Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Poverty: The Numbers; The Disparities

New estimates of poverty in the United States came from the Census Bureau yesterday.

Some good news. Overall, the percent of people living in poverty did not increase. (A decrease would be even better news.) Real median household income (meaning income adjusted for inflation) rose slightly.

However, some groups suffer more than others. African-Americans, for example, are 2-3 times more likely than Whites to live in poverty. And, the new data suggest that disparities among different groups, and disparities between the richest and the poorest in this country, have grown. Different states have experienced different trends in household income. Some have seen a decrease, rather than a rise.

Increased disparities are bad news for all of us. The young populations, on whom our communities depend for the next generation of consumers and producers, are the populations most affected by poverty. Their health, education, and quality of life suffer; as a result, the quality of life for all of us suffers, no matter what our income or our status.

These numbers come from just a sample; and they reflect one way of measuring income and poverty. They obviously have some error. Art Rolnick, of the Federal Reserve, suggests that they don't correspond with Commerce Department figures which show economic growth. It's important to look at different indicators, over time, to come to valid conclusions.

Nonetheless, even if the economy overall has improved, enough information from enough sources leads to the reasonable conclusion that the fruits of the economy are not flowing equally to all regions and to all types of people. We need to pay attention to this.

Interested in the Census Bureau report? It's on their web site:

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

City Rankings

News articles often report "rankings" of cities.

Morgan Quinto Press, for example, does many different rankings. You can find the Safest City (Newton MA), the Most Dangerous City (Camden NJ), the Best Place to Live (Charlottesville NM, followed in second place by Sante Fe NM), the Most Stressful City (Tacoma WA), the Least Stressful (Albany-Schenectady-Troy NY, tied with Harrisburg-Lebanon-Carlisle PA). (Maybe regions defined by three city names promote composure??) recently drew attention to itself with its ratings of cities by alcohol consumption; it also creates ranks on items like "pro-business."

Someday, maybe, I'll work with some others to identify guidelines for using these rankings. Certainly, it's "let the reader beware" because all rankings are not necessarily valid. Off the top of my head, some tips for assessing the value/validity of city rankings are:

1. Understand what information the creator of the rankings uses to construct the rankings.

2. Do you find that information credible/reliable? Information from a standard source, e.g., Census data, public health statistics, is typically more reliable than small, one-time surveys.

3. Is the information relevant? For example, a city ranking index that includes the percapita number of boats is relevant to your quality of life if you like boating, but probably a weak measure if you do not.

4. What cities are included? All medium and large cities, for example, or did the index creator just start with a few? (If a specific city is not ranked, then you can't assume anything about its place in the "top 10".)

Used wisely, well-designed city rankings can provide valuable insight for thinking about what can improve quality of life. However, poorly designed rankings can mislead.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Nonprofit Organizations and the Economy

"Nonprofits produce profits." That could serve as a catchy title for an interesting essay. In fact, all organizations - whether "nonprofit" or "for profit" - must have income equal to or greater than expenses. Otherwise, they cannot survive. The term, "nonprofit organization" simply indicates that, if revenues are greater than expenses, the extra money will stay in the bank for later good uses. It will not be distributed to shareholders as "profit." Many people are not aware of that.

In addition, many of us do not think about the economic impacts of nonprofit organizations within the communities that they serve. We tend to think only about the humanitarian goals and social impacts that nonprofit organizations have on people and communities. However, nonprofit organizations comprise part of the economy. They pay wages; they purchase goods and services. The amount of our economy occupied by nonprofits is the topic of several articles in fedgazette, a publication of the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis.

The article estimates that nonprofit receipts are 2.4 trillion per year. (That's perhaps 15% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product??) The numbers can help us to appreciate the impacts of nonprofit organizations that go far beyond their charitable missions and goals.

Disparities: Local Lessons from the Middle East Conflict

The Middle East dominates the news. Events there affect all of us worldwide, whether we acknowledge so or not. If we consider the Middle East conflict a regional issue, we deceive ourselves. Similarly, if we think that its implications for the world are limited to energy and oil, we lack perspective. It's another instance of how racial/ethnic hatred manifests itself, and as such, it has lessons for us locally, nationally, globally.

I've spoken with many Israelis and many Palestinians over the past 5 years. I honestly can't say what opinions I would have held in the 1940s regarding exactly what should happen in Palestine after the British withdrawal in 1948. However, I do know that now, in 2006, the children of Israel/Palestine deserve the opportunity to grow in a nurturing environment, to build their lives, and to contribute productively to a stable society.

The explanations from this side and that side of the conflict remind me of what I saw while living in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Someone can always go back 5 years, 50 years, or 500 years to explain the "rationale" for a killing, a bombing, or other acts of terror. In reality, it's nothing but hatred of "the other". It's inhumanity to others who are not like oneself. It represents a failure to accept people in the here and now and to find ways to move on together to live in an imperfect world that we can make better if we honestly attempt to do so.

Locally, that's what motivates me to address racial disparities. Here and now, we have children of many different backgrounds - all of whom deserve the opportunity to move forward, and all of whom can contribute to the future - if barriers and conflict don't stop us. The initiative of The Minneapolis Foundation, the Itasca Project, and other initiatives similar to these, represent hopful signs that we can address those things that divide us in a region and bring everyone together in search of a better future. It won't be easy to undo what the past has created. Some of today's disparities result from conscious individual choices of a few people to deprive people from another group of opportunities they deserve. Other disparities result from community structures and cultural practices that have existed for centuries. Nonetheless, we can reverse the past; we can eliminate the disparities.

In future blogs, I'll update you more on how we support and collaborate with the active efforts that address this issue.

In the meanwhile, I hope that you reflect on the importance of eliminating racial disparities: What, in your own small or large way, can you do? How can you join with others to shape the future?

(Sorry it's been so long since my last blog. The spring workload was somewhat overwhelming. I'll try to return to offering more frequent thoughts and information.)