Category Archives: Analysis and Commentary

All-in-Nation: What will America be?

I participated in several webinars for PolicyLink’s release of the book All-in-Nation last fall.

There is a lot to recommend about it, including the essays by prominent activists and thinkers across the spectrum of the social problem landscape, as well as the application of these ideas to policy–one of the webinars I attended was specifically for local policymakers and advocates looking at municipality and county policy as an avenue for addressing injustice–but the point that I think deserves the most attention, and makes the most significant contribution, is this:

We cannot assume that changing demographics will somehow naturally translate into greater power for people of color, or for those who have traditionally been disadvantaged in our economy.

Instead, we must recognize that, instead of being destined to shake up the power imbalances inherent in our status quo, the growing prominence of today’s racial and ethnic minorities should remind us of the imperative to build new economic models, so that the economy doesn’t tilt even more heavily toward hardship.

An introductory essay to the book raises this alarm specifically in the context of mass incarceration and the societal impossibility of imagining a true democracy if rates of incarceration of young men of color continue unchecked, as their presence in the population grows. What strikes me the most is the subtitle here, questioning what America will be and questioning the ongoing viability of ‘the American experiment’.

Because there’s nothing inevitable about our perpetuation, of course.

We face, today, crises of identity similar to those that we have confronted in our history, and that makes all the more urgent the task of recognizing them and building policy structures up to the challenge of confronting them.

We need more equitable education funding, then, not just because it’s the ‘right thing to do’, but because, without it, a growing number of children will enter adulthood ill-equipped to be part of a world that needs them.

We need better job opportunities, including for those performing lower-skilled roles in our economy, or we will be stuck with an economy weighted down by too many low-income workers.

We need to address health disparities because otherwise the math just doesn’t work: how can we accommodate so many people in such ill health?

I realize that this lens presents the need to reduce inequality as rather self-interested–for ‘us’, as much as for ‘them’.

But I see that from two angles: first, the very real need to understand our self-interest in the equation, because otherwise we’re unlikely to generate sufficient political will to change; and, two, a need, instead, to redefine ‘us’ and ‘them’, drawing a wider circle.

To me, shifting demographics should galvanize a wake-up call, making all the more urgent these questions about fostering greater equality.

It’s not an academic exercise or, again, even one of moral obligation.

It’s an economic and social imperative, at the heart of who we are and who we will become.

We must go ‘all-in’.

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Not a fortress mom

Photo credit, alex ranaldi, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

Photo credit, alex ranaldi, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

I am not a ‘fortress mom’.

I mean, yes, I try to feed my kids healthy food, even though I can’t keep up with which plastics that I’m supposed to be worried about.

And I spend time working with Sam’s teacher and helping him pursue his education–we definitely fall into that category of upper-middle class parents using our resources for our children’s educational benefit.

What I mean is that I don’t consider it my job, or even desirable, to try to keep danger and threat and harm away from my children through sheer force of my will, or an abundance of cautious planning.

I’m not interested in trying to put up walls to keep out the world.

And I refuse to spend my energy policing their every move.

Instead, I feel called, as a parent and, I think, as a social worker, to care for my children–and, by extension–all children, through changing the systems that affect the world in which my children will grow up.

It is so tempting to revert to the individual sphere to cope with our fears and concerns, since, even on the household level, they are plenty overwhelming.

But I believe in the quote that is the header on this blog, that “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

It’s not that I don’t care–obviously, I hope–about my children’s well-being.

It’s just that I’m not too interested in trying to squeeze what I can for them, if that leaves less for everyone else, or in retreating inward as a way of protection, because it’s really not.

This ‘environment’ that parents are so concerned about–the influences on our children, the pressures, the pollution–isn’t some personified enemy to be vanquished or, at least, contained.

Instead, of course, it’s multiple and overlapping systems that can and must be manipulated to bring better outcomes.

The societal problems that I worry about for my kids:

  • Raising daughters in a gendered world, still rife with sexual violence, pay inequality, and unmanageable expectations of body image
  • The inability of public education to adequately meet the needs, most days, of an extremely bright child with simultaneous sensory concerns
  • The difficulty of navigating our food system for health and wholeness and the inundation of distorted messages about food and nutrition
  • Violence that stems in large part from marginalization and growing inequality and the intrusion of the same into our most sacred spheres

are not my problems, but, instead, our collective challenges, to confront…together.

I’m not spending much time helping my kids cope with injustices we should not tolerate.

I’m not taking on the stresses that come from prescribing individual lifestyle changes as the ‘cure’ for societal malaise.

As a family, we’re looking outward, as much as we can, and teaching the kids that it’s okay to question why structures are the way they are, and why outcomes are so often unequal.

I’m advocating for more funding and stronger supports for public schools, better nutrition in the lunchroom, a fairer criminal justice system, immigration laws that make sense for our future and affirm our shared past, and gender equity enshrined in laws and seared into our hearts.

And I’m showing the kids how we do this work together, rather than seal ourselves off.

Because there’s no wall high enough to keep out the world.

Even if I was trying to build it.

An All-in-Nation: Equity is the Superior Growth Model

One of the products that PolicyLink has created as part of their All-in-Nation effort is an examination of the inadequacies of current economic models which pursue economic growth basically for its own sake, assuming, somehow, contrary to all observed fact, that increases in Gross Domestic Product will translate neatly into improvements in the well-being of individuals and communities, equitably shared.

They outline, instead, an economic growth model focused on fostering greater equity, successfully arguing that this approach is not only likely to bring real improvements to people’s lives but, also, stronger long-term prosperity across the economy, too.

I believe it is imperative that we garner momentum for this shift, if we are to reverse the tide of increasing inequality and restore the ladders of opportunity and mobility that are supposed to work, especially for young people.

And, so, I think it’s worth considering where there are roles for social work and for social workers, in articulating these priorities and, indeed, staffing a more inclusive economic growth strategy.

Here’s what I mean:

  • If rebuilding our public infrastructure is an essential part of literally constructing the foundation for economic growth, what should social workers be doing to push for these investments, particularly at the local and county level, where there’s often a bit of a power vacuum, and some engaged and informed leadership could shift the power dynamic and create some real change?
  • If creating new, good jobs is the starting point for a more democratic economy, what do social workers need to learn and understand about how business works, what it takes to support people in entrepreneurship, and how to foster the skills to help people survive in the jobs of tomorrow?
  • If galvanizing support for these investments will, indeed, take a movement, where are social workers actively leading movement building, fostering critical consciousness among clients and coworkers, implementing proven methods of community engagement, and looking to build alliances beyond the silos of their particular practices?

This isn’t a case where just doing more of what we’ve been doing, or making technical improvements to our programs, will get us anywhere close to where we need to be.

We need new metrics, new aims, and new strategies.

We need a new definition of economic ‘success’, and we need new people at the table.

And, I believe, social workers must be part of those solutions.

Scaling for Impact

Hello, there.

Still me, somewhat obsessed with scaling and nonprofit impact.

There are two new resources I want to share about scaling: a piece from the Social Impact Exchange about how collaborations can scale impact, and the video and proceedings from the annual conference on scale (see, it’s not just me–there’s a whole scale conference!).

But, first, some reflections on why I think scale is so important.

Often, when I’m sitting around a conference room talking with nonprofit leaders (usually, the CEO/Executive Director, the Vice-Presidents or equivalent, and maybe some program director-types), the conversation quickly turns to how tired they are and how overworked and how stressed.

There’s a lot of gallows humor like that, among social workers, and some of it, I know, is the product of unhealthy organizational cultures and attitudes that equate ‘busy’ with ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ or ‘noble’.

The quotation marks hopefully convey my skepticism about that calculus.

But a lot of it is real.

There are many nonprofit employees who make tremendous sacrifices, rarely seeing their own families, neglecting their health, giving up friendships and hobbies, because they care so deeply about the people they’re serving and the organizations they’re running.

I respect them and appreciate them and value them. I try to support them.

But I also think we have to be honest about the perennial elephant in the room:

We’re doing all of this for relatively little impact.

That’s not at all to say that our efforts don’t matter. That’s not the kind of impact I’m talking about.

Of course, every child whose life is improved from child abuse prevention services, every adult with a mental illness who gains a new measure of health, every person who finds a good job, every light bulb that goes off in the mind of a struggling youth, every policy win advanced by a health advocate, every program developed to fight homelessness…

it all matters.

But, measured against the scale of the problems against which we are arrayed, the size of our impact can often pale.

And that’s not an imbalance that can be corrected by working harder–or even smarter–within our organizations. If it was, we would already have done it, right?

No, what we need are new structures, scaled to be capable of delivering the impact that the urgency of our problems demands.

We need collective commitment to well-defined problems. We need data that can point us in the right direction. We need collaborations across sectors to get us out of our silos.

We need scale.

It won’t make us get home in time for every after-school activity. It might not make us fit in our 30 minutes of exercise every day. It certainly won’t take away the stresses that come from navigating the messy realities of human lives.

But it can make all of those efforts echo more loudly, and stretch further, and last longer.

And that matters, I think.

Kansas City Equity Profile

I am excited to be collaborating with the folks working on the Kansas City Equity Profile, a data-driven examination of racial disparities in the Kansas City region.

I would encourage you to read the six-page summary, but I have some highlights and insights here. It really is an honor to be able to contribute to this critically-important work.

I was reflecting the other day on how lucky I have been to have my career dovetail with really significant demographic and social changes, allowing me to feel as though I’m practicing ‘on the leading edge’ of what society is dealing with. Hopefully every social work advocate feels this way, but I think that I have landed in particularly well-placed positions.

Like when I started my career advocating in aging, when organizations and policymakers were really taking notice of shifting demographics and the political and economic imperative to develop cost-effective responses to the needs of a growing older adult population. Or when I was getting into immigration policy around 2000, when new U.S. Census data opened many people’s eyes to the realities of an increasingly diverse U.S. population.

Or now, when the tremendous divide between rich and poor is the dominant imperative in many policymaking circles (and even mayoral campaigns), and my work on assets and poverty and inequality allows me to be part of those conversations.

It’s a wonderful life.

But we have a lot of work to do.

  • I appreciate how this Equity Profile starts out with demographics of population make-up, but not from a ‘numbers are destiny’ conceit, but, instead, in recognition that, with growing presence of people of color, the region ignores inequality at its own peril.
  • The Equity Profile doesn’t focus just on people in poverty, but it doesn’t ignore them either. It is critical that we talk about what’s happening to the middle class in the United States, but, if we only bemoan the threats to those previously economically-secure, we run the risk of missing the forces ravaging those long-mired in deprivation. The root causes are the same, and the fates are linked.
  • There is a connection to policy woven throughout the report, particularly related to the education and health disparities that are both cause and effect of the divides. Recognizing this mutual causation and committing to policy changes capable of disrupting these linkages is essential to building a more equitable society, and I am glad that the authors didn’t shy away from prescriptions.
  • The recommendations is where my work and interests intersect this effort. We need to build communities that facilitate relationships between young people of color and older white Americans–not constructed, programmatic relationships, but authentic connections, borne of shared spaces, that drive home the reality of a common destiny. We need good jobs and pathways that link people to them. We need investment in public infrastructure. And we are unlikely to get any of these things without a more diverse governing class, so we need broad representation among policymaking bodies.
  • Not reflected in the report, but critically important, is the accompanying action strategy, with organizations convening events and organizing campaigns and conducting 1:1s around these priorities and this vision of a more equitable region. This isn’t ‘just’ a report; it’s an example of trying to use information to outline the parameters for a movement. And I am thrilled to be part of it.

I would love to hear about other regions’ similar efforts to focus on equity, and I am very interested in responses to this one. What is on your equity agenda? What do you think needs to happen in order to galvanize a policy conversation about equity, in a way we have not yet?

How we see what we ‘know’

Sometimes I think I missed my calling as a linguist, because I’m so fascinated with framing and the power of language to shape our understanding of our world.

Of course, I’m interested not objectively or academically, but from my perspective as one who hopes to use language to influence how people see, think about, and, subsequently, work to change reality.

So, I guess, in retrospect, I’m in the right line of work after all.

I recently reviewed Diana Kendall’s Framing Class: Media Representations of Wealth and Poverty in America for use in my advanced advocacy practice course (we’ll be reading a selection this semester, although I may use it more extensively in the future, with our revised course syllabus), and I am struck by how much of our ‘knowledge’ is mediated through the lenses through which we get our information: primarily social relationships/networks and mass media.

And, of course, information shapes not just what we ‘know’ (despite the title of this post), but also what we feel, which, for the purposes of prompting action, is probably even more significant.

We know that frames matter. They make sense of the world around us. They draw our attention to certain elements of a situation at the expense of others. They change how what’s inside the frame appears.

And, as the book illustrates with tons of examples (known to many readers, probably, but, because I am a notoriously non-consumer of popular media, were not familiar to me), the way we see poverty–and, just as importantly–wealth, is definitely ‘framed’.

When it comes to rich people, Kendall identifies six frames:

  • Consensus (wealthy people are just like us, which serves to diminish the role of class demarcations)
  • Admiration (they are generous and caring people)
  • Emulation (the wealthy (as a monolithic class, no less!) personify the American dream
  • Price-tag (the wealthy believe in the ‘gospel of materialism’ (p. 29))
  • Sour-grapes (they are unhappy and dysfunctional)
  • Bad-apple (some wealthy people are scoundrels–which, significantly, frames the system that produces wealthy ‘bad apples’ as working, if not for these rogue actors, instead of correctly situating the problems primarily within the structures that incentivize greed)

We absorb these frames and, importantly, we reproduce them, too. The news reports on the stock market even though very few Americans own stock, instead of reporting on how to obtain unemployment benefits, far more useful to most during the past several years. And we take that as normal, even as a ‘given’. In nonprofits, we exalt the philanthropy of our wealthy donors instead of questioning a system that produces some with so much. We fawn over ‘rags to riches’ stories because they seem to give credence to our stubborn belief in an American dream that has largely vanished. We console ourselves that we ‘know’ wealth, and what it means, through our supposed identification with fictional or far-off wealthy people, and so we are less cognizant of the corrosive effects of extreme concentrations of wealth on our very national existence.

And, of course, we frame poverty, too.

We focus on individuals, leading many casual news consumers to believe that, inexplicably, people are repeatedly making the bad choice to live in dangerous neighborhoods, go without health care, and send their children to inferior schools. We shake our heads but may not connect the dots. Conversely, when we zoom out to focus on statistics, hunger and poverty can seem like numbers games, instead of cruelties with very real consequences. Sometimes, because poverty doesn’t fit any one reporter’s ‘beat’, and because it doesn’t lead nicely to conclusion at the end of the column inches, we just ignore it. We especially fall into patterns of frames when writing and talking about mothers receiving welfare. Almost without exception, they are lazy, hyperfertile, childlike, or bad parents…or all of the above. We overemphasize incidences of poverty among people of color, because that’s what–and who–Americans think of when they think ‘poor’. We link poverty and deviance, often ignoring the ways in which following the rules can lead to the same tragic outcomes.

We frame the working class, even when we’re not at all certain what that is or who belongs there. Those who work for a living but fail to get ahead are shady–as is often the case with portrayals of organized labor–one-dimensionally heroic, caricatures, or on a downhill slide in the new economy, outwitted by technological change. Their human failings are treated differently than the wealthy’s, because they don’t have money to fall back on to cushion the consequences of their bad decisions. And, notably, media representations of working-class and working-poor individuals tend to be about them, rather than with them–notably missing is any real effort to include their own voices, hopes, fears, or opinions in the coverage.

Which leaves, then, really, the middle class, largely defined in terms of its position relative to other classes: aspiring to spend as much as the upper classes, disdainful of those in poverty, alternately aligned with or competing against working-class Americans who may be their neighbors or even their family members.

I read the book, as usual, through my lens of motherhood, in addition to my social policy perspective, thinking about how my children will come to understand who they are and where they fit and how distorted those pictures are in our highly unequal economy. I hope that, for my students and my own kids, raising questions about why we think we know what we’re seeing, and how the filters at work affect us, at least raises the right questions.

And, maybe, moves us to write our own stories.

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.