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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2018
February
27
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

“Politically homeless.” That’s how conservative National Review senior editor Jonah Goldberg describes himself.

A recent headline on a column by Max Boot read, “If this is what conservatism has become, count me out.” Trampled by the populist appeal of Trumpism, “principled conservativism,” says Mr. Boot, is “increasingly disconnected from the stuff that thrills the masses.”

On the 10th anniversary of William F. Buckley Jr.’s death, Republican control of Washington is at an apex. But, by many of its own members’ admission, the American political right faces a crisis of integrity: The Republican Party is adrift from its moral moorings.

Take Mona Charen. The longtime columnist, who has unimpeachable conservative credentials, was met with jeers when she spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last weekend. Her sin? She challenged Republican hypocrisy on sexual harassment, citing the behavior of President Trump.

Ms. Charen worries that total party loyalty – tribalism – is now the leading value among Republicans, effectively superceding other “conservative” ideals, including respect for women.

One of the other women on the CPAC panel later commended her bravery. Security guards escorted Charen out for her own protection. Yet Charen wrote in a New York Times opinion piece the next day that there’s “nothing more freeing than telling the truth.”

~

Now we’ve selected five stories for you, including looks at possible paths to progress on gun violence in Washington State, as well as paying for health care for the poor in Kentucky, and solving a crime spree in Australia.

1. ‘Protection orders’ get a closer look in fight against gun deaths

Our first story looks at Washington State’s new system for dealing with gun owners who may be at risk of injuring themselves or others. It’s not a perfect solution, but a few states say it offers a sensible path to safety without revoking Second Amendment rights.

David
Elaine Thompson/AP/File
Gun regulation activists in Olympia, Wash., stand with signs in the rotunda of the Legislative Building before Gov. Jay Inslee's annual state of the state address in January 2016. The citizen sponsor of Washington Initiative 1491 says her son and daughter would still be alive if 'extreme risk protection orders' had been legal in June of 2016. Such protection orders, modeled after domestic violence restraining orders, would require a court hearing and due process protections to remove guns from a person in crisis.

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As the United States moves forward after another public shooting, emphasis is being put on what can collectively be done to prevent gun violence. What’s the best way to alert authorities to a threat? What options are there if a potentially dangerous person has access to weapons? In some areas of the US, the public has embraced the idea of restraining orders that temporarily remove guns. Five states now have extreme risk protection order, or ERPO, laws. Sometimes called gun violence restraining orders, the laws are generally modeled after legislation enacted by Connecticut in 1999. They have not run afoul of the Second Amendment because the court-ordered confiscations are temporary, and a petition can be filed to keep the weapons. In Washington State, an ERPO law took effect last June. A Seattle crisis response unit says it has so far utilized a total of 13 of the orders. “For years, law enforcement has known that these are really challenging situations, and they can only do so much,” says Sandra Shanahan of the King County Prosecutor’s Office. “But with an ERPO, the police now have a new tool in their toolbox.”

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‘Protection orders’ get a closer look in fight against gun deaths

During the 2014 legislative session here in Washington State, a Senate committee killed a bill that would have temporarily confiscated firearms from any person deemed – by family members, friends, or law enforcement – to be violent or emotionally distraught and in need of a mental-health intervention. 

Fast-forward two years to June of 2016, when 22-year-old James Balcerak walked into the bedroom of his sleeping stepsister, 21-year-old Brianna, and pulled out a handgun. Mr. Balcerak was autistic, was occasionally violent, and would sometimes rage at his parents. Once, in 2015, they’d locked themselves in their bedroom while he pounded so hard on the door that he punched a hole through it. His mother, Marilyn Balcerak, remembers him screaming, “Can I commit suicide now? Yes or no?”

On that June night in 2016, south of Seattle in the City of Kent, young Balcerak pointed his handgun at Brianna and shot her to death. Thirty minutes later he turned the gun on himself.

“There was nothing I could do,” Ms. Blacerak says. “But if Initiative 1491 had passed two years earlier, when the legislature blocked the bill, James and Brianna would be alive today.”

Washington State voters passed Initiative 1491 in November 2016, winning 71 percent of the vote. The law does precisely what the legislature refused to do: allow parents like Blacerak to petition the courts for an ERPO – an extreme risk protection order – and take away firearms from a loved one they fear is a danger to themselves or to others.

Prosecutors, academics, law-enforcement officers, gun-control advocates, and public-health professionals who routinely confront gun violence and domestic abuse say extreme risk protection orders could become an important national tool for preventing not only suicides but also mass shootings like the Valentine’s Day killings of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

“I would say that ERPOs are an effective strategy in concert with other common-sense measures, like background checks combined with the reasonable oversight of the sale and the carrying of guns,” says Jonathan Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

“There’s no one thing that’s going to stop gun deaths,” adds Dr. Metzl, a psychiatrist. “But I think the more of these common-sense measures we have, the fewer gun deaths we’ll have.”

Second Amendment

Five states now have ERPO laws – sometimes called gun-violence restraining orders – generally modeled after legislation enacted by Connecticut in 1999. Such laws have not run afoul of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms because the court-ordered confiscations are temporary, legal observers say, and because a petition can be filed to keep the weapons.  

Washington State’s ERPO law took effect last June. According to Sgt. Eric Pisconski of the Seattle Police Department, his Crisis Response Unit filed its first ERPO petition in July and has averaged about one every three weeks for a total of 13 to date.

“We get about 10,000 crisis calls a year. We can’t follow up on everything,” Sergeant Pisconski says. “We look at reports from Patrol to see 1) if someone is a disproportional user of 911 services, or 2) if someone is at risk for harming themselves or others.”

His team of five officers and one mental-health professional focuses on cases in which it suspects someone with mental-health troubles has access to firearms or is trying to get a gun. They methodically plan encounters and always take a tactical approach.

“It can be very dangerous. You say, ‘We think this individual is an extreme risk.’ So now,” Pisconski asks, with a wry, rhetorical chuckle, “we’re going to knock on their door and say, ‘We’re from the government? And we’re here to collect your guns?’

“It’s always a little iffy. So we try to get a little creative,” he says of the process of collecting the weapons. “We try to serve them off-site. We might meet them at a job site, or at a coffee shop. Then, if we think they still have firearms, we can go with them to their home, control the situation, and secure the firearms.”

Although the law was designed so a distraught individual’s family, friends, or co-workers could file an ERPO petition as easily as police, Pisconski says that, so far, he believes all ERPO petitions in Seattle have been filed by law enforcement.

“We had one case where we were trying to get the family members to file the petition, but they were hesitant, even though they were very, very supportive of removing the guns,” he says. “We told them, ‘We’d be happy to work you through the petitioning process,’ and they said, ‘Oh, we don’t want to be the ones with our names on the paperwork – because that will affect our family dynamic.’”

Such fears notwithstanding, before ERPOs it was more difficult, and more dangerous, for families to get help.

“When there isn’t an ERPO law, the threshold for getting care for someone is very high,” says Sandra Shanahan, program manager for the Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit in the King County Prosecutor’s Office. “Getting someone involuntarily committed is very difficult. We have a lot of families who are very concerned about their loved one, but they can’t get the help they need.”

Balcerak called 911 that night her son James punched a hole in the bedroom door, and she begged responding officers for help. “They said there was nothing I could do to keep guns from my son,” she remembers. “I felt so helpless trying to keep guns away from him.”

Her best hope, the police told her, was to take out a restraining order against James – and pray that he would either violate the order or commit some other gun crime. Only then, they told her, could police intervene. But if 1491 had been law at the time, “I would have had the police get the order that night,” says Balcerak, who was the citizen sponsor of the initiative.

“For years, law enforcement has known that these are really challenging situations, and they can only do so much,” Ms. Shanahan says. “But with an ERPO, the police now have a new tool in their toolbox.”

Metzl believes ERPOs offer a place where conservatives and liberals may discover they agree on at least one solution to gun violence. “I think that ERPOs are one of several issues where we’ll be able to find common ground,” he says. “There already is plenty of common ground between gun-rights advocates and gun-control activists. Most gun owners aren’t in the NRA. Most gun owners support background checks. I just think there’s a common societal need to identify people who are at risk for harming other people, or themselves.”

Caveats to implementation

Yet the law is not enough, according to King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg. Most counties and cities with ERPO laws lack the personnel, money, and preparation necessary to help the public get guns away from likely shooters, he says. Without expanded budgets and training, ERPO laws in these jurisdictions will become what Pisconski calls “feel-good legislation” ­– well-intended laws almost impossible to enforce.

Mr. Satterberg has an advantage: King County and the City of Seattle allotted about $1 million to help the Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit troubleshoot the EVRO petition process, educate its personnel, and encourage more citizens to use ERPOs.

For at least 18 months, Shanahan says, “everyone involved in the ERPO process” met in work groups and shared successes and failures. “It created a blueprint and a work plan,” she says. “Laws don’t implement themselves; you have to have a work plan.”

Last week, representatives from the King County Prosecutors Office, the City of Seattle Attorney’s Office, the Seattle Police Department, and the King County Sheriff’s Office held a press conference to explain the ERPO law to residents and provide resources for them to use it.

“If you’re going to do it, you have to go all in,” Satterberg says. “You can’t ask an already-overburdened police department to do this. It just won’t happen.

“At least here in the Seattle area,” he adds, “if people were to call us and say, ‘We think this person is the next school shooter,’ we now have a team to help them.”

Oregon, California, and Indiana also have ERPO laws. A report in the Sacramento Bee says various California jurisdictions used the law 86 times in 2016 to confiscate weapons. It’s estimated that at least 12 states and the District of Columbia are considering similar legislation.  

Advocates of the tool point to a Duke University study of Connecticut’s law between 1999 and 2013. In 762 ERPO interventions, police found firearms in 99 percent of cases and removed an average of seven guns per subject. Researchers estimate every 10.5 petitions granted prevented one suicide. Satterberg, Shanahan, Pisconski, Metzl, and Balcerak believe ERPOs can have similar successes when it comes to reducing mass shootings.

“I had a son who was a murderer,” Balcerak says. “I had a stepdaughter – who was the daughter I never had – who was murdered. So I can see the issue from both sides.

“I honestly feel like there weren’t 17 victims in the Florida shootings; there were 18. Nikolas Cruz was a young man that definitely had mental illness, and should never have been allowed to purchase a gun,” she says. “If Florida had had extreme violence protection orders, the police would have had the chance to petition the court to take away the weapons he had, and prevent him from buying any more.”

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2. Medicaid: Kentucky wrestles with how much to ask of recipients in return

A unique health-care experiment is starting for Kentucky’s poorest: It’s intended to foster self-reliance, accountability, and independence. In this state, if you want government-funded health care, you will have to be a full-time student, work at least 20 hours a week, or be involved in “community engagement.”

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When Gov. Matt Bevin entered office in 2016, “what we were seeing was Kentucky is at the bottom of every list we want to be at the top of when it comes to health outcomes,” says Adam Meier, his deputy chief of staff. “Educational attainment and income, all those things that the data shows have a correlation to health outcomes, we wanted to help address all of those in one program.” The result is Kentucky HEALTH, an ambitious program that aims to “help [members] be responsible for their health.” In July, Kentucky will take the American health-care system into uncharted territory, becoming the first state to enforce work and community engagement requirements for a portion of its Medicaid recipients. For those on Medicaid, the looming changes are a source of anxiety. Other Kentuckians say the changes are an overdue effort to turn poor people into productive citizens. For Republican administrations, it is an opportunity to replace the Obama-era vision for health care with their own, a vision they say is built on innovation and empowering the poor. The debate has settled around some fundamental questions at the heart of the US health-care debate: Does work make you healthier, or do you need to be healthy to work? Is health care a benefit or a right?

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Medicaid: Kentucky wrestles with how much to ask of recipients in return

Late last month, while recovering in hospital, Kayleeann Hummell had an unusual epiphany after emergency surgery: She was grateful her health problems had happened now.

When the high school senior was sent home by the school nurse in intense pain, she headed to a hospital. Within 10 minutes she was being prepped for appendix surgery.

Growing up in a poor family in northern Kentucky she has been on Medicaid almost her entire life. On that day, she says, it literally saved her life. But if her health issues had struck this July, she says, “I probably would have died.”

July is when Kentucky will take the American health-care system into uncharted territory, becoming the first state in the country to enforce work and community engagement requirements for a portion of its Medicaid recipients.

For Ms. Hummell and others on Medicaid around the state, the looming changes are a source of fear and anxiety. For many Kentuckians who aren’t on Medicaid, the changes are an overdue effort to turn poor people into productive citizens. For the Republican administrations – in both Kentucky and other states including Indiana and Idaho – pursuing these changes at the state level, they are an opportunity to replace the Obama-era vision for health care with their own, a vision they say is built on innovation and empowering the poor.

Opponents counter that the new program will cause tens of thousands of low-income people to lose their health insurance, not only because of the new requirements but because of the burden it places on people to navigate an often bureaucratic and confusing system. And the debate around it has settled around some fundamental questions at the heart of the country’s health-care debate: Does work make you healthier, or do you need to be healthy to work? Has the Affordable Care Act approach been working, or does it need revamping? And is health care a benefit or a right?

Kentucky 'at the bottom of every list' for health

When Gov. Matt Bevin entered office in 2016, says Adam Meier, his deputy chief of staff for policy, “what we were seeing was Kentucky is the bottom of every list we want to be at the top of when it comes to health outcomes.”

“What we wanted to do was really redesign the [Medicaid] program,” he adds. “Educational attainment and income, all those things that the data shows have a correlation to health outcomes, we wanted to help address all of those in one program.”

The result is Kentucky HEALTH, an ambitious program that aims to “help [members] be responsible for their health” and “move towards self-reliability, accountability, and ultimately independence from public assistance,” while improving their health and educating them about the private health insurance market.

The program makes several significant changes to Kentucky’s Medicaid system – which expanded under the Affordable Care Act in 2014 to include low-income adults – including ending coverage for non-emergency medical transportation and providing incentives for avoiding “inappropriate” emergency room visits. The program would also cover dental and vision care only if the member earns enough “savings and earned incentive dollars” in a personal account.

The work requirements, unprecedented in Medicaid's 53-year history, are attracting the most attention, however. To remain eligible, able-bodied working-age adults without dependents will have to work at least 20 hours a week, be a full-time student, or complete a number of other “community engagement” activities ranging from job searches and vocational training to community and caregiving service. Not meeting one of those criteria would lock people out of coverage for six months, though they could regain it early through on-ramps such as taking a health literacy course or paying a premium.

While the program is projected to save Kentucky taxpayers more than $2 billion over five years, the Bevin administration says, its own projections indicate it will also reduce the number of Medicaid enrollees by 95,000 – including almost 20,000 people who qualified for Medicaid before the 2014 expansion.  According to the administration, that reduction will mostly be from people increasing their income and moving to private insurance. According to critics, that reduction will mostly be from people losing insurance entirely, including some in the traditional Medicaid population who wouldn’t be required to work. Health advocacy groups have also sued the state, saying the program violates the Social Security Act.

“We think work is a very positive thing and we know the value to the individual and the community,” says Emily Beauregard, executive director of Kentucky Voices for Health. “The problem is this requirement is so administratively burdensome, there’s so much red tape, that people will surely fall through the cracks even when they’re doing everything right.”

Critics point to Oklahoma. In 2014, the state implemented a three-month time limit for SNAP benefits, previously known as food stamps, for able-bodied adults unless they were in work or training programs for 20 hours a week. Roughly 40,000 people in the state lost their benefits, according to the nonpartisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The state did not offer workfare or job training for everyone at risk of losing the benefit.

“There’s nothing in [the program] that’s going to create jobs in rural Kentucky,” says Joan Alker, executive director of the Center for Children and Families at the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute.

Critics also note that the majority of Medicaid expansion enrollees in Kentucky already work. Four out of five have worked at some point in the past five years, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy (KCEP). The problem is, they’re likely working low-wage jobs with irregular hours. As of 2015, the three industries employing the most Medicaid expansion-eligible adults in Kentucky were restaurants, construction, and department stores, the KCEP says. Requiring people to work won’t mean there will be jobs for them, they argue.

Supporters, meanwhile, point to the success stories. The cities of Riverside, Calif., and Portland, Ore., both had successful “welfare-to-work” programs in the late 1980s and mid-1990s respectively. Both also provided intensive work training programs for recipients, the CBPP found.

What seems to be a fundamental disagreement in the debate is the correlation between health and work. Does working help you become healthier? Or does becoming healthier help you work?

Governor Bevin believes it to be the former, and the Trump administration has bolstered this argument. In a guidance for states on how they could change their Medicaid systems, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) says that “a growing body of evidence suggests that targeting certain health determinants, including productive work and community engagement, may improve health outcomes.”

Most of the research the guidance cites, however, concerns how employment improves mental health outcomes. When it comes to other kinds of health outcomes, Professor Alker believes, “they have the causality backwards.”

“People who are healthier can work,” she adds, “and taking Medicaid away will mean they won’t.”

Kentucky as testing ground

Kentucky has served as something of a test bed for modern US health-care policy since 2014. The state has had one of the most successful Medicaid expansions in the country, according to Kaiser Family Foundation. But Bevin – who has said that growing up in a poor, self-reliant family in New Hampshire taught him that stimulus programs are “enslaving the American people” – wants to take the state in a new direction.

Other states are following suit. Indiana will be implementing its own work requirements later this year, and eight other states have similar applications pending with the Trump administration.

Ohio is one of them, and Rea Hederman, vice president of policy at the Columbus-based Buckeye Institute, is excited to see states moving this way.

“I look at it as a way to affirm American values,” he says. “It’s not [just] a way to balance the budget, it’s a cultural shift, reinforcing the importance of work and connecting with the community.”

That said, in Kentucky budgetary pressure from the Medicaid expansion has been growing. While the federal government pays a larger share of Kentucky’s Medicaid costs than it does in most other states, by 2021 state taxpayers are projected to spend $363 million on Medicaid, an increase from $74 million in 2017.

“The cupboard is bare,” says state Sen. Steve West, a Republican. “Medicaid costs [are] a larger and larger percentage of our budget, pushing out education needs and post-secondary needs and all these other needs.”

“Work is not a bad thing. It is a way out,” he adds. “Once they see they can do it, [they’ll see] government dependency is not a good option for them because they could make a lot more money and have a much more rewarding life.”

Across the aisle, state Rep. Jim Wayne blasts that view as “a white, wealthy perspective on how poor people should be fixed.”

“We’re the success story” for Obamacare, he adds. “What you’re seeing now is an attempt by the right-wing extremists ... to reverse that.”

Whether people were getting healthier under the Medicaid expansion is another point of debate.

Rates of smoking, cancer deaths, and “preventable hospitalizations” had remained among the highest in the country since the expansion began, the state noted in its proposal for the program. During the first year of the expansion, it said fewer than 10 percent of recipients had an annual wellness or physical exam.

But two months later, researchers at Harvard University released a study showing that low-income adults in Kentucky and Arkansas – two expansion states – reported higher quality care and improved health, received more primary and preventive care, and made fewer ER visits than low-income adults in Texas, a state that didn’t expand Medicaid.

One point that all sides seem to agree on is that detecting significant improvements in the health of Kentuckians will take years.

A year into Kentucky HEALTH’s implementation, Meier says he would like to see “an uptick in preventive care” – which has already increased for some screenings, but not others – and “more knowledge and understanding” of the health-care system.

“If we see those small changes … then I think that will show that we’re making progress,” he adds, “but again, it’s going to be long-term.”

'More questions than answers'

Medicaid covers Donald Fosdick's treatment for anxiety, something he puts down to the mounting stress of not being able to find a high-paying job in Lexington. He also was diagnosed with cataracts and is not allowed to drive at night. Even when he drives during the day, he says he has to drive past street signs before he can read them.

He imagines that complying with the new program will be difficult, but he is more confused than anything. “Every time I read something I’ve just got more questions than answers,” he says.

“It seems to me they’re just trying to make it harder, so they lose people so they don’t have to spend money,” he adds. “I don’t understand how all these people are just going to run out and get jobs. It’s not like they’re just handing out jobs, or volunteer work for that matter.”

About 120 miles away, in the poor, rural town of Hazard, the Deatons are eating lunch at a Pizza Hut. Stacey Deaton used to work as a teacher’s aide in the county school system, and mentions that she saw children in her classes say they wanted to grow up to draw welfare like their parents.

“I think a lot of it is learned behavior,” she says. “I just feel like a lot of people take advantage of the system.”

“Disabled people, veterans – I think those people deserve it and they shouldn’t have to work for it,” she adds. “But the people who can and are able to, I 100 percent think that they should.”

For his part, Mr. Fosdick is hoping he can find a part-time job – though it would have to be one that doesn’t require driving at night.

Hummell, the student who had emergency surgery, has worked part-time jobs throughout high school and will be looking for full-time work as soon as she graduates.

“If it’s going to happen, I have to work with it, and there’s really no way around that,” she says.

She still worries about the work requirement, though.

And other issues, even ones that can seem small to middle- and upper-income people, can become barriers for low-income individuals. When Hummel had surgery she had run out of minutes on her phone – a fairly common occurrence near the end of a month for her, she says – and so would not have had the cellular data to notify the state about her issue.

It’s these details that are getting lost in the debate, says Cara Stewart, a health law fellow with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center.

“Have you ever missed a deadline? Have you ever filed something late? Have you ever had time when you couldn’t get internet on your phone?” she says.

“Everybody thinks work is good,” she adds, but “it requires a few follow-up questions.”

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3. A split on ‘colonias’: housing solution, or institutionalized poverty?

The poorest residents of Texas live in "colonias," informal settlements on the fringes of cities. Most of these Texans are here legally and aren’t looking for government handouts. They just seek permission to be self-reliant and improve their own homes and neighborhoods.

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Vehicles and trailers sit in the front yard of a home in Pueblo de Palmas, a ‘model subdivision’ meant to offer a better housing alternative than 'colonias,' near Penitas, Texas.

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Along the US-Mexican border there are more than 2,000 informal communities of poor people, most of them legal immigrants, living in self-built houses and substandard conditions. These communities are called colonias, and the majority of them are in Texas. While they suffered from high rates of disease and lacked basic amenities such as electricity and running water as few as 15 years ago, there have been improvements in recent years. In the eyes of social justice advocates in South Texas, however, while colonias may have left third-world status they are now part of the nation’s affordable housing crisis. But in the Lone Star State they could be a solution to that crisis as well. The state’s minimal housing regulations have allowed the 500,000 people living in Texas colonias to buy their ramshackle homes and improve them at their own pace. Regulations should be bolstered to improve living conditions, says Alex Moreno, who has been an advocate for colonia residents since the 1960s, but he doesn’t want them bolstered too quickly. “If you move too fast,” he adds, “you’ll make a lot of people homeless.”

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A split on ‘colonias’: housing solution, or institutionalized poverty?

Manuela Sandiland lives near the end of a street appropriately named Friendly Drive. Residents greet each other warmly on morning walks past houses with American flags fluttering in the front yard. Neighbors look in on each other when someone doesn’t feel well. They fawn over each other’s pets – including an effervescent Chihuahua mix named Tiffany. 

Ms. Sandiland, who lost her husband, a US Army veteran who served in the Korean War, 10 years ago, is surrounded by family. Her two sons live on either side of her. In the afternoons, she likes to meet her grandchildren as they get off the school bus and walk home. The community, she says, is “nice and quiet.”

Yet the enclave six miles outside Edinburg, Texas, is hardly a plush American suburb. The street in front of her home isn’t paved. There’s no drainage system. No streetlights. Most residents live in rusted trailers without heat, air conditioning, or internet services. Inside Sandiland’s trailer, the howling wind on this day is audible through the walls and her cheeks are pink from the cold. She is awakened some mornings by roosters crowing as they strut through her front yard.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Manuela Sandiland walks one of her grandchildren down a dirt road in their colonia after he arrives home from school in Alamo, Texas. She has lived here for 46 years. Her sons and their families live next to her.

Friendly Drive isn’t in an official town, or even a village. It’s in a colonia – an informal community of poor people, most of them immigrants, most of them legal, who live in basic houses and substandard conditions, often on the edge of prosperous cities. Across the Southwest, more than 2,000 of these colonias now exist along the US-Mexican border, the majority in Texas. The largest concentration – more than 900 – is in Hidalgo County near the southern tip of the state. 

To social justice advocates, the enduring presence of colonias symbolizes the growing gap between rich and poor, urban and rural in the United States. They see them as an institutionalized form of poverty – an unacceptable form of near-third-world living that has become too accepted in one of the richest countries in the world. 

Yet there have been improvements in colonias, too. Many now have electricity and running water, which most didn’t as recently as 15 years ago. High rates of disease once prevalent in the communities have diminished dramatically.

Moreover, many residents like Sandiland, though unhappy about dirt roads and long drives to doctors’ offices, are content having places, however humble, to call their own.

One reason for the improvements is the residents themselves. In laissez-faire Texas, where housing regulations are minimal, many residents have been able to get into homes they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford and make improvements at their own pace – room by room, paycheck by paycheck.

This is partly why, experts say, colonias have become a defacto solution to the nation's affordable housing crisis in Texas -- with 500,000 Texans choosing to live in them despite all the deficiencies.  All of which raises fundamental questions: Is the very presence of colonias a moral blot on a rich nation’s conscience? Or are they a defacto affordable housing solution that should be more formalized and regulated? If so, can they be improved in a way that doesn’t abandon their poorest residents – people like Manuela Sandiland?

In the Rio Grande Valley, informal settlements first began springing up in the early 1900s as the area became a produce rack for the nation. Fields of lettuce, cabbage, onions, and other “row crops” dimpled the landscape alongside cotton fields and citrus orchards. Local Latinos and Mexican migrants worked the fecund plots and lived in small villages near the river, helping to turn the region into one of the highest-producing agricultural areas in the country.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A 'beware of the dog' sign hangs on a cyclone fence surrounding a home in Pueblo de Palmas colonia in Penitas, Texas.

Ironically, these settlements didn’t really boom in number until the agriculture industry later declined. Farmers began to sell their worst, often flood-prone, land to real estate developers who then divided it into lots for sale. The buyers, typically low-
income farmworkers and immigrants, would build their homes slowly over time. Since the land was usually in unincorporated areas of a county, unscrupulous developers would rent or sell lots with promises, such as to install running water and electricity, or to hand over the title after a certain number of payments, and then never follow through.

“There were waterborne diseases ... you had a lot of people basically starving, a lot of malnutrition,” says Alex Moreno, who in the late 1960s helped form the first advocacy group for colonias, which they were then starting to be called, in Hidalgo County. “It was a terrible, terrible situation.”

Colonias gained national notoriety for representing third-world conditions in the US, and in the 1980s federal and state governments responded. They passed new regulations on rural development and allocated more than $1 billion in infrastructure improvements. 

Today, most homes in colonias have electricity and running water, and new rural subdivisions are required to have these services. In 2014, the Texas secretary of state concluded that, of the roughly 1,800 colonias across the state, 922 were considered “green” – meaning they had access to potable water, adequate drainage, wastewater and solid waste disposal, and paved roads – an increase from 636 in 2006. Meanwhile the number of “yellow” colonias – those just with access to potable water and wastewater disposal – increased from 396 in 2006 to 555 in 2014. The number of “red” colonias, which have no basic infrastructure, dropped from 442 in 2006 to 337 in 2014.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Maria Jesus Infante poses in the living room of her home in a colonia, called Charro 2, near Alamo, Texas. She has lived in the informal community since 1980, raising eight children here.

Maria Jesus Infante has seen the changes. She has lived in a colonia called Charro 2 since 1981. When her family first moved in, they built their house from scratch. That included what they used for a bathroom – a wooden outhouse. Every time there was a heavy rain, the muddy street in front of her house would flood and it would take as long as a month for the waters to recede. 

Now the street is paved, and last year the county dug some drainage ditches. The house is modest in size, with a kitchen, small dining room, and living room. It has a rooster-red paint job on the outside. 

“Now it’s much better,” says Ms. Infante.

While advocates such as Mr. Moreno agree that conditions in the settlements have improved, they consider this only a modest victory: They note that the problems for people living in the colonias have now just come up to the level of those of other poor people in the state.

The median household income in Texas colonias is less than $30,000 – well below both the state ($56,500) and national levels ($57,600). Of the 500,000 people who reside in them, 40 percent live below the poverty line and another 20 percent are at or near the poverty line, according to a 2015 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Meanwhile, 55 percent of colonia residents have less than a high school diploma and less than 6 percent have a college degree or higher. Seventy-three percent are US citizens.

Josué Ramirez grew up in a colonia in neighboring Cameron County. He remembers having to drive 15 minutes to get anywhere, and walking through the dark to catch the school bus because there were no streetlights. He didn’t think much of it at the time. It was just home to him, until he went to college and learned about colonias in a Latino policy class.

“I was just amazed at the history of how they came to be, and the conditions in comparison to the rest of the state and the nation,” says Mr. Ramirez, who is now the Lower Rio Grande Valley co-director for the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, a nonprofit that supports expanding affordable housing.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
‘I was just amazed at the history of how [colonias] came to be, and the conditions in comparison to the rest of the state and the nation.' – Josué Ramirez, Texas Low Income Housing Information Service

“There have been improvements in colonias,” he continues, “but in comparison to the rest of the country, you still see a discrepancy.”

As a teacher for three years in Starr County, on the Texas-Mexican border, Noah Durst taught many students from colonias. He has since spent years studying the communities in Texas, and believes the state has been using colonias and other kinds of “self-help” housing “as a bit of a release valve for the affordable housing challenges that cities face.”

Now an assistant professor in the School of Planning, Design and Construction at Michigan State University in East Lansing, he notes there are positive things about colonias. Homeownership rates for the poor and minorities, for one thing, are much higher in these kinds of informal subdivisions around the country.

“That’s a great thing,” he says. “The inherent advantage of self-help housing is it provides homeownership opportunities to people normally locked out of that market.”

“If a state like Texas made it impossible for these communities to develop in the first place, many of the families would have nowhere else to go,” he adds. “We should at least take steps to make sure it’s done more safely.”

Sandiland’s home on Friendly Drive is typical of many in the colonias. It has no heat. On a chilly morning she is sitting on a sofa wrapped in layers of clothing with a pillow on her lap. Her trailer is riddled with holes, which rats and occasionally snakes take advantage of to sneak into her house. 

“I’m accustomed to it,” she says matter-of-factly. She does have electricity and running water, though. 

Her main issue is with the street – a muddy, potholed artery that floods occasionally and is unlit at night. She has been working with local advocates to get funding for streetlights and other improvements, but so far with little success.

The dark streets contribute to petty crime and raise concerns about children getting hit by cars. Sandiland walks her grandchildren to the school bus in the dark. Irene Yracheta, a neighbor a few lots down, says clothes have been stolen off her clothesline.

Yet there has been some progress on lighting. Two years ago, the grass-roots group La Uníon del Pueblo Entero pressured state officials into approving a pilot program to install streetlights in colonias. The program depends on residents being willing to pay, however – in this case an additional $30 a month on their electric bill – and thus the initiative has spread slowly.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
People living near the Mexican border celebrate Martin Luther King Day with a grass-roots community gathering and commemorative march for civil rights in McAllen, Texas. The area has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.

House fires are a problem in colonias, too, particularly in the winter, when many residents use space heaters. On a cold day last December, a mother and two of her children died in what investigators believe was an electrical fire at the woman’s home in a rural corner of Hidalgo County.

Part of the problem in limiting such catastrophes is a lack of regulation. In Texas, counties have less tax revenue and less regulatory control than cities. Cities have funds for sewer and garbage collection. They have building and electrical codes they can enforce. 

Residents who live in these unincorporated areas, which fall under the jurisdiction of counties, often can’t afford to hire a professional to do something like wiring. Thus they do the work themselves. And, if something does go wrong, emergency services are often at least 30 minutes away.

“I worked in city government for a long time, and when I came to county government I thought, ‘Well, the county is just a bigger level,’ ” says Joseph Palacios, a Hidalgo County commissioner. “Well, no. We have a bigger area, but the resources are a lot more limited. That poses a big challenge.”

To address the response problem, the county has built an emergency services facility on the edge of the Edinburg city limits so fire and police can respond faster to calls from unincorporated areas. They’re building a second one now near San Carlos, where the December fire happened.

But that is still only two facilities to cover roughly 100,000 people in rural areas spread across two-thirds of Hidalgo County.

Yet even if counties had more regulatory muscle, not everyone thinks they should flex it. Moreno, for one, worries about the cost to residents of imposing new sewer strictures and electrical codes.

“There are a lot of fires in [colonias], and that’s an area that needs to be changed,” he says. “But if you change it ... housing is going to become more expensive.”

“I worry about overdoing the regulations in a hurry,” he adds. “If you move too fast you can lose a lot of people. You’ll make a lot of people homeless.”

Humble housing and a lack of basic amenities aren’t just limited to colonias. They’re also a problem in places such as Pueblo de Palmas.

This sprawling neighborhood about 20 miles west of Edinburg is what the state considers a “model subdivision.” It opened a few years after lawmakers in Austin imposed colonia prevention regulations that were intended to halt the spread of the informal settlements and create more habitable alternatives to them. 

The very name, Pueblo de Palmas, sounds as if it could grace a high-end real estate brochure. The community does have electricity, water connections, and wide paved roads. But what is built along its roadways – trailers and shacks interspersed with small houses in varying states of completion – is more reminiscent of a colonia than the “model subdivision” state law says it’s supposed to be.

“If we look at housing conditions, they are far more dire in these newer model subdivisions” than in older colonias, says Mr. Durst. “The houses are smaller, and the prevalence of mobile homes is far higher.”

The colonia prevention regulations – better known as model subdivision rules – have been modified as recently as 2009 but haven’t seen any major changes to their requirements since the 1990s.

Some advocates would like to see more state money put into improving colonias and model subdivisions, but that may be difficult to do. In a state as large, diverse, and small-government-minded as Texas, securing public funds for what is largely a border housing issue, affecting only a handful of counties, can be problematic.

Last summer Republican Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed nearly $860,000 in state funding sought by the Texas secretary of state for a colonia initiative. The program places ombudsmen in counties with large numbers of colonias to assess residents’ needs. They advocate for improvements and work with other officials to secure funding for water and other infrastructure projects. At the time, the governor said all this assistance could be handled by existing state agencies.

“The state of Texas is our greatest obstacle [to improving colonias],” says Democratic state Rep. Terry Canales. Leaning back in a leather chair in his law office in Edinburg, Mr. Canales says that in his six years in Austin “there have been more obstacles than victories. The problem that we’ve got is the current political climate doesn’t seem to lend itself to helping poor people, and that’s just the bottom line.”

The residents of these settlements and subdivisions, meanwhile, continue to carve out their own lives. Libby Reyes was one of the first people to move to Pueblo de Palmas. She came from Rio Grande City 18 years ago because her daughter was going to attend the University of Texas-Pan-
American nearby, and she remembers being told that there would be “only big houses” in the subdivision.

“We got the lot here and we [built] the house, and then they started moving [in] small trailers, small houses, and everything,” she says. With a slight smile, she adds: “But I’m still here.”

Ms. Reyes runs a thrift store in a community center that also offers classes to residents ranging from English as a second language to Zumba. “The people we know who come here are nice people,” she says.

But she does have complaints. Pueblo de Palmas, like many of the colonias, doesn’t have streetlights, and she often sees petty vandalism – graffiti in the park across the street and smashed mailboxes. When she calls the police, it takes them as long as an hour to arrive.

Farther into the subdivision, Juan Lopez, a landscaper, is struggling to fix his truck. He’s replaced the brake pads on three of the wheels, but a frozen lug nut on the fourth one is proving difficult to remove. He’s lived in Hidalgo County for five years, including in the cities of McAllen and Mission, but he likes Pueblo de Palmas because he’s on track to own the lot. He’s been living here in a trailer for a year. He has no air conditioning or heat. 

But he finds the neighborhood friendly. With an oil-stained hand, he points out the “many Christian people” on the street. “The neighborhood is very good. There is no problem with anyone,” he says in Spanish, although “there is a lot of extreme poverty.”

After decades of being criticized nationwide for having thousands of residents living in third-world conditions, housing and infrastructure in colonias have improved considerably since the early 1990s. But, according to Durst, the colonias expert at Michigan State, over that same time period more than 500 model subdivisions have formed in Hidalgo County alone – at a pace of more than 1,000 lots per year – and housing conditions in these communities are markedly worse than in colonias, since many of the families there are just beginning the decades-long process of self-help.

 All of which leads Durst to argue that “the nation’s affordable housing strategy is largely not to have one, and that leaves the responsibility for finding access to safe and affordable housing up to the residents themselves.” 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the viewpoints of Noah Durst, the assistant professor at Michigan State University.

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4. Australia tries a root-cause run at migrant youths' disengagement

The response to a crime spree by Sudanese-Australians (many of whose families are refugees) is turning from recrimination and fear into a more productive effort to address the causes of youth disengagement.

David

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Nearly 30 percent of Australians were born overseas, which is one reason it’s often thought of as strongly pro-immigration. But for many Aussies, a string of crimes early this year in Victoria state – and the national attention it grabbed – showed cracks in that multicultural identity. “African gang goes on wild Melbourne crime rampage,” one headline read; a cabinet member claimed residents were “scared to go out at restaurants of a nighttime.” African-Australian teens were accused of a home invasion, destroying a park, and trashing an Airbnb property, among other things. On one side, critics claimed political correctness had handicapped conversation about crime. Others viewed the affair as a prime example of stereotypes and double standards at work. A new task force of African-Australian leaders aims to not only work with police to reduce teen crime, but also to combat biases and the roots of young people’s disengagement, from education to unemployment. “We don’t want this kind of issue covering or painting the entire young people as criminals, gangs, thugs,” says one member, who emigrated from Ethiopia nearly 25 years ago. “We have to correct it collectively.”

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Australia tries a root-cause run at migrant youths' disengagement

Kot Monoah sits with an iced drink in a cafe in Sunshine, Australia, remembering his first years in the “Lucky Country.” 

Today, Mr. Monoah is a successful lawyer, the chair of Victoria state’s South Sudanese Community Association. And the suburb of Sunshine itself is a testament to the Sudanese community’s influence, which radiates out from recently-constructed restaurants and African beauty shops.

But it hasn’t been easy. Monoah, who arrived as a refugee in 2004, knows the struggle firsthand. “I would say probably I worked two to three times [harder go get] what any other person with connections would have got,” he says, recalling countless rejected applications.

In the past two months, these western suburbs of Melbourne have found themselves under intense scrutiny after a spate of crimes, many of them attributed to African-Australian teens – particularly from war-torn South Sudan. The issue was already high on the political and media agenda in Victoria, but exploded into the national consciousness around the New Year. Senior politicians portrayed the crime as evidence of a crisis, and newspapers carried headlines such as “African gang goes on wild Melbourne crime rampage” and “Streets of fear.” 

Places like Sunshine seemed to reflect subjects that Australians felt were long overdue for a reckoning – but sharply different ones, almost speaking to two different Australias. Conservative critics lambasted a culture of political correctness for handicapping frank conversation about crime; others held up the affair as an example of stereotypes run amok, in a country whose identity as a multicultural beacon needs reconsideration.

For many residents in Victoria, however, where the Sudanese population is concentrated, the rhetoric simplified an urgent, complicated set of problems: Yes, African-Australian teen crime had become an issue. But addressing the roots of that disengagement – from education to employment – could also present an opportunity to combat biases now exposed to the national spotlight. 

And that is why, as the New Year was just beginning, a dozen African community leaders in Melbourne gathered with police for a highly anticipated press conference.

“We understand that there are significant behavioural issues that are happening with young people,” Monoah told the assembled media.

Facing the cameras, the dozen leaders – a newly-established task force – committed to tackling crime alongside police. But they are also resolved to highlight the challenges in their communities, and challenging stereotypes.

“When you are reactive, you react to the symptoms,” says member Haileluel Gebre-selassie, who immigrated from Ethiopia nearly 25 years ago. “When you are proactive, you get a chance to work through what are the aggravating factors, what are the root causes.”

'Pioneer' immigrants

Some 20,000 people born in Sudan or South Sudan live in Australia, whose politicians often describe it as the most successful multicultural nation. Polls show Aussies to be among the most pro-immigration populations on Earth, despite the government’s famously hard line against informal migration – particularly asylum seekers who come by sea.

“It’s probably only Australia and Canada where you’ll get this very high level of support for the ideal of multiculturalism and for a non-restrictive immigration policy,” says Andrew Markus, an immigration expert at Monash University. 

Largely thanks to immigration, Australia’s population has shot up from roughly 21 million to 25 million over the past decade – growth that many credit with helping to keep Australia out of recession for more than a quarter century. Today, 28 percent of the population is overseas-born, about double that of the United States.

Yet prejudice and suspicion remain realities.

“There’s no question that there's significant color prejudice,” Professor Markus says, comparing the first African immigrants to “pioneers, because Australia has not drawn immigrants from these regions in the past.” 

Crime reports in recent months have added to the negative perceptions. In December, dozens of youths were accused of trashing an Airbnb property and vandalizing homes and cars in Melbourne’s western suburbs, before pelting police with rocks. In the following weeks, other incidents attributed to local African youth included an assault on a police officer, the repeated destruction of a suburban community park, and a violent home invasion.

On Jan. 1, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pointed to the run of crimes as an example of “growing gang violence and lawlessness” allowed to fester under Victoria’s state government, led by the rival Labor Party. Soon after, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, whose office handles immigration, claimed that the situation was so bad that Melburnians had become “scared to go out at restaurants of a night time” – a suggestion many residents mocked on social media. 

Overall crime in fact declined in Victoria last year. A government report released in January, however, revealed that 79 percent of residents felt safe in their own homes, an 8 percentage point decline from the previous year.

“As an adult, I know to look over my shoulder when I am out, I lock my car door when I am driving, I avoid places or walk on the other side of the road and just feel a general sadness that I cannot feel safe and happy in my own town,” says Ashleigh Hellyer, a lifelong resident of Werribee, where the Airbnb property was wrecked late last year. 

Double-tasked task force

African-Australian leaders say a crime problem does exist. Sudanese-born offenders accounted for about 1 percent of crimes in Victoria last year, despite making up just 0.1 of the population, according to 2011 census data, although the community is also disproportionately composed of younger people more likely to offend.

Monoah says the task force will focus on preventing crime before it happens, such as by alerting police to gatherings which are likely to erupt in violence and ensuring young offenders stick to their conditions for bail. But crucially, it will also attempt to tackle the underlying reasons teens are getting in trouble.

“You are looking at young people who are coming from generations of families that have been disenfranchised by virtue of that they are refugees and migrants,” Monoah says.

“They don’t have the network that young people here or their families have,” he adds, lamenting that an “idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”

While Australia has kept overall unemployment at around 5 to 6 percent in recent years, almost 3 in 10 South Sudanese-born adults have no job, according to the most recent census figures. In a 2016 study, 89 percent of South Sudanese job-seekers in Australia’s federal district said they’d experienced racism. 

Many are concerned for their own safety, saying crime has been overblown by alarmist media and politicians without examining the underlying causes.

“They usually target one community, from Chinese to Vietnamese, and now they’ve moved onto Sudanese,” says Reath Deng, who was born in South Sudan, of the Australian mainstream’s attitude toward new immigrants.

Mr. Deng sees Australia as a welcoming place in many ways. But racism toward young black men like him isn’t hard to find, he adds. “Sometimes they can be really scared,” he says, describing discrimination he has felt when looking for work or taking public transport.

The task force also wants to help prevent and respond to hate crimes, and allay fears about the police themselves. In 2015, Victoria Police became the first force in the country to officially define and ban racial profiling, after settling a years-long discrimination case involving a group of young African-Australians. 

“We don’t want this kind of issue covering or painting the entire young people as criminals, gangs, thugs,” says Mr. Gebre-selassie. “That is not right. So we have to correct it collectively.”

Like many others in his community, Monoah sees a double standard in much of coverage and commentary about crime.

“You’ll never see them report that white people are a problem with crime,” he sighs, producing a sheet with crime statistics that show more than 70 percent of offenders are born in Australia, with the next biggest group coming from New Zealand. “New Zealanders? Barely in the news.”

Still, Monoah stresses the importance of a positive attitude. After surviving civil war and overcoming the most extreme poverty, he says he wants young African-Australians to know that a good life is possible here, if they reach for it.

“They need to constantly apply themselves,” he says, “be persistent, remain positive, and one day their lucky break will come.”

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Books

5. Our 10 best books for February

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From a history of the war in Afghanistan to a story about a 1950s road race in Australia to a young adult novel about a teen who loves crossword puzzles, here are our staff picks for the best new reads coming out of the shortest month. Of particular interest: Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” once again waves the flag for progress with “Enlightenment Now.” This time he broadens his scope, putting the astonishing decline of violence on Earth in the context of what he sees as the stirring extent of progress humans have achieved since the 18th century.

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Our 10 best books for February

These are the February titles that most impressed the Monitor's book critics:

1.  "Directorate S," by Steve Coll
Steve Coll expertly unravels the adventures and misadventures of the principal powers and individual actors throughout the uneven arc of war in Afghanistan and Pakistan that has spanned decades. “Directorate S” is the sequel to Coll’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ghost Wars,” which tracks the key players and events across Central Asia, the Middle East, and the United States that ultimately led to 9/11.  

2.  "A Long Way from Home," by Peter Carey
A road race in 1950s Australia is the setting for Booker Prize-winning author Peter Carey’s entertaining and finely observed novel. A gutsy driver, her timid husband, and their oddball navigator cross a continent marred not only by poor roads but also racial injustice. As the team drive north, they encounter dispossessed Aboriginal people – and the story then swerves in a different direction.

3.  "Enlightenment Now," by Steven Pinker
Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker once again waves the flag for progress. In his earlier book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Pinker argued that there has been an astonishing decline of violence on Earth. Here he broadens his scope, putting that decline in the context of what he sees as the stirring extent of progress humans have achieved since the 18th century. Pinker argues that “the Enlightenment has worked – perhaps the greatest story seldom told.”

4. "Hotel Silence," by Audur Ava Olafsdottir
In this novel translated from Icelandic, protagonist Jónas, in despair about his failed marriage, checks into a rundown hotel with a plan to commit suicide. A handyman by trade, he instead ends up making the water run, fixing the windows, keeping the lights on, and helping all. This sparsely written book is full of wonder, portraying even the bleakest of human conditions with compassion and subtle dashes of humor.

5. "The Seabird’s Cry," by Adam Nicolson
British author Adam Nicolson travels the world to trace the 350 bird species (out of roughly 11,000) that have colonized the wind-swept coastlines, raw rocky outcrops, and open oceans of our planet. His book is a captivating celebration of the strange and marvelous beings called seabirds and the forbidding places they call home.

6. "Without Precedent," by Joel Richard Paul
Law professor Joel Richard Paul brings exactly the kind of perspective that a legal scholar can best provide to this engaging biography of US Supreme Court Justice John Marshall. The book’s narrative is especially strong when relating the turbulent legal and political infighting of Marshall’s years as chief justice.

7. "Don’t Skip Out on Me," by Willy Vlautin  
The latest novel by award-winning author Willy Vlautin is riveting. Protagonist Horace Hopper – half Paiute, half Irish – has been adopted by elderly ranchers and now struggles to find his identity by pursuing a career as a champion boxer. Vlautin’s colorful characters inhabit both lonely Nevada ranch landscapes and gritty city scenes. Their world is painted with unflinching reality and raw emotion, yet also with compassion and heart, creating a compelling read.

8. "The Marshall Plan," by Benn Steil
Historian Benn Steil expertly moves through the story of how and why the United States abandoned isolationism at the end of World War II, also delineating the impact of that decision on our world today. Contemporary readers may be astonished by the bipartisanship displayed by the US Congress in making the Marshall Plan a reality – in stark contrast to the gridlock that afflicts Washington, D.C., today.
   
9.  "What Are We Doing Here?," by Marilynne Robinson
This elegant collection of essays by award-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson examines the current polarization of American society by challenging the ideological threads that brought us to this point – the cherry-picking of historical facts, the false narratives, the acceptance of capitalism as a core value. Robinson’s arguments will captivate readers who enjoy delving deeply into history and ideas.

10. "Down and Across," by Arvin Ahmadi
This debut young adult novel about an indecisive Iranian-American teen who takes a road trip with the goal of self-improvement
is witty, wise, and inspirational. Note: Scenes with underage drinking and drug use make this a read recommended for older teens only.

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The Monitor's View

What a pause in Syria’s war can mean

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Peace in Syria, when it comes, will be defined as much by the shared values of humanity as by the peculiar interests of each nation. On Tuesday, Russia called for a brief “humanitarian pause” to let civilians in Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, escape the fighting. For President Vladimir Putin, that was a step up. He has opposed a principle, endorsed by the UN General Assembly, that individual lives have a higher sovereignty than national sovereignty. Russia was reminded of the concept by French and German leaders as it dawdled over whether to seek the pause. Such actions reflect diplomatic momentum toward including civilian protection in any peace deal. They also reflect the steady advance of the international order established after World War II, including the obligation to uphold rules of conduct in conflicts. One concept still needs work. It is the idea that national sovereignty cannot be an excuse to take innocent lives. Syria’s war must not only end in peace soon, but also come with an ending that lifts more nations to embrace the principles of peace.

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What a pause in Syria’s war can mean

Unlike in Las Vegas, what happens in Syria refuses to stay in Syria. The country’s long war, sparked by pro-democracy protests in 2011 against a dictator, has created millions of refugees. The resulting power vacuum has sucked in dozens of foreign forces with competing interests. Yet out of Syria’s tragedy may come one benefit for the world.

How the war eventually ends could highlight which moral standards of the global order are embraced by the big powers. Peace in Syria, when it comes, will be defined as much by shared values as by the peculiar interests of each nation. Realpolitik must yield to real principles.

This week, one principle at stake in Syria has been the protection of nearly 400,000 civilians being targeted by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. On Feb. 24, the United Nations Security Council ordered a 30-day cease-fire to allow humanitarian relief to reach the civilians. Yet all eyes turned to Russia, whose military now holds the most sway in Syria, to enforce the order.

On Tuesday, Russia called for a “humanitarian pause” to let the trapped civilians escape the fighting. Russia, in other words, seemed to respect the sovereignty of innocent individuals over the national sovereignty of its ally, the Assad regime.

For President Vladimir Putin, that was a step up. He has opposed a principle, endorsed in 2005 by the UN General Assembly, that individual lives have a higher value than national sovereignty. The concept, known as “responsibility to protect,” was endorsed by the UN out of a collective guilt over the world’s failure to stop the mass atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia in the mid-1990s.

In recent days, Russia was reminded of the concept by Western leaders as it dawdled over whether to seek a pause in the fighting. “France and Germany call on Russia to assume its full responsibilities,” said French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a joint statement.

Such actions reflect the diplomatic momentum toward including civilian protection in any peace deal. They also reflect the steady advance of the international order established in 1945 after World War II, such as the obligation of nations to uphold rules of conduct in a conflict. Many wars since then have set back the principles of peacemaking while others have helped cement them in the thinking of world leaders.

One concept still needs work. It is the idea that national sovereignty cannot be an excuse to take innocent lives, either by guns, bombs, or in the case of Syria, chemical weapons. That country’s war must not only end in peace soon but with an ending that lifts more nations to embrace the principles that keep global order.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

United in God's love

Today’s column explores the idea that through the understanding of the infinite Love that is God, divisions can be rectified and peace established.

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United in God's love

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Right now we seem to be confronted with a grim picture of divisiveness in domestic politics and international affairs. Do we have to accept that this sense of divisiveness is permanent or hopeless, or that solutions are out of reach?

In modern times, we have often seen the power of good overcoming evil, unifying men, women, and nations, in many large and small ways, proving that humanity can overcome division.

As I have observed such signs of progress, I have grown increasingly convinced that such efforts are aided by an understanding of the ever-present power of God. The Bible teaches that God is Love, and that we are all His loving and beloved children (see I John 4:16). This Love transcends history, war, race, hatred, socioeconomics, envy, and misunderstanding, because it is wholly spiritual, rather than based in a limited, fickle, conditional, and material perspective of the world. Divine Love lifts us to understand the spiritual reality of God’s creation, where man – each of us, as the sons and daughters of God – is made in the spiritual image and likeness of God. In understanding God’s love for us, and this identity of ours as His loving and loved children, we see that we are truly united to one another within this spiritual reality.

This understanding of the loving nature of God and His creation was taught and evidenced by Christ Jesus, who helped humanity learn of this true unity that binds us all in oneness with God and with one another. And he urged us to make that spiritual love practical in our interactions with each other.

In his Sermon on the Mount, he says: “There is a saying, ‘Love your friends and hate your enemies.’ But I say: Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way you will be acting as true sons of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust too” (Matthew 5:43-45, The Living Bible). Both sun and rain were needed for a good crop, so Jesus is saying that God loves all with an impartial love, which we each reflect.

As a devoted follower of Christ Jesus, Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy shares in her key text, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” what she learned about divine Love. She spoke of her experience of having proved in her own life that the law of Love restores wholeness and harmony when applied to division or inharmony, including physical illness, relationship problems, financial crises, or expressions of hatred. On the basis of such proofs of Love’s healing power, “Science and Health” says: “One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfils the Scripture, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself;’ ...” (p. 340).

I felt a moving sense of this unifying power of divine Love when my husband and I attended a church service in Tokyo a year and a half ago. Following the service, a local church member invited a German couple and us to be her guests for lunch at the International House of Japan, an institution established after World War II to promote greater understanding and peace between Japan and Western nations.

During the meal, we discussed how we’d each been thinking and praying about various world events, from the global economy, to upcoming elections, to the refugee crisis in Syria, and much more. What touched me deeply over the course of the meal was that here we were, a Japanese woman, two Germans, and two Americans, sitting together expressing love for God and our fellow man, and talking about spiritual and practical solutions to global challenges – where just 75 years before, our countries had been at war with each other. It reminded me of this verse from a hymn in the “Christian Science Hymnal”:

Let all that now divides us
Remove and pass away,
Like shadows of the morning
Before the blaze of day.
Let all that now unites us
More sweet and lasting prove,
A closer bond of union,
In a blest land of love.
(Jane Borthwick, No. 196)

Perhaps these words are a prayer we can cherish for today’s world, understanding that this “blest land of love” is the reality of humanity's true existence as children of divine Love, by which we are all forever united.

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The power of protest

Tsafrir Abayov/AP
Demonstrators protest outside the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem Feb. 27. Jerusalem's mayor that same day suspended a plan to impose taxes on properties owned by Christian churches, backing away from a move that had enraged religious leaders and led to the closure of the church.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( February 28th, 2018 )

David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow for a global report – from reporters in places ranging from South Korea to Israel – about efforts to educate young children so that boys grow up with less sexist attitudes.

Monitor Daily Podcast

February 27, 2018
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