Top 10 Things we should be paying attention to in 2010

Photo credit, NYClovesNY, via Flickr Creative Commons

So, yes, I realize that, for the past month, everywhere you’ve looked, you’ve seen lists. Highlight lists, ‘best of’ lists, trend lists, lists, lists, lists. Lists looking backward, and lists looking forward. Lists for everything.

Well, this is the list for things that, for the most part, aren’t making any of those lists. The list of the Top 10 Things we SHOULD be paying attention to in 2010, but aren’t, with a little commentary on what we’re paying attention to instead.

We know that there’s only so much “room” on the agenda. And there are some big things taking up a lot of that space right now: climate change, health care reform, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And those issues are, absolutely, very, very important.

But they’re not the only important issues we face today. By a long shot.

And, so, I bring you my totally unscientific, admittedly biased list of the Top 10 Things that we Should be Paying Attention to in 2010, but are not (yet). These are in no particular order, but I’d certainly welcome your comments about those two or three that you find most pressing. And, of course, the dozens that I’ve left out, including those that you think belong on such a list more than those that I included! A caveat: this is a “domestic” list–I haven’t included many things that are vitally important on the world scene and deserve more attention than they’re receiving: democracy in Russia, global literacy, the political crisis in Honduras, the debacle that is our ongoing drug war in Latin America. Maybe that will be next year’s post, since I’m sure (wink, wink) that this list will jumpstart a ton of movement on these issues within the United States.

Part of our challenge as social justice champions, I believe, is figuring out how to create room on the agenda for some of these concerns without detracting from those “big ticket” items that do deserve our attention (because, of course, there are a lot of things soaking up space in the public’s mind that DO NOT deserve our attention, but that’s a whole other post). The key, perhaps, is in pointing out what will be obvious to many of you in even skimming this list: that many of these issues are linked in multiple causation to the issues that are front and center on the agenda, in some cases, in ways that could suggest alternative approaches to tackling those problems that have already found a space.

  • Political redistricting: While it may seem that it would be impossible to draw the legislative maps (nationally and within many states) any more illogically and transparently partisan than they already are, that is, in fact, what some political operatives are planning for the redistricting process to follow the 2010 Census. There are some folks paying attention at the national level, but the process is starting here in Kansas, too, with committees named to begin the deliberations. The outcome will determine, to a large extent, not only who can be elected in a given district, but also, perhaps more importantly, how young people and new voters will interface with the electoral process, since nothing discourages civic engagement like having an election essentially decided long before Election Day.
  • Tuition hikes in higher education: Tuition prices are increasing at institutions around the country, scholarships and financial aid are declining, and students, perhaps more than others in the social policy sphere, recognize the implication–higher education is poised to become, again, an elusive rite for only those with significant personal fortunes to sink into the prospect. The potential impact on the social work profession is especially dire, as we unequivocally cannot afford to become a profession even more out-of-touch with those we serve.
  • School segregation: As you know, I’m very concerned about the entrenched nature of school segregation in this nation. But, today, with all of the focus on public education directed at No Child Left Behind or, overwhelmingly, the impact of serious budget cuts on classroom resources, few policymakers or even social justice advocates seem to be talking much about the inherent wrong of having children of different races go to different schools. I don’t know whether busing or intense resources for housing desegregation, or a radical shift in the way we fund public schools, or some of all of the above, is the answer, but I know that we don’t want to be the nation we will be if this status quo continues.
  • Long-term care: Yes, there’s a ton of talk about health care, but very little of it relates to long-term care. There are almost no substantial long-term care reforms in the health care legislation, despite the fact that long-term care eats up ever-increasing portions of Medicaid, long-term care costs can easily bankrupt older adults, and few Baby Boomers have made provision for their long-term care needs. Again, I don’t know what the answer is, but with an aging population, we have to carve out some room in the discussion about “productive aging” to deal with the reality that many older people get sick or develop disabilities and, when they do, we need a coherent and adequate system to take care of them.
  • Prison conditions: I would say that I am fairly appalled and alarmed by the conditions in most U.S. prisons. It seems like every week or so I hear something awful, about serious overcrowding (especially in California) that threatens the life and safety of those incarcerated (and, of course, their jailers), or just atrocious conditions that in no way prepare people for success after they leave prison. I know that there are few target populations less sympathetic than prisoners, but I also know that we lock up a lot of people in this country, and most of them get out at some point, and (very compelling human rights arguments aside) there are some very important reasons that we should all care about how they’re treated while they’re in.
  • Creeping exploitative free-trade agreements: Even some of the most die-hard free trade proponents can’t argue that the North American Free Trade Agreement has brought what it promised (um, an “end to illegal immigration”, anyone?). Yet the policy under the Bush Administration was to pursue expanded free trade agreements, first throughout Central America, and then on an ad-hoc basis with countries around the world, after the Free Trade Area of the Americas was derailed. So far, the Obama Administration, despite some campaign rhetoric about fair trade, hasn’t made changing trade policy much of a priority. But if we’re going to address human rights, moderate migration, stem rising global poverty, and stop massive U.S. job loss, we’ve got to write trade agreements that prioritize values other than maximum profit for powerful corporate interests. We need a fair trade agenda, and we need it like 30 years ago.
  • Rising global food prices: One of the most tragic paradoxes of this current recession has been the increase in food prices, even as prices for many other goods (and, of course, wages) have fallen. Many factors contribute to this phenomenon, including the impact of climate change on agriculture, rising demand for biofuels, speculation in agricultural markets, population growth, and increasing urbanization. Inflation in food markets is not, of course, just a matter of idle consideration. People, especially children, starve to death when food prices increase dramatically. Especially if they increase while wages fall. Especially if trade agreements (see above) are structured so that those benefitting the most from the increases don’t live in the same countries where people are mostly hungry.
  • School board and Secretary of State races: From the profound to the seemingly banal, I know, but I keep wondering how many times I’m going to have to (very nicely, I think) ask people to please pay attention to who’s running for Secretary of State and school board (local and state levels) in their jurisdictions. What if I say “pretty please”? Remember the role of the Florida Secretary of State in the 2000 Presidential election? Remember how that one turned out? Here in Kansas, we have our own, very important, Secretary of State’s race. And school board races are always tremendously important, not only as the battleground in which decisions about sex, money, religion, and the future of our nation (you know, minor things) are fought out, but also as the launching pad of many elected officials who eventually obtain higher office. Most states will have at least one of these elections in 2010, and advocates for social justice need to show up, as candidates, volunteers, and voters.
  • Pro-parent social policy reforms: Yes, I’m a mom. And, yes, that probably drives a lot of my thinking about social policy related to parents. But it was really my volunteering at the Christmas Bureau over the holidays that reignited my thinking on this. For the most part, the people I helped were pretty extraordinary parents–working, sometimes two jobs, often by single parents, and very, obviously, totally committed to their kids. And I reflected on how very little we do as a country to validate and support their role as parents. I mean, we have children’s policies and family policies, but really very little attention to parents and their needs as parents. I haven’t fleshed out all that pro-parent policy would include, but good maternity and paternity policies would be a start; followed by flexible leave; publicly-supported emergency childcare and respite services; and meaningful child support enforcement. Raising kids is really, really hard. And there are a lot of parents working really hard at it. Instead of assuming that what everyone needs is a parenting class, we need to find ways to invest in parents’ potential.
  • The corrosive effects of ballot measures: So, yes, I save the most controversial for last. I know that I’ll hear from some “power-to-the-people” folks who think that everyone should have a right to vote on everything, but I just don’t agree. I’m tired of seeing that one state or another has passed another horrible referendum on gay marriage, or some terribly short-sighted tax limitation, or some disguised attack on Affirmative Action (“civil rights initiative”, anyone?). We have elected representatives because they are supposed to decide the hard policy questions facing our nation, and we certainly have a role to play in making that happen (including electing people we think likely to make wise decisions on our behalf). But popular sovereignty was the wrong path in 1861, and it’s largely the wrong one today. We need state-by-state reform of the laws governing the use of the ballot measure, and then we need to redouble our efforts in legislative advocacy in support of progressive policy reforms.

    Thoughts? What would you add? What would you take off? What would ‘move the needle’ on any of these issues? What role can/should social work play?

  • 4 responses to “Top 10 Things we should be paying attention to in 2010

    1. Nice to have you back.

      You are right in saying that many of the issues on your list are linked to larger issues that we see on the news and hear on the street everyday. On the otherside of that coin, I would say that there are many and varied underlying causations too often hidden within the issues on your list that many of us do not or choose not to see.

      As a professional working with a population that suffers from mental illness and as an indiviual with personal experience, the issue that really caught my eye was prison conditions and, more specifically, how prisoners are treated.

      The underlying issue that I refer to in this case can be accurately expressed by the US Department of Justice statistics from 2006 (the lastest available). Quoting from NAMI’s website ” 64 percent of local jail inmates, 56 percent of state prisoners and 45 percent of federal prisoners have symptoms of serious mental illnesses” ( (You can find the link there to the DOJ release). This is nearly 3 times higher than previous statistics.

      I have seen what kind of “treatment” is available to women within Missouri Department of Correction facilities, and have researched what Federal prisons offer. So, I have to ask myself are we just screening and counting better or is there just something fundamentally wrong with our justice system as a whole.

      And with that being said, I have come back full circle to your statement that many of these issues are linked in multiple causation. I say that because if our healthcare system were not so broken and if a part of that healthcare system was mandated mental health parity nationwide, I would ventured to guess the statistics mentioned above would be much lower.

      • Happy New Year, Cookie! It’s great to be back! We had a wonderful holiday, and I enjoyed the time away from the computer, although I still have a tall stack of books that I want to get through…

        You’re absolutely right that we can’t address prison conditions outside of the context of sentencing reform, since overcrowding is directly related not only to dire budget circumstances but also the preponderance of low-level, nonviolent offenders occupying bed spaces–and that means addressing not only the huge holes in the mental health safety net, but also being serious about drug reform and treatment programs. It’s a good question, whether those statistics for those incarcerated have changed because of better ability to diagnose and track or whether we’re really dealing with different populations–because of the increasingly strict nature of much of our criminal code, I’d argue that it’s some of both. One of my hopes for 2010 is that the budget picture in the states prompts a reassessment of a lot of what we’re doing–we’re already seeing some movement towards abolishing the death penalty due to its exorbitant costs–and maybe prison costs will finally force sentencing reform, since the alternate seems to be state fiscal collapse.

        It’s totally true that we can’t address any of these issues in isolation, and also that the “big-ticket” items on the agenda need attention, too–our challenge, then, is how to create spaces where those connections can be made, within public policy, and how to build the momentum to get them done.

        We’ve got a lot of work awaiting us in this new year! I hope to see you soon–thanks, as always, for your comments.

    2. What are we going to do about this?

      and can you promise me that Bush’s tax cuts will expire on Jan 1, 2011?

      • Happy New Year, Jason! First, it’s worth pointing out that the U.S. House of Representatives DID vote to permanently extend the estate tax. You know, over Christmas, I had a long talk with a very good friend who is a House staffer working on health care reform, and he talked about his belief that we need to reform the Senate rules, that, basically, it would be worth living with some bad legislation (the Senate tends to serve as a ‘block’ against the more extreme legislative aims of either party) during difficult congresses, in exchange for being able to get stuff through–essentially, that the Senate is fairly anti-democratic, in terms of reflecting electoral mandates. Maybe this is another example of that? What do you think? And, no, I can’t promise you that the Bush tax cuts will sunset–I’m not at all sure what Congress will do this spring and summer, in the run-up to the November 2010 elections. But we need to let our members know that we couldn’t afford them then and we really can’t afford them now!

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