Number of Very Poor Americans Surges Since 1996

The super-rich aren’t the only ones whose ranks (and collective wealth) are growing. To further highlight just how wide the gap of inequality is growing, in less than two decades, the number of Americans living on just two dollars a day has more than doubled. That means 1.5 million households, including 3 million children. As CBS reports, the inherent contradiction of the world’s richest country having so many poor people is no coincidence.

“Most of us would say we would have trouble understanding how families in the county as rich as ours could live on so little,” said author Kathryn Edin, who spoke on a conference call to discuss the book, which she wrote with Luke Shaefer. Edin is the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. “These families, contrary to what many would expect, are workers, and their slide into poverty is a failure of the labor market and our safety net, as well as their own personal circumstances.”

To be sure, the labor market has been rocky for many Americans, not just the poorest. But changes in how employers deal with their low-wage workers have hit many of these poor Americans especially hard, such as the rise of on-call scheduling, which leaves some parents scrambling for hours and dealing with unpredictable pay.

Retailers such as Walmart (WMT) and fast-food companies increasingly are using sophisticated scheduling software that allows them to tinker with work schedules at the last minute, depending on their stores’ needs. That reduces costs for the employer, but it can make life difficult for employees, especially those with children and dependents.

“Time and time again, we would constantly see people’s hours cut from week to week,” said Shaefer, associate professor of social work at University of Michigan. “Someone might have 30 hours one week, down to 15 the next and down to 5 after that. We saw people who would remain employed but were down to zero hours. This was incredibly common in this population.”

Other workforce problems include abuses such as wage theft and unhealthy workplaces, which lead to health problems and missed work, he noted.

And while the private sector, by its own actions, fails to prove why people shouldn’t turn to the government for help, it has also done a good job in rallying people against the policies that would help compensate their own ruthless approach to business.

These families have also been hurt by the welfare reform of the 1990s, when America’s social safety net was overhauled to create Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which is geared toward providing temporary monetary aid to poor families with children.

But TANF isn’t working, Shaefer and Edin said. Since the program was created in 1996 to replace a 60-year-old welfare system, the number of families living on less than $2 a day has more than doubled. In 2012, only one-quarter of poor families received TANF benefits, down from more than two-thirds in 1996, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. According to “$2.00 a Day,” the welfare program reached more than 14.2 million Americans in 1994, but by 2014 only 3.8 million Americans were aided by TANF.

The authors’ research — which included data analysis and interviews with ultrapoor families in four regions — found that many families weren’t even aware of TANF. “One person said, ‘They aren’t just giving it out anymore,'” Shaefer said. “In fact, in Appalachia it has, in some ways, disappeared. We asked, ‘Have you thought about applying for TANF?’ and they said, ‘What’s that?'”

Aside from a lack of knowledge about the program, poor Americans often put off applying for aid because of social stigma and other hurdles, such as requirements to attend orientation meetings, make employment plans and register for employment services.

Perhaps even more disquieting than the growing legions of the poor — which is again occurring during the simultaneous concentration of vast wealth in the upper echelons of society — is how these people get by day to day.

They tend to rely on a few strategies, including selling their own plasma for $30 a pop and selling scrap metal. Some families also sell their food stamp benefits for cash, which is illegal and which Edin said is “very unusual.”

Some women barter for goods and services using sex. Private charities provided very little assistance. Dealing in drugs wasn’t common, Edin said, perhaps because the researchers were interviewing families, which might be less likely to engage in drug use given the presence of children.

“In no cases did [these strategies] raise people out of poverty,” Edin said. “$60 would be the maximum per week” for earnings through these methods. “There was no case where someone was living high off the hog from this informal economy.”

There is not much else to say. It should be patently obvious that a society with as much capital and resources as our own should not have the developed world’s second highest rate of child poverty. This is a resounding political and moral failure, on the part of both business leaders and public officials (though certainly many Americans bear no small amount of guilt for often favoring the shaming and deprivation of the poor — even when it includes themselves). The culture problems at the heart of this tragedy merit a whole other post.

What are your reactions and thoughts?

“What to the Slaves is Fourth of July?”

DemocracyNow.org has an excellent video of James Earl Jones reading one of Frederick Douglass’ most famous speeches, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro. It was first given on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, in an address to the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society. Born into slavery, Douglass became a key leader of the abolitionist movie, and one of America’s most gifted writers and orators.

I think you will find Jones’ emotive and iconic voice to be a great fit for such a powerful and eloquent speech. You can read the transcript here. (Unfortunately, I cannot product the video here, so just click the first hyperlink to see if for yourself.)

When Mexicans Crossed the Border to Help Americans

And not just in terms of working millions of difficult, thankless, and necessary jobs, such as construction, farming, and caregiving. Amid yet another cycle of widespread anti-Mexican sentiment, with public perceptions of the country colored by the drug war and illegal immigration, the Washington Post reminds us that for all the acrimony and difficult historical relations, Mexico is a good neighbor to have.

The Mexican soldiers were on a relief mission to feed tens of thousands of homeless and hungry Americans displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Setting up camp at a former Air Force base outside San Antonio, they distributed potable water, medical supplies and 7,000 hot meals a day for the next three weeks…

…The 45-vehicle convoy crossed the border at Laredo at dawn on Sept. 8 and arrived in San Antonio later that day. The only glitch was that the USDA would not allow the Mexicans to serve the beef they had brought because they couldn’t prove it had been produced in a mad-cow-free facility. Undeterred — and un-insulted — the Mexicans bought their beef locally.

By the time their mission in San Antonio ended Sept. 25, the Mexicans had served 170,000 meals, helped distribute more than 184,000 tons of supplies and conducted more than 500 medical consultations.

Mexican sailors also assisted with clearing downed branches and other storm debris in Biloxi, Miss., where they posed for photos with President George W. Bush, who thanked them for their help.

It is also worth pointing out that Mexico was the only country in the world besides Canada to offer direct military assistance, in addition to private sector donations. The U.S. had declined direct military support from other nations, which says a lot about how much we trust our sole international neighbors.

Moreover, dozens of other countries assisted the U.S. during this severe time of need, from Afghanistan, which donated $100,000 despite its bigger worries, to Russia, which was among the first to respond with heavy jets bearing medical and emergency response supplies.

Many might cynically chalk up the support to political self-interest or diplomatic etiquette, but in most instances there would have been little to gain from helping, often in private, a country then under a highly unpopular leader.

This is a valuable lesson for a society accustomed to viewing foreign nations as threats or ungrateful, aid-hungry parasites. Even some of the world’s poorest nations pledged whatever resources they could to help the world’s hegemon as it reeled from this historic natural disaster. The vast and diverse world outside our borders has its problems, but it is a lot friendlier of a place than most of us realize — even where we least expect it.

How Many National Anthems Are Plagiarized?

Along with a flag and coat of arms, an anthem forms an integral part of a nation’s identity. So one could imagine how scandalous it would be if the song that officially celebrates a nation’s culture and traditions was in fact stolen from somewhere else — including a raunchy American movie.

According to PRI, the national anthem of Bosnia — which was selected to reflect the country’s unity amid bitter ethnic divide — is remarkably similar to, of all things, the opening music of National Lampoon’s Animal House, the 1978 comedy about a misfit fraternity. Compare the two below and decide for yourself.

Animal House.

Bosnian National Anthem (Državna himna Bosne i Hercegovine)

The two melodies were allegedly so similar that some in the country called for the composer, Bosnian-born Serb Dusan Sestic, to be sued for plagiarism (albeit motivated more by opportunism and nationalist spite among those who disliked the anthem and what it stands for). Needless to say, some Bosnians called for the anthem to be dropped, given how embarrassing such an association would be.  Continue reading

Alaskan Native Code Talkers Honored for WWII Service

Despite enduring generations of oppression and deprivation by the United States, indigenous Americans have a long and distinguished history of serving in the very armed forces that were often used to suppress them or their ancestors. Many did so for their own personal reasons, or because they sincerely believed in the values of the country they became part of, whatever its flaws and shortcomings in practice.

Last week, several of these Native American veterans was finally honored for their underappreciated yet invaluable service. As Juneau Empire reported:

[Jeff] David Jr. was one of 200 individual code talkers or their family members who received a silver medal at Wednesday’s ceremony. Each of the 33 tribes recognized received a gold medal. The medals were engraved with a design specific to each tribe.

Native American languages were used during World War I and World War II. Their use is credited for saving the lives of many service members. An estimated 400 to 500 Native American code talkers served in the United States Marine Corps.

America’s indigenous languages were ideal for U.S. war efforts because they were known to very few people outside of their respective tribes, and many are isolated from languages native to other parts of the world. Code talkers were specially trained to use their language so that only they could understand it. A Tlingit code talker would have used a special set of words that might have sounded like nonsense to another Tlingit speaker who wasn’t a trained code talker.

“It made me really proud of my dad” David Jr. said. “He accomplished a lot of things in his life, but this tops it. It’s really icing on the cake”.

Of the relatively few Americans who know about the code talkers, most associate the practice with the Navajo, who made up a majority of code talkers, or the Cherokee and Choctaw, who pioneered the strategy during the First World War. Only over the last couple of decades have these obscure heroes been honored. Smaller but no less important  tribes, such as the Tlingit, Lakota,  Meskwaki, and Comanche, are only recently being given formal due credit (Only in 2008 did Congress officially pass an act honoring every code talker who served in the U.S. military during the world wars with a Congressional Gold Medal.)

As Juneau Empire points out, the recent awards ceremony offers validation in more ways than one.

For the tribes recognized during the ceremony, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s speech might have best summed up the irony of having the U.S. government recognizing Native American languages in a positive way.

“In the late 1800’s, The United States government forced Native American children to attend English-only boarding schools”. Reid said. “Native Children were torn from their families, taken far from home in box cars and buggies, given English names and forced to cut their hair short. Teachers beat the children with leather belts when they spoke in their native tongues”.

The government told them their language had no value. But the children held onto their languages, culture and history despite great personal risk. And in this nation’s hour of greatest need, Native American languages proved to have great value indeed.

Commander William “Ozzie” Sheakley, who oversees the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans, received the medal on behalf of the Tlingit tribe. Sheakley said Reid’s speech was validating.

“We’ve been talking about how we were treated for years and years and years, and nobody seemed to care”, Sheakley said. “Now it’s coming out from other people, which is kind of nice to hear”.

It might be small and belated comfort in the grand scheme of things, but for proud, close-knit, and historically conscious tribes like the Tlingit, it must make a world a difference.

The Problem With Wealthy Philanthropists

…With a decaying social welfare state, more and more public amenities exist only as the result of the hyper-wealthy donating them. But when the commons are donated by the wealthy, rather than guaranteed by membership in society, the democratic component of civic society is vastly diminished and placed in the hands of the elite few who gained their wealth by using their influence to cut taxes and gut the social welfare state in the first place.

It’s much like how in my former home of Pittsburgh, the library system is named for Andrew Carnegie, who donated a portion of the initial funds. But the donated money was not earned by Carnegie; it trickled up from his workers’ backs, many of them suffering from overwork and illness caused by his steel factories’ pollution. The real social cost of charitable giving is the forgotten labor that builds it and the destructive effects that flow from it.

— Why the Rich Love Burning Man, Jacobin

To be clear, the issue isn’t so much about individual elites donating their wealth to humanitarian efforts; no doubt at least some of them are benevolent and sincere, and their money often goes a long way for certain causes. But the problem lies in the aggregate, when entire societies — from their political and economic systems, to their media and public education — are at the mercy of a small class of individuals that determines what resources go where, based on what conditions. Being beholden to a handful of elites is not much better than to an overpowering state; indeed, often times it is often indistinguishable.

What are your thoughts?

Boston Leads the Way in People-Centered Urban Planning

When it comes to making cities more liveable and efficient, many Americans tend to look abroad for examples, namely to places like Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore. But it is nice to find a model closer to home, especially since it gives lie to the notion that America’s car-culture poses unique challenges that foreign cities do not face.

As PRI reports, Boston is one of the biggest and most prominent participants a new movement that is sweeping communities of all sizes across the United States. Continue reading

The First and Only U.S. Museum on Slavery

I was surprised to learn recently that the United States has only one permanent museum dedicated to the history of slavery: the Whitney Plantation near Wallace, Louisiana, which opened just this past December.

According to The Atlantic, the museum is the brainchild of a white, 78-year-old lawyer named John Cummings, who has spent 16 years and $8 million of his own fortune to build the project. Partnering with Senegalese-born scholar Ibrahima Seck, who serves as the museum director, Cummings hopes to use the Whitney Plantation to educate people on the realities of slavery, both historically and in terms of its modern legacy.

You can see a great short film about it here or below.

While American society is known for its poor historical memory in general (though especially as it pertains to uncomfortable matters like slavery), it still intrigued me that there has never been a museum about this seminal topic in U.S. history.

Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Prussian Who Helped Make the U.S. Army

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

In a previous post, I outlined the role of Hessian mercenaries fighting for the British in the American Revolutionary War. But plenty of Germans fought for the Patriots, too, of whom the most famous is Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

Born in Prussia, he joined the military at age 17, and saw combat in the Seven Years’ War, then one of the biggest conflicts in European history. By the end of the war, he had risen to become captain, and even served as one of the right-hand men of Frederick the Great, one of history’s most brilliant military reformers.

Discharged from the Prussian Army once the war was concluded, Steuben found himself unemployed and deeply in debt. Through a chance meeting with the French minister of war, he was introduced to none other than Benjamin Franklin, the noted Francophile and diplomat who was trying to garner support for the Patriots in Europe. The French believed that the Americans could use an experienced soldier from one of the continent’s leading military powers, and doubtless Franklin agreed.

Steuben’s credentials and force of personality made such an impression on George Washington, that he was immediately appointed as Inspector General. Though a temporary post, it would grant the Prussian considerable influence in managing the training, logistics, and discipline of this ragtag, unprofessional, yet spirited Continental Army (which consisted of various local and provincial militias slapped together). Continue reading

The World’s Most Liveable Cities in 2015

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has published its annual Global Liveability Ranking for 2015, which determines which cities are the best to live in based on 30 factors related to safety, healthcare, education, infrastructure, and environment. As always, the results are quite interesting. Of the 140 cities around the world assessed for liveability, the top ten were more or less the usual suspects.

The order is virtually unchanged compared to last year, with Helsinki dipping two places, Perth and Auckland each rising by one, and Zurich entering the top ten. Melbourne retains its top spot for the fifth consecutive year.

As in previous years, cities in Australia and Canada dominate the top ten, together making up seven spots. Fellow Anglophone country New Zealand maintains its usual toehold, as do small Nordic and Germanic countries.

Indeed, as the EIU observes, the most liveable places tend to be “mid-sized cities in wealthier countries with a relatively low population density” — hence the fairly low ranking of prominent metropolises like London, New York, Paris, and Tokyo.

As far as the United States is concerned, Honolulu, Hawaii once against gets the highest ranking in the country, with Atlanta, Boston, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and even Washington, D.C., performing fairly well. Once again, there is a pattern of medium-sized, relatively less dense cities doing well.

But given that each of the factors are weighted, each city has its own unique advantage even if it does well overall. For some it could be climate and environment, while others’ lean more towards culture or world-class education.

Meanwhile, the bottom cities are unsurprisingly places wracked by war and/or socioeconomic collapse, with Damascus, Syria, being dead last, followed by Dhaka, Bangladesh; Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea; Lago, Nigeria; and Tripoli, Libya.

The Economist, the EIU’s corporate cousin, also identified an overall dip in average liveability rankings worldwide.

[Since] 2010 average liveability across the world has fallen by 1%, led by a 2.2% fall in the score for stability and safety. Ongoing conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Libya have been compounded by terrorist shootings in France and Tunisia as well as civil unrest in America. In Athens, austerity rather than unrest has weighed on the provision of public services, while Kiev saw the sharpest fall over the last 12 months and is now among the ten least livable cities ranked.

The following infographics show how cities have been faring over the past five years.

It is interesting to see the capitals of Zimbabwe and Nepal, each among the world’s poorest countries, seeing an appreciable increase in their liveability (albeit from a fairly low base). And even though it ranked among the lowest on the index, Nigeria’s megacity of Lagos is seeing some improvement, as you can see more clearly below.

Reporting on the results, CNN noted some positive developments in fairly surprising places.

By contrast, some regions have bucked the trend — seven Chinese cities improved their ranking over the last 12 months “largely because of a lower threat from civil unrest,” the report said. “Chinese cities saw liveability fall in the wake of riots and unrest in 2012, most notably due to widespread anti-Japanese sentiment.”

China’s top-ranked city, Beijing, moved up five places to 69 in the global ranking.

But Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests last year resulted in a 3.2% decline in livability. Though the protests were largely peaceful, some parts of the city were brought to a standstill for several months.

However “Asia’s World City” still remained three places above city rival Singapore — 46th and 49th place respectively.

“Hong Kong’s liveability has been hit by the disruptive protests that took place last year. The city retains bragging rights over its regional competitor Singapore, but by a tiny margin. In fact both cities can still lay claim to being in the top tier of liveability where few, if any, aspects of life are restricted. This has not been the case in other parts of the world, with instability and unrest features undermining the scores of a number of cities globally,” said Jon Copestake, editor of the EIU survey.

As certain parts of the world continue to develop and prosper, we may find ourselves with a larger and more diverse collection of liveability cities across the world. It is a fitting trend given the parallel growth in both urbanization and globalization; more people are moving to cities and across borders, bringing with them cultural ideas, urban planning concepts, and the like. Perhaps that is why so many great cities — including most of those in the top ten — tend to be of a multicultural and cosmopolitan character.

Granted, the EIU is hardly the sole authority on the subject of liveability. Indeed, as with most any study, its ranking has some notable caveats; for example, it does not take into account the cost of living, which means that an otherwise liveable city might be out of reach from the average person. Some have also noted an apparent “Anglocentric” bias in the results, with cities in predominantly English-speaking countries consistently ranking the highest.

So for the sake of fairness, here are the results of two other leading annual surveys measuring cities’ living conditions. As it turns out, there is quite a bit of discrepancy, though a few familiar faces across the board, too.

First up is the Quality of Living Rankings conducted by Mercer, an American consultancy specializing in human resources and financial services. Unlike the EIU’s purportedly more academic look at liveability, Mercer’s survey is apparently geared towards helping companies determine the best places to expand their operation. Nevertheless, it encompasses an extensive criteria of 39 factors, such as safety, culture, recreational opportunities, etc. New York City is used as the baseline with 100 points.

Of the 221 cities analyzed, the following made the top ten for 2015.

  1. Vienna, Austria
  2. Zürich, Switzerland
  3. Auckland, New Zealand
  4. Munich, Germany
  5. Vancouver, Canada
  6. Düsseldorf, Germany
  7. Frankfurt, Germany
  8. Geneva, Switzerland
  9. Copenhagen, Denmark
  10. Sydney, Australia

Since the survey began in 2010, Vienna and Zürich have remained first and second place, respectively; Vancouver, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, and Sydney have more or less maintained their positions for the past five years. While the usual suspects from the EIU’s ranking gave a solid showing, it appears that Germanic countries are the ones that dominate Mercer’s index.

As far as U.S. cities are concerned, Honolulu once against performs fairly well at 36th place overall, but trails behind San Francisco (27) and Boston (34). Indeed, all the best cities in North America are Canadian; after fifth-place Vancouver are Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary.

In Asia, Singapore takes the top spot, followed by Japanese cities Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, and Osaka. For the Middle East and North Africa (e.g. the Arab World), Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Muscat (the capital of Oman) are the only ones to make it into the top 100. Oceania’s best cities are exclusively Australian, while Sub-Saharan Africa’s best city for quality of life is Port Louis, the capital of the island nation of Mauritius (which itself is one of the most stable developed African countries). Cape Town and Johannesburg, both in South Africa, round up the top three.

If you haven’t had your fill of liveable cities, we come to the third and final big index on the subject: The Monocle Quality of Life Survey, carried out by global affairs and lifestyle magazine Monocle. Conducted annually since 2007, this year’s edition was apparently the “biggest shake-up” yet, as it introduced 22 new metrics — such as international travel routes, public library systems, and good lunch options — that led to big changes in the top 25.

Without further ado, here is Monocle’s take on the best places in the world to live.

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Interestingly, the results of this index are a lot more diverse than the other two. No country has a majority of top cities, though Australia and Germany enjoy a plurality with two spots each. We also see Japan perform a lot better, not only taking the top spot (which is an unusual for both an Asian city and a metropolis), but capturing two other high spots. (And this time, Portland, Oregon, leads U.S. cities.)

Taken together, the results of these big three surveys (and to be sure, there are a few other rankings out there), show a clear consensus: places like Vienna, Melbourne, Sydney, and Zurich are clear models to follow. Countries like Australia, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland seem to know a thing or two about how to create great cities. Whether for cultural, economic, or political reasons, these nations, and their leading urban centers offer, a lot to learn in a world of rapid urbanization.

We would do well to continue analyzing them — assuming of course that what makes cities great is something that can be clearly conceptualized and implemented, rather than an amalgamation of various historical, geographical, and sociocultural factor that are not so neatly emulatable. What are your thoughts?