Friday, June 26, 2009

"Don't Tell People You're Poor; Say You're Broke -- Broke is Temporary"

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said those were his grandmother's words when he grew up "broke" in Chicago. The Governor's comments came during the unveiling of the Massachusetts Asset Development Commission's report on an 18-month study of effective ways to help "broke" people move out of poverty.

Asset Development programs help low-to-moderate income people develop assets so they can move off of public assistance and out of poverty. It has taken advocates many years to get policy makers to understand that people will never be able to move off of public assistance if getting a job and moving toward self-sufficiency means they have less to live on and pay their bills than when they received public assistance.

The current system is filled with disincentives to people getting trying to get off assistance. Part of the dilemma is that many public assistance programs prevent people from having assets -- assets that are the means by which they can move off such assistance. When people are getting back to work, they get cut off of public assistance too soon. They are not permitted to have sufficient assets to cushion unexpected crises or to move towards greater self-sufficiency. If they're a single parent, child care costs are prohibitive and they need greater assistance in this area. If they're unskilled, they need job training. And the system prevents many people from getting to jobs.

For example, it's often difficult to get to job interviews or a job without a car, but a car is an asset. The value of that asset can prevent someone from getting assistance, or, eliminate assistance they are getting if the value of the car is more than a certain amount. The price of today's cars means even an older, deteriorating car is a barrier.

Among the Commission's recommendations; raise some of these asset limits, permit people to have more money in the bank, provide greater child care assistance, and more. I'll give more detail on the Commission's recommendations later, in a separate post.

An OpEd, How Not to Help the Poor, and an article, Sweeping Welfare Changes on Tap, in yesterday's Boston Globe have more information.

While the spotlight yesterday was on the Asset Development Commission, I was privileged to have worked with Sandy Venner, Policy Director, and Jonas Parker, then Principal Researcher, of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University, over the past few years. They not only worked closely with the Commission and many agencies to design and collect the study data, but they made themselves available to us (agency staff) to help us understand what the data meant. Both are able to present the information in non-jargon terms and with a human face behind the data.

The report is available as a download via the link to Brandeis above and at the Asset Development Commission website.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Online Capacity Mapping and Resource Matching for Nonprofits

"I was first inspired to think about one giant web-based tool for capacity mapping and resource matching for nonprofits..."

That was Deb Finn's opening line to tell us the topic of last night's Ethos Roundtable. Of course, this is huge and there is no one tool out there right now. It's more like a garden of available tools that, partly through conversations with Deb on this topic, are converging. As Deb herself states, "It's also clear that this could be many separate projects with clever mash-ups and data interchanges. In the age of XML, it does not have to be a monolith with one owner, one web host, and one platform."

The neat thing is, much of this is out there now. The difficult part is, it's not yet organized into anything recognizable. Yet. Getting it into a recognizable shape is why I used the garden analogy. One size does not fit all well. But pulling together a number or tools and placing them in an area where people can pick and choose what fits for them is a rather organic process. What grows, grows. As people use a tool, share it with others, blog about it, find it useful, etc., that process will stimulate growth.

Pulling together existing and new products/services from many organizations to provide another level of service fits another analogy I use when talking about collaboration and developing communities and their organizations. I call it JigSaw Puzzlin' because each organization is like a puzzle piece with form (shape) and function that exists independently. Sometimes several pieces (organizations) get together and form a different shape with form and function. Yet each organization retains its independence and original form and function.

How is this like JigSaw Puzzlin'? When you work a jizsaw puzzle, you pick up pieces, turn them around, look around for other pieces that may fit with the first piece, and so on. If these two pieces don't fit, you don't throw them away. You look for other pieces that fit together in a different way with these two pieces. You might even temporarily abandon the first two pieces and come back to them later, separately. This is what Deb is doing in her "conspiracy" (her word) to find a solution to the question, "What if we had web-based tools to help mission-based organizations use every possible resource and meet every possible need?"

As usual, Ethos Roundtable was a stimulating and informative session/discussion followed by the monthly 501 Tech Club - Boston and hosted by the TechFoundation.

You can get a closer look at some of the services Deb discussed last night by visiting her blog and looking for the May 8th post, "Online capacity mapping and resource matching for nonprofits."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Verizon Admits Its Default DSL and FiOS Wireless Security "Does Not Provide Good Protection Against a Hacker"

Verizon Admits Its Default DSL and FiOS Wireless Security "Does Not Provide Good Protection Against a Hacker"

I had to repeat the headline because it tells the story so well. Read the article. Read it all the way to the end. Then check your own setup regardless of who your vendor is because you may be just as vulnerable.

What is going on here? You purchase a service. The technician comes in and sets it up. Or you get assistance over the phone setting it up yourself. They tell you you are all set. You feel safe, secure.

You're not. And they know it but don't tell you. Actually, some of them know it but others don't. They should, but they don't.

I'm not surprised. More and more, software companies/services try to "idiot proof" their product so you'll stay out of the inner workings. They want you to think that they've got you covered. They want you to work they way the think you should work. And they do it because they think you're stupid; too stupid to learn what you should know so you can control your software, work the way you need to work, and ensure your own safety online.

If you knew in advance that there are huge security holes in their setups, you'd probably get educated before trusting. Then you wouldn't buy their additional security software or services.

They often write such confusing documentation that even the highly computer-literate end user cannot figure it out easily. Some technical documentation today is pretty good, but much of it is not. You, the end user, don't know if you are actually as stupid as it makes you feel, or if someone wrote it after a six-pack.

So, will Verizon change its default settings to be more secure? Probably not, unless a lot of its customers raise their collective voice and demand it. Will Verizon better train its customer service technicians? Probably not, again, unless... You get it; they don't. Speak up. Demand improvement.

And, if you want to get a better handle on your security settings, one site I can recommend without reservation is Kim Komando,where you can look up all things computers and find sensible, easy to read, accurate information. She makes it easy for the non techie.

Oh, and raise your collective voice to Verizon. Make them provide the "excellent" level of service you are paying for.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Local Harvest

As a brief followup to my post yesterday on hunger, one commenter noted the Local Harvest website. Go to the site, plug in your zipcode, and you'll find where to get locally-grown food and more.

From their site:
"The best organic food is what's grown closest to you. Use our website to find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area, where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies. Want to support this great web site? Shop in our catalog for things you can't find locally!"

Friday, June 12, 2009

"Attacking Hunger at Its Roots"

"This morning, one billion people around the world woke up hungry and tonight, they will go to sleep hungry. This issue has not gotten the attention it deserves,..."

It's difficult not to read more when that's the opening of a blog on Huffington Post. It's made even more important to keep reading when part of your job is to see people who are hungry and applying for Food Stamps. That's right. Here, in the US, in Massachusetts, in my community -- people are hungry. More people are living hungry today because of the tight economy, job loss, spending down their retirement funds early, and for many other reasons.

People don't have enough money to pay rent, heat, electric, phone, and also buy food -- nutritious food. Food Stamps are designed to supplement the food budget of low-income residents as part of getting proper nutrition and staying healthy. Alleviating that hunger is as important as economic recovery. Hunger is not just a physical problem. As Clinton states in her post,

"Hunger is not only a physical condition. It is a drain on economic development, a threat to global security, a barrier to health and education reform, and a trap for the millions of people worldwide..."

While Clinton is speaking in a global context, I see it and am working on it in a local context. And that is how it should be. Hunger is a human issue. We need to address it both globally and locally. And because of that, I am part of the Tri-City Hunger Network.

For people in my area (the tri-cities of Everett, Malden, & Medford MA), there are a number of food pantries where people can get basic groceries such as bread, fresh fruit, and vegetables. There are also some soup kitchens that can provide a hot meal. You'll find them on the Hunger Network Calendar on the website of the Cyber Cafe @ Malden Square. If you need food, go there. If you don't need food, can you volunteer?

I remember taking groups of college students to Appalachia in the late 1970s for spring break to help poor people in rural America. While there, students were exposed to poverty in a new context and gained insight into their own view of the world. When we returned to campus, they were able to "see" the poverty in their own community. Many immediately joined other volunteers at local soup kitchens and in other ways used their new-found "vision" to do what they could.

Hungry people are in every community. If you don't see it, maybe your vision of the world around you needs some fine tuning. You can start by asking at your local faith organization. Are they doing anything? Why not? What about your local or regional Community Action Program/Agency (CAP or CAA)? Do you know who or where they are? In MA, go to MassCAP to find it. If you're in another state, you can always ask MassCAP for a referral to an agency in your state; they may know it. Or Google CAP or CAA agencies for your state. You can also find information here.

Hunger is real and it's all around us. Let's do something about it.

For more information about Food Stamps, Project Bread is a great resource. Your area DTA office manages the Food Stamp program -- now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) -- which is funded through funds from the Department of Agriculture.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Does a College Degree Help Anyone?

David Leonhardt's article, The Value of Education in a Recession, in the Wall Street Journal echoes what I have always espoused -- getting an education is worth the effort. While college graduates have been hurt by the recession, like almost everyone else, 4-year college graduates earn about 54% more than those without a college degree. The unemployment of 4-year college graduates is also lower than those with less education.

For anyone who wants to know how getting a degree is going to get them a job, my answer is, "that's not the purpose of a degree." While getting a degree does not guarantee anyone a job, not having a degree is often a huge roadblock to getting a job. That's the difference. The degree doesn't get you the job, but the lack of it becomes a barrier...a huge barrier.

The value of a degree isn't necessarily apparent right away. I taught part-time, evening students at the college/university level for more than 20 years. A common question that arose was, "Why do I have to learn this to get a degree, how is it going to help me on the job?" It was often difficult to get that student over the hurdle of understanding the difference between job training and an overall education. Their goal was to get a degree so they could get a raise or move into a higher-level position in their current organization. To them, the degree was about job safety, security, or advancement.

Sometimes students would come in with the mindset that they could get the syllabus, write some papers, and show up every few weeks to "catch up." They had family demands. Their work lives were busy. They often worked late to keep up. They didn't have time for a demanding college course or professor. Education wasn't their priority. Getting a degree so they could advance in the organization was their priority. Their goal in getting a degree often conflicted with my goal of teaching a subject and, more importantly, educating them.

I also have a long history in providing training, so I do know the difference between job training and education. My basic philosophy is, "Teacher or Educator?: you teach a subject, you educate a mind." Job training is about teaching a subject; getting someone ready to perform a task or series of tasks. Education is about helping people learn how to learn, broadening their perspective on a variety of subjects, and developing the capacity to learn. Hey, even old dogs can learn new tricks -- just ask Raymond, our 12 year old Labrador Retriever. He's trained us well.

It's interesting to see how much of my own education has come into play over the years. Many things I "learned" that I thought I would never use have helped me incredibly in my work and personal lives. But the most important thing that college degree did was to put me on a path of choices about when, where, and for whom I work. I have multiple choices because I can compete for jobs and have an advantage over people without a degree.

That credential of a degree has opened doors. I still have to compete for the job once I get in the door, but the door is open to me. In advising job seekers, I have heard repeatedly from some people that degree preferred really means, "don't bother applying if you don't have a degree." While I don't believe this 100%, I do know that when there are 100+ applicants for every job opening, the quickest way to trim down the list is to drop everyone who applied and didn't have a degree. If the remaining pile doesn't look good, then they might go back and look through the drop list for someone without a degree. But if the first pile has good candidates, they never seem to get back to that circular file.

There are some job areas where a college degree doesn't seem to make much difference in salary, but those areas are diminishing. If you can, get the degree. Start at a community college. Take one or two courses at night to get started. Apply for scholarships and financial aid. Do what you can to move in that direction. Get your Associates Degree (2 years of full-time college study). Once you get into the rhythm of studying and working, just keep going. It takes time, but it is possible. I know. I worked full time, got my undergraduate and graduate degrees at night, and haven't stopped studying since. Even while teaching, I took courses just to learn about that topic. I still attend workshops and seminars on many topics. I know it's not leading to another degree, but I have the basic credentialing and use training to keep my skills updated and broaden what I know. This helps me remain competitive in the job market.

Does a college degree help anyone? Yes, it does. And not having a college degree can actually hinder you. If you haven't "studied" in many years, or were a marginal performer in high school, at least try to take some training courses or preparatory college-level courses. Get started. Do it now. You'll thank yourself later.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Chemocare: Helpful Information for Anyone on Chemotherapy

Most people remember ice-skating champion Scott Hamilton and many will remember his battle with cancer. Scott has developed a website,, to help people understand the varied and often confusing world of chemotherapy drugs. Hamilton's goal is to provide the latest information about chemotherapy: what it is, what the drugs are, how to manage their side effects, nutritional information while on chemotherapy, and more.

It's an ambitious project and so needed. Cancer is a diagnosis that has many different types of treatment. Keeping up with those various treatment options includes a wide variety of chemotherapy agents (drugs) that all have various side effects. While the cancer battles the body, the drugs battle the cancer. The body gets pretty well beaten up. Putting all the pieces together (chemotherapy drugs, other drugs that battle the side effects of the chemo drugs, proper nutrition to support the body's healing while not interfering with the drugs, the whole mind-body relationship especially for healing) takes work. if the cancer itself isn't enough to have to deal with!

ChemoCare is a project of the Scott Hamilton CARES Initiative, which Hamilton set up to raise cancer awareness and raise funds for cancer research. If you, a friend, family member, or coworker has cancer, ChemoCare may be a useful site to use.