Monday, September 28, 2009

And a child (a teenager) shall lead them

By Michele Battle-Fisher, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

With the hectic schedules experienced in our home, dinner time in our home is time to talk. Often, we talk about the matters of our days. But one recent evening, our teenage son Brandon began talking about a speech on health care as a natural right that he had to present in his AP Government class. He began by mentioning that in speaking he found strength in his words. He did not feel that his written word was as strong or well understood. I thought that I would give his spoken words another platform. Discourse is power (a la Foucault). I wanted to listen.
In the words of Brandon Battle:

I think that health care is a natural right that needs to be provided by the government. Americans spent $2.2 trillion dollars on health care in 2007 which averages out to be about $7400 per individual. This is two times the amount spent in developed countries. Americans will end up spending more on health care than on housing and food. This will mean that families could have to choose between paying health care and buying food for their families. I don’t know all the details of the health care reform but health care hinders the American people and is a necessary investment for the country. (Reference:
Now Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke states the recession is subsiding. But as long as health statuses continue to “recess”, this isn’t close to being resolved.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How Fast Is Your Broadband Connection?

By Mikyung Baek, Research and Technical Associate at The Kirwan Institute

The Federal Communications Commission has until February 17, 2010 to present a National Broadband Plan to Congress. Five months before the deadline, a debate is going on around the definition of broadband. Cable companies are playing with the ‘provisioned’ versus ‘actual’ speed and argue against using the actual speed for the definition of broadband. AT&T wants broadband to be defined by the minimal set of applications and says it is “not the ability to engage in real-time, two-way gaming, but obtaining meaningful access to the Internet’s resources and to reliable email communications and other basic tools” that is at stake. This translates into this: if you have a broadband connection in your neighborhood, however fast or slow it may be or regardless of what you can or can’t do with that connection, you are counted as wired; you already have ‘meaningful access’ and ‘basic tools’ because the ‘provisioned’ speed of your connection is, by definition, broadband.

A satellite television operator, EchoStar, wants the definition to read ‘at least 768 Kbps downstream and 200 Kbps upstream.’ Why? 768 Kbps is enough for satellite operators to handle satellite ‘broadband’ service and by insisting upon holding down the broadband to 768kbs, they want to be counted as ‘broadband’ service providers. Verizon also wants keep the bar low for the broadband at 768/200 Kbps.

A recent reality check: A Chicago Tribune article last month noted where the country stands in Internet speed, 28th among industrialized nations with an average of 5.1Mbps, compared to 20.4 Mbps of South Korea and 15.8 Mbps of Japan. Not only U.S. consumers are stuck with slower connection speed, it comes with a lot higher cost. According to OECD Broadband Statistics, average broadband monthly price per ‘advertised’ Mbps is $10.02 in the U.S., almost 12 times of what South Koreans pay, $0.85.

We obviously have a long way to go. And as far as consumers are concerned, the faster the better, and the cheaper the better, regardless of whether it falls under someone’s definition of broadband at a certain point of time or not. If it was December 2006, when FCC’s definition of broadband was 200 Kbps (up or downstream), my connection of up to 1.5 Mbps would be the ‘broadestband’ of all! The National Broadband Plan needs to set the goal of universal access to broadband, but the quality of broadband needs to be set high enough to ensure digital opportunities in its truest sense. If we identify 768 Kbps as baseline broadband speed, we will be restricting the digital capabilities for those who live in the areas of lower speed when it is coupled with existing digital inequality. One of the things I would like the FCC to do is to focus on enhancing digital opportunities for consumers across the country by ensuring transparency in broadband availability data in terms of the speed (minimum and maximum, upstream and downstream, provisioned and actual) and price. This will increase market competition between broadband providers and eventually improve the quality of broadband connection as well as penetration rates as was the case in many other countries. We will then have choices between high speed internet connections at affordable prices in every neighborhood in the nation.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Criminalizing Poverty

By Jen Washco, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

This August, a Sacramento attorney opened a property he owns to approximately three dozen homeless people.[1] Due to complaints from a neighboring resident, city police evicted the residents for camping more than 24 hours, which violates a Sacramento ordinance.[2] The residents of the encampment were forced to leave, but the question of where they have left to go remains unanswered.
The Sacramento prohibition on camping is just one instance in a general trend, begun in the 1980s, toward the criminalization of poverty. This makes the activities homeless people do to survive illegal, while not addressing the causes of their homelessness. Criminalizing these activities does not address the problem. At worst, it brings homelessness into a self-reinforcing cycle of arrests, since homeless individuals are rarely able to pay fines associated with their arrests and may miss court dates (perhaps because they lack transportation), or encourages behavioral adjustments which prevent homeless persons from getting back on track—for example, some ordinances ban sleeping in public parks between dusk and dawn, so the homeless must sleep during the day, foreclosing opportunities to seek employment.
At best, criminalizing poverty takes it out of sight and out of mind. The responses to articles on the Sacramento homeless camp indicate that many people wish not to see and not to interact with the homeless, as though this validates the thought that homelessness “is not my problem” and that the homeless simply need to get a job—easier said than done in this economy. Though perhaps reassuring to think that the homeless are entirely responsible for their situation, this is often not the case. Nearly 40% of homeless individuals are under age 18, with 42% of this population under the age of five. Families with children are the fastest growing homeless population, and, in some surveys, a quarter of homeless women had left their previous residence due to domestic violence. Veterans are over-represented among the homeless as well.[3]
Rather than continuing to criminalize poverty and homelessness, we need to deal with the reality of poverty. Criminalization is neither socially nor economically efficient.[4] Instead of pretending that increasing disincentives will cause those in poverty to suddenly pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we need to implement programs and practices that provide help to those that need it—a homeless family needs a reliable place to sleep, not fines to somehow chastise them back onto their feet. In order to do so, we as a society need to develop greater compassion and understanding, realizing that the US is not a land of equal opportunity where anyone who tries can get ahead, but instead is a complicated system where some will always need help getting on their feet.

[3] NCH Fact Sheet 3 (2008), National Coalition for the Homeless.
[4] Homes Not Handcuffs, pp.19-22.

De-Biasing Implicit Bias: Start with our Schools

By Marguerite L. Spencer, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

The concept of implicit bias has gone mainstream. Even Oprah had a piece on it recently featuring individuals who had taken the Implicit Bias Test (IAT). Several whites were surprised to find that they harbored negative racial bias towards blacks, even though they believed themselves to be egalitarian. Researchers suggest that more than 70% of the test takers on the Project Implicit website associated whites with good and blacks with bad. What can we do to debias ourselves?

Following up on a 2001 demonstration by Buju Dasgupta and Tony Greenwald, researchers at Project Explicit tested whether racial bias can be reduced by exposing test takers to admired blacks, such as Jackie Robinson, and disliked whites, such as Jeffrey Dahmer. Unlike the results in the earlier test, they found that there were no differences between participants who were exposed to these imagers and those who were not. They concluded that simple exposure to good blacks is not enough. What is needed is repeated exposure, including negative associations with whites.

Since our implicit biases spring largely from our environments and experiences, many suggest that the best place for repeated positive exposure is in meaningfully integrated school settings (no tracking, discrimination in disciplining etc…). A growing number of studies show that a racially integrated school environment promotes cross-racial friendships and increases comfort levels, often reducing biases and stereotypes. An integrated environment is particularly important during a student’s early years, when their attitudes about race are not yet concretely shaped. We also know that students who have been educated in a diverse environment, including whites, place a high value on integration as preparation for public life in multiracial settings.

This all seems obvious, but achieving integrated schools is highly personalized and politicized on both the familial, local and national level, and fraught with implicit biases of its own. We need to figure out a way to think and talk about integration that can allow us to debias ourselves, dismantle any racialized barriers that prevent us from integrating, and move forward in a strategic way. Acknowledging our biases is one thing, but debiasing is where we need to go next. Integrated schools can become the primary front in which we arm ourselves to make racially just structural changes in our society.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What is the Human Price of a Mobile Phone?

By Mark Harris, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

In the eastern Congo, militias are fighting for control of mines that contain the minerals – tantalum, tungsten, and tin – that go into the casings and circuitry of the mobile phones and electronics (including the computer on which I’m typing this) that are the building blocks of our modern, technology-based lifestyles. When these militias fight, villages are devastated, and women and men are raped and killed to instill terror into the countryside. The militias are then able to take advantage of low-paid or unpaid labor to mine ore (in ways that devastate the environment) and use shady or obscure trade relationships in Rwanda and Uganda that enrich their leaders and cut costs for the manufacturers of electronic components.

The Enough Project and Friends of the Congo are two groups that are raising awareness of this humanitarian crisis. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made some important commitments about stemming the epidemic of sexual violence in eastern Congo, the conflict will not come to an end until the economic interests that lay behind it are exposed and changed. Recently, a non-governmental organization called Resolve has committed to mapping the supply chains that link the militias to the global market for these conflict minerals, but government action is needed to compel the consumers of the minerals and their raw ores to expose the point of origin of minerals so that more effective action can be taken. The Congo Conflict Minerals Act, which has bipartisan support, would make this happen, but it has languished in Congress since April.

It’s high time that the U.S. government take effective action to stop our electronics from funding the rape of women and the destruction of villages. For more information on what you can do to help end this crisis, you can visit the Enough Project or Friends of the Congo.