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History > 2012 > USA > Poverty (I)




Paul Neace, 72,

sits in his home in Owsley County, April 20, 2012

in Booneville, Kentucky.


The 2010 U.S. Census listed Owsley County

as having the lowest median household income

in the country outside of Puerto Rico,

with 41.5% of residents living below the poverty line.


Photograph: Mario Tama

Getty Images


Boston Globe > Big Picture

Finding community in America's Appalachian region

May 25, 2012

















How to Fight Homelessness


December 16, 2012
The New York Times


Despite the economic downturn, the Obama administration has managed to keep the homeless population steady over the last four years, for which it deserves considerable credit. But many people remain at risk of finding themselves on the street, especially poor families. This means that ways must be found to enlarge underfinanced rental assistance programs that now reach only about a quarter of the low-income families that qualify.

The centerpiece of the administration’s efforts to keep homelessness in check has been an innovative $1.5 billion program, included in the $840 billion Recovery Act of 2009, that broke with traditional approaches. The program, which helped 1.3 million people, rapidly rehoused some people after they had become homeless. It also kept others off the streets with rental assistance, emergency housing, security deposits, moving expenses and other forms of temporary aid.

Beyond that, the administration focused closely on finding housing for two particularly difficult groups: the chronically homeless and homeless veterans, both of which often need mental health support and social services to live on their own. The administration says it is still committed to the goal of ending homelessness for these two groups by the end of 2015. Data released last week by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, based on a survey of 3,000 cities and counties, shows that some progress is being made.

The number of homeless veterans declined by more than 17 percent between January 2009 and January of this year. The population of the chronically homeless fell by more than 19 percent between 2007 and 2012.

But while conditions may be improving for homeless individuals, they may be getting worse for families with children, who have costlier needs and therefore fewer housing options. Based on agency data, there were about 64,000 more people in families in shelters in 2011 than in 2007 — an increase of about 13 percent. During roughly the same period, the number of families with children in “worst case” housing situations — meaning that they spend more than half of their income on housing or that they live in hazardous, substandard buildings — grew to 3.3 million from 2.2 million. In other words, many of these families are just one financial setback away from the streets.

Though the stimulus money has been spent, the administration has wisely extended the homelessness prevention program, though with less financing than the scope of the problem clearly requires. In addition to putting more money into this crucial program, the administration needs to expand the rental assistance programs that could help these at-risk families find permanent housing before their only choice is between the streets and temporary shelter.

    How to Fight Homelessness, NYT, 16.12.2012,






Homeless Rates in U.S.

Held Level Amid Recession,

Study Says,

but Big Gains Are Elusive


December 10, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The federal government has made big strides in reducing the ranks of the chronically homeless and of veterans who are homeless, but it probably will not reach its goal of ending homelessness among those two populations by 2015, according to a government report to be released on Monday.

In an annual report to Congress, the Department of Housing and Urban Development said that the overall level of homelessness remained essentially the same from 2011 to 2012, with the number of homeless individuals falling slightly and the number of homeless families increasing slightly.

“As encouraged as I am that overall homelessness is holding steady during this economic period, we can’t be satisfied,” Shaun Donovan, the housing and urban development secretary, wrote in an e-mail. “Every number in this estimate is a person, a family or a veteran living in our shelters or even on our streets. It’s exactly why we have to redouble our efforts to find real and lasting solutions for those facing homelessness.”

The number of chronically homeless people — a particularly at-risk population often in need of mental and physical health services and other safety-net support — fell about 7 percent in 2011 and more than 19 percent since 2007. Homelessness among veterans declined more than 7 percent in 2011 and 17 percent since 2009.

“We are on the right track in the fight to end homelessness among veterans,” Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, said in a written statement. “While this is encouraging news, we have more work to do and will not be satisfied until no veteran has to sleep on the street.”

In 2010, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness announced a plan to end homelessness, starting with the most vulnerable populations. The goals included ending chronic and veteran homelessness by 2015, and ending homelessness among families, the young and children by 2020.

“They have set ambitious goals for themselves, but I don’t think those are goals that aren’t doable,” said Nan Roman, the president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “But not at the rate that we’re going.”

Though chronic and veteran homelessness have declined markedly, it seems unlikely that the housing agency and its partners will be able to eliminate homelessness among those two populations by the 2015 deadline. According to the HUD estimates, there were 99,894 chronically homeless people when a survey was conducted in January 2012, and 62,619 homeless veterans.

Still, the government has played a major role in keeping homelessness from rising during the recession. Indeed, the number of people counted as homeless has fallen for four out of the past five years. It is now about 6 percent lower than it was five years ago. Many poverty experts anticipated that homelessness would increase during the recession, and many were surprised that it did not.

At the same time, other measures of economic distress have increased. According to the Census Bureau, the poverty rate has climbed for four out of the past five years. It is now 22 percent higher than it was five years ago.

The report’s data comes from a large survey conducted on a single night in late January, in which local teams counted the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people to provide a comprehensive “point in time” estimate of homelessness. The housing agency also keeps separate estimates of the number of people who become homeless for periods over the course of a year.

Housing officials said the declining population of homeless people could be credited in part to a $1.5 billion infusion of federal stimulus money. As part of the stimulus-financed Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, local governments identified vulnerable people and intervened to stop them from becoming homeless by helping them find and pay for new places to live, for instance. That program prevented or ended homelessness for more than one million people, the housing agency estimates.

HUD and its partners also increased the number of available beds in emergency shelters by about 15 percent over five years, and the number of beds in longer term housing by nearly 50 percent.

But with emergency stimulus financing at its end, experts worry that homelessness might increase for some vulnerable groups in the coming year. Ms. Roman, for instance, predicted that the end of the rapid rehousing program might result in more family homelessness in 2013.

Housing officials said they had invested in research and data analysis to learn how to use their resources more efficiently. “There’s always a start-up period where we’re trying to learn what works, and trying to understand the best and most effective uses of our resources,” said Ann Oliva, the acting deputy assistant housing secretary for special needs. “We know what we need to do now and between 2015 to get to zero.”

Some analysts say the large federal expansion of Medicaid coming in 2014 might help reduce homelessness. States that join the Medicaid expansion — with the federal government chipping in $9 for every $1 the state spends — will be required to provide coverage to all adults whose income is up to 33 percent higher than the poverty line. Many states do not provide Medicaid to childless adults now, no matter how poor.

Mark Johnston, the acting assistant housing secretary for community planning and development, estimated that homelessness could be effectively eradicated in the United States at an annual cost of about $20 billion. The housing department’s budget for addressing homelessness is currently about $1.9 billion.

    Homeless Rates in U.S. Held Level Amid Recession, Study Says, but Big Gains Are Elusive, NYT, 10.12.2012,






Homeless Are Fighting Back

Against Panhandling Bans


October 5, 2012
The New York Times


COLORADO SPRINGS — Panhandlers, with their crumpled signs, coffee cups and pleas, are as customary a sight in many American towns and cities as Starbucks or McDonald’s. But for one Utah homeless man, the right to ask people for money has become a personal legal crusade.

Steve Ray Evans, who uses a sign to ask drivers for money, has been successfully suing Utah cities that have cited him for panhandling, arguing that his right to free speech is being violated by a state statute that bans soliciting near roadways.

“This is my only source of income,” said Mr. Evans, 54, whose sign reads “Starving Please Help!” “I do it for survival purposes. I feel as though a lot of other individuals depend on it, too.”

Mr. Evans said he had received more than 50 panhandling citations, and cases like his have become increasingly common of late. With the downturn in the economy, cities across the country have been cracking down on an apparent rise in aggressive panhandling, while advocates for the homeless and civil liberties groups contend that sweeping bans on begging go too far.

According to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty that examined 188 cities, there was a 7 percent increase in prohibitions on begging or panhandling between 2009 and 2011.

“Our sense is that cities are responding to the increasing number of chronically or visibly homeless people due to the economic crisis,” said Heather Maria Johnson, a civil rights lawyer for the group. “Rather than addressing the issue of homelessness, they are adapting measures that move homeless people out of downtowns, tourist areas or even out of a city.”

Case law on the issue has varied over the years, and local panhandling laws differ widely. But several recent legal decisions have favored the homeless.

Last January, after Mr. Evans’s initial lawsuit, Salt Lake City agreed to stop enforcing the state statute.

But Utah fought the suit, arguing that panhandling near roads was dangerous. A federal judge sided with Mr. Evans in March, ruling that the statute was unconstitutional. In June, the City of Draper agreed to stop enforcing the ordinance after Mr. Evans filed suit there as well.

After a lawsuit filed by a homeless man and a disabled veteran who were arrested on panhandling charges in Grand Rapids, Mich., a federal judge ruled in August that the state’s blanket ban on public begging also violated the First Amendment. Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, has appealed, arguing that begging is not protected speech.

In many cases, the dispute over panhandling centers on whether a city’s efforts to criminalize aggressive begging to protect pedestrians and businesses ends up overreaching.

After the Northern California city of Arcata passed an ordinance banning panhandling in 2010, a local resident, Richard Salzman, sued in State Superior Court in Humboldt County.

Mr. Salzman, 53, an agent for commercial illustrators, said he had no problem with Arcata’s efforts to curb aggressive panhandling. But he objected to the city — long known for its liberal leanings — also prohibiting panhandling that was not necessarily threatening on its face, like merely asking for money within 20 feet of the entrance to a store or restaurant.

“I don’t know how much more passive you can be than standing there silently holding a sign,” he said. “This is a slippery slope we don’t want to go down.”

Last month, Judge Dale A. Reinholtsen ruled that Arcata’s law was indeed too broad and struck down most provisions that prohibited all panhandling in specific locations.

“The court finds that the legitimate interests advanced by Arcata with respect to the targeted panhandling prohibition are insufficient in most instances to justify the infringement of solicitors’ speech rights,” Judge Reinholtsen wrote in his opinion.

In Colorado Springs, city officials are weighing a panhandling ban for a commercial section of downtown, after merchants complained that begging was interfering with business.

“What they have told us is that the persistent sort of solicitation by people who just camp out in front of stores every day downtown has really discouraged tourists, shoppers and families from coming downtown,” said City Attorney Chris Melcher.

Mr. Melcher acknowledged that there could well be a legal challenge if the ordinance is approved. But he said the city, which already bans aggressive panhandling, was committed to drafting a law that would avoid prohibiting lawful speech.

On a blustery Thursday morning in Colorado Springs, Turtle Dean, a 36-year-old homeless man, said that he did not think the proposed ban was fair.

“I only ask for money for stuff that I need to survive. Clothes and food,” said Mr. Dean, who panhandles downtown and vowed to continue begging, ban or not.

The most recent suit by Mr. Evans, who is being represented by a lawyer with the Utah Civil Rights and Liberties Foundation, was filed last month against the City of American Fork, where he was recently cited for panhandling.

While city officials consider whether to fight the suit, American Fork has agreed not to pursue the charges against him for now and to temporarily stop enforcing the statute.

Mayor James H. Hadfield said Mr. Evans had been cited because he was panhandling in a construction zone and people had complained.

“I have nothing against Mr. Evans or people who do these types of activities and use common sense,” he said. “We react to people’s complaints. We are not on a witch hunt.”

    Homeless Are Fighting Back Against Panhandling Bans, NYT, 5.11.2012,






Intangible Dividend

of Antipoverty Effort:



September 20, 2012
The New York Times


When thousands of poor families were given federal housing subsidies in the early 1990s to move out of impoverished neighborhoods, social scientists expected the experience of living in more prosperous communities would pay off in better jobs, higher incomes and more education.

That did not happen. But more than 10 years later, the families’ lives had improved in another way: They reported being much happier than a comparison group of poor families who were not offered subsidies to move, a finding that was published on Thursday in the journal Science.

And using the gold standard of social surveys — the General Social Survey, in which researchers have questioned thousands of Americans of all income levels going back to the 1970s — researchers even quantified how much happier the families were. The improvement was equal to the level of life satisfaction of someone whose annual income was $13,000 more a year, said Jens Ludwig, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago and the lead author of the study.

This vast social experiment, involving 4,600 families in Los Angeles, New York, Baltimore, Chicago and Boston, tested a long-held theory that neighborhood is an important determinant of an individual’s success.

But there was little evidence that the new neighborhoods made much of a difference in either income or education, a disappointment for social scientists, who had hoped that the experiment would lead to new ways of combating poverty.

What researchers did find were substantial improvements in the physical and mental health of the people who moved. Researchers reported last year in The New England Journal of Medicine that the participants who moved to new neighborhoods had lower rates of obesity and diabetes than those not offered the chance to move. Beyond the increase in happiness, the new study found lower levels of depression among those who moved.

“Mental health and subjective well-being are very important,” said William Julius Wilson, a sociology professor at Harvard whose 1987 book “The Truly Disadvantaged” pioneered theory about concentrated poverty. “If you are not feeling well, it’s going to affect everything — your employment, relations with your family.”

The researchers measured quality of life using participants’ reports of their own well-being. Researchers asked: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say you are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy?”

A year after they entered the program, the families who had made the move were living in neighborhoods where about a third of the residents lived in poverty. In contrast, those who were not offered the chance to move lived in neighborhoods where half of the residents lived in poverty.

Professor Wilson said it was not surprising that education levels did not change significantly because many of the children who moved remained in the same school districts. And Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard and one of the study authors, said that the preference for educated workers was so strong that changing neighborhoods did not do much to improve job options for the participants, who were mostly African-American women without college educations.

Researchers said that though they did not know why people felt happier after moving, it probably had to do with feeling safer and less stressed. Nearly three-quarters of the families who signed up for the program said they had done so to get away from violence in dangerous neighborhoods.

Moving to a neighborhood that was less poor caused families that were making $20,000 a year to feel as happy as families making $33,000 a year, Professor Ludwig said.

Even more startling, researchers said, was the finding that families who moved into new neighborhoods that were just as racially segregated as the ones they came from, but were much less poor, reported much larger gains in feelings of well-being than those who moved to much more racially integrated neighborhoods that were nearly as impoverished.

That finding, Professor Katz said, is troubling for the future because economic segregation has grown steadily in the United States, since the 1970s, while racial segregation has been declining.

“The increased geographic isolation of the poor appears to have a pure adverse effect on health and well-being,” he said.

Improvements in health and well-being caused by moving to areas with less concentrated poverty “is not a magic bullet to eliminate poverty itself,” Professor Katz said. That would require major changes in the American economy. But he said it would improve lives for the families that experience it, and reduce the costs to taxpayers of medical care for them.

    Intangible Dividend of Antipoverty Effort: Happiness, NYT, 20.9.2012,






Mary Rose McGeady,

Nun Who Led Youth Homes,

Dies at 84


The New York Times


Sister Mary Rose McGeady, the Roman Catholic nun who resuscitated Covenant House, the nation’s largest network of shelters for homeless youngsters, in the wake of a sex abuse scandal involving its founder, died Thursday at her order’s convent in Albany. She was 84.

The cause was respiratory failure, said Kevin M. Ryan, the current president of Covenant House.

“If there’s a more important job in America today than taking care of our troubled young people, I’m certainly not aware of it,” Sister Mary Rose said when she was chosen to lead Covenant House in 1990, after the resignation of the Rev. Bruce Ritter.

Father Ritter, who had founded the organization in two cold-water flats on the Lower East Side of Manhattan 22 years earlier, stepped down after several young men, some of them former residents of Covenant House, accused him of sexual abuse. He adamantly denied the accusations. An independent investigation commissioned by the organization found that although none of the sexual allegations could be proved, enough evidence existed, including evidence of financial irregularities, to warrant Father Ritter’s dismissal. No criminal charges were brought against him.

By then, with donations nearing $80 million a year, Covenant House was providing services to 28,000 homeless young people in 11 cities across the country and in Latin America. But within a year of Father Ritter’s resignation, donations had fallen to $42 million, forcing the reduction of services throughout the network. In New York City alone, an outreach center was closed and more than 100 beds in shelters were eliminated (including a floor for youths infected with the virus that causes AIDS), as were two of the three vans that took youngsters off the streets on frigid nights.

By the time Sister Mary Rose retired in 2003, donations had climbed to nearly $130 million and new shelters had been opened in 11 cities, among them Oakland, Calif.; Anchorage; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Managua, Nicaragua. Under her direction, the organization’s hot line (1-800-999-9999) became a 24-hour service. Covenant House now provides service in 26 cities and says it reaches over 50,000 youngsters a year.

Mr. Ryan, who called Sister Mary Rose “the Mother Teresa of street kids,” said: “Come hell or high water, she was determined to clean up Covenant House. From ashes, really, she pulled Covenant House forward.”

Even as a teenager, Mary Rose McGeady was serving children. Born in Hazleton, Pa., on June 28, 1928, she was one of three children of Joseph and Catherine McGeady. The family later moved to Washington, where Mary Rose attended Immaculate Conception Academy, operated by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. As a high school student she spent every Saturday at St. Ann’s Infant Asylum.

She joined the order in 1946. “I wanted to remain part of the community,” she said. “When I told my parents, my mother cried. My father told me to give it a try, and if I did not like it I could come home.”

Sister Mary Rose graduated from Emmanuel College in Boston with a degree in sociology in 1955 and six years later received a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Fordham University. By then she had already worked with homeless and disturbed children at a child-care center in Boston and served as director of the Astor Home for Children in Rhinebeck, N.Y. She was an associate director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Brooklyn when she was chosen to lead Covenant House.

She is survived by a sister, Catherine Pendleton.

When she retired in 2003, Sister Mary Rose said, “I wish I could wave a wand and mend a child’s broken heart.”

Magically or not, her efforts helped Tracy Jones-Walker, who was a teenager wandering the streets of Brooklyn, in 1990. Her family, immigrants from Guyana — including 16 brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews — lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Flatbush. After a fight with one of her sisters, said Ms. Jones-Walker, she “left the house and didn’t go back.” She ended up at the Covenant House crisis center on West 41st Street in Manhattan.

“Now I’m a senior analyst at a Wall Street firm,” she said in an interview. “Had it not been for Covenant House, I would have been lost.”

    Mary Rose McGeady, Nun Who Led Youth Homes, Dies at 84, NYT, 16.9.2012,






City Acts Quickly

Amid Sharp Rise

in Homelessness


August 10, 2012
The New York Times


The homeless population in New York City has jumped sharply over the last year, causing a record number of people to enter the shelter system. The increase has forced the Bloomberg administration to open nine more shelters in just the last two months — sometimes with only a few weeks’ notice to surrounding neighborhoods.

The administration said the increase stemmed in part from the end of the city’s main rent-subsidy program for homeless families. But the new shelters — five in the Bronx, two in Manhattan and two in Brooklyn — have provoked criticism from local officials who say they were blindsided by the decisions to open them.

The city, for example, relied upon its emergency authority to turn two residential buildings on 95th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan into shelters that will eventually house about 200 adult couples, officials said. The buildings had recently been used as illegal hotels before they were shut down, and they still have some long-term tenants.

The city’s Department of Homeless Services told the community board about its plan in mid-July, only two weeks before people began moving in.

The commissioner of homeless services, Seth Diamond, said in an interview that the city had no choice but to open the shelters, given the demand. The city recorded 43,731 homeless people (25,475 adults and 18,256 children) in the shelter system this week, up 18 percent from the 37,143 (21,807 adults and 15,336 children) a year ago, officials said. “We do have to move quickly, and we have to always make sure that we have enough capacity,” Mr. Diamond said. “The one thing we cannot do is have families come in and not have a place for them.”

Mr. Diamond said he did not believe that his department had deceived neighborhoods by opening shelters with little notice, saying the process for picking the sites had been done “always with community communication.”

The administration is not legally obligated to get the approval of community boards before opening shelters, but its policy requires it to tell them of its plans ahead of time.

Of the nine new shelters, the city opened three, including the two in Manhattan, under its emergency authority, giving little notice before proceeding. Several of the other shelters were opened under normal practices but officials had moved quickly. The city told a community board in the Bronx this week that a 50-unit homeless shelter would open within days.

By law, the city is obligated to supply shelter to people who have nowhere else to go, though there are limits to how long they can stay.

The current shelter census is the highest ever, officials said; the number does not represent the total homeless population in the city, because some people avoid the shelter system.

Local officials and neighborhood leaders acknowledged the need for the shelters, but said the Bloomberg administration had moved too abruptly.

Several elected officials sponsored a protest this week in front of the 95th Street buildings, which are side by side between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. The buildings are privately owned, and the city is paying roughly $3,300 a unit a month, with two or three people living in each unit.

Manhattan’s borough president, Scott M. Stringer, said, “This is no way to meet the needs of vulnerable citizens in this city by simply packing in hundreds and hundreds of people in the dead of night without a long-range plan.”

Asked what the alternative should be, Mr. Stringer, a Democrat who is likely to run for mayor next year, said, “Well, that is the conundrum.” He added: “You still need to come to various constituencies to support a long-term policy to meet a need that is expanding. It’s easy to throw 400 people in a community without doing your homework.”

Other community leaders said they feared that the administration was rushing to find beds for homeless people without first ensuring that there were adequate social services for them. If not properly supervised, they said, the shelters can become rife with drugs and crime.

“It isn’t because we don’t want them in our backyard,” said Mark N. Diller, who is chairman of Community Board 7 on the Upper West Side. “It’s that we don’t want a failure in our backyard.”

A 10-year resident of one of the buildings, Masako Koga, 48, said she noticed new security guards on Monday and was then informed for the first time that homeless people would soon be moving in. “There are so many vacant rooms, though, so I knew it would be coming soon,” Ms. Koga said.

Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst with the Coalition for the Homeless, said a weak economy and rising housing costs were major factors underlying the rise in homelessness, particularly for black and Hispanic families.

“We’re facing the prospect of more and more shelters opening in the city,” Mr. Markee said, “and that creates bad incentives for landlords to push out low-income tenants in favor of doing deals with D.H.S.”

There are 228 homeless shelters in the city, up from 211 in June 2010. A vast majority of them are privately run and financed by the Department of Homeless Services.

The Bloomberg administration acknowledged that the end of Advantage, which was the city’s signature program to combat homelessness, had played a significant role in the increase in homelessness. The program gave subsidies to homeless families for up to two years to help pay for their apartments if they were employed. Some families who exhausted their Advantage benefits are now back in the shelter system.

The city said last year that it was discontinuing the program because the state was dropping its financial support.

“We are in a very difficult environment with a very successful program that ended very abruptly,” Mr. Diamond, the homeless services commissioner, said. “At that point, we said the result would be a significant increase in the homeless population. The tragedy of losing Advantage was not just that we lost it, but that we lost it at a time when money was so tight that it was almost impossible to get it back.”

Tayna Munoz, 29, said that she had had an Advantage subsidy for two years, and that once her eligibility ended, she continued in her job as an assistant in a dentist’s office. But a few months later, she lost her position, leaving her unable to afford all the rent and support her 8-year-old daughter.

Evicted from their apartment, she went to the Homelessness Department’s Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing office in the Bronx to apply for shelter.

“My plan was to get help and save to get my own apartment,” Ms. Munoz said outside the office. “Right now, it’s not easy.”

    City Acts Quickly Amid Sharp Rise in Homelessness, NYT, 10.8.2012,






Poverty in America:

Why Can’t We End It?


July 28, 2012
The New York Times


RONALD REAGAN famously said, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” With 46 million Americans — 15 percent of the population — now counted as poor, it’s tempting to think he may have been right.

Look a little deeper and the temptation grows. The lowest percentage in poverty since we started counting was 11.1 percent in 1973. The rate climbed as high as 15.2 percent in 1983. In 2000, after a spurt of prosperity, it went back down to 11.3 percent, and yet 15 million more people are poor today.

At the same time, we have done a lot that works. From Social Security to food stamps to the earned-income tax credit and on and on, we have enacted programs that now keep 40 million people out of poverty. Poverty would be nearly double what it is now without these measures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. To say that “poverty won” is like saying the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts failed because there is still pollution.

With all of that, why have we not achieved more? Four reasons: An astonishing number of people work at low-wage jobs. Plus, many more households are headed now by a single parent, making it difficult for them to earn a living income from the jobs that are typically available. The near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children — i.e., welfare — in much of the country plays a contributing role, too. And persistent issues of race and gender mean higher poverty among minorities and families headed by single mothers.

The first thing needed if we’re to get people out of poverty is more jobs that pay decent wages. There aren’t enough of these in our current economy. The need for good jobs extends far beyond the current crisis; we’ll need a full-employment policy and a bigger investment in 21st-century education and skill development strategies if we’re to have any hope of breaking out of the current economic malaise.

This isn’t a problem specific to the current moment. We’ve been drowning in a flood of low-wage jobs for the last 40 years. Most of the income of people in poverty comes from work. According to the most recent data available from the Census Bureau, 104 million people — a third of the population — have annual incomes below twice the poverty line, less than $38,000 for a family of three. They struggle to make ends meet every month.

Half the jobs in the nation pay less than $34,000 a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute. A quarter pay below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually. Families that can send another adult to work have done better, but single mothers (and fathers) don’t have that option. Poverty among families with children headed by single mothers exceeds 40 percent.

Wages for those who work on jobs in the bottom half have been stuck since 1973, increasing just 7 percent.

It’s not that the whole economy stagnated. There’s been growth, a lot of it, but it has stuck at the top. The realization that 99 percent of us have been left in the dust by the 1 percent at the top (some much further behind than others) came far later than it should have — Rip Van Winkle and then some. It took the Great Recession to get people’s attention, but the facts had been accumulating for a long time. If we’ve awakened, we can act.

Low-wage jobs bedevil tens of millions of people. At the other end of the low-income spectrum we have a different problem. The safety net for single mothers and their children has developed a gaping hole over the past dozen years. This is a major cause of the dramatic increase in extreme poverty during those years. The census tells us that 20.5 million people earn incomes below half the poverty line, less than about $9,500 for a family of three — up eight million from 2000.

Why? A substantial reason is the near demise of welfare — now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. In the mid-90s more than two-thirds of children in poor families received welfare. But that number has dwindled over the past decade and a half to roughly 27 percent.

One result: six million people have no income other than food stamps. Food stamps provide an income at a third of the poverty line, close to $6,300 for a family of three. It’s hard to understand how they survive.

At least we have food stamps. They have been a powerful antirecession tool in the past five years, with the number of recipients rising to 46 million today from 26.3 million in 2007. By contrast, welfare has done little to counter the impact of the recession; although the number of people receiving cash assistance rose from 3.9 million to 4.5 million since 2007, many states actually reduced the size of their rolls and lowered benefits to those in greatest need.

Race and gender play an enormous part in determining poverty’s continuing course. Minorities are disproportionately poor: around 27 percent of African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians are poor, versus 10 percent of whites. Wealth disparities are even wider. At the same time, whites constitute the largest number among the poor. This is a fact that bears emphasis, since measures to raise income and provide work supports will help more whites than minorities. But we cannot ignore race and gender, both because they present particular challenges and because so much of the politics of poverty is grounded in those issues.

We know what we need to do — make the rich pay their fair share of running the country, raise the minimum wage, provide health care and a decent safety net, and the like. But realistically, the immediate challenge is keeping what we have. Representative Paul Ryan and his ideological peers would slash everything from Social Security to Medicare and on through the list, and would hand out more tax breaks to the people at the top. Robin Hood would turn over in his grave.

We should not kid ourselves. It isn’t certain that things will stay as good as they are now. The wealth and income of the top 1 percent grows at the expense of everyone else. Money breeds power and power breeds more money. It is a truly vicious circle.

A surefire politics of change would necessarily involve getting people in the middle — from the 30th to the 70th percentile — to see their own economic self-interest. If they vote in their own self-interest, they’ll elect people who are likely to be more aligned with people with lower incomes as well as with them. As long as people in the middle identify more with people on the top than with those on the bottom, we are doomed. The obscene amount of money flowing into the electoral process makes things harder yet.

But history shows that people power wins sometimes. That’s what happened in the Progressive Era a century ago and in the Great Depression as well. The gross inequality of those times produced an amalgam of popular unrest, organization, muckraking journalism and political leadership that attacked the big — and worsening — structural problem of economic inequality. The civil rights movement changed the course of history and spread into the women’s movement, the environmental movement and, later, the gay rights movement. Could we have said on the day before the dawn of each that it would happen, let alone succeed? Did Rosa Parks know?

We have the ingredients. For one thing, the demographics of the electorate are changing. The consequences of that are hardly automatic, but they create an opportunity. The new generation of young people — unusually distrustful of encrusted power in all institutions and, as a consequence, tending toward libertarianism — is ripe for a new politics of honesty. Lower-income people will participate if there are candidates who speak to their situations. The change has to come from the bottom up and from synergistic leadership that draws it out. When people decide they have had enough and there are candidates who stand for what they want, they will vote accordingly.

I have seen days of promise and days of darkness, and I’ve seen them more than once. All history is like that. The people have the power if they will use it, but they have to see that it is in their interest to do so.


Peter Edelman is a professor of law at Georgetown University

and the author, most recently,

of “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.”

    Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It?, NYT, 28.7.2012,






Addressing Poverty in Schools


July 27, 2012
The New York Times


About two years ago, Dr. Pamela Cantor gave a speech at a Congressional retreat put together by the Aspen Institute. Her talk was entitled “Innovative Designs for Persistently Low-Performing Schools.”

Cantor is a psychiatrist who specializes in childhood trauma. After 9/11, her organization, the Children’s Mental Health Alliance, was asked by New York City’s Department of Education to assess the impact of the attack on the city’s public school children. What she found were plenty of traumatized children — but less because of the terrorist attack than because of the simple fact that so many of them were growing up in poverty.

“If children are under stress, the ways they respond are remarkably similar,” she says. “They get sad, distracted, aggressive, and tune out.” That is what she saw in the high-poverty schools she visited. Chaos reigned. The most disruptive children dominated the schools. Teachers didn’t have control of their classrooms — in part because nothing in their training had taught them how to deal with traumatized children. Too many students had no model of what school was supposed to mean. “These were schools that were not ready to be schools,” she said.

The traditional therapist’s response, of course, is to recommend therapy for traumatized children. But that’s an impossible solution in a big-city school of 1,000 or more students. Still, Dr. Cantor wondered, would it be possible to design schools that could, in her words, “address the issues poverty poses as they present in the classroom?” She came to the belief that the answer was yes, and, in 2002, she founded a new organization, Turnaround for Children. It’s what she’s been doing ever since.

Part of the reason this work strikes me as so important is the obvious: there are an immense number of children growing up in poverty — one out of three in New York City alone. The good charter schools can take only a tiny fraction of those children; the rest are in public school, far too many of which are dysfunctional.

The second reason, though, is that Turnaround is trying to bridge an important divide. Part of the debate over school reform is about poverty itself, with the reformers taking the view that a great teacher can overcome the barriers poverty poses, while the other side says that the problems of public schools can’t be solved until poverty itself is alleviated. Cantor is suggesting an alternative way of thinking — that students in public schools can do well if the issues they face are dealt with head-on, instead of sidestepped.

I have space to give only the barest outline of how it works. A three-person Turnaround team embeds in a group of schools for three to five years. One works with the principal to create a positive, disciplined culture, where students come to believe they can succeed in school. One works with teachers, showing them tools, for instance, that will allow them to handle disruptions while keeping the other students on track. The third is a social worker who helps train the school social workers to help with the psychological and emotional needs of children in poverty, while identifying the most troubled students, the ones who can drive the entire school. Instead of suspending them, or expelling them, though, Turnaround contracts with mental health organizations to provide them with services. That sends an important signal to the other students.

I should stress that even after a decade, Turnaround is still an experiment, and relatively small. In 2008, it underwent an independent evaluation by the American Institutes for Research, which showed that its schools had far fewer disruptions and were generally calmer, safer, indeed, happier places. But that same evaluation suggested that Turnaround needed to put more emphasis on improving the academic environment in the classroom. That is what Dr. Cantor and her team are implementing now.

Which brings me back to that speech she gave a few years ago. In it, she laid out her ideas about the importance of facing poverty squarely in schools. They struck a chord. Since then, she has spent a great deal of time in Washington, where officials both in Congress and the White House have been receptive to these ideas. In May, a group of White House officials visited a Turnaround school in Washington, where they were impressed by what they saw. Ultimately, if Dr. Cantor’s ideas gain enough momentum in Washington, they could become part of what the federal government — and school districts across the country — expect from schools.

By refusing to accept the status quo, school reformers kicked off an important movement, long overdue. Although I happen to think there is an overemphasis on test scores, the demand for teacher accountability has also been an important step.

Creating schools that are designed from the start to deal with the predicable challenges of poverty — it is the most important thing we can do next.

    Addressing Poverty in Schools, NYT, 27.7.2012,






Pink Slips


June 12, 2012
The New York Times


The school district in Reading, Pa. — the nation’s poorest city — laid off 110 teachers last week, along with hundreds of other employees. As elementary students watched in shock, many of their favorite teachers were pulled out of an assembly one by one and given the bad news by district officials, The Reading Eagle reported.

The layoffs will mean larger classes and an end to public prekindergarten in the city. Many special-education students will lose their mentors. A city where only 8 percent of the residents have a bachelor’s degree (compared with the national average of 28 percent) will fall further behind, largely because Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, Tom Corbett, chose not to find state money to replace $900 million in federal aid that ran out after the stimulus expired. Instead, he further drained his public coffers by cutting business taxes by $250 million this year.

Across the country, many states like Pennsylvania that happily accepted stimulus money to pay for existing employees are laying off those workers now that Congress has turned off the spigot. Over the last three years, at least 700,000 state and local government employees have lost their jobs, including teachers, sanitation workers and public safety personnel, contributing a full percentage point to the unemployment rate.

That seems to be just fine with Mitt Romney, who, like many Republicans, does not consider a job to be economically significant unless it is in the private sector. Last week, he attacked President Obama for proposing to help states hire more teachers and other workers, saying the president doesn’t understand that Americans don’t want to hire “more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.” Only right-wing ideologues make that distinction; most Americans know driving a bus or picking up trash is just as important economically as working in a big-box store.

Mr. Romney tried to retreat from those comments on Monday, saying that local-government hiring was not a federal issue, but obviously it is. The federal government provided about 10 percent of K-12 education budgets before the stimulus, and that share increased in the last three years. The stimulus money helped save 400,000 education jobs. Since the stimulus began in 2009, Washington has provided more than a third of state budgets, supporting as many as half-a-million other jobs, but that wasn’t enough to prevent layoffs, which have only increased since the money began running out.

There have been at least 100,000 education employees laid off nationwide in the last three years; the White House puts the figure at 250,000. California has lost 32,000 teacher jobs — 11 percent of the work force. Pennsylvania laid off nearly 9,000 teachers and other school workers last year, largely because of Governor Corbett’s cuts.

In some cases, states have been forced to cut public employees because of unduly high pension benefits, and we have supported state efforts to reduce those pensions. But putting educators and others back to work ultimately depends on Congress, where Republicans are blocking vital legislation to bolster a faltering economy. For desperate cities like Reading, time is running out.

    Pink Slips, NYT, 12.6.2012,






Poverty’s Poster Child


May 9, 2012
The New York Times



This sprawling Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a Connecticut-sized zone of prairie and poverty, where the have-nots are defined less by the money they lack than by suffocating hopelessness.

In the national number line of inequality, people here represent the “other 1 percent,” the bottom of the national heap.

Pine Ridge is a poster child of American poverty and of the failures of the reservation system for American Indians in the West. The latest Census Bureau data show that Shannon County here had the lowest per capita income in the entire United States in 2010. Not far behind in that Census Bureau list of poorest counties are several found largely inside other Sioux reservations in South Dakota: Rosebud, Cheyenne River and Crow Creek.

Poverty in the United States, including in the reservations, is so entrenched because it is often part of a toxic brew of alcohol or drug dependencies, dysfunctional families and educational failures. It self-replicates generation after generation.

“What’s a man or woman to do?” asked Ben, a young man here who said he started drinking at age 12. “I felt helpless. I felt worthless, and I wanted a drink to get rid of my pain. But then you get more pain.”

Ben says he financed his alcohol and drug habits by turning to crime and violence. He’s now on probation and didn’t want his family name used for fear of getting in more trouble.

“I did a lot of things to get money to drink,” he added regretfully. These included beating people up as a debt collector for beer stores just outside the reservation and driving girls to those stores where they exchanged sex for alcohol, he said.

Ben, now in his 30s, says that he quit alcohol several years ago. But he is overweight and in poor health, surviving on disability payments and seeing no chance of getting a job.

Unemployment on Pine Ridge is estimated at around 70 percent, and virtually the only jobs are those working for the government or for the Oglala Sioux tribe itself.

There are, of course, some reservations around the country that have struck it rich with gambling or other ventures. But here in the prairies, those riches are only rumors.

Half the population over 40 on Pine Ridge has diabetes, and tuberculosis runs at eight times the national rate. As many as two-thirds of adults may be alcoholics, one-quarter of children are born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and the life expectancy is somewhere around the high 40s — shorter than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. Less than 10 percent of children graduate from high school.

One reason businesses don’t invest in reservations is that even though unemployment is so high, companies find it difficult to recruit dependable workers, according to Robert Brave Heart, who runs the Red Cloud Indian School.

“People here still have to develop good work habits, even getting to work on time,” Brave Heart said. “And people here have constant family crises that cause them to miss work.”

Brave Heart, the son of a medicine man, is a success story and is turning out more of them at his school. These young people are going off to college to acquire skills that may help them turn the reservation around in the future.

How might present and future leaders lift up Indian reservations such as Pine Ridge out of poverty? A starting point is to understand what holds them back.

One factor is the alcohol and drug abuse and broken families. That’s why I blasted Anheuser-Busch in my last column for helping siphon alcohol into the reservation against tribal rules.

A second is that reservations are often structured in ways that discourage private investment. Tribal lands often aren’t deeded to individuals but are common property, and tribal law means that outside investors can’t rely on uniform commercial codes and may have no reliable recourse if they are cheated.

Third, the arid lands here just can’t support many people. Rural areas throughout the great plains states, including those with overwhelmingly white populations, are losing inhabitants and are also among the poorest in the country.

Even though the reservation system is largely failing in the West, there are bright spots. One is the growing number of American Indians getting a good education. Another is that initiatives to emphasize traditional Sioux culture and spirituality seem to have boosted community pride and helped wean some families from alcohol and drugs.

My hunch is that these Indian reservations will have to shed people: They can’t generate enough jobs, and a community with perpetual joblessness will always be stunted. But many American Indian communities throughout the United States have already demonstrated enormous resilience over the last two centuries — and that’s a basis for hope.

    Poverty’s Poster Child, NYT, 9.5.2012,






Antipoverty Tax Program Offers Relief,

Though Often Temporary


April 17, 2012
The New York Times


DURHAM, N.C. — Karen Spain spent several long months before receiving her tax refund this year in a state of suspended panic. The rent was three months late. Her car’s brakes were shot. And she could no longer afford to pay her electricity bill.

So when the refund finally arrived — a $7,200 cash infusion that was about a third of what she earned all last year as an assistant manager at an auto parts store — it brought a certain measure of relief, both financial and psychological. That did not last long.

“Did we celebrate?” said Ms. Spain, a 49-year-old mother of two. “No. We maintain, that’s all we do. We are just trying to keep our heads above water.”

It is tax time, the season when the country’s largest antipoverty program, the earned income tax credit, plows billions of dollars into mailboxes and bank accounts of low-income working Americans like Ms. Spain. It is the most important financial moment of the year for many people in the bottom half of the wage bracket, a time to pay off old bills, make car repairs, buy children clothes and maybe make a big purchase like a refrigerator or a TV.

As incomes among the country’s lowest wage earners continue to stagnate, the credit has played a critical role in smoothing the hard edges of an unforgiving labor market for the country’s most vulnerable workers and helping stem the tide of income inequality that has been rising among Americans in recent decades.

Nearly one in five filers now receive the credit — about 28 million returns in the 2010 tax year, the most recent year figures are available — representing the highest percentage since the program began in the 1970s, according to the Brookings Institution.

The effect has been significant. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research group based in Washington, estimates the credit lifted about six million Americans out of poverty last year.

“We find clear evidence that the E.I.T.C. has significantly reduced poverty rates and income inequality,” said Raj Chetty, an economist at Harvard who has studied the subsidy’s effect across cities. “The program is pulling up the lower end of the income distribution.”

The credit also seems to have an important psychological side effect: It makes people feel middle class.

“You get this feeling of, ‘Hey, I’m like them now,’ “ said Wesley Rouse, 27, a property manager in Durham.

But the boost is often temporary. Many people who receive the credit fall back into poverty over the course of the year, caught in the same cycle of low-wage work and reliance on credit that put them there in the first place.

One problem is the form the credit takes. The refund can pay as much as 40 percent of a family’s annual income at once, a windfall that many experts are now arguing should be changed by paying the refund in installments over the year.

“It’s feast or famine,” said Mae Watson Grote, director of the Financial Clinic, a New York-based group that teaches financial planning to low-income New Yorkers. “It’s very hard to manage when it’s a windfall.”

That cycle has the natural force of a tide at National Pawn, a shop in a working-class area of north Raleigh.

“We’re all cleaned out,” said Sundeep Joshi, the store’s manager, waving his hand toward empty shelves, reflecting a whirlwind of recent purchases. But people will start to bring things back to sell as their budgets get squeezed, he said. By July, the back room is usually packed with pawned items. “That’s the story every year,” he said.

Kathryn Edin, a professor of public policy at Harvard whose coming book, “It’s Not Like I’m Poor: How Working Families Make Ends Meet in a Post-Welfare World,” finds that recipients spent the subsidy overwhelmingly on bills and current expenses. Less than 10 percent of the money paid out was saved, she found. “The E.I.T.C. is one of the best social policies we’ve ever devised, but it does not solve the fundamental problem that you still can’t live on your wages,” she said.

For Ms. Spain, the subsidy was a lifeline. Together with other tax credits, it pushed her family income up to about $27,000, above the federal poverty threshold of $22,800 for a family of four in 2011. (Her husband, an unemployed cook, did not earn much income.)

But the money went fast. Rent ate up a third. Then came brakes and a new bumper for her 1998 Honda Civic. She paid the overdue electricity bill, reactivated her car insurance and bought some new clothes for her two girls, ages 8 and 9.

“You get these large sums, but you have to repair things, and pay back rent, and you owe on all your bills,” Ms. Spain said. “I’m not at the point where I can put $500 aside and just let it sit there and grow.”

That economic vulnerability has spawned an industry of lenders who hawk short-term loans at exorbitant rates to tide people over until tax time, said Peter Skillern, executive director of Reinvestment Partners, a nonprofit organization in Durham that helps low-income families file their taxes. The practice, known as “refund anticipation lending,” was effectively banned by federal regulators this month, but low-income filers still face an abundance of rip-off schemes and high tax preparation fees, he said.

“It’s ‘What can I get today versus what’s coming tomorrow,’ “ said Brenda Dozier, a payroll specialist who said her sister has relied on refund anticipation loans. “I tell people, ‘You made it this far, just hold on.’ “

Ms. Spain said she paid a company $550 to do her taxes last year so she could get them — and the refund — back fast, an expenditure she now regrets.

The credit may not permanently change people’s circumstances, but researchers are finding evidence that many who receive it do not do so for very long. One recent study found that 60 percent of those who got the benefit stopped claiming it after two years. That is because people’s finances tend to be fluid, moving them in and out of the program, said John Horowitz, an economist at Ball State University in Indiana, one of the authors of the study, which examined tax records from 1989 to 2006. One in two American families with children received the credit at least once during that period, he said.

Ms. Spain yearns for a time when she will no longer be eligible for the credit because she is earning more money. She remembers wistfully her former job at Nortel that paid $85,000 a year and the feeling of going to a restaurant or a movie without worrying about her budget.

“Someday we’ll wait and file in April,” she said. “And if we need money before then, we’ll just go to the bank.”

    Antipoverty Tax Program Offers Relief, Though Often Temporary, NYT, 17.4.2012,






Anna Lou Dehavenon,

Who Drew Attention to the Homeless,

Dies at 85


February 29, 2012
The New York Times


Anna Lou Dehavenon, an urban anthropologist, was documenting the lives of women living in a Bronx homeless shelter in the 1980s when she had an epiphany.

She had just determined that the median age of women at the shelter was 26, and that the median number of children of the women was 2, when she suddenly remembered the day her own life was turned upside down — when she, too, was 26 and the mother of two.

It was Oct. 29, 1953, the day her husband, William Kapell, one of his generation’s most brilliant pianists, died in a plane crash at the age of 31. He was returning to the United States from a tour of Australia when the plane struck King’s Mountain south of San Francisco, killing all 19 on board.

Mr. Kapell, who had spent a small fortune transporting his chosen pianos to concerts, left his widow little. And she, having dropped her own career as a promising pianist to raise a family, found herself with no income and no college degree. If she wasn’t exactly homeless, she was the closest thing to it.

At the Bronx shelter, Dr. Dehavenon saw how much she had in common with the women she was studying, and how her own experience had motivated her choice of career.

“I’m thinking, my God, that’s one of the reasons I’m so concerned,” she said in an interview with The New York Times in 2005. “Freud would have had a wonderful time with it. Subconsciously, my own experience fed into it.”

With help, she rebuilt her life and went on to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology, becoming a respected authority on poverty, hunger and homelessness in New York City. She died at 85 on Tuesday at a nursing home in Greenport, on Long Island, her son David Kapell said.

Dr. Dehavenon’s influence came from the strength of the statistics and empirical observations she collected as an urban anthropologist doing studies for private social welfare groups. Her reports were read closely by government agencies, judicial officials and the news media, and her research influenced a 1979 landmark ruling that affirmed a right to shelter in New York City.

She was as much an advocate as she was an observer. One organization she started was called the Action Research Project on Hunger.

“Are people starving?” Dr. Dehavenon asked rhetorically in 1988. “I don’t really use that kind of language. We can’t ever see hunger, because it’s a subjective experience. But we can build a case inferring that people here are suffering from hunger, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Starting in 1978, Dr. Dehavenon produced annual studies on hunger for the East Harlem Interfaith Welfare Committee, an alliance of seven religious, voluntary organizations she helped form. She had been raised a Presbyterian and embraced Buddhism.

Using social science research techniques, Dr. Dehavenon found that more and more Harlem residents went hungry each year, some of them relying on what they could steal, others sifting through garbage to feed their families.

She traced the causes to cuts in federal assistance and an eagerness by New York City officials to bump people from public assistance rolls. She titled her 1985 report “The Tyranny of Indifference.”

Dr. Dehavenon focused increasingly on homelessness as the problem surged in the 1980s. Her analyses contributed to the litigation in a class-action suit brought by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of a group of homeless families. It led to the ruling, by a State Supreme Court justice, ordering New York City to provide shelter to all homeless families.

“In the society’s court papers, she recounted her weekly observations of case after case of families who had been left without shelter,” said Jane Bock, senior staff attorney for the society’s Homeless Rights Project. Dr. Dehavenon’s expert testimony about families living in filth led to contempt rulings against the city, Ms. Bock said.

When the Community Service Society presented Dr. Dehavenon with its highest award in 1990, it said, “Her research has been instrumental in forcing critical changes in social policy in New York City.”

Rebecca Ann Lou Melson was born on Nov. 24, 1926, in Bellingham, Wash., and soon showed a gift for the piano. After two years at Reed College in Portland, Ore., she moved to Chicago to study at DePaul University with Sergei Tarnovsky, who had taught Vladimir Horowitz in Russia. She met Mr. Kapell when he performed in Chicago, and they married in 1948.

After Mr. Kapell’s death, family friends helped her find an apartment. She met Gaston T. de Havenon, an art dealer, and married him in 1955. (She adopted a slightly different rendering of the surname.) They had two children, and with his two children from an earlier marriage and her two with Mr. Kapell, she acted as mother for six. She divorced Mr. de Havenon in 1974, having grown bored with being a homemaker, she told The Times.

At 40, she started taking classes at Columbia University’s School of General Studies. One teacher, the anthropologist Marvin Harris, who was known for finding practical explanations for human behavior, had students videotape the behavior of a range of people, from garbage collectors to the Macy’s Santa Claus.

Ms. Dehavenon continued to use videotape in her doctoral studies of hunger, recording the behavior of families, in some cases as they ran out of food. She spoke of being moved by an unemployed father in East Harlem who had borrowed $10 from his sister and spent three days comparing prices before buying a Thanksgiving turkey.

After receiving her doctorate in 1978, she taught on and off at both the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine throughout her career.

Besides her son David, she is survived by another son, Alexander; her daughters Rebecca Ellen Kapell Leigh and Sarah Alicia de Havenon Fowler; her stepsons Michael and Andre, and 10 grandchildren.

Dr. Dehavenon strove to keep Mr. Kapell’s memory alive by helping to publish his diaries and issue new recordings of his music. In one instance, by a circuitous route, she unexpectedly received CD copies of some forgotten acetate-disc recordings of Mr. Kapell’s last concerts, performed in Australia in 1953. A Melbourne department store salesman, who had since died, had recorded them from radio broadcasts.

The found music led to the release in 2008 of the two-disc album “Kapell Rediscovered: The Australian Broadcasts,” by Sony BMG Masterworks.

In a 2004 radio interview in Australia, Dr. Dehavenon said she still got goose flesh when she heard Mr. Kapell’s music. There are times, she said, “when music can speak but words can’t speak.”

    Anna Lou Dehavenon, Who Drew Attention to the Homeless, Dies at 85, NYT, 29.2.2012,






Education Gap

Grows Between Rich and Poor,

Studies Say


February 9, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Education was historically considered a great equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and improving their chances for success as adults. But a body of recently published scholarship suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening, a development that threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects.

It is a well-known fact that children from affluent families tend to do better in school. Yet the income divide has received far less attention from policy makers and government officials than gaps in student accomplishment by race.

Now, in analyses of long-term data published in recent months, researchers are finding that while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.

“We have moved from a society in the 1950s and 1960s, in which race was more consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears more determinative of educational success than race,” said Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University sociologist. Professor Reardon is the author of a study that found that the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites.

In another study, by researchers from the University of Michigan, the imbalance between rich and poor children in college completion — the single most important predictor of success in the work force — has grown by about 50 percent since the late 1980s.

The changes are tectonic, a result of social and economic processes unfolding over many decades. The data from most of these studies end in 2007 and 2008, before the recession’s full impact was felt. Researchers said that based on experiences during past recessions, the recent downturn was likely to have aggravated the trend.

“With income declines more severe in the lower brackets, there’s a good chance the recession may have widened the gap,” Professor Reardon said. In the study he led, researchers analyzed 12 sets of standardized test scores starting in 1960 and ending in 2007. He compared children from families in the 90th percentile of income — the equivalent of around $160,000 in 2008, when the study was conducted — and children from the 10th percentile, $17,500 in 2008. By the end of that period, the achievement gap by income had grown by 40 percent, he said, while the gap between white and black students, regardless of income, had shrunk substantially.

Both studies were first published last fall in a book of research, “Whither Opportunity?” compiled by the Russell Sage Foundation, a research center for social sciences, and the Spencer Foundation, which focuses on education. Their conclusions, while familiar to a small core of social sciences scholars, are now catching the attention of a broader audience, in part because income inequality has been a central theme this election season.

The connection between income inequality among parents and the social mobility of their children has been a focus of President Obama as well as some of the Republican presidential candidates.

One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources. This has been particularly true as more parents try to position their children for college, which has become ever more essential for success in today’s economy.

A study by Sabino Kornrich, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies at the Juan March Institute in Madrid, and Frank F. Furstenberg, scheduled to appear in the journal Demography this year, found that in 1972, Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as much per child as low-income families. By 2007 that gap had grown to nine to one; spending by upper-income families more than doubled, while spending by low-income families grew by 20 percent.

“The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” said Dr. Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The gap is also growing in college. The University of Michigan study, by Susan M. Dynarski and Martha J. Bailey, looked at two generations of students, those born from 1961 to 1964 and those born from 1979 to 1982. By 1989, about one-third of the high-income students in the first generation had finished college; by 2007, more than half of the second generation had done so. By contrast, only 9 percent of the low-income students in the second generation had completed college by 2007, up only slightly from a 5 percent college completion rate by the first generation in 1989.

James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, argues that parenting matters as much as, if not more than, income in forming a child’s cognitive ability and personality, particularly in the years before children start school.

“Early life conditions and how children are stimulated play a very important role,” he said. “The danger is we will revert back to the mindset of the war on poverty, when poverty was just a matter of income, and giving families more would improve the prospects of their children. If people conclude that, it’s a mistake.”

Meredith Phillips, an associate professor of public policy and sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, used survey data to show that affluent children spend 1,300 more hours than low-income children before age 6 in places other than their homes, their day care centers, or schools (anywhere from museums to shopping malls). By the time high-income children start school, they have spent about 400 hours more than poor children in literacy activities, she found.

Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute whose book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” was published Jan. 31, described income inequality as “more of a symptom than a cause.”

The growing gap between the better educated and the less educated, he argued, has formed a kind of cultural divide that has its roots in natural social forces, like the tendency of educated people to marry other educated people, as well as in the social policies of the 1960s, like welfare and other government programs, which he contended provided incentives for staying single.

“When the economy recovers, you’ll still see all these problems persisting for reasons that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture,” he said.

There are no easy answers, in part because the problem is so complex, said Douglas J. Besharov, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. Blaming the problem on the richest of the rich ignores an equally important driver, he said: two-earner household wealth, which has lifted the upper middle class ever further from less educated Americans, who tend to be single parents.

The problem is a puzzle, he said. “No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare.”

    Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say, NYT, 9.2.2011,






The White Underclass


February 8, 2012
The New York Times


Persistent poverty is America’s great moral challenge, but it’s far more than that.

As a practical matter, we can’t solve educational problems, health care costs, government spending or economic competitiveness so long as a chunk of our population is locked in an underclass. Historically, “underclass” has often been considered to be a euphemism for race, but increasingly it includes elements of the white working class as well.

That’s the backdrop for the uproar over Charles Murray’s latest book, “Coming Apart.” Murray critically examines family breakdown among working-class whites and the decline in what he sees as traditional values of diligence.

Liberals have mostly denounced the book, and I, too, disagree with important parts of it. But he’s right to highlight social dimensions of the crisis among low-skilled white workers.

My touchstone is my beloved hometown of Yamhill, Ore., population about 925 on a good day. We Americans think of our rural American heartland as a lovely pastoral backdrop, but these days some marginally employed white families in places like Yamhill seem to be replicating the pathologies that have devastated many African-American families over the last generation or two.

One scourge has been drug abuse. In rural America, it’s not heroin but methamphetamine; it has shattered lives in Yamhill and left many with criminal records that make it harder to find good jobs. With parents in jail, kids are raised on the fly.

Then there’s the eclipse of traditional family patterns. Among white American women with only a high school education, 44 percent of births are out of wedlock, up from 6 percent in 1970, according to Murray.

Liberals sometimes feel that it is narrow-minded to favor traditional marriage. Over time, my reporting on poverty has led me to disagree: Solid marriages have a huge beneficial impact on the lives of the poor (more so than in the lives of the middle class, who have more cushion when things go wrong).

One study of low-income delinquent young men in Boston found that one of the factors that had the greatest impact in turning them away from crime was marrying women they cared about. As Steven Pinker notes in his recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: “The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology.”

Jobs are also critical as a pathway out of poverty, and Murray is correct in noting that it is troubling that growing numbers of working-class men drop out of the labor force. The proportion of men of prime working age with only a high school education who say they are “out of the labor force” has quadrupled since 1968, to 12 percent.

In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan released a famous report warning of a crisis in African-American family structures, and many liberals at the time accused him of something close to racism. In retrospect, Moynihan was right to sound the alarms.

Today, I fear we’re facing a crisis in which a chunk of working-class America risks being calcified into an underclass, marked by drugs, despair, family decline, high incarceration rates and a diminishing role of jobs and education as escalators of upward mobility. We need a national conversation about these dimensions of poverty, and maybe Murray can help trigger it. I fear that liberals are too quick to think of inequality as basically about taxes. Yes, our tax system is a disgrace, but poverty is so much deeper and more complex than that.

Where Murray is profoundly wrong, I think, is to blame liberal social policies for the pathologies he examines. Yes, I’ve seen disability programs encourage some people to drop out of the labor force. But there were far greater forces at work, such as the decline in good union jobs.

Eighty percent of the people in my high school cohort dropped out or didn’t pursue college because it used to be possible to earn a solid living at the steel mill, the glove factory or sawmill. That’s what their parents had done. But the glove factory closed, working-class jobs collapsed and unskilled laborers found themselves competing with immigrants.

There aren’t ideal solutions, but some evidence suggests that we need more social policy, not less. Early childhood education can support kids being raised by struggling single parents. Treating drug offenders is far cheaper than incarcerating them.

A new study finds that a jobs program for newly released prison inmates left them 22 percent less likely to be convicted of another crime. This initiative, by the Center for Employment Opportunities, more than paid for itself: each $1 brought up to $3.85 in benefits.

So let’s get real. A crisis is developing in the white working class, a byproduct of growing income inequality in America. The pathologies are achingly real. But the solution isn’t finger-wagging, or averting our eyes — but opportunity.

    The White Underclass, NYT, 8.2.2012,






In the Fight Against Poverty,

It’s Time for a Revolution


January 12, 2012
7:21 pm
The New York Times
Opinionator - A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web

Fixes looks at solutions to social problems and why they work.


Is it time to rethink our basic assumptions about the way we fight poverty?

When Michael Harrington’s landmark book on poverty, “The Other America,” was published in 1962, Harrington startled the nation’s leaders, including President John F. Kennedy, by shining a spotlight on the deep poverty that remained hidden in America. Harrington’s book became an underpinning for the War on Poverty. Half a century later, the United States Census bureau has produced what may become another landmark reference. Based on an updated method for assessing poverty, the bureau has found that far more Americans are scraping by than was previously known: 100 million Americans — one in three — are “deep poor,” “poor,” or “near poor.”

Adding to the impact of this analysis is the growing realization that American society has become more calcified. The decline of social mobility in the United States is now acknowledged as a serious problem by Democrats and Republicans alike. As Jason DeParle reported recently in The Times, new research indicates that if you start off near the bottom of the income ladder in the United States, you’re far more likely to remain there than if you’re in the same situation in Canada or Europe. And if you start off poor in Denmark or Britain, for example, you’re much more likely to reach the top fifth in income than if you try to make the same climb in the United States. It seems that the Danish Dream and the British Dream are currently more alive — at least for the most disadvantaged — than the American Dream.

That dream has never been just about income, of course, but about self-determination. As Harrington observed, poverty is more than lacking minimum standards of health care, housing, food and education. “Poverty,” he wrote, “should be defined psychologically in terms of those whose place in the society is such that they are internal exiles who, almost inevitably, develop attitudes of defeat and pessimism and who are therefore excluded from taking advantage of new opportunities.”

In recent years, economists and policy makers have shifted toward this view. Amartya Sen, who won a Nobel Prize in economics, has argued that economists should think of poverty as that which deprives people of the opportunity to develop and use their capabilities. Others argue that the goal in anti-poverty efforts should be to help poor people increase their “capacity to aspire” and navigate toward self-defined goals. Researchers in the United Kingdom have developed tools to measure “well-being,” looking at such things as material goods, relationships and self-beliefs. The focus is also shifting from addressing individual poverty to stabilizing families. Last year, the British government began an ambitious new child poverty strategy based on many of these ideas.

Much of this makes intuitive sense. But there is a problem: the system of social services that has been built up over past generations isn’t designed to increase poor people’s “capacity to aspire” and pursue their goals. Social services aren’t treated as part of an integrated process of human development. Just the opposite. Services are fragmented and clients are regularly shunted from agency to agency. Caseworkers serving people who are applying for public benefits don’t have the time, or the discretion, to get to know their clients, let alone brainstorm with them about problem solving.

But that’s what’s required. Many Americans struggling in poverty today need more than financial assistance; they need help figuring out how to plug into a changing economy. They need help devising a plan forward. One of the most innovative organizations working to re-imagine poverty alleviation along these lines is called LIFT. It was founded by college students in 1998, and most of the work is still conducted by student volunteers. Last year, LIFT mobilized 674 volunteers who contributed 126,000 volunteer hours and assisted about 10,000 families. If the American Dream is to be resuscitated for many of nation’s poor, there is a great deal that we can learn from them.

LIFT’s approach is grounded in the principle that change happens through relationships. “The sheer act of two people coming together, sharing their strengths in a trusting relationship, is the most important first step in creating transformation,” explains Kirsten Lodal, LIFT’s chief executive and co-founder. “It’s the portal from which people are able to access opportunity in all its many dimensions.”

If this sounds soft, it isn’t. LIFT has spent more than a decade systematizing what amounts to a social technology. It has developed a set of working principles — among them, be humble, transparent, and friendly, focus on strengths, beware of your own biases — for working with clients. The advocates all use technology (like the digital natives they are) to track every meeting, as well as clients’ progress on their goals.

They have looked closely at the human qualities required to address poverty. Above all, LIFT looks for volunteers who have demonstrated empathy. “We believe the capacity for empathy is the primary indicator of how successful volunteers will be in building strong relationships with their clients,” explained Lodal. They look for evidence in past behavior that applicants are genuinely motivated to fight poverty. This isn’t the way government agencies usually do their hiring.

Advocates are trained to treat clients with courtesy, to value their time, and to listen to their stories (while maintaining clear boundaries). They are not to push their ideas or judge others for their failures. (They also know when they have to refer clients to professionals.) The job is to help people stabilize their lives so they can begin thinking about, and committing to, longer-term goals. This takes time and continuing effort on the part of advocates, who fight for months and sometimes years to help clients find housing, jobs, skills training, education, public benefits and emergency assistance.

Another difference is that LIFT, which is a nonprofit and whose services are free, locates its offices within the communities it is serving, and makes special efforts to recruit advocates from the same background as the majority of its clients. Patricia Perez, a former advocate in LIFT’s Bronx office who now works for the United States Treasury, was motivated to help when she was a Fordham student because she had experienced homelessness herself as a youth.

“Seeing how helpless my mother felt when she couldn’t get us housing, I wanted to do something to help others,” Perez told me. When she applied for food stamps, she recalled being yelled at and feeling as if she were doing something shameful. “A lot of our clients come into the office feeling very discouraged,” she said. “When they sit down they’re slumped over. They keep their coats on. Their faces are suspicious. At the end, they’re sitting up straight and they seem excited or hopeful about next steps. It’s something that’s not a solid ‘deliverable’ — but it always felt like a big deal to me.” She added: “Being treated politely is for many people a new experience.”

Many LIFT clients engage with the organization on a continuing basis because it is an enjoyable experience for them. Some are tearful when recounting the kindness with which they were treated.

Maria Gilbert, an advocate in LIFT’s West Philadelphia office, came to the program because she was pregnant and couldn’t afford to continue attending Temple University. Her advocate, Tanisha Walker, who also attended Temple and had a young daughter, helped her find government benefits and then worked with her to figure out a manageable educational pathway through Delaware County Community College. Now Gilbert plans to transfer to West Chester University and become a social worker. In the meantime, she’s volunteering at LIFT, helping clients build resumes, get immigration papers, apply for jobs, find food banks, and so forth. “People helped me, and it’s my obligation to help others,” she said. “And I realize I’m well suited for this job.”

Before, she never imagined that so many different people needed so much help and that so many resources were available. One of her clients was a registered nurse with a degree from a major university who was pregnant, unemployed, recently divorced, and had another child to support. “I never imagined that someone with those credentials would be in a situation where she needed help,” Gilbert said.

In fact, LIFT is seeing more people in the “near poor” or “newly poor” category. In some cases, clients came in who had been employed for 20 or 30 years and lost a job. Some had no idea how to do an Internet job search, or even how to put together a résumé. After repeated rejections, some found their confidence shattered. Advocates help these clients acquire new skills, rebuild résumés and use online tools to identify opportunities. Most important, they encourage them to send out applications and keep sending them out — 50, 75, 100 — as many as it takes. “Sometimes I think our most important job is just keeping people from giving up,” says Lodal.

Listening to stories of LIFT clients, it becomes abundantly clear that efforts to address poverty and social problems with fragmented, short-term fixes make no sense. LIFT is now part of a partnership with the city of Boston called the Circle of Promise that is linking schools with community-based efforts to stabilize poor families.

Within the Circle, the city has identified 12 “turnaround schools” with 6,000 students and 600 students who are “most at risk.” Each school has a liaison whose job is to get to know the kids and the issues their families are facing, and when necessary, refer parents or guardians to partner organizations like LIFT. “As we were working with the children, we realized that you have to help the whole families,” explained Marie St. Fleur, the city’s chief of Advocacy and Strategic Investment. “It’s not about case management. It’s about equipping parents with the tools they need to move towards economic stability. That means navigating a very complex human services system we’ve built.”

Over the past 11 months, LIFT-Boston’s Roxbury office has assisted 564 families within the Circle. Approximately 80 percent requested housing services. More than half requested employment assistance. A third spoke no English. A third sought job training. One in five had no health insurance. (In Massachusetts, only 2 percent of the state’s population was uninsured in 2010.) To date, the student advocates have helped as follows: 19 families averted eviction; 23 obtained stable housing; 11 got into emergency shelters; 23 found jobs; 9 enrolled in job training; 61 received public benefits they were entitled to; 34 completed personal budgets; 47 were connected to community health resources; 43 were connected to child care, after-school and tutoring programs; and 118 received basic resources like food and clothing.

“It’s a beginning,” notes St. Fleur. “We’ve seen absenteeism dropping. Families have gotten stabilized with housing, jobs, skills.” It will take time to see how this affects student learning. It’s hard to imagine it won’t help. Research indicates that students who go homeless, move frequently, or experience turmoil at home are far more likely to fail in school.

As part of LIFT’s volunteer training, advocates are asked to reflect on the question: “Why I LIFT?” The idea is to help them reconnect to the meaning of their work – and to think critically about how they are doing it. Given the new landscape of American poverty and near poverty, the country should do the same.

“When we start dealing with poverty,” notes Lodal, “we turn off our brains about what has worked over time for the middle and upper classes in America.” It’s not just benefits and material resources — but plans, relationships, beliefs and aspirations — the kinds of things LIFT helps its clients to think about for themselves every day.

Looking ahead, LIFT plans to bring in outside parties to evaluate its work. The goal is to accumulate a body of evidence — building on its work with 50,000 families to date — to challenge the existing assumptions in the human services system. “We’d like to advance this very simple concept,” says Lodal. “That two people — neighbors, students, retired professionals, it can be anyone — can come together voluntarily and help someone identify their goals and achieve their potential.”


David Bornstein is the author of “How to Change the World,”
which has been published in 20 languages,

and “The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank,”

and is co-author of “Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

He is the founder of dowser.org, a media site that reports
on social innovation.

    In the Fight Against Poverty, It’s Time for a Revolution, NYT, 12.1.2012,




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