Thursday, October 23, 2008

Play It Cool, Boy

It's not one of my usual blog topics, but in fact, I am fascinated with the way the brain works. This week, research came out that showed how people resist temptation--and it reminded me fondly of my dad! I have to take a moment to share it with you.

The question is about delaying gratification. Political economists have been interested in this for centuries: for instance, Max Weber thought that the capacity to work hard and wait for your reward was what made capitalism possible. Today, according to a Boston Globe article, Columbia University psychologist Walter Mitschel's research says the ability to delay gratification is linked to "everything from SAT scores to social skills to academic achievement."

So how do you wait for your pleasure, or even give up certain things indefinitely? Part of it is "the ability to imagine a future event clearly," according to Yale professor Jeremy Gray. As a planner, I do that all the time. I resist opening every email that comes across my desk right away, focusing on what I need to do to reach my deadlines.

But another part may be the ability to "cool the hot stimulus."

...the trick is to shift activity from "hot," more primitive areas deep in the brain to "cool," more rational areas mainly in the higher centers of the brain.
My dad, Mel Fischman, was a master at cooling the hot stimulus. I always remember the story he told me about how he quit smoking, long before I was born. "I knew smoking was bad for me, and I wanted to stop, but I was having trouble," he told me. "So I sat down and thought about what exactly I was doing when I smoked. I was burning a bunch of tobacco leaves and inhaling the smoke into my lungs. Now, would I stand in my backyard burning leaves, take a deep breath, and say "Mmm, that's good'? Of course not! So why should I say that when the leaves were in a little tube instead?"

When I first heard this story, I thought it was just too clear, too rational. It couldn't have happened like that. I am still convinced that my dad relied on social support more than he let on. But the research (and my own experience with breaking old habits and adopting others, like controlling what I eat and walking daily) shows me that what my dad said was probably mostly true. Thanks to his skill at shifting to a different part of his brain, I grew up in a non-smoking household. I am so grateful!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Organizing to End Poverty, 21st-Century Style

Wednesday was National Blog Action Day on poverty. Since I work at an anti-poverty agency, I had a lot to say about the topic, and I've been writing about how to end poverty all week. Here's the conclusion: It's necessary. It's possible. But it will take more than my agency can do, and more than politicians will do on their own.

Strategy 3: A New Social Movement

Even well-meaning liberal politicians consistently put other issues over poverty. Just a week ago, we saw the majority of Congress vote to give $700 billion to banks--with hardly a thought about the new wave of homeless people that are about to created, as banks evict people from houses on which the mortgages have been foreclosed.

Poor people and their allies don't have the money to buy politicians' attention. What we do have is numbers. Especially in an election year, elected officials run scared when they hear a large number of people all clamoring for the same thing. This election is almost over--but your Representative in Congress and most of your state and local officials face elections again in 2010. For them, the election never stops. That gives us an opportunity.

We have a long history of social movements for change in this country. In my lifetime alone, we have the Civil Rights Movement and antiwar movement , the women's and gay liberation movements, the antinuclear movement, movements to abolish nuclear weapons and to support people's movements in Central America, and the movement against global corporatism and for global democracy. We can learn lessons from them about how to get large numbers of people organized: not just for a rally or demonstration, but for the long haul.

We can combine those lessons with 21st century techniques. Meetups, viral messaging, DIY video, databases, Facebook pages, other online social networks, and yes, blogging: we can take advantage all of these techniques to get people to act as one. Technology does not replace face-to-face organizing: it empowers organizers. MoveOn does it. The Obama campaign has done it. We need to learn how to do it, too, but not to get candidates elected and then to forget about them. We get them elected, and then we hold their feet to the fire of public outrage.

It's not only the politicians who need to feel the heat. Banks that evict good tenants just because the owner of the house where they rent is in foreclosure need crowds on their doorsteps, at their stockholder meetings, writing Wikipedia articles about them, doing Michael Moore-style name it. Employers that keep wages down and squash unions, media that spend endless inches of print or minutes of air time on the lifestyles of the rich and famous but haven't a moment to spare all week for the poor...the possibilities are endless.

There's a lot of work to be done. If you want to join in but you don't know where to start, write me for suggestions. As a rabbinic saying states, "It is not incumbent on you to finish the task, but neither are you free to abstain from it."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

An Anti-Poverty Platform

Strategy 2: An Anti-Poverty Platform

Yesterday, I explained why all the work that agencies like the one I work for aren't enough to get everyone out of poverty and to a state of self-sufficiency. There just aren't enough well-paying jobs to go around, even with a whole lot of public benefits to reduce a family's need for cash. At minimum wage, a family would have to work 3-1/2 full-time jobs to reach self-sufficiency in Somerville. That's hard to do, with one or two adults.

People like me do our best at the family and city levels. What we need, though, are social and national changes. My boss, Jack Hamilton, has written that three policies would go a long way toward ending poverty:

1. A comprehensive, single-payer, universal plan for health coverage for all Americans;

2. A progressive reform of the tax system; and

3. An increase in the minimum wage, and the indexing of it to inflation.

Of course McCain is not in favor of any of the three policies. But neither is Obama. Yet. And he won't be, unless we can mobilize enough people to say long enough, loud enough, often enough, "Pass these policies or else!" In other words, we need more than self-sufficiency AND we need more than policy change. To achieve either of them, we need a social movement.

More about that tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Up from Poverty?

When Lyndon Johnson called for a War on Poverty, what he really meant was an all-out effort to eliminate it. But poverty is not an enemy. It's more like a neighborhood. You can't demolish it through head-on assault. You end up destroying the people who live there in the process.

For the next three days, we will discuss three strategies for rebuilding America so poverty isn't a part of the architecture any more.

Strategy 1: Family Economic Self-Sufficiency.

The amount of money that it takes to "escape poverty" according to the federal definition of poverty is so small, you wonder why so many are poor. The feds say that a family of three (typically a mother and her two children) are out of poverty if she earns more than $17,600 (roughly $8.75/hour for a full-time worker). Surely that's possible?

Possible, but unlikely. Consider. The federal minimum wage is $6.55/hour. The Massachusetts minimum wage, which is essentially tied for the highest in the country, is $8/hour. Neither one of these is as high as the poverty threshold. A minimum-wage worker can work full-time all year round and still not make nearly enough to get her family out of poverty. (And of course, many people work seasonally, or part-time. They have to try to survive on even less.)

Before we get people out of poverty, we need to get them up to poverty!

But is the poverty threshold really enough to live on? Actually, no. Family economic self-sufficiency (FESS) means earning a lot more than the federal poverty level, depending on the ages and needs of your family members and the cost of living where you are. The Crittenton Women's Union in Boston has provided us with an online "self-sufficiency calculator" so we can figure out the FESS level for any city in Massachusetts. For my home city of Somerville, for instance, what would it cost that three-person family to live?

Just for housing, child care, food, transportation, and health care expenses, plus a small amount of miscellaneous necessities, a Somerville resident with two children has to earn somewhere between $36,761 (if both her children are teens) to $95,284 (if both children are infants). That's at least $17.41/hour, and as much as $45.12/hour.

Go and look through the want ads. Ask around at Human Resource offices. How many job openings are there for jobs that pay that much? There aren't enough to raise the one out of eight families that live in poverty up to the self-sufficiency level. And that level is bare bones. It doesn't allow savings for college, or even for a rainy day.

That's why:
  1. We need to help people get the education and training to qualify for the high-paying jobs that exist.
  2. We need to make sure people get all the public benefits they're entitled to, from food stamps to subsidized housing, so their need for income drops.
  3. Even if we do all that, it will not be enough. Family economic self-sufficiency is a strategy for building up one family at a time. We need a strategy for developing a society without poverty.
More on that tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Support the Troops in the War on Poverty!

I wrote yesterday that we have never fought a "war on poverty. " When the U.S. goes to war, it spends whatever is necessary to sustain the effort. It even spends more than is necessary, to boost the profits of the private companies that take part in fighting the war. Just look at the budget for the "global war on terror," and the way we have pumped money into Halliburton and Blackwater!

By contrast, the federal government barely funds the nation's anti-poverty efforts. It attempts to defund some of the major programs, and it carelessly lets the funding lapse when it's in the middle of a budget battle. Here's one story.

Community action agencies are the anti-poverty organizations in communities across America. There are about 2000 nationwide, including the Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS), where I have worked since 2003. At birth in the 1960's, these anti-poverty groups had their own specific appropriation in the federal budget.

By the Reagan administration, however, the very existence of these groups was threatened. Reagan successfully cutthe line item for them right out of the budget. They would have died on the operating table--except that our lobbyist deftly got Congress to restore funding in the form of a block grant. Money for anti-poverty work went from Washington to state capitals to disperse as they pleased. In Massachusetts, the state keeps 5% to pay its costs for administering the program and another 5% for special projects of its own choosing. The rest does flow to two dozen agencies across the state. Happy ending? Well, not quite.

Jump forward to 2005. Congress and the President cannot agree on a budget, and Congress passes a continuing resolution to keep the government running while they work out their differences. Nothing unusual about that: it happens all the time. What was unusual was the rules Congress set for spending during the continuing resolution. They said that any program that received federal funding could continue spending either at last year's level, or at the level proposed for next year by the House, or the level proposed by the Senate, whichever was least. And the House was proposing to cut the anti-poverty block grant by 50%!

The House (which was under Republican control at the time) knew that in the end, it was not going to succeed in halving the anti-poverty budget. It did succeed, however, from October 1, 2005 through right before Christmas. During that whole time, our agency had only half its normal block grant funds to spend. We left one Housing Advocate position unfilled, so Spanish-speaking people facing eviction in Somerville were out of luck. Everybody else worked four days a week. We don't pay people enough to live on 4/5 of their normal salary! The Portuguese-speaking Advocate was forced to find another job.

Even though funding was restored in the end, it took most of 2006 to hire new people, train them, get them working together as a team, and get back to the level of service we'd provided before October 2005.

Imagine the reaction if Congress decided, "Oh, we're going to cut funds for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan in half for the next few months." Contrast that with the resounding silence when Congress did just that to anti-poverty efforts. If we were serious about ending poverty, billions of dollars would not be going to Baghdad and Kabul and Kandahar. They'd be going to Boston and Kalamazoo and Kansas City instead.

Monday, October 13, 2008

We Can Still Win the War on Poverty

Ronald Reagan once said, "We fought a war on poverty and poverty won." Ronald Reagan lied.

  1. Poverty did not win. From 1963, when Lyndon Johnson took office, to 1968, poverty declined dramatically. The number of people in poverty stayed at that reduced level until 1980. All that changed when Reagan was elected. "The average number of people living under the poverty line during the eight years of the Reagan administration was 33.1 million, 25 percent more than the 26.2 million living in poverty during the previous administration."
  2. Reagan fought on the other side. It's not just that he propagandized against poor people. Reagan actively cut programs that helped families and individuals get out of poverty. Let's take just one example: housing. Reagan cut the federal investment in housing from $74 billion to $19 billion in constant dollars. Reagan's cuts almost single-handedly created the homeless problem as we know it today; then he said on Good Morning America that people sleeping on the streets "are homeless, you might say, by choice." If there really were a war on poverty, Reagan was a deserter and a traitor. But...
  3. There never was an all-out war on poverty--"rather a collection of small projects aimed to improve education and community development, such as Head Start and the Job Corps," as Peter Edelman points out. "A complete war on poverty would involve much more: ensuring a quality education for every child, the guarantee of good jobs, universal health coverage, quality child care, adequate housing assistance and a safety net for those not in a position to work. In other words, a jobs and income strategy."
The so-called war on poverty remains to be fought--and it can be won.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Putting the Credit Where It Belongs

I wrote last week that the main reason the Wall Street bailout might be a necessary evil was to keep credit flowing. It's not the big guys who are most affected when there's a credit crunch. It's students who can't get college loans, buyers with good income and down payments in the bank who still can't get mortgages, and small businesses, who depend on short-term loans (often from one day to the next) to pay their suppliers and issue checks to their employees.

Since then, two things have happened. The Federal Reserve has stepped in for the banks. It's become the lender of last resort. When businesses need to take out short-term loans (or "issue commercial paper," in the jargon that business people use), the Fed will lend them the money directly.

The other thing is that the bailout has failed. The stock market continues to drop, the home mortgage crisis is threatening to become a worldwide recession, and more banks are running into trouble, including Citizens, which is huge where I live.

So I wonder: If all along, the Fed could intervene to help people continue to get loans, and if the bailout didn't calm the investors anyway, then why didn't the Fed just help with credit in the first place and let the banks suffer for their actions?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

In Praise of Small and Mid-size Nonprofits - On the Side Streets of America

I am grateful for the cooperation that my anti-poverty agency gets from large nonprofits like Tufts University and the Cambridge Health Alliance. They are no substitute, however, for the dozens of community-based organizations that serve Somerville in the ways that Somerville needs most. Here's a great article on why closer to the grassroots is better.

Don Griesmann's Nonprofit Blog: In Praise of Small and Mid-size Nonprofits - On the Side Streets of America

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Money for Nothing?

What just happened in Congress this week? Was the bailout of Wall Street investment firms a necessary evil--or just evil?

1. In this corner, arguing that it needed to happen, are almost all the "experts" in mainstream economics and "leaders" in Washington. (There's a revolving door between the two, so it's hard to tell them apart sometimes.) Bush, Clinton, McCain, Obama, Pelosi, Paulson, and Barney Frank all come down in favor, and the Boston Globe editorialized, "Pass this dreadful bailout"--because they fear the alternative is worse.

It's not a question of which businesses are too big to fail. If it were, I would simply reply as Bernie Sanders does: "If it is too big to fail, it is too big to exist." The horrible possibility that makes all these people (and half of me) support the bailout is that if we do nothing, the loans will simply stop. No new mortgages, school loans, personal loans, no short-term working capital that enables small businesses to tide things over from a bad day to a good one. Many economists think that doing nothing would lead to a deep, long-lasting recession or a replay of the Great Depression.

That's scary. But a part of me wonders whether these "experts" and "leaders" are crying wolf. Some of them are the same people who panicked America into a Global War on Terror ( instead of targeting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and increaseing commonsense security at home) and into war in Iraq (completely optional, and it has turned out to be a disaster). Others are new voices speaking the same message: be afraid, be very afraid--and give us more power. Why did Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson originally ask for absolute power to buy and manage failing banks? Is it the same reason that Bush and Cheney have claimed more and more unreviewable power for the executive branch?

2. Over here, in this corner, are economists like Paul Krugman and James Galbraith. They thought the original Paulson plan was garbage but reluctantly support the compromise that passed on Friday. They are not convinced about the Depression scenario, but they believe government must act, and the bailout is only the first step. Robert Reich argues against them that the Democratic bill is not really any better than the Paulson bill, so they are selling their souls by supporting either one.

3. Sometimes these guys slip over into the third corner of the room, where economist Joseph Stiglitz is standing. Stiglitz reminds us that the basic problem isn't banking: it's housing. Banks made terrible loans because they had to find somewhere to invest the global pool of money. They were looking for payback that's just not sustainable over the long run. Stiglitz sees a need to restore the banks to solvency, but he doesn't want us to get stuck with the bill--and he does want us to control the banks more in the future, through regulation. That makes sense to me, I admit. (But isn't there a crisis that forces us to do something? See David Sirota for reasons to disbelieve.)

4. Over in the fourth corner of the room are people like Chuck Collins of United for a Fair Economy. He agrees with Stiglitz that the rich should pay for their miscalculations and greed, and he offers a practical plan on how to raise the money without soaking the taxpayers. But this is the smaller part of our problems. The bigger part is how to reverse the massive transfer of wealth from the poor and the middle class to the rich that's been going on for the last 30 years.

In other words, there's been a crisis in this country for a long time, especially for poor people and those who have become homeless. It's just now that the rich are noticing it, the government is being called to act. Now that the bailout bill has actually passed, the question of whether or not to act is moot. Our job is to make sure they don't act in a way that makes things worth for most of us--and to put pressure on to make things better. If we're going to spend $700 billion, it had better not be money for nothing.