Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Tale of Two Waterfronts

Everyone should have a son-in-law like mine. He’s a wonderful father to my grandchildren, a solicitous husband to my daughter and pays detailed attention to the public life around him which he shares over beers in his in his family’s home town, Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood.

By far the most important thing about him, however, is that he knows what his father-in-law likes when he comes to visit New York. So, during our last visit, Dan thought it would be a great idea to take the kids down to this new children’s play area on Brooklyn’s East River waterfront. This was code for 'let's go check out New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park,' now in the middle of its development, of which the terrific children’s play area was one of a handful of completed elements. I hoped to find out how this park is transforming Brooklyn’s waterfront and see what I could learn about the future of our new waterfront park which shares the same problem -- big dreams, not very much money.

There are plenty of differences between the two settings, though this day and a couple of others I spent at the site convinced me that the parks have a remarkable number of similarities.

A couple of major differences first. Our Seattle park depends primarily on the natural environment for its aesthetic, the Olympic Mountains and the crescent shaped Elliott Bay providing the religion, if you will, for the setting. The Brooklyn park’s focus is the built environment, the peerless skyline of Manhattan and the great Brooklyn Bridge sweeping across the East River are the points of reference that draw the eye --and the heart.

New York is a city of thousands of small parks, but relatively few large ones, while Seattle has many large parks and playgrounds. That means that the Brooklyn Bridge Park will commit a significant part of its waterfront to soccer, beach volleyball and other large active spaces while the tendency in Seattle is to think of somewhat more passive open spaces.

Each waterfront started life as an intense transportation center with surrounding manufacturing and warehouse storage, and each gradually gave way to superior transportation technologies. Each has major cargo handling activity nearby. However, Seattle morphed into a commercial/tourism strip while this piece of the Brooklyn waterfront became more and more isolated until it was just about completely abandoned.

Brooklyn’s abandoned warehouses were owned, mostly, by one owner, the Port of New York Authority, a state agency, while Seattle’s waterfront is a mishmash of private and public ownership.

Despite the differences, there are many tantalizing physical similarities between the new park that will emerge along our waterfront and the one now emerging in Brooklyn. The projects are nearly the same size, each one stretching along its waterfront 1.4 miles.

Each project has a steep bluff separating much of the waterfront from the uplands, meaning that the easiest access is from the edges of the park.  This results in a difficult design problem of transitioning from the high places to the low places somewhere near the center of the park. Structures on each project are mainly old, dockside warehouses perched on piling, meaning costly pile replacement, high maintenance, hazardous materials and a variety of structural issues that must be addressed before large numbers of people begin to use them.

Each park has contended with the road building legacy from the 1950s, badly placed and busy freeways that fence out the people from their waterfront. Brooklyn Bridge Park will live with its road. Seattle is tearing down the viaduct.

Each park is the result of many years of planning and an often corrosive politics that has littered each shore with the ideas and dreams of many of its citizens. But, the most important similarity of the projects is that each has endured, each has risen above the disappointments and failures and each is to the point of creating something extraordinary.

They also have in common the prospect of testing the patience of their biggest fans by adopting a slow, incremental development strategy, one that has to wait for money to come available over time because neither park has anywhere near the money to complete an entire plan. Each will adopt a ‘cathedral strategy,’ building toward a common vision over many years.

Both parks will further stress their constituents by the courting and acquisition of private partners whose private projects will help pay for the ongoing maintenance and programming of the public park. It will not be surprising that these partners will ask something for their contribution though it will be surprising and galling to a lot of Seattle citizens.

Finally, our park, like the one in Brooklyn, will likely be governed by a third party organization, a private, non-profit collection of constituencies that bring together the public and private interests for daily governance and maintenance of the long term vision.

While the Zoo and the Aquarium in Seattle and the Highline Park and Prospect Park in New York do quite well under third party organizations, some people want public places more clearly owned by public agencies and chafe at any dilution of the public right.

Walter Ciski comes to mind here. Just five feet tall or less, Walter was an older volunteer in King County Democratic politics who saw everything quite clearly. When the Seattle City Council liberalized the rules on sidewalk cafes, it outraged Walter that the restaurants were making money from their use of the public right of way. So, as he walked down a Pioneer Square Street, he would nonchalantly plow right through the tables and the diners, his eyes focused at a point on the horizon, unsmiling, but calm. The legacy of Walter Ciski still contends in Seattle as well as New York.

We arrive at the promised playground, two acres at the western foot of Atlantic Avenue, the main street of Brooklyn.

There are lots of playgrounds in Brooklyn because there are lots of kids, but this one, which opened in 2010, is special. It has several elements, including a water feature similar to that in front of the Seattle City Hall, only it’s bigger and designed not as art, but to be used by children. Other elements, swings and slides and climbing features are nicely integrated into a rolling hills design. These hills and the plantings on and around them play a vital role. Even on a clear, cool day, there is a break from the wind and it is comfortable –even warm behind them. They have not sterilized the landscape design for public safety –flat features and clear sight lines -- confident that the volume of visitors and the all day/all night programming will provide the kind public safety that most people who live in Brooklyn expect.

The sand box is an amphitheater affair with seating above for parents who are breaking out snacks and juice. My grandchildren went right to it and were two of 56 children playing in the sandbox at about 1:30 on Presidents’ day. It’s the biggest sandbox in New York City.

The path beyond the play area leads to a lighted beach volleyball complex along the pier, walking trails leading to and through a salt marsh and, at some point in the future, a restaurant with a roof top deck. This complex was closed at the end of February for repairs to its marine sub-structure but will open shortly.

The plan also calls for a free ferry to Governors Island, a military base dating back to the Revolution and just a quarter mile across the water away, now transferred to public/private ownership and developed as a park. Governors Island is part of a larger and fascinating vision by Mayor Bloomberg to create better water connections to several parks on either side of the East River.

To see the other fully functioning part of the park we need to go to the other end of the space, underneath the Brooklyn Bridge and to the bridge beyond, the Manhattan Bridge, to the neighborhood reclamation project called Dumbo, Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. At the beginning, Dumbo was one of Brooklyn’s first residential centers, growing eastward after the establishment of the Fulton Ferry Dock in the mid-1600s. In the last century, it grew into the center of manufacturing that Brooklyn became. Like China today, consumer products poured out of this community on the waterfront. If you would follow the supply chain of the Brillo Pad back from its humble position on a hardware store shelf, it would take you take you today to a hip, renovated loft in Dumbo.

Today’s Dumbo rises from a developer with an eye to historic preservation who created housing in the warehouses and manufacturing plants below the bridge and worked to develop the food, restaurants and other amenities that complement a major transportation amenity, a subway stop whose first stop to the west is Manhattan. Dumbo’s population exploded to 3700 people in 2010, a 218% increase over 2000. Today, it is also home to a growing technology industry sector.

Jane's Carousel
Park development underneath the Manhattan Bridge is centered around a small, gravelly beach in a half-moon shaped bay with a large lawn on the upstream side. To the left, Jane’s Carousel, a gift of the wife of Dumbo’s developer and a beautifully restored piece, placed in a magical glass box framing both bridges and the Manhattan skyline. On one of my three trips to the park that week, I watched at 10:45 on a Thursday morning as 15 or so children with their tenders hovered about waiting for the 11:00 opening time while others were killing time at picnic tables nearby and at a playground a block or so down the street.

The gravel beach serves as a launching platform for kayaks and canoes and the Fulton Street Ferry is just down river. Two events in our history crowd into this space and I have to sit down when I realize that on the very date I am standing there, 152 years previous, Abraham Lincoln got out of a horse drawn tram after hearing a sermon by Henry Ward Beecher at Plymouth Congregational Church up on the hill, the center of abolition activism in New York. His new boots are pinching and he limps toward one of the steam ferries that will drop him ten minutes later at a dock in the City of New York where he will speak the next day at Cooper Union and his words will make him president, though no one, least of all Lincoln, knows about this yet.

Along this same place in late August, 1776, just seven weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s utterly defeated army lay along this shore, the British Army above them on the heights, the shock and awe of the British Navy stuck at anchor near the mouth of the river, waiting for a favorable wind, two miles away.

Carried by a collection of small boats dispatched from New York City, Washington’s army of ten thousand silently crosses the river under a dark sky and a providential fog that rose from the river after daybreak -- America’s Dunkirk.

Further down from this magical place are two other large, undulating lawns, framed by long, shore side promenade.

Pier 1 is on camera right, Pier 6 is on the left
Brooklyn Bridge Park Public Corporation
Other elements of the park along its center are awaiting development. Piers two, three, four and five are supposed to be completed in 2016 along with construction of the upland system of trails and bike paths. A temporary swimming pool will be installed this year at the foot of Pier 2. Pier Five will be home to three soccer fields, Pier Four is a marina, Pier Three a lawn and fishing access, Pier Two hard-court play spaces, a spiral pool and tennis courts.

The cost, perhaps $350 million and likely more, is still $125 million short and no one is really sure how to cover the $16 million annual operations cost.

The search for development partners in the park has created the expected concerns. Near Pier One, One Brooklyn Park Place is a massive warehouse that has been converted to 110 loft style condos priced between $500,000 to $6,000,000. Many people don’t like its size or Soviet era bulk and it has been a tad slow to fill up, 70% full since opening in 2007. The housing crisis did not hit New York City as hard as it did Seattle, though it appears to have singled out One Brooklyn Place. It pays a ground lease to the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation as well as a payment in lieu of taxes. Its 75,000 square feet of commercial space is also slow to develop and revenue to the park corporation from those leases is well below expectations.

Ultimately, the city and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation believe that 1200 condos in the area near the park will pay the tab of the annual maintenance cost. Most, like One Brooklyn Bridge Park, are high end, though a complicated set of offsets and credits required as part of the market rate housing developments may create, in the future, more affordable housing alongside. My son-in-law is not holding his breath.

Rendering of hotel site
Brooklyn Bridge Park Public Corporation
Other condos would be located down near Dumbo, only the plan calls for a hotel to be built there as well. Brooklyn has very few hotels and the views from this one would be fantastic, but the Brooklyn Observer reports that developers are leery about developing a hotel there, citing lack of great transportation – Brooklyn is not a great taxi town – and, further, a lot of Brooklyn’s really great restaurants and other attractions are in neighborhoods unfamiliar to tourists.

Seven developers proposed to bid on the development of the hotel/condo complex in Dumbo. Three now remain and are under evaluation by the Brooklyn Bridge Public Corporation.

Channeling Walter Ciski, a neighborhood activist from Cobble Hill – one neighborhood removed from Brooklyn Heights -- complained:

“This makes the park we fought for 25 years to get built into a mall.”

I came away less concerned about the housing as a means of paying for the annual maintenance – there’s some very high end housing ringing Central Park and it still attracts a full range of the city’s economic mix – and more concerned about how we explain to the public the funding of these big and complicated projects.

There are two basic explanation formats, both unsatisfactory. In the early days of Seattle’s light rail project, we applied the ‘we will never disappoint’ plan. There, you assume the worst case in construction delays, the most difficult financial environment and the worst legal problems. True, there will not be a cost overrun and no one will be surprised, but the project almost died under the weight of all that presumed bad news. 'Never disappoint' would have stopped the train before it got to the airport and kept further expansion of the system from happening.

Great management, willing to tell and manage the implications of the truth, gave Seattle’s light rail system a future.  It would be terrific if we could find and manage the truth on our waterfront.   

The other strategy is the ‘talk behind the hand’ plan. This is a Japanese term that means talking, but without the desire to be understood. That’s at play at the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Everyone knows that no mayor will hardball Brooklyn Bridge Park if it is not finding enough money to make real progress year to year. If needed, everyone knows the mayor and council will step up as they have in the past. But of course, no one can say that.

While 'talking behind the hand' may disappoint, it works.  Our own example of talking behind the hand is the renovation of the Pike Place Market. No one knew the real condition of the structures until they saw them from the inside. No one knew how much time it would take and no one knew the financial implications of guaranteeing that the affordable housing in the market would stay affordable after its renovation. People working on the project got to referring to it as ‘our Vietnam.’ However unsatisfactory,‘talking behind the hand’ got the market fixed up, thirteen years in advance of the Nisqually Earthquake which would have taken the old structure down.  Thirteen years of Seattle process is a mere blink of the eye. 

We in Seattle have a feeling that we have maneuvered through the hardest part of the process, the tearing down of the viaduct, but the biggest slog may be ahead as we apply Seattle process to a potentially beautiful thing.

As we worry about how to finance the project, I hope we can see the big picture that frames the primary advantage we have over Brooklyn Bridge Park. Their park, major destination as it will become, is an 'if you build it they will come' strategy, building audiences and constituencies over time.  Our park users are already here and it is a great advantage -- 10,000,000 annual visitors to the Pike Place Market, 8,000,000 people getting on and off the ferryboats at Colman Dock and another 3-4,000,000 at the Olympic Sculpture Park and Elliott Bay Park. Having 'they' already here is a big leg up.  And if we can't shake a few dollars out of a crowd like that and apply them to the creation and maintenance of a first rate park on our waterfront, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

The Park Designer, Michael Van Valkenburgh
Brooklyn Bridge Park Website (Check out interactive map)
Battle of Brooklyn Heights
Lincoln's Day in Brooklyn, 1860

Sunday, March 18, 2012

How Two Young Men Took Down a Bigger Monster Than Joseph Kony Without the Internet

A documentary that has unleashed the Internet on a sub-Saharan African paramilitary murderer, Joseph Kony, has received 80 million page views in 15 days and created exhilaration and despair among people who follow how public life plays out on the Internet.

Produced by the San Diego non-profit Invisible Children, “Kony 2012” is the culmination of a youthful adventure to Uganda by three filmmakers nine years ago and it has collided with cultural politics across the globe and tribal politics in Uganda.   

Joseph Kony
The Sun
Kony is a paramilitary leader of the Lord’s Republican Army, a persistent malignancy of tribal politics, tyranny and violence in northern Uganda dating back most recently to the 1980s, but whose real roots lead directly to the greatest African monster of them all, the founder of the Congo Free State in the late 19th century, King Leopold II of Belgium.  It was his concessionaires -- Leopold II was sole, personal owner of much of what makes up the Congo River basin -- who ravaged the country for thirty years and who developed the then innovative techniques used by Kony’s small band, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and others like them today – amputation of limbs, kidnapping, mutilation, rape, starvation, the use of child soldiers. 
Henry Morton Stanley
Royal Museum of Central Africa

Europe divided up the Congo Basin officially in Berlin, 1885, though Leopold, under the guises of scientific exploration and the eradication of the Arab slave trade, had been purchasing and acquiring land for at least ten years from tribal entities with the help of Henry Morton Stanley – “Doctor Livingston, I presume?” -- the explorer of the Congo, land agent for the Monster, collector of ivory and rubber and, with Leopold, the founder the ‘Comit√© d'√Čtudes du Haut Congo, an "international commercial, scientific and humanitarian committee."  All of the science and humanitarian rhetoric was bunk.  It was the cloak of western enlightenment that would cover the murder of 5-15 million people for the purpose of enriching King Leopold II. 

It’s a story that gives an African meaning to Chou En Lai’s comment after Henry Kissinger asks him, in 1974, what was the meaning of the French Revolution?  Chou responds:  “Too early to tell." 

It is into a part of this blood-soaked geography, Uganda, that three twenty-something film students, whose leader is Jason Russell, son of founders of a San Diego Christian Theater and graduate of the University of Southern California Film School, appear in 2003 and discover children running from Joseph Kony and why they are holed up in a school there. 

That these people were running from Kony is a part of the distressing violent tribal ironies so prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa -- they were running from Kony because they were simultaneously running from the troops of their own central government. 

The people of Gulu were the losers, in the late 1980s, of a struggle between their “Big Man,” Tito Okello, an Acholi tribal leader with national ambitions and another “Big Man” from the South, Yoweri Museveni who led another of Uganda’s 52 tribes.  Immediately after taking power Museveni began subjugating people in Gulu, resulting in the creation of several para-military groups who formed to fight Museveni, including Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.  In the decades long violence, most of these groups were quashed, save Kony’s.  Herded into concentration camps by Museveni’s soldiers, the Acholi were poorly protected by the central government and subject to the attacks of Kony’s LRA who was recruiting soldiers and sex slaves for his struggle against Museveni and for whatever madness then thrived in his heart.

By 2005, Kony was killing a 1,000 people a week and kidnapping many Acholi boys and girls.

In this extremely affecting atmosphere, in a film called “Invisible Children, Rough Cut,” the filmmakers personalize it all through one young man who they meet in a refugee camp whose brother is dead and who wishes he was dead too.  The filmmakers swear their allegeance to the boy and their lives head off in a new direction.

Jason Russell
Invisible Children
Returning to Southern California, the filmmakers enter the world of America’s own tribal politics.  They begin showing “Rough Cut” to the activist Southern California Christian youth ministries and begin to build relationships with such activist Christian foundations as the Caster Family Foundation which in turn lead to other connections in the christian foundation world like the National Christian Foundation.  Both were associated with creationist and anti-gay movements (Caster Family Foundation gave $400,000 to Prop 48, the anti-gay marriage initiative in California).  The National Christian Foundation is the largest giver to Christian causes in the country.

They also had a flair for special events that helped them appeal to Christian young people and expand beyond them to young people generally who wanted something beyond their own, consumerist lives.  

Invisible Children
In 2006, the ‘Global Night Commute’ brought together youngsters who walked to a venue in several downtowns where they camped out, mimicking what children were doing then in northern Uganda, commuting nightly to escape the depredations of Kony in the Museveni concentration camps.  Next, “Displace Me’ in 2007 had kids staying overnight with cardboard, candles and similar thin blankets to those used by the displaced young people in Uganda.

By 2011 they had moved to the non-Christian mainstream without the polarizing tint of Christian right/anti-gay points-of-view.  Oprah is in for two million and the three adventurers appear on her show.  Now Justin Bieber wants a piece of it and now Rihanna.   President Obama sends some 100 military advisers to northern Uganda to provide technical assistance to the 'catch Kony' movement, though Kony is essentially gone from Gulu and moving north out of Uganda, perhaps to Sudan. 

“Kony 2012,” the successor to “Rough Cut,” adds to general awareness a specific strategy to put pressure on the government to turn its full focus on Kony, just as it did on Osama Bin Laden.  Released March 5, it built upon an existing, sophisticated network of contacts, its years long recruitment of youth and its ‘nothing can stop us' message, it was an electronic comet.  Let’s add a little perspective.  YouTube’s weekly growth March 6-13, 2012 was 500,000 views.  Invisible Children’s website grew by 2,500,000.  In the time YouTube had 200,000,000 views, "Kony 2012" had 80,000,000.  That’s a rocket ship.

There is a lot to be disturbed about in the simplicity of the film’s message.  It begins with a discussion about Kony with Russell’s young, cinemagenic son, full of three year old sweetness, prompted by his charming father.  But the Africans I have known over the years would have been disgusted by the characterization of this problem by a lovely, comfortable white child from San Diego. 

Invisible Children
The branding also grates.  The Bracelet, the Action Kit, the Busby Berkeley choreography of rows of youngsters in ‘Kony 2012’ T-shirts pointing skyward, their hands in a ‘V’ salute.  The incredible arrogance -- over a picture of Adolph Hitler:  “They didn’t know what to do then, but now we do.”  And the bullying, single minded focus: “Stop at nothing!”  There is a low brow equation the film makes that political service is not about thinking or acting or governing, but really just a response to outside pressure, puppets dancing at the end of an E-mail string.  There is a celebrity obsession, capped by the idea that Kony had to be made a celebrity himself in order to stop him.  It urges the use of other celebrities to raise Kony’s profile in this country and across the world.   

An AP story from a town in Gulu Province where an NGO screened the film a few days ago had this story:

The head of a Ugandan charity that showed ‘Kony 2012’ said Thursday he will suspend further screenings after getting overwhelmingly negative feedback from viewers on Tuesday who failed to understand why there were so many white faces in the video, or why Kony needs to be made famous.”

Sensitive to the criticism, Invisible Children spent two days last week  adding African faces to the “Our Team” section of its website, even including its driver in Gulu.

Considering it all, I subjugated my concerns to Nicholas Kristof’s larger, more mature view.  Kristof is a man who has personally observed more evil than just about anyone on the planet and his take of Invisible Children and its “Kony 2012” film was this: 

"The bottom line is:  A young man devotes nine years of his life to fight murder, rape and mutilation, he produces a video that goes viral and galvanizes mostly young Americans to show concern for needy visitors abroad -- and he's villified?"

The great monster Leopold II was brought down by a couple of young people who were shocked by what they saw at the turn of the 19th Century.  Taken down is a relative term.  He ruled, he was rich, had two children by his beautiful French mistress and was treated gently by several decades of history and, as well, was paid by his government for the land he murdered on.  But, he was taken down and history, after so many years, is finally getting the story right. 

Edmund Morel
It was a global human rights campaign with some similarities to the effort against Kony.  Two young men, one a clerk in an African commercial enterprise and the other a young British diplomat, shocked by the stories told them by missionaries carrying small, new technology cameras that could create images almost anywhere, organized a world human rights campaign.

They were further inspired by a great book, Joseph Conrad's novel about his shock at the genocide in the Congo, written in 1899, "Heart of Darkness.

In 1901, Edmund Morel, the clerk, writes that he has 'discovered a secret society of murderers with a king for a partner' and starts a publication called the West African Mail in which he details the atrocities reported to him by missionaries and disgusted businessmen.

Royal Museum of Central Africa
Here's how the cutting off of hands started.  The Force Publique, Leopold's private army, 400 or so European officers and 20,000 tribal conscripts, developed a rule requiring that only one bullet should be used to kill a resistor.  As proof that the bullet was used the proper way, the soldier had to bring back the hand of the dead man.  If the bullets and the hands did not tally, they'd take a hand from a live person.  It became a particularly popular repression technique within the Congo Free State. 

When the inflatable rubber tire was invented, rubber was extremely profitable and wild rubber existed in the Congo Free State. However, the rubber tree in the wild is a solitary tree, intermittent in the forest. The Force Publique, on behalf of concessionaires, would hold villages hostage and force the men to roam large distances to find trees, tap them and bring back a quota. In the meantime, they would rape the women and boys, pillage the area, and punish, frequently with death, those who did not find the amount required.

Royal Museum of Central Africa
All these stories in the West African Mail and Morel's touring in Great Britain provoked a British response in the form of a young British diplomat, Roger Casement, British Consul to the Congo Free State.  Casement prepared a report in 1903 that documented the mutilations, kidnappings, murders and rapes in the name of Leopold's company.  At the same time, Morel writes a book about the enslavement that characterizes the rubber trade, "Red Rubber."

By now, the Congo story has, in its own way, gone viral.  Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes creator, takes it up.  The two young men tour the United States and meet with President Theodore Roosevelt.  William Cadbury of the chocolate Cadburys, Anatole France, the poet Vachel Lindsay, Booker T. Washington, Samuel Clemons are all writing about it and giving money to a new organization formed in 1905 by Casement and Morel, the Congo Reform Association. 

That same year, the Parliament of Belgium sets up a commission of inquiry and, after two years of debate, prepares legislation that exerts state control over Leopold II's personal holdings in the Congo.  In 1908, compensation for his loss of property in hand, the King gives over his bloody land. 

Congo's population before the establishment of the Congo Free State was estimated to be 20-30 million people.  In 1910, a year after the monster dies in Brussels, its population is estimated at 9 million. 

After Leopold's death, the coming of the World War will obliterate the facts brought out by the Congo Reform Association and its allies across the world.  Belgium develops a national amnesia about Leopold II and his legacy at home is that of "The Great Builder. 

The 1999 publication of Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost revived the memories of Leopold's private genocide.  It resulted in Belgium's Royal Museum of Central Africa, built in 1897 by Leopold II as a monument to the Congo Free State, forming a panel of historians to investigate the claims of genocide.  They would start from zero.  Hochschild says that on his first visit to the museum he found no mention of the culture of death that was at the center of the Congo Free State genocide. 

Royal Museum of Central Africa
There is real doubt whether chasing down Joseph Kony will have any effect on human well-being and dignity in the region.  What created Kony is only partly his own violence, but is the legacy of violence that lives on unabated, the legacy of a Belgian king who travelled everywhere in the world except to the horrible place where he made his money. 

King Leopold's Ghost comes from a poem written by one of those touched by Morel's and Casement's zeal to stop what they saw happening in Congo Free State, Vachel Linsay.  It is a line in "The Congo," his most famous poem, written in 1914.  It speaks to Leopold and now, lives on, to speak to Joseph Kony. 

Listen to the yell of Leopold's ghost,
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear the demons chuckle and yell,
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A New Face of the Poor

I came across a World Bank study last week that tracks extreme poverty in the developing world and its results, driven by China’s amazing 30 year economic run, got me thinking and reading about measuring poverty. 

The World Bank has been tracking extreme poverty in the developing world since 1981 and has created a measurement, surviving on less than $1.25/day, as its threshold measure.  The World Bank’s policy goal when it started was to reduce extreme poverty by half in the year 2015.  It appears to be ahead of schedule and may, with these results, have achieved its goal. 

It was astounding to learn that since 1981, China has moved nearly 700 million people out of the extreme poverty definition used by the bank.  The percentage of people living in extreme poverty in China during that time has gone from 84% of the population in 1981 to just 13% in 2008.  In fact, China has moved nearly as many people beyond a $2.00/day threshold in that time.  Other countries in that region which includes Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as India next door, showed remarkable movement as well, pushing hundreds of millions of the poorest of the poor into a slightly more stable life. 

Brazil and the relative economic health across South America is also a good story for the very poor.  In fact, for the first time, extreme poverty rates fell in all regions of the globe, even in sub-Saharan Africa, now the world’s greatest basket case.  Its poverty rate declined slightly.  Among several pieces of news in the World Bank release are these:

1.   The World Bank’s goals of reducing extreme poverty by half in the year 2015 have likely been met.

2.   The Great Recession, against conventional thinking, has not impeded the reduction of extreme poverty between 2008 and 2010.

3.   A separate goal, shared by the World Bank and the United Nations, has it that nearly 2 billion people gained access to better drinking water between 1990 and 2010.

In a certifiably crazy world, it is good to see a measurement that brings, even in small increments, some good news. 

Mollie Orshansky
Social Security Administration
Reading about poverty measurement in the United States brought me to Mollie Orshansky.  She started her professional life as an economist when the measurements for well-being in this country were off-the-charts-low, in 1935.  Unemployment was just over 21%.  The Gross Domestic Product of the country was coming back from its low of 50% of pre-depression levels in 1933 to 30% in 1935.  Perhaps she had a slight burst of pleasure at that news, but I doubt it.

Even if you thought, in 1935, that women had an important place in the workforce, a single professional woman looking for work then was competition to the out of work head of household breadwinner, even if the woman was an economist and the head of household a plumber.  For many people, something was just not right about it and that led a lot of talented women like Mollie to the Department of Agriculture and the brand new Social Security Administration, where as an analyst, she was present at the creation of today’s modern poverty line. 

Her statistical analysis provided the background for the Johnson Administration’s most basic policies dealing with the poor.  The timing of her work, coming as the new Johnson Administration was embarking on its War on Poverty initiative, could not have been better.  Sargent Shriver, head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, and Joe Califano, Secretary of Health and Human Services, were the leading generals of the War on Poverty and were looking for ammunition that would feed the onslaught of legislation Lyndon Johnson had in mind.  Then, one day, these giants of the administration came across a modest looking Social Security Bulletin, produced by Orshansky, called “Children of the Poor.” 

She based her numbers measuring poverty on the monthly diets developed by the US Department of Agriculture beginning in the thirties.  By the 1950s, she was finding a statistically important mark, how much poor people spent on food. The concept of the food basket she worked on then presumed four levels of food consumption based on the economic standing of the presumed purchaser.  These food baskets gave direction to people who sought a nutritious diet, whatever their income.  People with higher incomes purchased the Liberal Plan, lower incomes the Moderate Plan, the third Low Cost and the fourth, Thrifty, a diet that would reflect very tight times that could be survived, with the bare necessities, over short periods. 

These market baskets had a role in determining a fair amount of public policy having to do with the distribution of crop surpluses, relief, guidelines for other social service agencies, the introduction of food stamps in 1961 and other programs across the country providing a safety net under the very poor.

Other parts of sustaining a minimal life for poor Americans were not as fact-based as the nutritious market basket consumed by all levels of society.  How much clothing do people need?  How much transportation?  How much housing? 

Lacking consensus information about these features of life, Orshansky stuck with what she knew, the food basket.  She had shown, in the fifties, that low income people spent one third of their after tax income to purchase food and that the amount of food and its cost vary with the size and age of the families. What food would an elderly woman purchase?  What would a family of four with two children need?  What is the cost to a single mother with two toddlers?  Using her food expense information as a base, she created a multiplier to become a proxy for those other, ill-defined needs like clothing and housing.  Applying a multiplier to the food cost produced a dollar value for the annual cost to many different types of families.  In 1964, Orshansky’s calculations resulted in a cost of $3,135 annually for a father, mother and two children.  That became the poverty line for that demographic.  She actually built out some fifty different demographic scenarios and created a set of scenarios distinguising between farm families and urban families. 

Using a completely different methodology, the Johnson era Council of Economic Advisers came up with a similar figure of $3,000 a year, but it had no demographic flexibility.  According to their measure, a single person living on $2,900/year would be classified poor while a family of five living on $3,100/year would not be.  Orshansky’s work made things fairer and was enthusiastically adopted by the War on Poverty.

For thirty years, the government struggled to find another basis for calculating its poverty index by adding specific assumptions about clothing, shelter, utilities, plus other needs like household supplies and non-work-related transportation.   Finally, the new base case poverty index was ready in 1990 and used a percentage, somewhere around 75%, of an average cost of living for middle class family of two children and two parents.  It did not include all things – health insurance and medical care among them. 

Using the revised structure, a little over 13% of the population, about 40 million people, are classified as poor and have access to various low income benefits provided by federal, state and local governments.   

At the end of last year, however, the Obama Administration made another effort to define “poor.”  The Bureau of the Census updated the poverty thresholds by adding in more “modern” costs – particularly medical costs, which had been ignored by the 1990 update and which have a disproportionate effect on seniors.  The sum of it all is that the level of poverty has grown to nearly 16% or slightly more than 47 million Americans.  While the figures from the Census Bureau increase the rate of poverty we recognize, the numbers are not used for calculating benefits, that’s done over at Health and Human Services, which will continue to use the previous guidelines for the time being.  However, the push and pull between the Census Bureau trying to get things right and the Department of Health and Human Services trying to do the possible is an interesting and healthy tension and one that at least strives to be fair.

Analysts like numbers that show the dynamics of the time they are trying to measure.  Measurements like the unemployment rate or inflation rates produce useful information but don’t offer the kind of three dimensional views that show more clearly how the economy is affecting people’s lives. 

Efforts to combine information have produced numbers like the “Misery Index,” a combination of unemployment rates and inflation that surfaced in the late seventies.  While showing the dynamic of a weak economy buffeted by inflation, it was really a political tool, not an economic one. 

Recently, a new measure of the Great Recession’s misery, the Economic Security Index, was unveiled by the Rockefeller Foundation and a prestigious group of scholars assembled by the foundation.  Its policy purpose is to raise the issue of economic security among policy makers and thought leaders.  The foundation thinks that many Americans are walking along the edge of the economy and wants to know just how many there are on that precipice, who they are and what policies can we think about that might make their lives and the lives of their families less perilous. 

They idea is to measure what happens to Americans whose household income is falling dramatically and, at the same time, they are faced with high medical bills or some other calamity and their savings are insufficient to offset the sudden storm.  With this index, the foundation can tell us that the proportion of Americans economically insecure has been higher in 2009 and 2010 than at any time in the previous 25 years. 

The premise is that bad news comes in bunches.  The scholars define bad news as the loss of more than 25% of existing annual income, either through loss of work or medical costs or both and with no savings to replenish the loss.  Having put the Economic Security Index together, the scholars can now go back, apply historical data, and get a picture of insecurity over time. 

Their analysis shows that economic insecurity has risen quite dramatically over the last 25 years.  In 1985 the ESI Index showed that 12.2% of Americans experienced a major economic loss that would classify them as insecure.  At the beginning of the 2000s, 17% suffered the loss of at least 25% of their income in a year.  Before the most recent downturn, in 2007, it reflected the better economic times, dropping to about 14%.  The first two years of the Great Recession propelled the index over 20% in ‘08 and ’09.

Comparing the ESI Index to the Poverty Index and the Unemployment Rate shows that economic insecurity is still highly significant even when times are very good, say in the years between 1997 and 2007.  Also, their data shows that the size of the losses over 25% has increased steadily over the past 25 years, meaning the losses are significantly more severe.

Also telling is the percentage of demographic groups most affected by the big loss of income in a given year.  The single individual without children does best and doing poorly are people with children and single parents. 

There’s something about this measurement that is particularly compelling to me.  It captures an intuition from this recession that there is a thin line between being middle class and falling out of of the middle class into near poverty or worse.  Anecdotal information from people who run food banks, manage low income housing and run a variety of charities seems to confirm the idea of the Economic Security Index, that being middle class is far from a permanent status and that new faces are showing up where the poor gather.

World Bank Extreme Poverty Update

Rockefeller Foundation Economic Security Index

Sunday, March 4, 2012

How the Private Non-Profit Sector Survives the Recession

The Mount Baker Community Club Building is one of those Seattle structures that has provided a roof over many private non-profit organizations striving to raise money and awareness for housing, sexual violence, human rights, legal aid and all the other private non-profit energy in our town. 

I remember it fondly when the waves of Hmong’s, Cambodians and Laotians came to Seattle in 1975/76 and later in the early eighties.  Many were housed up the street in an apartment complex and most nights for many weeks, neighbors organized language classes, provided logistical help and opened up yard jobs for them.  I had seen some of those cultures where they lived and knew how distant in time and culture they were.  It made me proud to see the people of my city helping them so personally. 

The purpose for being there was the retirement, after 19 years, of Lois Loontjens, who ran a respected domestic violence program, New Beginnings, in Seattle.  My wife had served on the board for a number of years and had been the board’s president twice and I realized how important it was to her own professional and personal development in addition to the people the program helped.  So, I was familiar with the program and admired the work it does.  I also began to realize how much I had taken for granted the fact that Lois, joined by many hundreds of volunteers and very young people working for less than their talents would bring elsewhere, decided to place their lives in the path of such a distressing social problem. 

I thought of the recent events set off by Josh Powell, the monster who bludgeoned and incinerated his children recently, after murdering their mother and setting off with the kids on an alleged camping trip where he successfully hid the body, one of now dead boys making a drawing of it months later, little stick figures showing the father driving, the two boys in the back seat and the mother in the trunk.

The work done by this organization is about hundreds of individual crises each year, the world tumbling dangerously out of control, often children standing near the mayhem, confused and scared.  It is something that makes you want to jump up and down and wave your hands, but the most important thing is to do what these people do, translate the anger to calmness, professional focus and high purpose. 

“It is doing work that matters,” said Lois in her remarks, “it is doing work that enlarges you and doesn’t grind you into the dirt.”

This non-profit agency finds a way to assemble about $3 million dollars a year, nearly $14 million over the past five years, and provide emergency shelter annually for nearly 400 women and children.  The program houses another 62 people in transitional housing, longer term placement while the clients get on their feet, get their kids back into school, find a job and restore their dignity.  It also provides legal advocacy for another 700 people and fields 4,000 calls annually from women who are trying to figure out a strategy that will make them safer and protect their children. 

Just by doing these good things, New Beginnings plays a role in another good thing, raising up young professional men and women – their board members and employees -- who learn the discipline, commitment and communication skills that make them effective advocates and providers of services that actually save lives.

All of this got me thinking about the private non-profit infrastructure in America and the role it plays in fixing up, protecting and being advocates for the people and places with whom we share the country.  I wondered how this human infrastructure is surviving the recession.  How many more people who once looked to government now look to them?  What’s the future of this sector of our society after this hardest economic time? 

There are over 1.5 million non-profits that register with the federal government and a significantly larger group who have relatively small annual revenues and are not required to file a return with the IRS.  In addition, religious congregations are not required to register a tax form though many do.  We tend to think mostly of charities when we think about non-profits, but the tax code recognizes 30 different tax exempt activities beyond the most numerous designation, public charities, 501 (c) (3).  These activities include 501 (c) (5) Labor, agricultural and horticultural organizations, (c) (6) business leagues, chambers of commerce, etc., (c) (13) cemetery companies, (c) (15) mutual insurance companies or associations, and (c) (21) black lung benefit trusts. 

One of the organizations that tracks non-profits carefully is the Urban Institute, set up 40 years ago as an independent, non-partisan policy development shop focused on America’s cities. Their recently retired leader, Bob Reischauer, headed the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office for many years.  The Urban Institute has long studied non-profit issues and is a terrific resource for emerging issues concerning them. 

Let’s start by looking at a couple of measurements describing the size of the non-profit sector.  This information often surprises people.  The Urban Institute reports that the non-profit world in 2008 had about $2 trillion in income and nearly $5 trillion in assets based upon data from 600,000 of the non-profits who were required to prepare a return to the IRS.

Another size measurement comes from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society.  It counts the number of people who are employed in the non-profit sector.  According to a recent study, the non-profit sector employs nearly 11 million workers.  That compares to slightly over a million in agriculture, 5.5 million in insurance and financial services, 5.5 million in construction, 11.5 million in manufacturing and 14.5 million in retail trade.  It is noteworthy that, in 24 of our states, the private non-profit sector produces more jobs than manufacturing. 

These jobs are not, as some think, a rag-tag collection of part timers thrown together in support of a cause.  A German study of its private non-profit sector says that German private sector employment has a profile in which one part time worker exists for every three full time jobs.  In Germany’s private non-profit sector, however, one in eight jobs is part time.  Johns Hopkins also reports that in many sectors, such as in health care and education, the non-profits pay employees more than for-profit colleague institutions.

Public charities under the 501 (c) (3) regulations totaled nearly a million of the 1.5 million non-profits operating in 2008.  However, only a third of them are required to report, about 350,000.  That group reported revenue of $1.5 trillion and assets of $2.6 trillion in 2008.

Hospitals and primary care facilities represent nearly half of that total revenue, just under $750 billion, while higher education is about 12%, around $150 billion.

Individuals are by far the largest single donors to charities, totaling 80% of all donations.  The recession hit individual donors hard.  Donations to 501 (c) (3) organizations dropped 7% in 2008 and an additional 6% in 2009.  Individual donations in 2010 were up very slightly.  

Donations from all sources – corporations, foundations, individuals and bequests -- have remained relatively steady over the past 40 years, just a little over 1.5% of Gross Domestic Product.  However, beginning about 1995, donations grew steadily, topping out in 2005 at 2.35% of GDP.  The recession has brought it back closer to earth and charitable giving as a percentage of GDP stands at about 2%.  GDP in 2010 was about $14.5 trillion.

GuideStar, a company that provides on-line linkages to IRS tax filings by non-profits and trend analysis of their contributions and expenditures, has another way of following the recession’s effect on private non-profits.  In the six years between 2002 and 2007, its surveys of selected non-profits showed that contributions had been steadily and robustly increasing until, in 2007, 52% of reporting non-profits said that their contributions had increased over the previous year compared to just 19% who said their contributions had decreased.

The punishment of the financial crisis in 2008 was swift.  In 2008, 38% said their contributions had increased while 35% reported a decrease in contributions.  The next year, 2009, had 51% of non-profits reporting decreases and 23 percent increases.  In 2010, it got a bit better with decreasing contributions down to 37% and increasing contributions at 36%.  The 2011 report shows a slight improvement over the 2010, but not truly significant. 

In the same survey, GuideStar sought information on demands for services.  A substantial number, 65%, said that demands for service increased very substantially in 2011 over 2010.

The numbers compiled in surveys like GuideStar’s mask the circumstances of smaller non-profits who live closer to the economic margins than their larger non-profit colleagues.  

90% of 501 (c) (3) charities have budgets less than $3 million and 75% of charities have budgets under $500,000.  These smaller entities are two times more likely to see decreased income from both private and governmental sources.  They are more likely to lay off staff, more likely to draw harder on their smaller fiscal reserves and more likely to rely on a narrow band of supporters for donations.  Of the group of small non-profits under $250,000, 20% reported to GuideStar that they were considering ceasing operations in 2012 for fiscal reasons. 

The Urban Institute has studied another important factor in the health of the non-profit community, the effect of state budget cutting on human services non-profits. Those organizations deal with a multitude of problems, housing and shelter, youth development, community development, employment training, some health care and nutrition.  Human services non-profits have strong relationships with their states for lots of political and service delivery reasons.  Because of the recession’s hit on state tax revenue, the non-profits are taking collateral damage that is serious in its effect and has an unknown duration.

Human services non-profits represent, according to the Urban Institute, about 33,000 reporting 501 (c) (3) organizations – about a tenth of reporting charitable organizations.

The recession saw them losing significant investment income, corporate contributions and individual contributions – but nearly all non-profits went through that.  Significant for the human services group was a reduction, across the country, of $425 billion from state budgets in 08, 09 and 10.  In Washington state, the reduction as of January 2012 from January of 2009 has been $10 billion with another $1.5 or so billion coming after decisions are made in Olympia this spring. 

Human services cuts in Washington state range across the system – early learning, health care coverage for non-insured children, long term care, mental health, disability, sexual assault, domestic violence.  It’s hard to come up with a clean figure, but cuts over the past three years affecting human services delivery are at least a billion and maybe range upward to $1.5 billion. 

The outlook for non-profits appears slightly better, taken as a whole.  The uptick, however slight, of individual donations is a sight for sore eyes after two years of plunging investment values and individual donations.   The strength of the states as a partner to non-profits is a wild card.  The effect of the stimulus package, which buoyed state budgets, particularly in health funding, has all but run out.   Some state governments, our own included, have a kind of third world quality to them, their social safety nets fully tattered.  Their boom or bust tax systems have amply demonstrated again how quickly good times give way to bad.  The $10-$12 billion in cuts will not be restored any time soon and many non-profits will have to lean a bit harder on their donors, volunteers and stockbrokers.  Many smaller non-profits are at risk and remain at risk.

The ceremonies at the Mount Baker Community Club conclude and the mostly young audience crowds around the woman who is leaving.  Despite all that has happened, New Beginnings has kept to its mission of protecting women and children from abusive relationships through these difficult years. 

Their budget has more exposure to state and local funds than they would like and they have little investment income.  They would like to do more – the demand, especially for emergency shelter, far exceeds what they can provide – but they are realistic about getting through this hard time and perhaps coming up for air later. 

What is impressive is that they are here at all, under the sheltering roof of the Mount Baker Community Club, calm and dedicated to something way beyond themselves.  They file out the door into a rainy Seattle night, fumbling with their umbrellas and keys, about to meet people tomorrow or the next day who they do not know but who need them completely and for whom they will do their best.