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August 26, 2013

Time was when virtually all spam comments on my blog were automatically filtered out. The relative few that slipped through were obvious product-promotion messages.

No longer. For some months now, I’ve been getting comments that praise the blog and/or ask how to start one. Momentarily gratifying, but then I see that the name in the commenter line links to a marketing site.

Some of these “comments” read as if the writer isn’t fluent in English. This is also true for many comments that have no discernible relation to the blog — let alone the post they’re attached to.

So I got curious. Turns out the spammers are using thesaurus programs so that the messages they blast out aren’t identical. This lets them get through spam filters.

So the links sit on a lot of web pages, which gives them a bump in Google rankings. Bigger bump, I understand, if they’ posted on pages with popular keywords, i.e., search terms that will tend to increase the number of page views.

But, as everyone knows, words a thesaurus gives as synonyms aren’t all interchangeable.

Hence messages that read like very bad translations — often so bad I can’t back into what the thesaurus program started with. Yes, this is something I waste a bit of time on.

Well, you won’t find these comments on my blog because I blow them away. But I’m going to share a few for your amusement — all unedited, except for length.

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And my all-time favorite: “When someone searches for his vital thing, therefore he/she wishes to be available that in detail, therefore that thing is maintained over here.”

Now back to serious stuff.


In Defense of Unwed Dads

June 14, 2013

Nearly 41% of children are born to unwed mothers. Most of the research has focused on them and their moms, especially those at the bottom of the income scale.

But, of course, for every unwed mother there’s a dad — not necessarily unmarried, mind you.

In most cases, however, it seems he is. According to several studies, about half of unmarried parents were living together when their children were born.

But they often break up. And when that happens, a high percent of fathers disengage, as Robert Lehrman reports in a broad review of the “capabilities and contributions” of unwed fathers.

One study he cites found that by the time their kids were five, nearly half the dads hadn’t seen them for a month. Thirty-seven percent had had no contact with them for two years.

This would seem to feed some well-worn stereotypes — fathers who shrug off responsibilities for their children, including child support. The infamous “deadbeat dads.”

A new book by sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson challenges the stereotypes, as its title indicates — Doing the Best I Can.

The book is the product of seven years of research in Camden, New Jersey and low-income Philadelphia neighborhoods — much of it in-depth interviews with unwed fathers.

The pre-history, as the introduction indicates, has a strongly racial flavor.

In public discourse, we can trace it back to 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan identified out-of-wedlock births as a symptom of the breakdown of the Negro family.

Or since his work was swiftly marginalized, to the mid-1980s, when Bill Moyers hosted a special CBS report on “The Vanishing Family: A Crisis in Black America.”

What’s happened since is that unwed fatherhood has become more of a class phenomenon, Edin says.

Different studies provide somewhat different figures — none that I’ve found very current because they all rely on an ongoing study of a group of children born in big cities between 1998 and 2000.

According to these “fragile families” data, a majority of unwed fathers are racial or ethnic minorities, with black, non-Hispanics accounting for 46%.

But other research clearly indicates that race/ethnicity itself isn’t the key factor. The biggest difference between unwed fathers and fathers married to the mothers of their newborns is income.

In 2005, the former earned, on average, only $15,465 at the time their children were born — about $18,100 less than new, married fathers.

More than half of the “fragile families” dads who were still living with the mothers by the time their children were five earned less than $15,000.

The main explanation for these very low earnings is lack of the formal education credentials that are increasingly the passport to living wage jobs.

In the same fragile families sample cited above, 81.6% of the unwed dads had, at most, a high school diploma or GED. More than 45% of them had less. A mere 2.2% had a college degree.

Most low-income mothers understandably want a husband who’s a reliable breadwinner. It’s their top priority, Edin found in an earlier interview-based study.

And both they and their low-income partners apparently share the growing view that marriage should await financial stability — at something like a middle-class level, it seems, since they speak of a home, a car, a wedding we can assume isn’t at the courthouse.

This helps explain why only a fraction of unwed parents in the fragile families sample view childbirth as a signal to marry, even though 82% of them were living together or otherwise “romantically involved” at the time their children were born.

Also why the fathers tend to disengage over time — not always willingly, however. A fair number, the Edin-Melson team found, were pushed away when the moms found a better-off partner.

Perhaps the most important thing the team found, however, is that the unwed dads welcome fatherhood. They want a relationship with their child.

They have what Edin calls a “father thirst” — and among blacks especially, a determination to do a better job of fathering than their own dads did.

So the unwed dads aren’t, by and large, men “who impregnate women and selfishly flee,” as arch-conservative William Bennett fulminated.

Nor are they reflecting a biological propensity to “hit and run” sexuality, as family values champion David Blankenhorn claimed.

“They want to be nurturers,” Edin says. But our public policies treat them as “paychecks and not as parents,” i.e. focus only on ensuring they pay child support.

Even when they can’t — because they’re in jail, for example, and likely to return because they can’t pay the accumulated debt.

Even when — or perhaps especially when — the money is used to reimburse federal and state welfare payments, rather than to provide poor mothers with some additional funds for their children’s needs.

We have publicly-funded “responsible fatherhood” programs — and have had for some time.

Seems to me we’d do better to recognize that unwed dads want to be responsible and do what we can to make that possible.


House Republican Group Targets Benefits for Severely Disabled

October 11, 2012

Seems that SSI (Supplemental Security Income) has become the latest candidate for block granting — and safety net slashing.

Under the latest House Republican Study Committee plan, SSI funding would be capped at about 31% less than last year’s spending level and “returned” to the states.

They’d have to use their own revenue if they wanted to sustain the relatively small cash benefits SSI provides. Or they could manage with what they’d get by cutting those benefits and/or tightening the already tight eligibility standards.

We need only look at the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to know which choice they’d make.

The RSC trots out the usual rhetoric about inordinate caseload growth — in this case, especially the part of the caseload consisting of children with mental, behavioral and/or learning disorders.

Cites discredited allegations by the Boston Globe, which took out after SSI for children two years ago in a series tellingly entitled “the other welfare.”

Ah yes, another instance of fostering dependency. More low-income parents gaming the system. Etc.

What seems to have gotten the Globe going — and subsequently the RSC — is the high percent of children on SSI who have mental, rather than physical disabilities.

There’s nothing new about this, as the Bazelon Center for Mental Health reports. The percent has been about the same for more than 10 years.

What has changed is how the disabilities are classified. There are indeed higher percentages of children who receive SSI benefits due to conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and language-related developmental delays.

At the same time, a much smaller percentage of children in the program are classified as intellectually disabled — or, in earlier days, mentally retarded.

This apparent shift in the caseload obviously reflects progress in medical research and clinical practice.

Children who were once all lumped together — and viewed as minimally trainable, but not treatable — are now diagnosed differentially. Related advances have produced an array of treatment options that can be individually tailored.

It’s important to note, however, that far from all children with mental disabilities can qualify for SSI benefits.

Only those who meet a stringent test for severe disability can — and then only if their family income and other countable resources, e.g., money in the bank, both fall below set maximums.

If House Republicans want a real explanation for the reason more children now receive SSI, they should look to the large increase in the number of children whose families are poor enough to fall below the official poverty threshold.

As I’ve said before, SSI benefits can partially offset the extra costs parents incur when they’re raising a disabled child. But the estimated average costs exceed even the maximum SSI benefit.

Not surprisingly then, 62% of families with one child who receives SSI benefits experience at least one material hardship, e.g., severe food insecurity, inability to pay rent and/or utility bills.

The hardship rate rises to 74% for families with two or more children in SSI.

SSI reflects a major positive shift in our society’s approach to severely disabled people, including children.

Many used to be shunted off the institutions, which was not only harmful for them, but costly for state governments, as a new brief for the Center for American Progress notes.

Then states began shifting from institutionalization to family-centered and community-based care — some considerably faster than others.

SSI replaced an uneven patchwork of benefits administered by states and partly funded by them to support this shift. Rather like the welfare “reform” that gave us TANF in reverse.

The support clearly isn’t strong enough — at least for many families with severely disabled children to care for.

It’s still the case, however, that the likelihood of a family’s income falling below the federal poverty line drops by nearly 11% once their child is enrolled in SSI.

You’d think the family values folks would cotton to a program that helps parents care for their children — and empowers them to decide how best to do that.

But the prospect of more radical cost-cutting — except, of course, for defense — apparently trumps everything else.


Three Of My Favorite Online Tools

December 5, 2011

The internet has brought us many things. Opportunities to post photos that will live on to embarrass us till Facebook is history. Spam. Why do I keep getting ALL CAPS offers to maximize my erections?

But advocacy today is altogether different — and more effective — because organizations have picked up on how the ‘net can give us new ways of learning and communicating.

Among the developments I’m excited about — and grateful for — are online tools that let you mine and combine vast bodies of government data, looking at them through lenses you choose.

Here are three I’ve been using. Do you know of others you’d recommend?

FRAC National & State Program Database. This tool gives us access to the Food Research and Action Center’s current and historical data.

As you might expect, it provides data on participation in and spending for major federal nutrition assistance programs, both nationwide and by state.*

For perspective, it also includes some basic poverty and food insecurity data, plus some data on “economic security policies,” e.g., participation and cash benefits in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

You can choose a state and up to three years’ worth of data going back to 2005. You then get an online table of all FRAC’s data in all categories. You can print it out, but not download it.

CLASP DataFinder. This tool provides a range of multi-year demographic, spending and program information, e.g., enrollments for major cities, states and the U.S. as a whole. Which type of information you get depends on the category.

For states, there are 11 categories. For cities, there are six. They focus principally on issues that affect low-income individuals and families, with a heavy emphasis on children.

When you pick a category, you generally get a subset of variables you can choose — often lots of them. You can pick variables from one category or combine.

A button pops up a table reflecting your choices. You can download it as an Excel spreadsheet or print it.

Or you can go to the original data sources because the tables include cites, with links. I really like this feature!

National Priorities Project Federal Priorities Database. This tool covers a broader range of issues than the others. It’s also the most flexible — and so the most complex to use. Happily, there’s an online step-by-step guide to get you started.

Data are available in eight major categories. For each category, there are indicators, e.g., participation rates, demographics. Also program-level expenditures.

You can choose up to five variables at any one time — indicators, expenditures or a combination and from one category or a mix.

The variables you’ve chosen are presented in interactive maps. Mouse over the state you’re interested in and you get a little pop-up box. You switch from one variable to another rather than getting all the data in one map.

Click on a state and you get a county map, with the same variable broken out.

Map pages also provide brief explanations of the variables and, as with the CLASP tool, links to the sources.

For expenditure variables, you can get figures adjusted to account for inflation. So if the latest expenditure is for Fiscal Year 2010, you can find out what it would mean today.

You can switch from a map to a table format. Tables provide data for all states and for previous years as well as the most current. Some go back as far as 1999.

The tables are downloadable in several formats. And if you’re working on a website or a blog, you can embed a map in your page.

Talk about bells and whistles!

* For all the tools discussed here, the District of Columbia is included as if it were a state.


Voting Rights Of Poor Americans Undermined By GOP Policymakers

September 17, 2011

An e-mail from the National Coalition for the Homeless asks, “Are we disenfranchising the poor?” This in announcing it’s called on the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene.

The “we” here are the states that won’t let people vote unless they present a photo ID — or won’t count their vote unless they come back with one in a matter of days.

These “strict photo ID” requirements, as the National Conference of State Legislators calls them, seem to be getting more popular.

At the beginning of 2011, only two states — Georgia and Indiana — had them. Now seven more states do, though three of them can’t impose the requirements until they get permission from the Justice Department.

These three, like Georgia as well, are subject to the preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act because they have a history of voting discrimination. Tells you something, doesn’t it?

NCH is understandably concerned that the photo ID requirements will keep homeless people from voting. There are particular problems, it says, in getting a photo ID when you don’t have a stable address.

However, most of the problems it identifies would affect other low-income people too.

Consider that you can’t just waltz into a government office and get a photo ID. You’ve got to show some other officially-recognized ID that proves you’re who you claim to be.

A birth certificate will do, though maybe only with some other proof of identify. But lots of people will have to send away for a copy — once they figure out where to send. They’ll have to pay a fee for it and obviously get started well in advance of election day.

NCH maintains that elderly people born in the South may not have a birth certificate because they were delivered at home by midwives. An online news source in South Carolina confirms this and details potentially costly, time-consuming complications.

One way or the other, you’re likely to have surmounted the hurdles if you’re a middle-class American. You’ve got a photo on your driver’s license.

If you never drive, you’re likely to have gotten a state ID, though AARP argues that seniors and people with disabilities may not, especially those in assisted living facilities or nursing homes.

In theory, the burdens of the photo ID requirements fall equally on blacks, browns and whites. But so did the notorious poll taxes Southern states used to keep blacks from voting.

In fact, Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) calls the photo ID requirements “a poll tax by another name,” noting that as many as 25% of blacks have no form of acceptable identification. This is almost certainly linked to the fact that a far higher percentage of blacks than whites are poor. Hispanics also.

Nevertheless, I’m inclined to think that legislators who’ve passed strict photo ID requirements have a different agenda from the out-in-out racists Lewis bravely campaigned against in the early 1960s.

They don’t so much object to racial and ethnic minority voters per se. Or to low-income voters generally. It’s how they vote.

Republicans control both houses of the legislature in all but one of the states — Rhode Island — that adopted strict photo ID requirements this year. And all five governors who vetoed strict voting requirements state legislatures had passed were Democrats.

So what we seem to be seeing here are partisan preemptive strikes against low-income voters — perhaps especially racial and ethnic minorities — because of the candidates they’re likely to support.

Even in the last election, which saw a big shift to Republicans, majorities in all three of these overlapping categories voted Democrat. So did college students — another group that will face new barriers to voting.

Supporters of photo ID requirements claim they’re necessary to prevent voter fraud. However, cases of proven voter fraud are rare.

And cases where the fraud involved impersonating someone else — the kind of fraud a photo ID requirement would prevent — are, according to a Brennan Center for Justice study, “an occurrence more rare than getting struck by lightning.”

Disenfranchisement of any eligible voter for any reason should cause the gravest concerns.

Disenfranchising millions of homeless and other low-income Americans — or even discouraging them from voting — because of how they vote is outrageous.

But it’s a good way to tilt election outcomes, isn’t it?


Making My List, Checking It Twice

December 23, 2010

Most members of my immediate family are comfortably well-off. This used to make holiday giving very challenging. If they wanted something, they already had it — or didn’t because it was beyond their means and thus mine as well.

So I’d look for something I thought they’d like but didn’t know they wanted — a nifty kitchen gadget, hand-woven baskets, a lovely new recording of the Messiah. I personally think you can’t have too many of those.

But I came to suspect that most of my gifts turned out to be just one of those things they didn’t have because they didn’t want, even when they got it. One of those “well, it’s the thought that counts” things.

So about four years ago, I hit on a different strategy. I started making donations in my family members’ names to nonprofits whose work I knew and cared about — mostly those whose budgets are small enough for modest donations like mine to make a difference.

And I’d write the benefactors about the organizations — how I knew them, what they were doing that my family members would also care about, etc. Our values are close enough to make this easy. Don’t know what I’d have done otherwise. But holiday gifts would have been the least of the problems.

Choosing organizations isn’t easy. But it’s a good occasion to reflect on those whose work I observe — and in some cases, benefit from and/or participate in as a blogger.

So I’m making my final choices and writing this because my solution my suit you and at least some of the people on your gift list. One thing’s for sure. It will make you feel good. A whole lot better than desperately scanning the crowded store shelves I’ll bet.

And if your recipients are anything like mine, they’ll feel grateful because you’ve relieved them from the challenge of finding the right thing for you too.

Nothing really original about my solution, of course. In fact, I’ve just discovered a website that urges us to “redefine Christmas” by exchanging gifts to charities.

If you’re so inclined, you can send your friends and family e-mail cards asking them to donate to your favorite. A little forward for my taste, but then family traditions are different.

Another newly-discovered website lets you buy gift cards so that your friends and family can choose which charities to benefit. There’s a charge for the cards and a small processing fee when they’re used.

Still, it’s quick, easy and gives you a nice selection of cards you can personalize — not all Christmas-themed. And it lets you give the pleasure of making a list to people you care enough about to gift at this holiday season.


Too Many Juveniles, Not Enough Justice In Our Juvenile Justice System

March 30, 2009

Last week, the Georgetown University Journal on Poverty Law and Policy co-hosted a symposium on “the intersection of juvenile justice and poverty.”

Speakers came at the topic from different angles, but there was remarkable consensus on the big picture. To wit, there are too many juveniles and not enough justice in the juvenile justice system.

Everyone who spoke agreed that the essential thing is to keep youth out of the system because it tends to produce adults who cycle in and out of prison or, at the very least, subsist on the margins of society.

And, though not much was said on this score, the juveniles who are kept out are mainly those whose parents can afford private attorneys, plus those whose white, middle-class background inclines school officials, law enforcement officers and others to let them go with a warning. (Gun possession in school is a partial exception here, but that’s another story.)

Elements of the juvenile justice system can be improved. For example:

  • Reform schools and the like could provide better education, training, health care and supportive services that would equip their charges to return to school or get a job when released.
  • There could be more and better programs to help discharged youth reintegrate.
  • Schools could be required to eliminate barriers they’ve erected to keep discharged former students from re-enrolling.

But, the bottom line, speakers said, is that the juvenile justice system is intrinsically harmful because both detention and the institutionalization that often follows are traumatic and disrupt normal development.

So we need to focus on prevention. This will involve broad-based community programs that address risk factors from birth–or even earlier. And these programs will have to integrate families, schools, health care and social services, housing and community development programs.

A tall order. The research is there and so are promising models. There are pockets of federal funds that can be tapped.

But, as a nation, we are still focused on deterring anti-social conduct by punishing offenders–youth and adults alike. And punishment generally means incarceration, especially if you’re poor.

So we’ll need a major policy shift and a whole new level of commitment to prevent the ongoing waste of human potential that our way of handling juvenile lawbreakers perpetrates.

Children’s Defense Fund has launched a campaign to end our “cradle to prison pipeline.” It’s got action steps for us as individuals and for our communities, organizations and government agencies. There’s a lot to do. But the cost of not doing it is enormous–and heart-breaking.


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