Mind the Gap

Repression was the Duvalier family business in Haiti. The many crimes of these dictators against their own people are well documented. But the story most often repeated is how “Mama Simone” Duvalier had air-conditioning installed in the National Palace so that she could comfortably wear her fur coats, in a tropical nation where poverty increased as wealth was concentrated in the ruling family’s inner circle.

We read that and think: How obscene! No wonder they had a revolution.

Unfortunately, income inequality is a problem in the United States, too. Global Post has a nifty function where you can see how the gap between rich and poor in your area compares with the situation in other nations. President Barack Obama’s home city of Chicago has a similar income gap to Rwanda.

Maybe that was on his mind when he said in his inaugural address: “For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.”

There’s nothing wrong with being rich. I’d be fine with the rich getting richer if the poor weren’t simultaneously getting poorer. As I’ve previously written, the rate of extreme poverty in the United States has doubled since 1996. By extreme poverty, I mean a person living on about $2 a day. Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service tells us that the top one percent of households hold about a third of the nation’s wealth.

I am neither a politician nor an economist. I offer no macro solution to this problem. But I can offer some micro ones. Extreme poverty in itself creates barriers to employment and self-sufficiency. People need help over those barriers, many of which seem like small things to those of us who are more fortunate. “Handouts” have a negative connotation. We hear that they are a “Band-Aid” solution. When you are bleeding, a Band-Aid is a wonderful thing. In addressing extreme poverty, we must first stop the bleeding.

There’s a mom and baby in South Florida who were homeless. The mother worked with an agency that got them shelter and also offered her a training program to become a certified nursing assistant. She still could not afford the diapers her childcare center required. But thanks to the Junior League of Boca Raton’s Diaper Bank, she has an ongoing supply of diapers and is able to work. My friends at The Diaper Bank in North Haven, Connecticut, provided a wounded Army veteran with diapers for his son. That enabled the man to go back to school for job training.

As a social worker who spent much of her career working with families in extreme poverty, I know what a big deal the little things can be. Imagine sending your kids to school in dirty clothes because you can’t afford detergent. How well would you do in a job interview if you had to show up in an old tattered suit? How far could you stretch your food stamps if you had to shop at a corner store because you had no way to get to a supermarket?

The United States is often called “The Land of Opportunity.” It will take some work for us to deserve that title again. We need to tackle some big issues. In the meantime, though, you might find some small issues to tackle in your own community to make sure that your most vulnerable neighbors really do have an opportunity to thrive.

 

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post on January 29, 2013.

Something to Make Moms Smile

As the saying goes: Babies don’t come with instruction manuals.

This is tough on all new parents — but particularly on low-income families. Lower-income pregnant women receive less prenatal care, experience higher levels of stress and are more likely to deliver premature babies.

That’s why I’m a fan of Text4baby, a free texting service that gives expectant and new mothers tips on keeping their babies and themselves healthy. Text4baby is reaching women in high-poverty areas. A large percentage of women who sign up for the service live in zip codes with the highest levels of poverty in the United States. Most mobile providers will not charge women for receiving the texts, which are available in Spanish or English.

Moms learn things like how to get help to stop smoking, what vaccinations their babies need and how to get a good night’s sleep with a big baby belly. It’s a project of the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition. The texts are timed according to a woman’s due date, so she gets appropriate information. Ivory, a Text4baby user, explains:

They sent me text messages with things I was going through that day. For example, during my 7th month of pregnancy, I thought I was feeling contractions and I was a little nervous. That same day text4baby sent me a text message about Braxton Hicks contractions, and that helped me a lot because I knew that that was what I was feeling and it kind of eased my anxiety.

Low-income moms are often stigmatized. Moms who use the service can arrive at appointments with increased knowledge and confidence. This I find very significant. The lesson of Text4baby is that parents want to do what’s best for their kids — but first we have to know what’s best.

There’s a mythology around “maternal instinct,” the idea that we innately know all about taking care of our babies. We don’t. There’s good research that we can use to guide us on everything from what medicines to give our children to how we should lay them down to sleep at night. When it comes to parenting, knowledge is power.

An empowered parent is a mighty force for good, in the life of a child, a community or a nation. My colleagues empower parents by helping them get basic necessities like diapers. Text4baby empowers parents with information. There are lots of ways we can all get involved to help parents do the most important job in the world.

This article was first published in The Huffington Post on January 23, 2013

Philosophy and Money

Philosophically, I agree with you…

Many frustrating conversations grind to an end with that phrase. The speaker expresses sympathy with whatever forward-thinking humanitarian scheme you have in mind. But — there’s always a but – he or she says it can’t be done because it costs too much. It’s irresponsible to spend money we don’t have.

Well, I’ve got an answer for that one, Dear Reader. Feel free to use it next time you find yourself in a frustrating conversation: Do you plan on sending your kids to college?

Ask him if he has the cash on hand to pay for college tuition. Unless you’re talking to a viscount, the answer is probably “no.” Middle class families manage college through a combination of borrowing, cutting back on expenses and maybe a bit of moonlighting. College is out of reach only in truly poor families, who have no credit and nothing to cut back on, and where parents are often unable to find work. Most of us stretch to pay for college because it’s worth it. Even after factoring in the costs of getting an education, a college graduate can expect more than half a million dollars in lifetime earnings over what someone without a degree will make.

That is just one example of how we go to the wall financially for our kids. Many families with young children decide it’s best for one parent to stay home or work part-time, even though it’s a financial hardship. As our incomes go down, we spend heavily on our kids. It’s amazing how much equipment such a little person needs, from playpens to swings to the weekly boxes of diapers that inflate the grocery bill. As our kids grow, we keep finding money for piano lessons, soccer uniforms, braces, and on and on. These are not luxuries. They’re things that keep our kids safe and healthy or that give them the chance to socialize with other children and develop their talents. These expenditures put them on the road to a comfortable and fulfilling life, and so we parents find a way.

We need to think as a society in the way we think as a family. We need to invest in our children’s future. There are literally thousands of investments we could make as a society with similar payoff. Here are just a couple to illustrate:

The Nurse Family Partnership sends registered nurses into the homes of first-time, low-income mothers during their pregnancies and through their child’s second year. These kids are healthier than their peers, do better in school and are less likely to be arrested as adults. A Rand study found that the program produces $5.70 in benefits for every dollar spent.

A large study in North Carolina found that low-income kids who received high quality early childhood education: scored higher on cognitive tests, were more likely to attend a four-year college, and were older than their peers when their first child was born. The mothers of these children also had higher educational and career achievements than women in similar circumstances.

If we truly “philosophically” believe such things are important, then we will find a way to pay for them. For example, some states and municipalities are turning to social impact bonds, where the cost of a program to taxpayers is directly linked to whether it achieves its goals. Another interesting innovation matches alumni lenders with student borrowers to offer student loans at below market rates. Why not a similar arrangement to finance human services programs?

I’m not promoting any specific financing strategy to advance social good. I’m just pointing out that these strategies exist and that creative folks are coming up with new ones all the time. My point is that when we look at our failure to adequately support poor children, money is not a reason. It is an excuse.

 


This article was first published in 
The Huffington Post, on January 16, 2013

Living on $2 a Day

Researchers at Harvard and the University of Michigan have found that 1.4 million American families live in extreme poverty About 2.8 million children are included in those families. “Extreme” is not a strong enough word for the kind of poverty we’re talking about. The researchers defined it as living on less than $2 per family member per day. That’s $2,920 annually for a family of four. The study looked back to 1996 because in that year “Welfare Reform” placed new limits on the amount of time a family could receive public assistance. Between 1996 and now, the rate of extreme poverty has doubled.

For many people, the United States has become a third world country.

The study did not get nearly enough attention, though Gabriel Thompson did a fantastic piece on it forMother Jones. She spent a lot of time in Fresno, Calif., where she met people struggling to get by on temporary, low-wage jobs. Their experiences reminded me of a hypothetical day-in-the-life of a low-income family with a sick child written for this blog.

Welfare no longer provides a safety net since the 1996 “reforms.” As Neil deMause demonstrates in a greatSlate article, changes in the federal law have enabled some states to put a nearly impenetrable wall of red tape and shame between needy families and benefits.

Listen to Neil’s description of one mother’s struggle:

As her 2-year-old son scampers about a vacant office at the Sweetwater Valley Community Action Mission Program where she’s come to seek some help, Cassie explains that — like nearly 2 million other Georgians, almost 20 percent of the state — she receives federal food stamp benefits, which help put groceries on the table. But they won’t pay for non-food items, which is why she’s turned up at this private charity in suburban Cobb County in search of diapers.

Household supplies are a constant struggle for the poor in the absence of cash benefits, notes the charity’s program director Carla Pierce, pointing to the stockpiles of detergent and other items lining the mission’s storeroom shelves. (No diapers today, though; Cassie and her son go home empty-handed.) “Formula and diapers change a family budget in a second.”

 

Newark Mayor Cory Booker decided to live for one week on the amount a food stamps recipient would get. The mayor’s menus drew attention to just how difficult that is. He reported hunger pains. This calorie counter estimates that six-foot-three Booker was getting less than 1,000 calories a day.

Many state and federal officials are talking now about cutting safety net programs. I have one question for them: What safety net? We’d like to believe that no one in this country lives without the basic necessities. But that’s simply not true.

When Booker did his food stamps challenge, many people accused him of grandstanding and grabbing media attention. I have no idea what Booker’s motives were. But I find them far less interesting than the fact that food stamps are inadequate to feed a needy American — and can’t even be used for other necessities like toilet paper, soap or diapers. Focus, people!

The argument against public assistance is that it creates dependence. This argument is generally made by people with a distorted picture of what it means to be poor. (Eating a lot of Ramen noodles in college, by the way, does not give you even a glimmer of what life is like for people living in intractable poverty.)

In fact, the opposite is true. If we keep people in a position where survival is a constant struggle, they are ill-equipped to do the things that will lead to steady employment. Think of Cassie, who can’t even get diapers for her son. No day care will take a child without a supply of diapers. How is Cassie supposed to go on a job interview? Does she have a decent outfit to wear to that interview? How about shampoo and toothpaste? A job applicant who does not look and smell clean has a slim chance, at best.

The big idea was that making poverty even more unpleasant than it already was would give people the incentive to improve their lot. But the percentage of extremely poor Americans has doubled under this policy. Clearly incentive was not the problem.

Throughout human history, the main anti-poverty strategy has amounted to a long lecture on ambition and self-reliance. With centuries of proof that this strategy does not work, it is past time to try something else. Meeting people’s basic needs would be an excellent start.

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post, on January 4, 2013

Small Victories

I spend a lot of time in this blog railing against our country’s failure to do right by its children. I was going to lighten up for the holidays and simply write a list of small acts of kindness that anyone can do. After all, what benefits our children more than a caring community?

Of course, everything changed with the Sandy Hook shootings. It seemed ridiculously trivial now to write about offering your mail carrier a hot drink or putting a quarter in a parking meter for a stranger.

Nothing anyone can say or do is enough. The undertow of grief and confusion is particularly strong where I live, in Connecticut, where 20 children and seven adults lost their lives in a fury of violence that we struggle to understand, even as we know it is beyond understanding.

There is so much work to be done: sane gun laws that will protect our children from instruments of war and the construction of something we have never had — an adequate mental health system.

As I wrestled with these dark thoughts, it occurred to me that now might be exactly the right time to suggest some small acts of kindness. Winston Churchill famously said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” That’s exactly what we should do, keep going in the direction of kindness, of caring for each other — especially those who cannot care for themselves. It’s important to reach for some achievable small victories. These are not substitutes for the big battles we need to fight, but they may give us some extra strength to keep going.

So, here are some humble suggestions. I hope you’ll share your own ideas, too.

  1. Don’t avert your eyes from a homeless person. Even if you don’t want to give money, you can say hello. That’s what human beings do when they encounter each other.
  2. Hold the door for a mom with a stroller, an elderly person, or just anyone.
  3. Throw a shower for a mom-to-be who’s having trouble making ends meet. You might find such a person through your faith community. Or you can throw a shower to benefit a diaper bank.
  4. Approach your least favorite co-worker and ask how the family is doing. It will take you three minutes and might warm up the office considerably.
  5. Save small things, like hotel shampoos and sample toothpaste from your dentist, then donate them to a school or food bank. No government programs cover hygiene needs and people suffer terribly as a result.
  6. When you’re shoveling your own driveway think about the family around the corner with the sick kid or the man down the street with the bad back. Shovel them out as well. It’s good for your heart in a couple of ways.
  7. Buy socks. Wearing wet, dirty socks is a frequent cause of dangerous foot infections for homeless people. Pick up a package of tube socks. I keep some in my trunk. Your local homeless shelter would be delighted with a donation, too.
  8. Read to a child. Yours or someone else’s. Many schools — particularly understaffed urban ones — love to have volunteers come in and read.
  9. Buy doubles on school supplies. Your child’s teacher likely knows a kid whose family is struggling.
  10. Give up the daily latte or the afternoon candy bar. Take one week’s savings from something you’re better off without anyway and write a check to a worthwhile cause.
  11. Say thank you to the people who get ignored — the barista, the toll collector, the woman who empties the waste cans in your office.
  12. Give a tissue. Teachers frequently have to buy their own for the class. It’s tough during cold season. Show up with a case of tissues from the warehouse club and be a hero.

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This article was first published in The Huffington Post on December 12, 2012

Poor Babies Set up for a Lifetime of Illness

Living in poverty — even in utero — can lead to a lifetime of poor health, a new study by a team led by Cornell researcher Kathleen Ziol-Guest has found.

The scientists tracked people whose families lived in poverty in the year before they were born through age two. As adults, they suffered from high blood pressure and arthritis at twice the rate of people from more fortunate backgrounds. These diseases showed up at young ages in the study group. Study volunteers were being diagnosed with arthritis by age 30.

Poor health may account for the low incomes that the study revealed in the group. They had an average annual income of $21,600 and worked fewer hours annually than their peers (1,460 vs. 1,877).

The study does not identify a cause for this disturbing legacy. We know that stress has an effect on the immune system, and few things are more stressful than living in poverty. We also know that income affects nutrition, hygiene and access to health care.

Why these children suffer from a lifetime of ill health and resulting poverty isn’t the most pressing question. The most pressing question is: What are we going to do about it?

Ziol-Guest shared some excellent ideas with the news organization Futurity in the excerpt below:

The study points to the importance of policies that increase financial resources available to families with young children, Ziol-Guest says. “Our findings indicate that the incomes of the most economically disadvantaged families should be of greatest concern, particularly during the years when these families have young children.”
Programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and child tax credits could help boost the income of families during that critical period, Ziol-Guest says.

“Targeting these or similar programs to families with very young children may offer the largest benefit for health and well-being in later life and give us more bang for our buck in an era of rapidly rising health care costs.”

A relatively small early investment will pay off for the rest of a person’s life. This is an idea demonstrated by such a large volume of research that it should be accepted as an axiom. Think of the savings in health care costs and the benefits of increased economic production from people unimpaired by ill health.

More importantly, think of the kids. One in five American children lives below the poverty level. Are we really willing to let them walk into a future of life-limiting and life-threatening illness?

Henry David Thoreau said, “Every child begins the world again.” That’s simply not true for poor kids. There will be a few sparkling exceptions that people fond of moralizing about “bootstraps” will point to repeatedly. For most poor kids, however, the world will move along on the same bumpy path it did for their parents and grandparents. The world does not begin again for every child.

But it should.

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post, on December 5, 2012

Start Early to Close the Achievement Gap

By age 3, children in low-income families have smaller vocabularies than middle-class kids of the same age. This “achievement gap” persists throughout school and culminates in lower graduation rates for children growing up in poverty. I’m not offering a magic bullet to close the achievement gap. Complex problems, unfortunately, tend to require complex solutions. But I can think of two key elements to any effort to address the gap: We need to start early and we need to think broadly.

Remember, we’re seeing language deficits by age 3. We also know that those first three years are spent forming trillions of synapses — 90 percent of the brain development we’ll experience in our lifetimes. So the question is: Can a baby living in poverty have the rich experiences that encourage healthy development? We know that great early childhood education helps. Kids who participate in early childhood education are more likely to graduate high school and 2.5 times more likely go on to higher education.

People in my line of work are fond of referring to social programs as “investments.” It’s hard to think of any area were the term is more apt than early childhood. Kids in good early childhood programs achieve higher, contribute more in taxes and require less in public services. One study found that the return on investment in early childhood education is $17 for every $1 spent.

As I said, we need to think broadly and deliver services to poor families where and how they need them. For example, my community reserved some spots in high quality early childhood programs for low-income families, but we found the families that needed them most didn’t know about the program. So we used non-traditional marketing, like lawn signs, to get the word out.

Once families knew about the slots, there were still needs to be met. Most child care programs require parents to supply disposable diapers for their children. The neediest families simply couldn’t afford them. It took an entire non-profit organization to address that.

Hats off to the community in Lafayette, La., that is crafting a broad-based strategy to close the achievement gap, including:

… the creation of health and wellness teams (to) help address issues as they happen, rather than just letting students move through the school system without any intervention.

I believe Lafayette is able to be smart about boosting achievement, because it isn’t getting stuck in the “blame the victim” trap that so often accompanies discussions about poverty. In an interview with The Advertiser, United Way of Acadiana Executive Director Margaret Trahan said: “The stereotype that poor parents don’t care, I know, is a myth.” The Advertiser reports, “She said many parents in poverty struggle with multiple jobs, odd shifts, problems getting adequate childcare and a lack of reliable transportation.”

Every family faces challenges. In poor communities, those challenges form a long and daunting list. If we want kids of all income levels to succeed, we need to find ways to scratch things off that list.

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

 

This article was first published in The Huffington Post on November 27, 2012.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 455 other followers

%d bloggers like this: