On the Hill: Highway Trust Fund, UI, and Contraception Act

In one of their final weeks of work ahead of the August recess, House lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a deal to continue funding the nation’s transit infrastructure projects by addressing a coming shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund. The House-passed deal is expected to be quickly taken up and cleared by the Senate in coming days.

Unfortunately the measure — a 10-month patch shoring up the fund through May 2015 with $11 billion — may have also dealt a fatal blow to lawmakers hoping to reinstate federal unemployment insurance benefits, as the “pay-for” for the extending funding for the highway trust fund came from the same mechanism (so called “pension smoothing”) that lawmakers had suggested could be used a “pay for” for extending jobless aid. The development makes chances increasingly slim that a renewal of emergency unemployment insurance will get a vote in the Senate before the midterm election, as Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Dean Heller (R-NV) must now find a new way to pay for their five-month extension of unemployment insurance — the longest time frame lawmakers could find money to pay for in a manner that centrist Republicans would accept. Senate Republicans rejected unpaid-for extensions earlier this year, eventually passing a $10 billion, five-month bill in April that the House never took up. After that bill’s timeline ran out, Heller and Reed introduced a new five-month extension that — unlike previous efforts — did not include retroactive benefits. But now without a “pay-for”, that bill, if Reed and Heller were somehow able to secure another vote, would likely fall short of needed support. Senator Heller has insisted that, despite the setbacks, he and Sen. Reed will try to determine if there’s a new unemployment insurance proposal that could pass this year.

On Wednesday Senate Democrats fell short in their efforts to pass legislation responding to the recent Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision, a 5-4 ruling which said closely-held companies do not have to comply with the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act if the owners have religious objections. The bill, which would have negated the Supreme Court’s ruling by eliminating the religious exemption, fell three votes short of the 60-vote threshold to end debate. Republicans Susan Collins (ME), Mark Kirk (IL) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) voted with the Democrats in favor of the bill. Senate Majority leader Harry vowed to bring the legislation up again for another vote, and Democrats were quick to note that Sen. Brian Schatz (HI) was not present for the vote, meaning that if a re-vote is taken they will only need to convince two more Republicans to support the measure for it to be considered on a simple majority vote.

With just a handful of days left in session before the August recess and campaign season entering full swing. Still, both parties have emphasized in recent days new economic priorities aimed at wooing support from middle-class voters. The Democratic agenda has been retooled in recent weeks to focus more on middle-class workers and families and less on closing the gap between low-income families and the middle class, with House Democrats’ agenda resembling aspects of the Senate Democrats’ “fair shot” agenda. Among several items on the list, the Democratic agenda includes familiar proposals such as raising the minimum wage, incentives for manufacturing, easier terms for student loan repayment and new pay equity guarantees for women workers.

Both the House and Senate will be in session next week, with the Senate in on Monday and the House resuming legislative work on Tuesday, July 22nd.


Pregnant Workers’ Rights on Supreme Court and Congressional Agendas

On July 1st, the Supreme Court agreed to review a case regarding a former UPS employee who claims she was discriminated against because of her pregnancy. The petitioner in the case, Peggy Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., alleged that her employer refused to make accommodations for her pregnancy after her doctor told her not to lift packages weighing more than seventy pounds. Instead of accommodating her with lighter work, UPS forced her onto unpaid maternity leave, leaving her without healthcare or an income during her pregnancy. The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA) bars employment discrimination against pregnant workers, but does not require employers to accommodate their employees’ requests for changes to their work during their pregnancies. As a result, employers can use troublesome loopholes that allow them to discriminate against pregnant employees, such as an unplanned job evaluation after the pregnancy is announced, and may even fire them on the basis of their pregnancy.

Sixty-two percent of pregnant women and new mothers participate in the labor force nationwide. It is essential to the economic security of women and their families that they are accommodated during their pregnancies so that they can continue to work or be supported by paid maternity leave. Discrimination in hiring and in the workplace against pregnant workers still occurs despite protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Many of these actions stem from employers’ own stereotypes about pregnant women or even what is best for a child. For instance, workers who announce their pregnancy early on are sometimes automatically moved to light work or are given fewer responsibilities even if they can still perform their duties with no issues. Pregnant women are sometimes forced onto sick leave or maternity leave, despite a doctor’s note or the employee’s resistance. In addition, maternity and sick leave are generally unpaid and often not covered by employers’ health insurance, leaving pregnant women in strapped financial and healthcare situations during their pregnancies. The work environment itself can be hostile to pregnant workers as well. Many pregnant women report being denied a water break or a stool to rest on occasionally during long shifts.

Respecting pregnant women’s right to work and to be accommodated should be reflected by both the Supreme Court’s decision and forthcoming legislation. Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. arrives on the heels of House and Senate consideration of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which could resolve the issues brought up by the case. PWFA would fill in the loopholes employers have found in the PDA that have allowed them to continue discriminating against pregnant employees. It would also mandate that employers with 15 or more employees accommodate their pregnant employees during shifts, like allowing breaks or water bottles, in addition to affording them job alterations tailored to their pregnancy. This week, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released the Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues, the first publication on discrimination against pregnant workers since 1983. The Enforcement Guide incorporates Pregnancy Discrimination Act enforcement with practical implementation and employers’ best practices, in addition to addressing how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) might also apply to individuals with pregnancy-related disabilities.

The interests of both employers and their pregnant employees are met by supporting protections and flexibility in the workplace. Giving pregnant workers flexibility in their job is low-cost or free, reduces absenteeism, increases productivity and encourages employee retention. At the recent White House Summit on Working Families, President Obama spoke in support of pregnant workers, arguing that pregnant women should not have to choose between the health of their child and their job, and that employers had a responsibility to accommodate instead of punish them. To this end, he called for the passage of the PWFA in the Senate as a step towards ensuring employment fairness and economic security for all workers. Labor legislation and policies must take a supportive stance towards pregnant workers for the benefit of more inclusive, efficient workplaces and the financial security of their workers.


On the Hill: WIOA, Appropriations, and UI

Congress returned this week to Washington for its final work period before the August recess. While still deadlocked on resolving differences on major appropriations bills, Congress did act to actually reform and reauthorize the nation’s job training programs.

Following passage last month of the bipartisan Senate version of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, on Wednesday the House passed the compromise bill on a 416-6 vote. It will next head to President Obama, who has expressed his support and is expected to sign it into law. The compromise legislation, crafted by leaders of both parties in the House and Senate, repeals the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 and replaces it with new authority that maintains most of WIA’s original programs. The measure authorizes funding through fiscal year 2020 for workforce development systems at the state and local level, and also maintains and modifies Job Corps, national programs, and adult education and literacy initiatives. It repeals 15 separate programs and requires states to submit plans for workforce systems that address all of the core programs under the measure. The language also standardizes performance indicators for all programs, and requires states to develop comprehensive strategies to align workforce activities with labor market demands, business needs and economic development goals. The bill continues the basic structure of state workforce development systems, with state and local boards developing workforce development plans that govern education, job training and other programs through one-stop delivery systems. However, it modifies the roles of the boards and requires that the plans be more comprehensive and tailored to the region’s employment and workforce needs so that the programs can provide training, employment services, adult education and vocational rehabilitation through a coordinated, comprehensive system.

In spite of the its showing strong bipartisan, bicameral support for the job training measure, Congress remains starkly divided on the 12 major spending bills that must be passed to fund major federal programs for fiscal year 2015. While the House continues to pass various spending bills (although its Energy-Water bill drew a veto threat from the Obama administration this week), the appropriations process in the Senate is essentially at a standstill as a result of contentious policy riders being attached to various spending bills. Because of the increasingly slim odds of lawmakers managing to reconcile spending bills passed by each chamber, it appears Congress will need to pass an emergency spending package to cover immediate threats like wildfires and border security.

Given this reality, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) has urged that his proposal to extend unemployment insurance benefits be attached to such a measure. Unfortunately, Sen. Reed’s proposed mechanism to pay for the extension is now being considered as a way to ensure continued funding for the Highway Trust Fund, which covers many of the nation’s major infrastructure projects and is expected to run dry this summer. Reed’s proposal to extend jobless aid for five months would cost a little under $10 billion and would be fully offset — a key to Republican support — using a combination of revenue raisers that includes extending “pension smoothing” provisions and extending customs user fees through 2024. House leadership has expressed no appetite for taking up the jobless aid renewal without attaching major Republican priorities.  The odds of action on unemployment insurance seem even smaller now that House Ways & Means Chairman David Camp has announced plans to use pension smoothing, which temporarily reduces the amount that companies are required to pay into their pension funds, as a way to continue funding transportation projects for 10 months.

Beyond unemployment insurance benefits, other items on Senate Democrat’s “Fair Shot” economic agenda continue to flounder without bipartisan support in the chamber. Launched with fanfare as a coordinated plan to align senators behind party priorities aimed at addressing inequality in the economy, an agenda that included the minimum wage, pay equity and student loan refinancing has been stalled by shortfalls on votes and procedural impasses. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has little time before August recess to bring up any of these or additional priorities for what will likely be a doomed cloture vote on the Senate floor. Unless a clear path to bipartisan support can be forged—something that seems increasingly unlikely given the breakdown in the chambers’ appropriations process—many of these items appear to be on hold for the foreseeable future, or at least until after the August recess.

Both the House and the Senate will be in session next week.


Reflections on SCOTUS, Women’s Rights and Economic Security

The Supreme Court finished its 2013-14 term last week with rulings on labor unions, law enforcement searches and healthcare coverage, many of which carry larger, adverse implications for women than meets the eye. Among this term’s major decisions were McCullen v. Coakley, ruling against 35-foot protection zones around abortion clinics in favor of protestor’s freedom of speech, the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision regarding birth control and religious freedoms, and Riley v. California, which ruled that cell phones could not be searched without a warrant.

While taking steps to protect privacy, Riley v. California may be tough on survivors of domestic abuse or stalking in a subtle way. Previously, law enforcement has been able to use communication records between abusers and survivors to issue emergency protection orders, but now it cannot do so until it receives a warrant, which can potentially slow down the protection order process. Harris v. Quinn, the labor union ruling that stripped unions working in the partial public sector of their ability to collectively bargain in “fair share agreements”, disproportionately affects low-income women of color and immigrant women who work in domestic healthcare and other traditionally female jobs.

Two controversial split-court decisions were handed down in SCOTUS’s final week of the term, addressing the birth control mandate included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its implications for employers and their female employees. The first, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., dealt specifically with the ACA’s mandate that employers provide contraceptives through their employee healthcare plans. Hobby Lobby asserted that its religious freedoms were being violated by the mandate, specifically objecting to four types of birth control. Hobby Lobby won its case 5-4. Justice Alito’s majority opinion stated that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, “closely held” companies whose owners had strong religious beliefs, such as Hobby Lobby, could legally opt out of the ACA mandate. Hobby Lobby is one of over one hundred similar companies seeking such an exemption and “closely held” corporations employ over 52% of American workers, so this ruling is expected to affect millions of women.

Wheaton College v. Burwell, a similar case decided just after Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, further demonstrated the Court’s willingness to make exceptions to the ACA’s birth control mandate on the grounds of deeply held religious beliefs. The case contested the federal exemption form that allows non-profits to hand the responsibility of covering staff and student contraceptives to insurers. However, the plaintiff argued that by filling out the form, it was still obligated to indirectly provide the contraception. The court ruled in favor of the Christian college in a 6-3 decision. Because of this ruling, women who work for such non-profits are left at the whims of their employer’s religious convictions.

These last two rulings are harmful to women everywhere, specifically working women, low-income women, and female survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Birth control’s steadily increasing diffusion and accessibility since the 1970s has allowed women to avoid both risk and cost, leading to more investment in their careers and older marriage and childbearing ages. It is also correlated with the gradual convergence of the gender wage gap since the 1970s. And not only will women be denied a healthcare right, businesses may lose productivity and see absenteeism increase as secondary results. Research shows that the economy would be 25% smaller today if women had never entered the workforce in such great numbers thanks in part to birth control access.

These rulings affect access to contraceptives, especially for low-income women, because of the extra expense of birth control. Two of the forms of birth control that Hobby Lobby opposed were IUDs, which are upwards of twenty times more effective than other contraceptives but can cost $1,000 per year without healthcare coverage. As Justice Ginsberg noted in her dissenting opinion in Hobby Lobby, this can be the equivalent of a whole month’s worth of wages for a woman earning minimum wage. One dose of emergency contraception that Hobby Lobby also objected to, like Plan B, can cost around $60. Women may now incur extra doctor’s fees to get government-funded prescriptions separate from their employee insurance, and services like Planned Parenthood are harder to come by due to decreased federal and state funding.

Survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault are made particularly more vulnerable by these rulings as well. Many survivors of intimate partner violence report that their abuser tampered with or refused to use contraceptives. Additionally, intimate partner violence and financial abuse go hand in hand – abusers often restrict access to economic resources that would allow a survivor to obtain birth control. The most effective and subtle forms of contraception available, and therefore the most helpful for women experiencing IPV, could potentially be denied to survivors under the Hobby Lobby ruling. In addition, rape survivors need access to emergency contraception, but the facts that it is not covered for crime victims in 34 states and many survivors can’t afford to buy it and wait to be reimbursed make it much less accessible when it is really needed. These Supreme Court decisions stretch further and do more damage than employers like Hobby Lobby seem to realize, and the effects could be major not only for vulnerable women but also for a large part of the American workforce.


The Myths of Social Security Disability Insurance

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is one of our most important safety nets, yet it is continually under attack and at threat of funding cuts. Rhetoric around SSDI suggests massive fraud, work disincentives, and undeserved handouts as characteristic – none of which are borne out by data or reality. At a recent event hosted by the Center of American Progress, experts explained how the SSDI program supports workers across the country and keeps millions of Americans out of poverty. They also debunked the most popular myths about the program, which are summarized below.

Myth 1: People who receive SSDI just don’t want to work.

SSDI is a program for workers.  A person must work and contribute to the SSDI fund in order to qualify for disability insurance in the result of an injury. A person who is not working when they become disabled does not qualify for SSDI.

Myth 2: People receiving SSDI are just frauding the system.

Certainly, there are a small percentage of people receiving SSDI who are not suffering from a fully debilitating disability. These few are not at all an accurate representation of most SSDI recipients. The United States has some of the most stringent disability insurance standards of any industrialized country. Before ever receiving an SSDI transfer, a disabled worker must go five months without work due to disability. In fact, the majority of applicants are denied SSDI. It has been asserted by media, lawmakers, and critics of the program that the recent increases in the number of people receiving SSDI is due largely to increased fraud or as a way of coping with increased unemployment. However, a much simpler and more accurate explanation is that America’s population is aging. Our baby boomer generation is reaching an age where disabilities are most common. Also, women’s workforce participation increased significantly over the last few decades, which means more workers susceptible to disability and injury, and greater number of SSDI cases.

Myth 3: The SSDI Fund is running out and there is no way to save the program.

It is anticipated that the SSDI Trust Fund will fail to fully serve all SSDI beneficiaries by 2016, at which point only 79% of benefits that are due will be covered.  However, this problem is easily fixed and there is historic precedence for resolving Social Security solvency issues. One option is to reallocate a higher portion of the Social Security tax to the disability fund and away from the retirement fund. Reallocation has happened 11 times since 1957 and has traditionally been an easily agreed upon way to weather the ups and downs in demand for retirement versus disability insurance. Another option would be to increase the tax for SSDI by a mere 0.2 percentage points.

SSDI protects 9 out of ten, or 155 million, Americans in the case of disability.  Currently, 9 million people and 2 million children are receiving benefits. Without SSDI, 4.4 million people would be in poverty. SSDI is a nationwide safety net that ensures economic security for millions of Americans and the program should be protected and improved to continue providing insurance for all working families.

Read more about SSDI in the Center for American Progress’ new report, “Social Security Disability Insurance: A Bedrock of Security for American Workers.”


Senate Hearing: Addressing Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Last Thursday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee gathered to hear testimony from Department of Education officials as well as from student survivors and advocates regarding the prevention of and response to sexual assaults on America’s college campuses. The hearing was held in light of the recent attention on sexual violence on college campuses by student activists, the media and the Obama Administration. Senators Harkin, Alexander and Whitehouse questioned Catherine Lhamon from the DOE Office of Civil Rights and James Moore of Clery Act enforcement. Sen. Harkin emphasized the necessity of funding penalties on universities out of compliance with Title IX, asking Lhamon to explain why a university has never had its funding revoked and how students could expect accountability from their schools if they were never punished for non-compliance. Lhamon defended the threats to withdraw funding, citing the OCR’s recent investigation of Tufts University and the university’s ability to quickly pull back into compliance after having their funding compromised.

The most important aspect of addressing non-compliant universities is assuring that penalties are not going to hurt survivors instead of helping them. Students should not have to bear the burden of their schools’ decisions not to comply with federal policy. Revoking funding entirely would only further isolate and harm students trying to seek help in the wake of an assault, leaving them with even fewer resources than are currently provided to survivors. A more constructive solution to non-compliance would be to mandate directing funds into victim’s services or victim compensation funds that would provide restitution for all costs incurred by victimization. Another solution is to foster stronger partnerships between campus and local law enforcement, providing students with more resources that connect them to the larger community and give local law enforcement more tools to address and process crime on local campuses.

Sens. Murphy and Whitehouse stressed the need for better training for student conduct committees and college administrations on sexual assault, in addition to calling for stronger, transparent working relationships between college administrations and local law enforcement. Lhamon agreed, noting that the fight against college sexual assault had to be part of a comprehensive, multi-sector approach where different actors working together can rely on each other to carry out responses.

Moore was equally pressed, asked by Sen. Warren why Clery data on sexual violence were readily available, but not analyses, for current and prospective students, in addition to others asking about the application of Clery Act data to campus policies. Clery Act enforcement has recently come under fire for failing to compel universities to report the full picture of campus crime, especially sexual assault. There are currently more than 60 universities under investigation by the Department of Education for alleged negligence of Title IX and inaccurate sexual assault Clery reporting.

Two student sexual assault survivors bravely testified on their experiences and those of their peers with universities failing to prevent and address sexual violence on their campuses. Emily Renda, a University of Virginia student victim advocate, explained the myriad reasons for low reporting rates of sexual assault on campuses, holding that clear procedural guidelines from the OCR were necessary to carry out student conduct hearings so that survivors would not feel dissuaded from reporting and prosecuting their perpetrators. John Kelly, a student survivor from Tufts University, argued that restructuring sexual assault prevention and response must be more inclusive of men and the LGBTQ community, in addition to addressing the full picture of intimate partner violence, including economic abuses. Lastly, University of New Hampshire representative Jane Stapleton stressed more in-depth, mandatory sexual assault prevention orientations for all college freshmen.

Under the Campus Sexual Violence Act (SaVE Act), part of the 2014 VAWA reauthorization, colleges are held to new, stricter standards regarding college sexual assaults, and Congress is currently working to find better means of regulating and enforcing Title IX and the Clery Act. Rethinking penalties for non-compliance with Title IX must be taken especially seriously if congressional leaders want to actualize the change in university campuses they are asking for. Student survivors are at risk of dropping out, losing or quitting a part-time job, or losing a scholarship due to worsening grades, all of which can lead to short- and long-term financial instability and reduced safety. Instead of revoking funding, Congress should creatively consider the ways that Title XI and the Clery Act can compel universities to aid their students instead of disadvantaging them.


On the Hill: WIOA and UI Extension

Both the House and Senate were in session this week for a final few days of work ahead of the Fourth of July recess.

The Senate voted for passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act on an overwhelmingly bipartisan 95-3 vote. The legislation, crafted by Senators Harkin (D-IA), Alexander (R-TN), Murray (D-WA), and Isakson (R-GA) and Representatives Kline (R-MN), Miller (D-CA), Foxx (R-VA), and Hinojosa (D-TX), will now move to the House. The bill represents a compromise between the SKILLS Act (H.R. 803), which passed the House of Representatives in March of 2013, and the Workforce Investment Act of 2013 (S. 1356), which passed the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee with a bipartisan vote of 18-3 in July, 2013. The House could consider the bill as early as when it returns from the Fourth of July recess. The National Coalition on Women, Jobs and Job Training (NCWJJT) offered this statement in response to WIOA’s introduction.

While the passage of the WIA reauthorization with clear bicameral, bipartisan support this week was an encouraging sign, the odds for a new measure to reinstate unemployment insurance for jobless Americans remain less sure. Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Dean Heller (R-NV) continue to push for a bipartisan deal to extend the jobless aid, after their first attempt at a five month extension that passed the Senate in April languished in the Republican controlled House. The duo introduced their new proposal on Tuesday. It includes five months of extended benefits past 26 weeks, paid for by changes to pension laws and an extension of Customs fees through 2024.  A key difference with this most recent proposal is that the jobless benefits will not be retroactive for unemployed Americans who stopped receiving aid after the program expired last December. By avoiding retroactive benefits, the latest legislation may mute some of the critiques that the previous iteration was hard to implement. Its lack of a firm expiration date will also increase the bill’s shelf life if it takes a few months to pass. Timing could be tight with a busy workload of appropriations bills on the Senate’s schedule for July, perhaps the last full month of real legislating before the midterm election season goes into full swing. Even if the Senate does pass another unemployment insurance bill, the biggest challenge will be convincing the House to consider it, which it would certainly would not without including Republican-supported legislation like approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s medical device tax or other changes to the health care overhaul.

The White House, Department of Labor, and allies this week hosted the Summit for Working Families, with the goal of raising the national dialog on the importance of policies that best support working parents. The event featured speakers from the advocacy, business, and policy worlds, and included remarks from President and First Lady. While touting passage of the Affordable Care Act, as well as executive actions to raise the minimum wage for all federal contracted workers, President Obama called on Congress to implement policies for working parents including paid sick and family leave, affordable childcare, raising the federal minimum wage for all Americans, and strengthening pay equity protections for women. The US lags markedly behind many other developed nations in ensuring access to these basic needs. In conjunction with the event, President Obama also released a presidential memorandum directing federal agencies to offer flexibility to workers, implementing a “right to request” provision which allows workers to ask for flexible working situations without fear of retaliation. Among the many other actions and commitments announced by the White House, WOW and its partner Jobs for the Future committed to expanded a curriculum designed to help job training programs, community colleges, unions, industry partners and others to improve women’s access to nontraditional, high-wage careers. Read more here.

Both the House and the Senate will be in recess next week for the July 4th Holiday. The Senate will return on Monday, July 7th and the House will return Tuesday, July 8th.


Reflections on ‘Addressing America’s Poverty Crisis’

In President Bill Clinton’s plenary address at the Hamilton Project’s Addressing America’s Poverty Crisis summit last week, President Clinton noted that intelligence, effort and dreams are evenly distributed across the world, but opportunity, preparation and support are not. Geography is an important consideration in WOW’s Basic Economic Security Tables (BEST), which estimate the income needed for a family to attain economic security and distinguishes between cost of living differences across cities, counties and states.  WOW’s BEST shows that a single mother with an infant in Jacksonville, Florida would need to earn $45,780 a year to maintain economic security, while a single mother with an infant in Scranton, Pennsylvania needs $43,620. However, what does the BEST tell us about the life chances for the infant in Jacksonville and the infant in Scranton? At similar cost of livings, is there a difference in which infant has the best ‘opportunity, preparation and support?’

One year ago, a team of economists from Harvard, UC Berkeley, and the US Treasury Department released a study showing that opportunity is not equally distributed across the United States and where you are born has a huge impact on your social mobility. As it turns out, Scranton is ranked 2nd in the nation’s 100 largest cities for income mobility, while Jacksonville is ranked 90th.  The infant in Jacksonville is less likely to earn above economic security levels as an adult than the infant in Scranton, because, as President Clinton said, they have unequal access to opportunity. Addressing America’s poverty crisis is not only about combating poverty, but restoring equality of opportunity.

The new policy proposals presented at the Hamilton Project’s summit cover four main areas: Promoting Early Childhood Development and Supporting Disadvantaged Youth, which address opportunity and social mobility, and Building Skills and Improving Safety Net and Work Supports, which address economic security. Proposals regarding childhood development included policies that expand high-quality preschool education, focus on parenting interventions and education and prevent unintended pregnancies.  These policies seek to address inequalities of opportunities that impact children at very young ages. For example, children who lack preschool education are more likely to read behind grade-level at third grade, drop-out of high school, and be in poverty as adults. Low-income youth lack educational and occupational opportunities due to lack of mentors, lack of summer employment or enrichment options, and poor K-12 education which fails to prepare students for college. Policies presented at the summit seek to remedy these problems by utilizing community-based, nonprofit and government programs.

Policies aimed at promoting economic security included expanding apprenticeship programs and vocational training and incentivizing colleges to teach students employable skills. Lastly, creating refundable childcare credits, introducing work sharing, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, reforming the minimum wage, and using data to better target social services were all introduced as ways to improve the safety net and work support in America. As poverty rates rise, policies that fail to address the generational cycle of poverty and the lack of equal opportunity in this country will prevent more and more people from attaining economic security. It is time for policymakers to enact drastic change in how we view social mobility and how we address poverty.


Responding to Skeptics of Violence Against Women

Recently, two popular columnists with the Washington Post started uproars when they wrote articles scrutinizing the prevalence of domestic violence and sexual assault in the United States.  The first, by conservative writer George F. Will, argues that the status of “survivor” (his quotes) was a coveted position to hold on college campuses, and that the appallingly high rates of sexual assault on college campuses were fudged. Shortly thereafter, marriage specialist Bradford Wilcox wrote a piece suggesting that women should marry the men they have children with in order to lower the incidence of domestic violence. Both articles have been met with hefty criticism from scholars, journalists, activists and students alike, most citing clear victim blaming and misinterpretation of the related data.

Will and Wilcox readily demonstrate an ignorance of the current climate of violence against women in the US. About 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and only 12% of those cases are ever reported. Around 20 to 25% of women and 6.1% of men experience sexual assault during their time in college. College campuses have been in the national spotlight for several months now, with the number of Title IX suits against colleges increasing and President Obama beginning a White House Task Force to address college sexual assault.

Despite the often overwhelming reality of coping with sexual assault, George Will refuses to empathize. Will contests that students who report sexual assault or dating violence are conferred “survivor privilege”, which he never actually defines. We might be able to gather, however, that he assumes that there are certain benefits afforded by universities to people who claim that they have experienced sexual assault, as though universities across the country are bending over backwards to cater to survivors. However, Will entirely overlooks the oppressive environment surrounding survivorship. Survivors are often blamed for their assaults by peers and by law enforcement if they choose to come forward. They are frequently afraid to report sexual assault: the perpetrator is likely to be a classmate, boyfriend, neighbor or other acquaintance rather than a stranger. According to RAINN, the national prosecution average is only 8%, and 97% of rapists never see jail time. Economically, this climate of ignorance and shaming often causes survivors to lose scholarships, part-time jobs, and even drop out, which can lead to greater economic insecurity in the long-term due to a lack of higher education.

Bradford Wilcox’s recommendations that women marry the men they have children with to avoid violence hits on the same victim blaming mentality present in Will’s article. Arguing that women in married relationships are safer than unmarried woman in a relationship or with children, Wilcox takes single-variable statistics put out by the Department of Justice in 2012 that focus only on family composition, ignoring the subtleties of domestic violence. In revisiting the original data, it is obvious that this analysis does not encompass the full picture. Wilcox omits many other factors that contribute to the occurrence of domestic violence, such as age, race, education level and income. For instance, married women tend to also be whiter, more educated and in a higher income bracket. However, domestic violence is also more common in situations when the victim has a higher education level than their abuser. By Wilcox’s “if…then” logic, we could draw the similarly shortsighted conclusion that women should stop attaining high levels of education in order to avoid domestic violence. Additionally, encouraging survivors to marry their abusers will not only fail to stop the abuse, but will make it easier for offenders to commit economic abuses and make it even harder financially for survivors to escape.

Articles like these ignore the gravity of the consequences of the violent crimes perpetrated against women every day. As a female student in university, it would be refreshing to see someone respect a survivor’s point of view, instead arguing for justice for survivors and the necessity of more accountable sexual assault prevention. It is ludicrous that survivors are being asked to switch schools, wait until a rapist graduates and rely on marriage to avoid violence instead of holding society and institutions accountable to acknowledge and support them.


On the Hill: Appropriations Bills

With both the House and Senate in session this week, Congress continued its focus on various appropriations packages and other committee work. The Senate appropriations floor process became unworkable this week and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) effectively pulled a three-bill ‘minibus’ spending package Thursday after Republicans and Democrats were unable to reach a deal on amendments—some of which were aimed at the Obama administration’s regulations on carbon emissions from existing power plants as well as other politically sensitive issues. The developments were a blow to Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, (D-MD) who has aggressively pushed to pass and conference all 12 annual spending bills with the House before the start of the new fiscal year on October 1.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Small Business Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced legislation (S. 2481) to encourage women’s business ownership and give women-owned small businesses (WOSBs) more opportunities to win federal contracts.  The “Women’s Small Business Procurement Parity Act” would provide tools available under other contracting programs to help federal agencies meet the goal of awarding 5 percent of all federal contracts to WOSBs. The WOSB procurement program was officially launched in 2011 but has been hampered by restrictions on the size and type of contracts awarded. The legislation would address inequities regarding sole-source authority for WOSBs (all other major small business contracting programs have sole-source authority, but the WOSB procurement program currently does not).  The bill would also expedite a disparity study by the Small Business Administration (SBA), which identifies under-represented industries for participation in the WOSB procurement program. The study was originally required by 2018—more than eleven years after the last study—but would be accelerated to 2015. The House has already passed a similar version of the bill as part of the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced a bill that would make more Americans eligible for overtime compensation by limiting exclusions that have helped carve a growing share of workers out of overtime protections. The legislation guarantees a minimum wage and overtime pay for private-sector workers by raising salary thresholds that classify certain managers and “professional” employees as exempt from overtime pay. It would also tighten the definitions of what can be considered a worker’s “primary” duty on the job.

Both the House and Senate will be in session next week.