Category Archives: Analysis and Commentary

Show us the money. Seriously.

Cartoon credit Richard Crowson, image available from http://www.kansas.com/opinion/crowson/

Cartoon credit Richard Crowson, image available from http://www.kansas.com/opinion/crowson/

What Kansas is doing to welfare policy would be wrong even if the state budget sort of necessitated it.

There are other ways to balance a budget.

But Kansas’ current welfare-cutting binge is particularly reprehensible, in my analysis, precisely because it is entirely unwarranted fiscally.

So the real story here isn’t just how much Kansas has cut from its welfare spending, but, instead, the scale of the cuts and the corresponding increase in the TANF fund balance, reflecting, essentially, lost potential to provide for the well-being of Kansas children and families.

We aren’t just cutting welfare benefits. We’re cutting welfare benefits, socking the federal money aside, asking the federal government for less, and then claiming poverty when advocates and state policymakers push for increases in the very meager monthly benefits and/or restorations of cuts to childcare assistance and other wrap-around supports.

In an economic climate of limited resources, any rumor of pots of money lying around are bound to spark rumors, and many are asking where the money’s going, what the state’s plans are, and how we can build enough political pressure to get those dollars allocated back to their intended purpose: stabilizing poor children and families.

How much have we cut?

Kansas has reduced TANF cash assistance spending to comply with our maintenance-of-effort responsibility by 73% since FY2008, while reducing childcare assistance by 55%. This translates to an average reduction of 19% per case, per month, distributed across a 31% reduction in average monthly cases. TANF beneficiaries in Kansas receive the same monthly allocation they did when TANF began in 1996, reflecting a steep erosion in purchasing power. We’re approving only about a quarter of applicants now, despite marked increases in the percentage of Kansans in need.

Those extra dollars have to go somewhere.

So how much is left?

The size of the TANF fund balance has grown by 133% between FY2008 and FY2014, to more than $53.5 million for the FY2014 approved budget. In truth, this figure could be even higher, had Kansas opted to apply for TANF contingency funds for which it has been eligible for most of the past several years. For example, in FY2013, Kansas would have likely been able to draw down an additional $4.7 million in available federal funds. However, application for these funds is time-limited, and Kansas has missed this chance to funnel additional federal dollars into Kansas communities in need.

The lesson here is threefold:

1. Question scarcity: We cannot let ourselves be lulled into believing official lines about limited resources driving policy decisions. Budgets reflect our values, and we find the money to do what we really want to do. Politics drives resources, not the other way around.

2. Follow the money: We are still trying to unravel all of the details about what money has been allocated for which purposes, but we are learning a great deal about how TANF dollars are being spent, using what we know about the state’s need to show maintenance of effort to lobbying for other spending preservation (Kansas Action for Children employed this to considerable extent during the Earned Income Tax Credit attacks over the past couple of years), and galvanizing some momentum around policy change by showing people that there are, indeed, resources to leverage to address this problem. It’s just a matter of getting them spent in the right place.

3. We can co-opt the language of accountability and outcomes: One of the approaches that is helping in Kansas, to some extent, is our ability to frame the problems with current appropriations as including the lack of any measurable outcomes for the yet-unknown level of spending dedicated to TANF. Kansas appears to collect almost no information on the results of its job training programs, for example, raising a lot of questions even among legislators usually inclined to go along with the administration’s priorities. What’s happening with welfare spending in Kansas is wrong because of its effects on children and families, yes, but also because it’s bad government. I’ll take either argument that will stick.

Mothering and poverty and solidarity

One of the projects that has somewhat consumed me over the past several months is an analysis of the policy changes made–unilaterally, I might add–by the Department of Children and Families in Kansas, in the areas of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and childcare assistance, in particular.

Poverty, especially among women with children, is not new. A newspaper story from 1870 in New York (1870!) describes a woman who lost her job because she didn’t have childcare (in Framing Class). We should have figured this out by now.

Instead, doomed to repeat our history, Kansas is really distinguishing itself in the area of welfare ‘reform’.

Among the policy change highlights over the past few years of economic support policies in the state (I have to pull myself back from using sarcastic quotations in multiple places in each sentence here):

  • The most restrictive ‘child-under’ exemption in the country, requiring mothers to return to work only two months after giving birth
  • Childcare ineligibility for any parent working less than 28 hours/week, forcing many moms to turn down job offers, because they can’t report to work without financial support to pay for childcare
  • A sort of preemptive job search requirement, insisting on at least 20 hours per week of job search activity and at least 20 contacts with potential employers, before TANF applicants can even receive benefits (often, over a period of 7 weeks)
  • Significant increases in sanctions, including lifelong, whole-family bars for any fraud (meaning that a child could be denied benefits because, say, her mom’s boyfriend was found to have committed fraud when part of another family, even years before)
  • Recalculation of families’ incomes, resulting in the denial of SNAP benefits to thousands of Kansas citizen children (you’ve heard about this one before)
  • Return of federal grant dollars for SNAP outreach, because (seriously, they said this) the state isn’t ‘in the business of recruiting’ people to be on welfare
  • Institution of a 48-month time limit for TANF
  • Redesign of the Kansas Vision (SNAP) card, to be bright red and labeled “Food Assistance”

Significantly, few of these policy changes can be explained purely in economic terms. As I’ll outline more tomorrow, Kansas has TANF dollars left over and, indeed, some of these policies result in fewer federal dollars flowing into the state.

Instead, these policies are mostly about cutting poor mothers and children loose, insisting that they go it alone, in reckless denial of the very real consequences for children when their families lack the support they need to cope with economic and social realities. We’re approving only about 25% of TANF applications today, compared to almost 50% a few years ago.

I have no idea what a parent who is denied TANF does to survive.

There are tangible policy changes (including, in some cases, restorations) that would make a difference in these families’ lives, helping these mostly single mothers to provide for their children’s needs the way that they want–and we need–to.

I am glad that United Community Services, who commissioned this report, similarly to their investigation of the changes that resulted from the transition from Aid to Families with Dependent Children to TANF in 1996, gave me the chance to be part of the investigation, analysis, and dissemination of these findings.

But, here, I’m reacting not as an analyst, and not even as an advocate, but as a mom.

Because, while people often shake their heads when they find out that I have four children and multiple jobs, wondering aloud how I do it, the truth is that I have it really easy.

I don’t want to contemplate–because I can imagine–what it feels like to not have enough food for your children, or to worry that you’ll lose your housing, or, probably worst of all, to walk away leaving them in an unsafe place so that you can work.

I would bear the stigma of asking for benefits, willingly, just like so many low-income moms do, because our kids deserve help. I would bang my head against the constraints of a system that wasn’t designed to really work for me, because no pain could equal that of having to deny my children what they really need.

I feel, then, a solidarity with moms in poverty, albeit one limited by the obvious socioeconomic chasm that divides us.

I have never once envied the mom buying groceries with food stamps in front of me, as though she has something that should be mine. I have never once wondered why the mom with a young baby isn’t rushing back to her minimum wage job, because that sounds so obviously unappealing. I have never once thought that the proper ‘lesson’ to teach poor children is that they will pay if we don’t approve of their parents’ behavior.

What we have in common is a commitment to our children, no matter what.

And that’s who reacts, when I see charts like these:

caseload reductionCaseload reduction in Kansas’ TANF program: Translation–we’re kicking people off and denying others the chance to even get on

TANF to poverty ratioTANF-to-poverty ratio: Translation–fewer and fewer poor people can count on income supports

The mom in me.

Reimagining Poverty Part I

In September, the Assets and Education Initiative hosted the first of our speakers series events on Reimagining Poverty.

The events ask the question: Is there an American Dream for you? and raise issues related to the declining economic and social mobility in the United States today and the decreasing likelihood that the paths of opportunity that worked for past generations will work for young people in the future.

That’s part of the reason that I’ve been thinking so much about the American Dream: for my kids, for those disadvantaged, for our shared future.

The first event featured Mark Rank as the keynote. Dr. Rank was a professor of mine in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, when I was in graduate school, so it was a real treat to drive him from the airport, talking about policy and poverty and social change (and, I promise, a little about Sporting KC and my kids and some non-intellectual topics, too–I am a decent host!).

Mark has a new book coming out soon, Chasing the American Dream: Understanding what shapes our fortunes, but his previous books about poverty and welfare were the main sources of his comments in September.

His research has exposed the extent to which poverty is mainstream–commonplace–even, and what that says about the predictable failures of our institutions and the degree to which poverty is an avoidable hazard of growing up in today’s America.

This, of course, is not to say that some don’t bear a greater risk of poverty than others; indeed, the story of poverty in the U.S. is largely one of entrenched patterns of relative disadvantage, and the narratives of the few who beat the odds don’t mean that injustice is not a problem.

And we must lay bare our collective myth of social mobility to harden the public outcry and give us a real chance at fundamental reforms.

But the reality of inequity is not at all at odds with Rank’s emphasis on widespread poverty risk; in fact, helping people to understand their own likelihood of poverty may help to galvanize greater support for the policy changes that will help those disadvantaged the most.

Because it’s failure of the same institutions that contribute to this economic insecurity: sporadic and fleeting, in the lives of some; inescapable for others.

Until we understand poverty as very clearly a result of policy structures, resulting from both intentional choices and less-than-benign neglect, we will continue to incorrectly locate culpability for poverty within individuals.

In so doing, we will deprive those sentenced to generational poverty of a meaningful chance to leave it. And we will make it likely that we, ourselves, confront the cruelty of poverty at some predictable point in our lives.

The overflow crowd in the room for Dr. Rank’s talk and the panel discussion that followed gives me some hope, though, that people are ready to reimagine our understanding of poverty. And that that might hold the key to reducing it.

You can watch the recording of the event, read media coverage, and check out upcoming events in the series here. We will issue a report tying the speakers series together this summer, and we hope that the conversations help to spark greater emphasis on fighting poverty and a different frame through which to view what poverty is doing to Americans, and to our vision of America.

Equal doesn’t always mean equal.

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One of my favorite things about my kids–and I truly think mine are better about this than most–is their intuitive understanding of what each needs, and their recognition that Mommy’s job is to try to do that, instead of making sure that everyone gets exactly the same.

This does not apply to Sprite or ice cream, it must be said.

But, when it comes to the most precious commodity in our house, Mommy’s time, they are very gracious about how a sibling might need more, or different, attention from Mommy at a particular time.

They see this as fair.

Because ‘equal’ doesn’t always have to mean the same.

And, sometimes, the same wouldn’t be equal at all.

That means that no one really bats an eye when Ben gets to go to Wendy’s with just Mom a couple of times a month. They know that my sensitive and quieter youngest son needs that 1:1 time, and that that is a comforting place for him to connect with me.

The twins have long understood that Sam will get to go places and do things they don’t, not just because he’s older, but because he is interested in things that they just are not. And that Evie needs extra help, as the youngest, and also extra forgiveness, as she learns.

If only our public policy structures got this as well.

I think about my kids every time I hear someone complaining about how people get XYZ public benefit. I want to say, ‘but you don’t really want that, do you? I mean, you don’t want to be in their shoes, so that you could get it. Do you?’

My kids will be ineligible for means-tested financial aid because we make too much money.

And the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that they will be at a distinct advantage precisely because they come to post-secondary education equipped with these resources.

There are other examples–Affirmative Action, certainly, but also provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other accommodations for those with disabilities.

When we reduce ‘equality’ to a base understanding of sheer numerical or even face-valid ‘identicality’, we miss the far more important question about whether a given policy or program is delivering to each an equal measure of opportunity, an equal chance at getting his/her needs met.

What my kids are essentially saying, with actions that speak much more clearly than I can here, is this: Why would I begrudge someone else the assistance they need, just because I don’t get it, even if I wouldn’t wish to need it, if I am getting what I need?

Exactly.

I know it sounds simplistic, but I can’t help but think that, if we weren’t so concerned with what others are getting, and with these false metrics of what ‘equal’ should look like, we would have a better chance at building a policy system that can deliver what we each need.

Even if that doesn’t seem ‘equal’.

Ask my kids.

Inequality is ridiculous. Kids know this.

The starting point, I believe, in reducing economic and social inequality in the United States–indeed, around the world–is ceasing to accept it.

And that requires recognizing its true, human-created nature.

Joseph Stiglitz emphasizes in The Price of Inequality that our divides are far from inevitable. Instead, they are the predictable consequence of the failure of the systems we have put in place, and our failure to fix them when they deliver outcomes like what we see before us.

Evidence from nations that have reversed their inequality and are moving in the right direction–Stiglitz cites Brazil–and from those that deliberately chose a path of greater equity–most of Europe, recent retrenchment notwithstanding, affirms this truth:

It doesn’t have to be like this.

And, here, again, my kids’ instinctual reaction should be a lesson for us.

They know what we have lulled ourselves into forgetting.

It is completely ridiculous that some have so little in a land of so much.

They find it absolutely bizarre, for example, that some people are homeless when there are empty houses that banks are trying to get rid of. Forget rules about foreclosure and the principle of the profit motive. To them, people needing house plus house needing people equals problem solved.

They are astounded that there is a pay gap for men and women who do the same job. They say–and they are right–that that doesn’t make any sense.

They don’t understand why you get paid so much more money to run a company, usually, than to teach school, when, as Sam astutely observes, “Being my teacher seems like it’s a pretty hard job.”

They don’t understand why we don’t create systems that end poverty, if we could. They don’t know why some people are worse off than they used to be, while others are making much more. They don’t know why some people are allowed to keep so much–Sam read, somewhere, that the 6 heirs of Wal-Mart have the same wealth as the bottom 30% of the population (yes, I know, he’s an unusual 7-year-old), and the kids all thought he was making that up.

It’s as though, with the adult acceptance of the world as it is peeled away, they can see what we should not ignore:

It is really, really strange how we tolerate a system with so many clear losers.

They remind us how we look, living in this madness as though everything was normal.

And they should inspire us to do better.

Inequality, fairness, and governing like my kids

I just finished reading Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality.

A little light holiday reading, you know.

And so I’ve been thinking, even more than usual, about inequality: what causes it, how it’s manifest, why it matters.

And I’ve also been thinking about my kids, because, well, they are fairly obsessed with fairness.

So this week, I have three posts about Stiglitz’s book, but also about inequality in the U.S. today, through the eyes of my favorite philosophers.

I think they have quite a bit to teach us about equality. I’d love to hear what you think, even if you have the liability of being well older than 7.

Kids’ Inequality Lesson #1: If you want people to be pro-fairness, distance matters.

My kids are infinitely more concerned with justice for those who are not strangers. It’s almost like, sometimes, those they don’t know don’t completely exist; certainly, they are not of nearly as great import as those they consider ‘friends’. Another book I read recently, So Rich, So Poor, makes the point that current U.S. policies are ‘adding bricks to the wall of separation’, and we need to care about this. It matters that inequality today results in rich and poor children going to different schools, rich and poor families living in different communities, rich and poor Americans interfacing with different health care systems and transportation systems and food systems. Watch what happens when my 5-year-olds hear about something they perceive as unfair happening to a friend’s sister or a kid on their soccer team, and you’ll see why, if we want people to support redistribution, we need to actively create fewer strangers.

Kids’ Inequality Lesson #2: Inequality is worth getting super mad about. Super mad.

Stiglitz asks why the response to the gap between the American Dream and reality isn’t outright revolt. And I think that’s a really good question. Other nations, and ours in other times, have seen much more pushback against policies that intensify inequality. Some cultural and political systems create a space for much greater unrest, even in the face of perceived lesser slights. My kids get this. They know that the only appropriate reaction when you have been truly, justifiably wronged, is to completely lose it. The world needs to feel pain for what they are doing to you. And nothing changes without people getting uncomfortable.

Kids’ Inequality Lesson #3: The source of inequality is at the top.

My kids waste very little time messing around with the little players in an unfair situation. They know that Mom is the ultimate referee and arbiter of justice, so they go straight to the top for redress of their grievances. We spend far too much energy, I think, examining symptoms or corollaries of injustice, instead of looking at root causes. And there is a high price for this misdirected emphasis, since we cannot expect the ‘architects of inequality’ to rewire a system that’s working for them, without pressure to do so. When something unfair is happening, we need to put pressure–real pressure–on those with the power to do something about it. And that’s only me when what’s at stake is who got how much Halloween candy in her lunch.

Kids’ Inequality Lesson #4: Inequality hurts.

The whole “what does it matter how much others have, if you have enough?” argument absolutely DOES NOT work on my kids. They are completely, even physically, incapable of enjoying their ice cream if their brother got more. Their souls are wounded and they cannot deal. And, it turns out, we’re all like that. Inequality takes a real toll on our psychological well-being, even absent absolute deprivation. It messes with our minds and distorts our values. We can’t get over it, when we have so much less. And we may even be harmed when we’re the ones who came out ahead, because inequality is associated with insecurity, even for today’s winners. It’s hard to enjoy your ice cream when someone’s looking over your shoulder.


I have one more kids’ inequality lesson for tomorrow, but it needs its own full treatment. What other inequality insights can you share–kid-generated or otherwise?

Whither the American Dream? Not on our watch.

It is, of course, not enough just to catalog the way that U.S. social and economic policies are imperiling the American dream.

We have to stop it.

That will, of course, take a movement, since, on our own, we tend to respond to the confrontation of so much that’s wrong with a disengagement, what Ernie Cortes calls the axiom that “powerlessness also corrupts” (p. xviii).

But, together, we could have what Smith calls an ‘army of volunteers prepared to battle for the common cause of reclaiming the American Dream” (p. 425).

That will take changes to the way the system works, maybe with mandatory voting, so that elected officials would know with some certainty that they would face the wrath of the entire electorate if they fail to vote the interests of most Americans (p. 417), and certainly with campaign finance reform. We likely need to rethink the role of political parties (p. 414), and there is certainly evidence that Senate rules have outlived their usefulness (p. 322). There is evidence that members of Congress tune out the opinions of average Americans when voting on legislation, especially when powerful financial interests get engaged (p. 135). But they wouldn’t–they couldn’t–if we change the terms of engagement.

Shifting these terms of engagement could result in real changes in the distributional policies we pursue, including reductions in military spending so that we can reinvest in U.S. infrastructure and opportunity, what then-candidate Obama described as “fighting to put the American Dream within reach for every American…for what folks in this state have been spending on the Iraq war, we could be giving health care to nearly 450,000 of your neighbors, hiring nearly 30,000 new elementary school teachers, and making college more affordable for over 300,000 students” (p. 373). But we’re not. Yet. And that has to change. Dwight Eisenhower knew that “to amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another” (p. 353). Another case of a Kansan who got it right.

And we need new tax policies. Really. Our tax policies are the opposite of what Americans really want, what some economists consider “the most political law in the world” (p. 106). We need new estate tax policies, to start, and to eliminate the earnings cap on Social Security. Achieving some victories like that could, perhaps, get more Americans to see how much tax policies matter, to build momentum for even bigger lifts.

Truly, there’s so much that needs to be fixed that you can sort of take your pick about where we start, in terms of substantive policy changes.

What is even more important is the strategy. That’s why, when I heard this piece on NPR during an early morning workout, I was struck by the quote at the very end.

It’s going to take a revolution.

But isn’t a dream worth fighting for?

Of Dreams, and Redeeming Them

DrKingPoorPeoplesCampaign-300x250

Today, obviously, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

There are a lot of things I thought about writing about on this day–my personal struggle with how little connection there is between the man and this day, for so many; my efforts to raise my children in the shadow of that dream (not ‘his’ dream, because it must be ours); reflections on these 50 years since the March on Washington…

But I settled on another dream, and what threatens it, and how quickly we like to forget that Dr. King spoke of not just a dream of racial equality but of economic opportunity, prosperity for all, and an end to the crushing poverty that, while certainly not equally distributed, harms all it touches.

I recently read Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream, a book so discouraging, really, that I had to make myself finish it, even though it’s compelling and exhaustive and extremely well-written.

It’s a book that I hated to explain to my Sam, when he read the title and asked what it meant.

But we can’t avert our eyes, here. The evidence is clear that we are witnessing a centralization of power and an inequality of resources not unprecedented–the current ‘wage premium’ for those with at least a Bachelor’s degree mirrors the divide of the 1920s, so there is certainly historical precedent–but undeniably damaging.

The American Dream is eroding, unraveling, not just for those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, but, increasingly, for all but those at the top.

Regular readers will recognize that a lot of my writing these days (and more to come) has revolved around these themes: student loans and the decreasing democracy of financial aid, the need for new economic policies and approaches to restore the position of the middle class, the dangerous risk shifts that imperil economic security. I’ve been increasingly obsessed, I guess, with these social, political, and economic trends, and that spills over into what I share here.

Today’s post, then, is my effort to pull together some of the insights from Smith’s book that, in light of Dr. King’s exhortations, I see as most urgent. Tomorrow, I hope to spark some conversation about what it will take, in today’s context, to really build a movement to redeem the full vision Dr. King so presciently laid out, not just of children of different races sitting together, but of an economy that delivers dignity and hope and comfort…an American dream of real equality of opportunity, the way we have never–not in 1963 or 2014 or 1776–known.

  • There is no guarantee this ends well: We’re not just going through a tough economic cycle. We’re not just experiencing a rough patch in terms of political partisanship. As a quote cited in the prologue of the book spells out, “Civilizations die of disenchantment. If enough people doubt their society, the whole venture falls apart” (p. xi, attributed to John W. Gardner). And that’s where we are, right? My kids’ hero, Abraham Lincoln, knew that we couldn’t survive a divided nation, and we are divided today, not just ‘red/blue’ state, but rich and poor, ‘the United States works’ v. ‘there is no American dream for me’. This may not just be a phase. It may be the beginning of the end. If there is anything that should be keeping us all up at night, it is this: our nation is not destined to succeed. If we want it to, we have to make it happen.
  • It’s getting worse: I could cite statistics from virtually any page of Smith’s book that would underscore this point (which is one of the reasons it’s so valuable), but here’s one that really gets me: Between 2002-2007, the top 1% reaped 2/3 of the nation’s entire economic gains. In 2010, the first full year of the economic recovery, the top 1% captured 93% of the nation’s gains. That’s really inconceivable, in terms of the scale of the devastation it is wreaking on people’s lives, and also on people’s belief in this whole political experiment of our society.
  • These economic trends are not ‘natural’: Smith relies heavily on Germany’s experience to highlight the very different outcomes that result from different policy choices. Germany has seen a much lower unemployment rate during the recession, a much less significant loss in its manufacturing industries, and a much small growth in inequality…not because they have been subject to radically different economic cycles or forces, but because they have chosen different paths, that come with different consequences. Lest some conclude that there’s something in German ‘culture’ (or maybe the water?) that leads to greater equality, Smith also highlights outcomes from the ‘Great Compression’, a period of relative classlessness in U.S. history (post-war), when a rising tide really did lift all boats. And then he traces the policy choices that unraveled that structure.
  • We’re not handling the risk shift well: One of the points that Smith makes well is how inferior the ‘new safety net’ (largely composed of individual approaches that shift responsibility onto consumers, like 401(k)s) are, in providing for Americans’ well-being. We have to stop pretending that unequal outcomes are, somehow, equal–that it doesn’t matter how people finance college, if they just go, or that incentives to save for your own retirement are the same as being assured them. The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, people, and we have to stop pretending. “The burden shift has turned the traditional definition of the American Dream ‘on its ear'” (p. 89).
  • Coalitions have their limits: Social workers like to think that we can make common cause with anyone. And, indeed, we have an ethical obligation not to unduly demonize even our most ardent political opponents. But, given the increasing evidence that, today, the fates of ‘Main Street’ and Wall Street diverge, we can’t build tents so big that we’re missing the ways in which our supposed allies are working against us, or at least perpetuating systems that are.
  • We need to tell honest stories about ourselves: The American dream can’t be so vague and so distorted that it loses all meaning. But, today, that’s usually how we talk about it, because it lets us pretend that it’s still really functioning. Instead, “the view that American is the land of opportunity doesn’t entirely square with the facts” (p. 65, attributed to Isabel v. Sawhill of the Brookings Institution). Young people in the ‘old Europe’ economies of Norway, France, Germany, and Denmark, among others, have a better chance of moving up than those in the U.S. That’s not who we like to think we are.

We don’t do a great job, today, acknowledging how far we fall short of the Dream of racial integration and equality, but I would argue that we are more willing to acknowledge that failing, at least in that we identify that as a dream to which we need to continue to aspire, unlike a vision of economic equality, which we largely try to fool ourselves into thinking is just a part of our political ‘DNA’.

In other words, because we pretend that we’ve ‘got this’, when it comes to economic opportunity and equality, we don’t even really know where the goalposts are, in order to recognize how much farther we have to go.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we must start by claiming all of our dreams.

So that we can set out to live them.

Taking innovations to scale

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I spend a fair amount of time thinking about scale.

As in, how can we bring enough good to enough people to really make a difference?

How can we build delivery mechanisms that can make great ideas accessible to all who need and deserve them?

And how can we accomplish scale without completely losing agility and responsiveness and locality, and the empowerment that should accompany them?

There is a really thoughtful article on the Stanford Social Innovation Review about the paradoxes of innovation, and all of it is worth reading. It raises concerns about the dangers of ‘cultification’ as people follow the latest innovation to the detriment of established approaches (without necessarily attending to impact), as well as the difficulty of compromising enough–but not too much–to cross boundaries in pursuit of workable innovations.

But the piece that jumped out at me most is around the different processes needed to spark innovation and, then, to build the systems capable of scaling that innovation.

This third paradox is, itself, the subject of a SSIR article on the balance between innovation and scale.

The breakthrough for me in this analysis is the model of the organization’s capacity for continuous innovation (OCCI), which positions innovation and scale not as diametrically opposed but, instead, as both part of the organization’s evolution–in essence, innovating new approaches and then innovating the systems necessarily to scale those innovations. There is tension, clearly, as one seeks to increase variance in search of the best approach while the other decreases variance in order to standardize a system.

But tension can be creative, and, importantly, some of the same internal and external characteristics are associated with high levels of capacity in both functions, knitted together as OCCI. This is so critical, because I think that we often fall into a trap of reifying nonprofit organizations and, then, assuming that they are like people–either really good at divergent thinking or more convergent types, but fundamentally incapable of both coming up with good ideas and then figuring out how to tweak them into stability.

That can lead to dangerous type-casting, where some organizations do the scaling (often losing something valuable about the nature of the intervention) while others perpetually experiment, yielding tremendous outcomes but never able to really ‘move the needle’ on our greatest social problems.

The article includes a fairly lengthy case study of an organization innovating and scaling, but I’m interested in other examples from your own work, of how you create and sustain organizational cultures that simultaneously seek new solutions and figure out how to get those solutions to a scope and size where they can wield maximum potency.

Where do you see organizations ‘stuck’ in ceaseless innovation or, conversely, preoccupied with scaling approaches that may not deserve it? And where do you see bright spots of organizations with OCCI that helps them make it all look easy?

Measuring Social Impact

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The Stanford Social Innovation Review had a special series on measuring social impact this spring, full of so many terrific insights that it took me quite awhile to sift through all of the articles and, then, compose my thoughts at least somewhat, to post here.

I’d love to discuss any of the pieces, and I welcome your responses to my reactions, too.

Above all, I’m very glad to see this conversation within this sphere; if we’re not asking what our true impact is, we’re missing the only metric that really matters:

Are we making the difference we intend, and that so desperately needs to be made?

  • It is somewhat disturbing, really, that an article entitled, “Listening to Those who Matter Most, the Beneficiaries” even still needs to be written. The article highlights some promising beneficiary feedback initiatives around the world, giving detailed descriptions of how the perspectives of students in struggling schools and of patients in health care settings are being used to inform program innovations. It is my hope that the challenges outlined and the case made for the advantages that accrue when participants (I like this term better than ‘beneficiaries’) actively shape activities can both help to push public policy in this direction, too. Then we can really get to impact.
  • There is a brief outline of a larger academic paper centering on how to evaluate the effectiveness of civic engagement and advocacy efforts. Importantly, it incorporates multiple stakeholder perspectives, but I am still dissatisfied; it feels, to me, too much like asking about participant ‘satisfaction’, which may or may not be a good proxy for efficacy, even in the context of civic engagement (which, after all, is designed to foster feelings of good will within the community).
  • My advocacy evaluation work focuses on using evaluation to improve performance, but we are often constrained by the inadequacies of our evaluation approaches to capture the rather elusive nature of advocacy and social change activities. This dynamic, between measuring to improve and improving measurement, is the subject of one of the articles. It mostly summarizes a workshop session related to evaluation, but I appreciate the inclusion of several specific and innovative approaches. Sometimes we have to get a bit ‘meta’, stepping back from our work in order to invest in the capacity to perform it better.

The folks at SSIR have been leading the field on the question of how to really define ‘impact’, and so it’s not their oversight, but I do think that we, collectively, need to spend more time within our organizations, our profession, and our field really clarifying what impact means, and what it looks like, in order to ensure that we will, indeed, know it when we see it.

But maybe approaching it from this direction–how can we measure it, before we are necessarily sure what it is, should offer some appeal.

If one of the reasons we have excused ourselves from getting serious about setting the bar for ‘impact’ accurately has been that we don’t know how we will be able to know when we’ve reached it, then perhaps addressing the latter will light a fire under us for the former.