As we approach the 2012 elections next month, presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama offer different ideological approaches to handling America’s challenges and improving our society. Political conversations become hard to avoid, whether in person or on facebook. As a therapist, I would like to share with you some psychological info that might be useful.
One reason I love being a social worker is the field’s two-part focus on internal, psychological things and on the external, society-based things that affect how happy and productive we are. Hopefully, our understanding of why things happen will influence the solutions we come up with. I will not identify which solution is the best one, but I hope you will consider the following data when you make your decision and vote on November 6.
2012 Elections: Job Creation, Education, Abortion and Birth Control, the Obesity Epidemic
Domestic public policy is complicated. Many of the problems we want to fix, like education, poverty and public health, have interlocking and overlapping parts. Research from nueroscience, public health, and mental health provides evidence that the overlap comes from the impact of adverse childhood events on individuals and from social structures that limit individual growth. Let’s look at some examples more closely.
2012 Elections: Job creation
Where I live, in central Indiana, job creation doesn’t appear to be the problem, despite the 2012 elections focus on job creation. Getting qualified people to those jobs is the problem. Many employers build warehouses outside of the urban core because land is cheaper. Yet, many who needs jobs don’t have cars. Limited public transportation means those who need jobs can’t get to the suburban areas where jobs exist. Additionally, many of my fellow small business owners report having trouble finding qualified candidates who can do the job. And there are some jobs that go unfilled because people are unwilling to do them, like a rotting apple harvest in Washington state because there aren’t enough migrant workers to pick the fruit due to changes in immigration enforcement.
Participating in meaningful activity, i.e. work, is a social good, both for each person and for the economy. Contributing increases our sense of self-esteem. So what do we do if someone desires to work but can’t physically get to the job or qualify when they get there? Which problem is easier to solve?
2012 Elections: Education
Qualified workers need a solid education and supportive social connections. The less wealth we have, the more important our social connections become. Moving to a new area to take a job is more complicated when it means we have to cut ourselves off from our social network. Money is portable wealth. Friends and family aren’t.
Our education system is also where most of our socialization takes place, and we often under-estimate the role of social influence, particularly during the debates for the 2012 elections. Repeatedly, researchers have shown the vast majority of us will conform to the opinions of others, even when it is obvious they are wrong. How will your voting decisions in the 2012 elections be influenced by the opinions of others around you?
Education and unplanned pregnancy are also closely linked. And early sexual activity, which is most often without contraception, is influenced by the amount of trauma and chaos in a child’s life. Human beings are programmed to survive, which includes reproduction. If the developing child experiences some adversity, like divorce, a mentally ill parent, or sexual, emotional, or physical abuse, they will hit puberty sooner and be more compelled to have sex.
2012 Elections: Abortion and Birth Control
The increased likelihood of unplanned pregnancy due to growing up in high stress circumstances should also be considered when we debate the legality of abortion and access to birth control, hot topics in the 2012 elections. A large percentage of teens believe many inaccurate myths about pregnancy, like you can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex, or you have to have sex consistently for months to be considered sexually active. Sex education can address these myths, but only if it connects with teenagers instead of patronizing them. Research has demonstrated that making condoms easily accessible, i.e. a fishbowl of them in a school hallway, doesn’t increase overall sexual activity but seriously increases what percentage of kids practice safe sex. How do our voting decisions impact unplanned pregnancies in the U.S.?
When we talk about family planning and contraception, we should consider the hidden costs of parenting. Childcare is very expensive, often consuming most of the paycheck of a working parent. While this is tolerable in a two-earner household, what happens when the working parent is a single parent? For families that decide to have one parent stay at home, that parent’s career trajectory is forever changed, diminished. If we claim the significance of a human life, then will we increase the material support provided to parents and child-rearing?
2012 Elections: Obesity
Another public policy issue is America’s expanding waistline. Here we have evidence that yet another problem is linked to childhood trauma. Vincent Felitti, who ran a weight-loss clinic in California in the early 80s, realized half the patients in his clinic had been sexually abused as children and the rest experienced some form of childhood trauma. Further research into this observation reveals that many public health concerns – like drug and alcohol abuse, heart disease, diabetes, depression, stroke and cancer – are influenced by our early childhood experiences. Experience enough adverse childhood experiences, say 4 or more, and your risk of developing one of these chronic health conditions doubles, triples, or even quadruples. These risks go down if we experience opportunities to heal through exposure to empathetic, supportive relationships.
Given this data, what kind of public policy decisions or programs would best help address our expanding waistlines? Unplanned pregnancy? Abortion? Education? Job creation? I hope you will consider the role of trauma as you make your decisions about our country’s future and talk with others about how to solve these public policy dilemmas. Regardless of your position, please make sure you participate in the 2012 elections.