Tag Archives: economic justice

Assets and Education


During what seemed like a brief break from the mostly-vacation that was my July, I was privileged to participate in the release of the biannual report on the Assets and Education field, with my colleagues from the Assets and Education Initiative at KU.

This report occupied huge swaths of my time last winter, and it was a relief and a joy to get it out the door, but especially to experience the reaction of policymakers, educators, advocates, and practitioners, all of whom are coming to a realization that, when it comes to financial aid, we really may not be getting our money’s worth with our over-reliance on student borrowing.

One of the major purposes of the report is to explain the idea of institutional facilitation–the main way in which assets can change students’ educational trajectories, even long before they have saved enough money to finance all of their college educations.

By sending children a powerful message that supportive institutions will augment their own capabilities, and by reinforcing pro-education ideals in ways that shape expectations and, subsequently, behavior, saving even $500 can dramatically increase the likelihood of positive educational outcomes for a disadvantaged child. In contrast, the prospect of borrowing thousands of dollars to go to school can actually discourage low-income children from enrolling, eroding the power of education as an equalizing force in U.S. society, since college completion now largely reflects economic divides.

My piece of the report rollout centered on the policy implications, particularly looking at what it would mean to reorient financial aid to an asset-based model. How would we need to change welfare policy, so that low-income households are not discouraged from saving? How can we best encourage savings among those who most need transformational assets? How can we take asset-based financial aid to scale, and what role makes sense for student loans, in the interim?

I’ve been very pleased with the debate, so far, and the traction around translating the research into policy implications. And, now that I’m back from vacation and getting back into the swing of work, I’d love to continue the conversation here.

On a personal level, how has financial aid–loans, perhaps, or being independent of debt–affected your post-college outcomes?

What do you see as the connections between financial aid and the promise of the American Dream, if, indeed, our public policy choices are constraining access to higher education along lines of race and class?

What are your hopes for public policy in this arena? How can we translate the lessons of asset-based welfare to child savings?

What are the risks in this type of policy shift?

What difference can assets make, and what questions do we need to be asking ourselves to realize this potential?

Parenting and Dead Ideas

We’re all affected, perhaps infected (?) by dead ideas.

It’s almost eerie, really, when you stop to think just how little we think about how things could be different–really, radically different–instead of just slightly modified.

And when you realize how imperceptibly dead ideas infiltrate our way of seeing the world.

Because they’re in my parenting.

And they’re impacting my kids.

  • The idea that school funding should be local, which not only traps some kids in really ill-equipped and under-funded schools but also creates a climate in which my children grow up without a full understanding of how we all share responsibility for the education of the entire populace. The truth? That real autonomy–read: the power to educate our children as we must–only comes with the robust resources and collective commitment that would accompany a more centralized financing.
  • The illusion of upward mobility for future generations, and my realization of its falseness, and how that means that my husband and I are trying to prepare to shelter our kids from the unknown ravages of a future economy. It also affects how we live pretty modestly, so that our children do not become accustomed to goods that they don’t need and may not be able to secure. But it surrounds us, still; our local high school had new fewer than three screenings of Race to Nowhere last year, since so many parents are so eager to make sure that their children’s educations prepare them for ever greater career triumphs. And I find myself daydreaming, every once in a while, about what my kids might be when they grow up. And it’s something satisfying, which, because of how our economy is structured, means fairly prestigious.
  • The myth that the ‘company should take care of you’, and the disinvestment in any alternative retirement or health care systems, which means that, on a very practical level, I could not afford to do what I do–teach and consult and take on work that fascinates me–if not subsidized by my husband’s company, and privileged by the status our marriage gives me. It’s odd, then, to tell my kids about my work and know that they can’t see the ways in which it is subtly gendered, or know how precarious our lives could be without a corporate safety net that is increasingly tattered for so many people.

What does this mean?

How, then, do we resist the pull of dead ideas?

Some of it, as a parent, means encouraging my kids to ask ‘why’…a lot.

It means being helping them to question assumptions and the way things are, and being okay with messy answers.

But, beyond my private sphere, it means challenging myself, my friends, our institutions, and our policymakers. It means pointing out that a school finance approach that expects each to take care of her own only works if you have enough. And being upfront about the privilege that affords me the career opportunities I have. And not falling for the conceit of telling my kids that if they just work hard enough, they can have anything they want.

It means not running on autopilot, even when coming up with new ideas is harder.

Coasting never works well in parenting, anyway.

2011 in Charts, and What they mean for real people

I do love a good chart.

And these, from the Economic Policy Institute’s 2011 year-in-review, tell a very important story.

But, since I’m a social worker, it’s the human side of that story that interests me the most.

So I looked through these charts with an eye towards how they would look if they could walk into our offices and ask for help.

Because, in some way, they do.

So that “job seekers ratio” becomes the person with what used to be an adequate level of education (maybe a high school diploma, maybe a few years of college, maybe even a college degree) who now finds him/herself competing against three other people, some more experienced, for the same job, and who, in the meantime, struggles to support a family. And the desperation and depression that sets in after months of unsuccessful job searching.

The more than 18% of kids who had at least one parent unemployed or underemployed in 2011? Those are the kids wearing clothes that don’t fit, and staying after in our recreation programs in hopes of some extra food. They’re the kids with anxiety attacks because they’re worried about how their parents are going to make the rent, and the ones who have a dim view of the future, already, at age 9.

The data on too few job openings? Those reflect the mothers receiving TANF who have to go through the motions of searching for jobs that just aren’t there, in order to receive the money on which their children depend. They’re the ones we’re sending the message that jumping through hoops is more important than spending time with their kids.

When your clients tell the story of their own economics, what statistics do they represent? And how can we help people to see their fortunes as connected to economic structures, and forces, in which they are absolutely not complicit? And why does untangling those data–making them visible and making them real–matter?

What can we do, in this new year, to make these charts breathe, so that policymakers understand the urgency of the lives they represent?

Personal is Political Week: Grandpa Pete and the New Economy

That's my Grandpa Pete, about 1.5 years before he died

As an instructor, I have to be very cognizant of boundaries with my students, particularly since I’ve had kids, since everyone is understandably interested in my adorable children’s every activity (what, no?).

Still, becoming a parent has also made me even more aware of the political nature of private life, which has led to greater integration between my personal and professional selves, not less.

So, while I don’t go out for drinks with my students (even when they ask), or tell them about an argument with my husband or a particularly long day with the kids, I also don’t try to hide the fact that who I am as a person helps to shape who I am as a social worker, and an advocate for social justice.

In that spirit, this week is The Personal is Political Week on Classroom to Capitol. This week’s three posts all feature something personal about my life: my family, my parenting, and my faith, with some reflections about how those pieces of my identity influence my social work.

In addition to comments about any of these posts, I’d also love to hear from other instructors about what you disclose, and how, and how you negotiate boundaries so that students are protected from messy entanglements, while not artificially maintaining too severe a distance, so as to preclude the working relationships we know make a difference in social work education. I’d never claim to have found that perfect balance, but I’m always interested in learning!

My Grandpa Pete died in August 2010. He was 95 years old, and, while I miss him very much, he was ready to die, and so there’s a great deal of peace with the loss.

Somewhat oddly, perhaps, I’ve been thinking about him a lot over the past month, as I work on the Kansas poverty report (forthcoming from KACAP!). Thinking about our current economy, and those at risk for poverty within it, have prompted a lot of reflection on who Grandpa Pete was, what he accomplished, and how much the context of his times influenced his life options.

See, my Grandpa Pete grew up on a “farm” in rural Missouri that never really produced a lot of anything. Most of the time, the family sharecropped. He didn’t graduate from high school; the family story is that he quit because his younger sister needed money for shoes if she was to stay in school. He got a job in Kansas City, eventually working his entire career at Phillips Petroleum. I’m proud of how hard he worked, of his mangled knuckles that are testament to his physical labor, and of he and my Grandma’s sense of frugality, that I know still lives in me (no, we are never getting cable).

But I also know that jobs that pay a “family wage” (my Grandma mostly stayed home with my mom and her sister) and came with health insurance and full pension benefits, mostly aren’t available to people without high school diplomas today.

Before he died, Grandpa proudly pointed out to me the banks where he had money deposited (FDIC limits, you know), and I’ve thought of the satisfaction in his voice as I pour over statistics about how less-educated workers fare today.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not taking anything away from Grandpa Pete and what he did to say that it’s wrong not to live in an economy that makes that possible today. People who are born into poverty, as he was, should still have a real chance at economic mobility. Instead, more than 42% of those raised in the bottom income quintile today stay there as adults. And those who are low income find it almost impossible to accumulate the assets that brought my Grandpa so much comfort in his later life (if not, admittedly, a new pair of pants–there’s the frugality!); 50% of Kansans with incomes below $24,800 are “asset poor.”

Like so many of us, Grandpa Pete experienced the opportunities embedded within his world as though they were invisible. He believed that hard work, and my Grandma’s nagging about saving money, deserve the credit for his ability to leave behind the persistent want of his childhood.

And, indeed, if our economy still worked for working people, that is how it should work: opportunities for those of different skill levels to contribute to economic productivity and to be compensated fairly for that effort, in a system that shelters people from the greatest risks: disability, illness, temporary unemployment, and, in my Grandpa’s case, living more than 30 years after retirement. If the “playing field” were truly level, then people could look back on their lives as races well-run, so to speak, instead of being ever-aware of the forces that constrain their chances, from childhood through later life.

I miss his grin, and his not-so-funny “jokes”, and his advice about crop rotation.

And I like to consider my efforts to make our economy fairer, for everyone, part of my tribute to him: Grandpa Pete, you made it, and other people should be able to, too.

Gross Injustice: State Legislatures, Inequality, and Why it will get worse

Some social workers blog as a form of personal therapy, a way to release at least some of the frustrations and heartaches that accumulate from trying to do enough with far too little, and feeling like we’re always losing.

I don’t. I think that’s because I have the world’s most supportive husband, who finally looked at me the other day and said, “Honey, I don’t like Kris Kobach either. I didn’t vote for him. I don’t think he’s a good Secretary of State. I promise.” And I promised to keep the ranting down to a minimum.

Instead, I try to use this public space to think outloud, to process what’s always running through my head, about how problems are connected and how we can be part of the solutions, about how to build power for the people we care about, about how to leverage that power into policies that begin to approximate a just and right society. And I try, although I may not always succeed, to plant ideas, and hope, to cultivate more momentum for social justice by helping people to feel part of a community, and to contribute to the essential conversations about how we can best get there, from here.

But this one, I’ll just admit, isn’t hopeful.

See, in the Kansas Legislature this year, they went after our Earned Income Tax Credit. Yes, our state’s EITC, the same one that has been proven to be the single most effective anti-poverty policy we have, the one that “encourages work”, just like they say they want to, that has very little administrative cost (making it highly efficient), and that, every year, makes it possible for families to pay down debt and purchase reliable cars and even save a little for their futures.

The attack on Kansas’ EITC wasn’t about cost savings. If it was sheer budget balancing they were after, they would have examined the other (much larger) tax cuts from the 1998 tax package.

But no, just the comparatively small part that goes to low-income working people.

It’s bad policy. And, what’s making me even more pessimistic, today, is the realization that bad policy is what we’re likely to get, from a seriously unequal process.

Because it’s not accidental, after all, that people in poverty are the targets of Kansas’ budget reduction efforts, the same way that working people around the country are bearing the brunt of the fiscal “belt-tightening” everywhere: in threats to collective bargaining rights, elimination of funding for Community Services Block Grants, and reductions in Pell Grants. The Missouri Legislature had a bill to abolish the state’s restrictions on child labor, for crying outloud, which would have been funny if it wasn’t so ghastly. When those who make the decisions are removed from those who pay the price, it’s natural that bad things happen.

It’s the reason that my four-year-old son can’t know which ice cream bowl will be his when he’s dishing it out. He divides everything more equally behind that veil of ignorance.

And, today, our state legislatures seem more distant from the lives of real people than ever before. It was quiet, many days, in the Kansas Capitol. There’s an air of inevitability, and of resignation, that’s translating into carte blanche to destroy people’s lives. And it’s what we see in Congress, too.

I really do believe in people power, really, but this chart depressed me a ton:

Image credit, Mother Jones magazine

That kind of distance has tangible policy consequences: regardless of party affiliation, all 10 of the richest members of Congress voted to extend the Bush-era tax cuts in late 2010. And then we end up with a debate like this, which looks utterly ridiculous (and, yet, again tragic):

image credit, Center for American Progress

In state legislatures, what separates the governors from the governed is often not money; it’s a preoccupation with ideology over impact, with politics over pragmatism. That sounds cynical, I know, and I’m really not a cynic. But it’s hard to sit through a committee hearing about how “tough times call for really tough decisions” on, say, cutting Early Head Start, and then go to another committee meeting where we’re adding new administrative positions with six-figure salaries in the same cash-strapped state government, and not start to feel disenchanted.

In Kansas, we know that the worst is yet to come, and we’re probably not alone. Some of our state senators spared us from the worst of the attacks, and they’re all up for reelection in 2012. We know that they’ll be targets, and that we’ll all have to suffer through test votes designed more for campaign postcards than for real policymaking. That means more attacks on those seen as easy targets: people with mental illnesses, low-wage workers, immigrants, little kids, older adults.

Of course, you know that I can’t end a hopeless rant like this without some admonition, as much to myself as to anyone, about how all of this means that we need to work even harder, and smarter, to level the inequalities within the process, so that we can achieve far more equal results. That means working now to prepare for the 2012 elections, and it also means refusing to allow ourselves the luxury of extended bemoaning.

So this is where it stops, or, rather, starts, for me. To a far more just future.