Thursday, May 28, 2015

The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives

As I mentioned in my previous post, we've been living in a poorer are of Kansas City while also trying to restart our careers/finances after moving back home from our 18 months in Europe.  It's been a bit of a challenge, but with Erin accepting a full-time teaching position at Dawson's school, things are starting to stabilize.

Due to both living in the Northeast and struggling to make much money, I've gained some serious insight into what it's like to be poor.  I'm not ready to go into all the details yet, but I will eventually share my first hand experiences with "poor shaming" and heartless and immovable bureaucracy from the past few months.  In the meantime, though I will share some hightlights from a book I recently finsihed, "The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives."  I found myself agreeing often with the books author, either because I've observed what he's describing first hand or have actually experienced it myself.  Here are some quotes from the book.

pg. 5
[There is a] sheer loneliness of poverty, the fact that profound economic hardship pushes people to the psychological and physical margins of society – isolated from friends and relatives; shunted into dilapidated trailer parks, shanties, or ghettoized public housing; and removed from banks and stores, transit systems and cultural institutions.  The poor live on society’s scraps –a few dollars in government assistance or charity, donated food, thrift-store clothes.  They can afford neither transport to venture out of their communities nor simple luxuries such as movies or a cup of coffee with friends in a cafĂ©.  They cannot afford to vary the routines of their daily lives.  Embarrassed by their poverty, worried about being judged failures in life, and humiliated by that judgment, many told me that they have essentially withdrawn from all but the most necessary, unavoidable social interaction.

The second that that one realizes in telling this story is the diversity, the complexity, of poverty.  Its causes, and therefore its potential solutions, cannot meaningfully be reduced to a pat list of features.  There are people with no high school education who are poor, but there are also university graduates on food bank lines.  There are people who are poor because they have made bad choices, gotten addicted to drugs, burned bridges with friends and family – and then there are people who have never taken a drug in their lives, who have huge social networks, and who still can’t make ends meet.  There are people who have never held down a job, and others who hold down multiple, but always low-paying, jobs, frequently for some of the most powerful corporations on earth.  There are people who have never had a bank account and use payday loans and other predatory lending sources whenever they need access to extra cash, and there are others who, during more flush times, owned huge suburban houses and expensive cars.  There are children whose only hot meals are what they are given at school, and young adults who have nothing now and never really had anything earlier in life either.  There are military veterans who have struggled to find a place in civilian life, middle-aged and once-middle-class people falling down the economic ladder as the recession fails to fully lift, and elderly people cascading into destitution as savings evaporate and expected equity in their homes fails to materialize.

Poverty is, in other words, as diverse as the United States itself.  What the poor have in common, however, is an increasingly precarious existence in a country seemingly unable – or at least unwilling – to come to grips with their collective despair. 

Pg. 7
Were we as a society able to implement [a plan to deal with poverty] in affordable and equitable ways, the result would be a fundamental reimagining of the American economic landscape.  We can use four major revenue sources: 1) a public works fund to protect against mass unemployment; 2) a new educational opportunity fund to dramatically expand access to, and affordability of, higher education; 3) a poverty mitigation fund built up from the introduction of a financial transaction tax and energy profit taxes; and 4) money to stabilize Social Security and start reducing the national deficit, made available from higher taxes on capital gains, high-end inheritances, and the income of the most affluent wage earners…. If we used these revenue sources, we could change both our expectations of society and our long-term financial calculus in a way beneficial to tens of millions of people. 

Pg. 34
We will get far further in understanding twenty-first century American poverty if we consider how entrenched the new plutocracy, and its economic agenda, has become than if we look solely for explanations regarding the purported intellectual, economic, and cultural inadequacies of the poor.  It is, after all, surely no coincidence that the United States, the country with the wealthiest elite in the Western world, and an economy that has averaged 2.2 percent productivity gains each year since 1947, also has vastly higher poverty rates than its peer nations.

Shortly after the financial crisis hit, the OECD published a table on income distribution: Even after government benefits were factored in, more than 11 percent of the American population had incomes of only 40 percent of the median income in the country. In Great Britain, that number was only a little above 6 percent; Germany’s number was a little more than 4 percent.  In Sweden it was 3.8 percent; and in the Netherlands, 2.7 percent.  Even Greece and Ireland, two countries tottering toward bankruptcy, had a far lower percentage of their population living significantly below the poverty line than did the United States.

“What’s most striking in the past few years is the absolute absence of discussions of poverty on the public agenda,” noted University of California at Santa Barbara historian Alice O’Connor, who has built her career studying Americans’ shifting attitudes toward poverty over the centuries.  “It’s just not there.  The great shift is that we’ve come to accept very high levels of poverty as either inevitable or the way things should be.”  For O’Connor, the callous approach to poverty wasn’t unprecedented in American history, but it was something that found equivalents only distantly back in time.  “You’d have to cycle back to the Gilded Age,” in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, “to find a similarly untroubled acceptance of mass poverty,” she believed.  These days, says O’Connor, politics has become increasingly reliant on the big-dollar contributions, and in so becoming has lost touch with the expectations of the vast majority of Americans who cannot afford to buy access to the political process.  “The narrow politics of winning elections, “she averred, “has less and less to do with connecting with what people really care about, and more to do with raising money and buying media and these kinds of things.”

Pg. 51
In the same way that our political culture lacks the language to adequately confront poverty, so too in recent years it has lacked a vocabulary to explain why rampant inequality is a problem.  As that inequality grows, and as the political rhetoric is skewed toward meeting the requirements of the country’s new elites, so public infrastructure becomes ever more fragile.  An anti-tax, anti-government movement, using the language of populism, and turbocharged in the aftermath of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which allowed outside interest groups to spend freely on attack ads and “independent expenditure” campaigns, claims to represent the little man against Big Brother.  In reality, however it has created a public sector defined by squalor and an insecure citizenry unable to define itself by commonly accessed, and accessible, institutions.

The method is simple: defund public services, ensure that the government only delivers second-rate goods, convince the electorate that long-term societal investments such as Social Security and Medicare are Ponzi schemes unlikely to survive down the generation, and it becomes ever easier to convince ordinary people that taxes are a mugging rather than an investment.  There is, after all, a reason that Swedes – who receive quality education, healthcare, childcare, vacation times, and pensions courtesy of their government – tolerate far higher taxes than do Americans.  It’s no because they have some strange Scandinavian-only pro-tax genes in their DNA.  Nor is it because of some bizarre streak of masochism in their culture.  Rather, it’s because they actually get their money’s worth from their taxes.  They pay good money and get good quality services.  In America, by contrast, increasingly the public receives duds.

Sell enough lemons, conservatives have realized, and you can trigger demands that the whole enterprise be shut down.  It is, quite simply, a classic bait-and-switch maneuver.

Able to spend virtually unlimited sums to influence political and judicial races, groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce and   Crossroads GPS; and individuals such as the Koch brothers; Newt Gingrich’s 2012 primary season backer, Sheldon Adelson; and Rick Santorum’s funder, Foster Friess – have seeded a conservative push to undermine what remains of the progressive tax structure and to denude government of its role in providing basic serves to the populace. 

More and more, as a result of squeezing government services, those with resources opt out of the public sphere, sending their children to private schools and colleges, protecting their homes and other property with private security systems, abandoning public transit systems, forgoing as many interactions with the public sector and with government agencies as they can.  Similar processes have happened in recent years in countries such as South Africa and Mexico.  It no instance has such a retrenchment led to a fairer, more equal or more tranquil society. 

Pg. 88
In part, America’s poverty epidemic is a failure of imagination – we haven’t invested enough energy into understanding the causes and the manifestations of poverty in today’s United States, or into imagining alternatives.  In part, though, it’s a failure of empathy – we haven’t as a society worked out why we should care.  Too many people either believe they have no obligations the broader community or do not understand the consequences that follow when public infrastructure is allowed to crumble.  That is the point raised by then – Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, whose word led to the creation of the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in her critique of businesspeople who didn’t want to pay their fair share of taxes and who didn’t believe that the state played any role in their success.  Even a self-made man, she explained to an audience in 2011 – at the start of her successful campaign for the US Senate – used publicly funded roads to truck his goods to market, hired workers educated in publicly funded schools, and relied on publicly funded police forces for security and firefighters for putting out fires.  “Part of the underlying social contract,” she continued, “is you take a hunk of that [profit] and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Pg. 132
Throughout history, philosophers and political figures have sought to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor; or, to put it another way, between those whose poverty is caused by outside forces and thus merits society’s sympathy and those whose poverty is the result of poor life decisions, or communal dysfunction, and thus merits our scorn.

Such a distinction is pervasive today in the United States, where politicians spend an inordinate amount of time trying to distinguish between those simply down on their luck and those trying to con the system.  In doing so, we have set up a tremendous number of barriers to accessing anti-poverty programs.  These barriers have, in all likelihood, stopped some ne’er-do-wells from gaining assistance they ought not to get; but such gains have frequently come at the cost of scaring away many others who do qualify but are deterred from applying by the cumbersome, frequently humiliating, nature of the application process.

Pg. 136
In the modern American context, all-too-often this discussion about whether or not impoverished residents are deserving of sympathy and of government aid takes place against a backdrop of racial and class animus.  For while white conservatives use government assistance e copiously – whether it be Social Security or mortgage tax relief, low interest federal college loans or Medicare- in their political discussions they tend to define their benefits as not being “welfare,” in contrast to the somehow less noble assistance provided to their black and brown neighbors.  The Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler writes in her book, “The Submerged State” that a self-identified conservative is 50 percent more likely than a liberal to claim never to have used a government program, despite the fact that 96 percent  of Americans she surveyed had, in fact, utilized government assistance – from mortgage tax relief to federal farm subsidies, from Medicare to Social Security.  Certainly, no one has talked about drug-testing seniors before they can access Social Security, requiring people filing for mortgage relief piss into a cup or mandating that bankers seeking to access billions of dollars of bailout funds prove their cocaine-free bona fides before tapping TARP.

Pg. 177-179
That so many people were seeing huge drops in income, with the resulting and all-too-predictable, impacts on their ability to pay their mortgages, rents and other basic bills, wasn’t just to do with unemployment.  It was also to do with a political push to dismantle prevailing wage structures, and to keep the minimum wage extraordinarily low in many states.  In fact, in the years prior to the onset of the Great Recession, much of the worst poverty data came out of states with lower-than-average unemployment.  In places like Idaho and Texas, the jobs were there; they just were no longer paying enough to live on.  In 2011, researchers with the Economic Policy Institute estimated that if the government entirely absented itself from the business of tax subsidies and assistance to the poor, the poverty rate in America would immediately jump to 23.7 percent.  The reason?  As was the case in Victorian-era England, millions of twenty-first-century Americans, lving in aperiod during which trade unions were on the sane and the power of employers on the rise, were having to work jobs that didn’t even get them up to subsistence-level living.

As a result [of “right-to-work” laws making it harder for workers to organize into trade unions being pushed by conservatives and adopted by more and more states], even before the Great Recession hit, real incomes for working-class Americans were lower in the early 2000s than they had been a generation earlier.  To remind readers of the salient numbers here:  The median age peaked in 1973 at $33,000 in 2010 dollars.  By 2005, during the roaring decade that preceded the financial collapse, that median wage was down to $29,000; and in the years following, as the broader pillars of the economy tottered, it fell still further, toward the $26,000 mark.  Millions of poor people were working full time yet being inexorably swept backwards economically.

[This is] why Texas Governor Rick Perry could enter the presidential primary contest in 2011 claiming that he’d presided over a period of extraordinary job growth in the Lone Star State, while his opponents could decry the fact that 17.9 percent of Texans lived in poverty, and 7.4 percent in extreme poverty; that 6.3 million Texans had no health benefits, which mean that a larger percentage of the population in Texas has no access to medical coverage than in any other state in America; and that a higher percentage of the state’s residents were “food insecure” than in all but one other state.

Both sets of claims were true: Texas was seeing more jobs being created – between January 2006 and January 2011 it added over half a millions positions, while other states were hemorrhaging employment.  But they were low-paying, non-benefited, and frequently dead-end in character.  The state wasn’t educating workers well enough to help them move up the economic ladder; it wasn’t investing adequately in job training programs; it wasn’t putting resources into monitoring workplace conditions.  For employers, Perry’s Texas was a low-wage, low-regulation paradise.  For employees, too often it was a place of crushing drudgery.

Pg. 181
So why the skyrocketing food insecurity in Texas?  In large part because more and more of the working poor, in a state with only the federal minimum wage, were earning rock-bottom wages.  In 2010, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that Texas and Mississippi were tied for having highest percentage of their workforces earing only at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.  Fully 550,000 Texans were stuck at this wage level – about half of them were actually earning less than the legal minimum – with millions more earning not much more.

For companies such as Walmart, all of this was, quite simply , great for business.  Taking advantage of the anti-union, anti-labor environment, the world’s biggest retailer opened up dozens of stores in the 1990s and 2000s in the Lone Star state.  In the Dallas region alone, by 2012 it had more than twenty outlets.  Texas’ low-wage environment apparently meshed perfectly with Walmart’s employment philosophy.  According to the online wage-monitoring site Glassdoor, as of mid-2012 the average pay for a Walmart sales associate was $8.88 an hour; for a “guest service team member” it was $8.42; for a cashier $8.62.

When meat-cutters in its Jacksonville, Texas store tried to unionize in 2000 to better their working conditions, the company responded by eliminating the butcher’s section from its store, limiting itself to prepackaged meats instead so as to avoid having to negotiate with a labor union.  It’s a tactic the company has perfected all over the country – rousing the wrath of organizations such as Human Rights Watch but proving remarkably good for business.  In 2011, Walmart posted profits of more than $15 billion.  After all, keeping workers nonunion allows the company to pay wages so low that the children of many employees end up on Medicaid, the workers themselves on food stamps.

In October 2012 several Walmart workers in the Los Angeles area launched a strike against the company;  and a month later, on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, Walmart workers in several stores around the country, including some in Dallas, walked off the job, in a rolling attempt to force the company to recognize the UFCW and other unions.  Walmart’s response?  A spokesperson denounced the action as a “union-funded publicity stunt.”

Pg. 185
Utterly wedded to a rigid market ideology – to a belief system that holds that whatever outcomes the market, left to its own devices, generates must be right – the Social Darwinists of modern politics simply cannot fathom why a society would need to intervene to break cycles of poverty that, again by definition, are caused by personal failings.  Once upon a time, the absolute social mobility that they believed produced fair economic outcomes might have been the case for certain groups in society.  Not for enslaved African Americans, clearly; not for Native Americans kicked off their land; not for women; almost certainly not for poor white sharecroppers… but possibly for other non-share-cropping white males.  Yet, even by the logic of that truncated definition of “society,” today clearly American is not a land that produces equal opportunities for all to excel.  In fact, a slew of recent studies have found that Americans born into poverty move up the income ladder less frequently than their peers do in areas of the world such as Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Canada, France and many other advanced industrial democracies; and that the incomes of children born into poverty end up more closely resembling their parents’ income than is the case elsewhere.  The reports come not just from liberal academics and think tanks, but also from establishment institutions such as the Boston branch of the Federal Reserve, and government data-collecting agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  On measure after measure, social mobility in the United States has fallen off from where it was in previous eras; and, as worrying, a host of other countries that used to trail America in terms of the opportunities they afforded the impoverished amongst their citizenry now stand out as providing increased levels of opportunity.

For a country built on notions of self-improvement, home to millions of immigrants and their descendants – who come, and come, to a country they believe gives them opportunities to succeed that they would have nowhere else on earth – that curtailment of opportunity at the bottom of the economy is peculiarly devastating. 

Pg. 197
My purpose is not to suggest that we enforce absolute equality on a population of 300 million people.  Despite the fearmongering raised by conservatives whenever conversations about equity take center stage, absolute equality is neither possible nor remotely desirable; it is, in fact, a straw man.  Rather, I hope to suggest ways of limiting the extreme levels of inequality that have, increasingly, come to derail the American civic project in recent decades, as well as developing quality uses for hard-earned tax dollars so that large numbers of Americans are willing, once more, to fund the sorts of ambitious social investments that allowed for the creation of Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance.  Nor is my goal to undermine important moral and philosophical notions about the importance of personal responsibility; rather, it is to suggest ways of giving everybody an opportunity to maximize their own potential.

Lastly, my intent is certainly not to propose a set of policies that inexorably increase the national debt; nor is it to suggest that the country’s political leaders somehow spin money out of nothing.  The size of America’s economy, as of this writing, is in the region of $16 trillion per year.  That’s large, but it’s not limitless.  In an era of anxieties about ballooning budget deficits, I want to show how, in redistributing a few hundred billion dollars per year of that $16 trillion economy, through changes to the tax structure and changes in how we prioritize federal and state spending – or, to put it another way, in reprioritizing who receives and who spends about 2 to 3 percent of the vast national pot of wealth that is America, while leaving undisturbed the remaining 97 to 98 percent – we can create a set of vital anti-poverty initiatives that have the potential to dramatically improve the lives of tens of millions of Americans.  And I want to show how, if done smartly, these initiatives can serve as a down payment for a decades-long push that has the potential not just to ameliorate poverty once it arises but to make its presence a rarity rather than a commonplace in mid-twenty-first-century American life.

Pg. 199
Poverty is, after all, a web of problems enormous in their complexity.  It bubbles up because of systemic failures in how the economy and the political process functions and at the same time, it also emerges because of individual choices and behaviors.  Any simple solutions, any one-size-fits-all promises of reform, are doomed to failure, and anyone who claims to have found a magic bullet to once and for all banish poverty from America’s shores is either a scam artist or a Pollyanna.

Pg. 206
“In seeking to close the achievement gap for low-income and minority students,” wrote economist Richard Rothstein in his 2004 book Class and Schools, “policy makers focus inordinate attention on the improvement of instruction, because they apparently believe that social class differences are immutable, and that only schools can improve the destines of lower-class children. “  But, he continued, in all likelihood “establishing an optometric clinic in a school to improve the vision of low-income children would probably have a bigger impact on their test scores than spending the same money on instructional improvement.”

Raising the minimum wage so that the parents of these children were earning enough money to adequately feed, clothe, and house these same kids would work even bigger wonders.  In fact, argued Rothstein, increasing the minimum wage or boosting the EITC “should be considered educational policies as well as economic ones, for they would likely result in higher academic performance from children whose families are more secure.”

Rothstein calculated the cost of a series of big-picture reforms that would use schools as epicenters in a broader communal effort against poverty and its consequences.  How much wojuld it cost to create a set of conditions that would allow kids from impoverished backgrounds to approximate the experiences, both educational and life, of more affluent children?  His answer: $156 billion per year.

Now that’s a huge sum of money and one that clearly isn’t going to be freed up by federal and state governments anytime soon.  But, as Rothstein points out, it’s about equal to the amount of money redistributed back to the super-wealthy as a result of the tax cuts enacted during the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency.  That’s not a nebulous comparison:  In a world of finite resources, tax cuts have consequences.  One of them is that less money is available for public goods that benefit everyone and that can be used as tools to tamp down broader inequities.  Yes, in the current political moment any politician who proposes raising taxes to fund a $156 billion per year increase in education spending would be printing themselves a one-way ticket to political oblivion.  But, in another moment, defined by a different set of priorities, a country as wealthy and dynamic as is America could, clearly, fund some extremely ambitious anti-poverty, and pro-education, measures.

Rothsein’s yardstick is, though not politically realistic, at the very least a wakeup call.  Even if massive infusions of funds are off the table, surely states oughtn’t to be slashing ever more money from already-stressed schools.  For when they do, when states such as California remove billions of dollars from being spent on K-12 classrooms, year upon year upon year, and reduce the length of the school year to further trim costs, inevitably the poor get hurt the most.   And as inevitable, when that happens, inequality increases, and the long-term life prospects for large groups of Americans deteriorates. 

Pg. 211
In 1974, the English political philosopher Steven Lukes published his book, “Power:  A Radical View.”  In it, he argues that there were three core ways in which power could be exercised, each more pervasive than the next.  The first was raw coercion; one person, group of people, or institution had power and through force compelled others to bow down before it.  The second was slightly more subtle, but even more effective: The groups with power managed to convince their underlings to legitimate that power, both by shaping people’s preferences and, as effectively, by determining what they didn’t want in their lives.  In such a society, those without power voluntarily acquiesced in their own situation.  The third, and most dominant of all, occurred when powerful individuals and institutions managed to so control the psychology of those without power that populations no longer even realized they were being manipulated.  They acquiesced in their own powerlessness and no longer could even envision alternatives. 

In such a scenario, power relationships were so utterly omnipresent that they had become invisible; they were simply the background to every experience, to every choice made in society. And, in a world so governed, the manipulation of the many for the benefit of the few became normal, the currency of political business.

That unfortunately, is indeed how too many transactions are conducted in American politics today.  That’s how people who live just inside the margins are convinced to blame those just outside the margins for their poverty; its’ how people whose wages have shrunk – whose benefits have been eviscerated, and whose access to government assistance has wanted are convinced to vote for anti-tax, anti-regulatory, anti-safety net politicians who will further batter their pocketbooks and throw them into insecurity.  It’s how people without pensions are convinced to blame public sector works who still have pensions for the country’s economic plight, rather than asking why more workers in the world’s wealthiest country don’t have secure retirements in the first place. 

Pg. 219
Currently, the federal government mandates that states provide certain benefits and services, but doesn’t mandate how the states fund these requirements.  As a result, in many more conservative states legislators simply adopted deeply regressive tax systems – such as imposing sales taxes on food to fund social services or, in the case of Alabama, calculating higher state tax liabilities for the poor if the poor have been given a federal subsidy such as the Earned Income Tax Credit – to cover their increased obligations.  These are pure examples of robbing Peter to feed Paul, and they are particularly ironic given how vocally anti-tax most of the political leaders in states such as Alabama are.  Any rational antipoverty strategy would immediately alter such tax codes so as to make them more representative to the needs of the poorest of taxpayers.  Failure to do so would only stoke the suspicion that when conservative southern politicians proclaim their hostility to taxes, what they really mean is a hostility to the sorts of taxes paid by the sorts of affluent voters who tend to make up their electoral base and a resistance to fund the sorts of programs generally used by people who aren’t part of that base. 

Pg. 224
But while Medicaid is a whole lot better than nothing, it has, historically, been severely restricted in a number of ways.  In fact, until all of the major Affordable Care Act provisions kick in, in 2014, most states won’t extend Medicaid to childless adults.  At the same time, a minority of states, mainly southern ones, will continue to place huge restrictions on adults of any status, even those with young children at home, gaining access.

The problem, however, goes beyond one of gate-keeping.  Even in states that have relatively liberal eligibility  requirements for their programs, there are strict asset tests in place that have the effect of forcing the temporarily out of work and/or cash poor to strip themselves of almost all their worldly possessions (homes, car, retirement accounts, savings) simply to gain healthcare – even if this ends up condemning them to long-term poverty by depriving them of the possessions and financial cushions that people need before they can even start working their way up the economic ladder again.
How, for example, can an unemployed person in an area without public transport get a job, and travel to that job, if he has had to sell his vehicle so as to get medical coverage?  Or how can a person afford to retire if she has had to liquidate her small nest egg for that healthcare access?  What should the middle-aged businessmen in California who had lost his business during the recession and who needed knee surgery before he could take on new work do when he was told that he couldn’t get medical assistance, and thus couldn’t get his surgery, until he had stripped himself down to a maximum of $2,000 of assets?  It is, truly, a Faustian bargain into which large numbers of Americans have been pushed.

In other words, while Medicaid does enroll more people during recessions, it does so in a way that, at times, might actually have the effect of tamping down economic recovery down the road by locking recipients into a deeper poverty than they were in when first they lost their income.  In deep recessions, in particular, modifying or eliminating, asset test for Medicaid would go a long way toward keeping people both healthy and out of long-term poverty.  Yet that hasn’t happened.  The political will simply isn’t there. 

Pg. 230
People who feel insecure themselves feel threatened by the idea that somebody who’s demonstrably worse off than they are is going to get help and they’re not.  They have an instinctive feeling these people are not deserving.  There’s been a divide and conquer thing coming from people and interest higher up the income level.  We’ve had an unremitting attack on welfare that started in the late ‘60s.  An unremitting drumbeat saying people who are in need are actually just not trying hard enough, they’re lazy, have become dependent on welfare and it’s ruined their character, and all the rest of it.
Pg. 233
Instead of the current punishment-based approach to welfare – find a job at all costs, or you’ll be cut off from welfare – Americans would benefit from, and the country’s best impulses would be showcased by, an incentive-based solution that rewards those who find work with extra help.  This help should range from an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit to ongoing childcare assistance, from transportation subsidies perhaps on up to top-up welfare checks from the state for a specific period of time while those who have spent months or years on public assistance navigate the tough early days in a new job.  Such a strategy would go further toward raising lower income families out of poverty – to eliminating the poverty trap traditionally associated with welfare – than a great bundle of sticks each used to whack poor Americans harder than the one before. 

Pg. 234
Ultimately, if we cannot work out a language with which to highlight poverty’s corrosive reach, and posit solutions to the problems facing those at the bottom of the economic ladder, our democratic institutions will themselves suffer.  In the long run, the cost of inaction will far surpass the price of intervention.  Far better to get it right now than to deal with decades of collateral damage from our inaction today. 

Pg. 240
[David Onek] urged what reformers were calling “justice reinvestments,” taking money saved by locking fewer people up, and investing it in programs that would lower crime rates through tracking poverty, addiction, mental illness, and other massive societal problems. 
Use the criminal justice system to deal merely with the criminal symptoms of a person’s underlying problems, and you solve nothing, Onek understood.  Instead, you just spent a ton of money locking people up – money that ends up being diverted from other parts of county and state budgets.  And you effectively brand a large pool of people with a modern-day scarlet letter, one they will carry with them when they leave jail or prison, and that will have the effect both of limiting the kinds of work they can do subsequently, and also reducing the amount of money they will earn over the rest of their lives.  In 2012, the Department of Justice reported that a spell behind bars can reduce a person’s future earning by 40 percent.
Imprisonment is, quite simply, all too often a response to poverty, and overwhelmingly it serves as a one-way ticket to lifelong penury.  It is, for this and many other reasons, a powerful weapon to use against someone, and as such it should be used sparingly.
Of course, when people are dangerous, when they are predatory, when their crimes seriously harm others, and when there is no way to keep society safe from their actions other than by locking them up, then incarceration is entirely appropriate.  But when, as is all too often the case in a country that has more than quintupled its incarcerated population since the early 1970s, and that now houses far more nonviolent inmates than any other country on earth, a jailor prison sentence serves mainly to allow society to blow off steam at misfits and miscreants, then, surely, it is better to look for alternatives.  After all, to reiterate a point previously state, in many parts of the country locking someone up costs more, per year, than sending a person to an Ivy League college. And, in the same way as the parents of a Harvard student expect band for their bucks, so, too, taxpayers have a right to expect criminal justice expenditures to make society safer and reduce the likelihood that people will return to crime once their sentences are completed.

Pg. 242
“We have an absolute fiscal crisis.  The number-one driver of that crisis is the cost of prisons.  Meanwhile, teachers are getting pink-slipped, police are being laid off, social services are being cut. Certainly there are people who need to be locked up for long periods of time.  Unfortunately, we have lots of people being locked up who don’t meet that description. “  Onek talked of a three-strikes inmate serving life for breaking into a soup kitchen, another serving life for stealing a pair of socks. And he spoke angrily of how it would cost California nearly $5 billion during the following twenty years to keep incarcerated its population of nonviolent three strikers. “obviously, life in prison, any reasonable person would say, is completely exorbitant punishment for the minor crimes they have committed.  It is foolish; it is literally bankrupting our state.  And we can’t afford it.”

Pg. 264
At the risk of flogging a dead horse, let me reiterate a key point here:  cutting education grants to poor people is utterly counterproductive.  It’s stupid, slash-and-burn, public policy.  It burdens families who stay they educational course with crippling levels of debt, and it discourages others from staying in school and going to college in the first place, thus tamping down their income potential for the remainder of their working lives.

Pg. 266
Again, let me stress a point I made earlier; our problem is not a lack of resources to tackle poverty; rather, it has been a lack of will to enact the legislature and taxation reforms that would free up the necessary dollars for such an effort.

Pg. 275
Stable economic environments tend not to produce gangs, street-level drug markets, hunger, homelessness, and all the other daily facts of life that poor kids have to navigate in their communities. Less hunger, violence, and drug dealing tends to mean less disruptive classrooms.  Less disruption inside the classroom means that teachers have more time to actually teach kids and engage with them educationally as opposed to trying to impose discipline on chaotic, and sometimes dangerous, situations. And more meaningful teacher-student interactions tend to lead to higher educational attainments.
In many ways, I believe, educational virtuous circles can be spurred at least in party by non-educational reforms. And many of those reforms are at the heart of the holistic anti-poverty strategy that I have detailed in the pages of this book.  Absent those changes, absent the pathways to broader prosperity made possible by investments in job creation, by affordable healthcare, by large-scale changes in housing markets, and so on, the path to a renascent K-12, even with significant infusions of extra cash, is much rockier.

Pg. 276
Navigate a virtuous circle counter-clockwise, and one dysfunction butts up against another.  If you’re born into wealthy, you will have available to you the most cutting-edge educational facilities.  But if you’re born into poverty – and, increasingly these days, into middle-income families – your options, unless you are one of the lucky few to live near a thriving charter school or a good local public school, are far more limited.  Your family will be unable to afford quality preschool – which makes it far less likely that you’ll succeed academically once you do enter school.  You will suffer the consequences of buzz saws having been taken to programs like Head Start that subsidize early learning opportunities for lower income kids.  You will all too likely attend overcrowded schools reeling from teacher and staff layoffs as a result of endless local and state budget fiascos, in which you use out-of-date textbooks, no longer have access to non-core requirement courses, and rarely are exposes to music, art, and other vital, culturally enriching, aspects of life.  Your school year will likely be shorter than that students experience in most every other wealthy democracy.  And, if and when you manage to get into college despite these obstacles, you will end up heavily indebted and working an array of jobs in a vain attempt to keep up with soaring tuition costs and make up the shortfalls from inadequate Pell Grants.
At every stage of the educational journ, in short, we make it harder on those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.  It’s as if we set up a one-hundred meter race, some of the participants in wich get to sprint down open lanes, while others have to jump a series of hurdles. No guesses for which group of racers will tend to finish ahead of the pack.

Pg. 278
But [educational reform] must occur in a way that recognizes that schools, and school problems, are anchored in the broader community.  While taking dollars away from schools is a surefire way to reduce the quality of the learning experience, raising the money spent on schools, while leaving the broader social conditions unchanged, can’t in and of itself guarantee improvement. 

Pg. 280
So long as the broader conditions limit children’s learning potential – so long as kids are homeless, coming to school hungry, living in communities broken down by drugs and gangs, attending schools so short of funds that class sizes are soaring and textbooks become a luxury rather than a necessity – good teachers along will not be sufficient.
“No nation in the world has eliminated poverty by firing teachers or by handing its public schools over to private managers,” wrote New York University research professor of education Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books .  “Nor does research support either strategy. But these inconvenient facts do not reduce the reformers’ zeal.  The new breed of school reformers consist mainly of Wall Street hedge fund managers, foundation officials, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, and policy makers, but few experienced educators. 

Ravitch, a onetime assistant secretary of state for education under president George H. W. Bush and author of the book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, felt that wealthy reformers were setting up charter schools that, because they could cherry-pick their students, weeded out those who did badly on tests.  They provided the illusion of better education while, in reality, oftentimes they were simply being more selective in which students they accepted than could the regular public schools with which they were in competition.  “Charters would be fine if they focuses on the kids who were the lowest-performing kids. And then [they could] come to the public schools and say, ‘Hey, we’ve learned something new, we want to share this with you because we’re part of the same system we want to help,” she told the American Prospect’s Abby Rapoport in the fall of 2012, “Instead, charters have become a competitor to see who can get the highest test scores.”

Pg. 283
Think about these problems in isolate and they appear overwhelming.  Think of them as pieces of a whole, and paradoxically, they problems become more solvable. Fixing America’s educational system cannot be done simply by focusing on schools; but understand the specific challenges faced by low-income kids who go to school hungry, who lack basic medical attention, who might have never been tested for eye problems, whose parents have lost jobs or landed themselves in prison, and more realistic solutions present themselves.  Understand homelessness as simply a personal catastrophe and it is difficult, if not impossible, to fathom why so many millions of Americans lack stable housing options, but approach this crisis as the collateral damage caused by unemployment, by the systemic marketing of bad debt, by underinvestment in mental health and foster care systems, by overinvestment in criminal justice systems, and, again, new and creative solutions can be generated.
As a country, we have the political tools to break both old cycles of poverty and also the new ones produced in the wake of financial collapse.  Add in a credible does of empathy, of moral imagination and indignation, and there’s no reason that we couldn’t, to deliberately misquote Grover Norquist, shrink the problems of entrenched poverty down to a size at which it could be drowned in a bathtub.
That someone is born poor in a country as wealthy and dynamic as is the United States ought in no measure to determine that they will die por.  And yet, for millions of Americans today, their birth is indeed their destiny.  Ensuring that the democratic aspirations of mobility and opportunity for all becomes a reality once more should, I believe be one of twenty-first century America’s top political and moral priorities.

Pg. 287
The disparity of wealth, the disparity of income, the shrinking of wages.  We find our country moving into the most stratified class distinctions that we have ever seen.  And with it comes an increase in poverty.  It’s a very dangerous social crisis that faces this country.  Every time we cut a vital support program the poverty rate goes up and the misery quotient goes up.  For us to tolerate a poverty rate and a permanent underclass of poor people in this country goes against everything that we believe we are as a nation in terms of our values.

Pg. 317
The central idea is simple: As a community, we strengthen ourselves when we find ways to protect our most vulnerable.  When we work out mechanisms to boost the wages of earners trapped at the bottom of the economy.  When we think up creative solutions to keep poor people housed and with access to healthcare.  We bolster the country when we invest in educational infrastructure in a way that makes it possible for poorer children to have as much opportunity in life as their more affluent peers, and when we make sure that pension systems are strong enough to keep the elderly out of poverty.  We enrich ourselves as a society when we reinvigorate our sense of the common good.

Pg. 325
How do we pay for such an ambitious set of projects?
Partly through targeted, sensible, fair tax increases: raising the capital gains tax, increasing the income tax on the wealthiest Americans, eliminating the upper limit for Social Security contributions, reintroducing an oil windfall profit tax, creating a viable financial transactions tax, and imposing estate taxes on large inheritances that are more in line with the taxes levied by countries such as England and Germany.  We un-starve the beast that Grover Norquist’s acolytes have spent three decades gratuitously depriving of nutrients. The creature that is social assistance for the poor, the young, and the elderly is, after all, a far less harmful beast than that of the new plutocracy – which has spent the past several decades fattening itself at the public’s expense; insulating its moneys from taxation; and ensuring the uninterrupted transfer of wealth, privilege and power down the generations.
Partly, we fund such programs through paring other areas of the budget – for example, limiting defense spending increases and restricting the percentage of healthcare dollars that can be used to feather the nests of insurance company executives.  And by asking consumers to pay marginallymore – for goods bought at big box stores and fast food restaurants, for example – so as to provide mechanism to boost the wages of the working poor. 
And partly, through designing them well, we make sure that these programs help fund themselves: Increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, for examply, by providing low-income families more money to spend on nutritional food and on preventive healthcare, reduces the medical costs associated with large numbers of low-weight and premature babies. Creating a guaranteed minimum income, using taxes imposed on the extraction of state’s natural resources to distribute annual checks to residents of specific states, or seeding businesses in poor communities through an expansion of micro-credit – all would help circulate money through depressed neighborhoods.  Boosting employment through public works would lead to a virtuous circle of economic growth.

How do we generate the political will for such an overarching and holistic project? We educate.  We empower people.  WE convince enough Americans that no matter how much money from big-dollar donors flood the political system, a democracy as vibrant as America’s can, and should, respond to the fundamental needs of its populace.

As did Peicles two and a half millennia ago, when he warned that raging economic divides threatened the Athenian citizen democracy, and as did Polanyi sixty years ago, we detail the dangers to freedom than necessarily accompany a stampede toward ever greater levels of inequality. And we highlight a set of values and a slate of policies that can block that journey into plutocracy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Back in Kansas City

Months.  I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for months.  We’ve been back in Kansas City since mid-December, living one block north of Independence Avenue and just around the corner from Grace Church of the Nazarene.  I’ve written this blog post many times in my head and even twice on paper but it’s past time to actually post this update.  I’ll give an update on a few different areas to show what life has been like since moving back to Kansas City, USA.

Our Neighborhood
We’re now living in a hundred plus year old house in the “Historic Northeast,” as residents proudly refer to our neighborhood.  It’s a fascinatingly diverse neighborhood.  The houses range from castle-like mansions to boarded up drug houses.  When people immigrate to Kansas City, they usually end up in the Northeast.  For this reason, there are approximately 55 different nationalities represented in our neighborhood.  The different cultures are prominently on display all over the Northeast.  When I subbed at East High School, I heard five different languages being spoken in the hallway before hearing English.  While the Northeast isn’t the roughest part of the city, it still has high crime and poverty rates.  The sirens never stop.  We hear drive-by shootings quite frequently.  While subbing at Northeast Middle School, the kids fearfully told me about white vans that will abduct unsuspecting kids.  Anything left on our front porch is likely to be stolen and many corners are occupied by ladies selling their bodies.  While I’m not scared, I’m often uneasy.  I’m always however, entertained by the colorful characters on Independence Avenue.  While it might seem strange, I’m actually experiencing more culture shock living in Northeast KC than I did living in Palaiseau, France. Our old home in Gardner is about 40 minutes away by car but might as well be across the globe. 

Our Church
We are a part of Grace Church of the Nazarene.  The 90 year old Nazarene congregation is comprised of just a handful of people.  The building however, is used by five other congregations from various places from across the globe.  I enjoy surprising members of the Congolese Congregation by speaking to them in French. 

We haven’t really established a role within the congregation yet, other than being present on Sunday mornings.  I’m not sure what our role will eventually be, but for the time being, we’re trying to support the pastoral family, Joey and Tammy Condon.  Dawson has also become good friends with the Condon’s youngest son. 

We are also a part of a mentoring community from Lees Summit New Beginnings.  It’s a support and training group for people trying to live missionally in their communities.  We have the intention of doing that within our neighborhood, but we haven’t really started it yet. 

Real Estate
After several years of considering it, as a result of hearing of other pastors doing the same thing, I’ve now earned my Real Estate license and have started working out of the Reece Nichols office on the Plaza.  I’m still in the very early stages, but I have signed my first client and held my first couple of Open Houses.  I’m giving Real Estate a shot because the flexibility will allow me to earn some money while doing the ministry things I really enjoy (but don’t get paid for). 

When I left Melcher Elementary in the fall of 2011, I had no idea I’d eventually be back in the school.  It was just one day, but when the opportunity to sub in that school arose, I took the one day job.  The day was a disaster, just like all my other days at Melcher, but it was a bit freeing to be able to go back to the place where I’d experienced my one (and hopefully only) nervous breakdown.  I also had the privilege of catching up with some of the wonderful people who work there.

My first actual day of subbing however, was at Satchel Paige Elementary (or Satchel Rage, as another teacher calls it) a school as out-of-control and impoverished as George Melcher.  In fact, I walked into the front office and saw the nameplate of the same lady who had been my principal at Melcher.  I was horrified at the coincidence of running into her on my first day back.  I fully expected her to give me a cold reception, but I actually received the opposite.  I will say though, that it’s very disappointing that they keep shuffling around such an incompetent principal.  It seems like the poor kids in these inner-city schools aren’t worthy of having someone who knows what they’re doing running their schools.  The principal has recently been fired, though, in the middle of the school year.

In fact, Erin is now doing a long-term sub at that school.  She is a second teacher in a room of 30 unruly and disrespectful third graders.  In another interesting coincidence, the teacher she’s working for is actually a Teach For America Corps Member finishing up her first year.  Erin says she does a great job controlling the class, which allows Erin the opportunity to model skills in giving lessons.  The current principal has come out of retirement to lead the school and appears to be doing a great job.  A good principal really can turn around a chaotic school, as evidenced by another rough school in the district, King-Weeks Elementary.

As I’ve subbed around the KC area (several different districts) I’ve been able to observe first-hand all the different schools in the area; high schools, alternative schools, middle schools and elementary schools.  Center School District is, by far, the best public school district in the city.  It’s so great to see poor African-American kids being able to benefit from a good school district.  It sure would be nice if the other districts could follow Central’s example. 

I’ve also had the chance to catch up with former Melcher teachers who are at different schools in the district.  It’s helped me heal some of those old wounds.  Yes, that experience still kind of stings.  What also still strikes a discordant note every time I experience it is seeing the line of kids entering their schools through  a metal detector.   I understand the need, but if you stop and think about how much schools and prisons resemble each other, it’s quite disturbing.  I’ve also been able to catch up with Melcher kids who are now 8th graders scattered across the district.  I’ll eventually write a full post on what that’s been like. 

Our Future
I’m not sure how everything will develop with this new experience of living in inner-city Kansas City.  We’ve both had some good opportunities come our way and it’s just a matter of sifting through them.  We haven’t started doing much ministry or community involvement yet, but things are starting to open up.  We’re just finishing the process of getting our feet underneath us, as we’ve just landed back in the US, but we’re also beginning to look toward the future.  It should be an interesting journey.