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A federalism to protect rights

Jun 13,2022 - Last updated at Jun 13,2022

BERKELEY — Judging by the leaked draft majority opinion in Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, the US Supreme Court seems poised to abolish the half-century-old federally protected constitutional right to abortion. This ruling would be a direct federal attack on women and their right to control their bodies and their decisions about whether and when to have children, with adverse ripple effects on their education, earnings, and life outcomes and those of their children.

According to anamicus brief signed by 154 distinguished economists, including Claudia Goldin of Harvard University and Sharon Oster of Yale University, abortion restrictions would lead to increased childhood poverty. And a child growing up in poverty in the United States experiences worse outcomes, on average, across pretty much every measurable dimension, from physical and mental health, educational attainment, and labour-market success to delinquency, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and crime. Worse, the US already has one of the highest childhood poverty rates among advanced economies, and it is the only one that does not provide a basic child allowance.

As the late comedian George Carlin once observed, “[US] conservatives... are all in favour of the unborn, but once you’re born, you’re on your own!” A recent case in point is the refusal of congressional Republicans to extend a child tax credit that had reduced childhood poverty by 40 per cent during the pandemic. Of the 26 states that are now planning strict abortion bans, many rank in the bottom half of states in terms of the support they provide to children and their families.

While many of these states are rushing to abolish abortion rights under all circumstances — including rape, incest, and risks to the life of the mother — some are even considering bans on birth control. The growing influence of evangelical voters in these states has rapidly eroded the wall of separation between church and state that has been a foundation of American democracy.

While conservative-controlled America hurtles towards theocracy, many states are rushing to defend women’s abortion rights and children’s well-being, demonstrating the strength of progressive federalism. In California and 15 other states (plus the District of Columbia), lawmakers are considering how to strengthen abortion rights for their own residents and for Americans traveling from other states to access reproductive-health services.

These states also rank higher than conservative-controlled states in terms of policies to support poor families, mothers, and children. In California, these measures include CalWORKs (a cash-allowance programme for families with children), an earned income tax credit and associated child tax credit, paid family leave, access to affordable healthcare, and universal preschool. Moreover, Governor Gavin Newsom’s latest budget includes proposals for two free years of community college and $18.1 billion for a one-time inflation-relief package to households to offset rising costs for fuel and public transportation.

But even in California, nearly one-third of residents live at or near the poverty line. On a cost-of-living-adjusted basis, the state’s childhood and overall poverty rates are among the highest in the country. And that is despite the fact that existing federal and state programmes (if fully funded and used by eligible citizens) should be sufficient to enable any California family to stay out of poverty.

In addition to inadequate funding, part of the problem at both the national and state levels is that far too many safety-net programmes are confusing and inaccessible to the targeted beneficiaries. Some programs have uptake rates of less than 75 per cent of the eligible population. At the same time, many households that do access programmes run into unnecessary and counterproductive benefit ceilings (or cliffs) while still in poverty.

There are some efforts under way to increase the accessibility and uptake of existing programmes. For example, with pro bono assistance from the NGO Code for America, US President Joe Biden’s administration launched a digital portal to simplify and streamline filing for the federal child tax credit. And End Poverty in California — a nonprofit created by former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs (who previously piloted a successful guaranteed-income program in California and is serving as an adviser to Newsom) — is working with a group of California counties to simplify and automate all available state and federal programs, with the goal of developing a single sign-on, opt-out eligibility process.

Given California’s success with automatic voter registration, registering for benefits eligibility should not be so difficult. US states and the federal government could learn a lot from Estonia’s example of how to provide digital citizenship benefits.

Unfortunately, the US federal government is pulling back on pandemic-era policies to support families just when the Supreme Court is poised to increase childhood poverty even more. With an increasingly politicised and hostile Court and a US Senate that is reluctant to eliminate the filibuster to pass progressive programmes, the task of looking out for America’s women and children will fall even more to progressive states.


Laura Tyson, a former chair of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton administration, is a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Board of Advisers at Angeleno Group. Lenny Mendonca, senior partner emeritus at McKinsey & Company, is a former chief economic and business adviser to Governor Gavin Newsom of California and chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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