Far More in King’s Dream Than a Color-Blind Society

January 18, 2016

Not long after Congress passed the since-enfeebled Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Jr. turned his attention to poverty and income inequality.

This, for him, was clearly a next step, along with opposition to the country’s engagement in Vietnam. He and colleagues at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had launched a Poor People’s Campaign and were planning a demonstration akin to the original March on Washington.

King signaled the campaign’s agenda in a book entitled Where Do We Go From Here? — here being after the enactment of most of our major federal nondiscrimination laws.

His answer took off from a critique of the anti-poverty approach still reflected in many of our public policies. They proceed, he said, “from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils,” e.g., bad housing, lack of education.

Not a faulty notion, he implied. But it led to a piecemeal approach — “a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities,” etc. And the programs were neither coordinated nor sufficiently funded “to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.”

Beyond this, they all sought “to solve poverty by solving something else.” The solution to poverty is for everyone to have enough money. So “we must create full employment or we must create incomes” by establishing a guaranteed minimum.

The latter has garnered more attention — for two reasons, I’d guess. On the one hand, it seems radically progressive. On the other, it has conservative roots and current support from some minimum government types.

King had in mind something far more ambitious than proposals conservatives had floated or the version President Nixon wanted Congress to pass as a replacement for welfare. Likewise what Charles Murray more recently advocated as a substitute for all social welfare programs, including Social Security and Medicare.

King’s guaranteed income would “be pegged to the median income of society.” Once set there, it would increase automatically to maintain parity with the median.

It wouldn’t, on the other hand, go automatically to every adult or family. It would supplement, so far as necessary income gained from work and/or investments, which have always served as “an assured income for the wealthy,” he noted.

Now, one might think that full employment has gotten its proper share of attention too. But what King had in mind, as I understand it, differs significantly from the way it’s commonly understood, i.e., as a situation where everyone willing and able to work is working or merely between jobs.

This, for King, was necessary, but not sufficient. Recall that he was killed in Memphis, where he’d gone to support a strike by black sanitation workers. They had employment obviously. They were demanding safer working conditions, a wage increase and recognition of their union.

“It is criminal,” King said there, “to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.” With “wages so low,” the working poor — as most poor people in the country were, he said — “cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.” In other words, poverty-level wages were a form of segregation.

King’s Memphis message grew out of the Freedom Budget developed by two other civil rights leaders. It called for, among other things, a higher minimum wage, unemployment benefits and compensation for workers injured on the job.

As the Poor People’s Campaign got in gear, the $2 an hour minimum wage the Freedom Budget called for had become a living wage. And jobs for everyone who could work had become “meaningful” jobs, including at least a million more providing “socially useful” careers in public service.

King himself had broadened the meaning of full employment in another way too. He noted — astutely, given the anxieties triggered by the first spate of big-city riots — that “Negro youth … are the explosive outsiders of the American expansion.”

Many “have left the labor market completely,” having “faced so many closed doors and so many crippling defeats.” They “are alienated from the routines of work” and so will initially “require work situations which permit flexibility.”

The jobs will also develop skills. They will nevertheless be jobs, not training, which often “becomes a way of avoiding the issue of unemployment.”

Ultimately, full employment, so understood, will help solve other major problems cited in the Freedom Budget — or so supporters thought. It would, of course, generate revenues to “finance improvements we all need,” including “decent housing” to replace the clusters that form slums.

At the same time, workers would have the wherewithal “to do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay,” as King’s Where Do We Go argued. And blacks, who were disadvantaged by discrimination, as well as poverty would have “the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.”

King hoped that the guaranteed income proposal would provide the basis for a biracial coalition, since two-thirds of the country’s poor were white. The Freedom Budget drafters — and presumably King, since he endorsed it for the SLCC — had similar hopes for full employment.

“The workings of our economy,” they said, “often pit the white poor and the black poor against each other.” They termed that “a tragedy.”

Likewise the fact “that groups only one generation removed from poverty themselves, haunted by the memory of scarcity and fearful of slipping back, step on the fingers of those struggling up the ladder.” Anyone who sees no relevance to current events is blessedly insulated from the Presidential campaigns.

We have, however, made progress, in some respects, since King unfolded his dream of an end to segregation and other then-legal forms of discrimination. Not saying we don’t have a long way to go before black children (and adults) are no longer “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But progress nonetheless.

We’d be hard put, I think, to find anything like such progress toward King’s dream of a society where no one is poor and everyone has, at all times, enough income to live on and then some. Worth pondering as we celebrate his birthday.


Recent Report Misreports Homelessness and Hunger in DC

January 14, 2016

Each year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reports the results of a hunger and homelessness survey it takes of a subset of its member cities. Twenty-two responded last year, including the District of Columbia.

Past experience has made me wary of figures reported for the District. At least one key hunger figure got mangled several years ago, as I belatedly learned.

This time, I found key homelessness figures downright perplexing because they bore no resemblance to what the one-night count found — or for that matter, to anything else I’d read or heard about.

So I checked the figures with the Department of Human Services, which files the survey responses, based on what it receives from the Community Partnership to End Homelessness and the Capital Area Food Bank. Also checked directly with CAFB.

And sure ‘nough, something(s) got lost in translation, to put it kindly. Niggling about the figures may seem just a wonkish gotcha. But the USCM report does get cited by reporters, columnists and us social media types.

So I’m going to set the record straight, best as I can.

More Recorded As Served, Not Necessarily More Homeless

The USCM reports that the number of homeless families in the District increased by 60% between 2014 and 2015 and the number of homeless individuals by 11%.

Well, the increases actually reflect numbers served by programs funded at least partly by DHS — this courtesy of Dora Taylor, the agency’s public information officer, who herself seemed rather taken aback.

“Served” here means people generally got some form of assistance — not necessarily what they asked for or needed, but something that caused an intake worker to enter a record for them in the homeless information management system that the Community Partnership maintains to comply with federal requirements.

As Taylor suggested, the misreported homeless family increase may in part reflect the administration’s decision to open shelter doors to newly-homeless families year round, rather than only on freezing-cold days.

They didn’t all gain shelter, however. Services recorded include, for example, what’s referred to as “diversion” — usually an intake worker’s finding a friend or relative the family could stay with, however briefly.

Whatever the services, the reported increase seems far greater than what the welcome policy change can account for. Recall that it was intended partly to ease the annual crush at the intake center when winter set in.

I got nothing from DHS to help explain the reported uptick in homeless individuals. So I’ll just tee up two related hypotheses.

The HIMS probably had more records for singles because DHS and nonprofit partners had become convenient one-stop-shops of sorts — and still are. Caseworkers assess and then link singles to some form(s) of aid. All those assessed become part of the system, if they’re not in it already.

It’s also possible that more homeless singles chose to seek help because they’d heard that they had a better chance of getting affordable housing — time-limited for some and permanent, i.e., indefinite-term, with supportive services for those deemed chronically homeless.

More Requests for Help in Finding Free Food, Not Necessarily Increased Need

The USCM reports that requests for food assistance in the District increased, though not by how much. Still disturbing if requests reflect need.

They don’t. CAFB has no way to track the number of people who seek free groceries and/or meals. So it supplied a figure reflecting the increase in calls to its hotline, which makes referrals to nonprofits it helps supply.

As my CAFB contact remarks, the increase may reflect, at least in part the fact that more people in need know about the hotline. Doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of residents who can’t afford to feed themselves and family members — only that we don’t know whether we’ve got more (or fewer).

Unmet Food Demand (If Any) Still a Mystery

The USCM reports that an estimated 24% of the demand for food assistance in the District went unmet in 2015. “Demand” here presumably refers to requests for groceries and/or meals provided by local nonprofits.

Not necessarily all, however, since CAFB would have no information from any nonprofit it didn’t help supply. It does, however, have data for the 444 nonprofits in its distribution network, thanks to a periodic survey Feeding American conducts.

But the latest survey results are for 2014. And the data CAFB can readily access are for all the Washington metro area programs in its network, not just those in the District. So we’ve got a flawed unmet demand estimate — and for the same reason as before.

Flawed Survey, But Not the Whole Story

What I’ve just said about the food assistance figures doesn’t reflect badly on CAFB. The USCM survey clearly asks questions that public agencies it contacts can’t answer, either from their own records or from what other sources can supply.

And respondents don’t get clear instructions on how to come up with such numbers as they can, my CAFB contact says.

There is, however, guidance for the homelessness questions. Cities are told that their best source will be their HIMS. This presumably opened the door to the misleading figures reported for the District. Door open doesn’t mean the Community Partnership — and ultimately DHS — had to walk through it, however.

We know we’ve got a serious homelessness problem in the District. We know that some residents at least sometimes don’t have enough to eat. But the figures should have raised red flags, I think.

Better to have gone back to the sources before responding. And better to have taken a pass on the survey — or at least some questions — than to have USCM report such faulty figures, however well-meaning its attempt to document urban needs.

 

 


Back to Bathrooms for Homeless DC Residents

January 11, 2016

The People for Fairness Coalition, an advocacy organization for homeless District of Columbia residents, is campaigning for public restrooms in the downtown area.

A spokesperson says they’re not only for the homeless. True enough. Tourists, shoppers, street vendors and people betwixt business meetings could benefit too. But there’s a difference.

I recall a time when I was near a small park where homeless people hang out and felt an urgent need to relieve myself. So I walked into a hotel and strolled through the lobby to the women’s room. Nobody said boo.

I’ve also on occasion ducked into a restaurant. Again, no one working there looked at me askance. This would hardly have been the case if I’d been wearing a tattered sweater and lugging bundles of all the belongings I still had.

Having clean, conveniently located public bathrooms anyone can use at any time seems to me merely the mark of a civilized city.

Those of us fortunate enough to have traveled abroad know they’re easy to find in Paris and in at least parts of other cities American tourists are likely to visit. Several U.S. cities now have them too, though not necessarily enough or open long enough.

Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human — an international advocacy group cleverly named to produce the acronym PHLUSH — argues that “toilet availability is a human right,” citing the broad right to sanitation the United Nations formally declared in 2010.

PHLUSH cites practical benefits too — and not only for health. Public toilets, it says, support downtown revitalization because people will stroll, window shop, etc. when they know they can find them. And businesses gain a positive imagine when they’re in neighborhoods that make a good first impression.

Such talking points could interest the downtown BID, which has invested in efforts to move homeless people off the streets — one of those cases where self-interest and public interest mesh.

The talking points (or something like) seem already to have influenced Councilmember Vincent Orange, since he’s introduced a bill to launch and evaluate a “mobile hygiene unit” — a bus converted to a bathroom with showers, as well as toilets.

We know he’s live to local business interests — his business, so to speak, as chair of the Business, Consumer Affairs and Regulatory Committee.

PFFC doesn’t seem much concerned about the motives. Nor should it be, if buses traveling around the city would meet the need they’re concerned with.

They wouldn’t, so far as I can see, do anything for homeless people — or for tourists, shoppers, etc. — who just need a toilet PDQ. And the pilot Councilmember Orange proposes would fund only one bus. No prospects of more until the two-year pilot ends.

Honolulu, which perhaps inspired the mobile unit solution, will soon have a fleet, including some buses with sleeping quarters. San Francisco, another model, also apparently has multiple buses.

PFFC members have thus far delivered mixed messages about the Orange bill. One says it’s “a great idea” — at least in part because of the showers. Another would prefer a restroom with a permanent location.

We shouldn’t let the forest get lost in these trees. The fact that PFFC is advocating for public restrooms speaks to a larger problem homeless people have in the District — and most other cities, I gather.

Shelters for those who don’t have children with them — those commonly termed single individuals, though they may be family members — generally insist that residents leave first thing in the morning and won’t let them back in before dinnertime or thereabouts.

So they wander the streets or take refuge in a McDonald’s, until they’re kicked out, or in a public library, if District rules don’t exclude them, e.g., by banning large bags. One way or the other, they’re on the streets a goodly part of the day — if for no other reason than to get to a shelter and stand in line because otherwise they’ll have no bed for the night.

No place then to pee, except in an alley or behind a bush, assuming they can persuade another homeless person to let them back in line afterwards. But we’ve got laws against heeding the call of nature in a public place — as indeed do a great many cities.

They don’t affect only homeless singles who rely on shelters, of course. Some, as I (and others) have written before, won’t go to a shelter. Last January’s one-night count found 544 on the streets or some other place “not meant for human habitation.”

Both they and the sheltered singles have no assured, 24-hour home base. This poses high risks to their mental and/or physical health, even if they’re not (yet) officially disabled. It makes finding — and keeping — a job extraordinarily difficult, as the story I recently recounted shows.

Kurt Runge, the Advocacy Director at Miriam’s Kitchen, says the mobile unit plan “could help address some very important basic needs in the short term.” But “[p]eople need a home of their own to take care of their personal needs.”

Housing surely is, as he says, “the solution to homelessness.” And it’s one the District should make a top priority in the upcoming budget cycle and beyond. But as the Executive Director of the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness has said, “we will always need shelter.”

So I would hope that this upsurge of interest in public bathrooms doesn’t divert attention from policies that make them a more pressing need than for anyone else in our community.


Third-World Poverty Among the Most Native Americans of All

January 7, 2016

Cleaning out my email box, I came belatedly on a post by Nick Tilsen, Executive Director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, which aims to end poverty on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Poverty there is broader and deeper than any we commonly read about — truly shocking to think it’s here in America.

The poverty rate of the Oglala Lakota who live on the reservation is about 48%, according to a development plan. That’s nearly three and a half times the latest rate for South Dakota, though it’s home to six Indian reservations.

We see the ripple effect of such acute deprivation in median incomes. On Pine Ridge, the household halfway between the highest and lowest has an income of $27,065 — or at least did in 2010, when the Census Bureau collected the figures the planners used.*

The median income for the state as a whole was about $19,300 higher then and the nationwide median about $24,000 higher.

We get a better sense of what Tilsen refers to as “third-world poverty conditions” from other figures he pulls from the development plan.

For example, the average household on the Pine Ridge reservation consists of somewhere between 6.7 and 9.2 people, as compared to 2.6 people nationwide. This clearly indicates severe over-crowding — as many as nine people in a two or three-bedroom home.

Nine percent of the dwellings have inadequate plumbing, as compared to a half percent nationwide. In other words, the houses or apartment units don’t have hot and cold running water, a bathtub or shower and/or a flush toilet. Or they may not have even a substandard bathroom.

Almost as many Pine Ridge dwellings (8%) lack adequate kitchen facilities, i.e., a sink with running water, a refrigerator and a stove or other “built-in burners” like those sunk into countertops.

Living conditions account in part, though far from entirely for the average life expectancy of Pine Ridge residents — just 48 years for men and 52 for women. Both are about 30 years less than for the U.S. population as a whole.

The development plan cites other factors that help explain the foreshortened lives of Pine Ridge residents — lack of access to healthful food, for example, and to preventive health care.

All these and others closely related, e.g., substance abuse, help account for another reason Pine Ridge residents, on average, die before they reach middle age — a suicide rate that’s more than twice the national average.

It’s customary — and largely correct — to trace the relatively high black poverty rate back to slavery, the Jim Crow regime and racist laws and policies that disadvantaged blacks in Northern states.

The Native American poverty rate has historical roots too. Those of us whose history classes predate efforts to put a more positive spin on the westward expansion, among other things, know something of them — smallpox-infected blankets, massacres, treaties broken when whites decided they wanted the lands granted after all.

We may even know that a unilateral decision made back in 1840 transferred control of Native American lands and other assets to a federal agency. It still acts as trustee, despite a long track record of mismanagement.

Shawn Regan at the Property and Environment Research Center argues that the trust arrangement, plus other federal controls “keep Native Americans in poverty.”

Tilsen also cites policies designed to eradicate “cultural ways,” e.g., forcing children into boarding schools where they had to look and behave like white, Christian children — this because “all the Indian in the race should be dead,” as the founder of the first such federally-funded school explained.

Well, knowing what accounts for the extraordinary poverty in Native American communities is one thing. Feeling morally responsible for ending it quite another. People in those communities believe we should, Tilsen says. If we do, we could end their poverty within a generation.

That seems a tall order. But he’s done a fine service in raising awareness of a poverty still perpetuated that’s “largely out of sight and out of mind to mainstream American society.”

* The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey — the usual source of our most detailed poverty and income figures for specific populations — reports them for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives together. The plan drafters presumably used the actual data sets.

 


Jobless, Homeless, Despair: A Downward Spiral That Needn’t Be

January 4, 2016

The tool I use for this blog gives me a running account of my most-viewed posts. The list almost always includes one or both of two I wrote long ago on homeless people and work.

This seems as good a time as any to return to the issues. I’ve several in mind that I haven’t yet focused on. But they’re relatively abstract, while the reasons homeless people don’t work or do work and remain homeless are ultimately unique, notwithstanding the broad-brush treatment in the earlier posts I’ve just linked to.

Let me instead share the gist of a personal story I heard during a recent webinar sponsored by the Coalition on Human Needs and partners. Then a handful of reflections on the story and others like it.

What Happened to Sharon

Sharon had a steady job and earned enough to pay rent. Then came a layoff during the Great Recession. At first, she thought that daily jobs searches and applications would soon have her working again.

But nothing panned out. She felt “despair,” she said, “and a little bit of self-hate.” She thinks her negative feelings about herself made interviews less successful, since employers want upbeat, can-do workers.

Eventually, she used her last unemployment benefits check to pay her rent. She then faced eviction. So she called 211 — the number Boston residents are supposed to call for referrals to health and human services.

She was told how to sleep in her car. Which she did for 40 days. Then the car got towed and she had no money to retrieve it.

So she went to a homeless shelter. Like many homeless people without children, she had no assurance of a bed. She had to be in the waiting area by 1:00 each afternoon or risk spending the night on the street. This alone, of course, would have cramped the job search.

But the time constraint wasn’t the worst of it. “I had no address, no telephone,” she said, and no place to do her laundry. “All the stuff from the past caught up with me,” she added, referring to some unnamed traumas that resurfaced to haunt her.

But someone from the Department of Mental Health visited the shelter and enabled her to move to one that gave her stability and services.

She can’t hope for another job now because those services included a medical exam that found cancer. This, rather than the “toxic stress” she thinks may account for it is probably why she qualified for SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

The benefits have lifted her out of deep poverty. But, she says, she’s still determined to support herself, so far as she can. She creates greeting cards at Rosie’s Place — a nonprofit source of services for homeless and other poor women. And she’s working on an illustrated book for children.

What Stories Can Tell Us

Stories like Sharon’s have three primary values, I think. First, they remind us that homeless people are as different from one another as thee and me — in both their personal characteristics and the events that paved the way to where they are now.

Second, they nevertheless give us inklings of what public policies and programs could do to prevent hardships like homelessness, even when the storyteller doesn’t say.

Consider only Sharon’s story and the issue of work. We see that she might well have found a job and never become homeless if she’d received swift, sufficient help with her rent — enough not only to keep her housed, but to cover her phone bills.

We see that the typical shelter for homeless singles makes finding work singularly difficult — and indeed, working itself. What sort of job could Sharon have landed when the shelter couldn’t serve as an address?

When she’d have had to quit for the day not long after noon — not to mention show up for work with unclean clothes? Surely first-come-first-served isn’t the only viable shelter model for childless, work-capable adults.

We also see that a publicly-funded program could have served as a bridge from the job she lost to another that offered as much security and opportunity as one can hope for these days.

The Recovery Act provided states with funds they could use to subsidize employment in public agencies and/or private businesses. The subsidies could help cover the costs of wages, benefits, supervision and training. So they could serve as not only a bridge, but a doorway to longer-term gainful employment.

And indeed, they did, story snippets tell us, though only for parents and youth, not childless adults because the funds came through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But a subsidized job program could also keep people like Sharon from plunging into deep poverty and homelessness.

Third — and following from all of the above — the stories show that people who’ve experienced hardships like homelessness have unique insights about needs, barriers and potential solutions. They are, as Witnesses to Hunger says of its members, “the real experts.”

So our policymaking process should make room for them. Professor Kathryn Edin, coauthor of the groundbreaking book that inspired the webinar, captured one of the big things our decision-makers could learn, if they listened with open minds.

Speaking of the poorer than poor families whom she and her colleague spoke with at length, she said, “They are American to the core. They hate handouts. They want to work.”

Notwithstanding what I said about uniqueness, we should, I think, proceed from the assumption that this is as true for homeless adults in this country as for those of us stably — at least, for the time being — housed.

Our policies and programs would look quite different if we did. And there’d be fewer homeless people too.

 


What’s Wrong With Me and My Life?

December 29, 2015

I’ve pretty well given up on New Year’s resolutions because I found myself vowing to do — or stop doing — the same things year after year. Still, I can’t altogether shake the hopes of improving myself that surface as we ring in the new.

Thankfully, I’ve no need to engage in deep self-scrutiny or seek out a self-help program. My inbox receives an overwhelming (literally) amount of spam.* I see major themes in the messages — most pointing to things wrong with me and my life and offering quick fixes.

My Sex Life. I’m impotent, according to the spammers — or at least, unable to maintain an erection. I’m constantly offered opportunities to buy Viagra at a discount. Several similar products also. I’m invited to buy something else that will actually enlarge my penis. “Power in your pants!”

On the other hand, maybe I’m just bored. No problem. I can meet some “cheating wives” in my local area. Or I can get a “mistress for Christmas.” The Russian girls who used to write me seem to have given up.

But I’m invited to “CONNECT … with charming Mrs. Celestia Betterton” — obviously a classy British type. “Click bellow [stet],” she says, to view her private photos.

My Health. My body is riddled with health problems, judging from the spam. High blood sugar level, high cholesterol level too, ringing in the ears, dimming vision and more. I’m especially sensitive about my loss of brain function and expanding waistline.

Fortunately, there are remedies for these, as well as all the other conditions. And if I don’t altogether trust them, I can get a great deal on burial insurance.

My Finances. My investment portfolio is apparently too conservative. I get opportunities to buy some bargain-basement stock that’s about to take off, usually at least one a day.

But she who hesitates, as conservative investors do, loses. So I’m not going to get in on “the largest economic opportunity of the 21st century,” which I could have owned “a piece” of for only about 21 cents.

The real solution, as I learn from another spammer, is to “reprogram … [my] mind and stick the enter Wealth Code into … [my] brain.” Presto, the Millionaire Mindset — “the secret of becoming wealthy.”

My Career Path. My earning power isn’t what it could be either. I should increase it by taking an online doctoral degree. “Invest in your future,” the spammers urge.

Or I could effortlessly learn a new language in a mere 10 days. All I need is a CD to activate some “wired part” of my brain — assuming, of course, that the part isn’t one of those that’s degenerating.

There’s a remedy for that, however. No less a leading light than Pope Francis has increased his brain power by taking some pills. “I use these to keep my intelligence about 150,” he reportedly says.

On the other hand, maybe my professional life is in good shape, since I’ve been chosen for inclusion in a Global Who’s Who.

Things Beyond My Control. We’re well advised to accept the things we cannot change. There are surely many of those, but several I’d never have heard of without the benefits of spam.

For example, there’s a “massive war on U.S. soil” — or soon will be. I could sign up for a new home security system or buy a flag. Steady spam streams for both. But they seem pretty futile defenses in the face of the war.

More insidious because clearly underway is a “secret conspiracy between the U.S. government and some food producers — so shocking that Fox News wouldn’t report it.” But since word has leaked out, the President could face impeachment. “This could be the one that finally brings him down.”

Grant me the serenity to accept these terrifying threats — and the lack of curiosity to click.

And grant us all faith that the violence, suffering and social injustices we witness are within our collective control, though not swiftly banished with a click.

* The spam-flooded email box is for an account I no longer use, but check to make sure I don’t miss any must-read messages. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether these are among them.


Doing the Gifting My Way

December 23, 2015

We in America give a lot to charity — more than $358 billion last year, nearly three-quarters of it from individuals. This, of course, includes very large donations from very wealthy people, mostly to large nonprofits that will put their names on what they fund.

They presumably don’t wait till December. But a lot of us apparently do — or at least, make our final donations then. If past is prologue, charities will receive nearly a third of our donation dollars this month.

Over the last month or so, I’ve noticed a spate of articles on how to give — most quite similar. But the recent stream also includes one New York Times column that challenges the advice of the rest and another that seems to point toward a third way.

The main theme of most advice is to give where you’ll get the biggest bang for the buck. We’re enjoined to practice effective altruism — to “think scientifically rather than sentimentally.”

An oft-cited nonprofit — GiveWell — does the number-crunching. So we learn, for example, that less than $3,350 will save the life of a child in some poor part of Africa by supplying the family with an insecticide-treated mosquito netting for his/her bed.

No donation any of us could conceivably make — let alone one so small — will literally save the life of a poor child in America. So do we all just click the Donate button on GiveWell?

A recent column in Parade magazine says not necessarily. What we need to do first is decide what two or three causes we’re most passionate about, then choose our geographic scope.

Then we somehow identify specific organizations that seem to suit. We can consult Charity Navigator, though the column doesn’t mention it. Then comes research — the nonprofits’ revenues and expenses, operations, ratings, etc.

Here too, we’ve got online sources — the financials on GuideStar, for example, and the annual reports some larger nonprofits post, as well as ratings on several sites. But we shouldn’t rely on what we can find on the Web, the Parade columnist says.

We should also talk with a board member and actually visit the services site or volunteer there. Alternatively, we should see what causes a business leader or foundation we admire supports and do the same.

Note that we’re still in the effective altruism mode — merely relying in part on the “homework” of other practitioners.

Professor Jamil Saki, author of one of the New York Times columns I mentioned, argues that “dismissing sentiment” from our giving choices is wrong-headed. “Emotion — especially empathy — adds a powerful, positive spark to philanthropy” because the good feelings we get when we donate can prompt us to give again.

And we’ll even feel less stress and anxiety in our daily lives. Studies cited for both prongs of what he calls the “feel-good school of philanthropy.”

We do, however, he adds, have to “turn our sympathy to those most in need,” rather than rely on our feelings for those who “look like us or whose sufferings are well-publicized.”

Something in both approaches troubles me. On the one hand, we surely want to know how much of our money would go to salaries for top-level officers and for further fundraising. And we want to give to nonprofits that have an impact.

Yet measuring results, if feasible, is costly — far costlier than recording activities, e.g., number of grocery bags distributed, number of poor youth trained for jobs. So the bang-for-the-buck focus will tend to favor large, amply-funded organizations.

Similarly, we do want to avoid basing our donations on heart-tugging ads (also costly) or how readily we identify with the prospective beneficiaries. (There but for the grace, etc.) But deciding who’s most in need seems to assume that suffering is somehow measurable.

And not only that. It seems to assume that we should aim only to relieve the immediate causes of suffering — hunger, for example, or homelessness. Yet these causes have causes rooted in the operations of our private markets and public policies.

And public policies can uproot them — or at the very least, offset their impacts. The President of the Ford Foundation seems ready to move his very large source of funding for human needs in this direction.

“‘Giving back,'” he says, “is necessary, but not sufficient. We should seek to bring about lasting, systemic change.” He’s clearly speaking here to very wealthy people and their foundations.

What he has in mind for them isn’t altogether clear, beyond “listening to those most affected by injustice,” seeing “through a diversity of viewpoints” and learning from past successes and failures — much of this apparently through high-power data analyses and other uses of technology.

We thus seem to have a new phase of effective altruism in the making — one that would seek to “disrupt the drivers of inequality” so as to help birth “a world that makes philanthropy unnecessary.”

This is all well beyond such extra income as I have to “leverage” social change — not to mention the resources need to figure out how, according to the envisioned model.

Yet I welcomed his column because it opens a space in the advice-giving realm for donations to charitable organizations that focus on policy-relevant research, analysis and advocacy.

Or at least, that’s how I choose to view it because the alternatives effectively ignore the role such organizations can play in alleviating suffering. A handful dominate my end-of-year giving list.

I don’t need an online tool or business leader to choose them. And they’d be hard put to document results, i.e., to show that their activities alone achieved policy changes.

I know them because I rely on their analyses and information they share with the like-minded for my blog posts — and the self-education that lies behind and beyond them. So I feel I’m “giving back.”

And I feel good about my philanthropy, if we can call it that, because I witness how they help bend the arc toward justice by working strategically, persistently and collaboratively for policies that will alleviate the hardships of poor people in the U.S. and, in the fullness of time, make them unnecessary.

 

 


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