>National Poverty News Roundup for 14 July

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[I'm going to be unavailable for several weeks, so these semi-weekly updates are going to go on hiatus until sometime in August. But they will resume then.]

If we take seriously two propositions about the contemporary media landscape — that visibility is key to driving policy, and that virtual spaces are at least as important as traditional print outlets if not more important — then it follows that online visibility for poverty and homelessness are critical to focusing public attention and crafting compelling policy solutions. I’ve talked about the wired-but-homeless before, but here’s a different twist: courtesy Computer Sim Games, I recently found out about Alice and Kev, an experiment in The Sims 3 involving a poor and homeless family (a father and a daughter) whose creator/player is attempting “to help them survive without taking any job promotions or easy cash routes.” And blogging the experience, of course. I find the unfolding story oddly compelling — not because it is a “realistic” depiction of homelessness or poverty, of course, but because it is among the most creative uses of virtual spaces to raise awareness of these issues I have seen. Yes, it’s fascinating to see people using Second Life for stakeholder conferences, and the kinds of “apps for democracy” that people are coming up with are quite innovative. But homeless sims? That’s a special kind of creativity.

Speaking of policy, lots of intriguing things seem to be happening around urban policy and planning in the past few weeks. This Brookings report indicates that the populations of cities nationwide continue to grow, perhaps as people flock inwards from the suburbs in search of the employment opportunities afforded by economic diversity — and the opportunity to cut their commute-times. How convenient, then, that the 2010 budget contains funds for a number of new inter-agency initiatives, including a renewed focus on sustainability and the revitalization of neighborhood networks. Perhaps we are seeing the instantiation of what Rob Goodspeed calls “the new normative planning,” characterized by a commitment to “high density, mixed-use urbanism” and a real move away from the automobile-dependent landscape architecture of suburbs. That architecture, as we have learned, is implicated in a variety of problems, from impoverished inner cities to the need to import food from long distances away — with a correspondingly high carbon footprint. Maybe mixed-use city spaces should press urban gardening even further, along the lines of this recent initiative to allow beekeeping within the limits of New York City. Or maybe the lessons of Will Allen’s urban farming operation should be taken to heart. In any event, the kinds of cities that are being envisioned and developed will not look like the cities of the past, and with any luck, they will not be beset by the same problems of persistent poverty.
As food pantries across the country continue to report an increase in client visits, it is heartening to hear of local and federal initiatives to keep feeding families with school-aged children during the summer months when the school-year free and reduced lunch programs are on hiatus. It’s heartening to hear that the G8, a summit meeting often known for a focus on macroeconomic stability, has committed to a multi-year initiative to combat global hunger. And it’s deeply heartening to hear of local initiatives like this book club in Boston, primarily made up of homeless men. Such humanizing moments should not go unacknowledged or forgotten; working for the end of poverty also, and perhaps ultimately, means working for the end of a refusal to acknowledge the humanity of others, and what more human activity is there than getting together in a small group to discuss a topic of mutual interest?

>National Poverty News Roundup for 9 June

>Since my last roundup post two weeks ago, various corners of the Internet have been buzzing about a Wall Street Journal article concerning the use of various online technologies — Facebook, Twitter, and hoary (!) things like e-mail and plain old websites — by homeless people. While this kind of use of technology is in many ways old news, since Google started giving free voicemail boxes to homeless San Franciscans last year, it does drive home an important point about the ubiquity of computer-mediated connectivity in modern society: we are now at a point where a blogger can ask, half-seriously, whether it would be worse to lose your home or your internet access, and Cory Doctorow can opine that “network access” will be a human right in ten years. On one hand, some argue that network access can be a tool for getting oneself off the streets, and for staying plugged into the broader sweep of humanity; on the other, the differential success of a virtual networking site like I-Neighbors — apparently, the tools work well in communities that are already organized, and complement rather than replace traditional face-to-face bonds of local community — suggests some need to curb our enthusiasm about the transformative effects of online communication.

Online tools certainly provide some other intriguing capacities, directed less at the poor and homeless themselves and more at those who work to improve their situations. For example, consider this national map of homelessness assembled by Home Free Organization. Or consider this story about a homeless woman; perhaps the most intriguing thing here is the lead: “I found Joanne via Twitter.” The federal government weighs in with data.gov, a massive online portal to numerous public data-sets assembled by federal agencies. Perhaps these sources of data will help the increasingly-common “poverty summits” cropping up around the country as they try to craft effective policy solutions; perhaps the data will allow a better appreciation of the success of programs like the “Housing First” strategy presently being tested in a number of cities.
Obviously data alone won’t solve the problems of homelessness and poverty, and neither will marches and rallies — although marches and rallies, like other activist campaigns, can certainly raise awareness and put pressure on elected officials. But tough policy choices remain. Since quality food is more expensive, do we prioritize feeding as many people as possible, or feeding fewer people well? Does one improve average quality of health care available to Americans, or address the glaring disparities in care and disease prevalence between different socioeconomic groups? What happens when a church’s effort to help the poor and homeless starts to displace members of the congregation, thus threatening the survival of the effort itself? And what do we do with the built environments in which we now live, environments that may themselves contribute to poor health by discouraging sufficient physical activity? Tough choices indeed.

>National Poverty News Roundup for 26 May

>President Obama’s selection of Sonia Sotomayor to be his nominee for the Supreme Court is, among other things, important testimony to the importance of continued funding for public housing projects. Sotomayor, as has been widely reported, grew up in a public housing project in the Bronx, and went on from there to Princeton and eventually the federal judiciary. Imagine, for a moment, what might have happened in the absence of public housing for Sotomayor’s family; where might she have ended up? We know that homelessness has an effect on how children learn and how they do in school, and despite the recent establishment of a few schools specifically for homeless children, the continued rise in the number of homeless school-age children suggests the need for a closer look at how public housing is provided.

Constructing sustainable public housing that serves as an asset to community development might be part of the answer, especially since new home construction appears to be at “its lowest pace on record” and home prices continue to decline in most major cities. Tucked into the recently-signed “Helping Families Save Their Homes Act” is $2.2 billion to address homelessness, specifically targeting families with school-aged children; if wisely spent, that money could also be part of the answer. Thinking further outside the box, maybe a whole-scale modification of the elementary education calendar — particularly one that would help to address the well-established “summer slump” that hits children in lower socioeconomic statuses particularly hard — is in order?
Last week “localism” emerged as a theme; this week, consider the impact of social media on the problems of poverty and homelessness. LimeLife’s “Apps for Good” seeks to use the appeal of mobile gaming to help fund programs giving microloans to female entrepreneurs in developing countries; Debbie Tenzer’s “Do One Nice Thing” campaign harnesses the power of crowds to create significant impact, one person and one contribution at a time. Even the federal government is getting in on the act, moving ahead with the Open Government Initiative that promises to use new technologies to involve ordinary citizens in the work of government. Instead of dumping the problem in the lap of some faceless bureaucracy, these campaigns ask us to become personally involved — but don’t demand that we dedicate our entire lives to achieving their goals. Maybe a little, from a lot of people, really can be enough.

>National Poverty News Roundup for 19 May

>It is trite to observe that poverty, homelessness, and economic development are complex and multifaceted issues, and perhaps equally trite to claim that issues of such complexity require a wide variety of solutions. But even so, it is sometimes useful to remind ourselves that the world of politics and policy is not the sort of place where any single initiative — even something as welcome as a new consensus on fuel economy and emissions standards — is likely to address all of our challenges at once. Washington D.C. provides a good example of the local complexity: the impacts of poverty and unemployment in the city are persistently associated with particular wards and neighborhoods; foreclosures are clustered into particular areas of the city (and are even affecting renters in those areas); and ethnic and socioeconomic divisions persist among the users of the city’s different modes of public transportation (and it’s not particularly surprising that Metro riders are more affluent, given Metro’s basic design as a system for moving people from the suburbs in and out of the city). All of this local diversity suggests that we have to be extremely careful in forecasting how any given policy initiative will impact the daily lives of people in the area.

Localism also seems to be the order of the day in how people are coping with their present difficulties. Whether at a car show in Alaska or in donations from dairy associations in Des Moines or peanut producers in Atlanta, the emphasis on improving the local situation is pronounced. Witness also the Brooklyn Food Conference, a gathering of activists and organizations in the New York borough designed to produce strategies for improving not just how much food is available to the community, including its poorest members, but also and perhaps most importantly the quality of that food: moving away from the paradigm of “fast, cheap, and easy” and towards, perhaps, a more sustainable model of urban farming. Call this double localism: local actors, but also a turn away from the idea that in our contemporary lives we can simply eliminate distance in favor of convenience, especially when it comes to food provision. Of course, one has to be careful, as the rhetoric of localism is easily captured by large corporations, and what is branded as “local” might not necessarily be local . . . but it’s striking that even the idea of the local is gaining currency as a way to make products appealing.
Another thing that localities can do is to equip themselves and their citizens to make smarter choices. Massachusetts has approved a calorie-labeling measure, joining California and New York in doing so; will this trend continue to other states? Can the recently-announced nationwide effort to improve public housing — an effort that must of necessity involve cooperation with local agencies and stakeholders — learn from a recent New York City Housing Authority project that public housing and architectural innovation can be complementary? Can the process of public planning be streamlined, so that it might be easier to build a train or establish a homeless shelter? Localism is no utopian panacea; it requires effort. Perhaps precisely the kind of effort that recent college graduates, presently flocking to the Washington D.C. area and to other coastal cities in search of jobs, can provide, especially if they — and you — take a few minutes to read over Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp’s 2009 commencement address and call to “dive in early” when it comes to working on these socioeconomic issues. I might add: dive in early, and dive in locally.

>National Poverty News Roundup for 12 May

>Amidst what is becoming the ordinary, steady flow of stories about rising demand and lower supply for food banks across the country, and the stories about local businesses pitching in to donate from their (steadily diminishing) surplus stocks and motivated groups and extraordinary individuals doing their part to raise awareness, and the continual reminders that this is a tough job market for everyone, including recent college grads, a few items shone through this week.

First is the increasing media sophistication when it comes to discussing the lives of the poor and homeless in the United States. Going beyond simple sentimentalism, there are increasing number of nuanced treatments of the everyday experience of the economically marginalized, such as this series (the link is to Part One; other parts to follow) on “the new homeless” from the Charlotte Observer. Also noteworthy is a recent NPR Living on Earth story on “food deserts” in urban areas, which draws the connection between poverty and health in a novel and compelling way.
Second is the kind of new thinking that can sometimes arise in a crisis, when researchers and activists step beyond conventional wisdom to tackle problems in novel ways. Witness, for example, recent initiatives in green affordable housing in New York City; Sustainable South Bronx, an advocacy organization solidly supporting such efforts, links environmental justice and economic development in creative ways that perhaps hold the potential to address multiple facets of poverty simultaneously. Or consider the intriguing new research on the neurology of poverty, which continues to look for effects of low and high socioeconomic status on educational outcomes in children in the functioning of specific areas of the brain; while it has not done so, the research has clearly indicated that “language aptitude is . . . damaged by poverty” and that therefore policies need to be designed to “decrease some of the neurophysiological strain of poverty.”
Finally, the increasing sophistication of the public policy debate about planning for the future is marvelous to behold. Should fuel taxes pay for alternative transportation with the Highway Trust Fund under considerable strain? one forum asks, and invites a variety of experts to weigh in on the issue. Foreign aid reform is also proceeding. and thanks to online tools like opencongress.org we can now track the progress of bills through committee hearings and floor debates more closely than ever before. It’s a new chapter in government accountability, in many ways; will that openness and transparency help to produce more creative solutions?

National Poverty News Roundup for 28 April

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Here in the week following the signing of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act — a piece of national legislation that, among other things, sets in motion a dramatic expansion of AmeriCorps and inaugurates a new “Summer of Service” program for middle and high school students — it appears that the need for such service remains as high as ever. Food banks across the country continue to see increased demand and decreased supplies, while tent cities, sometimes populated by long-term residents, continue to be a feature of the contemporary US housing scene. And although we have both successful examples of and expert knowledge about particular policies that can address the problem of homelessness, funding remains a challenge, especially in these economic times.
The economic downturn is not only affecting poverty-reduction efforts in the United States, of course, but is also having an effect globally. US Treasury Secretary Geithner cautioned that international financial institutions needed to alter their practices in order not to give up global gains in fighting poverty, and focus more on “long-term development objectives.” The Obama administration is seeking $100 billion in new aid money, and for the first time in its history the IMF has agreed to issue interest-bearing bonds to finance its programs. All this at the very same time that the World Bank has issued a report forecasting that Eastern Europe and Central Asia will see millions of people pushed into poverty over the next few years. In such circumstances, it’s inspiring to see rallies and assemblies of concerned groups, raising consciousness and perhaps helping make solutions politically viable.
On another front, things continue to go poorly for the mortgage modification bill that continues to meet with industry opposition as it makes its way through Congress. The relief system at the moment is perverse to the point where, reportedly, some struggling homeowners are purposely skipping mortgage payments in order to qualify for some kind of payment modification from their lenders. This hardly seems like a recipe for a sustainable program of keeping people in their homes. Given other societal and global needs, is a bailout of homeowners with unsustainable mortgages ethically justifiable? Yes, argues Randy Cohen, because “a foolish financial decision need not be a moral failure or even unusual.” Agree or disagree, the claim — and the discussion it provoked — is worth taking a closer look at.

National Poverty News Roundup for 21 April

>The news roundup is back after a slight absence. Top of the list for this week, even though the report is a couple of weeks old by now, is the national March unemployment report, which puts the national unemployment rate at 8.5%. Although that’s up 3.4% in the last twelve months, this is the kicker sentence in the report’s summary: “Half of the increase in both the number of unemployed and the unemployment rate occurred in the last 4 months.” Half. There may be isolated bright spots in the national economic picture, but overall, it looks like we’re continuing to see the effects of earlier financial and housing collapses rippling through various sectors. Hawai’i can’t build planned homeless shelters, and Minnesota’s plans to end long-term homelessness are also threatened by budget cuts. Although the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development continues to award grants, it remains unclear whether these grants will be sufficient to replace the funds that localities and regions have lost in the current economic climate.

Layoffs continue to spread into new industries and sectors, affecting people who never thought they’d lose their jobs. One food bank manager reports that the demand for food is up 40% in his region; other food banks are turning to grow-your-own policies in an effort to supplement the other food that they distribute. Tax day, always a stressful time, was worse this year for many people unable to pay their bills; some tax preparers report a large increase in the number of people paying taxes with credit-cards. And mortgage lenders continue to resist the Obama administration’s foreclosure-reduction plans that give bankruptcy judges the authority to change loan terms; that might signal even more foreclosures to come, now that the voluntary moratorium on foreclosures enacted by many of those lenders seems to have come to a close.
Stalemate? Amid the negative, some positive signs, not of economic recovery, but of ways that people are managing. Students and sports stars continue to engage in fundraising efforts. The Obama administration is in the process of unveiling a number of major policy initiatives, such as this plan for a national high-speed rail network; will this kind of infrastructure spending get the economy moving again? In the meantime, look for green jobs and maybe even the return of the barter economy, at least on a small scale. In the end, perhaps many of the solutions we seek can be best formulated and implemented regionally.

National Poverty News Roundup for 24 March

>As I scan the headlines from the past week, two issues jump out at me: homelessness, and the growing awareness of problems in the global food system.

Homelessness, we learn in a fairly stark report issued by the National Center on Family Homelessness, is on the increase nationwide, especially among families and children. Being homeless has detrimental effects on those whom it effects, especially children: health problems, emotional difficulties, and decreased lifetime incomes are only the tip of the iceberg. Personal stories put a human face on the issue, whether in Binghamton NY or in the tent city near Sacramento CA (which is scheduled to be closed, with some — but nowhere near all — of the residents moved to more sanitary facilities). Some money from the federal stimulus package may help to meet the most immediate needs, but the emergency shelter system is clearly under stress.
At the same time, global retail food prices seem to be remaining much higher than the world market prices of the food commodities themselves. This may be just the latest chapter in the problems of a global food system that persistently engages in unsustainable production — the kind of disfunction that may, just may, be promoting a “food revolution” that leads to more sustainable agricultural practices. Even the White House is getting into the act, with its organic vegetable garden. Will we see the complete re-making of declining cities like Detroit to resemble a concept like “Farmadelphia,” with food grown in abandoned lots in the inner city itself?
Economic distress remains widespread: students graduating from college this Spring, people being laid off as their workplaces face budget cuts, or those affected by increasing foreclosure rates or other shifts in employment patterns. What can you do? If you live in DC, you can participate in World Water Week this week and help give children clean water to drink. Or think about the neighborhoods through which you pass on the way to and from work, and consider getting involved there for an hour or two a week. Every little bit helps.

National Poverty News Roundup for 17 March 2009

>The casualties of the present economic downturn continue to mount. Unemployment here in Washington DC, supposedly one of the areas of the country most recession-proof on account of its government jobs, hit 9.3% for January 2009; even lawyers are beginning to feel the pinch. And once we get out of the higher income brackets, things get worse: at least 3% of District residents appear to be infected with HIV, and the mayor’s office suggests that the actual number is probably higher. Here as elsewhere in the country, food banks are experiencing record high demand combined with record low levels of supply; in Orlando, Florida, aid workers are comparing the situation to what they traditionally experience following a major hurricane. Even local Humane Society chapters are hard-pressed to provide food for cats and dogs. And once we get outside of the United States, the situation gets perhaps worse: Kenya faces widespread starvation, and you know that the global situation must be dire when Wal-Mart and the AFL-CIO — usually at loggerheads over labor issues — join a coalition urging more targeted US aid to address the situation of the developing world.

So it’s bad all over. We know this abstractly, but how to get a handle on it? We can look at national statistics for some perspective, such as this revealing graphic detailing the number of “underwater” (negative-equity: the homeowner owes more on the property than the property is worth at current market rates) mortgages; California leads the pack in absolute numbers (1.9 million mortgages), while Nevada leads the relative percentages with a whopping 55% (!) of all mortgages in the state being underwater. Such economic dislocation might exacerbate well-known patterns of residential segregation, driving more low-income working families into the inner cities where the all-too-familiar cycle of increased demand for services combined with a decreased tax base places additional burdens on already-strapped urban service infrastructures. The Obama Adminstration’s stimulus package might help address some of the shortfalls; a recent meeting of the “Eight Neighbors” coalition of regional service organizations provides some insight into how the money might be most effectively used (their one-hour mp3 briefing is a useful compendium of information, if you have some time to listen to it).

The National Poverty News Roundup

>Hello to everyone out there in the blogosphere who’s interested in poverty-related issues. My name is Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, and I’m going to be doing a weekly (or as close to weekly as I can manage) post here giving a roundup of the past week’s national poverty news. By “national poverty news” I basically mean national news stories, plus blog commentary and discussion, about the character of poverty — particularly urban poverty — in the contemporary era, about the causes of poverty, and about efforts to combat it or ameloriate its effects. I mean these posts to serve as a news aggregator, and do not plan to use them to offer my own analysis; this is more of a space to call attention to some of the issues and items I found particularly striking from the past week.

My qualifications for this endeavor? Although I am an Associate Professor of International Relations at American University, I will not pretend to be an academic expert on poverty issues. I post and podcast as “PTJ” on subjects more germane to my professional specialization — identity, public rhetoric, International Relations Theory, the philosophy of science and its implications for research methodology — at other places. My interest in blogging about poverty issues here stems from a concern to do something for the great organization whose blog this is, and also from a desire to lift up stories about those people and organizations out there who are trying to do something for “the least of these” during this national and global economic downturn.

For the time being, I plan to post weekly roundups on Tuesday each week. My self-imposed restriction is that they will be no more than three paragraphs long, and will be chock-full of links to interesting stories and discussions from around the ‘Net. Hopefully these roundups will serve as a useful compilation of news and notes for our readers. Feel free to send any feedback on this feature to me directly — nationalpoverty (at) gmail (dot) com — or comment on this or any of the other posts labeled “National Poverty Roundup.”