Tag Archives: inequality

A better measure for a better system

How should we measure ‘well-being’?

One of my intellectual interests relates to how evaluation and social indicators can focus our collective attention on the problems that need to be addressed, setting better benchmarks toward which we should aspire.

And one of my great passions is around reducing political, economic, and social inequality, to build toward a more just future.

And, here, these two worlds align.

Because we need some better measures of how we’re doing.

I don’t mean the U.S. poverty line, although clearly that needs to be revamped.

But, here, I’m thinking more of the underlying issue, not poverty but what creates the conditions for it.

We need a better measure than Gross Domestic Product per capita, because, clearly, an increase in GDP doesn’t always translate to an increase in well-being.

Look at how much more we spend on incarceration today, which is tied to an increase in GDP, when it’s clear that people aren’t benefiting from that particular outlay.

We have the Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, although, perhaps not surprisingly, it doesn’t hold much cachet with policymakers or even pundits in the U.S.

Something like the 20/20 ratio, which compares how well the bottom 20% are doing, compared to the top 20%, would be even more helpful, I think.

Or the Hoover index, which calculates how much redistribution would be needed to achieve total equality.

I’m certainly no economist–or mathematician–but an indicator that could clearly indicate a person’s likelihood of leaving poverty, or leaving the bottom 20% or so, could, if inserted into our understanding about our economic system, help to crack the myth of ‘rags to riches’.

So why do we use GDP per capita, when it so clearly fails to capture so much of what we really need to know, and distorts so much of the picture?

There are better measures out there, and we certainly have the technical capacity to shift to them, or even to develop something else, if we really wanted.

I can only conclude that our stubborn clinging to something woefully inadequate has much to do with how we come out looking relatively good according to that measure, and pretty blatantly unequal according to others.

If we’re not winning, after all, we can always move the goalposts.

But I think that, while metrics are surely not everything, having better measures would really help.

You manage to what you measure, after all, and, if we had some consensus about what we were working toward, we’d at least have a shot at getting there.

Assets, Education, and the American Dream

Earlier this week, I wrote about my work at the Assets and Education Initiative, and what we’re trying to do to sort of upend the conversation about financial aid and higher education and student debt, in pursuit of an education system–and a way of financing it–capable of delivering far more equitable outcomes for those disadvantaged today.

Today, I want to share some of the resources and tools we’ve developed as part of this.

I know that most of my readers are touched in some way by our higher education system–indeed, I would argue that we all are, at least indirectly, given that education is so powerful in shaping economic opportunities and structures–as students or recent graduates, faculty members or advocates.

We are certainly not alone in raising these questions, but I am proud of the role that we’re playing, and I am excited to more explicitly share this work with you, in a sort of ‘full circle’ way.

I would welcome your comments and questions. One of the most fun things about working in an evolving field is the ability to be pretty nimble and responsive, like when a reporter’s question about the level of savings that it would really take for a Children’s Savings Account to make a difference for a student’s likelihood of going to college led to a new line of research that revealed, somewhat startlingly, significant improvements in educational outcomes just from opening a savings account, and sizable differences for those students with about $500 saved.

Your question might just spark the next line of inquiry; regardless, these are conversations we must have.

Our education system isn’t just about who we are today, or what students encounter upon enrollment.

It’s about who we will become and the stories we tell ourselves about what is possible in this country.

It is an honor to be part of that.

Student debt, ladders of opportunity, and the next generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s not fair.

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’.

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.

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.