Friday, August 30, 2013 Aug. 30, 2013 Children work as hired hands on farms in U.S.

Children as Young as 10 Can Do Farm Work in Some States

Ten-year-old Jacob Mosbacher drives a tractor through a bean field on his grandparents' property near Fults, Ill. The Obama administration dropped proposals to limit farm work by children as young as Jacob. (AP)
In most states, a girl or boy as young as 12 could work long hours in the broiling summer sun picking the fruits and vegetables for your Labor Day picnic—and it’s legal.
Federal child labor laws set a minimum work age of 16 for most occupations, but the laws exempt minors who work in the agriculture and entertainment industries. Unless states pass their own rules, children who are 12 can work seven days a week outside of school hours picking fruits and vegetables. Age, hour, overtime and minimum wage provisions of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act that protect young workers in other fields don’t apply.
  • Seventeen states have exempted farm work from most or all their child labor laws—Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming.
  • Others have set higher age minimums for work during school hours: California, Hawaii, Washington and Wisconsin require someone to be 18 to work on a farm during school hours.
  • A dozen states set 14 as the minimum wage for farm work outside of school hours—Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington.
There are exceptions. Washington allows 12-year-olds to hand-harvest berries, bulbs, cucumbers and spinach when they’re not in school. In Hawaii, 10-year-olds can harvest coffee.
The federal government and 10 states set no maximum on the number of hours per day or week a young person can work on farms. Generally, farm workers under 20 receive a lower federal minimum wage of $4.25 an hour for the first 90 days of employment, although hand-harvesters of all ages are often paid by the number of containers filled.
Under federal law, only workers under 16 are prohibited from hazardous tasks on farms while the law protects workers under 18 in non-farm jobs. Teens from 15 to 17 working on farms are four times more likely to die on the job than teenagers in all other jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
“Somehow people have developed this cultural myth that the work ethic has to be developed early and we should put children at risk,” said Mary Miller, child labor specialist in the Washington State Department of Labor and Industry, who has worked in child labor since the early 1990s.
“I’m constantly skunked that there’s no constituency for child workers,” she said. “They don’t vote.”

Spotty Enforcement

Where there are laws to protect child farm workers, enforcement is spotty because of budget cutbacks, labor officials say.
“Interest in child farm labor has really fizzled out on the state level,” said Colleen White, director of Missouri’s Division of Labor Standards for 12 years and now a consultant. “All the states are doing more with less.” She said her state used to conduct random inspections to make sure child protection laws were enforced, but now most inspections occur only after complaints of suspected violations.
Meanwhile, a child labor agricultural law signed this year in Missouri makes it legal for children under 16 to work on a farm owned or operated by a relative or, with parental consent, on any other farm. The bill was a reaction to an Obama administration proposal, since withdrawn, that critics said threatened to limit the work children under 16 could do on farms.
“These proposed rules in Washington (D.C.) would limit the types of chores young people could perform on farms, such as prohibiting them from using lawnmowers and power tools, from baling hay, and from performing basic animal husbandry practices,” Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, said in a joint statement.
The Missouri measure was the only farm measure enacted of 25 child labor bills introduced around the country in 2013.
The Obama administration tried in 2011 to update the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and revise the list of hazardous duties children could perform. Farm-state legislators, farmers and ranchers declared war, claiming the new rules would make it illegal for a teen to use a flashlight on a farm.
Under pressure, the administration withdrew the proposed regulations—and also promised they were dead for the duration of Obama’s second term.
“I felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” Miller said.
In Congress, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat, recently reintroduced the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act), which she said would prohibit children 12 or younger from working for wages in agriculture. It would also raise to age 18 coverage under the Labor Department’s hazardous orders list, which covers 17 dangerous tasks such as operating heavy equipment, climbing a ladder more than 20 feet high and applying hazardous chemicals.
“It would be a great bill. It would go a long way toward protecting the kids,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, director of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. It’s not given much chance of passage.
But, said Coursen-Neff, “States could right now decide to protect kids in agriculture with these same provisions. There’s no excuse to take one class of children, the poorest in the United States, and say you’re going to have fewer protections than any other class of children.”

Rules Vary by State

Working conditions for agriculture workers vary by state. For example, only California and Washington state have heat-stress rules requiring rest breaks and access to shade and water for workers of all ages. No such requirement exists on the federal level, Miller wrote last year in the Journal of Agromedicine.
Reid Maki, director of the Child Labor Coalition, part of the National Consumers League, blamed indifference. “For over a decade, we’ve been trying to spread the word that a 12-year-old can work unlimited hours as long as school is not in session, under harsh conditions in the fields — and nobody seems to care,” he said.
For the farming community, the issues are how to protect a way of life and ensure a reliable workforce.

Interactive: State Child Labor Laws Applicable to Agricultural Employment

(Source: U.S. Department of Labor)
“These are our sons and daughters and our grandchildren. We want them to be safe but we also need a healthy dose of common sense,” said Dale Moore, executive director for public policy for the American Farm Bureau, an advocacy group for farmers and ranchers.
“Standards need to be uniform and based on something other than a feeling,” Moore said.
Barbara Lee, director of the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, works with growers on improving safety and conditions for young workers. The center is funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
“Only a small proportion of agricultural employers actually choose to hire teens,” she said, citing three reasons: regulations, availability of undocumented workers and teen attitudes.
It’s difficult to know how many children work in the fields. The latest numbers from NIOSH suggest the ranks of hired workers under 20 on farms are shrinking. An estimated 258,835 youth under 20 were hired on farms last year, according to the just-completed 2012 Childhood Agricultural Injury Survey. Of these, about 41,310 were under the age of 16. Further, the survey found that 22,635 youth under 16 worked in livestock operations and 3,314 under 16 worked in fruit and vegetable fields.
Child labor advocates believe the numbers of child and teen farm workers are far higher. “Our closest number estimate is that 400,000 to 500,000 kids are working in the fields,” said Norma Flores Lopez, director of the Children in the Fields Campaign of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. Many children work “off the books,” she said.

States Take Action

Lester Claravall, director of Oklahoma’s Child Labor Unit and the incoming president of the Interstate Labor Standards Association, a group of state labor officials, said the Obama administration’s pullback on new regulations makes it more important to focus on the state level.
“We want the kids to work,” Claravall said. “It’s the negative consequences we don’t want.”
Oklahoma, with no state child labor law for agriculture, lacks the threat of fines, so Claravall uses the carrot of education and outreach, working with school districts, businesses, teens, tribes and farm groups.
Two teenage boys each lost a leg while working in a grain elevator in Kremlin, Okla., in 2011. The tragedy devastated the town and shocked the state, and Claravall was put in charge of the child state’s labor effort. He is the sole state employee responsible for child labor protection in all 77 counties.
“We were already doing safety programs, but we realized we had to do more,” he said. Claravall launched a “Speak out for Workplace Safety!” public service announcement video contest for high schools. Winners received iPads and gift cards.
“When you hear about Obama putting everything on hold until 2016,” Claravall said, “you can’t sit around and do nothing. You have to do what you can.”
The National Council of Agricultural Employers isn’t waiting either. It is drafting a set of best practices for child farm labor so growers can hire youth workers safely and legally, said Frank Gasperini Jr., executive vice president.
Likely provisions include adult supervision on site, not elsewhere on the farm or in town; no workers under 14; no youth on the overnight shift; only workers with driver’s licenses driving or operating equipment; and only authorized workers in the fields. Farmworker parents without daycare options often bring their little ones to the fields. The children can get hurt or start imitating their parents at work and that can result in a labor law violation for the employer, Gasperini said.
“We’d like to be heading toward voluntary practices. That way, when federal legislation is proposed again, we’ll have a foundation to work from,” he said.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Back to school -- and food fights -- Aug. 29, 2013 column


It’s back-to-school time, so naturally that means food fights.

The school cafeteria has been an unlikely political battleground since the Reagan administration tried to classify ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables more than three decades ago. The ridiculous proposal was withdrawn but not forgotten.  

Today, the federal government is pushing for healthier lunches in the fight against childhood obesity. Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, championed by first lady Michelle Obama. Congress and Obama deserve praise for standing up for kids’ health.

Starting last fall, the nation’s lunch trays have been filled with leaner, less salty fare, but, as nutritionists say, “It’s not nutrition until it’s eaten.”

Some students have given the new and improved lunches an F. They’re tossing veggies into the trash, chowing down for lunch at nearby fast food restaurants and brown-bagging. As a result, some schools are dropping out of the National School Lunch Program altogether.

“So many students turned up their noses at meals packed with whole grains, fruits and vegetables that the cafeterias were losing money,” the Associated Press reported.

Well, not “so many.” The federal government says the number of students eating cafeteria lunches nationwide dropped nearly 3 percent in 2012-13 from the year before. The decline is mostly among kids who can afford to buy their own lunch. Most can’t; about 71 percent of students received free or reduced-price lunches last May.

Complaints about cafeteria “mystery meat” are as old as steam tables, so it’s hardly a surprise that whole wheat might not win fans after one year. Several news stories picked up a quote by a school board member in Harlan, Ky. You may not want to read what she had to say if you’re having your corn flakes. Fair warning.   

“They say it tastes like vomit,” said Myra Mosley.

The Daily Caller suggested that the quote was a condemnation of the first lady’s efforts to make school lunches healthier. The Caller’s headline read, “Kentucky students to first lady Michelle Obama: Your food ‘tastes like vomit’”

But the students did not say that. The Harlan Daily Enterprise reported that Mosley twice said the kids were complaining about the 1 percent fat milk they now are served. A school official explained they’re using the same brand of milk, but the kids are used to the taste of 2 percent and whole milk.

The Department of Agriculture has a sensible, new “Offer versus Serve” policy. At lunch, instead of serving everybody the same five required foods – meat or meat alternative, grains, fruit, vegetable and milk – schools offer the five and allow each student to choose three and decline two. It’s hoped that will reduce waste, bring kids back to the lunch line and stop school districts from heading for the exits of the lunch program.

A School Nutrition Association survey this summer found 1 percent of school officials planned for at least one of their schools to drop out of the national lunch program in 2013-14. About 3 percent are considering removing a school, said the association, which concluded, “there is no national trend” of schools abandoning the national lunch program.

You might think the problem with school lunches is too much of a good, or healthy, thing. Not so, say Republican Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Tim Huelskamp of Kansas. They say the  “nutrition nannies” have unfairly put the all nation’s students on a diet.

Elementary pupils’ lunches now may contain 650 calories, middle school 700 calories and high school 850 calories. Some high school football players complain their lunches weren’t filling enough to keep hunger pangs at bay during hours of after-school practice.

King and Huelskamp’s “No Hungry Kids Act” would roll back the new rules and prohibit calorie caps. 

Instead of giving up on the new lunch guidelines, smart schools are experimenting with salad bars and attractive fruit baskets. School lunches in Madison, Ala., now include roasted Alabama sweet potato wedges and locally grown cherry tomatoes and watermelon.

More nutrition battles surely lie ahead, though. In 2014, the federal government will require schools to stock healthy foods in school vending machines, snack bars and stores.

I can’t wait to see where the politicians line up in the face-off between gummy bears and granola bars.

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Aug. 29, 2013 -- From Stateline, the daily online news service of the Pew Trusts.

Few Protections for Child Actors Like Honey Boo Boo

Beauty queen and reality show star Alana Thompson, 8, at her home in McIntyre, Ga. Alana stars on the hit show "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." (AP)
In 2010, Pennsylvania Rep. Tom Murt watched a TV panel discussion with former child actors led by Paul Petersen, an original Mouseketeer who later appeared on “The Donna Reed Show.”
“To be honest, I felt sorry for them,” said Murt, a Republican. “We’ve seen so many child actors get in trouble later. They were robbed of their childhood.”
The popular “Jon & Kate Plus 8” reality TV show, starring Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children, was filmed from 2007 to 2010 in Pennsylvania. Murt pursued legislation to protect child performers like the Gosselin kids, and legislative hearings disclosed that “Jon & Kate” producers filmed the children changing clothes and going to the bathroom as part of potty training.
“Totally, totally inappropriate,” Murt said.
“We want these film companies to come to Pennsylvania. It means jobs not just for the artists but for carpenters and electricians,” he said. “But if somebody’s going to be filming children in Pennsylvania, we want to protect the children.”
Last January, Pennsylvania became the latest state to update its labor laws for child performers with new requirements for work permits, on-set teachers, special trust accounts and limits on work hours.
Kate Gosselin and her eight children have starred in reality TV shows like “Jon & Kate Plus 8.” Federal child labor laws exempt child actors, leaving protections up to states. (Getty)
When minors sell T-shirts at the mall or flip burgers at a fast food restaurant, their employment falls under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 for minimum wage, overtime, work hours and other conditions. But these provisions don’t apply to child performers and child farm workers because of the FLSA’s so-called “Shirley Temple Act” exemptions.
States that want to protect young entertainers working in movies, television shows or commercials have to pass their own child entertainment laws, and 32 states have done so. The laws range from simply requiring a young performer to get consent from the state labor commissioner to setting maximum hours per day and week a child performer may work.
Eighteen states have no laws to protect child performers. Only about half the states require work permits for child performers, and some only for kids under age 14 or 16.
As a consequence, rules for child performers vary widely. Pennsylvania’s previous law prohibited children under 7 from appearing on TV but not in movies, although no one was sure why. In Kansas, newborns can’t work until they’re 15 days old. Nevada casinos that hire child entertainers for more than 91 school days must provide tutors or other educational services – but only on request.
A handful of states require that parents set aside 15 percent of their child performer’s income in trust accounts, called Coogan accounts after an early child actor, Jackie Coogan, whose mother and stepfather spent his fortune before he reached adulthood. They are California, New York, New Mexico, Louisiana and now Pennsylvania.

Who’ll Protect Honey Boo Boo?

Laws or not, parents remain the first line of defense for their children. Beauty contestant Alana Thompson, 8, stars in the reality TV show, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” The show reportedly makes $20,000 an episode for the family. Honey Boo Boo and her family live in Georgia, a state that does not require trust accounts for child stars.
June Shannon, Alana’s mother, announced in January that she had voluntarily set up trust funds for her four daughters and granddaughter.
“I want my kids to look back and say, `Mama played it smart. Not like those other reality TV people,’” Shannon told TMZ.
The entertainment business is concentrated in California and New York, and they have the most robust child entertainer laws. States have an economic motive in pursuing movie and television production. Forty-five states now offer tax credits and other incentives to attract production crews. The rise of reality TV shows with child players has raised new questions of exploitation.
Film director and producer Alfred Hitchcock once described actors as cattle. “That would make child actors veal,” said former child actor Mara Wilson, star of the movies “Matilda,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and the remake of “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Wilson, 26, began acting at age 5 and left Hollywood at 13. In a recent article, she listed pitfalls facing child actors, including parents who push their children, sexual abusers in the entertainment industry and laws that don’t go far enough to protect underage actors’ earnings.

Interactive: Child Entertainment Laws by State

(Source: U.S. Department of Labor)
“The Coogan law isn't perfect,” Wilson wrote. “There are still lots of ways parents can misuse their kid's money.”
For states, writing laws to protect child actors can be a balancing act. “We don’t want to chase away the industry,” Murt said. Pennsylvania recently extended its $60 million-a-year package of film and TV production incentives until 2018. One measure that didn’t make it into Pennsylvania’s law because of industry push-back, he said, was background checks for entertainment industry professionals who work with minors.
After years of silence, former child actors have been speaking out about pedophilia. Corey Feldman appeared in a McDonald’s commercial at age 3 and starred in “Stand By Me” and other box office hits as a child.
“I can tell you that the No. 1 problem in Hollywood was and is and always will be pedophilia,” Feldman said in aninterview on ABC News’ “Nightline.” “I was surrounded by (them) when I was 14 years old. … Didn’t even know it.”
Todd Bridges, a former child actor who starred in the television sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes,” told CNN last year of being molested at 11 by his publicist.
California Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed the nation’s first law requiring permits, background checks and fingerprinting of managers and other professionals who work directly with minors in the movie business.
The New York legislature approved a measure in June to add fashion models under 18 to labor law coverage of child actors, dancers and musicians. The new law means that fashion designers and magazines will need to get work permits for minors and document their working hours or face fines.

Delicate Balance for States

States without child performer laws, and some with weak enforcement capability, rely on the watchful eye of SAG-AFTRA, formerly the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The union’s collective bargaining agreements specify working conditions for young performers and its field reps monitor production.
“There have been a lot of abuses of child performers in the past,” said Jeffrey Bennett, deputy general counsel of SAG-AFTRA. The union worked with Pennsylvania on the overhaul of its child labor law, and Bennett hopes to do the same in other states.
Pennsylvania’s new law covers children in reality shows. Murt first envisioned an update of only the child performer rules, but bipartisan support in the legislature pushed for an overhaul of the entire law covering all workers under 18, regardless of occupation.
In Pennsylvania, workers under 18 need work permits, which they can get at school. Those under 16 need parental and school approval. Minors must be accompanied by a parent or guardian on the set; the employer must provide a teacher if a shoot lasts more than two days and minors can’t work more than eight hours a day or 48 hours a week.
In April 2007, CBS began filming “Kid Nation,” a reality show that placed 40 children ages 8 to 15 in a ghost town in the New Mexico desert for 40 days without adult supervision. Then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed a child performer law two days after filming began. The lengthy contracts the parents had signed before the law’s enactment, included waivers for any harm that might occur. In lieu of salaries, each child received a $5,000 stipend at the end. They could also win $20,000 in contests during the show.
New Mexico now requires work permits for children under 16 and the work must be certified as not dangerous. Kids under 16 may work a maximum of 18 hours during school weeks, and 40 hours during non-school weeks. The state also requires teachers on the set.
Former child actor Petersen works for more stringent state laws as president of the advocacy group, A Minor Consideration.
“We’re protecting animals in movies far better than the children,” said Petersen, who points out that movies carry a disclaimer that no animals were harmed, but there’s no such notice for children.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

How many more American killing fields? -- Aug. 22, 2013 column


This time, it was Duncan, Okla. He was a college baseball player from Australia, out for a run on a summer afternoon. They were three bored teenagers, driving around town with a 22-caliber revolver.

Their worlds collided in an instant last Friday, when Christopher Lane, 22, jogged past, and the teens followed. The 16-year-old, sitting In the back seat, allegedly shot Lane in the back. The 17-year-old driver stomped on the accelerator and the 1993 black Ford Focus sped off, tires squealing. Lane fell to his knees on Country Club Road, mortally wounded.

“It could have been anybody – it was such a random act,” Capt. Jay Evans of the Duncan Police told Sky News, an Australian TV network.

There are 30 homicides with handguns every day in America. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Lane was particularly shocking because the boys said they killed “for the fun of it.” They didn’t know their victim or care. Remorse? What’s that?

They face charges and the wheels of the legal system are beginning to turn.  

No one would have thought that Duncan, population 24,000, would be America’s latest killing field.

“This is not Duncan, Okla.,” said district attorney Jason Hicks. And he’s right, in a way.

The people of Duncan responded as kind-hearted Americans always do in such tragedies. A passerby called 911; another woman performed CPR on Lane. Local restaurants and the United Way raised funds for Lane’s family in Melbourne, Australia, and that of his girlfriend Sarah Harper in Duncan. Lane, who had a baseball scholarship at East Central University in Ada, Okla., was visiting Sarah and her family when he went for the fateful jog.

But make no mistake, Duncan is America. Terrifying, gun-related events are all too common. Four days after Chris Lane was killed, a 20-year-old gunman toting an AK-47 slipped into a crowded elementary school in Atlanta and fired a few shots at the floor in the office.

A school clerk miraculously talked Michael Hill, who was described as mentally unstable, into giving himself up. Antoinette Tuff told the 911 dispatcher: “He said he don’t care if he dies. He don’t have nothing to live for.” That time, no one was hurt.

The glimmer of good news is that the homicide rate in the United States is on the decline. Still, gun violence has become sickeningly routine, especially among young males.

That’s why Congress prohibited licensed firearms dealers from selling handguns to people under 21. This hardly seems the time to make guns more available to minors, but the National Rifle Association wants to do just that. It has asked the Supreme Court to overturn the federal law that makes it illegal for licensed dealers to sell handguns or ammunition to those under 21.

People 18 to 20 may receive handguns as gifts from their parents or guardians and buy handguns through unlicensed, private sales. They can buy rifles and shotguns from licensed or unlicensed dealers.

The NRA claims that the handgun sales ban is unconstitutional because it infringes on the right of 18- to- 20-year-olds to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas rejected the claim, noting that Congress had found that persons under 21 “tend to be relatively irresponsible and prone to violent crime, especially when they have easy access to handguns.”

“Congress’ purpose in preventing persons under 21—including 18-to-20-year-olds – from purchasing handguns…was to curb violent crime,” the court said.

The law didn’t stop the thugs in Duncan from getting a gun, but that doesn’t mean we make it even easier for young people to get handguns.

This latest case of gun violence should be a wake-up call for Americans to think about the forces in society that are leading young people to disregard human life. What, beyond talk, should the president, Congress, schools and the rest of us do to help boys and girls find meaning, purpose and dreams for their lives?

This time, it was Duncan. No one knows where the next American killing field will be. But we do know there will be one. 


Thursday, August 15, 2013

A march to renew the dream of equality -- Aug. 15, 2013 column


At the rally on Aug. 28 commemorating the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, President Barack Obama will do something President John F. Kennedy declined to do 50 years ago. He will speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

For the first black president to speak from the spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech illustrates how much society has changed for the better in half a century. But it’s not the end of the journey. Obama’s remarks likely will point to how far we still need to go, especially to achieve economic equality.   

The march galvanized the nation behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, but despite the spectacular success of some individuals, overall economic progress for blacks has been slower.

The poverty rate for blacks is three times that of whites, the black unemployment rate is nearly twice that of whites, and, nearly 60 years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, most schools remain racially segregated, reports  the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on the economic condition of low- and middle-income  Americans.   

The anniversary of the march gives us a window on a sad and turbulent time that many Americans don’t recall. Obama was only 2 in 1963. Time has dimmed the memories of many who are old enough to remember the benighted South of segregated movie theaters and waiting rooms and “whites-only” lunch counters and motels.

Huge demonstrations on the National Mall are routine these days, but Washington had never seen a mass gathering of black protesters. Kennedy tried to persuade organizers to cancel it because he was afraid it would turn violent and that would provoke a backlash in Congress, dooming his civil rights bill.

Television news that spring and summer had shown Americans a horrifying picture of their country. Fire hoses, night sticks and attack dogs were turned against nonviolent citizens protesting discrimination. On June 11, National Guard troops were required to escort two black students to the University of Alabama where a defiant Gov. George Wallace reluctantly stepped aside. That same afternoon, King sent a telegram to Kennedy urging him to do something about police brutality against protesters in Danville, Va.

"The Negro’s endurance may be at a breaking point,” King wrote.

That night, Kennedy made a televised address from the Oval Office. He called civil rights a moral issue.

"The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated,” the president said.

A few hours later, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed outside his home in Jackson, Miss.
Leading up to the march, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sought to minimize potential problems by negotiating how it would be conducted. To reduce crowds, the march would be on a Wednesday. Bars and liquor stores were closed, the Washington Senators baseball game canceled and federal workers could stay home. The rally would end by 4 p.m. so protesters could leave town by dusk.

On the Sunday before the 1963 march, NBC’s “Meet the Press” featured Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, and King, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Many questions centered on whether the march would be peaceful. Yes, said Wilkins and King, yes.

During the Cold War, the threat of Communism loomed large, and the journalists  asked about Bayard Rustin, the march’s chief organizer, who had been a member of the Young Communist League. He has changed, the leaders insisted.

The radical Rustin, who was also a gay activist, is finally being recognized for his role in orchestrating the peaceful march. Obama will give Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously later this year. It’s the country’s highest honor given to civilians.

Kennedy reportedly declined to speak at the march because he thought it impossible to write a speech that would please both the marchers and the nationwide TV audience. The president met with march leaders at the White House immediately afterward. He praised their deep fervor and quiet dignity, and he promised to work toward civil rights, full employment and to eliminate discrimination in employment, education and housing.  

As Kennedy and then President Lyndon B. Johnson took the lead on civil rights, it’s now Obama’s turn to take the lead on moving the country closer to economic equality.     

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Doing something right on obesity -- Aug. 8, 2013 column


In 1974, the federal supplemental food program known as WIC started providing poor women and their young children whole milk and cheese, cereals and other items. Conspicuous by their absence were fruits and vegetables.
By the 21st century, obesity had replaced malnutrition as a public health problem, and the Institute of Medicine recommended in 2005 upping WIC’s nutritional content by adding fruits and vegetables, whole grain cereals, reduced-fat yogurt and other lower-fat dairy products. It also recommended cutting back on the amount of full-fat dairy. The healthier changes took effect in 2009.

This week we began to see the fruit of those changes. We are gaining ground in the war on childhood obesity
The decline in child obesity rates is small, but the trend is encouraging. After decades of explosive growth, the obesity rate among low-income preschoolers has leveled off nationally and is starting to fall in some states, government researchers reported.

Among children 2 to 4, the obesity rate between 2008 and 2011 dropped in 18 states and the Virgin Islands, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Florida, Georgia and Mississippi were among the states with declines.  

The obesity rate for low-income preschoolers increased in only three states -- Colorado, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. And in 20 others and Puerto Rico, the rate was unchanged. These included Alabama and North Carolina. No data was available for 10 states – including Virginia.

Washington typically gets the blame, but this is a moment when the federal government deserves praise for doing something right. Changes in WIC – formally the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children – were cited as a major factor in the fight against child obesity.

WIC helps feed more than 9 million poor pregnant and postpartum women, infants and children under 5 a year. It provides nutrition education and referrals to health care and social services and promotes breastfeeding, which may help prevent child obesity, although that’s not certain.

First lady Michelle Obama has been derided for the White House vegetable garden and her Let’s Move! Campaign, but she is leading by example and deserves a shout out. In addition, child care centers around the country, following her lead, have adopted healthier food choices and exercise programs.

The government says simple things like breakfast, playground time and water fountains can help in the childhood obesity fight. Every little bit helps because children who are overweight or obese are five times more likely than normal-weight kids to be overweight or obese as adults and to suffer related health conditions – and higher health care costs.
We still have a long way to go to reverse the obesity trend. One in eight preschoolers is obese, and the problem is worse among black and Hispanic children.  

“Obesity remains epidemic,” says Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the  CDC, but “the tide has begun to turn for some kids in some states. While the changes are small, for the first time in a generation they are going in the right direction."

So, what’s next?

A new study led by Dr. Mark D. DeBoer of the University of Virginia found that little ones, like their older brothers and sisters, gain weight with sugary drinks. Two- to five-year-olds who drank one sugar-sweetened soda, juice or sports drink a day were more likely to be obese than other kids their age who had such drinks less frequently.

No big surprise there, but what are the policy implications? Food stamps – called SNAP – can’t be used for tobacco, alcohol or even soap products. What if SNAP benefits couldn’t buy sugary drinks?

In 2011, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to find out. He asked the federal Department of Agriculture for permission to prohibit purchases of sugary drinks with food stamps. No, the government said, Bloomberg’s request was too broad.

The makers of soft drinks and junk food argue rightly that no one item causes weight gain; it’s a matter of total calories, in and out. They’ve cut back on sugar, salt and package sizes. That’s good for health – and business.

But if we’re serious about improving the nation’s health and cutting health care costs, we should use food stamps to encourage healthy food choices. The new WIC evidence indicates it’s time to give revamping SNAP a try.   

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, August 1, 2013

This August, tell Congress what you think -- Aug. 1, 2013 column

With Congress on a five-week vacation, it’s your chance to give your House member and senators a piece of your mind.

An old-fashioned town hall meeting is probably coming your way. Yes, tweeting is faster, but getting in a lawmaker’s face? Priceless.

When Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., sponsored a town hall meeting in Lynchburg last month, the last person to stand and speak was Dulce Elias, 16, whose parents brought her to the United States when she was 3.

“I love it here. This is my country. I want to keep on pursuing my education and I want to serve my country. But I can’t because I am undocumented,” Elias said, choking up, the News & Advance reported. 

Please, she implored Goodlatte, help the children whose parents brought them here and have done nothing wrong.

Goodlatte, the powerful chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, strongly opposes immigration reform until the borders are secure and enforcement is tightened. He’s no fan of citizenship for all 11 million undocumented individuals, but he said he would look into the issue.

“Maybe for someone like you, it could include a pathway for citizenship,” he said.

In 2009, tea party activists hijacked town hall meetings and turned them into shouting matches over health care reform and federal spending. In 2010, many Democratic members of Congress skipped town halls to avoid a scene with constituents. Nobody loves being yelled at. This year, though, Democrats say they won’t cede the field and intend to talk about immigration reform. Republicans want to focus on, what else, the evils of “Obamacare” and big government.   

The Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill June 27 that includes a path for citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. The Republican House leadership rejects that comprehensive approach and may vote on several separate bills this fall.   

Progressives will use the summer recess to pressure the GOP. Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., had a warning for House members: “If you have a town hall or if you don’t, we’re going to find you in the grocery store because this is it. We’ve never been this close,” he said Tuesday in an interview with Bloomberg News.
Polls show public support for a path for citizenship, but House Republicans fear GOP challengers from the party’s anti-immigration wing. So Republicans in the House plan to focus on topics the party faithful can agree on.

To fight Obamacare, Heritage Action, an offshoot of the conservative Heritage Foundation, plans town hall meetings in nine cities between Aug. 19 and 29 -- Fayetteville, Ark.; Dallas, Tampa, Nashville, Birmingham, Ala., Indianapolis, Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh, and Wilmington, Del. – The idea is to kill the health care law by starvation.   

“We’ll make sure lawmakers understand the American people expect then to defund Obamacare in its entirety,” said Heritage’s Michael Needham.

Democrats have warned that trying to defund the health law will result in a government shutdown, and that could have disastrous consequences for the economy.

Responsible Republican members of Congress who want to keep the government open have a tough job going against the anti-government tide. Video snippets posted online of a town hall meeting Monday in Wetumpka, Ala., illustrate the problem.

Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., 37 and a second-term House member, met with skepticism from a tea party audience when she said shutting down the federal government was a bad idea.    

“If we shut the government down, I believe that’s exactly what Barack Obama wants us to do,” Roby said, explaining that Obama would win more seats in Congress in 2014, dooming Republican chances to repeal the health law.

“The last thing we need to do is to give this guy unfettered control for two years,” she said.

That wasn’t enough for a woman named Jody, who called Roby on the carpet for being too close to the “moderate elite establishment of the Republican Party, in particular John Boehner.” Roby tried to explain why being able to agree – and disagree -- with the House Speaker might be a good idea. No go.

Oh, the drama. I’m waiting for the reality TV folks to discover “Real Congress of Grassroots America.” Until then, check out a town hall meeting in a town or city near you this summer.

(Marsha Mercer writes from Washington. You may contact her at

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.