When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) invited Walmart workers to brief Congress on Tuesday about the retail giant’s abusive practices, the conversation was about more than just Walmart.
“No one in this country should work full-time and still live in poverty,” Warren said.
“This is about the simple dignity of the people you have hired to work,” Miller said. “When you have a higher minimum wage, fair scheduling, and equal work for equal pay, the perception of the business goes up in the people’s mind, the customers go up and the revenues go up.”
Cantare Duvant, a Walmart customer service manager, said at the briefing that since Walmart is the nation’s largest retailer, it sets the standard for others in the industry. “So not only do we as Walmart workers deserve better, our economy also deserves better,” she said.
Duvant is a member of OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart), a union-backed group of Walmart workers who are, in Duvant’s words, “struggling to support our families on low pay and erratic scheduling” in what is now “Walmart’s low-wage economy.”
“Walmart specifically is worth discussing not only because of the 1.3 million workers it directly employs, but also because of the impact its employment practices have on the rest of our economy,” said Amy Traub, senior policy analyst at Demos. She said Walmart does this by “pushing down wages, limited workers hours, and squeezing its suppliers and its competitors.”
A majority of Americans are paid by the hour, and about half of early-career adults have no say in their work schedules, said Carrie Gleason, director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy. “This isn’t just a narrow section of people,” she said.
Sen. Warren, a progressive hero who was recently appointed to a position in the Senate Democratic leadership, said that the issue of low-wage work in America is “deeply personal” for her.
When her father lost his job after having a heart attack, Warren said, her working-class family couldn’t pay the bills, lost their car, and almost lost their home. Then one day, “My mother, who was 50 years old and had never worked outside the home, pulled on her best dress, put on her lipstick, put on her high heels, and walked to Sears to get a minimum-wage job.”
“But here’s the key: It was a minimum-wage job in an America where a minimum-wage job would support a family of three.”
That could never happen today, Warren said, when “a momma and a baby on a full-time minimum-wage job cannot keep themselves out of poverty.”
Warren used the briefing to promote three pieces of legislation aimed at helping low-wage workers, including but not limited to people working at Walmart.
Equal pay came up because women make up about two-thirds of the low-wage work force, and many are family breadwinners. Warren said that women in about half of American jobs can be fired just for asking whether their pay is unequal to their male coworkers.
The Schedules That Work Act, Warren said, is about the “basic fairness” of workers being able to plan for a second job, child care, or schooling. It would require employers to give workers their schedules two weeks in advance, compensate them for showing up for work only to be sent home, and not retaliate against workers for requesting more flexible or predictable schedules.
All three bills have been blocked by Republicans, which Warren openly acknowledged.
“I know that change is not easy. We might not pass these bills right away,” she said. “But don’t kid yourself about the importance of these bills, and the assurance that we’re eventually going to get them through.”
The Schedules That Work Act in particular would help Fatmata Jabbie, a Walmart worker and refugee from Saudi Arabia whose story was read at the hearing.
“Although I am not full-time yet, I am virtually on call seven days a week to pick up extra hours,” she said in her written statement. Her reward for that trouble is usually only 30 to 36 hours of work and $150 to $200 in take-home pay.
“I am a mom with two beautiful children, so I am not the only one who relies on that salary to survive,” Jabbie said.
OUR Walmart is pushing for bigger reforms than the three bills Warren promoted though. Members of the group are calling for their aggressively non-unionized employer to pay a minimum living wage of $15 an hour, provide stable, full-time schedules, and stop retaliating against workers who speak out against the company’s practices.
Duvant, for instance, already makes the $10.10 per hour that the federal minimum wage bill would guarantee—but that doesn’t do her much good, she said, when Walmart will only schedule her for 16 hours of work per week.
And Evelin Cruz, who worked for Walmart for 11 years, said at the hearing that the company fired her a few weeks ago for her activism with OUR Walmart.
“We spoke out for change, and Walmart did what it does best, which is bully, retaliate, and fire me,” she said.
Cruz told RH Reality Check that even though she no longer works at Walmart and is looking for other work, she’ll keep up the fight with OUR Walmart.
“That’s what they count on, for people to be out of Walmart and no longer want to participate,” she said. “But this is an issue that is not only affecting people in Walmart. It’s a widespread problem of scheduling, lack of hours, and a minimum wage that you can’t survive on.”
The post Elizabeth Warren, Workers Take Aim at ‘Walmart Economy’ appeared first on RH Reality Check.
The Senate voted 88-1 on Monday to reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program in an unusual show of bipartisanship and regular-order lawmaking.
The bill, which now goes to President Obama’s desk, will make overdue improvements to a key child-care subsidy program—but it may not do much to ease the crisis of child care affordability in the United States.
“It is a step forward, but it’s not a giant step forward,” said Katie Hamm, director of early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress, in an interview with RH Reality Check.
The program, which gives states between $3 billion and $4 billion to subsidize child care for low-income families and serves about 1.5 million children every month, hasn’t been reauthorized since 1996.
“That’s nearly a whole generation,” Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said on the Senate floor Monday.
Since then, incomes have stagnated and child care costs have skyrocketed. Just between 2000 and 2012, median family income shrank by 8 percent, and child care costs rose by 37 percent.
Harkin praised the bill’s bipartisanship and the years-long work of some of his colleagues on the legislation, including Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Richard Burr (R-NC).
The bill is probably the last piece of legislation that Harkin, who is retiring, will lead to passage out of the HELP committee.
The re-authorization will make a number of improvements to the program, including raising standards for child care workers that are shockingly low when compared to other industries like massage therapy or real estate licensing.
Under the re-authorization, all child care workers will have to undergo background checks (which only 13 states used to require) and receive ongoing training on issues like first aid and shaken baby syndrome. Child care centers will have to be inspected at least once a year.
The program will also require states to spend more of their block grant money on quality improvements, care for infants and toddlers, and nutritional and physical activity needs for children.
The program still only reaches about one in six eligible children, and the number of families using the program has fallen in recent years.
One reason for that drop-off, Hamm said, is that states with long waiting lists are under pressure to move things along, and many families get booted from the program after only a few months.
The new bill offers help there. Families who qualify for a subsidy have to get care for at least a year. And states will be directed to take fluctuating incomes into consideration—that will help parents who make more in the summer at a restaurant, or more in the winter in retail—and to make sure that a tiny income increase doesn’t automatically cause a parent to lose their child care subsidy.
While the bill makes many crucial changes and provides a basic floor for health and safety standards, Hamm said it doesn’t actually increase funding and won’t necessarily help more people afford high-quality child care.
“There’s a lot of unmet need out there,” she said.
The post Senate Takes Small Step to Improve Child Care for Low-Income Families appeared first on RH Reality Check.
At 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day, Christina of Long Island, New York, will be wide awake under the fluorescent lights of her local Old Navy for a six-hour shift, setting up signage for sales and new merchandise for the store to open at 4 p.m. that afternoon. The store will remain open for another straight 31 hours, with staff cleaning up past midnight.
Christina, 25, who declined to share her last name for fear of being fired, will also work another shift on Black Friday, but she’s not sure when she’ll be called in. “I have to be available to work even from midnight to 6 a.m.,” she said. “It frustrates me.”
Retail industry analysts expects this year’s holiday shopping season to be a boon, and to accommodate it, more major stores this year plan to open on Thanksgiving Day itself to cash in early on Black Friday sales. Stores also announced plans to hire thousands of seasonal workers across the country: Target planned to hire 70,000 workers, Kohl’s to hire 67,000, and Wal-Mart 60,000. About 43 percent of retail employers expect to hire these part-time workers, according to a Harris Poll survey of more than 2,000 companies nationwide.
But while holiday rush store openings and hiring represents a rosy outlook to sales this season, they exacerbate not so rosy conditions facing the majority of the nation’s 7.8 million retail sales workers and cashiers year-round: nearly 24-hour “on-call” demand from employers, reduced hours with only a couple hours notice (even after arriving to work), and fluctuating set schedules worked per week. Workers who complain or ask for specific hours never get called in, said Christina, who has also worked for Gap and Kohl’s.
Extreme holiday hiring is the next step, said Chris Tilly, director of UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment who has studied retail labor for more than 20 years. “In the United States, it’s been a slippery slope from expanding part-time work to having unpredictable scheduling, to now, if we can an edge by selling on Christmas, we’ll do that,” told RH Reality Check in a phone interview. “It’s uncivilized.”
Part-time retail workers today face these scheduling practices, especially workers in major clothing, grocery, and big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target. Women workers, who make up about 55 percent of the retail sales workforce, are particularly hit by these scheduling practices, as these practices make it impossible for them to arrange child care or elder care, attend school or work another part-time job, all of which likely required them to seek a retail job in the first place. One in every ten working poor women work in retail, or about 1.3 million, a number expected to increase if retail work conditions do not change. Only 17 percent of retail workers in New York City have a weekly set schedule, and about a third knew their schedule one week in advance.
“You don’t know how when you’re going to work, how many hours you’re going to work, and how much money you’ll earn,” said Susan Lambert, associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Administration who studies low-wage work. “It creates high levels of instability and makes it very difficult to do anything else in your life.”
While working at Gap, Christina said, some days she’d be called in, and other days she’d wait for a call that never came. At Old Navy, she learns her upcoming week’s work schedule with only two days’ notice, which she says is not enough time to schedule other jobs or, say, doctor’s appointments. “Some days I’ll open, some days I’ll close. I don’t know which days I will work.”
Many workers also do not receive “reporting pay” when they arrive to work and are told to go home if they are not needed. This results in wasted money for transportation, child care, or turning down another job, Lambert said.
Christina remembers trekking for nearly two hours through a snowstorm one afternoon from her home in Queens to report to a four-hour shift at a Manhattan Gap store. “I clocked in, I’m working for half an hour, and my manager tells me, ‘we don’t need you today, you can go home,’” Christina said. “It felt like they didn’t have respect for my time. I could’ve planned my day to other things. That’s money that’s spent, time wasted.”
Why such scheduling? Employers compensate for flagging sales or meet profit goals by cutting hours as needed, minute by minute, depending on consumer traffic, sales predictions, even the weather, Tilly said. Stores now closely monitor these conditions through certain software.
Retailers also must meet certain profit quotas set by corporate leaders, and if store managers recognize they are not hitting those quotas, they’ll begin cutting hours. Holiday workers are often “hired” but may never be called in once if sales do not meet expectations, Lambert said.
A generation ago, retail work served as lifelong career. Retail workers kept regular hours and earned enough to pay a mortgage and feed their families. They rose through ranks to managerial and even ownership positions. Through the 1970s and ‘80s, retail stores faced increased competition from new big-box megastores like Wal-Mart, and took advantage of widespread unemployment to hire workers at low wages, to cut hours, and to encourage turnover, Tilly said. People today are desperate for jobs, and retail jobs are often the only jobs they can find.
“It’s not, I want to do the job, I need to do the job,” said Christina, who has been applying for other work. “I know a lot of people who think they would be unemployed if not for this job.”
Retail and wholesale employers have cut one million full-time jobs since 2006 and have hired back half as many part-time employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, 41 percent of retail workers work part-time and earn 35 percent less than full-time employees. These workers are overwhelming women, and more than 70 percent are 25 years old or older. Retail workers are an expense, not an asset for investment, Lambert said, and therefore cut as much as possible.
Most of these practices have been completely legal—employers can lawfully change an employee’s work hours without any notice or without asking the employee’s consent, and in most states, employers do not have to pay employees who report to work but are sent home upon arrival. Employers are not legally required to provide any benefits—such as health coverage, paid time off, or workers’ compensation—to part-time workers.
Retail workers have begun to fight back for more legal protections, and legislators nationwide have begun to catch on: cities of San Francisco, Milwaukee, and SeaTac, Washington, have passed legislation requiring employers to provide, if requested, more hours to part-time workers and schedules in advance. In September, San Francisco introduced an additional ordinance that would require employers to give two weeks’ notice to part-time employees, to compensate for shift changes, and provide similar benefits to part-timers as to full-time employees. New York and Michigan introduced bills this fall to allow workers to request certain hours and to guarantee reporting pay.
Congress is considering the Schedules That Work Act, which would create a right for all employees to make scheduling requests and require employers to consider them and grant them, if reasonable. This bill would also require employers to pay employees reporting time pay, split shift pay, and two weeks’ notice of work schedules.
Such laws would create much needed fair standards in retail work, Lambert said, much like standards on child labor, overtime work, and weekend shifts. These standards will encourage workers to stay in their jobs and become better-trained, more reliable, and financially secure. Retail workers deserve set schedules, shift change, and reporting pay, Christina said, because the work is just as vital to the business.
“We all play a part in the company,” Christina said. “If you treat me well, the way we should be treated, I’m going to be a happy worker and we’ll have happier customers.”
The post Holiday Retail Jobs: Great for Sales, Tough on Workers appeared first on RH Reality Check.
A newly elected Republican state representative is drawing enough criticism and ridicule that he may hurt the Republican Party in Colorado, say political observers in the state.
Gordon Klingenschmitt cruised to victory November 4 in heavily Republican Colorado Springs, where his Democratic opponent had essentially no chance to win, despite widely publicized comments from Klingenschmitt during the campaign that might have turned away voters in a more competitive district.
Bizarre video clips and quotes from Klingenschmitt, mostly from web-based “Pray in the Name of Jesus Ministries,” have been spotlighted by local and national reporters since the former Navy chaplain, who calls himself “Dr. Chaps,” prevailed by a 3,472-to-3,128 margin in the June Republican primary over more moderate Republican Dave Williams.
Klingenschmitt airs a regular “Prayer in Jesus News” show in which he frequently addresses abortion and reproductive health issues. In an April episode, he described GOP Sen. Rand Paul as his “friend,” and the activist chaplain said:
Abortion is always deadly, even if the mother doesn’t commit suicide later on. And we discern a demonic spirit of guilt and murder and self-murder and self-hatred and everything that arises out of [abortion]. And the left-wing politicians want [women] to kill their babies. …There is hope. There is forgiveness. If you’ve had an abortion, you can be forgiven. God loves you. And we want to proclaim the love and forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ. That’s the only solution to the grief that you feel. And the guilt and depression can be wiped away through forgiveness.
“If he continues to be outspoken and takes very conservative positions on social issues such as abortion and gay and lesbian rights, he probably will be damaging to the Republican Party,” said Bob Loevy, political science professor emeritus at Colorado College, located in Colorado Springs. “Assuming far-right positions on social issues simply has not worked for the Republican Party in Colorado. Astute political observers have known that for a long time. But we’ll have to see how he behaves when he gets to the legislature.”
Klingenschmitt, who takes office next month, did not return emails or calls seeking comment for this article.
Colorado Republicans took a U.S. Senate seat, as well as control of the state senate, from Democrats on Election Day. But in doing so, many Republican candidates in competitive districts disavowed extreme positions on social issues they had taken in recent years.
In a YouTube video and biography posted on his website, Klingenschmitt outlines his career starting as an Air Force Academy graduate and continuing through his court martial by the Navy for disobeying prayer guidelines and, later, his honorable discharge. His disputes with the Navy led to the formation of his web-based ministry and his life as an “activist,” Klingenschmitt explains in his video.
“My story proves, perhaps, if there is one thing. That is, if one person will stand up for Jesus, that together we can wake up a nation,” Klingenschmitt said in the video.
We can reclaim our government. We can reclaim our children. We can reclaim our nation. We can take back territory from the devil. And I wonder, what can you do? Do we have any activists in this crowd? If the government came to you and threatened to take away your job and your pension and your home, if you wouldn’t just deny the name of Jesus. Would anyone stand up for Jesus with me and take back our government and take back our nation? Let’s pray for a revival in America and for standing with me as I stand with Jesus Christ.
Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert said last week that Klingenschmitt’s campaign was “reminiscent of the positive campaign the villagers ran to elect Frankenstein.”
Klingenschmitt has promised to respect the rights of his Colorado Springs constituents. He told the Colorado Springs Gazette, “I love the people of my district, I love the people of Colorado and I love America. I will defend everybody’s First Amendment rights, and I have a track record of doing that.”
The post Colorado Legislator’s Extreme Views May Backfire On State’s GOP appeared first on RH Reality Check.
Last week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a great op-ed, in which he eloquently described teen pregnancy as the problematic consequence of irresponsible adults, not hormone-addled teens. As someone who has spent my career trying to make educators, parents, and policy makers understand that teens are not the problem—we adults are—I loved the sentiment and applaud his effort to advocate for rational programs and policies. I was disappointed, however, with his use of a statistic that inaccurately describes condom efficacy as cumulative: It is misleading and potentially dangerous to suggest that someone who uses condoms as birth control for years will inevitably get pregnant.
Condoms are 82 percent effective at preventing pregnancy in any one year according to the C.D.C., but that means that after four years of relying only on condoms, most women will have become pregnant at least once.
When used consistently and correctly, condoms are 98 percent effective. But it is true that with “typical use,” condoms are considered 82 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. Put another way, 18 out of 100 couples who use condoms as their primary method of birth control will likely experience an unintended pregnancy in the first year of use.
Condom efficacy rates, however, are not a matter of simple probability. My chance of winning the lottery with a single ticket is about one in 150 million, so it stands to reason that if I buy 150 million tickets, I’ll win eventually. The same math can’t be done here. Success or failure does not happen by chance with contraception. It’s not like a roll of the dice, spin of the wheel, or purchase of a lottery ticket. It is completely within the user’s control.
When the rates are calculated, they include any couple that report condoms as their primary method of contraception in a given month—no matter how frequently or infrequently they used condoms that month. The 18 couples who experienced an unintended pregnancy during the first year includes couples who were using condoms incorrectly and couples who weren’t using them at all the day they became pregnant. We can all agree that a condom can’t work if it’s left in the night table drawer or never leaves the pharmacy shelf.
Additionally, it is important to note that this statistic is based on the first year of use, not any single year. There is no available data on users in their second year of using condoms—or their third or fourth year, for that matter. Researchers believe, though, that the numbers get better as the years go by, if for no other reason than that people who didn’t effectively use condoms either get pregnant or change methods.
James Trussell, a professor at Princeton University and an expert in calculating contraception efficacy, told me via email that calculations like Kristof’s “assume that the failure rate during typical use is constant over time. This assumption is not true, because the least adherent fail early, leaving behind a group increasingly comprised of the most adherent.”
This may make the efficacy rates confusing. Ultimately, though, it’s good news: It means that couples who are committed to staying pregnancy-free can improve their condom efficacy by using one correctly (which is not hard to do) every single time they have sex.
In an article for RH Reality Check this past summer, I pointed out that condoms have taken a lot of abuse lately. Messages in the media have suggested they break easily, don’t protect against pregnancy, and take all the fun out of sex.
I argued that with such negativity swirling around this important prevention method, we should not be surprised that condom use among teens is down. And, like Kristof of the New York Times, I said that it was up to us adults to turn around that trend.
The first step, then, is to make sure all the information we put out about condoms is accurate and easy to understand. Teens who use condoms the first time they have sex are more likely to continue using them as they get older. In turn, this encourages lifetime sexual heath; condoms both prevent pregnancy and are the only way sexually active individuals can protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections (STI).
This is not to say that condoms are the best method for all young people, or that young women should not be encouraged to use methods such as IUDs and implants, which take the possibility of user error out of the equation. But condoms are easy to get, inexpensive, and do not require a visit to a health-care provider, so many young people rely on them, particularly when they first become sexually active. Teens—and all sexually active people—need to know that condoms are still a good option for preventing pregnancy in the first year or the fourth.
The post Condoms Are Way More Effective Than the New York Times Says They Are appeared first on RH Reality Check.
Two federal lawsuits filed this week seek to put an end to affirmative action admission policies at colleges and universities across the country, setting in motion the first steps necessary for the issue to return to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The lawsuits were filed by the Project on Fair Representation (POFR), the legal defense arm of Washington, D.C.-based Project Liberty Inc., whose sole purpose is to “support litigation that challenges racial and ethnic classifications and preferences in state and federal courts.” POFR filed the suits on behalf of Students for Fair Admissions, a newly formed nonprofit membership organization whose members include “highly qualified students recently denied admission to both schools, highly qualified students who plan to apply to both schools, and their parents,” according to the complaints.
POFR and its director, Edward Blum, were involved in two other key race-related cases to come before the Roberts Court, Fisher v. University of Texas, which challenged the affirmative action policy at the University of Texas-Austin and may be on its way back to the Roberts Court, and Shelby County v. Holder, which successfully challenged Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.
The latest lawsuits target Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and argue that the universities rely on race-based affirmative action policies that impact admissions of high-achieving Asian-American and white students.
Both lawsuits argue that so-called race neutral policies, such as giving greater consideration to a prospective student’s socioeconomic background and boosting financial aid and scholarships, can better achieve the diversity goals of race-based affirmative action policies.
The lawsuits seek to build off the 2013 Fisher case and the Roberts Court’s ruling that requires schools implement “race-neutral” policies to achieve diversity among the student body before using racial classifications and preferences.
Blum said the lawsuits are the first of many in a litigation strategy designed to push the issue before the Supreme Court. “These two lawsuits are the first of what are expected to be several similar challenges to other competitive colleges that continue to unconstitutionally use racial preferences in admission decisions,” he said in a statement.
The lawsuits contend these schools should also end the practice of giving preference to so-called legacy students and early admission deadlines, practices the plaintiffs maintain hurt low-income and minority applicants in favor of wealthy and white applicants.
Neither the University of North Carolina nor Harvard University have responded to the lawsuits.
The post Two Lawsuits Represent First Wave of Fresh Attacks on Affirmative Action appeared first on RH Reality Check.
Forty-seven years ago, Gillian Relf gave birth to Stephen, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome shortly afterward. Last month, in a story in the UK’s Daily Mail, Relf wrote that while she loves her son, she wishes she had aborted him. For parents of fetuses with Down syndrome, Relf implied, abortion is the only way out of a lifetime of obstacles.
The broader Down syndrome community of parents typically responds to stories like these with outrage or sadness. Instead of acknowledging the validity of the hardship narrative, we often choose to promote superficial cute and happy imageries of life with Down syndrome, as if to acknowledge the challenges would be to promote aborting fetuses with disabilities. We, too, have bought into a narrative of limited, inaccurate choices: that someone must either constantly celebrate Down syndrome with no discussion of the difficulties it can present, or effectively be supporting eugenics.
So here we have two different false binaries. Neither is true; both remove the agency from people with Down syndrome. Furthermore, neither identifies the clear missing piece—what if, instead of leaving people like Relf isolated and struggling, we identify ways to build a robustly inclusive and caring society? What if we fight to expand access to support for all parents? We can break these dualistic fallacies apart.
For some people, abortion may be the right decision. For others, the choice to terminate a fetus with Down syndrome may reflect a fundamental lack of understanding about disability. In all cases, we need to unpack the way we construct these conversations, rather than criticizing individual decisions.
As the prenatal testing landscape changes, the debate over abortion and Down syndrome has become increasingly fraught. In Gillian Relf’s era—in fact, until very recently—accurately determining whether a fetus had Down syndrome required an invasive second-trimester amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling. Today, new non-invasive blood tests can locate fetal blood cells in a pregnant woman’s blood stream much earlier, with a lower risk of false positives. The new testing regimes raise complex ethical questions. It’s arguably different to say “I don’t want any baby” as opposed to “I don’t want this baby because of a prenatal diagnosis.” The latter feels more personal and raises the specter of eugenics.
The piece in the Daily Mail is not unusual, nor is the backlash it generated. As a father of a boy with Down syndrome and a journalist on disability issues, I hear these kinds of stories every time I write about the fraught issues of prenatal testing, abortion, and disability. Our life is challenging but rewarding, and I reflect both of these facts in my writing. Too many responses, however, either maintain that any discussion of abortion is tantamount to genocide, or revert to the casual ableism of “I would certainly terminate a Down pregnancy myself, and I wouldn’t waste much time thinking about it.”
To get beyond these conceptual traps requires looking past the abortion issue, as hard as that can be, and instead rethink how society might function better for families like Relf’s and mine. Relf talked about the deep isolation she has felt throughout her life as Stephen’s mother, driven in part by her inability to cope with Stephen’s “sit-down” protests. She’s afraid that he has been physically abused by other caregivers. Perhaps worst, she has the general sense that Stephen’s life is empty of meaningful relationships or activities. These are real concerns, and even people who are appalled by her rhetoric should not dismiss them.
It’s true that Relf might have avoided many of these challenges through an abortion. Of course, that’s not the only answer. Progressive social policies, matched with a change of attitude, can and have made huge differences in the lives of both people with disabilities and their caregivers. Society is already much more inclusive than during the days of Stephen’s childhood, but there’s still plenty of room to work on the isolation that so many families fear.
Since 1990 in the United States, with the passage of Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), schools have normalized inclusive education. That means that everyone younger than 30 or so likely grew up with kids with disabilities in their classroom. The American With Disabilities Act (ADA), passed the same year, mandated that more programs and public spaces be adapted for people with disabilities as well. People still stare when our children act “abnormally,” such as with Stephen’s “sit-down protests.” Still, the awareness campaigns promoted by individual activists and groups such as The Arc, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and the National Down Syndrome Society have begun to create a more inclusive world. Attitudes are changing, albeit slowly. And thanks to better therapies and new medicines, life expectancies and general health are also improving (at least for better-off people).
But there’s still such a long way to go before we can tell families, caregivers, and expectant parents that if they choose to carry a pregnancy to term, they and their new child won’t be alone. Sadly, in this age of austerity, policies are moving away from providing the kinds of support parents need. In the United States, funding for respite care programs, which are designed precisely to ease the kind of intense caregiving work that Relf discussed, is being cut or reduced. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, historically much better for people with disabilities, is now run by a government drastically slashing disability supports in the name of budget cuts.
The situation looks even more grim for adults with developmental disabilities. At least IDEA provides for a clear structure for the lives of children with disabilities, as well as broad social contact. Once adults turn 22 (or 19 in some areas), they “fall off the cliff.” They end up spending their days stuck in their parents’ homes, without community support or a way to maintain their skills. People whose disabilities and life circumstances—in terms of access to transit or the ability to find jobs—allow them to work are still too easily confined to sheltered workshops and paid pennies per hour, though thankfully that model is being phased out.
Meanwhile, people with disabilities and their caregivers have trouble saving money, because our social security system requires keeping people poor in order to qualify. It’s not legal for people receiving supplemental security payments to save more than $2,000—but those payments aren’t actually enough for most recipients to live on.
And our current legislature isn’t improving the situation. Right now, Congress has an act before it called Achieving a Better Life Experience Act (ABLE) that would enable the creation of special savings accounts. Under ABLE, some people with disabilities could work, place up to $100,000 in these tax-free “529” accounts, and use those funds for medical care, education, training, assistive technology, housing, and other essential needs. With ABLE, many people with disabilities would be able to achieve a greater degree of independence. Legislators from both parties have sponsored it, and the president has promised to sign it.
In a more functional Congress, it would have been passed a year or more ago. Now, it’s being threatened by the Heritage Foundation as too expensive, and it may not make it out of the current Congress at all. This program isn’t even a new benefit, just the opportunity to work and save—and even that may be too much for the U.S. government to enact.
Every story about the lives of people with Down syndrome, the choices parents and expectant parents make, and the whole discourse of abortion take place in the complicated context of these types of issues. We need to push back against the binary of hardship vs. abortion, but without erasing the very real difficulties that so many parents feel in our society. Instead, let’s get to work doing what we can to solve the hardships, while making sure every parent is free to make their own choices.
The post For Parents of Children With Down Syndrome, ‘Abortion vs. Hardship’ Is a False Binary appeared first on RH Reality Check.