Liberal equality is inevitable, so what now?

This post originally appeared on Oklahomans for Reproductive Justice.

At this point, it seems like liberal equality for GLBTQ individuals is virtually inevitable. The long-run Gallup polling on public opinion towards gay marriage has shown a gradual — and more recently punctuated — increase in support. Support for gay marriage is up in all demographic categories, and has recently pushed above the 50 percent mark. More importantly for the inevitability thesis, younger people support gay marriage as massively higher margins than older people. In 2011, 70 percent of those aged 18-34 supported gay marriage, while only 39 percent of those over the age of 55 did. As more young people come of age and more old people die, the already majoritarian support for gay marriage will continue to grow.

The gay marriage polling mirrors similar polling about workplace discrimination, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and presumably tracks the support levels for so-called liberal reforms. Here, I use “liberal reforms” to refer to reforms which do not challenge underlying institutions or systems, but simply try to modify those institutions so as to include GLBTQ people. So for instance, instead of challenging the justness of a system that denies certain social benefits to unmarried people, the liberal reformer simply tries to ensure that GLBTQ people can get married too.

While well-funded GLBTQ institutions have almost exclusively focused on liberal equality, and that seems to be the sort of equality that has captured the popular imagination, queer groups have critiqued that emphasis. In its place, queer groups have — at least nominally — emphasized a more systematic analysis that includes the intersection of GLBTQ oppression with oppression rooted in race, class, imperialism, and so on. The argument is that including GLBTQ people in the present slate of institutions wont generate justice if those institutions are themselves unjust.

With liberal inequality appearing more and more inevitable, the question on my mind is: what now? How many GLBTQ people and their allies have actually adopted the more radical queer position in this movement? Is it enough to have any impact after liberal equality? And if so, how best can that impact be realized? According to a 2011 survey, 3.5 percent of those aged 18-44 identified as GLBT, 8.2 percent claimed to have had a same-sex sexual encounter, and 11 percent admitted to at least some same-sex sexual attraction. In total numbers, the estimated number of people identifying as GLBT in the US is around 9 million, with 700,000 of those identifying as transgender.

Reliable information about general GLBT political opinions is hard to come by. We know that in the 2010 mid-term elections, 31 percent of self-identified GLBT voters went Republican. Although that number by itself gives only a very partial picture of things, it does at least establish a hard floor on the number of GLBT-identified people who almost certainly do not accept the queer critique. What percentage of Democratic voters and non-voters accept it is hard to determine. Whatever the number, there is clearly a significant slice of GLBTQ people who do not pursue the deeper queer critique, and that poses trouble for the future of the movement beyond liberal equality.

More than that, despite its efforts at differentiation from a feminist past that focused on the issues of upper-class white people, it is not clear how successful the queer-driven feminism has been at avoiding an upper-class white focus. The women of color feminist critiques brought against the movement today are not all that dissimilar from the womanist critiques from the 1980s. The campus orientation of many of these groups also likely tilt them towards the whiter and richer side of things given what populations attend universities in the US. If these critiques are legitimate — and as an outside observer they seem to be — then, going forward, this reality also poses difficulties for the possibility of a successful queer movement aimed at deeper social justice issues.

I cannot predict the future, but I can say that certain trends and persistent problems point to possible issues in the near future for the efficacy of the queer slice of the GLBT movement. The non-queer slices may jump ship once liberal equality is achieved, and I am sure allies will also check out in droves. With that being a possibility, there should be some thought going into what the best way to handle that will be, if indeed it does happen.

Teenage pregnancy and poverty

Teenage pregnancy is one of the few issues that most people are on the same page about. In the United States at least, there is almost a universal consensus it seems that teenage pregnancy is a negative thing, and should be discouraged. The reasons given for this view are diverse.

Moralizers of various sorts — especially social conservatives — seem outraged by teenage pregnancy for mainly ideological reasons. As most teens are not married, teenage pregnancy is evidence of sex before marriage, and therefore sexual impurity. For moralizers, high rates of teenage pregnancy are a sign of a decadent, immoral society that has lost its way. On this view, the harm is not teenage pregnancy really: it is premarital sex. The issue of teenage pregnancy is just a proxy through which the moralizers push their brand of sexual mores. Needless to say, this approach to teenage pregnancy is not one I find at all compelling.

The next reason teenage pregnancy is so opposed is economic. Teenage mothers, it is said, fare poorly for the rest of their lives. They are less likely and able to get an education, face limited job possibilities, and so on. From this, people conclude that teenage pregnancy causes these negative economic outcomes, and that it therefore should be discouraged. This conclusion also serves the ideological purposes of those who wish to deflect away from the high rates of poverty in the U.S. by attributing those rates to the prior bad decisions of the impoverished.

This raises an interesting empirical question though: does teenage mothering actually have negative economic consequences for those who undertake it? It might seem obvious that it does, but according to a recent study, the answer is actually no. When comparing teen mothers with similarly situated teens that had miscarriages, the researchers found only a small and short-lived difference in economic consequences. Comparisons of teen mothers with their non-mothering sisters produced similar results.

The reason teenage mothers end up poorer than average is because they are already poorer and therefore on a poorer economic trajectory. That is, high rates of teenage pregnancy are a feature of poverty and inequality, not a cause of it. Those who wind up as teenage mothers are, for the most part, already on track for poorer economic outcomes. This connection between high inequality and high rates of teenage pregnancy is observable among American states and internationally. For those worried about teenage pregnancy and poverty, it turns out that tackling poverty requires actually tackling poverty: teenage pregnancy is only a symptom.

So, the two main discussions people have about the ills of teenage pregnancy are not very convincing. The moralizing approach appeals to a certain social conservative faction in the country, but not to those who have different views on sexual morality. The economic approach mixes up causation and correlation, and falls apart when confronted with empirical data.

However, there is one reason to be worried about teenage pregnancy that does not rely on either of the two main approaches: personal autonomy. The possibility of children parents poses a difficult problem for personal autonomy. Having a child has profound consequences for the rest of someone’s life. At age 15, we can reasonably think a person is not ready to fully appreciate those consequences, and make a fully-informed — and therefore free — choice.

Discouraging teenage pregnancy then can be justified on the same grounds that we discourage dropping out of high school. Both decisions are free and autonomous in some sense, but many of the kids making such decisions lack the kind of appreciation for their consequences necessary to make them intelligently. This approach to teenage pregnancy sharply differs from the two above. It does not rely upon sexual shaming or specious economic arguments, and it centers the autonomy interests of the potential parents. If we are going to make sense of discouraging teenage pregnancy, it should probably be on those grounds.

Originally posted on Oklahomans for Reproductive Justice.

A case for equal pay and universal day care

Recently Hilary Rosen questioned Ann Romney’s wisdom on the economy’s effect on women, claiming that Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life. Ann then quipped back via twitter that she worked very hard raising her five boys. Then all hell broke lose in the bored media and blogosphere. Eventually, people pulled up an old Mitt Romney speech where he talks about welfare mothers needing to go to work:

I said even if you have a child 2 years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, ‘Well that’s heartless.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I’m willing to spend more giving day care to allow those parents to go back to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that day care, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.’

With this apparent contradiction found, the media and blogs were off to the races once again with a dizzying array of coverage and commentary. The sheer amount of reaction is actually understandable in this case. Unlike the usual campaign drama, this particular flare up raises some very fascinating and interesting questions about how we should understand issues of gender equality, class, and child-rearing.

It is hard to know what Mitt Romney meant when he said “dignity of work.” To the extent that he clearly understood work to mean non-household labor, he would have to agree with Rosen’s claim that Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life. After all, welfare mothers raise children, but are being said to not have the “dignity of work.”

Beyond that somewhat superficial take, a deeper question about workforce attachment is raised. As research on the effects of unemployment have demonstrated, staying out of the workforce for long periods of time is problematic. Among other things, skills atrophy, work experience does not accumulate, and one’s ability to get back into the workforce diminishes.

Crucially though, this is the case for single parents on government assistance just as much as it is for stay-at-home parents with a partner that works outside the home. If the partner leaves the stay-at-home parent, they will have a very difficult time finding a job, especially a good one that can sustain a family. The stay-at-home parent scenario creates a relationship of dependency that is at least as problematic as welfare dependency, and arguably more so.

So the Romneys are necessarily inconsistent on this front. Either unemployed parents are dangerously dependent, do not know the dignity of work, and would be better off with workforce attachment, or they are not. Whatever conclusion one reaches on that question must apply across the board.

If one thinks — as is reasonable — that mothers should be attached to the workforce, then one should consider what stands in the way of that. Social norms certainly play a role. Where parents have stayed home to take care of children in the past, it has often been women who did so. Those norms, although declining, still have residual impact.

In addition to those norms, economic factors play a significant role. Day care is expensive. Although rates vary across the country, one can easily drop $6,000/yr per child on day care. If a family has 2 or 3 kids, that can be so expensive that it actually saves money to not work. Even where that’s not the case, day care expenses greatly decrease the benefit of working. If 75% of your wages go to day care costs which only exist because you are working, dropping out of the workforce altogether becomes more attractive.

On top of day care expenses, women continue to be plagued by economic injustice. When women make a fraction of what men make for the same positions and on average occupy less lucrative jobs, it is their job that becomes less expensive to sacrifice. The lower wages also put them, on average, closer to the line that makes dropping out of the workforce to avoid day care expenses an attractive option.

If one is truly interested in keeping women and parents in general attached to the workforce, then one has to do more than just threaten to cut off assistance to struggling single parents. Making day care more affordable — either through vouchers or some other universal scheme — and eliminating the economic discrimination women face are necessary first steps. Vague bromides about lazy welfare mothers gets you nowhere.

This post was originally posted at Oklahomans for Reproductive Justice.