Who says you're poor?

The U.S. government thinks you’re doing okay if, in a family of four, you’re pulling in something over $22,000 a year. It might be a little tough to get by on that these days. But the way poverty is measured, and plans made around the measurements, are obtuse and arcane at best.

Exactly who qualifies for state and federal assistance varies. More important than today’s index though, unless you are someone missing out on help, is tomorrow: plans for adequate housing, food stamp and other assistance programs are all based on some very old data. When the current federal index was set, for example, some 3% of the family budget went for food; today’s actual food costs are more like 10%.

A group of California seniors converged on the state capitol a few days ago with an eye toward bringing that state’s poverty line and real-time poverty closer together. The group is enthusiastically supportive of a far more accurate index developed by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.  They were careful to be “advocating and educating” only in meetings with legislators — the Senior Leaders Program is funded by the nonprofit California Wellness Foundation and lobbying is a no-no. But they would like to see AB 324, a bill crafted by Assembly Member Jim Beall, finally pass. Beall has watched it pass the Legislature twice, only to meet a Schwarzenegger veto; he told the seniors he thinks this time around the governor’s objections have been addressed.

This particular senior fails to see any reason to stick with inaccurate data when accurate data is available. The main argument against adopting a better measurement has centered around the cost issue — If we update the index, we might find more poor people. Hello? A town builds housing for 10 people and 100 people knock on the door?

Whether or not there are any incipient seniors in your family (we seem to make up a substantial percentage of the poor, by any measurement) you might want to see what’s going on in your state. Maybe, some day, the U.S. Government will even go for poverty line fact over fiction.

Is your cell phone frying your brain?

OK, if you think it’s all just a lot of hysterical hooey about cell phones & radiation, you can click on to another page. But this op ed piece by public health expert Joel Moskowitz (with Diana McDonnell and Gene Kazinets) in the San Francisco Chronicle got my attention. Moskowitz is the Director of U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Family and Community Health.

A huge, 30-year study called COSMOS has been launched in Europe to determine whether cell phones cause cancer and other health problems. Meanwhile, policymakers in Sacramento are considering legislation to ensure people know how much radiation their cell phones emit. The wireless industry vigorously opposes such legislation. It argues that its phones comply with regulations, and there is no consensus about risks so people don’t need to know this. Our research review published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found alarming results to the contrary.

We reviewed 23 case-control studies that examined tumor risk due to cell phone use. Although as a whole the data varied, among the 10 higher quality studies, we found a harmful association between phone use and tumor risk. The lower quality studies, which failed to meet scientific best practices, were primarily industry funded.

The 13 studies that investigated cell phone use for 10 or more years found a significant harmful association with tumor risk, especially for brain tumors, giving us ample reason for concern about long-term use.

Do federal regulations adequately protect the public? The 1996 Federal Communications Commission regulations are based upon the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), a measure of heat generated by six minutes of cell phone exposure in an artificial model that represents a 200-pound man’s brain. Although every cell phone model has a SAR, the industry doesn’t make it easy to find it. Moreover, children, and adults who weigh less than 200 pounds, are exposed to more radiation than our government deems “safe.”

So just for fun, I got out the 107-page User Guide that came with my cell phone. Full disclosure: my cell phone is turned off unless I’m out walking or traveling; it takes pictures but it doesn’t do apps. Still, those 107 pages say it can do all the fancy Stuff.

On page 81 I found the SAR data. Even if I wanted to decipher the very small print, there is no way any of it would be meaningful to a lay reader. It does say that “Your wireless phone is a radio transmitter and receiver. It is designed and manufactured not to exceed limits for exposure to radio frequency (RF) energy set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the U.S. Government.”

I do try to trust the U.S. Government. But since they once sent my then-Marine husband double-timing out of a foxhole toward an A-bomb blast with a radiation tag hung around his neck in the ’50s, it would appear we have long been open to experimentation about radiation damage. (He survived. The animals positioned closer to the blast site did not. No one will ever be certain how much damage was sustained by those Marines wearing radiation tags… but then, who knew we’d keep right on storing bombs and fighting senseless wars anyway?)

Another what-can-you-believe? comes from CNN’s medical guru Sanjay Gupta in this line from a two-year-old commentary on potential cell phone radiation damage still up on his blog:

Over the last year, I have reviewed nearly a hundred studies on this topic, including the 19 large epidemiological studies. I urge you to do the same and read carefully to see what you think. Here is an example from a Swedish paper showing no increased risk of a brain tumor, known as acoustic neuroma. (see study) As you read the paper, you will find they defined a “regular” cell phone user as someone who uses a cell phone once per week during six months or more.

Once a week? Hello? Even in Sweden, even a decade ago, did anyone with a cell phone not use it at least once an hour? This very old study did have a timeless conclusion: “Our findings do not indicate an increased risk of acoustic neuroma related to short-term mobile phone use after a short latency period. However, our data suggest an increased risk of acoustic neuroma associated with mobile phone use of at least 10 years’ duration.”

Moskowitz argues that it’s time to revamp FCC regulations, pointing out that it is not just heat transfer but also variations in frequencies emitted that could cause damage.

Most of us know something about potential damage lurking in our Stuff. But we tend to be slow learners, and our regulatory agencies tend to be even slower. Having just lost a greatly loved sister, a long-time smoker, to pulmonary failure, Moskowitz’ concluding paragraphs hit home:

We should address this issue proactively even if we do not fully understand its magnitude. Our government has faced similar public health threats in the past. In 1965, although there was no scientific consensus about the harmful effects of cigarettes, Congress required a precautionary warning label on cigarette packages: “Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.” More specific warnings were not required until 1984: “Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.”

Should we have waited 19 years until absolutely certain before we informed the public about these risks?

Although more research on cell phone radiation is needed, we cannot afford to wait. There are 285 million cell phones in use in this country, and two-thirds of children over the age of seven use them. Manufacturers bury the SAR within their owner’s manuals, along with safety instructions to keep your phone up to an inch away from your body.

Nine nations have issued precautionary warnings. It is time for our government to require health warnings and publicize simple steps to reduce the health risks of cell phone use.

Why not?

Government must inform us of cell phone risk.

Study the fetus before abortion: Oklahoma enacts tough new laws

It is still legal to get an abortion in Oklahoma. But first, you’ve got to look at the ultrasound, listen to some technician describe whether the fetus has indications of arms and legs and get your doctor to report on whether or not there is any cardiac activity. If you were not suffering pain and distress from an unwanted &/or unmanageable pregnancy before all this, you will doubtless suffer during and after. Then, maybe the State of Oklahoma will let you resume control of your own body.

No one is more vulnerable than a child in the womb,” said state Sen. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma City. “They have no voice except ours.”

Well, I beg to differ with the good senator. Wonder what gender Steve Russell is? A fetus is not a child. Fetuses have voices; their voices belong to the women in whose bodies they reside. Exactly as the voices of a group of ocular cells belong to a woman considering eye surgery. It is nobody’s business but the woman’s whether a group of cells — detectable signs of appendages and heartbeats notwithstanding — should appropriately remain within her body until they might become a baby. It should not be my business to tell Steve Russell, or anybody else, how much he has to study pictures of spermatozoa before he undergoes a vasectomy, which I hope… well, maybe this analogy should not go any farther.

The Oklahoma Senate voted Tuesday to override Gov. Brad Henry‘s veto of two abortion bills, including one that an abortion-rights group has said would be among the nation’s strictest measures against the procedure.

The narrow override votes in the Republican-controlled Senate came a day after the state House voted overwhelmingly to do the same, meaning the bills became law immediately. The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights quickly filed a lawsuit, however, seeking to block enforcement of one of the statutes.

It requires women to undergo an ultrasound and listen to a detailed description of the fetus before getting an abortion. The person who performs the ultrasound must describe the dimensions of the fetus, whether arms, legs and internal organs are visible and whether the physician can detect cardiac activity. He or she must also turn a screen depicting the images toward the woman so she can see them.

The Center for Reproductive Rights has said the ultrasound requirement intrudes upon a patient’s privacy and forces a woman to hear information that may not be relevant to her medical care. The group also believes it could interfere with the physician-patient relationship by compelling doctors to deliver unwanted speech.

“The constitutional issues are very serious,” said Jennifer Mondino, an attorney for the group. Oklahoma County District Judge Noma Gurich set a hearing Monday on the organization’s request for a temporary restraining order.

The other abortion measure overridden by the Senate prohibits pregnant women from seeking damages if physicians withhold information or provide inaccurate information about their pregnancy. Supporters of that measure have said it is an attempt to keep pregnant women from discriminating against fetuses with disabilities. Mondino said the group’s lawsuit does not seek to block enforcement of that law.

Oklahoma now officially joins Georgia, Ohio and an appallingly growing number of other states enacting, or seeking to enact legislation that is harsh, punitive and grossly inappropriate for women. Pregnant or not, women in the U.S. are entitled to the control of their own bodies. At least, for now. If the (largely white male) opponents of abortion get what they want, American women will be sent back to the dark ages of back-alley abortions.

Oklahoma enacts tough new abortion laws.

One immigrant's plight v Arizona law

My friend Maria is among the fairly good-sized community of illegal immigrants living in San Francisco. She works hard, buys local, supports her church and her daughter’s school, adds a lot to the city and state economy and functions in every way as a model citizen except she doesn’t pay income taxes. She would like to pay those taxes, but over the years that she’s been here she has not found an opening to apply for citizenship.

Once I asked Maria about her car, a nice one on which she paid hefty sales taxes but which, of course, she drives without a license.”I just drive very, very carefully,” she said, “and keep everything perfect with the car. If you’re stopped, maybe for a turn light being out, it’s $1,000 minimum.”

“A thousand dollars?” I said; “you’re kidding.”

“They impound your car. You have to find someone with a valid license, get them to go get your car for you, plus paying the fine and all the fees.” Maria said this in a quiet voice while I exhaled.

Now, if Maria is stopped in Arizona she will simply be sent home. And this makes very little sense to me. President Obama said the Arizona law threatens “to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.”

He also said that he is monitoring the Arizona bill for civil rights and other implications.

“If we continue to fail to act at a federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts opening up around the country,” Mr. Obama said.

In his remarks, the president didn’t offer a timetable for trying to pursue an overhaul of immigration laws in Congress.

Something seems not only unfair but un-American about making it legal for Maria to be summarily sent home after a traffic stop. Or some other kind of stop, no matter how vehemently everyone insists that racial profiling will never happen. We welcome Maria and her family in — after all, we need their labor if we’re going to eat strawberries — but once they’ve proven themselves solid citizen potential we throw them out.  Maria has cousins who were migrant workers although she herself has always been a small step up the ladder from that back-breaking job.

Admittedly, illegal immigrants come here for less than good-citizen motives. Certainly we must protect our boundaries. Arizona’s abuse-inviting law does not seem the right way to fix our immigration policies.

Obama Slams Arizona’s Immigration Bill – The Caucus Blog – NYTimes.com.

Abortion foes stoop to new lows, and new absurdities

Two pregnant women. One has someone behind her holding a gun to her head. The other one, a Black woman, is being led by a white man. They are entering an abortion clinic.

Wait! Saved by Georgia Right to Life!

It could soon be against the law to force someone to have an abortion, or to have an abortion that is “racially motivated” in the state of Georgia. SB 529, the Coercion and Prenatal Non-Discrimination Ban sponsored by Senator Chip Pearson and lustily supported by Georgia Right to Life, passed a couple of weeks ago by a vote of 33 to 14. The bill now goes to the House, where HB 1155 will send the same message into the world: Thou shalt not “coerce” someone into having an abortion; thou shalt not abort “on the basis of race or gender.”

If you have not noticed forced or racially motivated abortions being rampant in this country you may wonder what’s up with Georgia Right to Life.

I happen to think I know. My crystal ball says if the rather ridiculous law passes this is what will follow: GRTL will find some poor woman willing to declare, after seeking a perfectly legal abortion, that her doctor actually forced her to have the procedure. A high profile case will ensue, the doctor may or may not be convicted — that part really doesn’t matter — but more and more doors will close against abortions. Once enough doors are closed, GRTL and others eager to dictate what women may or may not do with their own bodies will have achieved their goal. Legal abortion will be denied the women of Georgia.

So, you say, they can just go to another state (until the method proves effective and other states follow along. Other states are watching.) If they have money and resources, that will be true. But the poor and un-empowered women of Georgia will be left without safe choices. And you can believe that there will be plenty of back-alley abortionists in business by then.

A diminishing number of us know what it was like in the heyday of back-alley abortions. The right-to-life people, who are so worried about embryos but don’t believe women have rights, won’t tell you. I will. Filthy men (and sometimes even women) made big money butchering desperate women who had no other choice. So the women lay on kitchen tables or gurneys bought cheap at hospital supply warehouses, had unsterilized objects puncture their bodies and went home — often to die.

There are two problems with the RTL people. One is their righteous zeal. The Alabama Pro-Life Coalition Education Fund, for example, “cooperates with God and other Christians…” Hmm. I, a committed Christian, have talked with God about a lot of things and She never told me She wanted to consign mature women to barbarity. The second problem is with mature women. The RTLers believe a fertilized egg has more rights than the woman within whose body it is harbored. If you find that as hard to believe as the notion that women in Georgia are being herded into abortion chambers against their will — check out Ohio Right to Life‘s opposition to the current H.B. 333. ORTL opposes the morning-after pill because “it may cause early abortion” on the morning after.

If the RTLers could, for one moment, stand in the shoes of just one poor, desperate, pregnant woman from the days before Roe v Wade they might get a tiny glimpse of the terror that comes from being without choices. The RTLers say, Choose Life, which I do, every day, for myself and everyone else humanly possible. If abortion becomes criminalized, as is the RTL aim, uncounted thousands of women will have no choice but the deadly back-alley abortionist.

SCOTUS animal cruelty ruling draws human ire

Film producers Chris Palmer and Peter Kimball take issue with the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of animal cruelty film seller Robert Stevens a few days ago. In an op ed piece appearing in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, the two decidedly more respected and respectable members of the human community (Palmer heads the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University; Kimball is writer/director of the wildlife film Badger Insurance: The Plight of the North American Badger) argue that “videos of dog-fighting and animal mutilation — created not to educate or inform but merely to titillate — have no constitutional protection.”

The Court, Palmer and Kimball say, “has gone too far in protecting the free speech of those who would profit from films depicting wanton and malicious cruelty to animals solely for customers’ entertainment. We believe that these types of videos deserve no legal protection whatsoever.”

The case in question, United States vs. Stevens, centered on Robert Stevens, a purveyor of the video series “Dogs of Velvet and Steel.” Stevens produced and sold videos of pit bulls engaging in dogfights and viciously attacking other animals. These videos include graphic depictions of torture and brutality, including a pit bull mutilating the lower jaw of a live pig. In January 2005, Stevens was convicted of violating the Animal Cruelty Act (1999), which criminalized the trafficking of depictions of animal cruelty, except those with “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value.” A federal appeals court overturned Stevens’ conviction and ruled that the animal cruelty law violated his First Amendment right to free speech. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.

The fundamental question is this: Does the Animal Cruelty Act violate the First Amendment right of freedom of speech? Certainly, the right to free speech is one of the paramount freedoms in our society. Our country was founded on the principle that people should not be persecuted for voicing unpopular opinions. Naturally, in order to be effective, this freedom protects disturbing and offensive speech.

However, there are very specific types of speech that we, as a society, have deemed so despicable and so lacking in merit that they do not deserve protection, among them child pornography, obscenity, threats and incitement of violence. Animal cruelty should be one of these unprotected categories. As Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote, “We wouldn’t allow the sale of videos of actual child abuse or murder staged for the express purpose of selling videos of such criminal acts.” There is no reason to ignore depictions of animal cruelty while rightfully criminalizing parallel depictions of child abuse.

The Supreme Court is not in the habit of overturning itself, but in decisions such as Tuesday’s ruling one hopes for quick reversal of fortunes of the animal kingdom. As long as there are depraved people getting some sort of kicks out of the suffering of others, there will be shameless people like Robert Stevens ready to benefit.

True/Slant Contributor Rick Ungar makes a good point that First Amendment rights must be carefully protected. In a post immediately following the ruling he wrote:

While I am as disgusted by these videos as most, the majority does have a point. The law, as drafted, could result in unintended consequences – going so far as to ban the depiction of bullfights as graphically painted in Ernest Hemingway novels. When we’re talking about first amendment rights, Congress is obligated to be careful in constructing laws that can produce an unintended chilling effect on so important of a right.

Though I’m a Hemingway fan and occasional Spain-o-phile, I’d have as hard a time arguing for bullfights as for dog-fights. Went to one a few years back, had to leave before they dragged the bull out. Ungar and others suggest that the answer to this human rights v animal rights issue will lie in enactment of narrow laws banning specific cruelties such as the “crush videos” (women in high heels stomping small animals) cited by Justice Samuel Alito in his dissenting opinion.

This space hopes for a fast track on such legislation. One way or another, barbaric acts need to be banned. For my part, a ban on Robert Stevens wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

Supreme Court gets it wrong with animal cruelty ruling.

Who needs 'open carry' guns?

Guns in public view… guns loaded or unloaded… guns at the Starbucks counter… if you’re a supporter of the Brady Center, the current activism of the pro-gun folks is less than encouraging. And who exactly needs all this swagger?

Several interesting comments about gun-toters and gun stats appeared in the Letters section of today’s San Francisco Chronicle in response to goings-on of the “Open Carry” Movement:

In 2006, guns murdered 10,177 people in the United States, while 18 people were murdered in Austria, 27 in Australia, 59 in England and Wales, 60 in Spain, 190 in Canada, 194 in Germany, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

It is estimated that there are 283 million guns in America. We are the gun capital of the world.

It was George W. Bush who noted that an American teenager is more likely to die from a gunshot than from all natural causes of death combined.

Another reader suggested that

the “open carry” intentions of the gun-obsessed would surely lead to myriad examples of the law of unintended consequences: shootings and deaths as well as a sort of John Wayne psychology that belongs in movies, not our parks, streets and highways.

If Starbucks or any other business allows citizens with guns in their businesses, you and I should take our business elsewhere.

But perhaps the most on-target letter writer went straight to the main issue: what’s with the people who feel the need to stride around town showing off their hardware?

I searched in vain in the story about the “open carry” gun movement for the exact benefit of walking around in public with a gun on your belt – when everyone knows the guns are not loaded.

Since the guns are of no use in defending oneself or anyone else against, the “threat of violence” and the “desperate people” whom (advocate) Jeff Dunhill sees everywhere, I tried to imagine some other reasons:

a) It’s cheaper than a sports car; b) You can prove yours is bigger without risking arrest; c) It’s all that you can be.

I’ve never understood why, if guns are so central to their self-image, people like this don’t join the military or law enforcement. Unless it is because in those instances, the other side also has guns. It’s a lot safer to swagger up to the bar and demand a caramel frappuccino grande.

Letters to the editor

Animal rights & SCOTUS opinions

Finding oneself in agreement with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito can be an alarming development in itself, but it’s hard not to agree at least in part with his dissenting statement in yesterday’s 8-to-1 Supreme Court decision.

In a major First Amendment ruling, the Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a federal law that made it a crime to create or sell dogfight videos and other depictions of animal cruelty.

Justice Alito wrote, in his dissension, that the now-struck statute was enacted “not to suppress speech, but to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty — and in particular, the creation and commercial exploitation of ‘crush videos,’ a form of depraved entertainment that has no social value.” I’ve never watched a crush video, and certainly have no plans to do so.  It is at least heartening to know that Justice Alito has this much heart. (It’s not been evident in some of his earlier rulings.)

The specific case that brought about yesterday’s ruling, exploitation of pit bull fights through sales of dog fight videos, is about a different form of cruelty to animals. Stepping back a little it’s possible to see what the court was protecting: not any right to commit barbaric acts, but too-broad application of First Amendment rights.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority in the 8-to-1 decision, said that the law had created “a criminal prohibition of alarming breadth” and that the government’s aggressive defense of the law was “startling and dangerous.”

The decision left open the possibility that Congress could enact a narrower law that would pass constitutional muster. But the existing law, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, covered too much speech protected by the First Amendment.

Hopefully, a new and narrower law will come soon.

When President Bill Clinton signed the bill, he expressed reservations, prompted by the First Amendment, and instructed the Justice Department to limit prosecutions to “wanton cruelty to animals designed to appeal to a prurient interest in sex.”

The law, said Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, “almost immediately dried up the crush video industry.”

But prosecutions under the law appear to have been pursued only against people accused of trafficking in dogfighting videos.

Chief Justice Roberts concluded his majority opinion by suggesting that a more focused law “limited to crush videos and other depictions of extreme animal cruelty” might survive First Amendment scrutiny.

Mr. Pacelle, of the Humane Society, called for a legislative response to Tuesday’s ruling. “Congress should within a week introduce narrowly crafted legislation,” he said, “to deal with animal crush videos and illegal animal fighting activities.”

Some years ago I was approached to do a story on cockfighting, then legal in a number of states. I knew the wife of the man who suggested the piece, the purpose of which was to explain what a fine and macho “sport” this was. Utterly amazed at the names of those cockfighting enthusiasts whom he had lined up for me to interview (after the fight) — and no way was I going to attend such an event — I sought out a number of them and asked for public comment on why cockfighting should be supported. The article, exposing a number of otherwise respectable men of the local community, brought widespread condemnation upon my head for spreading such trash. Nobody seemed to notice the names behind the trash. I thought it would embarrass the spokesmen. Sometimes free speech protects those who are beyond embarrassment.

I, for one, cannot quite understand why Robert Stevens, convicted of selling dog-fighting videos and now acquitted, is not embarrassed to have his picture and his business practices in the morning paper.

Supreme Court Rejects Ban on Animal Cruelty Videos – NYTimes.com.

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