PictureImage: OkelaniOhan (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] via Wikimedia Commons
Miranda Everitt is a first-year MPP student at the Goldman School of Public Policy. 

Though not everyone knows it, everyone is familiar with externalities – the costs or benefits that one receives from a transaction they had nothing to do with. A positive externality? Think how pleased a gardener might feel about the local beekeeper’s activity, which indirectly (and at no cost to her) helps to pollinate her tomato plants. 

A negative externality? Walmart workers on Medicaid.

The Affordable Care Act creates opportunities for states to expand the health-care safety net to protect low-wage workers – and that’s definitely a good thing for this growing segment of the economy. Yet it has already led to unintended consequences. By expanding the safety net without addressing underlying job quality, the act may give employers incentives to make some “bad jobs” (with low wages, no benefits, and no job security) worse.

“Bad jobs” in the food chain

Though we’re four years clear of the Great Recession, the majority of jobs created are some combination of part-time, temporary and low-wage. Where all three often align are in food chain jobs, like farm work (temporary and low-wage), waiting tables (usually part-time and low-wage) or grocery clerks (increasingly part-time and low-wage). The median wage for food chain workers is $9.65 – and 60% of workers are part-time.

Because of this, food-chain workers must rely more on the social safety net than workers in other industries. Nearly 28% of those workers use a government health insurance program like Medicare or Medicaid (known as Medi-Cal in California). That figure is less than 20% for the workforce overall.

Jim Araby, the director of the United Food and Commercial Workers Western States Council, recently spoke at UC Berkeley about the challenges and opportunities for low-wage workers (and labor unions) as the Affordable Care Act’s provisions begin to take effect. His union counts more than 160,000 members in California, employed in grocery stores, meat processing, retail drug stores and See’s Candies.

Obamacare on the ground

The Affordable Care Act includes a penalty for employers who don’t offer health insurance to workers considered full-time (defined in the law as 30 hours per week). The average employer cost of an individual health plan is about $4,885. The fine under the ACA? $3,000.

The math is fairly simple for employers paying low wages. Pay the fine, or cut hours to just under 30 per week. The Obama administration recently postponed enforcement fines until 2015, but some companies have already used the nebulous “costs of Obamacare” as an excuse to cut hours and benefits. Labor unions and worker advocates want to disincentivize this behavior, because it reduces the number of “good jobs” (full-time, with benefits) in the economy.

In California, individuals are eligible for Medi-Cal up to 133% of the federal poverty line. (That’s just under $26,000 for a family of three – and still more than the yearly pay of a minimum-wage worker even at California’s new $10 per hour rate.) Low-wage workers would qualify for the Medicaid expansion, and employers would save money on benefits.

Though states are insulated from many of the costs of “Obamacare” (the federal government is picking up 93% of the tab until 2022), the Medicaid expansion again highlighted the extent to which low-wage employers are subsidized by social safety nets. Araby and a coalition of labor groups worked to come up with a solution: a tax on employers whose workers must use public assistance to get by.

Assembly Bill 880 would have taxed employers with workers on Medi-Cal at 110% of the rate of commercial insurance. The law would have applied to employers with 500 workers or more – 1.4% of California companies. 

Because California’s constitution requires a two-thirds votes to pass any tax, the bill would face a rough road in Sacramento. Although the 2012 election gave California Democrats the supermajority needed to pass new taxes like AB 880, “revenue solutions” were a tough sell. AB 880 needed a vote from every Democrat. 

They made the “corporate welfare” case to moderate Republicans, and showed up at Walmart stores throughout the state at 5 a.m. with an “invoice” for their workers’ public assistance. The labor coalition also enlisted nurses and doctors to speak to the importance of quality health care.

In the end, AB 880 didn’t have the votes, but the labor coalition got a floor vote anyway so that legislators would have to record their stance. Three Democrats voted “no,” and six didn’t vote.

What’s next?

Though California’s supermajority rule makes any tax difficult to pass, other states don’t face the same hurdle. Several “trifecta” states, with Democrats controlling both houses and Democratic governors, have the opportunity to pass just such a bill. 

AB 880 will be introduced again in the legislature next year, concurrent with a ballot campaign. Though Araby says he prefers not to make law through the California constitution, the public attention and pressure of a ballot campaign may persuade a few legislators to get on board with the bill. This strategy could also bring in new allies who would prefer a fight in the legislature to a very public one with every California voter in 2014. I’ll be watching.


More than 1 in 7 jobs in America are somewhere in the food chain. That’s why so much of the focus of Saru Jayaraman’s Food Systems Policy class is on the people who work to produce and serve our food. Jayaraman has invited a slate of practitioners and advocates to speak to her class and the public. Upcoming speakers include Central Valley Teamsters political director Doug Bloch, “Food Politics” author Marion Nestle, “Diet for a Hot Planet” author Anne Lappe. For details, email everitt@berkeley.edu. 


Wyatt Donnelly-Landolt is a first-year MPP student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

There’s a scene in Boy Meets World in which Mr. Feeny imparts his typical wisdom on Corey: “You see, Mr. Matthews, education is not about obscure facts and little test scores. Education is about the overall effect of years of slow absorption, concepts, philosophies, approaches to problem solving. The whole process is so grand and all-encompassing that it really can’t be threatened by the occasional late night no-hitter.”

The words of fictional George Feeny in some ways point to a testing movement that has dominated the discussion on how to improve America’s failing schools.  The argument for testing alleges that by simply holding teachers accountable for student learning through formulaic, multiple-choice testing, we can compete our way to the top of the world’s education rankings.  As Mr. Feeny knew, however, education requires much more than filling in some bubbles and recalling important facts; education requires years of hard work that ultimately alter an individual’s ability to think and reason through life.  During my brief experience teaching, I witnessed the dangers of data in schools and the ability of data-based incentives to warp the fundamental purpose of education.  The data-driven school I saw no longer cared about educating students. Instead, it focused on high test scores and low disciplinary rates, and was willing to sacrifice ethics to accomplish this goal.

Tests can never fully express what occurs when a person becomes educated because tests only measure learning – they are not the learning itself.  Advocates of the testing movement call for programs where test scores determine school “grades,” teacher salary, and which schools remain open.  At best, these reforms shift the focus of our educators from educating students to manufacturing test-taking machines; at worst, they cause teachers and administrators to overlook ethics.  

I experienced the latter outcome.  Halfway through my second year of teaching, the district placed my principal on paid leave after an investigation discovered rampant cheating.  The list of ethical infractions was endless.  He changed the grades of athletes so they could compete; he created classes on students’ transcripts so they would have sufficient credits to graduate; he took home the modified tests for special education students to fill in the correct bubbles on the answer sheet.  Hundreds of students graduated from the school during his tenure, and only a fraction of them were prepared to face the difficulties of the real world.

The manipulation of data to improve outside appearances reached well beyond tests and grades.  Each day, the principal forced the secretaries to change the attendance of different students to raise the overall level to meet district goals.  For nearly three years, not a single student dropped out of school; not because no students left the school but because the administration erased any record of them.  Discipline did not exist within the walls of the school.  Students fought each other, did drugs on school grounds, and assaulted teachers with little recourse to lower suspension rates.  Special education students learned in regular education classrooms because this mainstreaming process impressed the district.  It also caused more chaos in the lives of already unstable students.  One girl, Nia, entered the school immediately from in-patient care at a mental institution.  She never received any type of special service. Instead, she spent the day wandering the halls, screaming, and flipping over trash cans.  She never received the help she needed, and eventually had to return to the hospital after she threatened to kill herself with a pair of scissors in front of a class of 25 8th graders.  By focusing on the data, our principal built an unsafe, aggressive, chaotic culture where no student could learn.

Tests provide a simple benchmark of student progress on the 3 R’s (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic), but fail to measure the progress of an individual’s education.  While the experiences I witnessed are extreme versions of the dangers of overemphasizing data-based incentives, many schools now force students into small classes for hours of test prep for weeks preceding standardized tests.  This approach may improve test scores, but it undermines the ultimate goal of educating students in a lasting way that creates lifelong learners.  When used improperly, data creates distorted incentives and undermines the higher purpose of any organization.  In my situation, data created an unethical and dangerous place for children, and as the data movement grows in other sectors, so do the dangers of data.


We've Moved!


PMJ Blog is now PMJ Wire!  Visit the Policy Matters Journal's new website for the most recent blog posts from Goldman School students. 
Leo Covis is an MPP student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

About two months ago, when everybody finished panicking about the averted-just-in-time fiscal cliff, most pundits were clever enough to point out that the deal forged between Republicans in Congress and President Obama was not much of a solution at all. Sure, there was no credit downgrade and the US didn't default on its loans, but there remained the looming "sequester", an across the board cut in federal spending that would have terrible economic consequences. The logic went that the sequester was such bad policy, that because everybody agreed that it would hurt the economy, Republicans and Democrats would be forced to play ball with each other and come up with a compromise. As I write this, the sequester is set to take effect with not much more than finger pointing coming from Washington. 

Why are lawmakers not working together to avoid the sequester? Sure, Republicans want to cut spending, but not to the Pentagon, right? Actually, not right. As House Speaker John Boehner explained in a January 6 interview with the Wall Street Journal, 
Mr. Obama was sure Republicans would call for ending the sequester . . . because it included deep defense cuts. But Republicans never raised the issue. "It wasn't until literally last week that the White House brought up replacing the sequester," Mr. Boehner says. "They said, 'We can't have the sequester.' They were always counting on us to bring this to the table."

Mr. Boehner says he has significant Republican support, including GOP defense hawks, on his side for letting the sequester do its work. "I got that in my back pocket," the speaker says. He is counting on the president's liberal base putting pressure on him when cherished domestic programs face the sequester's sharp knife. Republican willingness to support the sequester, Mr. Boehner says, is "as much leverage as we're going to get."
President Obama seriously miscalculated how much Republicans want to preserve military spending. As it turns out, they're willing to let the sequester do its work, and now Obama and the nation are paying the price. 

So the question is, what to do now? The President predictably embarked on a campaign style tour to explain just how bad the cuts will be in the hopes of bringing Republicans to the table, but I don't think that's going to work. 

Instead, the president could let the sequester happen. He could explain to the American people that the Republican party won this battle. They've gotten deep cuts, to the tune of $85 billion, in federal discretionary and mandatory spending. It's just what Republicans have always wanted. Most people already seem to see it that way, anyway.  The cuts will hurt the economy, but congressional Republicans don't seem to mind. After the Bush presidency (and not so much during the Bush presidency) Republicans' main argument against government spending was the need to cut the deficit. Well, here's how they want to do it. Although, it doesn't seem to bother them that the sequester will actually make it harder to cut the deficit. Go figure.  

So, put it to the American people to decide if they want to live in an America with fewer teachers, crumbling roads, slower responses to disease outbreaks, longer flight delays, and harder-to-find jobs. It's not fair to use people's livelihoods as political chess pieces, but perhaps this is an opportunity to settle one of the biggest philosophical differences in American politics.  If it turns out that massive spending cuts by way of the sequester have made things better, people should vote Republican. If the sequester has made life more difficult, vote the bums out. Voters will have the chance to decide in November 2014.

A sequester primer 
Ashley Clark is a MPP/MA-IAS student at UC Berkeley.

Last week, the International Policy, Development and Practice Speaker Series welcomed David Vogel, Professor at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley.

Professor Vogel’s speech, entitled “The Politics of Precaution,” began with two startling case studies. Mr. Vogel talked about the differing reactions of The United States and Europe in regulating two potential risks: ozone chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). When the first dangers of ozone chemicals emerged in the 1970s, the United States was quick to respond with boycotts and increased regulation, ending a $3 billion dollar domestic industry. In contrast, European governments did not respond and there were not public outcries for regulation. He contrasted that to the response to GMOs; here, the EU has responded with increasing GMO regulation, almost destroying the entire industry in Europe. The US, on the other hand, has passed no federal regulation.

What accounts for this change, where two sets of risks were met with opposite responses with enormous consequences?  Why is the US no longer one of the most stringent, risk-adverse, and innovative regulators, a title that now is held by the EU? Professor Vogel points out three broad factors that have caused the EU to emerge as the dominant example of regulatory standards in the world. First, public opinion in both areas has changed. Whereas Americans are now more trusting of the government’s regulations and status quo, Europeans, after the ill-handled “Mad Cow disease,” are more likely to see a dearth of regulation by the government. Secondly, there has been a serious shift in the opinions of policy makers in the US and the EU. Starting after the presidential loss in 1992, the Republican Party in the US has given up on earning the Green Vote, contrary to their previous position, and both parties have become increasingly polarized. The EU, in contrast, came about in the 1990s through a commission led by elites and businessmen. As a concession to those who feared that the price of a single market would be decreased health and safety standards, politicians strengthened EU commitment to more stringent standards.

Finally, the way risk is assessed in both countries has changed. Risk assessment comes with two potential falsities: a false negative and a false positive. In a false negative, the government tells people a product is safe when it is not. In a false positive, the government warns its citizens about the danger of a product that turns out to be safe. In the US, the rise of the cost-benefit analysis has put the burden of proof on those who would propose regulation, emphasizing the use of numbers. This is due to the aversion of false-positives, not wanting to cause an unnecessary stir. The EU, on the other hand, favors a precautionary principle, which seeks to avoid false negatives and puts the burden of proof on those opposed to regulation. Interestingly, Professor Vogel saw that, on the elite-political level, the precautionary principle portrays a systematic distrust of science, as opposed to the US cost-benefit analysis method, which embraces scientific demonstrations.
Ashley Clark is a MPP/MA-IAS student at UC Berkeley.

Last week, the International Policy, Development and Practice Speaker Series welcomed Flavio Feferman, President of Developing Markets Group, an economic consulting firm, and Lecturer at the Hass School of Business, UC Berkeley.

Mr. Feferman’s speech, entitled “Cluster-based Economic Development: My Recent Experience in Brazil,” started with a case-study of economic development clusters in North East Brazil. After identifying the key industries within the area already functioning, such as tourism, agricultural and fruit exports, and a burgeoning ICT sector, the region formed public-private sectoral groups to work collaboratively to define a regional economic development strategy and to bring about economic change. Through funds from regional and national actors, they were able to integrate and grow effectively.

Mr. Feferman explained that the main idea behind cluster based development is to strengthen local clusters and to bring about economic growth through sectoral diversification.  Diversification, by scaling new sectors/clusters, promotes the movement of resources to more productive activities. This can often be through finding and “testing” new economic activities, such as the development of the flower export cluster in Colombia, which emerged from of an existing agricultural base in the region. This diversification process drives income per capita to grow. 

This inverted-u of income per capita to sectoral diversification is counter-intuitive to traditional economic thought; in addition to specializing in industries with established competitive advantages, countries should find new industries that enable the development of new competitive advantages and greater diversification.  China is perhaps the best example of this process:  the country was able to diversify into increasingly more sophisticated economic activities, often through the formation of regional industrial clusters. Fundamentally baked into this model is the idea of entrepreneurship, which should be nurtured and encouraged to help promote economic diversification and the scale-up of new sectors. As countries reach more advanced stages of development, the process of diversification slows down, as some industries loose competitiveness (particularly industries that rely on low labor costs).

Some economic clusters occur naturally; some places have the resources that make it prime for the industry, or a natural endowment that gives them a comparative advantage. However, some places, what he calls “Clusters 2.0,” are clusters that encourage building innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems. The main problem with developing these clusters in poor countries is that the firms often face an adverse institutional and business environment.  Public policy should support activities that promote local capabilities and an entrepreneurial ecosystem, such as technology transfer and dissemination, technical training programs, early stage financing, specialized infrastructure, and overall improvements to the regional business environment to support both local entrepreneurship and foreign investment.  Another important part of policy is to establish a public-private dialogue, a planning process for regional economic development that includes stakeholders from the private sector, government, and regional research and training institutions.

Leo Covis is a first-year MPP student at the Goldman School of Public Policy. 

California has recently implemented a Cap and Trade system to reduce emissions of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in the state. What is Cap and Trade and how does it work? The following is a policy brief clarifying the most important aspects of Cap and Trade which have been implemented in California's system. A nation-wide system for auctioning and trading GHG emissions would go a long way toward mitigating climate change. 

How it works

Cap and Trade programs set limits on the amount of carbon dioxide and its greenhouse gas (GHG) equivalents that industries can emit, but allow market forces to decide how industries reach that limit. Rather than choosing winners and losers, Cap and Trade sets a benchmark, establishes rules, and lets the economy do the rest. 

The Details

-- Regulators set up auctions for businesses to purchase GHG allowances with a minimum and maximum price (price collar). 

-- Regulators set a limit on GHG for a given year and let businesses decide how much to pay for their emissions. 

-- Polluters reduce emissions as much as they can in order to need to buy the fewest allowances, thus driving innovation in clean and green technology. 

-- If a business purchases more allowances than it needs, it can bank them and use them in another period, or sell them to another business that bought too few. 

-- If a polluter can’t reduce emissions and has purchased as many allowances as it can, it can pay other businesses to offset their emissions or undertake other activities that reduce GHG, such as reforestation. These offsets must be verifiable.

-- Offsets, if regulated properly, provide a fail safe for heavier polluters to be able to stay in business while global levels of GHG will continue to decline. 

-- Revenues from allowance auctions can be used to fund research or subsidize renewable energy.

A Cap and Trade system has been used in the US to effectively eliminate the threat of acid rain. Thanks to Cap and Trade, emissions of sulphur and nitrogen oxides are well below the level that causes serious environmental harm. Other countries have also implemented carbon Cap and Trade systems, to varying degrees of success. Their shortcomings are opportunities to learn. In Europe, the system’s “cap” was set too high, and offsets were too easy to acquire without oversight, leading to few real reductions in GHG. Those experiences should inform the parameters of a system here. 


It’s time to implement a nation-wide Greenhouse Gas Cap and Trade system for all polluting industries with the following specifications:

-- A cap that is strict enough to encourage businesses to seek as many energy efficiencies as possible

-- A cap that can be adjusted if need be. If emissions plummet, regulators should be able to lower the cap; if compliance proves impossible, there should be a mechanism for upper adjustment

-- A system of offsets that reduces the probability of “leakage” by clearly stipulating that in order for offsets to count, regulators must be able to confirm that they are permanent and have removed GHG from the atmosphere

-- A price collar and banking options for allowances to ensure price stability

-- Apply to all industries that emit GHG

Other Options

Cap and Trade is not the only way to reduce atmospheric GHG. Other proposals have benefits, but greater drawbacks than Cap and Trade. 

Carbon Tax 
Tax carbon dioxide and other GHG, thus raising their prices and reducing demand.                                  
         +  This type of tax would be fairly easy to administer.
         −  A tax does not guarantee a reduction in GHG, only an increase in price.
         −  Most economists agree that a carbon tax would hurt the poor more than the rich. Some suggest using revenue from the tax to subsidize costs for low-income families, but this would mean that they would continue using the same amount of carbon as before.
         −  Taxes in general are politically unpopular, making this option less feasible.

Command and Control
The government could just tell businesses and consumers how much they are allowed to pollute. It would be up to them to decide how and if to comply.
         +  Strict regulations could lead to big drops in GHG.
         −  Businesses may decide to move their operations to places with more lax restrictions, thus hurting local economies without reducing GHG.
         −  Regulations would likely hurt low-income consumers by increasing the price of goods and services.

Business as Usual
There’s always the option of doing nothing and hoping that it will somehow turn out okay in the end. This is not an acceptable alternative.

Kate Daniel is a first-year masters student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

President Obama’s State of the Union address included the expected highlights of immigration reform, gun control, climate change, the deficit, and Afghanistan. Perhaps more unexpectedly, he also called on Congress to raise the national minimum wage to $9.00 an hour, and to tie future increases to the cost of living. Just how big a change is that, and will it achieve the President’s stated intent of ensuring a livable wage for workers?    
First, the change to $9.00 from the current national minimum wage of $7.25 is a significant increase. The increased wage would be higher than the current minimum wage in all states except from Washington (which currently stands at $9.19). A few other states come close at $8.00 or higher (California, Oregon, Nevada, Illinois, Washington DC, Massachusetts and Vermont); however, the majority of states go by the national minimum of $7.25. See a map from the BLS here. Additionally, the real minimum wage (adjusted for inflation), has decreased since the late 1960s:

In comparison to other countries, our minimum wage is in the mid-range of OECD nations with available minimum wage data (time series data available here). Compared to European nations with a minimum wage, and adjusted for the purchasing power of the currency and the price of goods in the nation, the U.S. falls not quite in the top third:

Source: Eurostat

Note this selection of countries does not include Germany or Scandinavian countries, which don’t have statutory minimum wages because collective bargaining is so strong. These countries tend to have much higher wages.

How would $9.00 compare to the “cost of living”? Well, that depends on where you are and how you define livability standards. Researchers at MIT have developed a Living Wage Calculator that accounts for varying costs across states and regions, and back calculates the wage needed for a full-time worker to achieve poverty level and livable wages.  The estimates range from $7.86 in Arkansas to $12.51 in Hawaii for a single adult. Cost of living varies enormously by region, and its difficult to say whether a national minimum wage should meet an average cost of living across the country, or ensure a livable wage to any American worker in any part of the country. Another consideration is how the minimum wage should be updated to rise with the cost of living: would a chained CPI adjustment be more palatable from the beginning of such an annual adjustment program than it has proven as a Social Security fix?

The question of whether raising the minimum wage will increase unemployment has been highly debated elsewhere, and we won’t get into that debate here and now. All this, however, may be ignoring another elephant in the room: is an increase in the minimum wage an effective way of providing assistance to the working poor? Dylan Matthews points to evidence that we can get more “bang for our buck” through the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example. However, Matt Yglesias reminds us that the EITC will show up in the federal budget and minimum wage increases will not, making it much more politically palatable in current fiscal times.

Ashley Clark is a MPP/MA-IAS student at UC Berkeley.

This week, the International Policy, Development and Practice Speaker Series welcomed David B. Arnold, the President of The Asia Foundation.

Seen through the lens of his work at The Asia Foundation, Mr. Arnold delivered a talk on "Asia’s Development Challenges." He identified three major challenges for Asia and the Asia-Pacific area. First, he described the weakness of governance and governance indicators impeding economic growth and progress. However, interesting experiments to fight corruption have also begun. In Mongolia, for example, The Asia Foundation is helping to develop special courts to try corruption cases, as well as developing a website in India where people text information about bribes they paid to a server and a map of bribes is drawn from these texts. Secondly, he disaggregated the positive growth at the macro-level of Asian economies from the negative growth in income gaps and increasing inequality.

Finally, the third major development challenge he identified was an increasing prevalence of sub-national conflicts. He stated that if you look at the duration of these sub-national conflicts, the average duration is 32 years. The ongoing conflicts are taking their toll on development in Asia; conflict is estimated to retard growth and progress towards the Millennium Development Goals 1-3% per year.

When asked about the role of private institutions, Mr. Arnold emphasized that the value-added of foundations and NGOs is not monetary. Instead, private institutions can forge meaningful partnerships with civil society organizations within the countries they operate in, creating what he calls the “software” of development through which the hardware development (such as dams, etc.) can both take place and fit within. Secondly, private institutions have a strong value-driven approach. These two things combine to help private institutions play a catalytic and innovative role in development.

Mr. Arnold was also asked about the rise of “indigenous non-profits,” or the creation of foundations and NGOs funded by donors within Asia. He explained that most of these private institutions are doing singular, project-driven work, such as building schools or providing books, and are not oriented towards social justice and broader change. However, he predicts this will slowly change over the next two decades.

Mr. Arnold, in addition to his substantive comments on Asia, gave the crowd good professional advice. "Learn when to say yes," he encouraged the room. He explained that learning when to say yes takes you to more interesting places and more fascinating jobs. He also explained that one who works in development needs to be a "cock-eyed optimist;" there are success stories and progress, and it is important to see and highlight them to encourage future good work.


Women in Combat


Kate Daniel is a first-year masters student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

I spoke recently with a friend who has trained in an infantry unit in the Vermont Army National Guard about the Pentagon’s announcement last week to allow women to serve in combat positions.

First, some clarification on what the announcement means. Women have been serving in the military since World War I; in fact, my great aunt joined the Coast Guard SPARS, the Women’s Reserves, during World War II.[1] The roles of female soldiers grew from there, particularly in the Gulf War. In 1994, the Defense Department issued a formal rule banning women from serving in “direct ground combat,” which blocked them from armor, artillery, and infantry divisions. The Pentagon’s action on January 23 lifts this ban. Women currently make up about 14 percent of the enlisted ranks.

My friend pointed out 4 important considerations for what this means:

1)   Women have already found themselves in combat roles, some by accident and some by design. Female military police, pilots, linguists, medics, and other support roles see combat when their envoys or stations are attacked.  Today’s battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan are far more ambiguous than they have been in earlier days of military history; there is no literal “front line” from which to exclude women, or civilians or other noncombatants. Some women have even been awarded military honors for valor in combat. Kayla Williams describes for Slate magazine how the announcement is in many ways formally recognizing reality, and that we shouldn’t fear it.

2)     One of the key requirements for serving in the military has been satisfactorily fulfilling physical fitness tests. The Army is now considering an overhaul of these fitness requirements to distinguish between general service and combat roles, and has pledged to make the standards gender neutral. This marks movement towards the approach that it doesn't matter who you are – male, female, black, white, Latino/a, gay, straight; what matters is if you get the job done. For infantry units, the standard will include whether a soldier can carry his or her gear, maneuver in a firefight, and deal with the physical and emotional stress of combat. Special operations units, such as the Army Rangers, Marines, and Navy Seals, are expected to hold women to the same existing, and very high, physical fitness standards for men.

3)   There’s a clear need for more female soldiers on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Williams points out that there are numerous occasions where men are not able to effectively communicate or interact with local women due to cultural norms. A female American soldier can better speak to an Iraqi woman without causing tension or fear, and it is far more desirable to have female soldiers conduct body searches of women. 

4)   The military is already facing much higher rates of sexual assault than the average civilian population, as well as some criticism for how ranking officers have dealt with the problem. This is especially salient in combat zones. It’s unclear how the policy change will affect this issue. There is some concern that backlash against the increased role of women could take the form of more assaults or lax enforcement of policies. At the same time, there is optimism that increasing the number of women in the military will shift attitudes and create a more egalitarian atmosphere. In response to these concerns, as well as general concerns about unit cohesion, advocates of bringing women into combat roles have noted the smooth sailing since the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

It’s encouraging to see the Department of Defense take conscious and deliberate steps toward social equity. Perhaps lifting the ban is not much more than recognizing a transition that’s been occurring anyway. As anyone who championed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” would agree, however, that formal recognition is meaningful and important in its own regard.

[1] Note that the Coast Guard is now under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, and so is not directly affected by the Department of Defense’s announcement.