Tag Archives: economics

The charts that are shaping U.S. economic policy. April Fool.

My oldest son has big plans to switch my toothbrush with my husband’s today, so we’ll see how that works out. Hijinks, people, big time.

But nothing compared to the surreal experience of watching policymakers make economic policy based, apparently, on fairly little understanding of actual economic realities.

If you haven’t seen them already, take a look at the Economic Policy Institute’s ‘top charts’ for 2012. These are the sets of economic information that, in a perfect world, would be driving U.S. policy decisions about social spending, infrastructure, entitlements, and, of course, tax policy. Of course, I think life would be better if the good folks at EPI got to run a lot more of our social policy.

Here are some of my favorites:

What are we going to do to get these lost generations reengaged in the labor market? What does this mean for my graduating students? For the concept of ‘retirement’ in the years to come?

Seriously. We make way less than $250,000 per year, and I still feel super economically privileged. I know my kids will be able to go to college. We own a home. I can buy something ridiculous at Target without flinching, for crying out loud. Economic security for the real middle class, and let’s be real about who we’re talking about.

A social problem we don’t define as ‘problematic’. There is such a thing as ‘too much’, not just ‘too little’. Both extremes matter. A lot.

Cuts in government spending aren’t victimless. More efficiency doesn’t necessarily yield a stronger economy.

It’s going to take a long time to claw back from this kind of devastation. And, the subtitle: those who started with less end up with…way less.

And here’s the not foolish part: we need to advocate to shift the policy conversation so that these are the figures that are animating the debate. We need economic policies that don’t make us slap our foreheads.

We need to not feel like April fools.

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?

We’re all on welfare: a look at tax expenditures

I like to start many of my social policy semesters by asking my students what kind of welfare they receive (I figure they might as well know, from the beginning, how it’s going to be!). When I inevitably get some uncomfortable looks in response, I start in on the welfare that my own household receives, most of it in the form of tax expenditures, those nearly-invisible ways in which the U.S. government and the state of Kansas subsidize my family’s most important economic activities.

After all, the generosity of the federal government and my fellow taxpayers makes it possible for us to:

  • Own a home, deducting all of the interest we pay on our mortgage
  • Save for my kids’ college educations, deducting our 529 college savings plan contributions from our state taxes
  • Save for retirement, excluding all of our 401(k) contributions AND deducting our Individual Retirement Account savings
  • Pay for medical care with pre-tax dollars
  • Take child credits for our three children
  • Deduct our state and local property taxes for the home for which (see above) we’re already receiving a subsidy
  • Support our favorite charitable causes, with favorable tax treatment for all of those contributions

    Pretty nice, hunh?

    And we’re not alone. The 2008 Tax Expenditure Budget looked like this.

    All of those economic activities are things the government has an interest in us continuing–as a nation, we want people to save for their retirement, and for college, and to support nonprofit organizations, and to have health insurance. We do, and we are quite richly rewarded for it, in terms of serious reductions in the taxes we would otherwise pay.

    The big problem, of course, is in the framing: while two-thirds of tax expenditures go to American households in the top 20% of incomes, there’s still a perception that it’s low-income people who receive the most “subsidy” from the federal treasury. And it’s not small change we’re talking about here: we spend about $900 billion each year on tax expenditures (and it really is “spend”–we’d otherwise be collecting all of that in taxes and then turning around and allocating it to other spending).

    Because tax expenditures are not refundable, for the most part, one only benefits if the taxpayer has a tax obligation; that’s why the vast majority go to those with over $50,000/year in income. Those tax expenditure subsidies, of course, are above and beyond the many benefits we receive from the tax system just by living in this society, which are substantial. This is actually money put in our pockets and, so, if we’re going to call means-tested benefits for low-income households “welfare”, it’s only fair to own up to the ways in which the government enriches the welfare of our own households, too.

    So, this year, when you complete your taxes and notice all of the places you get to subtract, think about the message that sends to you, as a taxpayer, and about the ways in which we use federal tax and spending policy to provide incentives for certain behaviors (the Earned Income Tax Credit is the primary example of a tax expenditure that, while much smaller in size than the ones listed above, is targeted at lower-income families who are working), whether through the tax code or through direct entitlement or discretionary spending.

    I own the fact that we’re, in so many ways, on welfare, that there’s really no such thing as being completely “self-sufficient”, and even that our family would have a hard time sustaining the lifestyle we do without these considerable tax benefits. And, so, if anyone ever asks me what kinds of welfare I receive, I’ll be ready with a list. It’s right there, on my 1040.

    Happy Tax Day!

  • Of silver linings–the policy ‘good’ that may come from all the recession ‘bad’

    Because I don’t in any way wish to give the impression that I’m celebrating the pain that the current recession is bringing to individuals, organizations, and entire communities in the United States and around the world, maybe the title for this post should instead be, “Things I’m Really Glad We’re Not Talking So Much About Anymore.”

    But I really do believe that there may be some long-term good, in terms of the shifting of policy priorities in the country, to come from this widespread, deeply-felt, and sustained period of economic downturn. That’s one of the lessons that we should take from the social reforms achieved in the last, still worst, economic depression this country has seen.

    The whole “personal responsibility crusade”, while certainly a seed of inspiration for the Tea Party folks and some other anti-Obama campaigners, has fallen quite dramatically from favor. We don’t have to read one news story after another about various proposals for Social Security privatization. No one’s credibly talking about replacing Medicare with health savings accounts. Being unemployed is no longer assumed to be code for being uneducated, unmotivated, or criminal.

    There is an understanding, not insignificantly, that bad economic things happen to really “good people”, and, even more importantly, that government should play a role in cushioning the blow when people fall victim to these economic forces and, even, (!) seek to prevent some of the falls in the first place.

    Sound familiar?

    So, in addition to health care reform that addresses many (but not all) of the concerns Hacker outlines in the chapter on “Risky Health Care”, we have student loan reform that makes college more affordable (and loan repayment more feasible), and a push for financial reforms that would curb some of the banking practices that heightened the risks Americans face.

    Those are obviously big things, and we can and must work very hard over the next few years to achieve more legislated “bricks” in a secure economic foundation.

    But I’m perhaps even more hopeful about some of the changes in attitudes about the appropriate relationship between a government and its people–more questions asked about how 401(k)s are supposed to provide retirement security when so many have lost so much in their accounts, more student protests against tuition increases in higher education, more recognition that health care should be a basic right rather than a chance happening.

    And, while I certainly wish that we could undo the economic damage we’ve sustained in these past 3 years, I celebrate the beginning of the reversal in the inward-looking, self-blaming, isolating exaltation of personal responsibility, and believe that this is our best chance in quite awhile to dispel the idea that we deserve to shoulder all of the risks and yet receive few of the spoils associated with economic life in 21st century America.

    But those clouds are lifting, so we must find ways to harness this shared sense of vague insecurity and turn it into a strong movement for social change, if we are to weave a safety net that will actually catch us the next time we fall. Because this surely won’t be the last recession, but it can be the last one that Americans have to weather alone.

    When is a social problem not a “problem”?

    I spend more time than most people, probably, thinking about what makes us define certain conditions as social problems, or not, and about the impact of that problem definition on the development of a policy agenda that, ultimately, we hope will lead to significant change in those same social problems.

    So it was with considerable chagrin and great interest that I read The Great Risk Shift, which is basically a couple hundred pages of compelling personal stories, strong economic trend data, and fairly detailed legislative and ideological analysis that, collectively, puts a name to a social problem that is undeniably such, but which I’ve never really spent much time contemplating:

    Economic Insecurity

    Distinct, then, from economic inequality, which I actually use as an example of when problematic conditions are not broadly accepted as social problems, but which Jacob Hacker argues is actually far more debated than the more insidious nature of economic insecurity (and he has a good point–we do talk about rising executive pay, at least a little, but who really contests the replacement of pensions with defined-contribution plans anymore?). Distinct, too, from poverty, which, despite being a seemingly intractable part of our economic structure (and on the rise, as the 2010 Census data will no doubt show), is universally recognized as a bad thing that deserves our attention (although that’s about where the agreement ends).

    Economic insecurity, on the other hand, has become such a part of what we accept about economic life in the United States that, while we may recognize and even bemoan its effects–longer work weeks to compensate for stagnant wages; an increase in work activity among retirement-aged older adults; middle-class Americans saddled with their own student loan debt into middle age, and unable to save for their children’s education; workers who stay in dead-end jobs because they’re afraid to lose their health insurance; the rise in bankruptcies associated with health care costs; the tragic incidence of home foreclosures related to risky subprime loans–we still seldom pinpoint the cause at the foundation: a conscious decision on the part of policymakers and corporate leaders to shift the risks inherent with life and, especially, productive activity, onto ordinary families.

    Social workers talk about the broken social contract, about how Aid to Families with Dependent Children has become a block grant and the safety net is really more like a tattered scarf that, if you’re lucky, you might use to keep a little warm in a storm…and, I think, that this idea of economic insecurity, the idea that no matter of work effort or personal initiative or all-around ‘goodness’ can really protect us against devastating loss, is part of what we’re railing against. After all, the welfare reform bill was called the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reform Act”, and Hacker calls this whole dismantling of the social insurance system part of the “personal responsibility crusade”.

    But, when it comes to our own lives, this social problem has become so much a part of the fabric of “the way things work” that we lack some of the language, let alone the organizing strategy, with which to name and attack it. The personal responsibility movement has, at its heart, a message that “we’re all in this alone”, and that’s part of its danger–that same message pushes people to turn inward in the face of economic threats, and, when we’re looking to ourselves to find the fault, we’re less likely to get mad and join with our neighbor to make things right.

    The health care debate over the past two years has brought some of these issues into focus, and the recession certainly provides an opportunity to organize around almost-universal experiences of uncertainty and doubt, if not outright panic and deprivation, but we have to start from a common understanding of what the problem is, how we got here, and how fundamentally our own lives and the workings of our economy will need to change in order to make economic security a strong foundation for the economic opportunity about which our country claims to be concerned.

    Some of the pages that I marked as I read, that I think could be part of our journey to identify the problem of economic insecurity, mobilize the vast majority of Americans who know its consequences intimately, and bring about the change that we know only concerted action can:

  • I show a chart in my Advanced Policy class about wage stagnation over the past 3 decades, and we talk about the social and economic changes (increase in women’s labor participation, increased work effort, etc…) that has wrought in U.S. families. Hacker illustrates wage volatility, which spikes in economic downturns but is alarmingly high as a baseline, and discusses the economic and emotional effects of such dramatic dips and fluctuations in pay from year to year.
  • I also spend some time comparing the U.S. welfare state to that of other developed economies (and we’re always on the low end of investments and outcomes), but Hacker points out that, including private expenditures and tax incentives, the U.S. spends a lot on health care, retirement, and disability insurance. The problem is that, increasingly, these are not secure guarantees of any kinds but a hodgepodge of mostly employer-based benefits that lack portability, universality, adequacy, and stability.
  • Precisely because economic insecurity is a problem that cuts across economic classes, we have to address classism in our society in order to fight it. Hacker doesn’t talk about this; I’m not sure why, but it jumped out at me at several points. College-educated professionals have actually seen greater wage volatility over the past two decades than those workers with less education, and many of the foreclosures and bankruptcies associated with this recession have happened in households that were previously middle-class or even upper-income earners. But, of course, classism rages in the U.S., and so many of these well-educated, previously “successful” individuals are loathe to acknowledge that their performance in the “self-reliant” category has been less than stellar, and that, indeed, they are vulnerable and victimized by many of the same economic forces that afflict those less well-positioned. Everyone likes to look to those below and say, “at least I’m not….” and, as long as we’re dividing ourselves like that, we’ll blame ourselves or those lesser others, rather than the real culprits, for the strains we experience separately, yet together. This would, of course, affect anti-poverty policy, too, since the reality is that ALMOST 60% of Americans will spend at least a year in poverty between 20-75, even controlling for those cash-poor college years. Imagine if we had an anti-poverty policy based on that picture of who’s poor (most of us!).
  • It’s economic insecurity, even more than actual income level, that’s associated most strongly with psychological distress. We social workers know that we spend a lot of time dealing with the fallout from the way that policies harm our clients. These new insights help us to better understand precisely what’s inflicting these wounds–the stress of not knowing what tomorrow will bring to our finances is, quite literally, making us sick.
  • We’re NOT doing this to ourselves. Myself, I know that I’ve been guilty of that whole “policy analysis by anecdote”, shaking my head at a friend’s purchase of a house she really can’t afford or a relative’s purchase of television so huge it scares (really) my children. My husband and I don’t buy very much, not as much because of a grand plan to provide for our economic security as because we don’t want really want very much, and so it’s easy to look at others’ decisions and raise our eyebrows. But Hacker cites data from Elizabeth Warren that illustrates pretty definitively that the income gains of the past few decades have been eaten up by the rising cost of basic household expenses–housing, health care, transportation, taxes, education, and childcare–not by our expanded expectations.

    And perhaps it’s that last point that can serve as the starting point for implementing Hacker’s three-point plan of “get wise, get mad, get even”. We do need to know what we can do to protect ourselves in the current “fend for oneself” environment–the whole “secure your oxygen mask before helping others” idea. But we can’t stop there. If we’re not responsible for this mess (as I often tell my kids!), we shouldn’t have to clean it all up. We need to agitate and organize, and build the kinds of policy structures that will bring an equitable and adequate measure of economic security to all Americans.

    In other words, let’s call it a problem and then solve it.

  • Economic Insecurity, as seen from the sandbox

    photo credit, manyeyes, via flickr

    So I’ve obviously been thinking a lot lately about economic insecurity.

    And I spend a lot of time at the park with my kids, so I’ve noticed many signs of the impact of this insecurity on young families, like mine.

    And that’s got me thinking about kids and working parents and economic policy and what it would take to build a structure of economic security, and what that would look like from my perch on the edge of the sandbox, listening to kids shout “Mommy, watch me!” in English, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish.

    I see more fathers at the park these days, and they’re not there spending a day off with their kids–they’re unemployed, or working only part-time, or handing out business cards to other parents, trying to get customers for a remodeling business or website design or software consulting. And I wonder what’s happening to their savings accounts, and to their mental health.

    I hear moms talking about sales and coupons and how to save money, a lot more than I used to. And many “stay-at-home” moms really aren’t, totally. Many families, like my own, are balancing shifts of sorts, with both parents earning and both caring for children, in order to reduce costs and increase income. One mom brings the jewelry that she makes to the park to sell. I get at least 3 invitations a month to some ‘party’ where a mom is trying to earn extra income by selling stamps or housewares or clothing.

    And then there’s the strain. Certainly some of the parents that I see and hear snapping at their children or staring absently into space are comparatively economically secure, but I wonder, especially now, how much of the stress that manifests itself in difficult interactions between parents and kids stems from the underlying pressures of trying to raise those children–the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates raising a single child to age 18 will cost a middle-income family almost $237,000, or 37% of income per year, in addition to reducing income as one caregiver reduces hours or changes schedules to meet childcare demands.

    As Hacker concludes his chapter on “Risky Families”, “when Americans build strong families, it has profound benefits for society as a whole: stronger neighborhoods, more productive workers…(the costs) are paid for through the sacrifices that families must make, the risks that families must bear, usually without much compensation or assistance” (108).

    And that’s what I see most, from my spot under the tree, watching my daughter stuff sand in her pants and my sons race the dump trucks–families trying their best, to do the hard work of parenting so that their kids will grow up happy and healthy and a credit to their families and an asset to the world.

    And, as any parent knows, there’s a lot of insecurity in the business of raising kids even under the best circumstances: will my son make it through quiet rest at school? Will my daughter’s language development pick up? Will my kids survive high school with the embarrassment of their mom’s letters to the editor appearing in the paper every month? (all of these are, um, obviously just hypothetical)

    We can’t legislate all of those potentialities away–that’s part of what we sign on for when we become, through whatever path, “parents”. But we can, and should, and must, do something about the other. Because working parents should be able to plan for the future, with some guarantee against devastating income plunges. And every family should have health care. And disabilities shouldn’t bankrupt. And, after working hard at both “jobs”–paid work and unpaid parenting–for decades, everyone deserves to retire.

    With that kind of foundation, imagine the sand castles we could build to the sky.

    “Creative destruction” and nonprofit consolidation

    photo credit, dhnieman, via flickr

    Let’s start summer right, folks!

    This week, I’m doing three posts related to concepts in Robert Egger’s book, Begging for Change. He has become one of my very favorite writers, speakers, and thinkers on topics related to nonprofit organizations and social change work, and I find myself continually challenged by his perspectives, going through an entire pack of sticky notes to mark pages I want to remember. If you haven’t read the book, you should, but, first, do me a favor and read the posts this week and share your thoughts about how I’ve connected his ideas (from 2004) to today’s not-for-profit landscape. And, you know, you can enjoy the sunshine, too.

    Almost every semester, I am struck by the inclusion in at least several students’ career goals of something related to “start my own nonprofit organization”. This semester, I had students express interest in starting adoption agencies and drug treatment programs and mentoring projects for at-risk youth. I also receive relatively regular inquiries from former students exploring starting their own nonprofits. Myself, I honestly don’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body; I’d never want to start my own organization, and I have even turned down a few promotions because I’d have to spend more time paying attention to payroll and less time generally agitating.

    But it would certainly appear that the desire to be one’s own boss, combined with passion about the social problems we face, leads at least many within the social services sphere to dream of setting up their own shop. Now, you know that I don’t believe that duplication of effort is, necessarily, an evil. All things being equal, two excellent organizations working on the same social challenge should mean that, together (or apart, but headed towards the same goal), they reach victory more quickly than one would alone. And I like to win.

    But Egger’s book, and my conversations with my students, and some discussion in the blogosphere (see, in particular, Lucy Bernholz’s awesome post on peer-reviewed nonprofits) and the traditional media have me thinking about what it would take to really change the game in terms of the ‘marketplace’ for nonprofit organizations. I mean, why does it often seem easier to start a nonprofit than a for-profit business, when, most of the time, our goals are much more ambitious (making success, therefore, seem more elusive)? Why are there nonprofit organizations still in business long after they ceased to really meet a compelling social need? Why do our current organizations often fail to capture the imagination of bright and talented graduates, pushing them to envision charting their own path instead (especially when we have a near-crisis in executive leadership in the sector)? Why is the recent uptick in nonprofit mergers seen as a sign of doom, when for-profit mergers are often hailed?

    Egger calls for “creative destruction”, hence the title of this post–the consolidation or collapse of the most ineffective and wasteful organizations. He acknowledges that such a recommendation creates more questions than it answers: where would one draw this line? How do we define success? Without good benchmarks or a good roadmap to outcomes, how can we measure waste? How can we promote social enterprises that bring more social value to the for-profit sector, and are there places and ways in which such an approach is inappropriate? Questions that he doesn’t ask, but which must be addressed, include how to balance between consolidation and the sustenance of ‘niche’ organizations that effectively serve small, particular constituencies; and how long organizations should have to try innovative (but failing) approaches to entrenched problems. Should all nonprofit organizations be held to the same standards, once we can figure out what these standards should be? Or should they be more locally defined, taking into account differences in contexts and inputs? What are the responsibilities of donors, who give for all kinds of ‘illogical’ reasons, to stop supporting organizations that are failing in their missions?

    I read Egger’s discussion of creative destruction with a different lens, I expect, than that through which it was written: that was 2004 and this is 2010, and some even excellent nonprofit organizations are collapsing because of the dramatic dropoff in foundation and corporate giving, in particular. But, also, perhaps because I just finished my class on macro systems, I thought back to a lecture early in the semester when we talked about the role of stress in social systems, and how stress can provide the impetus for real transformation, as systems struggle to adapt to new and harsher realities.

    And that’s where I conclude this post, with questions, a little bit of despair, and some hope thrown in. I’d greatly appreciate others’ thoughts as I muddle through this–where do we go from here? Since we don’t have a ‘market’, per se, how do we make these decisions in a way that respects our shared values as a social service sector? How do we understand and communicate the stakes involved in perpetuating the status quo? And how do we use the current economic climate as the

    An Advocacy Agenda for the End of the Recession

    Recession Lane by ZenTraveler, via Flickr Creative Commons

    I’m no investment guru. OK, that’s a major understatement. I’m not even responsible for balancing my own checkbook.

    But, I read. And, so, I know that the smartest investors and business leaders are planning NOW for the end of the recession, positioning themselves now to take advantage of the opportunities that will arise when the economic conditions improve. The advice, essentially, is that waiting until things get better to make your move will be too late, that we have to step out of our retrenchment, reactive mode and start thinking about what it is that we want and need to get out of the immediate post-recession period, and, much more importantly, how we’re going to get there.

    So that has me thinking: what would a post-recession policy agenda look like for the social services? And what should we be doing today to position ourselves to make it a reality?

    Becuase we get it. The economy is really bad now. State budgets are horrible. We have a terrible federal deficit and stimulus funds that will run out soon, and our local governments are absolutely in dire need of funds. Not-for-profit organizations are, in many cases, even worse off, because private donations have dropped as well. It’s all bad.

    Until it’s not, anymore.

    And, then, what are we going to do about it?

    Unfortunately, history suggests that the answer may be, “not that much.” Too often, we have failed to demand what it is we know we deserve during the good times, and then we almost completely go away, or at least just fade to defense, during the bad times. I mean, think about it, when was the last time that a state legislature or U.S. Congress ever approached the social work profession and asked, “You know, we have some extra funds right now. What can we do for you?”

    They don’t. Which is why we’ve got to be ready. Here, in no particular order, are my 5 things we should demand when this recession ends, and the 5 things we should be doing now to position ourselves to win them. No, 5 is not a magic number here; it was going to be 10, but, you know, I have 3 kids to raise!

    Our advocacy agenda for the end of the recession:</strong>

  • Full restoration of cuts in social service and community development programs, and an index for inflation: In the past few months, several people have asked me what I view as the chances that programs will be restored to their full, pre-slash levels. My answer? Almost none, unless we demand it. Yet we cannot let ourselves forget that, even before this most recent round of assaults, services were woefully, and sometimes even dangerously, inadequate. We can’t allow that to happen again. Means-tested benefit levels should be automatically indexed for inflation, both at the individual level and for overall program growth, which will require:
  • Progressive tax policy: We will make a huge mistake if we head into a post-recession period ONLY talking about spending. The truth is that this recession would not have been nearly so painful if not for the widespread and often deep tax cuts at the state and federal levels in the late 1990s and early part of this decade. We need to restore vigor and progressivity to the tax structure, close tax loopholes, and build a strong foundation for the future, in times of feast and famine. And, yes, this means that nonprofits need to get on board with the Obama Administration’s proposed changes to deductible contributions for very high earners.
  • Full restoration of outreach and optional items within entitlement programs: States and localities, in particular, have been quite creative in how they have cut costs in this recession, and we must be vigilant in our post-crisis advocacy. One of the main ways that programs have been cut without being “cut” has been through reductions in outreach and some optional items, because, after all, if no one is applying for a given program, then we don’t have to spend any money on it, right? Only close connection to those most affected by these programs and their reductions can inform our advocacy priorities along these lines.
  • Increases in state institutional aid and federal financial aid for higher education: Of course we social workers are primarily concerned with social services funding–it’s what we do, what pays our bills, and what our clients need, every day. But we also need to be concerned about the future of our profession, and that requires attention to the dramatic rise in college tuition around the country. We can’t build the kind of social work profession we and our clients need if we don’t increase access to higher education.
  • A shift towards instititutional social welfare, starting with universal preschool programs: Enough of the safety net. Why are so many people falling in the first place? We need a transformation in favor of universal supports, and a good place to start is with universal preschool, especially given the increasing recognition of the importance of early childhood education. It’s only a small start–we need universal health care (STILL WAITING, folks), greater investments in housing, maternity and paternity policies, etc…but preschool kids are a good place to start.

    And the 5 things we need to be doing today to get there:

  • Relationships, relationships, relationships: I’m sure that my students are tired of hearing me say this, but it’s really true: relationships are pretty much everything when it comes to lobbying. We can’t afford to sit out this legislative session, or 2011, just because there may not be money to accomplish our ‘wish lists’. We need to be there, making our case, presenting data, organizing constituents, demonstrating that we will never, ever, ever go away.
  • Messaging of economic investment arguments: I firmly believe that we shouldn’t go overboard on the money-saving arguments–some of the things that we need to do are important despite their costs, quite honestly, and we also potentially weaken the moral strength of our arguments–but where we can make the claim, as I believe we often can, that investing in our nation’s human capital will make us better positioned for the next economic downturn, we need to be ready to make that claim, effectively.
  • Voter registration, naturalization, youth voter engagement: Numbers don’t equal power. Anyway you calculate them. BUT, organized numbers are the best way to guarantee a seat at the table and, many times, the substantive policy changes we want and deserve. Check out this map and tell me how happy you are. And now let’s go out and do something to shape the nature of the electorate not only in 2010, but in 2012 and 2014 and 2016, too.
  • Coalition building–we need a ‘big tent’: We need coordinated campaigns that make the case for broad investments in our social infrastructure, not ad hoc and sometimes oppositional appeals for special dispensation here and there. This will take a lot of organizing and may result in some uncomfortable alliances, but we know that it works. I mean, the Joint Chiefs of Staff go in with one united voice, right, and they get what they want. Well maybe we need a Joint Chiefs of the Social Economy, or something, and we need to speak with a big, powerful voice.
  • Organizational capacity for social change, even if that means nonprofit consolidation: I don’t believe that the growth in the number of nonprofits is necessarily a cause for any concern–where there are unmet needs and people with great capacity to meet them, we absolutely need an organizational response to facilitate that. But a post I read recently about the idea of requiring nonprofit peer review before charter got me thinking about the role that mergers and acquisitions play in the corporate world during economic hardship, and the generally-held belief that such processes play a role in the emergence of stronger, healthier corporations post-recession. And that got me thinking about the fact that, while we may not have too many nonprofits in the abstract, we all know of some that just aren’t really doing much, or not doing all that they should, or not doing things as well as they should, or not doing what they could if they were complemented by another organization, or…you get the idea. And, so, I’ll be so bold as to suggest that, in our pursuit of organizational strength and capacity for advocacy, which absolutely has to be a priority as we gear up for the end, we need to be willing to consider consolidation of organizations as a tool in that process.

    All of this said, I recognize that the recession is far from over. The human cost is real and huge. And social workers will absolutely play a key role in stopping the bleeding during the months to come.

    But, to really do justice for those whose lives have been ripped apart by the economic turmoil of the past few years, we have to be ready to act decisively and victoriously when the tide turns. There must be some honor from their suffering.

  • The Sunflower State Needs Reseeding!

    Kansans, we’ve got problems. And it’s not just that the budget is tough. We’ve known that for a long time.

    Our biggest problems are the failure of many Kansans, including many of those elected officials charged with representing us, to recognize precisely how bad it is, and what that means about the options that are and are not really viable at this point; and a lack of political will and strategic vision to make the hard choices that must be made.

    This certainly isn’t unique to this year or to our state. Moral courage, is, in general, in short supply throughout public life–NOT just among members of the state legislature. We’d all like to get as much as we can with as little pain as possible and, writ large, that can lead to some pretty appalling public policy decisions.

    But, still, as I head to Topeka this week to work with a few dozen bright, aspiring student journalists as they challenge our elected officials to think of the future, I’m hopeful.

    Because history shows that sometimes the most amazing things happen when our backs are against the wall, when everyone knows that the only avenues left are pretty bad, and when there’s a collective sense that we’re in this together, as much as we wish that we were somewhere (anywhere!) else.

    Here’s how bad it is. At a legislative forum I attended two weeks ago (so, yes, this is tardy–ear infections in young children are evil!), I had this exchange with a senior senator closely involved in budget negotiations:

  • Kansas, as currently laid out, has a $5.3 billion budget in state general funds (which excludes those special-use funds, as my advanced policy students remember) for this year. That’s AFTER a cut of approximately $1 billion last year. With a “b”.
  • Despite those cuts from last year, to just keep everything going this year (with absolutely no program growth), we’ll still run $250-350 million short this fiscal year.
  • Okay, so that sounds like, “we need to make some cuts, but not as much as the year before, so…you know, we knew it was going to be a tough year, but everyone needs to tighten our belts and…”
  • Wait. That ~$300 million needs to get cut out of the ~15% of the budget that’s really in play. Here’s the deal. We can’t cut K-12 education anymore without having to give back the stimulus dollars that are tied to our commitment to keep school funding at at least the 2006 levels, which is where we are now. We can’t afford to give that stimulus money back, so we can’t cut K-12 education any more. And Medicaid costs are essentially out of our hands; Kansas is doing very little optional with Medicaid right now anyway, and the federal government determines eligibility and the level of state responsibility.
  • So, then, we’re left with a reality of needing to cut that $250-350 million out of approximately $800 million. And WE CANNOT. We’d have to close courts, release violent offenders, dismantle remaining safety net programs, leave dangerous roads unrepaired, lay off thousands of state workers…you can’t pretend to still have a state if you eliminate almost 40% of what the state does, especially when that’s on top of 17% cuts just the year before.

    And all of this brings us back to this question of vision and will and courage.

    Because we desperately need a restoration of our tax base. No one wants a tax increase. I know.

    But I don’t see another way out, that doesn’t include the decimation of the public infrastructure that, really, makes us a civilized society. Taxes are the price we pay for that, and we forgot that all too easily, and too often, in the boom years of the late 1990s…it’s time to rebuild.

    And you know what? My hopefulness is warranted, I really think. In the last two weeks, I’ve had conversations with 7 members of the legislature, from both political parties, who have admitted that many of the past tax cuts were mistakes, called for a revision of exemptions, and offered some specific ideas for possible tax increases. Several have even referenced that this session feels a bit different, because of the desperation, and that, by April, we could start to see a deal emerge.

    But, as that senior senator pointed out, those of us whose work depends on a strong tax base need to get working. Not one of the nonprofit legislative agendas I’ve seen has included a call for increased revenues, even though that’s undoubtedly the most important policy position the legislature could take this session.

    We need to talk with our grassroots base about the need for more revenues, and the need for tax justice. We have to build pressure to undo the excesses of the past decade. And we have to be in the process, stressing that all tax increases are NOT created equal, and articulating a vision of what tax fairness looks like.

    Things will get better (first, they’ll get worse, because we won’t have that stimulus money in FY2012!). But they won’t get as much better as they should if we don’t take advantage of this political opportunity to get the impossible done.

    Ad astra per aspera, right?

    Let’s go.

  • Big, gaping hole in the safety net

    I appreciate it when people have the courage to say what needs to be said, even if it’s not at all cheery or ‘new economy’ or feel good or anything like that.

    I’m tired of hearing people talk about how the nonprofit sector is going to take up the slack created by declining government support for social services, how private is better because it’s more nimble, how nonprofits are learning to do more with less. I’m tired of it because it’s not only not true; it’s really dangerous, because it paints over the true hardship that many nonprofit organizations are experiencing and the devastation that the resulting gaps create in the lives of those that these organizations seek to serve.

    The fact that, in the last year, more than ONE THIRD of organizations surveyed in various studies discussed in this report have had to cut operations due to declining revenues and/or escalating operating costs, in the face of increased demand for services, is bad, bad news. And it suggests what we should never forget about bad economic times: the demand for social services, like unemployment insurance or Medicaid, is counter-cyclical–it rises at precisely the time at which we are least able to afford it.

    This report confirms: individual, corporate, and foundation giving to charitable causes is down (giving lie to the idea that ‘the generosity of the American people’ will somehow make up for slashed public investments). That’s why we need high levels of investment from the only entity with the collective fiscal might to meet the need: the federal government. I don’t like the way that they qualify the report with the phrase ‘not asking for a handout’ from the public sector, in light of budget difficulties at all levels of government; to me, this weakening of the position is unnecessary. What we’re asking for/demanding is an investment in people in need and in our communities, to, together, build a stronger society. And no amount of ‘collaboration’ or ‘new thinking’ is going to get that done alone: we need money.

    Special Report on the Safety Net