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

Capitalism and socialism coexists

On more than one occasion, I have seen letters to the editor speak of setting up beachheads in the coming election around capitalism vs. socialism. To me, this is a name-calling gimmick to persuade a voter who does not do much homework. Voters that are prone to listen to name-calling as debate will buy into this logic time and again. The irony in this debate is the United States’ economy is a blend of “fettered” capitalism with socialistic underpinnings. So, both co-exist here.

For readers in the either camp, this observation probably surprises them, especially those who are gung-ho capitalists. But, the word in quotes is also important as we do not have unfettered capitalism. If we did, the US President would have run out of money long ago with his many bankruptcies. I believe in capitalism as well, but we need to understand why we ventured down the path of the socialistic underpinnings.

These underpinnings spoke to a nation that was in a great depression and who seemingly got lost in poverty later on. Social security is a low-income weighted pension, disability and survivor benefit program that is funded equally by employers and individuals. To determine the base level benefit, 90% of average wages are used for the earlier wages then added to 32% of the next tier of wages which are added to 15% of the highest wages up to a limit.

In the 1960s, LBJ’s “War on Poverty” added Medicare and Medicaid to the mix, with Medicare helping retirees and Medicaid focusing on people in poverty. Then, we can mix equal measures of unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation and food stamps which are now called SNAP benefits. Each of these programs are forms of “social insurance” benefits. That is socialism designed to keep people fed, housed and protected.

Taking this a step further, utilities are so needed to our communities, they are either co-ops or fettered capitalistic models where rate increases must get approved by a state governing board. Companies like Duke Energy and Con-Ed must get permission before they change their rates. For the co-op model, the customers own the business.

But, the word “fettered” enters into the mix on other businesses as well. To prevent monopolies, insider trading, interlocking boards, collusion, the misuse of insider knowledge by investors, etc. rules are set up to provide governors on capitalism. Then, there is that bankruptcy thing, where a business or person can claim bankruptcy to pay debtors what they can and restart. I use the President as an example, but his experience is a good one, as he filed for bankruptcy six times on various investments.

I want people to think about our country in this context. We want people to earn their keep and be fully functioning tax paying citizens. Yet, we have programs in place to keep them out of the ditch. As we considering changes to programs, we should consider what they are accomplishing and how changes could make them more effective. And, we must understand that things must be paid for, so how do we get the best return on the investment into those stated goals?

For those that have followed my blog for some time, you know I have been involved for many years in helping homeless working families find a path back to self-sustainability. We help the homeless climb a ladder, but they climb it. Yet, we are also successful in keeping people housed on their own after two years of leaving our program because we measure things and make improvements. The ultimate goal is self-sustainability, so we measure how we can be the best financial stewards toward helping people achieve that purpose.

We need social underpinnings to help people be fed, housed and protected. Some need to be temporary in nature, while others are longer term like Medicare and Social Security. There is a cost-benefit to these equations, but we should understand that we have poverty problem in our country. We must also understand technology advances will continue to change the paradigm on employment as it has throughout the industrial age placing additional pressures to even more wage earners. Not providing ladders out of poverty or ways to avoid it would be a bad path to follow for our country.

 

Give a piece of your heart out today

Happy Valentine’s Day. I have written before I tend to say hello or chat with people who are serving me or in waiting rooms, elevators, etc. I usually look for a conversation piece.

While this may not be in people’s nature or culture, try something today. Say hello, good morning or afternoon to more people. Or, just smile and acknowledge their presence.

My wife and sister are good at this. With my sister’s health issues, I tell her she is the ambassador of waiting rooms. I get tickled to see how people respond to her “good mornings.”

In my last post, I noted how imperfect we all are. Giving a piece of your heart with smiles and greetings goes a long way. I will leave you with a story about a homeless man who commented after being greeted and spoken with, “you are the first person to talk with me in a long while.”

Gone to seed

We have a poverty problem in the United States. Too many of our declining middle class did not rise to the next strata, falling instead, to near poverty and into poverty. Yet, we do not talk about this problem enough. We have let their ladders out of poverty, go to seed along with their environment.

Poverty should be succinctly defined, as it is often misdefined along with simplistic diagnoses. Quite simply, poverty is the lack of money. The causes are many and complex, so the solutions must be holistic.

Some like to say it is due to lack of virtue. Some like to say it is due to lack of work ethic, while others may claim it is due to drug use or alcoholism. When I work with people in poverty, I witness hard working, often pious people. I see people with a lesser propensity to do drugs than general society.

If we recognize the simple definition of poverty as lack of money, we can focus our attention on providing ladders out of poverty. We can invest in the communities that have gone to seed, both with economic and social capital. We can start with redeveloping depleted assets. The term coined with a successful program in Atlanta is ABCD – Asset Based Comminuty Development.

ABCD could focus on repairing and not closing a community school, recognizing the during and after school value it offers. Or, it could be redeveloping a gone to seed golf course or empty textile or tobacco mill. Or, it could be repurposing a mall to be a school, church, charity or governmental building. Replacing or refurbishing blighted assets makes a huge difference.

Coupled with these investments must be education and career development, or social investments. Jobs and careers are scarce in too many areas. Opportunities must be introduced and nurtured to make them sustainable. STEM education, apprenticeships, trades skills are part of an all of the above tactical strategy,

But, we must be mindful of four negative trends in areas that have gone to seed – crime, opioids, food deserts  and single families. Community policing by people living in the community is key. Targeted help with the opiod epidemic is important. Better food choices must be available as they may not have a grocery market. And, we must have holistic sex education and access to planned parenthood tools and birth control.

What we cannot have is kicking tens of millions off health care insurance. We cannot reduce an already minuscule food stamps program. We need to think about improving the minimum wage.

These are just a few ideas. But, first we need to address what people in poverty lack – money.

 

 

 

A letter from a teenager whose family is no longer homeless

The following letter was read at a recent Board meeting of our agency that helps homeless families. Breaking the cycle of homelessness for this family, reduces greatly the risk that homelessness will impact the children as adults.

Dear Board members,

My name is xxxx. I am 16 years old, in the 11th grade at yyyyy High School. I am writing this letter to thank you once again for all that you have done for my family, and helping us with a place to live. Over the past few years, I have been to 4 different high schools due to living with different people because of mother’s situation. I feel more secure now that my family is in a stable home. And, I can spend the next two years spending time with my mom & little brother before I graduate and go off into the Air Force. Thank you for making that happen for us.

Sincerely,

xxxxx

Can you imagine trying to be a normal teenager, when you worry about a roof over your head and anguish over your and your mother’s situation? At the meeting I also shared a story about one of our homeless fathers. His son has graduated with a Master’s degree and is now teaching school. These kids can be afforded opportunity for success if we can help their family gain stability.

The reason I highlight these two stories is when I speak about helping our homeless family clients, it is not unusual for a few to be obstinate in their belief that the parents are just lazy or drug addicts. Even when I say our parents have jobs, sometimes more than one, and the propensity for drug use among homeless people has no greater propensity than that of housed people, that is discounted or not believed. But, the one thing I can get these more obstinate folks to agree with me on is the kids did not choose to be homeless, so let’s help them.

Let’s help the parents and their families. But, in so doing, let’s help the kids. Breaking the cycle of homelessness for the next generation also helps the community.

 

The working homeless I see

With holiday season upon us, I wanted to remind folks that the holidays can overshadow many folks who are doing so much with so little. I volunteer to help with working homeless families as they climb a ladder back to self-sufficiency. We help them along the way, but they are the ones who must climb the rungs of the ladder.

When I speak to groups of people about the folks we help, whether it is a Sunday school class, church service, United Way function, business group or company community relations effort, the audience is always surprised when I say our homeless families work. I usually let that sink in before proceeding.

In fact, 85% – 95% of our families are parented by a single working mother, the fastest growing population of homeless people nationwide. And, about a third of those mothers are escaping a domestic violence situation. Think about that for a second. A woman and family has the additional trauma of being homeless on top of the physical and mental abuse. Our social workers have a process they use with our families called Trauma Informed Care. They understand what the mother and family is going through, while still helping them be more accountable.

Our families are homeless because of reduced hours, a lost job from several, a healthcare crisis, a car issue, daycare costs or because of the domestic violence issues noted above. We help our families by providing temporary shelter for about 60 – 90 days as they get their sea legs underneath them. Then, we help them move to an apartment where we subsidize the rent with the family paying 30% of their income toward rent and utilities. We pair them with a clinical social worker and, if they desire, a Hope Team which is a group of one or more couples that help mentor the family.

Our families exit our program, on average, after twenty-one months with 80% – 90% being self-sufficient, meaning they no longer need our subsidy. And, we measure success after they leave, so we know that 80% – 90% of the families who left housed are still housed on their own after two years of leaving our program. This shows that people need a helping hand to get back on their feet, but truly want to be on their own. I mention this as there are some in our country that believe everyone needing help is a malingerer.

My experience shatters many of those misconceptions. Here are three:

  • People in poverty are lazy. Not true. The people I work with tend to work their fannies off in one or more jobs.
  • People in poverty are less virtuous and are being punished. Not true. The people I see tend to cling to their faith and are more pious than the church members who help them. These volunteers take away more than give.
  • People in poverty are substance abusers. No more than anyone else and in fact to a lesser degree. The State of Florida drug tested welfare recipients until the policy was ruled unconstitutional. The data from this short lived process revealed that people on welfare had less than 1/2 the rate of substance abuse than general society’s rate.

Poverty is merely the lack of money, period.

So, as we celebrate Christmas and other holidays, let’s remember that many are not so lucky. They are doing the best they can. The hole is deep, but they can climb out of it, with a little help. Let’s help them climb the ladder.

 

 

We seem to have forgotten what Jesus did while on earth


As we enter the Christmas holiday season, it would be helpful to remind ourselves what Jesus did while he walked the earth and what he promoted while he was here. Variations of his overarching themes can also be found in other religious texts, so these tenets are important regardless of religion. His Golden Rule which paraphrases to Treat others like you want to be treated translates well to any religious faith.

Jesus spent most of his adult life with the disenfranchised people of the areas he traveled. He would visit and stay with those who were not the powerful leaders or church leaders of the day. He tended to be with those who needed him most – the sick, the disabled, the poor and the downtrodden. In fact, he was not welcome by church leaders in some places and became irritated when church leaders did not use his church for its key purpose.

If Jesus walked the earth today, he would likely be irritated with us for many things.

  • Jesus would not be too keen on the demonization of people who look, speak or worship differently than the speaker.
  • He would not be too keen on intolerance especially when advocated by religious leaders who preach a message of exclusion. Jesus welcomed everyone.
  • He would not be too keen on the commercialization of his birthday, which loses sight of why we are honoring the day in the first place.
  • He would not be too keen on treating the impoverished in the world as if they had a communicable disease. “There, but by the grace of God, go I” he would say.
  • He would not be too keen on turning our backs on people who are refugees from their war-torn land. He would be there welcoming them in.
  • He would not be too keen on people being killed in the name of any religion, especially when the perpetrators are twisting language from its true meaning.
  • He would not be too keen on abortion unless a mother’s life is threatened. And, while this may sound inconsistent, he would likely be in favor of using birth control to avoid abortions, lessen poverty and prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.
  • He would not be too keen on the prosperity church leaders who live high on the hog after bilking poor and sick people of their money. If you hear the term “seed money,” understand you are being swindled to help someone buy a jet or house.
  • He would not be too keen on corrupt leaders who forsake their mission to govern wisely and judiciously.
  • He would not be too keen on people not being good stewards of our earth which is consistent across many religions.

We seem to have become a collection of cafeteria Christians, only picking parts of the bible we like and missing the overall context and message. We must treat others like we want to be treated, with no caveats. To prove my point, I want you to picture a mental image of Jesus and then go back to the first bullet point above regarding “demonization of people who look….differently than the speaker.”

Now, I want you to picture an adult Syrian refugee. Jesus did not look like Max Von Sidow, Jim Caviezel or Jeffrey Hunter (who played him in movies). Jesus looked more like the Syrian refugees look than how movies portrayed him. And, he did not speak English. If Jesus was among the refugees, we have folks who would be arguing to deny his entrance into America as he would be a single adult male with a mideastern appearance.

We must be better than this. We must understand his key message and live like he would want us to, even if he does not look like we do. It is the Christian thing to do….and Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Buddhist thing as well.