A Little Piece of Food Security Amid Bolivian Floods

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High water season on the San Martín River in Bella Vista, 2014.

Bolivia’s Amazonian lowlands have been hit with increasingly severe floods in recent years. This year’s flooding has been the worst ever, displacing thousands from their homes and destroying crops.

The missionaries I stayed with last year in Bella Vista dodged the worst of the damage, but the disaster has had rippling effects. One Bolivian told me that as much as a third of the country’s rice harvest was destroyed with last year’s floods. The nuns in charge of the boarding house in Bella Vista that supports 25 children have struggled with unavailable food staples and increased prices.

To make matters worse, about a month ago the missionaries told me that a power surge from the city’s shaky electric grid had destroyed the large freezer they use in the boarding house’s kitchen. With inconsistent food supplies in the muggy tropics, this equipment is crucial for storing the meat and perishables that feed the 25 growing children that the missionaries support.

This means the $1409.69 that friends, family, and strangers gave me to support the missionaries’ work came at a fortunate time.

Last week, one of the missionaries in Bella Vista was able to make the two-hour trip over muddy roads to the neighboring town of Magdalena, where she received the first installment of the donations by wire.

About $600 in donation money will be used to buy a new freezer, which will allow the missionaries to continue feeding the 25 orphans and children unable to attend school in their hometowns. It’s a small item that will make a big difference in quality of life for a group of kids who deserve the best.

Heavy rains are likely here to stay though. The recent spate of Bolivian floods was triggered by an unexpected shift in Atlantic trade winds. One Brazilian scientist says the floods could be a preview of the impacts of future climate change.

I’m hoping to continue to support my friends in Bella Vista as they deal with the challenges of a warming world. If you want to get involved in building economic security and climate resilience in eastern Bolivia, give me a shout.

Some Kind Of Personal Quest To Find The Meaning Of Happiness


So back at the farm I drew the above, uh, “diagram” in my notebook. Showed it to my travel-mate Sean.

He said: “It looks like an acid trip. ‘Everything is connected, man!’”

I responded: “Nah man, it’s not that. Whenever we go to a new place—like Chala today—I always find myself trying to figure out how well people there are living, but don’t really know where to begin looking. So I’m trying to organize my thoughts a little.”

Sean: “Well, people need three things. A place to eat, a place to sleep, and a place to poop.”

Me: “That’s enough to keep you from dying, but life is more than that.”

S: “Are you on some kind of personal quest to find the meaning of happiness?”

C: “That’s not why I made this, but yeah, basically.”

S: “Well, I’ve probably told you my philosophy a bunch of times.”

C: “I’m not sure you have.”

S: “It’s all about empathy and appreciation. The more empathy you have, the more you will appreciate the world we live in.”

There was some elaboration of this idea. I asked: “But why is that the true purpose of human existence?” Some talk that I can’t remember about neurons, and then Sean explained that his goal in life is “textured consciousness.”

S: “It feels good to learn new things, and that adds layers that your brain uses to appreciate things more. That’s why I want to travel a lot and do lots of different things. It’s a human tendency to form patterns and habits in your thinking, so I want to make an effort to break those patterns. Then I’ll have a more textured consciousness. For instance, since arriving to the farm I have gained more appreciation for cumbia music and for motorcycles, and I’ll use that to deepen my appreciation of other things.”

C: “But implicit in that is an entire philosophy about what the purpose of humanity is, and how we should spend our lives. I have some things I could say about that, but for me I guess it’s still an open question.”

A pause.

S: “Well, for me it’s textured consciousness.”


Lima, City of Possibilities

Lima highway

Any city of 10 million is bound to be hectic but Lima moves with a unique fervor, at least among places I’ve visited. In recent decades, Peruvians have flocked to the city to escape an economically neglected and war-torn countryside. Lima had half a million residents in 1940, 3.5 million in 1981 and has 10 million today, faster growth than any government could ever hope to order or control.

As such, life in Lima is frenetic and spontaneous. Bus drivers race from stop to stop, literally competing with each other for riders. Many neighborhoods were originally built by squatters in what 30 years ago was desert. Residents who can’t find work make their own; vendors peddle everything from candy to self-help tapes to UV lights that identify counterfeit money. Everywhere is crowded: sidewalks, parks, stores, vehicles, and especially roads. In one taxi ride our driver, caught in a traffic jam, blasted onto a 100-yard stretch of empty pedestrian promenade to bypass the stopped vehicles and then veered back into the road at the front of the pack. “It’s Lima, everything is possible,” he said.

Perhaps all the raw energy results from everyone trying to get a leg up at the same time. Peru’s economy is growing steadily but the nation’s export-led, laissez-faire economic development model doesn’t organize how the wealth is distributed, so Peruvians are left to carve out their own spot.

For better or worse, the entire world is urbanizing at a similar rate. In Lima, call it a work in progress. Entire swaths of the capital lack plumbing, clean water, or trash removal, and the city’s streets have the most crashes of any in South America. The organized chaos also boasts results, though. Peru has cut its poverty rate in half, from 54.4 percent in 1991 to 25.8 percent last year. But questions remain: can the same economic policies uplift that last quarter? How long will it take? Are there other development strategies that would work better, or is the messy Peruvian way the only way?


Big Questions And Small Questions

I’ve always been a big picture kinda guy, I guess. Some vexing questions that I will be thinking about on my upcoming trip to South America:

Why are some countries rich and others poor? What is the most effective way to change this?

Is there any hope of a world that is both free from poverty and environmentally sustainable?

What lessons can Americans learn from Andean cultures? In what areas might we have insights to share? Read More

On Poverty And Gun Death

I wrote about the correlation between gun violence and economic insecurity:

Even in cities with strong gun laws, the correlation holds. Buzzfeed notes that “the average rate of gun deaths in Chicago’s five poorest neighborhoods was over 12 times the rate in its least poverty-stricken.” A map of murders in Washington, D.C. shows that killings hardly ever occur in the city’s wealthy western swath of neighborhoods.

Mind you, this is correlation and not causation. But there’s plenty of reason to believe that poverty leads to gun violence and greater economic security decreases it.

In his classic study of inner city Philadelphia, sociologist Elijah Anderson demonstrates how racism, social alienation, and the absence of economic opportunity combine to create a “code of the street” in which wielding the “credible threat of violence” is the only way to ensure one’s safety. Needless to say, the code leads to a pattern of confrontation and killing.

“Only by reestablishing a viable mainstream economy in the inner city, particularly one that provides access to jobs for young inner-city men and women, can we encourage a positive sense of the future,” Anderson wrote.

Continued at Generation Progress.

Does Michigan’s Emergency-Manager Law Disenfranchise Black Citizens?

My big one is out today in The Atlantic, on Michigan’s emergency manager law and the residents suing to overturn it. A taste:

The suit highlights the paradox of American municipal governance. Local government is deeply ingrained in the ethos of American democracy, from colonial-era New England town hall meetings to New York City’s experiment with people-powered budgeting. But it is not an inalienable right. The U.S. Constitution guarantees all states a “republican government,” but gives states power to grant — or not grant — home rule to municipalities.

Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, contends that the state has an obligation to make sure local governments are on solid fiscal footing. Despite the demographic disproportions in the affected cities, it’s unlikely that discrimination has motivated the governor’s EM appointments. The areas under emergency management are some of Michigan’s largest clusters of concentrated poverty, ravaged by decades of deindustrialization.

Discrimination aside, the Michigan appointments — whether constitutional or not — set a troubling precedent by curtailing local representation in the state’s most chronically impoverished cities.

Read the whole thing

What High Youth Unemployment Means For Our Economy


Probably not what you intended to do with that BA in English. When the economy recovers, will there still be college graduates working low wage jobs?

More than a quarter million American college graduates worked for minimum wage last year—that’s 70 percent more than ten years ago. We can all agree that’s a sign of an unhealthy economy.

But what kind of unhealthy? Is degreed underemployment just a product of the Great Recession, or does it reflect more fundamental economic problems?

In a recent paper, economists Paul Beaudry, David A. Green, and Benjamin M. Sand argue that there has been a “great reversal” in the demand for skilled labor. That is, fewer employers need to hire employees with college degrees. The Daily Beast’s Megan McArdle suggested that the findings mean “A BA is now a ticket to a job in a coffee shop.”

Ominously, the reversal began well before the recession started.

“Many researchers have documented a strong, ongoing increase in the demand for skills in the decades leading up to 2000,” the researchers wrote. “In this paper, we document a decline in that demand in the years since 2000, even as the supply of high education workers continues to grow.”

So does that mean we’re headed for an education surplus? Are those college-educated minimum-wagers here to stay?

It’s too early to tell, according to Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“I do think we will need more college grads,” Baker told Campus Progress. “The question is: do we need them at the same rate we’re producing them? And that’s just much less clear.”

To find out for sure, though, we’ll have to bring the economy back to full employment.

“Let’s assume the economy does recover five, six years out,” Baker said. “I think we’ll see a lot of college grads working at jobs that would not ordinarily require college degrees.”

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be working for minimum wage. Even if it’s not a requirement for the job, employers will likely still be willing to shell out for the skill set and credentials provided by a college degree.

But, once the economy has recovered, if college-educated Americans still find themselves in dead-end jobs, there might be a political gain in their economic pain. As The Roosevelt Institute’s Dorian Warren said recently:

“The Millennials who are more privileged and get to boomerang are finally starting to feel and realize just a sliver…of what these groups of poor black and brown kids are experiencing, and that does open up possibilities for alliance and solidarity.”

Posted at Campus Progress. Photo: Flickr / Judy Baxter

Meet SSI, The Most Important Government Program You’ve Never Heard Of


There are reasons to both love and hate SSI, one of the nation’s most vital public assistance programs for people with disabilities.

NPR provoked a firestorm late last month when they reported that Social Security disability benefits have become “our extremely expensive default plan” for dealing with our economy’s declining capacity to generate well-paying jobs. According to reporter Chana Joffe-Walt, disability insurance is the last resort for many Americans who can’t find work.

But there’s a whole population of people who don’t even qualify for what we know as “disability,” due to their lack of recent work history. For many of them, a program called Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is the only safeguard against abject poverty.

While Joffe-Walt reported on the rising number of disabled children whose families rely on SSI, the program is actually a vital source of income for eight million Americans of all ages with severe disabilities. However, SSI is also an illuminating and unflattering reflection on how America treats its most vulnerable.

For some insight, I spoke with Ashley Moore, public benefits social worker and co-worker of mine at Bread for the City in Washington, DC.

SSI is “basically one of the only welfare programs that we do have for people either disabled or elderly or blind, and who have little to no income and low assets,” Moore said. Recipients get a maximum of $710 per month, well below the federal government’s own poverty line of $958 per month for an individual.

“Seven hundred and ten dollars doesn’t get you very far at all, especially in DC,” Moore said. “A lot of clients I work with live in a shelter.”

That $710 also comes with an arduous set of strings attached, designed to ensure that only folks who desperately need the money collect benefits. Finding other sources of income, getting help with living expenses, or accumulating savings all result in cuts to a person’s SSI.

The restrictions make sense from a budget perspective, but the result is “we’ve built this underclass system where you’re stuck at that level always, and there’s no way to get out of it,” Moore said. SSI benefits are enough to prevent people from dying, but not enough to free them from the hardship brought by poverty.

A decade of increasing child poverty has seen a substantial increase in children who rely on SSI. As America’s social safety net becomes more porous, programs like SSI make up an increasingly important part of the patchwork.

“I spend most of my week trying to help people get this benefit,” Moore said. “I don’t know what people would do without it, but it’s not even close to enough.”

Posted at Campus Progress. Photo: Flickr / Rachel Groves

The Arithmetic of Desperation in Detroit


Yesterday, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced Kevyn Orr as his pick for emergency manager of Detroit. Orr would wield near total power over the city’s finances, and his duties supersede those of the city’s elected mayor and city council.

In this weekend’s edition of Counterpunch, I wrote an article contextualizing the city’s budget crisis:

Though it’s rarely recognized in state or national media, Detroit has already instituted its own program of devastating austerity in an attempt to regain solvency. The city has closed almost half of its schools since 2005, and 28 more closures were recently proposed. Police officer rolls were cut almost in half between 2000 and 2008. Half of the city’s bus service has been lost since 2005. Of Detroit’s over 300 parks, only 57 will open this year. The budget in place for 2012-13 cut $246 million, 2,600 jobs, and the entire health and human services departments.

Despite all this hacking and slashing, Detroit still faces an imminent cash shortfall. That’s because the city faces a “structural deficit.” Detroit cannot pay for its own needs. It’s just too poor. The city’s budget is for all intents and purposes unbalanceable, at least not without drastic human cost.

Because of this hard math, I argue that we should be troubled by the governor’s plan for Detroit, and by what it suggests about how we treat America’s most underprivileged citizens.

You can read the whole thing here.

Photo: Detroit house, 2009.

Why Can’t College Graduates Find College-Graduate Work?

Recent grads

Good luck on the job hunt, grads. You’re gonna need it.

Kate really wants to work in Washington. This young Ivy League alumna, recently profiled in the Washingtonian, has been interning for a year and a half—at a political outfit, a media company and now a law firm. Until she finds salaried professional work, Kate is waiting tables in the evenings to make ends meet, which means she often works 15-hour days.

About half of recent grads are, like Kate, in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree, and the problem is only going to get worse. In the next decade the number of degree-holders will grow more than twice as fast as the growth in jobs that require them.

Why then, are so many young Americans like Kate dead set on college-level employment? And why are they willing to take on tens of thousands of dollars of potentially crippling student loan debt in order to secure a college education?

Here’s a hypothesis: What if the overstock of American college graduates is not a reflection on the market for educated labor, but rather on the decreasing quality of alternatives?

In the eyes of many Americans, “It’s either ‘I have to go to college or I’m going to work at Wal-mart,’” Janelle Jones, researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said. Jones co-authored the report “Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?” which found that since 1979, the economy’s ability to generate what the authors consider “good jobs” has diminished by about a third. This is due to deregulation, privatization, a declining minimum wage and a decrease in union membership.

The Atlantic’s Richard Florida wrote last year that with the decline of American manufacturing, workers in the U.S. now fall mostly into one of two classes. The creative class, about a third of working Americans, averages more than $70,000 in take-home pay. Meanwhile, everyone else—about 60 million people—are in the service class, and make an average of just over $30,000.

So where does college fit in to all this? To oversimplify, young Americans once faced a choice between going to college and working a unionized manufacturing or government job with benefits and a middle-class wage. The choice now is between trying to angle your way into the creative class, or working for tips at a restaurant with no benefits or job security.

“The restaurant offered me something full-time, but that’s not a field I want to go into,” Kate told the Washingtonian. Can you blame her?

Mirrored from Campus Progress. Photo: Flickr / scot2342

A Setback For Public Services

The New York City school bus drivers’ strike is over, with drivers giving in after more than a month of striking. The bad news is immediate for drivers, but I suspect that there’s a broader significance here:

As Campus Progress reported last month, the strike is a pitched battle in a wider ideological conflict over how public services should be managed. Are New York City parents and drivers locked in a zero-sum game, as Bloomberg would suggest, in which a dollar more to drivers is a dollar less for taxpayers? Or do they have a symbiotic relationship, in which an investment in drivers is also an investment in children?

“In the city’s entire history, the special interests have never had less power than they do today, and the end of this strike reflects the fact that when we say we put children first, we mean it,” Bloomberg said in a statement last week.

“School transportation is not a luxury, particularly for students with disabilities—it is a civil right recognized under several federal and state statutes,” said Sara Catalinotto, an organizer with Parents to Improve School Transportation and Manhattan mother of two. “There are places that you could trim the fat, but not in the salaries of workers. That’s ridiculous,” she told Campus Progress.

Read the whole thing.

Photo: Flickr / Jason Kuffer.

Income Tax: Not in Kansas Anymore?


If Gov. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) has his way, Kansas could become a real-life example of regressive economic policy.

He has proposed cutting and eventually eliminating the state’s income tax, raising sales taxes, and eliminating tax credits for items like food and child care.”My focus is to create a red-state model that allows the Republican ticket to say, ‘See, we’ve got a different way, and it works,’” Brownback said recently.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal dubbed it the “Brownback experiment,” and reported that it has inspired similar proposals in Indiana, Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oklahoma.

The plan could be a substantial setback for equity and prosperity in Kansas. One round of tax changes is already in effect, and a second is currently under consideration in the state legislature. If both are implemented, the top one percent of Kansans would pay over $27,000 less per year in taxes, while the bottom 20 percent would pay $95 more, according to the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy. ITEP says that the cuts would cost the state over $1 billion in yearly revenue.

Brownback’s office argued that the economic growth stimulated by a friendlier business environment will recoup the lost funds. Annie McKay, executive director of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, disagrees.

“It’s a collision course any way you slice it,” McKay told Campus Progress. She said Brownback’s plan will put the state in the red, forcing it to “either raise taxes—which is an unpopular prospect in a state like Kansas—or to drastically reduce budgets.”

If the recent past is any indication, Kansas will choose the drastic budget cuts. Brownback has cut thousands from welfare rolls, eliminated thousands of state jobs, and turned most of the state’s Medicaid system over to private insurers. The state also has not restored deep cuts made during the recession to public schools, higher education, and mental health service provision.

“I think the conversation is being dominated by people who want to suggest that the only way to lure business and grow the economy is through reducing income taxes, and there are a lot of studies that say that is absolutely not true,” McKay said.

“It’s a race to the bottom,” she said, “and not any bottom that we want to be at.”

Mirrored from Campus Progress. Photo: Flickr / reed_sandridge