DNA and Identity

I’ve had identity on my mind lately, apropos of the news last week that Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, took a DNA test that confirmed her Native American ancestry. As the test showed, she probably had a single Native American ancestor six to ten generations ago, corroborating the stories about her family’s history that she’d heard growing up. This makes her some percentage Native American—a small one, but probably more than most white Americans of predominantly European ancestry, according to the science writer Carl Zimmer. And while the test supports some amount of indigenous ancestry, there’s no way to tell if her ancestor was Cherokee, as she believes according to family lore, because tribe-specific DNA tests don’t exist. Moreover, she has been justifiably criticized for affirming a link with a heritage to which she has no cultural connection. For Native Americans, in particular, the question of tribal membership is politically and historically fraught, with real consequences for sovereignty and distribution of resources. Different tribes have different citizenship requirements, which often, but not exclusively, take into account one’s ancestry. The Cherokee Nation reacted to Warren’s DNA results by calling them “inappropriate” and “useless to determine tribal citizenship.” And Kim Tallbear, a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta and the author of a book on Native Americans and the uses of DNA, said Warren’s stunt is another example of “Non-Indigenous Americans…making claims to all things Indigenous.”


Warren isn’t asserting Native American identity right now, although she has in the past. At some point in the 1980s, she self-identified as a “minority” in a directory of American law professors, which prompted the University of Pennsylvania, and later Harvard Law School, to classify her as Native American. It was an ill-advised move for which she should take responsibility and gravely apologize.

While DNA is material within our genes that determines what we look like and shapes many of our characteristics, identity is a social category based in family relationships, history, politics, and experience. But the two are often conflated, as illustrated by the popularity of genetic testing sites such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com, which invites visitors to “[t]ake a DNA test and uncover your origins.” It may be a fun game to find out which geographic populations your DNA most closely matches, but without additional context and lived experiences, they’re no more meaningful to our personal stories than random places on a map.

We have long been fascinated by the idea that our bodies can offer some truth about who we really are, that within our blood and bones reside clues about ourselves that are only accessible through careful scientific measurement. Identity, in this construction, is something to be uncovered. It’s especially precarious when this knowledge is related to race or ethnicity, and our genes are then perceived as a way to definitively locate this information within the body. But our DNA, our blood types and our physiologic markers are merely data that are assigned meaning through social context. My genes may have given me dark hair, brown eyes and a taste for bitter foods, but the importance ascribed to these traits and how they shape my life are social phenomena. Even markers for diseases such as Huntington’s or Parkinson’s may tell us our risk of developing a particular malady, but they are infinitely less useful in predicting our experience of illness, which is shaped by social relations. Our bodies may offer us all kinds of information about our health, and DNA can tell us who our ancestors might have been. But it doesn’t tell us anything about what it means to identify as a member of a community, a process shaped by history, family, and the experiences one accumulates during one’s lifetime.

Are You Worthy of Your Health Care? State Medicaid Directors May Soon Get to Decide

This week the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services approved New Hampshire’s bid to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients, becoming the fourth such state under new guidelines issued at the beginning of the year by the Trump Administration. Kentucky, Arkansas, and Indiana have also received approval to add work requirements, while applications are pending in six additional states: Arizona, Utah, Kansas, Mississippi, Wisconsin, and Maine.

These types of waivers, which fall under Section 1115 of the Social Security Act, are supposed to give states the flexibility to test local approaches that may differ from federal Medicaid rules, but share the goal of advancing the overall aims of the Medicaid program. States have used them for a variety of purposes in the past, including implementing systems of managed care, expanding coverage to non-traditional Medicaid populations, and extending health care coverage during an emergency. Under the newly approved waivers, Medicaid recipients will be required to work or participate in “community engagement” activities (including job training, caregiving, or volunteering) for 20 hours per week. Those who are pregnant or have disabilities would be exempt. In some states, such as Kentucky, the work rules would only apply to the population that receives Medicaid under the expanded eligibility rules of the Affordable Care Act. In other states, notably Kansas, the rules would affect all beneficiaries, including those who are very poor. Other states have Section 1115 waivers pending to require drug testing for Medicaid recipients, impose lifetime limits on coverage, and impose premiums with disenrollment for nonpayment; such waivers have never been approved, but that may change in the current political climate.

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Since the Trump administration took office in 2017, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services have altered the criteria for considering Section 1115 waivers. In 2015, during the Obama years, the language focused on increasing and strengthening coverage and health outcomes for low-income individuals and improving provider networks for Medicaid beneficiaries. By November 2017, the guidelines had been revised to underscore new priorities: “responsible decision-making,” “upward mobility,” “greater independence,” and “strengthen[ing] beneficiary engagement in their personal healthcare plan.”

This language of empowerment reflects a fundamental shift in ideology, from providing crucial health coverage to a disadvantaged population to trying to ensure that people are not, as the saying goes, “getting something for nothing.” The new guidelines glorify the idea of work for work’s sake, linking employment with increased income and better health outcomes, while decrying what CMS director Seema Verma has called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that keeps people trapped in poverty. Critics have pointed out that nearly 60 percent of non-disabled Medicaid recipients who are able to work already do; imposing work requirements will do nothing to create jobs, and will simply enact punitive measures on those who do not have them. The burden of reporting one’s work hours weekly will create additional hurdles for Medicaid recipients, many of whom already face multiple challenges, while the increased administrative costs may not result in any savings for state and local governments. The new requirements don’t account for those with unstable and unpredictable hours, who may average 80 hours per month but work fewer than 20 hours during some weeks. Moreover, losing one’s health insurance could make it more difficult for someone to find and keep a job. It’s not much of a surprise that an individual with steady employment will have more income, be healthier overall and less likely to suffer from depression than someone who is unemployed. But it’s not at all clear that work itself always produces these results, or if those who are healthier overall are also better equipped to find and keep such jobs.

Previous administrations have rejected Section 1115 waivers that were not consistent with the original aim of the Medicaid program, which is to expand medical coverage to eligible populations. The new work requirements, which will reduce Medicaid rolls by making it harder and more onerous for people to keep their coverage, clearly conflict with this goal. In approving the requirements, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services is defining health care as something that must be earned through a display of worthiness. It imposes a moral imperative on the provision of health care, forcing recipients to prove their fitness to receive government benefits by behaving in ways that are state-sanctioned: working, not doing drugs, demonstrating personal responsibility. The underlying (and familiar) assumption is that poverty is a behavioral issue that can be fixed by punishing abnormal comportment. But the problem is far deeper and more complicated. Medicaid work requirements are both overly punitive and a result of faulty logic. Making it more difficult for low-income individuals to maintain health coverage will not solve poverty. Instead, it will increase inequality, further disadvantage an already vulnerable population, and endanger public health.


Graham-Cassidy Bill Brings Republican Callousness to New Heights

The Republicans’ last-ditch effort to demolish the Affordable Care Act is so abominable it makes previous attempts look practically benign by comparison.

The Graham-Cassidy bill, introduced by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA), retains all of the cruelty of earlier legislation, and then adds some more. Specifically, it would:

  • Convert funding for Medicaid, a program that covers over 70 million Americans, from an open-ended entitlement to a block grant to states.

  • Allow states to impose work requirements for Medicaid recipients.

  • Eliminate the subsidies that make insurance and health care services affordable for low-income individuals.

  • Allow states to waive coverage of essential health benefits, such as mental health care, prescription drug coverage, and maternity care.

  • Allow states to end protections for pre-existing conditions. Insurance companies would be free to charge different rates to healthy and sick people.

  • Eliminate lifetime caps on coverage.

  • End the employer and individual mandates, retroactive to 2016.


The Graham-Cassidy bill would take all the federal money that currently funds insurance subsidies and the Medicaid expansion under the ACA and dole it out to states according to a complex formula, redistributing it in a way that the bill’s sponsors claim is more fair. However, it would shift money from states that expanded Medicaid to those that didn’t. California, for instance, would get $27.8 billion less in federal funding in 2026, while Texas, a non-expansion state, would get $8.2 billion more. States would have to spend these funds on health-related costs, but not necessarily to help lower-income people purchase insurance. There would be less money available overall; funding would be 34% lower by 2026 than under current ACA rules, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. All of the grants would end in 2027, putting health insurance for millions in grave jeopardy, unless Congress decided to appropriate more money.

Converting Medicaid disbursement from the system now in place to a block grant to states would be a monumental shift. Under current rules, Medicaid is an open-ended entitlement, meaning that funding expands if more people become eligible. This is crucial during economic downturns or in public health emergencies. If federal funding for Medicaid is capped and inflexible, then states would be forced to make up any budget shortfall. This could result in cost-cutting measures, such as limiting eligibility or reducing benefits.

Earlier this summer, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that a straight repeal of the Affordable Care Act would result in an additional 32 million uninsured by 2026. If Graham-Cassidy passes, the final toll could be even higher, due to the harshness of the Medicaid cuts. Those who do maintain coverage could face sky-high premiums and deductibles for plans that cover very little. Graham-Cassidy might be the fulfillment of a longstanding Republican pledge to repeal Obamacare, but it would cause untold pain and suffering for millions of vulnerable Americans.