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!