Thursday, June 26, 2014

Escaping Poverty, and the Cultural tolerance for Sex

Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution researched causes of poverty and found three controllable factors make all the difference.
Pres. Johnson on his fact-finding War on Poverty trip to Kentucky, 1964

"Our research shows that if you want to avoid poverty and join the middle class in the United States, you need to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time and marry before you have children," they write in the Washington Post. "If you do all three, your chances of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent, and your chances of joining the middle class or above rise from 56 to 74 percent."

Important to note is that 88% of people have little chance of being poor, and 56% are likely to join the middle class--even without the three magical factors. But high school grads who marry before procreating and hold a job can be confident of a solid financial future.

Of these three factors, I believe the most important is married childbearing. Pew Research Center data from 2013 shows that the poverty rate for single mothers climbed for the fourth straight year, to 41.5%, comprising 4.1 million households in the population. At the same time, just 8.7% of married couple families were in poverty, a total of 2.1 million households in America.

In the half-century since Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty with massive government assistance programs, the national poverty rate has fallen only modestly--from 19 to 15% of the nation.  Investment of billions of tax dollars failed to eliminate poverty. Why?

Because unmarried childbearing is closely correlated with child poverty, and the disassociation of marriage with parenthood occurring over the past decades has placed more women in a dependent financial state.

Poverty is not just a marriage issue; it's a morals issue. With the re-defining of marriage from a one man-one woman commitment centered around raising children to a declaration of love, there's little stigma if new parents skip the party. And, one could argue that the programs initiated to combat poverty have relaxed any pressure to wed, since unmarried moms qualify for government support more easily than couples do.

As Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation notes, "When the War on Poverty began in the mid-1960s, only 6 percent of children were born out of wedlock. Over the next four and a half decades, the number rose rapidly. In 2008, 40.6 percent of all children born in the U.S. were born outside of marriage."

In perhaps the most illuminating article on the subject, Dr. Rector concludes, "Marriage remains America’s strongest anti-poverty weapon, yet it continues to decline. As husbands disappear from the home, poverty and welfare dependence will increase, and children and parents will suffer as a result."

 The broken connection between parenthood and marriage, at root, isn't just about childrearing but about sex. The promiscuity urged in the 1960s and '70s by baby-boomers eager to fulfill adolescent hormonal desires now masquerades under a pretentious banner of tolerance for any sexual expression. When stigma against free, easy sex disappeared, more babies resulted--and the compassion-fueled post-facto response was to rescue them from poverty with government programs.

Perhaps the national conversation should return to the basis of poverty--the sexual culture that leads to out-of-wedlock births, and that allows individual feelings to trump the welfare of children and society.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Reason we Lost The War on Poverty

Just returned from appearing on a panel at the Road to Majority conference in Washington, DC, where I addressed "A New War on Poverty."
Pres. Lyndon Johnson with poor people in Kentucky, 1964

We now "celebrate" the 50th anniversary of Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson's original War on Poverty. And as I opened my talk: poverty won.

In fact, poverty flourishes. Of course, it can never disappear, not only because genuinely poor people will always exist--sidelined by disability, downturns, age or incompetence--but because "poverty lines" will always be drawn and adjusted.

Presently, earnings below $11,670 for an individual, $15,730 for two, $19,790 for three and $23,850 for four people defines official poverty.

But as a psychologist, I maintain that people who stay beneath those thresholds have a different mindset from those who leave poverty and move into higher economic status:
A long-term perspective leads to short-term poverty. A short-term perspective brings long-term poverty.

What that means is that people who see themselves in a temporarily squeezed situation that doesn't define them permanently, tend to use drive and vision to move up. Those with a "victim" mentality, feeling stuck, tend to live that self-fulfilling prophecy. In the present political climate, these people might resent "the 1%" who they assume selfishly hoard too much of a finite financial pie; they might then feel entitled to benefits from government to make up for a position inherited or "received" through no fault of their own.

It's the difference between the grad student living on a shoestring who self-identifies as a professional enduring temporary times of sacrifice, and someone who looks forward only to a nice meal when the government assistance check arrives.

I found this comment, originally from Gawker and quoted by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, most instructive:
"I make a lot of poor decisions; none of them matter in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don't pay a thing and a half this week, instead of just one thing?"

The writer continues, "I will never have large pleasures to hold onto; there's a pull to live what bits of life you can while there's still money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are, you'll be broke in three days anyway."

For such people, short term is all they envision, so they might as well enjoy now.

Compare that to Asian immigrants. Pew Research did, and began their report, "Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success..." This within a century of being "low-skilled, low-wage laborers crowded into ethnic enclaves and targets of official
Amy Chua forces daughter to practice while on vacation

What's the difference? Ask Harvard professor Amy Chua, who became famous as the Tiger Mother who made her daughter stand outside in the cold for not sufficiently practicing her violin. The source of a long-term perspective is the family culture, the values that infuse everyone's expectations and behavior. Children learn what they see, and internalize the messages expressed and enforced. Work hard now, excel, accept only your best. How many individuals infused with those values end up in poverty?

Friday, June 20, 2014

"Jersey Boys" movie--Not a pretty picture

Caveat is that I am very sensitive and avoid movies with violence, slapstick and suspense. That rules out most films except romantic comedies, but with "Jersey Boys" I thought I'd found something. At least I'd have that nostalgic Four Seasons music, a warm-fuzzy sound from my childhood. I even own some 45s from back in the day, including "Big Girls Don't Cry." (If you don't know what a "45" is, ask your grandma.)

I'd never seen the Tony Award-winning stage hit, and Clint Eastwood, (who I like and remember fondly from his Republican Convention "empty chair" address) as director of this picture was a big draw. I was humming "Shair--eeee, Sherrie bay-by!" entering the theater.

Well, the movie's not a showcase for a bunch of great music, the way "Mama Mia!" creates a plot around Abba's tunes. It's got the music, though it surrounds the plot rather than the plot linking the songs. "Jersey Boys" is a drama, and in many ways a tragedy.

Its message is that Jersey creates failure. Everyone in this film, which flows flawlessly through the 1950s the '80s and beyond, wants to leave the neighborhood, where petty crime, mob connections, bleak employment prospects and abusive relationships reign. With narration that distractingly pops into scenes by characters otherwise engaged in the action, we learn that friends rotate in and out of prison, scam each other and say family's important while screwing around and withdrawing.

Yes, we root for Frankie Valli, played well by John Lloyd Young, but he never even savors success, autograph seekers and swooning fans notwithstanding. The others in the group--other than Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) who's an active low-life--seem passively pulled along in the current. There's no up moment; every scene is tinged with the grime of deception and cheating that underlies that culture, deemed "the wrong side of the tracks."

Amazing period sets and costumes stay dull in dim light with gray colors. Even crooning the upbeat melodies in close harmonies doesn't bring the characters any pleasure. Choreographed in sync onstage, they trample each other off.

"Everybody remembers it how they need to" is the grammatically abhorrent slogan for this movie. I want to remember the bopping and car-harmonizing to "Walk Like a Man" of my happy history--now I associate the Four Seasons with a seamy underside of life I'd rather avoid.  "Jersey Boys" is a fairly good movie, but not a feel-good movie.

If you want to enjoy a Son of Jersey, I suggest you watch Gov. Chris Christie boogie with Jimmy Fallon in this Father's Day video from The Tonight Show, "The Evolution of Dad Dancing." He's actually got some decent moves, and you'll gain the grins that "Jersey Boys" omits.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Missing Israeli Boys Bring United Response

Word that three Israeli teens were missing brought a predictable response among world Jewry: prayer.

The three yeshiva (religious school) youths were hitchhiking home for the Sabbath when they disappeared. Immediate speculation was that they were kidnapped by terrorists inspired by previous willingness to trade large numbers of prisoners for a single person (eg. Gilad Shalit, held five years and released in a trade for 1,027 prisoners in 2011).

Mrs. Obama with the hashtag
Immediately, emails, texts and tweets requesting that Jews repeat Psalms, particularly Psalm 121, as entreaty to God for the boys' safety, filled in-boxes. The hashtag Mrs. Obama, with her glum expression, tweeted to publicize the kidnapping of 250 Nigerian girls by the Islamist group Boko Haram, was quickly adapted for the three Israelis: #bringbackourboys.

Eyal Yifrach,19, Gilad Sha'er and Naftali Frankel, both 16, vanished Thursday from a popular hitchhiking location in the hills near Hebron, near the schools they attended. While Israel deploys its intelligence and military capabilities to find them, the rest of the world prays.

Where? the natural instinct for Jews in Israel is to converge at the earthly spot closest to God--the foot of the Temple Mount, near its surrounding wall, the Kotel. Videos of massive crowds praying, singing and pleading to God fill my Facebook feed. It's our natural reaction.

I didn't read any responses like that surrounding the horrifying kidnapping of so many
Crowds at the Western Wall in Jerusalem praying for the missing boys
young girls in Nigeria, and indeed, the girls have yet to be located and freed, after a full month of captivity. While I'm sure many anguished prayers have asked God for their release, from all reports I've seen, the reaction was not the simultaneous, instinctual unity that Jews are exhibiting now.

We pray that these boys will be found unharmed and that any others contemplating kidnapping realize Israelis have more than material strength at their disposal.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Antidote to Depression: Read the Newspaper

On Shabbat I usually try to catch up, at least a bit, with the mountain of newspaper that collects, waiting for my perusal, until the end of the week.

Some people think Shabbat is the Day of Rest, but not when you're hosting a handful of guests for dinner and then a dozen for lunch the following day. Still, on long summer days, after the guests have gone, I pick up a stack of New York Times, Seattle Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and go at it.

Admittedly, reading the headlines, and burrowing into the stories on the following pages, causes depression. Natural disasters abound, but they pale when compared with the human disasters suffered by residents of countries where Moslem (Shiite) is pitted against Moslem (Sunni), and where dictators like Kim Jong Un oppress the populace. The torture and murder in Africa, combined with rampant disease makes my heart sink.

I'm reminded of my husband's line: "There's no news business; just a BAD news business."

At our Shabbat table, my son recalled the contents of a course he just completed about Jewish history, describing 19th Century Russian Jews who kidnapped their fellow Jews' children to avoid forced 25-year conscription for their own.

So much of this beautiful world is marred by inhumane behavior today.

But the good news is that we in America are blessed, and must remember that every day. When the partisan bickering in Washington DC gets nasty, we must remember how privileged we are to have partisan bickering. When crime or storm or mishap occurs in America, neighbors come forth to help, soothe and build.

In every town churches, synagogues, mosques and all manner of other houses of worship coexist with mutual respect.

We must treasure our nation and discuss our blessings and opportunities at least as often as we hear or read the news.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Why I don't fudge the Jewish Sabbath

It's Friday, almost 5 pm and I've got to start cooking. I mean preparing two elaborate Sabbath meals for tablesful of guests.

And I've got to get all the cooking done before a prescribed time, a prescribed hour and minute, after which the Sabbath comes in, and many normal activities suddenly become forbidden.

On Shabbat, the Hebrew word for the Jewish Sabbath, we don't cook, ride in cars, turn on lights, write, use anything electric or electronic, take photos, and a raft of other actions that most folks don't think about doing.

The rationale is foremost that God told us to do this (remember the 10 Commandments?); to stop creating in any form just as He stopped creating for a special day that was set aside to note the contrast between our own God-like power of creation and the impact of the world on us.

I've got relatively little time now to make two soups, two entrees, several vegetables, two desserts and bake the challah bread I mixed from scratch and awaits me in braids rising in the warm kitchen. I've got to set the table with our nicest accoutrements, plates and arrangements that I devise specially and uniquely for each Shabbat meal. I've got to clean myself up, brushing away the flour, changing into nicer clothes, and I've got to prepare our guestroom for a visitor who, like us, sets aside this time in observance of this most important holiday in the Jewish calendar (despite its weekly recurrence).

Then, of course, I get a phone call. Someone important to me; someone I have to engage and satisfy. Then someone rings the doorbell, bringing a bottle of wine, thanking me for inviting him for a meal. Unanticipated interruptions in a schedule with little time to spare.

People unfamiliar with the Jewish Sabbath hear about this weekly drill and, thinking they're being helpful suggest, "Can't you get some kind of dispensation so you can finish cooking after the start-time?" As if the Sabbath is something some rabbi made up, and therefore can fudge when need arises.

Nobody asks for a dispensation for gravity. Maybe the guy who fell off the roof can get a little note so he won't go splat on the driveway?

That's kind of the way observant Jews see Shabbat. It happens, and it has parameters.  You can violate those parameters, and you won't go splat on the sidewalk, but spiritually you feel like you slipped and fell. These rules define the day, and if you stretch them, you know it's a fail.

And now Shabbat is closing in and I better go make the soup. After 30 years of record speed creating Shabbat by deadlines, I've gotten pretty good at it. I usually work down to the wire, whether the set hour to light Shabbat candles is a winter-time 4 pm or a summer solstice 9 pm.  There's something exhilarating about the pressure, because the contrast when Shabbat enters and the race is over becomes triumphant.

Shabbat Shalom! Now I've got to run.

Hillary Clinton's Hardest Choice

Cover of Hillary Clinton's memoir. (Is that a smirk?)
With the flurry of publicity surrounding the publication of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's latest memoir, Hard Choices, this week, I came running when my husband brought the fat tome home with him a couple days ago.

I didn't know much about the book except that Sec. Clinton had received a whopping book advance, put at $14 million by industry insiders. I knew she'd just gotten in trouble for telling ABC's Diane Sawyer, "'We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there..." In covering that gaffe, The Daily Mail summarized the mega-millions The Clintons made on speeches, drolly observing, "a sizable portion of that money has come from the same financial institutions and 1 percent of society that many progressives claim to loathe."

Hillary Clinton bemoaning her finances to Diane Sawyer
I also knew that my husband considered Hillary a friend when they were in law school together, and he's always said that on a personal level, she is a kind, decent person. It was this history that made Bill Clinton's Lewinsky scandal seem all the more despicable. Poor Hillary was publicly humiliated by a husband some dubbed a sex addict, who the Starr Report noted had the audacity to fornicate in the Oval Office.

After the most devastating, embarrassing betrayal suffered by perhaps any wife in American history, Hillary faced the epitome of hard choices. The consensus among my friends, for the most part educated working women, was that she should dump the jerk. As story after story of Bill's infidelity mounted, leaving her the chump, we sympathized. And then she capitulated, saying she loved him, and we were puzzled.

In a phenomenal comeback (that might have inspired her aide Huma Abedin when husband Anthony Weiner made his surname snicker-worthy), Hillary squared her shoulders and soldiered on. It is a rare spurned wife who goes on to become Secretary of State. Her lack of progress on critical foreign issues--Israel/Palestinian discord, Iranian nuclear armament, North Korean and Chinese relations--was rendered nearly benign by the colossal failure in the 2012 attack on the Libyan embassy in Benghazi.

When I got my hands on Hard Choices, my first move was to scan the index for the word "Lewinsky." Not there. Then it occurred to me that this wasn't a personal story; it was her Linked-In page with a $14 million bonus. As Hillary readies her presidential campaign, this book is her calling card. Democrats and feminists will display it on their shelves and coffee tables as code proving their political correctness. This is the way Mrs. Clinton shows she's serious, thoughtful and equipped to act on the international stage. It gives her gravitas; it demonstrates she's got the strength of a man, but can wink to the ladies and admit her favorite proposed title was "The Scrunchie Chronicles: 112 Countries and It's Still All About My Hair."
Pres. Clinton thanks Dem House members for not impeaching him, 1998

I only skimmed the book, but of course had to read the ending. Here Hillary offers a dubious cliff-hanger, saying she hasn't decided whether to run for President--while alluding to "the tug of my 'service gene', that voice telling me there is no higher calling or more noble purpose than serving your country." No one thinks this book would be published now if she weren't running for office.

I've read two reviews of the memoir, and so, like most others who will display Hillary's smirking book-jacket photo on their coffee tables without consuming the inside pages, I can converse knowingly about the topic of the day. I don't think she's the best person to lead our country, with her creepy husband as our First Dude, but I retain compassion for her, not because of the hard choices she confronted while in a position of great power, but for the hardest choice she made, in the most tender corner of her soul, about fifteen years ago when women everywhere truly felt her pain.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Why the Cantor "Adreneline Earthquake" is Almost Meaningless

As I've taken on the hectic job filling in for my husband's assistant--who's out on maternity leave--I've had precious little time to keep up my blog. I've decided to change that, and aim to post at least one pithy thought every day.

I'll also get around to posting the drafts I never quite finished when real life intervened.

Eric Cantor not pleased he caused an adrenaline earthquake
But today, the politico-sphere is alive with shock that Eric Cantor's re-election campaign for the 7th Virginia Congressional District crashed in the Republican primary, overcome by Tea Party candidate David Brat. When the House Majority Leader's ousted by a poorly-funded, little-known challenger, you get what Newt Gingrich called "A scale eight earthquake."

Consultant to the GOP Ron Bonjean told CNN, "This victory is the 'Pulp Fiction' equivalent of the adrenaline needle plunged into the chest of the Tea Party."

These are the kinds of images I can do without. And I think most voters--I'd venture almost all women voters--would hear such heart-stopping, domicile-obliterating declarations and laugh.

We live in a culture where 29% of the populace can't name the Vice President, because  ignorance about politics is no big deal. Where far more copies of People Magazine are sold than the New York Times. (You'll never guess the highest-circulation magazine. See below) I haven't seen a poll about this yet, but I'd wager that only five percent of voters can actually define the gelatinous beliefs of the Tea Party.

People who tell pollsters they're "independents" frequently prefer that label to "uninformed." There are so many politicians, and they're constantly running for office and interrupting TV shows with their commercials. These older guys in suits look pretty much the same, and their voices blend into their announcers' caveats until even earnest efforts to identify them fail. Some girls entering a Miley Cyrus concert in New Jersey were asked by Fox News' Jeff Watters to identify pictured politicians and fumbled their IDs until a mugshot of Katie Perry appeared in the mix.

Shows what the young electorate knows. And cares about. So the "earthquake" rubble Newt peruses and the "adrenaline" CNN guest Bonjean invokes bounce around the echo chamber of political news for their two-day lifespan and sink to the depths when displaced by the next earth-shattering gaffe, misstep or distraction.

I believe it's reasonable to expect voters to have some basic knowledge when they decide who will rule our land. They should at least know the structure of the system, and how the candidate they're asked to choose fits in. They should know something about the people for whom they cast ballots. Maybe there should be a pre-primary quiz, something like but easier than the citizenship exam native born Americans skipped. Most every school district requires a government class for high-schoolers, but the amount that sticks in their brains is practically is nil.

Clearly, no knowledge-test for voting will ever exist. Apparently it's even too much to ask voters to show the drivers' licenses in their wallets--and how much brain-power does it take for THAT?

But the lack of interest in "who's who representing you" will surely continue. Two rules about politics: people care mainly about stuff that's bothering and buffeting them, and emotions always trump logic. If voters think a candidate addresses their needs or makes them feel that justice is done, they'll come vote. Every other political crisis neither nudges the Richter Scale or pumps up their adrenaline, and when the hyperbole hits the top-of-the-hour car radio news, they'll just change the channel.

*The highest-circulation magazine is the AARP Magazine (American Association of Retired People) with 23,721,626 circulation, followed closely by the AARP newsletter. Third, with just 8,196,081 circulation is...The Costco Connection. People is 12th, with 3,553,420, and the New York Times' circulation is 1,897,890 daily and 2,391,986 Sunday.