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

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

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

America’s Poverty Rate Increases

English: Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate: 1...

English: Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate: 1959 to 2009. United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.

The news report is so disturbing that it has already been reprinted in multiple publications and on any number of social media feeds.  It also invokes many possible responses—dismay that more people living in poverty; concern that that our safety net is crumbling; alarm that children will be poorer than their parents; and distress over what the future of our nation will be as a result.

Those are not my immediate responses.  I think about the day-to-day reality of being poor.  One recent evening,  I was at Wal-Mart with my husband and my 14-year-old son.   My son needed something for school the next day, but had forgotten to tell us until that evening so we ran to Wal-Mart to get it.  In front of us in the checkout line was an older man buying food. He had Vienna sausage, Spam, day-old white bread, and canned beans.  Nothing in his basket needed to be cooked, and nothing cost more than a dollar.

Because of my years working as a social worker I knew that this man must live somewhere that did not have a stove or microwave.  He could have a room at an SRO, he could be at a shelter, or he could live on the streets.  As we left, I saw him get on his bicycle with his bag. The bicycle was old and had no headlight. It was late, and the Wal-Mart was on a highway—not the sort of location you would want to be riding an old bike without a headlight if you had a choice.  I could only feel sad.

The 2010 poverty level was $22,314 for a family of four, and $11,139 for an individual, based on an official government calculation that includes only cash income, before tax deductions.

It’s very easy to look at this numbers and think only in abstract terms.  But I prefer to think in concrete terms—what do those figures mean when considering what someone needs to live?  The poverty level presumes a family of four can live on less than $22, 314 a year, but how?  Let’s assume rent is low—say $500 a month (and I don’t know anywhere a family of four can find a place for that)—rent alone has already taken up more than a quarter of the year’s money.  And that rent may not include utilities like gas, electric and water—let’s add another $200 a month for that.  Have we talked about transportation?  A car with gas, insurance and maintenance can take a significant portion of the remainder, but even public transportation such as buses and subways require money—travel is not free.  What else is essential?  Food, clothes, insurance, insurance co-pays, over the counter medication (insurance does not pay for aspirin or Benadryl) child care, not to mention cleaning supplies and hygiene products.  Even if a family receives some assistance from the government, that assistance is minimal and limited to food, rent subsidy, or small amounts of cash that usually comes tied to conditions such as work or training programs.

The truth is that it is possible to work full time and still fall under the poverty line.  Indeed, $22,314 a year is equivalent to working full time (40 hours a week, for 52 weeks) for $10.73 an hour, well above the minimum wage in most states.  And it is not the isolated case where working people make that little.  The median wage in the US in 2010 was only $26,364, only $4,050 more than the poverty rate for a family of four.  That means half of all U.S. workers made wages less than that.  It is possible that many live in households where other people work, or that they have taken second or third jobs, but it is still a sobering statistic when the numbers are translated into basic necessities like food, shelter, and clothing.

There are many who say the Federal Poverty Level does not accurately measure poverty (see our blog post about it here).   Many have advocated measuring poverty in terms of basic needs.  The National Center for Children in Poverty has a Basic Needs Calculator, which evaluates how much it really costs to live in a given state and city (or county).  In most places, it costs almost twice the federal poverty level to make ends meet for a family of four.  That is without any extras, no books, no trips to the library, no picnics in the park.

We have talked before about how much more expensive it is to do basic things, like diapering your baby, if you don’t have much money.  And we have also talked about the disadvantages people without money face in getting a good education or otherwise breaking free from the cycle of poverty.  We talk about these things because these are the concrete realities of poverty.  The numbers are disturbing in the abstract, but when you bring them to a personal level, like the man shopping in Wal-Mart, they are downright heartbreaking.

The High Cost of Poverty–Education Edition

The effect of being poor is more than not being able to buy things.  It fundamentally affects how you are able to function in life.  This is particularly true for students in poor families, who often come to school hungry, without enough sleep, and without having done their homework because they lack the supplies and the space necessary to do it.  As Brock Cohen, a teacher in the Los Angeles County Unified District writes in a blog for the Washington Post,

What had grown increasingly clear to me was that my students’ academic struggles did not simply stem from inaction, ineffective parenting, drug use, or neglect. While these elements were usually present in various forms, or to greater or lesser degrees, they weren’t the root causes of their failure; they were the effects of poverty. What I’d learned in less than a semester of teaching was that poverty wasn’t merely a temporary, though unpleasant, condition — like a hangover or the sniffles. It was a debilitating, often generational, epidemic.

And students in low-income districts are often taught by inexperienced teachers who are paid less well than their counterparts in more affluent districts.  Because most educational districts are funded on the local level, the property taxes in a given district have a great deal to do with how much the district has to spend on the school and the students who attend it.  So students in poor families, most often living in poor neighborhoods, get shortchanged, not only by their family’s debilitating economic situation, but also by school districts without the means to make up the difference.   Cohen notes, they become “apartheid” schools, where testing is substituted for learning.

Education expert Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University has observed that the U.S.’s famously poor showing in educational achievement among the world’s industrialized nations is directly attributable to the U.S.’s increased population of poor children.

There is another story we rarely hear: Our children who attend schools in low-poverty contexts are doing quite well. In fact, U.S. students in schools in which less than 10 percent of children live in poverty score first in the world in reading, out-performing even the famously excellent Finns.

In high-achieving countries like Finland and Singapore, strong social safety nets ensure that virtually all schools have fewer than 10 percent of their students living in poverty. Although the poverty-test score association is similar across 14 wealthy nations (with the average scores of the poorest 5 percent of students just over half those of their wealthiest peers), our poverty rate for children is much higher than others: 22 percent of all U.S. children and 25 percent of young children live in poverty.

The link between poverty and low academic achievement is well documented.  So if we are counting on education as the primary means for helping poor children escape poverty, but do not address the poverty that robs children of their ability to obtain academic success, we have simply turned public schools into the scapegoats for erosion of the American dream, and abandoned our future in the process.

Why are we writing about this?  Because diapers (and other hygiene products) are part of the long list of things people who don’t have enough money cannot buy.  Why do diapers matter?  Because people ( young and old)  must have their basic needs met and cannot develop optimally without that.  As we observed in June, the EU measures child deprivation by measuring children’s access to items that go beyond the bare minimum to sustain life, but include modest comforts that improve the quality of life.  As we said then, if children are our nation’s future, shouldn’t we give them not just the bare minimum to survive, but the basics they need to thrive?   Without these things, we are impoverishing not only our children’s opportunity to grow but also our nation’s future.

Some thoughts on Independence Day

Tomorrow we celebrate Independence Day, the official “birthday” of the United States.  Often, we celebrate by considering what it means to be an American.

One of the enduring aspects of the American character is our appreciation of the independent individual–the person who can make his or her way in the world without a helping hand.  But the truth is, we all need a helping hand.  Whether it is your parents or other caregiver who taught you how to walk, speak, and care for yourself, the teacher who taught you how to read, write, add, and think critically, the mentor who took you under his or her wing at work, or anyone else who lent a helping hand, we all can look back at a point in our lives when we needed help in obtaining the position we hold and the things have so we could be “independent individuals.”  In truth, one of the things that makes America great is that there are so many people in our lives willing to reach out and help others pull themselves up.

For families in need, diaper banks can provide that helping hand to achieving independence.  A family without diapers cannot place their children in quality child care, limiting their ability to go to work or school. A family without diapers can sink into a funk of despair and stress that makes it difficult to focus on any higher order need beyond clothing and feeding their children, resulting in less opportunity to stimulate children’s intellect and motor development to prepare them for success in life. A baby without diapers lives in daily discomfort, limiting his ability to absorb the world around him.  Diapers can help families and children focus on obtaining those skills and economic position that will allow them to succeed independently.

Help us help families in need to obtain the independence that is the American ideal.  Give generously to your local diaper bank, or consider holding a diaper drive in your community to celebrate what makes America great.

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