Bridging the Poverty Gap

On a recent cross-country flight I sat one row ahead of a family I had first noticed in the gate area: a young mother with one child about four and a baby, none looking as though they’d had a bath, a new pair of shoes or a good night’s sleep in some time. They were one row behind me, and I was one row behind six rows of excited high school kids accompanied by several adults from Salinas, California, heading off for spring break. (It was not a quiet trip.)airplane interior

The child was hungry, the baby cried, and the mother looked helpless. Mother and child wore ill-fitting clothes and sandals not well suited to the 40-degree weather. The baby might have needed changing and the mother made me feel sad. In fact, the entire family made me feel sad. At what cost, I kept wondering, could they be flying all the way across the country, to find what relief?

It could have been my imagination, but it seemed as if everyone managed to make them invisible in a way more extreme than how we generally avoid noticing each other when strangers are in close quarters. It felt as if there were two parallel universes – the Regular People one degree removed from the First Class people, and the ignorable family.

airline snacksWhen the flight attendant came by with snacks I was grateful to be able to pass my caramel-filled wafer to the child. This was nothing magnanimous on my part; I’m gluten-intolerant and couldn’t eat it. But what balanced my sadness for the little family happened after we landed. As the exiting unfolded, a young man in an Ivy League college jacket wound up right behind the mother. She was struggling with baby, small child, huge diaper bag and a canvas bag retrieved from the luggage rack. “Here,” said the young man; “Let me help.” With that he slung his duffel bag onto his back, grabbed both diaper bag and canvas sack and smilingly sent mother and brood ahead of him down the aisle. When I passed them at the end of the jetway he was pulling something out of his duffel bag – presumably a snack of some sort – for the 4-year-old.

This flight ended in Washington D.C., where a lot of millionaires are working to cut their own taxes and eliminate funding for a variety of services to people like my fellow-traveling family.

The day after my arrival I had a joyous reunion with one of my best friends from long ago college days, whose daughter drove her several hours through stormy weather so we could visit. Her daughter’s name is Lisa.

Lisa and her husband Gary, it turns out, are moving to the unincorporated hamlet of Lucketts, Virginia. Four miles south of the Potomac River, Lucketts features trailer parks and very fancy new upscale homes, an old schoolhouse now on the National Registry of Historic Places, one gas station, and a stoplight at the intersection of Route 15 and Stumptown Road. Vineyards developing nearby partially explain the fancy new homes; according to Wikipedia, you can hear distant train whistles, and bluegrass music every Saturday night at the community center (former schoolhouse) from October to April. Lucketts manse

Lisa and Gary, who have already met with community members from both ends of the Lucketts economic spectrum, will live in an old (built in 1924) manse across the road from a recently-closed (built in 1885) Presbyterian church. They plan to hold open house – you’ll know you’re welcome to drop in if the porch light is on – at (well, almost) all hours. If it turns out that people get to know one another and eventually feel so inclined, they will reopen the church. Gary had a successful career in business before going into nonprofit work in search of something more meaningful; with their children now grown the couple see this as an exciting new chapter in life.Lucketts church

The point of these two stories – interrupted by an observation on our current political scene that is simply too pertinent to ignore – is not that all shabby travelers are poverty-stricken, or that you have to be very rich to wear a Yale jacket (though you might) or that all baby boomer couples should seek new career paths. The point is: while the rich get rich and the poor get poorer in this divided country, it’s going to take a lot of random acts of kindness to keep us together. And that, happily, they do occur.

Bold Hope for the World’s Poor

Map_of_the_world_1998

A Solution to Poverty?

If governments can’t solve world poverty, and nonprofits can’t make serious dents in it… can the private sector be the answer? With the help of you and me and major investors?

Mal Warwick thinks so. Warwick, co-author, with Paul Polak, of The Business Solution to Poverty, spoke recently at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco about their conviction that the long-term solution to the ongoing tragedy of global poverty lies in coming up with answers that will pay off. Not just to suffering individuals, by helping lift them out of poverty, but to investors by turning a profit.

Warwick’s audience included a variety of interested individuals familiar with much of the work already being doing by nonprofits whose funders tend to seek reward through humanitarian success rather than financial return. But major infusions of capital, Warwick maintains, will be needed to continue building the ladders people everywhere will need to climb out of poverty’s depths, and that will require – business solutions.

As a shining example, Warwick cited the treadle pump. It is a human-powered device, inexpensive to manufacture and simple to use, which enables farmers to multiply the yield of their land and thus, in many cases, raise themselves and their families out of poverty. It works as a business solution on a number of levels. Factories needed to manufacture the pump were set up in villages, providing employment for people there, village shops distributed them, workers were employed to drill the wells and financial institutions made loans for purchases.

The problem, Warwick says, was with marketing – radio, TV, newspapers and traditional advertising methods weren’t available. The solution? Roaming troubadors and a Bollywood movie.

Among the facts Warwick brought to light were: One billion people lack access to electricity. One billion people lack access to safe water. One billion farms are without irrigation. The 20 million people lifted out of poverty between 1981 and 2006 by international aid programs, Warwick says, are only a drop in the bucket to the numbers who continue to suffer.

“It’s possible,” Warwick says, “to create brave new companies” with the lure of “reaching at least 100 million $2/day customers.” Some of those companies already at work include Australia’s SunWater which is developing a variety of safe-water solutions, several businesses working toward turning organic waste into affordable charcoal briquettes, and SpringHealth, which is addressing the problem of contaminated drinking water.

If governments and nonprofits can’t solve global poverty, can businesses? It might take all of the above – plus you and me, ordinary citizens.

Who says you're poor?

The U.S. government thinks you’re doing okay if, in a family of four, you’re pulling in something over $22,000 a year. It might be a little tough to get by on that these days. But the way poverty is measured, and plans made around the measurements, are obtuse and arcane at best.

Exactly who qualifies for state and federal assistance varies. More important than today’s index though, unless you are someone missing out on help, is tomorrow: plans for adequate housing, food stamp and other assistance programs are all based on some very old data. When the current federal index was set, for example, some 3% of the family budget went for food; today’s actual food costs are more like 10%.

A group of California seniors converged on the state capitol a few days ago with an eye toward bringing that state’s poverty line and real-time poverty closer together. The group is enthusiastically supportive of a far more accurate index developed by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.  They were careful to be “advocating and educating” only in meetings with legislators — the Senior Leaders Program is funded by the nonprofit California Wellness Foundation and lobbying is a no-no. But they would like to see AB 324, a bill crafted by Assembly Member Jim Beall, finally pass. Beall has watched it pass the Legislature twice, only to meet a Schwarzenegger veto; he told the seniors he thinks this time around the governor’s objections have been addressed.

This particular senior fails to see any reason to stick with inaccurate data when accurate data is available. The main argument against adopting a better measurement has centered around the cost issue — If we update the index, we might find more poor people. Hello? A town builds housing for 10 people and 100 people knock on the door?

Whether or not there are any incipient seniors in your family (we seem to make up a substantial percentage of the poor, by any measurement) you might want to see what’s going on in your state. Maybe, some day, the U.S. Government will even go for poverty line fact over fiction.

Barbara Ehrenreich speaks out on social, economic inequality — and how to make things better

Author/activist Barbara Ehrenreich addressed an enthusiastic audience in San Francisco Monday night, supporters of the Washington D.C.-based progressive think tank Institute for Policy Studies, on whose board Ehrenreich serves. Also on hand for brief remarks and conversation were IPS Director John Cavanagh, IPS fellow and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Saul Landau and 2010 IPS fellow Tope Folarin.

The event was billed as an overview of such critical current issues as ending the Afghan war, creating a fair tax system, fixing the country’s tattered social safety net, shutting down Wall Street speculation and seeking local and global climate justice. And if that seems a tall order, the mood was decidedly more upbeat than overwhelmed.

Ehrenreich, whose 2001 best-seller Nickel and Dimed exposed the social and economic injustices assailing the working poor, says her current, ongoing focus is on the failure of our social safety net. “It’s not working,” she says, “but it can be fixed.”

To that end, the speakers distributed copies of a recently released IPS study (in cooperation with the Center for Community Change, Legal Momentum and Jobs with Justice.) Titled Battered by the Storm: How the Safety Net is Failing Americans and How to Fix it, the study lists five key findings:

  • Levels of long-term unemployment, underemployment and discouraged workers are reaching historic levels;
  • The percentage of poor children receiving temporary assistance under TANF (the main federal “welfare” program) has fallen from 62% in 1995 to 22% in 2008;
  • TANF benefits are far from sufficient to support the families that depend on them: 2008 assistance payments averaged only 29% of the money needed to bring families up to the official poverty line;
  • Even while labor force participation of mothers has increased, the supply of affordable child care has lagged behind, creating a significant barrier to employment for many, especially single mothers; and
  • Roughly 57% of unemployed people are receiving unemployment compensation; for those receiving benefits, amounts are less than half of wages, and many are losing work-related health benefits.

Saying the safety net has eroded over the last three decades, the report offers an “Emergency Relief Package” totaling just over $400 billion and including jobs program, state and local fiscal relief, insurance and food stamps measures designed to aid middle and low income Americans. These groups, IPS leaders contend, have seen their income decline as the rich get richer. The study also suggests a number of ‘no new money’ measures such as foreclosure relief. Financing could be accomplished, the study says, through tax changes affecting higher income levels, a tax on financial transactions over $100 billion and an end to overseas tax havens.

Her concern with the squeezing of middle and lower income Americans, Ehrenreich says, has grown as their plight has worsened in recent years. “This recession has not narrowed the gap of inequality,” she says, “it has widened the gap.”

New Way to Count Old Poor

As if there weren’t enough bad news to go around, a new(ish) formula for calculating the national poverty rate could boost the number of over-65 poor from 9.7 percent — or 3.6 million of us — to 8.6 percent, or a hefty 6.8 million. Just like that, the poor get poorer; or in any event they get to be more of us.

It’s not really a new formula, it’s a revision of the half-century-old National Academy of Science’s formula…

which is gaining credibility with public officials, including some in the Obama administration. The original formula, created in 1955, doesn’t take account of rising costs of medical care and other factors.

If the academy’s formula is adopted, a more refined picture of American poverty could emerge that would capture everyday costs of necessities besides food. The result could upend long-standing notions of those in greatest need and lead eventually to shifts in how billions of federal dollars for the poor are distributed for health, housing, nutrition and child-care benefits.

Using this formula, overall poverty in the U.S. would rise to an estimated 15.3 percent, or 45.7 million.

The current calculation sets the poverty level at three times the annual cost of groceries. For a family of four that is $21,203. That calculation does not factor in rising medical, transportation, child care and housing expenses or geographical variations in living costs.

I’m not at all sure my current family of two could eat (OK, and drink too, with an occasional dinner out) on $21,203. It may certainly be time for a re-calculation. And a little more help.

via New measure doubles number of elderly poor.