Residential Segregation and Upward Mobility

450New Orleans         Reports of a new study by economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz looking more deeply at the earning records of millions of families who moved to different addresses found that “poor children who grow up in some cities and towns have sharply higher odds of escaping poverty than similar poor children elsewhere.”   As the New York Times summarized, “…the city is especially harsh for boys:  Low-income boys who grew up there in recent decades make roughly 25 percent less as adults than similar low-income boys who were born in the city and moved as small children to an average place.”

I’m scratching my head just a bit wondering what the news is, in all of this.  Are the headlines simply about the fact that rather than just thinking that families are being trapped in poverty in urban neighborhoods and a lot of rural areas and Indian reservations, that now that we have the numbers, we can prove they are trapped?

God knows we have been tricking ourselves, so maybe that’s the point.  Studies by several independent research teams have found that Americans severely misjudge the amount of upward mobility in society through a self-serving psychological conceit:  overestimating upward mobility is self-serving for the rich and justifies their wealth and for the poor provides hope for a brighter future.  Neither is true, but “what the hey!”

The map, county-to-county, is interesting.  You are in trouble living in Tampa, Orlando, West Palm, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Orleans for sure, and good luck if you live in the Bronx or some parts of Manhattan still.  You live on the Navaho, Northern Cheyenne, or other reservations, luck won’t help you.  The best shot for your family according to the numbers is DuPage County outside of Chicago, if you can afford the rent, and about the same can be said for San Francisco, Salt Lake City – and a whole lot of other places in Utah – Las Vegas, and Providence, as well as some of the suburban counties around them.  You might be able to afford the rent in Altoona and some parts of Pittsburgh.

Sadly for all of the Sunbelt boom, overall if you look at the map of the South your best shot outside of northwestern Arkansas is just getting by and holding your own.   South and North Carolina look like disaster areas or, I guess to be more specific, they look like the Mississippi Delta.  There’s nothing but trouble in all of this.

HUD Secretary Julian Castro says he’s excited about this.  He wants to allocate funding to help families move to higher cost neighborhoods with larger housing vouchers.  This will be an interesting appropriations battle when he goes with that budget to the Republican Congressmen from these suburban districts and asks for more money to move families from the ghetto to their counties.  For a long time residential income and racial segregation has been a concrete ceiling for poverty, and the numbers that prove it aren’t going to be enough to change the hearts and minds of politicians who are committed to no change coming to their areas and the same faces in their electorate.

You can’t have mobility when all the roads are filled with STOP signs.

“Dare You to Move” by Switchfoot – Poverty


Internet Monopolies Walls are Going to Tumble

Telus better pack it up or get right!

Telus better pack it up or get right!

Dallas     At the ACORN Canada staff training and then the management meeting in Montreal, we spent a LOT of time assessing and strategizing about our next steps on our Digital Access to Opportunities campaign which, plainly stated, continues to be our effort to build bridges for lower income families across the digital divide.

In Canada the companies are even more closely held monopoly concerns with the big three Telus, Canada Bell, and Rogers than are found even in the United States, although Comcast with its proposed merger of Times-Warner clearly has its heart set on going the same way.  Despite some steps to accommodate us with a $10 per month plan in public housing in Tornoto, Rogers has not moved past that opening round and what they delivered has been less than promised.  Telus in a meeting in Vancouver had told us they were moving our way, but then have not gotten back to us, and Bell continues to be unabashedly arrogant and impervious to our concerns, having adopted what can only be seen as a Comcast head-in-the-stand, make-me-do-it, schoolyard bully approach to the problem, hoping it will disappear into the Ethernet or something.

Not clear what tea leaves their lobbyists are telling them to read, but they’ve got trouble on the horizon.  The regulators in Canada are preparing for a hearing this winter on declaring the internet a public utility, and the same thing has been promised in the US by the FCC.

ACORN is committed to participating in the Ottawa hearings, but we’re convinced the court of public opinion is where we will be able to be heard more clearly.   They may have invested in some infrastructure but surveys of our members and others reveal that people hate their cable and internet company the way they once hated the local tax man.  Furthermore their brands are ubiquitous and their tentacles stretch everywhere from their ownership to sports teams in Tornoto to the bicycle sharing program in Montreal.  That’s a big, wide butt ready for the kicking!  We’re convinced that to get them finally to take seriously the desperation of lower income families to have access to opportunities, we’re going to have to go big, go broad, and be as ubiquitous as they are.  Enough said for now.

Meanwhile the often clueless former industry lobbyist heading the FCC must have startled the big boys of the industry in the financial papers the other day by pretty graphically drawing a picture of all of the internet companies as being emperors with no clothes on.  He simply stated the obvious without stating the obvious.  He said there is little or no competition in most markets so that internet service costs too much and changing from one operator to another is prohibitively expensive.  All of which is another way of saying that the companies are anti-competitive and operating like Canadians, or what we used to call monopolies.  Chairmen Wheeler claimed 80% of Americans have access to high speed internet at 25 megbits per second, though he didn’t say at what price, but if he’s going to acknowledge as his statement indicated that the “F.C.C. planned to promote more choices and protect competition, because a lack of adequate consumer choice inhibits innovation, investment and economic benefits,” it’s hard to believe that they can’t get the message.  For a change it was even an indirect shot across Comcast’s bow, since their claim that they are not a monopoly through their purchase of Times-Warner is that they don’t often compete in the same markets.  Someone seems to have given Wheeler the memo that they are in different markets, because they don’t compete, and you can’t claim you are regulating them to assure competition when they are silently colluding to kept customers captive and control separate geographies.

Ok, yeah, maybe I’m dreaming about the FCC being something other than chattel for the companies, but maybe when they see what we have in store for the companies in Canada some of the chill will blow down from the north to cool some of the imperial monopoly dreams that are widening the digital divide.  Here’s hoping!



Could Chat-Apps Increase Maximum Eligible Participation for Low-and-Moderate Income Families?

Eliza-dialogue-5New Orleans          What in the world is “chatvertising,” and why would any of us care? Good point! And, my thoughts exactly, which is why I had overlooked the original piece in the Journal about the growing effectiveness, and even popularity, of chat-bots or in real English, computers that are trained to talk back to you and carry on effective conversations with people.

I had read earlier a piece in the Times or somewhere that advocated using robots to fill the gap in elder caregiving and companionship given the emerging crises of way too many baby boomers hitting decrepitude with way too few workers and dollars to provide all of the care they will need. Supposedly having elderly, even senile folks, talk to computers is working in Japan, and the seniors are happy with the conversations and the attention.

The buzz was about a chat-app called Kik, which claims that four of ten teenagers are active users in the US, and a huge chat service called Line from Japan that has 400 million registered users. The Waterloo, Ontario-based Kik wants to sell their stuff by programming the robots in such a way that kids would be talking to “brands” rather than people, taking the person-hood of corporations to a whole new level. You know, asking Coke a question about Coke, I guess. Where are we going?

The back-story is that an MIT prof, Joseph Weizenbaum, invented ELIZA, a computer program that could “engage in open-ended conversation with a real human being. Over time these chat bots have gotten better and better at interacting with humans, mostly because programmers have loaded them up with knowledge about the real world. They can also learn from their conversations, becoming ever more skilled at fooling us into thinking that they, too, are intelligent.” Kinda creepy, huh, but maybe this tool has the capacity for good, rather than just being able to sell stuff?

Local 100 and ACORN International are spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to effectively organize what we’re calling Citizen Wealth Centers that would be multi-purpose centers in our offices in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas that could help people enroll for Obamacare, access all entitlement benefits, repair credit, do taxes, apply for social security, adjust medical bills, and help find jobs and houses. Basically we are training people who for minimal fees could fix you up by being experts at navigating the increasingly complex modern bureaucracy and its plethora of rules and regulations. Preparing to launch has involved weekly training across a number of disciplines and eligibility programs to try and get everyone up to snuff.

I won’t take second place to anyone in arguing about the value of people-to-people communication, but I’m also realistic enough to know that our ability to scale up the Citizen Wealth Centers will be hard even in the middle south and with our allies elsewhere, yet in the meantime there will be many millions who need just his kind of advice, advocacy, and action. The government and corporations have been adept at getting phone machines to hear requests and bungle about trying to connect us to the right answers. Banks particularly suck at this for example. But, why not make the same effort to train some of these robots to handle the easy referrals, especially for so many on the other side of the computer divide, but who do have smartphones, so that they could “chat” their way to benefits and through the early application processes, bumping over to people when the mess multiplied, but at least getting the quick fixes out of the way?

There may be a real future for these chat-apps not just in selling, but in services, too.


Study Establishes that People-User-Based Public Service Strategy Could Save Billions

locality-logoEdinburgh       Riding on the train from Stafford to Edinburgh, I started reading a pamphlet produced by Locality, the big UK nonprofit.  The title, “Saving Money by Doing the Right Thing,” had caught my eye sitting on a literature table at the training conference.  The upshot was a contrarian, but in our experience accurate and corrective analysis of the current failures of public services to actually fulfill their purposes of providing services to the public, as opposed to serving their internal bureaucracies, metrics, and filling their subcontractor’s pockets.

The bulk of the report was based on the work of a Locality partner, Professor John Seddon and a consulting operation he directs known as Vanguard.  He and his team over several years have collected exhaustive piles of data tracking the interactions of users with government and private outfits providing services.  By following a people centric matrix on services rather than a provider centered approach they found some interesting things in England, which also resonate with our experiences in the US, Canada, and other large countries in the throes of neo-liberalism and government retractions.

The report’s findings included the following:

·         Overall demand for public services has not risen.  What has risen is what they call “failure” demand, which is artificial demand caused by not doing the right thing for the person at first contact.  What used to be labeled as mere paper-pushing is now people-pushing, and because of the redundancy of contacts, the delays, and the constant evasions is pushing people away from the help they need and mischaracterizing fundamental problems.

·         They identified an interesting process where “points of transaction” for service users are “in practice referral rather than action points,” creating an “assess to refer” dynamic rather than an “assess to act” or solve process which forces users to “bounce around from one agency to another until a decision is made.”

·         They advocate a solution “focused on purpose, not outcomes,” arguing that “better outcomes are a consequence of effective intervention” for the service user, rather than the service provider.  Pointedly, they argue that “outcomes-based management…drives dysfunctional behavior, fosters cheating and hides failure.”


What does it all mean going forward if providers of public services rethought their approach?   It actually saves a huge amount of money if you fix a problem rather than repetitively continue to push it downstream.  The Vanguard folks estimate the savings in England alone would be 16 billion pounds which conservatively would translate into about $26 billion in dollars, which just might be something hard pressed governments would notice!   For example in health care and human services in one data crunching exercise after another they found:

“…a ratio of 75.25 per cent waste to value.  It took 400 hours of work to deliver 100 hours of value.  Meanwhile, just 5 per cent of the population consumed 50 per cent of the resource ….”

This is part of the rationale we’ve been arguing for our Citizen Wealth Centers as well, by creating advocates and representatives who would be able to intervene in the process and inject themselves like wrenches into the bureaucratic machinery, we could force them to finally deliver real services to low-and-moderate income constituents.  It was refreshing to stumble onto an excellent analysis that dared to look at the facts and punch holes in the myths of subcontracting, “economies of scale,” and service cutbacks to find that reworking the system could fix real problems for real people by embracing the people, rather than pushing them down the road or burying them in the bureaucracy, and, save money while solving more problems in the process.


Calculating the Benefits of Bridging the Digital Divide

iStock_000003223001_Small-300x199London     Our last meeting in London before schlepping our gear towards Heathrow was with a charming activist named Claire Milne over coffee and tea near Kings Crossing.  Claire is part of something called the Essential Services Access Network in Britain, which we’re clearly going to have to learn more about.  Interestingly, we were talking about her specialty, telecommunications and our efforts in ACORN’s Digital Access Opportunity Campaign in the US and Canada, and our head scratching efforts to figure out where low and moderate income families stood in this regard in the United Kingdom.

Though on the narrow level of “access,” both our organizers and research indicated the technical numbers are actually quite high, ranging towards 95%, much of that is more limited through phones, and only 50% or less own smartphones that might give somewhat more.  Directed to a report by the Tinder Foundation, we already knew from Claire that there needed to be a lot of leaping still to bridge the divide in the UK as well.

To quote from Appendix A:
11 million      Number of people in 2013 who don’t have Basic Online Skills, using the internet regularly – of which…
7 million       Number of people who have never used the internet
1 million        Number of people who are lapsed users of the internet
3 million       Number of people who use the internet regularly but don’t have Basic Online Skills
6.2 million    Number of people who, in 2020, won’t meet our criteria on current trends or with current programs

Our obvious argument has been that the internet is now a public utility, and like electricity, gas, or telephone, as a utility, access has to be universal as a matter of simple equity.  The Tinder Foundation report made a telling argument though about the economic losses for Britain due to the lack of access.   Quoting a government report they argued:

Government Digital Service (GDS), we know that just getting people totransact with government online could save some £1.7 billion a year. Not a big enoughnumber for you? Well thanks to the work of Martha Lane Fox, Go ON UK and Booze &Co, we also know that being a leading digital nation in the global economy would realisesome £63 billion worth of benefit. Since we also know that comparing dollars to the pound, our money spends like pesos in the UK, you can pretty much double those numbers to put them in a North American context, meaning a governmental savings of almost $3.5 billion and an economic benefit of over $120 billon.

There’s no sense pretending that everyone cares whether lower income families have an equal shake, since the evidence is glaringly obvious to the contrary, but transposing those kinds of numbers over to North America, perhaps we could get more attention if we forced the big whoops to reckon with the money they – and we – are losing by going to not make access universal.


Making Working Men More Economically Attractive

Little Rock     The headline was no tipoff on this piece in the Times’ business section.   Another article about how much the economics of single parent households really suck, blah, blah, blah, please tell us something we didn’t know, will ya?  So they did by basically in so many words and with all due concern letting we know that men, especially working men without college degrees are a problem.  How can I summarize their argument delicately…men it seems are, how can we say it, losers.

“Single-parent families tend to emerge in places where the men already are a mess,” said Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard University. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Suppose the available men were getting married to the available women? Would that be an improvement?’ ” Instead of making marriage more attractive, he said, it might be better for society to help make men more attractive.

“Make men more attractive.”  Now that’s a lifetime project for many men and, way too often, an ambition for the women, parents, and children who love them.

The argument here was based on a recent study from an MIT professor David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, his graduate assistant.  They note that there is a vicious cycle pulling some men down in their view:

In this telling, the economic struggles of male workers are both a cause and an effect of the breakdown of traditional households. Men who are less successful are less attractive as partners, so some women are choosing to raise children by themselves, in turn often producing sons who are less successful and attractive as partners. “A vicious cycle may ensue,” wrote Professor Autor and his co-author, Melanie Wasserman, a graduate student, “with the poor economic prospects of less educated males creating differentially large disadvantages for their sons, thus potentially reinforcing the development of the gender gap in the next generation.”

So as the reporter, Binyamin Appelbaum hustled around trying to get a grip on this phenomena from one academic to another, he basically found that the experts all agree:  it’s a head scratcher!

Among people who were 35 years old in 2010, for example, women were 17 percent more likely to have attended college, and 23 percent more likely to hold an undergraduate degree.  “I think the greatest, most astonishing fact that I am aware of in social science right now is that women have been able to hear the labor market screaming out ‘You need more education’ and have been able to respond to that, and men have not,” said Michael Greenstone, an M.I.T. economics professor who was not involved in Professor Autor’s work. “And it’s very, very scary for economists because people should be responding to price signals. And men are not. It’s a fact in need of an explanation.”

So it turns out there are terrible consequences at the deepest levels of society, including family life and class stratification that flow from economic inequity and the stagnation of working and lower income family wages.  No surprise there either, but the terrible nightmare that the avarice of a generation would in fact force the sins of the “fathers” of such policies fall not on their sons and daughters but on generations of low-and-moderate income families is tragic.

I have to also wonder as we wallow around looking for an explanation whether part of the paradox of making men “more attractive” economically, is that men in their precipitous financial fall have still not leaned to be the docile workers that employers demand, and whether women in their more recent climb in wages are not “leaning in” as aggressively within the workforce yet, making them more currently coveted by employers?

More training and more education would undoubtedly be good for me – and women – but finally allowing people to breakthrough and earn living wages, or what once we called “family-supporting” wages, might be the easiest way to “make men more attractive” in building and holding these families together.