Wednesday wanderings early in July, 2021

Crosby, Stills and Nash sang:

Just a song before I go
To whom it may concern
Traveling twice the speed of sound
It’s easy to get burned”

Simon and Grafunkel added:

“Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobble stones
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy”

In our 24 x 7 world of social media and pseudo and real news sources that tell us what to think, everything seems like a problem of urgency. Isn’t this horrible and we must act? Part of this is very real, as in this big world, something bad is happening somewhere. Since “if it bleeds, it leads” or is there is conflict between sparring legislators, it makes the news.

Good news stories do get reported, but in inverse proportion to their occurrence. The good news stories are far more common and everyday, but are not deemed newsworthy. I recall a silly example on a music show called “Where are they now?” which usually highlights a band that had success, then fell apart. They filmed one on the group Kansas, but it never aired. Why? The band members were all living normal lives, so it was not titillating.

Yet, the other part of these pervasive bad news stories, which can be tragic and dispiriting, is the news that needs to be talked about, but does not get much coverage. Here are a few.

  • We have a global fresh water problem that is only being made worse by climate change.
  • That climate change problem is no longer a future event – it is brandishing its fangs now with more wildfires, droughts and stalled weather patterns, along with more intense hurricanes and tornados.
  • On the good news side, renewable energy is growing at a rapid rate now that cost of production is economical and fossil fuel companies are being held more to account by shareholders and judges..
  • There is a poverty and hunger problem in the US and abroad. Too many Americans go to bed hungry. Too many Americans live beneath or at paycheck to paycheck.
  • The US has a huge debt and deficit burden that was already bad before the pandemic relief and tax cuts – now it is far worse, with interest cost becoming an increasing part of the budget.

These issues don’t get talked about enough. Even on the better news stations, the focus is way too much on which political party benefits from an issue. The issue itself gets less reporting than who benefits. In fact, wedge issues are seized to beat the other party over the head with, even if the problem has been around for years. I have long grown weary of problems not being addressed, because of optics. Do something.

But, back to CS&N and Simon and Garfunkel, let’s also balance all of this with the good stuff that is going on every day. I recognize there are too many folks that are wound way too tight. They seem looking for a fight if some thing or some person makes them do something. Get over it. The world does not revolve around you. If you have to wear a mask to get in some place, then you know what you need to do.

Yet, we should endeavor to leave all of our encounters on a better footing. Somewhere in some book I read, some guy called this rule golden. Something like treat others like you want to be treated. Now, that is something to evangelize.

Shore up the ACA – letter to the editor

My local newspaper ran my following letter to the editor Sunday. I have been preaching the message of improving the Affordable Care Act for seven years offering suggestions. I will link to one of those posts below. What I have never cared for is the naysaying, sabotaging and attempts to repeal it that have been a substitute for debate in the Republican party.

The legislation Republicans almost rammed through in 2017 was ill-conceived, poorly developed and punitive to multiple millions of Americans. These were the key reasons Senator John McCain saved the GOP from itself and voted it down before he died.

“Three times now the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act in the face of Republican attempts to rule it unconstitutional.

Per this retired actuary, benefits consultant and benefits manager, the ACA is not perfect and could use some improvements. But it is helping Americans, including provisions required in employer sponsored plans, which people tend to forget.

What has puzzled me for 10 years is that the law is somewhat based on Republican ideas, the latest being Romneycare in Massachusetts, which at least one Tea Party leader, S.C.. Sen. Jim DeMint, once supported.   

My strong advice to my former party, stop trying to screw Americans by killing the ACA and let’s find ways to shore up its deficiencies.”

Please stabilize the Affordable Care Act NOW to help Americans | musingsofanoldfart (wordpress.com)

Help people find jobs by paying it forward (a reprise)

The following post was written eight years ago, but remains relevant today. We often do not realize we have the ability to help people just using our connections and experience.

In my non-paying job, I spend time helping those who help people in need. In particular, I focus my efforts on homeless families, 84% of whom have jobs. Yet, the jobs are insufficient to pay their bills and when a crisis occurs, they end up losing their home. People who are in or near poverty are living paycheck to paycheck, so they are in a perilous situation as well. And, they number over 50,000,000 in the US. In fact, a statistic I have used frequently is 48% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. To see more on how fragile these families are, I would encourage you to watch the documentary “American Winter” which I wrote about on March 23, 2013 (and recently reposted).

One of the similarities I have witnessed about homeless families or people in poverty is their network of people they can get help from is either non-existent, exhausted or in a similar predicament. I mention this as when people who are doing pretty well are in need of something, they have a network of people to whom they can reach out. For example, I often am approached by friends, colleagues or family, about assisting someone they know network about a job or field of study. One of the reasons is I have been in business for a long time, so I have many contacts. Yet, the other reason is they know I will try to help. I tell people often I enjoy helping people network. It is my way of paying it forward.

When we think about how we can help people in poverty or in trouble, helping them network or connect to others is a way to pay it forward. I heard Bob Lupton, the author of “Toxic Charity” speak and he noted the church congregations are filled with people who have contacts or know how to merchandise yourself or a business and they could be of service to those who have no such experience or relationships. As an example, the mother of a homeless family was able to gain better employment in a doctor’s office through contact with a church volunteer who was lending the family a hand.

Toward this purpose, let me mention a few things to think about to help people in need find a job or gain a better job to support their family.

1. Help people network – this is the one of the most beneficial things you could do. Just as you would help the son or daughter of a friend, meet with the person in need. Find out what they are looking to do and what skills they have and help them connect with people and opportunities of which you know. When you look at your sphere of influence, it is larger than you might think at first glance.

2. Help people see a broader range of options – in my networking with folks, this comes up often. People may hone in on an industry or type of employer and may not have a good understanding of the various options that exist. After discussing the things in number #1 above, I might suggest have you ever thought about this kind of industry, profession or employer? I know they have more opportunities than good candidates, so you may want to consider these avenues.

3. Help people understand what skills they need to acquire or hone – this advice is dear as well. We are blessed with a wonderful community college system and other curriculums that can help people improve their skills. In fact, if you know people who volunteer their time to teach, then you can help connect them with others. If you want to work in an office, then you will likely need better Word, Excel and Powerpoint skills, e.g. If installing solar panels is a viable job, then you may want to check out Goodwill Industries as they partner with the community college to teach that.

4. Help people present well – an entire post could be devoted to this topic. But, what I would suggest in the networking sessions is to offer some coaching. Maybe you could help look over their resume, maybe you could help coach them to go online to learn more about the companies who they will be interviewing with, help them ask informed questions, etc. Maybe you could guide them to Linked In or other job search avenues.

As many in the job market have surmised, applying for a job online is a necessity, but will not get you many jobs. What will get you the job is people who can help you connect and will vouch for you. The homeless families we help have a support group and have been vetted more so than a person who has not been helped. Plus, they know what being down and out looks like, so once plugged into the right situation they will have a strong level of commitment to their employer. I say this last part because when I network, my name is important. I am vouching for someone, so I want to make sure the connection will be fruitful for both. If I don’t do this, then that same contact will be less inclined to review any resumes I forward. That is why meeting the person is important.

These are steps we each can take to help those in need. In so doing, we can help people find a job or find a better paying job in a growing career. And, if you watch “American Winter” you will see there are people just like you and me in need, some who never thought they would be in this situation. There, but by the grace of God, go I is very apropos. Let’s help pay it forward.

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.

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.

Religious Support for the Environment (a revisit)

The following post was written about six years ago after the Sierra Club meeting which hosted the religious leaders. It should be noted it preceded a similar panel which included a Baptist and Hindu religious leaders at an Interfaith Council meeting.

A Catholic Nun, a Muslim Imam and a Jewish Rabbi walked into a room. Per the Rabbi, there is no punch line as this is not a joke, as all three came to discuss how their religions support treating the environment well. The discussion was called “Interfaith Perspective on Caring for the Planet.” After viewing a movie called “Stewardship and Lost Rivers,” co-produced by two professors at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which featured numerous religious leaders of various faiths, it is very apparent that each religion supports doing something about man-influenced climate change and treating our environment well for our children and grandchildren’s sake. In fact, Pope Francis will be publishing a position paper that says these very things later this summer, in advance of the next United Nations global meeting in Paris on doing something about climate change.

The Catholic Nun, who is one of 25 Climate Action leaders in the US Catholic Church, was keen on equating poverty and maltreatment of the environment. She noted that people in poverty are more impacted than others due to the placement of environmentally harmful energy sources nearer poor neighborhoods and the inability to easily pick up and move or seek medical help for illnesses perpetuated by pollution and energy waste product. Also, climate change seems to hit impoverished low-lying areas with sea rise and encroachment into farm land and fresh water supplies. In fact, one of the co-producers of “Stewardship and Lost Rivers” who was present used the term “eco-racism” to define the inordinate onus placed on the impoverished.

Yet, each religious leader echoed what was noted in the film regarding the wishes of God, Allah or a supreme being to treat the environment well for future generations. The Rabbi told the story of a man who was planting a tree that would not bear fruit for 75 years. When he failed to attend a meeting with a potential Messiah, he said he needed to finish planting this tree, as a tree bearing fruit was here when he came along and, irrespective of whether this is the Messiah, people will need the fruit from the tree. This is echoed in Deuteronomy where God tells the armies if they must wage war, to avoid cutting down the fig trees, as people will need to eat regardless of who wins.

Each religious leader discussed our need to be good stewards with our resources, in particular, water which is important in all religions symbolically and spiritually, but as well as to survive. I spoke with the Imam afterwards, and he noted because water is so dear in the Middle East, Muslims can use sand instead of water in their prayers. We discussed in Steven Solomon’s book “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization,” Solomon notes that Saudi Arabia is oil rich and water poor, which will cause huge problems in the not-so-distant future. Sounds like Texas, Oklahoma and California to me.

This topic resonated with me, especially when poverty and the environment were linked. We must do something about man-influenced climate change and its impact on the world. We need to treat our resources of air and water as dear as they are and will become in the future. As noted in the movie, there is no “Planet B,” as this is the only chance we get. We cannot rewind and change what we have done, but we can alter the future course. It is great to see religious leaders, like the Pope and these three folks, embrace the need to act to address our environmental concerns and poverty, as well. We should follow the instructions in our religious texts and join them.

An added thought, now six years later, we are making progress, but there is far more that is needed. Solar, wind and tidal energy continue to get more economical and are we must step up other efforts to reduce our carbon and methane footprints and take more carbon out of the air. There is an excellent documentary called “Ice on Fire” which is worth the watch as it speaks to these two sets of issues. Then there is that plastic waste thing….

What do these folks have in common? (a reprise)

The following post was written almost eight years ago. While more states and cities have increased their minimum wages and the Affordable Car Act helps greatly, this post remains relevant.

The following people have something in common. Please scroll down the series of descriptions and let me know what is common for all of them. The names of have been changed to protect their confidentiality, but the stories are very real.

Anna is working as an office manager working full-time making $8.00 per hour. She has is separated due to a domestic violence situation and has two children.

Hope is working two jobs – one full-time as an Administrative Assistant making $11.75 and the other part-time as an intake specialist at a Human Services agency making $11.00 an hour. She is also separated due to a domestic violence situation and has four children.

Julie is working full-time as a CSR (Customer Service Representative) for a bank making just over $14 an hour. She is unmarried with three children.

Nina is working full-time as a CSR for a utility company making $12.25 an hour. She is unmarried with one child.

Sarina is an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant making $12 an hour. She is unmarried with three kids.

Paul is working full-time on a cleaning crew making $11.00 an hour. He is unmarried with one child.

Carrie and Michael are married with four kids. Michael was laid off and Carrie is working in hospitality at a local hotel making $9.00 an hour.

Felicia is a Certified Nursing Assistant making $9.60 an hour at a hospital. She is unmarried and has one child.

Dedrick is a full-time security guard making $9.25 an hour. He is unmarried with three children.

Cassandra is working two part-time jobs, one as an afterschool teacher assistant making $11.25 per hour and the other as a retail clerk for a discount company making $7.95 per hour. She is unmarried with two children.

Terry is working as a public school teacher assistant making $11.00 an hour. She is unmarried with one child.

I could go on, but let me ask the question. What do these folks have in common? They are all homeless. When I tell people that the homeless people the agency I volunteer with have jobs, these people do not believe me at first. How can they be working and be homeless? It takes some people time for that to sink in. In fact, 84% of the families we help are working. The median wage for those 84% is $9.00 an hour. I purposefully used higher figures to illustrate a point – you can make above the living wage for an individual, but still be homeless if you are a parent. The living wage in my area for an individual is around $10.00 an hour and for a one-parent, one-child family is around $19.00 per hour.

There are five additional things I want to mention that are important to understanding, preventing and climbing out of poverty:

  • Family size is highly correlated with poverty. We must do a better job on family planning and providing birth control means and education. For my evangelical readers, your kids are going to be tempted to have sex. Please do not preach a message of abstinence alone. Teach girls how to say no. Teach boys to treat girls as more than sex objects and that no means no. But, let them know that if they must have a sexual relationship, to use protection.
  • Education is key. While the economic downturn altered this statement with layoffs and downsizings, for the most part, the higher your education, the less likely you are to be homeless. For kids that fall off the track, getting them back in school or on a path to a GED is essential. Fortunately, the community college systems in cities and regions do a pretty good job at getting people educated and developed with new career skills.
  • Healthcare is very important. The absence of healthcare is the key reason for personal bankruptcy in the US and an important reason for homelessness. People cannot afford their employer plan and one of the kids get sick or has an issue. Or, the parent stopped taking his or her medications due to cost and the resulting physical or mental issue causes a problem for the family or on the job. Fully implementing Obamacare will help, but the states who did not expand Medicaid need to do so.
  • Minimum wage needs to at least be the living wage for an individual. The homeless we help work hard, sometimes at more than one job. People like to say that increasing the minimum wage impacts the number of jobs. To be honest, most studies do not support that contention. We need to increase the minimum wage to the living wage for an individual. These jobs perpetuate poverty (please read “Nickeled and Dimed in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich). Short of that, we need to increase it more than it is now and graduate it to a higher level. Yet, the same people who decry people on welfare, also don’t want to pay people for an honest day’s work. If we pay people better and not like an economic slave, then the economy will actually flourish more.
  • Domestic violence is real. About 30% of the people in our program have come out of an abusive relationship. So, the spouse is making due without one of the incomes (for the most part) as well as dealing with a court-ordered spouse to stay away from her and the kids. I have said this before. If you are in an abusive relationship – leave. He will not change – leave. He will move beyond verbal abuse and it will become physical – leave. For the sake of your kids – leave. You can live a more normal life. Domestic violence is about power and control. It is difficult, but please leave.

Our agency is built with a model of helping people climb a ladder out of homelessness. The past fiscal year, 91% of our families were back to self-sufficiency in 21 months.  We provide rental subsidies based on their ability to pay, but they must work with a social worker and meet certain milestones. We also offer Hope Teams to mentor the family and kids. We do not do for them what they can do for themselves, so they must have a savings plan, take classes on Bridges Out of Poverty, and achieve certain milestones.

We all need to better understand our poverty problem in America. We must do better, but it must begin with realizing how it happens and helping people climb ladders out of poverty. We cannot solve this problem by kicking them when they are down and placing ill-founded labels on them as reasons to dismiss them as undeserving. Not only is that cold-hearted, but it is harmful to our economic growth. As Gandhi said it so well, “a society’s greatness is measured in how it takes care of its less fortunate.”

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.”

Time for the adult swim – just a quick dip

We need more rational adults to tell people in leadership and legislative positions to “get out of the pool, it is time for the adult swim.” The message is simple – “you folks are too worried about keeping your job, than to do your job.” The lobbyists pay a lot of money to get these funded drones to look the other way or do their bidding.

So, with the more rational adults in charge, no more Q conspiracies, no more pretending climate change is not a problem, plastic in the ocean the size of Texas is not a problem, poverty and hunger are not problems, gun violence is not a problem, debt is not a problem, racial bias is not a problem, the lack of civility is not a problem, etc.

Finally, if the people in leadership positions start to focus on the multiple causes of real problems and actually use data and science to discuss solutions, then those biased talking heads with audiences will be forced to discuss these matters as well. Frankly, it is highly disappointing and embarrassing to witness how often these talking heads intentionally or accidentally misinform people.

32 million fewer words – a reprise from nine years ago

While reading David Brooks’ excellent book called “The Social Animal,” I was alerted to a key result of classic study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas. One of the conclusions of the study is by the age of four, children raised in poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than those raised in professional family households. Breaking this down to an hourly basis, children of poor families hear on average 178 utterances of words per hour as compared to 487 words per hour in a professional family home.

And, it is not just what they hear, it is the emotional tone. There tended to be far more encouraging words than discouraging words in the professional home setting. Translating this to today’s time, there is a greater propensity to see single head of household families in impoverished families, so with one less adult and with the greater stress of earning a paycheck, doing housework and raising children lends itself to fewer conversations to hear those missing words.

In my volunteer work with homeless families and tutoring underprivileged children, I witness this first hand. I see kids who are having to overcome more obstacles than the very difficult one of coming from a homeless or impoverished household. They are starting school even further behind than the other children and will have to work hard to catch up. Just using the tutoring example, the two 5th graders I tutored were smart children, they just needed more time, targeted explanation and encouragement. The encouragement is as or more important than the first two needs.

In this same book, Mr. Brooks introduced me to a Greek term called “thumos.” We apparently don’t have an identical match in our language, but the word explains a lot of what we all need, but especially children. Thumos is the desire for recognition and union. People want to be recognized for their contributions, but through such recognition they want to have a sense of belonging. Translating this to the 5th graders, the children reacted well to the recognition of their efforts and especially the successes. When they “got it” it was like giving them the keys to the kingdom. It truly exhilarated me as much as it did them. To see their faces light up at the moments of clarity was truly joyous. High fives and fist bumps seemed to be insufficient to celebrate the moments.

I mention the tutoring as I see the resolution to this effort as “taking a village to raise a child.” This African proverb is very much on point, as parents, teachers and counselors all need our support to help these children climb their individual ladders out of poverty. Why is this important for everyone? Education is probably the greatest challenge for our country as we have fallen asleep at the switch and will not be able to compete as well in the future. I do not have any statistics for what I am about to state, but I believe our best can compete with others’ best students. I think other countries have caught up and made this echelon highly competitive. Yet, when you get beneath this small sliver of talent, I think other countries are kicking our hind end all over the place.

The jobs of the future are not the jobs of the past. Even manufacturing jobs and high skilled blue-collar jobs require an understanding of technology that may not have been required to the same extent before. If our children are not educated we will continue to be left behind. There are too many examples of where the United States is not in the calculus of whether to invest in a facility, but the one I like to use, is Mercedes had to dumb down their manuals on how to build their car for the plant they built in Alabama. They had to use more pictures than words. If we cannot offer an employer a capable workforce, they will find it elsewhere and they do.

So, what do we about finding those 32 million words? And, what do we do from that point forward? In this age of budget cuts, which are totally understandable, we have to be zealous in defending educational investment. We have to invest in pre-school programs to help kids get off to a better start. The “Smart Start” and “More Before Four” programs do pay dividends and we need to find more ways to reach kids. And, we need to invest in our teachers – we need more and higher quality of teachers, but we need to give them the freedom to tailor their teaching.

We need to continue the focus on providing resources to parents through the various “Parent Universities.” To my earlier example, we need more volunteers to help tutor, mentor and baby sit while the parents attend self-education or teacher conferences, etc. In my work with helping homeless families, the significant majority of whom are employed, I come across a contingent that cannot be swayed from their belief that all homeless people are bums and addicts. I have argued until I am blue in the face to dissuade them from this erroneous belief, but the one area I do get some nods of approval, are to say let’s set aside the parent(s) and focus on the kids. They did not choose to be homeless. If we help them, we can break the cycle of homelessness. Quoting a forward-thinking minister, he said “we have no idea of the untapped intellectual capital that may reside in these kids in poverty.”

So, spending in the area of helping children is not only the right thing to do, it is the smartest investment we could possibly make. I need only look at the second prize winner in a recent Intel science project who was a former homeless child. Yet, we also need to spend money on organizations like “Planned Parenthood.” This organization has become a pawn in an idiotic political game. As an Independent voter, this pariah status placed on such an important organization makes me ill. There are numerous studies that show causal relationships between family size and poverty in the US and abroad. In the work on homeless families I do, I tend to see larger families than in non-poverty settings. I place a lot of criticism on the churches for this. Birth control is used by many women and men, but it is not as available or universally understood as needed in all segments of our population.

One of my old colleagues who is an African-American woman told me how frustrated she was at her minister and church leaders. She said the teenage kids in her congregation are so misinformed about pregnancy and STD risk. As an example, some told her they heard you could not get pregnant if you had intercourse standing up! When she went to her minister to see if they could offer some guidance she was scoffed at.  Abstinence is the only thing they will teach. Well, as a 53-year-old let me state what everyone seems to know but the church leadership – kids are going to experiment and have sex. You can preach all you want, but it will not stop that train. So, we must embrace planned parenthood and the use of birth control. And, to me what better place to teach than in church. In many respects, I think some ministers and church leaders are misusing their authority to not be forthcoming with these kids. Please note through all of this discussion, I did not use the word abortion; I see that as its own issue with its own debate. I am speaking of birth control which is used by well over 90% of Catholic women, a fact the Catholic church tends to overlook.

You probably did not expect a discussion on education to include planned parenthood and birth control. Yet, I see them linked with the causal relationship I noted above between poverty and family size. Having an unfettered number of children, will put the family and children at risk. I love children, but with the cost of raising a child the way it is, I don’t think I could afford a fourth child. Yet, my wife and I have access to birth control and governed our family size to a manageable level. We would have loved a fourth child, but we have the family size we want. I think many church goers would say the same thing.

However, I would prefer to end on a more targeted note and that is the volunteerism. I described the need for the help, but also the joy to the giver. The gift of your time is immeasurable to those in need, but it will lift you up as well. At our agency that helps homeless families, where we do not permit the proselytizing to those in need, our executive director likes to say “who is witnessing to whom?” Our volunteers get as much out of the experience that the families do. The families are witnessing to the givers. So, find some way to give back. It will be a fulfilling experience. Match your passions with the needs in the community. My wife likes to say on her involvement “I am giving these kids a soft place to land.” Let’s all provide these soft places to land and help find the missing words in the children’s lives. You may even find a few words for yourself.