Monday, January 18, 2010

The "Love" That King Inspires

This morning, the Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery recalled in his keynote speech at the Martin Luther King Holiday Breakfast that Dr. King was a visionary, crusader, preacher, and revolutionary who could “illuminate the past, understand the present, and envision the future”. King created a dream – a dream that took shape during a time of great awakening for the United States, also a time when violence silenced forward-looking and prophetic voices.

During my junior and senior high school years in New York City, one assassination followed another: John F. Kennedy; Malcolm X; Martin Luther King; and Robert Kennedy (whose death was the major topic of conversation at my graduation ceremony). Many of us of that generation witnessed events which appalled us, yet intensified our resolve and determination to make a difference in the world.

To fulfill the dream of King, Dr. Lowery admonished us to move from “charity” to “love”. Charity is OK; it’s not a bad thing. However, charity is seasonal; love is everlasting. Charity is selective; love is all inclusive. Charity may or may not embrace justice; love always embraces justice. Borrowing from another metaphor, he equated charity with “giving people a fish so they can eat today”. Love, he equated with “teaching people how to fish”. However, he went even further, to indicate that love entails not just building people’s skills so that they can sustain themselves; it also involves addressing systemic issues – “checking the water to make sure it’s clean enough for fish to thrive”, and preventing pollution from occurring in the first place.

Poverty, pollution, economic decline, disparities – the list of structural issues in our society could continue. For us, what’s important is the understanding that we can and should extend a hand to help people with their immediate needs. However, we need to move beyond that charitable endeavor to change systems, policies, and institutions which constrain people’s initiative, no matter how capable they might be and no matter how hard they might try. We need to understand and improve the social determinants of health and well-being.

At Wilder, we’ve acknowledged that improving our community requires attention to immediate needs (mostly through services that we provide). We have recognized as well that we must attend to larger, systemic conditions (mostly through our research and leadership activities). That’s the complete approach – which acts earnestly to achieve the “love” which Lowery recommends and which Dr. King inspires.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

More Food Stamp Use + More Wall Street Bonuses = A Threatening Mixture of Ingredients

As you shop for groceries or eat your next meal, consider this:

  • About one in eight U.S. residents receives food stamps.
  • About six million people nationally have no other source of income except food stamps.
  • In Minnesota, the average monthly number of people receiving food stamps rose every year from 2002 to 2008. (When final numbers appear for 2009, I suspect we will see an increase as well.)
  • More than 40,000 Minnesotans may be living on no income other than food stamps, according to information reported by MinnPost from the Department of Human Services.
  • In Minnesota, about one in 12 people lives below the poverty line; in the U.S. as a whole, it’s about one in 8.

People with no income other than food stamps comprise the extreme tip of a larger iceberg created by the current economy. As profiled in the January 3 Sunday New York Times, many of them dropped suddenly into this situation from middle class lifestyles, as a result of losing jobs that had paid decent wages. In the current difficult economic environment, everyone knows someone out of work.

A public official opined something to the effect that providing food stamps and similar benefits indefinitely might foster reliance on the government welfare system. While I’m always open to new findings which will shape my opinions, I have to say that, so far, no evidence has come to my attention to indicate that people who receive food stamps, who have no cash income, and who double up with relatives or live in a shelter develop a liking for that condition.

Our economic challenges will not disappear soon. The Department of Labor reports that the downward trend in jobs continues; nationally, 85,000 disappeared in December. We have an unemployment rate at about 10%; and the underemployment rate, which includes people who gave up looking for work as well as people who took part time jobs to replace fulltime positions – could be 17% or more. No trends have yet emerged to indicate that the “stimulus” has had a major impact.

In the short term, concern and compassion for the less fortunate must motivate us to meet the immediate needs of those in our community. (Lack of effort or determination has not caused people to find themselves in bad economic circumstances. Many have led honest, hard-working lives, only to have their livelihoods destroyed by circumstances outside of their control, precipitated by people who were not so honest.) In the long term, we must collaborate with others around the nation and the world on issues such as economic development and the distribution of natural resources to needy nations – if we want to eliminate the underlying conditions that produce poor health, human suffering, and social deterioration, not to mention the breeding of terrorism.

National and local recovery from the current economic hardships will require all of us to contribute; it will require all of us to tighten our belts. Which leads me to other facts which have astounded the public recently.

As you examine your next paycheck, consider this:

  • Goldman Sachs is expected to pay its employees an average of about $595,000 apiece for 2009.
  • Workers in the investment bank of JP Morgan Chase will receive an average of about $463,000.

Corporate executives – some of them the same people responsible for causing the banking and housing industry problems which have devastated our economy – have now entered “bonus season”. Wall Street traders who created derivatives – they will receive big bonuses. Wall Street traders who bundled mortgages into “collateralized debt obligations”, sold them to investors, but then bet against them behind the scenes so the traders would profit when the investors lost – they will receive bonuses.

Again, I’m always open to new facts that will shape my opinions, but I have not seen any evidence that large salaries and bonuses for Wall Street executives, or huge rewards for dishonest traders, stimulate or nurture the democratic, capitalist system that we value.

Meanwhile the news amuses us with stories of NBC’s dispute with two talk show hosts, Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno, who together earn $50 million plus per year.

People living on nothing but food stamps, others making millions. How long do we think that our communities can survive unless we address the issue of poverty among some in the midst of such great abundance among others?

(To examine trend and background information related to these issues, see for example: Twin Cities Compass; New York Times; MinnPost. Food Support (Food Stamp) trends for Minnesota appear in the Quarterly Economic Pulse. )

Friday, January 01, 2010

A New Year at Wilder Research

10 years ago, we feared we might wake up to Y2K havoc. As we transition to the teens, what do we call the first decade of the 21st century? The “ones”? The “Os”? “The aughts”?

Whatever we call them, the opening years of this century did not bring Y2K, but they did bring many other challenges and opportunities. At Wilder Research, we look forward to continuing to collaborate with you to take full advantage of the skills and reputation we have gained through the long legacy of Wilder’s community-oriented research, along with the current resources which the Foundation can dedicate to meeting needs and improving our community.

The Board of the Wilder Foundation has decided that Wilder will focus on:

  • Children and Families
  • The Elderly
  • Community Research and Leadership

In establishing that third focus, the Board formally acknowledged something very significant: Meeting the needs of vulnerable people and others who need assistance, along with promoting the quality of life for all of us and preventing problems before they occur, cannot be accomplished solely by providing direct services. We, as a community, do not have the combination of resources, systems, organizations, and services to satisfy the duty we feel as a result of the compassionate, caring values which we share.

So, at Wilder Research, we take Community Research and Leadership very seriously. Over the coming years, we will continue to dedicate the efforts of our 80+ staff to work with you to identify how we can have more impact with limited resources. What can our communities do better? What can our nonprofit organizations do better? What can government do better? Let’s determine this, and take steps to implement worthwhile improvements.

We hope to bring people together and empower them to care for others, to build better organizations and communities, and to create new ways of thinking and new policies that will improve everyone’s quality of life. “Leadership” does not mean that the Wilder Foundation or Wilder Research has all the answers, knows the best direction to pursue, or expects to dictate anything to others. It does mean that, as a foundation, we have an obligation to stimulate, enlighten, and engage people in ways that human service delivery organizations and government cannot. We can put the best interests of our metro area in the forefront and act in a nonpartisan way to bring together people of all types and perspectives in literally hundreds of small efforts and large initiatives – to foster positive change.

Research has historically led individuals and communities to consider new options, to think in new ways. Wilder’s Community Research activities began in the teens of the 20th century. We are the oldest existing part of the Foundation. Heightened emphasis on Community Research and Leadership, during the teens of the 21st century carries out the intent of our founders and gives our community a precious resource for ongoing improvement of our well-being.

Again, we look forward to all we can do with and for you during the years ahead.

Happy New Year!