Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Homeless Older Adults

People 55 and older make up an increasing number and proportion of homeless adults. That's a key finding in a report presented by our homelessness study team to the Gerontological Society of America a few weeks ago. Ten years ago, about 1 of 25 homeless adults was 55+; today, it's almost 1 of 12.

This reflects a general trend we've noted earlier: With respect to our aging population, we can expect more of everything. More people will live longer. Many of them will remain healthy and active into the 70s and beyond; many others will live with chronic conditions that limit their ability to do everything they want to do, and even to care for themselves. (Some recent research suggests, incidentally, that the generations coming into their sixties and seventies now might not experience the disabilities of aging in the same proportions as previous generations. If this turns out to be the case, as perhaps further research will show, that would be very fortuitous.)

In any case, we can expect more homeless older adults, or at least more older adults at risk for homelessness.

In Minnesota, based on the most recent survey by Wilder Research, the majority of homeless adults are male; 44% of homeless males over age 55 are military veterans. About half of homeless older adults are persons of color, compared to about 10% of Minnesota's overall population.

The Wilder Research study found a number of differences between homeless adults over age 55 and those below that age. Older homeless adults are only half as likely to be working for pay; they more likely receive income from General Assistance, Social Security (old age benefits, disability insurance, and/or supplemental security income). Their monthly incomes tend to be higher than the incomes of younger homeless adults. Older homeless adults report more chronic health conditions that limit daily activities; in general, they have a greater level of physical and mental distress, compared to younger homeless adults.

In addressing homelessness, we need to understand that it can involve all ages, and different age groups can have different types of needs.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Social Determinants of Health

"Social Determinants of Health" Sounds complicated? Sounds like jargon? It's not, really. In fact, an excellent seminar yesterday, sponsored by Blue Cross/Blue Shield, shed light on how education, income, and the features of the places where we live literally add or subtract years from our lives.

For example, people who don't graduate from high school earn less during their lives than people with more education. You might expect that, but statistics show that they also more often suffer from obesity and cancer; they die at earlier ages. A major study in England, featured in a to-be-released PBS series, shows a strong and direct correlation between income (or social status) and health status and life expectancy.

In the past, we have tended to put emphasis on individual choices and behaviors as the factors that affect our health. If we choose to smoke, our health will suffer; if we choose to exercise, we will remain fit and less likely suffer from many chronic diseases. We have also recognized that we inherit some characteristics from our parents; as the New York Times reported today, commonly-available DNA testing will soon enable everyone to "learn what is known so far about how the billions of bits in their biological code shape who they are."

Our DNA, and the lifestyle choices we make, do influence our health. However, they might explain only a fourth or a third of the differences among people. The research summarized yesterday by Dr. Anthony Iton, suggests that individual choice might account for only 15-30% of the explanation for why some people stay healthier, and live longer, than others. It also showed strong differences in disease rates and life expectancy depending upon people's places of residence. Even within the same geographic areas (Alameda County CA was one example; Louisville KY was another.), residents living just a few miles from one another show great differences in health, in a very predictable pattern: neighborhoods with poorer, less educated residents, with worse housing, with higher levels of uncollected waste, live shorter, less healthy lives. And, this pattern does not just influence the lives and well-being of poor people. Residents of middle class neighborhoods can live 3-5 years less than residents of wealthier neighborhoods.

If you think that these issues do not apply in Minnesota, think again - and watch for data we will report in our Twin Cities Compass project. Disparities do exist. They have real effects, as you will see. The Brookings report, "Mind the Gap", sponsored by the Itasca Project identified disparities based on race, income, and place as some of the most significant challenges for the future vitality of our region.

It's immoral, in my opinion, that we should have these disparities. Total equality might not be possible, but we can certainly bring everyone to a minimum level of education, so they can participate in work life and civic life. We can certainly narrow the gaps to a minimum.

Perhaps the moral argument makes sense, but still does not sway you - consider the practical side. Health disparities affect you very directly. Health disparities cost you money right now, and they jeopardize your future well-being, regardless of your social status. People of color constitute the growing populations in our region. They make up the work force of the future, the parents of the future, the leaders of the future. If the up-and-coming part of our community is less healthy now, we all pay in the form of increased insurance costs and taxes; if they have poor health, and die earlier, in the future, we all lose the value of their productivity and the many contributions they can make to our society.

There is little doubt that we must understand the "social determinants of health" and address the disparities in our region, if we want our region to stand out internationally as one of the best places to live.

(Watch for the PBS documentary, Unnatural Causes, next year. Watch also for the TPT series on disparities in the Twin Cities region, and their effects on all of us. Twin Cities Compass and Wilder Research are partnering with the Itasca Project and TPT on education and follow-up activities for that series.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans Who Are Homeless

About one in four homeless men in Minnesota are military veterans. 600+ veterans live in shelters or on the street; most are men, but a few are women. Let's remember them on this Veterans Day.

Perhaps most tragic is that some of our veterans from the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts are among the homeless. Many in this country oppose the war, but regardless of our opinion about whether we should have our military in Iraq, it seems unconscionable that we can't care for those who so recently served their country in the military.

Wilder Research has conducted a statewide homeless study every few years since the early 1990s; we conducted it on a more limited level beginning in the early 1980s. Over the years, we witnessed increases in the number of homeless people, with especially large increases in the number of children. Evidence from our most recent study indicates that the total number of homeless people might have leveled off, or even declined slightly.

That's good news, if it holds up when we repeat the study in 2009. Nonetheless, we cannot rest on our laurels, even if we have really turned the tide. Work remains to be done.

Last week, the Minneapolis Foundation brought together hundreds of people concerned about homelessness. We looked at the Wilder study data; we listened to Housing Finance Agency Commissioner Tim Marx describe how we can take action. Paul Williams, Richard Amos, and Gabrielle Strong highlighted the practical issues that challenge us, along with homeless people themselves, if we want to solve this issue.

We look forward to continuing to shed light on homelessness. If our collaborative effort to end long-term homelessness succeeds, it will be testimony to the strength and the will of Minnesotans to show compassion for the vulnerable and to include in our economy and civic life all who want to make their homes here, but have run into a few extraordinary difficulties in doing so.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Becoming a "Greener" and Stronger Community

Improving the well-being of our communities requires, obviously, that we address local issues and concerns. However, it also requires attention to national, international, and global issues. The quality of our environment, while it may seem like something over which we have little control, is one of those issues that relates fundamentally to our local quality of life. We need to do our part to preserve and enhance the environment.

For example, Wilder has a commitment to build an energy-efficient structure for our new Wilder Center at the corner of Lexington and University in Saint Paul. We hope to receive gold certification for the building; we'll be one of very few such buildings in the state, but hope that we are one of many over the next 10 years.

My annual visit to the Minnesota State Fair a month ago prompted me to wonder if we could make major progress toward a better environment through simple steps at public events like the Fair. Can the State Fair take visible action toward reducing waste and, through its example, educate Fair-goers, who will then increase their attention to environmentally friendly behavior?

One thing that struck me: the number of disposable items - cups, spoons, napkins, etc., -distributed by vendors, used by patrons for only a few minutes, and then discarded. Why not require that Fair-goers bring their own cups, or purchase one "souvenir cup" from the Fair, and then have vendors dispense portions into those cups? This could greatly reduce the 1,000 plus tons (2 million plus pounds) of garbage that the Pioneer Press reported the Fair produces. More important, though, it brings 125,000 people per day to realize that they should, and can, do their part for the environment.

Vaclav Havel, the author and a former president of the Czech Republic wrote recently that "Maybe we should consider our sojourn on earth as a loan. There can be no doubt that for the past hundred years at least, Europe and the United States have been running up a debt, and now other parts of the world are following their example. Nature is issuing a warning that we must not only stop the debt from growing but start to pay it back."

If all of us listen to nature's warning and do our small parts for the environment, the collective result will be very positive. We'll help the world, and we'll help the Twin Cities region!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Achievement Gap

The "Achievement Gap" refers to the differences between white children and children of color on measures of academic performance. For example, White children are about twice as likely to score proficiently on reading and math tests, and twice as likely to graduate from high school on time, compared with African-American children.

The gap presents a challenge to our region because children of color constitute a rapidly growing segment of our population; they represent the majority of students in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul schools. They represent a signficant portion of our future.

The Superintendent of the Saint Paul Schools announced that she wants to close this gap. According to reports appearing in the August 24 Pioneer Press and StarTribune, she intends to develop a plan that will engage the community to work toward equal educational outcomes for all students.

The education achievement gap is not new; it is not local. Wilder Research began formally reporting it in the early 1990s, as did others around the country. It had been identified even before then.

Dan Mueller of Wilder Research outlined a number of strategies that research demonstrates can reduce or eliminate the gap. These include: high quality, center-based preschools; elementary schools that have a strong focus on teaching and learning (minimizing distractions for other purposes, for example); schools that have a rigorous curriculum; schools that align their curriculum and instruction with their assessment process; effective school leadership; strong teacher professional development programs; and others.

Note that income differences do not fully explain the achievement gap; note also that different racial groups tend to score differently. And remember that the numbers are typically averages; within each racial group, you can find students who perform well and students who do not.

The Superintendent intends to create a plan in the coming months. I encourage her to consider both short-term and long-term strategies, as the research suggests. For some students, improvement can likely occur rapidly. Complete closure of the gap, for all students, will take longer.

Saturday's Pioneer Press reported that she will institute new "training" in which "outside consultants" will "observe staff members at work and advise them on areas of potential racial, socio-economic and gender bias." This will start with clerks and the executive team; observations of teachers will not occur at first. Research evidence does not yet exist to indicate that such training will substantially close the gap, but potentially it can begin to enhance the atmosphere of schools and the day-to-day behaviors of front line staff in ways that will foster better learning environments for children of all colors.

Closing the gap will require changes in the cultures of schools, other organizations, the community, and families. It will require joint efforts among many of us in Saint Paul. It will require that we all share responsibility; we will need to move beyond blame and finger-pointing and take special care not to "blame the victim".

If you have looked at the research, you know that elimination of the achievement gap will only occur if our schools change. That will cause stress and discomfort. However, our schools cannot accomplish this alone. We all need to pitch in, and we all might experience some discomfort in the short run.

Are we ready? I think that many of us are. If we pay attention to the evidence on what does work to close the gap, and if we make a steadfast effort, we can succeed to overcome one of the most significant challenges to the future of our region.

(You can learn more about the research on the achievement gap in the paper by Dr. Dan Mueller, "Tackling the Achievement Gap Head On" on the Wilder Research web site.)

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The 35W Bridge in Minneapolis

Does civic engagement affect our responses to metal fatigue? Probably yes, as I reflected upon it this morning.

Everyone in Minnesota, and many throughout the nation and the world, watched events unfold Wednesday evening in the aftermath of the collapse of the bridge over the Mississippi River. Today, we could view a tape of the actual collapse. The victims and their families have directly experienced a tragedy, and continue to do so; all of us feel the effects.

Today, the morning after the collapse, I had an 8:00 a.m. meeting with an advisory committee to discuss how to measure "Civic Engagement" as part of our Twin Cities Compass initiative, intended to measure the quality of life in the Twin Cities region. Prior to the meeting, I had wondered if committee members would attend, given the emotionally stressful events of the previous evening, not to mention potential traffic problems in the morning. I even had considered canceling the meeting.

I'm glad we met, not just because we productively accomplished our work, but because the meeting offered me the chance to reflect on the fact that civic engagement does very much relate to what happened to the bridge and on the bridge.

We have structures and infrastructures of all kinds in this world. They enable us to travel, communicate, and get important things done. Similar to people, they get old. Bridges get old.

Who should decide when to replace an aging bridge - engineers and other technicians? public officials? the general public? The experts gave this bridge a "sufficiency rating" of 50%, meaning from their point of view that it "might" need to be replaced; they rated its "structural members" at 4 on a scale of 9. Should it have been replaced? Who decides?

These decisions are not purely technical. They involve values; they involve hard decisions about costs. They pit different needs against one another, since money spent on bridge replacement cannot pay for something else. The decisions have implications that people feel directly, for example, in the time it takes them to travel, and in the taxes they have to pay.

Good decisions require informed and engaged members of the community. Productive action must be nonpartisan (or cooperatively multi-partisan), not motivated by attention only to rigid political or ideological agendas. Long-term thinking (which some politicians will not do) is required.

So, when we consider what happens to bridges, roads, and other physical structures, we must remain aware that our action or inaction, our interest or apathy, determine how safe we will be when we ride in cars, buses, trains, and planes. For the 35W bridge, some person or persons made the decision that the 50% rating was good enough not to make structural work a priority. Perhaps more people should be involved in that type of decision, in addition to many other decisions that literally affect our lives.

What about on the bridge? There we saw civic engagement at its finest in a crisis situation. Everyone - our police and fire services, service agencies like the Red Cross, nearby residents, passers-by, drivers (some of whom narrowly missed catastrophe), and others - pitched in, in some cases risking their lives.

I could not be near enough to get on that bridge to help people last night; but I'm very happy to be part of a process that can bring our region together to examine our trends and needs and to get mechanisms in place that will prevent future tragedies of this type.

That's why our meeting this morning - while it might seem remote from the victims, the crushed cars, the jumbled slabs of concrete - while it might seem irrelevant to engineering studies and reports - has great significance. We need civic engagement; we need good information that engaged citizens can use. Our lives and well-being depend on it.

As a footnote, three of the thirteen people in the room this morning had a close connection to victims on or near the bridge at the time of the collapse. One of these victims was seriously injured and is waiting for a decision about surgery. So, 3 of 13 at "one degree of separation" from people directly involved; my guess is that the rest of us in the room are only "two degrees" separated from the tragedy - that is, we most likely know someone who is personally linked to a victim.

That shows how much of a community we are - and demonstrates how important it is for us, as community members to make our region a better place to live!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Information Gold Mine

If you owned a business and you had some great performance numbers—revenues, total sales, annual profits, or whatever—would you list them in a financial report? Certainly. You would also use those numbers in a variety of other ways—perhaps to congratulate and motivate your staff, or to publicize the success of your business to attract more customers or investors. As a smart businessperson you would try to promote success in any way that makes sense.

What about nonprofits? Do we make the most of our performance information? Many of us sit on a treasure trove of evaluation information without realizing its potential. Some organizations, however, have discovered ways to creatively use such information to effectively demonstrate their impact. I and my co-authors wrote our book, Information Gold Mine: Innovative Uses of Evaluation, to uncover and share some of the best examples of creative uses of evaluation. We wanted to showcase program managers who could talk to their peers about what they had done and the benefits it produced for them.

Our book highlights organizations who use their evaluation findings to improve their services, to raise funds, or to influence policy and legislation. For example, PACE, an organization in Florida that serves adolescent girls, uses its evaluation findings to inform the general public and donors about its work, to provide training and technical assistance to other organizations, and to influence legislation. In 2004, it influenced the passage of a bill that mandated gender-specific services for adolescents.

Another example is YouthZone, in Colorado, who used their evaluation to push for excellent programming based on sound data. They made real changes—dropping parts of their model and changing others—to get genuine results. Debbie Wilde, executive director, says it has also given her and her board “more confidence in talking with people who have financial resources, in doing public relations, and in being assertive in asking for referrals.”

Information Gold Mind is available from Fieldstone Alliance, (It will also be available at libraries soon.) You might also want to take a look at Wilder’s series of program evaluation tip sheets prepared by Cheryl Holm-Hansen highlighted on the first page of this Sampler. On the same topic, The Manager’s Guide to Program Evaluation, offers a framework for program managers to plan, contract, and manage useful evaluations. It is also available through Fieldstone.

We all strive to improve our effectiveness. Credible, clear data can empower us to continually adapt to our rapidly-changing environment, form good strategies, take control and be proactive in service delivery, alliance building, fundraising, marketing, and whatever else it takes to get our jobs done.

Perhaps you have some thoughts on this topic. Please let me know. Also, if you have an interest in more information about this book, or want to obtain it, visit the Fieldstone Alliance website.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Aging in Our Region

Today's StarTribune reported that the number of aging people in the suburbs will greatly increase in the coming years. (The Brookings Institution made these projections; they resemble earlier predictions made for Minnesota by our State Demographer.)

As we have discussed before, the movement of the Baby Boom into older age will constitute a demographic change unlike anything we have seen previously. The number of people in their 80s and 90s, for example, will grow in some suburban Twin Cities counties far more rapidly than any other age group. The currently evolving demographic trends have implications not just because of the increase in elderly, but also because the generation that follows the Boomers is smaller in numbers, which may produce various types of shortages in businesses, nonprofits, and government, and which may require that we re-think how we get things done.

The increasing number of older people will lead to "more of everything." On the positive side, more people who live longer, healthier lives - who want to remain active, perhaps in the labor force, perhaps as volunteers. On the negative side, more people who will spend longer periods of time needing care and assistance with their daily lives - which will strain families, communities, and formal health and long-term care systems.

Another article in today's news indicated that many Boomers feel the need to postpone retirement, due to financial concerns. As we showed at a recent conference, the proportion of older people with low incomes, even living in poverty, seems to be increasing, after a decline over many decades.

We need to realize the importance of addressing the changing demographics as a region. It's not a "city" issue or a "suburban" issue. Cities and suburbs are socially and economically interdependent. (Geographic dispersion in the suburbs may increase the challenges of caring for older people there, relative to cities where density provides opportunities to bring services closer to more people, reduce transportation time and costs, etc.; but that's a different issue.) As a region, we need to understand what changes will likely occur, plan for them, and act together to promote the best quality of life for residents of the entire region, young or old.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Globalization - What it is, and why it's important (part 1)

Globalization - something only of concern for international business, trade, diplomacy? Or, something that affects all of us, no matter what our profession or interest?

Several months ago, the Wilder Board asked: "What large scale trends or issues exist, which could have very profound consequences for the work of nonprofit organizations, whether local, national, or international?" This Board has always looked ahead strategically; they knew that plans within Wilder take into consideration changes in the population, the rising and falling of specific needs, and so on. In this case, however, they wanted to look beyond the obvious, to larger trends or overarching conditions that might produce the more visible trends that we readily see and understand.

Among several nominations of significant, large-scale trends, globalization percolated to the top as an important focus of attention, and we spent time discussing it. So, in a series of blogs, I'll offer my views on what globalization means and what implications it has for us.

One, simple definition of globalization: the increasing integration of societies and economies throughout the world. It means that people move more and more easily across borders, that more money and capital moves across borders, and that freer trade exists.

The International Monetary Fund defined "economic globalization" as: "a historical process, the result of human and technological progress. It refers to the increasing integration of economies around the world, particularly through trade and financial flows. The term also refers to the movement of people (labor) and knowledge (technology) across international borders."

Thomas Friedman (author of "The World is Flat", "The Lexus and the Olive Tree") asserts that "Globalization has replaced the Cold War as the defining international system." A recent headline in the New York Times strikingly confirmed this assertion. If you remember the 1950s and 1960s, your recollections of the Soviet Union probably include: Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a podium; the phrase (probably mis-translated) "we will bury you"; the Iron Curtain; the "red menace"; and similar negative concepts. At that time, public service announcements attempted to reassure us by explaining that the "DEW line" would detect the launch of Soviet missiles; it seemed that the U.S. and the Soviet Union had missiles pointed at one another, ready for launch. Now, a half century later, the New York Times of April 21 stated: "Pentagon invites Kremlin to link missile systems."

Friedman asserts something else that can help us to understand the importance of globalization for all of us. As the Friedman web site states: "Globalization is the integration of capital, technology, and information across national borders, in a way that is creating a single global market and, to some degree, a global village." In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he frames "the tension between the globalization system and ancient forces of culture, geography, tradition, and community."

Jim Steiner, of Lowry Hill and a member of the Wilder Board illustrated how capital flows in today's world and offered examples of how local decision-making is unbounded; companies look to achieve the best possible gains within an international network.

It's this blending of the local and global, this creation of the truly global village, that we need to pay attention to. Whether we realize it or not, the forces of globalization affect our personal, civic, and business lives. Decisions we make as voters, investors, leaders, community members can leverage the forces of globalization, or can passively react to those forces. "Neighborhood" decision-making and "world-wide" decision making overlap more than ever before.

Globalization has, on the one hand, increased opportunities; it has democratized communication and the way we learn about the world. However, not everyone has received benefits. Globalization has enhanced the situations of many of us, yet some of us may be much worse off as a result of globalization.

In future blogs, I'll talk about all these features of globalization and their implications.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Youth Mentoring - Economic Impacts of Effective Programs

An article in today's StarTribune, highlights the resuts of a study conducted by Wilder Research's Chief Economist, Paul Anton, and Judy Temple of the University of Minnesota. The study shows that, when effective, mentoring programs for youth can produce savings for taxpayers.

This research adds another piece to our understanding of how we can effectively and economically promote the development of young people.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Editorial Encourages Follow Up to Wilder's Homeless Study

An editorial in the Pioneer Press today (April 12, 2007) encourages us to take the results of the latest homeless study and move forward as a community to make progress on this issue.

The editorial concludes: "Minnesota is responding. Cities, counties and the state have focused on the problem and on the underlying issues. There is no single or simple solution. Wilder's report reminds us that we need to take another look, and to see that these are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our ex-soldiers and former neighbors. And they need our help."

You can see the full editorial on today's Pioneer Press Opinion Page.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Homeless in Minnesota - A Few Facts

About 200 individuals joined us yesterday to take a look at highlights of Wilder Research's latest study of the homeless in Minnesota. This series of studies began in the early 1980s; it became statewide in the early 1990s.

You can obtain reports on the Wilder Research web site. Also, you can find slides from the first hour presentation.

By our estimates, the number of homeless people in Minnesota is between 9,200 and 9,300. That's roughly equal to, or possibly slightly less than, the numbers of three years ago. This estimate is based on a one-night count. We do a unique study that involves almost 1,000 volunteers who interview people who live in shelters and people who do not live in shelters throughout the state.

The study contains a great deal of information to which we need to pay attention, if we want to make progress on the issue of homelessness. In several blogs, I'll touch on a few pieces of relevant data; I'll also suggest issues, challenges, and ingredients for moving ahead successfully.

First, a few demographics:
- About half of the homeless in Minnesota are female; about half are male. This surprises many people.
- Very young adults (18-21) and the "middle aged" (35-54) tend to be over-represented among the homeless, relative to their proportion of the total state population. Older people (55+) are definitely under-represented among the homeless; people 55 and older comprise 28% of the state's adults, yet only 8% of homeless adults.
- Homeless adults tend to have less education than adults in general. For example, 63% of the state's adults over age 25 have some education beyond high school; 32% of homeless adults have that level of education.

The most striking demographic data relate to race:
- Blacks/African-Americans constitute 38% of homeless adults in contrast to 3% of Minnesota's adult population.
- American Indians constitute 11% of homeless adults in contrast to 1% of Minnesota's adult population.
- Latinos constitute 7% of homeless adults in contrast to 3% of Minnesota's adult population.
In short, groups of color are over-represented among the homeless.

Children also deserve some note:
- Of the roughly 9,200 homeless persons, about 3,400 are children.
- 2,800 of these are with their parents. This is more than the 875 that we found back in 1991.
- 600 are on their own
- Among children with their parents, about half are preschool age.
- The youngest child whom we interviewed living on their own was age 11.

In future blogs, I'll mention some additional information. However, more importantly, I'll focus on what we need to do to move ahead. If you want more facts, please take a look at the reports.

The team for this study deserves our appreciation. Dr. Greg Owen has directed this work since its first days 23 years ago. Principal staff who collaborated with him on this latest study include Ellen Shelton, Michelle Gerrard, Karen Ulstad, and June Heineman. Many others at Wilder Research also contributed. And, of course, it would not have occurred without the assistance of close to 1,000 volunteers, collaborating organizations, and our funders - all of whom hope that eventually this research will cease because we will have resolved the issue.

If you have thoughts, I would value the opportunity to hear them.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Race & Juvenile Delinquency

Racial disparities in juvenile sentencing - The news media (e.g., Pioneer Press) reported the results of a Wilder Research study of this issue in Dakota County. For example, black youths make up 3% of young people in Dakota County, but 21% of the young people in the criminal courts and corrections systems.

Other studies, in Minnesota and elsewhere, have produced similar, overall findings; those findings are not particularly surprising. However, what's notable - and very commendable - for the Dakota County commitee of public officials who are studying the issue are two features of their initiative.

First, the research did not just stop at identifying disparities; it dug deeply to identify potential causes. What might be the factors that explain these differences? What occurs in the system, and where, to produce the differences? The study showed, for example, that black youth did not commit more serious crimes than white youth committed.

This type of in-depth look is rare; the willingness of public officials to take such a look is admirable.

Second, this study will not receive some publicity and then move off the radar screen. The committee intends to determine how things can become better, and take action. They have committed themselves to research, learning, and improvement. They want to make fair decisions, in the public interest, based on sound research evidence. They seem open to doing their part, and also to inviting others to collaborate with them.

It will be exciting to work with them and to see how they do this.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Homelessness - New Research

Wilder's most recent research related to homelessness received attention in the newspapers today. You can find articles in both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press.

Among the major findings is the fact that the total number of homeless persons in the state may have remained stable over the past three years. Of concern, though, are statistics showing such things as the large number of children who are homeless, the increase in mental illness, and the number of veterans who are homeless.

I'll have more comments in future blogs, but I wanted you to know about these news items. Dr. Greg Owen, the study director, will participate in some live events this week, on Minnesota Public Radio, for example, and on other radio and TV stations. If you have thoughts or comments, please let me know.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Community Issues - from the "Executive of the Year"

In remarks at a recent lunch in her honor as The Business Journal's "Executive of the Year", Mary Brainerd highlighted three significant community issues.

The first of these is the importance of addressing social and economic disparities in order to maintain the economic vitality of the Twin Cities region. Our region can make substantial, long-term progress only if all residents have opportunities to participate as productive community members. Reports from the Itasca Project, which is primarily a coalition of business leaders, have shown that reducing disparities is not only the morally right thing to do; it's the smart thing to do for economic growth.

The second issue is that mental illness is a major, unaddressed problem. Addressing it effectively will require collaborative action among health care systems, community organizations, government, and others. As a member of the Board of the Hamm Clinic, I've heard first hand from our Executive Director, Dr. Jim Jordan, and others about the need to work together to conquer mental illness - in an environment where the issues have not yet become understood by most members of the community and where health care systems often cannot yet provide comprehensive and specialized treatment.

Third, she pointed to the high cost of health care. This cost stresses everyone: health care providers; insurers; government; business; and, of course, all of us as individual patients. In the opinion of many people (I assume Mary Brainerd is included.), we should have the highest quality and most accessible health care in the world. Sadly, we do not. Issues of cost, disagreement over who ought to pay, and other bureaucratic and legal obstacles have gotten in our way.

Ms. Brainerd wants to champion these issues. I'm very pleased that someone of her competence and character is doing so. (A business executive with degrees in both philosophy and management - maybe that's why she's so effective.) As testimony from several community leaders at the lunch indicated, many others throughout the Twin Cities are pleased as well!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Severe Poverty

The Star Tribune this past weekend quoted Paul Anton, the Chief Economist at Wilder Research, regarding recent figures that reveal growth in the number of people who live in "severe poverty".

What is "severe poverty"? Imagine yourself as an individual with an income of less than $100 per week. That's all the money you have to pay for a place to live, for food, and for whatever other necessities you must purchase. Another example of the "severe poor" would be a family of four, including two children, with an income of $196 or less per week - that is, less than $50 per person.

Analysis of trends by the StarTrib's news service suggests that the number of people in severe poverty has increased throughout the U.S. It grew by 26% nationally and by 62% in Minnesota. On the positive side, the number of people in severe poverty in Minnesota (194,000 in 2005) was 3.9% of the state's total population - the third lowest rate in the country.

It's important to stay aware of these numbers - attempting to understand the trends and to identify what we might do about them. Our Twin Cities Compass initiative and our research on homelessness do just that. Sadly, the severe poor and the homeless include people who have acquired an education, hardworking people, veterans who have served their country, and others whom we might not expect in this situation. For adults, an economic downturn, the closing of a plant, an accident, or other events outside of their control can send them to the lowest part of the income ladder. Outmoded job skills, illness, or other unfortunate life circumstances can force some of them to remain there.

A few recent news articles have sensationalized this topic. Someone, perhaps out of ignorance or fear, issued yet another call for "one way bus tickets" for people who supposedly exploit our resources. Certainly, abuses occur; they always will. However, if we set aside for a moment any concerns we might have about people who commit fraud (which can include anyone from the homeless to the CEOs of our largest corporations, and everyone in between!), these numbers indicate that we have many very worthy and very needy members of our state's population, who deserve our attention.

The results of our latest survey of the homeless will become available during the next two months. I invite you to join us and thousands of others who are committed to improving our communities - in learning what that study has to offer.

As always, please let me know your thoughts. And thanks to those of you who have emailed with questions, comments, and encouragement about this blog.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Aging / Caregiving (Part 3)

Our seminar yesterday on the challenge of caregiving for older people drew a large audience who wanted to learn about and discuss what we can do about the anticipated increase in the number of persons over 75 who will require care for longer periods than ever before.

We identified what we called the "challenge of today" and the "potential crisis of tomorrow".

The challenge of today derives from two facts: (1) More older people need care for longer periods of time; and (2) Caregivers are experiencing increasing physical, mental, and financial strains as a result of caregiving. While studies are not definitive, some good, initial research suggests that the increasing strains on caregivers have manifested themselves in worsened health (perhaps 15% of caregivers), more stress and worry (90%), more frequent use of alcohol or prescription drugs (10%), and overall more symptoms of depression and more physical ailments. Articles in the media have documented the extreme steps that spouses and adult children of older people have taken to cope with the financial demands of caregiving - in some cases selling homes and depleting savings to purchase what's needed.

The potential crisis of tomorrow derives from the fact that the current challenge will intensify because the Baby Boom generation, as it ages, will increase the number of older people, without a similar increase in the younger generations that follow them. For many individual Boomers and their families, this will mean a shortage of caregivers; for society as a whole, it will mean an increased "dependency ratio".

We saw broad implications for public policy, business, the care industry, and philanthropy. One of these implications we called the need to "increase caregiver awareness" and to build this awareness into all of our approaches to aging issues, health care, the workforce, and anywhere else that is relevant. Another implication is that the service system needs to make caregiving assessment and support a standard part of its activities. This includes providing an equal role for informal caregivers in planning. (They implement most of the care plans anyway.)

For business, the key implication is human resource flexibility. Options and support need to exist for employees who are caregivers, or else they will either not remain as employees or will work with highly compromised productivity. Options need to exist for older employees to remain working full or part time, in the same or different roles, if they choose to do so. Employees within a decade of the traditional retirement age should see some incentives to shape the next stage of their careers in ways that will help employers to ease the major transition that will occur as Boomers, with their accumulated experience and wisdom, begin to leave the labor force in large numbers.

On the positive side, society will see an increasing number of healthy, retired 65 to 74 year old people. Some of them undoubtedly will want to volunteer. Caregiving should be promoted as an attractive option.

Community-based programs, e.g., block programs and faith-based programs, social support networks, partnerships among service organizations, intermediary organizations and community organizations (where agencies working collaboratively can do more than working in parallel) - these are some ways to help meet the challenge of today.

Preventing, or at least lessening, the crisis of tomorrow will require creativity and flexibility. We may need to make changes in policies that now deter volunteers from doing caregiving (e.g., liability policies or finance/tax policies). More attention to prevention and wellness among healthy older adults may trim slightly the numbers who develop problems that will require caregiving, or might delay the onset of such problems.

Nobody has all the answers, but many good people are concerned and working on it. We are pleased to be part of that effort.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

People Power to Meet Community Challenges

"Americans are largely optimistic about the futures of their communities and stand ready to help make them better places in which to live."

Those words introduce a report from the Pew Partnership, based on a survey done about three years ago. The report noted a number of challenges that American communities face, such as: hunger; homelessness; less than complete adult literacy; and poor educational performance.

Based on the survey data, the report revealed that many Americans already address these issues, through volunteering for example; and it identified an "enormous amount of latent good will on the part of the public." In fact, it concluded that "there are huge numbers of people who are willing to lend a hand if they can be convinced that hunger, illiteracy, inadequate housing, poor public education, and neighborhood safety pose significant concerns for the communities in which they live."

Wilder Research, through Twin Cities Compass, is developing a means for residents throughout our region to stay on top of the major issues that our communities face. We hope that, by providing everyone the ability to understand these issues, we will offer them the basis to act out their "good will" in whatever ways they consider most appropriate for their own situations.

Many partners have joined us, and we hope to engage even more during 2007. (In fact, if you know of a group or organization that would like to hear about our work, please let us know.)

A few more, selected findings from the Pew report - related to the interest and willingness of the public to pitch in to address important community challenges:

* Almost 9 out of 10 of the survey respondents indicated that they already donate, or would be willing to donate if they had the opportunity: clothing; food; or money to a local charity.

* 70% of respondents reported they would be willing to donate supplies to a local school, or are already doing so.

* Almost 2 of 3 respondents would be willing to do one or more of the following (or they already do so): help an adult or child learn to read; deliver food to people who cannot get out of their homes; assist in mentoring a child.

These numbers are high. Certainly, not everyone will have the time and ability to carry out the charitable work mentioned above, even though they might truly intend to do so. However, even if only half of these people focus their attention on community challenges at any one time, that's a lot of people power! We hope to nurture and support this people power, in collaboration with other partners throughout the region. Let's see what we can do!

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

For Better Planning, "Stop Pretending"

Paul Anton, our Chief Economist at Wilder Research, began an editorial in today's Pioneer Press as follows:

"Imagine projecting your family financial situation five years from now in
the following way. You assume that your income will increase every year in
line with expected inflation; but you also assume that the prices of
everything you buy - clothing, gasoline, food and health insurance - will
remain unchanged. Undoubtedly, you would predict a surplus of money in your
bank account. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.

The State of Minnesota is making that same unfortunate error."

He proceeded to describe four dangerous implications if the state uses inflation when projecting revenues but not when projecting expenses. Simply speaking, the state can't make meaningful and useful financial projections.

You have probably said to yourself already: Does it require an economist to determine that the state can't reasonably assume that inflation will only affect its income and not its expenses? Isn't that perfectly obvious? However, sometimes what seems obvious might not actually be so obvious; or it might be obscured by other considerations at a time when legislators attempt to make a decision or pass a law.

Whatever the case, the legislators made a big mistake when they adopted this formula for financial forecasting; now they need to correct it. More accurate forecasts will enable us to better analyze and plan programs to meet the needs of the state's population.

Take a look at Paul Anton's editorial. And, as always, if you have any thoughts about how we can do our work to improve public policies and improve the quality of life in this region, please let us know.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

MLK Day Everyday

In a meeting I had about 10 years ago with Professor Mahmoud El-Kati from Macalester College, he said: "Why do we think of just one day as Martin Luther King Day? Why shouldn't we celebrate his ideas and ideals every day of the year?" So, in that spirit, I decided to do this entry on just an ordinary day, midway between the MLK holiday and the beginning of Black History Month.

This year, as last year, I encouraged the staff of Wilder Research to take the time to learn just one new thing - that they did not know before - about Dr. King: about his life, his words of wisdom, or whatever. If we learn just one new thing (not to mention two or three) each year, and if we make the effort to apply what we learn in our personal and professional lives, imagine how substantially we can improve ourselves.

Wilder's Ujima group selected some quotes from Dr. King, for a card memorializing him along with Coretta Scott King. One of these quotes is: "There are two types of laws: there are just laws and there are unjust laws...What is the difference between the two?...An unjust law is a man-made code that is out of harmony with the moral law."

That quote reminds us that we must have a moral basis, a set of values, for our work.

Laws, codes, regulations, ways of doing business or making decisions - they might seem "rational". They might even seem "fair". But does that mean they promote justice? Does that mean that they are "moral" within the larger context of how we feel people should be treated, and of how we feel people should have the opportunity to live?

Dr. King's words and actions encourage us to continually raise questions, to challenge the status quo. He inspires us to search and to wonder how we can do better.

Religious organizations speak to values and offer options. Many advocacy groups strive to raise awareness of justice issues. I like to think that foundations and other philanthropic organizations base their work on values that all of us can choose, or not choose, to adopt. But there is no single script that we can all simply read and follow.

Instead, each and every one of us sits in our own unique position - a product of our history and our culture - and we must each struggle with the question of how to translate values of inclusion, acceptance, and understanding into our actions to achieve progress in our communities and in our world.

Does basing our work on values of inclusion, acceptance, and understanding impair in any way the ability of applied researchers to reach honest, objective conclusions? Absolutely not. In fact, such values enhance honesty and objectivity in our pluralistic society. They enrich our efforts to do work which can elevate human beings and improve communities in nonpartisan, unbiased ways. They make it even more exciting to ask new questions, and obtain new answers, at Wilder Research every day!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Dakota County Visioning for 2030

Dakota County has a creative and innovative effort underway, to develop a "vision" for their county for the year 2030. Their advisory group asked me to speak this morning - to "tie things together", to help the group "identify connections" among issues, and to specifically address human services, education, public health, and public safety. This forward thinking initiative is very commendable. At the very least, it will provide reference points that citizens, county and municipal officials, nonprofit organizations, and others can use as they do planning. Beyond that, it has the potential to stimulate new thinking and to foster collaboration among groups interested in having the same positive impacts on the quality of life.

We could spend days analyzing these topics. So, I highlighted two major trends that constitute "key drivers" of changes related to the human services, education, employment and related dynamics in the County. These are: the aging of the population; and increasing disparities across our growing, diverse population in the region (of which Dakota is a part). These trends, of course, exist within the larger context of an increasing state population, increasing regional population, and increasing county population.

Aging, as we've noted before will result in "more of everything" - more people living longer, healthier lives, with the capacity to continue with employment, consumership, and community involvement - as well as more people with extended periods of disability and need for assistance. How will we cope with this dramatic shift? The State Demographer estimates that Minnesota will need 46% more healthcare practitioners and technicians during the next ten years. As retirements occur, the replacements for the health care industry are not readily available, just as they are not readily available for other industries.

Competition for scarce human talent will increase. Companies, nonprofit organizations, and government need to consider policy and workplace options that will help to maintain some of the energy and wisdom of older workers, rather than ignoring the fact that seasoned workers will begin to depart in large numbers as the Baby Boomers reach the traditional retirement age.

The disparities issue, as the Itasca Project noted, is a regional issue. Persons of color, on average, earn less, are less likely to have health insurance, have lower high school graduation rates, are less likely to own homes. Yet these are the growing populations with the potential to work in and lead the businesses and organizations of the future. We must strive for preschool readiness, elementary and high school achievement, and the transition to higher education for these groups, or our region will lose out in the global economy.

Many people in Dakota County wisely understand our regional interdependence across the counties of the Twin Cities region. As part of this visioning process, let's hope that even more do so!

Monday, January 01, 2007

Wilder Research 2007

We look forward to another productive year in 2007, working in collaboration with many different organizations. - educating, discovering, leading, raising awareness, to improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities.

During 2007:

We have two "Perspectives Breakfasts" set for this year. On February 13, we'll focus on The Caregiver Challenge, a critically important topic now that so many families, friends, and neighbors care for older people for extended periods of time. On April 10, we'll release and discuss some of the new findings from our latest statewide study of Homelessness.

Twin Cities Compass will continue its launch. The Twin Cities region has long been known for offering a high quality of life. But will it remain so? How can we ensure that there will be opportunities for a good education, affordable housing, employment, and access to health care for everyone? How can we ensure we will stand out as a strong, competitive economic region? Twin Cities Compass will give everyone in the Twin Cities a common foundation to understand and act on community issues that affect our region. We invite your ideas and participation in this important initiative.

Visit our web site if you want details, or if you want to register for an event. Watch for other seminars and activities, as we proceed toward 2008, when we hope to develop, in our brand new building, a state-of-the-art facility for learning, discussion, and action on significant public issues.

In the next 12-24 months, we hope to to have "mini-conferences" on child care issues, the achievement gap, homelessness, early childhood mental health, and other topics. We particularly want to understand, raise awareness, and promote productive action regarding disparities in service access and effectiveness among Whites, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Africans, and other groups. We have several productions in the works with public television. We have begun planning a unique conference, for early 2008, on the economics of human service programs.

We will continue devoting efforts to the testing and development of "evidence based practices" - especially with a focus on underserved, urban populations including cultural groups whom mainstream research often misses. Interesting studies this year will include adoption innovations for older youth, strengthening the infrastructure of charter schools, and adult day health dementia. Several longitudinal studies - intended to provide a solid, long-term perspective on service effectiveness - will continue and/or offer results during 2007, including the First Steps Initiative, Project Early K, The Power of YOU, Destination 2010, and Cargill Scholars. Our Homeless Management Information System has now reached the point where we can establish some baseline measures to be used over time.

Well, that's just a portion of the anticipated activities. If you have suggestions or questions, please get in touch. If you want to collaborate with us, let us know that too.

Relax, celebrate the new year, watch college football, or do whatever you enjoy today. Then, let's keep on working, exploring, and acting on these issues tomorrow!

Happy New Year!