Who are the most generous among us?

There was an interesting article in the Philadelphia Inquirer today reporting on analysis of the 2007 BLS Consumer Expenditure Survey that shows that the poor are in some respects the most generous in charitable giving. The poorest fifth of America’s households (and we’re talking here about households with an average income of less than $11,000) gave an average of 4.3% of their incomes to charities in 2007, while the richest fifth (average income of over $150,000) gave at less than half that rate, 2.1%.

Obviously, the wealthy give a lot more in absolute terms, but it is interesting that those with ostensibly the most need are the most generous in relative terms. One possible explanation is that the poor are acutely aware of how important philanthropy can be. As Tanya Davis, a laid-off security guard and single mother explains in the article why she gives: “I’ve been in their position, and someday I might be again.”

It reminded me of the story of the widow’s offering when Jesus gave a lesson to his disciples on generosity:

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

Can microfinance work in the U.S.?

When most people hear “microcredit” or “microfinance,” they think of efforts to addressing poverty in the developing world, as in the village banking model popularized by Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and others. The United Nations designated 2005 the International Year of Micro-credit, and Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

Many groups are trying to see how the microfinance model can be applied in the U.S. and other industrialized nations. Global microfinance institution ACCION has been working in the U.S. since 1991, and even Grameen has begun working in the New York City.

Organizers of the Microfinance California 2009 Conference recently sent me information on the meeting on May 28 that you may want to check out if you’re interested in these issues. There is a webcast of the event if you can’t make it to Stanford next week.

On a recent visit to Bolivia, I saw first hand how these types of programs – especially when coupled with training and other human development activities – can help move people out of poverty. There is currently a lot of debate in the sector about whether microfinance should be a non-profit or for-profit activity. For a great outline on these debates, see the New Yorker article, “Millions for Millions,” from 2006.

Los Angeles Foreclosures

Foreclosures LA County 92 to 08

We hear nearly everyday about the growing number of foreclosures in our country, particularly in boom-and-bust markets like Los Angeles. This chart provides a historical picture that shows what a unique moment we are in.

In the last LA housing bust during the early 1990s, foreclosures doubled from under 15,000 in 1992 to over 33,000 in 1996 and 1997.   As the economy boomed, the number of foreclosures declined steadily to under 1,000 by 2005.  That eight-year decline was reversed in three quick years, with 2008 skyrocketing to nearly 40,000 foreclosures.

The early part of this decade looks like a nice, slow coast downhill.  Too bad we didn’t put on the brakes; maybe we could’ve avoided this current steep uphill climb.

Skid Row on the silver screen

With some trepidation I finally saw “The Soloist” movie last week.  Knowing that it was based on a true story and book I really liked and would be a visual representation of complicated issues and problems that are easy to stereotype and over-simplify, I was prepared to not like this movie.  My verdict?  I give it a solid “good.” Sure, I was disappointed with the inevitable Hollywood-ization, changes and conflation of important parts of the story, but in the end my verdict is based on what happened after the movie.  I asked others what they thought of the movie, and the reaction in my informal polling was overwhelmingly positive.

There were several people who like me had read the book and were disappointed but several also felt like the movie at least hit the high points and messages of the book.  To be honest, however, I am most interested in what people who knew little about the true story or even homelessness and mental illness thought of the movie.  The words I heard were simple descriptions like “touching,” “profound,” and “eye-opening.” So, while the movie could not live up to the high standard of the book for me, I am hopeful it can be an important vehicle for educating people about the scourges of homelessness and mental illness and what it takes to overcome them.  Also, there are things that a movie can do better than the written word, such as in this case providing a visual glimpse into a schizophrenic mind.  The movie is well done and the performances are solid.

Mental illness, extreme poverty and homelessness are not issues we like to talk about, but hopefully this movie can get people talking.  Therefore, here is some advice for people not sure if they should see “The Soloist:”

  • If you don’t have time to read the book and know little about homelessness and mental illness but want to learn about the challenges facing people who suffer from them, you should see the movie and think about how many lives of promise exist on our streets.
  • If you are thinking about reading the book, do it (it’s a quick read) and then take someone who probably wouldn’t read the book to see the movie and talk with them about it.
  • If you have read the book and are worried that seeing the movie will be a disappointment, go ahead and see the movie with realistic expectations.  Take someone who may be unfamiliar with the story and talk afterward about what the story tells us about how to help people suffering from mental illness and homelessness.

Have you seen the movie? What did you think?

Philanthropic patience

For those of us who have toiled to raise funds from philanthropic foundations to support community efforts, the above words may seem at first to be oxymoronic (like “military intelligence” or “honest politician”). Foundations are famous for having a specific type of attention deficit disorder that looks for just the latest and greatest innovation and then quickly moves on. When dealing with complex social problems that developed over many years, however, that strategy often leads to fleeting success at best.

I am fortunate to be working at a foundation that has been able to overcome that ADD-bound approach. An article in the most recent issue of Health Affairs, a leading health policy journal, profiles the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s seventeen-year partnership with the Corporation for Supportive Housing to increase the supply of permanent supportive housing (PSH) in the United States. PSH has proven to be a successful model in reducing chronic homelessness, especially among the mentally ill. For the next month, you can access the article for free on the Foundation’s website (after a month, you’ll have to pay for the article so hurry up!).

Consequences of unemployment

We’re familiar with the normal consequences of layoffs and unemployment: lost income, health insurance and increased stress and anxiety. The LA Times had an interesting article this week highlighting how “California’s rising unemployment rate is driving a steep increase in child support cases, as the newly jobless appeal for increases in monthly payments or argue that they can no longer afford the amounts ordered by the court.”

It’s a bit of a perfect storm, as parents who’ve been laid off are more likely to seek child support payments that they need more than ever, while those responsible for paying who’ve lost jobs see it taken out of their unemployment checks by the state. In this scenario, however, just about no one wins.

The on-line version of the article includes animated maps of child support and unemployment for counties in California. Check it out to see how the unemployment rate in California increased steadily from 5.4% (less than 1 million persons unemployed) in January 2007 to 11.4% (more than 2 million unemployed) in March 2009.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The other side of Bolivia

I had the opportunity to travel to Bolivia last week to visit several projects working to improve the lives of poor residents. Bolivia is a landlocked nation home to about 10 million people and one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. It ranks 111th on the Human Development Index out of 179 countries. Nearly two-thirds of the population live below the national poverty line.

The limited images of Bolivia presented in the myopic U.S. media usually have to do with coca production or the anti-Gringo rhetoric of President Evo Morales. Spending time and talking with residents who subsist on less than $2 a day (accounting for 42% of the Bolivian population), I was reminded of the great passion and dedication that surges from the human spirit in the face of seemingly impenetrable obstacles.

The informal economy at work

Despite a weak educational system and lack of strong economic opportunities, the people I met were working incredibly hard to improve their livelihoods. They were taking advantage of the only option they had, selling goods or services in the informal market. The informal sector – i.e. the “gray” economy outside any formal governmental regulation –makes up an astounding 70% of the Bolivian economy, the highest proportion in a study of 110 countries by the World Bank (for comparison sake, even in Los Angeles, which has a high level of street vending and other similar activities, the informal sector is just 15% of the jobs). These people sell diverse goods such as agricultural products they grow or purchase, food and snacks, and clothes. One enterprising teenager was even providing internet access for a fee to classmates. As one person working with these entrepreneurs told me, “if it can be sold, it will be in Bolivia.”

Having spent lots of time in Ecuador, I saw many similarities between the two Andean nations, such as a large indigenous population that is largely marginalized, regional disputes between the highland area and the more affluent lowland area, and a general likeness in language and customs. One difference I noticed, however, was that indigenous and mestizo people seem to be more integrated in Bolivia. In my experience in Ecuador, indigenous groups are more separate from other groups, both in where and how they live. Groups I met with in Bolivia included both indigenous and mestizos seemed to interact more naturally. Perhaps it has to do with the high level of urbanization in Bolivia; people have been forced to live and work together for a long period of time.

The future of Bolivia

The future of Bolivia

No matter the subtle differences between developing nations, or the more stark disparities between developed and developing ones, I was struck again by an overriding concern that transcends boundaries and cultures. When asked about their dreams and why they work so hard, these new Bolivian friends invariably pointed to their children and the next generation. One woman I met who had only several years of formal schooling proudly pointed to her kids who had finished high school and even gone on to university as proof that her hours of sacrifice were worth it.

I asked an economist I met about how the global crisis is affecting the Bolivian economy, and he said they haven’t felt a severe shock yet but that he expects that they will begin to during the latter half of 2009 and into 2010. Millions of Bolivians have immigrated to the U.S. and Europe over recent years. With economies in the developed world in crisis, remittances back to places like Bolivia are down, and there is a suspicion that people will be migrating back to their country of origin if their work prospects in the north continue to recede. In countries already in crisis like Bolivia, this would likely overwhelm an already fragile economy. We in the U.S. are concerned about how the current crisis is affecting our way of life; but we can’t forget how in this increasingly globalized economy it affects the billions in the developing world.

The solution to homelessness

“The Soloist” movie comes out in theaters in a couple days, and here’s hoping that it’s a great film, lots of people see it, and it generates an effective mobilization of public, private and personal resources to effectively end homelessness and provide the mentally ill with the services they need. I’d prefer that, rather than from a Hollywood movie, such an effort would rise from the experience of people struggling to overcome their own challenges and the everyday heroes that help them, but perhaps I’m just becoming a realist in my old age.

If you are one of those few people who still likes to read about issues and reflect on how to make this world a better place, here are a couple “Soloist” related pieces you should look at. Steve Lopez’s column this week (“A better way of dealing with society’s neediest”) recounts his experience testifying at a Capitol Hill briefing on homelessness, tied to the release of the movie. One of the persons he quotes in the column, Deb DeSantis, CEO of the Corporation for Supportive Housing has a piece on the Huffington Post titled, “What The Soloist Tells Us About Homelessness and Mental Illness in America.”

A common myth about homelessness is that people “choose” to live on the streets. As both these articles point out, just as Nathaniel Ayers had to make his own decision to live in the apartment that LAMP Community provided for him as recounted in “The Soloist,” people have to take charge of their own recovery. But, the best solution to catalyze that process is a place to live, ideally a permanent housing unit coupled with supportive services to help people deal with their illnesses, addictions, and other issues.

The premiere of “The Soloist” was Monday evening. I just googled it hoping to find some articles highlighting how people reacted to the film. Instead, I found numerous pages with pictures of celebrities at the premiere or the fact that Halle Berry wore flip flops rather than stilettos to the event.

Yes, we are sadly a celebrity-crazed culture. I wish people like Steve Lopez, Deb DeSantis, Bob Carolla, Hyacinth King, and Sister Mary Scullion were the celebrities who influence how people think, but in the case, I suppose Robert Downey Jr. and Jaime Foxx will have to do.

Have we hit bottom?

Last week, the Obama administration and the media began portraying the economy is a more favorable light, asserting that we’re at or near the bottom of the recession. Today, looking for good news anywhere they can find it, the Los Angeles Times claims that “Southern California home prices may be stabilizing,” because the median home price remained steady for the third month in a row (albeit at half the market’s peak in 2007). That may calm a few nerves, but my sense is that most people are well-aware of the continuing precariousness of the economy. Foreclosures continue to rise – a 24 percent increase in households at risk of foreclosing in the first quarter of this year – and jobless claims are over 6 million people for the first time ever.

Whether we’re at the bottom, nearing it, or still far away, many, many people are having a very difficult time during this period. Last week, I attended a session with about 40 community organizations that serve the poor and homeless in Los Angeles, and they reported that they are seeing a whole new swath of people coming to them for help. They’re seeing formerly middle-class people unfamiliar with how social safety net systems work, people who lost jobs and were evicted, increasing numbers of families and an overall increase in demand for basic services.  Here’s a sampling of what they reported:

  • An organization that runs a day shower program has seen a 180% increase in people coming in.
  • A large shelter has seen a 35% increase in families that they are serving and 60% increase in women, and they are having to turn away 150 people a night.
  • A winter shelter program had increase of 630% families looking for emergency shelter; two-thirds of them became homeless due to foreclosure, eviction or job loss.
  • An employment services organization has seen a 60% increase in people coming in at the same time there has been a 10% drop in jobs people can apply for.

Clearly, for a growing number of people in this country, whether we’ve hit the bottom of the recession or not is academic; they’re already there.

Human suffering

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. Luke 23:34

I’ve been reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, a great book by Tracy Kidder about the work of Paul Farmer and Partners in Health recently. It tells the story of how the dedication of one talented person can mushroom into a global effort to heal the poorest and most vulnerable.

Today is Good Friday, when Christians around the world remember the death of Jesus, something I was reminded of when I read this recounting from the book of the horrible death of a victim of the political violence in 1992 Haiti whom Paul Farmer examined.

On January 26, Chouchou, a handsome man in his mid-twenties, was scarcely recognizable. His face, and especially his left temple, was misshapen, swollen, and lacerated; his right temple was also scarred, although this was clearly an older wound. Chouchou’s mouth was a coagulated pool of dark blood; he coughed up more than a liter of blood in his agonal moments. Lower down, his neck was peculiarly swollen, his throat collared in bruises, the traces of a gun butt. His chest and sides were badly bruised, and he had several fractured ribs. His genitals had been mutilated.

That was his front side; presumably, the brunt of the beatings came from behind. Chouchou’s back and thighs were striped with deep lash marks. His buttocks were hideously macerated, his skin flayed down to the exposed gluteal muscles. Many of these stigmata appeared to be infected.

On this day, let us remember all who suffer all kinds of pain in this world.