Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Feeding Children Rather Than Campaign Consultants

           “Unparalleled”, “historic”, “staggering” were the words used by the press to describe the plan of the Koch brothers political network to spend $889 million to ensure a conservative results in the 2016 elections. @ http://tinyurl.com/k8dmjxk

            These same words used to characterize unprecedented political influence might also apply to the unprecedented number of Americans who have been economically and politically marginalized: 46.5 million on SNAP food stamps, 45 million below the poverty line for the third year in a row, child poverty rates near 20%.  Unparalleled, historic, staggering.

Most of the reporting has analyzed the projected gap between liberal and conservative spending, and between private spending and that of the major parties themselves. But it is also worth speculating on the amount of good that could be done if such financial support were targeted to the urgent human need of many in America today

Once active in presidential politics, but now working in the nonprofit sector to end hunger, I’m dismayed by the corrosive impact of such special interest spending (legal though it may be under current Supreme Court rulings.) But at least there’s some consolation in feeding America’s hungry children rather than feeding campaign consultants which is probably the first and perhaps most immediate byproduct of the Koch Bros lavish spending.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Seizing the Moment: An Emerging Consensus to Make Poverty a National Priority

Politico reported yesterday that if Mitt Romney runs for president again he will make poverty one of the three pillars of his campaign (the middle class and foreign policy being the other two.) Ohio’s re-elected Republican Governor John Kasich said that in his second term he would renew his call to help “people in the shadows”.  Jeb Bush is talking about income inequality and those who believe “the American dream is now out of their reach.”

            The media will view all of this as political positioning. Democrats will reflexively find fault.  Many of my anti-hunger colleagues will be cynical and dismissive. But this is a moment in time too important to treat casually or caustically.

If the first responsibility of anti-poverty and anti-hunger advocates is to the poor and struggling Americans we exist to serve, then we have a responsibility to seize this moment and treat it anew. 

We should be reaching out to national Republican leaders and sharing with them what their statehouse colleagues like Governor Sandoval in Nevada or Governor Snyder in Michigan have done to promote increased school breakfast participation.  We should be generous in sharing advice and policy ideas for programs that work.  Most of all we should be listening with open hearts and open minds to see if there is an authentic opportunity to work together.

While we know there will be deep disagreements about the best means to the end, the fact that there is an emerging consensus to treat poverty and inequality as a national priority is a huge step forward. If a new door is opening, even if only a crack, who knows what kind of breeze might blow through?   

We may someday soon look back on this as nothing more than lip service. But even lip service about poverty has been all too lacking.  At least for this week, Governors Romney, Kasich and Bush are giving voice to something other than politics-as-usual. Let’s makes sure that we do too.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

An inspiring example for the new 114th Congress: voters investing in kids

           The 114th Congress convenes today, constrained as usual by the conventional wisdom that Americans are frustrated and unwilling to spend their tax dollars for government programs. But such a generalization misses an encouraging yet little noted trend in American politics: voters supporting increased taxing and spending when it is (a) focused on children, (b) in their local community, and (c) in ways that represent an investment in the future with measurable return for all.

An example is last November’s ballot question in Seattle where residents voted to tax themselves to fund a $58 million pilot program to make pre-school available for low-income families. http://tinyurl.com/mab2rzw  According to the Seattle Times, the Proposition 1B levy will cost a Seattle resident with a home valued at $400,000 about $43 a year.

It was estimated that a dollar spent could yield as much as $17 dollars’ worth of return in the form of higher graduation rates, lower crime, more job creation and less welfare.  Communities in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere have taken similar steps to support children through investments in early education. 

The bipartisan support we’ve seen among governors for our No Kid Hungry campaign fits with this trend toward local support for children’s most fundamental needs.  Our work is an opportunity to create a new positive narrative American politics so desperately needs

The issue is not whether there is political will for investing in the future; it is what form such investments must take to gain the political will needed. When those investments are focused on kids, in one’s own community, with results that can be seen and measured and will ultimately benefit everyone through better educational outcomes and economic competitiveness, then partisanship dissipates and political support grows.

This small oasis of bipartisan productivity at the local level may be America’s most fertile ground for reversing the plunging confidence in government, due to partisanship, political paralysis, and the role of money in elections. If we can effectively serve those who are most vulnerable and the least responsible for the situation in which they find themselves – America’s children – we have a shot at restoring that once taken-for-granted key ingredient of the American dream - that the next generation will be better off than our own.

We must give the new Congress a chance and see what it can do. But if the reconvening of vast numbers of Congressional incumbents, dependent on PAC funding and committed to the status quo turns out to be less than inspiring, perhaps we should convene some of the local leaders who against all odds have achieved breakthroughs in their communities on behalf of Americans most voiceless kids.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Hunger during recession is tragic, during economic growth it’s an inexcusable betrayal

            During the holidays the Commerce department reported the economy grew last quarter at its fastest rate in a decade.  Economic output rose 5% over the summer. Business investment and consumer spending increased. Unemployment is steadily falling.   @ http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/24/business/us-q3-gdp-revised-up-to-5-percent.html?src=me 

Hunger during a recession is tragic. During periods of economic growth hunger is inexcusable, a failure of our institutions and leadership, and a betrayal of the people they serve. 

A growing economy make our work both easier and harder, in these ways:

            First, corporate partners, donors, clients, and other stakeholders are in a better position to support us more generously.  We should see even stronger revenues and more resources to support our mission.

            Second, during recession and recovery, there is increased attention to those struggling with poverty and hunger.  When the economy starts to grow again, news coverage shifts to those making and spending new fortunes. Hunger is not top of mind.

            Third, even in periods of economic growth, millions of Americans are left behind. The growing economy often does not reach them.  This creates even greater responsibility during the good times to make sure America’s blessings are shared by all.

            Finally, there never seems to be a good time to act boldly on poverty in America. When the economy struggles, opponents of support for the poor ask “how are we going to pay for this?”  When the economy booms nobody wants to be distracted by negative news about poverty. That’s where we come in.  In his Christmas card this year, Rep. Jim McGovern, a great anti-hunger champion, quotes El Salvador’s assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero: “Those who have a voice must speak for the voiceless.”   Likewise, those with strengths must share theirs, and create vehicles for others to share their strength as well.

A growing economy is a whole new ballgame. In 2015 we’ll solidify No Kid Hungry’s first phase: compelling proof of concept in key states where we’ve made substantial investment, plus inspiring results in other parts of the country.  We will lay the foundation for going from proof to scale between 2016-2020.

But because economic growth will not be even or equal, our fight is not just against hunger, but also economic injustice. Economic growth helps build a strong nation. But we can’t have a strong America with weak kids. We must not only be the voice for school breakfast and summer meals, we must be the voice that says we won’t allow bureaucracy, politics or indifference to stand between a hungry child and a healthy meal. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Small milestones, historic achievements on the path to ending hunger

          When New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie last week signed a breakfast-after-the-bell bill I got excited about such a milestone. http://tinyurl.com/k7geptn I inquired about details and whether it would significantly increase school breakfast participation toward our No Kid Hungry goals.

My excitement was tempered upon learning that the bill does not provide any funding, nor include mandates. It directs the state departments of Agriculture and Education to track participation and assist schools in moving toward breakfast after the bell. It’s not a muscular approach, more like cheerleading than actually moving the ball down field, so not a big deal.

So that’s how I thought about it until having a chance over the long weekend to read The Bill of The Century, by Clay Risen, about passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a child of the 1960’s, civil rights is burned into my memory as dominating the national conversation.  But Risen’s book argues that was often not the case, and it evokes similarities to challenges we face in elevating hunger on the national agenda. Consider these excerpts: 

 “It is striking that on the eve of the Civil Rights Act, civil rights as a cause was in every way stymied, compromised, and ignored by the government and large swaths of the American public.”

“At the outset of 1963, few expected anything more than token federal action on civil rights, and even then no one expected it to pass.”

“Complicating things further was the fact that there was no single unified civil rights movement, but many.”

The book’s larger take-away is that while we associate the civil rights bill with Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson, it was actually numerous lessor known leaders and actions, over many years, that made such success possible. Many legislative, political and policy initiatives that were whittled down to symbolic victories considered hollow by the most fervent activists, were important, in retrospect, in changing the political climate. “We must remember there was no single central character, no prime mover, but dozens of contributors.  And while this lesson is particularly true for the Civil Rights Act, it is also true for the history of American lawmaking in general.” 

Risen’s subtitle, “The Epic Battle for The Civil Rights Act”  is telling for “epic” connotes a long and extended narrative that embodies many small contributions, not just a few large heroic actions.  In that light, the New Jersey school breakfast bill, while not a landmark achievement, becomes a piece of a larger mosaic.  So too will the No Kid Hungry campaign itself, which is our laser sharp focus now but just one milestone in our larger vision and mission to address hunger and poverty here in the U.S. and around the world.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Reminder This Thanksgiving That Charity is Not Enough

NY Times contributing writer Tom Edsall has a new column worth reading this Thanksgiving morning, examining the recent mid-term election results and the changing demographics that will impact presidential politics in 2016.  In looking at the future of the Democratic Party he concludes: “Unless the Democrats develop a coherent, comprehensive strategy for the have-nots, it won’t matter whether the party’s nominee is Clinton, Webb or anyone else.” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/26/opinion/who-will-save-the-democratic-party-from-itself.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

            Edsall quotes potential presidential candidate Jim Webb on how poverty and lack of opportunity signal our having “drifted to the fringes of the very inequality our Constitution was meant to prevent.”  And while Edsall focused on the Democrats, the broader point is applicable to all Americans regardless of political party.

There is always a lot of commentary around Thanksgiving about counting our blessings and remembering those less fortunate. Usually it’s in the form of an appeal for increased charity.  But Edsall’s column is a kind of wake-up call that public policy must change to effectively address poverty on the scale that it exists, and that if doesn’t, the “have-nots” may at long last evolve from charitable cause to transformative political force.  For those of us with much to be grateful for this holiday season, it’s another reminder that more charity, though necessary and good, is not enough.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Increasing civic participation as political participation shrinks

Two recent articles reinforce a special dimension of Share Our Strength and so many other nonprofits.  The first is an analysis of the November elections from the Center for Responsive Politics  @ http://tinyurl.com/m9pugkw arguing that: “The real story of the election’s campaign finance chapter was not which side had more resources, but that such a large chunk of the cost was paid for by a small group of ultra-wealthy donors using outside groups to bury voters with an avalanche of spending.”

            The second in the Washington Post this weekend is by retired General Stan McChrystal, who chairs the Franklin Project on whose board I sit. @ http://tinyurl.com/meygrgq General McChrystal calls for a system of national and community service that exceeds anything we’ve seen so far.  Turnout for the recent election was the lowest for a midterm in more than 70 years… We lack common experiences that bind us as a people. We have lost our confidence in doing big things as a nation…. We need to support leaders who ask more of us and not those who simply promise us more….Imagine if, during the next election season, candidates at all levels competed to propose serious ideas for the civic transformation of America.”

            One thing we do at Share Our Strength that may be even more important than feeding kids is creating opportunities for people to make a difference in their communities.  As political participation narrows, we make broader civic participation possible. Every Arby’s and Denny’s customer who makes a donation during our Dine Out for No Kid Hungry, every chef volunteer, Cooking Matters instructor, school breakfast petition signer, and donor large or small, demonstrates that Americans will engage in making America stronger when they believe their actions will lead to results.

That’s not a substitute for the necessary policy change that political participation can achieve. But it is a way of building back confidence that change is possible, that community can be created, and that the voices of organized citizens will be heard. It means every aspect of our sector’s work is a chance to also restore hope that making a difference makes a difference.  So let’s make every moment count.