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.