Sunday, January 06, 2019

Our common destiny on the "pale blue dot"

“This is where we live. In space. On a marble fortified against bottomless blackness by a shell of air and color, fragile and miraculous as a soap bubble.”

With those words, The New York Times opened a commemorative essay about a photograph taken 50 years ago by U.S. astronauts who witnessed “earthrise”, the rising of the earth over the horizon of the moon. Human eyes had never before viewed that occurrence.

I remember the original picture, shown in the media near the conclusion of “the year that shattered America”: 1968. And I remember the insights which discussion of the photo contributed to my plans for how to spend my life.

The divisions among Homo sapiens at that time – based on race, culture, economics, religion – seemed deep and almost intractable, from an earthly perspective. The lunar vista implied something very different: a unified orb, floating through space, inhabited by interdependent organisms who shared “life,” an essence which, as far as we knew, existed nowhere else.

Carl Sagan expanded this theme after the Voyager 1 spacecraft revealed that, from billions of miles away in space, our earth appears as a “pale blue dot”: “That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Our place in space

Today, we don’t need to travel to outer space to become cognizant of humanity’s social and ecological interdependence. Economics, technological development, and communications have connected all of humanity over the past half century in ways that we can readily feel and observe. Real time communication happens intercontinentally. Events positive and negative in one part of the globe affect many or all of the other parts.

Yet differences almost nonexistent from a universal perspective – race, culture, economics, religion, and now migration status – continue to create invidious comparisons that wreck discord within the human family.

Sagan noted gravely: “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

Perhaps we cannot completely avoid human conflict. When we encounter dishonesty, greed, or injustice, for instance, we may need to confront and contain it with verbal or physical force. But given our imperative to care for this planet now and into the future, it makes little sense to squabble with, separate ourselves from, and even kill, our earthly compatriots. We all need each other, to preserve the precious blue dot.

The critical pathway…

The pathway to a positive future on this speck in the universe? In his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King asserted that to “transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood” we must “evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

With love, we should do our work – whatever role we play in whatever earthly locus, small or large, that we find ourselves. We must cherish the world, our human companions, and our place in the universe.

The earthrise photo, rendering salient our common destiny as human beings, illustrates the necessity of making the quality of life on this earth as good and equitable as it can possibly be for all people.

We at Wilder Research play our part, as we undertake various types of research intended to improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities. We look forward to working with others during the coming year on many projects that will address key issues, inform significant decisions about policy and funding, and enable community-serving organizations to carry out their activities more effectively.

As we enter 2019, I have hope and optimism. We can unite in love with our partners to do our best in the portion of the earth that we can influence. If others around the world similarly join together and act in their locales, we can transform the livable surface of this 510 million square kilometer rock into a habitat that sustains all human beings as we journey through the universe.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Many Thanks

Citing the Smithsonian in this morning’s Pioneer Press, Reuben Rosario described the first Thanksgiving dinner: “it was venison, corn, porridge, lobster and other shellfish. Goose, duck, now long-extinct passenger pigeons, and possibly wild turkey were reportedly on the menu in 1621 when 53 pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Indians broke bread together over a span of three days.”

Much has occurred on this North American continent during the four centuries since the first Thanksgiving. One can hope and imagine that the good meal which Rosario described included sensitivity, understanding, and companionship across races and cultures. A vision we should strive for our modern world to embody.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I give thanks for the opportunity to put my talents to use for the benefit of the community – in partnership with skilled colleagues at Wilder Research, partners in other organizations, public officials, and residents.

I appreciate the opportunity to work throughout the U.S. and in other countries, expanding my understanding and learning from others who hold very different perspectives. I appreciate living in a country where research can supply an independent voice, helping us all to determine the usefulness of a policy, a program, a medical treatment, or whatever.

In looking at the projects undertaken by my colleagues at Wilder Research, my reflections move quickly to gratitude for their efforts. Because of the studies they completed, we know that children will get a better start in life; older people will live in settings better attuned to their needs; communities who have experienced trauma or inequities will take positive steps forward; agencies addressing the toughest social issues will do so more effectively through our research. Many more people, communities, and organizations will do better because of our efforts with them and for them.

In some respects, we wish we did not need to do portions of the research that we carry out. Our recent survey of Minnesota’s homeless population offers a good example. We pray that someday we will tackle issues of poverty, affordable housing, and mental health care to the extent that nobody finds themselves without an adequate place to live.

Nevertheless, as long as needs exist, we give thanks that we can do this work and that we can organize efforts to make the world a better place.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Family Separation: Drive immigration policy with facts and universal values

Many advocates, editorial writers, politicians, and members of the general public say that the government should end the practice of separating children from their parents at the U.S. border, but do they really mean that?

Separating children from their parents should constitute only one of the last tools in the tool box of immigration services. In my opinion, the massive volume of such separations embarrasses the U.S. among the other nations of the world. However, as The New York Times pointed out, a large number of the public officials currently protesting immigration policies, registering their dismay about family separations, and perhaps grandstanding for publicity purposes have, for years, led agencies or branches of government which have separated children from their parents.

A history of family separation

In contrast to the roughly 2,300 to 3,000 children taken from their parents as a result of the spring 2018 crackdown at the border, the Times claims that government in the U.S. has removed upwards of 750,000 children from their parents through other legal processes. In fact, for centuries, government has separated children from their parents.

In contemporary times, government routinely separates children from their parents when it incarcerates the parents. Julie Atella in Wilder Research has studied parental incarceration, which produces negative social, behavioral, and academic outcomes for children. Government sometimes incarcerates children too, thus separating them from their parents. And the government foster care system removes children from their homes, sometimes prohibiting parental contact. A number of our studies at Wilder Research have explored foster care, locally and nationally.

Key questions behind family separation

Should the Department of Homeland Security separate children from the adults who accompany them across the U.S. border if evidence of child abuse exists? What if the adults cannot convincingly prove their legal relationship to the children? Almost all of us would probably respond affirmatively to those two questions. I do not want children to stay under the control of abusers or traffickers. But what if the adults receive a referral for criminal prosecution and must go to a detention center or jail unsuitable for an extended stay by young people? This third question might give us pause, as we ponder the nuances and circumstances of such situations, and especially as we consider whether options other than imprisonment have been fully exhausted.

The three questions above relate to the three major criteria which currently provide the formally stated rationale for separation of parents and children by the Department of Homeland Security. “Zero tolerance” increases the volume of children separated from parents based on the third criterion (unsuitability of adult detention and correction centers for young people). As the Washington Post reported, if the border services detain or institutionalize everyone who crosses the border outside of official entry portals, then ipso facto more parents will enter situations which result in separation from their children.

Some protesters have demanded the immediate cessation of the practice of separating children from their parents who have brought them across the border. But does that really make sense? Only if we don’t care about the small percentage of children being abused or trafficked.

Policies informed by facts

Wise policy development requires good information to provide a sound understanding about the status quo that we want to change as well as about the new status quo that we want to create. We should base decisions about policy on our core values combined with an objective understanding of facts.

I’ve seen this play out before on other, significant issues. Homelessness, for example. Years ago, people sincerely committed to ending homelessness – advocates, public officials, service providers, faith communities, and so on – often acted independently. When they made efforts to collaborate on creating solutions, they fell into frequent arguments over the facts about homelessness: How many people? What needs did they have? What had caused their homelessness, and what action could eliminate that cause? Wilder Research stepped in to bring representatives from different sectors to a common table, to define the problem and agree on a means to measure it. With the implementation of the statewide Minnesota Homeless Study, groups interested in meeting the needs of the homeless and in preventing homelessness could work from a common platform of information. Over time, they could track their progress.

Another current statewide effort at Wilder Research performs that same function by identifying critical gaps in services intended to meet the needs of four groups of Minnesotans: children with mental health conditions; adults with mental health conditions; older people; and people with disabilities. That work, currently in its third year, provides a credible platform of information, so that regions of the state can construct effective solutions best attuned with their population.

Immigration policies should reflect values and facts about our human family

With immigration issues we need the same, careful approach to understanding the dynamics of the current situation, so that we can effectively reform and enhance the ways we act as a nation. The future of the world’s human residents will always involve a flow of people from one part of the globe to the other. That future relies on our care. I personally am a fan of relatively open borders, with reasonable respect for national integrity and cultural diversity. As the prominent Chinese human rights activist, Ai Weiwei, noted, “Allowing borders to determine your thinking is incompatible with the modern era.” (But that subject can await another blog.)

No child deserves the cruelty of separation from their loving, caring parents. We need to craft immigration policies – indeed all social policies – in ways that transcend specific times, places, and cultures and that reflect “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. We must build policies that rest on solid, factual understanding of reality, unobscured by the escalated emotions of the moment.

Martin Luther King expressed the dream that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” My related dream would be that all children, no matter their geographic origin, stand as citizens of the world, held in esteem by all of us, valued for their character and their actions, not on the basis of nationality or the conduct of adults whom they cannot control.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

New Tax Laws - Implications for Nonprofits?

April 15th has come and gone. I hope you filed your taxes, and of course, I hope that all of us received an above average refund. (I couldn’t resist making a quip that would bring a smile to researchers.)

With 2018, we have a very new tax situation in the United States. The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” has produced changes that Time Magazine called the “largest overhaul of the U.S. tax code since the Ronald Reagan era.” Among its provisions, it increases the incentive to take the standard deduction, rather than to itemize deductions, such as donations to charity. Some nonprofit leaders have expressed concern, and research might make those leaders wary. The highly respected Lilly School, for example, suggested that a potential national decline in giving could total as high as $13.1 billion. The Tax Policy Center asserts that the decline could go even higher, to perhaps $20 billion.

Will the new tax laws help or hurt nonprofit efforts and our work to benefit communities? The prediction that someone makes will depend on their assumptions about why people give money to eleemosynary institutions. Do donors contribute because they can reduce their taxes? Or do donors contribute because they want to support a mission, to further a cause, or to support something worthwhile in their community?

You might ask yourself: Why do you donate? If the amount of taxes you pay will change as a result of a change in tax laws, will you adjust the amount you donate to charity?

The argument that the latest tax act will reduce contributions to nonprofit organizations builds on the premise that the opportunity to deduct charitable contributions on a tax return constitutes a significant, if not primary, motivation to donate financially to charitable organizations. By implication, the less effect that donating money has on reducing taxes, the less that people will give financially to charity.

About 40 years ago, my father told me that he believed that the above premise makes little sense. As Dad pointed out, if someone has a major obsession about holding on to their wealth, that person should not donate at all. If someone donates $100 to charity and saves $30 on taxes, they have still parted with $70. Better to just pay the tax and retain the $70.

Evidence suggests that some donors factor tax deductions into their final decisions about charitable gifts. The loss of the opportunity to take a tax deduction might result, in 2018, in fewer or smaller charitable donations. However, when push comes to shove, will most donors give more weight to the mission they want to support, or to the tax benefit they no longer receive for donating?

Further informing this topic, aggregate data show that nationally about 74% of taxpayers do not itemize their deductions on their tax returns. These people already receive no direct tax benefit from making a charitable donation. Beginning in 2018, the standard deduction increases to $24,000. This will reduce the number of people who itemize their deductions, thus reducing the number of people for whom a charitable contribution results in a lessening of taxes. Nationally, the Tax Policy Center expects the percent of non-itemizers to rise by 15 percentage points from 74% to 89%.

If those 15% of taxpayers have tax savings on their mind, and have no strong allegiance to charity, then donations to charity might decrease. However, if other factors influence their decision to donate to charitable organizations, then the new tax laws will have weak or no effects.

History can inform us as well. Many nonprofits feared that the 1986 tax act would lead to a major decline in donations to charity. That major decline did not occur.

Something else to keep in mind: A dollar “given” to Uncle Sam does not serve a completely different purpose from a dollar given to charity. The National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies (which has a “progressive” bent) shows that, of the money we taxpayers paid in 2017, close to 30% went toward health; 7% went to unemployment and labor; 4% went to education. (Of course, 24% went to the military which, albeit necessary to maintain, certainly does not exist as part of the charitable, nonprofit sector.)

Federal spending has significant effects on our communities’ well-being – think jobs and nutrition, for example. The more that we can inspire and align the work of government and the work of nonprofits, the better.

So, what’s my prediction? Probably that most people will continue to give as they have in the past. Maybe that’s my optimistic side and my faith in humanity. Tracking the effects of the tax act becomes complex because some evidence suggests that a slight decline in charitable giving might have begun during the 21st century, well before the new tax act. Additionally, changes in the economy, positive or negative, will influence giving trends. So, perhaps we will never definitively know the effects of “TCJA” upon charitable giving.

In any case, I’m fulfilled by carrying out my legal obligations as a taxpayer, just as I am fulfilled by carrying out my moral obligations as a donor. One way or another, we need to fulfill our duty to care for each other.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

50 Years Since Dr. King's Assassination

I recall hearing about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the evening of April 4, 1968. In part, the news seemed shocking. Sadly, it also seemed like the next step in an inexorable series of 1960s killings including John F. Kennedy, civil rights workers, Malcolm X (assassinated just a couple of miles from where I attended school), and others. Rather than deter or stifle us, however, Dr. King’s murder motivated us all the more to advocate for just policies and just treatment of all people; it led many of us into careers in organizations where we could try to improve our communities and the world.

Would Dr. King feel that we had succeeded or failed during the past half century? Probably a mix. We have passed legislation to address some of the blatant problems of discrimination; we’ve reduced redlining and other institutional practices that directly limited access by people of color to home ownership and other resources, and which indirectly contributed to education and health care issues. Life expectancy differences between blacks and whites have narrowed; access to higher education has increased for people of color, along with degree completion. However, significant racial disparities remain in education, housing, employment, and heath. We definitely have not yet achieved the dream.

Racial disparities in the United States and other nations constitute not just an ethical failure. They threaten to undermine our ability to sustain democracy and make progress as a global human family.

As Dr. King stated (in one of my favorite quotes from his speeches): “In a real sense, all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We must keep that principle in mind, as we address local issues of education, housing, and health care, global issues of peace, migration, and economic development, and everything in between.

This is a day to renew our commitment to carrying the torch Dr. King lit.