Healthy people’s problems

I’m sure you’ve heard the term or made a joke about  “first world problems”, “rich people’s problems” or “white people’s problems”.  All are used, sometimes offensively, to diminish the seemingly insignificant issues that more privileged groups face.
My guess is that you’ve never heard or used the term “healthy people’s problems” – unless perhaps you or a family member has suffered through an all consuming health issue. 
When you or a loved one is faced with serious, life altering health issues every other problem pales in comparison.  The pain you feel or see in the faces of those you love renders all other issues trivial.
While my family currently enjoys good health, it has not always been this way. At different times my wife, my daughter, my sister, and my mother have all faced health problems that felt like the end of the world to me.  At that time, no other problem in my life or anyone else’s mattered much, if at all.
Health is an often overlooked but perhaps the most elemental part to a happy life. Without it, nothing good is as enjoyable and nothing bad is as tolerable. Yet we constantly take it for granted.
Other terms like “first world problems” can be used pejoratively to make us feel guilty or shamed – maybe even poking fun at a perspective out of touch with the rest of the world.
Conversely, healthy people’s problems should remind us to both be grateful for the health we have and to provide extra care and support for those in our lives and communities whose problems cut to the core of happiness – health.
The holiday season typically comes with too much to do and too little time to do it.  Problems and stress naturally arise.  If healthy, take pause and perhaps use the time you would have spent venting to check in on a friend dealing with a health issue.  If you or a family member is struggling with a health issue, please know there is probably a small army of friends who would gladly drop their problems in a heartbeat for a chance to help you with yours. 

A Labor, then Love

In 1894, Labor Day became an official federal holiday.

The year before a different kind of labor inspired a 26-year-old nurse to become one of the most important social reformers the country has ever known.

Lillian Wald was teaching a homemaking class on the Lower East Side when a little girl burst in begging for someone to help her dying mother.  She had struggled in labor before giving birth but was now badly hemorrhaging blood. The doctor had abandoned her because she could pay him. As Wald rushed through the Lower East Side tenements towards the woman’s squalid apartment, she was shocked by the conditions she saw – calling it “a baptism by fire.”

From that moment on she committed herself to a life of service. She was an early pioneer of the settlement movement – which believed that in order to best respond to the needs of a community you needed to physically root yourself there or settle. 

This would allow you to understand their needs and challenges “not just as reformers but as neighbors.” That’s precisely what she did, moving into the neighborhood and founding the Henry Street Settlement.

Here are a few of the social innovations she helped found or spread: public playgrounds, school nurses, free student lunches, immigrant services, ESL, special education, visiting nurse services, housing regulations, children labor laws and public arts programs.

In addition, she joined or led movements that helped promote rights for immigrants, women and African-Americans.

While doing all of this, she was described as being “overwhelmingly joyous.”  This is a common trait among those David Brooks now calls weavers – “someone who finds meaning and joy in connection and caring for others.”

The organization she started continues to innovate and operate today. Since her death in 1940, they’ve created model programs in the areas of day care, credit unions, senior centers, women’s shelters, transitional housing, college prep, HIV/Aids support, mental health services, public theatre and on and on and on.

Among the many instructive things about this organization is that all of this was accomplished without a formal “strategic plan” – which according to the organization’s website, they did not develop until 2006. 

This is an important lesson that shows what you can accomplish when you are truly proximate and connected to those you serve. More time doing and evolving than talking and planning.  

If you’re looking for way to honor the spirit of Labor Day, then please watch this beautifully done short video about the life of Lillian Wald and the Henry Street Settlement. Or if you’re only going to click on one link – try this one where you can donate to help Henry Street continue their important work today.

Would you like to know your score?

Would you want people to make broad assumptions about you based on where you live? Would you like it if strangers were talking about your struggles in secret?  Would you be ok if people used a formula to formulate your future?
I imagine most of us would not feel comfortable with any of the above. Even if the acts were well intentioned, your lack of involvement or knowledge would be troubling.
This cuts to one of the major criticisms of a new rating that will now accompany SAT scores that the College Board sends to admissions officers. (It is currently being piloted at 50 schools and will roll out to another 150 next year).
While it is officially referred to as their Environmental Context Dashboard, many are describing it as an “adversity score.”  According to this article the New York Times, “The score will be calculated using 15 factors, including the relative quality of the student’s high school and the crime rate and poverty level of the student’s neighborhood.”
Its goal is noble – to try to address the huge disparity in test scores among different classes.  But currently, neither the methodology nor the score itself is being shared with the students.
This is not a singular incident. I’ve heard from renowned authors and scholars whose life work is  trying to understand the underlying factors that contribute to poverty and economic mobility. This research is informing public programs to help people move up the economic ladder.
But when asked if they ever share their work with the people they are trying to help, the answer isn’t just “no”.  They are surprised by the very question itself.  
No one, regardless of how well intentioned, can be an expert in another’s life experience.  Each life is unique, regardless of what aggregated data or a gifted storyteller may suggest.
But too often we use data or our own observations to tell someone else’s story. Instead of sharing it with them so they might better tell their own.
It is the difference between advocating for someone vs. advocating with someone.

Where does wealth come from?

By definition, wealth is “an abundance of resources.”  In other words, you have more than you need.
It may seem counterintuitive, but research shows the primary determinant for wealth is not how much we make (income) but how much we are given (intergenerational transfer). 

This can come in three forms.  

  • Inheritance that is passed down upon the death of a parent or grandparent or other older relative.
  • In vivo transfer. These are gifts made during one’s lifetime. They can include paying for your child’s education (so they don’t have any debt), subsidizing their housing (like providing a down payment for their first home), or making a zero interest loan so they might be able to start a business.
  • Security transfer. This is not referring to stocks and bonds but rather the emotional security that a child has been granted all of their life.  When someone grows up with a strong sense of economic security, they are seeing the world as one that is ripe with opportunity not one that is filled with risk.

This is not to say that many people who become wealthy didn’t earn it – either through their own hard work or ingenuity. 

But research does confirm that the majority of the time, the old adage “it takes money to make money” holds true.
Consider home ownership.  About 65% of adults between the ages of 18-34 expect to receive financial assistance with the purchase of their first home from their family.
What is the impact on wealth for those who can’t afford a down payment?  The average net worth (a proxy for wealth) for a renter is $5200.  The average net worth for a homeowner is 45 times this.
When we look historically at discriminatory housing policies that made it harder for certain groups to purchase homes in certain neighborhoods (and sometimes not at all), they were being denied a generational opportunity to both accumulate AND pass on wealth.   (Watch this brief video about the length’s Cory Booker’s parents had to go through to work around this system.)
There are some interesting policy prescriptions being floated around to deal with this wealth gap – ranging from baby bonds to eliminating student debt.  
But beyond the policy consider the personal. 

What is the story behind your wealth or lack thereof?  What was or wasn’t passed on to you?  What will you be able to pass on to others?  And, finally, is there anything we can do to make sure more people have something to pass down too?
To learn more about the wealth gap, check out this interesting podcast between Ezra Klein and the economist, Sandy Darity from Duke – which inspired this post.

Just a Little More?

Fifteen miles from my home is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Its primary claim is the setting for the infamous ride of the Headless Horsemen – the author of which ironically was eventually buried there.

Perhaps less well-known is its status as the resting place of perhaps the richest collection of wealthy individuals this country has known. The names are a who’s who of American wealth — Astor, Dodge, Chrysler, Rockefeller, Watson and Carnegie.  

Most their graves are lavish mausoleums or memorials. Carnegie’s, however, is a little different. It is adorned with a modest Celtic cross — the graves of he and his wife marked by simple grave plates.

And as a symbol of the paradox of wealth, Carnegie’s plot also includes the graves of three others – all long time servants to he and his wife.

Some may see this gesture as an act of kindness and friendship, while others could view it as a sign of inequality and privilege.

In his lifetime, Carnegie could be ruthless. He pressed his advantages, leveraged his power, to skyrocketing levels of wealth.

He believed that a person’s life was to be divided into two halves; the first involved making money and the second giving it away. To that end, Carnegie gave 90% of his fortune away during his lifetime, and the balance when he died (a total of $4.8 billion in today’s dollars). To his only daughter and wife, he left a small trust.  As a result, none of his present day heirs claim his riches, or for that fact his name.

Rockefeller was, if anything, more ruthless in his business practice. His approach to philanthropy was slightly different, as his fortune was both passed down from generation to generation and given away over time. The Rockefeller name and fortune continue – with family assets estimated at $16 billion today.

As a youth, Rockefeller said his goal was to make a $100,000 and live to be a hundred (he made it to 97). 

As an adult, when his wealth had already tacked on three more zeros beyond his goal, a reporter asked him, “How much money is enough?” His reply, “Just a little bit more.”

Rockefeller’s sentiment may seem cold but does it ,  veer far away from the prevailing thoughts of today? Maximize wealth and advantage while you can, and pass it on to your children. Give what you don’t need away to good causes.

But how much do we need?  “Just a little more”

Recent news underscores the issue with this approach: growing class tensions, parents using bribes to get their children into college, politicians calling for wealth taxes, populist uprisings on both sides of the political spectrum.

Which brings us back to the answer given by Rockefeller a hundred years ago.

What if instead of answering the question, “How much money is enough?”, those same four words were the response to each of these questions?

– How much could we be taxed?
– How much should we give away?
– How much should we share the wealth with those we work with?
– How much confidence should we have in our children to succeed without our help?
– How much should we question how our wealth is acquired?
– How much should we think of others before ourselves?

Just a little more.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

What Our Dogs Can Teach Us About Moving Up

As I write this, my two-year old Cairn terrier mix, Scout, is sitting on my lap. Occasionally, he rests his head on my right forearm, making the act of typing a more delicate matter.

The benefits of dog ownership are well documented. They improve both our physical and mental health, reduce stress, increase our sociability, confidence and sense of responsibility and generally just make us happier.  But what can teach us about moving up in life?

Let’s first state the obvious. Like any species, dogs also experience inequality. 

Some are born stronger, faster, healthier and smarter than others. Environments vary greatly as some are raised in warm, loving and well resourced homes – meaning dogs eat only the best food, go to doggy day care and camp, have lavish toys and of course, those questionable sweaters.

Other less fortunate dogs may live in homes where they are abused or find themselves homeless – at risk of being picked up and euthanized – if they don’t find new homes (approximately 57% of dogs who enter shelters are killed, a total of 1.2 million annually).

Outside of being adopted into a “better home”, dog’s social mobility is non-existent outside of the relative mobility of their owners. They are essentially stuck on whatever rung of the ladder they are born into and their movement is directly tied to the family that owns them.

Yet to watch a dog each day is to be exposed to multiple lessons in adaptation and good living. 

Dogs always wake up on the right side of the bed, enthusiastic to start the day. Their morning walks ensure that their day gets off to a happy start. Their enjoyment of nature elevates their mood.  They take the time to stop and smell the roses (and for that matter everything else). Someone once wrote that in every sniff lies the entire world – so rich is their sense of smell. 

Dogs also make time for their friends – always seeking to stop and say/smell hello. They are honest with their feelings and not afraid to let you know what they need. Each dog has an innate need to play each day for at least 10 minutes. If they don’t their mood suffers. They love to be in the company of others but also sometimes just want to be left alone. 

They eat three meals a day and, after a long day, understand the importance of a good night’s sleep (the average dog sleeps between 12-14 hours a day).  When they are loved, they love right back, and of course their sense of loyalty is astounding.

It is easy to take our dogs for granted, I know that I do and often feel guilty for losing my patience or not taking Scout to dog parks or longer walks. But we should be grateful for the many ways they make us happier and perhaps even look more closely to see what they can teach us about being better people.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

See How Where You Live Affects How Long and How Well You Live

In general, people believe that their own actions are more important than the environments in which they live. It’s a belief that’s so powerful its name is Fundamental Attribution Bias.

At the same time, the decision of where to live, work, go to school or raise our kids is among the most important and serious ones we will make in our lives.  

If you’re curious to know how much where you live may impact your life, check out these two tools:

The first from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation uses CDC data to estimate life expectancy down to the census track level.

The second from the Pew Research Center allows you to see how where you live impacts how far your money goes – in other words how does it impact your social class.

Both will show you how your results compare to the rest of the country.

In my own situation, the good news is that people who live in my town live two years longer than the national average. The bad news is that our money doesn’t go nearly as far as it would in other parts of the country – especially with a household of five.

On the surface, this makes sense. Places that have a higher tax base from higher incomes can invest more in schools, hospitals and other types of social infrastructure. Research shows this can contribute to both quality and length of life.

Digging deeper the results begin to look more troubling. By the nature of where I have been able to choose to live, I am now expected to live 4.5 years longer than my brother and sister who live in a different part of the country.

Two years longer than the national average or 4.5 years longer than your siblings may not sound like a lot?

Try measuring that time not in years but in missed hugs from your children or lost opportunities to see your grandchildren grow from grade schoolers to high schoolers.

There is no doubt that our individual choices matter but the reality is not everyone can choose to live anywhere they want. 

In a capitalist society, we readily accept the fact that some people will drive used Toyota’s while others cruise around in new Porsches. That some will vacation at their local beach while others will whisk away to Bora Bora. We don’t begrudge the success of others we admire and aspire to it.

But how much difference are we willing to accept when it comes to living longer? 

Thank you for taking the time to read the latest from Moving Up.

The Final Gift from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

On April 3rd, the evening before his death, he gave his last public talk in Memphis. The speech is largely known for his prescient “mountaintop” passage below:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Given that the very next day, he would be taken by an assassin’s bullet, it is hard to understate the tragedy of his closing remarks.
Yet to only remember that portion of his speech is to miss what is essentially a blueprint for advancing social change.

He opens by reminding us of the incredible progress we have made in human rights throughout history – while saying there is no other time in which he would want to live.

Calling people to join the Memphis march for sanitation workers, he outlines why marches work, how non-violence is effective and the importance of carrying oneself with dignity throughout.

For those engaged in the myriad of movements today, he also discusses other tools for activism, chief among them economic withdrawal (reminding people, that at the time, the African American economy at $31 billion was larger than many developed countries – including Canada.) 

Mobilization, economic leverage, media savvy, patience, determination, and dignity – these were among the tools of his trade. And they were all on display in this Memphis speech.

Right before his mountaintop reference, he discussed his mortality in even more vivid terms. Years earlier in 1960 – prior to most of his signature achievements – he was stabbed by a mentally ill black woman in New York during a book signing event. The tip of the blade was at the edge of his aorta. He observed that had he even sneezed he would have died then and there. History robbed and no telling its impact on the civil rights movement.

Which is all to say for all the planning and strategy we put into our life, there is no accounting for the fickleness of fate.

Whether out of honor for Dr. King or interest in learning more about how social change happens, please take a few minutes and read the fullness of his remarks here.

Perhaps, the sadness from the loss he himself foreshadows will be replaced by a renewed optimism for what is possible.

What About Us?

This is a question voiced by all who feel forgotten, neglected or marginalized.

It is also the title of the powerful song just released by Pink off her forthcoming album, Beautiful Trauma.
It is no surprise that the lyrics are already being seen as an anthem for any number of disenfranchised groups.

It is the universality of a plea to those in power that so easily resonates.  The factory worker asking why his wages get cut while his CEO’s salary triples.  The veteran who fights in a war abroad and has to fight for benefits when she returns. The black man driving home from work assumed to be a criminal in his own neighborhood. The cop trying to serve and protect who is assumed to be a racist. The woman whose work is equal but pay is not. The child who wants to inherit a planet fit to live on but sees one natural disaster after another. The voter who just wants their vote to count but wonders if it ever will.

The list goes on and on and on.  It encompasses groups of all ages, backgrounds and political parties.  It sadly is a question that could be posed by a majority of Americans.

What about us?

The desperation of the question may seem at odds with the upbeat track that drives this song. Until you get to the appropriately named bridge.  Instead of feeling hopeless we become the hopeful.

Consider these lyrics:

“Sticks and stones, they may break these bones
But then I’ll be ready, are you ready?
It’s the start of us, waking up come on
Are you ready? I’ll be ready.”

Watch her performance of this song on Saturday Night Life.  Listen carefully to the lyrics.

Then ask yourself, are you ready?

Losing When You Win

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were the fiercest competitors but always respectful of each other’s talent and drive – whether in victory or defeat. By the end of their playing careers, they had become close friends.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have formed one of the most unique political friendships in our history. The foundation of which was laid, according to Bush, with how Clinton was humble after the 1988 election, “choosing not to lord his victory over Dad.”

Contrast these to a story I heard last week while visiting the Tower of London.  In 1747, Simon Fraser was scheduled for execution after instigating an uprising against King George II. 

In anticipation of a large crowd, scaffolding was built to accommodate the more than 15,000 English who wanted to literally see a head roll. As the bloodthirsty crowd stirred, the scaffolding collapsed, killing 20 and injuring hundreds more. Taken by the irony and perhaps relishing in the loss of life, Fraser laughed uncontrollably all the way to his end.  As he died, the phrase “laughing your head off” was born.

As amusing a story as that is, it underscores a more important point.

There are invariably winners and losers in many of life’s events. 

Whether that be on a field of play or battle or in the marketplace of ideas or commerce (recently someone made the point that “every dollar of waste in the health care system is a dollar of income for someone.”)  

How we chose the handle that win or loss sets the stage for all that follows. 

If we treat it with grace and humility it can be beneficial to both the victor and the vanquished. If we instead chose hubris and vindictiveness, then it’s likely to be disastrous to both parties.  

And that should be no laughing matter.