Friday, September 30, 2011

Multiculturalism is Expensive

Color me... disappointed.

Flesh Crayons by Nathan Gibbs
"The Flesh Crayola crayon became Peach in 1962. I bought these on ebay. The life of this crayon inspired the video Crayola Monologues."

So Les Comtesses were discussing a number of different hideous aspects of the assumptions people make about race, skin tone and we somehow arrived at the dreaded "Flesh" color Crayola Crayon issue. Since I work with a lot of children of children of color, at least one of whom has complained that she is "not pink" and that her foster siblings "aren't pink" and "why don't they make crayons for them", I decided to check out Crayola's Multicultural Skin Tones Crayons. On Amazon, the Amazon Prime box of 8 crayons is $7.35. Yes, that's right, $7.35 for free Amazon shipping. (For comparison a box of 64 crayons with the same Prime shipping is $5.99 and the Prime 8-count regular color set that is comparable to that shown below is only $4.35) The cheapest box of the 8 Crayola multicultural colors that I could find was $2.09 but would take several days extra "processing" time, but that's still a third of the cost of a box of 64 crayons and I'm still stunned. Of course, there's the Prang brand set, a seeming bargain at only $0.70 until I count in the $4.58 in shipping costs. (Hey one listing for the Crayola's has the price of the pack at $3.19 and $5.49 in shipping) One of the Comtesses found Sargent brand, but in the US I could only find them for $1.99 with $7+ shipping on GoogleShopping. All in all, I have to say that multiculturalism is rather pricey, mais non?

Be sure to check out Nathan's Crayola Monologues about how (and why) crayon colors have changed over the past 50-60 years. 

Edited to clarify, since one person has already complained about lack of clarity. This is the Crayola regular color set of which I am speaking:

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Friday, September 23, 2011

Thinking About Poverty, Part 3

This is Part 3 in a two part series on Poverty. You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 there. This part? It's the Outrage Part.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

~ T. S. Eliot in Burnt Norton, from The Four Quartets

On September 13, 2011 Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders gave a speech in the US Senate about Poverty. I encourage all my readers to please take the 8 minutes of time to listen to his speech.

A response salvo was fired off to the National Review on September 21st by that hail fellow, well met Senator from Kentucky, (I can feel Comtesse Glam cringing...) Rand Paul. It took a full week to reply to Senator Sanders because Senator Paul was pouring over facts and statistics trying to controvert Senator Sanders's statements. In contrast to Senator Sanders quoting those boring old statistics and facts and saying where he got them from, Senator Paul has given us broad statements of what I like to call, in Colbertian fashion, "truthy facts". Poverty, Mr. Paul assures us, is not a death sentence, and isn't really all that bad even! :)

"While we all hope to lessen the sting of poverty, we need to put poverty in America into context... Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has profiled the typical poor household in America. The average poor household has a car, air conditioning, two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and an Xbox. Its home is in good repair and bigger than the average (non-poor) European home. They report that in the past year they were not hungry, were able to obtain medical care as necessary, and could afford all essential needs."

I find it very strange that the US Senator from Kentucky is relying on the Heritage Foundation for specifics rather than sourcing his own facts and statistics from his facts and statistics obsessed government, but giving him the benefit of the doubt, I went to Heritage Foundation's Poverty and Inequality page and looked for information about where they got their figures. Emblazoned on the page is:

"Poor persons in the United States have far higher living standards than the public imagines.  Overall, the typical American defined as poor by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry, and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family's essential needs. While this individual's life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, liberal activists, and politicians. 
The major causes of child poverty in the United States in any year will be the absence of married fathers in the home and low levels of parental work."

Okay, I'm not even going to touch the fact that the low levels of parental work are responsible for poverty (did they just say these kids' parents are lazy?) But you know, I could not find a source for this information. But I did find an article by Rector, claiming his stats are from a government survey (implying they were from the Census) in 2005, which was NOT a US Census year and which, oh, let me remember, was yes, before the economy really began to tank. There was no further information about where to get these facts and verify the information on their statistical accuracy. Hmmmm.

Well, Senator Paul and Mr. Rector, luckily for you I am the very soul of data on the issue of poverty at present. Especially child poverty, but in the course of looking for data on poverty faced by children, I have come across more than a few sources of information on the population as a whole. I'm sorry to say that unfortunately, some of them are promoted, funded or tallied by our US Government. I know that source may not be good enough for you. 

But first let's start with some child statistics culled from that highly suspect organization the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Here are some screen captures from their site, Kids Count, which used data from the 2010 United States Census and various other clearly named sources:

Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (March supplement).1990-2006 data: The Urban Studies Institute at the University of Louisville, analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (March supplement). 2007-2011 data: Population Reference Bureau, analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (March supplement).

Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (March supplement).Population Reference Bureau, analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (March supplement).
Mortgage Bankers Association, National Delinquency Survey, 2007 to 2009; U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2007 to 2009
Population Reference Bureau analysis of Current Population Survey (CPS) Basic Monthly data 2007 - 2010
Population Reference Bureau analysis of Current Population Survey (CPS) Basic Monthly data 2007 - 2010

Why, all those kids aren't really under duress! Oh, no! And they have excellent healthcare, happy families and X-Boxes. Well, maybe they have no place to plug the X-Box in, if Mommy and Daddy's house was foreclosed on. But other than that, they are all fine! (Isn't it ironic that that children without healthcare stat is in part thanks to an Urban Studies Institute at the University of Louisville study? No, really?!)

I'm sure you remember the food insecurity issue for children from Parts 1 & 2 of my blog article on poverty but just in case you didn't, let's recap. 22% of all children in the US live in poverty, 42% live in low income households, the USDA provides 31 million free school lunches to children who qualify and there's the sliver that falls through the gap- children whose households make between 185% and 199% of the Federal Poverty Level Income but are still considered low income. And the total number of children in food insecure homes in the most recent year tracked (2009) was 23.2 according to the US Government's Child Stats site.

Hmmmm. I wonder who else might be food insecure, besides all those chickadees? Well, provides some broad information on their homelessness portal, that applies not just to the homeless. For instance, there is the Food Hardship in America report for 2010, prepared by the Food Research Action Center. This report, listed by a US government agency blatantly states: 

"The national data show that the struggle of tens of millions of American households to afford adequate food did not, by and large, get easier in 2010. While the nation’s Great Recession technically ended in mid-2009 (measured by growth in the Gross Domestic Product), it has not yet ended for most of the nation’s households. For them, 2010 was the third year of a recession that continues to have severe adverse impact on their well-being."

Or how about this featured report, Food Insecurity Among Older Adults, prepared by the AARP. (Those damn lazy elderly/retirees! They are just dragging us down!) Some of their findings, and by the way, AARP offers up plenty of information about how their methods, how data was collected and what statistics were used to calculate their findings:

Our key findings on the trends and distribution of food insecurity are:
  • Across all categories and older adult age groups, food insecurity increased substantially after 2007. The increases were most pronounced among 40-49 year olds, followed by 50-59 year olds, and then those 60 and older. Food insecurity for 40-49 year olds increased to an astounding 68 percent between 2007-2009 compared to 38 percent for 50-59 year olds, and 25 percent among those over 60. Rates of very low food security rates among adults in their 50s had comparable increases to those in their 40s (69 percent versus 71 percent). 
  • The increasing trend in food insecurity implies that by 2009, among adults age 50 and older, 15.6 million persons faced the threat of hunger (i.e. were marginally food insecure), 8.8 million faced the risk of hunger (i.e. were food insecure), and 3.5 million faced hunger (i.e. were low food secure). This is an increase of 66%, 79%, and 132%, respectively, from the levels of food insecurity in 2001 among this population. 
  • The levels of food insecurity among the poor and near poor are two to three times higher in any given year than for the general population of those over age 50. However, there is not nearly as dramatic an increase in food insecurity after 2007 among the poor and near poor in comparison to those higher in the income distribution. Thus, the recessionary increase in adult food insecurity was most pronounced among those with higher incomes.

Yes, indeed, I just do not know where Senator Sanders got this idea that things were bad in this country. Things are just fine here, Senator Paul. Everyone is just fine.

Oh, and Senator Paul also makes the claim:

"Over 30 percent of those living below the poverty smoke, compared with 19 percent of the rest of the population. Obesity rates are significantly higher among the poor than the general population..."

It seems as if the Senator has never reflected on the fact that the nicotine in cigarette smoke is well known for its appetite suppressant effects and that obesity rates are higher among the American poor because their diet is skewed toward cheap, high fat and high sugar foods that they can afford to eat, when they can eat. Food insecurity is directly tied to obesity (btw, that latter link was to the most current article I found on the topic on that cheesy and unreliable National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine PubMed search engine) and it is also clearly tied to diabetes, as detailed in a recent report title "The Inextricable Connection Between Food Insecurity and Diabetes" by the California Pan-Ethic Health Network, which receives the bulk of its funding from the highly questionable California Department of Public Health.

Oh, and one final comment, about the Poverty and Inequity page over at Heritage Foundation. They have a couple of links there that are interesting, namely:

Maybe it's just me but the idea that the number of Americans who pay taxes continues to shrink might possibly have something to do with the fact that so many Americans are living in frigging poverty! It seems to me some of those poor people might need to depend on government assistance. But shucks, that's just my take.

Anyway, I'm done here. For now.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Zahra's Paradise

Zahra's Paradise by Amir and Khalil

While I might mention books I'm reading, it's not often you'll see me saying "Hey, buy this book!". But Zahra's Paradise, both in story and purpose, are different. Set against the backdrop of the stolen 2009 Iranian elections, Zahra's Paradise, tells the very human story of a mother looking for her 'lost' son, Mehdi, who has been swept up in the reprisals and arrests. The title is a bitterly ironic allusion to Behesht-e Zahra, one of the largest cemeteries in Tehran.* Translated from the Farsi as Zahra's Paradise, Behesht-e Zahra represents the all too often fate of dissenters to the false reelection of Mahmoud Amadinejad in 2009. Those elections saw massive uprisings and terrible reprisals. From the cover of the book we see the remembrance of the Green Revolution and what made for a turning point in Amadinejad's miserable theft of the election: the cell phone cameras that documented what was really going on in Iran. Cell phones which documented Neda's murder and the atrocities against peaceful demonstrators, who were largely students.

Zahra's Paradise is the book version of the long running webcomic Zahra's Paradise, which began in early 2010 and has now been translated into thirteen languages. The webcomic is now in Aftermath entries. I'm not sure if you're still able to access the story itself online, but I encourage my readers to check out Amir and Khalil's links.

Likened to Marjane Satrapi's epic Persepolis series, Zahra's Paradise is an important and accessible work that documents what happened in Iran in 2009 and what it was like for families there. It is a battle cry in the fight for human rights in Iran, which has not, in spite of the regime's best attempts, been extinguished. It is a loud and clear voice against Amadinejad, Khamenei and their repressive regime. It is a moving and often frightening story that took courage to tell, week after week, for two men who still had families in Iran.

You can read an interview with author Amir at United4Iran's website, here.

*One of my longtime readers has just informed me that the title Zahra's Paradise is also a reference to Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian-Iranian photojournalist who was investigating the disappearance of dissidents in Iran. Ms. Kazemi was beaten to death in Evin prison in 2003. In spite of claims that she had a stroke during questioning, Ms. Kazemi's body showed a skull fracture, broken nose, very brutal rape, severe abdominal bruising, flogging on her legs, broken fingers and missing fingernails, upon a very controversial autopsy. Her death represented the first time a death in Iranian custody attracted major international media attention. Both her interrogators were acquitted of her murder. Ms. Kazemi was 54 at the time of her death.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Thinking About Poverty, Part 2

This article is the second of two parts. You can read Part 1 here.

Part 2: Poverty, Homelessness, How We Count, and Exploding Some Myths

Old Woman at a Soup Kitchen from WikiHistoria (photographer attribution unknown)

In June 2011, 45.2 million Americans received food stamps according to the USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The average benefit per person was $133.67 a month. That amounts to only $4.45 a day. I'm trying to envision what one can eat for three meals a day on $4.45. You know, thinking about it as if I was homeless, like my adopted son's biological mother, who is in  her 60's and who looks not too different from the old woman above. She relies solely on food stamps and soup kitchens. Even with both those options, I'm thinking it isn't much food. And even someone with substance abuse problems both needs and deserves to eat, as far as I'm concerned. I've volunteered in soup kitchens before and other than for the holidays, it's pretty meager fare most of the time, especially if the soup kitchen relies on donations. What else will $4.45 a day buy her? According to The Economist's Big Mac chart of March 2011, prices for a McDonald's Big Mac vary from about $2.99 to as high as $4.28 across the USA. Even a bottle of water is more than $1, and in some of the convenience stores near her, likely closer to $2. She's not even five feet tall, and I'm thinking buying one large bottle and lugging it around (she's homeless remember- not a lot of storage options there) would be all but impossible for someone of her stature and overall health.  (The average food stamp outlay per household, by the way, is $282.31, which comes out to $9.41 a day for a family.) 

I won't tell you what I spend in a week at my local Whole Foods on my organic fruits and veggies, grass-fed beef and gluten-free and dairy-free alternative breads, milks and such. It would be too embarrassing at this point. But I'm not going to even try to pretend that someone can eat, let alone eat well, on $4.45 a day. You want to know what's that cheap? High fat, high sugar, highly unhealthy things that don't give you real nutrition but sort of fill you for the short term. And not fill you all that much, either. But those same foods are what can lead to obesity, metabolic syndrome and problems with diabetes. When you're poor, you have to eat something and if what's cheap is unhealthy, well, it's better than going to bed hungry at night is likely the way many adults look at it, for themselves and for their children.

But I know what you must be saying at this point- Marzie, Marzie, Marzie, those food stamps are supposed to *supplement* your income, not pay for all your food, silly! Well, the problem is, quite a few people don't have leftover income. My older son, a chef who makes just shy of $1800/month at a swanky hotel restaurant, which offers pretty decent benefits, typically eats at work for at least one meal a day because he eats for free there. He makes well above poverty level income. Nevertheless, after he was sinking into debt, we helped him make a better budget just the other day. He has very little left over for food after rent, utilities, car payment, car insurance,  laundry costs, gasoline costs, medication costs, and of course, he doesn't even qualify for food stamps. Since striking out on his own with his shiny culinary degree he has lamented the cost of everything from bath mats to toilet paper to a simple bag of potato chips, let alone work needs like uniforms and his knives. Currently, he has no money for going out, for doing anything other than watching the occasional On Demand movie, although now he and his girlfriend are thinking even that's an extravagance they can't afford. That's right, he's learning the hard way, you can say.  But see, he had us a rescue net- something that many, many people don't have, even if they have loving families that would want to help, if they could, but they simply can't help because they, too, are strapped. So our son is not pulling himself up, out of the not-a-speck of poverty of his upbringing, with his fancy-dancy Culinary Institute of America degree. Not at all. He's a low income "family" with his girlfriend and is working the maximum number of hours he can. Only, somehow, the thought that he will soon, as he will be aging out of parental healthcare coverage, be deciding whether to buy his mood stabilizer medication versus a week and a half of groceries is not very comforting to me. Only wait a minute, if he wants to eat at home but can't function, he won't have a job, now will he? But unless a miracle raise is on the horizon somewhere, make no mistake, that is exactly the choice he may be forced to make. You think it's an exaggeration, because after all, he'll have health insurance from his job. But he's taking a new-fangled medication, just like our youngest son is. Our co-pay, with top-notch insurance through my husband's work, for our youngest's single monthly medication is about $125/month. Yes, you read that right. That's our co-pay. The uninsured cost of the medication is somewhere around $800/month here in South Florida. And the medication for my older son is about the same. How would he be able to afford it, we wonder, if his health insurance isn't as good as his present insurance is? Take a different medication you say? Really? Of course, both psychiatrists have been totally arbitrary in their determination of our sons' needed medications, which in both cases have fewer side effects than previous generations of these medications. Taking a drug that pushes our older son closer to metabolic syndrome and diabetes just doesn't seem to be a good plan, somehow.

I'm sure many of us are aware of how hard it is to consistently get and/or stay on medication if you're homeless or poor. Those are difficult circumstances, even if you have federal health care like Medicaid or Medicare. (For more on this issue, check out Personal Failure's newest post over at Forever in Hell) But what about food? Surely there are many options if you're homeless or poor and hungry? Think again.

A Food Not Bombs graphic

This past week, the Miami New Times had an article about the group Food Not Bombs. The group seeks to feed the homeless and claims that money spent on the American military machine strips the impoverished and homeless of any chance to escape their bleak situation. The article opens with group founder Keith McHenry being arrested as he is making the group's banner "End the Criminalization of Poverty" at a free food event in Lake Eola Park in the Orlando area. Orlando has passed a city ordinance that outlawed the serving of food to more than 25 people at a time because the homeless people would eat and then disperse throughout the ritzy Lake Eola neighborhood, disturbing the residents. In addition, Food Not Bombs can only serve each park in the city area twice. Orlando Mayor John "Buddy" Hugh says this is to "dilute the presence of the homeless in the City's open spaces." (Yeah, I know... deep breath on that one, right?) Fort Lauderdale, one county north of Miami, is exploring similar legislation. Fort Lauderdale has evidently been aggressive in the past two decades when it comes to preventing gatherings of homeless people and feeding those people. While I can't speak to the entire ethos of Food Not Bombs, what I can say is that looking at all these poverty statistics makes me think about how many people might be homeless and hungry, or just... hungry. I couldn't find a current estimate, in the 2010 Census, of the number of homeless people in the US. (The figure is now convolved with the number of people living in poverty.) But, wait a minute now, in order to have been counted, you had to be LIVING IN/NEAR OR VISITING SOME SORT OF DWELLING/STRUCTURE/SHELTER. Specifically, according to the US Census's site:
People who cannot determine a usual residence - Counted where they are staying on Thursday, April 1, 2010 (Census Day). 
People at soup kitchens and regularly scheduled mobile food vans - Counted at the residence where they live and sleep most of the time. If they do not have a place they live and sleep most of the time, they are counted at the soup kitchen or mobile food van location where they are on Thursday, April 1, 2010 (Census Day). (under score mine) 
People at targeted non-sheltered outdoor locations - Counted at the outdoor location where people experiencing homelessness stay without paying.

But see, the problem with all that is that many communities appear to be making it harder for homeless people to gather, to be served, to be... somewhere. And I wonder if some homeless people just didn't know that they had to show up to be counted on April 1, 2010? Did census workers really go out and count that guy I see sleeping near the 878 overpass? Did they count the guy who sleeps under the bus bench sometimes on Sunset Drive? What if some of these people didn't want to be counted? Like they were afraid of people coming up to them with pen and papers and asking them a whole bunch of questions? I've actually seen claims on some conservative blog sites (but one example) that the homeless had to have been over-counted, whatever that final number really is. There just can't be that many of them! Of course, that mindset leads me to wonder about being impoverished and some of the "foreign citizens living in the US:"
Citizens of foreign countries living in the U.S. - Counted at the U.S. residence where they live and sleep most of the time. 
Citizens of foreign countries living in the U.S. who are members of the diplomatic community - Counted at the embassy, consulate, United Nations’ facility, or other residences where diplomats live.
I have to say that, while I certainly do believe that not all of the illegal aliens living in the US are impoverished, (not by a long shot, really) I do believe that a fair number might be and that they might not be too keen about being counted. (Maybe it's just me, but there's been this kind of unfriendly atmosphere around here lately for people living in the US illegally. But I might be wrong. Maybe those twelve people crammed into a two bedroom apartment wanted to be counted, or those people quietly living off the books with their friends in a Section VIII home might be willing to come out and wave to the census worker?)

Soup Kitchen Today, August 12, 2011, North Carolina
used with kind permission of JW Hanley

But I digress with the whole census business and counting how many people are really living at or below the poverty level in this country. I was talking about food and poverty right? There are a lot of people, if we just look at the level of poverty and the number of food stamps recipients, who struggle with food. How are we helping people eat? What is this about communities not wanting to feed the homeless or placing limits on the number of homeless that can be fed? What are these people guilty of? (Either the ones who are hungry or the ones who feed?) They appear to be guilty of being there. I keep turning McHenry's banner over in my mind. Are we essentially criminalizing the impoverished? While I'm not exactly sure that we're calling them criminals, I am sure that there is more rhetoric these days that makes it seem as if people who are poor are somehow poor by choice, or by laziness or somehow as if they are at fault for their situation. This not-so-subtle undercurrent seems to suggest that if people would just pick themselves up and work harder they wouldn't be poor anymore. Kind of like that argument that if people worked better jobs, they'd have (better or any) healthcare, right?

So here's my first problem with that: for one in five people under the age of 18, I'm not really sure what they should be doing that they aren't doing, are you? If they were born to poor families, it's obviously a 'mistake' they can't remedy right now. In fact, if I go back to those tables, I'm likely to conclude born in poverty, stay in poverty. (Going back to Part 1 of this article, no doubt these kids should be working extra hard in school in order to be able to eventually get smartphones, so they can get jobs later. As for these kids' e-Reader situations, I'm recalling that alarming statistic from the National Institute for Literacy that showed that 47% of Detroit's population is functionally illiterate and thinking that if you're planning to teach people to read, having plenty for them to read is a very excellent plan and one that may not involve Kindles, Nooks or Kobo readers, let alone pricey things like iPads.)

And once again, there is my other big problem, which I've talked about before on this blog. Being poor is damned expensive. For example, when you are poor, you may not have a car to drive to a regular grocery store or a Costco or BJs in order to buy less expensive things. Even if you can get there on public transportation, you may not have the money to pony up for those big packages and then again, after trying to make it home on said same public transportation with those discount treasures, in your small dwelling you may not even have the space to accommodate those packages. No, as I know full well from friends and some of my GAL kids, you pay premium prices for a few items at a time, at your neighborhood convenience store or your small corner store that lets you slip the money into the pass-through drawer that slides under the bulletproof glass. In fact, you pay more for many, many things and when you're late on paying what you owe for those things, whether it's your credit card's minimum payment or that car insurance policy that you let lapse, you will pay still more in the end, because you didn't have the money to pay on time. And then, of course, there's the healthcare that you can't afford but like every human at some time or another, you will need. There's even just simple birth control, trying to prevent having another mouth to feed/shelter/clothe/keep healthy/educate/love. (Birth control? Now there's something expensive and getting harder to obtain, especially if Planned Parenthood has fewer locations. Because that's right, you better not be poor but if you are poor, heaven help us if you get pregnant and don't want to be. How did you even get pregnant if you're poor and can't afford kids? Surely there are scads of things you can/should be doing other than have sex, right? Sex is for people who can afford it, didn't you know that?) And about when you'll have time to be getting all that stuff? You know that food, healthcare, medication, stuff? If you're fortunate enough to have a job, any job, let's think about all that free time you'll have to get them when you work and you're working poor. Because you'll have lots of paid time off or vacation days to get it all done, right? Oh, all that can get done on the weekend? Well, okay, maybe not the medical. But I mean, really, on a week day, how much time would it really take to use public transportation to get to that clinic that sees patients for free, or for medicaid rates or for your insurance that lets you see any of five doctors in your entire county. You don't want to know how long it could take. Really, you don't. But we are not, I assure you, talking about your lunch break time. And heaven help you if your child gets sick. As my former GAL youth Snow White can tell you, having a sick child can derail not just your schooling, your job, but your entire way of life when you are poor.

But speaking of schooling and education, it's supposed to be the path out of being poor. Yes, if you want to make it out of poverty, which is, of course, your absolute moral obligation, you've got to pull yourself up, get yourself educated, get a college degree, so that you can.... make minimum wage and get no benefits while working as a receptionist in a realty office, like my daughter, who graduated in 2010 with a magna cum laude Bachelor's degree in Biology from FSU, did for a while. She's now in grad school, studying pharmacy. Here's how she's pulling herself up: her parents are paying for her graduate degree so she won't be in debt for much of the rest of her adult life with federal student loans. That would be the debt that no doubt would be cleared just in time for her to accrue further educational debt with her own adult children. The debt that is described as crippling students' hopes, dreams, credit ratings and which now has record rates of default. My daughter worked hard when she worked and could not afford to live on her own and could not find a job in her field of study. In at least one instance she was told she was just too overqualified. She gave up trying to find a better and more appropriate job. (Hey, your present employer is always soooo understanding about your looking for a better job than they one they're currently providing you and they're always willing to let you take longer lunches to go interview for those other jobs, right?) No, instead she bided her time for grad school admission. And she is far from the exception. Brittany Misra is another example sited in a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A 2008 graduate from Emory with a degree in bio-cultural anthropology, Ms. Misra was making her cultural observations from behind the barrista counter in an Atlanta Starbucks. (Hey, she's lucky- everybody knows that Starbucks has a great benefits plan!) But seriously, as a recent article in the Washington Post points out, college graduates are the fastest growing sector of the population when it comes to bankruptcy filings. Education, clearly, is no shield from falling into poverty. Although, having an education certainly appears to give you a leg up when it comes to finding ways to cover yourself from falling further into poverty or even jail. So there's that. Hopefully if you got that college degree, you can fill out all the proper forms for your bankruptcy filing, unlike 47% of the population in Detroit. But if you want to talk about some of what education won't shield you from, look no further than the charts about food insecurity.

It comes as no surprise that having a parent or guardian without a high school diploma confers a certain risk of food insecurity. But the fact that having more educated parents is not as much of a buffer as you might think is rather stunning. From the table at ChildStats:

Looking at the increase in food insecurity since 1995, even for those who have attained a bachelor's degree or higher (which has almost doubled!), drives home the point that even education is not enough to shield families entirely from poverty. And that's what more people need to think about. I actually know quite a few people who are literate, quite well-educated and who struggle mightily with caring for their families, teetering on the brink of a financial abyss. Quite. a. few.

So what is it then, about poverty? What is it that we are blaming homeless or poor people for?

Yesterday I saw this article on ABC's news website that blazoned the title: Tax the Rich, Obama Says; Class Warfare, GOP Says. Well, it's no secret that I tend to be on the liberal social democrat side of things but I seriously wonder how the GOP thinks things have gone down, historically speaking, with a very large, increasingly impoverished, overtaxed class of citizens and a small, elite, undertaxed class of citizens, who considered themselves the "job-providers". Hmmm. Seems to me there were some revolutions a while back in similar circumstances. Of course, there are still plenty of semi-successful oligarchies around the world. (I'm trying to think of one not on an Amnesty International blacklist for something but am currently drawing a blank.) I look at brief articles like the one posted the other day on CNN about Rick Perry's own state's poverty debacle- one in five Texans live in poverty, their poverty level is growing faster than other states, they collect fewer food stamps and have less healthcare and Texas has one of the lowest per capita spending rates on its citizens. Perry's claims of job creation all deal with low paying jobs, which doubtless mean jobs with few, if any, benefits. Texas ties Mississippi for the highest percentage of minimum wage workers in the country. And all that just makes me look at the current unemployment figures of only 9.1 % and shake my head as I think about the people that gave up making claims or the people who are currently under-employed, in jobs that are just under full time or jobs that are at or below minimum wage and which will do nothing to help pull them out of poverty. Where are we going in this country? Class warfare? Isn't that where we already are? 

I've just started reading Thomas Keneally's Three Famines. The premise of the book is that politics, not natural disaster, are key to some of the great famines in modern world history. He counts racial discrimination, distribution failures and lack of accountability of leadership as factors greater than crop failures in determining the course of famine. Keneally opens his book with a quote by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen:"No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy." Sadly, all I could think about after reading that quote was that Ireland's famine in the 1800's was basically driven by an oligarchy. Keneally talks about the amorality of famine.

Maybe a better dialog in this country would be served by talking about the amorality of poverty and what we're going to do about making sure that it doesn't worsen.

Stop blaming the poor for being poor. They aren't the problem here.

Against the Wall, 1934 by Dorothea Lange

Unfortunately, due to an absolute masterpiece of an article in the National Review by Rand Paul, countering Bernie Sander's take on poverty, I'm going to have to extend this article to three parts. Because there is just so much to despise and argue with in Rand Paul's statements, I couldn't even take it at first. Evidently he went to the Michele Bachmann School of Truthy Facts. You know, he's just following the practice of those truthy facts that Bachmann reels off like those about founding fathers fighting slavery and HPV vaccines causing mental retardation? Yeah. Only substitute Rand and poverty.

Mr. Paul, please see my gauntlet below. Have you been to any of your government's statistics websites lately? Well sir, I have...

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Thinking About Poverty, Part 1

This is the first of a two part article.

Part 1: Inequities and Child Poverty

Starting Over, 1935 by Dorothea Lange

People don't really like to think about poverty, let alone talk about it. I'd go so far as to say many people simply ignore it. Too depressing, I guess. For those of us that have, it seems as if turning a blind eye to the have-nots is all too easy. It's definitely less painful, if you're a person with even a modicum of conscience. But looking around these days, I think we're getting to the point where we need to talk openly about the homeless, the poor, the working poor and what is of absolutely no help to any of those groups: blaming them instead of coming up with some kind of meaningful plan. Sometimes, I think that as a people, and likely eventually as a planet, we need to start over and perhaps see things from different perspectives on the issue of poverty and its causes and responsibilities. What steps, seemingly random or calculated, have set a segment of the population on the path into poverty or assure that the impoverished stay poor.

Not everybody shrinks from talking frankly about poverty. Last week, I read an impassioned blog post by one of my favorite authors of fiction, Seanan McGuire. An author of fantasy, her post was pure non-fiction advocacy. It isn't the first time that she's stopped me in my tracks with one of her posts, either. She's written more than a few on her blog that cut through all the (excuse the English) bullshit and strike at the heart of what it was like growing up poor, bullied, and so bright that every indignity of what you were living was fully and painfully absorbed. She's processed her experiences in an insightful way for those of us who haven't quite walked that same path but ought to spend more time thinking about such paths if we are to be decent human beings.  Her post last Friday, titled The Digital Divide, was about how many Americans cannot afford e-Readers, and that printed paper books must not be allowed to be die out because it effectively means that books will become all but inaccessible to many impoverished Americans. In her powerful post she speaks poignantly about what living in poverty and struggling to acquire books to read was like for her. (She is now a best-selling, Campbell/Hugo Award-winning author.) How, she asks, will our future generations of young people too poor to afford those light and sleek e-Readers or too easily robbed of them even if they had them, read? How indeed, I wonder. Because reading is knowledge and knowledge was supposed to be a path out of the hell that is poverty. As Seanan McGuire eloquently puts it, e-Books dominating the publication market now represent, in her mind, a deepening of the social and economic inequalities and threaten to become a barrier to the access of knowledge, enjoyment, and simple escape, for the poor.

Driving the idea of a digital divide still deeper in my mind was a link on Sociological Images, forwarded to me over the weekend by Cynical Nymph. It shows an image of a job posting in QR (Quick Response code). QR codes are those little square images you've probably seen in catalogs and ads. You scan the image with your phone by snapping a picture and details embedded in that image lead you, by way of a QR application, to a uniform resource locator (URL) with information. Great plan but in this instance that job listing is only accessible to those looking for jobs who are also fortunate enough to own smartphones. Steve Grimes, who found the image, also remarks on a growing reliance on technology that only the not-impoverished can afford. (Need a job? Hey, don't be so poor you don't have a smartphone with internet access and a QR reader app, okay? If you don't have a smartphone, this job isn't for you. Really, not smart of you not to have the money for that smartphone and its data package. Don't you be poor, you job-needer, you.)

QR code job listing, from Cyborgology

McGuire didn't just talk about the digital divide, though. She talks about what I've been surprised more people haven't been shouting about in the past week: the societal divide, as in wow, at least 15.1% of the population is living now in poverty in America and is that even really an accurate number?

I had posted a link, and even an image, about that 15.1% statistic on that my personal FB page (with about 300 friends) about a week ago and there were no takers. Not a single comment. I had also read a post by Suzy Khimm on Ezra Klein's WonkBlog at the Washington Post, in which she pointed out that the National Academy of Sciences estimates indicate that poverty is significantly higher than the Census Bureau estimates because the metrics the US Census uses to gauge poverty are so out of date. Some new methodology estimates from the NAS suggest the rate is higher, perhaps closer to 16% but other metrics say it's lower. Still, even if the poverty level in this country is merely 15.1%, it's a frightening figure. However, if we look at Census estimates of childhood poverty, the rate is stunning: 22% of Americans under the age of 18 are living in poverty. As someone advocating for child welfare, that is a stunning statistic to me. More than one in every five children in the USA is living in poverty. I had an article about that figure on my personal Facebook page and it didn't garner a single comment, either, although three people commented on my Bright Nepenthe Facebook page posting, including the former head of the Guardian ad Litem program here in Miami, who said that she recalled that in the 1980's it was one in four. I checked but the only figures I can see are those at which show that at its peak in 1983, child poverty was pretty much what it is now- 22%. But surprisingly it was equally bad in 1993-94. What is interesting though, rather than just looking at the number of children living in poverty, is the comparative distribution of income relative to the poverty line over the past thirty years. While the number of children living in extreme poverty and below the poverty level but not in extreme poverty has increased from 17.9% in 1980 to 20.1% in 2009, the number of children ages 0-17 living in high and very high income homes has increased dramatically, from around 21% in 1980 to around 40% in 2009. Low income (defined as a family of four at roughly twice the poverty income level or less) and medium income families have dropped sharply, from 65% of all children in 1980, to about 52% in 2009. While some families may have gotten better off in the past thirty years, the poor largely stayed poor. The increasingly stratified population was still, as of the measures in 2009, skewed toward children living better. But the middle economic class for children was thinning. In fact, the most current figures from the National Center for Children in Poverty state that in addition to the high level of children in poverty, they estimate 42% of all children now live in low income families, indicating a pronounced shift away from middle incomes is occurring, giving credence to the whole income gap and and growing perception of inequity in this country.

Anyway, as a voracious childhood reader and avid buyer of used books, I really grokked what Seanan McGuire was saying in her recent post. Eliminating print books potentially steals something from already poor children. Her recollections about being poor and wanting to read also made me recall an earlier post of hers, in which I'll never forget her mentioning that in her family, they were so poor that ketchup really was considered a vegetable. The memory of that post, and its reference to how you perceive food when you're poor, takes me to a few other things I've been reading.

In 2011, as the economy and joblessness have worsened, how many kids are going to sleep at night hungry? How many don't know where their next meal would come from? We don't really know, do we? (And in general, feeding the poor or homeless has become an increasingly embittered topic, especially in my state of Florida.)

First off, going back to, they have this table that talks about food insecurity, which basically means not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or if you'll even have one that night. From 1995, when they began tracking this figure, to 2009, the percentage of children ages 0-17 living in households with overt food insecurity increased from 19.4 to 23.2%. Not all that sharp an increase, unless you're a hungry child, of course. Food insecurity for children in low income and poverty income households increased from 70% in 1995 to 85% of those households in 2009. And among those living at 200% of the poverty level, surprisingly food insecurity increased from 4.8% of households to 9.1% of households, a pronounced increase in the number of children who, though not living in poverty or even low income families, didn't have the security of knowing where their next meal was coming from. We'll revisit that table briefly when considering the effects of education on poverty in Part 2 of Thinking About Poverty. 

But, as something for you to think about today, consider this: the 2009 estimate of the child population in this country was 74.5 million. The USDA's National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced cost lunches (in addition to free breakfast and free after school snacks to qualified students in programs through Child Developmental Services departments), estimated that in 2009 some 31 million children qualified for free or reduced cost lunches. Children living in households with less than 130% of the federally defined poverty level income for their family are entitled to free lunch. Children living in households with 130 - 185% of the poverty level income are entitled to reduced cost lunch. So here's the thought: in 2009, the total number of children living in poverty and low income households (defined as up to 199% of the poverty level income) was 41.7% of the population. That comes out to about 31 million, actually. Well, more like 31.4 million. But does that mean if you were in that unlucky sliver of low income families with incomes between 185% and 199% of the poverty level income, you didn't get a reduced cost lunch? Yes, it likely does. That's falling through the cracks of the system, right there.  It's quite possible to be poor even when you're not strictly speaking, in federal terms, living in poverty. It's possible to be poor and hungry.*

Current estimates for children in America: 22% live in poverty, 42% live in low income households.

Sharecroppers Children Gather Food by Dorothea Lange

Look for Part 2 tomorrow, where we will focus on the homeless, the poor, how we count them and one of the most disturbing comments on the homeless I've ever heard by an elected official. Of course, it was from right here in my own proud state of Florida.

*I have seen more than a few area public schools scramble trying to provide food for children who fall through those cracks. Teachers recognize when their students are hungry.  I have seen kind-hearted teachers who will bring extra food for a child who didn't qualify or whose qualifications have been delayed, as sometimes happens when a child enters the foster care system and the paperwork for a free breakfast and lunch was not completely properly. I have also personally known children in foster care who were told by foster parents that they could not eat those meals at home on school days and who refused to provide those meals on the weekends. Foster children who feared a long, hungry weekend without those school meals. No kidding. Of course, when you see stuff like that, you report it. And hope the foster parent loses their license. But they don't always. If fact, one foster parent that I reported for not adequately feeding the three children in her care actually adopted a child after that report.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Palate Cleanser # 158: ZooBorn Edition

These are very important.

They make me happy.



Not to be outdone by....

BABY OTTERS! (look at those feet!)

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Friday, September 16, 2011

Totally cool...

Dinosaur feathers in amber! Layman's story here. The Science article here.

Creationists will be blanching at tossed off phrases like: 

"About 80 million years ago, these feathers likely blew into some tree resin and...."

I still cherish the amber pendant my dad got me in the Dominican Republic back when I was 9. It has an ant in it. I was incredulous when he explained what it was. I have loved amber ever since.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Down the Drain

Attribution Unknown

Yep. That about sizes it up.

I'm trying to envision the world in which dragging a 17 year old into court and, without even having his judge talk to him first, getting him to drop urine for a drug test (that was only mentioned by his GAL to staff as a possible concern because of his defiant behavior and repeatedly missed curfews and tanking grades) is a good thing. I'm having a really hard time with thinking such a world is a good place. Oh, wait a minute! That's our world. Darn it! 

Somehow a special set hearing became all about a drug test (which was negative). That would be the drug test that was less of a concern to me than the fact he still has no driver's license in his legal name (kind of a bigger issue for someone breaking curfew in his municipality, too...) but a greater concern than the fact that his foster parent keeps saying that his foster care management agency still owes her $242 from the summer program that finished in June. Oh yeah, and all of it went down against the backdrop of my having to leave before the hearing for my fecking neurology appointment. And hey, I get to feel horrible because the case manager who had to drag the kid in canceled her dental appointment. I got to go to my appointment but she didn't get to go to hers. Nope, instead a mangled message and priority list awaited.

However it happened, I know a 17 year old young man who was stripped of his dignity with little if any explanation as to why this was happening and without even having a judge ordering him to be, on the basis of any concerns of the Court. A young man who says he doesn't believe anything anyone is telling him about why this was done. And suddenly, five and a half years of knowing someone and trying to gain their trust feels like it's totally.. down the drain.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011

Palate Cleanser #157

BTD 3 by Marzie

They're in the trash now, just like so many other things.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2011