGTON (AP) — Far from slowing, the government's deficit spending will surge to a record $1.5 trillion flood of red ink this year, congressional budget experts estimated Wednesday, blaming the slow economic recovery and last month's tax-cut law.

The report was sobering new evidence that it will take more than President Barack Obama's proposed freeze on some agencies to stem the nation's extraordinary budget woes. Republicans say they want big budget cuts but so far are light on specifics.

Wednesday's Congressional Budget Office estimates indicate the government will have to borrow 40 cents for every dollar it spends this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Tax revenues are projected to drop to their lowest levels since 1950, when measured against the size of the economy.

The report, full of nasty news, also says that after decades of Social Security surpluses, the vast program's costs are no longer covered by payroll taxes.

The budget estimates will add fuel to the already-raging debate over spending and looming legislation that would allow the government to borrow more money as the national debt nears the $14.3 trillion cap set by law. Republicans controlling the House say there's no way they'll raise the limit without significant budget cuts, starting with a government funding bill that will advance next month.

Democrats and Republicans agree that stern anti-deficit steps are needed, but neither Obama nor his resurgent GOP rivals on Capitol Hill are — so far — willing to put on the table cuts to popular benefit programs such as Medicare, farm subsidies and Social Security. The need to pass legislation to fund the government and prevent a first-ever default on U.S. debt obligations seems sure to drive the two sides into negotiations.

Though the analysis predicts the economy will grow by 3.1 percent this year, it foresees unemployment remaining above 9 percent.

Dauntingly for Obama, the nonpartisan agency estimates a nationwide jobless rate of 8.2 percent on Election Day in 2012. That's higher that the rates that contributed to losses by Presidents Jimmy Carter (7.5 percent) and George H.W. Bush (7.4 percent). The nation isn't projected to be at full employment — considered to be a jobless rate of about 5 percent — until 2016.

The latest deficit figures are up from previous estimates because of bipartisan legislation passed in December that extended George W. Bush-era tax cuts and unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless and provided a 2 percentage point Social Security payroll tax cut this year.

That measure added almost $400 billion to this year's deficit, CBO says.

The deficit is on track to beat the record of $1.4 trillion set in 2009. The budget experts predict the deficit will drop to $1.1 trillion next year, still very high by historical standards.

Republicans focus on Obama's contributions to the deficit: his $821 billion economic stimulus plan, boosts for domestic programs and his signature health care overhaul. Obama points out that he inherited deficits that would have exceeded $1 trillion a year anyway.

The chilling figures came the day after Obama called for a five-year freeze on optional spending in domestic agency budgets passed by Congress each year.

Republicans were quick to blame Obama for the rising red ink. Rep. Jeb Hensarllng of Texas, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said the report "paints a picture that is more dangerous than most Americans could anticipate."

"What is our leader in the White House doing about it? Asking Congress to raise the debt ceiling, proposing new spending and sticking future generations with a multi-trillion dollar tab," Hensarling said.

Democrat Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, pointed to a problem lawmakers are sure to keep facing:

"When the American people are asked what they want done and to prioritize what they want, they want the deficits and debt dealt with. But when they are asked very specifically, will they support changes in Social Security, the polls say no. Changes in Medicare? The polls say no. Changes in defense spending? The polls say no."

"I would've liked very much if the president would have spent a bit more time helping the American people understand how really big this problem is," added Conrad, D-N.D.

Republicans are calling for deeper cuts for education, housing and the FBI — among many programs — to return them to the 2008 levels in place before Obama took office.

But those nondefense programs make up just 12 or so percent of the $3.7 trillion budget, which means any upcoming deficit reduction package — at least one that begins to significantly slow the gush of red ink — will require politically dangerous curbs to popular benefit programs. That includes Social Security, Medicare, the Medicaid health care program for the poor and disabled, and food stamps.

Neither Obama nor his GOP rivals on Capitol Hill have yet come forward with specific proposals for cutting such benefit programs. Successful efforts to curb the deficit always require active, engaged presidential leadership, but Obama's unwillingness to thus far take chances has deficit hawks discouraged. Obama will release his 2012 budget proposal next month.

"The proposals we've seen so far from the president and congressional Republicans amount to little more than tinkering around the edges," said Concord Coalition Executive Director Bob Bixby.

"Somebody is going to have to bite the bullet and get this process going," said Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan group that advocates fiscal responsibility. "And that somebody has to be the president."

Obama has steered clear of the recommendations of his deficit commission, which in December called for difficult moves such as increasing the Social Security retirement age and reducing future increases in benefits. It also proposed a 15-cents-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax and eliminating or scaling back tax breaks — including the child tax credit, mortgage interest deduction and deduction claimed by employers who provide health insurance — in exchange for rate cuts on corporate and income taxes.

CBO predicts that the deficit will fall to $551 billion by 2015 — a sustainable 3 percent of the economy — but only if the Bush tax cuts are wiped off the books. Under its rules, CBO assumes the recently extended cuts in taxes on income, investment and people inheriting large estates will expire in two years. If those tax cuts, and numerous others, are extended, the deficit for that year would be almost three times as large.

Tax revenues, which dropped significantly in 2009 because of the recession, have stabilized. But revenue growth will continue to be constrained. CBO projects revenues to be 6 percent higher in 2011 than they were two years ago, which will not keep pace with the growth in spending.

    Budget Deficit to Reach $1.5 Trillion, NYT, 6.1.2011,










Illegal Drug Use

Up Sharply Last Year


The New York Times
September 16, 2010
Filed at 3:28 a.m. ET


WASHINGTON (AP) -- The rate of illegal drug use rose last year to the highest level in nearly a decade, fueled by a sharp increase in marijuana use and a surge in ecstasy and methamphetamine abuse, the government reported Wednesday.

Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, called the 9 percent increase in drug use disappointing but said he was not surprised given ''eroding attitudes'' about the perception of harm from illegal drugs and the growing number of states approving medicinal marijuana.

''I think all of the attention and the focus of calling marijuana medicine has sent the absolute wrong message to our young people,'' Kerlikowske said in an interview.

The annual report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found marijuana use rose by 8 percent and remained the most commonly used drug.

Mike Meno, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, said the survey is more proof that the government's war on marijuana has failed in spite of decades of enforcement efforts and arrests.

''It's time we stop this charade and implement sensible laws that would tax and regulate marijuana the same way we do more harmful -- but legal -- drugs like alcohol and tobacco,'' Meno said.

On a positive note, cocaine abuse continues to decline, with use of the drug down 32 percent from its peak in 2006.

About 21.8 million Americans, or 8.7 percent of the population age 12 and older, reported using illegal drugs in 2009. That's the highest level since the survey began in 2002. The previous high was just over 20 million in 2006.

The survey, which was being released Thursday, is based on interviews with about 67,500 people. It is considered the most comprehensive annual snapshot of drug use in the United States.

Other results show a 37 percent increase in ecstasy use and a 60 percent jump in the number of methamphetamine users. In the early 2000s, there was a widespread public safety campaign to warn young people about the dangers of ecstasy as a party drug, but that effort declined as use dropped off.

''The last few years, I think we've taken our eye off the ball on ecstasy,'' Kerlikowske said.

Meth use had been dropping after a passage of a 2006 federal law that put cold tablets containing pseudoephedrine behind pharmacy counters. But law enforcement officials have seen a rise in ''smurfing,'' or traveling from store to store to purchase the medicines, which can be used to produce homemade meth in kitchen labs.

Kerlikowske attributed the rise in meth abuse to more people getting around the law and an increase in meth coming across the border with Mexico.

The rise in marijuana use comes as California voters prepare to decide in November whether to legalize the drug. An Associated Press-CNBC poll earlier this year found that most Americans still oppose legalizing marijuana, but larger majorities believe it has medical benefits and want the government to allow its use for that purpose.

Medical marijuana sales in the 14 states that allow it have also taken off since the federal government signaled last year that it wouldn't prosecute marijuana sellers who follow state rules. The survey does not distinguish between medicinal and non-medicinal marijuana use.

The survey found the number of youths aged 12-17 who perceived a great risk of harm from smoking marijuana once or twice a week dropped from 54.7 percent in 2007 to 49.3 percent in 2009.



SAMHSA: http://www.samhsa.gov/

    Report: Illegal Drug Use Up Sharply Last Year, NYT, 16.9.2010,







The Court:

Ignoring the Reality of Guns


June 28, 2010
The New York Times


About 10,000 Americans died by handgun violence, according to federal statistics, in the four months that the Supreme Court debated which clause of the Constitution it would use to subvert Chicago’s entirely sensible ban on handgun ownership. The arguments that led to Monday’s decision undermining Chicago’s law were infuriatingly abstract, but the results will be all too real and bloody.

This began two years ago, when the Supreme Court disregarded the plain words of the Second Amendment and overturned the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, deciding that the amendment gave individuals in the district, not just militias, the right to bear arms. Proceeding from that flawed logic, the court has now said the amendment applies to all states and cities, rendering Chicago’s ban on handgun ownership unenforceable.

Once again, the court’s conservative majority imposed its selective reading of American history, citing the country’s violent separation from Britain and the battles over slavery as proof that the authors of the Constitution and its later amendments considered gun ownership a fundamental right. The court’s members ignored the present-day reality of Chicago, where 258 public school students were shot last school year — 32 fatally.

Rather than acknowledging Chicago’s — and the nation’s — need to end an epidemic of gun violence, the justices spent scores of pages in the decision analyzing which legal theory should bind the Second Amendment to the states. Should it be the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, or the amendment’s immunities clause? The argument was not completely settled because there was not a five-vote majority for either path.

The issue is not trivial; had the court backed the immunity-clause path championed by Justice Clarence Thomas, it might have had the beneficial effect of applying more aspects of the Bill of Rights to the states. That could make it easier to require that states, like the federal government, have unanimous jury verdicts in criminal trials, for example, or ban excessive fines.

While the court has now twice attacked complete bans on handgun ownership, the decision left plenty of room for restrictions on who can buy and sell arms.

The court acknowledged, as it did in the District of Columbia case, that the amendment did not confer “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” It cited a few examples of what it considered acceptable: limits on gun ownership by felons or the mentally ill, bans on carrying firearms in sensitive places like schools or government buildings and conditions on gun sales.

Mayors and state lawmakers will have to use all of that room and keep adopting the most restrictive possible gun laws — to protect the lives of Americans and aid the work of law enforcement officials. They should continue to impose background checks, limit bulk gun purchases, regulate dealers, close gun-show loopholes.

They should not be intimidated by the theoretical debate that has now concluded at the court or the relentless stream of lawsuits sure to follow from the gun lobby that will undoubtedly keep pressing to overturn any and all restrictions. Officials will have to press back even harder. Too many lives are at stake.

    The Court: Ignoring the Reality of Guns, NYT, 28.6.2010, 






Hunger in U.S. at a 14-Year High


November 17, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The number of Americans who lived in households that lacked consistent access to adequate food soared last year, to 49 million, the highest since the government began tracking what it calls “food insecurity” 14 years ago, the Department of Agriculture reported Monday.

The increase, of 13 million Americans, was much larger than even the most pessimistic observers of hunger trends had expected and cast an alarming light on the daily hardships caused by the recession’s punishing effect on jobs and wages.

About a third of these struggling households had what the researchers called “very low food security,” meaning lack of money forced members to skip meals, cut portions or otherwise forgo food at some point in the year.

The other two-thirds typically had enough to eat, but only by eating cheaper or less varied foods, relying on government aid like food stamps, or visiting food pantries and soup kitchens.

“These numbers are a wake-up call for the country,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

One figure that drew officials’ attention was the number of households, 506,000, in which children faced “very low food security”: up from 323,000 the previous year. President Obama, who has pledged to end childhood hunger by 2015, released a statement while traveling in Asia that called the finding “particularly troubling.”

The ungainly phrase “food insecurity” stems from years of political and academic wrangling over how to measure adequate access to food. In the 1980s, when officials of the Reagan administration denied there was hunger in the United States, the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington advocacy group, began a survey that concluded otherwise. Over time, Congress had the Agriculture Department oversee a similar survey, which the Census Bureau administers.

Though researchers at the Agriculture Department do not use the word “hunger,” Mr. Obama did. “Hunger rose significantly last year,” he said.

Analysts said the main reason for the growth was the rise in the unemployment rate, to 7.2 percent at the end of 2008 from 4.9 percent a year earlier. And since it now stands at 10.2 percent, the survey might in fact understate the number of Americans struggling to get adequate food.

Rising food prices, too, might have played a role.

The food stamp rolls have expanded to record levels, with 36 million Americans now collecting aid, an increase of nearly 40 percent from two years ago. And the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed last winter, raised the average monthly food stamp benefit per person by about 17 percent, to $133. Many states have made it easier for those eligible to apply, but rising applications and staffing cuts have also brought long delays.

Problems gaining access to food were highest in households with children headed by single mothers. About 37 percent of them reported some form of food insecurity compared with 14 percent of married households with children. About 29 percent of Hispanic households reported food insecurity, compared with 27 percent of black households and 12 percent of white households. Serious problems were most prevalent in the South, followed equally by the West and Midwest.

Some conservatives have attacked the survey’s methodology, saying it is hard to define what it measures. The 18-item questionnaire asks about skipped meals and hunger pangs, but also whether people had worries about getting food. It ranks the severity of their condition by the number of answers that indicate a problem.

“Very few of these people are hungry,” said Robert Rector, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “When they lose jobs, they constrain the kind of food they buy. That is regrettable, but it’s a far cry from a hunger crisis.”

The report measures the number of households that experienced problems at any point in the year. Only a “small fraction” were facing the problem at a given moment. Among those with “very low food security,” for instance, most experienced the condition for several days in each of seven or eight months.

James Weill, the director of the food center that pioneered the report, called it a careful look at an underappreciated condition.

“Many people are outright hungry, skipping meals,” he said. “Others say they have enough to eat but only because they’re going to food pantries or using food stamps. We describe it as ‘households struggling with hunger.’ ”

    Hunger in U.S. at a 14-Year High, NYT, 17.11.2009,






Indigent Burials Are on the Rise


October 11, 2009
The New York Times


Coroners and medical examiners across the country are reporting spikes in the number of unclaimed bodies and indigent burials, with states, counties and private funeral homes having to foot the bill when families cannot.

The increase comes as governments short on cash are cutting other social service programs, with some municipalities dipping into emergency and reserve funds to help cover the costs of burials or cremations.

Oregon, for example, has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of unclaimed bodies over the past few years, the majority left by families who say they cannot afford services. “There are more people in our cooler for a longer period of time,” said Dr. Karen Gunson, the state’s medical examiner. “It’s not that we’re not finding families, but that the families are having a harder time coming up with funds to cover burial or cremation costs.”

About a dozen states now subsidize the burial or cremation of unclaimed bodies, including Illinois, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Most of the state programs provide disposition services to people on Medicaid, a cost that has grown along with Medicaid rolls.

Financing in Oregon comes from fees paid to register the deaths with the state. The state legislature in June voted to raise the filing fee for death certificates to $20 from $7, to help offset the increased costs of state cremations, which cost $450.

“I’ve been here for 24 years, and I can’t remember something like this happening before,” Dr. Gunson said.

Already in 2009, Wisconsin has paid for 15 percent more cremations than it did last year, as the number of Medicaid recipients grew by more than 95,000 people since the end of January, said Stephanie Smiley, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn tried to end the state’s indigent burial program this year, shifting the financing to counties and funeral homes, but the state eventually found $12 million to continue the program when funeral directors balked.

The majority of burials and cremations, however, are handled on the city, county, town or township level, an added economic stress as many places face down wide budget gaps.

Boone County, Mo., hit its $3,000 burial budget cap last month, and took $1,500 out of a reserve fund to cover the rest of the year. While the sum is relatively low, it comes as the county is facing a $2 million budget shortfall, tax collections are down 5 percent and the number of residents needing help is expected to grow.

“We’ve had a significant increase in unemployment, wages are dropping, industrial manufacturing jobs go away and companies scaled back or even closed their doors,” said Skip Elkin, the county commissioner. “But we feel an obligation to help families who don’t have any assets.”

The medical examiner of Wayne County, Mich., Dr. Carl Schmidt, bought a refrigerated truck after the morgue ran out of space. The truck, which holds 35 bodies, is currently full, Dr. Schmidt said. “We’ll buy another truck if we have to,” he said.

Many places are turning to cremation, which averages a third to half the price of a burial. However, they will accommodate families’ requests for burial.

Clyde Gibbs, the chief medical examiner in Chapel Hill, N.C., said the office typically averaged 25 to 30 unclaimed bodies each year. At the end of the 2008 fiscal year there were at least 60, Dr. Gibbs said. The office cremates about three-quarters of the remains, and scatters the ashes at sea every few years.

In Tennessee, medical examiner and coroners’ offices donate unclaimed remains to the Forensic Anthropological Research Center, known as the “Body Farm,” where students study decomposition at the University of Tennessee. The facility had to briefly halt donations because it had received so many this year, said its spokesman, Jay Mayfield.

The increase in indigent burials and cremations is also taking a toll on funeral homes, which are losing money as more people choose cremation over burial. In 2003, 29.5 percent of remains were cremated; by 2008 the number had grown to 36 percent, according to the Cremation Association of North America, and it is expected to soar to 46 percent by 2015, according to the association’s projection of current trends.

Don Catchen, owner of Don Catchen & Son Funeral Homes in Elsmere, Ky., who handles cremations of the poor in Kenton County, said the $831 county reimbursement for cremations was “just enough to cover the cost of what I do — I donate my time.”

In Florida, where counties switched to cremation a few years ago to save on costs, Prudencio Vallejo, general manager of the Unclaimed Bodies Unit of the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office, said cremations were $425, compared with $1,500 for a burial. They have risen about 10 percent this year, Mr. Vallejo said.

“Most people, the first thing that they say is ‘We wouldn’t be coming to you if we could afford to do it ourselves,’ ” he said.

Broward County, Fla., paid for the cremation of Renata Richardson’s daughter, Jazmyn Rose, who was born stillborn on Sept. 25, 2008. Ms. Richardson, 26, lost her job at an advertising agency in July and could not afford to pay.

The county spent about $1,000 on a cremation and pink urn, engraved with the baby’s birth and death date, and a Bible passage. It now sits in the bassinette where she was to sleep.

“I was strapped for cash, I was in mourning, and I didn’t know what they were going to do with her,” Ms. Richardson, of Davie, Fla., said. “I was honored that they went that far to help me.”

    Indigent Burials Are on the Rise, NYT, 11.10.2009,






Terrorist watch list

hits 1 million


10 March 2009
USA Today
By Peter Eisler


WASHINGTON — The government's terrorist watch list has hit 1 million entries, up 32% since 2007.

Federal data show the rise comes despite the removal of 33,000 entries last year by the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center in an effort to purge the list of outdated information and remove people cleared in investigations.

It's unclear how many individuals those 33,000 records represent — the center often uses multiple entries, or "identities," for a person to reflect variances in name spellings or other identifying information. The remaining million entries represent about 400,000 individuals, according to the center.

The new figures were provided by the screening center and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in response to requests from USA TODAY.

"We're continually trying to improve the quality of the information," says Timothy Edgar, a civil liberties officer at the intelligence director's office. "It's always going to be a work in progress."

People put on the watch list by intelligence and law enforcement agencies can be blocked from flying, stopped at borders or subjected to other scrutiny. About 95% of the people on the list are foreigners, the FBI says, but it's a source of frequent complaints from U.S. travelers.

In the past two years, 51,000 people have filed "redress" requests claiming they were wrongly included on the watch list, according to the Department of Homeland Security. In the vast majority of cases reviewed so far, it has turned out that the petitioners were not actually on the list, with most having been misidentified at airports because their names resembled others on it.

There have been 830 redress requests since 2005 where the person was, in fact, confirmed to be on the watch list, and further review by the screening center led to the removal of 150, or 18% of them.

Without specific rules for who goes on the list, it's too bloated to be effective, says Tim Sparapani, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.

A 2007 audit by the Government Accountability Office said more needed to be done to ensure the list's accuracy, but still found that it has "enhanced the U.S. government's counterterrorism efforts."

    Terrorist watch list hits 1 million, UT, 10.3.2009,






24 million

go from 'thriving'

to 'struggling'


9 March 2009
USA Today
By Susan Page


EXTON, Pa. — Casualties of the economic downturn include easy credit, rising home values, stable retirement investment accounts and 4.4 million jobs.

Some fear that the American dream may be in peril as well.

The aspirations that have defined the American experience — that those who work hard and play by the rules can get ahead, and that the next generation will have a better life than this one — have been battered by a devastating recession that shows few signs of having hit bottom.

"Maybe we were dreaming the American dream, you know what I mean?" says David McLimans, a steelworker. The mill he works for in suburban Philadelphia temporarily shut down last week amid the credit crunch. "I'm 63, so I'm not dreaming it anymore. I have what I have and I hope I can keep what I have, but my kids, I worry about. They're struggling."

His four grown children have a lot of company. More than 24 million Americans shifted in 2008 from lives that were "thriving" to ones that were "struggling," according to a massive study by Gallup and Healthways, a Tennessee health management company. Results from its Well-Being Index — including physical and mental health as well as personal finances and job satisfaction — are being released Tuesday.

For the project, Gallup has been surveying about 1,000 people every day except major holidays since January 2008.

At the start of 2008, as the recession was beginning, slightly more people were "thriving" than "struggling." By the end of the year, after an economic meltdown that began with the subprime mortgage crisis, Americans by an overwhelming 20 percentage points were "struggling" rather than "thriving," 58%-38%.

The remaining 4% were "suffering," in more dire straits.

The index categorizes respondents based on how they rate their current lives as well as their expectations of where they will be in five years. Among those showing the steepest drop were African Americans, business owners and executives, and people who were 35-39 years old — a stage in life when many are building careers, expanding families and buying homes.

Among those with the smallest decline were Hispanics, seniors 65 and older, and repair workers, whose skills suddenly may be more in demand as Americans try to make do with what they have.

No group was immune, however. High levels of education and income have protected many workers during previous downturns, but the Well-Being Index shows declines in 2008 across all age groups and income levels, among both men and women and in every major racial and ethnic group.

In Chester County, south of Philadelphia, the downturn has been felt not only by steelworkers in Coatesville but also investment bankers in Exton and among immigrants who toil on the mushroom farms in Kennett Square.

"People have lost their jobs and they're in the unemployment lines," says James Kennedy, the 91-year-old mayor of South Coatesville. Even so, he recalls, the Great Depression was worse.

"The current recession hits everyone and spares no one," says Andrew Dinniman, the local state senator and a professor of global studies at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. "The bottom line is: industrial worker, professional worker — we're all in this together."

The wide reach of hard times has made it difficult for Americans to use some traditional strategies to cope.

Get training for a new job? The index shows declines in every occupation, from business managers and professionals to clerical staff and service workers. Move to a different part of the country? The percentage of those "thriving" fell by double digits in the West, South and Midwest and by more than 9 percentage points in the East.

The findings underscore the enormous task the United States faces in pulling out of the worst downturn since the Depression and in maintaining the sense of possibility that has marked the nation since its founding.

Optimism that individuals could reach better days ahead fueled the westward expansion, waves of innovation and the country's continued draw for immigrants from around the world.

The concept of the American dream reflects aspirations for the long term that have endured through good times and bad, but it is not indestructible, says Claudia Goldin, an economic historian at Harvard.

"What people mean by the 'American dream' is something that is not a snapshot; it's something that is played out over time and not just in their lifetime, but the lifetimes of their children," she says.

"It may be impervious to a short-term job loss, to a short-run health problem, but it's not going to be impervious to a slowdown of the entire economy that lasts for a very long period of time," especially if traditional gains in education are stalled.

In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken last week, Americans by about 3-to-1 said they believed that with hard work they could achieve the American dream. Even so, one tenet of that dream — faith that the next generation will have a better life than their parents — is eroding.

Ten years ago, during an economic boom, 71% of Americans said it was likely that those in the next generation would be better off than their parents.

One year ago, 66% agreed.

Now, 59% do.

The pursuit of happiness

The groundbreaking Gallup-Healthways index makes clear how intertwined individual lives are with the nation's well-being. Dramatic shifts in the stock market and the jobless rate often correlated with changes in Americans' assessments of where their lives stood now and where they would be in the future.

Consider the Declaration of Independence's assertion of a natural-born right to pursue happiness.

The survey lists several emotions, including happiness, and asks if respondents experienced them the previous day. Weekends tended to have the highest percentage of those reporting happiness or enjoyment without much stress or worry — no surprise there — and Thanksgiving was the happiest day of the year, when 68% were upbeat.

The five days with the lowest levels of happiness all coincided with awful economic news.

Just 37% of Americans said they felt a lot of happiness and not a lot of stress on four downbeat days: Sept. 17, when the Dow fell 449 points; Sept. 29, when the Dow dropped 778 points and the House rejected President Bush's Wall Street bailout plan; Nov. 20, when new jobless claims hit the highest level since 1992; and Dec. 2, one day after the nation officially was declared in recession, pushing down the Dow by 680 points.

The unhappiest day of all was Dec. 11, when new jobless claims reached a 26-year high. A record-low 35% of Americans reported that day as a happy one.

For Amy Beers, the past year has been trying.

The 36-year-old woman from Perkasie, in Bucks County, had been on a fast track. She built a career in direct marketing, worked with an inventor who had developed a handheld device that could neutralize land mines without detonation, attended a land-mine conference in Croatia to promote it, then started her own firm to help local companies develop customer loyalty.

Last year, her business dried up. She tends bar at night to help pay the bills for her and her 7-year-old son, Zack, while she looks for a job in her field by day.

"I've gone from corporate America to the top of Comcast's shut-off list," she says ruefully. "It's been a truly humbling experience, and for a very long time I was embarrassed not to have a job. You go through the emotional loss. In some ways, it's like mourning. I've had those doubts and depression: 'Oh my goodness, my life is falling apart in front of my eyes!'

"But at the end of the day, I know who I am. I know that this isn't permanent, and I really have belief that things are going to get better."

Even Beers' job at a Bennigan's restaurant in Montgomeryville is an opportunity, she says. The traveling business executives who stay in the adjoining hotel and come in for a nightcap might have a job at their companies.

Her pitch: "Hi, is anyone out there looking for an employee?"

Obama: Keep 'the dream alive'

President Obama regularly talks about the American dream as threatened and its restoration as a central goal. "We have begun the essential work of keeping the American dream alive in our time," he said when he signed the $787 billion stimulus bill.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs ticks off what the White House sees as elements of the American dream: "That you could get a job that pays a living wage, that if you got sick you wouldn't go bankrupt, that you don't have to be rich to send your kids to college, that you could have a secure retirement."

Safire's New Political Dictionary puts it this way: "The American System is considered the skeleton and the American Dream the soul of the American body politic." Author William Safire adds that the phrase "defies definition as much as it invites discussion."

Karen Beltran's family epitomizes one classic version of the American dream.

Her father came to southern Pennsylvania from Mexico to work on the mushroom farms and as a dishwasher, eventually bringing his wife and their two young daughters here. At first illegal immigrants, Jose and Martha Beltran eventually gained legal status and last month became U.S. citizens.

An organization in Kennett Square called La Comunidad Hispana helped them gain their high-school equivalency diplomas. They own their home now — he is a mechanic; she is employed at a potato-chip factory — and have sent their two older daughters to college.

Karen, 25, who graduated from Penn State in 2005, now works as a social worker at the same community center that helped them.

The downturn has postponed her father's hopes of moving to a new job and reduced their ability to contribute toward college expenses for their youngest, American-born daughter, who is now in high school. Still, ask Karen Beltran about the American dream and she plays down financial strains to boast about how close-knit her family remains: "We're still together."

In the face of a faltering economy, some analysts say, Americans may be redefining some fundamental ambitions. A study sponsored by Northwestern Mutual and being released today asked Americans to define "success." Topping the list were spending time with family, having a good relationship with a spouse or partner, being healthy and maintaining a good work/life balance.

Ranked near the bottom were such material goals as owning "the home of your dreams" and earning a high income.

Still, three of four in the nationwide poll ranked financial security as important — and only 12% said they felt secure in their finances these days.

Chris Connell, 50, owner of the Pig & Whistle Deli in Havertown, in Pennsylvania's Delaware County, has cut back on hours for his employees and stopped drawing a salary for himself as he struggles to deal with a cash-flow squeeze.

His wife's paycheck as an emergency-room nurse is keeping the family afloat for now.

Connell feels confident the economy will be better by the time his 11-year-old twin daughters, head into the workforce, but he worries about his three older children, including two who are now in college.

"The twins, we don't want to scare them. We don't want them to think someone is going to come along and take the house away," he says. "But we at least want to let them know that things are very, very tight and we have to work at this together. …

"I do still want the same things for them. Never going to stop the dream, absolutely. Never lower my standard of dreaming."

    24 million go from 'thriving' to 'struggling', UT, 9.3.2009,






Obama Hauls in

Record $750 Million

for Campaign


December 5, 2008
The New York Times


President-elect Barack Obama brought in nearly $750 million for his presidential campaign, a record amount that exceeds what all of the candidates combined collected in private donations in the previous race for the White House, according to a report filed Thursday with the Federal Election Commission.

Underscoring the success of his fund-raising, Mr. Obama reported that he had nearly $30 million in the bank as of Nov. 24, despite spending furiously at the end of his campaign.

Mr. Obama, who became the first major-party nominee to bypass public financing since the system began in the 1970s, spent more than $136 million from Oct. 16 to Nov. 24, the period covered in the report. By comparison, his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, who was limited to the $84 million allotted to him from the Treasury under public financing, spent $26.5 million during that time, according to his latest campaign finance report. Although Mr. McCain had $4 million left over, he had $4.9 million in debt, the report said.

Mr. Obama reported taking in $104 million in contributions. Assuming most of that money came in before Election Day, Nov. 4, it appears his fund-raising stepped up significantly as the campaign drew to a close. In the first half of October, he raised just $36 million.

An exact figure is difficult to calculate because of vagaries in the way fund-raising numbers are reported. But it appears that Mr. Obama raised over $300 million for the general election alone — more than triple what Mr. McCain had at his disposal from public financing.

When Mr. Obama decided after he clinched the Democratic nomination to forgo public financing, campaign officials said they needed to raise at least twice as much as they would receive in public money, with a goal of raising three times as much, to make it worth the added time away from campaigning that he needed to devote to fund-raising.

Mr. Obama’s fund-raising total — fueled by both small donors giving incremental amounts online and large donors who were wined and dined and given the chance to mingle with him — appeared to more than validate his campaign’s gamble.

Indeed, it could very well mark the epitaph to the public financing system, which critics have long declared is badly in need of updating to stay relevant in presidential elections.

At a minimum, it sets an imposing bar for any potential Republican challenger to Mr. Obama in 2012.

“Assuming Obama runs again and his fund-raising prowess is sustained, then it will be a daunting undertaking for any opponent,” said Kenneth Gross, a campaign finance lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

In one illustration of the scope of Mr. Obama’s fund-raising haul, all the candidates running for president in 2004, including President Bush and Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, together collected less than $650 million, not counting the money received under public financing during the primary and the general elections, according to Federal Election Commission figures.

Mr. McCain collected less than $220 million for the campaign’s primary phase, compared with the more than $410 million that Mr. Obama did in that period.

In the final two months of the race, the Obama campaign spent nearly $170 million on television advertising, compared with $61 million by the McCain campaign, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks advertising spending.

Mr. McCain had hoped that money raised by the Republican National Committee, which was able to spend on his behalf under certain restrictions, could help compensate for his financial disparity with Mr. Obama. But the R.N.C. only spent another $31 million on advertising, which left Mr. McCain still facing a large deficit on television.

Obama officials said their final tally of individual contributors surpassed 3.95 million, including 547,000 new contributors in the period covered by their latest finance report.

It is unclear what Mr. Obama plans to do with the leftover money. In 2004, when Mr. Kerry reported that he had more than $14 million remaining in his account for the primaries, some Democratic officials reacted in anger and disbelief that he had not spent all of his resources. Kerry officials said they had reserved some money to pay for a recount or legal challenges.

That type of second-guessing is less likely this time because Mr. Obama won. He has several options for his remaining cash, Mr. Gross said, like transferring it to the Democratic National Committee or another party committee, or rolling it over to his 2012 re-election campaign.

What is not an option for Mr. Obama is to help Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton with paying off the debt from her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

According to reports filed last month, Mrs. Clinton is still struggling to retire about $7.5 million, and she faces fund-raising constraints should Congress approve her as secretary of state in the Obama administration. Mr. Gross said the most the Obama campaign could transfer to her was $2,000.

    Obama Hauls in Record $750 Million for Campaign, NYT, 5.12.2008,







The death penalty

in the United States


Wed Apr 16, 2008
10:48am EDT


(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a challenge to the lethal three-drug cocktail used in most U.S. executions during the past 30 years. This cleared the way for a resumption of executions halted since last September pending the court's decision.

Following are some facts and figures about the death penalty in the United States since 1977, when executions resumed following the lifting of a ban on the practice by the U.S. Supreme Court the previous year.

- There have been 1,099 executions in the United States since 1977. The peak year was 1999, when 98 were carried out while no inmates were put to death in 1978 and 1980.

- 42 people were executed in the United States in 2007, the lowest number since 1994 when 31 were put to death.

- 2005, the last year for which data is available, saw 128 death sentences imposed, the lowest number over the past three decades. The peak year was 1996 when 317 were handed down.

- The death penalty is sanctioned by 37 of the 50 states and the U.S. government and the military. Lethal injection is the main method used by all of the death penalty states except for Nebraska which uses the electric chair.

- The standard method involves administering three separate chemicals: sodium pentothal, an anesthetic to make the inmate unconscious; pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes all muscles except the heart; and then potassium chloride, which stops the heart, causing death.

- Texas has been by far the most active death penalty state in the post-1976 era with 405 executions. Virginia is a distant second at 98.

- Amnesty International this week issued a report that ranked the United States fifth in the world in the number of executions in 2007, behind China (470), Iran (317), Saudi Arabia (143), Pakistan (135). These five countries accounted for 88 percent of all known executions.

(Sources: Death Penalty Information Center,

Texas Department of Criminal Justice,

Amnesty International, Reuters)

(Reporting by Ed Stoddard, editing by David Storey)

    FACTBOX: The death penalty in the United States, R, 16.4.2008,








Roman Catholic population


Thu Apr 10, 2008
7:59am EDT


(Reuters) - Once solidly Irish, Italian and Polish, the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination in the country, has become increasingly Hispanic in recent years.

Like other mainline denominations it is also losing members to competing faiths such as evangelical Protestant churches.

Following are some facts and figures about the U.S. Catholic population, which will greet Pope Benedict when he visits the United States from April 15 to 20.

- According to a recent nationwide survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 23.9 percent of the adult U.S. population identifies itself as Catholic. This tallies with estimates by the U.S. Catholic Church itself.

- Since the early 1970s the percentage of the population counting itself as Catholic has remained stable at around 25 percent. But according to Pew, no other major faith has experienced greater net losses with 31.4 percent of U.S. adults saying they were raised Catholic and about one in 10 describing themselves as former Catholics.

- In the face of these losses the Church has maintained its share of the U.S. population by winning its own converts but mostly through immigration, especially from Latin America. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says that about 39 percent of U.S. Catholics are Hispanic.

- The USCCB also says that since 1960, 71 percent of U.S. Catholic population growth has been Hispanic and that by the second decade of the 21st century, more than 50 percent of U.S. Catholics will likely be Hispanic.

- The USCCB estimates that there are 2.3 million African American Catholics. There is also a growing population of Vietnamese Catholics in areas like north Texas.

- The U.S. Northeast remains one of the centers of American Catholicism, with 29 percent of all adults there belonging to the faith.

- One indicator of the resiliency of Catholicism in any country is the Mass attendance rate among the flock. According to a 2007 survey by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, about one fifth of U.S. Catholics attend Mass at least once a week while 11 percent go almost every week.

(Sources: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life;

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops;

Reuters; Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate)

(Compiled by Ed Stoddard;

Editing by Mike Conlon and Xavier Briand)

    FACTBOX: America's Roman Catholic population, R, 10.4.2008,






FACTBOX - Sex scandals in U.S. politics


Mon Mar 10, 2008
9:29pm EDT


(Reuters) - New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the one-time "Sheriff" of Wall Street who campaigned on a promise to clean up state politics, is embroiled in a sex scandal that threatens to force his resignation.

Following are some other sex scandals involving politicians in the United States.

* IDAHO SEN. LARRY CRAIG was publicly admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee for improper conduct after his arrest in a sex-sting operation in a men's toilet in June 2007.

The Republican lawmaker pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after he was caught in an undercover investigation of lewd behaviour in a men's room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. He later tried to recant saying he agreed to a misdemeanour charge without consulting a lawyer and in hopes of quickly disposing of the case. He remains in the Senate.

* LOUISIANA SEN. DAVID VITTER, a Republican and social conservative, apologized and admitted "a very serious sin" after he was linked last July to a Washington escort service. Vitter said his misdeeds occurred several years previously and he had dealt with them in confession and marriage counselling. He remains in the Senate.

* MARK FOLEY, a Florida Republican, resigned from the House of Representatives in 2006 after it was disclosed he had sent sexually explicit text messages to teenage boys who served as interns in the House. The revelations led to charges that Republican leaders tried to cover up the matter.

* NEW JERSEY GOV. JAMES MCGREEVEY, a Democrat, stepped down in 2004 over a gay affair with a man whom he hired in 2002 to head the state's Homeland Security department.

* PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON, a Democrat, had a sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, then 21, which led to his impeachment after accusations he lied about it under oath. He survived the impeachment process and was able to serve out his term but his presidency, which ended in 2001, was badly damaged.

* FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER NEWT GINGRICH, a Republican, has admitted he was having an extramarital affair while leading the impeachment charge in Congress against Clinton.

* SEN. BOB PACKWOOD, a Republican from Oregon, resigned in 1995 after 26 years in Congress. He had been accused of sexual misconduct with 17 women, among other charges.

* REP. BARNEY FRANK, a Massachusetts Democrat who is homosexual, was reprimanded in 1990 after it was learned that a lover had run a prostitution ring out of his Washington apartment.

* SEN. GARY HART, a Colorado Democrat, saw his second presidential bid end in 1987 when it was learned he spent the night on a yacht, named the Monkey Business, with a woman who was not his wife.

* REP. DAN CRANE, a Republican from Illinois, and REP. GERRY STUDDS, a Democrat from Massachusetts, were censured in 1983 for illicit affairs with underage pages. Crane, who had had sex with a teenage girl, was voted out of office but Studds, who had had an affair with a boy, was returned to office many times.

* REP. WILBUR MILLS, a Democrat from Arkansas and chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, was caught in 1974 with stripper Fanne Foxe, who performed as "the Argentine firecracker." Foxe leapt from Mills' limousine after it was stopped by police and jumped into the Tidal Basin. Mills went into treatment for alcohol and retired two years later.

(Compiled by Claudia Parsons)

    FACTBOX - Sex scandals in U.S. politics, R, 10.3.2008,







Racial inequality in the United States


Tue Nov 4, 2008
11:24pm EST


(Reuters) - Democratic candidate Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States with his win in Tuesday's election, a milestone in a country with a long legacy of racial oppression of African Americans.

Stark racial disparities persist in the United States.

Following is a list of some inequalities.


-- The infant mortality rate for babies of black women is 2.4 times the rate for babies of white women, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report in October.

-- Doctors are less likely to give black women radiation therapy after surgery to remove early-stage breast cancer than white women, according to a study by the Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in September.

-- The study was one of many to show that U.S. blacks get inferior care for cancer and other ailments compared to that given whites, although doctors have struggled to understand why.

-- Life expectancy for the white population exceeded that for the black population by 5.1 years, the figures said.

-- The maternal mortality rate was 3.3 times greater for the black population than for the white population.


-- 6.1 percent of the overall U.S. labor force was unemployed in the third quarter of 2008, but 11.4 percent of the black labor force was out of work, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics.

-- The total median income for a white family was $64,427 in 2007. The total for a black family was $40,143, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

-- 10.6 percent of the white U.S. population in 2007 lived below the official poverty threshold of $21,000 for a family of four, compared to 24.4 percent of the black population, the data said.

-- 14.3 percent of white Americans lacked health insurance compared to 19.2 percent of black Americans, according to 2007 U.S. census data.

-- 72 percent of white Americans own their own homes, compared with 46 percent of African Americans, the data said.


-- 0.8 percent of the white male population is incarcerated as opposed to 4.6 percent of the black male population, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.

-- 10.7 percent of the black male population aged 30-34 was incarcerated, versus 1.9 percent of the white male population of the same age, according to the same statistics.

-- 1,406 black men are incarcerated in the United States for every 100,000 people. For white men that figure is 773 for every 100,000, according to U.S. Department of Justice figures.

-- Rates for the number of women imprisoned were much lower than for males, though for black women rates were higher than for white women.


-- Public schools in the United States are becoming more racially segregated and the trend is likely to accelerate because of a Supreme Court decision in June, according to a report by the Civil Rights Project of the University of California Los Angeles.

-- The rise in segregation threatens the quality of education received by nonwhite students, who make up 43 percent of the total U.S. student body, the report said.

-- Many segregated schools struggle to attract highly qualified teachers and administrators. This leads to soaring drop-out rates and students not well prepared for college.

-- The percentage of white public school students fell from 80 to 57 percent between 1968 and 2005 and Latino enrollment nearly quadrupled during that period.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; U.S. Dept of Health

and Human Services/CDC; U.S. Department of Justice;

U.S. Census Bureau.

(Writing by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit,

editing by Matthew Bigg and Patricia Zengerle)

    FACTBOX: Racial inequality in the United States, R, 4.11.2008,







Electoral College elects president


Fri Oct 31, 2008
1:31am EDT


(Reuters) - The Electoral College, not the popular vote, actually elects the president of the United States. Here are some facts about the Electoral College:

* There are 538 members of the Electoral College, allotted to each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia based on their representation in the U.S. Congress. The smallest states have three members while the largest state, California, has 55. Washington, D.C., which has no voting representation in Congress, has three, the same as the smallest state.

* It takes 270 votes to win election. The electors are pledged to one candidate or the other but there is no federal law requiring them to vote that way. There have been several incidents in which so-called faithless electors have voted for someone other than the candidate to whom they were pledged.

* In 48 states and the district, the candidate who wins the popular vote wins all of the state's electors. Nebraska and Maine have a proportional system of awarding electors.

* Electors, who are picked by the respective political parties, make two selections -- for president and for vice president. They may not vote for two candidates from their own state.

* Because a candidate could run up a big vote count in some states but lose others by narrow margins, the winner of the popular vote might not have the most electoral votes. The Electoral College has three times picked the candidate who lost the popular vote -- Republicans Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and George W. Bush in 2000.

* The Electoral College meets in each state to cast its votes on a Monday early in December following the November popular election. The votes are then tallied in a joint session of Congress on January 6 of the following year.

* If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives chooses among the top three candidates with each state having only one vote. If no vice presidential candidate receives a majority, the Senate decides between the top two candidates.

* The House has twice decided the outcome of the presidential race -- in the 1800 and 1824 elections. The Senate decided the vice presidency once, in the 1836 election.

* This unique system was the result of a compromise by the writers of the U.S. Constitution in the 18th century between those who wanted direct popular election and those who wanted state legislatures to decide. One fear was that at a time before political parties, the popular vote would be diluted by voting for an unwieldy amount of candidates.

(Writing by David Wiessler in Washington;

editing by David Alexander)

    FACTBOX: Electoral College elects president, R, 31.10.2008,






U.S. Blacks, if a Nation,

Would Rank High on AIDS


July 30, 2008
The New York Times


If black America were a country, it would rank 16th in the world in the number of people living with the AIDS virus, the Black AIDS Institute, an advocacy group, reported Tuesday.

The report, financed in part by the Ford Foundation and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, provides a startling new perspective on an epidemic that was first recognized in 1981.

Nearly 600,000 African-Americans are living with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, and up to 30,000 are becoming infected each year. When adjusted for age, their death rate is two and a half times that of infected whites, the report said. Partly as a result, the hypothetical nation of black America would rank below 104 other countries in life expectancy.

Those and other disparities are “staggering,” said Dr. Kevin A. Fenton, who directs H.I.V. prevention efforts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency responsible for tracking the epidemic in the United States.

“It is a crisis that needs a new look at prevention,” Dr. Fenton said.

In a separate report on Tuesday, the United Nations painted a somewhat more optimistic picture of the worldwide AIDS epidemic, noting that fewer people are dying of the disease since its peak in the late 1990s and that more people are receiving antiretroviral drugs.

Nevertheless, the report found that progress remained uneven and that the future of the epidemic was uncertain. The report was issued in advance of the 17th International AIDS Conference, which begins this weekend in Mexico City.

The gains are partly from the Bush administration’s program to deliver drugs and preventive measures to people in countries highly affected by H.I.V.

The Black AIDS Institute took note of that program in criticizing the administration’s efforts at home. The group said that more black Americans were living with the AIDS virus than the infected populations in Botswana, Ethiopia, Guyana, Haiti, Namibia, Rwanda or Vietnam — 7 of the 15 countries that receive support from the administration’s anti-AIDS program.

The international effort is guided by a strategic plan, clear benchmarks like the prevention of seven million H.I.V. infections by 2010 and annual progress reports to Congress, the group said. By contrast, it went on, “America itself has no strategic plan to combat its own epidemic.”

In a telephone interview, Dr. Fenton said, “We recognize this is a crisis, and clearly more can be done.”

The institute, based in Los Angeles, describes itself as the only national H.I.V./AIDS study group focused exclusively on black people. Phill Wilson, the group’s chief executive and an author of the report, said his group supported the government’s international anti-AIDS program. But Mr. Wilson’s report also said that “American policy makers behave as if AIDS exists ‘elsewhere’ — as if the AIDS problem has been effectively solved” in this country.

The group also chided the government for not reporting H.I.V. statistics to the United Nations for inclusion in its biannual report.

Dr. Fenton said the C.D.C. had ensured that its data were forwarded to officials in the Department of Health and Human Services and was investigating why the data were not in the United Nations report.

Others speaking for the agency said the answer would have to come from the State Department, which did not respond to an inquiry.

Dr. Helene Gayle, president of CARE and a former director of H.I.V. prevention efforts at the disease control centers, told reporters on Tuesday that the United States needed to devote more resources to care for people with sexually transmitted diseases. Such infections can increase the risk of H.I.V. infection.

The federal government and communities needed to promote more testing among all people, particularly blacks, to detect H.I.V. infection in its earliest stages when treatment is more effective, Dr. Gayle said.

Also, she said, more needed to be done to promote needle exchange programs, which have proved effective in preventing H.I.V. infection among injecting drug users but that are illegal in many places.

The United Nations report said that in Rwanda and Zimbabwe, changes in sexual behavior had led to declines in the number of new H.I.V. infections.

Condom use is increasing among young people with multiple partners in many countries and more young people are postponing their initial sexual intercourse before age 15.

The percentage of pregnant women receiving antiretroviral drugs to prevent transmission of H.I.V. to their infants increased to 33 percent in 2007 from 14 percent in 2005. During the same period, the number of new infections among children fell to 370,000 from 410,000.

The United Nations report affirmed treatment gains in Namibia, which increased treatment to 88 percent of the estimated need in 2007, from 1 percent in 2003; and in Cambodia, where the percentage rose to 67 in 2007 from 14 percent in 2004. Other countries with high treatment rates are Botswana, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba and Laos.

In most areas of the world, more women than men are receiving antiretroviral therapy, the report said.

Despite inadequate monitoring systems in many countries, data suggest that most of the H.I.V. epidemics in the Caribbean appear to have stabilized. A few have declined in urban areas in the Dominican Republic and Haiti which have had the largest epidemics in the region.

Increased treatment was partly responsible for a decline in AIDS-related deaths to an estimated 2 million in 2007 from 2.2 million in 2005.

The AIDS epidemic has had less overall economic effect than earlier feared, the report said, but is having profound negative effects in industries and agriculture in high-prevalence countries.

The United Nations has set 2015 as the year by which it hopes to reverse the epidemic. But even if the world achieved that goal, the report said, “the epidemic would remain an overriding global challenge for decades.”

To underscore the point, the United Nations said that for every two people who received treatment, five people became newly infected.

    U.S. Blacks, if a Nation, Would Rank High on AIDS, NYT, 30.7.2008,







Some major floods in the United States


Mon Jun 16, 2008
2:30pm EDT


(Reuters) - Overflowing rivers in Iowa and other Midwest U.S. states forced evacuations and disrupted the region's economy on Friday with fears of worse to come from fragile levees and more rain.

Following are some major floods to hit the United States:

* In June 2006, floods killed at least 16 people in the eastern United States. Authorities ordered hundreds of thousands of people evacuated in New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Damage estimates exceeded $1 billion.

* In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and devastated the Gulf Coast, causing more than 1,800 deaths. The $125 billion in damage made it the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.

* In 1998, flooding and deadly tornadoes swept through central, southern and eastern Texas, causing 31 deaths and prompting the evacuation of 14,000 people. Flooding was reported in 60 counties -- about one-fourth of the state. Damage estimates exceeded $1 billion.

* In 1993, floods ravaged nine Midwestern states, killing 48 people and leaving nearly 70,000 people homeless. The cost of flood damage was estimated at $21 billion. The Mississippi River on August 1 crested in St. Louis at a record 49.4 feet.

* In 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes dumped 8 inches to 16 inches of rain over a large portion of upstate New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, with some locations receiving nearly 20 inches of rain in three days. The storm killed 122 people and caused over $3 billion in damage.

* In 1969, Hurricane Camille's torrential rains struck mountainous west and central Virginia. Sixty-seven people were reported dead and 106 missing after floods virtually washed out towns in the mountains.

* In 1927, levees built to contain the Mississippi River broke, and a wall of water pushed its way across Midwestern farmlands. The flood covered 27,000 square miles (69,920.000 sq km), an area about the size of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont combined. The flood killed about 1,000 people and displaced some 700,000 more. At a time when the entire federal budget was barely $3 billion, it caused an estimated $1 billion in damage.

* In 1889, more than 2,200 people died in Johnstown, Pennsylvania when the South Fork dam broke after days of heavy rain. The town was destroyed within minutes by a wall of water that rushed down a narrow valley.


Sources: Reuters/National Climatic Data Center/ www.AccuWeather.com / www.2facts.com / www.pbs.org/   www.usnews.com/www.pubs.usgs.gov


(Writing by Paul Grant, Washington Editorial Reference Unit)

    FACTBOX: Some major floods in the United States, R, 16.6.2008,






Record - High Ratio of Americans in Prison


February 28, 2008
Filed at 11:12 a.m. ET
The New York Times


NEW YORK (AP) -- For the first time in history, more than one in every 100 American adults is in jail or prison, according to a new report tracking the surge in inmate population and urging states to rein in corrections costs with alternative sentencing programs.

The report, released Thursday by the Pew Center on the States, said the 50 states spent more than $49 billion on corrections last year, up from less than $11 billion 20 years earlier. The rate of increase for prison costs was six times greater than for higher education spending, the report said.

Using updated state-by-state data, the report said 2,319,258 adults were held in U.S. prisons or jails at the start of 2008 -- one out of every 99.1 adults, and more than any other country in the world.

The steadily growing inmate population ''is saddling cash-strapped states with soaring costs they can ill afford and failing to have a clear impact either on recidivism or overall crime,'' said the report.

Susan Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States, said budget woes are prompting officials in many states to consider new, cost-saving corrections policies that might have been shunned in the recent past for fear of appearing soft in crime.

''We're seeing more and more states being creative because of tight budgets,'' she said in an interview. ''They want to be tough on crime, they want to be a law-and-order state -- but they also want to save money, and they want to be effective.''

The report cited Kansas and Texas as states which have acted decisively to slow the growth of their inmate population. Their actions include greater use of community supervision for low-risk offenders and employing sanctions other than reimprisonment for ex-offenders who commit technical violations of parole and probation rules.

''The new approach, born of bipartisan leadership, is allowing the two states to ensure they have enough prison beds for violent offenders while helping less dangerous lawbreakers become productive, taxpaying citizens,'' the report said.

According to the report, the inmate population increased last year in 36 states and the federal prison system.

The largest percentage increase -- 12 percent -- was in Kentucky, where Gov. Steve Beshear highlighted the cost of corrections in his budget speech last month. He noted that the state's crime rate had increased only about 3 percent in the past 30 years, while the state's inmate population has increased by 600 percent.

The Pew report was compiled by the Center on the State's Public Safety Performance Project, which is working directly with 13 states on developing programs to divert offenders from prison without jeopardizing public safety.

''For all the money spent on corrections today, there hasn't been a clear and convincing return for public safety,'' said the project's director, Adam Gelb. ''More and more states are beginning to rethink their reliance on prisons for lower-level offenders and finding strategies that are tough on crime without being so tough on taxpayers.''

The report said prison growth and higher incarceration rates do not reflect a parallel increase in crime or in the nation's overall population. Instead, it said, more people are behind bars mainly because of tough sentencing measures, such as ''three-strikes'' laws, that result in longer prison stays.

''For some groups, the incarceration numbers are especially startling,'' the report said. ''While one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, for black males in that age group the figure is one in nine.''

The nationwide figures, as of Jan. 1, include 1,596,127 people in state and federal prisons and 723,131 in local jails -- a total 2,319,258 out of almost 230 million American adults.

The report said the United States is the world's incarceration leader, far ahead of more populous China with 1.5 million people behind bars. It said the U.S. also is the leader in inmates per capita (750 per 100,000 people), ahead of Russia (628 per 100,000) and other former Soviet bloc nations which make up the rest of the Top 10.


On the Net:

www.pewcenteronthestates.org .

    Record - High Ratio of Americans in Prison, NYT, 28.2.2008,






US Cancer Deaths Rose by 5, 400 in 2005


February 20, 2008
Filed at 3:02 a.m. ET
The New York Times


ATLANTA (AP) -- U.S. cancer deaths rose by more than 5,000 in 2005, a somewhat disappointing reversal of a two-year downward trend, the American Cancer Society said in a report issued Wednesday.

The group counted 559,312 people who died from cancer.

The cancer death rate among the overall population continued to fall, but only slightly, after a couple of years of more dramatic decline.

In 2005, there were just under 184 cancer deaths per 100,000 people, down from nearly 186 the previous year. Experts said it wasn't surprising that the rate would stabilize.

The cancer death rate has been dropping since the early 1990s, and early in this decade was declining by about 1 percent a year. The actual number of cancer deaths kept rising, however, because of the growing population.

So it was big news when the rate dropped by 2 percent in both 2003 and 2004, enough to cause the total number of cancer deaths to fall for the first time since 1930.

President Bush and others hailed that as a sign that federally funded research was making strides against the disease.

But now the death rate decline is back to 1 percent. And the 2005 numbers show annual cancer deaths are no longer falling, but are up more than 5,400 since 2004.

''The declining rate was no longer great enough to overcome the increase in population,'' said Elizabeth Ward, a co-author of the cancer society report

Officials with the organization say they don't know why the decline in the death rate eased.

It may be that cancer screenings are not having as big an effect as they were a few years ago, said Dr. Peter Ravdin, a research professor in biostatistics at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

One possible example: In 2004, the largest drop in deaths among the major cancers was in colorectal cancer. Experts gave much of the credit to colonoscopy screenings that detect polyps and allow doctors to remove them before they turn cancerous. They also mentioned ''the Katie Couric effect'' -- a jump in colonoscopy rates after the ''Today'' show host had the exam on national television in 2000.

In the new report, the colorectal cancer death rate decreased by about 3 percent from 2004 to 2005, after plunging 6 percent from 2003 to 2004.

Colorectal cancer screening rates through 2003 did not show a decline. But it's possible they have fallen since then, Ravdin said.

Cancer society officials have also voiced concern that cancer deaths may increase as Americans lose health insurance coverage and get fewer screenings.

The good news is the cancer death rate is still declining, and that since the early 1990s is down more than 18 percent for men and more than 10 percent for women. Those reductions translate to more than half a million cancer deaths avoided, according to the cancer society.

Experts attribute the success to declines in smoking and to earlier detection and more effective treatment of tumors.


On the Net:

American Cancer Society report: www.cancer.org/statistics

    US Cancer Deaths Rose by 5, 400 in 2005, NYT, 20.2.2008,






DC: Suicides Among Middle - Aged Spikes


December 13, 2007
Filed at 10:56 p.m. ET
The New York Times


ATLANTA (AP) -- The suicide rate among middle-aged Americans has reached its highest point in at least 25 years, a new government report said Thursday.

The rate rose by about 20 percent between 1999 and 2004 for U.S. residents ages 45 through 54 -- far outpacing increases among younger adults, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

In 2004, there were 16.6 completed suicides per 100,000 people in that age group. That's the highest it's been since the CDC started tracking such rates, around 1980. The previous high was 16.5, in 1982.

Experts said they don't know why the suicide rates are rising so dramatically in that age group, but believe it is an unrecognized tragedy.

The general public and government prevention programs tend to focus on suicide among teenagers, and many suicide researchers concentrate on the elderly, said Mark Kaplan, a suicide researcher at Portland State University.

''The middle-aged are often overlooked. These statistics should serve as a wake-up call,'' Kaplan said.

Roughly 32,000 suicides occur each year -- a figure that's been holding relatively steady, according to the Suicide Prevention Action Network, an advocacy group.

Experts believe suicides are under-reported. But reported rates tend to be highest among those who are in their 40s and 50s and among those 85 and older, according to CDC data.

The female suicide rates are highest in middle age. The rate for males -- who account for the majority of suicides -- peak after retirement, said Dr. Alex Crosby, a CDC epidemiologist.

Researchers looked at death certificate information for 1999 through 2004. Overall, they found a 5.5 percent increase during that time in deaths from homicides, suicides, traffic collisions and other injury incidents.

The largest increases occurred in the 45 to 54 age group. A large portion of the jump in deaths in that group was attributed to unintentional drug overdoses and poisonings -- a problem the CDC reported previously.

But suicides were another major factor, accounting for a quarter of the injury deaths in that age group. The suicide count jumped from 5,081 to 6,906 in that time.

In contrast, the suicide rate for people in their 20s -- the other age group with the most dramatic increase in injury deaths -- rose only 1 percent.


On the Net:

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr 

    CDC: Suicides Among Middle - Aged Spikes, NYT, 13.12.2007,







Omaha incident

latest in U.S. shootings


Wed Dec 5, 2007
5:52pm EST


(Reuters) - A gunman opened fire from a balcony in a shopping mall in Omaha, Nebraska, on Wednesday, killing eight people, wounding five before taking his own life, police said.

Following is a chronology of some of the deadlier mass shootings in the United States in recent years:

March 1998 - At Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, two boys aged 13 and 11 pulled a fire alarm and began shooting teachers and classmates as they left the school, killing four students and a teacher.

April 1999 - Two students shot to death 12 other students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, before killing themselves.

July 1999 - A day trader killed his wife and two children before shooting nine people to death at two Atlanta brokerages. He then killed himself.

September 1999 - A 47-year-old loner killed seven people in a Fort Worth, Texas, Baptist church. Then he killed himself.

November 1999 - A Xerox copier repairman in Honolulu gunned down seven co-workers before fleeing, triggering one of the biggest manhunts in Hawaii history. He was located and surrendered to police after a five-hour armed standoff.

March 2005 - A 16-year-old high school student gunned down five students, a teacher and a security guard at Red Lake High School in far northern Minnesota before killing himself. He also killed his grandfather and his grandfather's companion elsewhere on the Chippewa Indian reservation.

October 2, 2006 - A local milk truck driver who was not Amish, tied up and shot 10 Amish schoolgirls aged 6 to 14 in their classroom, killing five of them before turning the gun on himself in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, about 60 miles (97 km) west of Philadelphia.

April 16, 2007 - A university in Blacksburg, Virginia, Virginia Tech, became the site of the deadliest rampage in U.S. history when a gunman killed 32 people and himself.

December 5, 2007 - A gunman opened fire from a balcony in a shopping mall in Omaha, Nebraska, killing eight people and wounding five, before taking his own life, police said.

(Writing by Paul Grant, Washington Editorial Reference Unit,

editing by Philip Barbara)

TIMELINE: Omaha incident latest in U.S. shootings, R, 5.12.2007,





Mentally ill die 25 years earlier, on average


By Marilyn Elias


Adults with serious mental illness treated in public systems die about 25 years earlier than Americans overall, a gap that's widened since the early '90s when major mental disorders cut life spans by 10 to 15 years, according to a report due Monday.

"We're going in the wrong direction and have to change course," says Joseph Parks, director of psychiatric services for the Missouri Department of Mental Health. He's lead author of the report from eight states — Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Utah and Arizona — that will be released at a meeting of state hospital directors in Bethesda, Md.

About 60% of the 10.3 million people with serious mental illness get care in public facilities, 90% as outpatients, Parks says. They have illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression. Although the mentally ill have high accident and suicide rates, about 3 out of 5 die from mostly preventable diseases, he says.

Obesity is a serious problem. These patients often get little exercise, and many take a newer type of anti-psychotic, on the market for 18 years, that can cause drastic weight gains, promoting diabetes and heart disease, Parks says. He thinks these drugs are contributing to deaths from cardiovascular disease.

Recent studies question the advantage of the newer drugs. "Many could be switched to safer medicines," Parks says. Schizophrenics are thought to have a higher risk for diabetes already, he says.

Mentally ill adults also are more likely than others to have alcohol and drug-abuse problems, and to smoke.

Because of their mental disorder, patients often aren't good health advocates for themselves, says Andrew Leuchter of the UCLA School of Medicine. When patients do seek help, "I hear of great difficulty getting appointments even for simple problems like high blood pressure. … The public health system is underfunded, and it's gotten worse over the years."

Medical needs of the mentally ill are least likely to fall through the cracks when psychiatrists and primary care doctors practice in the same facility, according to a 2003 report from the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. But integrated clinics are "quite rare," says Bazelon policy director Chris Koyanagi.

Sometimes internists disregard medical symptoms of the mentally ill, chalking them up to the patient's disorder, says Kenneth Duckworth of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And needed treatment may be harder to get. He points to a study showing that after the mentally ill suffer heart attacks, they're less likely than other patients to get state-of-the-art care.

Parks thinks agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should track the health of adults with mental illness, just as they do other vulnerable groups, to identify problems and solutions. "Many struggle for decades to overcome mental illness," he says, "and after all that struggle, it's particularly cruel to think that you would die young."

    Mentally ill die 25 years earlier, on average, UT, 3.5.2007,






US set for 1,000th execution


Thu Dec 1, 2005
12:02 PM ET
By Andy Sullivan


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Barring an unlikely intervention,

a convicted killer will die by lethal injection in the dead of night on Friday

in the 1,000th execution in the United States

since the death penalty was reinstated three decades ago.

Kenneth Boyd, 57, was scheduled to die at Central Prison in Raleigh,

North Carolina at 2 a.m. EST (0700 GMT)

for killing his estranged wife and her father in 1988 in front of his children.

His execution has attracted worldwide attention not because of the nature of the crime,

but because it will mark a symbolic milestone in the history of the death penalty.

Experts on the issue said state Gov. Mike Easley was unlikely

to commute his sentence as happened in Virginia on Tuesday

when a convict was spared becoming the 1,000th execution

thanks to a last minute decision by the governor.

"He's not one to limit these sorts of things," That Beyle,

a political science professor at the University of North Carolina, said of Easley.

Death penalty opponents were expected to gather near the prison late on Thursday

to protest Boyd's execution.

On Wednesday, about 100 people demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy

in Rome as part of worldwide vigils and rallies organized

by a Catholic Church group against judicial killing.



Even if there is a last minute change in Raleigh,

16 hours later on Friday at 6 p.m. EST (2300 GMT),

Shawn Paul Humphries was due to die in South Carolina,

also by lethal injection, for the killing of a convenience store owner in a robbery.

A spokesman for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford said the governor's legal team

was not going to recommend clemency.

The U.S. Supreme Court allowed reintroduction of the death penalty in 1976

and 38 of the 50 American states and the federal government

now permit capital punishment.

    US set for 1,000th execution, R, 1.12.2005,  US set for 1,000th execution, R, 1.12.2005,







Some deadly hurricanes to hit southern U.S


Wed Oct 19, 2005
7:52 AM ET


(Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma has strengthened to a catastrophic Category 5 storm as it approaches western Cuba and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

The season's record-tying 21st storm, fueled by the warm waters of the northwest Caribbean Sea, strengthened alarmingly as it headed into the Gulf of Mexico on a path expected to lead across storm-weary southern Florida by Saturday.

Here are some of the deadliest hurricanes to strike the southern United States since 1900 by number of casualties:


1900 - An unnamed hurricane, since known as the Galveston Hurricane, slams into Texas, killing at least 8,000 people.


1928 - About 2,500 people are killed in Florida by a hurricane that caused an enormous storm surge in Lake Okeechobee.


2005 - Hurricane Katrina slams into Louisiana and Mississippi with 140 mile-per-hour winds (224 kph) and a 30 foot (nine meter) storm surge. Katrina killed about 1,230 people and caused more than $30 billion in insured damage. Katrina was followed in September by Hurricane Rita.


1935 - An unnamed Category 5 hurricane, since referred to as the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and the most intense storm to hit the United States since records began, sweeps over the Florida Keys, leaving 408 dead.


1957 - Hurricane Audrey hits southwest Louisiana and Texas, killing 390.


1919 - An unnamed hurricane hits Florida and Texas, killing 287 people.


1915 - New Orleans, the largest city in Louisiana, suffers a direct hit from a storm which left 275 dead.


1969 - Hurricane Camille, the second most intense storm to strike the U.S., kills 256 people in Mississippi, Virginia and Louisiana.


1972 - Hurricane Agnes, while only a Category 1, kills 122 people when it hits Florida and moves to the northeast United States.


1954 - Hurricane Hazel slams into North Carolina and South Carolina, killing 95 people.


1965 - New Orleans takes a direct hit from Hurricane Betsy, a Category 3, that flooded the city and killed about 75 people.


1961 - Hurricane Carla hits Texas, killing 46.


1989 - Hurricane Hugo swamps South Carolina, killing 32.


1992 - Category 5 Hurricane Andrew tears into Florida and Louisiana, leaving 29 dead and causing over $25 billion in damage. It was the third most intense storm in U.S. history.


2004 - Category 3 Hurricane Ivan hits northwest Florida and Alabama, killing 25 and Category 4 Hurricane Charley slams into Florida, killing 23.

    Sources: Reuters; U.S. National Hurricane Center ( www.nhc.noaa.gov  ), 19.10.2005,






Bringing it all back home

It's the most unlikely of Oscar contenders
- a remarkable film whose 87-year-old star
was one of the key architects of the Vietnam war.
Now his startling views on the conflict that tore America apart
are big box-office - and striking a chord with a new generation


The Fog of War

Production year: 2003

Country: USA

Runtime: 106 mins

Directors: Errol Morris Cast: Robert McNamara, Robert S McNamara


Lawrence Donegan
The Observer
Sunday 8 February 2004


[ . . . ]


The Vietnam War in numbers

47,378 Americans were killed in action in Vietnam

23.11 years was the average age of US soldiers killed

25% of US troops in Vietnam were drafted

76% of US troops were from lower-middle or working- class backgrounds

7,484 women served in the US Armed Forces

223,748 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed in action

2 million or more North Vietnamese troops and civilians were killed

20 million gallons of herbicides were dropped on Vietnam, mostly Agent Orange

3 times as many bombs were dropped as in the whole of the Second World War

$140 billion was the official cost of US military operations


Robert Colvile

Bringing it all back home,
O, 8.2.2004,