Obama’s Women’s Issues Point Person, Karen Kornbluh, Gets It

Sarah Seltzer

When it comes to actual solutions for families, Obama's policy "brain" Karen Kornbluh has a clear and comprehensive prescription--with programs that go as far as many advocates' wilder dreams.

As the eyes of the press and
public try to peer around the curtain surrounding the Obama transition
team, women’s and reproductive rights advocates feel a certain confidence. Karen Kornbluh, formerly Obama’s Senate policy
director, is the point person for women’s issues during the interim
period. Kornbluh has long been tagged by the press as one of the
"brains" behind the Obama juggernaut. 

"It’s a marvelous signal,"
says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist
. "She’s
a strong extremely knowledgeable on women’s rights issues and women’s

Before being hired by Obama
early on for his Senate office, Kornbluh was known in DC policy circles
for her essays on work-family balance–an issue that shouldn’t be
relegated to "women’s issues" but often is. She coined the term
"juggler families" describing families that rely on incomes from
two working parents or one single parent: in other words, there’s
no one at home taking care of the kids, and every dollar coming in is
necessary to maintain the household. 

"We’re delighted that Karen
is on the Obama team," says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, president of
advocacy group Momsrising. "We really think she understands
the shared struggles of working
families, and in particular the struggles of moms.  It can’t
be overestimated how important the economic struggles of moms are." 

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Balancing Act 

While Kornbluh’s primary
focus has been on economic issues facing women, she did oversee the
drafting of the Democratic
party’s platform

this year, which included a
strong affirmation of reproductive rights

from contraception and comprehensive sex ed to support for mothers and
pregnant women, to solid support for abortion rights. 

Both "abortion reduction"
religious groups and reproductive health groups felt the wording was a victory, which
may point to Kornbluh’s ability, like her boss, to be inclusive without
compromising her agenda.  

Laurie Rubiner, Planned Parenthood’s
Vice-President for Public Policy, says that process earned Kornbluh plaudits from
the community and assurance of her deep comprehension of the issues.
"She’s incredibly thoughtful and strategic and very smart," says
Rubiner. "When she  wrote the Democratic platform she did a tremendous
job balancing all considerations and putting together formidable document.
It says a lot, as she has quite a balancing act to do." 

A List of Prescriptions
for Working Families

When it comes to actual solutions
for families, Kornbluh has a clear and comprehensive prescription–with
programs that go as far as many advocates’ wilder dreams. She written
extensively about what a system that gave equal opportunities to working
families would
look like.

    Reforms should include
    citizen-based health insurance, subsidized by income; progressive retirement
    accounts; new refundable, tax-subsidized accounts to help parents save
    for the expenses of having a family; universal pre-K and after-school
    programs; and childcare subsidies and workplaces that do not penalize
    parents who need flexibility to care for kids. 

But on the same level, Korbluh
has demonstrated the process that leads to these reforms is a nuanced
one, that image matters and that sweeping reforms are a process. On
the question of whether work-family balance and parental leave should
be framed as a "mother’s issue," she told an interviewer in a 2005 article in
Brain Child magazine

    "I do think it’s still
    important to keep mothers in the title… Mothers are the ones up in
    the night worrying about what’s going to happen to them if they divorce
    and they’re left with a big gaping hole in their Social Security. At
    the same time, men must start taking their family leave, demanding part-time
    jobs and childcare before we’ll see real change."  

Setting priorities 

As Obama and his staff gets
ready to take office, and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate prep their legislation, Kornbluh, the staff and others are assessing
what to prioritize, and women’s groups are eager to get cracking. 

One reproductive rights bill
that may be out of reach until the next election, however, is the Freedom of Choice
, which, although
supported by Obama, would eliminate the obstacles states have put in
place for women getting abortions. 

"We have 43 solid pro-choice
votes. Even if the resolution of both of the outstanding Senate races
went our way, we don’t have the votes to pass it. That’s the reality.
It’s not because it’s not something we care about," says Rubiner
of Planned Parenthood. 

As for bills like the REAL Act and the Prevention First act, which
seek to expand contraception access and introduce comprehensive sex
ed (and of which Barack Obama was a sponsor), Rubiner is more optimistic,
saying the tone of the election would benefit the bill as a non-nonsense,
solutions-oriented bill. "There’s real strong support in congress
for that, supporters on both sides of the aisle," says Rubiner.  

Rowe-Finkbeiner and Smeal both
add that a quick passage of the Lily
Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

and expansion of the State
Children’s Health Insurance Program

are huge boosts for women that could go through congress and get signed
into law fairly quickly. 

Momsrising’s other priorities
are state funding for the Family and Medical Leave Insurance as part
of any economic stimulus package, and passage of the Healthy Families
, which ensures
paid sick days, and eliminating waiting periods for immigrant women
and children in the process of expanding SCHIP and health care access.  

Smeal of the Feminist Majority
added that the most important thing the Obama administration could do
was start reversing as many of the Bush administrations executive orders
and mitigating the effect of midnight appointments. On the international
front, she hopes the Obama administration will release funds for UNFPA
and reverse the Global
Gag Rule

"In the first 6 months,
the damage can be repaired preferably with a bang, right at the beginning."
Kornbluh, she adds, "knows the policies and can hit the ground running." 

More articles by Kornbluh: 

Joy of Flex
the "Washington Monthly" 

Valued (On "Juggler Families")

in the New Democracy journal (subscription only). 

News Law and Policy

Texas Court Greenlights Discrimination Against Transgender Students

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The ruling was not a decision on the merits of the Obama administration’s policy, but rather whether it followed the correct procedure in crafting it, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor wrote.

A federal judge in Texas on Sunday issued a preliminary injunction barring the Obama administration from enforcing guidelines designed to protect transgender students from discrimination in schools.

The ruling came in the multi-state lawsuitTexas v. United States, challenging the Obama administration’s guidance to schools that receive federal funding that transgender students must be given access to bathrooms that align with their gender identity rather than their biological sex.

Schools that defy the White House’s guidance would face potential loss of funding or federal lawsuits.

The lawsuit brought by Texas and states including Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, targets various federal memos and statements that served as the foundation for the administration’s position that the Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972 federal ban on sex discrimination encompasses gender identity discrimination. The administration charges that transgender people should be allowed to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

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The administration overstepped its authority in issuing the statement in violation of both the Administrative Procedure Act and the Constitution, according to the states challenging the guidance.

A nearly identical lawsuit challenging the White House’s policy was filed recently by the state of Nebraska. That lawsuit was joined by Arkansas, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor wrote that the administration failed to engage in the proper administrative rule making process when directing schools to not discriminate against transgender students in access to restrooms and facilities. The ruling, O’Connor wrote, was not a decision on the merits of the administration’s policy, but rather whether it followed the correct procedure in crafting it.

“This case presents the difficult issue of balancing the protection of students’ rights and that of personal privacy when using school bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, and other intimate facilities, while ensuring that no student is unnecessarily marginalized while attending school,” O’Connor said in his ruling. “The resolution of this difficult policy issue is not, however, the subject of this order.”

Sunday’s ruling comes shortly after the Supreme Court put on hold a federal appeals court ruling ordering a Virginia county school board to allow a transgender student access to the restroom that aligned with his gender identity.

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”


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