A few straightforward suggestions to fight poverty (a reprise)

The following is a reprise of a post I wrote three years ago. After the pandemic and its lingering tentacles, along with increased apartment prices due to a housing boom fueled even more by investors buying up property, it is even more of a concern today. I welcome your ideas and thoughts.

“If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

The above quote comes from the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond. Its subtitle is also telling – “Poverty and Profit in the American City.” The dilemma is we have a poverty problem that stretches from urban to rural America. Yet, it manifests itself daily in the eviction courts of American cities and towns, whether it is from apartments, houses or mobile homes.

The book speaks of how fragile the rental community is regardless of race, yet the black community tends to have a higher rate of exposure to evictions in urban areas. Unexpected expenses, transportation problems, and tragedies can push people paying a very high portion of their rent over the edge and out the door. Ideally, 30% of family income should be toward housing and utilities. Too many of these folks are paying well above that percentage.

It should be noted that there are other drivers of fragility. Some have opioid and other dependencies. Some are fragile due to too many children that stretch the budgets of even the best planners. Some are in downward spirals with unsupportive landlords. And, many of those unexpected expenses that arise are healthcare related.

What are some suggestions to remedy these issues? Based on my experience as a volunteer Board member helping working homeless families and my reading, I would like to throw out some ideas for consideration.

First, we need to talk more about it. America has a huge disparity in distribution of wealth which is not talked about enough by leaders. Where and to whom one is born are greater predictors of success as the American Dream  has waned for too many.

Second, we need to fund more family planning efforts not less. There is a high correlation between poverty and large families. When family planning is funded and birth control access and education are increased, poverty declines, system health care costs decline and abortions decline.

Third, more mechanisms to reduce evictions need to be in place and funded. Crisis assistance funds show success in helping keeping the electricity on and, when funded, reducing the number of evictions. Stopping homelessness (or fragility) before it starts can make a huge difference and will have a positive echo effect.

Fourth, we must invest in impoverished  areas making them more suitable for families both with opportunity and resources. In their absence, crime and other poor influences fill the void.

Fifth, while I have concerns about the new Tax law (passed in early 2018) with its impact on debt and heavy emphasis on the wealthy and corporations, a huge opportunity was missed when we could have added an increase in the minimum wage tying it to automatic increases due to wage inflation. I worry that less money than expected by the law’s drafters will end up in the hands of workers.

Sixth, we must address our opioid crisis in America. And, we must look at our rising numbers needing mental health counseling. To be frank, cutting access to healthcare and mental care insurance benefits are not the answer. We should actually be expanding access where it does not exist. We must stabilize access and cost of healthcare, yet opposite measures have been taken in the past few years under the guise of political gain.

Seventh, too many go hungry in the United States, especially children. That may be one of our greatest tragedies as a nation. We must address food deserts where grocers choose not to go. Too many are living off horrible fast food or nothing at all. Food co-ops would be a big help to those areas, but they need help funding the build-out.

There are many more ideas, but these will help. On the investing front, many locations have seen success with using historical tax credits leveraging private money. There is a concept called ABCD (Asset Based Community Development) which shores up or repurposes a deteriorated asset creating jobs and revitalizing areas.

But, first we need to talk about this real and pervasive problem.

Nickel and Dimed in America – a tribute to Barbara Ehrenreich (may she RIP)

Yesterday, I learned that Barbara Ehrenreich passed away at the age of 81. From the Associated Press,

“Barbara Ehrenreich, the author, activist and self-described ‘myth buster’ who in such notable works as ‘Nickel and Dimed’ and ‘Bait and Switch’ challenged conventional thinking about class, religion and the very idea of an American dream, has died at age 81…A prolific author who regularly turned out books and newspaper and magazine articles, Ehrenreich honed an accessible prose style that brought her a wide readership for otherwise unsettling and unsentimental ideas. She disdained individualism, organized religion, unregulated economics and what Norman Vincent Peale famously called ‘the power of positive thinking.’”

I wrote the following post nine years ago about the need to increase the minimum wage. Fortunately, many states and cities did this very thing to get folks closer to a living wage.

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The walkout this week by restaurant workers to protest poor wages is indicative of a major problem we have in this country. We have a poverty problem in this country with far too many people living in poverty or paycheck to paycheck. As I have noted in earlier posts, the disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots” has grown wider at the same time our socio-economic class mobility has greatly diminished. Where we are born and to whom we are born are now greater indicators of success than they used to be. To compound the problem, those who are in the upper income echelons are having a more difficult time appreciating the challenges faced by those who are not. More on this later.

In Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed (in America),” she chronicled her efforts and those of her co-workers, in trying to live on minimum or near-minimum wage jobs. Her conclusion is these jobs perpetuate poverty. She notes a variety of factors which include not being able to afford healthcare, not being able to save, poor food habits as fast food was the cheapest and most convenient food, being a slave to the work schedulers, being tied to mass transportation schedules due to gas prices, and having to work more than one job. She also noted in the restaurant jobs, people having to work when they are sick, because they needed the pay. Getting by was the best you could hope for. Getting ahead was quite difficult as you were treated like a commodity. I would add this contention is supported by Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley’s book “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” A summary of the key findings in the book can be gleaned from the attached post.  https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/the-rich-and-the-rest-of-us-a-must-read/

Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. In some places, the state or local minimum wage is higher (Illinois, California have $8.00; Arizona is $7.47 and the city of San Francisco is $9.79, e.g.). Yet, a living wage is higher in these locations. A living wage varies by geography and is based on the cost of living to provide shelter, food, healthcare and basic necessities. Attached is a link to a MIT website that will allow you to see the calculation of living wage by area. http://livingwage.mit.edu/.

Per this MIT website, in my home county in North Carolina, a living wage is now $10.02 for a single adult and $19.68 for a one parent, one child family. In other higher cost of living areas, the living wage can be a few dollars more. As of this writing, President Obama has proposed an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00. While not enough, the increase is a tangible step forward. Per a Gallup Poll in March 2013, this proposal is supported by 70% of Americans. The result is even higher for women, Democrats, moderates, non-whites, adults who earn less than $24,000 per annum, and young adults. 2/3 of Americans who are seniors, Independents, and earners between $24,000 and $60,000 support the change. It is only beneath 67% for men, Republicans conservatives,and upper middle class earners and above.

Those who decry this change cite that we will end up with fewer jobs as a result. I have seen data on both sides of this argument. To me, there is a huge cost of turnover in retail and restaurant jobs due to lost productivity of the staff, but also of the department and store manager. The manager has to spend more time back-filling a job or making sure people are on the floor, than focusing on customer service and selling merchandise. Any measure a retail company can do to reduce this churn shows up in better productivity. Per the attached link, Costco seems to believe this, as they pay their people far more than the minimum and are doing quite well. http://money.cnn.com/2013/08/06/news/economy/costco-fast-food-strikes/index.html.

We have a problem in this country, which will only get worse, if we do not remedy it. This is a key reason I have been a staunch supporter of Obamacare. While imperfect, it does speak to the healthcare insurance needs of those who are now uninsured. And, many of those who cannot afford insurance are working in retail and restaurants. Yet, we must pay people better. Will it cause the number of jobs to go down? My guess is for some employers it might, but for many it won’t. In my consulting work with retail and restaurant employers, I have observed the employers who treat their employees as commodities will never have the productivity and customer service of those who treat their employees as key in their ability to sell products and serve customers. These latter companies work back from how can we serve the customer better.

And, when you hear someone who is doing more than fine financially state that increasing the minimum wage is a poor investment of money, please respond the better off people are, the less they will depend on those so-called hand-outs the well off seem to hate. I do not like to use the term hand-outs, as helping people survive in tough times is an appropriate investment of resources, yet for an audience that tends to use this term freely, it is an argument that might resonate. Plus, the more we all have to spend, the better off the economy will be. Let’s increase the minimum wage. It is time.

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Thank you Barbara Ehrenreich – you made us think and sit-up and take notice.

Medicaid expansion – letter to the editor

When the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, a key element was for people who made less than 133% of the poverty limit based on their family size. This group would pay no premiums through a state-by-state expansion of Medicaid. The federal government said it would reimburse each state for 90% of that cost.

At this point in 2022, there are twelve holdout states that have not expanded Medicaid. That leaves 2 million Americans with access to no healthcare coverage. The holdout states include my home state of North Carolina and big states like Texas, Florida and Georgia (see link below to a NPR article).

North Carolina was close to passing Medicaid expansion, but the effort stalled once again. Here is a letter I sent to my newspaper that they graciously printed this morning.

NC and Medicaid

As a retired benefits consultant and former benefits manager for a Fortune 500 company, I was hopeful that the N.C. General Assembly would at long last pass an expansion of Medicaid to fully comply with the Affordable Care Act. Failing to do this has harmed N.C. residents. Our economy has been impacted and some rural hospitals have either closed or are in financial trouble, according to the Commonwealth Fund, a nonpartisan healthcare advisor.

As former GOP presidential candidate and Ohio governor John Kasich noted when Ohio expanded Medicaid years ago, it was a no-brainer with the federal funding the state has realized for years now. Please move forward on Medicaid expansion.

We have heard of food deserts in largely rural states which impact people in need more than others. But, we also have healthcare deserts as well. Taking only one data point, it is not a surprise to learn that maternal mortality rates in these states are worse than in other states and first-world countries. Note, this is mother’s dying in childbirth. That is a sad state of affairs, especially for a country who claims exceptionalism.

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/07/01/1011502538/12-holdout-states-havent-expanded-medicaid-leaving-2-million-people-in-limbo

Oranges and sunshine

Sometimes you come across a movie where the hero is unlikely. In this case she is an overworked social worker from England. Sometimes the problem presented is unheard of so the duty of the movie is to point out atrocious behavior on the part of people and entities that should know better. Sometimes the victims do not have a voice and really just wanted to find out what happened and who they are.

When you add these things into a pot, the movie “Oranges and sunshine” comes out starring Emily Watson. Watson is one of Great Britain’s finest actors in my view, but she has the misfortune of having a name close to another actress of Harry Potter fame, Emma Watson, so confusion results. If Watson is in a movie, it usually is a good one and this is no exception.

In short, it is about a social worker named Margaret Humphreys in the mid-1980s who learns something unsettling from an adult Australian woman who was visiting England to find out who she was and where she came from. She tells Humphreys she was transferred as a child from an orphanage in London to one in Australia, not to be adopted, but just rehoused. Humphreys does not believe her as that would be illegal, but she leaves the file.

With her husband’s (and later her boss’) help and support, Humphreys begins a process to find out what happened and locate parents, alive or dead, so that this woman and others who come out of the woodwork can get closure. Without giving the plot away, this true story tells of what Humphreys learns and how extensive a problem it is. With it so large, she hypothesizes it has to be systematic and involve folks higher up.

I will stop there. The movie is a must see. Will it make you angry – yes? Will it show you what one person can mean to many – yes? Will it show you the mental, family and physical toll trying to do the right thing causes – yes?

The movie was made in 2010 and also stars Hugo Weaving, Lorraine Ashbourne, Molly Windsor, Stuart Wolfendon, and David Wenham among many. The screenplay was written by Margaret Humphreys and Rona Munro – note the title comes from an adult telling the kids that Australia had plentiful oranges and sunshine to get them on the ship. It was directed by Jim Loach. Weaving played the father with PTSD in “Hacksaw Ridge” and people who watch British TV will recognize Ashbourne from numerous shows. Give it a look.

Letter to the editor – Australian election should be a wake up call for the US conservatives

I sent the following letter to the editor of my newspaper. It may not get printed, but I wanted others to see it and adapt and use it if they like it.

Seeing Australian voters sweep out conservatives after nine years and three prime ministers is telling. A large bloc of women voters grew tired of relative inaction on climate change, lack of assuring soundness of their Medicare and child care, and overall lack of integrity in its elected leaders.

Here in the states, my former Republican party is turning a blind eye to more action on climate change, better gun governance, growing fascism and shoring up the ACA and are attacking voting rights and civil rights. At the same time, overstated and even contrived issues are getting the air time to garner votes from their base.

As conservative pundit Michael Gerson says the “Republican Party is in decay.” I agree. We need a viable Conservative party, but what we have is not on the right path. The truth matters. And, a party that vilifies its truth tellers while glorifying its liars does not have the needed veritas to be considered seriously. I can disagree with the Democrats on policy, but with Republicans I find myself having to argue what is true. That is telling to this independent and former Republican and Democrat voter.

US is the only developed nation where rate of pregnant mother deaths is rising (a reprise from 2015)

The rise in maternal mortality in the United States has been hitting the headlines, especially as it relates to Louisiana leading the way. Senator Bill Cassidy is getting flak, rightfully so, for trying to minimize the problem focusing on taking the African-American mothers out of the equation. Their deaths are an important part of this, but they are only a part, but deserve due diligence as to why just like every other race, income group, ethnic group, etc. We should look to things like – lack of healthcare access, fewer rural hospitals, food deserts and poverty as several of the causes. Yet, this is not a new problem, as I wrote this post seven years ago.

Recently, a very powerful article was written by Danielle Paquette in The Washington Post entitled “Why pregnant women in Mississippi keep dying.” A link to the article follows: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/04/24/why-pregnant-women-in-mississippi-keep-dying/. While the article focuses its title on Mississippi, that is a metaphor for a national problem. The US is now the only developed nation where the rate of pregnant mother deaths is increasing. In 1987 only 7.2 pregnant women were dying per 100,000 births. That rate has more than doubled in 2013 to 18.5 deaths per 100,000 births. Our maternal death rate in childbirth is 3x the rate in Saudi Arabia and 2x the rate in the UK.

In Mississippi, it is far worse with 54.7 black mothers dying in childbirth out of 100,000 births and 29.3 white mothers dying per 100,000. There a number of reasons cited, but one of the key reasons is that Mississippi has not expanded Medicaid and have over 107,000 people who do not have access to healthcare coverage. Note, other reasons are cited, but not having health care coverage limits access to preventive visits that expectant mothers with care get.

As many know, I have been a broken record for the need to continue and improve the Affordable Care Act, which is working pretty well by a number of studies and has dampened cost increases with the Congressional Budget Office lowering health care projections three times due in part to the ACA. In fact, just yesterday at Congress’ request, the CBO and Joint Committee on Taxation noted that repealing the ACA would increase the deficit by $353 Billion (or $137 Billion when a new dynamic scoring approach is used). This seems to run counter to rhetoric of how harmful the law is. Here is a link to the article: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/obamacare-repeal-would-boost-10-year-deficit-by-dollar353b-cbo/ar-AAbQa2S?ocid=DELLDHP

But, we need to finish the job and completely implement the ACA in about twenty states, such as North Carolina, that have not expanded Medicaid to cover a key tranche of people under the ACA. It is not surprising, these predominantly southern states are seeing the worst child and mother health results. Several reputable health-related foundations (The Commonwealth Fund, Kaiser Family Foundation) and economic think tanks (RAND and Economic Policy Institute) have noted that not expanding Medicaid is actually harmful to people and this is more evidence of that assertion.

Please read these articles and, if you concur these are problems worth doing something about, reach out to your state legislators and US representatives and senators. Ask them to support the continuation of the ACA as the majority of Americans wish to happen. Ask the states who have not expanded Medicaid to do so as they are hurting people, rural hospitals and their own economies in not so doing. These issues are that important as people are the pawns in these political chess games and they bear the brunt of these decisions with their health and lives.

Comedians and Congress

The very astute and funny comedian Sarah Silverman said yesterday on a segment of The View, “Why is it we hold our comedians to a higher standard than our Congressional representatives?” She was responding to the trend for comedians to come under physical attack on stage and verbal abuse online. I want you to re-read the emboldened sentence of hers and let it sink in. Why, indeed?

If that is not enough to stew on, I want you to think of recent and not so recent comments by several members of Congress with names like Taylor-Greene, Cawthorn, Jordan, Gosar, Breitbart, Gohmer, Brooks, Gaetz et al. If that were not enough, fold in comments from folks like Senators Cruz, Paul. etc. Then we have the former president’s comments which take it to an even lower level.

These comedians make their living making fun of uncomfortable topics. Do they cross the line on occasion? Absolutely. Yet, we seem to vilify them more than we do for people who are supposed to represent our better angels as elected officials. I can disagree with a policy position of an elected official and that is OK. Yet, I want them to be respectful of the office they hold.

I disagree with Democrats and Republicans on various issues. I think some Democrats tend to forget we need to pay for things, e.g. But, the names I mention above are all Republican for a reason. They have a strident manner in dealing with opposing arguments. Name calling is not an argument. Parroting conspiracy theories is not an argument. Saying truly inane things does not make you more credible.

It is not ironic that the most touted leader in the world is a former comedian. President Zelenskyy of Ukraine has stood up against the invasion of Russian troops and rallied his country against the onslaught. To be frank, Vladimir Putin did not count on that stance thinking he could steam roll Ukraine in three days. He could not have been more wrong.

When I watch shows that are news centered comedy discussions, the more astute guests tend to be comedians. To be able to make fun of something, you tend to have to know what it is and why it could be funny. In this same vein, one of the best news shows on TV is actually a comedy show – John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.” Invariably, his writers will have an in-depth discussion on issues that do not get air time elsewhere such as predatory tele-evangelists, predatory lending, predatory court fees, et al. Other new sources have actually complimented their efforts.

Since comedians seem to be more knowledgeable, maybe we should do like sports teams do. When an elected official is obviously not up to the challenge, like in a sporting event, let’s just replace him or her with a comedian. In my view, we will be far better off.

Wednesday wanderings in early May

What a great day for a walk about. So, as I walk today my mind will wander on various and sundry topics. In no particular order.

A draft Supreme Court ruling has been leaked which appears Roe v Wade may get overturned. The fact it was leaked may be due to the justices wanting to gauge reaction, which politicians do often. If the justices did this it would be highly disappointing as they need to be above politics. Or, it may be a leak by someone who is troubled by the ruling.

If this draft turns out to be the eventual ruling, some Republicans who voted for the recent judges are feeling betrayed – notably two females in Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. Yet, my first reaction was the Republicans who went along with this to garner the vote of evangelicals are now like the dog who caught the bus. My guess is women may rise up and squash them. While I personally would not advocate an abortion, I also support the right for a woman to determine what happens to her body and the limitations that exist provide sufficient governance.

What also frustrates me is measures that reduce abortions are also frowned on by the evangelical crowd. Holistic sex education (which includes abstinence and self-esteem discussions) with birth control approaches and tools being taught and made available, are proven to reduce unwanted pregnancies, reduce poverty and save healthcare costs. What also frustrates me is some people who are so against abortions also are in not in favor of helping people in time of need, not in favor of better gun laws and not in favor of doing something about climate change, water shortages or environmental degradation.

I realize this draft is not official, but I am curious how the justices may react to a groundswell of women who do not like this.

My friend Carol who “leaned in” – a reprise

Although we are two days removed from Women’s History Month, I stumbled onto an old post of eight years ago that tells the true and still ongoing story of my friend Carol, whose decision to change her path forward is an example for us all.

For those of you who follow the wonderful blog called “The Bookshelf of Emily J”  you know that she recently highlighted Sheryl Sandberg’s book called “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” The post can be found with the attached link: http://emilyjanuary.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/women-at-work-leaning-in/. After reflecting more on Emily’s post, I decided to tell a story about my friend Carol who during the early part of her career realized she was not doing what she wanted to do and did something about it.

The fact that she realized she was not fulfilling her dream is not the story, as many come to this realization. The story is she did something about it and took a leap of faith back into her dream. Carol had always wanted to be a social worker, but she listened to the counsel of her father and studied something more practical in college that would gain her a better paying career. Unfortunately, he was focused on the economic value of the career and not the psychic value of helping those in need.

So, she got a great education from a wonderful college and embarked on a career with a major electric utility. She was doing very well, but something was missing. She did not know what until she began volunteering with a crisis assistance organization that helped people who were about to be evicted from the homes or have their power shut off. Through this community service, she rediscovered her social worker mindset and calling. So, she sought and discovered opportunity with this agency.

Since she also had the business mindset from her schooling, she was able to leverage her heartfelt desire to help those in need. Eventually, she became the Executive Director of this organization and has successfully led them for many years. Because of her solid reputation, she is also a go-to person for many community efforts or to be a spokesperson on the plight of those in need. She lends her voice to those whose voice cannot be heard.

I like many things about Carol. But, in my dealings with her, she listens to what others have to say and she is comfortable enough in her own skin to change her opinion if you present good arguments. Yet, she is also confident enough to stick to her guns when she feels she is in the right. And, she can sway those who may disagree with her through her intellect and conviction. Many new ideas have been piloted through her involvement, whether directly or indirectly. She is a wonderful partner. There is an old saying about change. When you are looking to have change, make sure you have people on the bus that will help move it forward. You want Carol on that bus.

Carol leaned in early on. She changed the arc of her career to do something she loved. She rediscovered her passion. Yet, she is also someone who you want to work with. That is one of her true gifts. Together, with Carol on board, we can solve many more problems than without her involvement. She is one those “lights” that President George H.W. Bush spoke of so many years ago. Thanks Carol. You are more than one of the lights – you are a gem.

A Proven Three for One Return – an example of reducing poverty, abortions and unwanted pregnancies (a reprise from an earlier post)

The following post was written about seven years ago. Given my past volunteer work for working homeless families, this Colorado study was compelling.

If there was a proven solution that would accomplish three major goals and save money, it would be worth considering, right? If data revealed that a state could save $80 million and dramatically reduce abortions, unwanted pregnancies and help people in poverty, it would be as close to a no-brainer as we could get. Then, why is Colorado’s legislature unwinding funding to an effort to provide birth control and family planning to people in need?

Worldwide and in the US, there is a high correlation between larger family size and poverty. Further, a Harvard study from 1982 – 2011 indicates that one of five reasons for poor socio-economic mobility is fewer traditional families (some Conservatives like to say this is the only reason, but that oversimplifies).

Yet, the use of an obvious toolset with a proven track record does not stand up to the scrutiny of this legislature. Of course, the reason is the fervent belief against birth control even though the significant majority of women ignore their religion on this subject. About 90% of American Catholic women use or have used birth control.

In my work with homeless families, one of the reasons for some young women who find themselves homeless is having children before they are ready or out of wedlock. Also about 30% of our clients are victims of domestic violence. Lacking the additional income of a second parent, not to mention the support of a good one, puts a family in a hole which is hard to climb out of.

Here is where religion is less inclined toward the practical and can be harmful. We need to have holistic open discussions about this topic with teens. It is more than OK to preach abstinence, but these teens are tempted far more than we were at that age, and we were tempted. So, we need to teach a girl’s self-esteem is not tied into relenting to sex, nor is a boy’s for that matter. We need to teach boys that no means no. But, we need to also teach family planning and provide tools of birth control.

We have columnists who tout fatherless families as the reason for poverty in the Black community, which it is one of several. It is a reason no matter the race or ethnic group. Yet they stop short of defining one of the cures, which is noted above and proven to be successful. It should be noted in the states with the lowest abortion rate, they each have more robust family planning effort than states with higher rates.

Let’s be smart and practical about these issues. The data is pretty clear. And, it should be noted using a condom actually reduces STDs and HIV transmission which would be fourth benefit.