What’s Your Poverty IQ?

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As growing income inequality continues to divide the nation into the have’s and have not’s, more and more families are finding themselves having not. For too many, the tight rope of financial stability has frayed and as we are realizing, more is dangling in the balance than dollars and cents. America’s future is on the line.

With many struggling to survive without basic necessities, like quality education, meaningful employment, affordable housing, nutritious food, or accessible healthcare, poverty is the contemporary atrocity that challenges our most fundamental American values; that everyone is created equal and endowed with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.*

Today, liberties are constrained by access to resources, the plight of the poor is hardly a pursuit of happiness, and for many, their very lives are at risk. Just look at this graph that illustrates the association between income and life expectancy. I guess rapper 50 Cent had it right. In America, if you don’t get rich, you will certainly die sooner, trying or not.

The implication here is that poverty not only threatens the health and well-being of a growing population of Americans, but its persistence also threatens the foundation of our democracy. So, at a certain level, understanding the impact of poverty is central to understanding what it means to be an American today.

So let’s talk about it. What do you know about poverty?

Take this 10 question quiz from Marketplace public radio and see how you stack up!

How’d you do? Post your score or thoughts on this exercise in the comments below!

Now that you’ve seen the facts and figures, let’s look at what those numbers mean.

To understand the impact of poverty, we have to engage the context and ask the right questions. For example, take the statistic that says, “of all working age people living in poverty, about half (7.2%) had full or part-time employment in 2010.” I took this fact directly from our handy quiz link above. You can translate that figure into a number of questions. One question might be, “Why don’t poor people work harder to lift themselves out of poverty?” Or if you are Paul Ryan** you might ask, “Why don’t poor people value work?” These questions create value-laden assumptions about individuals and communities and ignore the local systems that contribute to poverty.

Better questions might be, “What is the relationship between employment and poverty in the United States?” “If half of the poor are already working, what role do for-profit corporations play in the perpetuation of poverty?” “Should conditions of employment include provisions for basic needs, like a minimum wage that approximates local housing costs or health insurance coverage for part-time employees?” “How does race, gender, or educational status influence opportunities for upward mobility?” These questions interrogate the economic, political, and social systems that disseminate resources, structure local opportunities, and define the face of poverty in the US. Asking questions in this way allows us to formulate an actionable agenda to address poverty.

It is time to transform the national conversation around a topic that is literally redefining what it means to be an American. Today, the long reach of poverty extends throughout every state and city in this country, influencing lives from cradle to grave, and intimately shaping the ways we live, work, and play.  If all meaningful action starts with knowledge, what’s your poverty IQ?

* Here, I should clarify that the Declaration of Independence specifically declared “all men” created equal. This of course purposefully excludes women and people of color. Slaves were not considered people until 11 years later, when it was decided they would be 3/5 of a person. This was known as the three-fifths compromise.

** Paul Ryan was quoted on the Bill Bennett Morning Show in March 2014 indicting “a culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Here, he conflated institutional failures with cultural pathology. Given his influence over the federal budget, it is concerning to hear him voice this deep misunderstanding of the forces of poverty in the US. Charles Blow, an op-ed columnist at The New York Times addressed this point here. For a bit of a longer read on the nuances between culture and poverty, check out this beautifully written piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an op-ed columnist from The Atlantic.

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The Final Word on Black History Month: My Manifesto

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Every February, some of you invariably ask, why do we have Black History Month? Predictably, some of you will pose this question to the black people you know. As a black person, I offer you my final word on the subject, my manifesto, if you will.

Why Black History Month? Consider these reasons.

#1. You don’t know black history and if you are an American, that means you don’t know part of your own story.

The struggle to teach African-American history in our children’s classrooms continues. Take Chicago Public Schools, for example. They represent the 3rd largest school district in the country and despite having a mandate to teach African-American history for more than 2 decades, it was not until December of 2013 that they officially announced plans to implement a formal, yearlong, integrated African-American Studies curriculum into their public schools.

Without normalizing and institutionalizing African-American history into our collective forums for public discourse, we segregate ourselves from the breadth of the American experience. In so doing, we fail to capture an essential truth about America, that we are a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic population that has benefited from the contributions of people of color from our founding.* Every time we resist that central truth, we deny the very thing that makes us American, our shared history.

#2. You need to say thank you.

As does everyone who has benefited from the contributions of African-Americans to American life. Whether it be for the traffic light that safely regulated your morning commute (thank you Garrett A Morgan!) or the blood transfusion that saved your loved one’s life (thank you Charles Richard Drew!) or the vaccine that prevented your child from dying from a preventable illness (thank you Henrietta Lacks!), we must acknowledge the ways in which our lives are enriched because black people consistently made, and continue to make, defining contributions to our society.

And here I’ve only listed a few examples of notable inventions.

What of the impact of African-Americans on the evolution of music in this country? It is almost unquantifiable. From the folk music, bluegrass, and jazz that drew from the tonality of negro spirituals to the rhythmic beats of rock-n-roll, doo wop, disco, funk, soul, rap, and hip hop that emanate from urban America, African-American culture has created or influenced virtually every aspect of American pop culture through music, including the trending fashion, dance, and American vernacular that grew out of these popular genres. Just ask Elvis Presley’s modern-day protegé Miley Cyrus. Twerkin’ ain’t easy and that charismatic rump-shakin’ didn’t start at the VMAs.

Generations of Americans are being raised in a culture that has deep and expansive roots in the African-American experience, but one that is equally devoid of public and enduring recognition of the contributions of African-Americans. Assuming the cultural expression of a group of people, without acknowledging said group, undermines their importance and in some ways, denies their humanity as it assumes they do not have the right to own their own expression. This is called misappropriation and it is the result of an amnestic historical memory, that is so short, it fails to encompass the areas in which our stories are linked and our lives find common ground. But fear not, the cure for misappropriation is simply a proper thank you.

And what of the countless unknown African-Americans who have given of their lives to protect the honor and safety of our country? Next month, President Obama will celebrate some of those men for their distinguished military service and award them the nation’s highest commendation given for combat valor, the Medal of Honor.** If the President’s actions here may serve as an example, when people give of their time, service, and sometimes their lives, for the betterment of our free republic, we must, even if belatedly so, say thank you.

Finally, I think it generally true, that when you honestly appreciate another person’s culture and life and consider their past and their future indelibly connected to your own, you are less likely to instantly think them a criminal, and “stand your ground.” Perhaps what we should “stand our ground” for is the recognition of the humanity in each other. Because when you appreciate people, you don’t shoot them and if Black History Month offers nothing else, perhaps it can serve as a moment for you to embrace African-Americans and in so doing, help bring our sons home safely at night.

#3. You don’t know black people.

If you keep a running tally of how many black people you know or feverishly defend the fact that you “have black friends,” you may not have had the intimate interactions that allow you to disconnect individuals from the stereotyped characteristics you associate with their race. In other words, if Joe is your “black friend,” he’s not really your friend and you don’t really know Joe.

But that’s okay. Perhaps you live in one of the few ethnically monolithic enclaves in our country, or somehow your only exposure to black people has been through The Cosby Show, or The Chappelle Show, or when Kanye upstaged Taylor. If this sounds like you, maybe it is time to branch out, meet new people, new BLACK people, and see what all the hype is about. The African-American experience is as varied as it is rich and our limited representation in the media doesn’t nearly approximate what it might be like to actually know us, dine with us, laugh with us, grow with us.

On a deeper level, if, as a society, we continue to live segregated lives in which we form ethically homogenous social circles, we will never have a basis from which to collectively digest, interpret, and process the complicated transactions that take place between the disparate cultures represented in our communities. Furthermore, challenges that require understanding another culture’s experience and the historical impacts of institutionalized discrimination, like for example, health disparities, or the educational achievement gap, or the disproportionately low rates of African-American women in the health professions, or the disproportionately high incarceration rates of African-American males, will remain insurmountable.

#4. You don’t like black people.

And frankly, black people may not like you either. And yet here we are, continuing to co-exist. So what should we do about it?

Get over it!

There is a reconciliation that needs to occur around issues of race in America and I’m not talking about tolerance. Tolerance is complacency in the face of continued unrest. It is offering separate but equal, instead of demanding that equal be the standard for equal. To heal the massive division in this country around racial injustice, we have to actively confront our bias to move on, even when that bias is unconsciously harbored.*** Black History Month offers us the first step to do this. As the great American poet, Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Today, we face continued affronts to equality in this country as some Americans seek to marginalize groups they just don’t like. Look what is happening in North Carolina and Ohio to undermine voter’s rights, or in Arizona, where a bill to refuse service to gay Americans made it all the way to the Governor’s desk before being vetoed! Here, our broken history repeats itself and if we aren’t careful, we may all eventually find ourselves less free to pursue liberty and happiness. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and we must take a lesson from black history to see the trend repeating itself and threatening all of our freedoms. The solution is to challenge prejudice at every point it rears its ugly head, starting with ourselves.

#5. You are black and yet you feel disconnected from the African-American experience and the Africana Diaspora.

When historian Carter G. Woodson started Negro History Week in 1926, it was a part of a larger effort to cultivate ethnic pride. As the trans-Atlantic slave trade scattered Africans across the western continents, it violently divorced black people from the rich ancestry that informed who they were. The absence of that foundation created a dangerous space for black people to be defined outside themselves, by their new roles and their new lives.

One dynamic of racism that is as inconspicuous as it is pernicious, is the effect of internalized racism on the African-American psyche. It is the wilted acquiescence to the accusers taunts, that you are as they say you are, be that ignorant, useless, dirty, ghetto, lascivious, pugnacious, unworthy, or unlovable. Internalized racism breeds a self-hatred that dissolves the bonds between people who share the detested characteristic.

In short, racism shames blackness.

And internalized racism is the insidious acceptance of inferiority. It acts to separates people from their value and their ethnic community.

For these people, for us, Black History Month is a moment to affirm and accept our value; to remember who we are and where we come from. Despite the positions of poverty and war in which many of our peers struggle today, both here in urban America and abroad in Latin America, Haiti, and Africa, we are not how and where we live. Our worth is not defined by our struggle but rather by the fervor with which we reclaim what has always been our gift, our blackness.

Now, I am not as presumptuous as to conclude that a month is sufficient time to heal a pain that stretches centuries into our past and finds new meaning in the systematic marginalization of black people across the globe. But I will say this, we have to start somewhere and we need to start together. Perhaps, at its very best, this month can cultivate the ethnic pride needed to combat racism, whensoever, and howsoever, we may face it. Because when you don’t feel worthy, you don’t act worthy and racism has become a self-fulfilling, self-injurious prophecy in the African-American community, and I would argue across the African diaspora. It is time to mend the broken fences in our community, to let people in and heal together. Let this be our chance.

Here’s my final word.

As the thread of African-American culture weaves throughout the American experience, it informs who we are as a nation. While a month is hardly sufficient time to truly appreciate the weight of the African American influence on American culture, perhaps it can serve as both a reminder and an invitation:

A reminder to engage in the self-exploration required to overcome the distraction of modern racial discourse that dichotomizes and compartmentalizes our history in a way that disconnects the culture we consume from the historical process by which it was created;

And an invitation to collectively share in the creative brilliance, ingenuity, and public service that defines the contributions of Black artists, musicians, writers, activists, playwrights, poets, scientists, philosophers, physicians, engineers, civil servants, lawyers, filmmakers, educators, servicemen and women, entrepreneurs, athletes, and entertainers.

These contributions enrich our experience as Americans. So on this, the last day of Black History Month 2014, let this be the start of celebrating our shared America history. Because, we, too, sing America.

* Although I must clarify here, that sovereign nations existed on this soil prior to the arrival of Europeans or Africans and the true founding of this land must always be credited to the Native, indigenous people of this continent.

** This award was also given to Jewish and Hispanic soldiers who were previously overlooked for recognition because of discrimination.

*** If you are ready to confront your unconscious bias, take the Harvard Implicit Association Test here!

The Myth of the Entitled Single Mother

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There is a disconcerting myth about single mothers that has been circulating in our society for some time. It was popularized in the Regan Era as a denunciation of US social welfare policy and resulted in a pointed caricature of a woman on welfare, forever to be known as the “welfare queen” or the entitled single mother.

The narrative of such a woman goes something like this: Not only is she poor, but worse yet, she is unpatriotic and weak. She is nothing more than the vessel for her lascivious desires as she has child after child out-of-wedlock, abusing the luxury of government aid to ensure herself a life of leisure. Her welfare dependency is as much a result of her moral failings as it is of society’s willingness to foot the bill. If “real Americans” get by on what they make out of their bootstraps, then her crime is never wanting bootstraps at all.

Sound intense? Apparently not for Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who invoked this relic of American political discourse this week to shame single mothers out of their welfare benefits. He was quoted at a Lexington Commerce Meeting as saying, “Maybe we have to say ‘enough’s enough, you shouldn’t be having kids after a certain amount.’ I don’t know how you do all that because then it’s tough to tell a woman with four kids that she’s got a fifth kid we’re not going to give her any more money. But we have to figure out how to get that message through because that is part of the answer.”

It is clear that at a time when both Democrats and Republicans seem primed to address the issue of growing income inequality in our country, the myth of the entitled single mother remains as relevant as ever. That problem is, this false characterization of single mothers, particularly those receiving government benefits, ignores the real lives these working mothers lead, undermines the contribution of women to the American economy, and ultimately prevents society from understanding how government funding should be spent to address income inequality.

The bottom line is, the myth of the entitled single mother separates us from the reality that women are the core of the American economy, including single mothers. In the words of President Obama, “when women succeed, America succeeds.” And the truth is, single mothers are single-handedly controlling the future of America. Let me tell you why.

Women are bringing home the bacon unlike ever before.

Since 1960, the number of women who are the primary wage-earners for their household has almost quadrupled, such that women now comprise nearly two-thirds of the breadwinners or co-breadwinners in their family. And as it turns out, more than 6 and 10 of the women who are the primary breadwinners in their home, are single mothers.

Women are using that money to boost the American economy.

Although some have speculated that women influence anywhere from 70-80% of the consumer spending in their household, it is hard to argue that single mothers don’t control 100% of their household spending. That’s anything from buying cars and computers to purchasing healthcare. With the struggling auto industry, surge in online technology, and new changes in healthcare, that means single mothers are literally at the center of the markets that are defining the ways we live, move, communicate, and stay healthy.

Women are redefining the social contract.

Without a second income in the household, families lead by single mothers are also the most vulnerable to economic stress, and in the words of Maria Shiver’s latest report, many are living on the brink of poverty. Growing income inequality and poverty may be the defining issues of our time. The urgency of these problems require us to push new boundaries. Although the traditional social contract exists between the US government and the people, in which we give the government authority to rule if the government will protect our rights and help us when we fall on hard times; the new social contract defines the relationship between businesses and the people. That if we are to work for you and buy your goods, then businesses must also contribute to the general well-being of society by paying fair wages and providing various benefits (health insurance etc).

To make a long story short, businesses aren’t holding up their end of the deal, and it is time to remind them and raise the minimum wage. It is estimated that doing so may be a real solution to lifting some families out of poverty, many of whom are led by single mothers. And as we know, poverty poses one of the greatest threats to the health and well-being of children in the United States, making it also one of the greatest threats to the health of adults, as most children grow up to be adults.

Taken together, it is clear that our ability to succeed as a nation will be defined by our willingness to support single mothers and their families. Be it through their economic contribution to their community or their role in raising the future leaders of this country, these women are fearlessly facing the adversity in their lives, daring to raise children without Rand Paul’s approval, and working towards a better future for themselves and their families. They are not entitled, they are in need of our utmost regard for enduring despite the odds and we should invest in them. Period.

This post is also being featured on Kevin.MD! Check it out here!

The Beyoncé Phenomenon and Eliminating Poverty

I connect to the idea of purpose. The idea that every one of us is here for a reason and has something unique and wonderful to share with the world. It’s ironic that despite this beautiful gift percolating inside of us, there are moments when our daily tasks seem disconnected from our purpose, from the contribution our existence makes to the world. This disconnect is perhaps most pronounced in circumstances of poverty. In some ways, poverty of resources or control can devolve into poverty of purpose. (Others have written on this). What is worse, the very systems that are meant to address poverty, risk re-enforcing this disconnect by failing to invest in people and communities. Some have termed this the institutionalization of poverty.

Now, I am no expert on poverty. But as a pediatrician I am particularly aware of the power present in the vulnerable among us and I do know about investing in people. It is all about recognizing other people’s contribution (or potential). To do so, we must first connect to OUR contribution. Nelson Mandela said it best when he quoted a Marianne Williamson poem saying, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

The best (and most vivid) recent example of this is Beyoncé’s Superbowl halftime show. When asked about her upcoming performance at the pre-bowl press conference, she simply stated, “This is what I was born to do.” And judging by a performance in which even her strut seemed unapologetic-ally fierce, I think we all believe her. There is something powerful about her being who she is that inspires her fans to excellence as well (Am I being too transparent here?)

Bringing it back to medicine, I think there is a similar reciprocity inherent in works of service – whereby in finding something in ourselves and nurturing it, we can then identify and nurture the gifts of others.

In my mind, understanding and embracing this concept is key to meaningful welfare reform and any hope of eliminating poverty. Yet, sometimes our daily tasks as service providers seems disconnected from our role in empowering people and communities.

Here are 4 simple questions we can use to reflect on our purpose and connect to the people we serve:

1. What are my unique gifts and how do I use my gifts in a way that matters? (Meaning)

2. How can my gifts invite others to share their gifts with the world? (Empower)

3. How can I value the gifts of others at times when they are not aware of them themselves? (Insight)

(And for those of us in the policy world) 4. How can we make this process generational? (Security)

Ultimately, welfare, or providing for the well-being of others, should not simply be about the money we give to families. At its best, it should be about maximizing a community’s opportunity to contribute to society in meaningful ways – ways that empower, provide insight, and create security. Doing so, will require a public investment in education, health, and the economic development of the under-served. But the benefits have the potential to reverberate throughout the rest of society; as the plight of the least of us will continue to define our character as a nation who claims that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Did I just try to connect self-actualization, poverty, health, and Beyoncé? Guess I did.

How have you helped others realize their contribution to the world?