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

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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

Is It Luck?

I received an e-mail the other day that broke my heart. The young woman wrote that she cared for three children in diapers, one of whom was the niece her sister couldn’t take care of anymore. This woman did not work because daycare for three children cost more than she made. This arrangement worked while her fiancé was working, but he had recently, unexpectedly, lost his job. And now they couldn’t pay for diapers.

The young lady who sent me that e-mail describes both luck and choices. She and her fiancé were doing well enough that they chose to take in her niece so she could keep her niece from entering the child welfare system. That shows generosity — she was lucky enough to be able to help someone else. Then bad luck hit. Her fiancé, who had a good job, was laid off. Now she has three children under three years old, all in diapers. She thought she had made good choices and that she and her family were financially set. Turned out bad luck got in the way.

The trajectory of our lives is determined by a series of choices and luck, but it seems to me that many people discount how big a role luck plays. From the perspective of a baby, the family the baby is born into is a matter of luck. The child has no choice in this matter, and has done nothing one way or another to deserve one family more or less than the other. The child’s only action to this point is being born. As a studyreleased by the Urban Institute found, children born into wealth tend to live life as wealthier adults.

Children born into poverty are more likely to live in poverty as adults than people who were not born into poverty. Among children who are never poor, only 1 percent spent half their early adult years living in poverty. On the other hand, 32 percent of persistently poor children go on to spend half their early adult years living in poverty.

Sometimes this luck translates into an ability to make choices. For example, according to the Social Science Research Council, if you were lucky enough to be born to educated parents, you are more likely to pursue a college degree.

Children whose parents have at least a college degree enter college at more than twice the rate of children whose parents did not graduate high school.

Although pursuing a college degree involves making a choice, it also involves luck. If there are simply too many obstacles — the cost of tuition is prohibitive, you can’t afford to pay the application fee or the fee to take the college board exams, or your family cannot afford for you to quit your afterschool job — you will in effect not have the opportunity to make the choice.

Our lives are certainly shaped by our innate qualities as human beings — raw intelligence, mechanical aptitude, the ability to relate to others, and so on — but our ability to capitalize on those qualities depends in large part on luck. Were you lucky enough to have a stable family life that allowed you to focus on schoolwork and training to perfect these qualities? Were you lucky enough to have the opportunity to exercise these qualities and turn them into an asset for future earnings or opportunities?

Your ability to rebound from these turns of luck also depends on luck — how much good or bad luck you had before. Maybe you can recover from one unlucky break, for example, you get laid off, but can you recover from several unlucky breaks? You lose your job, your neighbor has a fire in their apartment so you must evacuate and then someone rear ends your car in an accident — can you recover from all of that at once?

People living paycheck-to-paycheck might have the cushion necessary to sustain a little bit of bad luck. But a long run of bad luck probably not. Indeed, unless you are really lucky most of us don’t have the resources to carry us through a really long run of bad luck. And bad luck tends to beget more bad luck. You don’t have enough money for gas, so you have to rely on the bus, which is late, so you miss the big interview. You do not have enough money to buy diapers so you cannot bring your child to daycare so you lose a day’s wage. You literally cannot afford to work.

It is both luck and choices in my life that have allowed me to be in a position to help the young lady I described above find diapers. But what if I were less lucky? Would I be asking for diapers now? And would someone luckier than me choose to help?

In my life I have met many people who have had a lot of luck — good and bad and made lots of choices — both good and bad. My point is, regardless of your situation in life — both luck and choices play a role. We should all keep that in mind as we judge those around us.

Summer of Kindness

NDBN was mentioned recently in the July 2012 issue of Good Housekeeping, in an article entitled “50 Simple Acts of Kindness.”  (We’re at #12, which recommends donating diapers.)   Just for grins, and because it was Monday morning in the summer after an on-again-off-again sort of week, we decided to see how many of these suggested simple acts of kindness we currently have incorporated into our regular routine.  Among the three of us (yes, all this magic happens as the result of three people), we found we already do 30 on a regular basis.

The suggestions tend to fall into certain categories of daily living.  Many of these suggestions are what might be called common courtesy– letting the person behind you in line go first (#4) (I do this particularly if they only have a few items); holding the door open for someone (#7); and letting other cars merge onto the highway (#9).  Others are a form of recycling, recognizing that items you might have no need for may still be useful to others, such as donating professional clothes to organizations like Dress for Success (#18) or donating old cell phones to organizations that can use them, such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (#25)  (there are also organizations that collect cell phones for the troops).  Donating old eye glasses to the Lions Club could also fall into this category, although the article does not mention it.  An extension of this category is the category of thoughtful giving–bringing combs, toothbrushes and toothpaste (and other hygiene items) to a homeless shelter (#8); loading extra money into a vending machine for the next person (#31); buying a book for a child (#38); and providing inexpensive coloring books and crayons to a pediatric ward (#5).   And still others fall into what my mother would call good manners–making others feel welcomed and thought of–relying an overheard comment (#37); rescuing a wallflower standing alone at a party (#48); and genuinely asking others how you can help (#50).   None of the suggestions are earth shattering, but each idea, if implemented, has the potential to make someone’s day a little brighter and easier, and to make the doer feel better about her place in the world.

We’ve decided that we are going to make it a point this summer to incorporate all of these suggestions into our regular routines.  With the hot weather, it’s easy for people’s nerves to be frayed, so it seems as if summer is a good time to exercise our kindness muscles.   It will allow all of us to exercise our baking skills (several suggestions involve giving neighbors and public servants like firefighters treats); make someone else’s day a little brighter; and do our part to improve life in our community and the world.

What other acts of kindness can you add to this list?  Consider starting your own summer of kindness, with a donation of diapers to your local diaper bank or social service agency, and a donation to the National Diaper Bank Network.

We’ll be charting our progress on this blog.  So for our first act (#39 on the list), here’s a video our Facebook friends pointed us to.   Enjoy. 

Postscript to Memorial Day Post

On Memorial Day, we wrote about the many great organizations that help our service men and women and their families who  tend to marry and start families younger than their civilian counterparts, and are often supporting those families while still very junior in rank, making wages that fall below the poverty level for a family of four.   (Read our original blog post here.) As we noted then, although the pay structure has improved in the last two decades, there is still a sizeable number of military families who receive food assistance, either from military’s Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance program or from private non-profit organizations such as Operation Homefront.

A recent Huffington Post article by Michael McAuliff suggests that the numbers of military members on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is even higher than we had originally thought, with as many as 1000 active duty military members receiving SNAP, and 150,000 households which also receive veterans’ benefits are relying on SNAP.  The SNAP and WIC rolls have expanded because of the economic crisis and the greater number of people at risk of food insecurity.  Inclusion of military families in their numbers reflects the changing nature of the military family.  The Senate has just approved a version of the Farm Bill that cuts SNAP benefits by $90 a month, and the House threatens to cut the program even more.  Religious institutions and other charitable institutions which help families in need are not positioned take up the slack without significant increases in their resources. Families having difficulty making ends meet may need even more help.  Give generously to your local diaper bank to help ease at least one need.

Helping Babies Escape Poverty by Helping Parents Finish High School

A recent report issued by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy identifies a direct link between teen pregnancy and high school dropout rates.

In 2010, the latest data available, 367,752 infants were born to teenage mothers.  Although this number is a record low, the United States still has the largest number of teen pregnancies in the developed world.  The numbers vary by state, with Mississippi having the highest teen birthrate in the U.S.  (Mississippi is also the location of many of the people looking for diapers who call us.)

Teen-aged mothers face a huge number of obstacles in escaping poverty, and as a result, so do their children.  One of the greatest obstacles is the difficulty teen moms have in completing their high school education (not to mention any post-secondary education).  According to the National Campaign, only 40 % of teen mothers finish high school and less than 2% of teen mothers finish college by age 30.  Dropout rates are particularly high for Latinas students.

There are programs that help parents stay in school.  For example, the Elizabeth Celotto Day Care  at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, CT, provides high quality child care services to the children of students.  The program has dramatically improved the graduation rate for local teen moms.  The program is even more effective because it provides diapers for the children through a partnership with The Diaper Bank in North Haven, Connecticut.  Prior to the partnership, the child care center noticed that students were staying home from school when they did not have enough diapers for their children that day, often at the end of the month.  Since that the formation of the partnership with The Diaper Bank, student attendance, and graduation rates, have improved.

The potential for such partnerships between high school based programs and diaper banks exists across the country.  The Inland NW Baby Diaper Bank provides diapers to a local high school parenting program, as shown in this great documentary.  Partnerships like these are just one example of how diaper banks can provide a “bootstrap” to help lift teenage parents out of poverty.  Give generously to your local diaper bank, and help us ensure that there are diaper banks available everywhere to help parents finish their education and have the best opportunity to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

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