Poverty Up, Income Down

The Great Recession officially began December 2007.

Here is the impact of the last few years, as released by the Census Bureau today:

Sad Face
'Sad Face'

Real median household income in the United States in 2010 was $49,445, a 2.3 percent decline from the 2009 median.

The nation’s official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009 ─ the third consecutive annual increase in the poverty rate.  There were 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010, up from 43.6 million in 2009 ─ the fourth consecutive annual increase and the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published.

The number of people without health insurance coverage rose from 49.0 million in 2009 to 49.9 million in 2010, while the percentage without coverage −16.3 percent – was not statistically different from the rate in 2009.

Lower income, more poverty, more uninsured.

Photo: Naughty Architect (Flickr)

An Entrepreneur

A family member sent me this note recently:

I’ve seen a man on the street the last few days that has intrigued me. I finally talked to him a bit this morning outside my office building. Since I’m in the middle of . . . yet another downsizing, I’ve been thinking a lot about the jobless, wondering how they will make it.

The man on the street has created a little business for himself that I think is quite creative. [O]ur office is a few doors down from Roseland. Beyonce is the attraction this week with four concerts. There are lines around the block. I’m not sure if these are the actual ticket holders or if they are waiting to buy tickets, but either way, they are out there for hours. Some come with all manner of items to comfort themselves in the long wait; others have nothing.

My street man comes along on his bike with about eight canvas folding chairs at a time. All look new and are in their own neat little bags. He sells lots of them to those people waiting in line. Quite creative, I thought. (I wonder if he has a deal with Roseland to hit their trash everyday where many must be discarded?) He is very well-spoken and otherwise looks like a young executive getting in some time on his bike.

Made me feel better to see this.

It makes me feel better, too.

A Growing Hacker

My son lately seems to have been bitten by a similar bug that plagues my father and me. It’s the computer virus.

Men in my family seem not to be able to get enough of those shiny gadgets. We are forever tweaking, disassembling, reassembling, reinstalling, uninstalling, recompiling, hacking, and more. I don’t know how many computers are in my dad’s house, but in mine we have ten. Ten.

People ask, “Why do you have so many computers?” I unfortunately find it hard to answer. They just sort of accumulate. In part, it happens because I love to experiment with new operating systems. I’ve got a machine running Windows 7, Mac Snow Leopard, Ubuntu Linux, and ChromeOS. I used to think my computer acquisition problem stemmed from a constant search to find the perfect solution to all my computing needs — the one machine that would be right in any situation. Now I know that in part it stems from my desire to find the right setup for each situation (no one machine can really satisfy all needs).

But I also know that it is just one of my character defects — I just plain love computers.

And now my son is beginning to show signs. If you look in his room, there are spaghetti piles of cords everywhere. Every time I get a new machine, he wants my old one. He has been trying to hack his Xbox setup so he can make it do things in theory it should be able to do but doesn’t quite do out of the box. In short, he is slowly becoming a hacker.

It doesn’t look the same way it looked when I was growing up, when I would send away for materials to get my ham radio license and build the Kim-1 single-board microcomputer with my dad. Things have advanced and it has more to do with fiddling with pre-existing tools: hacking the Xbox, developing new video games, creating YouTube how-tos related to gameplay. But the fundamental aspects are there.

I’m not worried. This kind of undirected inquisitiveness — hacking — is one key basis for innovation today. I have high hopes for that kid.

* (For those who don’t know, Perl is a programming language.)

Comic from xkcd.

Keeping Track Of The Other Unemployed

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

Keeping Track Of The Other Unemployed

Yesterday, the government released data by metropolitan region on unemployment. That got me thinking about one of my pet peeves with unemployment data.

That number that gets reported? It dramatically understates the problem.

The official unemployment rate is the number of people actively looking for work. That number does not include so-called “discouraged workers” (people who could work but who have given up), people who are working part time because that’s all they can find, and more. In fact, here is the official list of all the unemployed and underemployed that the official figure does not take into account:

Marginally attached workers are persons who currently are neither working nor looking for work but indicate that they want and are available for a job and have looked for work sometime in the recent past. Discouraged workers, a subset of the marginally attached, have given a job-market related reason for not currently looking for a job. Persons employed part time for economic reasons are those who want and are available for full-time work but have had to settle for a part-time schedule.

I have long known this but have not looked closely at the actual numbers, simply filed it away as a curiosity. But today I was curious: How has the American underutilized workforce been doing over the past year? I took a look at the data from November 2008 through December 2009.

Here is the official unemployment rate, month by month, for the past year or so, compared what I think of as the actual unemployment rate (which includes all those folks described above):

(Click for full size)

In November 2008, the official unemployment rate was 6.9%, and the actual rate was almost double that, 12.8%. In December 2009 it was 10% with an actual rate of 17.3%.

More than one in six Americans are out of work or are working part time because they can’t find anything else.

I understand that ral economists might quibble with my terminology, “actual” unemployment. I am not trying to win a Nobel Prize here, just look at the actual experience of real people as opposed to the press releases. I am also not pointing fingers at any administration. The recession started on George W. Bush’s watch, and continues under Barack Obama’s. It appears to be beyond both of them.

I was also curious about the “other unemployed” people. This is the group that tugs most at my heart strings. Has this gap been widening? It is hard to visualize from the bar charts so I made a new chart:

Click for full size
(Click for full size)

The number of “other unemployed” has been growing slowly but steadily over the last year. In November 2008 it was 5.9% and we ended 2009 at 7.3%.

In fact, while the government just focuses on the “official unemployment” rate, they make the whole set of numbers available. News organizations would provide a better snapshot of America by reporting the larger number. So, in my view, our nation’s unemployment rate stands at an incredible 17.3%.

Let’s not forget these folks.


(Note, the charts are by me, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those who are curious, the current recession began officially in December 2007, when the official unemployment rate was 5.0% and the actual rate was 8.8%.)

How Does The Current Economic Climate Benefit Civil Society?

I got a note over the weekend:

I’m student [at an Israeli university]. I’m doing a Seminar work about Civil society in USA. I’m trying find an answer for the question: What have happened to the civil society in USA through the financial crisis. Is the civil society is getting stronger or weaker from it?

Kevins Utopian kettle bell workout by Flickr user ~ggvic~
"Kevin's Utopian kettle bell workout" by Flickr user ~ggvic~

This is an interesting question and I thought it might spark a good dialogue. But I’d like to shift the question slightly, as it’s easy to claim that civil society is hurt by the current economy.

More interesting, to me, is this question:

How is civil society helped by the current economy?

Here are just a few ways that spring to mind:

  • Better talent: With middle-management increasingly out of work, there is a broader talent pool to draw from at this important level.
  • More with less: Tough times are forcing everyone to do more with lest. Without the iron fist of a profit motivation, many community benefit organizations have a fair amount of flab in their operations. They’ve had to cut.
  • Revolutionary change: More with less is a the idea that you can do more by being efficient. Some new organizations are coming up with revolutionary ways to get the same things done, because.
  • New partnerships: Consolidation in some areas of the social benefit sector is removing duplicated effort and forcing organizations that used to compete over turf to partner up, pool resource, and behave in complementary ways.
  • Wake up call: My friend Hildy Gottlieb says that the current climate can jar people — especially governing boards — into taking actions that have been long-delayed or ignored because they are uncomfortable. (I am paraphrasing and probably getting it wrong, so Hildy correct me.)

Those are just a few. What do you think? What other ways can these tough times awork in the favor of the community benefit sector?

The Barber Shop Is Closed

As I left Dayton last week after a series of meetings at the Kettering Foundation, I walked by this sign: “The Barber Shop Is Closed.” It was taped to a covered-over window just inside security at Dayton airport. Tip’s was gone.

Tip'sI’d always wondered about Tip’s. It was a large barbershop with two chairs, behind an expanse of glass. I rarely saw anyone in it. There was often a person — whom I assumed was Tip — sitting on the bench opposite the barbershop, sometime resting, sometimes reading.

Over the years (I’ve been going to Dayton for a long time now), I developed a profile in my head. I imagined the barbershop used to have been quite busy, as gentlemen coming into one of the business hubs of the Midwest needed a quick trim on the way to or from their meetings. But as tastes changed and so did the times, I imagine the shop saw less and less activity.

The faster the world spun, the slower the shop might have seemed to.

It turns out that the closing was not a  negative thing for Tip. Turns out he’s Clair Tipton. He retired after 35 years.

But when I saw the “closed,” sign, I felt a twinge of nostalgia for something I’d never known. I regretted never having gotten my hair cut at Tip’s.

Funny how you don’t know you’ll miss something, often, until it’s gone.

Agents, Come Out Of The Shadows

Seth Godin wrote recently about the plight of agents. Literary agents, travel agents, stock brokers, real estate agents — all either extinct or becoming so. Why? Anonymity:

The problem with being a helpful, efficient but largely anonymous middleman is pretty obvious. Someone can come along who is cheaper, faster and more efficient. And that someone might be the customer aided by a computer. . . .

Middlemen add value when they bring taste or judgment or trust to bear on a transaction that isn’t transparent. . . . Key point: anonymous agents are interchangeable and virtually worthless. Agents that don’t do anything but help one side find the other side in a human approximation of Google aren’t so helpful any more.

Does that mean the business of being an agent is dead? No! It means it’s time to make sure you’re not anonymous. Add value that can’t be added otherwise — and that is where discernment comes in. Agents can provide a powerful filtering (or editing) function.

But, in order to provide this function, agents need to say “no,” perhaps as often or more than they say “yes.” This means they need to brand their own identity as someone who is a helpful nexus of good content, be that content a steady stream of well-priced homes, a stable of awesome authors, or a collection of well-performing startups.

This may mean there is room for fewer agents in the world, but it also means that the ones who are left can play a more important role.