Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Looking for me? Check out http://tellingtimes.me/

If you haven't already done so, please update your bookmarks to my new website and podcast series, Telling Times.  Telling Times shines a light on the most pressing issues facing American, by talking directly to those people who are affected, to organizations working to tackle these issues and by drawing on the latest academic research, to tell a story about the America that we live in today.

The first two podcasts are about disadvantaged youth.  You can listen to them through the site or via iTunes.

Do let me know what you think!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Coming soon: "Telling Times", news, commentary and research

Coming soon: "Telling Times", a news, commentary and research site, examining some of the most pressing issues facing America today.

For updates in the meantime, follow me on Twitter @priyajkothari

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Values: are you truly living yours?

Source: Pamela Slim
It is hard to escape the inequality so visible in San Francisco. Walk down one side of Fillmore Street and you are greeted by row upon row of designer labels. Walk down the other side and you are greeted by the down and outs. The vast divide captured in less than a mile got me thinking. Have we each created two different worlds in which to live in? Let me explain.

We have a deep set of values that we are proud of. These include fairness, justice, empathy, generosity, judgement and curiosity about the unknown. We cultivate these within ourselves and support our family and friends in doing the same. Our homes are filled with love and warmth. They are well-maintained and welcoming. We encourage our children to speak their minds but also to listen carefully. We ensure that they share with those who live in and enter our homes. We build relationships with our neighbours and look after each other in times of need.

But here's the confusing part. We are not inherently self-interested, yet support a world that rewards self-interest. We are fair by nature, yet allow an economy to exist that distributes income and opportunity unequally. We enjoy forming balanced judgments based on reasoned arguments, yet accept one-sided rhetoric from politicians and businesses. We empathise with the suffering of those nearest to us but easily walk past a homeless person on the street. We care for plants and animals at home, yet consume goods that are harmful to the planet or involve animal cruelty.

How can we simultaneously operate in one circle for our friends and family and an entirely different circle for our fellow humankind? Does this simple division drive the outcomes for society that we most want to avoid - income inequality, poverty, environmental degradation, political stasis? Perhaps it does. We divide our world into things we think we can control and those that we think we can't. But the outer circle will eventually creep up on the inner circle. We suffer the consequences of inaction.

It doesn't have to be like this. We can be proactive and create change for everyone. Gandhi said "whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you...recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him." If we identify our core set of values - fairness, justice, equality, sustainability - and apply them to every action that we take, then we can shift these circles so that they cross. In time, they might even merge. The private demands that we have would be equal to the social demands. Clean air. Decent pay for a decent day's work. Tax justice. Effective social security support. The way to achieve change is to truly live our values. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

We all make bad choices

We all make bad choices. We are impatient in the face of saving money. We buy items which we know will come down in price in a future sale, but that we must have now. We procrastinate as deadlines loom. We check Facebook and Twitter instead of getting on with the job at hand. We see tomorrow as the time for reform. After all, that's when our diet will begin.

We all have the ability to make worse choices. When we are stressed or anxious, chemicals are released into our brain that diminish our capacity to think. We react on impulse rather than with rationality, using the same techniques our ancestors used when decided to fight or take flight, but without the corresponding danger.

In making better choices, we often need the help of outside forces. To improve our incentive to save towards retirement, our employer matches any contribution that we make (up to a certain level). To help us make better food choices, we sign up to programs that provide menus, calorie counters and even ready-prepared meals to our doors.

Some people just don't have that kind of help. A lot of employers in low-wage industries do not offer benefits like pension plans. Working two jobs because one minimum wage job doesn't pay enough means not having the time to think beyond bills to health or well-being. Tax breaks on savings aren't worthwhile because wages are so low. The mental burden of being poor makes it harder to make good decisions (it is estimated to be the equivalent of losing 13 IQ points). So a bad financial choice for some might mean having to skip a dinner out. A bad financial choice for others might mean skipping dinner altogether.

But here's the punchline: tomorrow looks the same... for everyone. That's why it's hard to change. We don't expect our apartment to disappear overnight. We don't expect our employer to fold. We don't expect our family to disintegrate. And so it is with those living on the edge. If you don't expect to have any more time tomorrow than you did today, surviving on convenience foods makes sense. If you don't expect to come into money in order to afford to go back to school, sticking to the job(s) at hand seems like the only option. Our best guess of what will happen in the future is based on our experience now. And if today is not filled with hope, then there is no room for change tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The 'Force of Philanthropy

The wealthiest 400 Americans are estimated to be worth over $2 trillion. That's as much wealth as the bottom 50 per cent of American families combined. Redistribution of this wealth has the potential to transform society for the better. Welcome to the "Golden Age" of philanthropy.

In 2010, a "Giving Pledge" was announced, where billionaires agreed to give away one half of their wealth to charitable causes. Its major proponents were Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett, three of the richest individuals in the world. By 2014, 127 signatories had pledged more than $0.5 trillion. To those billionaires who did not sign up (and were not actively involved in philanthropy), Warren Buffett wryly said, "maybe I should write a book on how to get by on $500 million. Because apparently there's a lot of people that don't really know how to do it".

Any initiative of this scale, and involving such an exclusive club, is open to criticism. There were those that pointed out that the limit of one half of wealth was chosen because of the tax deductions it offered. There were those who said that the pledge enabled billionaires to donate to private family-run foundations that were opaque and were slow to deploy funds. And because the US relies more heavily on philanthropy to support social problems than Europe, there were those who worried that large-scale donations blurred the line between private and political interests. It simply made already powerful business people even more powerful.

At a conference last week on business ethics hosted by Claremont Lincoln University, I asked why billionaires were waiting until they gained membership to this club in order to donate? What if philanthropy was built into the culture of business to begin with? This is what the current generation joining the workplace - the Millennials - are demanding. They want to work for companies with a conscience. By 2020, Millennials will make up 1 in 3 Americans. By 2025, they will account for three-quarters of the labour force (Winograd and Hais, 2014). They matter.

Nowhere is this more relevant than in San Francisco, where technology has created both winners and losers (see this great illustration by journalist and illustrator, Susie Cagle, for the facts). There are some signs that things are changing. Salesforce, a cloud computing company, operates a 1:1:1 model of philanthropy. 1% of its equity, 1% of its product and 1% of employee time are donated to charitable causes. So far, the company has given $68 million and individual employees have provided 680,000 hours in community service. This includes supporting skill development, like coding. At AirBnB, employees put their technological know-how towards solving social problems. In 2011, its engineers matched hosts who wanted to donate their places with those needing shelter after Hurricane Sandy. Both firms have seen rapid growth in market share and sales. More companies should follow such examples. Profit and philanthropy can go hand in hand. Social problems don't wait for tomorrow. Neither should philanthropy.  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why don't we care about the poor?

Source: US Census Bureau, 2014.
Last week saw the release of the annual US poverty and income statistics.  On the face of it, they make for pretty terrible reading. The top fifth of the income distribution held nearly 50 per cent of all income, the bottom fifth just over 3 per cent (Figure 1b). If income was equally shared out across the population, the top fifth would only hold 20 per cent. A longer sweep of history shows how everyone except the top has lost out over the past 40 years, with only the income share of the top growing (Figure 1a).

It's a pretty lonely place down there at the bottom. 15 per cent of Americans are in poverty*. Many more are in near-poverty, struggling on the edge of hardship. Single mums and children fare the worst. Young children are five times as likely to be in poverty if they live in a family headed by a single mother compared to married parents. And despite a small tick down in poverty rates for children and those of Hispanic descent, poverty remains stubbornly high.

You'd be forgiven for blinking and missing this publication. The data are only published once a year and are already a year out of date. They don't move markets or grab headlines.  In fact, those that get most impassioned about the data are people already working at the coal face of poverty alleviation, who are able to demonstrate through statistics what they already know through experience.

Why don't these facts and figures about the harsh reality of life in America grab more attention?

Is it because the average person is also under pressure?  In 2013, the median household was 8% poorer than it was in 2007, just before the financial crisis began. That means that even though we might have made up for all the jobs that we shed in the Great Recession, we haven't made up for all the money we lost.  If the average family is worse-off, and are themselves struggling to stay afloat, they probably don't have the time, or money, to worry about the very poor.

Or is it because poverty's very existence goes against the ideal of the American dream? That if we really believe what they show, then we have to accept that opportunity is not equal for all. That hard work and determination alone are not enough to move out of hardship. By accepting poverty, we accept that there are barriers in-built into our institutional architecture that mean non-Whites are more likely to be born into poverty, live in a deprived area, eat poor-quality food, attend poor-quality schools, drop out of college (if indeed they apply), hold a minimum wage job, not have access to childcare, suffer from poor health outcomes and die early.

Perhaps these reasons are two sides of the same policy coin. If ordinary people are struggling to stay afloat, and those at the very bottom are sinking, then only active government policy can generate a tide that will lift all boats. An increase in the minimum wage, for example, would benefit the majority of people living in poverty but it would also create a corresponding increase in pay further up to maintain pay differentials. A concerted effort to improve the quality of K-12 education would benefit those who in poverty who are most likely to fall behind, as well as creating positive spillovers to all students within that learning environment. Those in poverty may be in the minority but solutions to their problems would definitely benefit the majority.

*According to a more comprehensive measure, the supplementary poverty measure, poverty rates are higher still. The 2013 estimate will be published later this year.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Source: CIA World Factbook (life expectancy) and
Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009 (income inequality) 
Higher inequality means poorer health outcomes. The US is a case in point. It has the highest level of income inequality in the industrialised world. And at birth, Americans can typically expect to live shorter lives - around 79 years compared to 82 years in Switzerland (Figure 1) and nearly 90 years in Monaco (not shown in Figure 1). So why is inequality associated with adverse health?

In health, it's all about hierarchies, whether by income, education, social status or race. Those higher up the hierarchy report more favourable health outcomes than those lower down. Even those at the very top report better health than people just a notch below them. There is a 'gradient' effect of your position in society on your health (Adler et al, 1994;  Marmot et al, 1991).

Towards the middle and top of the income distribution, this is attributed to a 'keeping up with the Jones'' mentality. People are under pressure to compete with each other in jobs, wealth and possessions. These behavioural factors cause stress and stress-related illness.    

Towards the bottom, this is attributed to the more straightforward relationship between absolute deprivation and health. Material factors matter. The conditions of modern-day poverty in the US - working two jobs to make ends meet, living in over-crowded accommodation, living in neighbourhoods with few healthy eating options, low probability of having health insurance - all contribute to poor health outcomes. This becomes self-reinforcing for today's working families. Those who suffer from poor health are less likely to be able to hold down a long-term job. It also impacts on tomorrow's workforce. Children born into deprivation are more likely to suffer short and long-term health problems like obesity and asthma.

Healthcare reform will go some way to fixing these problems for the poor and uninsured. By opening up the market for healthcare, expanding government-funded medical programs and subsidising insurance premiums, coverage has already ticked up. The hope is that as more people sign up for medical insurance, they will be able to access timely and cost-effective care [a future blog will provide critique of the US healthcare system].

But tackling the hierarchies that generate unequal health outcomes requires reform of a wider set of institutions. That is because health is simply a window into the world of inequality. We need to flatten structures elsewhere. That might be in our schools and universities, where we need to ensure equality of opportunity. That might also be in our workplaces, where we need to ensure fair pay and progression. That might be in our neighbourhoods, where we lean against the creation of wealthy and less wealthy clusters. All of these actions would help break down the hierarchies that create inequality. Fixing health is only the first step.