American Winter – what poverty looks like (a reprise from 2013)

The following post was written eight years ago, but unfortunately still applies today. Our situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, where too many small employers had to close their doors. Some of the observations come from my volunteer work to help homeless working families. If you only have a minute, read the next to last two paragraphs, which speak volumes of why we should help.

There is an excellent documentary on HBO called “American Winter” by Joe Gantz which tracks eight Portland families who are struggling in this economy. Please check it out at www.hbo.com/documentaries/american-winter. This documentary puts a face on poverty and shows what these families are dealing with during the economic crisis. Since I volunteer with an agency that helps homeless families, I can assure you the problems portrayed in Portland are in evidence in North Carolina and elsewhere in the United States. For example, the median family income of the homeless families we help at the agency is $9 per hour. With a living wage in NC of $17.68 for a one adult/ one child family, you can see how people are having a hard time.

These people are living paycheck to paycheck and it takes only one thing to cause them to lose their house. It could be the loss of one job or the cutback on hours worked. Or, it could be a healthcare crisis.  We have people in America who are struggling and even dying because of lack of healthcare. According to The American Journal of Medicine in 2009: 62% of bankruptcies in the US are due to medical costs and 75% of the people whose illnesses caused bankruptcy were not insured or were under insured. This is the key reason we need the Affordable Care Act and for states to permit the expansion of Medicaid to cover them.

Yet, rather than make this about healthcare, I want to focus on why we have people in such crisis. I addressed many of these issues in two companion posts last fall based on Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” The first post was written on October 20, 2012 and the second on October 29, 2012. We are not talking enough about our poverty problem in the US. The middle class problem is referenced often, but where did they go? Only a few moved up in ranks, where as the significant majority fell into poverty or near poverty.

As organizations have taken efforts to improve their profit margins dating back to the 1980s, we have seen a continuous downsizing and outsourcing of jobs. Since the early 1980s, the disparity between haves and have-nots became even more pronounced with the trickle down economics which has been proven to be unsuccessful, unless you were viewing it from the higher vantage point. As a result, there were multiple pressures on the middle class, which has led to its decline.  It only got worse when the economy went south. While there has been some repatriation of outsourced manufacturing jobs to the US, they have remained overseas for the most part.

So, if the worker did not stay up to speed with new technologies and, even if he did, there are fewer jobs for those without a college education. And, with the economic crisis, we have seen even having a college education is not enough these days. These unemployed did what they must, so where they could, started getting service jobs in retail, restaurant and hospitality industries. These jobs are near or at minimum wage and make you beholden to the number of hours you are permitted to work. Unfortunately, these jobs perpetuate poverty. You cannot afford healthcare and better food options and can barely afford rent. So, if something happens to your hours or job, you may lose your home.

The homeless families I have worked with work their fannies off. There are some I speak with in churches , who believe these families are homeless because they are less moral or virtuous and that is not it at all. Per Smiley and West’s book, poverty is the absence of money. Nothing more, nothing less. A few national stats to chew on:

– 40% of all homeless families in the US are mothers with children, the fastest growing segment;

– 75% of homeless children never graduate which perpetuates an ongoing cycle of homelessness; and

– 90% of homeless children suffer extreme stress; some worse than PTSD that former military face.

I mention these last two items, as even with all I say to the contrary, some people do not want to help the adults, who these obstinate people feel are totally responsible for their plight or are lazy. They see a chronic homeless panhandler on the street and paint all homeless people with that brush. That is a small, small subset of our homeless problem and, while we should help the chronic homeless people, there is a significant majority of homeless people who work hard, but cannot make it. Yet, I try to sell the concept of helping the kids. They did not sign up for being homeless and if we can help them, we can break the cycle of homelessness, the cost of caretaking is less, we gain a taxpaying citizen and we may be untapping a huge potential. The second place Intel Science Award winner in 2012 was a homeless girl, e.g.

We need to help these folks climb a ladder out of the hole they are in. It will be more beneficial to them and our society. And, we must provide educational paths forward, whether it be getting a GED, community or tech college schooling to learn new or improved skills. There have been some amazing things going in community colleges which can provide some paths forward. And, we need to pay people more. We have to improve the minimum wage to get at least to a living wage for an individual. It needs to be more, but if we can make that statement (making the minimum wage = a living wage) it speaks volumes and will help.

One of our dilemmas as a society is we must have a vibrant middle class to flourish. Unfortunately, the American Dream is a myth for many. We have one of the least upwardly mobile countries in the world. So, unless we make changes to our societal investments, we are destined to have only two economic classes of people. If you do not believe me, please check out my blogging friend Amaya’s website at www.thebrabblerabble.wordpress.com and check out the short video on economic disparity in our country. It is atrocious and unforgivable that this can happen in the US.

This is our collective crisis. Please watch “American Winter” or check out the above posts or Amaya’s. While “American Winter” highlights eight families, let me add a couple of more for you. One of our new Board members who works for a large bank was touring the homeless shelter and she came upon a colleague who was employed by the bank who was homeless. This stunned her that someone who worked at reasonable pay could end up homeless. Many live paycheck to paycheck in our country and it only takes a nudge for some to lose their home.

The other person I want to mention was living in a tent with her parents and younger siblings. Her dad was a construction worker and got some handy man jobs, but neither he nor his wife made enough to prevent losing their home. I highlight this teenager, as she would volunteer at a food bank to help others in need. Let me repeat this for emphasis. This homeless girl would volunteer to help people in poverty working at a food bank. We have helped this family get housed and they are climbing the ladder out of poverty. And, this young lady is now in college.

Let me shout this from the rooftops. Please help me become more vocal. We have a poverty problem in the US. We have a homeless problem in the US. We must help our neighbors and by helping them, we will help ourselves and country. Let’s help them climb these ladders. Let’s give them opportunities to succeed. If we don’t then we all will suffer.

Lessons from Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill – a review

The following post was written seven years ago when GM was having some issues that did not get communicated upward and were left to fester. This is not an uncommon problem, nor is knowing about problems and choosing not to act.

I have written before that organizations take on the personality of its leaders. Earlier this week, CEO Mary Barra of General Motors (GM), reported on the findings of an internal audit of why they did not have an earlier recall when problems arose on some cars. Many heard a lot of blame down the ladder, but we did not hear much about culpability at the top. The key question asked, but not answered, is why did people not share their concerns with management that something was amiss? The unstated answer is it is in the culture of the organization, where people at the top did not want to hear of failings or heads would roll. An analyst who covers the car industry noted there was a modus operandi of “don’t mess with the launch of new line.”

I have written before about two leaders, Captain Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill, who was the CEO who turned around Alcoa and later became Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush. They have some good lessons that GM should emulate  going forward. Sullenberger was the right person at the right time as captain of US Airways Flight 1549 that he safely landed in the Hudson River. He not only studied accidents for airlines, he was on task forces to go to crash sites and help ascertain why the planes went down. So, he knew from his research and experience, what he needed to do to safely land in the Hudson.

He also knew what GM failed to remember. He was the leader of the crew, but he understood all to well that each member of the team has a role in the safety of the flight, including the flight tower personnel. His research showed that many accidents occurred because navigators and co-pilots did not feel comfortable offering input to the pilot or tower. A couple of examples might help. A plane crashed in Japan, because the co-pilot had to acquiesce to the pilot due to seniority. In this case, the co-pilot was on record as being correct that the plane was off course, but the pilot’s judgment could not be overturned. In another, the Brazilian flight crew of a doomed flight did not have confidence to disagree with an American flight tower and the plane crashed.

Sullenberger was aware of other examples that had been noted and improved over time. But, what he did every time he had a new flight crew (even one new member), was get them all together to get to know them and encourage them to speak up if they saw something amiss. Anything, even if small. He noted in his book, what gave him great comfort during these few seconds on Flight 1549, was he could hear everyone doing their job. He got quick advice from the tower, his co-pilot and navigator. He shared his thoughts quickly and made sure everyone knew what was going to transpire. When he concluded that getting nearby Teterboro Airport was not possible, he offered up and concluded, “it looks like we will be in the Hudson” which allowed rescue crews to be alerted.

O’Neill joined Alcoa which was struggling. And, his first public comments were “we are going to make Alcoa the safest company possible.” This was an odd mission to start out with and many analysts were not impressed. One analyst told his investors to sell Alcoa stock, which he later added, was the worst advice he had ever given. O’Neill knew that the only thing he could get management and union leaders to agree on was safety. So, that is where he started. He also knew that for safety to be important, managers had to talk to floor personnel to understand better the problems, so that a plan to fix them could be developed. So, communication got better up and down the line. The empowered employees starting sharing ideas on how to improve not only safety, but process as well. The company performance and stock price took off.

Both Sullenberger and O’Neill knew that they were part of a team. They also knew the best ideas can come from anywhere, but especially from those closest to the action. So, it is not only vital, but imperative, that management create a culture where ideas can be shared. Otherwise, you would be flying in the dark. It should be noted at the same time GM was having these troubles, they missed a huge market opportunity. Why? Because they were not listening.

GM piloted the first electric car called the EV-1 in California in the early 2000’s. They did not sell them or market them, but a cult-like following was growing as people who wanted to make a difference started leasing them by the thousands. Eventually, the EV-1 was killed as the result of an alleged collusive effort chronicled in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” which can be accessed by the link below. The drivers wanted to buy the cars, but GM collected them and shredded them. They wanted no evidence. The Board of Directors of GM asked why the EV-1 pilot was being shelved at the same time they were building Hummers, and management said this is the direction America car buyers want. Hummers are no longer made as they were gas guzzlers.

Here in 2014, GM could have been the predominant player in the electric car market, which will grow as more power stations and better batteries become available. Yet, they chose a short-lived strategy, made other bad decisions and had to be bailed out and only now are seeing the failure of not having an open culture to communication. The lesson that was not said by Barra is we did not have an environment where people could offer input and we would listen to them. She needs to talk to Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill and set a more open path for the future. It is not ironic, that both are known for safety. And, communication.

Walking in those other shoes

The old proverb that you don’t know what someone else is going through until you walk around in his or her shoes is routinely and historically pertinent. Yet, one of the challenges we face is we wear those shoes with our own biases and context. In other words, the socks we wear will give those shoes a different feel.

Too often, I read letters to the editor and posted comments or listen to conversation that bias the experience. It is something we must guard against. The same goes when we extrapolate personal or second-hand anecdotes to paint all circumstances with a broad-brush. In other words, the person believes every situation must be this way, as this is what I experienced on one occasion.

As a white man in his sixties, I have a context that is different from an African-American teen male. For the most part, I can go anywhere I want without repercussions. I can walk into a hotel or gathering and go unquestioned. When I am stopped by law enforcement, I am less worried that the next move I make may be my last. An African-American man dressed for church, does not have that same level of trust. And, an African-American teen is in even more in jeopardy if he acts rashly.

I also know I have that white privilege thing. The more common example of white privilege is not overt; it is people who look like me who do not know they benefit from it. It is not the blatant, in your face, white privilege seen on the news by white supremacists. It is the everyday lack of awareness.

It also can spill over into white victimization. This “I am being held down because African-Americans and other minority groups are getting more than a fair break” belief exists and is fed by more strident media and white supremacist groups. It is a way the latter groups recruit to their folds. I experienced this yesterday in a troubling conversation with an old friend. He painted too many woes with the broad brush of this white victimization. I kept thinking “really?”

There is a reason African-Americans and other minority groups feel threatened or feel their rights matter less or not at all. They have been disenfranchised for centuries, sometimes in violent or suppressive ways. We must do our best to guard against this happening, but it is still going on. . People of color are too often the victims of police shootings. It is debilitating and dispiriting. No one deserves to be treated like that.

On the flip side, we must acknowledge that some whites do feel victimized. Life has dealt them some tough hands or fewer opportunities. Yet, it is dwarfed by those who benefit from white privilege. In my opinion, a white person can feel both and not realize it. What concerns me is when these examples are used with a broad brush in an effort to paint over the benefits of white privilege.

With that said, we need to step back and look at why things happen without the lens of biased sources. There often are a multitude of factors that cause things to happen, but race clearly is one of those factors. Poverty is an American problem we must deal with better. Pretending it does not exist won’t make it go away. Limited and limiting opportunities in various communities are a factor. Crime and drug use can fill this void and send a community into a death spiral. Predatory lending or rental practices are an issue. Lack of educational advancement is an issue. Food deserts and hunger are issues. Family size is an issue as poverty is correlated with larger families.

These issues affect people of all colors. They impact urban as well as rural settings. Many may not realize that the largest numbers of American people in poverty are white. The propensity of poverty is higher for non-whites, but I want to make a point that poverty knows no racial boundaries. Fear is used to sell influence and recruit votes. Yet, most issues are complex and blaming other groups is not the answer. It also gets in the way of understanding challenges others may be going through and vice-versa.

I fully recognize my own anecdotes and context have flavored my opinions. In my view, we should acknowledge we have those biases and do our best to look beyond them as well. It will help as we walk around in those other shoes.

Les Miserables and Social Injustice (a reprise)

The following post was written about eight years ago, but still resonates today. It remains my third most frequented post by readers, but I felt with the concerns of today, it deserved a reprise.

My wife and I have long been fans of the musical Les Miserables, so yesterday we took two of our children to see the recently released movie with Hugh Jackman as the lead character of Jean Valjean. We were not disappointed and enjoyed the movie immensely. Of course, a few people have noted some of its imperfections, yet on the whole, it is a very moving experience and fills in a few details that the play could not.

As an aside, I also enjoyed the dramatic movie made a few years ago with Liam Neeson in the role of Valjean. As for the recent musical version, I would encourage you to see it , whether you have seen the play, early dramatic movie or not. If you have seen the play, you will be even more moved by Anne Hathaway’s Fantine singing how life has killed her dreams. The music is so wonderful, sometimes the everyday tragedy  of social injustice shown in the play is overshadowed. If you have not seen the play, you will also find it enjoyable as did my teenage children.

I wanted my kids to see it for its storytelling and musical beauty, but it was also very good for them to see what poverty and injustice looks like. They have accompanied me on occasion to help with homeless families, but to see it from an omnipotent perspective like this fills in the back story and context for those in need. I mention this as Les Miserables, when translated to English means “The Miserables.” It also is reflective of a world we still live in, even in the United States with over 50,000,000 people in poverty.

There are many stories to be told in Les Miz, but to me there are three main themes of social injustice that resonate today. First, Fantine personifies the lot of many in the movie and in real life here in the US, that many live paycheck to paycheck, especially those in impoverished settings. It won’t give away too much of the story to say Fantine loses her factory job and has to turn to a life of prostitution to provide for her daughter. In the US, 47% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck. That includes many who are beyond poverty levels, meaning even the lower middle class have just enough money to make ends meet. Those in poverty are living on a wing and a prayer trying to make ends meet, with a significant majority paying more than the needed 30% of their income for housing and utilities to maintain a reasonable standard of living. It should be noted that 40% of all homeless people in the US are mothers with children, the fastest growing segment in the US. To further illustrate this tragedy, of the homeless families the non-profit agency I volunteer with help, 89% are single parent women as head of household.

Second, another social injustice theme is the one between Valjean, an ex-convict who paid dearly for stealing a loaf of a bread and the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe in the movie) who relentlessly chases him for breaking parole. A quick sidebar, Valjean could not get a job with his “scarlet letter” of papers he had to carry with him. However, Valjean repays the kindness and decency afforded him by a priest (played by Colm Wilkinson in the movie who was the original Valjean on the London stage) by doing the right thing and treating others like he wants to be treated. The injustice is the fervent belief by Javert that a thief is always a thief and could not change. What Valjean demonstrates and later tells Javert “you are wrong and always have been wrong.” Valjean, like many, is conflicted with trying to do the right thing and taking advantage of the circumstances to hide from the law. By doing the right thing at great personal sacrifice and cost, he shows Javert you can change. He also learns the priest’s lesson of treating one another with decency and dignity. “There but by the grace of God, go I,” was not said in the movie but lived by Valjean.

Third, and most powerful, is the overwhelming discontentment by those in poverty. There are many more than just Fantine who are exposed to the extreme poverty of the streets. The movie does far more than the play ever could to show the filth and sickness brought about by living in such conditions. If you had a job, it was more about economic slavery, working a tireless, repetitive factory position. You dared not complain or you could be let go or “sacked” per the movie and replaced by another. If you did not have a job, without significant welfare help, people had to beg, borrow and steal. Or, in Fantine’s case, she first sold her possessions, her hair, her teeth and then her body as a prostitute.

Scrolling forward to today’s time, I have written two posts about Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” This could have been the title to “Les Miserables.” One of the misconceptions noted in the Smiley/ West book about poverty, is poverty is not due to a lack of moral virtue. It is not defined by people who do not work hard. Poverty is the lack of money, period. The homeless families we help have jobs, sometimes more than one. They work hard trying to make ends meet and do the best they can. In these earlier posts, I have encouraged people to also read “Nickeled and Dimed in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich. She lived the life of minimum wage jobs in America on purpose to see if she could get by. Her major conclusion – minimum wage jobs perpetuate poverty.

If you are earning at that level, you are beholden to a life of eating cheaper poor food, the inability to afford healthcare, jobs where you are on your feet all day which affects your health and a general lack of sleep as you try to be a worker of multiple 15 – 20 hours jobs and being a parent. And, you dare not complain, as someone else can be brought in right behind you. In Les Miserables, this is why the people rebel. They “have-nots” are tired of being taken advantage by the “haves.” This is also a major lament I have with LIbertarians and many Republicans. We need some regulations to keep things fair. Otherwise, employers who tend to chase cheap labor, will always find someone cheaper to use and let you go. We need some laws to keep things fair for the worker. If you want to advocate a true Libertarian life, go read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” The Robber Barons treated people just like the “haves” do in Les Miserables.

This is all about social injustice. Unlike people who perpetuate stories about welfare queens, etc. painting many with a broad brush of a few, we need to help people in need. I am all for empowering people to succeed. I am all for giving people opportunity to succeed. Yet, they have to climb the ladder of success. There are many who are not given this opportunity and are shunned as undesirables. They are treated with disdain and without any decency. Let’s lift others up and give them a chance to succeed. Like Valjean, let’s be enablers of success for others. I believe in the words “a community’s greatness is measured by how it takes care of its less fortunate.” The less fortunate could also be termed “The Miserables” or in French, “Les Miserables.”

Rocket Girl – the story of Mary Sherman Morgan (a reprise)

The following post was written about eight years ago. It bears repeating to honor our first female rocket scientist.

Per the description of the biography called  “Rocket Girl” by George D. Morgan about his mother on the Amazon website: “This is the extraordinary true story of America’s first female rocket scientist, told by her son. It describes Mary Sherman Morgan’s crucial contribution to launching America’s first satellite and the author’s labyrinthine journey to uncover his mother’s lost legacy – a legacy buried deep under a lifetime of secrets political, technological, and personal. Blending a fascinating personal history with dramatic historical events taking place on the world stage, this compelling narrative brings long-overdue attention to a modest but brilliant woman whose work proved essential for America’s early space program. In 1938, a young German rocket enthusiast named Wernher von Braun had dreams of building a rocket that could fly him to the moon.

On the opposite side of the world, a young farm girl named Mary Sherman was attending high school in Ray, North Dakota. In an age when girls rarely dreamed of a career in science, Mary wanted to be a chemist. A decade later the dreams of these two disparate individuals would coalesce in ways neither could have imagined. In a vivid narrative, Morgan relates how World War II and the Cold War space race with the Russians changed the fates of both von Braun and his mother. When von Braun and other top engineers could not find a solution to the repeated failures that plagued the nascent US rocket program, North American Aviation, where Mary Sherman Morgan then worked, was given the challenge. Recognizing her talent for chemistry, company management turned the assignment over to young Mary.

In the end, America succeeded in launching rockets into space, but only because of the joint efforts of the brilliant farm girl from North Dakota and the famous German scientist. While von Braun went on to become a high-profile figure in NASA’s manned space flight, Mary Sherman Morgan and her contributions fell into obscurity.” You can see more about the book with the following link:

http://www.amazon.com/Rocket-Girl-Sherman-Americas-Scientist/dp/1616147393

I learned of Mary Sherman Morgan the other day while watching PBS Newshour. They interviewed her son George about his book about his mother, the rocket scientist. Many things strike me about this story. First, her talent could not be restrained by the social limitations of the day. She succeeded in spite of being the “only woman in the room” on almost every occasion. To do what she did with the constant push back, both verbally and non-verbally, speaks volumes of both her ability and character. Whether due to race, ethnicity or gender, to always be the lone different one in a group of people, takes some chutzpah to succeed that many don’t have.

Second, she was an unassuming woman. Her family and friends had little, if any, understanding of the huge role she played in the US space program. She did not wish to be in the limelight and because of her gender, no one pushed her into it. So, others took her portion of the credit for the glory and she was OK by that. Her son wrote this book to tell the real story. He had to do a lot of digging. His mom made a difference and others need to know about it what she did.

I am a father of three, with my daughter the youngest at age 16. I want every opportunity for her and do not want anyone to limit her because of her gender. That is grossly unfair to her and society. Unfortunately, women do not get these opportunities in many places around the globe. I have said often, on top of the gross unfairness, it is economically suicidal for a country to limit the opportunities of at least half of its intellectual capital. What if they have a Mary Sherman Morgan in their midst, but deny her educational opportunity? They would never realize the potential of her ability.

This is why it so important for all of us to push and keep pushing for equal opportunity. It is imperative that all people be treated with dignity and be in a safe and secure environment. I personally do not care what religion you follow, but if your group’s interpretation of your scripture puts down women and treats them like possessions, then either you need to get a better interpretation or maybe find a new religion. Social justice is a moral imperative. We must treat all with respect and just because you’re a man, does not mean you should get more than your fair share.

To flourish, we need more Mary Sherman Morgans in our world. If we have them and let them be successful, our world will be a better place. You go, Rocket Girl!

A Real Life Star Trek Hero – Nichelle Nichols

After the first season of the original “Star Trek” television series, African-American actress Nichelle Nichols was speaking with a prominent public figure about her role as Lt. Uhura. The public figure noted “Star Trek” was the only show he watched regularly with his children. Nichols told the man she was leaving the show, but he encouraged her to reconsider, which she did. He said you are a role model showing Blacks and Whites that there is a place for women of color in key roles in the future .His name was Martin Luther King.

She took that inspiration seriously and did far more than I ever knew until a recent documentary enlightened me. The Scyfy network has written an important piece called “NICHELLE NICHOLS’ NASA ‘WOMAN IN MOTION’ DOC BOLDLY BLASTING OFF FOR ‘BLACK HISTORY MONTH.'” Here are a few paragraphs, with a link to the full article below.

“A new documentary is boldly tacking one of actress Nichelle Nichols‘ greatest achievements. In addition to playing the iconic Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original Star Trek TV show, Nichols used her pop culture influence as a fictional space-farer to help pioneer a NASA recruitment program in the 1970s and ’80s that hired the first astronauts who were women and persons of color.

Directed by Todd Thompson (The Highwaymen), the documentary features exclusive interviews with Neil deGrasse Tyson, George Takei, Pharrell Williams, Martin Luther King III, Al Sharpton, Vivica A. Fox, Walter Koenig, Rod Roddenberry, Michael Dorn, Guy Bluford, Charles Bolden, Ivor Dawson, Frederik Gregory, Benjamin Crump, and, of course, Nichols herself.

The movie’s title refers to the company Nichols founded (Women in Motion, Inc.) that brought over 8,000 African American, Asian, and Latino women to NASA. Thanks to the actress’ work, the agency became one of the most diverse institutions of the U.S. federal government.

‘We are thrilled that Woman in Motion will be getting its U.S. premiere and launching the Fathom Events Celebrates Black History Month series next month! This is a great American story with incredible global impact,” Thompson said in a statement. “Nichelle Nichols helped create the brighter future we are living in today by proclaiming that space exploration is for everyone. It’s a simple but very strong statement that opens doors and allows all humankind to boldly go!’   

‘We are proud to bring pioneer and role model Nichelle Nichols’ inspiring story in cinemas across the nation,” added Fathom CEO Ray Nutt. “It is an honor to have Woman in Motion as the debut film in the inaugural Fathom Events Celebrates Black History Month series.”‘

To see Nichols speak of her efforts later in life is a treat. She is a very dignified person and understands the importance of these earlier efforts. A key comment was during a speech she made in the 1970s to a large group of NASA people. She looked out in the audience at all of the white men and observed “Where are my people?” The NASA leader heard her and asked for her help. She said she would do so, but did not want to be a figure head. She wanted to help make a difference. And, she did. She did her part to help NASA “boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before.”

Nichelle Nichols/NASA ‘Woman in Motion’ documentary boldly blasting off (syfy.com)

US continues to fall in upward mobility – the American dream is now a relative myth

In an article in US News called “The upward mobility ‘American Dream’ has been broken. Look at the numbers” by Bella Cangelosi, a key myth continues to fall.

The United States has long been proud to be a very fluid society in terms of social class and economic liquidity. The American Dream believes that anyone who works hard can be financially successful.

Underlying this belief is the premise of abundant opportunities and meritocracy. Immigrants who arrive often believe that they have come to a land of opportunity, in a place of equal competition that enables them to progress and succeed. Otherwise, you tend to blame yourself.

However, recent research shows that the United States today has far less liquidity and equal opportunity than the European Union and other OECD* countries.

First, the amount of economic advantage passed from one generation to the next is (higher in the US).  About 50% of the father’s income is inherited by his son. In contrast, the amount in Norway or Canada is less than 20%.

How about the rise from rags to wealth? In the United States, 8% of children raised in the bottom 20% of the income distribution can rise to the top 20% as adults. Denmark At 15%, it almost doubles

In the United States, equal opportunity is far less feasible than in other OECD countries. Life expectancy in America (trails others and is impacted by postal code). The quality of education also depends greatly on the wealth of the neighborhood in which the family lives. Also, the potential for crime victims, exposure to environmental toxins, and unmet medical needs is far greater for the poor in the United States than for all other poor people. OECD countries.

One of the reasons for the reduced mobility in the United States is that the ladder steps have grown further away, making it much more difficult to climb the ladder of opportunity. This is evidenced by rising levels of income and wealth inequality. Currently, people in the top 20% of the income distribution earn almost nine times as much as those in the bottom 20%. This difference is much greater than in the European Union and the United Kingdom. Wealth inequality is further distorted. In America, the top 5% of the population owns three-quarters of the country’s total financial assets, while the bottom 60% owns less than 1%.

Our book provides one explanation for these trends. Not well understood: America is wrong about poverty.. The United States has traditionally seen economic successes and failures as a result of individual efforts. Rough individualism and independence have defined the qualities of an American character. On the other hand, our European neighbors are much more likely to attribute poverty to structural factors such as social class and lack of work. As a result, other OECD countries are much more eager to invest in a robust social welfare state designed to help remedy some of these structural inequality.

The rest of the article can be accessed below. This is not a new phenomenon, only an underreported one. This is not a racial problem, it is an American one. We have been on the decline now for some time, we just get caught up in talking about the wrong issues and not the ones that should matter.

When US citizens look at an economic distribution charts of wealth or income, they wrong chart is thought to be the US more often than not. The one that shows higher numbers at the lower strata is the US as contrasted to other countries’ distributions. We are the country behind the others. Until we recognize this fact, we truly cannot address our problems.

*OECD = Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

The upward mobility “American Dream” has been broken.Look at the numbers | US News – Eminetra.co.uk

Class matters, socio-economic class that is – a revisit to an old post that remains pertinent

The following post was written in 2012, but it still remains pertinent. When I hear people chastise people in poverty for not working their way out, I think of this topic.

When you read this title, there are several interpretations that come to mind. While I am a firm believer in acting in a classy way, treating others like you want to be treated, the “class” I am referring to here is socio-economic class. There is a body of work spawned by research conducted by the New York Times, which led to the publishing of a book under this same title – “Class Matters.” It also led to a revolution of thought and I would encourage you to visit “www.classmatters.org for more information.

In essence, the term class matters refers to the tenet that your socio-economic class is a key factor in your ability to ask questions of those who are trying to serve you. The higher strata of socio-economic class is highly correlated with better education and more confidence. This translates into the greater ability and lesser reluctance to question things. On the converse, those in lower socio-economic classes tend to have lesser education and more self-esteem issues. They have a greater inability and lack of confidence to question those in power or who are trying to serve them.  As a result, those in the lower classes often make poorly informed decisions as they are:

  • too scared to ask questions,
  • feel threatened if they do so,
  • feel they will show their ignorance if they do,
  • do not know the right questions to ask, and/or
  • fall into a trusting mode, whether legitimate or not, that the person serving them knows what they are doing as they are wearing a doctor’s coat or suit and tie.

To illustrate this concept using a real life occurrence, the current housing crisis we are facing has many areas of cause from the lenders to rating agencies to investment managers to developers to buyers. At the heart of the problem, we had too many developers and realtors selling houses to people who could not afford that price of house and mortgage lenders providing mortgages to people who should not have that level of mortgage or who did not fully understand the terms of the loan. The buyers did not understand what a variable mortgage is or, using one of the lender’s terms, what a “pick-a-payment” or flexible payment mortgage entailed. The concept of negative amortization is term that was not well-explained or fully understood. In “House of Cards” a line that resonates with me is lenders were providing money to people who could “fog a mirror.” Then, they packaged up all of these poor risks in collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and sold them to investors who thought they were buying a less risky product. The rating agencies did not help by stamping these CDOs with a AAA rating.

There are some who firmly believe in the concept of “let the buyer beware.” In their minds, the people who bought these houses and took out these loans should have been more aware “like I would have been.”  As a consequence, they believe the buyers should be held entirely responsible for the housing crisis. This school of thought has some merit, but misses two greater issues. First, if you have ever bought a house, you are asked to sign more papers than in any other transaction. I would wager that an exceedingly high percentage of buyers do not read every word of what they are signing. The legalese is too complex. More often than  not, they will ask the attorneys to explain simply what they are signing. I would also wager that in these transactions people actually sign papers they do not fully understand.

Second, with that context, people in a lower socio-economic class will be even more trusting of those in suits and ties. They would ask even fewer questions and understand even less of what they are signing. When the American Dream is to own a home and people in suits and ties paint a picture that you can afford this home, the buyers believed them more times than they should have. In some cases, the seller put “perfume on a pig” to dress up the sale as best as possible. Individuals were shown monthly payment numbers and did not realize those numbers could dramatically change every two years. In some cases, their income and wealth numbers were inflated to show they could afford a house and mortgage they otherwise would not. The buyers trusted people showing these numbers and signed on the many dotted lines.

Two true stories will embellish these points. The poster child for one extreme end of what happened was a builder based in Atlanta. The CEO and CFO were convicted of criminal and unethical actions they helped perpetuate with home buyers. In essence, the company-realtors representing  new developments did not represent they would make an extra bonus if you bought in this new neighborhood. They did not represent the inspector was being paid off to inflate the price of the house and show no problems existed. They did not represent that the mortgage lender they recommended was affiliated with the developer. So, along comes the buyer who does not know this, does not know to ask these questions and who sees a financial representation that they can afford this house. Even people above the lower socio-economic classes were taken in by this criminal behavior, yet the lower class people did not stand a chance.

The other anecdote took down a bank of which I was shareholder. This bank bought  a mortgage bank who had developed the concept of the “pick-a-payment” mortgage. This flexible payment mortgage concept was geared for a very astute buyer, not the masses of people who bought it. Mortgage people at this bank wondered why the CEO of the acquirer was pushing these mortgages even up to six months before the bank was destined to fail.  A mortgage person for that bank said we are having “pick-a-payment parties” to promote the sale of these mortgages. We are selling these mortgages to people who do not know what they are buying. They do not understand when they do not pay enough, their mortgage principal increases. Like with the above example, the lower socio-economic class buyers did not stand a chance. The people in higher classes suffered as well.

Yet, the class matters concept goes beyond these examples. It happens in everyday life, whether it is visiting the doctor, buying a car or something on credit or being served by the bank on other issues. We have people who will go into debt as they do not know the exposure they are adding with each purchase. In today’s world, there is a dearth of customer service. You have to be the navigator of your own customer service experience. Many people do not realize this as the case and tend to delegate the responsibility to the customer service person. We don’t ask enough questions of doctors seeking alternative treatments or payment plans. We accept the terms of a store credit card without knowing that if we fail to make one of the 30-60-90 day payments, we will pay back interest to the point of sale. We do not understand that we need to pay more than the minimum credit card payment as it will take 30 years to pay off a washer and dryer purchase. We do not ask the question, do I really need yet another credit card? We do not realize we have the power to say “no.”

I tell my children “people want your money, so you need to understand that.” Sometimes, they want it by legitimate means. Sometimes they have enticing commercials which are too good to be true. And, sometimes they will try to steal it from you online or by lying to you in person. You have to guard against this. With this backdrop, someone in a  lower socio-economic class will not ask enough questions to be served. They will take that extra credit card that arrives in the mail. They will sign up for the 30-60-90 day store plan to get a 10% discount not knowing the full ramifications of the transaction. I have also witnessed in helping homeless families, budgeting skills could be improved and asking questions about “must have” purchases are not done often enough. Sometimes these “needs” are actually “wants” and could be postponed. They do not know how to zealously navigate the use of coupons or the best times to buy products. They do not ask for the manager or supervisor when being ill-served.

This week I read a series on the inability of hospitals to uniformly offer reduction or the abatement in cost to those without health insurance and in an impoverished state. Someone wrote in that they successfully navigated payment options from one of the studied hospitals asking why couldn’t others have done that. When I read the letter critical of the people short-changed, the concept of class matters entered into my head. The people in need did not navigate the system as they did not know or have the confidence to ask the right questions. They did not relentlessly pursue options. This is exacerbated by the lack of transparency of the payment system, so it takes a concerted effort to understand what is happening even for people in higher classes. There are other examples in our society where you have to make a concerted effort to understand the details.

In closing, my hope is for more people to understand that class matters in getting proper help and service. We have to make it easier for people to ask questions, search for answers and be better served or, at least avoid being ill-served. It is OK to ask questions. As the teachers often say “the only dumb question is the one not asked.”  Please help others remember that. Offer to go with someone to the doctor to help ask the right questions. Or, encourage people to write their questions down beforehand. Encourage people to not get into credit exposure beyond their means.  Share your wisdom of purchasing or not purchasing items. Sources like Consumer Reports, BBB , Angie’s List,  http://www.cars.com are vital tools, e.g. Yet, I guess the big take away is to not assume people are like you. You may have avoided stepping  in the hole, but you would have asked more questions. Not everyone will. Offer them your help and understanding.

How you leave a job is vitally important

As a former manager of people, I have observed extremely professional and unprofessional behavior. In exiting a company, I have seen people leave with dignity and class, even when they have been asked to leave with some downsizing, rightsizing or reduction-in-force. I have also seen people trash their company and not give much notice wanting the company to have problems in the transition, even when the person is pulling the rip cord to leave.

I have shared with my kids, their friends and children of my friends, how you leave a job is vitally important. Our business worlds can be small, so your reputation matters. Your name is your greatest asset. It can also be your worst liability. Your former co-workers see how you conducted yourself. Your new company also will get wind of it. So, what do you want them to hear?

Leaving a company with dignity and class is also common sensical. If your new job does not work out, you have left an avenue to return. If you trashed that place, not only do you not have such an avenue, you may have damaged a referral to yet a new job.

I have shared this story about a very talented consultant who gave us a three day notice. He was not very helpful on projects that he was working on, just giving us his notes and a quick summary. It was highly unprofessional and he wanted us to fail to serve his former clients well. It should be noted he tended to be a prima donna, so others had to acquiesce to him more so than the other way around. About three years later, he wanted to return to our firm, and was stunned to learn he was not welcome.

I mention all of the above given what has transpired over the last two months and, in particular, the last two days. If the outgoing president had handled his election loss with dignity and class. he could have assured his place to re-run again in 2024. He could have still asked for recounts and even pursued some litigation with evidence. But, he could have handled the process with class and seriousness of purpose.

Instead, he announced on election night that he had won and proceeded with a narrative the election was being stolen from, an action he had staged and planned for six months. Sadly, he continued this false claim even as the evidence mounted against him and people who took their jobs seriously said he lost time and again.. Now, with the actions of his extreme followers which he wound up, invited and encouraged, he put people in danger and four have died.

How you leave a place is vitally important. Burning it all down is unprofessional and dangerous. And, the outgoing president has no one else to blame but the person in the mirror who looks back when he shaves. People do not emulate this behavior.

More on that kindness thing

Following up on my previous post about “fierce kindness,” I think many of us could look to our mothers, fathers, teachers, mentors, etc. as exemplars. A blogging friend lost her mother this month and she said her mother’s final words to her were be kind to others. That is profound and telling advice.

Even with the ravages of Alzheimer’s, my mother and mother-in-law remained kind. Yes, Alzheimer’s can cause a brief temper snap, but it is more due to confusion or as a defense mechanism. Both mothers were heavily involved in outreach for the churches to which they belonged. They helped others through tough times.

At the memory unit of the long tern care facility, the teacher in my mother always showed through. She would help the facilitator by first paying attention, but also in participating and helping others do so. To her, it would be rude to ignore the facilitator who went to great lengths to be there.

One of my late memories of my mother-in-law is we took her to my daughter’s school function in a large hall. I remember her telling one of the mothers, who must have come from work, as she was well dressed, how lovely she looked. This woman just beamed. That was not an unusual occurrence.

Although my father had a drinking problem, he was the kindest of men. He went out of his way to bring food to work for pot luck lunches, usually smoking a turkey or ham. Before his drinking got the best of him, he was heavily involved in our sports programs, coaching, practicing, leading and attending. He had a hearty laugh and was helpful to people in need or friends with homework or other problems.

Let me close with a nickname I got on occasion when I followed my parents’ example and fought for people – Don Quixote. I knew I would fail to save someone from being let go in our matrix managed organization, but on certain occasions, I had to try and fight that windmill. I did help save one (who is still there twelve years later), helped lengthen another’s time, but far more often it was for naught. Yet, invariably I would do my best to help these folks get placed elsewhere. When my boss said I was ruffling some feathers (and actually had a comment placed in my HR file), I noted I would do the same for him. I was kind, but firm. And, foolish on more than one occasion.

Kindness is not a weakness. Helping people is a good idea, even if you are not successful. Just trying means something to people. One thing companies fail to realize is how you treat someone when he or she is forced to exit is important. Fellow employees see it. Clients see it. So, even when tough decisions are made or push back is needed, be kind. Treat people like you want to be treated.