Tag Archives: poverty

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?

Advertisements

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.

Link Love–Happy Valentine’s Day!

So I totally stole the title of this post (the ‘link love’ part), and I can’t even remember from where I stole it, which means that I can’t even give proper credit.

Not very Valentine’s Day-ish of me, hunh?

But there’s a lot to love here, and I want to share it, so the name seems appropriate.

Have a great Valentine’s Day, reading about poverty and policy and technology for social change.

That’s what I’ll be doing. Super romantic, trust me.

Happy Valentine’s Day, dear readers!

Love for everyone!

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

slideshow-graphics-3

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.