Category Archives: Analysis and Commentary

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.

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?

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.

A 21st Century Financial Aid Policy

I have come to believe that we need dramatic changes in our financial aid system.

We have largely eroded the supports that used to be there for low-income students seeking to go to college: In the 2010-2011 school year, the maximum Pell Grant award covered only 36% of the average cost of attendance at a public four-year institution, compared to 77% in 1979-1980.

More students are having to borrow more money to leap the chasm between what they can really afford and how much college costs. Today, the median college debt is about $28,000 per year, even though research reveals the potential for significant negative effects–on college graduation and post-secondary financial outcomes–starting at only about $10,000 in borrowing.

So more students are deterred from enrolling at all, put off by high-dollar debt or uncertain about whether college is really worth it.

To me, this makes financial aid reform more than just an academic exercise (no pun intended); it is a policy imperative.

I’m working now on a report outlining AEDI’s priorities for policy changes, and so I want to use this space–and your generosity with your time–to elicit some input as we outline a way forward. The good news about being at the beginning of a policy reform effort is that there are many options. The hard thing, of course, is trying to, collectively, think differently than we ever have before.

I believe that identifying the right options–some workable, some aspirational, across the levers of potential influence–is key to getting these conversations started. And I am audacious enough to ask for your help with that. Thank you in advance!

  • Reinvest in higher education as a collective good, to reduce the growth in college costs and reflect the truth that higher education is a common value, as much as an individual asset
  • Minimize the negative effects of student debt, especially as we shift from debt-dependent to asset-based financial aid. This means that policymakers should explore provision of ‘emergency’ aid, to prevent disruptions in academic progress often associated with financial setbacks; incentives for educational attainment, potentially including at least partial loan forgiveness for on-time degree completion for Pell-eligible students; and policies that reduce debt burdens, including income-based repayment and incentives for employer matching for student debt repayment following graduation.
  • Support college graduates as they strive to build assets, perhaps through diverting some loan repayments to savings accounts (as we do in the HUD Self-Sufficiency program, with rents), protecting graduates’ credit scores from student loan effects, and directing the financial services industry to aggressively extend savings opportunities to Americans.
  • Improve quality of K-12 education, to reduce the need for remediation in college and close the gap between how children need to perform and what they are prepared to do–too many students are failed in high school and then have to pay to catch up in college. Since educational quality is highly inequitable, too, this serves to exacerbate other layers of inequity.
  • Eliminate disincentives for college savings in the public assistance and means-tested financial aid systems–today, we have a bifurcated financial aid system, where wealthy students mostly enjoy asset-based financing, while low-income students grapple with the fallout of high-dollar debt. And strict asset limits in financial aid and public assistance determinations enforce this inequity.
  • Incorporate savings into current financial aid programs, using the variable of timing to convert them into ‘early commitment’ programs. This might mean incorporating savings into the Pell Grant program and/or diverting some scholarship money from academic merit-based to rewarding savings, at the university or local level.
  • Build progressive, lifelong, universal, asset-building child savings structure, paralleling asset incentives through the tax code for wealthy students. To make Child Savings Accounts (CSAs) work for low-income households, some policy features are essential: automatic enrollment (opt-out), ideally at birth; initial deposits that give all children an immediate stake in their futures; program features to ease access, like low initial deposit requirements; concerted outreach and education; and special incentives, such as refundable tax credits and/or direct matches. Accounts should be in students’ names, and at least some of the deposits should be available as they go through school, to help them confront financial obstacles to academic achievement.

What’s missing? What concerns you? What confuses you?

What is your vision for a financial aid policy for tomorrow’s challenges, and how do you think we get there?

Student debt, ladders of opportunity, and the next generation

My work at the Assets and Education Initiative has given me an outlet for a passion of mine–restoring the American Dream for disadvantaged young people–and also brought into sharp relief the intersection (sometimes collision) of my personal and professional lives.

Because my students won’t face high student loan debt on their paths to higher education.

They won’t have to wonder if college is really a part of their futures.

And, so, they won’t face the tragic Catch-22 that is commonplace in so many communities, and around so many kitchen tables, in the United States today:

Being unable to grasp the bottom rung of the ladder that would pull you up.

Education doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, anymore.

One of the most stunning statistics, which I have taken to telling just about everyone, is this:

While 69% of the highest-achieving children from low-income families attend college, this is only slightly greater than the enrollment rate for the the lowest-achieving children from high-income families (65%).

To me, this says that the path to higher education and, then, economic security (because that is still largely true, even with rising economic uncertainty for U.S. college graduates) more closely resembles one of inertia than the ‘Horatio Alger’ stories we like to tell ourselves.

Working really hard and being really talented only gets you a 4% advantage over those who largely fail but have wealthy parents.

Changing this story so that college is the opportunity I believe we want it to be for today’s young people will require reforming financial aid, focusing our efforts on those in greatest economic need, recognizing the importance of higher education as a ladder to mobility, and breaking across policy sectors to reform education, particularly in terms of ensuring quality instruction and supporting students toward their completion of valuable degrees.

It will require dismantling the ‘cradle to nowhere pipeline’ that currently traps so many of our youth and recognizing the economic imperative of putting the U.S. back on par with nations around the world that have differently prioritized education (and are seeing differential outcomes as a result).

It will require, then, telling ourselves a different story.

Because all’s not well that ends well, and our over-reliance on student is reducing equity within higher education.

Because college is a distant dream, not an imminent reality, for too many disadvantaged children.

Because my kids will never have to compete, not really, with children in poverty.

And that’s not fair.