Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Awful Truth - African American Wallet Exchange

Random Thoughts and the Role of the Social Sector

In August 2013 I received a fellowship to study the Nordic model of social welfare, and spent three weeks in Scandinavia visiting Norway Sweden and Denmark.   During this trip I had the pleasure of meeting with academics, government officials, researchers, public employees and citizens to gain as broad a perspective as possible.  I returned in May 2014 leading a class of 18 undergraduate and graduate students to introduce them to the Nordic model.

Based upon these two visits, and subsequent study, I have gained a deeper appreciation of the role of government in providing for the welfare of its citizens. It was most gratifying for me to be a part of the students’ process as they were exposed to other ways of doing things that help to make life more satisfying and their incredulity and understanding of how we limit the role of government and allow people to succeed or fail and them blame them if they fail. 

Visiting these Nordic countries and learning about how they approach social welfare, criminal justice, gender equality and the role of the individual further cemented my belief that there are better ways of approaching these than we have done traditionally in the United States.  I plan to discuss these in future blogs and show how there is a central role for government to provide for the welfare of its citizens and therefore provide an acceptable quality of life for all citizens, where they have the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential. (to be continued…)

That was the beginning of the blog post that I started to write, but my mind kept going back to the Michael Brown shooting and the situation in Ferguson.  As I thought more about it, the thought that kept coming up is “where is the white outrage.”  Where are the white politicians, clergy, community leaders and other white folk?  This is not just a black issue, this is an issue of social justice for all, and one that should concern everyone involved in the social sector.  If we truly believe in equality and social justice, then every time an unarmed black male is shot by police it should impact our entire society.  Every time another black man is sentenced to jail our entire society is impacted. 

As I looked into this further, I was stunned by what I found.  In a national study by the Pew Research Center, conducted after the Michael Brown shooting,  white and black respondents were asked questions about the impact of race and police actions in Ferguson.  The results seemed to corroborate the experience of many black Americans that we are living in two different countries., one white and privileged, and one inhabited by people of color.  Eighty per cent of blacks polled felt that the events in Ferguson raised important questions about race, while only 37% of whites felt this way.

This racial split was consistent throughout the polling.  When asked if race is getting “more attention that it deserves,” a mere 18% of blacks polled disagreed but almost half – 47% - of white respondents agreed with this statement.   When asked about the police response, 65% of blacks polled felt that the police had gone too far, while only 33% of whites agreed with this statement.  In contrast, 32% of the white respondents felt that the police response has been correct.

Fifty years after the civil rights act and 150 years after the emancipation proclamation, African-Americans as a demographic trail their white counterparts on all socio-economic indicators.  While much improvement was seen in the decades following the civil rights and voting rights acts of the 1960’s, that progress has been slow and much ground has been lost as a result of the recent recession.   That we live in two different countries is further illustrated by how blacks and whites are faring economically.

In the pre-civil rights era black unemployment in 1963 was twice that of whites, at 10.9% and 5% respectively.  Half a century after the civil rights act, the ratio has not changed, with black unemployment in 2011 at 12.6% and that of whites 6.6%.  While all demographic groups have been affected by the recession and the concentration of wealth at the top of the income ladder, blacks and other people of color have been disproportionately impacted.  This is further illustrated by the disparity in earnings.  In 1963 blacks earned fifty-five cents for every dollar earned by whites, in 2011 the number increased to a mere sixty-six cents per dollar earned by whites.  Unfortunately some people will see this a progress and caution that change takes time, just be patient.  Patience is a luxury that can be enjoyed by those that have resources while they advise those without to wait, “we are moving in the right direction.” 

What do you do when that carrot is held out in front of you, and no matter how hard you try, it always remains just out of reach.  Or to put it more eloquently “what happens to a dream deferred?”  How long can we ask a people to be patient while they see their young men imprisoned or singled out by police, while their income and life choices are limited through no fault of their own?  What do people do when there is no legitimate avenue for them to air grievances and ensure that their children will have opportunities that were closed to them?  How can you be patient and wait for things to change, when your daily experiences tell you that things are not really changing.   The facts support that change is not happening for the typical African-American family.  In 1959 black poverty at 55.1% was three times that of whites, today, while it has been reduced to 27.6%, it still remains three times the white poverty rate. 

While the collective myth is that if blacks would only work harder and play the game then they would succeed, because we live in a post-racial America.  Like so many other fantasies of those who  deny reality and are not impeded by facts, this stereotype is not held up.  Black college graduates have an unemployment rate of 12.1%, higher than the 11.4% unemployment of white high school dropouts.  Overall, black median income has fallen 10.9% since 2000 while white median income has fallen 3.6% during this period.  Even with a black man in the white house, the economic and social status of black Americans has not improved.

These figures demonstrate quite clearly that legislation alone is not enough to erase racial discrimination and its impact.  Yes, laws such as the civil rights and voting rights acts, affirmative action and nondiscrimination laws have had a positive impact. Not only has progress been slow but we are in a period of retreat as we move further from equality, rather than continuing to make progress.  The reaction of everyday people in Ferguson clearly shows that anger and frustration can only be contained for so long.  How many more young black men must die, how many more expressions of pent up anger and frustration must happen before we face up to the fact that blacks and whites in our society have two different lived experiences;  one of white skin privilege, and the other of daily frustrations and indignities because of their skin color.

If you want to see how little things have changed, and the ever present threat that African-Americans live with, take a few minutes to view this video above, The Awful Truth, by Michael Moore produced in 2007.

As so many recent events and the economic statistics cited above demonstrate, we cannot rely on government to right centuries of wrongs.  Laws may require people to act in a certain way but laws do not change attitudes.  Until African Americans and other people of color accomplish something that they cannot control – being treated as fully equal citizens – we will continue to see more Fergusons.  This is where the social sector can play a crucial role.  Through services and programs we can begin to break down the separation and mistrust that grows out of residential, educational and employment segregation.  Local nonprofits can work to bring people together across race and class lines to address common issues and to socialize.  Working at the grassroots we can begin to change and increase understanding and empathy for others.

Local groups can work with police departments to increase understanding and decrease mistrust and fear.  Diverse parent committees can work to improve local schools and decrease drop out rates.  The list is endless of what can be accomplished if there is a vehicle for bringing communities together.  That vehicle is already in place; all that is needed is the fuel to get it going.  One thing is abundantly clear, we cannot continue down the path that we are on.  We must break down the separation and prejudice that keeps us as two countries with two different lived experiences.  Contrary to much popular belief, and as Ferguson has graphically illustrated, we do not live in a “post racial America – merely because we have elected a black man as president.

The choice is ours, and the social sector is uniquely positioned to address this very pressing need.  Will we take the challenge?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

U.S. Prisons: Where Have All The Young Men Gone

            With only five per cent of the world’s population, the United States incarcerates twenty-five per cent of all people incarcerated in the world.  That translates to an incarceration rate of 707 adults per 100,000 population.   The highest rate of incarceration of any other country.   The U.S. rate is much higher than countries that are considered abusers of human rights, such as Iran with a  rate of 139 per 100,000, Russia with a rate of 470, Cuba’s rate is 510 and China has a rate of a mere 172 per 100,000 compared to the U.S.

 The United States is one of only twenty-one countries that have carried out executions in recent years.  In this area of crime and punishment we are in questionable company with countries such as: Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Prisons in the United States have become big business with significant growth potential.  From 1990 to 2009 the private prison population grew by over 1,600 per cent from 7,000 inmates to 129,000.  Along with this growth, stricter sentencing guidelines ensured a constant flow of inmates onto these private prisons.  Possibly due on no small part to the millions of dollars spent by the private prison industry lobbying legislators.  In the last decade alone, this industry spent more than $45 million dollars in lobbying activities at the sate and federal levels.  To gain insight into what these lobbying dollars were spent on, we can look at the SEC filing of the Wakenhut Corporation, one of the largest private prison providers.  With no need to disguise their intentions, this report includes the flowing excerpts.

Our growth depends on our ability to secure contracts to develop and manage new correctional, detention and mental health facilities and to secure contracts to provide electronic monitoring services, community-based re-entry services and monitoring and supervision services, the demand for which is outside our control.
 For example, any changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities.

In order for private prison contractors to make a profit, they must be guaranteed a steady flow of inmates to fill their beds.  On this score, their lobbying efforts seem to have paid off.  Beginning in the 1980’s, state legislatures began passing tougher sentencing laws, limited judicial discretion.  These included: truth in sentencing, limits on probation/parole, mandatory minimum sentencing, longer time in prison and three strikes laws.  All of these contributing to the massive growth in the prison population in the last several decades.  Prior to these sentencing laws in 1973 the total U.S. prison population was 200,000 inmates.  In the intervening years we have seen a growth rate of 1,000%, while the total US population only grew approximately 45%.

This rush to incarcerate has taken its toll most heavily on people of color.  According to the Sentencing Project white males have a 1 in 12 chance of being incarcerated at some point in their lives.  For African American men this number jumps to a 1 in 3 chance, and for Latino men it is 1 in 6.  This translates to a prison population that is 60% people of color, with fully 10% of all Black men in their thirties being incarcerated at any given time.

With the current US prison population at 2.3 million, and another 4.6 million individuals under some form of post incarceration supervision, it would suggest that crime in the United States is out of control.  However, the US crime rate, except for murder, is comparable to most European countries with lower incarceration rates, suggesting that the punishment may not always fit the crime.  Additionally, the US has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68% of all people released from prison return within three years, 77% return within five years.  More than half of all those rearrested were arrested by the end of their first year after release.

Is there a better way?  Are there other countries that are doing a better job then the US?  In 2013 and 2014 I had the opportunity to visit three Scandinavian countries to study their social welfare system.  While there I visited a prison in Norway and met with the Deputy Director of the Justice Ministry.  Known for its humane treatment of prisoners, Norway boasts a comparatively low recidivism rate of 20%.  The Deputy Director whom I met with is a public health physician and sees crime as a public health issue.  The motto of their prisons is “good prisons make good neighbors.”

I will be writing about what I learned and experienced about corrections, social welfare, health care and citizen participation during my visits to Norway, Sweden and Denmark, in future blogs.  In my next entry, I will compare the Norwegian approach to corrections with that of Massachusetts.  Norway is a country of approximately 5 million people and Massachusetts has a population of approximately 6.7 million.  While Massachusetts is considered the most liberal state in the union, its approach to corrections falls short of the more humane and successful approach of the Norwegians.

I will focus my comparison on Norway and Massachusetts, because it would not make sense to compare Norway with its small population to the US with a  population more than 60 times that of Norway.  But making the comparison to a single state that controls its corrections system can serve to highlight some of the possibilities for change that can reduce our prison population and help formerly incarcerated people back into society, instead of back into prison.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Social Sector Generational Shift

            As the leading edge of the millennial generation, born between 1980 and 2000, make their presence felt in the work place, the leading edge of the boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, heads into retirement.  This demographic shift creates both challenges and opportunities for social sector organizations.  While boomers are the leaders of a large number of social sector organizations, vast changes in politics, funding and technology is changing the way the sector functions.
            With the entry of the millennials, many workplaces have staff spanning three generations, all growing up in uniqurely different times and circumstances.  The different decades that these generations came of age has impacted their worldview and approach to work and careers. The challenge facing organizations is how to engage and retain millennials so that they can help strengthen the organization, capitalizing on their unique talents.
            Research identifies certain characteristics shared by millennials.  Some of these include: Self-perception of high self-worth; needing help in decision making; comfortable friendly approach with elders, supervisors and managers; goal oriented with high expectations; and, entrepreneurial. Once on the job, expectations may include: direct access to management; opportunities for professional development and growth; a satisfying work environment; and, an expectation of frequent contact with management and leadership.  Additionally, research shows that millennials receive information quickly from multiple sources, they are comfortable multi-tasking, prefer to work in peer groups, seek work-life balance, have little tolerance for delays, are comfortable with change and, have an expectation of regular and positive feedback.
            As this new workforce begins to fill the organizational ranks it can lay the foundation for a battle of the generations or can be seen as an opportunity to welcome their unique talents and perspectives.  Change is inevitable, it can be welcomed or it can be resisted.  Welcoming this change as a way to move the sector forward may not be easy as it will require both personal change for staff used to doing things a certain way, and it will require change at the most basic levels of organizational culture.
            A road map to positive change requires a willingness to view the organization with a fresh pair of eyes.  This can include developing an organizational culture of work groups that allows staff to come together across silos to share insights and develop new ideas.  Other changes can include creating opportunities for ideas to percolate up, eliminating barriers that limit the impact of fresh ideas; creating opportunities for timely feedback, not waiting for formal evaluations; rewarding both effort and success.  If we reward only success and not effort, staff will be reluctant to try new ideas fearing failure.  The culture of the organization must move beyond “this is how we do it, because this is how we have always done it.”
            Additional cultural shifts may include opportunities for flex-time to support work-life balance, welcoming new employees in tangible ways such as providing business cards on their first day (a small but significant gesture), and setting up a meeting with the CEO soon after new employee begins.
            Social sector organizations must become flexible and poised for change to survive and thrive.  Welcoming millennials and shifting the culture will help build a strong foundation to move into the future.