Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Strengthening our workforce

Sometimes, social research does have ready answers. Editorial writers asked whether anyone knows how to provide our labor force with the education and training it needs. Ellen Shelton responded, “Yes,” in her OpEd, "Work force training tactics show results."

Five years of study by Wilder Research, for the McKnight Foundation, showed that training programs, with certain features, can improve the skills of low-wage workers and even enable them to increase their wages.

For optimal effectiveness, programs should meet both employer and worker needs. This capitalizes on the motivation of both parties to do something that is relevant to business needs and that actually works for the individuals involved.

Programs must be accessible. Transportation, child care, equipment may have to be provided to trainees, who often cannot afford to provide this for themselves.

Problem-solving and communication skills should be included in training programs. Throughout society in general, achievements occur through partnerships; the workplace is no exception. The workforce of tomorrow needs teamwork skills.

Building an economically productive workforce requires more than this, of course. Admittedly, training programs with these features may not meet all the needs we have, but they will help to strengthen the skills of one large portion of the workforce.

If we stimulate economic development on the one hand, and get our labor force into optimal condition on the other hand, we will build economically thriving communities.

(More about this study of the McKnight Families Forward program appears on the Wilder Research web site and the Governor’s Workforce Development Council web site. The OpEd appears in the Pioneer Press.)

Friday, December 09, 2005

What is truth?

Actually, I don’t plan to answer this question, which philosophers have often pondered. However, I couldn’t resist the temptation to ask “What is truth?” after my previous blog asked: “What is love?” – and after I heard yesterday’s news that Merck may have concealed important scientific evidence regarding negative effects of Vioxx.

Important questions depend upon “science” for answers – whether it’s the extent of damage to the ozone layer, the efficacy of particular drugs, the effectiveness of social programs in reducing poverty, the impact of “No child left behind” on academic achievement – or anything else.

But “science” is not some abstract, pristine process of asking questions and obtaining the "right" answers. Scientific work comes out of a stew of value judgments, politics, history, and traditions (“scientific” traditions, and others); and it’s carried out by beings whose human frailty is no less and no more than anyone else’s. Obtaining “objective” data is a trickier process than we all might assume. As citizens, we all need some understanding of “scientific research” – how it works, and doesn’t work, as a tool for guiding significant decisions. We need to learn how to demand credibility, and how to look for it in statements purported to be “scientific”.

Over time, I’ll give my views on what that means.

In the meanwhile, remember the quip attributed to John Glenn regarding his thoughts just before taking off into space. "I looked around and suddenly realized that everything had been built by the lowest bidder."

Many of the medications we use, the technologies on which we depend, the services we hope are effective – actually have only established themselves on the lowest acceptable criteria. This is not bad. We can’t wait forever to get the final answer on everything there is to know about the long term effects of specific drugs, for example. However, the implication is that we must remain vigilant – always searching for new information, always investigating whether some initial findings were incomplete or misleading.

In addition, as the Merck/Vioxx experience illustrates (if indeed it’s true that researchers did not reveal three heart attacks associated with the drug during testing), we need to scrutinize the credentials of those who publish research, to identify potentially vested interests, and sometimes take measures to obtain alternate views.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

What is charity/"caritas"/love?

The discussion begun by "What is charity?"(November 21) has generated some comments and questions - including the questions of what is included in "charitable organizations" and why do they have tax exempt status in the first place?

The privilege of nonprofit organizations to avoid paying taxes may increasingly be questioned. (Ironically, some of those who challenge this right of nonprofit organizations use tax shelters and other means to avoid taxes on their own wealth - perhaps not paying their fair share of taxes; but that's another issue.) Very legitimate questions should be raised. If some nonprofits sell goods and services and behave just like businesses, why not pay taxes to support the government services necessary to enable those organizations to survive? If a nonprofit can afford to pay its executives salaries that put them into the top 5% of all wage earners in the country, why can't it pay some share of taxes?

Some nonprofit organizations would prefer to avoid these questions. I think the opposite. Those of us who participate in nonprofit organizations, as staff or volunteers, need to address these questions and develop a well-reasoned rationale for the ability of our organizations to be partly or completely exempt from taxation.

Part of the rationale surely does derive from the principles of the commenter who wrote "the rationale behind tax-free status is to not tax groups that are not part of the government, but are performing services for society that government would otherwise need to perform (like health care, education, immigrant assistance) or that are seen as a worthwhile good for society (like the arts and, I believe, religious worship and congregational care & outreach)".

However, we need to think more about this. I'll do so, and I hope you do too.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Health Coverage for All in U.S.

Why does the United States, a world leader, not make sure that all its residents are covered by health insurance? Other countries can do this; why can't we?

The President of the American Public Health Association, Walter Tsou, wrote recently in The Nation's Health that we are very unlikely to reach the 2010 U.S. national health objective to ensure that all Americans are covered by health insurance. "Short of a political miracle," Dr. Tsou wrote, "it is unlikely we will reach this goal. The price that we pay for our national failure is a missed opportunity that is much larger than most of us realize."

Universal health coverage, to at least a basic level for all, is a moral obligation.

Moreover, Dr. Tsou points to many practical benefits. For example, it will help protect companies who will struggle during the coming decades with retiree health costs; it will offer a solution to the nation's medical malpractice crisis. It will resolve issues that arose with those in Hurricane Katrina's diaspora who lack health insurance - who covers their care, their original state or their new state? Rather than delaying care and focusing attention on paperwork and reimbursement regulations, in crises or normal situations, universal health coverage enables health care programs to focus on care.

Dr. Tsou notes that the United States is "the only nation in the developed world that continues to do a 'wallet biopsy' before an actual biopsy.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Should arts organizations qualify as "charities"?

Nonprofit arts organizations clearly can achieve charitable goals. However, simply because an arts or educational organization, or any organization for that matter, has nonprofit status - should we consider it a charity in the same sense as organizations that dedicate themselves exclusively to serving poor or disenfranchised people?

The comment on my previous blog brings this issue into the discussion.

Humanity needs the arts. Creative thought opens our eyes, provides new perspectives, and expands human potential. Without the arts, society will miss opportunities to nurture and sustain the values important for civilization. Moreover, the written word and spoken word have, for example, led us to understand and act on problems that confront society; theater has portrayed societal issues in ways that other media cannot.

However, should an arts organization - let's say a symphony orchestra or a dance company - be exempt from taxes? Should contributions to such an organization be allowed as deductions on individual tax returns? What if such an organization serves exclusively middle and high income audiences and does nothing to spread the arts to lower income groups?

These are not merely academic questions. Taxpayers and some public officials are increasingly raising them, sometimes in connection with challenges to the ability of organizations to achieve the privileges of nonprofit, tax exempt status. After all, nonprofit organizations place demands on the services of cities, states, and the federal government in just the same way as profit-making organizations do. The salaries paid to some leaders of nonprofit organizations put them well into the ranks of this country's highest paid professionals.

In the 1960s, a shop in Greenwich Village sold a variety of "protest buttons." Some were purposeful; some were satirical. One proclaimed "Tax the Churches". It seemed funny to me then; it seems serious now. Both sides of the debate have some valid points, and we need to pay attention to them.

Monday, November 21, 2005

What is charity?

The New York Times of November 14 had an excellent special section on Giving.

The lead article posed the question: What is charity? It asserted that, over the past 40 years, contributions to education and health organizations increased approximately 300-400% while contributions to human service organizations increased only 28%. Moreover, it stated that "the share of giving going to organizations most directly related to helping the poor hit a record low, accounting for less than 10 percent of the $248 billion donated by Americans and their philanthropic institutions."

The article quoted one expert who opined: "In general, philanthropy seems to have stopped talking about poverty and race."

Those of us concerned about social issues, social justice, nonprofit organizations, and "charity" need to consider carefully the issues this article raises. If nonprofit organizations are drifting away from service to the poor, needy, and vulnerable, then we probably have a significant problem. If they are not drifting away from an emphasis on the poor and vulnerable, but nonetheless the general public has begun to question the value of charity, or nonprofit organizations, or voluntary action to to bring assistance to those in need and to make communities better places to live - then we need to perk up and do something.

What better week to think about all this than the week of Thanksgiving, when we can all offer thanks, in our own ways, for the people who nurture us and for the resources that meet our basic needs and make our lives more comfortable.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Disparities - A Concern for All of Us

Disparities – social, economic – along with differences in access to resources, health care. Such conditions have existed throughout human history. Disparities produce frustration and unrest; riots in the suburbs of Paris provide some of the latest visible evidence of the consequences of this frustration. Violence is not justified; but in conditions of chronic disparity, it is understandable.

In today’s society, we need to be concerned about disparities among cultural, racial, religious and economic groups. These include differences in academic achievement, differences in access to health care, differences in access to employment and in opportunities to create wealth.

The less visible consequences of disparities may have more detrimental consequences than do riots or crime. In the U.S., younger generations must have the ability to take positions in business, government, and nonprofit organizations – maintaining a high quality of life for all of us. As our population diversifies, this means that younger people of all types must have the training, background, and motivation to move into adult roles in society – some of them into leadership roles.

At Wilder Research, for at least 15 years, we have been concerned about the educational achievement gap. Dan Mueller's paper, Tackling the Achievement Gap Head On, identifies issues and approaches for all of us to consider.

An interesting regional resource and initiative to watch is the Itasca Project’s initiative on disparities.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Election Day Welcome

Election Day, democracy in action, seems like an excellent time to start this blog. You need at least two things to blog: Technology and freedom of expression.

A year spent in Northern Ireland showed me firsthand what happens when people have been barred from participating in political decision-making. I also saw the frustrations that arise when the opportunity does arrive, but people aren’t really prepared to take advantage of it. They don't have the know-how.

Democracy has occupied a pretty small slice of human history. We need to appreciate it, nurture it, and improve it.

What I hope to do with this blog:

  • Alert you to facts that seem important to notice.
  • Let you know about new developments, and the latest research, on ways to improve the quality of life for individuals and communities.
  • Tell you what I see in those facts and developments that is worth your attention.

My professional life is focused on research about social issues, with special attention to the vulnerable. So you can expect a slant in that direction.

Please share your thoughts. I want to understand how you feel about what I say and what you find useful. Please comment – and please point me to other information sources or suggest topics you’d like to put on the table here.