Tag Archives: poverty

Show us the money. Seriously.

Cartoon credit Richard Crowson, image available from http://www.kansas.com/opinion/crowson/

Cartoon credit Richard Crowson, image available from http://www.kansas.com/opinion/crowson/

What Kansas is doing to welfare policy would be wrong even if the state budget sort of necessitated it.

There are other ways to balance a budget.

But Kansas’ current welfare-cutting binge is particularly reprehensible, in my analysis, precisely because it is entirely unwarranted fiscally.

So the real story here isn’t just how much Kansas has cut from its welfare spending, but, instead, the scale of the cuts and the corresponding increase in the TANF fund balance, reflecting, essentially, lost potential to provide for the well-being of Kansas children and families.

We aren’t just cutting welfare benefits. We’re cutting welfare benefits, socking the federal money aside, asking the federal government for less, and then claiming poverty when advocates and state policymakers push for increases in the very meager monthly benefits and/or restorations of cuts to childcare assistance and other wrap-around supports.

In an economic climate of limited resources, any rumor of pots of money lying around are bound to spark rumors, and many are asking where the money’s going, what the state’s plans are, and how we can build enough political pressure to get those dollars allocated back to their intended purpose: stabilizing poor children and families.

How much have we cut?

Kansas has reduced TANF cash assistance spending to comply with our maintenance-of-effort responsibility by 73% since FY2008, while reducing childcare assistance by 55%. This translates to an average reduction of 19% per case, per month, distributed across a 31% reduction in average monthly cases. TANF beneficiaries in Kansas receive the same monthly allocation they did when TANF began in 1996, reflecting a steep erosion in purchasing power. We’re approving only about a quarter of applicants now, despite marked increases in the percentage of Kansans in need.

Those extra dollars have to go somewhere.

So how much is left?

The size of the TANF fund balance has grown by 133% between FY2008 and FY2014, to more than $53.5 million for the FY2014 approved budget. In truth, this figure could be even higher, had Kansas opted to apply for TANF contingency funds for which it has been eligible for most of the past several years. For example, in FY2013, Kansas would have likely been able to draw down an additional $4.7 million in available federal funds. However, application for these funds is time-limited, and Kansas has missed this chance to funnel additional federal dollars into Kansas communities in need.

The lesson here is threefold:

1. Question scarcity: We cannot let ourselves be lulled into believing official lines about limited resources driving policy decisions. Budgets reflect our values, and we find the money to do what we really want to do. Politics drives resources, not the other way around.

2. Follow the money: We are still trying to unravel all of the details about what money has been allocated for which purposes, but we are learning a great deal about how TANF dollars are being spent, using what we know about the state’s need to show maintenance of effort to lobbying for other spending preservation (Kansas Action for Children employed this to considerable extent during the Earned Income Tax Credit attacks over the past couple of years), and galvanizing some momentum around policy change by showing people that there are, indeed, resources to leverage to address this problem. It’s just a matter of getting them spent in the right place.

3. We can co-opt the language of accountability and outcomes: One of the approaches that is helping in Kansas, to some extent, is our ability to frame the problems with current appropriations as including the lack of any measurable outcomes for the yet-unknown level of spending dedicated to TANF. Kansas appears to collect almost no information on the results of its job training programs, for example, raising a lot of questions even among legislators usually inclined to go along with the administration’s priorities. What’s happening with welfare spending in Kansas is wrong because of its effects on children and families, yes, but also because it’s bad government. I’ll take either argument that will stick.

Mothering and poverty and solidarity

One of the projects that has somewhat consumed me over the past several months is an analysis of the policy changes made–unilaterally, I might add–by the Department of Children and Families in Kansas, in the areas of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and childcare assistance, in particular.

Poverty, especially among women with children, is not new. A newspaper story from 1870 in New York (1870!) describes a woman who lost her job because she didn’t have childcare (in Framing Class). We should have figured this out by now.

Instead, doomed to repeat our history, Kansas is really distinguishing itself in the area of welfare ‘reform’.

Among the policy change highlights over the past few years of economic support policies in the state (I have to pull myself back from using sarcastic quotations in multiple places in each sentence here):

  • The most restrictive ‘child-under’ exemption in the country, requiring mothers to return to work only two months after giving birth
  • Childcare ineligibility for any parent working less than 28 hours/week, forcing many moms to turn down job offers, because they can’t report to work without financial support to pay for childcare
  • A sort of preemptive job search requirement, insisting on at least 20 hours per week of job search activity and at least 20 contacts with potential employers, before TANF applicants can even receive benefits (often, over a period of 7 weeks)
  • Significant increases in sanctions, including lifelong, whole-family bars for any fraud (meaning that a child could be denied benefits because, say, her mom’s boyfriend was found to have committed fraud when part of another family, even years before)
  • Recalculation of families’ incomes, resulting in the denial of SNAP benefits to thousands of Kansas citizen children (you’ve heard about this one before)
  • Return of federal grant dollars for SNAP outreach, because (seriously, they said this) the state isn’t ‘in the business of recruiting’ people to be on welfare
  • Institution of a 48-month time limit for TANF
  • Redesign of the Kansas Vision (SNAP) card, to be bright red and labeled “Food Assistance”

Significantly, few of these policy changes can be explained purely in economic terms. As I’ll outline more tomorrow, Kansas has TANF dollars left over and, indeed, some of these policies result in fewer federal dollars flowing into the state.

Instead, these policies are mostly about cutting poor mothers and children loose, insisting that they go it alone, in reckless denial of the very real consequences for children when their families lack the support they need to cope with economic and social realities. We’re approving only about 25% of TANF applications today, compared to almost 50% a few years ago.

I have no idea what a parent who is denied TANF does to survive.

There are tangible policy changes (including, in some cases, restorations) that would make a difference in these families’ lives, helping these mostly single mothers to provide for their children’s needs the way that they want–and we need–to.

I am glad that United Community Services, who commissioned this report, similarly to their investigation of the changes that resulted from the transition from Aid to Families with Dependent Children to TANF in 1996, gave me the chance to be part of the investigation, analysis, and dissemination of these findings.

But, here, I’m reacting not as an analyst, and not even as an advocate, but as a mom.

Because, while people often shake their heads when they find out that I have four children and multiple jobs, wondering aloud how I do it, the truth is that I have it really easy.

I don’t want to contemplate–because I can imagine–what it feels like to not have enough food for your children, or to worry that you’ll lose your housing, or, probably worst of all, to walk away leaving them in an unsafe place so that you can work.

I would bear the stigma of asking for benefits, willingly, just like so many low-income moms do, because our kids deserve help. I would bang my head against the constraints of a system that wasn’t designed to really work for me, because no pain could equal that of having to deny my children what they really need.

I feel, then, a solidarity with moms in poverty, albeit one limited by the obvious socioeconomic chasm that divides us.

I have never once envied the mom buying groceries with food stamps in front of me, as though she has something that should be mine. I have never once wondered why the mom with a young baby isn’t rushing back to her minimum wage job, because that sounds so obviously unappealing. I have never once thought that the proper ‘lesson’ to teach poor children is that they will pay if we don’t approve of their parents’ behavior.

What we have in common is a commitment to our children, no matter what.

And that’s who reacts, when I see charts like these:

caseload reductionCaseload reduction in Kansas’ TANF program: Translation–we’re kicking people off and denying others the chance to even get on

TANF to poverty ratioTANF-to-poverty ratio: Translation–fewer and fewer poor people can count on income supports

The mom in me.

Reimagining Poverty Part II


The second of our speakers series on Reimagining Poverty is tomorrow!

I’m excited to welcome Dr. Tom Shapiro to the university, and really looking forward to hearing him talk about race, poverty, and inequity.

Dr. Shapiro’s work is pretty stunning; if you haven’t read Black Wealth/White Wealth, you really should.

His scholarship exposes the extent to which differential access to institutions influences radically disparate outcomes for blacks and whites in the U.S. economy. For example, a $1.00 increase in income = a $5.00 increase in wealth for whites, but only $0.70 for blacks.

Yeah, really.

As he has said, “The genius of the American dream is the promise that those who work equally hard will reap roughly equal rewards, be it in wealth, lifestyle, or status.”

Statistics like the above make it clear that that promise is largely being broken.

Combating poverty in the U.S. absolutely requires acknowledging–and committing to dismantle–institutional racism.

That’s not a reassuring realization, certainly, but it’s a critical one, and I am glad that we’re helping to spark that conversation.

I feel like a lot of my work and, so, many of my reflections here, are converging now: the All-In Nation effort that I’ll be posting on in a few weeks, my alignment with the Kansas City Equity Profile team, my AEDI emphasis on the links between poverty and education.

So Rich, So Poor makes the point that school quality is an antipoverty strategy, not only because making sure that every child has access to a quality education will equip American children to climb out of poverty, but, more importantly from a structural perspective, because taking school quality off the table as a driver of residential choice would deconcentrate inner-city poverty and dramatically reduce racial segregation.

That could be a game changer.

If educational reform is the seminal civil rights challenge of this generation, we must redouble our efforts to examine how the institution of education is failing children and families in poverty, from preschool through their heavily-leveraged college degrees.

I hope you’ll join us tomorrow as we continue this conversation, either in person at the Kansas Union at the University, or following along on the live webstream from home.

Let’s reimagine poverty, yes, but then let’s end it, so that, by the time they grow up, it exists only in my children’s imaginations.

Reimagining Poverty Part I

In September, the Assets and Education Initiative hosted the first of our speakers series events on Reimagining Poverty.

The events ask the question: Is there an American Dream for you? and raise issues related to the declining economic and social mobility in the United States today and the decreasing likelihood that the paths of opportunity that worked for past generations will work for young people in the future.

That’s part of the reason that I’ve been thinking so much about the American Dream: for my kids, for those disadvantaged, for our shared future.

The first event featured Mark Rank as the keynote. Dr. Rank was a professor of mine in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, when I was in graduate school, so it was a real treat to drive him from the airport, talking about policy and poverty and social change (and, I promise, a little about Sporting KC and my kids and some non-intellectual topics, too–I am a decent host!).

Mark has a new book coming out soon, Chasing the American Dream: Understanding what shapes our fortunes, but his previous books about poverty and welfare were the main sources of his comments in September.

His research has exposed the extent to which poverty is mainstream–commonplace–even, and what that says about the predictable failures of our institutions and the degree to which poverty is an avoidable hazard of growing up in today’s America.

This, of course, is not to say that some don’t bear a greater risk of poverty than others; indeed, the story of poverty in the U.S. is largely one of entrenched patterns of relative disadvantage, and the narratives of the few who beat the odds don’t mean that injustice is not a problem.

And we must lay bare our collective myth of social mobility to harden the public outcry and give us a real chance at fundamental reforms.

But the reality of inequity is not at all at odds with Rank’s emphasis on widespread poverty risk; in fact, helping people to understand their own likelihood of poverty may help to galvanize greater support for the policy changes that will help those disadvantaged the most.

Because it’s failure of the same institutions that contribute to this economic insecurity: sporadic and fleeting, in the lives of some; inescapable for others.

Until we understand poverty as very clearly a result of policy structures, resulting from both intentional choices and less-than-benign neglect, we will continue to incorrectly locate culpability for poverty within individuals.

In so doing, we will deprive those sentenced to generational poverty of a meaningful chance to leave it. And we will make it likely that we, ourselves, confront the cruelty of poverty at some predictable point in our lives.

The overflow crowd in the room for Dr. Rank’s talk and the panel discussion that followed gives me some hope, though, that people are ready to reimagine our understanding of poverty. And that that might hold the key to reducing it.

You can watch the recording of the event, read media coverage, and check out upcoming events in the series here. We will issue a report tying the speakers series together this summer, and we hope that the conversations help to spark greater emphasis on fighting poverty and a different frame through which to view what poverty is doing to Americans, and to our vision of America.

Inequality is ridiculous. Kids know this.

The starting point, I believe, in reducing economic and social inequality in the United States–indeed, around the world–is ceasing to accept it.

And that requires recognizing its true, human-created nature.

Joseph Stiglitz emphasizes in The Price of Inequality that our divides are far from inevitable. Instead, they are the predictable consequence of the failure of the systems we have put in place, and our failure to fix them when they deliver outcomes like what we see before us.

Evidence from nations that have reversed their inequality and are moving in the right direction–Stiglitz cites Brazil–and from those that deliberately chose a path of greater equity–most of Europe, recent retrenchment notwithstanding, affirms this truth:

It doesn’t have to be like this.

And, here, again, my kids’ instinctual reaction should be a lesson for us.

They know what we have lulled ourselves into forgetting.

It is completely ridiculous that some have so little in a land of so much.

They find it absolutely bizarre, for example, that some people are homeless when there are empty houses that banks are trying to get rid of. Forget rules about foreclosure and the principle of the profit motive. To them, people needing house plus house needing people equals problem solved.

They are astounded that there is a pay gap for men and women who do the same job. They say–and they are right–that that doesn’t make any sense.

They don’t understand why you get paid so much more money to run a company, usually, than to teach school, when, as Sam astutely observes, “Being my teacher seems like it’s a pretty hard job.”

They don’t understand why we don’t create systems that end poverty, if we could. They don’t know why some people are worse off than they used to be, while others are making much more. They don’t know why some people are allowed to keep so much–Sam read, somewhere, that the 6 heirs of Wal-Mart have the same wealth as the bottom 30% of the population (yes, I know, he’s an unusual 7-year-old), and the kids all thought he was making that up.

It’s as though, with the adult acceptance of the world as it is peeled away, they can see what we should not ignore:

It is really, really strange how we tolerate a system with so many clear losers.

They remind us how we look, living in this madness as though everything was normal.

And they should inspire us to do better.

Of Dreams, and Redeeming Them


Today, obviously, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

There are a lot of things I thought about writing about on this day–my personal struggle with how little connection there is between the man and this day, for so many; my efforts to raise my children in the shadow of that dream (not ‘his’ dream, because it must be ours); reflections on these 50 years since the March on Washington…

But I settled on another dream, and what threatens it, and how quickly we like to forget that Dr. King spoke of not just a dream of racial equality but of economic opportunity, prosperity for all, and an end to the crushing poverty that, while certainly not equally distributed, harms all it touches.

I recently read Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream, a book so discouraging, really, that I had to make myself finish it, even though it’s compelling and exhaustive and extremely well-written.

It’s a book that I hated to explain to my Sam, when he read the title and asked what it meant.

But we can’t avert our eyes, here. The evidence is clear that we are witnessing a centralization of power and an inequality of resources not unprecedented–the current ‘wage premium’ for those with at least a Bachelor’s degree mirrors the divide of the 1920s, so there is certainly historical precedent–but undeniably damaging.

The American Dream is eroding, unraveling, not just for those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, but, increasingly, for all but those at the top.

Regular readers will recognize that a lot of my writing these days (and more to come) has revolved around these themes: student loans and the decreasing democracy of financial aid, the need for new economic policies and approaches to restore the position of the middle class, the dangerous risk shifts that imperil economic security. I’ve been increasingly obsessed, I guess, with these social, political, and economic trends, and that spills over into what I share here.

Today’s post, then, is my effort to pull together some of the insights from Smith’s book that, in light of Dr. King’s exhortations, I see as most urgent. Tomorrow, I hope to spark some conversation about what it will take, in today’s context, to really build a movement to redeem the full vision Dr. King so presciently laid out, not just of children of different races sitting together, but of an economy that delivers dignity and hope and comfort…an American dream of real equality of opportunity, the way we have never–not in 1963 or 2014 or 1776–known.

  • There is no guarantee this ends well: We’re not just going through a tough economic cycle. We’re not just experiencing a rough patch in terms of political partisanship. As a quote cited in the prologue of the book spells out, “Civilizations die of disenchantment. If enough people doubt their society, the whole venture falls apart” (p. xi, attributed to John W. Gardner). And that’s where we are, right? My kids’ hero, Abraham Lincoln, knew that we couldn’t survive a divided nation, and we are divided today, not just ‘red/blue’ state, but rich and poor, ‘the United States works’ v. ‘there is no American dream for me’. This may not just be a phase. It may be the beginning of the end. If there is anything that should be keeping us all up at night, it is this: our nation is not destined to succeed. If we want it to, we have to make it happen.
  • It’s getting worse: I could cite statistics from virtually any page of Smith’s book that would underscore this point (which is one of the reasons it’s so valuable), but here’s one that really gets me: Between 2002-2007, the top 1% reaped 2/3 of the nation’s entire economic gains. In 2010, the first full year of the economic recovery, the top 1% captured 93% of the nation’s gains. That’s really inconceivable, in terms of the scale of the devastation it is wreaking on people’s lives, and also on people’s belief in this whole political experiment of our society.
  • These economic trends are not ‘natural’: Smith relies heavily on Germany’s experience to highlight the very different outcomes that result from different policy choices. Germany has seen a much lower unemployment rate during the recession, a much less significant loss in its manufacturing industries, and a much small growth in inequality…not because they have been subject to radically different economic cycles or forces, but because they have chosen different paths, that come with different consequences. Lest some conclude that there’s something in German ‘culture’ (or maybe the water?) that leads to greater equality, Smith also highlights outcomes from the ‘Great Compression’, a period of relative classlessness in U.S. history (post-war), when a rising tide really did lift all boats. And then he traces the policy choices that unraveled that structure.
  • We’re not handling the risk shift well: One of the points that Smith makes well is how inferior the ‘new safety net’ (largely composed of individual approaches that shift responsibility onto consumers, like 401(k)s) are, in providing for Americans’ well-being. We have to stop pretending that unequal outcomes are, somehow, equal–that it doesn’t matter how people finance college, if they just go, or that incentives to save for your own retirement are the same as being assured them. The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, people, and we have to stop pretending. “The burden shift has turned the traditional definition of the American Dream ‘on its ear'” (p. 89).
  • Coalitions have their limits: Social workers like to think that we can make common cause with anyone. And, indeed, we have an ethical obligation not to unduly demonize even our most ardent political opponents. But, given the increasing evidence that, today, the fates of ‘Main Street’ and Wall Street diverge, we can’t build tents so big that we’re missing the ways in which our supposed allies are working against us, or at least perpetuating systems that are.
  • We need to tell honest stories about ourselves: The American dream can’t be so vague and so distorted that it loses all meaning. But, today, that’s usually how we talk about it, because it lets us pretend that it’s still really functioning. Instead, “the view that American is the land of opportunity doesn’t entirely square with the facts” (p. 65, attributed to Isabel v. Sawhill of the Brookings Institution). Young people in the ‘old Europe’ economies of Norway, France, Germany, and Denmark, among others, have a better chance of moving up than those in the U.S. That’s not who we like to think we are.

We don’t do a great job, today, acknowledging how far we fall short of the Dream of racial integration and equality, but I would argue that we are more willing to acknowledge that failing, at least in that we identify that as a dream to which we need to continue to aspire, unlike a vision of economic equality, which we largely try to fool ourselves into thinking is just a part of our political ‘DNA’.

In other words, because we pretend that we’ve ‘got this’, when it comes to economic opportunity and equality, we don’t even really know where the goalposts are, in order to recognize how much farther we have to go.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we must start by claiming all of our dreams.

So that we can set out to live them.

The link between not enough and too much

For some work I’ve been doing–some for a health foundation, about the advocacy capacity of the ‘healthy eating/active living’ sector, and some for an anti-hunger organization–I’ve been spending quite a bit of time learning and talking about what food insecurity really means, and, in particular, why addressing hunger is an essential part of combating obesity.

The Kansas Association of Community Action Programs, an organization I’ve worked with a lot in the past few years, recently released their 2012 Hunger Atlas, describing what hunger looks like in Kansas, and what it means for health in the state.

And, when people hear ‘hunger’, they think skinny. ‘Hunger’ triggers visions of emaciation, even though very few people who experience hunger in the United States look like that. And those associations matter, because what people think they know influences very much how they respond, even to something as basic as our human need for food.

Anti-hunger organizations today often get push back from donors, advocates, even their own staff, when the people who seek food assistance–at pantries, commodity programs, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program eligibility sites, communal meals–don’t ‘look’ like they are hungry.

Which means we have a lot of work to do.

Because the truth is that being food insecure means that you don’t know where you next meal might come from, which absolutely shapes the decisions you make at this one.

It means that you don’t have good variety in your diet, that you’re lacking key nutrients, and that your meals are irregular, all of which can lead to being overweight. It means that your food budget is stretched, and we know which foods offer the cheapest delivery of energy. The link between obesity and food insecurity isn’t ironic, it’s inevitable, with the way that our food system is structured, whether we are ready to face that or not.

Being ‘malnourished’ means poorly nourished, and that might look like underweight, or it might look like overweight, but it certainly means unhealthy. It means a problem.

And we have to message it that way.

Until everyone has access to enough healthy, affordable food to feed their families well, we can’t even begin to pretend that obesity is a personal problem, instead of one deeply woven into the structures that shape our decisions. Obesity and hunger are not two separate issues. They are two sides of the same coin, a coin that presumes that nutrition is a commodity to be bought and sold, instead of a basic human right, and each side has tragic consequences for individuals and for society.

Obesity is a wicked problem to solve; it’s an adaptive challenge if there ever was one, one which will require us to change the way that we do almost everything.

Including fight hunger. And talk about it.

And Their Children After Them

Yes, I’m still wading through stacks of notes about books I read over winter break. Even though it will be summer before we know it.

One of the other books was And Their Children After Them, a sort of follow-up to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (which I haven’t read, and won’t, now). It’s about what happened to sharecroppers in the American South after the collapse of the cotton-production industry, as a major source of employment.

This isn’t a thorough review of the book. I tend to struggle with those, because I get sucked into specific insights that spring from the text, and my interpretation of it, which makes pulling together a coherent analysis, overall, difficult.

Instead, here are some quotes that I highlighted, and what they’re making me think about, which is, after all, the reason I do this reading, every year, in the first place.

  • Cotton buyers said, describing the sharecroppers, that “those people are different than us”. And we do this a lot. I encounter this every year in my Poverty in the Global Economy course, when some of my students are quick to assume that living without running water is preferred by some in the developing world, because “that’s what they know”, as though waterborne diseases are a cultural preference, instead of a universal scourge. We console ourselves in thinking that people can accommodate conditions that we would find objectionable, even abhorrent (poverty, overcrowding, difficult work, time separated from family), because they are somehow used to it. They’re not.
  • A farmer who took in a sharecropping family even when he didn’t really need the additional labor, and then treated them much more fairly than the other landowners did, said to his son, “If you can’t help somebody, for God’s sake, don’t hurt them” (p. 62). We often want to separate malicious attack from ‘benign’ neglect, as though the latter were really preferable to the former. And maybe there is some difference. But, really, if your job doesn’t pay enough to feed your kids, do you care–that much–if the company you work for is doing that ‘on purpose’, or just because they don’t care enough to figure out how their actions are harming you?
  • In describing how participation in a job-training program helped one of the individuals profiled in the book find her way to some measure of economic stability, the author reported, “It should provide some relief to know that there are people helped by state programs, and in just the way the programs were designed to help people” (p. 114). It made me think about how much the government needs a good PR person, for public assistance programs. I mean, nonprofits have had to get better about telling their stories and demonstrating their impact, because of the competition for funds, but who is really telling the story of how government programs improve people’s lives? Where there is good news to share, how can we share it?
  • Issue fatigue is, apparently, far older than the social media that has exacerbated it. When the original authors were pitching their idea to write about sharecroppers, the publishers were only willing to consider white sharecropping poverty. African Americans were expected to be poor, and that wasn’t news, even decades ago.
  • Internalized stigma is a powerful force. Even those individuals who were literally living in shacks without plumbing–as recently as 30 years ago–refused to take welfare. Our failure to combat the stigma associated with receipt of public benefits can have very harmful consequences and dramatically exacerbate unmet need. We have to be careful with our messages, and not just because they shape external perception about service participants. They also craft self-identity.

I’m working on my summer reading list; the spring semester will be over in less than 2 months. What are you reading, or have you read recently, that has had an impact on you? What would you recommend?

What would it take to make ‘never’ mean ‘never’?

It has become a sort of ritual, I think, judging by past year’s content here.

I spend all of Christmas break reading what I don’t have time to read during the school year (this year, genocide and the American South in the cotton economy and global conflict and the Renaissance), and, then, around March, I get around to going back through the sticky notes that I stuck in the pages I wanted to remember…and I pull out some insights that I want to share here.

And you humor me, which I really appreciate.

The book that occupied most of my time over Christmas break (and, based on the posts I’ve started to sketch out for the coming weeks, will appear in various form here for awhile), is A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.

I know, I really let loose on break, hunh?

I’m starting, here, with what I guess should be the end. Because, really, you can only deal with this kind of history by resolving:

Never again.

But, yet…

The book begins with the story of one girl killed in the Bosnian “ethnic cleansing” (word we use because it sounds less horrible than genocide–more on that soon), but, shortly after, has this quote. Jimmy Carter said in 1979, “we must forge an unshakable oath with all civilized people that never again will the world stand silent, never again will the world fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime of genocide” (p. xxi).

It’s not giving away the rest of the book to state the obvious.

Of course, we did.

And so that’s my main question, from all 500+ pages, many of which have horrific narrative (I also read a novel about the Cambodian genocide, specifically, so, you know, I do fiction, too).

Since American policymakers know a tremendous amount about what’s happening in genocidal situations, and since some Americans risk a lot to push for action…what would happen if there was real outrage that policymakers are letting this happen ‘on our watch’?

I was thinking about this when, today, I met with a woman who has run a childcare and family support center for families in poverty for decades. Her passion is infectious, and she is a skilled and tenacious advocate.

She said that her advocacy goal is to “get people really, really mad, so that they just won’t tolerate it anymore, that children in our city don’t have a place to live or enough to eat”.

The question, of course, is how to do that.

There has to be ‘hell to pay’ for politicians who ignore or tolerate injustice. The change has to come from people outraged that passivity would be counseled in our names, that problems would be swept under the rug, that children would suffer because our priorities are elsewhere.

We have to make never mean never.

Or it won’t.

This advocate leaned across the table and said, “I believe most people know. They have the information. What they don’t do is act.”

And, how often, does that describe me, too?

Now we have unfettered access to images and stories. But we also have much more content to sort through, and we have to seek out the information. We have many arguments at our disposal, whether our cause is resisting genocide or easing the benefit cliff that sentences low-wage working moms to perpetual poverty. We can couch our appeals in history or in the future consequences. We know what happens when this goes unchecked, and we can project the costs if we do nothing. We can turn to morality, because many people want to do the right thing, and to have right be on their side. We can rely on policymakers’ instinct not to be the ones who let injustice rage on our watch.

We can use cost-benefit analyses, and heart-wrenching photographs, and celebrity endorsements.

We can, as the Sister said today, “give every poor kid a puppy, because then maybe people would grab their telephones to yell about it.”

It doesn’t matter, so much, the why, but the what, and the how.

The study of U.S. response to genocide makes it clear: U.S. officials make ‘potent political calculations about what the U.S. public would abide” (p. 373).

I think this is true in domestic policy issues, too, and it’s why there’s so much attention paid to framing, as it helps to tamp down dissent.

We need to change that equation.

We have to make policymakers fear the consequences for sins of omission.

We have to get outraged, and let our outrage be felt.

We have to make never really, really, really mean never.

It’s my birthday. Yes, again.

I’m in a good place, birthday-wise. I guess that I am about where I imagined I might have been, at this age, or something…

I feel very fortunate to have lived as I have to this point, and I look forward to what the future brings.

But the point is, I’m in a very small minority of people for whom birthdays mean that.

For too many people, achieving another year of life is a hard-fought battle. Without enough food, or good medical care, or safety, additional years of life are anything but inevitable.

And that sucks.

This year, Sam helped me pick out the charity towards which we’ll funnel my birthday presents, including any that any of you are generous enough to share. He likes the very concrete translation of a dollar amount to a specific purchase–he’s particularly fond of the emergency nutrition and anything involving medicine (especially if delivered on motorcycles–he LOVES the motorcycles) and less enamored of the school uniforms, even though I think he understands their importance.

We chose CARE, but, really, if you have your favorite hunger and poverty-combating organization, in the U.S. or around the world, go with that.

Help someone else live to celebrate a birthday.

And thank you, from this birthday girl.