Thanksgiving Break: Less Policy, More Personal

November 25, 2014

I feel I should write something relevant to the upcoming Thanksgiving Day. Yet the muse is silent — perhaps because she tends to strike when I’m pissed off about something, which is fairly often, as those of you who follow this blog know. Nevertheless ….

As I said four years ago, I have a great deal to be personally thankful for. Some, though not all of it stems from a choice I made many, many years ago. I chose to be born to parents who were comfortably middle-class — and to a mother whose father had actually done the Horatio Alger thing.

So we had economic security, which, as I noted yesterday, seems not all that common any more, especially for families with children. And I have economic security now in part because of what I’ve inherited.

My parents invested a lot in our education — some monetary, some not. My sibs and I were sent to a wonderful preschool. We were taken to museums, concerts, children’s theater performances and the like. We were read to every evening until we learned to read on our own.

And boy, were there a lot of spoken words in our house — at least as many, I guess, as the 2,150 or so an hour that supposedly help account for why children of professional parents do better in school than others. (My parents weren’t professionals, but they did talk a steady stream.)

We attended public schools, which were just okay. But my mother had the time, education and concern to help when teachers apparently couldn’t. I still recall how she enabled me to get the hang of algebra word problems, e.g., trains departing from opposite stations.

And I recall how my father showed me what was special about Gauguin’s paintings, using books of reproductions he’d managed to take with him when he left Germany just in the nick of time.

So I was admitted to the college I wanted to go to. I’m thankful for the donors who made my scholarship possible — and for the family friend who paid for my plane fares. And I’m thankful for what was then California state policy because my graduate education at a fine university cost me $75 a semester.

For all these reasons — and some sheer dumb luck — I’ve never lived in poverty. Never even had to go without anything I truly needed. I’m thankful for that. But it weighs on my mind because I understand that I’ve lived — and am living — a privileged life.

So I blog in the comfort of a home we own about people who don’t even have a room to themselves — or heat on this chilly day. People who are worrying about whether they’ll have enough to eat, rather than how they can fit any more food into a refrigerator that’s occupied by a turkey which seems much larger than when we bought it.

As a former President said, when confronted with an egregious income-based inequity, “[T]here are many things in life that are not fair.” We’ve got much more research supporting such inequities than we did then, including the lifelong unequal chances of children born to well-off and poor parents.

And it seems truer in some ways as well. We need only look at how much more income is flowing to the top 1% or at how little workers have gained from increasing productivity — so little that all but the highest-paid employees are making less, in real dollars, than they did at the outset of the Great Recession.

We know we could make life in this country fairer. More to the point, we know we could make life better for people who can, at best, barely get by day to day — and for their children, who could get something more like the start in life I had. But my heart sinks when I consider the near-term policy prospects, especially on Capitol Hill.

So I’m thankful for advocacy organizations that don’t despair, as I’m sometimes inclined to. I’m thankful for the research and analyses, the direct representation and the opportunities to collaborate and weigh in that they provide. And for their spirit, which lifts mine.

I’m thankful for the faith-based and other charitable organizations that tend to the basic needs of the underprivileged people in their communities — and for the other things they do to help them meet those needs.

As I think about our extensive nonprofit networks, I’m also thankful for the very privileged whose support helps make their good work possible — and for the many others who contribute what they can.

A last word of thanks to you who’ve indulged me in this excursion into the autobiographical mode. Back to the usual, as soon as we’ve settled into the post-holiday/pre-holiday routine. I expect I’ll find a lot to be pissed off about.


Many Millions Above the Poverty Line Lack Basic Economic Security

November 24, 2014

Blogger Matt Bruenig has declared war on the notion that poor people are “a small, especially degenerate class.” I don’t think this view is as common as he implies, thought it’s hardly as marginal as one would wish.

I mentioned his campaign, however, because the salvo I’ve linked to focuses on the arbitrariness of the federal poverty line. Look, he says, at the 53 million people hovering just above it, according to the Census Bureau’s latest Supplemental Poverty report. That’s 4 million more than fall below it.

And look at the gradual upward slope of the income distribution from way below the poverty line up to 300% of it. We see no “especially large gap” that would justify putting poor people into one bucket and everyone else into another.

Besides, he reminds us, people cycle in and out of official poverty. During 2009-11, for example, 31.6% of the population lived in poverty for at least two months, but only 3.5% were poor for the entire three-year period.

It’s nevertheless hard to imagine doing away with a line of some sort or other — at least, so long as we have programs that set eligibility and/or benefit levels based on income.

At the same time, a line, wherever we set it, will be a crude measure of what should most concern us — material hardship. Do people have the wherewithal for food, shelter, heat during the winter, etc. For what they need to pay in order to work, e.g., transportation, perhaps child care?

As I wrote awhile ago, Molly Scott at the Urban Institute showed that a single mother working part time at the minimum wage could actually be better off than a single mother working 60 hours a week at the same wage. Public benefit help explain this, but so do work-related costs.

Yet having just the resources to get by day to day without material hardship seems a low bar to set in a country with as much wealth as ours. Wider Opportunities for Women proposes that we look instead at how much a family much have to be economically secure.

WOW has a very complex database — the BEST (Basic Economic Security Tables) Index. It’s made up of many hundreds of monthly budgets for different family configurations, with and without employment-based benefits, and each reflecting costs in diverse geographic locations.

The budgets include not only basic needs and work-related expenses, but some savings for retirement and for emergencies — enough to get along for nine weeks without earnings because that was the average time jobless workers remained unemployed when the index was created.

The budgets are strictly “no frills,” in the words of WOW’s Vice President for Policies and Programs. In other words, they don’t allow for entertainment, vacations or even electronics, except a phone. They do, however, include optional, below the line savings for higher education and home ownership.

Using the BEST Index, WOW finds that 44% of Americans didn’t have enough income for economic security two years ago. Children in the household raised the rate to nearly 50%.

Economic insecurity was much more common than this for single parents with children — 77% without enough income. The rate for single-mother families was an even higher 81% — more than two and a half times their high poverty rate.

These are national figures. Economic security requires far more income in some places than others, of course. Consider, for example, Scott’s single mother and her two elementary school-age children living in the District of Columbia.

She and her kids would have cleared the poverty threshold in 2012 if she earned $18,500 a year. But she’d have had to make well over four times as much — at least $79,932 — for her family to be economically secure.

“At least” because this formidable sum assumes she was eligible for unemployment insurance, e.g., not a contract worker, and that her employer provided both a health insurance and a retirement plan. Without these employed-related benefits, she’d have had to make $85,992.

In both cases, the biggest ticket items for her child care, taxes and rent. Child care was the second biggest, even though her children needed it only during after-school hours — nearly $1,300 a month. And the rent, as WOW computes it, is quite low for the District — $1,259 a month.

I’m not sure what we should make of all this. I suppose we could begin, as Professor Stephen Pimpare suggests, by recognizing the “widespread economic fragility” of households in our country — and the weakness of the safety net many are likely to need.

But there are other, more specific policy lessons in the enormous gap between what it takes to be officially not-poor and what it takes to have enough for health, safety and work-related costs, plus a modest stash to draw on so as not to fall into poverty.

Far too many lessons for this post. But the sobering figures surely support a wide range of proposals — and confirm objections to others that our recent “Republican wave” seems likely to toss onto our Congressional and state legislative agendas.

 


Year End Checkup for Shared Prosperity in DC

January 2, 2014

End of year seems a good time to look at how the District of Columbia is progressing — or not — toward becoming One City. So I turned to the indicators that the Half in Ten campaign published a couple of weeks ago.

We do see progress, especially if we look back to the first set, which, for the most part, shows where we were in 2010. But it’s a fragmentary picture — even more so if we focus only on the indicators Half in Ten could update, as I will here.

About the Indicators

Half in Ten chose the indicators in 2011, when it reset the clock for its original goal — cutting poverty in half in 10 years.

As I wrote at the time, they reflect a broader vision — not only less poverty, but more broadly-shared prosperity. For the latter, Half in Ten defined three priorities — creating good jobs, promoting family economic security and strengthening families and communities.

It picked 10 indicators for states and the District, presumably based in part on data it could directly access or secure from other organizations.

Even so, some of the data in latest set aren’t as current as one would wish. And the good job indicators are largely indicators of people who’d qualify for good jobs, rather than the extent to which such jobs are available.

The online report is still, so far as I know, the only single source of so many figures that allow us to measure progress toward social and economic justice.

The report also provides two bases for assessing each state-level figure — a best-to-worst numerical ranking and a better-or-worse figure, based on what Half in Ten calls the “U.S. average.” This is apparently another term for the nationwide rate.

I’m a bit queasy about comparing the District’s rates to the averages. (See note below.) But I’ll use the averages because they may provide a useful perspective. The rankings, as I’ve said before, are an apples-to-oranges comparison, so far as the District is concerned.

Poverty Reduction

As you may already know, the poverty rate in the District was 18.2% last year. This was about 3.1% higher than the U.S. average, according to Half in Ten.* But it was 2% lower than in 2010.

The child poverty rate shows more progress. It was 26.5% in 2012, as compared to 30.4% in 2010. But it was 5.5% higher than the U.S. average. And that, obviously, was alarmingly high too.

Access to Good Jobs

The unemployment rate in the District 8.9% last year — 0.8% higher than the U.S. average. The rate in 2010 was 9.9%.

How much of the dip indicates more residents working is an open question, since the rate doesn’t include jobless workers who’ve given up looking or potential workers who decided not to start. We know that they’ve been a major reason the national unemployment rate has dropped.

The disconnected youth rate, i.e., the percent of teens and young adults who were neither in school nor working, dropped from 17% in 2010 to 14% last year. This is 2% lower than the U.S. average, but the same as in 2011.

Economic Security

Health insurance coverage is one of the District’s strongest points. Only 9.14% of residents under 65 and below 138% of the federal poverty line (the cut-off for Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act) had no health insurance during 2012.

This is 8.6% lower than the U.S. average and 3.92% lower than the District’s own rate in 2011, the earliest year Half in Ten could report.

The District also does fairly well on food insecurity — at least in light of the poverty rate and the high costs of housing here. During 2010-12, 12% of D.C. households didn’t always have the resources to provide enough food for all members.

This is about 1.9% lower than the U.S. average and 1% lower than the District’s initial two-year rate.

On the other hand, only 17% of District residents who were jobless and looking for work in 2012 received unemployment benefits. This is nearly 11.7% lower than the U.S. average, though about 1.5% higher than in 2010.

It’s hard to know what accounts for such a low rate. One factor probably is that many laid-off workers in our thriving restaurant, hotel and home services sectors couldn’t meet the minimum earnings requirements for unemployment benefits.

Stronger Families and Communities

Just two updated indicators in this category — and neither altogether current. One is the teen birth rate, i.e., the number of births to women between the ages of 15 and 19 for every 1,000 in this age group. In 2011, it was 41.8 — about 10.4% more than the U.S. average. But it was 45.5 in 2010.

The other indicator is the number of children per 1,000 who were in foster care. In 2011, there were 16 — about 10.3% more than the U.S. average. But the rate was 20 per 1,000 only the year before.

These are not only indicators of family and community strength. The teen birth rate is linked to child and maternal health, to high school completion and thus to employment — and to poverty, though perhaps less as cause than effect.

Similarly, growing up in foster care has been linked to a host of later problems, including some flagged by the indicators here, e.g., poverty, disconnection from both school and work.

What’s true for these indicators is true for others as well. Each gives us a measure of individual and community well-being, but the measures are inter-connected in a variety of ways.

Which, I suppose, merely reaffirms the need for a holistic approach to both poverty reduction and a more equitable sharing of the prosperity in this very wealthy country.

* The source for the District’s poverty rate is the American Community Survey’s one-year estimate. However, the one-year estimate for the nation as a whole produces a smaller “worse than” difference than the Half in Ten figure I’ve replicated. By my calculations, the figure should be about 2.3%.


New DC Poverty and Shared Prosperity Figures Show Uneven Progress

December 3, 2012

Last week, I took a crack at the Half in Ten campaign’s updated poverty reduction and shared prosperity indicators for the nation as a whole. It’s also updated a smaller set for each state and the District of Columbia.

Here then is what we can learn from the new figures for the District.

We can look at these in a couple of ways — in comparison to last year’s or to the same indicators for the whole country. We can also see how the District ranks among states.

But the District isn’t a state. And however much it deserves to be one, comparisons to other large cities rather than to states as a whole would be more appropriate for issues like Half in Ten’s.

So let’s just look at the indicators themselves.

On the whole, we see more progress than backsliding. But — no news to any of you, I guess — the District has a long way to go on both the poverty and shared prosperity fronts.

For some indicators, the progress would be expected.

For example, the official poverty rate for the District dropped, though it was still well above the national rate. Ditto for the unemployment rate.

We see progress that can’t be attributed simply to the improving economy, however. The backsliding calls for other — or at least, more complex — explanations too.

Good Jobs

In addition to the unemployment rate, Half in Ten provides a handful of indicators for the employment prospects of relatively young District residents. Forward movement across the board:

  • The percent of freshmen who completed high school in four years increased from 56% to 62.4%* — far below the nationwide 75.5% rate, but progress nonetheless.
  • The percent of “disconnected youth” dropped by 1%, leaving us with nine out of every hundred youth who were neither working nor in school.
  • The already-high percent of young adults (25-34) with at least a two-year college degree rose to 62.7%.

Stronger Families

The good jobs indicators clearly relate to child, youth and family well-being. Unlike these, the indicators Half in Ten puts in the strengthening families category are a good news/bad news story.

In the good news part, the rate of births to teen mothers dropped from 50.9 to 45.4 per 1,000. Still considerably above the national 31.3 rate, but moving in the right direction.

And the percent of residents without health insurance dropped to 6.9% — well below the 15.7% national rate, which also registered a drop last year.

In the bad news part, the pay gap between men and women workers reportedly grew — and by a lot.** In 2010, it was considerably smaller than the nationwide gap. Last year, it was bigger.

And the rate of children in foster care rose from 18 to 20 per 1,000. Notwithstanding what I said about the rankings, I can’t resist noting that the District’s rate is far higher than any state’s.

Economic Security

Good and bad news for indicators in this category also.

On the good news side, the rate of food insecure District households dropped from 13% to 10.9%, while the nationwide rate rose.

And the percent of jobless District residents who received unemployment insurance benefits shot up from 36.3% to 64% — at least in part due to program reforms the District adopted to get its share of the reward money offered by the Recovery Act.

On the bad news side, the percent of District households without bank accounts — a measure of asset-building capacity — rose from 24.4% to 41%.

Might the marked increase have something to do with the new fees banks are charging — or their higher minimum balance requirements?

One economic security indicator that looks very positive is, I think, misleading.

We’re told that the number of rental units for very low-income households increased from 53 to 77 per hundred — almost 20 more than the nationwide rate.

How could that be when we know we’ve got an affordable housingĀ  crisis here?

The answer lies in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of “very low-income,” i.e., at or below 50% of the median income for families in the area.

The area HUD carves out for the District includes nearby suburbs populated by very well-off folks.

A median income for the District alone would put more units out of reach — even more if Half in Ten had linked its indicator to “extremely poor households,” i.e., at or below 30% of AMI.

Half Full, Half Empty and Now What?

So we’ve got progress on more indicators than not. But we’ve still got well over 109,000 poor District residents and lots more who aren’t getting a share of that prosperity that parts of our envisioned One City enjoy.

Our local officials could move some indicators in the right direction — or further in the right direction.

But much depends on what Congress decides to do about tax revenues and spending cuts in whatever bargain emerges to pull us back from the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

________________________________________

* These figures are for the 2007-8 and 2008-9 school years. After Half in Ten published its update, the U.S. Department of Education released high school graduation rates for 2010-11. These are the first set to reflect a standardized calculation method for all states.

The District’s on-time graduation rate was 59% last year. This, at the very least, raises questions about the prior progress shown.

** The wage gap figure Half in Ten provides is significantly greater than the gap reported by the American Association of University Women. Part of the difference derives from how annual earnings are calculated, but there’s got to be some other factor too.


Mixed News on Progress Toward Poverty Reduction and Shared Prosperity

November 26, 2012

A year ago, the Half in Ten campaign restarted the clock for cutting poverty in half in 10 years.

As I wrote at the time, it also expanded the goal to include growing a more inclusive and economically secure middle class. It set three top priorities for achieving this — each fleshed out in specific strategies.

Half in Ten established indicators to measure progress (or lack thereof) toward both the poverty reduction and new priority goals.

The first set of figures — mostly 2010 data — were the baseline. Now we’ve got a first year’s worth of updates.

So how are we doing? Not easy to answer within the compass of a blog post.

The full report includes 21 indicators — some new and some reflecting fairly old data because sources either haven’t been updated or lag behind even Half in Ten’s base year.

Half in Ten has a summary of the full set. Also a handful of indicators online.

I’d planned to plow through the online set, using last year’s report for baselines.* But I felt I was losing the forest in the trees. Some of the more interesting indicators too.

A different approach, therefore.

Poverty Reduction

No progress here, as you probably already know. Both the official poverty rate and the somewhat higher rate based on the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure were essentially flat for the two-year period.

Meanwhile, income inequality increased. In 2011, the richest 5% of households got 22.3% of all earnings. The bottom two-fifths got just over half as much — 11.6%.

Good Jobs

Some of the indicators in this group don’t speak to the goodness of jobs, but rather to the issue of whether people have jobs at all.

Generally progress there — except for people with disabilities, whose employment rate dropped from 28.6% to 27%.

More consistent progress on indicators reflecting the employment prospects of young people. For example, the percent of high school freshmen who graduated in four years had increased, as of the 2008-9 school year.

But when we turn to workers in low-wage occupations, we see a partial explanation for the widening income gap.

For full-time workers in service occupations, median annual earnings were just $24,300 — less than $2,000 over the poverty line for a family of four. There’s been no real dollar increase for them since 2000.

Lack of paid sick leave is one — though far from the only — factor depressing yearly earnings for low-wage workers.

In 2011, only 36% of workers earning no more than $11.13 per hour, i.e., slightly below the median or less, had any paid sick leave benefit. This is 4% less than in 2010, suggesting that a lot of not-good jobs got worse.

Strong Families and Communities

Most indicators in this group relate to the current and prospective well-being of children and young adults. And they all moved in the right direction in 2011.

We see, for example, that the teen birth rate continued its downward slide, reaching a record low of 31.3 births for every thousand women in the 15-19 age bracket.

And the percent of people without health insurance dropped from 16.3% to 15.7%. We can credit this to the initial impacts of the Affordable Care Act, Half in Ten says.

Economic Security

End of moderately good news. Only one indicator — food insecurity — remained relatively flat. And even that increased from 14.5% of households in 2010 to 14.9% in 2011.

The percent of jobless workers who received unemployment benefits dropped by 10% to just over half.

Low-wage workers faced a growing affordable housing shortage. In 2010, there were only 58 affordable units available for every 100 very low-income renter households. This is four fewer than in 2009.

No relatively current figures for asset poverty, i.e., less in savings and other cash sources than a family would need to live at or above the poverty line if it had no income stream for three months.

What we know from the indicator is that the percent of asset-poor households increased by 4% between 2006 and 2009, leaving somewhat over 27% of all households at high risk of poverty.

What Will Next Year’s Indicators Show?

Congress has already decided that the unemployment benefits indicator will worsen — unless prospects for long-term job seekers dramatically improve.

It seems on the brink of deciding to let the food insecurity rate rise, since both the House and Senate Farm Bills would cut benefits for half a million households.

But the fate of most indicators — and the people whose lives underlie them — depend on what sort of bargain Republicans and Democrats strike to address the misnamed fiscal cliff.

Half in Ten offers “the right choices” for them — which, of course, are very different from the choices of the right.

* The 2010 figures are supposed to be accessible online. They weren’t when I published this, but I’m told the web tech team is working on a fix.


How Does DC Rank On Poverty, Opportunity And Shared Prosperity?

November 10, 2011

As I recently wrote, the Half in Ten campaign has issued a groundbreaking report that calls on our nation to do two related things:

  • Cut poverty in half
  • Create shared prosperity by increasing opportunities and supports for low-income individuals and families

For both goals, the timeframe is 10 years — less actually, since the report starts the clock running in 2010. That’s because many of the baseline indicators it uses come from the latest Census Bureau reports.

One of the most ambitious aspects of the project are the state-level indicators for both poverty reduction and progress toward the three big priorities the campaign advocates — more good jobs, stronger families and greater economic security.

The state-level indicators are online and include not only the most current figures, but rankings relative to other states. Links let us see the actual figures for all states.

So what do we learn about poverty, opportunity and shared prosperity in the District of Columbia? Here’s a sample.

Reducing Poverty

About poverty, most of us already know. The District has a higher poverty rate than all but two states — 19.2% in 2010.*

No news about food insecurity either. As I previously wrote, the District’s food insecurity rate last year was 13%. This puts the District above a majority of states, with a ranking of 20.

Creating Good Jobs

The indicators for creating good jobs are a mixed bag indeed.

On the one hand, the District tops all states for wage equity between men and women — an average of only 8.6 cents on the dollar separating them, as compared to 21.4 cents nationwide.

It also ranks first in the percent of young adults (25-34 year olds) with an associates degree or higher. Close to two-thirds — 63.6% — of residents in this age group have a college degree of some sort.

But only one state — Nevada — ranks lower in the percent of high school freshmen who graduate four years later. Barely more than half — 56% — of District students graduated on time in 2008.

Strengthening Families

Huge variations in the indicators for this priority as well.

Only one state — Massachusetts — has a lower percent of residents without health insurance. For D.C., the figure is 7.6% — just 3.2% higher than for Massachusetts.

But no state has as high a rate of children under 18 in foster care. No state, in fact, even comes close.

For every 100,000 children in the District, 2,058 have been taken away from their families. In the highest ranking state — Nebraska — the ratio is 1,188 per 100,000. Nationwide, the ratio is 533 per 100,000.

Promoting Economic Security

No big point spreads here, alas.

Last year, only 36.3% of jobless workers in the District received unemployment insurance benefits, putting the District below all but two states — South Dakota and Virginia.

The District also ranks below all but two states in the percent of residents (adults presumably) who don’t have bank accounts — a somewhat primitive, but useful measure for asset building.

Finally — no surprise — the District ranks lower than all but six states for affordable housing, which is here measured as the number of affordable, available rental units per 100 tenants with incomes at or below 50% of the state median.

Only 53% of lower-income tenants here have a chance at an affordable unit.

Why the Indicators?

Half in Ten provides these indicators — and plans updates — so that we can advocate for legislation that “moves … [them] in the right direction” and hold our elected officials accountable for progress.

The campaign focuses mainly on federal policies. Yet when we look at the District’s indicators, we can see that some of them have solutions close to home.

Many, I think, speak to the yawning gulf between the haves and have-nots in our city.

New evidence of this — and another indicator — from the Census Bureau, which reports greater income inequality in the District than in all but two other major cities.

That’s something our local government can address, though we need radical shifts in federal priorities too.

As at the federal level, the core issue is political will. Creating and sustaining it is our business.

Think what could happen if we all asked our policymakers — and aspiring policymakers — what they intended to do about the deplorable numbers here.

* This figure comes from the American Community Survey. As I earlier wrote, it is more reliable than the much-reported one-year figure from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.


Middle Class Families At the Edge of the Cliff

July 2, 2009

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine profiles a multi-generation black family to trace “the fall of the black middle class.” Their ladder up the economic scale was the auto industry, and it’s been pulled out from under them.

This is a story that’s being replicated throughout the Detroit area. But a new report from Demos tells us that it’s only the latest chapter in a longer, broader downslide for black and Latino middle-class families.

The downslide here isn’t in employment rates. It’s in economic security–a combination of factors that enable families to remain financially stable and recover from setbacks. These factors include education, housing costs, health insurance, household budget and assets.

Even before the recession, black and Latino middle-class families were less likely than others to be economically secure. And more of them were sliding toward potential poverty. Between 2000 and 2006, the percentage of black families that were economically secure fell from 26% to 16%. For Latino families, the drop was from 23% to 12%.

Demos singles out three principal factors in the declining stability of black and Latino middle-class families–loss of health insurance, rising housing costs and declining assets.

Yet the story here isn’t only about certain minority groups. For middle-class families overall, the percentage that were economically secure dropped from 29% to 24%. In other words, 76% of middle-class families were at the edge of a cliff when the recession set in.

Demos calls for policies that will strengthen the middle class as a whole–policies that address the housing and health care crises and help families build assets and reduce debt.

But we surely also need to strengthen the safety net. Because it’s quite clear that most middle-class families–not to mention poor families–don’t have the wherewithal to manage a job loss or any other further pressure on their resources.


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