Ten years ago last Wednesday, U.S. troops crossed the Kuwaiti border and began the most controversial chapter in American history since the Vietnam War. The Iraq War was a bumpy ride, replete with half-truths and lies about Saddam Hussein's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction; revelations of torture, prisoner mistreatment and random acts of unprovoked violence; and heart-wrenching stories of American soldiers in the prime of their lives being snuffed out for a war that a majority of Americans now say was a mistake.
While no U.S. combat troops have been in Iraq since 2011, the legacy of our presence there promises to be felt for years, if not decades. Sectarian violence unleashed by the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the years of U.S. occupation that followed continues to wreak havoc on the country. In September, following the sentencing of Iraq's Sunni vice president, nearly 100 people, most of the them Shiites, were killed in at least ten cities across the nation in the worst day of violence since the withdrawal of U.S. troops. That record was nearly broken last week, on the eve of the anniversary of the invasion, when more than 60 people were killed in wave of bombings across Baghdad.
By most measures, Iraq is in worse shape politically and structurally than the day we marched into Baghdad. But the implications of the conflict there extend far beyond the scarred terrain and divided cities of Iraq. They are felt every day, right here at home, by the hundreds of thousands of veterans who served in the war and now face higher rates of joblessness, mental illness, homelessness and suicide.
Together with the invasion of Afghanistan two years earlier, Operation Iraqi Freedom was the first prolonged modern U.S. conflict prosecuted by an all-volunteer force; and working and middle-class communities took the brunt of the impact. Nearly 4,500 Americans died in the war, and another 30,000 were wounded. Up until the very last casualty, people of color paid an especially high price.
On November 14, 2011, just weeks before the troop pullout, Army Specialist David Hickman became the last official U.S. casualty of the war when his convoy rolled over an improvised explosive device and he bled to death. Hickman, an African-American soldier from North Carolina, was just 23 when he died.
As journalist Cord Jefferson pointed out in commentary published shortly after U.S. troops began leaving Iraq: “People of all colors died unnecessarily in Iraq, but Hickman’s death is a reminder of the high costs African-Americans pay in war.”
According to an analysis by the U.S. Army – the service branch with the highest proportion of Black enlistees – the number of African-American soldiers has declined since the 1980s, when nearly a quarter were Black. But African Americans continue to serve in disproportionately high numbers. In 2009, 18 percent of the total Army population was Black, and African Americans comprised 21 percent of active-duty enlisted soldiers, the Army reported.
“Because many Blacks don’t have traditional advancement opportunities – good schools, family college funds, etc. – it makes sense that so many would turn to the military for a leg up,” Jefferson observed. “It’s a choice, but it’s a choice fraught with lots of racist historical baggage.”
In Iraq, Blacks made up an average of 15 percent of combat troops in-country at any given time, and in the earliest weeks of the conflict accounted for a startlingly high percentage of casualties. However, due largely to their concentration in non-combat positions of the military, by the end of the war African Americans accounted for just 9 percent of fatalities – which is actually lower than other ethnicities.
There is anecdotal evidence, however, that African-American soldiers were purposely targeted because of their race. A Sunni insurgent interviewed in Baghdad in 2004 by Guardian reporter Jason Burke echoed the ethnocentrism that permeates much of the Middle East when he admitted: “To have Negroes occupying us is a particular humiliation. Sometimes we aborted a mission because there were no Negroes [to target].”
The war in Iraq had a well-documented negative effect on overall Black enlistment in the armed services, but the opposite was true for Latinos. In 2001, Latinos comprised 9.5 percent of the armed forces, but by the end of the Iraq War that total had risen to 12 percent. Like their counterparts in the African-American community, many Latinos joined up to take advantage of opportunities for education and employment; but recruiters had access to another, even more enticing carrot designed to encourage Latino enlistment.
In July 2002, President Bush signed an executive order that established a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who fight for the U.S. Specifically, the order provided for the “expedited naturalization for aliens and noncitizen nationals serving in an active-duty status in the Armed Forces of the United States during the period of the war against terrorists of global reach.”
“Recruiters trying to fill slots have historically pressed vulnerable people into service, but for some people, it's the only way they are ever going to get citizenship,” said Dan Kesselbrenner, director of the National Immigration Project, in a 2007 interview.
According to the Houston Chronicle, by 2006 more than 25,000 immigrants had become citizens under the program, some of them posthumously after being killed in action. Studies show that Latinos are more likely to be in combat roles than technical occupations such as electronics and communications, which may explain why they were more 21 percent more likely than any other race to die on the battlefield in Iraq, according to an analysis by the University of Pennsylvania.
America breathed a collective sigh of relief when the last U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011, but things hardly improved for minority soldiers, sailors and Marines when they returned from active duty. Research shows that minority soldiers not only experience higher rates of PSTD, but are less likely to receive treatment for it, as well as for other health conditions.
A 2007 internal review of racial and ethnic disparities in the VA health care system found treatment disparities across all clinical arenas. Since veterans of all races and ethnicities receive the same benefits, these disparities persisted despite the absence of significant economic burdens.
Among the findings, the study found that non-white and white veterans differ in their degree of familiarity with and knowledge about medical interventions, and that minority veterans tend to be less trustful and more skeptical about the benefits of medical interventions.
“In some cases, VA Medical Centers that disproportionately serve minority veterans have fewer available services or deliver lower quality care overall than VAMCs serving predominantly white veterans,” the report found.
One result of the disparity in care is that minority veterans are significantly more likely to wind up homeless. According to the National Association of Homeless Veterans, approximately 40 percent of homeless veterans are African American or Latino, despite only accounting for 10.4 percent and 3.4 percent of the U.S. veteran population, respectively.
Some studies place that figure even higher. As of 2012, the U.S. Veterans Administration identified 62,619 homeless vets, nearly half of whom are Black or Latino. Another 140,000 veterans – many of them ethnic minorities – are incarcerated in state and federal prisons. And nearly a third of those who aren't locked up or on the streets are unemployed.
In 2009 the Obama administration established the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans with the lofty goal of eliminating homelessness among vets by 2015. The effort is being coordinated with researchers at three universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, and includes community outreach and education designed to reach vulnerable populations and help them navigate the complex web of available services.
In fiscal 2013, the VA has earmarked $1.4 billion to specialized homeless programs and $4.4 billion to health care for Veterans who are homeless, according to the agency.
We may never know if Sandy Hook elementary school shooter Adam Lanza's well-documented psychological problems propelled him to commit his awful deed, or whether proper intervention could have prevented it; but the circumstances surrounding his short and troubled life have helped shine a spotlight on a problem well known to many Americans: How difficult it can be to locate and receive adequate treatment for mental health disorders.
Data shows that Americans are severely under-treated for their mental health disorders. While it's estimated that roughly 30 percent of adults live with some form of psychological disorder, less than 10 percent of them receive mental health services in an average year.
Part of the problem is simple economics. Although basic mental health parity has been mandated by law since the 1990s, thanks to numerous loopholes (which President Barack Obama has promised to close), insurance coverage remains skewed in favor of medical services. As a result, a quarter of mental health patients wind up paying for the majority of their services out-of-pocket – or else their families do.
Where African Americans are concerned, the problem is even more acute. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Blacks are 20 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than non-Latino Whites. Issues like poverty, joblessness and racism all contribute to increased incidences of stress-induced neuroses like depression and anxiety; and research shows African-American youths who have been exposed to violence are at a much greater risk for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Yet despite evidence they suffer just as much, if not more than everyone else, minorities in general – and Black people in particular – continue to be significantly underrepresented in treatment. According to a 2005 article published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, African Americans and Latinos are only 50 to 60 percent as likely to receive mental health services as whites; and those who do tend to be overrepresented among inpatient or residential programs. Statistics show that people of color receive about half as much outpatient mental health care as whites.
Many African Americans rely on often tenuous “safety net” programs for health care, but it's not just a problem of access. While it's true that a large percentage of Blacks live below the poverty line, and one-quarter to one-third of working age African Americans are uninsured at any given time (compared to one-fifth of whites), the treatment disparity persists even when you control for socio-economic status and insurance coverage.
Experts acknowledge that one contributing factor appears to be cultural.
“Research with focus groups of Blacks regarding mental health services use revealed that stigma, lack of knowledge, trust and cultural understanding constituted key barriers to using mental health services,” notes Dr. Clifford L. Broman, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University. “This may be especially true for Blacks with higher levels of education, who are more likely to have professional level jobs.”
According to Dr. David Satcher, who served as Surgeon General under Presidents Clinton and Bush, culture “can have an impact on how mental illness is perceived or diagnosed, how services are organized and how they're funded. It also affects how patients express their symptoms...and how they cope in the range of their community and family supports.”
In 2001, Satcher – who made reducing ethnic health care disparities one of the primary missions of his four-year tenure – released a groundbreaking study titled “Mental Health: Culture, Race and Ethnicity,” which found that minorities are less likely to receive mental health services, often receive a poorer
quality of mental health care, and are underrepresented in mental health research. The study identified culture as playing a pivotal role in how both patients and therapists respond to mental illnesses.
“[Culture] can account for variations in how consumers communicate their symptoms and which ones they report,” Satcher explained. “More often, culture bears upon whether people even seek help in the first place, what types of help they seek, what coping styles and social supports they have, and how much stigma they attach to mental illness.”
This last point is critical. While seeking help is often a big step for anyone, for Africans Americans in particular, there appears to be a strong cultural message to simply “tough it out.” Terrie M. Williams, author of the book “Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting,” struggled with depression for three decades before finally seeking treatment in 2004. She says the stigma surrounding mental illness is especially strong among African Americans.
“In the Black community, depression or any form of mental illness is a sign of weakness,” Williams writes. “We'd rather say that we have a relative in jail or on drugs before admitting that we have depression...we won't acknowledge any kinks in our armor. It's just not embraced.”
Williams says cultural myths regarding the supposed resilience of Black people have also served to undermine professional recognition of the symptoms of mental illness, particularly among white therapists. Indeed, according to Dr. William Lawson, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Howard University, a body of research during the 1970s and 1980s perpetuated the belief that Blacks are largely immune from diseases like depression and bipolar disorder.
“There was a general belief that African Americans would not get depressed because they didn't have the mental apparatus required for experiencing [clinical] depression,” said Dr. Lawson, in a phone interview last week from the annual convention of the American College of Psychiatrists, whose theme was “Culture and Neuroscience in Psychiatry.”
There is also some indication that Africans Americans harbor their own misconceptions about mental health treatments – particularly those involving medication. A 2010 study of 30 black women revealed a strong aversion to antidepressants, with many participants objecting to the pills under the mistaken belief that they can lead to addiction. Such attitudes may be reinforced by the presence of alternative avenues for responding to personal adversity, for instance, the powerful role the church plays in most traditional African-American communities.
“African Americans are less likely to view mental illness as a medical disease and more as a spiritual illness,” explained Dr. Lawson. “Unfortunately, the church, while it has been very helpful in terms of general medical conditions and putting on health fairs and other support organizations, many times some of the members simply aren't aware that mental disorders...are in fact medical problems.”
Dr. Lawson says that these diversions away from treatment prolong and aggravate suffering and promote counter-therapeutic responses, like self-medication using drugs and alcohol. They are also a leading factor in why African-American mental health patients are overrepresented in so-called crisis settings – such as hospitals or correctional facilities.
Experts say that addressing the ethnic disparities of mental health care involves two primary avenues: community outreach – including through schools and churches – to reduce the stigma of mental illness; and expanding the network of Black therapists serving minority communities.
Unfortunately, due largely to systemic educational barriers, there is a serious shortage of Black doctors in America, and even fewer mental health professionals. According to the Satcher report, African Americans account for just two percent of all psychologists – and an equal percentage of psychiatrists. In many regions, the chance of an African-American patient finding a Black therapist is slim to none. Instead many wind up in treatment with non-minority therapists who, while well-intentioned, lack cultural resources.
Mental health advocates call for targeting minority high school students with information about careers in mental health care, as well as increased funding through grants and scholarships to encourage them to pursue jobs in the field. In the meantime, Dr. Lawson says the field must work to broaden ethnic literacy among non-minority providers to improve their cultural engagement.
There are few things more precious to humans than the air we breathe; unfortunately, not all air is created equally.
If you need proof, take a ride across the Passyunk Avenue Bridge, past the sprawling oil refinery owned by the recently formed Philadelphia Energy Group, and spend a few moments wandering the streets of Schuylkill Southwest – where residents have spent decades dealing with the mysterious odors that periodically emanate from the glowing stacks less than a mile away.
Nearly three quarters of the neighborhood's population is African American – more than half earn less than $25,000 a year – and while their story is not unique, they share something in common with similar populations of Americans scattered across the nation's post-industrial landscape: They are being disproportionately deprived of quality air.
Over the years, research has shown that low-income and minority communities are breathing higher concentrations of dangerous chemicals and particulates than their upper income and white counterparts; and experts say they are paying the price for it, with higher incidences of learning disabilities tied to lead exposure, respiratory ailments such as asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia, and chronic heart disease and cancer.
Statistics show that African Americans are suffering the worst. Blacks are hospitalized for asthma at more than three times the rate of whites. Between 2001 and 2009 asthma rates in Black children increased almost 50 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with higher exposure to environmental pollutants listed as one of the causes.
Whether you choose to call it a “disproportionate burden of environmental risks and harms,” as the Environmental Protection Agency did in 2004, or “environmental racism” – the term preferred by community advocates – the problem is real, and it's not getting any better.
A new report from the NAACP shows that despite a federal mandate designed to narrow the gap, poor people and minorities continue to be impacted by coal industry pollution more than any other group. The NAACP ranked 378 coal-fired power plants on the basis of toxic emissions and demographic factors and found that the income level of people living near polluting facilities is more than $3,000 below the national average.
More than two-thirds of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired plant – the distance at which health effects from fallout are most likely to be felt. The dirtier the coal plant, the higher the proportion of minorities living near it. Of the four million people living within three miles of the nation's 75 “failing plants” – which account for the highest levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides – 53 percent are minorities, while more than three quarters of the people living near the 12 “worst offending plants” are people of color, the NAACP found.
“Coal pollution is literally killing low-income communities and communities of color,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “There is no disputing the urgency of this issue.”
Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative, traveled the country as a co-author of the study and saw firsthand the human impact of these disparities.
“We saw a troubling pattern, and heard story after story of people who had health conditions that presented themselves after moving into areas near these plants, or saw a pattern of more people than the norm having these conditions,” she said, recounting the story of one resident who claimed that half the members of her church were on respirators.
Yet coal is hardly the only culprit. Thanks to its long history as a center of heavy industry, Philadelphia has earned the distinction of being one of America's most polluted metropolitan areas. In its 2012 State of the Air report, the American Lung Association listed Philadelphia tenth on its list of cities with the worst particulate pollution, and just last week Philly was ranked the third dirtiest city in the nation by Forbes – with 18.5 million pounds a year of toxic releases, according to EPA data. The City of Chester – which sits just outside Philadelphia and where three quarters of the population is Black – is home to the largest trash incinerator in the state, and for years has been a focal point of environmental justice activism.
A pattern of discrimination
The NAACP report is just one of a number of studies released over the past decade detailing the disproportionate impact of environmental pollution on communities of color. An Associated Press analysis of data from the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory from 2005 shows African Americans are nearly 80 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is a problem. In 2009, the Ford Foundation sponsored a comprehensive survey of 300 metropolitan areas and determined that Blacks fare worse than any other ethnic group when it comes to exposure to air pollution from a variety of sources.
“If the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem,” the authors stated, “America must acknowledge that clean and safe air – which would seem to be a birthright of every person – is not currently an equal-opportunity affair.”
The study ranked the Harrisburg metropolitan area fifth in the nation for environmental racism, with minorities suffering more than 32 percent of the impact from industrial pollution despite making up just 13.5 percent of the population. Until it was shut down in 2003, the predominantly minority neighborhood of South Harrisburg was home to the largest dioxin polluting trash incinerator in America. (A plan to rebuild it forced the city into bankruptcy last year).
While both low-income and minority communities suffer disproportionately from environmental pollution, according to Philadelphia-based environmental attorney Mike Ewall – a long-time activist and founder of the Energy Justice Network – race plays a bigger role than class.
“If one were to compare a middle-class community of color to a low-income white community, and look at which community is more likely to have a hazardous waste facility sited there, the middle-class community of color would have a greater chance of being targeted for such a facility,” he said.
Patterson, of the NAACP, says that's because environmental racism is as much a function of political capital, or lack thereof, as it is about income. Black communities have faced a history of political marginalization, making it harder to fight off proposed polluting facilities or close down existing ones, she says. Also, while poor white and Black families might have similar incomes, African Americans tend to have less wealth, which is an important factor when it comes to buying property. Patterson points to a study that found property values average 15 percent lower in areas near a toxic polluting facility.
The federal government has been aware of these discrepancies since the early 1970s, and under President Bill Clinton resolved to do something about them. In an executive order signed in February 1994, Clinton called on the EPA to achieve “environmental justice ... by identifying and addressing...disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.”
Twice since then, in 2004 and 2006, the EPA's Office of Inspector General has analyzed the agency's progress, and in both cases determined that it had failed to consistently integrate environmental justice into its day-to-day operations or direct regional offices to conduct environment justice reviews. Last year, the nonprofit Center For Public Integrity detailed dozens of open environmental justice cases “languishing” in the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, some of which are more than a decade old.
Lisa Jackson, the EPA's Administrator, has listed environment justice as one of the agency's top seven priorities and says her goal is to make environmental justice and fairness part of EPA's everyday decision-making. In 2010 the agency launched its EJ2014 initiative, which seeks to create a comprehensive roadmap for protecting and empowering communities over-burdened by pollution.
“EPA has always had a special role with respect to environmental justice, but in this administration, President Obama has really revitalized the larger issue of environmental justice, in which other agencies as well as ours are playing important roles,” she said, in an interview last March published in The Root.
But activists representing the environmental justice movement are dubious of the government's ability to get anything done without legislative changes to the current mandate, which according to its own language “is intended only to improve internal management” and lacks “any right, benefit, or trust responsibility, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law.”
Mike Ewall, director of the Energy Justice Network, says current law “lacks teeth” because it includes “no remedies; there's basically nothing enforceable in it at all.” He insists that any new initiative will require new laws with the power to hold polluters accountable, for instance, by revoking permits.
Meanwhile courts have tied private citizens' hands to deal with the problem through legal channels. Ewall points to a legal precedent set in 2001 that prohibits private lawsuits alleging a violation of Title VI civil rights without proof of intent. “If you can't prove that the disproportionate environmental impact is intentional, you're out of luck,” he said.
According to the EPA's website, while EJ2014 will “implement guidance [for] incorporating environmental justice into the fabric of its rulemaking process,” the program itself is “not a rule or regulation,” but “a strategy to help integrate environmental justice into EPA's day to day activities.” Among the proposed reforms are changes to the permitting process to include more community involvement.
As the clock ticks toward the November presidential election, voter rights advocates across the nation are busy waging 11th-hour court battles to reverse attempts by GOP-controlled legislatures to restrict access to the polls.
No community is expected to be hit harder than African Americans. In its 2012 State of Black America Report, the National Urban League cited vote suppression as the number one issue facing the African-American community this year, with the potential to disenfranchise millions of people of color.
“It’s no coincidence that a nationwide rollback in voting rights for America’s most vulnerable citizens is happening just as elected officials mount an unprecedented campaign to slash investments in education and economic development,” wrote Urban League president and CEO Marc H. Morial, in a preface to the report. “We must fight voter suppression, we must educate our citizens so that new laws don't catch them unaware on Election Day, and we must empower them to go to the polls.”
Among the barriers facing Black Americans, one persistent hurdle — the existence of state laws barring convicted felons from voting — has gotten less attention this year as activists focus their efforts on new laws — including one in Pennsylvania — that require would-be voters to produce identification before casting their ballots.
Meanwhile the number of disenfranchised ex-offenders has reached record levels. In July, The Sentencing Project released a report that estimates some 5.85 million Americans will be banned from the polls this year due to a prior felony conviction — up from roughly 4.6 million in 2000. Of this total, 1.4 million are African-American men.
The problem is especially pervasive in the Deep South, where felon disenfranchisement has been used as a means to keep Blacks from voting since the years following the Civil War. The Sentencing Project estimates that 70 percent of all U.S. voters facing felony disenfranchisement are located in the southeastern U.S., where an average of 12 percent of African-American voters will be barred from casting a ballot. In Florida — where, in 2011, Republican Gov. Rick Scott reversed a ruling by his predecessor that gave ex-felons a reasonable path to re-enfranchisement — Blacks represent a third of the estimated one million impacted voters.
“The racial disparities in the criminal justice system translate into higher rates of disenfranchisement in communities of color, resulting in one of every eight adult Black males being ineligible to vote,” explained Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project's executive director. “Disproportionate disenfranchisement in communities of color means the concerns of those communities are not fairly represented at the polls.”
State laws vary widely on the right of convicted felons to vote, ranging from no restrictions at all in Maine and Vermont — where even incarcerated convicts can cast a ballot — to virtual blanket disenfranchisement for some offenses in places like Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. Three so-called “battleground states” — Florida, Iowa and Virginia — bar all convicted felons from voting for life unless they receive a special dispensation or approval from the state clemency board.
By contrast, Pennsylvania has relatively liberal laws regarding voting by ex-felons. Under Pennsylvania law, offenders who have been released from prison — or who will be freed by the time of the election — are eligible to register and vote; and, unlike some other states where there is a waiting period, voting rights in the commonwealth are automatically restored upon release.
But that message doesn’t always trickle down to voters. During the run up to the 2008 presidential election, the American Civil Liberties Union received a number of complaints from people with felony convictions that they had been told by their probation or parole officers that they had lost their right to vote. In some cases, the ACLU said, officers even threatened offenders with a parole violation if they registered.
Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says that the group has not received any complaints so far this election cycle, but he adds “there is still plenty of time for problems to surface.”
Ironically, nationwide, rates of disenfranchisement have been increasing since the 1980s, even as laws restricting ex-felon access to the polls have been gradually liberalized. Over the past two decades, 21 states have reformed their felony disenfranchisement policies to expand voter eligibility.
Christopher Uggen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota and an expert on voter disenfranchisement, blames the disparity on rising rates of incarceration.
“The war on drugs has played an important role, because it has really driven up the prison populations — I'd estimate that as much as a quarter of disenfranchised felons were convicted of drug-related crimes,” said Uggen. “The large percentage are people who are decades removed from the offense they committed and are often working, living and paying taxes in their community.”
One of them, Bruce Reilly, is now a second-year law student at Tulane University in New Orleans and a founding member of the national Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement. Upon his release from prison in Rhode Island after serving 12 years for second-degree murder, Reilly began advocating for expanding the voting rights of ex-offenders as a volunteer coordinator for the Rhode Island Right to Vote campaign. In 2006, Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals through public referendum.
Reilly — who calls voting a “building block to citizenship” — cast his first ever ballot in 2008, but as a resident of Louisiana, which bars the vote to felons on parole, he'll be sitting this election out. According to Reilly, even in states that allow ex-felons to vote, other factors often lead to de-facto disenfranchisement.
“These are people who have, at some point, been disconnected from the political system and many of them don’t know that they have an ability to vote,” he said. “And, a disproportionate number of them lack proper identification, which even after release could take months to get.”
But restoring voting rights to ex-offenders is more than a simple political issue, says Uggen, who cites research that ties post-release civic engagement to lower rates of recidivism.
“It’s clearly the case that the people who are voting do better,” he said. “Once people start voting they are far less likely to reoffend. The evidence is that re-enfranchisement benefits public safety and I think that's a very important point to make. This is something we can do that is both cheap and safe.”
A bill is currently making the rounds of Congress that would prohibit states from restricting the voting rights of offenders unless they are currently serving a term in prison. The Democracy Restoration Act, which was introduced by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., is currently sitting in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
What's more valuable to the U.S. economy: a Twinkie or an Apple? It depends on who you ask. Ask a nutritionist and you're likely to hear how the 37 highly processed ingredients that make up a Twinkie's 150 empty calories have absolutely no value at all, and are more likely to be a drain on the economy in the form of higher health care costs due to diet-related problems like obesity and diabetes. By contrast, a nutritionist would probably say an apple, with its abundance of fiber and Vitamin C is a pretty good source of healthy energy for the average working man or woman, and therefore contributes to national productivity.
But ask a congressman, and — if he puts his mouth where taxpayers' money is — you'll get a different story altogether. That's because as far as the U.S. government is concerned, the main ingredients in a Twinkie are worth quite a bit more than the lowly apple. How much more? According to a new report from PennPIRG, the differences are staggering.
Between 1995 and 2011, the report found, a total of $277 billion in taxpayer dollars were funneled to the agricultural sector in the form of federal subsidies, 75 percent of which went to support a handful of crops — namely corn, soybeans and wheat. Only 1 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. actually makes it to the consumer while still on the cob. The remainder is shipped overseas, turned into fuel and animal feed, or processed into profitable food additives like high-fructose corn syrup or corn starch, which eventually find their way into products like soda and Twinkies. The majority of soybeans are turned into oil, primarily the partially hydrogenated kind, which is found in a variety of processed foods and has been shown to cause high cholesterol, heart disease and obesity.
According to PennPIRG, four common junk food additives — corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils — benefited from $18.2 billion in federal largesse over the past 15 years, while a paltry $637 million went to support the production and distribution of apples.
Thanks in large part to an increasing abundance of cheap, high-calorie foods, more Americans are obese today than at any time in our country’s history. And healthy food advocates point a big fat finger at government agricultural policy — specifically subsidies to “Big Ag” — as one of the main culprits. Between 1985 and 2000, the real price of soft drinks — which are made almost entirely of high-fructose corn syrup — declined by 23 percent thanks to subsidies for the corn industry, while the cost of healthy fruits and vegetables increased by nearly 40 percent, according to the journalist Michael Pollan, who writes on food policy.
“At a time when childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing, it’s absurd that we’re spending billions of taxpayer dollars to make the problem worse,” said Laura Etherton, a health care policy analyst for U.S. PIRG, PennPIRG's national umbrella, which launched a broad-based campaign this summer to draw attention to the issue in the hopes of influencing policy.
In a matter of weeks Congress will face the deadline for considering the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, also known as the “farm bill” – a whopping $500 billion piece of legislation that funds everything from food stamps to school lunches. It also happens to be the conduit for billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies. The bill passed the Senate at the end of July, and House lawmakers have until September 30 to enact the legislation or seek an extension. While the current version of the bill cuts subsidies and land conservation spending by $2 billion a year and eliminates direct payments to farmers whether they plant crops or not, it leaves in billions of dollars of lopsided support for agribusiness.
According to an analysis by the group Civil Eats, the 2012 farm bill “leaves untouched a bloated $9-billion-a-year crop insurance program that pays about 60 percent of farmers’ crop insurance premiums, no matter how large the farm, and sends billions to crop insurance companies and their agents. Most of the benefits of these proposed programs would flow to the ‘big five’ commodity crops (corn, soy, cotton, rice, and wheat.)”
Prior to the 1930s, American farmers received few if any financial incentives from the government; but the passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act during the New Deal inaugurated a new era of farm subsidies that continues to this day. Things changed radically during the Cold War, when pressure to undercut Soviet influence overseas prompted the government to enact policies to greatly increase grain production. Since then, the subsidies have gotten bigger and the effects on the nation's waistline more profound. The average American eats 25 percent more calories today than in 1970, mostly in the form of added fats, sugars and grains, according to a tally by Civil Eats.
PennPIRG is hoping its campaign will compel lawmakers to address the disparities in the bill.
“Our strategy is to make sure there is an amendment dealing specifically with these subsidies and to find some champions who will draft an amendment so there can be an up or down vote on these subsidies,” said Angela Lee, a policy associate at PennPIRG.
That may be an uphill battle in a presidential election year, but Lee says several lawmakers are already on board — including Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who introduced amendments to curb subsidies to big agriculture in 2001 and 2007, and penned a letter this year to colleagues seeking support for subsidy reform.
“These are huge taxpayer subsidies, most of the time going to big agribusiness, and it’s not helping our family farmers,” Kind told Wisconsin's La Crosse Tribune in January. “We’ve got to stop this nonsense in light of the huge budget deficits we’re facing.”
Lee calls farm subsidies “the perfect bipartisan issue.” Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan supports cutting farm subsidies, as does President Obama.
“What we have been telling people is America is facing a huge deficit problem and meanwhile childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing while billions in taxpayer dollars are subsidizing junk food ingredients,” Lee said. “That seems like a pretty logical issue to get behind.”
The massive agricultural lobby is doing everything in its power to keep the money flowing. Lee says that in 2008, the last time a farm bill was considered, “Big Ag” spent $200 million in campaign contributions, lobbying and television advertising to keep subsidies in place. Food and Water Watch ranked that version of the bill the most heavily lobbied piece of legislation of the past decade, exceeding even the Affordable Care Act.
“We can't ignore the fact that these big agricultural companies like Cargill and Monsanto have pumped millions into lobbying,” said Lee. “So we do have quite an opposition, but we have gotten strong public support across the country. That's why we do have a fighting chance this year.”