By Linda Meric

Each year, on August 26, we celebrate Women’s Equality Day to pay tribute to those brave suffragists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and Ida B. Wells Barnett, who led the struggle for American women to win the most critical tool of democracy -- the right to vote.

Women today not only have the right to vote, but we’ve made significant advances in the world of work, in education, in business, and in many other arenas. Still, Women’s Equality Day 2009 offers the chance for a temperature check. Are we there yet? How close have we come to full equality? And what steps can we take now to come closer?

Women in the U.S. still earn only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men. African-American women and Latinas experience an even bigger pay gap. The pay gap persists despite occupation, despite personal choices, despite income, and despite education. In fact, women earn less than their male colleagues just one year out of college, even when the work is exactly the same. And the gap widens after that.

At the rate we’re going, women will have to wait until the year 2050 to reach pay equity. But we can’t afford to wait that long. We need stronger fair pay laws and vigorous enforcement to end pay discrimination. We need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act now.

We must also address workplace policy that ignores women’s dual responsibilities -- work and family. Consider this: The U.S. is one of only four countries in the world that does not guarantee paid time off for new parents. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks leave for major illness and the birth or adoption of a child. But not everyone is covered and the leave is unpaid. To move toward equality, we must expand family and medical leave now and make it more affordable, for more workers.

Additionally, we must provide legislative relief for the nearly 60 million workers who lack paid sick days. Three cities -- San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee -- have passed ordinances that allow workers to keep their jobs and incomes while caring for themselves or a loved one in times of occasional illness. But now is the time for Congress to take federal action.

Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, with one hundred House co-sponsors, have re-introduced the Healthy Families Act (HFA) in Congress. The proposal would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days each year.

Paid sick days protect the public health, provide a safety net for workers in a tough economy, and are good for business. Studies show that businesses that offer their workers paid sick days have less turnover, higher worker morale, and higher productivity.

Providing workplace pay equality and sick days for all workers will not be easy victories, but it is attainable. We must all speak out. Tell your story. If we are ever to see a full vision of women’s equality, we must honor the legacy of those brave women who went before us.
Meric is executive director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 8/09

Monday, August 17, 2009

Singing the Praises of Youth Choirs

By Ann Meier Baker

Most children, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, will tell you of their dreams to become a football player, a rock star, a doctor, a pilot – even President of the United States. I have yet to hear a child tell me, “I want to sing in chorus.”
And yet when you look at the biography of many successful athletes, singers, doctors, and other professionals – including Beyonce, Brad Pitt, football great Terry Bradshaw, attorney Alan Dershowitz, and yes, even our current president -- you’ll find that one thing they have in common is that as children they all sang in a school or community choir.

A new study commissioned by my organization, Chorus America, confirms what many have long suspected: children who sing in a chorus are more likely to do well academically and develop critical social skills.

The Chorus Impact Study also found that adult choral singers exhibit increased civic involvement, volunteerism, philanthropy, and support of other art forms, when compared with non-singers.

These findings for both children and adults make the case for keeping chorus programs alive in our public schools and communities. But unfortunately, chorus programs are all too often the first to go and the last to be restored in school budgets. What educators and parents may not know is that by cutting these programs they are missing an opportunity for bolstering student achievement and engagement in their schools. Among the key findings of our study:

Children who participate in a chorus get significantly better grades than children who have never sung in a choir. More than 80 percent of educators surveyed—across multiple academic disciplines—agree with parents that choir participation can enhance numerous aspects of a child's social development and academic success.

Ninety percent of educators believe singing in a choir can keep some students engaged in school who might otherwise be lost—this is particularly true of the 94 percent of educators who describe the ethnicity of their schools as diverse.

Even in these tough times, choral singing should be a recession-proof school activity. It’s one of the most accessible art forms available, with fewer economic, cultural, and educational barriers than those posed by other activities. Not everyone can play a violin, dance in toe shoes, or act in a Shakespeare drama -- and not everyone can afford instruments or lessons -- but most everyone can carry a tune. It’s something that can be done throughout a lifetime, and done well, without a great deal of formal training or expensive equipment.

That’s not to say that choruses should be supported at the expense of other school activities. The arts and sports are often pitted as rivals for scarce resources, but the fact is, children who sing in choruses are significantly more likely to be sports participants as well: 64 percent of kids currently in choirs regularly participate in one or more sports either in or out of school. The same is true of other activities: 55 percent of current children choristers also participate in one or more other activities; only 33 percent of children who don’t sing are doing the same.

Clearly choruses are not the only extracurricular activity most of these children are participating in, yet our study found that parents definitively date their child’s improvements in a variety of areas to their joining a choral group. That, and the breadth of benefits described by both parents and educators, argues for a unique “chorus effect,” one that isn’t simply replicated by participation in other extracurriculars.

What can you do to support choral programs? If your school or community lacks a program, start one using our Parent Guide: Advocating for the Choral Arts in Your Child’s School, available online at If your school’s existing programs are at risk, download Chorus America’s Chorus Impact Study to help make the case for continued funding. And if your school already has a thriving chorus program, then help to support it and sing its praises all you can! Not every chorister becomes a Beyonce or a Justin Timberlake or President of the United States – but the evidence shows that singing in a chorus gets you off to a really good start.
Baker is the president and CEO of Chorus America.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 8/09

By Soo Ji Min

Bianca (not her real name) is a 17-year-old pregnant woman who lives in Chicago and is already raising a 1-year-old child. She has made the difficult decision to get an abortion and cannot tell her mother because if she did, Bianca and her daughter would be thrown out onto the streets.

The state isn’t making things easier either. Recently, the injunction on the 1995 Illinois Parental Notice of Abortion Act was dissolved by the U.S. Court of Appeals thus requiring notification either by phone or face-to-face, to a person over 21 years of age who is a parent, grandparent, step-parent living in the household or the legal guardian of the pregnant youth. That means if Bianca -- and countless others like her under the age of 18 -- tried to access an abortion after 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, August 4, 2009, the abortion provider would be legally bound to give at least 48 hours notice to an adult family member.

While parental notification laws are intended to protect young women, they assume that all young women can safely involve their family in the decision to terminate a pregnancy. Ideally, young women would freely inform their parents or other trusted adults. And most do.

According to a study published in Family Planning Perspectives, 74 percent of 15-year-old women report that at least one of their parents knew about their decision to have an abortion. For 14-year-old young women, this percentage grows to 90 percent.

However, the government cannot mandate good family dynamics or strengthen a family’s ability to engage in effective and positive communication. Interestingly enough, parental notification laws mandate family involvement only after a young woman already has become pregnant.

Like Bianca, more than half of young women who do not involve a parent in their decision to seek an abortion cite fear of abuse or eviction. The American Medical Association (AMA) reports that some young women will go to extreme and unhealthy lengths to keep pregnancies secret, including running away, obtaining illegal abortions, or self-inducing abortions.

The AMA, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and many others have cited the risk to teens’ health in opposing these laws. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “mandating parental notification does not achieve the intended benefit of promoting family communication, but it does increase the risk of harm to the adolescent by delaying access to appropriate care.”

Requiring parental notification or consent can expose young women to these risks. Furthermore, research has shown that when a Texas parental notification law was implemented in 2000, the odds increased that a young women’s pregnancy would result in a second-trimester abortion. Although abortion is among the safest surgical procedures for women, risk of complications increase as the pregnancy progresses.

The Illinois law permits a young woman to seek a waiver by obtaining a court order. But there’s little proof that the state courts are prepared to handle the judicial bypass procedure, which mandates a 48-hour turnaround and absolute privacy. Additionally, young women who already face multiple barriers to accessing legal health care -- based on culture, language, religion, economic or immigrant status -- will encounter even greater obstacles if forced to navigate through the judicial bypass procedure.

Rather than continuing to restrict health options for adolescent women, we should focus on ensuring that all youth have access to the information and reproductive health care they need and deserve.

Medically accurate, age appropriate, comprehensive sexual health education, proven to reduce unsafe sexual behaviors, should be taught in all Illinois schools. All teachers in Illinois should receive sexual health education as part of their basic training. As considerable research has shown emergency contraception to be safe and effective, it should be made available without a prescription to all adolescents without delay.

These are solutions that will reduce the need for abortion without compromising the health of young women in Illinois, and are solutions that our policymakers, legislators and courts should support.
Min is the executive director of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 8/09

By Steve Macek and Scott Sanders

The much-delayed switchover to digital TV is now behind us. On June 12, all full power TV stations in the country ceased their analog broadcasts and made the final switch to a digital only format.

In the lead up to the DTV transition, the public's attention focused almost entirely upon ways of mitigating the switchover's effect on the elderly, the poor and non-English speakers who rely on over-the-air television far more than the general population. In response to such concerns, the federal government created a coupon program that subsidized most of the cost of digital-to-analog converter boxes, but then failed to fully fund it. When it became clear that millions of households would not be ready for DTV by the original February 17 deadline, Congress pushed back the transition date.

The extra time -- together with an additional $650 million appropriated by Congress for more converter boxes and more public outreach -- seems to have done the trick. Though some viewers have reported losing the signals of individual stations in certain markets, the vast majority of Americans weathered the shift to DTV without losing service or being excessively inconvenienced.

Yet, there is another problem with the DTV transition, one that has never gotten the sort of headlines that the shortage of converter box coupons did. The fact is that the shift to digital television represents a massive government giveaway to a handful of powerful media conglomerates.

The Clinton-era 1996 Telecommunications Act which mandated the change to DTV stripped away most media ownership concentration limits and gave away huge swathes -- up to $90 billion worth -- of publicly owned digital broadcast spectrum to incumbent TV license holders. In return for giving up a single analog channel, each of these broadcasters received up to 10 digital channels in return. For free. Only one new public service requirement was added -- a modest increase in children’s programming.

To make matters worse, most digital subchannels run by the big network-affiliated stations air duplicative services such as sitcom reruns, old movies, weather, home shopping programs or cooking shows.

That is, if they run anything at all. Despite recent failures such as their flawed coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq, none of the commercial broadcasters have announced plans we’re aware of to use the new channels to expand or improve their public affairs or news programming.

Where are the digital channels for women and people of color, and the set asides to support independent programming by and for youth and other less advantaged groups, local C-SPANs and other experimental services? Where are the new public affairs programs designed to showcase the perspectives normally marginalized on commercial TV?

Such diversity on the airwaves is needed now more than ever. People of color make up 34 percent of the U.S. population, but only around 3 percent of commercial full power TV license holders, with women holding just 5 percent. Glen Ford, editor of the online Black Agenda Report calls the DTV transition “the biggest squandering of public broadcast resources in the history of the United States."

Steps should be taken to ensure that corporations are not the sole beneficiaries of the digital broadcasting age. The value of the broadcast spectrum that Congress simply handed over to the big corporate media ought to be recovered through appropriate means (taxes, license fees, etc.) and used to subsidize a democratically run, decentralized public media system, the sort of media that will provide a forum for the minority and dissident viewpoints sorely missing on mainstream TV.

Many talented professional journalists are unemployed or waiting tables right now due to the deepening crisis of the corporate journalism model. We need to foster partnerships between professional and citizen journalists and public TV and radio outlets, PEG access centers, community and micro-radio stations, and other community media. Picture a local public media homepage that looks sort of like a daily newspaper but with prominent live TV and radio streams, lots of links to article and program related resources and social media, with the feel of an online public library and town commons. And no commercial advertisements whatsoever.

A functioning fifth estate is essential to the maintenance of democracy. We can and must fix this bad DTV deal, and create and permanently fund various new and extensively reworked public media outlets and centers. We must collectively piece together a system with the highest measure of accountability for every community across the nation as if lives depend on it. Because they do.
Macek is an associate professor of speech communication at North Central College. Sanders is a longtime Chicago media and democracy advocate.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 7/09


By Mary Barber, MD, and Serena Yuan Volpp, MD

The other day, our friend Sheila and her daughter Maya were talking about growing up. Sheila told her daughter, "Honey, when you grow up, I promise you'll find a nice boy to marry who will love you." Maya, who is eight years old, replied, "But Mom, I could marry a girl." Sheila stood corrected. They live in Massachusetts.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts for five years now, and the law has begun to affect the way children and adolescents are able to envision their domestic futures. Of course, Maya is not old enough to understand what the concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality really mean. Whether or not she herself grows up to be gay, she already has a wider view of the world’s possibilities than do many of the grown-ups around her.

So, when do kids become aware that they are gay or lesbian? Kids who grow up to be gay don't wake up one day at age 12 or 13 and say, “Hey, I’m gay!” Recognizing one’s own sexuality is a long and often challenging process. When kids grow up in a world that assumes everyone will grow up to be heterosexual, those kids who grow up to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual face extra developmental challenges. Kids taunt each other on the playground with the word "faggot" without fully understanding or thinking about what that word means. That affects a kid’s self esteem when -- sometimes years later -- he connects that word, and the pain of being teased, with sexual or romantic feelings he has for someone of the same sex.

That point is underscored by a study published earlier this year in the medical journal Pediatrics, which helped to illustrate the relationship between lack of acceptance and harm to mental health. The research showed that lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents growing up in families who did not accept them as gay were nine times more likely to feel suicidal, five and a half times more likely to be depressed, and three and a half times more likely to use illegal drugs compared to kids whose families were more accepting.

Marriage equality can change society so that peers -- and parents -- if not embrace, accept homosexuality as part of the world in which we live. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa, and New Hampshire now allow same-sex marriage. New York is poised to become the sixth state to have marriage equality.

To be sure, some people may cringe at the thought of kids growing up more accepting of homosexuality. Might this tolerance lead to more gay and lesbian adults in the future? Research does not support such ideas. Numerous studies of children growing up with same-sex parents have concluded that these children are no more likely to grow up to be gay or lesbian than are children raised by heterosexual parents.

What they are more likely to be is open and accepting of the possibility of homosexuality or bisexuality in themselves or others. And the recent study in “Pediatrics” suggests that this tolerance will be good for the mental health of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual friends and family members that these children will surely encounter.

A same-sex marriage law in New York, as in other states, will benefit not only adults in committed relationships today, but also kids who don’t yet know what being gay, lesbian, or bisexual means. Kids who will eventually grow up to be gay adults will have the chance to grow up in a world that accepts them as full members, and their straight friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors will be more prepared to live in an ever-more diverse world.
Dr. Barber and Dr. Volpp are members of Group for Advancement of Psychiatry.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 7/09