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?