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

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