Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas and Research

Searching the web for “Christmas” and “research” (Why would I do that?), as I drink some Christmas tea and munch on Christmas cookies. The search evinces some very disparate types of connections between the two terms. So, I bring you these tidings*:

Tim Kasser and Kennon Sheldon, in their 2002 article “What Makes for Merry Christmas?”, in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, that’s a, peer-reviewed social science journal) wrote: “Despite the prominent and recurring place that Christmas holds in many people’s lives, there is surprisingly little empirical research about the season. Consumer research has provided interesting analyses of its myths, movies, and media messages…, sociology has examined gift-giving rituals…, and anthropology has investigated meanings of the holiday in various cultures. Within the field of psychology, what literature exists on Christmas mostly concerns whether psychiatric admissions… and suicide rates… increase during the season. Surprisingly, we were unable to find any quantitative empirical studies that have endeavored to understand the experiences and qualities which are associated with happiness during Christmas.”

One of their conclusions, based on a review of the studies they could find: “the materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may undermine well-being, while family and spiritual activities may help people to feel more satisfied.” Good news, I suppose for those who celebrate Christmas.

They also stated something else about the history of Christmas in America, which, if true, surprised me (and doesn’t it have to be true if it appears in a scientific journal?): “The Christmas holiday has evolved from an event banned in some American colonies to one that dominates the month of December.” (I hadn’t realized that some early colonists banned Christmas.)

The search brought up Penn State University as the third item – fortunately, for something other than the sex abuse scandal there: “The Schatz Center has a large Christmas tree tissue culture research program that benefits from access to walk in environmental growth rooms designed specifically for plant tissue culture in the Biotechnology Institute.” Seriously, the preeminence of football can sometimes cause us to forget that, as the NCAA reminds us in their advertising, “most college atheletes enter careers other than sports.”

Actually, Christmas tree research is a much bigger deal than I ever knew.  At New Mexico State University, "The Christmas Tree Research Program is the longest running program at the (Mora Research) Center. In addition to screening provenances of many native and non-native commercial Christmas tree species, this program played an instrumental role in introducing eldarica pine (Pinus brutia var. eldarica)to New Mexico. Work on both genetics and plantation management has resulted in the shortening of rotation ages of many Christmas tree species in some cases by more than 50%.” Good news for the Christmas tree industry, I suppose.

Abramitzky and colleagues, in The Economic Journal (2010), assessed: “Is Hanukkah Responsive to Christmas?” They state: “We use individual-level survey and county-level expenditure data to examine the extent to which Hanukkah celebrations among US Jews are driven by the presence of Christmas. We document that Jews with young children are more likely to celebrate Hanukkah, that this effect is greater for reform Jews and for strongly-identified Jews, and that Jewish-related expenditure on Hanukkah is higher in counties with lower shares of Jews. All these findings are consistent with the hypothesis that celebration of religious holidays is designed not only for worship and enjoyment but also to provide a counterbalance for children against competing cultural influences.”

Unfortunately, researchers at New York University (my alma mater) reported problems with an evaluation study of something called the “Christmas Gifts Aid Program”, such as: “Lack of Rigorous Methodology: Regrettably, this evaluation had to proceed without the required Randomized Controlled Trial on Christmas Gifts, which failed to be completed as planned. Project managers did a poor job explaining the advantages of RCT participation to the Control Group. Lack of Targeting: The Christmas Gifts aid program was not sufficiently well-targeted to the poor.  Recipients of Christmas Gifts indiscriminately included well-off regions, groups, genders, and individuals. Lack of Net Flows: Evaluators found Christmas Gift recipients engaged in behavior that frustrated the aid program, with Recipients acting as Donors to their own Donors, reducing their own net aid intake. They explained their counterproductive behavior with non-standard concepts such as “Tis more bless’d to give than to receive.”" I’m not sure I fully understand what that means, but it is sad, isn’t it?

Emory University’s Theology Library has a resource page: “In response to annual requests for information about the origin and celebration of Christmas, we've compiled this resource page. The works cited range from scholarly folklore studies to popular commentaries on modern observances.” A worthwhile reference, if you seek that information. Similarly, the Baylor University library web site “Provides some links to traditions, food, and crafts; international in focus.”

Sam Houston University is planning new research efforts in the Christmas Mountains. No relation to the holiday, of course, but if their research on climate change pays off, it might be a present for all of us.

In any case, I’ll continue to eat my cookies, drink tea, wear my Charlie Brown Santa Claus tie, and enjoy the season. Merry Christmas to you; enjoy the holidays!

*The Merriam-Webster Dictionary “word of the day” for December 25, 2011, meaning “news”.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Crowd Science, for Improving Our Communities

“Crowd science” has entered the realms of physics, biology, classical studies, and the applied social research we do here in Saint Paul.

Crowd science? The term refers to the increasingly common practice in which people pool information which they have gathered independently, and then have access to all of the information which they and others have supplied. As a group, they can develop new understanding and produce products that they never could have produced by working in isolation. In astronomy, for example, far too many galaxies and stars exist for any one individual to observe and analyze. So, the field has shifted dramatically from individual astronomers sitting at their telescopes writing up their discoveries, to networks of astronomers who share their information in a common database which all can use.

Crowd science can involve networks comprised solely of professional scientists. It can also involve mixtures of scientists and the general public, or even just the public alone. A November 20 article in the Pioneer Press described how papyrologists (a new word for me), who had struggled for years to unlock the secrets contained in ancient papyrus documents, moved rapidly forward after devising a clever and innovative way to obtain the assistance of the public – who did not need to know classical languages – in the identification of images on the ancient texts.

Minnesota Compass illustrates these principles. No single entity can possibly gather all the data necessary for understanding communities’ quality of life with respect to health, housing, education, workforce, and other critical dimensions. However, after organizations specializing in these topics have independently gathered information, Compass can compile it and make it accessible in one common location. Moreover, Compass can and does not only summarize trends and report them in summary graphs; it also enables access to raw data, so that everyone from an academic researcher to an amateur neighborhood social scientist can play with those data from all angles and make their own discoveries.

The Minnesota Department of Health, with its Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) initiative, created a version of crowd science, in which Wilder Research energetically participated. SHIP involved the funding and development of programs throughout the state, intended to help Minnesotans live longer, healthier lives by reducing the burden of chronic disease. The effort included creation of a system for evaluation of those programs. Information on results from each site can therefore accrete in a common data base, so that we can learn more from collaborative data sharing than we could learn from solely independent review of each site’s results. Wilder Research staff worked with a variety of sites in the metro area and in greater Minnesota, and we look forward to seeing how this crowd science endeavor can produce tangible outcomes in improving everyone’s health!

A good example of moving crowd science from information-gathering to action occurred in our recently completed planning year for the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood. In that effort, we had six “solution action groups” who worked in parallel over a period of six months. Each group focused on the developmental needs of young people, in a different segment of life from birth to post secondary education. They requested and reviewed information; they brought into discussion their observations and insights based on their experience and the events in their own segments of the community. At the end of the process, we blended the independent work of the six task forces to create a cohesive whole, a community-based plan that addresses the life span of the neighborhood’s residents, from prenatal to young adulthood.

In this Information Age, knowledge constitutes power. Harnessing information to create knowledge requires bold, innovative, cost-effective approaches (just like harnessing the power of the sun to create solar power). Crowd science offers one new tool for harnessing information – enabling humans, individually and collectively, to do their part, supported by modern information technology.

In addition, crowd science offers the opportunity to reduce one type of disparity that has existed throughout history. As the Pioneer Press commentator noted, crowd science “may accomplish something else: breaking down some of the old divisions between the highly educated mandarins of the academy and the curious amateurs out in the world.” (Will the committed staff of Wilder Research – inhabitants of the arcane world of social science – lose our jobs if anyone can now draw “scientific” conclusions? Not at all. Our roles will evolve in an exhilarating way. More than ever, people who want to use information will require reliable sources of trustable information; they will need a system that makes that information easily and cheaply available (so that equal access exists and multiple perspectives can figure into interpretation of information); they will need coaching and advice on how to interpret that information; and to obtain responses to certain types of questions, they will always require help from experienced professionals.)

Crowd science: It’s modern, democratic, practical, and effective. We’re excited to play our part in many such efforts, present and future, because crowd science, coupled with collaborative action, will enable us to move our communities forward.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thankfulness in an Adverse World

Should we give thanks this Thanksgiving? Unfortunately, my job often confronts me with reasons to despair, including some of the economic trends in our communities and the seeming inability of our political leaders to work cooperatively. On this uniquely American holiday, can we summon up any hope and express our thanks unconditionally for anything?

I become disenchanted – perhaps the word, disgusted, serves better – with those politicians who refuse to compromise and reach agreements that will benefit all of us, in tough times when we all need to sacrifice our pet projects and issues. Of course, each side can document, probably back to the time of George Washington, how the other side did something that caused today’s problems and which can’t be undone. That attitude of blame, rather than a “can do” attitude, demoralizes.

But then I’m thankful for living in a democracy.  I’ve spent time living in a society where people could not vote for their legislators; “political decisions” too often emerged from violence or threats of violence.  I’ve watched on TV the turmoil in the Middle East, where people put their lives on the line to achieve rights that we take for granted in the United States.  This makes me thankful to live where I do.

I worry about several trends that threaten the long-term wellbeing of our communities and the standing of our nation as a whole:
  • The increasing disparities nationally and worldwide between different social classes, people of different races, and other groups
  • The fastest growing segment of our population in this country seeming to fall farther behind in readiness for school at age 5 and competence for college or career at age 18
  • The effects of the recession on all of us, except perhaps the billionaires, who find ourselves in a struggling situation

But then I’m thankful for the growing network of people in this country – some of whom I have the privilege to work with – who recognize that the achievement gap, health disparities, and other emerging issues pose a threat to the greatness and vitality of our nation and who want to move forward with zeal and a common vision.

I guess I’m a deep-seated optimist; adversity won’t deter me. I hope that you are too. I hope you can give thanks, whether to your God, to Mother Earth, to Humanity, or whatever, because despite the trends, we have a lot to build on if we act with good intention and respect for all.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 21, 2011

What is the "real" poverty rate?

A single person, living alone, with earnings from employment totaling $10,000 falls below the United States poverty threshold ($10,890 for a one person household in 2011). The Census Bureau classifies that person as “in poverty.”  But what if he or she receives government benefits, such as health care, with a value of $5,000 or more per year?  Should he or she still fall into the “poverty” category?

And what about those families just above the poverty line who, because of out-of-pocket health care costs or child care spending, actually have fewer resources left than those formally classified as “in poverty”?

These are more than just academic questions. Calculating poverty in an accurate, and meaningful, way enables us, first of all, to accurately describe the well-being of our communities. It enables us to understand levels of need and to identify groups with higher than average risks of poor health, poor nutrition, poor academic achievement, and lower life expectancy. Beyond that, however, an accurate calculation of poverty enables us to analyze the effectiveness of programs we have put into place to promote economic development and to protect the vulnerable.

The poverty rate has served, since 1965, as the official yardstick for measuring how many people live in the worst economic straits in the United States. No major changes have occurred in its formula, despite some issues regarding its validity, such as:

·         The original formula does not include non-monetary resources in calculating whether a household falls below the poverty line (the example above). This occurred, in part, because many of the benefits programs we now have in this country had not evolved to their current level in the 1960s.

·         The original formula made reasonable assumptions for the 1960s regarding the proportions of a “minimum needs” household budget required for food, housing and other expenses. (The amount of income necessary to be “above poverty” was calculated by taking the average cost for a minimum diet and multiplying that number by 3.)  However, with changes over five decades in the relative costs of food, housing, health care, transportation, etc., should the Census Bureau revise those proportions?

·         What about taxes?  If a household has a gross income above the poverty threshold, but after taxes, it slips below the federal poverty threshold, should the people in that household fall into the “in poverty” category?

To address the poverty measure issues, Congress appropriated money, in the 1990s, to study the accuracy of the poverty measure, and the National Academy of Sciences formed a task force for that purpose.  The task force confirmed the alleged weaknesses of the measure, and it proposed a new, supplemental measure based on a formula which, among other things:

  •  Improved the definition of who is included and excluded in a household when determining whether or not that household is “in poverty.”
  • Added the value of government-provided benefits to a household’s income (including in the calculation of total household resources both monetary income and also the value of “near-money benefits” such as nutritional assistance, subsidized housing, and home energy assistance).
  • Subtracted from a household’s total resources the taxes (income, Social Security, etc.) which it pays.
  • Uses numbers and ratios that better reflect contemporary costs, to calculate poverty thresholds for households of different types and sizes.

So, what does this all mean? How does it change anything? Why is this formula just supplemental to and not replacing the original formula? 

Compared to the current official measure, the new measure reduces the number of children in poverty; but increases the number of elderly in poverty.  It shows fewer blacks, but more Asians, in poverty.  The new measure puts more city dwellers and suburbanites, but fewer rural residents, into poverty.  It shows less poverty in the Midwest and the South, but more in the West and the Northeast.  (About half a million fewer people in the Midwest region of the United States fall below the poverty line, according to the new measure.)

With respect to the national total, The New York Times reported that an “alternate census data set quietly published last week said the number of poor people has grown by 4.6 million since 2006, not by 9.7 million as the bureau reported in September.”  The Times also offered the example of the State of North Carolina, in which poverty grew by 250,000+ by the official measure, but stayed flat with the new measure.

Whether, and if so when, the new measure should replace the current official measure is a question with many facets. Changing the measure is not solely an enterprise for economists and statisticians. The official measure has connections to many policies and programs. That means money – the amounts that communities might receive, the amounts that individuals receive through benefits-eligibility. When financial implications enter the picture, nothing ever remains simple! In addition, the implementation of a new measure would require some “education” among all potential users of information who want to track trends: Agreement would have to be reached about how to describe changes from the past to the present and the future, when the rules for measurement have changed.

At Minnesota Compass, we will continue, for the foreseeable future, to report trends based on the current official measure, but when feasible (if Minnesota numbers are available), we will provide some data from the supplemental measure, to round out everyone’s understanding of the true nature of economic conditions within our population.

If interested, take a look at the U.S. Census Bureau report, and/or take a look at what the Minnesota Legislative Commission to End Poverty by 2020 had to say about some of these issues in their report.

Questions or thoughts? Feel free to call!

What do you think – Should the new formula replace the old? What’s best for our communities as we move forward?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Those 100 Objects, and Our Current Measures of Community Well-Being

My blog about the British Museum’s “100 Objects” which define history attracted the interest of a friend who dug a bit deeper and visited the Museum’s web site and then wrote:

“What I found most interesting were not the specific objects per se, but rather the types of objects and categories that the curators used to group them.

The tools of human civilization really haven't changed all that much, aside from technological advances. Currency, weapons, maps...

The categories were interesting to me, because they provide a framework for evaluating the current state of our society:

  • ·         What is the current condition of our cities? (First Cities and States)
  • ·         How is the economy doing? (First Global Economy)
  • ·         What advances have we made in science and literature? This could also be interpreted as advances in public education; are kids learning? (Beginning of Science and Literature)
  • ·         What is the current state of basic needs and food security? (After the Ice Age...)
  • ·         What are we doing to teach tolerance? (Tolerance & Intolerance)
  • ·         What has happened to people’s faith, not only in spiritual leaders, but in our political leaders? (Rise of World Faiths)
  • ·         What are we doing to strengthen our communities; what will be our legacy? (Empire Builders)
  • ·         Who are the next generation of leaders, and who is forging the way? (Pilgrims, Raiders & Traders)
  • ·         What is the impact of status symbols and mass communications on decisions that are made? (Status symbols, Mass Production, and Mass Persuasion)

Thus all leading back to the questions of: What is it that makes us human (Making Us Human), and how can we use our tools to create a world that reflects the best of our humanity? (The World of Our Making)

Perhaps someday, much like trying to crack ancient hieroglyphics, our successors will try to recover information from massive computer servers that tell the story.”

Minnesota Compass tracks directly some of these categories used to classify and describe the course of human history (for example, education and the economy) – in order to understand how we continue (hopefully) to make progress in the 21st century. Our recently launched neighborhood indicators section offers insight into the condition of our cities. Several elements of our work provide tools for understanding and addressing issues of tolerance, of mass persuasion, and of empire building, even though we don’t measure these directly.

In addition, we seek to strengthen our communities by gathering together in meetings and seminars with thousands of people each year and communicating through our website and publications with tens of thousands more. And, at no point in history, more than in this “Information Age”, does there exist a greater need for a solid platform of credible, nonpartisan information, to which people can apply their creativity and act on their values to create a better world for all.

From one’s own little perch looking outward, it might appear that we inhabit a big, complex world. Yet from another perspective, we live on just one very tiny chunk of rock in a universe expanding to infinity. We have a duty to keep that little rock in the best possible condition. The civilization we’ve created on the rock reflects human achievement; perhaps not equaled anywhere else in the vast universe, and perhaps never capable of replication.

Through Minnesota Compass and all of our work at WilderResearch, we want to take the many small steps with our partners that, in combination, will achieve progress for the human race.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Defining Our History and Ourselves (in 100 Objects)

If you wanted to select a set of objects which illustrate how history has shaped us, or perhaps vice versa, what would you choose? What objects, culled from throughout the course of time, define us as humans? What object from the distant past would you place first on the list? What object would you place last, to represent the very present?

The British Museum took on the task, as reported in last Sunday’s New York Times, to “distill the history of the world” and produced a list of 100 objects.

The oldest object of the 100: a stone chopping tool found in Tanzania, considered “the beginning of the tool box”. A bird-shaped pestle, found in New Guinea around 6000-2000 B.C. evoked the comment: “The history of our most modern cereals and vegetables begins around 10,000 years ago…It was a time of newly domesticated animals, powerful gods, dangerous weather, good sex and even better food.” The Rosetta Stone appears on the list, as you might expect, with the comment that “This dreary bit of broken granite has played a starring role in three fascinating and different stories:” … Greek kings … French and British imperial competition across the Middle East … and the “scholarly contest that led to the most famous decipherment in history – the cracking of hieroglyphics.”

What do you think that the 100 or so curators of the British Museum, who spent 4 years on this project, selected as the ultimate object? Think about it; I’ll mention it in a moment.

My favorite (based on the Times article; I still want to read the book) is the credit card. Perhaps nothing epitomizes modern day interconnectedness and globalization better than the curators’ selection of a Visa credit card issued by HSBC. “This particular gold card is issued by the London-based bank called HSBC, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. It functions through the backing of the United States-based credit association, Visa, and has on it writing in Arabic – it is in short connected to the whole world, part of a global financial system, backed by a complex electronic superstructure that many of us barely think about.”

That says a lot about why we must address local and regional issues within the context of our worldwide social and economic interdependencies.

I liked the comment about a two-inch-square ivory label once attached to the sandals of the Egyptian pharaoh, King Den. “The nearest modern equivalent I can think of to this label is the ID card that people working in an office now have to wear round their necks to get past the security checks.” The Head of Ife, from Nigeria A.D. 1400-1500 is striking. “It is one of a group of 13 heads, superbly cast in brass, all discovered in 1938 in the grounds of a royal palace in Ife, Nigeria, which astonished the world with their beauty. They were immediately recognized as supreme documents of a culture that had left no written record, and they embody the history of an African kingdom that was one of the most advanced and urbanized of its day.” A North American Otter Pipe (Ohio, 200 B.C.-A.D. 100) juxtaposed modern values with the earlier development of civilization: “Although smoking is now largely seen as a fatal vice, 2000 years ago in North America pipe smoking was a fundamental ceremonial and religious part of human life. Different groups of Native Americans lived across the continent, in ways much more varied than Hollywood westerns would suggest. Those Americans living in middle America – the lands around the mighty Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, from the gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes – were farmers.”

So, what appears last on the list, to reflect 2010?

As the Times reported: “a plastic, solar-powered light about the size of a coffee mug that came with a charger and cost $45. It can illuminate an entire room, enough to change the lives of a family with no electricity. ‘It is a transformative object, one that sets people free,’ Mr. MacGregor said. ‘Once they have access to solar power, they have access to the Internet, then they have access to the world of knowledge.’”

Very true, with profound implications.

So, take a look at the article in the Times, if you can.  Read the book.  Then, think:  What would you select?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Say It Ain't So, Beverly -- Because Misusing Data Cheats Our Students

Widespread cheating occurred in the Atlanta school system.  Principals and teachers changed students’ answers on tests, so that their schools’ overall performance would look better.  Some whistleblowers claim that the district terminated them for their honesty.

It’s shocking. The misbehavior of school district staff lasted probably ten years. Cheating occurred in 44 of 56 schools examined by investigators, who identified 178 teachers and principals as participants in the cheating.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported: “Superintendent Beverly Hall and her top aides ignored, buried, destroyed or altered complaints about misconduct, claimed ignorance of wrongdoing and accused naysayers of failing to believe in poor children’s ability to learn.”

These school district employees did not just cheat the system, in a misguided effort to artificially create a good image or to earn a higher bonus. They cheated the children.

A great disappointment. I had admired the Atlanta superintendent, Beverly Hall; in fact, I visited her district and spoke with her personally. She expressed an outcomes-oriented approach. She believed that all staff, from the superintendent, to the classroom teacher, to the cafeteria aide and the bus driver, must understand the part they play in the education of a child, in order for the whole system to be effective.

Described in the New York Times as, a “Jamaican-born graduate of Fordham University’s doctoral program, who began teaching in some of New York’s toughest classrooms”, she established a presence in Atlanta as a “forceful, erudite and data-driven superintendent”.

Beverly Hall stressed the importance of using data. She emphasized focusing on objective measures of whether students can read and write. Yet, for whatever reason, she drifted. The investigators concluded: “What has become clear through our investigation is that ultimately, the data, and meeting ‘targets’ by whatever means necessary, became more important than true academic progress.”

Beverly Hall lost sight of the mission of the public schools. She failed as a leader.  She left her post under a cloud of suspicion, if not in disgrace, in a city that, at one time according to the Times, “considered her a savior”.

However, I strongly caution against misinterpreting the events in Atlanta and concluding that we should not strive to achieve clearly defined outcomes and/or that we should not measure academic performance accurately and objectively.  When new test scores appear each year, controversy frequently erupts over whether and how to use the scores (e.g., whether underperforming schools should be publicly identified, whether No Child Left Behind offers an effective approach, etc.) We can’t let these controversies over the use of data obscure the fact that we need good data in order to improve the lives of our children.

Making organizations effective, transforming them to increase their impact, stimulating innovation – all these require good, sound data.  Assisting a child to do better academically, improving the performance of a school, eliminating the achievement gap in an entire community – these all require good, sound data too.

But data simply offer a tool. Like any tool, data (including academic test measures) can be used wisely and appropriately, or ignorantly and inappropriately. Sound data are one, but only one, necessary ingredient in the success of schools and other organizations.

I know a fourth-grade teacher in an urban school district who, on the first day of class each year, had many students arrive who could perform only at a first or second grade level. By the end of the year, she could bring some of them all the way up to fourth-grade achievement standards, but some only to second or third grade standards.  Was she rewarded for all of those she advanced, or only for those who rose to fourth-grade standards?  Unfortunately, the latter – which was very discouraging for someone with a dedication to teaching, along with the energy and competence to teach well.  However, we can’t blame academic testing.  The problem is not that the school district tested and measured performance; the problem is that district administrators often lack the wisdom and ingenuity to create a system that uses data wisely and that rewards teachers for fostering academic success, not just for the extent to which they elevate test scores to some unrealistic threshold.

The Atlanta Public Schools lacked genuine leadership.  The Atlanta Public Schools used data inappropriately.  Again from the report:  “Data can be properly used as a tool to assess academic progress. But data can also be used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish classroom teachers and principals or as a pretext to termination. After hundreds of interviews, it has become clear that Dr. Hall and her staff used data as a way to exert oppressive pressure to meet targets.”

"This unfortunate incident highlights the need for transparency and accountability throughout our education system," stated Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  "Having good information to measure student progress is an absolute bedrock requirement in ensuring that schools are preparing our children for success."

With sound information about children’s academic progress, along with information about other aspects of their lives, we can empower school staff; we can empower parents; we can empower communities. We can stimulate creativity as teams of staff seek to improve outcomes over time and as they receive positive reinforcement for innovations that increase success.  We can raise awareness in our communities about what needs to be done, and provide a yardstick to understand our progress in improving the education of our precious, young, community members.

Geoffrey Canada, a pioneer in educational reform and someone I have also spoken with personally on a few occasions, has stated in various ways that, when he attends a presentation on the effectiveness of an educational program, “the longer it takes them to get to the data, the worse I know the story will be”. He understands the importance of good measurement, but he creates at the Harlem Children’s Zone a culture in which measurement occurs to inform, to simulate new ideas for increasing the rate of success, and to praise accomplishments.

At Wilder Research, we enjoy empowering communities, empowering schools, empowering organizations – to achieve all that they can imagine, and more, through the effective use of sound research and high quality data.  We live in an information world; let’s treat information as we would any valuable resource and use it wisely and appropriately to improve our quality of life.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Thinking and Acting Globally and Locally: Minnesota's Cities and Our Quality of Life

“ 'The world isn’t flat,' writes Edward Glaeser, 'it’s paved.' At any rate, most of the places where people prefer to dwell are paved. More than half of humanity now lives in cities... "

So begins a review of a new book about cities.*

Cities have, for thousands of years, constituted for us humans major centers for the production of goods and services, for commerce and finance, and for the development of human thought through institutions of learning and through media. Not to mention the opportunities which cities have offered for cultural amalgamation – the blending of traditions, beliefs, political views – and for the appreciation of many fine and exotic foods!

Despite globalization, what happens in our immediate communities often matters the most to people. And it should – as long as we continually view local events in the larger contexts of our region, our state, our nation, our world. “Think globally, act locally.” has become almost banal. However, let’s not discard it. Let’s revise that expression in a way to inspire us to realize that, in this globalized world, we need to think both locally and globally and to act both locally and globally. What we do in our locality affects others throughout the world; what others do in their localities affects us – not just in the short term, but in the long term as well.

What trends are most important right now, in Minneapolis, or Burnsville, or Duluth, or Moorhead, or Owatonna? Perhaps the employment rate? What about the poverty rate? Or the crime rate? It’s a trick question, of course. All have importance for the future of our population. We must address each, and our approach must include local, national, and global action.

How do the various levels, from local to global, interact? And what difference does it make, if we want to improve our quality of life?

Take the environment, for example. If we don’t address global warming – a remote, hard-to-understand concept for most of us – life will become so difficult and hard to manage on the local level that none of our efforts to improve our communities socially and economically will have any chance of success. (We may not find ourselves in the position of The Maldives, a nation with a high probability of disappearing during the next 100 years, due to rising sea levels, but our situation will differ radically from the present because of climate changes local and global.) So, local decisions to build up (in cities), not out (in suburbs and rural areas), for example, can, if wisely made, help both to improve local housing conditions and to ameliorate adverse climate conditions in the long term.

For one more, take jobs. Our best-laid plans for local jobs development will reach a futile end, if our country does not resolve its debt crisis. That does not simply mean making a decision about the debt ceiling. It means the creation of a new consciousness among elected officials nationally regarding how we move forward with entitlement programs, defense spending, and the government bureaucracy. Without that consciousness, along with a new framework for government spending, the currently leaking ship, which is the U.S. national economy, will sink. Quality of life indicators will sink as well.

The issue of raising taxes and/or cutting spending is a discussion for another time. Regardless of what we do, we must nurture local investment and entrepreneurial talent while simultaneously creating national and global policies and conditions that will enable local enterprise to succeed. Thinking and acting globally and locally.

Our Minnesota Compass quality-of-life project now tracks trends at the state, region, county levels, and when possible, at the city-level (populations of 20,000+). Those of us who want to push for local progress can use Compass to examine trends at all levels. To view geographic profiles, go to and click on your region of the map.

* Review in The Economist, February 10, 2011, of the book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier. By Edward Glaeser.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood Moving Forward

Hard work by hundreds of people, has brought our Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood planning close to the finish line. Now, an announcement by the U.S. Department of Education offers us the opportunity to apply for funding that will enable us to substantially boost our efforts to implement that plan and fulfill our dream to organize an effective network of partners who will work in concert to ensure that every Promise Neighborhood child thrives from cradle to career.

The 250 block Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood has more than 20,000 residents; about 7,200 are children. About half of the households with children have annual incomes of less than $18,000 per year. Among children in grades 3 through 10, about 40 percent perform at grade level in English and math. Just 58 percent of Promise Neighborhood children graduate on time from high school. So, it’s a good place to work to increase educational achievement, although not just because it has plenty of room for improvement. The Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood has many residents who are committed to the success of the neighborhood’s children and who appreciate the advantages of a diverse, centrally-located urban neighborhood, for raising children.

Most parents in the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood believe that their children can receive a quality education in the Saint Paul Public Schools. Four out of five feel that their child is safe at school and in getting to and from school. However, about half of parents feel that they lack enough information about out-of-school-time opportunities and about opportunities for post-secondary education for their children. Many do not spend the recommended amount of time reading with their elementary-aged child; they need to figure out how to do so.

Those are just a few tidbits of the volume of information we gathered about the Promise Neighborhood. They illustrate the definite need in the neighborhood, to improve academic performance, but also the confidence, interest, and strength of parents who want to promote academic success, but need information or assistance to accomplish that.

As we move forward, Wilder is honored to serve for the first two to three years as the sponsoring organization for the initiative, at the request of the Promise Neighborhood Advisory Board. The planning year has included active collaboration among the City of Saint Paul, Ramsey County, the Saint Paul Public Schools, the YWCA, the Saint Paul Public Schools Foundation, the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, and the Children’s Collaborative. In the past couple of weeks, more than 30 groups and organizations have expressed a strong interest in joining the collaboration. That number will grow. This offers us a wonderful opportunity to make progress, and to build a continuum of support and encouragement for children from birth to college and beyond.

What are some hallmarks of this planning year? I would note two which make me proud.

We can be proud of the community participation which this year included. Two resident committees began their work in August of 2010, to help with project design. An Advisory Board, which includes neighborhood residents and the leaders of the City of Saint Paul, Ramsey County, and Saint Paul Public Schools met monthly, to oversee the project, and will meet weekly in August to complete our new proposal to the federal government. The community survey ensured that we had a comprehensive picture of the neighborhood’s children and their families – from parents’ own points of view. Two, large community meetings have also offered residents the opportunity to provide input. Our Solution Action Groups – six task forces of residents and providers who considered all the possibilities for effectively reaching children, to serve them and their families – have finished their work. They have made recommendations which will guide further Promise Neighborhood efforts in the neighborhood.

We can also be proud of the great data we produced, to enable residents and policy makers to understand the neighborhood. The community survey conducted by Wilder Research provided a scientifically valid sampling of parents in the neighborhood, including interviews with both English and non-English speaking parents. Many cities do not have the capacity to gather such rich information.. In addition, our work this year put a new system in place to track the results of the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood – so we know whether we make progress.

Thanks for your interest. Stay tuned – and join us, if you can!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Preschool - More Evidence of Benefits

Preschool – it has very positive effects, not just for children, but for all of us.

Newly released research has documented the long term effects of preschool involvement. Let’s keep this in mind, as we work to improve our communities, build the capacity of our workforce, and overcome significant challenges to effective education of our young people of today.

A research team, headed locally by Professor Arthur Reynolds at the University of Minnesota delivered more results from a long-term study of preschool children in Chicago. They reported on indicators of well-being up to 25 years after preschool attendance for more than 1400 study participants. Evidence established a link between preschool attendance and: higher educational attainment; higher income; better socioeconomic status; and increased health insurance coverage, as well as lower rates of justice-system involvement and less substance abuse.

This work adds to a body of research evidence that suggests the value of preschool for promoting educational attainment and improving social development among young people. It also offers evidence of the cost/benefit of preschool. As the Pioneer Press reported, “The average cost per child for 18 months of preschool is $9,000, but Reynolds’ cost-benefit analysis suggests that leads to at least $90,000 in benefits per child…”

Unfortunately, at present, nothing ensures that all children will take part in preschool education, and even if they do, nothing ensures that it will have the necessary quality to produce the strong effects noted in the research.

At Wilder Research, we have a number of initiatives addressing early childhood; we work in collaboration with many colleagues who want to promote the use of the most effective (and cost/beneficial) approaches to improving the early education of young children. We hope that our work will increase awareness and help to guide policy choices that will promote high quality early education. Even if we can’t increase resources for our youngest community members, we can use those resources in ways that will maximize positive impacts.

Our insightful friend, the economist Art Rolnick, has noted that investment in human capital must occur in order for economic development to occur, and that high quality preschool education may perhaps constitute the most impactful investment in human capital that we can make.

Stay in touch; let me know your thoughts….

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Nonprofit Organizations and Innovation

Nonprofit organizations have a high proportion of “disenfranchised” staff – according to research by Forrester Research, reported in the book, Empowered by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler. Conversely, nonprofits rank low on staff who feel “empowered” and “act resourceful.”As a result, they do not extend boundaries to create and promote new ways of doing things; they do not innovate. Their ability to transform operations to produce greater community impact is close to nil.

Their study looked at “information workers” – anyone who uses a computer – which, in most nonprofits, constitutes the majority of staff, and virtually all staff in key positions related to management and to customer (client) service.

These findings, along with the assertions by Bernoff and Schadler, should trouble us at a time when we, in the public and nonprofit sectors, feel pressured to create new solutions that will enable us to do more with less. Most of us would like to see an increase in fruitful innovation in nonprofits. Bernoff and Schadler would contend that, to increase innovation, we must create more organizational HEROes – highly empowered and resourceful operatives. These are staff who can move an organization forward, meeting the mission, increasing the effectiveness of services for the people served, and enlarging the impact of the organization in its community. To suggest how the thinking of these authors might increase the number of nonprofit HEROes, I would highlight a few principles:

1. Fail frequently. With more than 30 years of experience working in nonprofit organizations, I know that, on average, nonprofits have an overwhelming fear of failure. Nonprofit leaders typically suspect that to fail at something means they will lose grant funds or lose donors or lose clients or trigger a compliance audit – or, if nothing else, that failure will hurt someone’s feelings. Yet successful businesses – and successful nonprofits (as, for example, the Harlem Children’s Zone appears to be so far) – acknowledge, accept, and learn from failure. They will describe it, sometimes joke about it, and use it to inspire further searching for effective innovation. Failing nurtures growing; failure to fail stunts growth.

2. Transform IT departments and other corporate and central administrative departments from NO- sayers into valued coaches and supporters of innovation. Organizations where front-line staff are encouraged to “do it themselves” and where staff have the autonomy to create their own solutions – Best Buy’s Blue Shirt Nation stands as one of the best examples – develop an adaptive advantage for serving customers and growing.

3. Make certain that management culture truly supports innovation that increases community impact. Virtually all nonprofit managers state that they want innovation. Some nurture creativity that leads to better services and better outcomes. However, despite good intentions and statements supportive of change, managers’ behaviors frequently do not reinforce innovation. Managerial bureaucracies can create so many levels of review that staff become disillusioned about trying to suggest a new idea. Managers sometimes place risk above all other considerations when presented with a new idea – which inevitably leads to rejecting many great ideas, because all great new ideas have a large amount of risk.

4. Celebrate attempts at innovation, no matter what their level of success. People need to feel encouraged for bringing up new approaches. Some new ideas will make a huge difference in operations and results; others will make only a tiny difference. Some, as we noted, will fail. Regardless, people have put time and energy into creating them. Occasionally, they have placed their reputations on the line. If we want staff to return with more ideas, we must reinforce their enthusiasm for improvement.

The authors note the difficulty of installing principles such as these in organizations. Enabling employees to do things on their own can seem unnatural; it can feel “like a virus invading the body.” However, not to support such empowerment can greatly limit an organization’s capacity to achieve what it has the mission to achieve.

Increasingly, the solutions to the issues faced in our communities require collaboration among individuals and organizations. Increasingly, the solutions require engagement with community members, joint problem-solving, and the creation of new approaches for community improvement. Nonprofit staff who engage with others must be HEROes, “highly empowered and resourceful operatives.” They must understand the needs, aspirations, and cultures of those with whom they work. They must be able to imagine, create, think on their feet, and make decisions on the fly, with the knowledge that their organizations will support them.

Can we move nonprofit staff from “disenfranchised” to “empowered and resourceful”? I certainly want to support such an effort.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Obesity - A Trend We Should, and Can, Reverse

Imagine: You want to maintain a healthy diet, but you don’t have convenient access to grocery stores that provide a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, or you live and work where it is far easier to eat high calorie, high fat foods than to eat more nutritious alternatives. Regardless of your good intentions, you may gain weight, increase your blood pressure, develop diabetes, and die a premature death. That’s how social, economic, and other environmental factors influence your health.

In February, in collaboration with the InCommons initiative, we convened a gathering of people who want to empower communities to take control of their health. We shared knowledge with one another about the issue, and we specifically looked at three initiatives.

Columbia Heights School District created an “Edible Schoolyard/Outdoor Classroom” to educate students about good nutrition and to provide a welcoming gathering place for students and the community. The Neighborhood Food Project is a grassroots effort to increase access to healthy food in four neighborhoods in Saint Paul: Dayton’s Bluff, Payne-Phalen, Thomas-Dale/Frogtown, and Summit-University. Dakota County Public Health Department – concerned because of a report published by the New England Journal of Medicine stating that, because of obesity, this generation of children could be the first in the history of the United States to live less healthful and shorter lives than their parents – worked with Wilder Research to conduct a series of focus groups with parents and caregivers of preschool children, and then implemented evidence-based programs in over 200 child care centers to improve nutrition and increase physical activity.

InCommons has begun to connect Minnesotans so they can find and share credible tools, knowledge and resources to solve community problems. Lessons learned in one community can become starting points for addressing similar issues in towns and cities elsewhere in the state. Through InCommons, strangers can become powerful allies in support of common endeavors.

The United States ranks above almost all developed countries of the world in rates of obesity for children and adults. These are rapidly increasing. (See ) Addressing obesity (and many other issues) requires community will and engagement, informed by solid information on community trends and on what interventions can work to push those trends in a positive direction. Working together, we can make a difference. I encourage you to join our virtual gathering on InCommons and add your voice to making our communities healthier. Join us at:

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Health Care Policy Development: We can't just call names

In a voice mail last week, a caller stridently informed me that “This is America.” This individual had read comments in my January 1st blog, regarding health care. The caller stated: “You know, a federal judge in Florida just declared Obamacare unconstitutional.” Undoubtedly skilled in political philosophy, he then informed me of his overall conclusion: “This is not socialism; it’s not fascism. This is America.”

Although I had publicly presented my views, the caller, in the true spirit of free speech, remained anonymous and blocked Caller ID.

His narrow-minded, strident approach – laughable in some ways, sad in others – should concern us. The content of his view on health care does not disturb me, nor does his ignorance. Rather, it’s the style of attack, and the infectiousness of this style, especially if fueled by ultra-partisan, fear-mongering political commentators – that’s what’s scary, at a time when we need multi-partisan efforts to overcome significant challenges which our communities face.

His ignorance – we can dispose of that quickly. He failed to understand what the judge actually did. The Florida judge ruled unconstitutional the “individual responsibility” provision of the Affordable Care Act, which compelled the purchase of health insurance; the judge went on to state that this provision seemed so integral to the legislation that the entire act would have to fall. Other federal judges earlier ruled the opposite way, but the caller did not indicate how those rulings fit into his “this is America” thesis.

In fairness to the anonymous caller, I have reservations about requiring people to purchase health insurance. I do understand the logic of the requirement. Given market forces, it makes sense to require the purchase of insurance, in order to lower overall insurance costs for everyone. We’re stuck with that situation for as long as we fail to provide universal coverage for all. Nonetheless, as the Florida judge and at least one other judge have decided, mandating the purchase of health insurance might go too far, no matter how good the mandate’s rationale.

Disturbing, however – for those of us devoted to informing and working with the electorate and public officials, to promote wise public policy – is the caller’s immediate descent to the level of mischaracterization and “name calling” to draw attention away from rational debate over the issues: “If Paul supports health care for everyone, he must be a socialist or a fascist. Let’s marginalize his opinions with some distasteful labels and make sure nobody pays attention to Paul.”

I do not espouse a partisan view on health care. Universal health coverage for all Americans can come in Republican, Democrat, liberal, or conservative dress, for all I care. My goal is to optimize the quality of life for all and to do so in a collaborative, multi-partisan way. With respect to health care, that requires finding a means to ensure that all people in this country can go to sleep at night, comforted in knowing that they have the health coverage they need.

Why is this important? Notwithstanding any ethical opinions we might have regarding whether or not people deserve health care, the fact is that, among the developed nations of the world, we do not look as good as we should on health outcomes. Our rates of obesity and overweight exceed those of almost all other developed countries. People live longer elsewhere, e.g., in several European countries. Because of health care? Not necessarily; research evidence provides mixed findings, at least regarding the past. However, in the U.S., our fastest growing populations have the poorest health outcomes (higher mortality rates, higher diabetes rates, higher obesity rates), and they have the lowest rates of access to health insurance and health care. We must pay attention to this.

My response to the caller: I understand “this is America”. I have concern not about the status quo, and maintaining what is America, but rather about the future, and what will be America. To create the future we want in the 21st century, our debate about issues has to rise above name calling; our progress must include multi-partisan give and take.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Should Martin Luther King Day be a "Holiday"?

Depending on your definition of "holiday", maybe not.

For about 10 of the past 20 years, I've started Martin Luther King Day early, with the privilege of attending the annual MLK Breakfast, in Minneapolis. I've listened in person to luminaries such as Harry Belafonte (more than just a singer, believe me!), General Colin Powell, Andrew Young, Cornel West, Julian Bond, and others. In addition, twice, I attended neighborhood breakfasts, watching the annual event on a large screen, alongside others from my Saint Paul neighborhood and from the broader community. Each year, such events offer time to reflect on the principles and the values which Dr. King espoused, the inspiration he provided to us in the sixties, before his assassination, and the continuing relevance of his words to the challenges of the 21st century.

Nonetheless, in the nineties, as many organizations debated whether to offer their employees a three day weekend, or to retain Martin Luther King Day as a work day, I expressed some concerns. Might Martin Luther King Day become no more than an opportunity for recreation, with no time spent on reflection about the importance of this great human being and about the effect of all that he accomplished for our country?

Other holidays don’t have much effect on us, do they? How many of our nation's residents take time on Presidents Day to reflect on the presidency and the importance of our Constitution, the Executive Branch, and the separation of powers? How many use Washington's Birthday as an opportunity to remember the history and principles of the American Revolution, the original "Tea Party", the evolution from monarchy to democracy? How many pause on February 12 to remember the man who led our country through the struggle to free slaves and promote equality?

I suggested that we might produce more benefits by having people report for work, but requiring workplace education and discussion of the life and values of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Needless to say, such a provocative suggestion lacked political correctness; it garnered little support.

My concern returns every year, including this one. Consider this:

  • Several colleagues noted less traffic during their Friday commutes. They guessed that some commuters had likely begun their weekend early, turning it into a four-day occasion. Had people left for the weekend to visit the King historic site in Atlanta (an excellent museum; as you know if you have been there)? Had they traveled to Washington, D.C., or to any other place with special events this weekend? I think I know your answer.
  • This year, in contrast to the early years of the Minneapolis MLK Breakfast, some organizations which purchased one or more tables’ worth of tickets had trouble finding enough employees willing to attend. Why should someone get up and get out of bed at 6:00 a.m. on their “holiday”?

In fairness, Martin Luther King Day does bring out crowds to events in Minnesota – true to our deserved reputation as some of the most engaged people in the country. (See However, is it enough?

At the 2010 MLK Breakfast, the keynote speaker, Dr. Joseph Lowery, encouraged us to move from “charity” to “love”. He suggested that we not just focus on occasional, episodic endeavors to work for the good of our fellow humans, but rather that we apply ourselves continually to empowering all members of our communities to do more to increase our quality of life.

Doing what’s necessary to make this world a better place requires more than taking a “day off” on Martin Luther King Day. It requires making each of the 365 days of the year a “day on”, living out the values and vision of Dr. King, and encouraging others to do so. Let’s all make this third Monday of January 2011 a day to work hard to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”. We all deserve relaxation, fun, and time with family and friends; but let’s do the work of the holiday, before we play.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Top National News Events, with Local Implications

What happened in our nation in 2010 that will undoubtedly have implications at our local level?

Merriam-Webster’s identified “austerity” as the word of the year. That single word may well encapsulate the major themes underlying my “top 7” list.

1. Health care reform: significant movement forward; a missed opportunity. On the positive side, the nation made progress on health care. An overhaul of the health care system did occur. New legislation makes care more affordable and eliminates restrictions based on pre-existing conditions, for example. This will help to reduce health disparities and promote greater effectiveness of care for everyone. However, failure to provide free, universal health coverage to all Americans puts us behind other first-world countries. In the U.K., where I lived for a year and visit frequently, everyone, from poorest to richest, goes to sleep at night secure in the feeling that they have health coverage. What a difference it would make if everyone in the U.S. had the same reassuring feeling. What if all of our children’s physical and mental health needs received attention, and did not detract from their ability to learn at school? I don’t care whether we adopt a Democrat plan or a Republican plan. My vote would go to a referendum to require Congress and their families to go without health insurance until all of their constituents have coverage. We could have free universal health care in a very short period of time!

2. National and state elections; the “shellacking” of the President. Voters delivered a message; the President, in his own words, said he was “shellacked”. With a House Republican majority (242 to 193) and a Senate Democrat majority (53 to 47), can we expect any bipartisan cooperation, or only endless, partisan stalemate? If the latter, we will have to do more on our own at the local level to promote education, jobs, and housing initiatives that will maintain our quality of life.

3. Economy perhaps gaining; jobs not. We seemed to begin to emerge during 2010 from a bad recession. However, job creation has not rebounded; unemployment remains high; the housing market has not recovered. (What little job growth we experienced in the first part of the year became insignificant in the face of cuts and a slowing of the job growth rate for much of the rest of the year.) Jobs are crucial; economic stability is vital for families. For many of the issues we encounter in education, for many of the problems that confront our communities – a healthy economy, including an adequate number of jobs, provides prevention and solutions. Efforts to improve our communities in 2011 will fare better if we can improve the economic infrastructure.

4. Arizona immigration controversy. Arizona’s law, the strictest in the nation, requiring people to carry their registration cards, drew intense attention to the topic of immigration. Heightened attention can have many benefits, if informed by facts. Our immigration research and public seminar this year, with the Minneapolis Foundation, convened people who understand that, in our globally interdependent modern world, we cannot simply put up fences, literally and figuratively. We must understand immigration within the larger context of our changing demographics, our desire to remain competitive in the world economy, and the necessity of forming positive relationships with countries throughout the world. The future of our nation and neighborhoods depends on it.

5. “Racing to the top” in education (but not yet winning the race). In 2010, our federal government committed billions of dollars to promote the “race to the top”. Nine states and the District of Columbia won grants to develop new standards to promote student success, to develop data systems to promote and measure progress, to recruit and retain effective principals and teachers, and to turn around their lowest performing schools. “Waiting for Superman” broadened the awareness of the general public regarding the quality of our nation’s schools. However, also in 2010, international data showed that we’re slipping. The United States ranks far from the top in Science, Reading, and Mathematics – well below places such as China, Korea, Japan, Canada, and Australia, on all measures. On some measures, the U.S. could not outperform much smaller countries like Iceland, Poland, Slovenia, Finland, and Estonia. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan commented: “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

6. Tea Parties. Whether you participated or not, whether you love the partiers or despise them, you must acknowledge that the tea party movement constitutes a strong, clear manifestation of what it means to live in a democratic society. The movement emerged, and then drew energy from the grassroots. It profoundly influenced the 2010 elections; it will continue to influence policy. We who care about human services and community development must recognize that the movement offers another dimension to the broader, less strident, and less partisan concern among voters of many different political persuasions that we must show tangible results from the money we raise in taxes and spend on programs.

7. Poverty rates announced as highest since 1994. The Census Bureau issued this announcement in September of 2010, for 2009: an overall poverty rate of 14.3% (43.6 million people in poverty in 2009, up from 39.8 million in 2008 — the third consecutive annual increase). We had higher rates of poverty in this country in the 1960s, especially among older people. Nonetheless, this is a new peak for the past couple of decades. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau reported that the number of people without health insurance coverage rose from 46.3 million in 2008 to 50.7 million in 2009, while the percentage increased from 15.4 percent to 16.7 percent over the same period. Let’s hope that changes in a positive direction, as a result of the 2010 health care legislation.

Austerity. By the way, you might want to take a look at the Merriam-Webster web site, if you’re curious about 2010’s top words. I used “austerity” in a speech several weeks ago – perhaps contributing to propelling it into first place. As the lexicographers explained: Topping the list is austerity, defined as "enforced or extreme economy." Lookups for austerity peaked dramatically several times throughout the year, as people's attention was drawn to global economic conditions and the debt crises in Europe, but lookups also remained strong throughout the year, reflecting widespread use of the word in many contexts. "Austerity clearly resonates with many people," said Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large at Merriam-Webster, who monitors online dictionary searches. "We often hear it used in the context of government measures, but we also apply it to our own personal finances and what is sometimes called the new normal."

Happy New Year! I wish you the best; and I look forward to working with you on these issues that face our communities.