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

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

Stress and the Cuddle Deficiency

Hugs are free. As a mother of three, I gave them away with abandon — until my kids reached the age where they made rules about public displays of affection. Can economic hardship get in the way of something as basic as a mother-child snuggle?

Nick Kristof had a great column about ways that parents can help kids succeed, even while growing up in poverty. He cites a series of studies that show kids of affectionate, supportive parents do better in school and in life.

As I said, hugs are free. But a dad who just rode three buses to put in a job application, only to be told the position is filled, might not be in a cuddly mood. A mother suffering with a toothache because she can’t afford to go to the dentist is less likely to take a child in her lap and read aloud. As Kristof explains:

Children in poor households grow up under constant stress, disproportionately raised by young, single mothers also under tremendous stress, and the result may be brain architecture that makes it harder for the children to thrive at school or succeed in the work force.

There was also an NIH report released in August arguing that the stress of poverty affects kids’ ability to learn:

The stresses of poverty — such as crowded conditions, financial worry, and lack of adequate child care — lead to impaired learning ability in children from impoverished backgrounds, according to a theory by a researcher funded by the National Institutes of Health. The theory is based on several years of studies matching stress hormone levels to behavioral and school readiness test results in young children from impoverished backgrounds.

It comes as no surprise that it’s stressful to be poor. What most of us don’t realize is how that stress pervades every area of a family’s life together. Most parents want to do what’s best for their kids. But the more stress a family is under, the harder it is to be a model parent all the time. Make no mistake: Many low-income parents do an outstanding job. But they to did it while coping with calls from creditors, winter jackets that have grown too small and neighborhoods where there’s no safe place to play.

There’s a school of thought that we should help the poor — but not too much. We fear that too much support will create dependency. A friend who worked in a soup kitchen was amazed at how often people would ask, “Do you think the people who eat there really need it?” She always answered, “Oh, not at all. They come for the ambiance.”

We want to cut low-income families off any kind of public assistance as quickly as possible, whether they’re in a job that will allow them to pay for good daycare or not. We want to make sure there’s no television in that subsidized apartment, even though entertainment is at a premium when the playground is unsafe and a trip to the movies is an unthinkable luxury. We don’t want them to starve, but we don’t want things to be too easy. At some level, our policies feed this chronic stress.

We love rags-to-riches stories of people who grew up in poverty and achieved great things. These stories are so compelling because they are the exception, not the rule. What social workers have known forever is now backed up by science: The extreme stress of growing up in poverty can put a kid on track for a lifetime of poverty.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve seen firsthand how simply providing clean diapers for low-income families comes as a huge relief to parents. There are a thousand “little things” that can trip up a poor family. The weight of all those little things can get in the way of what more fortunate families take for granted: rolling around in a leaf pile together, giggling over cups of cocoa on a snow day, a big hug after blowing out all the candles. These are little things, too, but they have an enormous effect that can last a lifetime.

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

This article was first published in The Huffington Post, on November 2. 2012.

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