In this issue, Flint's nasty water crisis, the rise in white mortality, Walmart's million-worker pay raise, Ford's inequality series and why we should stop infantilizing those we fund.
No Bridge Over Troubled Waters
Let's start with a cartoon from The Week:
The magnitude of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan has lots of folks asking: would these decisions have been made to feed residents polluted, corrosive water if they were not mostly poor? A New York Times editorial calls it "depraved indifference":
The 274 pages of emails released under pressure on Wednesday by Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan show a cynical and callous indifference to the plight of the mostly black, poverty-stricken residents of Flint, who have gone for more than a year with poisoned tap water that is unsafe to drink or bathe in. There is little doubt that an affluent, predominantly white community — say Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills — would never face such a public health catastrophe, and if it had, the state government would have rushed in to help.
At every juncture when state officials could have avoided or reduced the harm in Flint, they ignored public pleas and made every effort to dismiss the truth.
In the Daily Beast, Goldie Taylor argues that Flint was forgotten long before this crisis hit and that this story looks like large swaths of America:
The once-booming center of industry has lost half of its population in recent decades and is now one of the poorest cities in the nation. Today, nearly 40 percent of Flint residents live below the poverty line. What remains of Flint is 56 percent black and nearly 40 percent white—all too poor to get up and leave.
Blink and you could be standing in Gary, Indiana, East St. Louis, Illinois, or Camden, New Jersey, watching a similar tragedy unfold. Factories close, the middle class takes flight to the suburbs to build better schools and tend to pristine lawns.
They are among America’s forgotten cities—wracked with pervasive poverty and violent crime—populated by a forgotten people.
Everyone is finger pointing and blaming each other—Republicans are under particular fire, not just for decision-making that led to the problem, but also in the current response—as Matt Latimer, a former speechwriter to George Bush noted in the New York Times:
For those not following this news — that is, largely my fellow conservatives — my hometown has been poisoned. For the last 18 months, the city’s water supply has been contaminated with lead and iron...
This is the Republicans’ chance to show their worth — the chance our leaders have said they always wanted. Why haven’t they been here over the decades, running serious candidates, supporting federal aid for the city, championing pilot projects that might show what a conservative approach to urban areas might do? Why aren’t they in Flint today, shipping in water bottles and holding fund-raisers for kids now condemned to lowered expectations because their brains were poisoned by lead?
Some are making a connection to Hurricane Katrina, when government failed many of New Orleans' poorest people who went without aid for days. But, what is clear is that children are especially vulnerable to the disastrous impacts of bad decisions and buck-passing. Stephen Rodrick over at Rolling Stone put it this way:
The human damage is incalculable. Think of a mother waking in the middle of the night to make formula for her baby girl and unwittingly using liquid death as a mixer. Lead poisoning stunts IQs in children, many of whom in Flint are already traumatized by poverty, arson and rampant gunfire outside their doors. And for what? I hate to get all MSNBC-y, but this man-made disaster can be traced to one fact: Republicans not giving a [bleep] about poor kids as much as they give a [bleep] about the green of the bottom line.
Recently, Michigan was forced to declare a state of emergency in Flint. Some of the public servants involved have resigned. Now, the feds and the state are investigating what one water expert calls one of the greatest American drinking-water disasters he's ever seen. In the coming months, we'll know if those to blame were criminals or merely incompetent jackasses.
Flint doesn't make me laugh anymore. It makes me want to punch someone in the face.
(Rolling Stone is typically potty-mouthed so your editor cleaned up a bit.)
Meanwhile in other parts of America, we have some commentary on the state of mind in the white working-class and the rising death rate. Check out this New York Times chart:
Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post discusses the rising death rate in whites:
The only comparable spike in deaths in an industrialized country took place among Russian males after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when rates of alcoholism skyrocketed.
A conventional explanation for this middle-class stress and anxiety is that globalization and technological change have placed increasing pressures on the average worker in industrialized nations. But the trend is absent in any other Western country — it’s an exclusively American phenomenon. And the United States is actually relatively insulated from the pressures of globalization, having a vast, self-contained internal market. Trade makes up only 23 percent of the U.S. economy, compared with 71 percent in Germany and 45 percent in France...
But why don’t we see the trend among other American ethnic groups? While mortality rates for middle-age whites have stayed flat or risen, the rates for Hispanics and blacks have continued to decline significantly. These groups live in the same country and face greater economic pressures than whites. Why are they not in similar despair?
The answer might lie in expectations. Princeton anthropologist Carolyn Rouse suggested, in an email exchange, that other groups might not expect that their income, standard of living and social status are destined to steadily improve. They don’t have the same confidence that if they work hard, they will surely get ahead.
Over at the Atlantic, Victor Tan Chen also discusses the trend and what it has to do with the growing instability in employment and the meme of individualism, which he says leads to isolation and despair:
The workers I interviewed after the recession for my book on unemployment—less-educated factory workers—offer some tentative clues about what might be driving the disquieting trends described by the Case and Deaton study. This is one of the groups hit hardest by the rising inequality and greater risk of unemployment and financial insecurity that have become features of today’s economy, and their experiences put in concrete terms how the economy and culture have become more hostile to workers not lucky enough to be working in posh offices on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley...
The larger context of this isolation and alienation is America’s culture of individualism. It, too, can worsen the despair. Taken to an extreme, self-reliance becomes a cudgel: Those who falter and fail have only themselves to blame. They should have gotten more education. They should have been more prepared. On this score, too, the U.S. deviates from other wealthy nations. America’s frontier spirit of rugged individualism is strong, and it manifests itself differently by race and education level, too. White Americans, for instance, are more likely to see success as the result of individual effort than African Americans are (though not Hispanics). The less educated, particularly less-educated whites, also share this view to a disproportionate degree.
In the National Journal, Amy Alexander argues politicians "divide, conquer, and confuse American workers based on race":
Since the 1960s, American workers have been subjected to a steady drumbeat of political messages designed to divide them by race and class, resulting in a dramatic weakening of bargaining power and job security. That is the conclusion of an analysis of nearly 50 years worth of political and economics data by Ian Haney López, Boalt Professor of Law at U.C. Berkeley...
A virulent form of scapegoat message framing dating back to the 1960s has returned to national politics, López said. In the 1960s, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and Democratic Alabama Gov. George Wallace invoked “coded” or “dog-whistle” language to paint a picture of black and Latino Americans using government programs to avoid “hard work,” and undermining job prospects for whites. Similar references are now front and center, López said, and working-class Americans across the ethnic spectrum are at risk of being “seduced” by the anger that such messages engender.
Also in the Atlantic, James Bessen attempts to provide some new perspective on why automation is not always bad for worker prospects:
Automation isn’t just for blue-collar workers anymore. Computers are now taking over tasks performed by professional workers, raising fears of massive unemployment. Some people, such as the MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, identify automation as a cause of the slow recovery from the Great Recession and the “hollowing out of the middle class.” Others see white-collar automation as causing a level of persistent technological unemployment that demands policies that would redistribute wealth. Robot panic is in full swing...
It might seem a sure thing that automating a task would reduce employment in an occupation. But that logic ignores some basic economics: Automation reduces the cost of a product or service, and lower prices tend to attract more customers. Software made it cheaper and faster to trawl through legal documents, so law firms searched more documents and judges allowed more and more-expansive discovery requests. Likewise, ATMs made it cheaper to operate bank branches, so banks dramatically increased their number of offices. So when demand increases enough in response to lower prices, employment goes up with automation, not down. And this is what has been happening with computer automation overall during the last three decades. It’s also what happened during the Industrial Revolution when automation in textiles, steel-making, and a whole range of other industries led to a major increase in manufacturing jobs.
But not all of the news about computer automation is good. Some of that growth in computer-using occupations has come at the expense of other occupations. As depicted in the chart below, desktop publishing systems have meant fewer jobs for typographers, as graphic designers took over their work.
Now for some better news. Even though last year, the CFO of Walmart sort of blamed a dollar an hour pay raise on the company's poor earnings, they announced they would raise wages and provide some benefits, the New York Times reports:
Walmart said on Wednesday that more than 1.2 million hourly workers would get wage increases on Feb. 20. The company, which is the largest private employer in the United States with 1.4 million total workers, also said it would provide free, basic short-term disability programs to full-time hourly workers. It will also start allowing workers to accrue paid time off as they earn it.
Once the new pay raise takes effect, the average full-time hourly wage at Walmart stores will be $13.38, up from $13. For part-time workers, the hourly wage will be $10.58, up from $10. Last year, before the changes, the average full-time hourly wage was $12.85 and $9.48 for part time.
You also should check out this Ford Foundation video series on what inequality means to commenters. Here is Martin Whittaker of Just Capital discussing capitalism as way to address inequality:
Over at the Nonprofit With Balls blog, we have a post on why we should stop infantilizing marginalized communities are trying to help:
A major frustration—probably THE major frustration—that many of us grassroots organizations have is that there seems to be a disbelief among many funders and other people in power that communities actually have the solutions to our own problems. It is really ridiculous if you think about it. The people and communities who have personal experiences dealing with society’s entrenched problems should know more about it than those who have not. But there seems to be this weird paradox, where if you are too close to a problem, then people may assume that your judgement got harmed by it or something...
This thinking of communities as children who don’t know what’s good for themselves may be a reason why it has been a struggle for so many of us to find significant funding, and why Trickle-Down Community Engagement exists. “Data,” “track-record,” “readiness,” “capacity,” and other terms and concepts are thrown about as justification to keep funding larger organizations who may not be rooted in the communities they serve, when in reality, it may just be that there is no trust that people and communities who have endured decades or millennia of injustice actually understand their own problems and know how to fix them.
Nonprofit consultant Alan Cantor is back to tell us that friends don't let friends start nonprofits:
I say this not because I question the power of nonprofits to change the world for the better. Nor do I doubt the sincerity of the person hoping to create that new charitable institution. But there is an awfully good probability – I’d say, 99% – that there’s no rational justification for creating a whole new entity.
There are currently 1.4 million nonprofits in the United States. That’s one-point-four-million organizations that need to recruit board members, raise money, keep minutes, file financial returns, hire staff, pay staff, develop logos, maintain Facebook pages, buy copy paper, apply for grants, update websites, design strategic planning retreats, and – assuming there’s time – do a little bit of good in the process.
You might also be interested in this Governing piece on why large gifts to local schools don't have much impact. Also, here is why McKinsey says small and medium-sized businesses are getting a boost from platforms like Facebook.