Thursday, November 22, 2018

Many Thanks

Citing the Smithsonian in this morning’s Pioneer Press, Reuben Rosario described the first Thanksgiving dinner: “it was venison, corn, porridge, lobster and other shellfish. Goose, duck, now long-extinct passenger pigeons, and possibly wild turkey were reportedly on the menu in 1621 when 53 pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Indians broke bread together over a span of three days.”

Much has occurred on this North American continent during the four centuries since the first Thanksgiving. One can hope and imagine that the good meal which Rosario described included sensitivity, understanding, and companionship across races and cultures. A vision we should strive for our modern world to embody.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I give thanks for the opportunity to put my talents to use for the benefit of the community – in partnership with skilled colleagues at Wilder Research, partners in other organizations, public officials, and residents.

I appreciate the opportunity to work throughout the U.S. and in other countries, expanding my understanding and learning from others who hold very different perspectives. I appreciate living in a country where research can supply an independent voice, helping us all to determine the usefulness of a policy, a program, a medical treatment, or whatever.

In looking at the projects undertaken by my colleagues at Wilder Research, my reflections move quickly to gratitude for their efforts. Because of the studies they completed, we know that children will get a better start in life; older people will live in settings better attuned to their needs; communities who have experienced trauma or inequities will take positive steps forward; agencies addressing the toughest social issues will do so more effectively through our research. Many more people, communities, and organizations will do better because of our efforts with them and for them.

In some respects, we wish we did not need to do portions of the research that we carry out. Our recent survey of Minnesota’s homeless population offers a good example. We pray that someday we will tackle issues of poverty, affordable housing, and mental health care to the extent that nobody finds themselves without an adequate place to live.

Nevertheless, as long as needs exist, we give thanks that we can do this work and that we can organize efforts to make the world a better place.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Family Separation: Drive immigration policy with facts and universal values

Many advocates, editorial writers, politicians, and members of the general public say that the government should end the practice of separating children from their parents at the U.S. border, but do they really mean that?

Separating children from their parents should constitute only one of the last tools in the tool box of immigration services. In my opinion, the massive volume of such separations embarrasses the U.S. among the other nations of the world. However, as The New York Times pointed out, a large number of the public officials currently protesting immigration policies, registering their dismay about family separations, and perhaps grandstanding for publicity purposes have, for years, led agencies or branches of government which have separated children from their parents.

A history of family separation

In contrast to the roughly 2,300 to 3,000 children taken from their parents as a result of the spring 2018 crackdown at the border, the Times claims that government in the U.S. has removed upwards of 750,000 children from their parents through other legal processes. In fact, for centuries, government has separated children from their parents.

In contemporary times, government routinely separates children from their parents when it incarcerates the parents. Julie Atella in Wilder Research has studied parental incarceration, which produces negative social, behavioral, and academic outcomes for children. Government sometimes incarcerates children too, thus separating them from their parents. And the government foster care system removes children from their homes, sometimes prohibiting parental contact. A number of our studies at Wilder Research have explored foster care, locally and nationally.

Key questions behind family separation

Should the Department of Homeland Security separate children from the adults who accompany them across the U.S. border if evidence of child abuse exists? What if the adults cannot convincingly prove their legal relationship to the children? Almost all of us would probably respond affirmatively to those two questions. I do not want children to stay under the control of abusers or traffickers. But what if the adults receive a referral for criminal prosecution and must go to a detention center or jail unsuitable for an extended stay by young people? This third question might give us pause, as we ponder the nuances and circumstances of such situations, and especially as we consider whether options other than imprisonment have been fully exhausted.

The three questions above relate to the three major criteria which currently provide the formally stated rationale for separation of parents and children by the Department of Homeland Security. “Zero tolerance” increases the volume of children separated from parents based on the third criterion (unsuitability of adult detention and correction centers for young people). As the Washington Post reported, if the border services detain or institutionalize everyone who crosses the border outside of official entry portals, then ipso facto more parents will enter situations which result in separation from their children.

Some protesters have demanded the immediate cessation of the practice of separating children from their parents who have brought them across the border. But does that really make sense? Only if we don’t care about the small percentage of children being abused or trafficked.

Policies informed by facts

Wise policy development requires good information to provide a sound understanding about the status quo that we want to change as well as about the new status quo that we want to create. We should base decisions about policy on our core values combined with an objective understanding of facts.

I’ve seen this play out before on other, significant issues. Homelessness, for example. Years ago, people sincerely committed to ending homelessness – advocates, public officials, service providers, faith communities, and so on – often acted independently. When they made efforts to collaborate on creating solutions, they fell into frequent arguments over the facts about homelessness: How many people? What needs did they have? What had caused their homelessness, and what action could eliminate that cause? Wilder Research stepped in to bring representatives from different sectors to a common table, to define the problem and agree on a means to measure it. With the implementation of the statewide Minnesota Homeless Study, groups interested in meeting the needs of the homeless and in preventing homelessness could work from a common platform of information. Over time, they could track their progress.

Another current statewide effort at Wilder Research performs that same function by identifying critical gaps in services intended to meet the needs of four groups of Minnesotans: children with mental health conditions; adults with mental health conditions; older people; and people with disabilities. That work, currently in its third year, provides a credible platform of information, so that regions of the state can construct effective solutions best attuned with their population.

Immigration policies should reflect values and facts about our human family

With immigration issues we need the same, careful approach to understanding the dynamics of the current situation, so that we can effectively reform and enhance the ways we act as a nation. The future of the world’s human residents will always involve a flow of people from one part of the globe to the other. That future relies on our care. I personally am a fan of relatively open borders, with reasonable respect for national integrity and cultural diversity. As the prominent Chinese human rights activist, Ai Weiwei, noted, “Allowing borders to determine your thinking is incompatible with the modern era.” (But that subject can await another blog.)

No child deserves the cruelty of separation from their loving, caring parents. We need to craft immigration policies – indeed all social policies – in ways that transcend specific times, places, and cultures and that reflect “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. We must build policies that rest on solid, factual understanding of reality, unobscured by the escalated emotions of the moment.

Martin Luther King expressed the dream that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” My related dream would be that all children, no matter their geographic origin, stand as citizens of the world, held in esteem by all of us, valued for their character and their actions, not on the basis of nationality or the conduct of adults whom they cannot control.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

New Tax Laws - Implications for Nonprofits?

April 15th has come and gone. I hope you filed your taxes, and of course, I hope that all of us received an above average refund. (I couldn’t resist making a quip that would bring a smile to researchers.)

With 2018, we have a very new tax situation in the United States. The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” has produced changes that Time Magazine called the “largest overhaul of the U.S. tax code since the Ronald Reagan era.” Among its provisions, it increases the incentive to take the standard deduction, rather than to itemize deductions, such as donations to charity. Some nonprofit leaders have expressed concern, and research might make those leaders wary. The highly respected Lilly School, for example, suggested that a potential national decline in giving could total as high as $13.1 billion. The Tax Policy Center asserts that the decline could go even higher, to perhaps $20 billion.

Will the new tax laws help or hurt nonprofit efforts and our work to benefit communities? The prediction that someone makes will depend on their assumptions about why people give money to eleemosynary institutions. Do donors contribute because they can reduce their taxes? Or do donors contribute because they want to support a mission, to further a cause, or to support something worthwhile in their community?

You might ask yourself: Why do you donate? If the amount of taxes you pay will change as a result of a change in tax laws, will you adjust the amount you donate to charity?

The argument that the latest tax act will reduce contributions to nonprofit organizations builds on the premise that the opportunity to deduct charitable contributions on a tax return constitutes a significant, if not primary, motivation to donate financially to charitable organizations. By implication, the less effect that donating money has on reducing taxes, the less that people will give financially to charity.

About 40 years ago, my father told me that he believed that the above premise makes little sense. As Dad pointed out, if someone has a major obsession about holding on to their wealth, that person should not donate at all. If someone donates $100 to charity and saves $30 on taxes, they have still parted with $70. Better to just pay the tax and retain the $70.

Evidence suggests that some donors factor tax deductions into their final decisions about charitable gifts. The loss of the opportunity to take a tax deduction might result, in 2018, in fewer or smaller charitable donations. However, when push comes to shove, will most donors give more weight to the mission they want to support, or to the tax benefit they no longer receive for donating?

Further informing this topic, aggregate data show that nationally about 74% of taxpayers do not itemize their deductions on their tax returns. These people already receive no direct tax benefit from making a charitable donation. Beginning in 2018, the standard deduction increases to $24,000. This will reduce the number of people who itemize their deductions, thus reducing the number of people for whom a charitable contribution results in a lessening of taxes. Nationally, the Tax Policy Center expects the percent of non-itemizers to rise by 15 percentage points from 74% to 89%.

If those 15% of taxpayers have tax savings on their mind, and have no strong allegiance to charity, then donations to charity might decrease. However, if other factors influence their decision to donate to charitable organizations, then the new tax laws will have weak or no effects.

History can inform us as well. Many nonprofits feared that the 1986 tax act would lead to a major decline in donations to charity. That major decline did not occur.

Something else to keep in mind: A dollar “given” to Uncle Sam does not serve a completely different purpose from a dollar given to charity. The National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies (which has a “progressive” bent) shows that, of the money we taxpayers paid in 2017, close to 30% went toward health; 7% went to unemployment and labor; 4% went to education. (Of course, 24% went to the military which, albeit necessary to maintain, certainly does not exist as part of the charitable, nonprofit sector.)

Federal spending has significant effects on our communities’ well-being – think jobs and nutrition, for example. The more that we can inspire and align the work of government and the work of nonprofits, the better.

So, what’s my prediction? Probably that most people will continue to give as they have in the past. Maybe that’s my optimistic side and my faith in humanity. Tracking the effects of the tax act becomes complex because some evidence suggests that a slight decline in charitable giving might have begun during the 21st century, well before the new tax act. Additionally, changes in the economy, positive or negative, will influence giving trends. So, perhaps we will never definitively know the effects of “TCJA” upon charitable giving.

In any case, I’m fulfilled by carrying out my legal obligations as a taxpayer, just as I am fulfilled by carrying out my moral obligations as a donor. One way or another, we need to fulfill our duty to care for each other.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

50 Years Since Dr. King's Assassination

I recall hearing about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the evening of April 4, 1968. In part, the news seemed shocking. Sadly, it also seemed like the next step in an inexorable series of 1960s killings including John F. Kennedy, civil rights workers, Malcolm X (assassinated just a couple of miles from where I attended school), and others. Rather than deter or stifle us, however, Dr. King’s murder motivated us all the more to advocate for just policies and just treatment of all people; it led many of us into careers in organizations where we could try to improve our communities and the world.

Would Dr. King feel that we had succeeded or failed during the past half century? Probably a mix. We have passed legislation to address some of the blatant problems of discrimination; we’ve reduced redlining and other institutional practices that directly limited access by people of color to home ownership and other resources, and which indirectly contributed to education and health care issues. Life expectancy differences between blacks and whites have narrowed; access to higher education has increased for people of color, along with degree completion. However, significant racial disparities remain in education, housing, employment, and heath. We definitely have not yet achieved the dream.

Racial disparities in the United States and other nations constitute not just an ethical failure. They threaten to undermine our ability to sustain democracy and make progress as a global human family.

As Dr. King stated (in one of my favorite quotes from his speeches): “In a real sense, all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We must keep that principle in mind, as we address local issues of education, housing, and health care, global issues of peace, migration, and economic development, and everything in between.

This is a day to renew our commitment to carrying the torch Dr. King lit.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Caring for Our Small Planet's Social Environment

"We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity. We cannot remain looking inwards at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted and overcrowded planet." – Stephen Hawking

Strong words from the recently deceased Stephen Hawking – and more negative words than I would normally place in the preface of a post. However, his comments resonated with thoughts I shared – regarding our social environment – with a couple of hundred people at the Minnesota Compass annual meeting several weeks ago:

  • “Post-truth” became the Oxford-English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016. It has entered our common parlance, along with “alternative facts” and Hope Hicks’ “white lies.”
  • “Agnatology,” a word coined 20 or so years ago as a label for the study of culturally induced ignorance, has increasing relevance.
  • People in the Democrat and Republican parties in the United States literally fear one another, as I mentioned in a previous post. People with differing political views have increasingly clustered together to live in communities with others who share those views, resulting in less interaction with divergent perspectives.

In short, pressures and barriers have mounted to create more “inward looking” than “outward looking” with respect to the important social issues that we face.

If we take an open-minded look outward, using real facts, not “alternatives,” what do we see? At that same Compass annual meeting, Allison Liuzzi showed us that:

  • A number of indicators reveal improvements in our communities: economic output; jobs; education; crime rates; traffic fatalities; and others.
  • But some important indicators show we have changed little or not at all during the past 10 years: median household income; poverty; homelessness; and others.
  • On one indicator, voter turnout (usually a source of pride for Minnesotans), we have declined – perhaps due to some of the issues I mentioned above?

Good news, in some respects; unsettling in other respects. Yet whether we see improvement or not on any specific measure of our quality of life, one fact stands out: The most rapidly growing portions of our population tend not to do as well as our majority of residents. Take a look at Compass indicators, and you will find a common theme: gaps in the quality of life for residents of color vis-à-vis white residents. We must address this, if we care about equity, or if we want to ensure a sound future in which new generations of Minnesotans continue the great strides of past generations.

As Compass reports, people of color (including a wide range of backgrounds, from indigenous to recent immigrants) are more likely to live in poverty, less likely to own their own home, less likely to graduate from high school, and more likely to suffer from chronic illness.

Nicole MartinRogers pointed out to our annual meeting participants that to address existing disparities, as well as to build the strengths of our Minnesota mosaic, we need to apply the best possible tools to understand the demographics of our multi-racial state. We need an objective, clear, nuanced picture of our residents. Living conditions and needs of different groups differ from one another. Creation of sound policy that will enable us to make progress requires appreciation of the nuances so that we can build on the rich diversity of our population.

So, back to Stephen Hawking and his critique of only looking inward.

Hawking’s words do relate to the rationale behind the operation of Minnesota Compass, an accessible, completely free-to-use website (which, by the way, recently won a “” award from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits). Compass has creatively used technology to provide everyone in Minnesota easy access to nonpartisan, objective, relevant facts – not the alternatives, but the real facts. A resident of any of the state’s 87 counties, sitting in their living room, can obtain the same information as our state’s Governor sitting in the halls of power.

Compass provides a broad view as it supports efforts to make communities better. It promotes looking outward, taking into account all people, their perspectives, their cultures, their current situations.

We need sound tools to preserve our society’s strengths and to ameliorate our society’s weaknesses. Minnesota Compass, along with all the work of Wilder Research, strives to provide those tools.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Obsessing about Trump’s Comments, or Making Progress: We can decide

“He emerged from the Metro at the L’Enfant Plaza Station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play. It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by.”

You might recognize this story, from 2007. The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing a violin valued at $3.5 million. As the news report indicated, “His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception, and priorities…In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

The result? During the 45 minutes that Bell played, only 7 people stopped for at least a minute; 27 people tossed in a total of about $32, and 1,070 people hustled past the assumedly common busker.

Gene Weingarten, the reporter who wrote the story about this event, asked the question: “What is beauty?....Is it a measureable fact, or merely an opinion?”

Extreme partisanship: an obscurer of our goal

As I pondered the possibilities for 2018, the Joshua Bell story came back to me. Where should we look for “beauty”? Where should we look for “goodness”? How should a focus on the good energize us, shape our behavior, and keep us on a path to improve the quality of life for all people? But then, with some apprehension, I considered the current partisan divide – perhaps worse than it has ever existed in this nation.

Partisanship has skyrocketed during the past two decades. In her Theodore H. White Lecture at Harvard University, Nancy Gibbs asserted that the political center has “all but vanished.” She noted that since 1994, Pew Research data showed that the number of Democrats and Republicans seeing the opposing party as “very unfavorable” more than doubled. She contends that the partisan gap divides us more than any other divide – race, income, gender, or anything else.

Remarkably, Pew showed as well that people view members of the opposing party with fear. “More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. Among those highly engaged in politics – those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns – fully 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.”

Nate Silver’s analysis of presidential elections during that same time period showed that for the Trump vs. Clinton election of 2016, “Of the nation’s 3,113 counties (or county equivalents), just 303 were decided by single-digit margins — less than 10 percent. In contrast, 1,096 counties fit that description in 1992…During the same period, the number of extreme landslide counties — those decided by margins exceeding 50 percentage points — exploded from 93 to 1,196.”

Whether the result of self-selection through preference, or a product of social forces and deliberate policies that promote homogeneity, these data provide stark evidence of political segregation: we tend to cluster in proximity to people who think and vote like we do. Does this promote silos? Does this foster the partisan divide? Does this contribute to political gridlock around issues we need to resolve?

In my conversations, personal and professional, I perceive many liberals and conservatives poised to pounce on any incorrect utterance from the other side. It seems much easier to make ad hominem attacks (justified or unjustified) than to tackle issues of substance. That is troubling.

700,000 DACA residents have had their lives literally on the line; the future of these individuals lies in large part under the control of our legislators. However, beginning with one infamous meeting that included the President, the conversation in Washington and throughout the U.S. shifted predominantly to debates regarding: Did the President say “hole” or “house,” or did he say nothing of the sort at all?

As the outlook for DACA legislation dimmed, and as the final days passed toward the deadline for a government shutdown, cable news was replete with legislators from both parties speaking from the same template: “Well, since they did X, we must do Y. It’s their fault, of course, because they said A after we said B, but we said that because they had previously said C.” Attack – parry – riposte; the verbal duels proceed, with everyone stuck in place.

Finding “goodness” amidst division

We need to sift through this mudslide of argumentation, to see and testify to the beauty and the good of our fellow human beings. We must keep our eye on the prize – quality life for all, in accordance with our values – and not be waylaid by partisan bickering.

We may need to suck it up, bide the current situation (which we can change in future elections), and figure out how to work with others who hold different views and how to work around racist and incompetent leaders. Unfortunately, a certain proportion of public officials, organizational leaders, and community leaders are racist or incompetent, or both. I’ve worked my way around them in the past, and I plan to continue working my way around them in the future. If Martin Luther King and his visionary counterparts had waited to act until after the uprooting of every racist public official and community leader, no civil rights progress would have occurred.

Golden days of bipartisanship might, or might not, have ever existed. Nonetheless, let’s take our cue from the 7 people who stopped to listen to Joshua Bell – to look for beauty – not from the 1,090. As a New Year’s resolution, let’s keep our eye on the prize and resolve to work collectively in 2018, respecting differences, willing to compromise.