Category Archives: Law & Justice

On “Show Me a Hero” and Suburban New York Poverty

show me a hero 2Via HBO, white people arguing about where non-white people should live.

At times it is unsubtle, but I generally like “Show Me a Hero,” the HBO miniseries from David Simon and Paul Haggis about the 1980s battle to integrate housing in the Westchester city of Yonkers.

Like Brentin Mock, I wish the NAACP, which sued Yonkers to locate affordable housing in traditionally white neighborhoods, was a bigger part of the story arc. Critics have also complained that the compassionately drawn public housing residents, many of them single mothers, are divorced from much of the political intrigue. Yet the absence of people of color in the scenes that depict local electoral politics rings true to me. I grew up in a nearby Westchester town called Ossining, with demographics similar to Yonkers. White ethnics were a slim majority, with public and affordable housing clustered close to the railroad tracks and Sing Sing prison. Though about 40 percent of Ossining was black and Latino when I was growing up, there were no black council members at the time I was paying attention, as a student journalist and stringer for a local paper in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mayors were white. There were big debates about how to redevelop the village’s post-industrial waterfront, but there was limited, organized social justice activism on development questions, even though the black, Latino, and poor communities lived closest to the area slated for luxury apartmentsHundreds of families were on waiting lists for affordable housing while existing voucher housing was being transitioned to market-rate. Still, at one point the town’s NAACP chapter was decommissioned by the national organization for focusing more on national issues, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, than on local ones. So to my eye, “Show Me a Hero” sketches many of the challenges around the suburbanization of poverty, especially the way in which outside of major cities, the infrastructure for progressive activism may not exist.

The show also reveals class tensions among whites. I particularly liked the recent scene where the Alfred Molina character, the anti-integration politician, talks smack to a youngish New York Times reporter who’s bugging him for an interview in a diner (and yes, diners are actually where important things happen in these Westchester towns). “Where do you live,” Molina asks him, “I bet on the Upper West Side or in Park Slope.” He lectures the reporter about how the judge who ordered housing desegregation and other affluent, liberal whites are more insulated from the problems of poverty than working class white people are in Yonkers. This reminded me of some of the folks I grew up around, who were civil servants, nurses, teachers, and owned small businesses. They were not eager to be exposed to what they saw as social dysfunction that they couldn’t afford to buy their way out of through private schooling. Note that when young Mayor Nick Wasicsko, the show’s accidental hero, is booted from office after belatedly supporting integration, he packs up his copy of Common Ground,  Anthony Lukas’ classic narrative of working class white opposition to school busing in Boston.

The show is making the point that the intergenerational poverty that white anti-integrationists feared living near was, in fact, a direct result of the geographic concentration of poverty that they fought to maintain. As I write in my book, desegregating neighborhoods and schools is an effective way of helping poor children become upwardly mobile, and does not tend to negatively affect the achievement of middle-class kids who come into contact with poor peers. If some of these social scientific facts are getting across to viewers of “Show Me a Hero,” I think the show is making a powerful contribution. The most important dialogue comes from the housing expert who wants to build townhomes at many different sites in Yonkers, instead of apartment complexes clustered together. He explains that the architecture of high-rise public housing fosters crime, because it is isolated from street retail and includes many internal no-man’s-lands that criminal organizations are able to exploit.

Separately, I think Oscar Isaac is wonderful as Nick Wasicsko, and totally transformed from his equally impressive portrayal of the folk singer Llewyn Davis. He captures both the self-involvement and charisma of a young, rising politician. My major pet peeves are that his wife is so sketchily drawn and that Winona Ryder, as another town politician, isn’t given more to do. I’m looking forward to the final two episodes.

What Is Justice For Kids Who Kill?

My new feature story is a partnership between The Marshall Project and Slate. It’s a longread about a 14-year old boy, Kahton Anderson, charged with murder as an adult. You may remember him from last year’s tabloid coverage: He was a middle school kid who got involved in street crews and shot an innocent man on a Brooklyn bus. This spring, he went on trial. A bill currently in front of the New York legislature would reform the legal landscape for kids charged as adults in criminal court, so this heartbreaking story is especially timely.

In 2012, Kahton Anderson found a gun.

The .357 Magnum, a revolver with a silver barrel, was hidden inside the radiator in the kitchen of the apartment Kahton shared with his mother and two siblings in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Kahton said he had watched his older brother, Lakim, hide the gun there.

At first, Kahton, who was 12 at the time, only looked at the gun in its hiding place. But he quickly got to know the weapon better, removing it from the radiator, toying with it, and taking pictures of himself holding it. “If I could get some bullets for this mag, we would clear a lot of shit out,” he boasted to a friend on Facebook. By March 2013, Kahton was writing, “When beef come, we ready!”

A year later, this boy, with this gun, would take an innocent man’s life on a New York City bus. The case was easy fodder for the tabloids, which quickly dubbed Kahton a “fiend” and “thug.” It also raised some of the most difficult and pressing questions in criminal justice.

Read the whole piece.

The Rural School-to-Prison Pipeline

I’m excited to share my first piece with The Marshall Project, called “No Country for Young Men.” It is a story about Junior Smith, a teenager in West Virginia who made a lot of mistakes, but who ultimately became ensnared in a tough, rural version of the school-to-prison pipeline. In Junior’s Appalachian county, strict policing of school-based and low-level juvenile offenses is entirely unmatched by any commitment to providing troubled kids with the social services they need to avoid crime and finish their educations (and which are cheaper than juvie, too).

The article was produced in partnership with Slate, which is also publishing the piece.

Yep: Obama Is Crediting Michelle With Changing His Mind on Gay Marriage

On Tuesday I wrote at The Nation that President Obama has been preparing for years to credit Michelle for helping him evolve on gay marriage. Why? Male Democrats love to ascribe their more progressive "private" opinions to their wives.

Anyhow, I was right! ABC:

Roberts asked the president if First Lady Michelle Obama was involved in this decision. Obama said she was, and he talked specifically about his own faith in responding.

“This is something that, you know, we’ve talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do. And that is that, in the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.”

It would have been a more historic moment if Obama hadn't also reaffirmed states' rights to decide the matter on their own. Here's hoping he can "evolve" on that, too — since I don't believe he truly believes it, just like he was never really "personally" against gay marriage.

More Thoughts on Teacher Polls, Tenure, and School Funding

Over at The Nation I have a new piece looking at surveys of public school teachers, one of which found job satisfaction at its lowest point since 1989. The most important thing to note is that polling shows teachers are not unhappy because they resent new accountability policies like the more stringent teacher evaluations instituted in response to President Obama's Race to the Top program. In fact, most teachers support using multiple measures of student learning to assess educators, and most believe it should take longer to earn tenure (an average of 5.4 years according to the Gates/Scholastic poll) than it currently does (an average of 3.1 years across all states). 

Critics of tenure will say the system shouldn't exist at all. But it takes a long time to shift opinion within a profession, and the polls show teachers have already evolved significantly. What's more, huge policy changes on tenure are already underway. Since 2009, the majority of states passed legislation significantly weakening teachers' job security. In Colorado, for example, teachers will lose their seniority protections if they receive a bad performance evaluation two years in a row.

The big remaining question is how these new evaluations will work, and teachers are worried student standardized test scores will be weighed too heavily. School budget cuts are the other major reason teachers are unhappy, and that's where I focus the new column. I dive into the latest research on school finance and teacher turnover to show that–contrary to popular belief–money very much does matter in school reform. 

The piece appeared in print so there are unfortunately no hyperlinks embedded, but here are some sources I mention:

  • Bruce Baker's report "Does Money Matter in Education?"
  • Information on Lobato v. Colorado, the case in which Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled her state's school funding scheme discriminates against poor children and low-income school districts
  • New paper on "How teacher turnover harms student achievement" 

Read the Nation piece here

On Bullying, Teen Suicide, and the Rush to Ascribe Blame (Often to Schools)

One of my first assignments as a college student journalist for the Brown Daily Herald was covering the suicide of a sophomore, who killed herself while home for October break. I remember feeling sick to my stomach as I walked to the girl's dormitory to interview her shocked, grieving friends. About 10 of us gathered in the dorm's common area, sitting in a circle. I scribbled notes as the dorm mates described an intelligent, curious, and socially conscious young woman. But when I pressed, somewhat uncomfortably, for details on the victim's emotional state and the recent events in her life, the friends were hesitant to speculate as to why, exactly, she had killed herself.

They were correct to be wary of my questions–and of the entire endeavor of "explaining" a suicide in a 600-word news article. Doctors, social workers, and researchers know that every suicide is unique and incredibly complex; there is rarely one simple reason why a person decides they no longer want to live. In a Slate review of the new documentary "Bully," Emily Bazelon does an excellent job complicating the picture of suicide the media so often paint, noting it's all too easy to blame schools after a tragic death, when, in fact, many suicidal teens are suffering not only from peer bullying, but also from mental illness, learning disabilities, and unsupportive home environments.

"Bully" devotes a lot of time to the story of 17-year old Tyler Long, whose parents–among the film's heroes–are suing his school district in the wake of Tyler's suicide. But as Bazelon reveals, the film never mentions that Tyler was on the Autism spectrum and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD, nor that he sometimes picked fights at school and that his parents strongly suspected he was considering suicide, but didn't tell his therapist about it. What's more, Tyler's suicide note, addressed to his family, didn't mention bullying at all, and instead focused on their lack of support. "I don’t have a supporting family or friends for that matter," Tyler wrote. "You think I am worthless and pathetic. All I wanted was acceptance and kindness, but no I didn’t get love."

Jesse Green's 2010 New York article about Teddy Graubard, a 17-year old private school student who jumped to his death after being caught cheating, does an excellent job of showing just how complicated it can be to suss out why a teenager with Asperger's syndrome and a history of mental health issues kills himself.

The point is not that we shouldn't feel awfully, terribly sympathetic with suicidal teens and their devastated parents. We should. And of course, schools need to do everything in their power to help students feel safe and supported, both by cracking down on bullying and by referring kids (both the bullied and bully-ers) to in and out-of-school mental health services. The problem is the over-simplification of this issue in the public conversation, which actually makes it more difficult for schools and governments to address teen suicide rationally.

We saw this a lot around the story of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers freshman who killed himself shortly after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, secretly filmed him making out with an older man. My Nation colleague Richard Kim has been eloquent on this point: The prosecution and conviction of Ravi had less to do with evidence that his actions led directly to Clementi's death, and more to do with moral panic over young people, bullying, technology, and sex. Richard writes:

Among the things blotted out by the trial and media circus is the enduring mystery of why Tyler Clementi committed suicide. He had an older, gay brother with whom he had a close and supportive relationship. His parents' reaction to his sexual orientation was mixed; his father was cool, his mother not so much, but they were still in regular and civil communication. He was clearly vexed about what Dharun Ravi had done, but was discussing what to do about it with a friend, the RA and online message boards. There’s nothing in these records that indicated he was suicidal or even beyond appropriately anxious about a situation to which he himself saw a resolution within reach (a new room). He wasn’t the victim of bullying across campus, and although he was socially shy, he was also somewhat sexually daring. He had four years of college, and a life, to look forward to—and indeed, until his Facebook post announcing his suicide, he was doing just that.

There are all too many cases of gay teenagers whose lives have been made intolerably miserable and who are driven to suicide by the harassment and violence of parents, family, fellow students, teachers and other authority figures. This is not transparently one of them.

In the wake of Clementi's suicide, New Jersey passed aggressive legislation requiring schools to document and address all cases of alleged bullying of students, whether they take place in or outside of school, or online (via Facebook, MySpace, email, etc.). As the Newark Star Ledger reports, the law, which did not include much extra funding for mental health services, has led to complaints from parents that it doesn't do enough, and complaints from school officials that it imposes a heavy paperwork burden without providing much explanation of how, exactly, to define bullying, or support to enable schools to monitor and address it effectively:

Guidance counselors and teachers face a steep challenge in trying to draw the line between conflict and bullying.

One suspected bullying incident in Roxbury involved two kindergartners fighting over crayons, and another stemmed from two intermediate school students excluding a third from their lunch table. The crayons case was ruled not to be bullying, but the lunch-table incident was, said Roxbury anti-bullying coordinator Phyllis Prestamo.

I'm not going to propose a solution to bullying or teen suicide, because I obviously don't think there is any kind of silver bullet, beyond supportive, caring families and schools, and expanding access to affordable, high-quality mental health care. It's just important to note that law suits, hate crime legislation, and education policy cannot be the only avenues for addressing these problems. I really do hope the Affordable Care Act, which will help a lot, is not overturned.

Further Thoughts on Homeschooling, Liberalism, and Special-Needs Kids

I’ve been overwhelmed and gratified by the huge response to my Slate essay on secular, liberal homeschooling—especially Astra Taylor’s deeply thought rebuttal at N+1, which I highly recommend. Taylor maintains that her original piece was not prescriptive: that she does not believe progressive homeschooling is practical or right for all children, simply that considering its benefits—its child-centered ideology and disdain for testing—is a useful thought experiment when contemplating how to improve education broadly. 

To me, the salient question is how we get from point A) a public school system that isn’t doing a good enough job educating many kids, especially the neediest, to point B) a public school system that is more equitable and higher quality. Does the increasing prominence of homeschooling—both in terms of raw numbers of families joining the movement and homeschooling’s growing role in the political debate over education—serve this purpose? I continue to believe it does not, because it is difficult to improve an institution without broad buy-in into it.

Furthermore, I’m concerned that the deep cynicism about public education reflected in Taylor’s original N+1 essay and other statements from progressive homeschoolers and unschoolers–in which schools are compared to prisons and public school educators are depicted as vicious enforcers of class and race hierarchies–only serves to lessen support for this crucial social institution. 

I received dozens of emails since Slate published my piece, most from politically liberal parents eager to share stories of how homeschooling allows their own children to flourish through field trips, hands-on projects, and curricula molded to their quirky interests. Others told me they believe their child’s special physical, emotional, or intellectual needs can not be adequately served by schools; this is a wrenching challenge for millions of families with special-needs children, and one I should have acknowledged in my piece. (Later in this essay, I’ll address special education at greater length.)

But my Slate piece was not about the benefits or drawbacks of homeschooling for particular families or children. Rather, my piece was about the educational needs of society at-large. To clarify my own position, I do not think homeschooling should be illegal, and I acknowledge it may be the best option for a relatively small population of disabled and special-needs kids. My own belief is that when it comes to the typical child, however, homeschooling does not comport with crucial social justice values related to investing in the common good, and so I’d urge parents concerned with social justice—both broadly and in terms of their own children’s development—to think twice about making this choice.

The debate the article sparked, especially on the left, illuminates a deeper divide: What kind of liberalism does one subscribe to—one primarily concerned with the common good, or one primarily concerned with individual rights? Obviously a good society is made up of a careful, Rawlsian balancing of both these interests. But I believe American liberalism weighs private interests and “choice” too heavily, and that our society would be strengthened by more shared institutions and experiences, including in education.

Though just about 2 million children are homeschooled—compared to 55 million children in the public school system—homeschoolers are amazingly well organized, and have successfully lobbied many in the Republican Party to abandon their previous support for education spending and for federal and even state school improvement efforts. As secular progressives join the homeschooling movement in greater numbers, perhaps they will disassociate it somewhat from its outright hostility toward public education and efforts to improve it; one need not participate in a public institution to support it politically.

Yet as the political theorist Corey Robin deftly noted in our Twitter exchange about homeschooling, the social programs with the deepest support in the United States are those, like Medicare and Social Security, into which we all invest. In other Western democracies that have a history of greater public investment in education—and histories of greater respect for schooling and intellectual activity more generally—homeschooling and even private schooling is practically unheard of. Those cultural differences are why, as the New York Times reported last week, affluent, foreign-born parents in New York City enroll their children in public schools at nearly double the rate of native-born Americans in the same income bracket.

To respond directly to Taylor’s critique of my piece, I will admit to a romantic strain of thinking in some of my writing on public education. Looking back on the public schools I’ve chosen to report on over the past few years, from Newark to Queens to Denver, it’s true that I consistently visit excellent ones. In part, this is because I am eager to share best practices in the hope they can be replicated; in part, on an ideological level, I want to push back against “Waiting for Superman”-like thinking, in which charter schools are misrepresented as the only public schools helping low-income children transcend the economic conditions into which they were born. 

That said, I try to stay vigilant about policing Pollyannaish tendencies in my work, knowing I come from a family of public school educators and that I had a generally positive public school experience in a district that was (and remains) in many ways unusual. To this end, my first long-form magazine feature about education entailed revisiting my hometown to confront an issue Taylor brings up in her rebuttal to my piece: the problematic history of de facto tracking by race and class in integrated public schools.

But the fact of the matter is, if there’s one reason to feel romantic about American public education, it’s that the public school system is required to educate all children, regardless of disability-status, behavioral problems, or whether or not they have parents actively engaged in their child’s education. Here is Section One of Title XI of the New York State Constitution:

The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.

The history of American public education is a history of efforts to make good on the Common School movement’s promise of universal, quality education. The Education and Secondary Education Act, signed into law by President Johnson in 1965, gave the federal government a new, aggressive role in supplementary funding for the education of disadvantaged children. When Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975, it prevented states and districts from excluding special-needs children from public education.

It would be a farce to claim all public schools are doing a good-enough job at serving special-needs kids. But at least within the public system, parents have legal recourse when they believe their children are not being adequately served. In New York City, for example, there’s a fantastic organization called Advocates for Children that provides disabled kids, low-income kids, foster kids, and other disadvantaged populations with attorneys to represent their interests in confrontations with the public schools.

This is in marked contrast to the homeschooling cooperatives and radical “free schools” I discuss in my Slate piece, in which “problem” children may be completely excluded. In the Brooklyn preschool cooperative Sonia Songha joined, “things got ugly” after the teacher suggested one child needed an individual aide, a common service public schools provide to kids on the autism spectrum, for example, or who are hearing-impaired. As parents in the co-op fought over whether to hire and how to fund an aide, two families pulled out.

And while the private Albany Free School Taylor visits in her N+1 essay is a fascinating (though, as Taylor admits, un-scalable) experiment in social-justice oriented education, it is not required to educate all children. Taylor writes:

At the time of my visit the staff had just dismissed a student for the first time in the school’s history. The boy, 10 years old and extremely large for his age, was angry and aggressive, intimidating and hitting his classmates without provocation. His peers knew his home life was tough, but their empathy didn’t deter him from terrorizing them. The whole community—teachers and students—held a meeting and, after discussing the issue at length, voted to have him leave.

Public school teachers and students are not allowed to vote any child out of a school.

Last spring I reported from Providence, Rhode Island and met Betsy Blanchette, a public school psychologist who specializes in working with children on the autism spectrum. Because the state of Rhode Island is required to provide free services to all disabled kids, Blanchette spends her day shuttling between up to six schools, some of them private schools, where she meets with students for counseling and with parents and teachers to design plans to educate special-needs children.

In 2010, Blanchette won an award as educator of the year from the Asperger’s Association of New England. She was nominated by the parents of a high-functioning autistic first-grader whose small private school had become overwhelmed by his needs. Reluctantly, the parents approached the Providence public schools for help; Blanchette was assigned to the case. She began meeting with the boy once a week to work on basic social skills, like how to interpret physical mannerisms or stay calm if a teacher “redirects”—changes directions for an activity mid-stream, a very confusing thing for a child on the autism-spectrum to understand, since they tend to be highly-literal and rules-oriented. Blanchette encouraged the family to enroll their son in public school, and then convinced the district to hire a full-time aide to attend class alongside the boy. Today he is in a fifth-grade inclusion classroom and doing well.

In this case, only the public school system had the expertise, resources, and legal responsibility to serve this particular child. And at the end of the day, that’s why homeschooling is severely limited as an education reform thought-experiment. Because the vast majority of two-income and single-parent families will never be able to homeschool or afford private school, we need to pursue educational equality within the confines of the public school system we have—a system that is constantly struggling, in a legally-accountable way, to balance the needs of individual children with the needs of the community at-large. The more of us engage in this struggle, by enrolling our kids in public schools and supporting public schools politically, the better these institutions will be.

Update: I forgot to mention that a few homeschoolers wrote to me saying they also believe investing in the common good is very important, so despite pulling their kids out of public schools, they have them volunteer, visit cultural institutions, and do other activities related to giving back. This is great, but again, this is the private liberalism of piecemeal philanthropy, not the sort of public liberalism I support, in which we build strong, shared social institutions capable of systemically addressing poverty.

Update 2: Yes, of course the choice of where to live, in terms of moving to a "better" school district, severely impacts educational equality and buy-in to the common good, as well–and is far more common than homeschooling. Click here and here to learn about ways to lessen the negative impact of residential segregation on schooling.

Update 3: A really smart response to the debate, from my friend Sara Mead.

Thoughts on My Trip to Mexico City and the Drug War

The view from Ricardo Salinas' home office 

View of Mexico City from the home office of Ricardo Salinas, the retail/media/banking tycoon.

I spent the first half of this week in Mexico City, on a junket sponsored by Grupo Salinas. There's a lot of worry about Mexico's violence–and I have some of my own thoughts on the topic, below–but I didn't feel at all unsafe. Mexico City is an architecturally beautiful town with a lovely culture of late-night, outdoor dining and delicious street food. Swaths of the city reminded me of the immigrant neighborhoods of south Los Angeles, cut by smog and gridlock, but home to vibrant local business strips and cohesive communities. Indeed, Mexico's economy has been less hard-hit by the financial crisis than ours has.

Our group of writers and policy wonks met with a really interesting list of journalists and politicians, including three presidential candidates. My take on Mexico's upcoming election and the country's education challenges are over at The Nation in a new column; in short, I was surprised by just how similar the rhetoric on Mexican school reform sounds–there's a big focus on the excesses of the teachers' union, for example–even though Mexico is confronting an educational inequality crisis far more serious than our own, with the average Mexican dropping out after just eight years of formal schooling. 

So if you want to learn more about education in Mexico, click here.

More broadly, the trip left me all fired up to legalize drugs. About 45,000 Mexicans have been murdered since President Felipe Calderon escalated and militarized the drug war in 2006, with political, financial, and tactical support from the United States. The drug cartels are conducting terrible massacres, and intimidating and sometimes killing both professional and citizen journalists. 

All of this is happening despite the fact that "the war" has successfully led to the deaths and arrests of dozens of top drug lords. In their absence, some of the major trafficking cartels split into smaller, more agile organizations that can better resist detection. These small groups are now fighting among themselves, which has (of course) contributed to the increase in violence.

Why isn't the drug war working? Because it isn't addressing the demand side of the equation: Americans' unquenchable appetite for illegal cocaine and marijuana. The only way to decrease demand is to begin treating addiction primarily as a public health problem, not a criminal one–as Portugal has done–and to legalize the production and sale of less dangerous drugs, like pot, to tamp down on the violent narcotics black market.

Ending the drug war would also revitalize American inner city neighborhoods, where the existence of this underground economy disincentivizes education and work, and sends 17 percent of black men to prison. 

In July the Los Angeles Times' published a riveting four-part series about the regular Americans and Mexicans caught up in the massive Sinaloan drug cartel. I highly recommend it, and think it could win a Pulitzer: Read parts one, two, three, and four.

On Rape

Drug dealers can get raped.

Prostitutes can get raped.

Undocumented immigrants can get raped.

Women who enjoy sex can get raped.

None of these people have forfeited their basic human right to consent to sex.

(Of course, I have no idea what really happened in the DSK case. Just some thoughts to keep in mind.)

On Planned Parenthood and the Experiences of Our Elected Representatives

Obama sotomayor
photo of President Obama and Sonia Sotomayor courtesy The Daily News

As you've likely already heard, two female members of Congress, Jackie Speier and Gwen Moore, were very brave during the floor debate Thursday night over the Pence Amendment, the attempt to defund Planned Parenthood. Speier revealed that she had an abortion in the 17th week of a wanted pregnancy, because of medical complications. "For you to stand on this floor and suggest that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought, is preposterous," she said to a supporter of the amendment, Chris Smith of New Jersey. 

Moore, meanwhile, shared the story of her own unplanned pregnancy at the age of 18. When she went into labor, she was too poor to call a taxi or ambulance to take her to the hospital. I want to quote at length from the rest of her remarks, because she offered such an incredibly powerful and true statement about this country's approach to poverty, women, and children. This should be required reading for every American who cares about health and education policy, and certainly for every Democratic elected official wondering how to speak coherently about reproductive rights:

I just want to tell you a little bit about what it’s like to not have Planned Parenthood. You have to add water to the formula to make it stretch. You have to give your kids Ramen noodles at the end of the month to fill up their little bellies so they won’t cry … It subjects children to low educational attainment because of the ravages of poverty. You know, one of the biggest problems that school districts have in educating some of these poor black children who are unplanned is that they are mobile; they are constantly moving because they can’t pay the rent … [P]ublic policy has treated poor children and women who have not had the benefit of Planned Parenthood with utter contempt. These same children, it has been very difficult to get them health insurance through CHIP.

These two women serve as reminders of why we need many more women and people of color serving in public office. To suggest so much is often derided as playing "identity politics," but really, it's just an acknowledgement that people with identities that differ from the status quo of political life–old, white, affluent, and male–have experiences that add something to the public debate and decision-making process. They've been single mothers. They've endured the tragedy of losing a wanted pregnancy. They've been poor.

In short, they've been chiseled by life. 

I think President Obama said this most eloquently, when he nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

…as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience."  Experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers.  It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live.