Sunday, November 20, 2011

Income inequality as a threat to adolescents and young adults

One of the core areas of adolescent health research is on the factors that prevent teens from developing into well-functioning adults: teen pregnancy, substance use, deviance. The assumption behind all of that research is that if teens don't engage in these behaviors, they will be able to become successful, educated, employed adults with families of their own. The current economic conditions threaten that transition to adulthood. Teens aren't assured of the chance to become productive adults, and it becomes more difficult to tell them to avoid risk behavior when their alternatives are so poor. If they have a high risk of unemployment, why not engage in risk behavior?

I recall Johns Hopkins Professor Laurie Zabin's story about working in the first federally funded birth control clinic, which was located in Baltimore in the early 1960s. An 18 year old Appalachian woman walked into the clinic asking for "a birth control" because she had just gotten a job with President Kennedy's Job Corps and for the first time in her life, she suddenly had a reason not to get pregnant.

With that thought, two stories related to income inequality and the Occupy Wall Street protests.

First, one of the markers of an advanced society is high quality infrastructure that the entire society can benefit from: clean/safe water systems, dependable electricity, and dependable and non-corrupt police. The marker of developing countries are private versions of these, such as private security guards and high walls and power generation because the main systems are not dependable. I thought of this while reading a story in the NYT Thursday Style section about how power generators have become a status symbol. The story didn't draw this conclusion, but it seems like an ominous sign of the direction of our society that a private electrical system is a status symbol in view of the lack of dependability of the public system. Particularly typical that many people in the article live in a NY suburb with many bankers.

Second, on police in the Occupy Wall Street protests, in NY and Berkeley and UC Davis: I keep reading the stories about students being beaten without provocation rather than just arrested, and it seems unbelievable. The former Poet Laureate of the United States visited the protest with his wife with the same type of disbelief. His wife got shoved to the ground while talking with an officer about non-violent protest. When he scolded the officer --- what kind of bastard shoves a 60-something year old woman, after all? --- he got beaten, and some of his colleagues got their ribs broken. I have seen similar reports of violence in NYC, UC Davis, and other cities, although not DC or Boston. Has this level of police brutality against non-violent protests been seen since the 1970s? Arguably, this brutality is even more perplexing because in contrast to the Vietnam protests where the police were not at risk of the draft, the protesters are directly fighting for the interests of the police --- fair pay, unionization, and more public spending including on police and the materials they need to do their jobs.

Former Baltimore police officer and sociologist Peter Moskos notes that attacking people without provocation is part of police training that teaches a hands-off approach: if people don't obey orders, they get maced. Smart police don't use this method, however:

Of course we didn’t do it this way, the way were taught. Baltimore police officers are too smart to start urban race riots based on some dumb-ass training. So what did we do to gain compliance? We grabbed people. Hands on. Like real police. And we were good at it....
if police need to remove these students, then the police can go in four officers to one protester and remove them. Lift them up and take them away. Maybe you need one or two more officers with a threatening baton to keep others from getting involved. It really can be that simple.

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