Tuesday, December 04, 2012

New Prescription for Good Health

How much of good health results from our lifestyle? From our healthcare? From the environment in which we live? It might surprise you to learn the extent to which our health– good or bad –depends on our environment. In fact, experts assert that at least half of our health depends on our social, economic, and physical environment: the education we received; our income; our neighborhood; the quality of our housing; and other elements of our background and current circumstances.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, people living in one neighborhood can expect to live as much as 13 years longer than people living just a few miles down the road. If you want to see how your zip code stacks up against others, take a look at the study which we at Wilder Research completed with the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation. Where you live, how much education you received, your income –all are factors that can shorten or lengthen your life; they influence your blood pressure, your susceptibility to chronic diseases, and other physical conditions.

Traditionally, public health practitioners and community development finance professionals have focused on these social determinants of health using different lenses. Public health has focused primarily on increasing awareness of healthy behaviors (eating nutritious food, exercising, not smoking, etc.), on policies which protect the public from harm (food handling laws, fluoridated water, smoking bans, etc.), and on increasing access to health services. Community development finance professionals have focused on designing living environments best suited to good health and on financing major projects which can offer access to health care, child care, housing, and better food, for example. Despite similar missions, these two sectors have largely worked independently.

Clearly, a convergence (as Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation calls it) between these two disciplines makes a lot of sense. Individuals may seek to do all the right things – exercise, provide enriched child development experiences for their children, secure a good job with an income sufficient to provide stable housing to themselves and their families, and much more. However, the environment can inhibit them from accomplishing their goals. No matter what your skill level, for example, if no jobs exist, you won’t find a good job, you won’t have a good income, you won’t secure quality housing for yourself and your family.

Wilder Research collaborated with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation, to foster just such a convergence here in Minnesota. We brought together public health and human service people and community development finance people – in the hope that they might join forces. Our daylong conference showed representatives from the two sectors the benefits of collaborating with each other and gave each the “basic 101 level” understanding of the other sector – so they can talk with each other, understand opportunities and constraints for action, and ultimately engage in more joint projects.

Fortunately, we have already made some good strides in Minnesota. Andriana Abariotes of LISC, one of our advisers and seminar presenters, identified in her article, Community Development, Health’s New Partner, some outstanding existing local efforts. For example, she notes an initiative which both promotes better health care and addresses longer-term social determinants of health: Northpoint Health and Wellness, “where the continued expansion of its clinic and campus can not only provide quality health services but also serve as an anchor in the redevelopment of Penn and Plymouth Avenues in North Minneapolis, improving community safety and providing access to jobs.”

Abariotes also points to the Backyard Initiative (an effort in which Wilder Research had the good fortune to play a role during the design phase): “a community partnership led by Allina Health and the Cultural Wellness Center to engage residents in a completely different conversation and approach to their health. It is innovation playing out in real time, where deep listening and learning are core to changing the nature of the relationship between a major health provider and its patients and neighbors. Also changing are residents’ sense of ownership and efficacy and their own relationship to each other and to institutions in the neighborhood.”

Through our work at Wilder Research, we have the capacity to build understanding, kindle imagination, promote collaboration, change systems, and improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities by working “upstream.” Our society cannot sustainably deal with problems one by one after they occur. “Healthy Communities” – our partnership with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – offers the opportunity to build strengths (not just remedy weaknesses), lengthen and improve everyone’s quality of life, and prevent problems before they occur in this generation and in the future.

(A video of the keynote and resources from the Minnesota Healthy Communities conference are available here on our website.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Study We Wish Didn't Happen, and the Presentations We Love to Do: Both during the Same Busy Week for Wilder Research

Two major events occur this week at Wilder Research.

One event: Our statewide homelessness survey. As part of our triennial study of Homelessness in Minnesota, we undertake a comprehensive effort to talk with about 5,000 homeless people in Minnesota. We don’t merely count people and tally their social characteristics, such as their age, education, and race. We learn more deeply about homeless individuals and families through personal interviews which enable us to understand their past living conditions, their health, their employment experiences and their future employ-ability, along with characteristics of their families and social networks. More than 1,000 volunteers assist with this effort, conducting interviews at more than 300 sites.

We wish we didn't need to carry out this research, despite the great pride we take in the fact that we can effectively accomplish something of its size and complexity. The Wilder Research Homelessness Study has earned national recognition as an outstanding method for understanding homelessness and for influencing policies and programs related to the homeless. Nonetheless, the very need for the research indicates that homelessness remains a significant issue of concern in Minnesota. Solutions to that issue require collaborative efforts among different groups in the community, using sound information.

Many years ago, when we began this study, well-intentioned people from a variety of organizations – nonprofit, government, foundations, business, advocacy groups, faith-based, etc. – sought to help the homeless. However, they lacked an effective platform for building joint strategies and for assessing their progress. As often occurs in community initiatives, disagreements arose back in those days about the numbers and needs of homeless people. In contrast, now, through this study, and the related efforts of our colleagues in other organizations, we can respond not only compassionately, but also more knowledgeably, to the needs of homeless people. We can also build policies and programs with greater likelihood of effectiveness.

So, hopefully, the need for a statewide study of homelessness will diminish and eventually disappear, at some time in the future…..

(FYI: Craig Helmstetter of Wilder Research will host a live Twitter conference about the Homelessness Study at noon Central Time on Thursday, the 25th. Tweet your questions to @FollowMHP; use hashtag #HinMN to follow the conversation.) 

The second event this week: The national meeting of the American Evaluation Association, which takes place at the Convention Center in Minneapolis. Many research staff from Wilder Research will participate. We plan to learn from our national colleagues as well as share what we know.

Seventeen of our Wilder Research staff appear on the program – focusing on topics such as improving the educational achievement of children, evaluating community initiatives, improving mental health services for children and adults (including different cultural communities), building evaluation capacity in an organization that educates the public and preserves understanding of our past (the Minnesota Historical Society), promoting child safety, collaborating as a community and/or as a network of organizations to use data effectively to improve people’s lives, using data to understand the impact of major development effort (the Twin Cities Central Corridor project), how foundations use research of the type that we provide at Wilder Research, and more!

Through research such as the Homelessness Study, and through presentations to local and national audiences, we join arms with others who seek to make the world a better place for all individuals, families, and communities. We hope to work with you on this!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What's up, Doc? What's really happening with the trends?

As election time draws near, we hear a great deal about conditions in our communities, our state, and our nation.

Opposing candidates have their own spins on what has gone well and not so well. The challengers always blame the incumbents for the bad stuff, while the incumbents explain that whatever bad things exist stem from the time when the challenger’s party held office. Each candidate has a plan for the future; each opponent can explain why that plan won’t work.

So, we thought we would share what we know, from data which have recently emerged on community conditions. Any resemblance of this information to statements made by candidates is purely coincidental. However, we do hope that all candidates use these data as their reference point for their platforms, that they draw conclusions based on valid information, and that they build strategies with a sound understanding of the reality of our population.

Because, of course: “We are all entitled to our own opinions; but we are not entitled to our own facts.”

How much money do we make?

Most of the information on this topic tells us things that we will not relish. Some candidates will quote these data; others will try to conceal these data or explain them away.

  • Median household income has dropped $3,000 since 2006, from nearly $60,000 to $57,000. (That means that half of all households in Minnesota make less than $57,000 per year.)
  • Since 2006, younger households (headed by people 24 and younger) have lost the most ground financially -- their median income decreased more than $5,000. On the other hand, older (65+ years) households actually gained $1,700 in median income.
  • Foreign-born households saw median incomes decline faster than other households.
  • Minnesota’s median income ranks 11th best among the 50 states; the Twin Cities metro ranks 6th among the largest 25 metropolitan regions in the U. S.

Who lives in poverty?

  • Poverty rates have increased in Minnesota and the U.S. as a whole. Nationally, in just one year, 2010, two million additional people dropped below the poverty line.
  • Minnesota ranks 11th in the nation for having one of the lowest shares of people below the poverty level (not number 1, but better than 39 other states).
  • Statewide, and in the Twin Cities, poverty rates for children under 5 continue to rise, as do the rates for people 18-64, though a bit more slowly. The 5-17 age group rate has leveled off in the past year, and those 65+ are seeing a smaller share in poverty. Females, more often than males, live in poverty.
  • People of color in Minnesota more often live in poverty than do whites. Our racial gap looks worse than the nation’s. Of particular note: Thirty points separate the share of white (non-Hispanic) and American Indian Minnesotans in poverty.

What are the jobs? Are people working?

Like it or not, the economy has a substantial influence on all elements of our quality of life. “It’s still the economy...” (I’m certain that some candidate, at some time, has said that.)

  • The three largest industry sectors in the state are education and health, professional and business services, and manufacturing. These three sectors comprise nearly half of all jobs in the state (49%).
  • Minnesota ranks fourth among states for the proportion of adults working; however, current participation is below the 2008 level.
  • Nationally and statewide, 70 percent of foreign-born adults are working. In Minnesota, 77 percent of native-born adults are working.
  • Something not to celebrate: Minnesota is among the worst states in the nation for our 21 point gap between the proportion of black adults working (57%) and the proportion of white adults working (78%).

Health insurance for everyone?

Whether it’s Obamacare or Romneycare, let’s hope that all of us have health insurance.  At present:

  • The share of Minnesotans without health insurance remains at 1 in 10—that places Minnesota at 5th best in the nation.
  • However, our share of kids 17 and younger without health insurance has remained steady at 6%, which places us back at 28th in the nation.
  • About 16% of 18 to 34 year-olds lack health insurance—a number that raises questions about the quality and existence of benefits for early career adults.
  • The share of 18 to 24 year olds with coverage has increased—most likely as a result of the law allowing young adults under 26 to stay on their parents' health care plans.
  • Those below the poverty level are nearly twice as likely to be without health insurance as those above, but nonetheless about one in 10 Minnesotans who are not poor do not have health insurance.
  • The geography of uninsured matches poverty: Ramsey County has the highest share of both in the Twin Cities metro.

What about education?

  • Minnesota continues to be one of the most highly educated states in the nation. Compared to other states, Minnesota ranks 10th in the share of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher (32%).
  • Minnesota is home to an even larger share of young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with a bachelor’s degree or higher (38%)—ranking 8th among the fifty states and affirming our ability to retain and attract young, highly educated residents.
  • The Twin Cities ranks 5th among major metropolitan areas for the share of young, educated adults, just behind the young professional epicenters of Boston, Washington, DC, San Francisco, and New York City.
  • Nonetheless, we see locally a stagnating share of adults of color with a bachelor’s degree. Since the start of the recession, the gap in educational attainment between non-Hispanic white adults and adults of color has widened. This has occurred both statewide and in the Twin Cities.

So, there you have it…

I’m not running for office. So, you can definitely trust me! However, if you don’t trust me, or even if you do but you want to find specific numbers, sources, and definitions, please explore Minnesota Compass, and have fun fact checking your favorite candidates and their opponents.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Connecting for Health - Do our friends really affect our blood pressure?

Not only do our friends affect our blood pressure, but our “social connectedness” can influence our levels of stress, how our immune systems respond, and possibly even our susceptibility to chronic disease. Some evidence suggests that the amount of trust we have in our neighbors influences how long we can expect to live – even more indication that our neighborhoods can kill us or preserve us, in ways we do not immediately realize.

Discussion about all this arose at an exciting seminar two weeks ago for about 150 of us, who yearned to understand how our social connectedness can improve our communities’ health. In partnership, the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation, Bush Foundation’s InCommons Project, and Wilder Research brought together individuals from around the Twin Cities to learn more about the importance of our connections to other people (aka “social capital”), and about what the indicators on social connectedness in Minnesota portend for the future. In previous months, we produced the same seminar in Rochester and in Duluth.

Melanie Ferris, Jane Tigan, and Allison Churilla of Wilder Research framed the issues at these gatherings. They explained that lack of connections constitutes a risk factor for obesity, high blood pressure, cancer, and diabetes. In addition, as we might expect, isolated people – whether rich or poor, old or young, male or female – report more depression, although the poor and the elderly do report negative impacts of social isolation more often than do other groups.

Fortunately, they noted, the data show that Minnesotans on average stay connected. We have one of the highest rates of volunteering in this country. Two-thirds of us feel that people work together well to improve our communities. Three-quarters of Minnesota students report having a caring adult in their lives. However, while the glass may be two-thirds or three-quarters full, some emptiness still exists, and that emptiness more likely occurs for lower-income residents. (Minnesota Compass contains all this information and more.)

Also positive for Minnesota: the wonderful array of projects honored at the seminar for their entry into the Connect for Health challenge. These included initiatives developed by community groups, large institutions, or even both in combination. They represented different approaches to strengthening social connections to improve the lives and health of people in their communities. (For a list see Connect for Health Challenge.)

To move forward and make a difference, seminar participants noted that we need to build momentum to promote social connectedness. We need to raise awareness of its importance; we need to recognize and celebrate whatever good work takes place to promote positive social connections. As the residents of our communities grow older, the imperative to fight isolation and increase social connectedness grows dramatically.

“It’s not so terribly difficult to get started,” said one participant. “Just step out to welcome someone; build some simple connections in your own apartment building or on your own block.” Connections do, after all, depend on nothing more than one person relating to another. From there, larger networks can accrete – people relating to one another face-to-face and aided by social media. Communities and neighborhoods can promote interaction by creating activities and spaces that bring residents together.

An extra acquaintance or two might add some years to our lives!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Will Robot Day Replace Labor Day?

“A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world...”

We can’t glibly dismiss this statement in a recent New York Times article as science fiction, or bury our heads in the sand and pretend that these robots won’t come to our town. Increasingly, robots have begun to perform tasks that we have always assumed humans must perform. One scientist: ‘We’re on the cusp of completely changing manufacturing and distribution. I think it’s not as singular an event, but it will ultimately have as big an impact as the Internet.”

If we have concerns about the future quality of life in our communities, and specifically about poverty and its consequences, should we fear the robots?

Poverty lies at the root of many of the challenges we face in our communities across the nation; it also results in many of the problems that we end up trying to alleviate through our health care, human service, and education systems, or in some cases, that we must deal with through our corrections system. For some people, poverty derives from their individual behavior, attitudes, or circumstances: lack of literacy; a poor work ethic; a too-early pregnancy; etc. However, for others, poverty stems from social or structural causes: racism as a barrier to success or lack of economic activity in a community, for example.

Will robots change the structure of work in a way that pushes more people below the poverty line, or at least closer to it?

So far, evidence suggests that robots’ “encroachment into human skills” has both positive and negative effects. Some types of jobs do increase. In certain cases, the productivity of robots requires that companies find more workers, to oversee the increased workflow and to accomplish the increased amount of work necessary to support the increased productivity. However, the need for workers with certain skills has plummeted in some industries.

The net result in the long term – more jobs or fewer – remains to be seen.

The robots will certainly take over a lot of labor territory. They cost less, run more efficiently, and have higher productivity than humans for an increasing number of tasks. Market forces will push them into the factories of the future. Robot manufacturers can demonstrate convincing cost-benefit analyses. Union opposition might moderate, but cannot mitigate, the extent to which jobs for human beings will decrease.

All of us who want to promote prosperity, reduce social and economic disparities, and improve the quality of life for everyone in our communities need to consider this latest wave of automation as we develop strategies for economic development. We need to convert this potential threat to a potential tool – with innovative thinking to create industries which both use modern means of automation and create more jobs for human beings.

I hope you enjoy your Labor Day weekend, but I also hope that you reflect seriously on the future that we want to create for our workforce.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Nonprofits in post-recession times: rebuilding; merging; thriving

Hull House in Chicago, the iconic model of a nonprofit multi-service agency, the original “settlement house” founded by the Nobel-prize-winning social worker, Jane Addams, closed its doors abruptly in 2012 – succumbing to the formidable social and economic challenges faced by contemporary nonprofit organizations.

Times are tough. We know that. Those of us who manage organizations serving the community and who have worked through demanding times before also recognize that, with creativity and hard work, we can persevere; we can succeed in continuing to meet the needs of the community.

A recent United Way conference, New Structures for New Times, reviewed the challenges which nonprofits face and shared findings from a new study by Wilder Research and MAP for Nonprofits that elucidates one approach potentially useful for some agencies to preserve and strengthen services.

Regarding the challenges, Sarah Caruso, Greater Twin Cities United Way president and CEO, identified a triple threat: First, the number of nonprofit organizations has increased, yet resources to support them have not. Second, social needs have increased. More people live in poverty. Third, funds to address needs will decline. Government funding will decrease, and private philanthropy (individual donors and foundations) cannot make up for that decrease.

Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, reiterated the same three threats in his assessment of the environment which presently surrounds nonprofit organizations. He warned the audience – comprised of over 500 people, mostly leaders of nonprofit agencies and foundations – that nonprofits currently focus too little attention on sustainability. They must realistically take a long term look at themselves.

Nonetheless, neither of these speakers became messengers of pessimism. Both remained resolute that we can overcome the challenges facing us. Grogan suggested that we must work to have the sector as a whole “be all that we can be.” Caruso emphasized that our goal is to meet needs, not to preserve specific organizations. Taken together, these remarks set up the discussion of one reasonable approach for some organizations to consider: Merge. Combine strengths with another organization in order to sustain community impact in the face of declining resources.

Greg Owen of Wilder Research outlined some factors which make mergers more successful. For example, having an “executive champion,” strong board involvement, and line staff involvement in the transition activities correlated positively with success. He pointed out that, even if mergers produce long term financial advantages, they can still have a negative financial effect in the short run. Putting into play the factors identified by the research can mitigate those negative effects and contribute to long term financial health.

Organizational mergers don’t offer the solution to all problems, but they can serve as an effective remedy for some problems. In appropriate situations, merger participants will find very practical insight that comes from this study.

At Wilder Research we work directly with hundreds of organizations each year. I’m proud of the talents that my nonprofit colleagues in these organizations bring to their work. I’m inspired by their devotion to mission and by their willingness to do everything they can to improve our lives and make our communities better places to inhabit. I’m impressed by their uncompromising dedication in the face of so many challenges which could put their agencies out of business. So, I’m glad we could partner with MAP for Nonprofits to complete this study, to assist all nonprofits to recognize and act on options available for them to continue to serve us well.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

What works for the French, in bed and out?

After listening on Bastille Day morning to a rousing version of La Marseillaise, performed by the Royal Opera Covent Garden Orchestra, the French Army Choir, and soloist Roberto Alagna, my caffeinated mind asked: How does France differ from the United States? So, I refilled my coffee mug, settled in with my laptop, and, just for the fun of it, browsed the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) “Society at a Glance” social indicators.

France, of course, learned a lot about us almost two hundred years ago, after sending Alexis de Tocqueville to visit. He admired our democracy, our aspirations toward equality, and our voluntary associations which contributed to our community vitality. He thought that Europe could take a lesson. What might he think now? What do current indicators tell us?

The notable American trait of voluntary association, identified by DeToqueville, persists: We still have the highest rates of “pro-social behavior” (giving money, volunteering time) among any of the countries measured by the OECD. France ranks in the middle of the pack on this indicator. With respect to “anti-social behavior” (primarily indicated by crime), the two countries rank about the same.

We surpass France in terms of household income. (However, the French have two-tier universal health care coverage; so that advantage effectively gives them an income boost which narrows the difference between the two nations.)

The bad news: Both our poverty rate and the rate of income inequality in the U.S. exceed the French rates on those indicators. An interesting indicator developed by the OECD reveals the ease of elevating oneself from low-income status. France does much better than the United States on that measure. In fact, of 31 countries ranked on that measure, the U.S. placed at number 31 – the very bottom – with the implication that, compared to poor people in all other countries, poor people here have more difficulty bringing themselves above the poverty level.

We also fall behind France (and most other countries) in voting rates. So, while “Democracy in America” may have impressed deToqueville, many Americans do not, or cannot, participate in democratic decision-making.

If you have a French birth certificate, good for you. You have a longer life expectancy. Since life expectancy rates tend to reflect a composite of social, cultural, and lifestyle attributes of a population, influenced as well by access to, and quality of, health care, the French probably have a number of other positive things going for them that we fall short on in the U.S. Relatedly, France does better on infant mortality; a higher rate of infant deaths occur in the United States.

Interestingly, if you dig a bit into the data, you will see that the United States stands at the top in spending the highest percentage of its Gross Domestic Product on health care: 16%. France comes in second, but only at 11%. The U.S. spends more per capita than does France on health care. Whereas, for most countries, increased health care spending relates to longer life expectancy, the high level of health care spending in the United States does not produce that positive effect.

So, in total, we probably do not win the quality of life indicators competition with the Patrie des droits de l’homme (the country of human rights).

Notwithstanding all the eye-opening, mind expanding days I’ve spent in French museums, large and small, the quality of which is difficult to match in the United States – notwithstanding as well all the exciting nights I’ve enjoyed in Paris – my intuition still tells me that we in the U.S. should have the capacity to at least match the achievements of the French, shouldn’t we? Why have we not done so?

Oh yes, the bed part. OECD time use studies indicate that the French spend more time in bed than do people in any other country. Les français also have the highest fertility rates of any OECD-measured population. Perhaps that statistical correlation tells us something??....

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fathering Children Through Our Research

To father implies insemination. First meaning in the dictionary: to beget; to sire. However, I like the later definitions: “to accept responsibility for”; “to care for or look after someone”. 

Research we do at Wilder Research fathers in that nurturing respect. Here, when we think of “research results”, our minds do not turn to reports with numbers; we don’t think of our many meetings and consultation with public officials and decision-makers who set policy and allocate funding; we don’t think of the speeches we give and the conferences we run. Those products and activities merely provide the means to a greater end.

The results we seek – and which inspire us to move forward – those are: the child who might have failed in school, but instead succeeds, because of something our research discovered; the older person who lives with dignity because of policies and programs that changed as a result of our studies of the aging; the homeless family who finds shelter; the immigrant boy or girl with options created through collaborative efforts by Wilder Research and other organizations.

I spent the Saturday of Father’s Day weekend, along with one of my sons, helping someone to build a screen porch addition on to her house. Such labor produces immediate, tangible, and satisfying outcomes. Spending the day on scaffolding, positioning the ridge board, hoisting and attaching rafters, driving nails, one by one, almost like processing bits of data.   It was an honest day’s work which converted a foundation into a structure.

It’s more difficult to see the outcomes of our activities to design studies, collect information, analyze that information, and present findings than it is to see the outcomes of cutting and fastening 2x4s and 2x6s. Research results do not manifest themselves at the end of a day of hard labor, albeit at a desk, a computer, or in a meeting room. Sometimes, it takes months or years to discern our impacts. But, in truth, those impacts have as much tangibility and endure as long as bricks and mortar – influencing the quality of life of this and future generations.

We build people and communities with our work. While I’ve fathered (in the procreative sense), and nurtured as best I could, five children (who, I hope, will all call their Dad today), it offers great satisfaction and brings tears to my eyes to think of the tens of thousands of children whom we have fathered (in the caring, nurturing sense) – and mothered too! – by fulfilling our mission at Wilder Research. Children who might not have had a home; children who might not have received care matched to their needs; children in poverty who literally might not have survived to become healthy adults – but for the effects of the studies that we carried out.

So to all who care for children – Happy Father’s Day!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Cutting the Census, Impairing Our Democracy

At this moment, researchers of many persuasions – Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians as well – from research institutions as varied in their points of view as the Heritage Foundation, the Urban Institute, and the Cato Institute – all share an apprehension: Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a measure to reduce Census Bureau funding so drastically that the Bureau will need to eliminate the American Community Survey – an annual effort that enables researchers and the general public to accurately monitor what’s happening in communities around the nation.

As researchers, we understand that, without a reliable metric for describing community conditions and community change, we can’t dig into the issues. Proposed cuts to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey will greatly lessen our ability to understand social and economic trends which influence our future, such as the share of children in poverty, the share of the population with advanced degrees, or the characteristics of the foreign-born community. Without the data, we can’t interpret what’s happening. We can’t apply our values to the facts.

At Minnesota Compass, we remain as nonpartisan as we possibly can. We respect multiple political perspectives. We respond to requests from public officials of all parties, advocates on both sides of issues, and everyone else, for sound information to inform their decision-making, because we believe that no person or political party has a corner on morality or the truth. Elimination of the American Community Survey will weaken everyone’s vision; no matter what our points of view, we will all fail to see what lies around us and to forecast what lies down the road.

Some oppose the American Community Survey because they feel that we should not trust the federal government with so much information. I would direct those to the Census Bureau’s thorough documentation of the rationale for each question -- which often points to federal law or regulation.

If legislators, or even the entire voting public, want to blind themselves to the realities of the social and economic trends which influence our lives, if legislators want to inhibit businesses from understanding their markets, serving their customers optimally, and creating the jobs that our economy needs, if legislators want to lessen the opportunities for our public-serving nonprofit organizations to enrich the communities which they serve, they have the right to do that. However, they need to understand the full implications. Members of our community who will lose the capability to succeed in their pursuits include:
  • The new entrepreneur, who aspires to create a small business that will add to the tax base and economy of a town
  • The large employer, who seeks the best location for a plant that will bring jobs to a community
  • The school superintendent, who wants to plan as effectively as possible to meet the needs of students and prudently and minimally assess the taxpayers
  • The U.S.-based multinational corporate leader, who wants to create a long-term strategy that will strengthen the global competitiveness of the nation
  • The leader of a religious congregation, who intends to work on issues of poverty and other social problems
  • The police chief, who needs a data-driven plan to promote public safety through prevention, rather than dealing with crime after it occurs
  • The county manager, who seeks to attune government services to the county population’s needs in the most effective manner and at the lowest cost
  • The member of a volunteer organization, who wants to build the membership and increase the organization’s impacts

In short, we all lose something if the existence of reliable, meaningful census data becomes a partisan issue. We are hopeful that legislators will choose not to undermine our ability to understand. As President Abraham Lincoln advised: “If given the truth, [Americans] can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”  If we really wish to blind ourselves to the social and economic happenings around us by cutting off the American Community Survey, let’s make certain that we decide to do so with our eyes wide open to the consequences.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Track across the Heart of MSP

With pride, I participated in the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative Annual Meeting on Wednesday, the 9th of May. The Funders Collaborative, supported by a group of local and national philanthropic funders, is “investing beyond the rail” by funding and coordinating groups of stakeholders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to collaborate around specific development issues on the Central Corridor. I took pride not only in the role that Wilder Research plays to enlighten some of the Central Corridor decision making with good information, but also as a resident of Saint Paul, living not far from the line, that our Minneapolis and Saint Paul communities have joined together to use transit innovatively to improve the region’s quality of life.

Mayor Coleman and Mayor Rybak noted:

  • A new spirit of working together (As Major Coleman said, the stakeholders involved in the Central Corridor are “Putting the ‘win’ back in Twin Cities”)
  • The mosaic of languages and cultures along this transit line and other lines in the region
  • The ability of the Central Corridor line to create a new backbone for the Twin Cities
  • The likely economic advantages of this line and the mutually reinforcing elements of access to jobs and education that accrue from the line

Sue Haigh, our Metropolitan Council Chair, emphasized the important interconnections among housing, jobs, retail and commercial development, and our overall quality of life.

The transition to light rail in the Central Corridor produces turmoil, as all major transitions do. I experience that turmoil first hand each time I approach or leave my office along the line. Also, I’ve witnessed impatient honking, expressions of drivers’ anger, and other flare-ups. One morning last week, my computer screen shook so much from the construction vibrations that I had to stop using it for a while. Business owners have many frustrations as they learn that some customers give up trying to figure out how to reach their establishments. (Come on over to “Discover Central Corridor!” and give them your business!) Neighborhood residents have legitimate concerns and sometimes discontent with noise issues and with communication which they receive about the construction, even though most crews seem to attempt to minimize inconveniences and facilitate traffic flow as much as they can.

Notwithstanding the expectable turmoil, we will all hopefully enjoy the fruits of the line upon its completion.

Wilder Research tracks the social and economic impacts of this project, and we will report those impacts after we have had sufficient time for measurement. In the meanwhile, Jane Tigan of our staff, noted some of the context and churning which she has observed on the corridor, including:

  • People of many income-levels call the Central Corridor home, with 20 percent who are very low income (earning less than $10,000/yr) and 14 percent who are high income (earning more than $100,000/yr).
  • Since construction began (February 2011) to the end of the year, changes in business establishments along the Corridor have included 53 openings, 49 closings, 8 relocations off the Corridor, and 15 relocations within the Corridor.
  • Contracting for the completion of Central Corridor light rail transit appears on par to meet goals for inclusion of disadvantaged businesses, women, and minorities.

If interested in more findings and deeper details, you can go to the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative site.

In addition, we have an evaluation up and running to understand the effectiveness of the business support programs intended to help the businesses along the line. More on that when study findings emerge.

Hilda Morley, in the poem, “New York Subway”, writes of “the beauty of people in the subway” on a Saturday evening,

…“holding the door for more than 3 minutes for
the feeble, crippled, hunched little man who
could not raise his head,
whose hand I held, to
help him into the subway-car…
& someone,
seeing us, gives up his seat,
from us what we had learned from each other.”

We will have a Central Corridor light rail, not a subway. I hope to see you and learn from you on the train; and I hope that we all learn from whatever results this grand project produces!

Friday, May 04, 2012

It Takes More than a Village

“It takes a village to raise a child.” The expression derives from a theme found in a variety of African proverbs, and became popular in the United States in the mid-1990s as a result of a book by Hillary Clinton.

I’ve visited villages of the most primitive type, where no formal organizations exist (not to mention the absence of electricity and running water), but which nonetheless function as finely tuned social machines to care for all – nurturing the young, inculcating into young adults the values and skills necessary to help sustain the community, implementing the work required for community survival, and caring for the elderly who can no longer care for themselves.

Despite what we can learn from successful village life, our large, heterogeneous, complex communities in modern, developed nations don’t possess such finely tuned social machinery, and they probably cannot. So, we have government; we have school systems; we have health and human service organizations. We attempt to achieve social goals through programs and policies.

With multiple formal entities working independently to promote the development of the community’s children, it takes more than a village. It requires connections among people who might not really know one another, formal and informal relationships, and collaboration.

To promote early childhood development, we need collaboration at both the policy and service delivery levels, according to Dr. Richard Chase of Wilder Research. To provide enough resources for access to comprehensive services and supports, starting prenatally for healthy development of all low-income children, we need both public-private collaboration and cross-department (Minnesota Departments of Health, Human Services, Education) collaboration. The collaboration must occur to supply necessary resources, to enable adequate access, and to make sure that support starts early and is comprehensive, not just narrowly focused on preschool for 3 and 4 year olds. For true reform and stronger impact, we need to engage partners and departments outside the health, education, and child care spheres – involving community economic development, corrections, and other sectors – to address early childhood holistically and coherently, so that big savings that accrue from preventive work can be reinvested in early childhood development.. Urban areas may have easier opportunities; in greater Minnesota, limited resources and lack of program capacity make access more challenging and collaboration both more challenging and vital.

What facilitates collaboration, generally speaking? In a pioneering book on the topic, in the1990s, and bolstered by later research, Barb Monsey and I at Wilder Research point to such factors as good communication, the development of mutual trust and understanding among people and organizations who must work together, and the creation of well-understood, clear, concrete goals and objectives. The shared vision, which includes those concrete goals and objectives, must arise from a participative process that involves all who have a stake in the outcome – meaning parents, community members, community leaders, and institutional leaders.

Despite the need for systems and agencies to work together, we need to recall that “more than a village” does not imply that we supplant the village; it means that we enhance it to adapt to the demands of modern life. No matter how modern, formal and complex we become in thinking about large scale issues of education, early childhood, promotion of healthy development, and the like, we can never forget that everything we need to know about raising a young person successfully we can learn by observing a grandchild sitting on the knee of a loving grandparent (if we truly open our eyes to understand and appreciate all that happens in that setting).

Early childhood is so important that it will remain a focus for Wilder Research. Take a look at our website, where you can access more information, view the recording of our recent conference on the topic, and connect with Dr. Richard Chase whose work we featured at that conference.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Minnesota Vikings 53. Minnesota Residents 5.3 Million

The Minnesota Vikings have an active roster limit of 53 players. Meanwhile, the state of Minnesota has a 100,000 times larger “active roster” of residents: 5.3 million.

I like the Vikings; I hope they stay in Minnesota. However, does retaining one sports franchise and saving the jobs of approximately 53 athletes seem as important as preserving thousands of jobs and businesses in Minnesota for employers and workers of all types? No matter what the outcome of the stadium controversy, how can we shift our attention toward a topic that even former Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton contends is far more important: the education of our population and the implications it has for our future workforce.

Do sports facilities help regions and their businesses to compete economically? Absolutely no evidence suggests that they do; in fact, some studies suggest the opposite. Does an educated population increase economic competitiveness? Most certainly yes.

Legislators who have read the materials assembled by their own Minnesota Legislative Reference Library have seen the evidence that new sports facilities will not help their constituents economically.

A Brookings Institution publication concludes, “A new sports facility has an extremely small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment.” Economists at the University of Maryland assert that “economists have found no evidence of positive economic impact of professional sports teams and facilities on urban economies.” The Cato Institute, which views research through the lens of “limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace,” states a similar conclusion after its analysis of the effects of sports facilities: “Claims of large tangible economic benefits do not withstand scrutiny.”

If we the taxpayers want to subsidize teams and pay for new buildings – because we want sports here in our state – that’s great. We should promote that amenity. However, we cannot delude ourselves regarding economic impact.

In contrast, evidence does demonstrate the significant economic returns of strong educational performance among our students and of a well-prepared workforce. A 2010 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) explains how increases in cognitive skills, resulting from increasing the effectiveness of educational systems, enhance economic growth. This falls into line with what economists have come to accept over the past two decades: that better educational attainment for a nation’s population results in greater economic growth for that nation.

How does an educated labor force produce better economic results? A Brookings analysis, which also documented the positive impacts of preschool education, suggests: “A more educated labor force is more mobile and adaptable, can learn new tasks and new skills more easily, and can use a wider range of technologies and sophisticated equipment (including newly emerging ones). It is also more autonomous and thus needs less supervision, and is more creative in thinking about how to improve the management of work.”

Better education has other benefits as well. It is associated with better health and with greater lifetime earnings for individuals. Both of these translate into positive societal outcomes for all of us.

So, what about Minnesota? We face a demographic challenge. About 25 percent of the children in our state are children of color; this percentage will grow substantially. That means, in the not-too-distant future, at least 25 percent of our work force, parents, and community leaders will be people of color. As you know, the educational achievement gap between white students and students of color jeopardizes that future. For example, about 85 percent of white third-graders meet state reading standards, while only 60 percent of third-graders of color perform at that level. About 83% of white students graduate from high school on time; only about 53% of students of color do so. (See Minnesota Compass.)

The achievement gap leaves our future work force short on the cognitive skills critical for economic well-being. McKinsey and Company contend that the existence of the achievement gap imposes the equivalent of a “permanent national recession” on our economy. McKinsey estimates that closing this gap could have a positive impact on the nation’s economy of $1.3 to 2.3 trillion dollars.

Let’s do more long-term thinking about what will maintain the quality of life for Minnesotans and retain our competitiveness. Long range thinking that will lead to meaningful improvements in the skills of our young people in Minnesota requires boldness and risk-taking. Public officials often avoid it, because they feel that long term promises do not win elections. As the OECD notes, “Because the benefits of educational investments are seen only in the future, it is possible to underestimate the value and the importance of improvements.”

No comment from me on whether and where to build a football facility. However, for the future of our state, we must change the front page conversation from “stadium yes or no” to “education and workforce yes or no.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Liberal research? Conservative research? Or reasonable and credible research for all?

People love to label. Yet, as one of my professors and mentors used to say, “Every label is a libel.” That is, we tend to classify individuals into categories because we think it creates an easier way to perceive and interpret the world, but in so doing, we make many assumptions about those people which probably have no validity.

“Liberal” and “conservative” constitute such labels. What do those terms really mean? What does it matter, for a research organization like Wilder Research, which tries to do high quality, credible work that will benefit everyone in the community?

Over the years, some observers have characterized Wilder Research as liberal; others have characterized us as conservative. However, in all honesty, we have shaped our strategy to appeal to the “reasonable middle,”  who comprise perhaps 80% of the members of our communities. This excludes the 10% on the two extreme ends of the continuum, who won’t listen to any objectively gathered facts and whom we can most likely never please.

Recently, someone made the comment that Wilder Research tends to focus on “liberal topics.” Sounds simple, but what does that really mean?

For more than 20 years, we have done research related to the achievement gap – the difference in academic performance between white children and children of color. We want to understand all its dimensions and how to prevent it. Who cares about that? I think the reasonable middle cares a great deal.

Some people care because the gap represents an unfair situation. Children come into this world deserving equal opportunity. Some people care because the gap represents a failure of our formal institutions, our families, and everyone else with a stake in this issue to prepare children academically. Some people care because the achievement gap threatens the future livelihood, and potentially the security, of all of us – because children of color comprise the fastest growing segment of our population; they will become the future business leaders, workforce, parents, and leaders of our communities. If they lack skills, our communities will not succeed.

That reasonable middle, those “people who care,” includes both liberals and conservatives.

For more than 20 years as well, we have studied the needs of caregivers – family members, professionals, others who care for dependent children or for adults who require assistance with their daily living needs. We have devoted more attention to the informal, unpaid caregivers than to those employed by organizations; although we have studied both. We have pursued that tack because most of us do caregiving for some portion of our lives, and the demands it places on us can affect our physical and mental health. Moreover, the need for non-institutional caregiving will increase dramatically in the coming decades, as a result of our aging population.

Who cares about caregivers? Again, the reasonable middle cares. That reasonable middle includes conservatives and liberals.

In recent years, we have initiated a number of studies of the “return on investment” (ROI) of various services, usually services delivered to low-income, vulnerable populations. Liberal research because it can demonstrate the many benefits of these programs for our communities? Conservative research because it can lead to economizing, and perhaps even to elimination of ineffective programs? I like to think it’s a blend of both.

We’ve witnessed a lot of political posturing recently – public officials lining up along party lines, seemingly more intent on destroying those on the other side than on working together for the good of the populace. That can fuel our cynicism and tempt us to conclude that efforts to bring together people of differing political persuasions to address our communities’ most pressing issues cannot succeed. I don’t want Wilder Research to fall victim to that cynicism.

A friend of mine once told a joke to illustrate a key difference between conservative and liberal problem-solving. . “If someone is drowning and yelling for help, a conservative walking along the beach will throw a life preserver half way out and agree to pull in the drowning person if that person can independently go the first half of the distance. A liberal in the same situation will throw the life preserver all the way out to the drowning person, but then let go of the rope to walk on looking for the next problem to solve.”

Unfortunately, the stereotypes suggested in that joke contain small grains of truth. Some of our friends and colleagues who say they are liberal can naively assume that developing a new program or linking people to a service is sufficient, that somehow all will work out for the good. On the other hand, some of our friends and colleagues who say they are conservative can too easily overlook the support systems that enabled them to achieve a desirable quality of life, falsely concluding that they “made it completely on their own”.

A recent New York Times article, reprinted in the Pioneer Press, describes a Lindstrom, Minnesota man who seems much too aloof to rational thought for us to hope that he might pay attention to a research study. He claims that he needs no help from the government, and he states that too many Americans live beyond their means and lean on taxpayers to pull them up. Yet, despite his proclamations of “independence”, he benefits from at least two government subsidies: first, the earned income tax credit; and second, the government-funded free/reduced priced lunches which his children receive at school. (So, a citizen who speaks conservatively, but consumes liberally, it appears!)

The current Presidential race has perhaps infected the terms, liberal and conservative, to such an extent that we should not use them anymore, lest we find ourselves attaching very inappropriate labels to people in ways that we don’t intend. Perhaps we should discard the terms.

In the end, I want to devote the energy of Wilder Research to opening our arms to the reasonable middle. Despite all the extremist rhetoric, amplified by the news media, this audience really does exist. We can consider our approach nonpartisan, or multi-partisan, however you want to frame it. With this audience, we can build solutions, always imperfectly, but always making progress.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Ubuntu: Inspiration to Work with, through, and for Others

Naomi Tutu promoted the principle of “ubuntu”, during her keynote speech at this morning’s Martin Luther King Holiday Breakfast in Minneapolis. She emphasized that we have not yet reached “the Promised Land” and we will not arrive there until we successfully address such issues as poverty, social disparities, poor educational achievement, violence, and environmental pollution in our nation and in the world. Unfortunately, many of us understand the indicators related to those issues. Such understanding could lead to discouragement and feelings of ineffectuality. But then, would such lack of hope follow in the tradition of Dr. King?

To make progress, Tutu exhorts us to recognize that our humanity depends on other people. We become human by virtue of our connections to other human beings.

That constitutes ubuntu. It is a belief, a philosophy, that we all have multiple connections with others. Our individual well-being and the well-being of the entire human race inextricably join together. Ubuntu supplies us both with standards for positive behavior and with the self-assurance to live out those standards. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu described the concept: “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

Similarly, Dr. King inspired us to recognize that “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

The poet, John Donne, offered much the same insight 400 years ago: “No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; … any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

As we move forward in 2012, let’s acknowledge that as long as someone suffers in our neighborhood, our city, our world, we all suffer. And, based on the wisdom of Naomi Tutu, let’s address the issues that confront us with the recognition that it’s not “us and them”; it’s all of us on this fragile planet together – collectively creating our society and defining what humanity means in the 21st century.

Quoting again Naomi’s father: “We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God's family.”

Happy Martin Luther King Day!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Should Martin Luther King Day Be A "Holiday"?

I wrote this last year and received many comments and questions (most of them positive). So, I'm bringing up these thoughts again, as we approach Martin Luther King Day. Should it 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 some events in Minnesota – true to our deserved reputation as some of the most engaged people in the country. (See www.mncompass.org)  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.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Violence Among Humans: Up Or Down?

“Car wash shooter has violent past” “Saint Paul man charged in fatal shooting of woman, 21” “Police arrest two after man brandishes gun, officer fires” These stories appeared in the Local Briefing section of yesterday’s Pioneer Press, along with the story: “Traffic deaths could be lowest in Minnesota since 1944”.

The juxtaposition of good and bad led me to reflect on Stephen Pinker’s assertion that violence has decreased since the dawn of the human race, and on Robert Jay Lifton’s counterpoint that perhaps it had not.

Based on as much historical evidence as he could amass on murders, war crimes, torture, assassinations, human sacrifice, slavery, the death penalty for small crimes or for disagreeing with authority, Pinker concluded that violence has declined. The process of civilization has made humans more humane: “The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset ("War is not an instinct but an invention"), Stephen Jay Gould ("Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species"), and Ashley Montagu ("Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood"). But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.”

Lifton demurs that this conclusion does not characterize the 20th and 21st centuries which he has experienced. He sees Auschwitz and Hiroshima as defining events for our era. Moreover, he points to what he terms “the emergence of extreme forms of numbed technological violence, in which unprecedented, virtually unlimited numbers of people could be killed. Those who did the killing could be completely separated, geographically and psychologically, from their victims.” In disputing Pinker’s assertion, he states: “Dr. Pinker and others may be quite right in claiming that for most people alive today, life is less violent than it has been in previous centuries. But never have human beings been in as much danger of destroying ourselves collectively, of endangering the future of our species.”

Certainly, some recent statistics do look better. As Compass shows, the “serious crime rate” in the United States has declined substantially over the past two decades. The state of Minnesota has experienced a similar decline. Admittedly, if you find yourself in the face of a threatening gun or knife, it matters little to you whether you are one of 5 people in that situation, or one in 25. Nor would Pinker’s statistics on the decline of torture pacify the Afghan teen whose plight involving six months of confinement and abuse also appeared in the same day’s Pioneer Press. However fewer of us have these experiences, than in previous generations (even if the modern news media easily and frequently transmit horrendous stories about oppression by the Taliban and others).

In the end, I think, it comes down to how we treat one another, person to person, in our neighborhoods and communities, and to how we extend our connections to others across land and ocean. Building our social capital may not eliminate all violence in the near future, but it can prevent a lot of violence from occurring, and it can give us the strength to recover and persist in the face of violence. In our globalized world, our quality of life and our fate depend more than ever on how every one of us around the globe acts in concert to promote respect, value all humans, and build societies that meet the needs of all. Local action is global action, and vice versa.

Harry S Truman stated “We must build a new world, a far better world - one in which the eternal dignity of man is respected.” Pinker might consider Truman a cheerleader for evolutionary progress; Lipton would cite Truman's involvement in the bombing of Hiroshima as evidence that we have a long way to go (if we can make it). With a mixture of optimism and realism, I think we can do well if we affirm our commitment to reduce violence, acknowledge the issues that we must address collectively as an interdependent human civilization, and do the necessary work in our hearts, our communities, and our world, to remove those impediments which inhibit us from achieving peace in all its forms.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

New Year's Resolutions: Who Makes Them? Do They Succeed?

How many people make New Year’s resolutions? How many resolvers follow through on their intentions? Do any characteristics of the resolvers or their situations predict “success”?

Surveys from the concluding two decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first suggest that 40 to 50 percent of adults in the United States make New Year’s resolutions. A Marist poll of more than 1,000 adults throughout the United States, this past November, revealed that about 38% thought they would make a resolution for 2012. No differences appeared between men and women in expectations to make a resolution. However, a large age gap did appear: almost 60% of Americans younger than 45 thought they would make a resolution, compared with only 28% of those 45 and older.

Survey data, along with anecdotal evidence, suggest that common resolutions tend to fall in the category of health improvement. They involve losing weight, exercising, eating a better diet, reducing consumption of alcohol or caffeine, and related behaviors. Saving money, getting more education, and “being a better person” also received mention in the recent Marist study.

Norcross and colleagues authored an often-quoted study in 2002 in the Journal of Clinical Psychology regarding the factors which lead to success in carrying out New Year’s resolutions, appearing. They based their findings on data obtained in the mid-1990s, by following people who made resolutions and a comparison group of people who did not make a New Year’s resolution but did set a personal improvement goal. First of all, they discovered that making a resolution does seem to help a person to make a behavior change. The resolvers more often persisted with their intended behavior change than did the nonresolvers. In fact, the percentages of resolvers who continued to implement their behavior change over time were: 71% for a least 1-2 weeks, 64% for at least a month, and 46% for at least 6 months (compared to only 4% of the nonresolvers who continued their behavior change for more than 6 months).

For those in the study who made a resolution and succeeded, what seemed to influence their success?  Psychologists tend to look at this question within the context of self-efficacy (the ability to produce results and influence events that affect one’s life), self control, and self regulation. The Norcross study, and similar studies, confirm what you might expect: New Year’s resolvers who strongly believe that they have the power to control their behavior and who believe that they can succeed in accomplishing their behavior change actually end up succeeding more often than those who without such beliefs about themselves.

So, if you have made a resolution, I hope that you believe strongly that you can accomplish it, that you practice positive thinking (with no self-blame), and that you are ready to change. If so, research suggests that you will succeed!

Happy New Year!