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

A simple economic question

As the US President seeks to close our borders and retrench from global markets, there is a simple question to ask. Let’s set aside what’s right or wrong from a humanity and safety standpoint. Let’s focus on a simple economic one.

Do we grow our economy more by letting people bring their ideas, work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit to our country and making it easier to do business with us, or do we accomplish more economic growth by closing our borders and forcing other countries and businesses therein to look to other markets for sales and supplies?

This thought struck me Sunday morning as I caught the Women’s Open Championship in the UK. What struck me is there were not any American golfers among the top two pages of the leader board. Thinking back to the World Cup in Russia last month, the American team was not present for this global event.

I recognize these are sporting events, but they are metaphors. If you don’t keep up, the world will move on. But, not keeping up does hit our economy, as well. In the US, unemployment is low, but we are having a hard time filling higher tech manufacturing jobs. US customer service jobs abound in Asia and the Philippines. And, many of our IT jobs are being done by people in India or who have moved here from such locations.

The first book which spoke to this is The World is Flat,” by Thomas Friedman. We live in a global economy with a global workforce. Employers need the best, cheapest talent they can find. The more commoditized the job, the pendulum swings to cheapest. The less commoditized, the pendulum swings to best. If we cannot fill the jobs here, they will be filled elsewhere. And, it should be noted that companies are leasing robots for $18 an hour, if they cannot fill the job.

We must be mindful of a key data point, immigration is accretive to our economy. Since Innovation is portable, new talent coming here brings more innovation. And, jobs are created around the Innovation. So, we need to be welcoming with better governance over immigration.

We also need to be easier to work with than we have become. When an entity makes it more difficult and less profitable to partner with, its trading partners look to other sources of sales and supplies. This has been happening for the last several months. And, as one farmer said, a subsidy won’t help if the customers go away.

Sadly, this issue has now been politicized, with fear and over-emphasis of causes. As I briefly noted above, the key reasons some areas are suffering are due to chasing cheaper labor and technology. The last issue is the larger concern as a CFO noted  in the book “The Rich and the Rest of Us,” by Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, “employers would do without employees if they could.”

So, look back at the simple economic question. What kind of country do we want to be? Then, add in the seasonings of doing the right thing and being safer. Global commerce actually makes the world safer, as you are less likely to go to war with your trading partners.

 

Retrenching into silos is the exact opposite of what is needed

With the advent of more terrorists’ activities around the globe and the significant refugee crisis, nationalistic and jingoistic behaviors have taken more solid footing. With the backlash in some European countries, the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump as an unlikely candidate for US President, show that protectionism is selling these days as a concept. These folks want to build actual and proverbial walls, rather than bridges.

Yet, that is precisely the wrong behavior needed. These so-called leaders feel if we segregate and retrench into our own little worlds, this cocooning will make everything better. What these so-called leaders fail to tell you is the significant benefits with being aligned, working together and doing commerce with each other. Economic trade breaks down barriers, as countries do not want to upset the financing of their economy and will work past governing differences.

President Abraham Lincoln did not coin this phrase, but he capitalized on it – keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.  Lincoln added several adversaries to his cabinet when elected. His view was if he could keep tabs on his opposition and argue with them, he could keep a lid on dissent at a time when dissent was in vogue. President Teddy Roosevelt was very open with reporters, in part because of his ego, but in large part to have the reporters be his eyes and ears. He would have them go speak with his department heads to learn what was going on.

Commerce breaks down barriers. Not only will we make more money by co-existing, we will be safer in turn. That is a concern of the Brexit vote, as the UK being a part of the EU makes the world safer and aids the economy of both entities. Like the UK, there is much to be gained in the US with the global economy, especially with companies who employ people here. Just here in Carolinas, there are multiple hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign companies who have US presences here, be it a North American headquarters or a major plant. BMW, Mitsubishi, Michelin, Doosan and Husqvarna come to mind.

We should not lose sight of breaking down barriers abroad. I have been a staunch supporter of doing trade with Cuba and Iran. The countries want to do business with us and we are well positioned to leverage that travel and trade. Just with Cuba and its 11 million people, it will be like adding a 51st state to our US economy. With Iran, of course, we need to keep our eyes open, but the median age of Iranis is age 35. We have a chance to create new economic paradigm with Iran which will live beyond the older regime. Plus, being closer to Iran will allow us to keep more tabs. This is the  best example of what Lincoln did.

The candidates who have touted building walls and retrenching are not being very open with the whole picture. They are using fear and an incomplete picture of reality. Companies have always chased cheap labor and as one CFO said in the book “The Rich and the Rest of Us,” if companies could get by with hiring no employees, they would. The greater threat is technology improvements as a new plant is not going to have 3,000 employees, it will have 300. On the flip side, Nissan in Tennessee and Mercedes in Alabama employ a great many American workers, which is not talked about enough as a benefit of globalization.

If we retrench, we will be reducing markets for goods and services. A venture capitalist once said what creates jobs is not owners, but customers. The fewer the customers, the fewer the jobs. But, with that said, there are elements of truth that workers need to ask more of the employers who have suppressed wages and let people go, to hire younger and cheaper workers. Companies are quick to hire cheaper, but need to be reminded that we employees are important and customers, as well.

I am reminded that two of the top three jobs creation Presidents had two things in common. Bill Clinton, the number one job creator at 22.8 million jobs, and Ronald Reagan, the number three job creator at 16.1 million, were both collaborators and advocated global trade, as reported in “The World is Curved” by David Smick, who was an economic advisor to both. Creating markets for trade and opening up our markets to others, in my view, is one of the best things a President can do.

Globalization is extremely important, but we need to manage it better. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is something we must guard against. So-called leaders who are advocating this very thing need to be asked more questions. As they are not telling you the whole story.

 

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.

 

 

The best of religion – creating community conversations around differences

Last night, my wife and I attended one of a series of “talks” around improving racial relations. It is a weekly chat sponsored by a multi-faith group based in our city. In essence, it is facilitated small group and large group discussions on breaking down barriers and listening to others who do not look like you do. It was well done and very meaningful.

To hear stories about small and large examples of racism is very important. To hear about how assumptions can be made and, if not corrected, can be become more concrete in the eyes of the beholder. Children learn lessons whether you want them to or not, even when you try to do the right thing. So, it is imperative to have open conversations about treating people like you want to be treated and listening to comments, so that they can be reinforced or amended.

Yet, it is we adults that need to do better. A few themes we discussed include:

– do not indict a group for the actions of a few;

– recognize that small sleights can be hurtful, as well;

– try to walk in another person’s shoes; understand that a white person has more liberty to go anywhere, while a black man, even when dressed-up, has restricted access;

– shine a light on hateful speech or behavior; tolerance must be viewed toward a greater good, so it is OK to be less tolerant of those who use words to demean and diminish;

– speak up and speak out to people who share your skin color who are indicting others who are different; a white person’s voice will be listened to when admonishing the behavior of fellow white people;

– be the change you want to see and see people for whom they are; and

– recognize that racial injustice is also the result of a larger poverty issue, which affects people of all colors.

There are many more lessons that were conveyed during the session, but one of my takeaways is this is religion at its finest. Welcoming, including and helping. Let me end with one more tidbit on how religion can help provide solutions and create a welcoming dialogue. The Kindness Blog is a compilation of good news stories from around the world. People need to read this blog to balance the many negative stories that we are bombarded with. Their latest post, which can be linked to below, is evidence of the best of religion.

Jesus said it so well in his Golden Rule. Treat others like you want to be treated. If we do this, we are way ahead in the game. So, welcome, include and help.

http://kindnessblog.com/2015/07/07/walked-past-a-church-yesterday-had-this-poster-on-the-door/

That is what people do

I was re-watching a wonderful movie called “The Book Thief.” The story is about an adopted girl who survives in Poland post the invasion by Nazi Germany. She learns from her step-father (and step-mother) about treating others with kindness and humanity as they hide a Jewish friend in their basement and he speaks out in favor of a half-Jewish man who is being taken away by the soldiers. When she does something similar, her step-mother says “you are just like your father.” When she asks why is that so bad, she adds to her question, by saying “That is what people do.”

In our increasingly adversarial world where helping people becomes harder given the politicization of every issue, we sometimes lose sight of what people do. I often quote Gandhi who noted that a society’s greatness is measured by how it takes care of the least fortunate. In the Christian bible it is noted that “there but by the grace of God go I,” when describing the need to help those less fortunate. And, Jesus noted when you help people who have the least, you are honoring him.

When there is a tragedy, a flood, fire, hurricane, earthquake, mudslide,tornado or tsunami, we eagerly help people in need. Yet, today when people are in need because of generational poverty in areas where opportunities do not exist and hope is hard to find, we tend to define groups as less worthy. We seem to look to pat reasons why they are in poverty oftentimes blaming the victims of poverty more than we should or if at all. As I have noted, many of the poor I work with as a volunteer, have multiple jobs and work their fannies off.

We need to look rationally at the conditions that cause poverty and make sustainable efforts to remedy these conditions. This takes a longer level of commitment, as decades old problems can rarely be solved overnight. I ask that we look into our hearts as well as our heads to do what people do and help those in need. Help them find ways to climb ladders out of poverty. But, show the desire to help that we each have smoldering within us.

That is what people do. To do otherwise, is not very humanitarian.

Income inequality per a Nobel Laureate in Economics

On the good side, we finally are beginning to talk about income inequality. We are a nation of “haves” and “have-nots” with an increasing number in the middle class that are living one paycheck away from poverty. On the bad side, are the overly simplistic assessments of blame, reasons and solutions, most of which do a disservice to this complex topic.

Some lay blame on the policies of LBJ’s “Great Society,” yet that trivializes the last fifty years. In fact, LBJ’s “War on Poverty” was hugely successful with those over age 65 with the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid and improvement to Social Security. Yet, positive movements for those under age 65 have been waylaid by other factors over the last fifty years. Some lay blame on the issue with respect to African-Americans with too many children born to unwed mothers. Again, that is an issue, but overly simplifies that as a cause, and it does not reflect that most Americans on welfare are white.

The best place to look is the advice of Nobel Laureate in Economics, Joseph Stiglitz, who wrote the book “The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them.” In his view, this Nobel Laureate feels the decline is due to a multiple of factors, some of which can be traceable to the failed Trickle Down economic policy set forth at the start of the 1980s. Significant reduction in tax rates under President Reagan set us on a course where the “haves” added greatly to their wealth and income, while the “have-nots” stayed flat, even while productivity climbed.

This echoes what I have read elsewhere which can be described by placing two arms out in front of you, one at an upward angle, with the other straight out. The straight out arm reflects what has happened in income to the significant majority of people, while the upward arm shows what happened to the upper-end earners. So, while a few of have done very well, many have not participated in the economic growth.

When this trend is coupled with deteriorating inner cities, the lack of targeted investment to rehabilitate areas of plight due to budget restrictions, the continued fall in education rankings which has occurred over time, the continued maltreatment of African-Americans where opportunity is denied and the introduction of crime as economic enterprise, the problems are exacerbated. If you season this, with the segmenting of society into market segments to sell products, services, news and politicians, we do not see the forest for the trees. We must also understand that poverty is the absence of money and is not due to being less virtuous, less hard-working or more prone to substance abuse.

Rather than belabor my opinions, please read more about Stiglitz’s thoughts as reported in the Business Insider: http://www.businessinsider.com/nobel-laureate-joseph-stiglitz-2015-4. Here is someone who should be listened to rather than people giving pat solutions to complex problems.