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

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Call me crazy

I hope everyone had a great weekend. We are living in interesting times, some would even use the word “crazy.” Here are a few random thoughts to match the times.

– A real hero is someone like Lori Gilbert Kaye, a 60 year-old woman who lost her life in this weekend’s synagogue shooting. She lost her life because she threw her body in front of the Rabbi. Please share her story rather than the name of the cold-blooded killer, who not only killed her, but shot two others, including an eight year old girl.

– I agreed with the President when he said people need to get vaccinated for measles.. Then, as I read on, he said during the campaign the measles vaccine is linked to autism. When will this man understand that words matter and people do not realize that the significant majority of the words this man says are untruthful ones?

– Speaking of lies, The Washington Post has recorded 10,000 lies by Trump as President. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich defended the President saying he is a businessman and is allowed to exaggerate. Mr. Gingrich, I am a businessman and if someone in business lied like the President, people would not do business with him very long. Further, why did an independent contractor who dealt with Trump companies say “Word on the street is if you do work for Trump, get paid in advance.”

– A recent poll conducted by Opinium said 55% of Brits now feel the 2016 Brexit vote was a bad idea. They have time for another vote, but not if they wait. A fact based process would help, but it would also help here in the states.

– With the advent of market segmentation in all things, including the pseudo-news and now data, we seem to be moving closer to another Robber Baron period. Now, it is so easy to obfuscate voters, they do not know that elected officials are making changes that help the wealthy. What is also unsurprising is how easily more strident groups can be fooled to go along, provided you play to their fears.  Immigration is being sold as the problem, but the main problems are technology and CEOs chasing cheaper labor costs. In Western countries the haves and have-nots are even more divided. Unless something is tangibly done, this bifurcation is unsustainable.

– Finally, it is amazing how little the US leaders talk about our ticking time bomb problems – job retraining as technology kills more jobs, increasing debt, environmental degradation, global water crisis, stabilizing healthcare costs, crumbling infrastructure and climate change. The GOP is running on building a wall, proliferating gun ownerships, restraining abortions and how bad socialization is. Make all candidates answer questions about these ticking time bomb problems. If they cannot, do not vote for them.

Call me crazy, but maybe, just maybe, the ones who are crazy are the ones not addressing real issues and telling real truths. You be the judge.

 

 

 

Mobile homes aren’t too mobile and create financial risk

John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” may have a comedic bent, but is one of the best news shows around. The latest episode included a detailed look at the mobile home industry. The key takeaway is private investor groups prey upon the mobile (and modular) home buyers through a rigged system.

Between a truly captive audience (more on this later), the fact the significant majority of mobile home buyers rent the land underneath, and the predatory lending and sales practices, the buyers are at the mercy of greedy players in a shady industry. Adding to that, the value of the mobile home will only depreciate (like an auto), so the buyer truly must beware.

We have come to this problem as several conditions have culminated together. We have an increasing number of “have-nots” in America, so mobile or modular homes are the most affordable route. The mobile home park owners have consolidated and were purchased by several private investor groups, but even the larger regional players operate under this rigged system. These folks see a market to squeeze. Finally, if the buyers do not own the land, they are truly held hostage.

Why? Over 80% of mobile homes never move due to the cost of moving. The property owners know this, so they annually jack up the rent increasing by exorbitant amounts. The renters are then inundated by collection agencies who get them to pay. When they cannot, they eventually move, leaving their home behind. Then, the property owner takes possession of the abandoned home and rents it out.

Finally, the sellers of these products often own the financing agency offering a turn-key purchase. The loans are more like predatory car loans than they are mortgages. So, the interest is higher than normal at the same time the rent is getting increased.

Oliver’s show highlights a couple of the players in the industry. One property owner has sites in 25 states and offers seminars on how to gouge your captive tenants. In one instance, this property owner referred to his tenants as “like being chained to a Waffle House table.”

There is a small movement afoot which will allow homeowners to buy the mobile home park land en masse, as a right of first refusal. Nonprofit funders are helping make this happen. What is needed is more states to have right of first refusal laws, so that the property is not sold to a predatory landlord.

The other need is education. If you must buy a mobile or modular home, place it on land you own or in a tenant owned development. Also, seek better financing than what is offered by the seller. But, know going in this home will not go up in value. If you buy a modular home for $50,000, it may be only worth $10,000 in a few years.

The “have-nots” have little recourse in this industry. Education is a must, as you will truly become a hostage in your home.

 

 

Hey Dems, focus on these four issues

One of this Independent voter’s frustrations with politics, which is exacerbated by this President, is pressing issues are not getting discussed. And, some are made worse or are sabotaged by the current White House incumbent as we are told to focus our attention on issues he has overstated in importance or sold on fear.

While there are many issues, it is hard to boil the ocean. So, my advice to all politicians, but especially the Democrats who are pushing these ideas, is to narrow the focus to the following four issues.

– Stabilize the healthcare system and have a good debate on Medicare for All, which is a hard sell. The GOP has failed to realize that a reason they lost the House is not listening to most Americans, instead sabotaging the ACA reneging on commitments to insurers and trying to repeal it. As a retired benefits actuary, consultant and manager. I would suggest an idea to stabilize the ACA is to expand Medicare to retirees at age 60 or 62 and measure the impact for its veracity. But, we need to start by paying insurers what we committed to them.

– Climate change is real, is happening and is man-influenced. AOC is dramatizing a little about the end of the world, but the data point she is citing is if we do not make huge strides by 2030 (12 years), our ability to stop the warming trend impact is minimal. She has been ridiculed for he Green New Deal by the GOP, but I would rather discuss her plan than Senator Marco Rubio ignoring the fact the largest city in Florida is the most at risk city on the planet and is seeing a larger number of sunny days flooding from the rising tides. Who is the crazier person, the one speaking to a problem or the one ignoring it altogether?

– Job retraining is key, but we need to understand the major reasons the jobs are going away are technology/ robotics and CEOs chasing cheap labor. It is not immigration or trade, which are down the list. This especially true in those impoverished areas where industry has left them behind moving or closing a plant.

– Finally, the debt and deficit are critical to discuss. The debt just passed $22 trillion and is headed to $34 trillion by the end of 2027. The annual deficit will pass $1 trillion this year, which is nearly 1/3 of our annual revenue. My former party and, in particular, the Freedom Caucus, are as hypocritical as they come. When the Dems had the White House, the Freedom Caucus screamed bloody murder when the debt was $8 trillion, then $13 trillion. But, I give the same caution to Dems I give to the GOP, we must reduce spending and increase revenue. The math will not work otherwise, so says the CBO, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, The Concord Coalition and Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Committee.

Of course, there are other critical issues. But, if you focus on the important few, it will resonate. This is especially true for younger folks – climate change, debt, future jobs and healthcare are important. In my view, the GOP has lost its way on issues of import. When I left the party twelve years ago, a key reason was its global warming denying stance. My thesis is if you are denying the greatest threat facing our planet, how can I trust you on resolving other issues?

We are behind the eight ball on too many issues. We are leaving our problems to our children and grandchildren. They will ask us, why did you do that? Why, indeed?

This, that and another thing

Now that the state of the union and Democrat rebuttal are behind us, it would be nice if an independent voter had a turn. On the talk (and some shouting) shows, the independent views do not get heard enough and that is disappointing. For once, it would be illuminating for a member of neither party to share their thoughts.

For example, we might learn:

  • Global warming really is a concern and we should be doing something about it. On Bill Maher’s Friday show,  he noted that Senator Marco Rubio used the argument against the President for declaring a national emergency to build the wall, as what would stop President Kamala Harris from doing so to address climate change? Maher correctly pointed out the latter is becoming a national emergency, while the wall is not even a top ten issue and is overblown as a solution. He also noted, with the very real concerns over Miami, Rubio may become the Senator of Atlantis.
  •  A growing debt which is around $22 trillion with an annual deficit about to hit $1 trillion is a problem, especially with the deficit in a good economy. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget models the debt to be around $34 trillion at the end of the 2027 fiscal year. We must have spending cuts and revenue increases both. The math will not otherwise work. If a politician tells you differently, he or she is lying to you. Don’t let them.
  • The Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are the same thing. So is KyNect in Kentucky. Too many people still don’t realize this in the GOP. But, don’t look to politicians to solve this, as they really do not understand how our complex healthcare system works. We need to stabilize the ACA and stop sabotaging it, as the GOP has done.  My recommendation as a retired benefits consultant, actuary and manager is to fund money promised to insurance companies to pay for adverse selection and committed to deductibles, copays for people beneath 2 1/2 times the poverty limit. I would also expand Medicare as a pilot, measured effort to retirees below age 65, such as 60 or 62. This will reduce the cost rate in the exchanges and Medicare. The remaining states need to get off the dime and expand Medicaid – it is a no brainer per GOP Governor John Kasich.
  •  Addressing America’s crumbling infrastructure would help rebuild assets and provide good jobs. We also need to build on the community college system with some added funding to retrain people to do the jobs of the future, as technology claims even more (this is the major threat, not immigration or trade). Also, building on the bipartisan idea pitched to the President last year by Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman from Ohio, we should co-invest with car manufacturers to retool plants to make the cars in demand and keep the factories open. This idea was ignored and the President was offended when GM announced some plant closings.
  •  There are so many more ideas around rethinking ill-conceived tariffs and trade fights, poverty issues, and gun governance, but let me make a general statement that is important. Start treating our allies and citizens with fairness and dignity. Stop the adversarial BS. A country and business makes more money long term by having a productive long term relationship. We need to stop measuring success on short-term transactions. Listen to your advisors as they actually study our problems. And, stop beating up on a free press. From where I sit, they are not perfect, but the true journalists try to get it right. The main source of fake news in the country sits in the oval office and he only cares about looking good.

Well, that is enough for now. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Let’s rise up

A terrific singer named Andra Day provided an anthem for women, but also forward thinking men as well. It is called “I’ll rise up.” Here is the final chorus which says let’s all rise up.

“Rise like the day
I’ll rise up
In spite of the ache
I will rise a thousands times again
And we’ll rise up
Rise like the waves
We’ll rise up
In spite of the ache
We’ll rise up.”

There has been a building crescendo worldwide, but especially here in the US, to say women matter. Women are tired of being taken advantage of by sexual predators, violent and controlling partners and men in power telling them what they can do with their bodies. Women are tired of people ignoring or demeaning them when they complain or accuse a violator. Women are tired of kitchen table issues like equal pay and healthcare gettimg ignored. Women are tired of nothing being done about gun governance which takes to many of their children and themselves.

Women are tired of being kidnapped and trafficked as sex slaves or servants. And, more globally, women need to be supported for saying we are not a possession to be sold, beaten or killed and we need not go through genital mutilation to satisfy an archaic religious practice written by a men.

Now, is the time to rise up. Women are running for political office in tremendous numbers in the US. They are reacting to a misogynist bully who shows what leadership does not look like. Their global sisters are using the opportunity to make a stand.

Rise up and vote. Rise up and take a friend to vote with you. Rise up and make sure your family votes. Rise up and vote for equal rights for all, for our environment which is being destroyed and for our future which is threatened by existential crises like climate change, poverty and inequality. Rise up. It is time to make a huge statement. I am with you.

Thursday thumbnails redux

Since I am kicking around several topics, let me throw a few together for your reading and reaction. Your thoughts are welcomed and appreciated.

  • It would be terribly unfair to say Republicans are racist, but it seems there are more than a few racists running for important offices in various states under the GOP banner. In Virginia, Illinois  and Florida, for example, a few candidates have a history of racist comments and associations. To their credit, the GOP leadership is not backing all of these candidates, but they should not back any and should condemn their words and actions in no uncertain terms. It is disappointing that the US President has done neither and has greased the skids for white supremacist hate groups who now feel empowered. Trump had a truly a low bar to step over to condemn white supremacists last summer and he tripped.
  • Sexual assault is a heinous crime, yet the accuser does not often come forward given the backlash they get. So, for it to take years to come forward is not uncommon. The fact they do so when the accused is being considered for high office, should reveal a greater sense of character. Professor Blasey Ford deserves due consideration and time for her accusations of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Call me crazy, but we should take the time to get this right as this is one of the nine most important people in our courts. Because we did not take time back in 1991, we may have a man guilty of sexual misconduct on the bench already.
  • I have written before that Democrats are lousy marketers. Even when they have a better story to tell, they often let Republicans define the talking points. The Democrats have many fine candidates running for office. Some are running uphill battles in gerrymandered districts, but they are running well. What should be shouted from the rooftops is they will help improve and stabilize the ACA as it continues to be sabotaged by the GOP making premiums even higher, they will protect our environment against the further roll back of regulations enabling polluting and stay committed to the Paris Climate Change accord, they will make sure we do not devalue our allied relationships and retrench further from our global leadership role, and they will advocate for rights of all citizens, especially those in poverty. And, to be frank, since the GOP has ceded its leadership toward addressing the debt and deficit, the Democrats can be seen as better financial stewards.

Truth be told, the President touts what he has done with the economy, but what he fails to tell people is we are in the 113 consecutive month of economic growth, the bull stock market traces back to March, 2009 and unemployment was low when he took the reins. What has been done, is he is borrowing from our future to make a good economy a little better, but the cost is doing nothing but add fire to our burning debt.

Presidents get too much credit and too much blame for the economy. They do provide headwinds and tailwinds, though, and this President has done both. The headwinds will show up later as noted by most economists, while the tailwinds add today.