Thursday, June 23, 2011

Investing Wisely

When the issue of government programs, collectively known by the generally reductive and misleading label of "welfare state", is debated, an argument is often made that recipients of such government largess do not really "deserve" it.  There is on one level a principled case to be made for a distinction between the "deserving poor", and the undeserving poor.  Some people made all the right choices and yet were forced by circumstance into requiring help.  Other made very poor choices - often knowing the consequences, and find themselves at the mercy of a society that collectively mights as well be saying, "I told you so.

A problem thus arises in the necessity of having to try and sort out the supposedly deserving from the undeserving.  And it can be expensive.

But maybe this approach has it backwards?  Sure, there will always be the tendency to "mooch" as long as someone is holding out a hand.  But this can in large part be avoided at the start by policies that not only get at the root of what is driving people into the position of even having the option to "mooch" in the first place.  Without proper assessment of need - both at the individual and community level - "safety net" spending can be hugely wasteful.  Assessment-based, evidence-based policy allows use to not only make efficient use of our spending, but actually does something effective.  It does so by operating on what is the underlying driver of social dysfunction: Social Capital.

I've worked in a number of areas of social work and have always been surprised at how little various programs (by and large a patchwork of cobbled-together responses to various needs) work together.  For instance, right now I work with troubled teens at a continuation school.  As we are a public school, the biggest absurdity we face is trying to fit into the larger educational-reform agenda of accountability, standards, etc.  Making sure that Enrique is being taught Standard 2.d (what telescopes tell us about star cycles), takes priority over every other aspect of his life.  This, despite the fact that his dad is in prison, his mom is on meth, and he only goes to school because if he didn't his probation officer would throw him back into juvie.  Now, I would love nothing more than for Enrique to want to know about star cycles.  But there are *more pressing concerns* in his life.

A major need right now for us is to prioritize our responses to need.  We need to take a closer look at how we allocate resources to programs, with the goal in mind of finding out what forms of social capital will grant people the most leverage in their lives. It certainly isn't an easy question.  But it is one that will begin to pay off greatly in terms of social and economic dividends.  For instance, we know that the earlier we intervene in the lives of disadvantaged children, the more likely they will be to succeed as time goes on.  Cases like Enrique represent systemic failure, and a corrective response will likely be not only marginally effective, but a response that should not have had to happen. 

As it stands today, our school has only two counselors, for a population of around 300.  Mind you this is a continuation school and most of the students have severe emotional and/or behavioral problems.  The counselors spend most of their time on academic issues, with no time to realistically spend on the sort of counseling these children need, much less bringing their families into the picture, and attempting any larger corrective interventions.  With no ability to form much trust or bonding with students, the counselors must simply offer ad hoc support, and give parents the number of a local therapist.  They rarely hear back from parents in such cases, with certainly no communication between the mental health professionals and the counselors.

Which is where the teachers come in.  We are often times the only responsible, concerned parents in these children's lives.  We see them daily (well, when they decide to attend class), and form bonds that allow us to begin to have an impact in their lives.  Of course, we aren't trained counselors, nor do we generally have the time required to meet their needs.  A sad irony of our school is that because the student population is in such crisis, attendance is relatively quite low, which does allow us settings for interpersonal communication and guidance that would be unthinkable in a regular classroom.  At the regular high school, from where all of these students have come (after even less intervention), classes routinely reach 50 students.  I am fortunate in that, even though these are the "worst of the worst", I am able to work with them in groups that average 10-20.  Of course, as I say, this setting is far from ideal from the standpoint of intervention.  There is certainly no time for home visits, and no coordination of any other social service agencies that I am aware of.

So, starting early is best.  But as it stands, this rarely means much more than signing a kid up for head start, where the parent drops the kid off before heading to work.  Yet the levels of social capital in which the children are otherwise being raised are abysmally low.  Therefore, a system of intervention ought to be much more robust.  Parents ought to go through a much more intensive assessment process, with programmatic responses to their individual need (ideally starting at birth, with managed follow-ups).  This could be drug or alcohol counseling, job training, parenting classes, home-health visits, etc.  I think one of the most important things we could is literally send in "life coaches" to work with parents - to literally spend large amounts of time at the home, working with the parent to establish a more functional environment.  The amount of social capital we could be creating in the home could be extraordinary.  And in terms of cost, once you factor in the savings down the road, the initial expense would be quite reasonable.

This may sound radical, but in principal, it really isn't.  For the mentally ill or physically disabled, we spend large amounts of money on just this sort of thing.  What we are talking about with disadvantaged communities is not a physical disorder, but a social disorder.  We would be applying the same fundamental concept of intervention to social dysfunction as we do to physical dysfunction.  And the beautiful part is, while there are often no cures for physical disability, there is enormous potential in treating social dysfunction. 

Because in reality what we are doing is contributing to human development.  Social dysfunction is mostly due to a lack of appropriate development.  The process becomes all the more horrific when it is passed on generationally, becoming what we call (somewhat incorrectly) a culture of poverty.  Because, it isn't a "culture" so much as a lack of development in cognitive and emotional skills.  Of course people can't be successful when they lack the skills to leverage into what success means in the modern world.  This would be no different than if a blind person was never taught learned braille, or if an amputee was never given a wheelchair.  What we see over and over in poor communities is the result of this lack of social capital resulting in a lack of the development of human capital, and the subsequent tragic consequences.

Public schools are perhaps no better example of the ham-fisted approach society takes to this problem.  Already having been selected for relatively low levels of social capital by income and property values, poor schools are filled with disadvantaged children.  Yet the model we rely on for their success is fundamentally no different than at the wealthier school across town, where students were selected, again, for higher levels of social capital by income.  Yet the class-sizes are largely the same.  Aside from what title I money (federally mandated money for low-income students) pays for - mostly school lunches and maybe a remedial reading specialist or two, there is really not much of an intervention at all.  In fact, in terms of pure finances, wealthier schools have access to far greater fundraising capacity.  And this is largely due to the much greater levels of social capital in general.  Parents tend to be better educated, make more money, have fewer issues with drugs (at least that affect their life success), have more intact families, etc. This generally explains how they were able to afford to live in a better neighborhood and send their kids to "good" schools.  "Good" being a euphemism for a student population with higher levels of social capital.

The interesting nature of social capital is that it is exponential.  The greater the capital, the more it is leveraged into more total capital.  Inversely, the less the capital, the less it is leveraged, resulting in less total capital.  In this way, it is like other forms of capital, in which when invested (put to good use), they pay off in dividends.  When we expect people with low levels of social capital to see themselves rewarded with success, it is an absurd an expectation than as if we expected a small amount of money in the bank to pay out great dividends.  To extend the analogy to schools, a most schools' ability to pay dividends on its student population, in terms of student learning, is generally the same, as are two banks with similar declared interest rates.  Yet when we put more money in one bank, we don't put less money in another bank and expect it to perform as well.  "Garbage in, garbage out", as they say.  That's a terrible way to speak of children, but that's precisely how we are ultimately treating them when our policy interventions don't match the hubris of our rhetoric.

So if we truly care about intervening in these communities, we will approach them with an accurate accounting of their need.  Only then will be able to properly diagnose and respond to their needs in ways which are both cost effective and which produce overall increases in social capital.  Because the worst thing we can do is wait around for things to go bad, and then respond.  This sort of "emergency mentality" conflates the difference between treatment and preventative care.  Of course we must provide a safety net for those in need.  But we also need to respond to the issue of social capital disadvantage and its corrosive effects on communities and individuals.  What this will inevitably require is a more holistic approach, a sort of "social capital management", in which community needs are assessed and targeted for remediation.

1 comment:

  1. Investing wisely is one of the best ways to prepare us from uncertainties.