Commentary Family

Marital Status Doesn’t Cause Poverty—Not Having Money Does

Amanda Marcotte

Conservatives have been turning up the volume on the irrational, unevidenced claim that poverty is caused by not being married. In reality, poverty is caused by not having enough money. This should be obvious, but it clearly needs to be said more often.

The uncontrolled woman who needs to be brought under the firm guidance of a man has long been a favorite villainous figure in the right-wing imagination, and lately one that might be the number one target for many social ills. The main reason is that growing income inequality and startling statistics—such as the fact that one in three Americans experienced poverty between 2009 and 2011—are making the discussion of economic justice unavoidable. And so, unable to just ignore the discussion completely, conservatives have decided to blame a favorite scapegoat—women who make sexual choices they disagree with—for the “choice” not to get married.

The strangest thing about the attacks on single women, especially single mothers, is how much conservatives seem to believe that women are actively avoiding marriage. To hear right-wing pundits and politicians talk, there are suitors lined up around the block for every single woman, but she refuses to accept them because, poisoned by feminism, she refuses to hear their pleas for love. You’d think, after immersing yourself in conservative arguments blaming single women for widespread poverty, that women are naturally repulsed by men and will only be with them out of necessity. Or that women have never heard of this nifty thing called “marriage” and just need some talking heads and op-ed columnists to sell them on the idea.

Media Matters rounded up some examples of this, the funniest of which is almost surely Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker’s, who seems to think people are poor because no one told them getting married is awesome. “[M]arriage creates a tiny economy fueled by a magical concoction of love, selflessness and permanent commitment that holds spirits aloft during tough times,” she writes. Poor people: Parker knows you must be too stupid to want love, but she’s here to tell you that it’s great. Magic, even. Magical enough to cause money to start streaming into your bank account.

Parker scolds Republicans who “insinuate that single mothers are using welfare to avoid marriage,” suggesting that this is not a helpful thing to say. (Perhaps they would do better to imitate Parker and instead insinuate that poor people are ignorant of this institution “marriage” and indifferent to the appeal of love.) I imagine that she’s thinking of Republicans like Louie Gohmert, whose absolute bone-shaking fury that women who have children but aren’t married would prefer not to starve to death is, by his own measure, the reason he became a politician. Or perhaps she’s thinking of John Stossel, who recently tried to blame the “war on poverty” for making people poor by letting women off the hook with regard to marriage. (In reality, the “war on poverty” worked.)

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In Parker’s eyes, the bad guy is the all-powerful reach of evil feminism:

Democrats avoid the M-word for fear of trespassing on important constituent turfs, especially women’s. For many women, the push for marriage is seen as subterfuge for reversing their hard-won gains.

Conservative bashers of single women, can’t you all just get along? Can’t it be a both/and fantasy, where low-income women, high on their women’s studies-based hatred of matrimony, have collectively decided to strike against men and their right to be cooked and cleaned for by turning to the welfare system instead? (Remember, the possibility that women might actually work for a living is pointedly ignored in this entire discourse. As is the possibility that many women who receive government assistance also work. Or are married. Or both.) Since you’re just making it all up anyway, why not go whole hog?

Being a good liberal, I’m generally a big fan of complexity and nuance, but interestingly enough, there are two issues that conservatives are making needlessly complicated in their effort to avoid talking about the real problem here: 1) why people are poor; and 2) why people are single. Both have simple, straightforward reasons. Of course, they are reasons that conservatives ignore, because admitting those reasons tends to make the solutions obvious—and the solutions are not things conservatives want to hear.

Why are people poor? Because they don’t have enough money. This is true regardless of what their personal choices are with regards to sex and family structure. The solution to the problem therefore is to get more money into their pockets by giving it to them. Two tried-and-true methods that have worked before: raising wages and directly giving money to poor people. That these things work is not a controversial statement in the reality-based world. The only reason they’re in dispute at all is because conservatives object on principle.

Why are people single? It is true that there’s a small percentage of people who don’t want to be in long-term, committed relationships that are formalized through marriage. But, on the whole, people aren’t married for one reason, and one reason only: They don’t have anyone suitable to be married to. Contrary to paranoid fantasies on the right, there isn’t a widespread marriage boycott organized by welfare offices, feminists, or some combination of the two. Most people want to be married, when they meet the right person. Low-income people value marriage more than people higher up the income ladder. So they’re really just holding out for true love. It’s the one thing that real life has in common with a romantic comedy.

Now, why it’s harder to find someone to be married to than it used to be is a bit more complex of a question. Ironically, one major reason is growing income inequality and declining employment opportunities. Building a life with someone else is hard when both of you are just barely getting by, it turns out. The truth is that marriage doesn’t improve your employment prospects, but as anyone who has ever dated ever can tell you, being gainfully employed definitely improves your ability to attract a mate, for both men and women. Feminism may play a small role in raising women’s expectations, particularly around being treated with respect, but what’s wrong with that?

So while it’s unfortunate that conservatives are trying to muddy the waters regarding the issue of poverty with all this marriage talk, the fact that the liberal arguments are simple is a point in our favor. When debating this topic, just remember: People are poor because they don’t have enough money, and straight women aren’t married because they haven’t met Mr. Right yet. Watching conservatives try to squirm around the obviousness of these facts should be entertaining, at least, but it should also help change some minds.

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.”

Analysis Law and Policy

Federal Court Says Trans Worker Can Be Fired Based on Owner’s Religious Beliefs

Jessica Mason Pieklo

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of secular for-profit businesses could challenge laws they believed infringed on their religious liberties, civil rights advocates warned that the decision was just the start of a new wave of litigation. On Thursday, those predictions came true: A federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker simply for being transgender.

The language of the opinion is sweeping, even if the immediate effect of the decision is limited to the worker, Aimee Stephens, and her boss. And that has some court-watchers concerned.

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

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According to court documents, Stephens, an employee at Detroit’s R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes, gave her boss—the business’ owner—a letter in 2013 explaining she was undergoing a gender transition. As part of her transition, she told her employer that she would soon start to present as a woman, including dressing in appropriate business attire at work that was consistent both with her identity and the company’s sex-segregated dress code policy.

Two weeks later, Stephens was fired after being told by her boss that what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable and offensive to his religious beliefs.

In September 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stephens, arguing the funeral home had violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, Stephens was unlawfully fired in violation of Title VII “because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows those employees who have been discriminated against in the workplace to collect money, known as civil damages. Those damages usually come in the form of lost wages, back pay, and funds to make up for—to some degree—the abuse the employee faced on the job. They are also designed to make employers more vigilant about their workplace culture. Losing an employment discrimination case for an employer can be expensive.

But attorneys representing Stephens’ employer argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected their client from legal liability for firing Stephens. On Thursday, a federal court agreed. It said that paying such damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs. 

According to the court, despite the fact that Stephens’ boss admitted he fired her for transitioning, and despite the fact that the court found this admission to be direct evidence of employment discrimination, RFRA can be a defense against that direct discrimination. To use that defense, the court concluded, all the funeral home owner had to do was assert that his religious beliefs embraced LGBTQ discrimination. The funeral home had “met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the court wrote.

In other words, Hobby Lobby provides employers a defense to discriminating against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs.

“The RFRA analysis is extremely troubling, and the implications of it [are] as well,” said Knight. “I believe this is the first case applying RFRA to a Title VII claim with respect to nonministerial employees.”

If the scope of the opinion were broader, Knight continued, “this would allow [employers in general] to evade and refuse to comply with uniform nondiscrimination law because of their religious views.”

This, Knight said, is what advocates were afraid of in the wake of Hobby Lobby: “It is the concern raised by all of the liberal justices in the dissent in Hobby Lobby, and it is what the majority in Hobby Lobby said the decision did not mean. [That majority] said it did not mean the end of enforcement of nondiscrimination laws.”

And yet that is exactly what we are seeing in this decision, Knight said.

According to court documents, Stephens’ boss has been a Christian for more than 65 years and testified that he believes “the Bible teaches that God creates people male or female,” that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift, and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.” For Stephens’ former boss, Stephens’ transition to a woman was “denying” her sex. Stephens had to be fired, her boss testified, so that he would not be directly complicit in supporting the idea that “sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

If the “complicit in denying God’s will” sounds familiar, it should. It has been the exact argument used by businesses challenging the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act. Those business owners believe contraception is contrary to God’s will and that complying with federal law, which says birth control should be treated in insurance policies as any other preventive service, makes them complicit in sin. Thursday’s decision cites Hobby Lobby directly to support the court’s conclusion that complying with federal nondiscrimination law can be avoided by asserting a religious objection.

Think of the implications, should other courts follow this lead. Conservatives have, in the past, launched religious objections to child labor laws, the minimum wage, interracial marriage, and renting housing to single parents—to name a few. Those early legal challenges were unsuccessful, in part because they were based on constitutional claims. Hobby Lobby changed all that, opening the door for religious conservatives to launch all kinds of protests against laws they disagree with.

And though the complaint may be framed as religious objections to birth control, to LGBTQ people generally, and whatever other social issue that rankles conservatives, these cases are so much more than that. They are about corporate interests trying to evade regulations that both advance social equity and punish financially those businesses that refuse to follow the law. Thursday’s opinion represents the next, troubling evolution of that litigation.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify John Knight’s position with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.


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