Friday, October 21, 2011

Becoming a Big-Time Writer

As I settle into my new job, I'm looking for ways to do more writing for a general audience. I've done writing I think is infinitely interesting and I hope also holds the momentary attention of like-minded SNAP wonks, for example; but I need to learn how to put my arms around other topics without squeezing the life out of them or using so many words (and parentheticals, haha) that nobody makes it to the conclusion. In short, I'm interested in getting out there and acquiring some journalistic skill and experience. The only issue is that I need a few provocative ideas. Here's what I've got so far--what do you think?

1. Related to my previous post on academic achievement and job expectations, I've found it interesting that, even internationally, as performance on standardized tests goes up, the percentage of kids expecting to go into medium- and high-skilled work goes down. (The opposite relationship is also true.) This is a surprising finding, and I'd like to investigate the possible causes and what they could mean for U.S. education policy. Why, when kids do poorly in school, don't they expect to be punished in the globalized job market?

2. Despite the fact that more than 4 in 5 Americans label themselves middle class, we don't have a good definition for what that means. Is being in the middle class just about income? Probably not--it's probably also about wealth, education, and job status. Is is also about political engagement, savings rates, and social networks? I think we could turn a (potentially boring) literature review into a provocative story about how Americans see themselves relative to their neighbors.

3. A number of writers and researchers have found that income equality breeds broader economic prosperity. In an age of ballooning CEO compensation (and severance) packages, I wonder if this is also true for businesses. Does more equitable pay all the way down the career ladder in a company result in more productive and successful firms? Can we add an economic argument to our equality-based case for more reasonable CEO pay?

4. After WWII, the GI Bill sent millions of veterans to the schools of their choice and paid for living expenses for their growing families while they studied. A survey of 10,000 veterans and nonveterans estimated that 20 percent of veterans who went to college wouldn't have done so if it weren't for the GI Bill. (Though I admit there were tens of thousands of women and minority veterans who were unjustly kept from the benefits.) Historically, the military seems to have served as a major engine for social mobility. But what about now? Can we still count on the military to train and educate Americans such that, upon putting down their guns, they can forge successful civilian careers or retire without worry?

These are some of my ideas, a few of them admittedly better fit for whole books or academic studies that online magazine articles. All of them are also the subject of others' study and writing. Still, I think asking any of these questions might bring forth interesting and timely answers. In the context of "broke" governments, political polarization, and a protesting "99 percent," I think deep research into any of these issues will unearth something new.

Photo credit to Opedagogen from

Are we studying for unemployment? OWS and education reform

The following is a reproduced version of my guest post on, the blog site of Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable and The Smart Kids' Club (forthcoming).

A few days before my 6th-grade graduation in Richardson, Texas, my teacher asked us to write poems about the jobs we hoped to have in 10 years. In clumsy rhyme and loopy cursive, we proclaimed our intentions to become singers, pilots, doctors, race car drivers and pastry chefs. With the audacity of youth, I predicted my own success as an author, lawyer or architect. (I was keeping my options open.)

Mrs. Babb affixed a gold star to each page and lovingly pinned them to the bulletin board, silently affirming that yes, these jobs are waiting for you if you work hard. Not a single child prophesied his future as a barista, a telemarketer or a perpetual job-seeker.

Since then, I have graduated from college and been fortunate to find a job that allows me to use my brain and pay the bills. But some of my highest-achieving friends are still grasping for the very bottom rung of the career ladder.

We know that the Occupy Wall Street protest is partly a response to corporate greed, but I suspect it also reflects the disconnect between our aspirations and our reality. It feels like the engines of social mobility (namely education) are failing us. After talking with the protesters in Zuccotti Park, the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri described the sentiment this way:

“Growing up, we were told: You are special. You are brilliant. Go to school, get a degree, pursue what you love. Four years later, we are mired in debt. Jobless, with no prospects. This is not what it said on the motivational poster.”

It’s as if we are catching up to the data, which has for years shown a mismatch between our academic performance and our occupational aspirations. In its 2007 report Child Poverty in Perspective, UNICEF evaluated countries’ performance along 40 indicators of child well-being, six of which measured educational well-being. Among 25 “economically advanced” nations, the U.S. ranked 21st in educational achievement of 15 year-olds in reading, math and science. The U.S. also had higher drop-out rates than similarly prosperous countries. Of the 23 countries ranked, the United States ranked 21st in “percentage of 15-19 year-olds in full-time or part-time education.” In fact, the United States ranked second-to-last (20th of 21 countries) in child well-being overall.

But at the same time, U.S. kids trounced all others when it came to optimism about their careers. Just 14% of 15 year-olds surveyed said they expected to go into low-skilled occupations—the lowest rate in the world. Although many could not compete with average students elsewhere in core academic subjects, very few believed they would pay a price for this mediocrity. (By contrast, over half of Japanese 15-year-olds expected to be doing low-skilled work—while the country ranks fourth in overall academic achievement and has a lower unemployment rate than we do.)

Can we continue to peddle the American Dream in classrooms that don’t prepare students to compete in a globalized labor force? One anonymous blogger wrote on the “We Arethe99 Percent” tumblr page:

“I have a bachelor’s degree from a top-ranked liberal arts college and a master’s from an Ivy League university. After graduation, all I could find was a year-long internship that only pays about 1/4 of my living expenses. The fellowship ends in under three months, and I still don’t know if they plan to hire me on permanently.”

Occupy Wall Street is not just about deadlock, dysfunction and disenfranchisement. It is about our nation’s willingness to over-promise and under-educate. It is about the urgent need to finally get serious about making our education system worthy of our ambition.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Putting SNAP on the Map: When it comes to eating, place matters.

It’s no secret that where you live affects how you live—everything from the length of your morning commute, to the quality of your neighborhood park, to whether your child’s teacher writes with broken chalk or SMART Board™ technology.

And the same is true for food. You likely know from shopping and eating and penny pinching that where you live affects how much your groceries cost. As a Texas native recently transplanted to D.C., I have endured the wide-eyed, light-wallet symptoms of supermarket sticker shock. The same items—bread, milk, eggs, and other staples—I enjoyed in my home state cost far more in D.C. stores. Though the mechanisms that drive such food price variation across regions, states, and neighborhoods are many and entangled, the effects on consumer buying power are substantial: the more food costs, the less we can afford.

When I decided to participate in the Arizona SNAP Experience from afar, my Texas-to-D.C. sticker shock got me thinking: How does food price variation affect buying power for people who rely on SNAP to cover their grocery bills? The answer was not difficult to uncover. The USDA publishes a table on the average per capita SNAP benefit for every state, and Feeding America, the nation’s largest emergency food provider, recently released Map the Meal Gap, an interactive map with food insecurity and food price data for a variety of useful geographies.

Using two simple formulas, I calculated the average weekly SNAP benefit per capita in each state in the U.S. and the average cost of food for an individual for one week in each state, assuming s/he consumes three meals per day. By dividing the average SNAP benefit for a week by the average cost of food for a week and multiplying the quotient by 100, I found the percent of average food costs covered by SNAP for each state in the nation.

And I couldn’t believe what I found. First, SNAP covers far less of an average shopper’s food budget than I was expecting. For example, SNAP covers just 44% of the average weekly food cost for a shopper in D.C. That's just 9 of the 21 meals you will eat in a week. Although the USDA admits that SNAP is “supplemental” and therefore not meant to cover an individual’s entire food budget, 44% is simply insufficient, especially since many families cannot afford to spend money out-of-pocket. Second, I was surprised to find that there is incredibly high variation across states. In the best case, SNAP would cover 68% of your food (Ohio); in the worst case, just 44% (Vermont and D.C.). The national average is 58%. In Arizona, the number is 59%.

Check out the interactive map for information on other states. After the map opens, use the slider at the right to zoom out, place your cursor over the state of interest, and the relevant percentage will appear in the map legend.

The biggest problem resulting from such variation is obvious: if your food costs are high and your state’s SNAP benefit does not rise to meet them, you must leave some items on the shelf or reach deep in your pockets to pay for food not covered by your benefit. This is a problem for low-income people, who are often stretching their budgets to cover things like rent/mortgage, child care, health care, and utilities. I would hypothesize (though I haven’t formally researched these claims) that other phenomena may be related to geographic variation in what SNAP buys you, such as the following:

• Geographic variation in which foods (type and quality) families choose to purchase with their SNAP benefits.

• Geographic variation in food insecurity rates. (SNAP provides a different level of in-kind benefit to families depending on where they live!)

• Geographic variation in health outcomes associated with food insecurity and/or consumption of unhealthy foods.

• Geographic variation in SNAP participation rates. (One might ask him/herself: Why participate if SNAP only covers a small portion of my bill?)

These questions require formal analysis, but it’s easy to see how a failure in the SNAP “system” to account for geographic variation in food prices could result in important differences in health and other measures of well-being based solely (and unjustly) on where people have chosen to lay down roots.

Of course, food price variation is local. Examining food prices in your state is better than looking at food prices nationally, but using more localized estimates is even better. For example, within New York State, the average cost per meal in New York County (Manhattan) is $3.72, whereas the average cost per meal in Chautauqua County (rural NY county near the PA border) is $2.27.

Use the three simple steps below to calculate what percent of an average food budget in YOUR county or congressional district is covered by SNAP. Compute the number for your community, reflect on your week participating in the SNAP Experience (or the blog posts describing the experience), and write your state and federal politicians about it! I would bet your whole food budget and mine that your elected officials don’t know just how little SNAP is doing for your most vulnerable neighbors.

Easy as 1, 2, 3: Calculate “Real” SNAP Benefits on Your Own

1. Visit Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap site at Locate your county or congressional district of interest and trace your cursor over the area until it changes color (to orange). Note the average cost per meal in the right hand corner of the data that appears. Multiply the average cost per meal x 21. This is the average cost of food for a week in the geographic area you’ve chosen.

2. View the USDA chart of average SNAP benefits per person for FY 2010 at$PP.htm. Find your state's average monthly SNAP benefit per person and insert it into the following formula: Monthly benefit x 12 / 365 x 7. This is the average SNAP benefit per person for one week in your state.

3. Divide findings from STEP 2 by findings from STEP 1. Multiply the result by 100 to get the percent of an average weekly food budget covered by SNAP benefits in the geographic area you’ve chosen.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A new leaf?

Life is very good right now. I've started my new job, and I'm very excited to be assisting four accomplished journalists with their book projects. I'll be working on a number of topics, including immigration, education, political philosophy, and economic policy. I've already had opportunities to be involved in the design and planning of new projects as the organization looks to bring on a "food fellow" who will write on agroecology--the urgent need to feed the growing masses and preserve the shrinking planet at the same time. I've also made good on at least one resolution from a previous post: I joined a gym near my office, where I plan to do all manner of de-stressing, muscle-building, dessert-ameliorating, sweat-inducing exercises. And I'm currently thinking I'll do all of that in the morning before work. We'll see how it goes.

In other news, I recently returned from yet another round of traveling. My first "trip" was local, but long overdue. I hiked across D.C. on Upshur to the end of a quiet residential street and into Rock Creek Park. I had a nice time convening with nature and temporarily escaping the city. The following week I went to Lake Tahoe to see my grandparents and lots of loved ones I've not had the opportunity to bug in a long time. (Incidentally, in so doing I avoided both an earthquake and a hurricane back in D.C.) And finally, I went with Jimmy and friends to New York City for his roommate's wedding. Though the travel logistics got tricky and stressful at times, the wedding was beautiful, the food was bountiful, and Jimmy and I had a great time on the dance floor. See a few choice photos in the previous post.

This coming week I'm looking forward to meeting more of the journalists and academics I'll be rubbing elbows with at my new job. God- and coffee-willing I'll also make a few trips to the gym I paid so much for. I'll also spend the tail end of the weekend planning for next week's food stamp challenge, hosted by my previous employer, Arizona Community Action Association. Check out this year's blog or the online chronicle of last year's efforts,"Challenging Preceptions". I'll blog at least once here and on ACAA's blog about the experience of eating on the budget afforded a low-income household of one by SNAP, formerly called The Food Stamp Program.

Being crunchy

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Life lately

Wireless at last!

Hooray! At long last, our house has wireless internet. I have been living for the past year without regular access to internet at home, thus this site has been a sad excuse for a blog. I hope to post more regularly now, even if each post is shorter.

Updates. My fellowship experience is complete. I am more grateful, humbler, and wiser than when I first began. I also have some of the most wonderful new friends there are.

I am enjoying two-week+ vacation beginning last Thursday! I went the wedding of my friend Caroline in Sarasota, FL, and after a week "getting me life together" in D.C. (read: doing laundry, securing internet service, and catching up on sleep), I'm headed to Lake Tahoe in CA/NV to visit my grandparents, cousins, and Uncle Matt.

I secured a new job! I'll be providing research assistance to fellows writing books for a nonpartisan think tank in D.C. I look forward to meeting new work buddies, honing research skills, and learning new policy areas.

I'm working on getting my life together in a broader sense--ensuring that the way I use my time reflects my priorities, and that I stick to a path that makes me happy, contributes to the world in a positive way, and keeps me in a state of constant self-improvement. Some of the little things on my to-do list include: Cooking for myself more often and with whole ingredients. Attending church regularly. Reading and reflecting on good books. Taking a yoga or modern dance class. Making some time for my creative, crafty side. Getting out into nature--the National Arboretum and Rock Creek Park are high on the to-visit list. Volunteering with children--I miss young souls not yet jaded by the craziness in Washington.

And now a song.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


The world exists in tiny spots
where we can only see a portion of what is there
and we long to know more
what we could understand about ourselves if we opened them up to peer inside
where stars and fireflies point us to homes beyond humans
She cries subtle tears that slip between
where Her nose and soft cheek meet
like sun spots on photos made facing the west in the late evening
he spews dropletts of spittle and yells at Her gathering strength
the last swallows of earl grey in a perfect, white tea cup after a long conversation and three lumps of sugar
punctuation at the end of a sentence it took ages to imagine and courage to write
he flips a dime in a fountain with all the other wishes
and of every freckle on Her face, her son loves the one on Her temple the best
a red light appears and a Poet pours words in a microphone
dark circles on the sidewalk mark the travels of gum chewers and litter bugs
or forwarnings of rain before it's really started
the first drop of blood in a long fight
absently, She twists the gold stud in her ear
the world suggested by the depth in your Best Friend's eyes
means that spots never tell the story
of time and trial and truth.

CML 6-13-11
for a Friend.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


These past two or three weeks and this weekend especially have been hard for me. I am working to manage more relationships than I've ever had the privilege of juggling before. I am working to find my place in an organization and with people who I respect but am struggling to truly understand. I am working to love and care for my close friends while loving and caring for myself. I am working to preserve my optimism while I watch broken politics make broken policies.

This poem is about one of the best moments of my life in one of my favorite places in the world, Paris. I wonder if taking mental vacations can give us as much perspective as real ones. I am in desperate need of a little perspective. As a note to the reader, every line in this poem starts with a different letter of the alphabet, beginning with A.

Alto saxes croon over cello cases
Boldly splayed open like expectant ladies
Crowds have climbed up
Draped now on stairs, statues, and lovers
Engrossed in separating sun from sound
Film and camera steal moments of the late afternoon
Gaping giantess of Sacré-Coeur looks on

Homes rise up like crooked teeth
Ivory piano keys
Jingling stars fall from loose pockets
Kaleidoscopic lenses capture colored flecks of hurry
Lengthening shadows
Millions of glass windows wink back at us
Narrating plucks on his guitar

Orange eye peeks over a jagged horizon
Prayers flow down the stairs and swirl around our ankles
Quiet echoes dance between us
Replaying favorite lyrics on our lips
Secret memories

Troubadours pour the last of their thick melodies
Under the bruising ceiling of night
Violinists slip their bows across
Waiting friends and taxis and stiff drinks
X marks this holy hill, drips down a reverent face
Yellow lights bleed back into purple sky
Zealous worshippers make their way down holding hands

Hoping for a moment in the coming week that makes me as whole as this one did.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

All the wrong questions

This is going to be brief, but I feel I need to say that the more time I spend in DC the more angry I become. The divisiveness of Arizona's politics made it easy to draw a proverbial line in the sand and to see clearly who stood with you and who stood opposite you; but here the boundaries between what is clearly just and what is clearly unjust are less obvious. We can't pin the city's discrimination on just a few individuals who have found their way into the limelight (Arpaio, Brewer); we end up taking a harder look in the mirror. And if I had to name all of the blemishes we see when we do that, I would call them collectively Failure to Challenge the System by asking questions whose answers actually matter.

At the risk of oversimplifying the issues, here's what we're currently asking (a.k.a. the places where I believe we are only spinning our wheels and, in some cases, furthering race and class oppression):
*How can we convince decision-makers that poverty and hunger are problems where they live?
*How can we preserve nutrition program funding?
*What are the most compelling ways to tell the stories of low-income people to people who need to hear them?
*How can we best help the "new poor" and the "donors turned recipients?"
*How can we get food into the hands of the people who need it?
*Where is the common ground between liberal and conservative interests in hunger alleviation?

These are the wrong questions. They lack all of the important pieces of a just and sustainable campaign to ACTUALLY end hunger and poverty. Here are the questions I think we MUST ask before being involved in or party to any real change:
*Why don't the race and class backgrounds of our legislators mirror the backgrounds of their constituents? If we have to "sell" hunger and poverty as important topics to legislators, do they actually represent us?
*Do nutrition programs do what they say they're going to do? To the extent that they do, how can we grow the effective pieces? To the extent that they do not, how can we change, consolidate, streamline, and connect programs AND INVEST IN POLICIES AND PROGRAMS THAT ADDRESS ROOT CAUSES OF HUNGER?
*How can advocates create significant and increasing space for low-income people to join and lead the conversation? Why is a conversation about programs for low-income people, especially low-income people of color, led by class-privileged, white people?
*How should the anti-hunger movement balance the needs of newly poor households and households who have been experiencing deep poverty for a long time? What are the essential differences in types of capital accessible to the "new" versus the long-time poor? Again, why do the needs of the formerly middle-class have more political weight than the needs of low-income families?
*Why do people need emergency and/or subsidized food in the first place? How would they prefer to procure food for their families?
*What is it about our political and economic systems and the interplay between the two that keeps poor people in poverty? Will "common ground" messages and solutions EVER advance a just process to ENDING poverty and hunger? How can we use the power we do have in our current political and economic systems to change their very nature?

The confusion lies in the fact that the people asking all of these questions are people interested in ending hunger, which I think most would agree is a positive goal. As Jim McGovern (D-MA) has often said in public, he's "never met a member of Congress who is pro-hunger." Anti-hunger work is one of the few human service issues that receives significant bi-partisan support. Yet, the intents, the assumptions, and the envisioned processes behind each of the two lines of questioning are worlds apart. One maintains systems of power and one challenges them. One addresses the problem and one investigates why the problem exists. One assumes poverty is inevitable and one proclaims the promise of high quality of life for all. One is about charity and one is about justice. And I believe strongly that one has easy answers but will lead us toward ineffective solutions, and one has far more difficult answers but will lead us toward becoming a truly hunger-free nation.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"There comes a time when silence is betrayal."

Yesterday was the celebration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Social media were alive and bubbling with some of Dr. King’s most powerful words. I watched a You Tube video of the “I Have a Dream” speech (which is not what it was actually called, by the way—see my earlier post). We who were born after that speech, after King’s death, have little concept of how recently those events occurred, but the video of that speech and that march on Washington is a reminder that it was not as long ago as we would like to believe.

We as a whole society have made important moves toward racial equality, but it is still true that, all else being equal, a white man with a felony on his criminal record has an equal or better chance of landing a job than a black man with no criminal record. It is still true that, while we may have elected a black president, many white people were only willing to vote for a black man who denounced the preacher of his home church and had, until that point, made every effort to avoid talking about race, a fact that proves only how salient yet taboo the topic remains. It is still true that massive income, wealth, education, and health gaps exist, and that most refuse to acknowledge the roles of historical and present-day institutional racism that perpetuate and sometimes widen those gaps. It is still true that people who live in predominantly black neighborhoods have less access to the social capital and local businesses that provide living wage jobs in other neighborhoods and less access to healthy food, pharmacies, and public transportation; at the same time they have more access to liquor stores and fast food restaurants and live closer to facilities that dump pollution into their air and water. It is still true that when I searched the term “food stamps” yesterday, one Google image was of an old food stamp picturing Barack Obama and the quote: “Now we finally have a president to put on the food stamp!” It is still true that some people exhibit overt racism in a country that promises “liberty and justice for all”.

I do not have the education or experience to even begin to write with the eloquence and relevancy of Dr. King, but I want to be an ally to oppressed people--to stand with them and fight alongside them in defense of our common humanity. I want to be an instrument of peace—when peace is defined not simply as the absence of conflict between people, but as the presence of justice for all, cooperation between all, and mutual, abiding respect.

I have a dream that my children will never learn the racial stereotypes that I was conditioned to believe were true.

I have a dream that a word or action taken by a person of color will never be attributed to his or her race but to his or her person alone.

I have a dream that white people would own their own history and mobilize as thoughtful allies.

I have a dream that white people would stop using the term “reverse racism” and recognize the imbalance of power in our society.

I have a dream that people with class privilege would stop falsely characterizing and criminalizing the recipients of public benefit programs, especially recipients of color.

I have a dream that the faces in movies, on greeting cards, on children’s toys, etc. would reflect the diversity of color in our world.

I have a dream that more organizations would take a harder look at the color of their employees and take more seriously their commitments to equal opportunity employment and anti-racism training for employees.

I have a dream that the history taught in schools would be the combined history of all people in the United States—the injustices and the shared triumphs, the brilliance and the oversight, the silence and the courage.

I have a dream that we would stop excusing the racists at the center of white history by allowing them the same racist views and practices employed by majority white society at the time.

I have a dream that we would be able to use the word racism to accurately describe scenarios without activating the debilitating defensiveness that overtakes so many of us.

I have a dream that violent tragedy, like the one that occurred in Tucson, would inspire neither fear nor polarized rhetoric but a critical, nuanced analysis of the ways our culture engenders violence, rejects and punishes those with mental health issues, and freely distributes weapons that make us bleed and cry.

I have a dream that we would begin to see ourselves as a whole human race and appreciate how our freedom, happiness, health, dignity, success is bound up with that of every other human on the planet.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had prophetic dreams for the future of his country, and the combination of those dreams and several bold steps resulted in real change. What are your dreams? What common steps can we take to move those dreams forward?

Dr. King said: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” I believe that time is now.