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!