Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento-based freelance journalist and senior fellow at Demos. He is the author of five books, including Breadline USA and Inside Obama's Brain.

Recent Articles

Creating a Countercyclical Welfare System

Clinton-era reforms mean that our safety net is weakest when we need it most.

Welfare systems exist to reduce the worst excesses of poverty. When poverty increases during recessions, the welfare state is supposed to rush into countercyclical action, providing a firewall against a growth in destitution. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, it’s never been the case. In recent years in particular, the American welfare system has increasingly shed itself of this key obligation. In 1996, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—the welfare system established in 1935 as part of the Social Security Act—was scrapped in favor of a more limited system, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). But in the Great Recession that began in 2008, TANF has proved a total disaster. Unemployment doubled in many states, but in most of them, the number of TANF enrollees either increased only marginally or decreased. It wasn’t always that way. “AFDC used to be countercyclical,” says economist James Ziliak of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Poverty Research. The...

May It Please the Court

Problem-solving courts have a track record of lowering recidivism and incarceration costs, but they still don't reach enough offenders.

Inside a nondescript building on Polk Street in San Francisco's troubled Tenderloin district, an experimental court is trying to sort out the lives of the accused. Known as the Community Justice Center, the court regularly sees prostitutes, thieves, alcoholics, drug users and dealers, and mentally ill and homeless people primarily for nonviolent offenses. The average defendant has been arrested locally eight times. Instead of sending offenders straight to an overcrowded and expensive jail, presiding Judge Loretta Giorgi tries to connect them with social services that might finally end their downward spiral. On a recent fall day, Giorgi asked a middle -- aged defendant to attend drug-rehab sessions, admonished a young, tattooed man for sleeping through counseling sessions, and ordered another defendant to undergo more frequent urinalysis. The court makes these mandates easy to fulfill: The Polk Street center houses not only the court but also social services, including case-management...

Today's Other America

A large indentured class of workers is struggling to escape debt
rather than build a better life.

(Flickr/The Retro Gigolo)
Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do by Gabriel Thompson, Nation Books, 298 pages, $24.95 American Dream Dying: The Changing Economic Lot of the Least Advantaged by Peter D. McClelland and Peter H. Tobin Rowman & Littlefield, 127 pages, $32.95 Weeks into a year-long project working the dirty, exhausting, repetitive jobs disproportionately done by undocumented immigrants, Brooklyn-based writer and activist Gabriel Thompson comes to a realization. "It's simply not possible," he writes in his new book Working in the Shadows , "to do this work for decades and not suffer noticeable body modifications, such as a permanently hunched back, crooked fingers, and hands so swollen that they look as if someone has attached a valve to a finger and pumped vigorously." In the shadows, Thompson picks up work alongside Mexican laborers in the winter lettuce fields of Yuma, Arizona, earning $8.37 per hour to pick, trim, and package thousands of lettuce heads per...

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Watching Steven Soderbergh?s Che as Obama begins his presidency was a curious experience -- a chance to ponder both the power of personality and the seductive notion that change can be embodied in one individual. Ernest ?Che? Guevara was of a different moment, of course ? the Argentine doctor-turned-revolutionary was an uncompromising man more interested in blowing up bridges than building them, more interested in war-tinged rhetoric than that of service. Che earned his revolutionary stripes in his campaign, alongside Fidel Castro, to liberate Cuba from the despotic US-backed leader Fulgencia Batista. His record in the wake of peace is spottier, however -- he had disastrous turns as the commander of La Cabana prison, in charge of purging Batista?s ranks, and as head of Cuba?s National Bank and the minister of industry. He left behind those positions to foment revolution in other countries, including the Congo and Mozambique -- victory in Cuba seemed conditional and fraught with the...

The Misshapen Mind

Two new books argue that the human brain's haphazard evolution has left us at the prey of irrational behaviors and self-defeating instincts.

The human mind, we like to think, is an embodiment of perfection. For those with a religious inclination, our ability to think through issues logically, to construct narratives about our surroundings, and to recall events that happened decades earlier is proof positive of a divine hand at work. For the nonreligious, the mind is a secular miracle, an indication that, left to its own devices, evolution produces something akin to a Panglossian vision of the best outcomes in the best of all possible worlds. Two new books beg to differ. The first, New York University psychologist Gary Marcus' Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind (Houghton Mifflin, April 2008) sets out to show the many ways in which the human mind is an evolutionary hodge-podge, a series of good-enough solutions to the problem of understanding and responding to our environment. The second is The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't -- and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger (Dutton, June 2008), by...

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