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!