Silence Perpetuates The Problem

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Keeping silent about social class, a norm that goes far beyond the affluent, can make Americans feel that class doesn’t, or shouldn’t, matter. And judging wealthy people on the basis of their individual behaviors — do they work hard enough, do they consume reasonably enough, do they give back enough — distracts us from other kinds of questions about the morality of vastly unequal distributions of wealth.

…Such moves help wealthy people manage their discomfort with inequality, which in turn makes that inequality impossible to talk honestly about — or to change.

What the Rich Won’t Tell You, Opinion, New York Times, written by Rachel Sherman

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We Just Need Political Will

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The problem is systemic and is reaching almost epidemic proportions. Rents are soaring in every state and community at that same time when most Americans haven’t seen enough of an increase in their paychecks.

The result: more than 7 million extremely low-income families do not have an affordable place to call home and half a million people are living on the street, in shelters, or in their cars on any given night. The human toll this places on families – through stress and job loss – are extraordinary and well-documented by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond in his recent book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”

…The most shameful part is the fact that we already have the resources and solutions needed to effectively end homelessness and housing poverty for millions of families. We just need the political will to do what is right

Out of Reach 2017, National Low Housing Coalition (NLIHC), Preface by Representative Keith Ellison

How to Cover the Homeless

This is a well-written post with many excellent suggestions for journalists covering homelessness in the media.

A journalist covering the homeless beat must focus on solutions, not just problems.

Beat: How to cover the homeless, rushanthik.com, March 5, 2017; written by Rushanthi Kesvnathan

It’s All About Luck

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One of the biggest problems, says Shafir, is the message the poor receive from the system: You’re poor because you’re no good. “It’s very easy for the poor to swallow this idea,” he says. “The attitude that the poor are less successful is very common and very wrong. These days the survivor is the one with luck: Once in a blue moon someone pulls through. So the system isn’t ‘survival of the fittest’ at all.”

The Psychological Poverty Trap, Haaretz, 02/23/2012, Asher Schechter interviewing Eldar Shafir

God’s Spam Filter

Do you ever think back over all of the problems you’ve faced, the prayers you’ve prayed, and the final outcomes? Do you ever compare all of the time spent asking for God’s help to the times when help was received, and then look up to the sky and think “Are my messages going into your spam filter?”

Yeah. Me too.

-Just some random thoughts floating through the head of Adora Myers

Poverty Premium: Rent to Own

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In some ways, the business harkens back to the subprime boom of the early 2000s, when lenders handed out loans to low-income borrowers with little credit history. But while people in those days were charged perhaps an interest rate of 5 to 10 percent, at rental centers the poor find themselves paying effective annual interest rates of more than 100 percent. With business models such as “rent-to-own,” in which transactions are categorized as leases, stores like Buddy’s can avoid state usury laws and other regulations.

And yet low-income Americans increasingly have few other places to turn. “Congratulations, You are Pre-Approved,” Buddy’s says on its Web site, and the message plays to America’s bottom 40 percent. This is a group that makes less money than it did 20 years ago, a group increasingly likely to string together paychecks by holding multiple part-time jobs with variable hours.

“We’ve always talked about the benefits and costs,” she said on the drive home. “Because with a family you can’t just say, ‘I want this, I’m going to get it.’ But growing up having the chair, the recliner, the love seat, the couch and everything, you just get used to the normal stuff. Sometimes it’s hard to break from the normal stuff and get to reality.”

Rental America: Why the poor pay $4,150 for a $1,500 sofa, Washington Post, Chico Harlan, 10/2014.

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Then in the fall of 2001, Motta discovered Rent-A-Center. Situated in mostly poor neighborhoods, this chain’s 2,600 stores offer big-ticket items like furniture and electronics to millions of people with no credit. Hiking up prices and charging exorbitant interest, using a scheme critics have called “pay now, pay later,” the company racks up sales in the billions and is a key player in what one market research firm calls “the poverty market.”

But the story didn’t end there. Monthly bills continued to arrive, late fees stacked up, and “incomplete” payments were rejected. Rent-A-Center employees routinely called her at home, says Motta, and even came by in person to pressure her to pay. After two years, Motta had paid Rent-A-Center almost $2,000. “I was giving and giving and it was never done,” she recalled. “I told them to take their sofa.” The company would not comment on her case.

Darnley Stewart, an attorney who is leading a New York class-action suit against the company, finds this outrageous. “Rent-A-Center explicitly targets poor, largely minority neighborhoods and has no qualms about selling a cheap television for $700 to people who can’t afford it,” she says. Stewart’s suit, which is awaiting a ruling from the state Supreme Court, alleges that Rent-A-Center engaged in deceptive and fraudulent business practices by misrepresenting the actual costs of its merchandise and coercing customers with a “high-pressure sales scheme.”

In the face of steady complaints, Rent-A-Center argues that it is offering a service to an otherwise excluded demographic, and that its mission is simply to “improve the lives of our customers.” But others, like attorney Darnley Stewart, are not even mildly persuaded: “I don’t think you are doing the poor a favor by gouging them.”

Pay Now, Pay Later, Mother Jones, Anya Schiffrin, May/June 2005

Poverty Premium Research (Harvard Business Review)

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Multinationals that failed to take these realities into account saw their best-laid business plans go bust. P&G’s PUR sachets were envisioned as a low-priced competitor to bottled water; in reality, though, poor households are used to boiling their tap water or drinking it untreated. Grameen Danone’s real competition among rural populations wasn’t expensive store-bought yogurt—it was homemade yogurt that consumers produced for a fraction of the cost.

In places where poor consumers benefit from lower prices, they often incur other costs. For example, the informal economy fails to ensure safe working conditions and reasonable wages, product quality controls, or taxes for the state. The brunt of these externalities is borne by the poor, as workers, consumers, and beneficiaries of government funds. Such places may have a “poverty premium” that multinationals could help eliminate, but that premium does not take the form of higher prices.

The Problem with the “Poverty Premium,” Harvard Business Review, Ethan Kay and Woody Lewenstein, April 2013

Ethan Kay gave a Ted Talk about creating cookstoves for poverty survivors.

Poverty Premium Research (University of Michigan and UC Davis)

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“Because they have to buy small quantities, they have little inventory at home and can’t wait until a sale presents itself to purchase again, making it even harder to take advantage of sales,” says Orhun, professor for marketing. “It’s a double whammy.”

“It’s not about poor people making poor decisions; it’s about them facing liquidity constraints,” she says, “and it matters even for what we’d consider small purchases.

Frugality is Hard to Afford, news release about research completed by Professor Yesim Orhun and PhD student Mike Palazzolo; 02/24/2016

Frugality is Hard to Afford, Working Paper (Revising for invited resubmission at Journal of Marketing Research), Mar 20, 2016, Mike Palazzolo – Paper available for download

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Perhaps this sounds like a subtle discovery about minor household goods. But it supports a larger point about poverty: It’s expensive to be poor. Or, to state the same from another angle: Having more money gives people the luxury of paying less for things.

Why the poor pay more for toilet paper — and just about everything else by Emily Badger, Washington Post, 3/8/2016

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In a recent working paper, the University of Michigan’s A. Yesim Orhun and Mike Palazzolo, point to how two of American shoppers’ (and marketers’) favorite money-saving strategies, the limited-time offer and buying in bulk, come with savings that are more accessible to some consumers than others. Choosing to buy things when they’re on sale or packaged in huge quantities is something lots of shoppers may take for granted as a matter of preference, but for many, these purchases—and the savings that come with them—are out of reach.

The Privilege of Buying 36 Rolls of Toilet Paper at Once, The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker, MAY 12, 2016

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Limited access to supermarkets and discount stores, which contributes to the idea that poor people end up paying more for things or the “poverty penalty,” is one of the biggest problems facing low-income neighborhoods.

But the study suggests that low-income families can’t always afford bulk or sale items in the stores that they do have access to.

Why poor families are paying more for everyday items like toilet paper by Ahiza Garcia, CNN Money, March 25 2016.

Can Technology Solve Poverty?

Technology can address the symptoms of poverty

Apps are basically high tech communication devices. They are really useful for gathering and distributing information. In that respect, they can help address the symptoms of poverty by providing poverty survivors access to:

  • Information about potential resources.
  • Free educational resources, tutoring services and MOOCs.
  • Crisis lines addressing everything a person without health care or the cash to pay for professional help, including: medical questions, parenting questions, suicide hotlines, 12-step program hotlines, etc.
  • Legal advice
  • Job listings, resume advice, job advice, etc.
  • Establishing funding platforms to meet the needs of schools and similar resources in poverty stricken neighborhoods.
  • Applying for assistance through online forms (it is important to note that this has both positive and negative affects on access to those resources)

These apps can also affect public perception by answering the questions and addressing the prejudices surrounding poverty. They can attempt to educate the masses about the realities of poverty and the truth about who poverty survivors really are, including those of us who have experienced homelessness.

The voices of poverty survivors

All of these things currently exist and all of them require access to the internet and the specific technology required to connect to the applications. While there are plenty of poverty survivors (homeless included) who have some form of smart phone (Tracfone offers several android phones for less than $100 and a SUPER cheap pay-as-you-go plan…it’s really easy to get one), for many people that is where the technology ends.

Being able to leverage these opportunities often requires access to more than a low grade android cell phone. Determined poverty survivors with access to a reasonably well funded public library will use the computer lab to access all of these things. Others just shrug their shoulders and assume they don’t apply to them.

The thing that is missing from all of these resources and opportunities is the voice of poverty survivors themselves. Please watch the following TED talk by Mia Birdsong. She says it far better than I ever could:

Can technology solve poverty?

No. Poverty is not caused by technology, so technology is not close enough to the source of the problem to have a profound effect on the problem.

Technology does not pay the bills or end human rights violations. It does not block human trafficking, slavery, violence, exploitation or stalking (cyber or face-to-face). It does not end racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, slander or classicism. It does not prevent police brutality or government corruption. It does not put food on the table, a roof over your head or clothes on your back. It does not force your employer to pay a living wage – or provide the paycheck that is owed to you.

It doesn’t even get you a job. Access to long lists of jobs posted to websites like LinkedIn is helpful, but it is NOT a job. If one of those job postings happen to materialize into a job, there’s no guarantee it will pay a living wage.

Poverty can be positively affected by technology. I encourage those with this particular skill set to look for ways to use those skills to positively change the world in every possible way, including addressing the symptoms of poverty. But never forget that these are symptoms and not root cause. Until the root cause is addressed, poverty will remain epidemic in this country and around the world.

-Originally posted to Quora in response to the (frequently asked) question Can apps be used to tackle societal problems like hunger or homelessness or income insecurity?

Mass Blindness: Why don’t American’s see the poverty in their own backyards?

The most common reasons for mass blindness are as follows:

  1. Prosperity theology – Wikipedia This highly flawed religious belief took root in this country before it became the USA. It never left. People still think that poverty survivors (rape victims, abuse victims, people struck by illness, etc.) are cursed by God because they are ‘bad people.’ It’s religion-sanctioned victim-blaming, and it’s long-term effects have been extremely destructive.
  2. Welfare queen – Wikipedia: A highly effective political marketing/propaganda campaign utilized by President Reagan which vilified all poverty survivors based on a fictitious character developed, loosely, out of one female African American criminal who was convicted of fraud. It is a well-established fact that this campaign was an attempted to garner the support of white voters by demonizing black people – and it worked.
    1. The Truth Behind The Lies Of The Original ‘Welfare Queen’
    2. The Real Story of Linda Taylor, America’s Original Welfare Queen
    3. Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” myth: How the Gipper kickstarted the war on the working poor
    4. The myth of the modern welfare queen
    5. Return of the ‘Welfare Queen’
  3. Deserving or undeserving poor: A European belief that was imported to the United States by European immigrants and became a permanent fixture within our culture and politics. It is a well-established fact that the hyper-examination of the relative morality of people surviving a life-threatening crisis is counterproductive to the efforts to reduce poverty, homelessness, and everything that goes with them. But the social belief remains and grant money, political favor, and individual donations are often tied to proof that poverty survivors deserve assistance.
    1. Deserving vs. undeserving poor — for the love of God, here we go again
    2. deserving-vs-undeserving-poor
  4. Performance Poverty: Thanks to the combined efforts of politicians, Hollywood and authors like Charles Dickens, people in the USA have come to expect a very specific ‘show’ when they look for proof of poverty. Some expect to be entertained, others want proof that their investment of money and/or empathetic emotion is ‘worth it’ and, therefore, want a proper performance.
    1. Comparison arguments: This is frequently accompanied by non-logical comparison arguments like:
      1. “Look at these photos of poor people in Africa! Poor people in the USA are FAT, so they CAN’T be poor…not really.” The photos shown are invariably images of people surviving war, plague and/or drought, thereby leaving them so devoid of resources that their ribs are showing through their chest. All reasonable discussions about the realities of poverty in the USA are then dismissed because those people don’t ‘look poor.’
      2. Example: What is the biggest slum in the U.S.? There are American’s who answered this question with ‘they don’t exist here,’ and then proceeded to post photos of ‘real slums’ in other countries. These answers are then debunked by other Americans who proceed to post photos of slums here in the USA.
    2. Slum tourism – Wikipedia: Upper-class Americans are known to make entertainment out of poverty by traveling to other countries and gawking at the poverty survivors in those areas. It’s…unethical…to say the least. It’s also NOT restricted to international travel. It happens here in the USA.
    3. Tiny Tim (A Christmas Carol) – Wikipedia Every Christmas season local theater’s put on yet another performance of a Christmas Carol. There are old movies shown on TV and sometimes a new version is released. ONCE AGAIN the world watches as the poor are stomped on by Scrooge and yet, one particularly saintly and sickly child keeps his faith in both God and man, showing great generosity in his ability to extend forgiveness even to Scrooge – a fact which proves to be the tipping point for massive spiritual transformation within the old wicked miser. HURRAY! The Noble savage, in the form of a handicapped child without access to health care, has given proper service to the power-holding upper class by successfully transforming the man’s soul just in time for his death of old age! Americans of all ages leave the theaters filled with Holiday Cheer and a destructively erroneous image of the ‘deserving poor’ in the form of Tiny Tim, as well as an even more destructive storyline concerning the proper interaction between rich and poor. (No, I am not a fan of this story.)
  5. Service Trips: church groups, schools, and community organizations have a frustratingly common habit of taking groups of people (children, in particular) on service trips. Instead of examining and addressing poverty in their own city/town/neighborhood, they pile into a bus or a caravan of cars and go to some magical ‘poverty land,’ like the Appalachian mountains, where they help the ‘real poor.’ Now, just to be clear, poverty survivors exist in large numbers in the Appalachian mountains – the poverty in this region is VERY real (America’s poorest white town and Why Poverty Persists In Appalachia). I object the service trip culture because it presents and solidifies through action the idea that poverty ONLY exists in the Appalachian mountains or other well-known poverty-stricken regions. This directly and significantly contributes to the collective blindness the general public has towards poverty in the USA. It even has this weird way of convincing poverty survivors themselves that their own poverty is, at least partially, a figment of their own imagination because they don’t live in one of the recognized ‘poor areas.’ For example:  I may be homeless, but at least I don’t live in the Appalachian mountains – really???

-Originally posted on Quora in answer to the question: Do Americans care about their poor people?