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Monday, April 30, 2012

Opposite Day

Yesterday. I was having a conversation with a 7th grader from the East Coast about Benevolent and something she said really struck me. She said that what she thought was cool about Benevolent was that the people who needed support got to say what they needed and actively seek it out. From her perspective, this is like flipping giving on its head – rather than givers giving to nonprofits who then figure out what their clients and communities need, Benevolent offers a platform for those with needs to seek out support, with the nonprofits as their background supporters

It was an interesting lens on our work and made me think about a couple of things that came to light last week – both instances in which the funds that had been raised for someone’s need wound up being spent slightly differently than had been thought originally.

Jenny requested help with car repairs, 
but wound up needing a new used car.
Al thought he'd need a tuxedo to work 
as a banquet waiter. As it turned out, 
the required uniform was different.

In the first instance, Jenny had requested support to repair her car so that she could get herself and her sister to and from work, her kids to and from school, and her sister to and from chemo and dialysis. As it turned out, the car she had been driving broke down completely, so she plans to use the funds raised through Benevolent to help buy a new used car.

In the second instance, Al, who had sought support to purchase a tux-like uniform for work as a banquet waiter, wound up getting the job and found out that the uniform he would need was not a tuxedo – it was somewhat different. So when Al and Eva – his caseworker – went shopping for the uniform Al needed, they had the latitude to get what was required.

What this speaks to is the level of control that we’re trying to provide for those who have needs met through the Benevolent site. To us, it’s all about agency:
  • Personal Agency: The awareness that one is initiating, executing, and controlling one's own volitional actions in the world.

In so many instances, those living in low-income circumstances have little or no agency in the determination of how they receive support. On the Benevolent site, we try to be all about agency and dignity – respecting the self-determination intrinsic to any person’s success.

So perhaps my 7th grade friend was right. Maybe we are turning giving on its head. I strongly believe in the power of philanthropy and active benevolence in all its forms – giving, voting, speaking up for ourselves and others, advocating, and acting to change circumstances.  Benevolent fits in as a sort of “opposite-day” form of delivering support – a form in which those who need something hold the reins.

- megan kashner, founder & ceo

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Reduce Poverty and Improve Health

I was doing some online research this weekend, looking for cite-able sources about the connection between improvements in people’s socioeconomic status and their health outcomes when I stumbled across a piece of scholarship I simply had to share with you.

Many of us might not know a great deal about Thomas Frieden, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Dr. Frieden is responsible for providing the expertise and tools that people and communities need to protect their health.

Turns out, the guy is incredible – has turned the CDC around, shedding bureaucracy and replacing it with action and efficiency. He also happens to be the author of the brilliant piece I found in my searches yesterday: “A Framework for Public Health Action: The Health Impact Pyramid.”

So what was so brilliant about this article? Frieden clearly lays out the reality thataddressing socioeconomic factors has the greatest potential to improve health.”

Did you get that? The thing that we can do as a society to best improve health and health outcomes as a nation will be to reduce poverty which Frieden tells us will:

Improve immunity

Reduce crowding and exposure to communicable microbes

Improve nutrition, sanitation and housing options

Increase educational levels, and nutritional options

Reduce cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and diabetes

Reduce drug use and violence

and Lower vulnerability to extreme weather conditions.

Well, ok then. We’re done. We’ve solved it. All we need to do is to reduce poverty and improve baseline socioeconomic status. Let’s all get on that.

Actually, we’re already on it. You’re already on it. Each need we meet on the Benevolent site is bringing that person – and his or her family – one step closer to economic stability and sustainability. Each time you read and share one individual’s story of striving, you’re meeting and introducing others to the real people behind the numbers and maybe, just maybe, we’ll build momentum to change the conversation about policies and supports.

So, next time you hear a conversation about health care in our country, or about entitlement programs or funding for safety net supports, remember that those are actually the same conversation. We cannot continue to put low-income families in impossible situations and expect them to succeed with less and less of a foundation from which to build.

We cannot hope to see improved health, decreased obesity, drops in diabetes and heart disease rates, or drop-offs in community violence until we address the underlying reality. It’s about poverty. It’s about resources. It’s about how our civic constructs promote or inhibit people’s progress towards their goals and out of hardship and risk.

Thanks to each of you for being part of the solution. Remember to share the stories of striving and challenge you see on the Benevolent site out to your friends and family over Facebook, through email, etc. The more we introduce people to the real people impacted by low-income and hurdles to taking their steps towards stability, the more we change people’s understanding of the issues, needs, and constructs surrounding poverty in our country.

- megan kashner, founder & ceo

Monday, April 2, 2012

When the Bough Breaks

For many years, our nation’s public libraries have been providing more than books. After-school homework help, computer access for students and job searchers, preschool and adult literacy programming, shelter for those in need, and more have been provided in libraries and by their professional staff for decades.

In the current state of municipal budget shortfalls, many cities and towns have decided to cut library branches and decrease library hours to cut costs. Like the removal of any public service, the loss of library access has an impact on many people. It is a tear in the social safety net.

We know that school kids, job seekers, shelter-seekers, and learners of all ages were impacted when the City of Chicago implemented $3M in budget cuts in January of this year, cutting 172 low-wage library jobs and closing 75 branch libraries on Mondays. The community lost access to critical services and 172 people lost their jobs as clerks and pages in the Chicago library system.

Rufus was one of those who lost a job in the Chicago Public Libraries this winter. Now he’s asking for help with the funds necessary to purchase the right-sized car seat for his infant son and to buy his son books and toys, as he would have been able to do had he not lost his job.

I am not arguing here for or against curtailing library hours or jobs. Cuts had to be made in the city’s budget. If those funds had instead been pulled out of our public transit system or out of violence-prevention programs, we would see similar tears in the fabric of support and resources for those living close to the economic edge.

I wonder whether schoolteachers are now finding that their students cannot be expected to complete homework on Monday evenings because they can’t access after-school homework help or get onto a computer to complete their assignments. I wonder whether public transit stations, malls, fast food restaurants, and the like are feeling the strain of the volume of people who might otherwise have been reading, taking shelter in or attending programs at public libraries and who are now at loose ends on Mondays.

We can see in Rufus’ situation that the low-wage positions of clerk and page in a library system were not sufficient to provide these earners with any sort of a financial cushion. Less than three months into unemployment, Rufus tells us of near-homelessness and an inability to purchase basic supplies for his son.

This is where you see clearly the multi-generational effect of the fragility of our safety net. When Rufus lost his job, his son’s potential future earnings dropped along with his father’s. While we hope that Rufus and his son prove to be the exception to this rule, research and history tell us that children whose parents are low-income earners are exponentially more likely to be fixed in the same socio-economic status as their parents.

Rufus was on his way to a career path and stability in earnings. We hope he’ll get right back on track, but in today’s job market, that is going to be a challenge. In fact, we know from research cited in the Chicago Tribune last week that within Rufus’ age group, his chances of being rehired within 18 months of losing his job are approximately 77% (down from 89% before the recession) and that he’s likely to be hired at a wage 11% lower than the wage of the job he lost. This has implications for Rufus and for his son’s safety and development.

When we step up and help Rufus’s son during his dad’s jobless patch, or when we help Brenda get a computer so that she can complete her training in Radiology and her son can apply to colleges, we’re alleviating the human impact of cuts and shortfalls and addressing two generations’ needs. We’re fixing the holes when the social safety net has stretched to the breaking point. We’re doing it because we can see and hear Rufus and Brenda and we can be there to tighten the weave under them at a critical moment.

- megan kashner, founder & ceo