Tag Archives: poverty

Taking some things ‘off the battlefield’

I am not afraid of controversy.

Really.

But I will admit to being tired of having to contest EVERYTHING.

It seems like we should be able to agree that some things are, if not sacred, at least accepted, so that we can sort of collectively move on.

No?

I mean, the issue of whether and how to fund legal services for those in poverty is highly contested, even when that results in a complete breakdown of our legal system. One of my students created a policy brief last semester about Missouri’s practice of requiring attorneys to serve as pro bono lawyers in family court, and how all sides acknowledge that this ‘compromise’ is a mess: unprepared attorneys, unrepresented families, unhappy judges.

And there’s of course tremendous disagreement about the value of early childhood education, even though an approach like Head Start was, when it was created, understood as a political compromise, bridging liberal emphasis on helping the poor with more conservative preferences for investing in human capital, instead of direct transfers.

But not now.

I recognize that this whole lament risks me sounding like a hopeless romantic, wistfully wishing for more ‘civil’ debate.

But that’s not really what I mean.

What I mean, and what I hope, is some concession on established fact–specifically, on delivered outcomes–and some common understanding about what our aims should be.

I want to draw some parameters around what is up for negotiation, and what should not, especially where there are decades of accumulated evidence and/or broad consensus on the unworkability of the status quo.

I want a sort of ceasefire, not across the board, but on at least some things, so that, respectively, we can dedicate our political and, more importantly, analytical ‘ammunition’ to those remaining contests.

What are you tired of debating? What do you want to see ‘come off the battlefield’? Where do you think there really is more agreement, perhaps, than we’re willing to concede?

Advertisements

The Poor Will Always Be With Us

This might not be an April Fool’s Day post like I’ve done some years, but there’s definitely a trick.

Because, really?

Are we going to allow ourselves to believe that ‘nothing works’ in combating poverty, and, so, resign ourselves to a large population of those without, when there is evidence all around us that policy makes a huge difference in the lives of vulnerable people?

We must not.

When I talk in class about how reductions in poverty among older adults serve as evidence that policy can fight poverty, and, then, that it’s our failure to invest similarly in other populations, not lack of any ideas about what might help, that explains the perpetuation of poverty among, say, single-female headed households, I can almost see the lightbulbs going off.

Similarly, the economic expansion of the late 1990s, fueled in part by deliberate policy changes, showed that even child poverty is amenable to targeted intervention. Improving the Earned Income Tax Credit (lowering the eligibility age, providing a more adequate benefit to childless workers) would reduce poverty among working Americans whose economic instability has significant ripples in our social conditions.

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits lifted 4 million Americans out of poverty in 2012; cuts to eligibility in many states will have a direct effect on poverty rates.

Social Security keeps more than 12 million Americans out of poverty each year, and there’s no reason we can’t see similar outcomes from investing in a concerted anti-poverty approach for younger Americans, too.

This is an adaptive problem, not a technical one.

We need political will far more than new ideas.

And we need to stop ignoring problems and then concluding–when we turn around to see the mess we’ve created–that these problems are intractable, instead of very definitely human-made.

If we don’t, we’re being made fools of.

And not just today.

Review Week: So Rich, So Poor

When I see statistics like this one in So Rich, So Poor: In 2009, there were 2 million families in the United States with only SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/food stamp) benefits as income (it’s an entitlement, not a block grant like TANF, so it has the ability to expand with need during times of recession), I think:

We are better than this.

Because we ARE.

Americans are, truly, a pretty generous group.

Americans gave $316.2-billion to charity last year, which represents 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, the same as in 2011. There are reasons to be concerned about the lack of growth in giving, in light of more organizations evidencing more significant need, but, still, that’s no small exercise of altruistic expenditure.

And that contrasts, sharply, with our public policy infrastructure, where we do very little to help, in particular, those with incomes below 50% of the poverty line (even Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF, really only serves to bring these folks up to ‘regular’ poverty) and working families, who suffer acutely the decline in the value of the minimum wage.

While there is room for improvement in our efforts to make people aware of the realities of poverty, certainly–I’m intrigued by the idea of labels on products that describe the quality of the jobs that produced them, for example, for the most part, we just have to face this sharp divergence between how we give privately and what we’re willing to commit to publicly.

Indeed, even on the micro level, our narrative of the American Dream leads us to individual explanations for why people struggle, and, then, individual approaches for how to help.

I think–and this is by no means an entirely original thought–that our lack of faith in government, and our failure to be captivated by the power of the collective, are at the heart of this disconnect, fueled further by our discomfort with helping people we don’t know.

And social workers are not blameless in this separation of problem and solution, and the woeful inadequacy of the response that results.

When was the last time you heard a social worker express enthusiastic support for welfare?

Why do so many of my students–all of them absolutely committed to improving people’s lives, including reducing the poverty in which people struggle–distance themselves from macro approaches to bringing this relief?

It’s not about apathy. It’s no harder to speak out against SNAP cuts or call out Congress on tax cuts, really, than it is to find $50 in your budget to support a worthwhile organization.

It’s certainly no harder to sign a petition or even visit a legislator than it is to engage people in the tremendously difficult process of working with a broken system to navigate help they need.

Instead, it’s a lack of imagination, a failure of vision, a preference for familiar, localized channels instead of the unknowns of fundamental change.

But if we’re going to craft solutions scaled to confront the crisis of poverty–and we must–we’ve got to do that together, not one check at a time.

Infographic love, for those who don’t get spring break

I am fully aware that, outside of the academic world, spring break isn’t a ‘thing’.

I feel like I really need this break, come the middle of March every year, and so I feel for those who can’t reset at this moment, before spring really comes to the Midwest, when we’re all ready for sunshine and some extra sleep.

I can’t deliver you spring break, but I can share the next best thing (?):

Some great infographics.

Because who doesn’t love a good infographic, even more than a day on the beach?

You’re welcome.

And I’m sorry.

Bolder Advocacy’s Map of advocacy wins on GLBT rights: Check out the pins, where you can see photos and learn more about each victory. Maybe it’s more an interactive map than an infographic, but it’s cool. Spring break or no, we’re #winning!

If Kansas poverty was a city: This sobering figure comes from good friends at the Kansas Center for Economic Growth. The statistics suck, but the infographic is powerful.

Economic Policy Institute figure on attacks on American labor standards: I consider myself fairly well-informed, but a lot of this went past me. If we don’t pay attention to how the rules of the game, so to speak, are changing, we don’t stand a chance at reversing the trends of eroding worker well-being. These laws matter, for the people we serve and for the future of our nation.

Social Work Salary Guide: I receive quite a few unsolicited pieces that organizations want me to use for my blog. Some of the content is good, but I tend to be a little skeptical, and I certainly don’t want to load this site up with content from the private universities or job search services that tend to gravitate here. But this salary guide seemed like it might be of interest to folks, so I’m linking to it here.

Do you have infographics you’re loving right now, that you’re willing to share?

If they’re awesome, I’ll even look at them from vacation. OK, I promise, no more spring break talk.

Just have a great week next week, wherever you are.

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.

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’.