Predatory Preparers: Exploitation Through Tax Returns

2 tax return forms, a 2018 tax return form and 2017 tax return form, black glasses and a calculator.
2 tax return forms, a 2018 tax return form and 2017 tax return form, black glasses and a calculator. Source: DPP Business And Tax https://www.dpp-businesstax.com/, Creative Commons

For most adults in the United States, the year starts with the tax season.  During this time, they have their tax returns prepared and filed and either pay any taxes they owe or receive a refund if they overpaid their taxes throughout the prior year.  This year, the tax season began on January 28 and continues until April 15.  There are a few different ways one can go about filing their tax return.  One way is to purchase an IRS-approved tax preparation software, like TurboTax or TaxSlayer, and file their return on their own.  One could also prepare their return manually, but the IRS prefers that people file electronically to decrease potential errors.  The last method is to seek out the help of a professional through a commercial tax preparation organization or a non-profit one.  Commercial organizations often take advantage of the low-income filers whose returns they prepare and who often qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which results in a larger refund. 

The Earned Income Tax Credit 

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provides a subsidy to households with low incomes.  It was created in 1975 with the intentions of temporarily lessening the tax-burden for the working-poor after the 1973-1975 recession.  In 1978, the Revenue Act turned it into a permanent credit.  Since its creation, the EITC has been adjusted many times to make it more effective and requires tax-filers to meet certain criteria to receive it.  Since being implemented, the EITC program has distributed about $67 billion to about 28 million families. 

Qualifications for the credit include being a U.S. citizen or resident alien all year, not being married while filing separately from one’s spouse, having an investment income of $3,500 or less, not being a qualifying child of someone else, and having a valid Social Security Number by the due date of the return.  The amount of money that qualified individuals receive for the EITC depends on factors such as “earned income, gross adjusted income, filing status and whether or not they have a qualifying child.” 

The Problem 

Many people choose to file their taxes through for-profit tax-prep organizations.  These organizations are often concentrated in areas where a large percentage of the population is made up of people with lower incomes who qualify for significant refunds through the Earned Income Tax Credit program.  They prey on the people who need the money from the EITC the most.   

In order to increase their profit, they put a great deal of effort into publicizing their services in a way that overshadows the far less expensive, sometimes even free, methods of filing tax returns.  Paul Weinstein, who co-authored a study on tax preparers with the Brookings Institution and the Progressive Policy Institute, suggests that most taxpayers could “have their taxes prepared for less than $100.”  According to Weinstein, tax-filers spend an average of $275 on the preparation of their taxes during the filing season.  The authors of the study found that individuals filing for the EITC spent $309 in Washington D.C. and $509 in Baltimore.  This means that these individuals were spending between 13 and 21 percent of their return to cover the cost of tax-preparation. 

There has also been evidence that suggests that individuals who qualify for the EITC and file through professional tax-preparers are more likely to have errors in their tax return than those who do not qualify for the EITC.  According to an investigation by the Government Accountability Office in 2015, about 60% of all professionally prepared taxes had errors, while between 89% and 94% of filers who qualified for the EITC had errors in their professionally prepared taxes.  This is a problem of significant concern, since people with low incomes are more likely to be audited by the IRS.  For people who receive the EITC, this could result in their refund being withheld until the end of the auditing process. 

Predatory tax-prep organizations may often go unnoticed, but many are recognized and forced to face the legal repercussions of their actions.  For example, Laquinta Q. Fisher of Lawton, Oklahoma was found guilty of a tax fraud scheme on January 24, 2017.  After lying to her clients and telling them that they could receive a refund for simply having a dependent child, she added fake income and fake dependents to their returns to increase their EIC.  She “was sentenced to 18 months in prison, three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay $133,955 in restitution to the IRS…” 

Scrabble pieces spelling out "Earned Income Tax Credit."
Earned income tax credit stock photo. Source: Simon Cunningham, Creative Commons

Signs of a Predatory Tax-Prep Organization 

There are a few warnings signs you may want to look out for if you are concerned that a tax-prep organization may be predatory.  Since these groups target low-income tax return-filers, they often tell potential clients that they can promise them a large refund.  One red flag to watch for is if a preparer is being paid based on a percentage of the refund their client receives.  They have a clear source of motivation for trying to increase the refund.   

It is also possible that such an organization would have false credentials.  Every tax preparer is legally required to have a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN).  The IRS has a directory of PTINs that can be used to look up a preparer with their name and location.  The PTIN can tell you if the preparer is “a certified public accountant, enrolled agent or a lawyer.”  It is also important to note that the directory does not prove that a preparer is qualified.  It is also a red flag if an organization suggests that they are endorsed by the IRS, as the IRS does not endorse any tax preparers. 

Another warning sign is if a preparer does their work in “temporary pop-up shops” that will be gone after the tax season ends.  In that case, there is no office for you to go to if any problems arise with your tax return.  It is a red flag if the preparer says that they will deposit you refunded into their bank account or asks you to sign a return that is incomplete.  

Why Is This A Human Rights Issue? 

In addition to being ethically questionable, the actions of commercial organizations that prey on low-income households also have the potential to negatively impact people’s access to their human rights.  For many people who are targeted by these organizations, every single dollar counts.  Every penny of the tax refund they receive is used to pay for the necessities, like food, water, power, rent, and clothing.  According to Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”  Many households rely on the refund they receive to access this right.  It is important that we spread awareness of this issue so we can prevent as many people as possible from being exploited by tax-prep organizations and connect them with the resources they need. 

Impact America: SaveFirst 

Impact America, originally Impact Alabama, is a non-profit organization that was founded to develop “substantive service-learning and leadership development projects for college students and recent college graduates.”  SaveFirst is one of Impact America’s programs, which provides free tax preparation services in communities which are often targeted by predatory tax-prep organizations.  College students who volunteer with SaveFirst are trained and IRS certified to prepare tax returns.  In 2018 alone, SaveFirst was able to prepare tax returns for 13,713 families and saved those families $5.5 million in fees.  Since 2007, they have prepared returns for 76,867 families and saved them $26.2 million.  The work done by Impact America helps to decrease the number of people that are being exploited by predatory organizations by giving them access to much better resources and services. 

If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with SaveFirst at one of their many tax-prep locations, you can do so here. 

 

Accessibility and Education

 

Parking spot reserved for people with disabilities
Wheelchair Only. Source: JoshuaDavisPhotography, Creative Commons

For most people, the importance of the right to an education is not unknown.  It’s through education that people gain the skills that they need to be active in their communities, join the workforce, and live their daily lives.  While there is certainly division in regard to people’s ideas of exactly how systems of education should work, there continues to be a shared understanding that these systems should exist in some capacity.  The importance of the right to an education for people with disabilities is not well known or, at least, not as actively recognized, but it should be.

Background of Disability Rights and Education in the U.S.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) took effect as the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975.  It was meant to improve the access that children with disabilities have to “a free appropriate public education” and an environment that supports, rather than impedes, that education.  Part of IDEA is a requirement that public schools develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student with a disability who is enrolled.  IEPs are created and tailored specifically to the needs of each student, because even people who have been diagnosed with the same disability have differing experiences and face different circumstances.  These programs are reviewed every year by the student’s teacher, parent(s), the child themself and a qualified agency representative related to special education.  Other individuals can be brought in to review the program at the discretion of the parents or agency involved.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 and prohibits “discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, State and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.”  Title II of the act requires state and local governments to make their services and resources equally available to people with disabilities.  According to Title II, there are architectural standards that suggest buildings should be accessible to all people.  Buildings constructed after the act passed are expected to meet these standards upon when they are built, while buildings that were constructed prior to the passing of the act are to be altered.  Since the services/resources of state and local governments include public educational institutions, these institutions are expected to meet these standards, which helps to make education more accessible.

Acknowledgement Is Not Enough

Despite the American legislation put in place to ensure educational equality for students with disabilities, there is still a lot of work to be done.  Laws have been created but are not always followed.

The Oregon Department of Education, for example, is being sued by Disability Rights Oregon (along with four other legal groups) due to its “lax oversight of special education programs . . . in small, rural communities.” Many schools in the state have been found to give students with learning or behavioral disabilities a shortened school day of only a few hours.  The schools have given a range of explanations for shortening student’s school days, from saying that they were responding to inappropriate behavior (some of which is related to the symptoms of the students’ disabilities) to teachers saying they had a feeling that “it was going to be a bad day.”  In many cases, the students would be able to get through a normal school day if they had the resources they need.  They simply have not been given the opportunity to try.  The lawyers involved in the lawsuit wrote, “Some children who are subjected to shortened school days due to their disability-related behaviors are eventually denied any instruction at all.”  This is a denial of their right to an education and it cannot continue.

The seclusion and unfair treatment of students with disabilities in the U.S. is not limited to Oregon.  According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, more than 36,000 students were secluded during the 2015-2016 school year, and 66% of those students were students with disabilities, despite only making up 12% of all students enrolled.  Students with disabilities also make up 26% of those who received out of school suspension and 24% of those who were expelled.  Part of the problem is that the federal government does not currently have any actual regulations related to the seclusion of students with disabilities.  It merely suggests that seclusion be used if a student is a physical threat to themselves or others and that the seclusion should end when the student is no longer a threat.  Due to its impact on students’ access to their education, this issue needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible.

Library books. Source: CCAC North Library, Creative Commons

An International Problem

This problem can be found around the world.  In Nepal, for example, children with disabilities are far from having their educational needs properly met.  In 2011, Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that more than 207,000 of the country’s children have disabilities.  In 2016, 30.6% of children with disabilities were not attending school.  In some cases, the students with disabilities who are enrolled in school are kept in classes that are completely inappropriate for their age group.  According to HRW report on the situation, one sixteen-year-old named Amman was placed in Class 2, where his classmates were between the ages of seven and ten years-old.  His disabilities are physical, limiting his movement and speech but not his mental development.  The school has steps at its entrance with no ramp available, forcing Amman to crawl to his classroom.  He was not able to use the restroom during the six hours school was in session, so another student would have to go to his house and get his mother to come to the school and help.  Not only is this an immense barrier to Amman’s access to his education, but it also an utterly dehumanizing way to treat someone.

The country is not ignorant of the fact that people with disabilities have a right to an education.  In 2010, the country even ratified the United Nations’ (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which aims to promote and improve the access to the rights of people with disabilities around the world.

Recent Developments

Though many problems still exist in the field of education for people with disabilities, progress is being made.  On January 17, 2019, the U.S. Department of Education announced plans to “work with schools to reduce incidents of improper restraint and seclusion of students with disabilities”.  They will use “compliance reviews” of school systems under suspicion of improper restraint and seclusion of students and “offer guidance on obligations under federal civil rights law.”  According to Elizabeth Hill, spokesperson for the Education Department, they plan to do more than 70 interviews each year.

Disability Rights Are Human Rights

In public conversations about human rights, people with disabilities are often left out or overlooked.  It is important that we intentionally work towards being more inclusive.

Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (which the United States has still not ratified) focuses on the right to education.  According to the document, countries associated with the UN are expected to “ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning”.  This involves making sure that people with disabilities are not kept separate from the rest of the education system and receive the support they need.

In addition to acknowledging the right to education for people with disabilities, Article 24 includes an explanation of why education is incredibly vital, both in general and specifically in the lives of people with disabilities.  Education facilitates the development of one’s view of others and themselves, their personality, their creative talents, their mental and physical abilities, and their ability “to participate effectively in a free society.”  These developments shape the role that each individual plays in the world, making education an absolutely priceless and fundamental human right.

Resources at UAB

Students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham can contact the campus’s Disability Support Services (DSS) to request accommodations through their website or at 205-934-4205.  This process involves completing an online application, submitting documentation of their disability, and having an Accommodation Planning meeting.  Accommodations that are often used include reduced distraction testing, extended time on exams, note-taking services, assistive technology, and captionists/interpreters.

Keep up with the latest announcements related to the upcoming Symposium on Disability Rights by following the IHR on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

The Generations of Human Rights

The words "liberte egalite fraternite" written above the entrance to the Hôtel de Ville in Avignon, France.
Avignon – Place de l’Horloge – Hotel de Ville – Liberte Egalite Fraternite. Source: Elliot Brown, Creative Commons

When human rights are being discussed, they are often divided up into three categories called generations.  A reflection of the three generations of human rights can be seen in the popular phrase of the French Revolution: liberté, egalité, fraternité.  These generations of human rights were first formally established by Karel Vasak, a Czech jurist, in 1979.  This division of the types of human rights helps improve conversations about rights, especially those involving legislation and the role that governments play in human rights.

The First Generation: Liberté

The first generation of human rights encompasses an individual’s civil and political rights.  First generation rights can be divided into two sub-categories.  The first sub-category relates to norms of “physical and civil security.”  This includes not committing acts of torture, slavery, or treating people inhumanely.  The second sub-category relates to norms of “civil-political liberties or empowerments.”  This includes rights such as freedom of religion and the right to political participation.

First generation rights are based around the rights of the individual person and are often the focus of conversations about human rights in western countries.  They became a priority for western nations during the Cold War.  Some documents that focus on first generation rights are the United States Bill of Rights and Articles 3 through 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The Second Generation: Égalité

The second generation of human rights encompasses socio-economic rights.  Second generation rights can also be divided into two sub-categories.  The first sub-category relates to norms of the fulfillment of basic needs, such as nutrition and healthcare.  The second sub-category relates to norms of the fulfillment of “economic needs.”  This includes fair wages and sufficient standards of living.

Second generation rights are based on establishing equal conditions.  They were often resisted by western nations during the Cold War, as they were perceived as “socialist notions.”  The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and Articles 22 through 27 of the UDHR focus on these rights. 

Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, first and second generation rights were considered to be divided by the responsibility they place on governments.  First generation human rights were looked at as being a “negative obligation,” which means that they place a responsibility on governments to ensure that the fulfillment of those rights is not being impeded.  Second generation human rights were viewed as being a “positive obligation,” which means that they place a responsibility on governments to actively ensure that those rights are in fact fulfilled.  After the Berlin Wall fell, perspectives shifted to see governments as having the responsibility to “respect, protect, promote and fulfill” these rights. 

The Third Generation: Fraternité

The third generation of human rights encompasses broad class rights.  Third generation rights can be divided into sub-categories as well.  The first sub-category relates to “the self-determination of peoples” and includes different aspects of community development and political status.  The second sub-category is related to the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.

Third generation rights are often found in agreements that are classified as “soft law,” which means they are not legally binding.  Some examples of these agreements include the UDHR and the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.  This generation of rights is challenged more often than the first and second generations, but it is being increasingly acknowledged on an international level. These rights started gaining acknowledgement as a result of “growing globalization and a heightened awareness of overlapping global concerns” such as extreme poverty.

Overall, recognizing the differences between each generation of rights can help us to better understand how broad the field of human rights is and how varied the issues involved truly are.  Each kind of right is best fulfilled through the use of different forms of legislation, and recognizing the different generations of rights can improve our ability to identify the what type of legislation is best suited for dealing with a particular issue.

Amendment Four: Voting Restoration In Florida

A sticker that says "I Voted Today."
I Voted Republican Today. Source: PJ Nelson, Creative Commons

On November 6, 2018, Florida voted on the Voting Restoration Ballot (also known as Amendment 4) and restored the right to vote of over one million citizens of the state.  This is a true success in the improvement of access to voting rights in America.  As a country, we have come a long way in terms of civil rights, but the area of voting rights is one that we can still improve.

Voting Rights History

The fight for voting rights in the United States has been in progress for centuries.  Ratified on February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment of the United States Constitution recognizes that the right to vote of all citizens should not be denied based their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  This amendment did not make a lot of immediate progress in granting the voting rights of people of color, but it was a step in the right direction.

From the time the 15th Amendment took effect, to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many different measures were used to prevent citizens of color, particularly black citizens, from utilizing their right to vote.  One way through which this occurred was literacy tests, which were given to potential voters “at the discretion of the officials in charge of voter registration.”  These tests were comprised of questions regarding processes and history of the United States government, and the officials in charge of registration could even decide what questions an individual had to answer.  These questions could range from as simple as “Who is the president of the United States?” to ones that most everyday citizens are unlikely to be able to answer, such as one regarding the limits placed on the size of the District of Columbia by the Constitution.  The more difficult questions were often intentionally given to potential black voters in order to prevent them from voting.  Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, literacy tests can no longer be used to prevent someone from exercising their right to vote.

What Is the “Voting Restoration Ballot”?

The Voting Restoration Ballot is an amendment that was made to the constitution of Florida through the election on November 6, 2018.  The amendment allows for the automatic restoration of the right to vote of citizens who have been convicted of felonies and have served their sentences (excluding those who were convicted of murder or felonies involving sexual offenses).  In order to pass it needed to receive support from at least 60% of voters and it actually received support from 64% of voters.  The passing of this amendment resulted in the restoration of voting rights for over one million people in Florida and goes into effect January 8, 2019.

The Issue of Felony Voting Laws

The laws regarding the right to vote for people convicted of felonies vary from state to state.  People convicted of felonies never lose their right to vote in Maine or Vermont, even when they are serving their sentence in prison.  In addition to Florida, 14 other states and the District of Columbia automatically restore the right to vote immediately after those convicted of felonies have finished serving their sentences, and in 21 states this occurs after a set amount of time following the end of their sentence.  In 13 states (including Alabama) there are specific steps that must be taken in order to restore their right to vote, such as a governor’s pardon.

These laws are discriminatory, as they are more likely to have a negative impact on communities of color than white communities.  According to the Sentencing Project, potential black voters “are more than four times more likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population.”  This disparity results from the discrimination found in incarceration rates.  For example, black people make up 36% of drug arrests and 46% of drug related convictions, even though they only make up 13% of drug users.  Evidence suggests that black and white people have nearly the same rate of drug use, but black people are far more likely to be arrested and convicted.

It is also important to note that felonies include a wide range of offenses.  In Alabama, they include not only violent crimes, such as assault and battery, murder, and sex related crimes, but also some non-violent offenses, such as drug possession and theft.  As a result of this, someone who is convicted of a felony for drug possession in their twenties could potentially never have access to their right to vote again.

A sign that says "Vote Here Today."
Vote Here Today Sign 11-3-09. Source: Steven Depolo, Creative Commons

Voting Rights Are Human Rights

The right to vote is more than just a privilege–it is truly a human right.  According to Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right to participate in the government they live under, at least through representatives.  The article states that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government” and that this right should be met through elections “by universal and equal suffrage” that should be “held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

Through the passing Voting Restoration Ballot, the people of Florida promote upholding of the rights given in Article 21 and recognize the fact that people convicted of felonies are still human beings who should have access to their human rights.

Another Issue in Voting Rights: Voter ID Laws

In addition to the progress that still needs to be made in restoring the voting rights of people who have been convicted of felonies, the impact of voter ID laws on people’s access to their right to vote also needs to be addressed.  There are currently 34 states that either require or request some form of identification to be shown by voters at the polls.  There are more than 21 million American who do not possess any form of government-issued photo identification–that is 11% of the population.  This prevents many people from being able to exercise their right to vote.

It costs money to get identification issued by the government.  There are even costs to getting the documents, such as birth certificates, required to apply for an ID.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that “the combined cost of document fees, travel expenses and waiting times” can range from $75 to $175.  Many people cannot afford this cost.  No one should be deprived of their right to vote based on not having enough money.

Voter ID laws also discriminate against minority groups.  For example, black citizens are more likely to be harmed by these laws than white citizens, as 25% of potential black voters lack the qualified forms of identification, compared to 8% of potential white voters.  The forms of identification excluded by these laws are also discriminatory.  In Texas, for example, concealed weapons permits are accepted, but not student IDs.  A study performed by Caltech/MIT even found that there is discrimination in the enforcement of these laws, as voters of minorities are more likely to asked about identification than white voters are.

According to the ACLU, these laws are not remotely necessary.  One study found that “there were only 31 credible allegations of voter impersonation” since 2000.  ACLU also states that these laws are “a waste of tax-payer dollars” due to the costs of “educating the public, training poll workers, and providing IDs to voters.”

Celebrate the Successes

While it is clear there is still much work to be done in ensuring that everyone has access to their right to vote in the United States, it is important that we take time to celebrate successes in the process and recognize positive impact these successes have on the country.  Florida’s passing of Amendment 4 restored the right to vote of over one million people!  During the same election, Nevada and Michigan approved automatic voter registration for citizens who are eligible to vote.  Michigan and Maryland now allow voters to register on the day of the election.  By recognizing and celebrating these successes, we can remind ourselves that progress is possible and that things really can change for the better.

Children’s Rights in the United States

A baby sitting on a blanket in the grass.
Cal. Source: Torrey Wiley, Creative Commons

Despite the many different viewpoints that exist on the political spectrum within the United States, one of the few things we all seem to be able to generally agree on is the importance of protecting children.  Their life and well-being completely rely on adults actively working to keep them safe and nurture them.  On September 2, 1990, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was put into effect by the United Nations to aid in the protection of these most vulnerable members of society.

Despite the resolution’s wide acceptance, the United States is the only one that has not ratified it out of the world’s 195 countries.  Why is this?  What are its implications?

What Is Included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

The CRC does exactly what the title suggests: it outlines the rights held by children.  It covers the rights to parental guidance, survival, development, nationality, identity, freedom of expression and thought, privacy, education, healthcare, and much more.

It states that, above all else, adults should be focused on ensuring that all their actions have as positive an impact on children as possible.  Governments are responsible for protecting children’s rights in all situations, and any legislation that affects children should support their development and well-being. The CRC also addresses government responsibility in trying to keep families together (so long as it is the best thing for the child) and the fact that child refugees, children with disabilities, indigenous children, and children of minority groups have the same rights as any other children.  Governments should take any extra action necessary to see that these rights are fulfilled.

Article 42 states that adults and children should be made aware of the rights put forth in the Convention.  It emphasizes the importance of adults teaching children about their rights.

The United States and Violations of Children’s Rights

The United States is currently involved in the violation of many of the rights set forth in the CRC, but if it were to ratify the CRC, it would then be expected to begin working towards fixing them.

Children Facing Life Without Parole

One way in which we are currently violating the CRC is through the fact that, in many states, children can be sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.  More than 3000 people are currently serving life sentences without the possibility for parole for crimes they committed while under the age of 18.  In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for children to be given mandatory life-without-parole sentences.  However, in 28 states it is still a possibility for a child to face life in prison without parole.  This number does not include states that allow sentences lasting decades, even 90 years, which are in effect life-sentences, despite not being labeled as such.  This violates Article 37 of the CRC which states that children should not be sentenced to life without the possibility of release.

A young girl looking over her shoulder at the camera.
Child. Source: Florencia&Pe, Creative Commons.

Children in Adult Prisons

We are also violating the CRC because there are around 10,000 children in the United States who are being held in adult prisons and jails.  This fact within itself violates Article 37 of the CRC, which states that children should not be kept in prisons with adults.  This also violates Article 34, which states that “Governments should protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse,” as children are five times as likely to experience sexual assault in adult prisons than juvenile detention centers.  Children are 36 times more likely to commit suicide after being held in adult facilities than those who have been held in juvenile facilities.  This violates Article 27, which states that children “have the right to a standard of living that is good enough to meet their physical and mental needs.”

Trump’s Zero Tolerance Immigration Policy

The United States has also recently violated the CRC through the “zero tolerance immigration policy” that The Trump Administration put in place earlier this year.  As a result of the push for prosecution of undocumented immigrants caught crossing the border and “rules on holding children in either criminal or immigration detention,” thousands of children were separated from their parents.  This violates Article 9 of the CRC which states that children should be remain with their parents unless it is more harmful for them to be together than separated.

Despite the rules that relate to holding children in criminal or immigration detention, the children who were separated from their families were held in what were essentially cages: holding areas surrounded by “chain-link fences,” with 20 children being held in each of them and “few comforts besides foil blankets.”  They were kept in inhumane conditions, violating Article 27 of the CRC, which describes the right to an adequate standard of living.  It is difficult to see how these conditions could possibly have had a better impact on the children than finding a way to allow them to remain with their parents.

Most of the families who were separated have now been reunited and new families are no longer being separated, but it is still important that we recognize the impact that such situations have on the children involved.

Basic Human Rights for Children in the United States

The United States also has a long way to go in taking steps to improve and preserve children’s access to their rights.  In 2014, 22% of children lived in poverty, and 30% had parents who did not have job security.  Between 2012 and 2014, 53% of young children were not in school, bringing concern to the right to education.  Also, the US is the only high-income country that does not provide paid leave for new mothers.

The United States’ withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council makes it difficult to be optimistic about the possibility of ratifying the CRC any time soon.  It is a country that is self-proclaimed as being one of the most progressive in terms of human rights, yet we have not even ratified the document created to protect the vulnerable members of society whom we all agree need to be protected.  At this point in time, the actions of the United States do not match its claims, and that needs to change.

The Impact of Child Abuse

A sad boy sitting outside and staring into the camera.
Sad. Source: tamckile, Creative Commons

Childhood is a time in life that should be filled with joy and imagination, and free of fear and any serious responsibility.  However, for many people, this not their reality, as abuse and trauma have warped their experience of it.  In 2014, about 702,000 children were found to be victims of some form of abuse in the United States – this number does not take into account situations of abuse that went unreported.  It is estimated that 1,580 children died “as a result of abuse and neglect” in that same year, though it is possible that this number is actually much higher due to “undercounting of child fatalities by state agencies.”  The general impact and potential trauma caused by abuse can have a significant harmful influence throughout childhood development and adulthood.

What is Child Abuse?

Child abuse is “when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or failing to act, causes injury, death, emotional harm, or risk of serious harm to a child.”  This includes many different forms of abuse, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect:

  • Physical abuse is “when a parent or caregiver causes any non-accidental physical injury to a child.”
  • Emotional abuse, which is recognized less often, is “when a parent or caregiver harms a child’s mental and social development or causes severe emotional harm,” and can include (but is not limited to) isolating a child, terrorizing, ignoring, and humiliating them.
  • Sexual abuse is “when an adult uses a child for sexual purposes or involves a child in sexual acts,” but it does not have to involve physical contact with a child. In addition to “contact abuse,” it can also include inappropriate sexual language, “making a child view or show sex organs,” and forcing a child to watch a sexual act.
  • Neglect is “when a parent or caregiver does not give the care, supervision, affection, and support needed for a child’s health, safety, and well-being,” and it occurs when an adult fails to meet even the most basic requirements for taking care of a child that they are responsible for. Neglect can physical, emotional, medical, or educational.
    • Physical neglect relates to reception of “care and supervision.”
    • Emotional neglect relates to reception of “affection and attention.”
    • Medical neglect relates to “treatment for injuries and illnesses.”
    • Educational neglect relates to a child’s “access to opportunities for academic success.”

Effects of Child Abuse

Experiencing abuse as a child can have serious, long-term effects on an individual.  Those who have experienced child abuse are at an increased risk for intimate partner violence, substance abuse issues, and mental illnesses.  Experiences of abuse also lead to children having an increased risk of exhibiting criminal behavior.  In the United States, “14% of all men in prison and 36% of women in prison” experienced child abuse.  Children who are survivors of child abuse are about “9 times more likely to become involved in criminal activity” than those who are not.  Many survivors must deal with intense negative effects of their trauma for the rest of their lives.

Trauma and Child Abuse

Trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event, like an accident, rape or natural disaster.”  When considering the issue of trauma, people often think of veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Both PTSD and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) are common in survivors of child abuse, but they differ in exactly what circumstances causes them.  PTSD results from a specific event, while CPTSD results from repetitive experiences of trauma.  In terms of child abuse, PTSD is caused by a specific incident of abuse, while CPTSD is caused by experiencing numerous incidences of abuse over a period of time.

The three main categories of PTSD symptoms are “re-experiencing trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event,” “emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma,” and “increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated or angered.”  In addition to the symptoms of PTSD, people with CPTSD also experience problems with forming and maintaining relationships, negative views of themselves, and problems with regulating their emotions.  These symptoms negatively affect the ability of individuals with PTSD and CPTSD, including child abuse survivors, to live their lives in normal, healthy ways.

Treatments for coping with PTSD and CPTSD include individual and group therapy, medications (such as antidepressants) that help with some symptoms, and the establishment of a reliable support system.  Dealing with trauma is a life-long process.  Healing is possible for survivors of child abuse, but the impacts of their experiences will never fully disappear.

A sad boy sitting next to a dog on a couch.
Nathaniel. Source: Tony Alter, Creative Commons

The Cyclical Nature of Child Abuse

The presence of abuse can be seen as a cycle with the potential to perpetuate itself throughout the generations of a family.  According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, around one in three of all survivors of child abuse will “subject their children to maltreatment”.  This is because many survivors who become parents believe that the way they were treated as a child is the correct way to parent.  In other cases, parents believe that if they simply treat their children better than their parents treated them, then they are not being abusive.  This way of thinking is incorrect, because abuse is abuse, even if one example of abuse is not as overtly severe as another.  By spreading information and reporting incidences of child abuse we can help to interrupt the cycle.

Child Abuse is a Human Rights Issue

There are numerous ways in which child abuse can be clearly seen as a violation of human rights.  Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” and Article 25 states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”  How can someone utilize these rights while living in fear (whether it be as an adult or as a child)?

The Convention on the Rights of the Child also deals with child abuse as a violation of human rights.  Article 19 calls for States Parties to “take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation…”  Article 24 states that children have the right to “the highest attainable standard of health,” which is a right that cannot be fully enjoyed in an abusive situation.  Article 27 describes the right “to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral, and social development,” and abuse is a known hindrance to childhood development.  Article 34 relates specifically to sexual abuse, stating that States Parties should do everything they can to “protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.”

It is important that we remember that children are limited in what they can do to help themselves in any given situation.  It is the responsibility of the adults around them to protect and nurture them.  Adults should be attentive toward the well-being of the children they contact.  Adults need to be able to recognize and report abusive situations when they witness them and/or are aware of them.

Resources

Sexual Assault on College Campuses

A woman who is talking to someone.
Beautiful woman. Source: Henry Söderlund, Creative Commons

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women and one in six men have experienced sexual violence .  The term sexual assault refers to “any type of sexual activity or contact that happens without your consent.”  Though, the most obvious examples of sexual assault are physical, such as rape and unwanted touching, it can also be found in verbal and visual forms, such as sexual harassment or exposing oneself.

Sexual assault is a particularly significant concern on colleges campuses.  It is experienced by one in five college women, and the majority of survivors are women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four.  For men between 18 and 24 years old, being a student increases the likelihood that they will be assaulted by 78%  in comparison to those of the same age who are not students.  Due to the breadth of its impact, sexual assault on college campuses is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.

Intersectionality and Sexual Assault

When discussing this problem, it is important that we recognize that not all groups experience sexual assault at the same rates.  The people who are most at risk are those from minority communities that typically have less social and political power than majority communities.

This is an intersectional issue.  Women of color, for example, experience sexual assault at higher rates than white women.  According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, Native American women are twice as likely to experience sexual assault when compared to people of all other races.  People with disabilities are twice as likely to experience sexual assault  in comparison with people who do not have a disability.  Members of the LGBTQ+ community are also at a greater risk.  According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47% of transgender individuals are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives .

Title IX

Title IX is part of the Education Amendments of 1972 and prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded schools.  Colleges must have systems in place to deal with sexual assault, since it can have a serious impact on an individual’s educational experience.  They should investigate every reported incident and make any necessary accommodations to make sure that the education of assault survivors is negatively impacted as little as is possible.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed some changes for exactly how colleges are to handle reports of sexual assault, but, at the moment, students still have the rights set forth by Title IX and the Clery Act, which include the Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights.  Under the Clery Act , survivors have “the right to receive written explanation of their rights and options,” and colleges must have “a policy on campus disciplinary proceedings” for sexual assault.  In these proceedings, both the survivor and the accused have the rights to equal opportunity to have each other present as witnesses, the accompaniment of an advisor of their choosing, and “simultaneous written notification” of any updates.

If you have experienced sexual assault on a college campus, you can report it to your school, get to know your Title IX coordinator  and school’s policies, and file a police report.

College students walking across campus.
College student. Source: Yuya Tamai, Creative Commons

Rape Culture

Exacerbating the problem of sexual assault on college campuses is the prevalence of rape culture.  Rape culture consists of the behaviors, language, and beliefs through which sexual violence is “normalized and excused.”  This can range from victim blaming, to the use of phrases like “boys will be boys,” to sexual assault itself.  This is especially impactful on the relationship between women/girls and sexual assault.  Rape culture leads to people asking female sexual assault survivors questions about what they were wearing and whether or not they were drinking, as if those factors are the reasons why people are attacked.  As girls grow up, they are taught what steps to take to help them stay safe.  The responsibility to prevent rape and assault is primarily placed on the people at risk of experiencing these things rather than being focused on teaching people not to be perpetrators.  Rape culture is a huge part of why many survivors do not report their assault .  Among survivors on college campuses, more than 90% do not report.

Rape culture is also perpetuated by phenomena such as toxic masculinity, which emphasizes the gender expectation for men to be aggressive and dominant.  Many people use this traditional view of what it means to be a man to minimize the significance of sexual assault to simply “men being men.”  This idea, as well as rape culture as a whole, frames sexual assault as something that is inevitable or a normal part of life rather than a serious problem that needs to be stopped.  This also leads to the assumption that men are always the perpetrators and survivors are always women, which is completely untrue.  Men and non-binary individuals can be assault survivors. Women and non-binary individuals can be assaulters.  People can be assaulted by someone of the same or a different gender.  Sexual assault does not always fit the stereotypes we have been taught.

Safety Precautions

If you are one of the many people who worries about their safety and about assault on a regular basis, here are some things you can do that will hopefully help you feel a bit more comfortable.  If you are not someone who feels the need to think about these kinds of things, this may be an opportunity to broaden your perspective and learn more about the things many of us have do to in order to feel even slightly safe.

  • Try to avoid walking out alone at night.
  • If you have to walk alone at night, consider calling someone and staying on the phone until you reach your destination.
  • Do your best to walk in and park your car in well-lit areas.
  • Carry pepper spray with you.
  • If you are out at night, try to make sure that someone knows where you are going to be and at what times.
  • Check the back seat of your car before getting in.
  • Make sure you have a reliable form of transportation if you are out at night.
  • Avoid jogging alone at night.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings, especially if you are alone.
  • Consider taking some classes in self-defense.
  • If you get a drink at a party or bar, watch them make the drink and do not leave it alone.
  • Consider downloading an app like Noonlight, which can make it easier to contact emergency services if you feel unsafe or if you are unsure if you should call 911.

Sexual Assault Is A Human Rights Issue

It is vital that throughout the conversation about sexual assault we recognize it is a human rights issue.  It is an issue of equality for people of all genders, sexualities, races, and abilities.  Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit,” but many college classes do not end until it is already dark outside.  Safety concerns prevent some people from taking these classes, while other people are able to take any of the available classes they want. According to Article 27 of the UDHR, “…everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community,” but many cultural events, such as concerts and educational events, happen at night.  If someone fears going out that late and/or has no safe mode of transportation, how can they enjoy this right?  How can they use their right to freedom of expression if they are afraid (Article 19)?  How can someone live in an environment that supports their mental health and wellbeing if they are afraid (Article 25)?  How can they enjoy the equality that all people share if they are afraid?

Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors

The Plastic Problem

A crushed water bottle lying on its side.
Crumpled. Source: Jesse Wagstaff, Creative Commons

The world is built to run on cycles.  The water-cycle.  The food-cycle.  The carbon-cycle.  The resources on Earth exist to be used and reused.  At some point, humanity lost sight of that, our eyes drawn to the concept of disposability.  Now we must face the consequences.

Think for a moment: when garbage day comes, how much trash have you collected?  If the millions of people who send their trash to landfills every week have as much as you, what does that look like?  It is important we remember that, after the garbage truck drives off into the distance, our bags of trash do not simply disappear from existence.  They must go somewhere, and they pile up.

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.  You have heard it before.  Place your plastic bottles and paper in the blue bin rather than the trash can.  Take shorter showers.  Unplug electronics when they are not being used.  This is often accepted as doing enough.  The sad truth is that this makes a very small dent in the pollution of our environment.

Background

Despite being aware of its impact on the planet, most of us cannot imagine day to day life without plastic.  However, the world has not always relied on plastic as we know it.  Though naturally derived plastics have been in use for ages, the first fully synthetic plastic was not developed until 1907.  In the 1930s, its use was common in aspects of the war such as military vehicles.  Since then, plastics have become increasingly commonplace and depended on in everyday life.  It is estimated that over 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s.

Plastic does not decompose like other materials.  It is estimated that it takes at least 450 years to decompose but may never actually do so.  It shrinks and is often mistaken for food by animals or ends up in our water.  More than five trillion pieces of plastic are already in the oceans due to litter and mismanaged trash that never even reaches a landfill.  According to the United Nations, it is possible that the oceans will hold more plastic than fish by 2050 if something does not change.

We are constantly surrounded with promotions of the concept of “out with the old, in with the new.”  Replace clothes every time a new style gains popularity.  Replace technology as soon as newer models are released.  Perhaps this is why we are so comfortable with the concept of “disposable” products.  We have developed a frame of mind where the norm is to dispose and replace.  The results of this attitude have huge, negative impacts on the environment, and by extension, human beings.  In his TED talk, “The economic injustice of plastic,” Van Jones sums it up perfectly: “In order to trash the planet, you have to trash people.”

Human Rights

The pollution of the environment is a human rights and public health issue.  In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25 states that we have the right to a standard of living that supports our health and well-being.  The United Nations also recognizes many specific environmental rights.  For example, we have the right to “a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.”  We also have the right to seek information regarding environmental issues and to “participate in public decision-making.” Plastic pollution is an increasing contributor to violations of the human rights of people all over the world; we have the right, as well as the responsibility, to be a part of the solution.

Landfills are a specific example of how plastic harms people.  Many items that end up there contain toxins that often leak in to water and soil and remain for years.  Problems can also be found when organic materials, such as food waste, are in landfills.  When they start to decompose in the middle of an enormous pile, they are deprived of oxygen and produce methane, a serious greenhouse gas that can become dangerously flammable.

Landfills also have a direct impact on the lives of entire communities.  As of 2003, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund co-represents the Ashurst/Bar Smith community (ABSCO) in a Title VI complaint against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.  ABSCO’s complaint is that the department has discriminated against the community, “by permitting the Stone’s Throw Landfill to open and expand its operations in their predominately (98%) Black community without conducting an assessment of the Landfill’s disparate and discriminatory social, economic, and health impacts on the majority-Black community.”  The landfill had been closed but was reopened in 2002.  Landfills are often placed near low-income, black communities, especially in Alabama.  Many members of the community can trace their family’s ownership of their land back many generations, such as Phyllis Gosa, whose great-grandparents bought the land as former slaves in the 1800s.  As decades have past, such families have been able to see the changes that have occurred since the start of the landfill.

The effects of Stone’s Throw Landfill reported by ABSCO include fear of toxic run-off polluting their water sources, health problems like cancer, respiratory problems, migraines, and dizziness, and gardens no longer producing food.  In the past, this community has been heavily self-reliant, using their own water sources and growing their food on their own land.  Due to the impacts of the landfill, they are now having pay significant costs to replace what their resources can no longer provide.  The EPA closed the complaint in 2017, but the problems continue.

This case is not unique.  Landfills pose daily threats to the health and well-being of people across the country, and yet they continue to grow.

A pile of old, worn down toothbrushes that have been thrown out.
Plastic Toothbrush Debris. Source: NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program, Creative Commons

Legislation

The implementation of some large-scale efforts to decrease the use of plastics and their detriment to societies and the planet have increases as the world realizes the problem that plastic creates. China, who had been the world’s main destination for plastic recyclables until January, banned the import of plastic waste this year.  The European Commission has proposed a ban on nearly all single use plastics.  In 2016, France implemented of a “four-year phase out” of single use plastics such as cutlery and plates.  California banned single use plastic bags and began to require a ten-cent charge on recycled plastic bags in 2014, supporting the use of non-plastic bags for carrying purchases home from the store.  Nearly all of Hawaii’s highly populated cities have banned non-biodegradable plastic bags and paper bags that are made from less than 40% recycled material.

However, the United States as a whole has a lot of catching up to do.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we produced 258 million tons of solid waste, and 136 millions of those tons were sent to landfills.  Multiple states, including Michigan, have gone so far as to ban plastic bag bans.  They have prohibited the creation of legislation that regulates “the use, disposition, or sale of, prohibiting or restricting, or imposing any fee, charge, or tax on certain containers.”  Supporters of this law often consider themselves to be protecting businesses from having to make changes that disturb regular operations.  The question is whether or not it is worth it.  Is it worth accepting the harm caused by plastic bags in order to prevent businesses from being inconvenienced?

What We Can Do

While the average person cannot do very much about the landfills that already exist, we can help by not adding to them and limiting our waste.  Half of all plastic that is produced is only meant to be used once.  This leads to an enormous amount of plastic destined for landfills, even if we disregard any that could potentially be recycled.  Cling wrap.  Candy bar wrappers.  Ziploc bags.  The list goes on.

A lot of it (if not all of it) is completely unnecessary.  Take it from Lauren Singer.  She has minimized her waste production to the point of being able to fit all the trash she could not compost or recycle from four years of her life into a single mason jar.  She promotes the “zero waste” lifestyle through many different media, such as her blog, Trash Is For Tossers.  According to Singer, being zero waste means to “…not produce any garbage.  No sending anything to the landfill, no throwing anything into a trash can…”

How does she do it?  Through her blog, Singer has offered a lot of information on how to work towards living a zero waste life.  For example, to replace plastic toothbrushes, she recommends opting for a bamboo one, which can be composted when the bristles are removed.  Instead of buying all-purpose household cleaner, she suggests making your own, which is often cheaper and healthier for you to use.  Additionally, single use menstrual hygiene products can be replaced with washable and reusable options, such as menstrual cups and reusable pads.

Many people who are part of the zero waste community abide by the five Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, rot, and recycle.

The Five Rs

1) Refuse.  Do your best not to accept things that are unnecessary or that will end up being thrown away.  Before accepting that free pen, think twice about how much you actually need another one.

2) Reduce.  Try decreasing the amount of stuff you bring home, especially if you are only going to use it once.  Consider buying products that have multiple uses and/or can be bought in bulk.  This leads to less plastic and is often less expensive.

3) Reuse.  Buy items of higher quality that can be washed and reused repeatedly, such as a stainless-steel water bottle.  Bring your own cutlery instead of using plastic ones.

4) Rot.  Compost anything you can.  Here you can learn about how to start your own compost and about what can be composted.

5) Recycle.  While it is good to recycle anything you can, it is important to note that it is at the end of the list.  Strive to find the need to recycle as little as possible, especially when it comes to plastic.  It still involves buying more disposables that will most likely end up in a dump (or worse).

If you decide to try out being zero waste for yourself, please remember that it is not about being perfect.  It is about doing the most you can to maximize the positive impact you have on the world.

The Re-segregation of Schools

**Today is the 64th anniversary of the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision. The decision acknowledged and established the unconstitutionality of the notion “separate but equal”. This blog is a repost from the fall. 

The eraser ends of a pile of pencils.
Back to School. Source: Mark Bonica, Creative Commons

What do you think of when you hear the word “segregation”? You probably flash back to your high school history class, when you learned about the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., bus boycotts, the Little Rock Nine, and Ruby Bridges. Segregation is something we generally think of in the past-tense, as a phenomenon that occurred throughout much of history but ended in the 1960s. A common assumption is that these issues of racial discrimination and segregation on a systematic level are over. However, this is not the case. Schools in the United States seem to be going through rapid re-segregation. A reminder of our nation’s shameful past of dehumanizing and oppressing people on the basis of skin color, the idea is a hard pill to swallow. Many people find it difficult to come terms with our history and find it even more difficult to admit that serious issues related to race are still present in our society.

In 2010, Jefferson County opened Gardendale High School, one of the few high schools in the county that were actually well-integrated. By 2012, the campaigning for the secession of the schools of Gardendale from the district school system had begun. The concept of city school systems has grown increasingly popular in recent years. Many communities believe that it would be best if the taxes from their local areas only contribute to local schools. They have made claims that they believe that this would greatly improve the academic success of schools. In the case of Gardendale, these claims are not well supported. Creating a new school system would actually make it more difficult for students to attend the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate school (JCIB), which has been ranked by the Washington Post as the best school in Alabama and the seventeenth best school in the country. In order to attend JCIB, students would have to pay $1,500 in out-of-district tuition. In 2013, the Gardendale City Council voted to create a separate school system, and a new property tax was implemented later that year in order to fund the new system. An all-white school board and superintendent were then appointed for the system.

However, there were still obstacles for the new school system. Jefferson County is still under the desegregation order from the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Gardendale would have to receive approval from Birmingham’s federal court in order to secede from the district. There were three main forces that all agreed that allowing Gardendale to secede would create significant problems for the efforts to continue desegregation. Representing the black children of Jefferson County was Legal Defense Fund Lawyer, Monique Lin-Luse. The Obama administration had involved the revitalizing of the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Jefferson County had just hired a new superintendent who was dedicated to desegregation. Though the residential area of Gardendale is 88% white, the schools are 25% black due to the busing of students from North Smithfield. For the majority of residents who want a completely separate school system for the city, the goal is to have a system that contains only students who live in Gardendale. Though this would not completely remove all of the black students, it would seriously reduce the number of them.

A row of school buses.
School Buses. Source: JohnPickenPhoto, Creative Commons

In the court decision regarding the Gardendale school system, the judge, Madeline Hughes Haikala, found that the motivation for the secession of Gardendale was undoubtedly based in a desire to control the racial demographics of the city’s schools. Despite this, Gardendale was not exactly denied their request. For the 2017-2018 school year, the city of Gardendale is operating Gardendale Elementary School and Snow Rogers Elementary independently from Jefferson County. If the city is able to run the schools for three years “in good faith,” then they have a chance at a full secession from the district. They were given three requirements. First, they are obligated to appoint a black board member to the school-board. Second, they must work with the plaintiffs of the decision and the Justice Department to create a desegregation plan for the new district. Lastly, they must either give up Gardendale High School, which was paid for by the residents of Jefferson County, or repay the $33 million that the county spent building the school. If Gardendale can show “sufficient” evidence of integration, then they will be released from the court order.

The release from this court order would be much more significant than one might think. Let us consider Central High School in Tuscaloosa, whose city school system was released from its desegregation order in 2000. By the 1980s, Central had developed into a very well-integrated school. However, after the desegregation order ended, and a new school was built in the mostly white and affluent part of the county, 99% of the Central High School students were black. Combined with the United States’ long history of systematic racism and economic disparities, this also led to the school having higher rates of poverty and less access to important academic resources. This shows that even a “sufficiently” integrated school has the potential to re-segregate without a desegregation order.

Clearly, the inequalities re-segregation creates between black and white students are unjust and need to be addressed, but it is important to realize that re-segregation is wrong regardless of whether or not it has negative impacts on black students. Even in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Brown family was not pursuing the issue because of a dissatisfaction with the quality of education at the all black school their daughter attended, but because black and white children should not be separated simply because of race.

When it comes to specific cases, such as in Gardendale, it can be easy to be misled by what seem to reasonable claims, such as the improving of education, that do not actually have any solid support. We have to pay attention to the larger scale impacts of situations like the one in Gardendale. If we do not pay full attention to the things that are happening, we can overlook serious effects of seemingly small situations. Tuscaloosa and Gardendale are just two of many places in Alabama where systematic racism is still very much a living issue. We cannot allow ourselves to be complacent or to think that racism is over. The fact of the matter is that slavery occurred over hundreds of years, and legal racial segregation continued long after that. It would be foolish to believe that everything would be perfect only 63 years after the Brown v Board decision and 53 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Change takes time and diligence. This makes it absolutely necessary that we be fully aware of what is going on in our own backyard.

 

Fast-Fashion: Unethical and Unsustainable

Garment workers working at sewing machines in a factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh.
Bangladesh.Gazipur BIGUF.2015.Solidarity Center. Source: Solidarity Center, Creative Commons

Prior to the 1960s, about 90% of the clothes purchased in the United States were also made here.  Since then, it has been reduced to only about 3%.  Over the years, companies have increasingly chosen to outsource their labor to countries with lax labor laws (or a willingness to overlook them) to pay less for the work that is necessary for clothing production.  The purpose of this blog is to highlight the negative impacts of these choices based on the information given in the documentary True Cost.

The term “fast-fashion” refers to the shift in the fashion industry that has resulted in faster production with lower costs.  At first glance, this appears to be an extremely beneficial change, especially for the general United States consumer.  We can buy more clothes and spend less money in the process.  However, it is important that we take time to ask how it is possible to the industry to have changed the way that it did.  What does it really cost?

Garment Workers

When discussing the costs of the fast-fashion industry, one of the most well-known examples is the Rana Plaza building collapse of 2013 that occurred in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At the time, the building was being occupied by garment factories for western companies such as Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, and Walmart.  Workers in the factories told their managers that they had noticed cracks in the building but were told to go back to work.  At one point, the managers were even given an evacuation order (which they ignored).  Nothing was done.  As a result, 1,129 workers died, and even more were injured.

Outside of the tragedies that have occurred in the industry’s factories, many of the factories cut corners on a regular basis to reduce production costs.  Work areas are frequently found to have poor lighting, which can be damaging to the workers’ sight, and toxic chemicals, which can be harmful to their respiratory systems.  As of 2016, the minimum wage in $67 dollars each month, which is far less than fair compensation for the labor of these workers, especially in such poor conditions.  More often than not, these workers cannot simply quit and find work with better circumstances.  They must be able to provide for themselves and their families and lack the education and qualifications for more favorable employment.

Environment

Fast-fashion is also an incredibly unsustainable industry.  Eileen Fisher, a high-end fashion retailer who aims to use sustainable and ethical production methods, has called the clothing industry “the second-largest polluter in the world.”  It’s easy to see why.  In 2013 alone, 15.1 million tons of textile waste were created.  The majority of this waste ends up piled up in landfills.  These piles release methane as they decompose and are a noteworthy factor in global warming.  Even if their relationship with global warming were not an issue, the amount of land required to store of all this waste is simply unacceptable.

Leather tanneries are also a significantly harmful part of the clothing industry.  The chemicals used in the tanning process are extremely toxic and are often disposed incorrectly.  This leads to the pollution of the drinking water, soil, and produce of the communities surrounding the tanneries.  These chemicals lead to serious illness and diseases.  People living in these areas are facing skin problems, numbness of limbs, and stomach problems.  The chemicals are poisonous to both the environment and the health of human beings.  Not only do climate change and pollution have harmful effects that we can see today, but they are also severely damaging to the world and resources that future generations will have access to.

People in the street in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Wide avenue in Old Dhaka. Source: Francisco Anzola, Creative Commons

Human Rights

The issue of fast-fashion is one that impacts many different areas in human rights.  Regarding employment, Article 23 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that every person has the right to “just and favourable conditions of work,” as well as the right to “just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity.”  The harmful work environments and low-wages involved in the clothing industry prevent workers from accessing these rights. Additionally, Article 25, the UDHR depicts the right to a standard of living that is sufficient to maintain an individual’s health and well-being, which requires an adequate income.

Fast-fashion also has a connection to gender equality.  In the garment industry, 85% of the workers are women.  Often, these women are single mothers without any other real employment options, due to a lack in access to education and other similar resources.  They continue to work in poor working conditions because they want their children to be able to go to school and have better job opportunities in the future.

What You Can Do 

It is easy to fall into feeling like there is nothing you can do on this side of the counter and ocean.  Fast-fashion seems to be a very distant issue.  However, there are changes you can make in your own life to be a part of the transformation of the fashion industry.  First and foremost, it is important that you make an effort to stay informed on the issue and inform others as well.  A problem cannot be solved if no one acknowledges that it exists. Second, if you can afford it, buy from brands such as Eileen Fisher and People Tree who work to produce clothing through sustainable and ethical methods.  Such companies are generally more expensive than what we have become accustomed to because of the fast-fashion industry, but the products are typically of a higher quality.  If you need more affordable options, try to get clothes second-hand, whether that be through clothing swaps or going to thrift shops.  Apps like Depop and Poshmark, make it possible to buy clothes directly from other individuals, or sell your old clothes directly to other people.  Selling your unwanted clothes through apps like these, you can help keep clothing out of landfills.  Donating clothes can be a great option when you want to clean out your closet, but it is best when you can come relatively close to directly giving clothes to the people who will receive them.  Of the clothes that are donated to “mission stores” like Goodwill, only about 10% are purchased in those stores, and the rest have the potential to end up in landfills.

Finally, though the aforementioned options are wonderful and should warrant consideration and use, it is imperative to recognize that we do not need to purchase clothing nearly as often as we do.  Advertising glamorizes things that we do not really need so that we will spend more money.  New trends come out nearly every week, so we feel the need to buy more stuff just to keep up.  Society has become very consumeristic, and this contributes to industries, such as fast-fashion, that disregard the health and safety of their workers to allow people in countries like the United States spend as much money as possible.  By purchasing less of what we do not need, we can avoid supporting these harmful practices while also saving money ourselves.

You may not always be a part of large-scale change, but you can make small, daily changes that, when combined with the efforts of others, can truly make a difference.