Archive for the ‘ Poverty and Inequality ’ Category

Lessons from “The Other Wes Moore”

I just finished reading The Other Wes Moore, a true story that chronicles the lives of two young men (both named Wes Moore) who grew up in Baltimore, just a few blocks apart from each other. Both boys lived in poverty, grew up in single parent homes, and performed poorly in school. One of the young men (the book’s author) went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, while the other is now serving life in prison.

Wes Moore (the Rhodes Scholar) writes, “the chilling truth is that Wes’s story could have been mine; the tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

So what made the difference? Moore recounts the life histories of both young men with detail and precision, but never interprets the evidence. Although one chapter title (“Choices and Second Chances”) is couched in the language of personal responsibility (suggesting that the different decisions made by each Wes Moore sealed their respective fates); Moore mostly leaves the reader to draw her own conclusions about what caused the paths of two similar children to diverge.

In the book’s epilogue, Moore points out that every reader has a different interpretation of the story. For me, there was one difference between the two Wes Moores that is eerily relevant to our current political climate. Wes Moore (the Rhodes Scholar) had a college educated mother and college educated grandparents. Although they were poor, Wes’s mother earned enough to send her kids to private school, and eventually used her social connections to send Wes to military school.

The other Wes Moore’s mother, Mary, was offered a Pell Grant to attend Johns Hopkins University, an opportunity which might have offered her a ticket out of poverty. However, once the Reagan Administration took over it slashed funds for Pell Grants (among other social programs), and Mary’s scholarship was revoked.

Mary never attended college. She raised two sons alone and worked multiple jobs in order to feed her family. Because Mary had to work long hours, the Moore boys were usually unsupervised. There was no one home to make sure that Wes went to school (unlike the other Wes, who lived with his grandparents), and he got involved selling drugs. In my opinion, Wes Moore’s future was decided the moment his mother got a letter in mail stating her scholarship had been cut.

The story of the “other” Wes Moore and his mother Mary calls to mind Langston Hughes’ famous poem, A Dream Deferred:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Mary was denied access to higher education. Her son, the “other” Wes Moore was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the armed robbery of a jewelry store and the murder of a security guard present at the scene of the crime. If this isn’t an example of a “dream deferred” resulting in an explosion, I don’t know what is.

Earlier this week, Congressman Paul Ryan unveiled a budget proposal that would gut spending for some of our country’s most essential social welfare programs. If this bill comes to pass we can expect that many of our nation’s poor will be denied vital services and supports, much that same way that budget cuts two decades ago resulted in Mary losing her Pell Grant.

Republicans are using the fiscal “crisis” to justify policies which would shift the burden of the recession from Wall Street banks unto the shoulders of ordinary people. Instead of instituting financial reforms such as enacting a financial speculation tax or removing the hedge fund loophole (which could  raise $100 billion and $15 billion in revenue respectively according to a report prepared by National People’s Action), politicians are pushing to trim public employee pensions, strip workers of their collective bargaining rights, and cut social welfare programs. Essentially, Ryan’s plan would take money from the people who are already hurting the most from recent economic downfall, rather than raising funds from wealthy banks who could more easily absorb the hit.

I worry that if Ryan’s budget comes to pass, we will see even higher percentages of poor males spending their life behind bars, while success stories like that of Wes Moore the Rhodes Scholar  become obsolete.

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Conditional Cash Transfer Programs: Could They Work in the U.S.?

Today I thought I’d share a fascinating article included in the “Fixes” series of the New York Times. The article is titled “To Beat Back Poverty, Pay the Poor”. Essentially, the article describes a government-sponsored social welfare program in Brazil called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant). The nationwide program provides conditional cash transfers to mothers if they meet specific requirements such as keeping their children in school, seeing a primary care doctor, and attending workshops on issues like parenting.

Brazil is well-known as a nation of contrasts. It is famous for the glamour of Carnival, but also for the deep poverty of its slums and the formidable power of its prison gangs. However, the conditions of extreme economic inequality in Brazil are changing rapidly–largely in thanks to Bolsa Familia. In recent years, Brazil has narrowed its wealth gap faster than any other country (according to the NYT times, the percentage of Brazilians living in poverty has dropped from 22% to 7%).

Forty other countries have now launched nationwide programs similar to the Bolsa Familia. Unfortunately, the United States is not one of the them (although a privately funded pilot program called Opportunity NYC did run for a short time before terminating at the end of August, 2010). It’s no secret that inequality is a growing problem in the United States–so why aren’t we experimenting with our own version of the Family Grant?

Unfortunately, social welfare programs for the poor (especially cash-transfer programs like TANF) have a long record of unpopularity in the United States. Historically, we adore programs that support middle class workers (like Social Security or Medicare) but worry that programs designed to support the poor will serve as disincentives for work. (I’m oversimplifying about 100 years of social welfare history for the sake of brevity here). Given our cultural preoccupations with self-sufficiency and our distaste for paying new taxes, it seems unlikely that conditional cash-transfer programs will surface as a politically palatable option anytime soon.

However, I still think there are some ways the Latin American model might apply to anti-poverty work in the United States. Personally, I think conditional cash transfer programs could make a great model for non-profits working in low-income neighborhoods. I’d love to see pilot programs tried out in the Englewood or Woodlawn neighborhoods in Chicago.

Second, while politicians are hesitant to spend money on programs for the non-working poor, improving our educational system has become a clear national priority. I think if someone could tie the conditional cash transfer concept to education–there would be plenty of interested funders (both foundations and government grants). City governments have already displayed a willingness to experiment with the concept (Mayor Bloomberg sponsored projects that paid students for good grades in the NYC public schools system).

Bolsa Familia has improved school attendance among poor kids dramatically (children must attend school regularly in order for their mothers to receive monthly payments). I think a similar conditional payment program in our urban public school systems might boost attendance and lower dropout rates. (In my experience, poor attendance in inner-city schools is the number one cause of failures–and ultimately dropout). Furthermore, if kids were paid a small monthly stipend to attend after-school tutoring programs or ACT prep courses–they might be able to regularly attend such programs rather than working an after-school job.

Of course, these are just a few personal reflections–bringing conditional cash transfer programs to the U.S. in an effective way will likely require a lot of research. All of the countries to form such government programs are developing countries, most located in Latin America (Nicaragua, Ecuador and Mexico are other examples). The conditions and causes of inequality in these places are likely to differ from the United States. Still, the success of conditional cash transfer programs (most notably in Brazil) should not be dismissed. If we are serious about addressing inequality in the United States, these programs might provide us with some valuable lessons.