Author Archives: melindaklewis

The Poor Will Always Be With Us

This might not be an April Fool’s Day post like I’ve done some years, but there’s definitely a trick.

Because, really?

Are we going to allow ourselves to believe that ‘nothing works’ in combating poverty, and, so, resign ourselves to a large population of those without, when there is evidence all around us that policy makes a huge difference in the lives of vulnerable people?

We must not.

When I talk in class about how reductions in poverty among older adults serve as evidence that policy can fight poverty, and, then, that it’s our failure to invest similarly in other populations, not lack of any ideas about what might help, that explains the perpetuation of poverty among, say, single-female headed households, I can almost see the lightbulbs going off.

Similarly, the economic expansion of the late 1990s, fueled in part by deliberate policy changes, showed that even child poverty is amenable to targeted intervention. Improving the Earned Income Tax Credit (lowering the eligibility age, providing a more adequate benefit to childless workers) would reduce poverty among working Americans whose economic instability has significant ripples in our social conditions.

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits lifted 4 million Americans out of poverty in 2012; cuts to eligibility in many states will have a direct effect on poverty rates.

Social Security keeps more than 12 million Americans out of poverty each year, and there’s no reason we can’t see similar outcomes from investing in a concerted anti-poverty approach for younger Americans, too.

This is an adaptive problem, not a technical one.

We need political will far more than new ideas.

And we need to stop ignoring problems and then concluding–when we turn around to see the mess we’ve created–that these problems are intractable, instead of very definitely human-made.

If we don’t, we’re being made fools of.

And not just today.

Review Week: So Rich, So Poor

When I see statistics like this one in So Rich, So Poor: In 2009, there were 2 million families in the United States with only SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/food stamp) benefits as income (it’s an entitlement, not a block grant like TANF, so it has the ability to expand with need during times of recession), I think:

We are better than this.

Because we ARE.

Americans are, truly, a pretty generous group.

Americans gave $316.2-billion to charity last year, which represents 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, the same as in 2011. There are reasons to be concerned about the lack of growth in giving, in light of more organizations evidencing more significant need, but, still, that’s no small exercise of altruistic expenditure.

And that contrasts, sharply, with our public policy infrastructure, where we do very little to help, in particular, those with incomes below 50% of the poverty line (even Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF, really only serves to bring these folks up to ‘regular’ poverty) and working families, who suffer acutely the decline in the value of the minimum wage.

While there is room for improvement in our efforts to make people aware of the realities of poverty, certainly–I’m intrigued by the idea of labels on products that describe the quality of the jobs that produced them, for example, for the most part, we just have to face this sharp divergence between how we give privately and what we’re willing to commit to publicly.

Indeed, even on the micro level, our narrative of the American Dream leads us to individual explanations for why people struggle, and, then, individual approaches for how to help.

I think–and this is by no means an entirely original thought–that our lack of faith in government, and our failure to be captivated by the power of the collective, are at the heart of this disconnect, fueled further by our discomfort with helping people we don’t know.

And social workers are not blameless in this separation of problem and solution, and the woeful inadequacy of the response that results.

When was the last time you heard a social worker express enthusiastic support for welfare?

Why do so many of my students–all of them absolutely committed to improving people’s lives, including reducing the poverty in which people struggle–distance themselves from macro approaches to bringing this relief?

It’s not about apathy. It’s no harder to speak out against SNAP cuts or call out Congress on tax cuts, really, than it is to find $50 in your budget to support a worthwhile organization.

It’s certainly no harder to sign a petition or even visit a legislator than it is to engage people in the tremendously difficult process of working with a broken system to navigate help they need.

Instead, it’s a lack of imagination, a failure of vision, a preference for familiar, localized channels instead of the unknowns of fundamental change.

But if we’re going to craft solutions scaled to confront the crisis of poverty–and we must–we’ve got to do that together, not one check at a time.

The budget is us

One of the most powerful moments in my social policy class (and, yes, I think there are more than one; I love when students realize all of the ways in which their families depend on ‘welfare’ benefits, for example, especially through the tax code) is when we talk about budgets as reflections of our collective values.

That was a point emphasized in the book Red Ink, too, the idea that the “budget is driven by the things that people want” (p. 23).

Budgets tell the story of who we are and, in this way (and very few others), the federal budget does parallel your household budget. Looking at where you spend your money, one would get a clear sense of what you think is important.

That’s true for our national appropriations, too.

There’s a breakdown, though, in our shared conversation about budgets as a tool with which to accomplish the things that we think matter. Our budgets tell the story of who we are as a country, but we’re unable to see some critical aspects of that narrative.

When 44% of those on Social Security think they’ve never been on a government program, there’s clearly a disconnect.

When the budget is demonized as a problem to get rid of, instead of recognized as a mutual commitment to take care of each other (and ourselves), we clearly need a more honest accounting.

Individually, we may object to specific budget line items–I’m not at all sure that I want to spend $11 billion on an aircraft carrier, and I’m not certain about the advisability of spending billions on hip replacements, either–but we cannot start the conversations about whether those are the choices we want to make, and the legacy we want to leave, until we at least see them as choices that leave legacies.

The federal budget may be crafted and approved in Washington, DC, but it is not an autonomous force.

Instead, it is created by us, to reflect us.

It is of us, which means that we have the right–and the responsibility–to shape it in the image that we envision for our shared futures.

If we don’t like what we see, it is incumbent upon us to push for changes.

Pulling back the curtain–technology for budget knowledge

My 7-year-old son has been testing out these interactive federal budget games for me over the past few weeks, especially the Budget Hero, which is quite cool, really.

And I’m intrigued by the increasing availability, born of the attention and vigorous debate around the federal budget, of multimedia content with which to engage our thinking (including that of my students!) around budget decisions, like this video.

What I find encouraging about these kinds of tools is their ability to bridge a particular challenge–making the federal budget (in its massive scale and far-reaching scope) accessible to Americans, without simplifying it to the level of a household budget, which is inherently distorting and, I think, somewhat destructive.

To get off the sidelines and really engage with these essential budget questions, we need to increase our understanding about the trade-offs involved and find ways to wrap our collective heads around the tough sacrifices inherent in the process of resource allocation.

But we need to do it on real terms, not those that would pretend that the U.S. government should operate as a family would, or that the stakes are comparable.

While an online game–or a documentary–can’t approximate the experience of really holding the nation’s fiscal future in one’s hands, if Sam’s enthusiastic ‘refreshing’ of his game, to start over when he doesn’t like the way it ended up, is any indication, they may be helpful tools for bringing our knowledge up to a point where we’re able to have real conversations.

Have you discovered, and tried, any budget tools like these? Do you have any favorites? What functionality do you think would improve these experiences? What role can you imagine for this technology, in our national deliberation of the budget?

Review Week: Red Ink

It’s hard to imagine a time when there has been more attention paid to the federal budget than in the past several years.

When my students have to do a media analysis of coverage of the budget, it’s an embarrassment of riches these days.

But I find, for my students, that sometimes this familiarity can breed contempt.

When they learn that, in 2009, for the first time every dollar of revenue was committed for past promises–entitlements–it can be hard to message around why their advocacy is imperative.

When they question whether any crisis is sufficient to prompt leadership in today’s budget battles, I worry that they will cringe and turn away.

When I explain rules like Pay As You Go (PAYGO), I worry that, instead of committed to learning more about how to navigate the constraints in order to be effective advocates, they will toss up their hands in disgust.

In the fall semester, I teach a survey of social policy. For the most part, my energies are focused on helping students untangle what they thought they knew about the social policy landscape in which we live–and our clients struggle–and helping them articulate alternatives that could bring better outcomes.

And, now, in the spring, I teach advocacy practice.

For the first time, I’m finding it harder.

My students who are ‘coming of age’ (of any chronological age) in this particular climate are at risk, I fear, of tuning out, in a way that I couldn’t imagine just a few years ago.

It’s not that the policy climate is any more adverse than it was then; we cannot let ourselves be lulled into complacency by imagining that this is any worse than a time when ketchup was declared a vegetable for school lunches, or certainly when long lines formed for free meals.

It’s the process that concerns me, and my students’ difficulty in visioning a role for themselves within it.

Because their voices are needed, of course, now more than ever.

I consider it, then, one of my most sacred duties, to keep them from abandoning these fights.

What sustains you, as an advocate, and gives you enough hope to continue to engage? What should be my approach to cultivating that same engagement among my students?

Infographic love, for those who don’t get spring break

I am fully aware that, outside of the academic world, spring break isn’t a ‘thing’.

I feel like I really need this break, come the middle of March every year, and so I feel for those who can’t reset at this moment, before spring really comes to the Midwest, when we’re all ready for sunshine and some extra sleep.

I can’t deliver you spring break, but I can share the next best thing (?):

Some great infographics.

Because who doesn’t love a good infographic, even more than a day on the beach?

You’re welcome.

And I’m sorry.

Bolder Advocacy’s Map of advocacy wins on GLBT rights: Check out the pins, where you can see photos and learn more about each victory. Maybe it’s more an interactive map than an infographic, but it’s cool. Spring break or no, we’re #winning!

If Kansas poverty was a city: This sobering figure comes from good friends at the Kansas Center for Economic Growth. The statistics suck, but the infographic is powerful.

Economic Policy Institute figure on attacks on American labor standards: I consider myself fairly well-informed, but a lot of this went past me. If we don’t pay attention to how the rules of the game, so to speak, are changing, we don’t stand a chance at reversing the trends of eroding worker well-being. These laws matter, for the people we serve and for the future of our nation.

Social Work Salary Guide: I receive quite a few unsolicited pieces that organizations want me to use for my blog. Some of the content is good, but I tend to be a little skeptical, and I certainly don’t want to load this site up with content from the private universities or job search services that tend to gravitate here. But this salary guide seemed like it might be of interest to folks, so I’m linking to it here.

Do you have infographics you’re loving right now, that you’re willing to share?

If they’re awesome, I’ll even look at them from vacation. OK, I promise, no more spring break talk.

Just have a great week next week, wherever you are.

A roundup, of sorts

As I look toward spring break (oh yes, professors count down, too!), I am cleaning out my ‘blog about this’ folder in my inbox.

And running out of time to write posts about all of them.

So, with only a bit of context and introduction, here are some things I’ve been thinking about and wanted to share. I’d love to hear your feedback, either now or when I get back, ready to finish this spring semester strong, in class and on here.

  • Social Services and Social Change Webinar: Last fall, I had the chance to participate in a webinar for Grassroots Grantmakers with Building Movement Project (so, yes, I was sort of awestruck). I found the PowerPoint and recording for the webinar online and wanted to share it. You can listen to me talk about my work with reStart, Inc., integrating advocacy and social change into their volunteer outreach and orientation efforts. And you can hear Frances and Sean lay out how BMP works to engage social service providers around the country. It’s cool stuff.
  • reStart, Inc.’s move to focus on permanent solutions to homelessness: Related to the above, here’s a blog post from the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City about reStart, Inc.’s shift in their services and approach to more intentionally focus on permanent solutions to homelessness, rather than services for those experiencing homelessness. It’s visionary and bold and kind of scary, and I think it’s awesome.
  • ‘Clash’ between immigrant rights groups and DC advocates: He calls them ‘power brokers’, which isn’t necessarily inaccurate but a little pejorative. Still, this used to be my world, so I read with much interest this piece on the growing divide between grassroots immigrant rights groups and those working legislation in the beltway. I believe that there are roles for both in a movement, but also that holding them together–even when their ultimate visions are similar (and, here, in some cases, they are not)–is hard. It’s a fascinating case study, of sorts, and, again, one close to my heart.
  • Social workers are joining the ‘tell our own story’ revolution: This post from Social Work Helper underscores the importance of telling our stories, as social workers (here, child welfare workers). What I like most is the reminder that the narrative goes on, with or without us, so others will tell our stories for us if we don’t tell our own.
  • Getting out of the U.S. echo chamber, for a different perspective on social policy: This piece from David Bacon exposes the extent to which U.S. policy on immigration is out of step with global trends. We have a tendency–maybe most nations do–to think that our ‘consensus’ is more of less in line with where policy is heading. We even seek out media and other affirmations of that belief. But it’s often not true, and, in the case of global policies like immigration, this distinction is important.
  • Storify of my live Twitter chat on nonprofit advocacy, for Social Work Helper: I love how they aggregate this, and I love remembering the great conversations we had about living our values and acting as advocates within social work organizations.
  • Poll shows America is ready for equity: Need some good news? Me too. After posting about inequality a lot lately (and some more coming up, I think, after break), it was encouraging to see this poll about Americans’ support for policies that would move in the direction of greater equity. Some interesting findings: while Americans mostly overestimate the current and future diversity of the U.S. population, they are far from panicked about these changing demographics. More than 70% support increased funding for training and infrastructure and education, all steps that would move in the direction of greater equity.
  • Head Start pushing back against sequestration: Nothing warms my heart–not even Florida sunshine!–like service providers standing up for those they serve. So I love getting emails about the effects of sequestration on Head Start funding, even though I hate what these funding cuts are doing to young children who, after all, will never have another chance to be 3.

What have I missed? What has lingered in your inbox, waiting to be shared?

Storytelling, advocacy, and social change

In my advocacy capacity building work with nonprofit direct service agencies, the tasks we tackle together are intentionally individualized.

Each organization gets to direct the work, based on its own assessment of the types of capacity most needed.

So the process ends up looking quite different, depending on the leadership and the landscape.

But nearly universal is an emphasis on storytelling, a sort of global recognition that nonprofit advocates need to get better at telling our own stories–about why this work resonates with us–and at identifying and deploying stories about the need and the impact (especially about the need and the impact, side-by-side).

So I end up doing a lot of storytelling workshops, helping nonprofit staff and clients ‘unpack’ their own stories and get more comfortable inserting them into the collective narrative about these issues and why they matter.

And, so, I’m always looking for new resources to help with that.

Recently, I found this Storytelling and Social Change guide, available for free download.

It’s part compilation, part how-to guide, part inspiration, and part theoretical foundation–bringing together how and why storytelling works, the different forms it can take (case studies, video testimonials, storybanks, theater, individual narratives), the purposes it can serve (learn, organize, educate, advocate), and the motivation we may need to prioritize story compilation and story deployment as part of our communications approaches.

It’s written primarily for grantmakers, but there is valuable content for nonprofit organizations, too, as well as the important advantage that comes from thinking about how your funders think.

The profiles included also reference the funder that supports them, which is a practice I wish more nonprofit publications would employ, as it helps to demystify the ‘advocacy funding’ world for nonprofits trying to break into it, as well as break down the power divide that separates foundation from grantee.

And it has examples of storytelling for social change today and throughout social movement history, in very brief snapshots, which may help reluctant Board members, employees, clients, or partners recognize how their own stories can be valuable.

It has already informed some of my storytelling training, particularly in brainstorming other story modalities and thinking about how I frame the ‘why’ of storytelling. I’d love to hear from anyone else who has reviewed or is using the guide, about what you find valuable, what you think is missing, and what role stories play in your advocacy.

We all have a story to tell, and we can all get better at telling it.

Increasingly, I am coming to believe that, if we want to change the world, then we must.

A better measure for a better system

How should we measure ‘well-being’?

One of my intellectual interests relates to how evaluation and social indicators can focus our collective attention on the problems that need to be addressed, setting better benchmarks toward which we should aspire.

And one of my great passions is around reducing political, economic, and social inequality, to build toward a more just future.

And, here, these two worlds align.

Because we need some better measures of how we’re doing.

I don’t mean the U.S. poverty line, although clearly that needs to be revamped.

But, here, I’m thinking more of the underlying issue, not poverty but what creates the conditions for it.

We need a better measure than Gross Domestic Product per capita, because, clearly, an increase in GDP doesn’t always translate to an increase in well-being.

Look at how much more we spend on incarceration today, which is tied to an increase in GDP, when it’s clear that people aren’t benefiting from that particular outlay.

We have the Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, although, perhaps not surprisingly, it doesn’t hold much cachet with policymakers or even pundits in the U.S.

Something like the 20/20 ratio, which compares how well the bottom 20% are doing, compared to the top 20%, would be even more helpful, I think.

Or the Hoover index, which calculates how much redistribution would be needed to achieve total equality.

I’m certainly no economist–or mathematician–but an indicator that could clearly indicate a person’s likelihood of leaving poverty, or leaving the bottom 20% or so, could, if inserted into our understanding about our economic system, help to crack the myth of ‘rags to riches’.

So why do we use GDP per capita, when it so clearly fails to capture so much of what we really need to know, and distorts so much of the picture?

There are better measures out there, and we certainly have the technical capacity to shift to them, or even to develop something else, if we really wanted.

I can only conclude that our stubborn clinging to something woefully inadequate has much to do with how we come out looking relatively good according to that measure, and pretty blatantly unequal according to others.

If we’re not winning, after all, we can always move the goalposts.

But I think that, while metrics are surely not everything, having better measures would really help.

You manage to what you measure, after all, and, if we had some consensus about what we were working toward, we’d at least have a shot at getting there.

Assets, Education, and the American Dream

Earlier this week, I wrote about my work at the Assets and Education Initiative, and what we’re trying to do to sort of upend the conversation about financial aid and higher education and student debt, in pursuit of an education system–and a way of financing it–capable of delivering far more equitable outcomes for those disadvantaged today.

Today, I want to share some of the resources and tools we’ve developed as part of this.

I know that most of my readers are touched in some way by our higher education system–indeed, I would argue that we all are, at least indirectly, given that education is so powerful in shaping economic opportunities and structures–as students or recent graduates, faculty members or advocates.

We are certainly not alone in raising these questions, but I am proud of the role that we’re playing, and I am excited to more explicitly share this work with you, in a sort of ‘full circle’ way.

I would welcome your comments and questions. One of the most fun things about working in an evolving field is the ability to be pretty nimble and responsive, like when a reporter’s question about the level of savings that it would really take for a Children’s Savings Account to make a difference for a student’s likelihood of going to college led to a new line of research that revealed, somewhat startlingly, significant improvements in educational outcomes just from opening a savings account, and sizable differences for those students with about $500 saved.

Your question might just spark the next line of inquiry; regardless, these are conversations we must have.

Our education system isn’t just about who we are today, or what students encounter upon enrollment.

It’s about who we will become and the stories we tell ourselves about what is possible in this country.

It is an honor to be part of that.