AJ Vicens is the Interactives/Data Fellow fellow at Mother Jones. His past work includes time in newspapers, magazines, radio, and television, and his stories have appeared in the Washington Post, ESPN.com, and 5280 Magazine.
Even if you don't like football, you've probably heard of Donte' Stallworth. Back in March 2009, the then-Cleveland Browns wide receiver made news when, driving drunk the morning after a night of partying with friends, he struck and killed a pedestrian crossing a Miami street.
Stallworth ended up serving just 30 days in jail. He also reached a financial settlement with the victim's family and was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2009 season, but he couldn't dodge being seen as just another celebrity escaping justice by virtue of being rich and famous. After his return to football in 2010, Stallworth never again was quite the same. He was a free agent for the entire 2013 season, and after 10 years in the league, his time in football might be over.
For most, that'd be the end of life in the limelight. But Stallworth has gotten a jump on an unusual second act: On the strength of his social-media savvy and his passion for foreign-policy wonkery, he has built a Twitter following of some 143,000 users, who check in with @DonteStallworth to get his take on everything from the latest blown call to the last Snowden revelation (the most recent being a flash mob in New York City this week to encourage people to sign up for health care). And along with Chris Kluwe and Richard Sherman, he's pushing back against the dumb-jock stereotype, one tweet at a time.
I recently caught up with Stallworth to talk about his future in the NFL, football and concussions, and how he uses Twitter to interact with the world.
Donte' Stallworth: I've heard both sides of the argument. I don't know. I mean for one, I do feel like the name itself is obviously—it's a derogatory term toward a certain racial and ethnic group. However, at the same time, I do know that there have been many Native people—I don't like to call them "Native Americans," I guess, definitely not "Indians"—I've seen and read a lot about there's a big number of Natives that don't mind the Redskins name and they actually embrace it. Although there are a number of groups as well that are opposed to it.
The United States military is undeniably massive. In 2012, the Pentagon spent 4.4 percent of our GDP on defense, with hundreds of billionsgoing to contractors for assorted weapons, equipment, and essentials. What is not known is exactly how much money funds the military's international golf habit. Mother Jones has found that the Pentagon currently operates at least 194 golf courses and 2,874 holes of golf worldwide. Hover over any flag to tee up more information about the location, name, and size of these courses.
President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a "war on poverty" in America in his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964. "This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America," he said. "It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it." The aim of the war, he said would be to "cure" and "prevent" poverty.
Johnson's administration went on to design "Great Society" initiatives, including a permanent food stamp program, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, which provides early education to low-income kids, and increased funding to public schools.
The war on poverty helped raise millions above the poverty line. During Johnson's years in office, the poverty rate dropped from 23 percent to 12 percent.
But where do we stand today? The government's official measure of poverty shows that poverty has actually increased slightly since the Johnson administration, rising from 14.2 percent in 1967 to 15 percent in 2012.
But those numbers aren't quite accurate, because while they factor in welfare and Social Security payments, for example, they don't include additional non-cash government aid from safety net programs such as food stamps and housing assistance, and expenses like taxes and medical costs. A few years ago, the government started using a new, more accurate way to measure poverty that includes these factors, which shows that government programs did indeed slash poverty—from 19 percent to 16 percent—between 1967 and 2012. And last month, a group of researchers at Columbia University released a report using a similar adjusted poverty measure that takes into account both non-cash government assistance and expenses, as well as today’s standards of living. With these adjustments, the poverty rate dropped from nearly 26 percent to 16 percent over that same time period.So have we won the war on poverty? If it means that the lives of millions of Americans in poverty have improved under the Great Society programs, yes. But by no means have we attained Johnson's goal of "curing" poverty. The poverty rates of certain demographic groups remain stagnant and racial disparities are as wide as ever. Check out the graphs below (based on the Columbia University measure):
The poverty rate for the elderly has fallen, as has child poverty. But as my colleague Kevin Drum noted last month, the working-age poverty rate has stayed flat for 40 years. It dropped from 20 percent in 1967 to about 15 percent in 1974, and remains there today.
The percent of Americans in deep poverty—those living on an income of less than $11,775 a year for a family of four—has hovered around 5 percent of the population for about 40 years.
Annually, $11,775 is not much. But try living on $2 a day, as Americans in more than 1.5 million households do. That number has jumped since 1996, when welfare reform kicked many families off of government assistance. (Note that when food stamps are included as income, the number of those living on $2 a day* decreases.)
Even though the portion of Americans in poverty has dropped, that doesn't mean that those above the poverty line—$23,550 for a family of four—have enough money to live on. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) of 615 communities in the US found that in all of those localities it was impossible for two parents who earn the federal minimum wage—$30,000 a year total—to support a family of four. For instance, the EPI analysis found that the monthly costs associated with "an adequate standard of living" in St. Louis include $830 for housing, $754 for food, $959 for child care, $607 for transportation, $1,457 for healthcare, $405 for other necessities, and $377 in taxes, for a grand total of $5,389 a month. That's far above the federal poverty line for a family of four, which is $1,962 a month. Here are the costs of living for a family of four in 13 cities across the United States, according to EPI:
The income disparity between white Americans and minorities remains stark. The current poverty rate for African Americans is 27.2 percent, and just 9.2 percent for white people. It's 25.6 for Hispanics, and 11.7 percent for Asian Americans.
A woman shelters in the "Widow's Basement" in Baba Amr, Homs, Syria, in February 2012. It was one of the few underground shelters at the time.
Syria is the deadliest place in the world for journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday, with 29 killed in the country in 2013—more than the next five countries combined. Since March 2011, when a revolt to oust President Bashar al-Assad began, 69 journalists have been killed. One was legendary war correspondent Marie Colvin, who died while on assignment for the UK's Sunday Times in February 2012 when Assad's forces shelled the building she had taken shelter in in Homs, Syria.
Photo journalist Paul Conroy was with Colvin and sustained a leg injury big enough to stick his fist through. In his new book, Under the Wire, he chronicles the days leading up to the deaths of Colvin and French photo journalist Remi Ochlik with vivid detail and sardonic British wit (he joked as much about crappy coffee in Baba Amr being the death of him as the Syrian government). I talked to Conroy about life in Syria, Colvin's death, and how gallows humor helps reporters survive hell on earth. He also shared some of his never-published photos from the assignment, which you can see below.
Syria has been out of the headlines since the chemical-weapons deal was reached earlier this year. What's going on inside the country?
The situation in Syria has descended to a level which ought to shame the world. For nearly three years now, Bashar al-Assad has used his vast arsenal of Russian-supplied weapons to unleash explosive hell on innocent civilians. More than 110,000 people have now died from the use of conventional weapons.
The window of opportunity for viable intervention, safe havens, no fly zones and humanitarian corridors, passed years ago. Syria was left in a vacuum, and that vacuum was filled by the jihadists, extremists who exploited the world's unwillingness to consider any form of intervention. A heavy price is now being paid for this collective error of judgment.
Britain, along with the USA, is war weary and, after the travesty of Iraq and Afghanistan, has grave misgivings in any future involvement in the Middle East. The ghost of Tony Blair and his single minded determination to attack Iraq, at any cost, has cast a long shadow over British politics. The British public have a long collective memory. The fact that our Prime Minister lied over WMD has deteriorated further our trust in the political class. The people who have suffered most from this political mistrust are the helpless civilians in Syria who reached for a helping hand, yet found only a fist.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that perhaps it was the rebels who staged a chemical weapons attack. What do you think of that?
The polite answer to that is ‘complete rubbish,’ my heartfelt answer is, ‘utter bollocks.’ I spent time with these people; they are fighting for their lives, for survival. They showed Marie and I warmth that went beyond the need to get western journalists in and out of the country. People died on our behalf, they died in an effort to show the world the horrors of what was happening to their own people and families. The concept that they gassed their own families to garner Western support is an anathema to me.
Doctors in a field clinic struggled to move the dead to make way for the living. Baba Amr, Homs, Syria, February 2012. Paul Conroy
The reality is that although Assad claims they are chemical weapons that can be made in a kitchen, the delivery systems are not something the rebels posses. These people are using medieval catapults to deliver homemade bombs.
In the book you talk about how Assad's forces knew they were shelling a media center. Why do you think he was targeting journalists?
The night before Marie and Remi’s murder, Marie had given three interviews, to CNN, C4 in the UK, and the BBC World Service. The next morning I could clearly define the firing pattern of the regime gunners. They were bracketing in on us, which is adjusting fire with the use of a drone, until they had precisely targeted the building. They then fired four rockets directly into the media center.
Why? What was happening in Baba Amr was wholesale slaughter, Marie had the audacity to report live from the scene. We had witnessed the butchery and that crossed the boundaries as to what the regime would tolerate. We rattled too many cages in Damascus.
One of the last images of Marie Colvin alive, on Feb. 18, 2012 in Homs, Syria Paul Conroy
How is your leg doing after all these operations?
Given the state of my leg after the attack on the media centre I can’t complain! I was shocked, but amused, to learn that the medical team were taking bets to see who could put their hands furthest through my leg. My surgeon, Dr. Parri Mohana, succeeded, getting her arm through to the elbow.
I don’t think I will ever play for England but, after 20 operations, I can now walk in straight lines and am pretty mobile again.
You and Colvin got out of Syria and then went back in. Does that decision haunt you? Would you do it again?
I made it clear to Marie that I had a funny feeling about this one. I don’t regret saying that at all. I was speaking my mind, we discussed it and we both went back. It was the right thing to do. It’s what we do and Marie died doing what she did best in life.
You've said you wrote the book in four to five-hour sessions where you were balancing between morphine and pain. What was that like?
Initially writing was physically impossible; I was on large doses of mind-numbing drugs. I opened a file on my laptop and titled it ‘The Book,’ but, no matter when I tried to write, I could not get into the mythical rhythm of which other authors spoke. ‘The Book’ remained a white, blank and rather worrying document—I had a deadline to meet.
I woke one morning, it was 4 a.m. and the world was still sleeping. I rolled a cigarette, made some coffee and had a bright idea; maybe I should try writing now. The pain in my leg wasn’t too bad and, more importantly, my head felt as clear as it had in a long time.
It worked like magic. The writing fairy, my chosen name for whatever it was made me sit and write for five hours a day, visited the next night and the next. Eventually, I had a book. My only fear was, that with all the morphine and other drugs, I had written a wartime version of Fear And Loathing.
The book is quite funny, which I found surprising.
I can honestly say, from my perspective at least, without humor you could not do this job. It’s a vent, by which some of the ghastly and traumatic scenes we witness can be made a little less real and a touch more surreal, which helps more than you would expect.
In Misrata, Libya, Marie and I used to travel daily up and down the front line. As the rebels pushed government troops further from the centre where we were based, the journey got longer. One day, when having a laugh and joke with commander Ali, whom we visited regularly, I asked him to help me to convince Marie we should cut out the travel and stay on the frontline. We agreed that a small concrete building, which was pummeled by rockets and mortars every day, should be our mythical home.
The next day when we visited, I started to complain about the length of the journey back and forth to Misrata. Commander Ali, with perfect comic timing, said he had a place we could crash for the night, Marie looked slightly worried. When she asked Ali where it was, he simply nodded towards the concrete block. As he did so, a mortar landed on the roof. We couldn’t keep up the pretense, both Ali and I were laughing so hard, Marie cottoned on to us and the language she used is unprintable.
It sounds like Marie was a close friend. How are you dealing with her passing?
I never got to say goodbye to Marie, her death was instant. But I think writing the book gave me the opportunity to say a proper goodbye. That’s not to say I don’t wake, almost every day, and hope I get a call from her with a crazy plan to get into somewhere we shouldn’t be going.
Why was it important to share this story?
Marie was the archetype war correspondent. She was brave, tenacious and devoted, not only to her job, but also to the real victims of war, the civilians who bore the brunt of corrupt and vicious dictators. She genuinely believed she could make a difference.
The book is part tribute to Marie, but also to the many nameless heroes who helped us to get into Syria and Baba Amr to tell the story. Marie and Remi died telling a story of brutality that continues to this day. I sincerely hope that I have done justice to the bravery of my friends, but also have recorded a small part of history, the death of Baba Amr and its citizens, for those in the future to read an honest account, often lost in the fog of war.
What should journalists take away from the work you and Marie have done?
The tenacity with which we approached our subjects. We both instinctively knew that if we pushed further, harder and asked the questions many would shy away from, we would end up with as near to we could get to the truth. That’s what our job is about, cutting through the myriad layers of half-truths, the smoke and mirrors of war, corruption, deception and sheer bloody horror.
Conroy: "A young girl, still smiling after 18 days of horrendous rocket and shell attacks." Baba Amr, Homs, Syria. February 2012. Paul Conroy
Officially, the Great Recession of 2007 ended in June 2009. Yet the economic downturn remains in full effect for millions of Americans, particularly the nearly 40 percent of the unemployed who have been looking for work for six months or more.
In less than a week, emergency federal unemployment benefits for 1.3 million of these jobless Americans are set to run out. Proponents of ending the benefits argue that the economy is expanding and that the benefits prevent people from finding work. "You get out of a recession by encouraging employment not encouraging unemployment," according to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who opposes extending benefits. However, the data shows that while corporate America has bounced back, it is not restoring all the jobs it shed when the economy tanked five years ago.
Currently, nearly 11 million Americans are unemployed. The unemployment rate stands at 7 percent. Both of those stats are improvements from a little more than four years ago, when the post-recession jobless rate peaked at 10 percent and more than 15 million people were out of work.
However, there currently are more than 4 million Americans who have been unemployed for six months or longer. Not since the Great Depression has the United States experienced such massive and persistent long-term unemployment.
Overall, the long-term unemployed (those with out a job for six months or longer) make up nearly 40 percent of all the jobless.
Long-term unemployment has not affected all Americans evenly. African-Americans and the poor make up 23 percent and 34 percent of the ranks of the long-term unemployed, respectively.
For many people, going without work for more than six months can kick off a vicious cycle or financial and personal crises that may take years to break out of.
While the unemployment rate is steadily falling, hiring has not recovered as quickly as it did during the three most recent previous recessions.
Currently, there are about three people looking for work for every job opening. Compare this to 2007, when "job seekers ratio" was nearly half that. The ratio varies widely across industries, but even in the most applicant-friendly industry, insurance and finance, has 30 percent more seekers than positions.
Meanwhile, corporate America has regained the financial ground it lost during the Great Recession. Real corporate profits after taxes have grown 30 percent since 2007, while the number of jobs is still below its pre-recession level.