Our children deserve better

Two time Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof wrote an editorial earlier this week in The New York Times called “Our children deserve better.” It is a clarion call to our nation showing the plight of kids in America.

Here are a few quotes to frame the issue:

“UNICEF says America ranks No. 37 among countries in well-being of children, and Save the Children puts the United States at No. 36. European countries dominate the top places.

American infants at last count were 76 percent more likely to die in their first year than children in other advanced countries, according to an article last year in the journal Health Affairs. We would save the lives of 20,000 American children each year if we could just achieve the same child mortality rates as the rest of the rich world.”

“Half a million American kids also suffer lead poisoning each year, and the youth suicide rate is at its highest level on record….The Census Bureau reported this week that the number of uninsured children increased by 425,000 last year.”

These are different views and sources of the threats to US children that note we have a problem. Another source I read a couple of years ago noted America has a much higher maternal mortality rate at child birth than other civilized countries, which further endangers children as well as the mothers.

Yet, these issues are not being discussed in the halls of government. We have a poverty problem in our country with too many living in or just above poverty levels. We have not expanded Medicaid in fifteen states whose numbers are worse than these national numbers per capita. We have not addressed our national water crisis which has a Flint, MI like exposure to lead in too many cities and a volume of available fresh water issue in other places. We have not invested as we should to diminish crime and provide more opportunities for jobs in disenfranchised areas. There are several pockets of success that can be emulated in more cities.

We also need to address better gun governance, especially with the number one gun death cause by far being suicide and a non-inconsequential accidental gun death rate. And, we have not dealt with the continuing and rising exposure to technology and artificial intelligence which have taken and will take even more jobs in the future. Finally, there is that climate change thing we need to deal with.

These are real problems. And, they will get worse. Data driven analysis of causes and solutions are needed. They are both multi-faceted. Investing more now, will save huge amounts later. This is not just an urban issue, it is rural one as well. The opioid crisis is rampant in these impoverished rural areas, for example.

None of the solutions will fit on a bumper sticker. And, political attempts to oversimplify issues should be questioned. Here is an easy contradiction to spot – if people believe gun deaths are a mental health issue, then why the effort to eliminate or not expand mental health benefits?

Please make your legislators aware of these issues and ask pointed questions. These questions deserve answers, not bumper sticker slogans. These concerns deserve to be talked about, studied and acted upon.

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Tantrums, vapes, and hurricanes

The week that was had serious issues that threatened the lives of people mixed in with self-inflicted issues that caused temper-tantrums. In no particular order:

The Bahamas was truly devastated by Hurricane Dorian. The aftermath pictures are sobering. Okracoke, one of the southernmost Outer Banks islands in North Carolina, was hit hard, but the US mainland was spared the brunt of the storm, although damage occurred and lives were lost. That is the big story.

Yet, way too much time and effort has been spent trying to save face for the US president after ham-handed and unneeded efforts to play weatherman. Rather than admit he over accentuated the threat on Alabama, he had his staff spending valuable time coming up with a story that does not let the president’s little feelings to be hurt. What he fails to realize, it is the “rationalization” efforts that paint him in a bad light. It is akin to dressing up the “dog ate my homework” excuse.

Since we are talking about blowing smoke, the dangers of vaping are raising their ugly head. More kids are entering the hospital with breathing concerns traceable to some form of vaping. What has always concerned me is the amount of smoke the vapers exhale from their lungs. It far exceeds the amount of smoke a cigarette smoker would exhale. Call me crazy, but that cannot be good for one’s health.

Still on the subject of blowing smoke, ex-president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe died yesterday at the age of 95. After being initially praised for liberating and founding Zimbabwe, he proceeded to kill any opposition and become an autocrat. While so doing, he blew smoke at the world to mask his efforts.

Our British friends are realizing that having Boris as prime minister is not necessarily a good thing. Even pro-Brexit folks are likely lamenting this ego-centric choice. When time is of the essence, shortening the time to discuss a complex topic is not good stewardship. But, all of Parliament needs a “get out of the pool” order to allow them to check their egos, decide what they want and get their fannies to Brussels. A no-deal Brexit would be disastrous and would be felt immediately.

Finally, the US president acted on another temper-tantrum when the Department of Justice sued the State of California and four automakers for an agreement to comply with a higher mph standard than the Federal government wants. These automakers feel being good stewards will help sell cars and help them compete with other automakers. It is sad that Attorney General William Barr has stained his career being the president’s personal attorney and attacking people that disagree with him – that is autocratic behavior.

Have a great weekend all.

Colorado Family Planning Initiative

As the veracity of Planned Parenthood is being discussed, there is a program and study that was conducted in Colorado over a seven year period that offers meaningful data. The Colorado Family Planning Initiative offered low-income women and teens access to low or no-cost contraception, including IUDs and implants.

The Governor’s office released the results of the program which analyzed data from 2009 – 2013. The key findings are:

  • there was a 40% statewide decline in the teen birth rate
  • there was a 35% statewide decline in the abortion rate

If the goal is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions, funding the use of contraception along with family planning efforts and information is the better answer. Cutting funding will only increase these numbers. And, it should be noted there are correlations between poverty and increasing family size and poverty and single mothers. This is more true the younger the mother.

Education is a vital part of the program as well. If people want to teach abstinence as part of a holsitic program, that is fine. But, the teachers and funders need to clearly understand these teens and young adults are just like we were, if not more so. They are tempted and will have sex. It would be so much the better, if they were informed of the consequences and knew what options there were.

A key part of the education must help girls understand that self-esteem need not be tied to sex. These girls need to be able to say no and feel confident in withstanding pressure, especially today with so many ads, shows, and stars (by dress and manner) saying it is OK. And, boys need to know that no means no. It can be uttered up to the time in which sex occurs.

As a parent, I know parents worry about their kids. You hope they will make good choices. Yet, we did not always make them and they will likely follow suit. Also, please understand even kids brought up in the strictest of homes will be tempted to do things when away at school or college. It is only natural.

Three anecdotes might help illustrate the importance of education and planning.

  • My brother-in-law taught eighth grade science in a high poverty rural area. Annually, he had a number of girls in his class get pregnant. To them, it was being like an adult a right of passage. Only when it was too late, did they realize the consequences.
  • A colleague was viewed by teens in her church as being the kind of person who would shoot straight with them. She was asked questions that told her these kids thought they could not get pregnant the first time and if they had sex standing up they could avoid pregnancy. When she mentioned to the minister to have a sex education class, he scoffed at her request.
  • A friend who has run several non-profits and is very devout told me the children of his friends would go off to a religious university nearby. He said these kids would go wild when finally away from their parents and shocked some of his friends by what they got into.

So, Planned Parenthood and organizations that provide holistic family planning need more funding to reduce the number of abortions and unwanted pregnancies. Kids need to get good information and access to tools. It is their lives. And, while I focused on pregnancies, STDs and HIV are very viable threats to manage through contraception and education.

Let me close with this thought. As the former Board Chair of an organization that helps homeless working families, single mothers is the predominant group that is helped. It is also the fastest growing homeless population in America. Key tools to help lessen the propensity of poverty and homelessness in this group are family planning, sex education and low-cost birth control.

Perception matters more than reality to the US president

Our friend Jill has written an excellent post on “Trumponomics 101” (a link is provided below). What I opined in a comment is Trump is more about perception than reality. Here are a few examples:

– he beats his chest on his trade and tariff decisions, but they have dampened the global economy, of which we are a key part, as well as certain US industries.

– he left the Trans Pacific Partnership which was designed to compete better with China on trade (note the other ten countries proceeded without us).

– he claims being tough on immigration and terror, but his travel ban and reduction in legal immigration are dilutive to our economy (note legal immigration has fallen as well).

– he touts his tax law, but it borrowed from our future to make a pretty good economy a little better for eighteen months or so.

Focusing on another tax cut to lessen the impact of the slowing growth is malfeasance, as was the first tax cut in December, 2017. And, lowering interest rates won’t push a lot of investment as businesses are concerned by the chaos caused by Trump.

So, Trump is worried about the market and economy retrenching from its growth not recognizing the headwinds he created. Note, for brevity I did not speak to other headwinds – not investing more in renewables, infrastructure, healthcare, etc.

Yet, the biggest perception he painted to his followers before the election was the US economy was in trouble citing the unemployment rate at 30%, then 40% then 42%. The reality is the unemployment rate was beneath 5% and we were in an economic growth period of 90 consecutive months (7 1/2 years) which continues to this day. He convinced his followers that he alone helped turn the economy around, which was doing pretty good.

Reality does matter. And, you won’t get a lot of that from Trump, who had a faux reality TV show.

Trumponomics 101

The hook brings you back

The group Blues Traveler had a huge hit with a song called “Hook,” which intentionally says nothing of substance. The chorus is as follows:

“Because the hook brings you back
I ain’t tellin’ you no lie
The hook brings you back
On that you can rely”

The song is about their frustration with MTV or popular music which relies on a “hook” to grab your attention. A hook is a catchy riff, phrase or gimmick used by songwriters. The Blues Traveler song is a tongue-in-cheek criticism of the use of a “hook” while using one.

To me, this song is a metaphor for companies selling products harmful to people’s health. The “hook” is an addiction, that brings people back to buy more.

The vaping industry is repeating the successful sales model of selling smoking to kids and young adults to get them hooked. The tobacco industry knew dating back to 1964 that nicotine was addictive. So, they hid this fact as they added more nicotine. The subterfuge lasted until the mid-1990s when an insider blew the whistle. This was after eight tobacco CEOs sitting at a table in front of a Congressional Committee lied saying nicotine was not addictive. What is troubling about the vaping industry is they are selling these vapes as candy in all kinds of flavors.

An even more dramatic and traumatic sales job relates to the opioid pain killer business. These companies were not forthcoming about how addictive their product is. People have died and families have been ruined by this subterfuge. And, once again we have a heroin and worse drug addiction problem in America, as it is cheaper than the opioid product. Please strongly consider non-opioid painkillers if you have surgery or an injury, if permissible by doctor.

On a more widespread basis, food companies have asked their chemists to make their products more addictive. How? By adding more sugar to their products. The sweeter taste is more alluring and gets people to eat more and buy more. What is the harm in a little more sugar? The US is the most obese country in the world and kids are now getting adult diabetes, not just juvenile diabetes.

So, like catchy songs, these hooks are designed to sell lots of products to unsuspectingly addicted consumers. Please be mindful of when you buy to make sure you are not being reeled in.

Helping people climb a ladder – a perspective

The following is an edited version of a comment on Hugh Curtler’s (a retired college professor of philosophy) post regarding whether we should help people in need or let them fend for themselves. I provide a link below to his post. I am going to cite the work a charity I used to be a part of that builds off the book “Toxic Charity,” written by a minister who lived with the disenfranchised people he sought to help. His name is Robert Lupton.

Lupton’s thesis is simple: true charity should focus on emergency or short term needs. What he argued for to help others long term and we did (and still do) is help people climb a ladder back to self-sufficiency. That should be the goal. An easy example is he would advocate for food and clothing co-ops rather than giving the food and clothes away. People love a bargain, so let them maintain their dignity while they get discounted help. This dignity thing is crucial – people would rather not have to ask for help.

Note, we cannot push people up the ladder. They must climb it.  A social worker I have advocated with used to say “we walk side by side with our clients.” The folks we helped are homeless working families. We had two keys – they received a subsidy for rent based on their ability to pay, but they had to plan, budget, get financially educated working with a social worker and attending required training programs. Our homeless clients had to be responsible for rent and utilities up to 30% of their income, which is threshold for housing risk. Another key is we measured success. Success to us is being housed on their own without help after two  years.

As a community and country, we need to better identify what we mean by success in our help for people in need. Also, are things like healthcare a right? Is food on the table a right? Is a roof over the head a right? What we need is better measurement of what we spend and how it helps. It actually is cheaper to provide housing to chronic homeless and partially-subsidized housing to those who are more acutely homeless (due to loss of job, reduction in hours,  loss of healthcare, problems with car, predatory lending on a car, etc.) than let them go to the ER or commit petty crimes and be jailed. People should know all homeless are not alike, so the remedies to help need to vary.

My former party likes to argue off the extreme anecdotes – the significant majority of people do not cheat the system, but the perceived thinking of such is much higher in Republican ranks. When I have spoken to church groups, chamber groups, rotary clubs, United Way campaigns, etc., I come across this bias which is firmly believed. Just last month, the US president announced curtailing a rule on food stamps which will put 3 million people at risk, as one man was able to purposefully game the system. Yes, there is a small percentage of folks that do that, but the significant majority do not.

What people like David Brooks, a conservative pundit, tout is a dialogue on what kind of country do we wish to be? Our economy is a fettered capitalist model, with socialist underpinnings to help people in need and keep people out of poverty. What is the right balance? Is it better to pay a much higher minimum wage or have a higher earned income tax credit, e.g. Is it better to have a Medicare for All system, subsidize those in need or have a free market system only? A factor in this decision is many employers now employ a larger part-time or contractual workforce (the gig economy) to forego having to provide benefits. This is especially true in retail and restaurant industries.

At the end of the day, Gandhi said it best – a community’s greatness is measured in how it takes care of its less fortunate. With so great a disparity in the haves/ have nots in our country, I can tell you we are out of whack as our middle class has declined and far more of them fell into a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. Ironically, even in the age of Trump promises, we have many people who do not realize they are voting against their economic interests. Doing away with the ACA and not expanding Medicaid are very harmful to rural areas, e.g.

So, I agree with Gandhi, Lupton, and Brooks that we need to help people, but decide what is the best way. We should measure things and adjust them when they get out of whack. It is hard to fix what you do not measure. The group I was involved with would alter its model, if the numbers showed less success than hoped. What I do know is over 80% of the people we helped are still housed on their own after two years of leaving the program. In other words, they live without a subsidy.

Finally, what we need most is for politicians to check their tribal egos at the door when they enter the room. Having been a member of both parties, each party has some good ideas, but both have some bad ones, too. I do not care what a person’s party preference is or if he or she is more conservative or liberal than me  (I am fiscally conservative and socially progressive), we need to use facts and data to make informed choices. And, continue to measure the results making modifications, if needed.

Dilemma

Rainy days and Mondays, especially today, get me down

Karen Carpenter sang “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.” This weekend was a yet another sad chapter in America’s history. Plus, we learned 31 people died in a ferry capsizing in the Philippines. In California, an eroding cliff collapsed next to the shore killing three. And, Russia and China are coming down hard on protestors. These are signals.

In America, we have decided we cannot do anything to stop mass gun shootings. We have decided the politics are too hard to do the needed things that would help. We could start by acknowledging that we average 100+ gun deaths a day even without the mass shootings. Many of those deaths are suicides. Some of them are accidental shootings of kids who find a gun in the house. And, some of the homicides are due to mental health issues, lack of civil discourse, hate crimes, or drug crimes. The common thread is access to a weapon without better governance.

Yes, we must act on these signals. We must call hate speech on the carpet, especially if it comes from someone who is in a position of leadership. Dog whistle racism and xenophobia are fuel to a fire for some extreme thinkers. The ones who want status quo in gun laws will say “now is not the time” for change to gun governance. Apparently, “never is the time.” The ones who want status quo will say “that change would not solve this instance.” Yet, doing nothing at all is not solving much.

There are things we can do that, in sum, will help make a difference. If it saves a few lives, that is good. I want politicians to get in a room and I want them to check their politics. I do not care who wins and loses a political game, but it is obvious the dead people and their families are losing. It amazes me how little we did after Sandy Hook. We even had a conservative shock jock say for years Sandy Hook was not real. He is on trial for his hateful rhetoric for the damage he has caused to Sandy Hook families and should be.

The Philippines tragedy is terrible, but not getting much play here. It seems we don’t pay attention like we should when the weather sends us signals. Overloading ferries can be OK in calm waters, but it is a disaster when waters are rough, especially after two earlier ferries had issues. I think failing to heed signals causes far too many deaths. Here in the US, we are whistling past the graveyard in preface to the next infrastructure collapse. Around the world, we have signals telling us to plan ahead on eroding seashores, increasing floods with stalled and repetitive storm systems, increasing droughts in other areas and elongated and bigger forest fires. We need to act on these signals.

In Russia and China, the signals are telling us that we must not be like that. Civil protest is more than fine, yet we must emphasize the word civil. Yet, a regime that crushes the spirit of those who question things, is one that is sowing more seeds of discord, not fewer. A regime that squelches and controls the media is not one that wants to hear the truth. I am watching the mini-series called “The Loudest Voice,” about Roger Ailes and his creation of Fox News. He purposefully controlled what and how things were said, that he started believing his own BS.

Truth matters. Facts matter. Diligent preparation in the face of those facts matter. When people ignore problems, white-wash or deny the truth, and squash those who are trying to tell you those things, the future is hamstrung. As I say often, I do not care what people’s politics are, as usually they are a mixed bag like me, conservative on some things, progressive on others. What I do care about is when people ignore or massage the facts to make their tribe win. I a more concerned about the people who die, who struggle, who become infirmed, who are jailed inappropriately, etc. That is what our leaders should be concerned about and not spreading fear, hate and division to win an election.