Tethered to Hope

Relationships matter.  They really matter.

For Niki Davis, it took more than money to move from homelessness to homeownership.  A college educated artist, when she walked into LIFT’s DC office after a decade of financial and emotional stressors, she was skeptical.

She recalls that it had been a long time since someone treated her with dignity and respect—like a human being.  Over the course of a year, she and her Advocate—a LIFT volunteer—partnered weekly to get her off of shaky ground. What began as a goal of finding a shelter became a journey to homeownership, with Niki and her Advocate working side-by-side to navigate the maze of mortgage lending.  Today, Niki owns her home and is feeling more empowered than ever before about her future.  She didn’t come to us seeking only financial help.  She sought collaboration, and LIFT became her social network.

To hear Niki tell it, LIFT worked for her because, “There’s something much more empowering about working collaboratively. [The volunteer Advocates] had a great zest and enthusiasm—a young generation without the experience but the brainpower and hope and no loss of spirit, because it hasn’t been beaten out of them. It’s a different pace, a complete positive belief that it can get better. That let me get out of any sense of hopelessness.”

What Niki’s story underscores—and what we’ve seen in many of the stories from the 100,000 families we’ve worked with—is the importance of connections in driving success.  It took cash for Niki to secure her mortgage and make ends meet, but it also took her plugging into and activating the network of people around her to ensure that her dream became a reality.

...if we ultimately want to help people establish financial security we must bolster confidence and build social capital.

At LIFT, we help people build the personal, social, and financial foundations they need to get ahead. In fact, we believe that having confidence and connections are so important that it actually accelerates the financial gains a person is making.

When people are plugged in—have a social network, friends, people who they know will have their back—it can make the difference between giving up and pressing on; between getting a job opportunity or not.  It can also make the difference between having a safe, stable home and living on the street.

I know this—not just from my work at LIFT—but because I lived in a homeless shelter in DC when I was a kid. It was a converted old Hotel called The Braxton, and back then, times were really tough. But, even before Facebook and Twitter, I had my own social network of sorts that rallied around my family.  I had the support of DC’s most iconic organizations like Martha’s Table, Central Union Mission, Bread for the City, the Capital Area Food Bank, and my church.  This network ensured that we were able to eat, get back and fourth to school, and get housing faster than the 10-year waiting list for Section 8 housing would allow. These organizations and many more helped my family get answers to problems that seemed too intimidating to answer on our own. They were my social network much like LIFT is to the community members we serve.  I didn’t have to go through being homeless by myself and today I have the incredible privilege of telling the stories of hope that need to be told to thousands of people every day.

The result of LIFT’s focus on relationships and connections—the transformation that occurs between two people working together in trust—is real and tangible.

We are actually measuring whether things like confidence and connectedness have an impact on our Members’ ability reach their goals. We call that measurement Constituent Voice (CV) and you can learn more about it here.  Essentially, it’s an evaluation and measurement tool we use to unearth the critical keys to our Members’ success.  What we are finding so far supports the power of social networks in social services.

We’re seeing that members with top CV scores are twice as likely to achieve things like getting a job or securing stable housing.  There is consistent correlation between the quality of our relationships and our members’ achievement of economic outcomes. This is telling us that relationships matter.

We are also finding that three of the top five most predictive indicators of ultimate economic progress aren’t financial in nature – they’re social connectedness, belief in oneself, and confidence.  This is also telling us that relationships really matter.

For anti-poverty organizations, it is clear that if we ultimately want to help people establish financial security we must bolster confidence and build social capital.

Think about what this could mean for closing the opportunity gap and for the strength of the anti-poverty movement as a whole.  If we allow ourselves to imagine the possibilities, we can envision an America where Niki’s zip code, or my own, or yours, wouldn’t determine the trajectory of our lives.

When relationships are formed, individuals thrive, communities thrive, and collectively we ALL thrive as a nation. Having each other’s backs should be a given.  Those relationships are the thread that keeps struggling families tethered to hope.




Athena’s Future

Athena is from Camden, New Jersey (insert all the myths, lies, half-truths, and realities here). Schools and police force: state takeover. Two comprehensive high schools: both ranked at the bottom yearly.  A food desert has created a community where childhood obesity and diabetes are more common than in other communities around the country.  The unemployment rate—double the state average. Medium household income is $20,000.  And, yes, Camden infamously ranks at the top of America’s most dangerous cities.

Still, there is much to be proud of—like the Center for Environmental Transformation, creating urban gardens; The Neighborhood Center—a city staple with programming for people of all ages as well as emergency services; and, experiencing a resurgence, Pyne Poynt Little League which is molding young men, and I Dare to Care which focuses on empowering girls.

And then there are kids like Athena.athena



She is smart, gritty, and a loyal friend if you earn her trust. She will not let life in Camden defeat her—she dares to dream in a city where poverty produces way too many nightmares.   She is determined to take advantage of opportunities that empower her and fuel her passions, and she’ll readily dismiss any nonbelievers. But she was not always this confident in herself and her direction.

I met Athena in 2008 through my role as director of a new bold and ambitious initiative established at Rutgers University, the Rutgers Future Scholars (RFS) program.  RFS is a multifaceted college access, success, and scholarship program designed to empower students like Athena in areas of academics, culture, and finances.

In 2007, the year before we launched RFS, less than 10 Camden City public school graduates enrolled at Rutgers-Camden. The fact that only 7% of Camden residents have earned a college degree even though there is a top-notch university in their backyard is shameful…on Rutgers. What civic responsibility do we bear as a member of the community? Universities are only as good as the communities they call home.  One of our responses was launching RFS.

Each year, RFS introduces 200 first-generation, low-income and academically promising middle school students from school districts in our four campus communities of New Brunswick, Piscataway, Newark, and Camden to the promise and opportunities of a college education. Beginning in the summer preceding 8th grade, Scholars become part of a unique pre-college culture of university programming, events, support, and mentoring that continues through their high school years, and eventually college.

An opportunity gap widens the division between those relying on just hope and those who have real opportunities.

For students who successfully complete the pre-college part of the program and earn admission to Rutgers, we provide full tuition funding through scholarships and federal grants. In short, the Rutgers Future Scholars offers both hope and opportunity.

To date, we serve 1200 Scholars in grades 8 through their freshman year of college. Ninety-seven percent graduated high school and 96% enrolled in college. In our first class of 183 Scholars—projected to graduate in 2017—nearly 100 enrolled at Rutgers University. Scholars at our local community colleges can also earn a full-tuition scholarships to complete their bachelor’s degree at Rutgers.

Athena has successfully completed her first year at the Rutgers School of Nursing and boasts a strong GPA.  She also has embraced a leadership role on campus.

“Future Scholars has given me the support system I needed to succeed,” says Athena.  “When things got rough, they pushed me and never let me give up on my education. They are my family.”

The reality is this: America has hundreds of Camdens and hundreds of thousands of Athenas. Children are being awakened too early from the American dream. Meritocracy doesn’t seem to have room for everyone here—some may argue it’s purposely so. An opportunity gap widens the division between those relying on just hope and those who have real opportunities. Serving communities that are typically out of sight and out of mind—with a focused intentionality—will benefit all of us.

The future of America—and the solutions to many of our nation’s problems—lie within the untapped talents and aspirations of children like Athena.  Rutgers Future Scholars and other community-focused programs are attempting to transform our nation by investing in human potential.




Was ‘Welfare Spending’ Up Substantially Before the Great Recession?

In a speech to the Population Association of America earlier this month, economist Robert Moffitt argued that “welfare spending is up—but help for the neediest is down.” The assertion has gotten a fair amount of positive attention from progressive bloggers who have highlighted the “help for the neediest is down” part of the equation. But before embracing Moffitt’s take wholeheartedly, it’s important to closely examine the “welfare spending is up” half of his argument.

Moffitt’s analysis tracks trends through 2007, the year before the Great Recession and major legislation like the Recovery Act and Affordable Care Act. In the discussion below, I’ll stick with his time frame. But a fuller analysis would also track spending trends through both the Great Recession and a return to near full employment, which hasn’t happened yet of course.

The first two charts below track federal spending on what I’ll broadly call income security programs through 2007. Instead of looking at the change in spending on a per capita basis, as Moffitt did, I compare spending to the size of the economy (GDP). This is a common way to examine spending trends, and a common sense way to assess whether we have become “more generous” over time as Moffitt asserts.

Figure 1 shows total federal spending on these programs and the programs individually between 1962 and 2007. To allow for a clearer look at the overall trend, the second chart just tracks the change in total spending (again as a share of GDP) on these programs between 1972 and 2007.

Figure 1. Federal Spending on Income Security Programs as a Percent of GDP, 1962-2007


Figure 2. Total Federal Spending on Income Security as a Percent of GDP, 1972-2007


Source: Author’s Analysis of OMB Historical Tables, FY2015 Budget

Looking at Figure 2, it’s hard to see any big change in generosity since the mid-1970s. If you look at the peaks in spending (which occur during recessionary periods) since the mid-1970s, spending has trended downward slightly since its 1976 peak. If you look at the troughs in spending (during low-unemployment periods), spending trended downward slightly through 1989, and then upward modestly in 2000. So, for example, expenditures on income security programs totaled 1.73 percent of GDP in 2007, an amount .18 percentage points higher than in 1979. While .18 percent of the economy isn’t peanuts, it’s hard to see it as a significant expansion in the welfare state.

To thicken the plot further, Figure 3 tracks the change in federal spending on education, training, employment, and social services. There was a large increase (about 1 percent of GDP) between the declaration of the War on Poverty and last years of the Carter Administration. But since then, there has been a substantial decline in federal investments in education, training, employment and social services (about .6 percent of GDP).

Figure 3. Federal Spending on Education, Training, Employment and Social Services as a Percent of GDP, 1972-2007

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If you look at the trend in total federal spending on income security plus education, training, employment and social services, the story is more about retrenchment than the expansion story Moffitt tells.

It is also worth noting some of the trends in individual programs. Most notably, as Figure 1 shows, spending on unemployment insurance as a share of the economy has declined steadily since the mid-1970s. Similarly, spending on “family and other support assistance”, primarily the Temporary Assistance program (and its predecessor AFDC), has also declined significantly.

The fact is that our core “unemployment system”—composed of unemployment insurance, the unemployment assistance provided through Temporary Assistance, and reemployment and training services—has gotten smaller over the last few decades, as compared to the size of the economy.

At the same time, we’ve allowed the minimum wage to decline substantially in real terms; labor market institutions like unions that boost wages for the working class have also weakened; and we’ve increased the payroll tax, while expanding two programs, the EITC and Child Tax Credit, that use public dollars in large part to subsidize poorly compensated employment. (A related issue with the EITC is that employers may capture roughly a quarter out of every dollar of EITC benefits through wage reductions, as economist Jessie Rothstein’s research suggests.)

Any comprehensive examination of whether the “welfare state” has become more or less generous over the last several decades needs to take these issues into account. It would also have to take into account distribution of the many social welfare benefits besides the EITC and Child Tax Credit that are provided through the tax system, including: the mortgage interest deduction and the exclusion from income for tax purposes of various employer-provided benefits. As the Congressional Budget Office has documented, the value of these benefits is very large as a share of GDP and most of these benefits go to households with incomes that put them in the top 20 percent of the population. For example, the mortgage interest deduction is a larger program than the EITC and the vast majority of its benefits go to those in the top 20 percent.

And neither my analysis nor Moffitt’s analysis, for the most part, discuss trends in health insurance or pensions. These are also areas where any comprehensive discussion of “generosity” needs to take not just Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security into account, but also the set of “submerged” welfare state programs, particularly the tax preferences for employer-based health and pension benefits.

To sum up, Moffitt raises important issues about the profound decline in the effectiveness of means-tested Temporary Assistance as an unemployment assistance program for low-income parents. But his blanket claim that means-tested welfare spending was up before the Great Recession is overstated, and his analysis misses the extent to which the non-means-tested unemployment insurance program and other parts of our core unemployment system have been weakened over time.




Amazon Army, Southeast Kansas

Southeast Kansas is a proud place—a place of earth and agriculture, steeped in coal and hard work—the region covers nearly 7,500 square miles and is home to over 190,000 people. The land is punctuated with wooded hills surrounding deep waterways, scars left from strip mining coal with large steam shovels. One shovel, the second largest of its kind at the time it was in operation, still stands where it was last used, a silent sentinel on the prairie, reminding us of the sacrifice and toil of generations gone by.

We’ve done it before—the people of Southeast Kansas have stood up to their oppressors and caused change.

Around the turn of the century, fathers, brothers, uncles, and sons spent their waking hours in the dark of the coal mines, sacrificing their health, and sometimes their lives, so the rest of America could have coal. They were subjected to suppression and labor exploitation, and families were being destroyed. Finally, the mothers, sisters, aunts, and daughters, of the miners unified, and in 1921, came to be known as the Amazon Army. Holding American flags high, two to six thousand women marched through the coalfields in protest of the unfair and unjust working conditions and labor laws that oppressed the people of the region.  Armed only with red pepper, these women stood toe-to-toe with rifle and shotgun-bearing militia, catapulting the plight of Southeast Kansas coal miners into national newspapers, and forever changing the history of the region. But when the coal ran dry, this place was forgotten. Abandoned by the national eye, it became just another corner of a “flyover state.”

However, people are still here, and we are not flyover people. Southeast Kansans toil in manufacturing, farming, service industries, and education. We have successful business entrepreneurs, quality community colleges, and a Regents University.  However, there is an economic divide that continues to grow. The overall poverty rate reaches up to 23% in one county; the child poverty rate is nearly 29%–as high as 38.8% in one county.  In most school systems, 50 to 75% of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches. Low wages in the region make it difficult to find safe and affordable housing, and 55% of the housing stock is over 54 years old. Our elders are slipping into poverty after retirement, with nearly 10% currently living below the federal poverty line. And our average annual income from wages continues a ten-year declining trend. We are working so hard to make ends meet, that we have had little energy left to question why our economy isn’t growing, why our wages aren’t increasing, and why our civic voice isn’t being heard.

Without the leveraging power of coal, Southeast Kansans have found it difficult to stand up to the continuous attack on our future. The attack comes by way of monetary manipulation within our state legislature, which has passed one of largest tax cuts for the wealthy ever enacted by any state while leaving our schools underfunded, and our most vulnerable without medical access.  They claimed these cuts would boost our economy, but according to the Kansas Department of Revenue, tax revenue in April dropped 45 percent from the prior year—$92 million short of forecasts.

We have also faced the single largest cut to Kansas public education in state history, with more than $104 million sliced from Kansas classrooms; these cuts left school funding levels so low that the Kansas Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional.  Another highly controversial school funding bill literally passed in the middle of the night, stripping teachers of due process rights and handing out corporate tax breaks by cutting funding for at-risk kids.  And most recently, legislators passed a last-minute budget deal to transfer $5 million from early childhood program funds to an agency that invests in bioscience companies.

At the same time that tax cuts for the wealthy are shrinking needed revenues, Kansas has also rejected federal Medicaid expansion, leaving one in six Kansas adults under 65 without health insurance; nearly 100,000 Kansans in more than 150 industries without access to affordable healthcare.

We’ve done it before—the people of Southeast Kansas have stood up to their oppressors and caused change. Today, we hear gunshots ring out as we harvest deer for the year’s meat.  We hear water lapping at the banks of the pits and rivers, as we search for fish to fill our freezers. And people are starting to organize. We are forming organizations and coalitions to take control of our future, grow our own businesses, promote equitable economic development, and solutions to poor health outcomes. Economic development initiatives like Project 17, spanning 17 counties—and the Joplin Regional Prosperity Initiative, spanning 7 counties—are focused on workforce development and living wage job creation. Pittsburg’s Downtown Group and Get Independence are determined to revitalize the central business districts, promoting music, art, and culture. Local farmers and ranchers are being supported through groups like Eat Well Crawford County and the Food Policy Council forming in Iola. And county health rankings are improving, along with our overall quality of life, thanks to groups like Thrive Allen County and Live Well Crawford County.

A movement is beginning to swell—a movement that will create our own version of the Amazon Army and stand toe-to-toe with the income inequality and injustice that is ruining our region, our state, and our country.




Getting Pre-K in the USA

We all know there’s a connection between fighting poverty and expanding access to early childhood education. Children who attend pre-K are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, be employed at age 40 and earn higher wages. Indeed, economists estimate that for every $1 we invest in early childhood education, we yield $7 in return on investment.

Every kid deserves a fair shot in life and that starts with a quality education, early on. So how are we doing?

The short and immediate, look-just-beyond-your nose answer is: not good. Last year, for the first time in a decade, fewer 4-year-olds had access to pre-K than the year before – a modest nationwide decline of 9,000 kids in all, according to the 2013 State Preschool Yearbook, published by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

But the long-term forecast is a good deal rosier. In state after state, legislators are waking up to more favorable fiscal outlooks at the same time that new coalitions of educators, social scientists, law enforcement officials, pediatricians, nurses and others are singing the praises of early intervention.

The individual empowerment will happen as a result of neighbor talking to neighbor and groups that are fighting for pre-K...

The list of states that have made progress in establishing pre-K is growing longer: Alabama. Arizona. Georgia. Illinois. Maryland. Oklahoma. In other places, like Pennsylvania, the debate is raging. Pollsters Celinda Lake and Christine Matthews recently outlined the debate in an op-ed published in Pennsylvania:

“What we are seeing around the country in the campaigns of many candidates this election season is broad support for access to high-quality pre-k. It was a central issue in the recent New York City mayor’s race, and it’s a simmering one in the hotly contested race for governor in Texas. Why now? And why in such very different political environments?

“Voters strongly value education and believe that pre-K education helps children arrive to Kindergarten (and beyond) ready to learn. Voters believe pre-K can improve a child’s social skills, which helps them through grade school. They see the long-term benefits in terms of better test scores, graduation rates, and lifetime earnings and employment.

“They overwhelmingly agree that the more kids who have access to high-quality pre-k, the better it is for ALL students in kindergarten classrooms, so teachers aren’t stretched doing remediation and classrooms aren’t disrupted.”

Politically, the issue seems to have resonance for two reasons. First, at the local level, education historically has not been viewed as a partisan issue. In fact, if you look at the three states with the highest enrollment of 4-year-olds in pre-K, one state is decidedly red (Oklahoma), one state is decidedly blue (Vermont), and one state is decidedly mixed (Florida).

Second, bipartisan support has emerged – and is strengthening – for pre-K. Again we turn to Lake and Matthews:

“Why does this seem to be a political moment for pre-k? The political will to invest in high-quality pre-k around the nation may also reflect what our research in Pennsylvania tells us: there is broad bi-partisan support for pre-k.

“Eighty-three (83) percent of Democrats, 61 percent of Independents, and 56 percent of Republicans favor ensuring every 3 and 4 year old in Pennsylvania has access to voluntary, high quality pre-K programs. In fact a majority of Pennsylvania voters see the benefit as so clear that they support increased state funding for such programs (59 percent) – Pennsylvania voters, like those in many other states, recognize the results justify the investment.”

So how do we bring this home and make universal pre-K a reality in the U.S.? It is only going to happen through a combination of public education and individual empowerment. The public education is happening – we see it in the letters to the editor and op-eds that, with increased regularity, are appearing in publications across the country.

The individual empowerment will happen as a result of neighbor talking to neighbor and groups that are fighting for pre-K (like Fair Share Education Fund) providing ordinary Americans with a platform to demand action. And it will happen when Americans realize that the benefits of pre-K go well beyond childhood education – they’re good for families and good for the economy.

Just ask Jill McCain Santiago, a lawyer and mother of two who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Massachusetts Fair Share recruited McCain Santiago to tell her story of how pre-K allowed her to go back to work, expand her law practice and hire additional employees. “We’re so thankful to have both boys in safe, caring learning environments that are helping them prepare for kindergarten and beyond,” McCain Santiago said. “This has allowed me to grow my business … I’ve been able to hire two employees and serve more families.  I strongly believe that all families deserve the fair shot that we have been lucky enough to get.”