More than a million American children live in households surviving on two dollars per person per day in cash.
Think about this. For a single parent and two children, this means no more than $180 dollars per month to cover all the essentials: housing, utilities, transportation, laundry, and absolutely everything else. This family probably receives SNAP (food stamps). But SNAP covers actual food only – not diapers or soap or toilet paper. Their health expenses may be covered by Medicaid. And there is a small chance that they have subsidized housing. But still.
Do you think you could live like this? Here in Washington, DC it costs $2 just to take a bus one way.
Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer’s powerful book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, presents both the data and the very human stories behind this desperate poverty – which has skyrocketed since the “welfare reforms” of the 1990s. While these reforms and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) may have reduced poverty among families able to find steady work, way too many families have been left behind.
Like Matthew Desmond’s brilliant ethnography Evicted, Edin and Shaefer’s book touches on family homelessness. Evicted took us into the world of families doubled up under duress – the most common form of family homelessness. $2.00 a Day takes us into the lives of families in abject poverty – and unsurprisingly, such poverty frequently involves lacking or losing a home of one’s own.
The families profiled by Edin and Shaefer sell homemade goods, recyclables, and blood plasma. They gain and lose jobs. They take advantage of resources offered by charitable organizations. They stay with friends and relatives in overcrowded housing. They spend time in homeless shelters. They barter in creative and sometimes risky ways. And when most desperate, they may take major risks like selling food stamps, sex, or the use of their children’s Social Security numbers.
Despite all this, Edin and Shaefer don’t pine for the days of more widespread cash welfare benefits. When looking for solutions, they emphasize two principles: minimizing stigma and shame for families; and gaining public support by stressing core American values. They discuss subsidized private-sector job creation; WPA-style job creation; raising the minimum wage; and addressing wage theft and just-in-time scheduling. They ask us to consider the contrast between public benefits, which stigmatize, and tax credits, which normalize.
The trouble with American values is that they are sometimes in conflict. Love your neighbor as yourself—and—pull yourself up by your bootstraps. The same week’s news may bring us both discussions of a guaranteed minimum income and proposals for new work requirements in public benefits.
Bottom line: with $2.00 a Day, Edin and Shaefer have made it significantly harder for us to ignore the presence of extreme poverty in our nation. There is no quick fix for this problem. But it’s a crime to look away.
Last fall, my friend and former colleague Ed Batista, an executive coach who has written extensively about leadership, posted an article titled, “Dysfunction Isn’t Heroism.” This wise essay reviews the well-established case that forgoing sleep and exercise, scrimping on time with family and friends, and packing our work schedules so tightly that we lack time for reflection all are counterproductive. Ed writes that:
…we've recast dysfunction as heroic sacrifice. We've collectively created a narrative around the nature of work that not only justifies…dysfunctional practices, but also regards those who engage in them as selfless heroes, sacrificing sleep, relationships, and even their health in order to help the organization achieve its goals. We brag about how little sleep we're getting, how busy and over-scheduled we are, how poorly we take care of ourselves--all of which plays into and reinforces this narrative of heroic sacrifice.
Ed coaches CEOs and other business leaders, and teaches MBA students at Stanford University. So it’s understandable that his bottom line is this: “Ultimately we have to recognize that there’s a difference between actual heroic sacrifices and imaginary ones.”
Ed is right.
Still, as I read his article, I found myself wondering how his words would be received in the nonprofit sector. I could almost hear the chorus protesting: but what if the work actually is heroic?
What if the work is housing and support for homeless youth who might otherwise be sleeping on the streets of a frigid city? What if the work is a free clinic in a rural area where thousands are uninsured and medical resources are limited even for those with money? What if the work is feeding kids who get almost nothing to eat at home when school is out? Sometimes lives really are at stake.
Ed is still right.
Interestingly, long before I was familiar with the research Ed references, I learned this lesson in the same place that he likely did: from nonprofit leader Liz Resner. I’ve written previously that Liz successfully taught and modeled the message that you can’t effectively care for others unless you care for yourself as well. Trained as a clinical psychologist, she recognized the trap that leaders and staff in “do-good” organizations often fall into: seeing an overwhelming need; feeling a personal calling to fill it; and working night and day to do so. But then: making themselves sick; or making others miserable; or burning out and disappearing from the work altogether.
Of course, there are times when it’s critically important to work extra hard. Even with extreme intensity. But we can learn that it’s counterproductive to work that intensely all the time.
If we stay late because a child has been hurt, we can leave early some other day. If we staff an event all day Saturday, we can stay home on Monday. If we work furiously for weeks on a major funding proposal, we can take a vacation. If we find ourselves in a life of back-to-back meetings, we can schedule (and stick to) regular times for planning and reflection.
Beneath all this, we can accept the reality that even when the work is heroic, the workers are human. We still need to sleep. Exercise. Breathe. Spend time with people we love and enjoy.
It’s tempting to believe that this wisdom doesn’t apply to us, because the world needs us so.
It’s smarter to accept that it does. Because the world needs us so.
In 2009, and for several years after, I spent a lot of time talking about clergy sexual abuse. These were not social science conversations. This was personal.
Family and friends gave me the enormous gift of listening supportively to my tale of abuse and manipulation – starting at age 19 – by the 67-year-old man who was my childhood minister. Finally being able to speak my story out loud was a critical step in healing from the intense physical and emotional pain these events had caused. I had been silent about this for so long.
When the #MeToo Movement took off this fall, I felt at first that I had already had my “me too moment.” In the phraseology of Time Magazine, I had already been a “silence breaker.”
But this is a critical time in our country’s history, and I’ve decided I want to weigh in again now.
I’ve used this blog to reflect on three areas that are important to me: poverty and homelessness; nonprofit leadership; and gender issues. #MeToo ties to all three:
Poverty and Homelessness:
Long before I was able to acknowledge to myself that what happened in my youth was sexual abuse – back when I had a totally different and completely wrong-headed internal narrative of these events in my own life – I was simultaneously focused on the abuse of other women. That’s because histories of abuse – physical, emotional, and sexual – are such a common factor in the lives of homeless and very low-income women.
It’s good now to hear from famous women, rich women, powerful women. Their stories remind us that harassment, assault, and abuse – like the rain – fall on rich and poor, black and white. They remind us that even in a life of privilege, the impact can be devastating.
But in the human services sector, one quickly learns that the impact of harassment, abuse, and assault is greatest on those without power, money, and white privilege. It’s important to keep this knowledge front and center. And it’s essential for organizations focused on poverty and homelessness to place a high priority on providing services aimed at addressing and healing abuse.
Sometimes, it feels like nonprofits are a “woman’s world.” But that’s all about presence.
When it comes to power, men still dominate. Although the latest GuideStar report shows gains in the proportion of nonprofit CEOs who are female, the figures are still depressingly low in large organizations.
Churches, synagogues, and mosques are nonprofits too. In this part of the sector, male domination in leadership frequently extends to the unilateral exclusion of women from the clergy.
Real change in the sexual abuse of power by men will not arrive until women share equally in the power to lead our most important institutions. There’s been a lot of emphasis on politics, business, and the media – but nonprofits are important institutions too.
In her book Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, Anne-Marie Slaughter proposes that we approach caregiving like athletes approach interval training. She wants us to accept the importance of taking intervals when we step back from – or out of – the work world. Although Slaughter focuses on care for children or elderly parents, it’s essential to accept that it’s also sometimes necessary to spend time caring for ourselves.
The #MeToo Movement has highlighted how much lasting damage has been done to women. This damage can manifest itself in physical and emotional illness, and recovery can take time – especially when the impact of abuse or assault has festered for years.
It needs to be okay for women to step back from the work world for long enough to address and heal from this damage. It also should be okay to return.
I took a long interval away from the work world to attend to my own healing. I was fortunate to be part of a two-income household, to have insurance that covered a wonderful therapist, and to have phenomenal support from a loving husband. But money and marriage shouldn’t be prerequisites to taking time for healing.
As our society comes to grips with how much damage has been done by sexual predation, it’s time to accept that we all benefit when we support the wounded among us as they heal.
Last year I had an interesting conversation with one of the finalists at the presentation of the AIM Award for excellence in nonprofit management. I asked him about his organization’s approach, and he said it was a process of “peeling the onion.”
Peeling the onion! I was glad to hear him use this metaphor, because this has long been one of the ways I have described my own approach to human services.
Why an onion? Not because onions make us cry – although I suppose that’s not irrelevant. Rather, because they have so many layers, each of which hides the layers underneath.
In human services, we generally know that we’ll trip ourselves up if we don’t listen well. When nonprofit clients tell their stories, we try to listen carefully to the circumstances they describe and the needs they express. But that isn’t always enough. Often, we don’t learn what we need to know in order to be helpful, because we don’t know what questions to ask.
Years ago, at Compass Family Services in San Francisco, we were providing a broad range of services for people who were homeless. Early on, these were primarily crisis-oriented services. Even when we saw clients repeatedly, it was in an office setting, and even when we provided temporary housing, it was in rooms leased from others. Then we opened a transitional housing facility for homeless families. The apartments were new and beautiful. Free childcare for all ages was provided onsite. Counseling and therapy was available for all. Families could stay two years, and everyone had the support they needed to participate in employment and education programs.
Suddenly, the viewpoint of our staff was expanded radically. Families shared pieces of their lives with us 24/7. We learned that we had effectively “turned off the crisis” for most residents, but without that all-consuming preoccupation, other needs came to the fore. Families shared much more about their histories of abuse and trauma, their fears and vulnerabilities – including even, their fears of success. This changed our approach not just in transitional housing, but in all of our programs at Compass, significantly increasing our emphasis on helping clients to heal from trauma and abuse.
This was the first – although far from the last – time I saw that peeling the onion was an important metaphor for the learning and growth that must take place in healthy nonprofit organizations.
Taking a “peel the onion” approach makes us humble. After providing crisis services to thousands at Compass, we thought we knew a lot. But we couldn’t know what we didn’t know. I’ve now worked on homelessness on two coasts and in two countries – providing housing, employment, research, and a myriad of services. So sometimes I still may think I know a lot. But keeping an eye on the onion helps me to remember that what I don’t know is more.
Life has lots of layers. It’s complicated. We tend to see and hear what’s right in front of us, and not what’s six layers down. And it can be frustrating, when congratulating ourselves on our response to one issue, to find that there’s more below. But each time we adapt and change – each time we peel back another layer – we get a little closer to fulfilling our mission.
Polls show a stunningly high percentage of Americans who approve of President Trump’s response to the events in Charlottesville earlier this month. This should not come as a surprise, given that last year’s election revealed the huge number of voters for whom repeated racist (and misogynist) remarks by the winning candidate never became a deal-breaker.
Yet, the flagrancy of what took place in Charlottesville was chilling. So the level of support for Trump’s response is deeply revelatory. This is more than structural racism or implicit bias. Trump has fanned the flames of personal racism, unleashing forces that have long existed, but are flourishing with his encouragement.
For people who work in human services, structural racism is never a surprise. We see its face in the significant racial disparities found in education, healthcare, housing, criminal justice, and so many other areas. We see its face in the composition of the clientele of our organizations.
Truth be told, we also see the face of structural racism in the composition of nonprofit organizations themselves. Most importantly, we see insufficient representation of people of color on the boards and among the senior leadership staff of our organizations. Damningly, this includes many organizations whose clientele is primarily composed of people of color.
In our country, even people with noxious beliefs about other human beings have free speech rights to express their odious ideas in public settings. When they do, they should expect to be called out on these ideas. Repeatedly. Widely. By our political leaders. And also by leaders in the nonprofit sector.
Besides speaking out, it is well past time for nonprofit leaders to double down on the work of addressing structural racism – both inside and outside our organizations.
While not a surprise, structural racism should never be accepted as “normal.” Yet we live in a world where, when something is good, we expect white people to have more of this. And when something is bad, we expect people of color to have more of that.
The Urban Institute recently released a report about the pernicious effects of persistent childhood poverty. It highlighted enormously disproportionate consequences for African-Americans. This report should have been front page news. It was not.
Likewise, it is long past time for us to stop accepting the disproportionately white leadership of nonprofit organizations as normal – or acceptable.
I’ve served for the past two years as a member of the selection committee for the Center for Nonprofit Advancement’s Board Leadership Award. During this time, I’ve been impressed by a tiny number of organizations who have made it a genuine priority to have their boards reflect not only the racial diversity of our region, but also the racial composition of the clientele they serve. More often, I have been discouraged when organizations nominate their boards as examples of excellence while making no more than minimal progress toward these goals. Some seem not even to have reached the point of acknowledging that these are important objectives.
As we confront the fact that personal racism is alive and well in our country, it’s important to ask whether the many ways in which we have normalized structural racism may be a contributor to the renewed visibility and tolerance of racial hatred. When “people of good will” allow festering structural disparities to remain for so long – even in our own workplaces – how does this not send the message that some are worth less than others in our nation, even today?
I recently read a stunner of a book – Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by sociologist Matthew Desmond. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction – no surprise because it presents a powerful combination of intensive first-hand research, convincing data, and vivid writing. To wit:
If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.
Desmond embedded himself in the lives of two landlords and eight families experiencing evictions in Milwaukee, and he presents them to the reader in compelling, balanced, and entirely human portraits. Desmond trains a spotlight, as well, on the broader context of racism and sexism in our society, presenting data showing that eviction is an everyday event in the poorest black neighborhoods of Milwaukee – particularly for women. In those neighborhoods, women are evicted nine times as often as women from the city’s poorest white neighborhoods.
Desmond also asks us to focus on the frequency with which families with children are illegally barred from rental properties – a factor that both contributes to evictions and makes it more difficult for parents to recover from them. Housing discrimination against families with children has been illegal by federal law since 1988, yet Desmond finds that these families are turned away in as many as 70 percent of housing searches. And in a national survey he cites, less than 40 percent of respondents even were aware that it is illegal to treat these households differently!
Desmond’s book touches on family homelessness and makes real for readers its most common variation: families doubled-up in overcrowded housing under duress.
Families double up when they lose their housing – through eviction or otherwise – and cannot surmount the barriers to acquiring new housing. Families double up when new families are formed through the birth of children to young parents who lack the resources to rent their own accommodations. Families double up with relatives and friends who may put their own leases in jeopardy in order to welcome them – creating a follow-on risk of eviction and homelessness for both hosts and guests. Families live a musical-chairs life in one doubled-up household after another until they are out of options and turn to homeless family shelters for relief.
The annual release of the best-known national count of homelessness – the “Point-in-Time Count” by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development – brought this reality to mind again. Why? Because most doubled-up families are not included in this count. An alternative count of homeless children conducted annually by our nation’s schools -- the “McKinney-Vento Count” by the US Department of Education – establishes that doubled-up families actually comprise the vast majority of homeless families: 76 percent by the last count.
Bi-partisan legislation reintroduced this spring (the Homeless Children and Youth Act) would require federal departments to use a common definition of homelessness that includes these doubled-up families. We can’t address what we don’t fully acknowledge, and moving forward with this change is an important step toward providing homeless families with the types of assistance they need. Desmond’s book brilliantly presents these needs in stark and human terms. Passing the Homeless Children and Youth Act would be a national acknowledgement that we know these families exist.
Early this year, I attended a presentation at the Urban Institute. One of the speakers was Deborah Shore, founder and executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, here in DC. Shore used an interesting phrase – “going upstream” – that has stayed with me for months now.
So what did she mean, and is this a new concept?
Shore was referring to her organization’s long years of increasingly comprehensive work with homeless youth in DC. She said that however well they addressed the needs of youth after they became homeless, it really was essential to go upstream to address issues that affect youth before they become homeless. She discussed ways in which Sasha Bruce Youthwork is tackling issues of family, community, and society that cause young people to leave their homes to begin with.
A little “googling” shows that while the Internet may not be hopping with the going upstream metaphor, it has been used repeatedly by public health professionals.
It seems that both medical sociologist Irving Zola and pioneering community organizer Saul Alinsky told versions of the same parable. In the story, more and more drowning people – in some variations, it is babies – are found flowing down a river. Bystanders are desperately fishing them out and resuscitating them. Until, someone breaks away – even though it seems like they are still needed in the crisis area – and runs upstream to find out why people are falling into the river to begin with!
It’s easy to see why this parable has been used repeatedly in the world of public health, but as Shore’s remarks make clear, the concept of going upstream is highly applicable in other fields, as well. In homelessness, education, criminal justice, and beyond, it seems like there is always one more person to pull out of the river, and it is very hard to make ourselves break away to address the whys.
It’s also true that asking and addressing the upstream questions is complicated – while pulling people out of the river, however tiring, is simpler. Upstream lie the questions we may not want to face about bias and privilege and structural racism in our society. Upstream lie the most complex interactions between institutions and families and individuals. Upstream lie our disagreements about accountability and responsibility.
In the nonprofit world, we take comfort in being “the good sector.” As long as we’re working at the river at all, when so many others are not, why shouldn’t we just feel satisfied with our efforts? Indeed, we should be proud of what our sector has achieved. But when the bodies keep coming down the river, we may encounter burnout or backlash. And Shore’s simple words, like the earlier parable, remind us that we’re capable of more.
We’re capable of increasingly complex, nuanced, and comprehensive work.
We’re capable of combining direct service work with advocacy for broader social change – an approach that Crutchfield and Grant, in Forces for Good, tell us is one of the key practices of high-impact nonprofits.
In short, we’re capable of change.
What’s upstream for your organization this year?