Friday, October 30, 2009

Psst--Election in November
I've been wanting to write about next week's New York City municipal elections (or, indeed, anything) for awhile now, but have found it almost as difficult to work up enthusiasm for doing so as for the contests themselves. For one thing, "contests" is too strong a word: of the three citywide offices to be determined, the Democratic candidates for two are running virtually unopposed--as someone who follows these things fairly closely, if I can't name their opponents, I think that counts as "virtually unopposed"--and the third features a two-term incumbent billionaire mayor against a guy who's held one of those other citywide offices for eight years but, I'd wager, even today could probably walk through plenty of New York City neighborhoods and go unrecognized.

Almost any time a public official is seeking another term, the election serves as a referendum on the incumbent. (The 2004 presidential election--a feat of evil political wizardry possibly unmatched in American history in which Bush advisor Karl Rove somehow made the contest about challenger John Kerry--is the only exception I can think of offhand.) But Mayor Bloomberg, by virtue of his ubiquity, is the only issue in this contest: even his opponent, Bill Thompson, has based his campaign almost entirely on the mayor's about-face regarding term limits. Bloomberg himself has implicitly acknowledged his hypocrisy on this, all but saying, "If that's your issue, then go ahead and vote against me." His bet is that in the minds of most voters, the quality of governance he's provided outweighs the procedural shenanigans he unleashed to perpetuate his tenure. (The Gotham Gazette has been running a series of interesting and informative assessments of different aspects of Bloomberg's mayoralty, with this one particularly recommended.)

It's all but assured that he'll win that bet, as polls continue to show about a 15-point margin in favor of the mayor. For myself, after vehemently opposing Bloomberg in 2001, even more fervently supporting him four years later, and loudly and repeatedly voicing a wish that he'd run for president in 2008 for awhile after that re-election win, I'm now almost indifferent. I had planned to vote for him, unenthusiastically. The way he manipulated the term limits question, enlisting fellow billionaire media moguls to get the law revised without turning to the voters, was pretty vile, as is the unlimited spending and general arrogance of the man; there's also the historical truth that third terms in New York City or State never go well. On the other hand, his vaunted political independence is real and admirable, he's not for sale, his priorities--with some glaring exceptions--are ones I agree with, and his data-driven approach to governance is well suited to the municipal setting. Then he campaigned with the vile-as-ever Rudy Giuliani, and didn't disavow a characteristically toxic Il Douche statement; now it might be a coin flip whether I vote for Bloomberg or some third-party type whose name I don't yet know. (I have no interest in Thompson. He's been an okay Comptroller, but like almost every NYC Democrat who gets nominated for citywide office, he comes pre-corrupted. It's nice that he has such admiration for CUF policy research that he essentially devoted an entire campaign speech to our recent work, but I have absolutely no faith that he could successfully implement any of it.)

Mostly I'm just depressed by it all. Our local democracy is a joke unworthy of the name. Turnout for September's Democratic runoff elections for Comptroller and Public Advocate was below 8 percent, a record low; the initial vote, two weeks earlier, saw 11 percent turnout. If we show no respect for our democratic institutions, why should the likes of Michael Bloomberg?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Big Distraction
The Times this past Tuesday included a house editorial on a report I co-authored for the Community Service Society of New York, where I'm a Senior Fellow. (I'm not sure what this means exactly, but I do think it sounds cool.) The study looks at the importance of the GED in New York City, as well as the myriad and severe problems pertaining to test preparation classes and the administration of the exam itself that contribute to New York State's worst-in-the-nation pass rate. As we detail in the report, it's New York City's abysmal rate--perennially under 50 percent, compared to a national average around 71 percent--that explains why the state ranks last.

The editorial accurately characterized our findings and made what I thought was a powerful case for taking up the measures we suggested, but what I found interesting and disturbing were the comments that readers made in response. Here's a sampling, all just from the first page of comments:

Is it reasonable to spend more resources on those who failed to take advantage of free education until the age of 18? At what point do we shift the burden of responsibility to the individual?
Undoubtedly, big improvements are needed in the New York K-12 school system and other systems serving low-income people of color. However, I think it is legitimate to ask whether the K-12 school system failed the students or whether the students failed the school. If we don't expect students to be somewhat responsible for their own learning, I don't think the situation will ever improve. I think the authors of the report might read President Obama's recent speech to school children. That talk contained the sensible message that when it comes to one's education there is no substitute for personal responsibility and hard work.
[It is offensive to continually blame K-12 education for "failing" those students. I thought we were encouraging personal responsibility? Did these students not fail themselves largely by dropping out or not taking school seriously?
[A]s a public school teacher, I can't help but be irritated by the statement by the ETS that these GED seekers "were failed by our public school system." In some cases, that may be true. In others, the students themselves may have been responsible for their OWN failure. There is only so much schools and teachers can do, and at some point our students make their own choices and decisions that we are later blamed for.

The implication is that the people in pursuit of a GED have forfeited their claim on further assistance because they're lazy, stupid, and/or immoral: they had their chance, and they blew it, so screw 'em.

A few years ago, one of the big vogues in public policy philanthropy was for foundations to bring in message consultants and PR gurus to train people like me in how to frame the issues we worked on and the studies we produced. Perhaps the big takeaway from these sessions, which I generally found about 10 percent useful and 90 percent schlock, was to characterize the struggles of people on the economic margins as mostly a result of systemic and impersonal forces rather than their own poor choices and deficiencies of character. This was necessary, the message-shapers explained, because cultural notions of rugged individualism stretch so deep that they color how Americans process information. Unless you put it all on the system, most readers and listeners will instinctively arrive at the conclusion that the problems of the poor and marginalized stem from their own personal faults.

Of course, anyone with eyes to see understands that's it's both/and, not either/or. There were plenty of kids in the public schools I attended growing up who finished high school and went on to college despite academic inclinations and aptitudes no stronger than many of the 70,000 or so New Yorkers who sit for adult education classes every year. (That number, by the way, is a tiny fraction of those who could gain from such services, but that's another point for another time.) In a real sense, if the non-grads in New York City "were failed" by their schools, the equally able grads of Cheltenham Township "were successed" (not a word, I know) by theirs. Probably an even more powerful factor into the outcomes was the presence and values and attentiveness of the two groups of parents. The individuals in both groups bear some responsibility for their outcomes--one can always "choose" to take actions toward overcoming adversity, or alternatively just screw up again and again until one's life is a ruin--but not all. One outside consultancy I sometimes work with, 2Revolutions, eloquently characterizes this conflation of factors as "choice plus chance."

The way we in this report, and I would say me in almost all the work I do these days, try to get around the "who's at fault?" discussion is to focus on the reader's, which is to say the community's, self-interest. We included, on p. 9, a great number that my co-author got from a briefing he attended in March: over the course of their working lifetimes (ages 18-64), New York City residents who never completed high school or earned a GED represent an average net cost to the city's treasury of almost $135,000 for things like locking them up, sheltering them, and feeding them; those with just a high school degree or equivalency represent an average net contribution of more than $190,000. In other words, helping a 24 year-old earn her GED--something that costs maybe $7,000 if you go the gold-plated route--can represent a swing of $300,000 for the city treasury over the next forty years.

Considering that spectacular return on investment, the argument against taking action sounds a lot weaker. If you can present a compelling case for why the investment will achieve the desired result, it's essentially unanswerable... at least in a rational world where the urge to punish people for their alleged faults of character is weaker than the desire not to cut off one's (fiscal) nose to spite one's (moral) face.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mixed Messages, Unintended Consequences
As the Great Recession of 2007-20?? moves into hopefully its final stage of slow recovery and lingering pain, it’s becoming clear that the labor market, specifically the difficulties of workers and jobseekers in its lower rungs, will take center stage. The problem is that the collision of an irresistible force, the “work-first” orientation of public policy over the last 20 years that kicked into overdrive with the federal welfare reform of 1996, has slammed into the immovable object of a labor market in which employers simply aren’t hiring. The result is a muddled mess of contradictory policies that might not be making things worse, but assuredly aren’t doing as much to help as circumstances call for.

Today’s newspaper details the difficulties of unemployed New Yorkers whose unemployment insurance is nearing its end. This recession has stood out for how long those who’ve lost jobs have remained out of work: with some exceptions, most of these are older workers in declining industries whose educations and skill sets are sufficiently limited that finding something that pays as well is unlikely in the extreme. The problem is that they aren’t finding anything:

Ruby Sievers, 47, a construction laborer who lives in Binghamton, said she had not been able to find work for two years. She collected the last of her extended benefits of $430 a week on Wednesday and feared that she might again have to resort to temporary assistance from the state to pay her rent and feed herself and her 11-year-old son, she said.

Ms. Sievers said she received welfare benefits this year during a lapse in unemployment benefits in New York. She has been impatiently awaiting word that Congress will pass the extension to limit the gap in her income.

“If it doesn’t, I’m not going to be in real good shape,” Ms. Sievers said. “I couldn’t even get $7 an hour if I wanted to. It’s just not there.”

This woman might be an exception, but for the most part if you work in construction over a period of years, you’re a pretty damn good worker: you might have to be at a job site by 6 AM, for weeks or months at a stretch, and as a laborer you have to take direction and prove yourself competent. (I won’t even get into the sexist garbage she probably had to contend with.) If that person can’t find even a menial job, it’s not there to be had. Which is the real tragedy of this economic moment.

On the other hand, that total absence of jobs might render a “disturbing” switch in California’s welfare policies more understandable. The country’s most populous state is suddenly not requiring its aid recipients to work:

Anna Zendejas, a welfare recipient […] was more than a little surprised to get a letter recently saying that she did not need to work to collect her check — in effect, a return to the much-derided welfare approach that existed before a national overhaul in the 1990s.

It was no fluke. This fall, tens of thousands of Californians will be given a similar choice as the state embraces a startling reversal in some of its welfare policies for the next two years. It is a route that few are happy with, but that reflects the intersection of a recession, the worst fiscal crisis in the state’s modern history, a governor determined to slash social services and the unplanned effects of federal stimulus money.

Though state officials emphasize that the change is temporary, some people inside and outside of state government worry that the abrupt reversal may encourage a return to habits that could be difficult to undo.
“We spent 10 years changing the culture, from just getting a check,” said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California “We think this will send a confusing message and do lasting damage.”

I’m sympathetic on a human level—assuming he’s been at this awhile, this guy probably spent a lot of time and effort reorienting first his staff, then his clients toward the new order of welfare reform. Now he has to throw it in reverse, knowing that in two years’ time the work-first regime will return. But it does make sense: these are the lowest-skilled jobseekers, with the most significant barriers to steady work. They’re extremely unlikely to find jobs, and it’s extremely likely that any work they do find will be low-paying and, whether because their barriers (everything from trouble with childcare arrangements to a health problem or a fight with a co-worker or manager) get in the way or because conditions worsen again and they get laid off, of short duration. Forcing them onto the treadmill is really just process fetishism on the public dime.

And yet: the basic concept of work first, that an individual conforms to societal values as a condition of receiving public assistance, is valid in good times as well as bad. I’d rather see jurisdictions use this time of slack labor demand to help skill up their aid recipients—get them a GED, or a vocational credential, or even help speakers of other languages learn English better—so that when hiring does resume, their odds improve. But that isn’t free either, of course, and the politics of more support for the worst off in bad times are difficult, to put it mildly.

There’s another option, the one Bob Herbert keeps going on about: large-scale public job creation, of the kind FDR used in the ‘30s. But this isn’t easy either: back then, you could give a thousand guys shovels and they’d dig you a hole. Now you use a machine, requiring maybe three or four guys to operate and service, to do the same job, only faster and better. Massive public works employment isn’t really possible in a time of advanced technology, and unskilled work is disappearing altogether: as I’ve had occasion to note in various work publications, more than half the jobs created in the federal stimulus require education beyond high school despite the explicit intention of the legislation drafters to extend as much opportunity as they could to the lower-skilled.

This doesn't mean that large-scale job creation is impossible--just that we'd have to do it differently. And that inevitably means experimentation, some trial and error, and in this climate a big heaping of scorn and vitriol from those out of power. At this point, the politics still probably weigh against the administration and Democrats in Congress taking that step.