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| Posted: May 22nd, 2013
A fascinating recent article in The New Republic reviewed a body of new science documenting the pernicious physiological effects of loneliness.
Researchers have shown that loneliness—more formally, the want of intimacy—exacerbates a host of ailments, including Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer. The share of Americans who report “not feeling close to people” at any given time is 30 percent and growing, and deemed by some a social health crisis.
Should public policy researchers and practitioners care about something as intangible and inaccessible as loneliness? I’ll give you three reasons why I think we should.
First, some background… Feeling lonely actually sends misleading hormonal signals that physically change the molecular structure of the brain. According to the article, this “wrenches a whole slew” of bodily systems out of whack, causing loneliness to be seen by some as a risk factor for death as great as smoking.
Who tends to be affected by loneliness, according to this research? Women more than men, blacks more than whites, the less-educated, the unemployed, the retired, anyone different. In other words, many of the same people affected by today’s long-term unemployment and wealth disparities, persistent poverty, and isolation. If loneliness exacerbates these ills, it will further diminish people’s ability to engage in economically and socially valuable and productive activities, which in turn could exacerbate loneliness.
Three reasons why loneliness should be a public policy concern:
- Loneliness contributes to a vicious economic cycle in which economically isolated people are further removed from the system, costing productivity and draining resources from social and health systems.
- Too often we quantify how people are struggling by using impersonal numbers like poverty statistics, the unemployment rate, and the labor force participation rate. New research on loneliness reinforces the valuable lesson that suffering has a real, human, emotional face.
- Scientific evidence of how loneliness links mental, physical, and economic well-being reminds us of the interdisciplinary nature of our country’s social problems and validates policy that draws on an inclusive range of research, methods, and approaches.
Loneliness may not be the most acute or immediate public policy concern of our day, but considering the role it and other little-talked-about ailments play in the socioeconomic realm can only make our public policy more thoughtful, robust, and responsive.
Illustration by Daniel Wolfe, Urban Institute
Filed under: People, Quality of Life Add a Comment »
and Marla McDaniel Pam Loprest
| Posted: May 7th, 2013
A group of mothers who have been under the radar are those who are low-income, not working, and are not receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits or government disability benefits. In research parlance, they are “disconnected.” And in real life, they deal with circumstances that present major risks for their children’s development.
In 2009, roughly 20 percent of low-income single mothers (about 1.2 million) were in this category at any point in time. Of these moms, 27 percent are disconnected for at least four months over the course of a year and 11 percent are disconnected for a year or more, mostly because they lose their jobs (but in some cases because they lose TANF or Supplemental Security Income benefits).
The vast majority of these mothers are in poverty—82 percent compared with 54 percent of all low-income single mothers. Some do receive assistance from other sources, though. About half participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid. About a fifth receives government housing assistance and one-third receives child support.
These mothers usually face more than one challenge consistently found to affect children’s cognitive development, social adjustment, and behavior: poverty, limited education, mental or physical health problems or disabilities, substance abuse, domestic violence, criminal records, or lack of citizenship. Disconnected mothers are also more likely than other low-income single mothers to be caring for an infant or a very young child (birth to age 3), who are particularly vulnerable to negative consequences later in life from these very early experiences.
Interventions to improve the odds for their children are much-needed. Matching research to family needs suggests several steps that could help these families:
- Increasing and stabilizing income. The best way to do that is to prevent disconnection in the first place. For low-income single mothers who are working, this means helping them keep their jobs—for example, through investment in stable child care and in services to help them keep jobs, move up on the job, and find a new job quickly. For mothers who have lost a job, it means improvements in unemployment insurance to help them stabilize income right away. For mothers on TANF, states should reach out intensively to those at risk of being sanctioned in order to provide services to them and continue help for their children.
- Reducing income loss when mother and baby are particularly vulnerable, around pregnancy, birth, and infancy. Expanding paid family leave beyond the two states that currently provide it and designing a targeted TANF program for mothers of infants are two potential options
- Supporting and enhancing parenting through home visiting and Early Head Start. Treatment for maternal depression is crucial given its high prevalence among disconnected mothers and the risks it poses for children.
- High-quality early childhood education, as well as early intervention and special education for children with disabilities would enhance their development directly.
- Ensuring that children and their parents receive health insurance, food assistance, and other supports they are already eligible for is becoming a priority in some states and should be in all. Continuity in children’s Medicaid eligibility and in their connection to a pediatrician should be a priority for state policymakers. Automatically qualifying them when they receive SNAP would reduce the burden of reenrollment on both the states and the families. At the same time, only about half of disconnected mothers are enrolled in SNAP. Nationally, about two-thirds of eligible working parents with children participate in the program, so removing barriers to enrollment is particularly imperative.
- Children of noncitizen parents need better access to benefit programs available nationwide or as a state option. These include TANF child-only benefits and state policy options for Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program, and SNAP that provide maximum coverage to noncitizen parents with children. These parents may have legal status but could be excluded from health and nutrition benefits under complex state and federal policies, or they may be undocumented immigrants who fear coming into contact with government agencies, even if their citizen children are eligible for benefits.
Such policies would help both disconnected mothers and their children in the long run.
Depressed mother image from Shutterstock
Filed under: Economy, People |Tags: children, disconnected, MetroTrends, moms, mothers, tanf, unemployed, Urban Institute Add a Comment »
| Posted: May 6th, 2013
Los Angeles has now synchronized all 4,500 traffic signals across the city’s 469 square miles. It’s the first major city worldwide to achieve this feat, using magnetic sensors at every intersection; cameras; and a central computer system that monitors cars, buses, bicycles, and pedestrians. These innovations have increased the average speed of traffic by 16 percent and reduced delays at major intersections by 12 percent. Coupled with other initiatives that alert drivers to congestion, synchronization has brought an estimated annual savings in fuel and time of $1.3 billion.
Can we not apply the same “big data” solutions to major social policy problems?
One opportunity may be found in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly the Food Stamp Program, which serves about 47 million individuals per month, providing about $75 billion annually in nutritional support. Program participants redeem their benefits at authorized retailers using an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card. Can the data generated by participants through card swipes be used to help serve these households better?
Many participants continue to have unmet nutritional needs; about one-quarter of SNAP households still experience very low food security, coping with their constrained resources by eating less and/or relying on lower quality foods. Can we better target such households for other forms of assistance—in particular, other federal benefits for which they may already qualify? Can real-time data be used to provide early warning signals of household distress?
A recent USDA study involving in-depth interviews with 90 SNAP participants in Boston, Houston, Indianapolis, and Riverside said: “One of the most striking observations in the current research is how many households fail to budget money with which to buy food during the time at the ‘end of the month’ when SNAP benefits typically run out.” Indeed, the absence of a plan for stretching resources to the next month—or for accessing additional resources from families, friends, or other networks—was a distinguishing feature among those who were food insecure.
Here’s an idea that builds on USDA’s current use of EBT transaction data nationally to analyze SNAP benefit redemption patterns. Such data could be used to identify SNAP households that redeem more than 90 percent of their monthly benefit within the first week (as 20 percent do nationally) or those who exhaust their benefit within the first week (as 17 percent do nationally). These households very likely will have a hard time affording food at the end of the month. But that impending hardship could be alleviated by ensuring that these households receive other benefits that they qualify for (such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, or the Earned Income Tax Credit) or that they get priority in receiving discretionary program support (such as energy assistance or child care subsidies).
This kind of targeted outreach would require information systems that can capture EBT transactions data in real time and can generate early warning signals to the appropriate program office with adequate protection of client privacy.
It may seem fanciful, but if Los Angeles can synchronize the city’s traffic signals, is it that far-fetched for Los Angeles County—with more than one million SNAP participants among its residents—to institute such an early warning system?
Grocery Store image from Shutterstock
Filed under: Government, People |Tags: big data, cost savings, food stamps, government, MetroTrends, poverty, snap, Urban Institute, wages Add a Comment »
| Posted: May 1st, 2013
A recent New York Times article discussed arguments for and against down payment requirements, which are currently being considered as a way to prevent foreclosures.
These proposed rules, though, could potentially widen the country’s sizeable wealth inequality gap.
A 20 percent or even a 10 percent down payment requirement is likely to make homeownership difficult, especially for families with low and middle wealth or income, including many young families and families of color. The Center for Responsible Lending estimates that based on median incomes, it will take nearly 25 years for a typical Hispanic household to save for a 10 percent down payment loan and nearly 30 years for a typical African American household.
To make matters worse, black and Hispanic families are five times less likely to receive a large gift or inheritance—lump sums that can help families make down payments for homes and other assets. These disparities contribute to the racial wealth gap.
Homeownership is still the key wealth-building avenue for most Americans, so limiting access to mortgages could make wealth inequality worse. The power of homeownership as a wealth-building tool comes not primarily from the growing value of property but from automatic, monthly mortgage payments that are a form of savings and build equity.
Policymakers should consider the effects of tightening credit availability given new empirical evidence that younger generations are falling behind their parents in wealth building, the racial wealth gap is not improving, and delayed homeownership is the largest contributing factor to the racial wealth gap. The Federal Housing Administration can continue to fill the gap by insuring lower down payment loans, but do we really want two separate credit markets: one for families of color and another for white families?
We need to be careful not to overreact against homeownership for low-income families as a result of the foreclosure crisis. Homeownership can be done right for low-income families. Foreclosure rates for people who bought their homes through Individual Development Account programs—which provide savings incentives, pre-purchase counseling, and guidance in choosing affordable non-predatory products—were one-half to one-third the rate for other low-income homebuyers in the same communities. This and similar success stories tell us that the down payment is just one among many factors that contribute to successful low-income homeownership.
House image from Shutterstock. Graphic from Center for Responsible Lending.
Filed under: Economy, People |Tags: down payments, home buying, MetroTrends, Urban Institute, wealth, wealth gap, wealth inequality 1 Comment »
| Posted: April 17th, 2013
When a mother suffers from depression, her child often suffers too. Strong clinical evidence indicates that a mother’s untreated depression can damage her child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development and jeopardize the child’s long-term physical and mental health. Poor and low-income mothers likely face greater barriers to receiving effective treatment and more social and environmental stresses that can trigger depression, placing children in these families at particularly high risk.
The latest research from the Urban Institute’s series “Linking Depressed Mothers to Effective Services” provides a new and detailed look at depression prevalence, severity, and treatment among low-income mothers with young children across the country. The low-income mothers in our study had incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $22,314 for a family of four, and had children ages 0 to 5.
Our study found major gaps in treatment even for mothers who experienced a major depressive episode—a serious illness marked by symptoms such as prolonged sadness, tiredness, and feelings of worthlessness, often interfering with one’s ability to function in home, work or social environments —and striking disparities between mothers who are insured and those who aren’t.
Major depression was significantly more severe among low-income mothers than among higher-income mothers:
- 69.7 percent of low-income mothers with young children who had a major depressive episode had an episode that was severe or very severe, compared with 53.5 percent of higher-income mothers with young children.
But far fewer low-income mothers received medication or talk therapy:
- 37.3 percent of low-income mothers with young children reported that they did not get either form of treatment for their major depression, compared with 25.3 percent of higher-income mothers.
Among the low-Income mothers with young children in our study, uninsured mothers were significantly less likely than their insured counterparts to receive either type of treatment for their major depression:
- nearly half (49.4 percent) of uninsured mothers had not received treatment, compared with one-third (33.1 percent) of those with health insurance.
Interestingly, we find that depressed low-income mothers with young children who are covered by Medicaid have comparable treatment rates to mothers with private or other type of health insurance, suggesting that Medicaid fills an important gap in providing mental health services to mothers who may not otherwise have access to it.
While this finding is promising, it does not tell the entire story. Even if a mother receives treatment, living in poverty raises a variety of barriers that could make her treatment less effective or hinder her ability to keep these services. We know little about the quality, intensity, or duration of treatment received, and such factors undoubtedly influence the likelihood that depression is treated to remission.
Luckily, new provisions under the Affordable Care Act not only present opportunities to improve treatment access to these mothers by expanding Medicaid coverage, but also offer initiatives designed to better link them to the high-quality and effective mental health services necessary to minimize the risks of depression to themselves and their children.
Filed under: People |Tags: healthcare, kids, low-income, maternal depression, MetroTrends, Urban Institute, working families Add a Comment »
| Posted: April 16th, 2013
The Washington Post’s in-depth story about an Alexandria redevelopment project did a great job of highlighting the challenges facing working families in our region’s high-cost housing market. Efforts to protect residents of the Beauregard community from displacement and hardship build on five important lessons about responsible redevelopment—lessons learned through experimentation and research.
- Most low- and moderate-income renters live in privately owned apartments, not publicly subsidized projects. And for a growing share, market rents are unaffordable. Often, the properties with the most affordable rents are older, outdated, and run-down. But when they’re demolished and replaced with new, higher-quality properties, affordable options for families with modest paychecks disappear.
- So it makes sense to preserve as many of these moderately priced apartments as possible, by helping landlords get affordable financing for upgrades or by including low-cost apartments in the mix when obsolete properties are replaced or renovated.
- At a time when public funds are scarce, cities can exercise their regulatory powers to help make this kind of deal happen, as Alexandria is doing. The Beauregard redevelopment will be denser—with more income-producing units allowed on the site—in exchange for including some moderately priced apartments in the mix.
- That deal might not have happened without effective community organizing. It sounds as if Tenants and Workers United has been putting pressure on both public officials and private investors to make sure the interests of the low- and moderate-income working families who live in the Beauregard area aren’t forgotten.
- Finally, a new affordable apartment in the same community might not be possible for all of today’s residents, but hands-on help with relocation can make a big difference. Done right, housing counseling and search assistance can enable families to find new homes in good neighborhoods.
I’m not suggesting that Alexandria has achieved the best possible deal for its residents; there’s probably still a lot of deal-making to be done. But the work to preserve affordable housing as part of an ambitious, private-sector redevelopment project exemplifies smart public policy in tough circumstances.
Image by Flickr user UIC Digital Collections used under Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Filed under: Government, People |Tags: Alexandria, development, housing, MetroTrends, public housing, redevelopment, Urban Institute, Wapo Add a Comment »
| Posted: April 15th, 2013
Think about 1970. Which metro do you think was the least segregated? Which was the most segregated?
Those distinctions go to Spartanburg, South Carolina and Wausau, Wisconsin, respectively. In that same year, 21 percent of Spartanburg’s residents were black while 10 (total, not percent) of Wasau’s residents were black. Forty years later, it’s a different story. Milwaukee, with 17 percent black residents, is the most segregated metro area, and Missoula, Montana, is the least, with just 1 percent black residents.
This week Graham MacDonald and I looked at black-white segregation in the 45 years since the fair housing act was passed. One of the most striking trends is that metro areas with small black populations are integrating much faster than counterparts with large black populations.
In 1970, 1980, and 1990, there was no connection between a city’s percentage of black residents and how segregated it was. Then, in 2000, metros with small black populations were more integrated than their counter parts with larger black populations. This pattern held even more strongly in 2010.
This trend is a reason for both optimism and concern. Between 1970 and 2010, the 10 percent of metros with the smallest black populations reduced segregation by 25 points, while the 10 percent with the largest black populations reduced segregation by 4 points. The metro areas with small black populations are the most integrated because these metro areas became more integrated, not because the metros with large black populations became more segregated. This is the good news.
But the majority of black residents live mostly with other black residents. While a small number of black residents live in more integrated metro areas, the majority live in metro areas with large black populations that aren’t integrating as quickly. The gains towards greater integration over the last four decades aren’t going to the metro areas that need it the most. This leaves us with a few questions, and we invite you to discuss them with us. What changed in metros with small black populations? Why aren’t metro areas with large black populations integrating faster? Most importantly, what can we learn from areas that are integrating faster, and how can we apply these lessons to places where change has stalled?
Filed under: People, Quality of Life |Tags: black, Fair Housing Act, metro, MetroTrends, race, segregation, Urban Institute, white Add a Comment »
| Posted: April 4th, 2013
In 2013, we’ve seen nationwide debate, policy, and discussion on an incredible array of topics: health care reform, crime and gun violence, immigration reform, budget deficits and federal spending, gay marriage, unemployment and recovery, and poverty and inequality. Through all of it, the Urban Institute’s experts offered their unique insights and objective, data-driven analysis of these issues here on MetroTrends.
Gun Violence and its Effects on Our Communities
The victims and families of Sandy Hook and Newtown have been on everyone’s minds, including ours. John Roman offered insights from his personal experiences discussing violence in schools, followed by an analysis of myths surrounding the controversial 1994 Assault Weapons Ban. He distilled his thoughts into an infographic and weighed in on what it would actually take to create a violence-reducing ban.
Dating, Violence, and Crime Policy
Emotions have run high on other crime and justice issues too. Nancy La Vigne commented on Stop and Frisk and how this controversial policy affects communities. Meanwhile we published an in-depth study of teen dating abuse through technology and its effects on millions of young people, along with proposals for improving the Violence Against Women act. In some vulnerable communities, all of these issues can come into play simultaneously, putting many people, especially teens, at great risk. So how do we combat persistent, widespread violence and other social issues? Perhaps every city should open an Office of Urban Innovation, leveraging private funds where cash-strapped governments can’t afford to act.
Lessons from Chicago’s Public Housing
American’s low-income communities continue to struggle, but the news isn’t all bad. Sue Popkin shared stories from 25 years of her work in Chicago Public Housing. Ten years after a whole-scale transformation of those troubled high-rises, many low-income families are better off. To be sure, however, there is still much to be done as we reform troubled public housing in Chicago—and nationwide.
America’s Low-Income Communities
As Tax Day approaches it’s worth remembering how many low-income families rely on non-traditional borrowing and lending sources with interest rates exceeding 500 percent. In some of these same communities reside the 6.2 million children who have at least one unemployed parent, a vulnerable population that is not sufficiently covered by our social safety net.
A Lost Generation?
New research shows that the Millennial generation is falling behind their parents in terms of wealth accumulation. There are a host of causes: a big one is massive declines in home prices; another is stagnant wage growth. Our experts debate whether raising the minimum wage is the right next step or whether it would cause more problems than it cures.
There is more to come from MetroTrends. In the coming weeks we’ll write about low-income working families, the real story behind the monthly employment numbers, the Global Millennium Development Goals, and more. Stay tuned.
Filed under: Economy, Government, People, Quality of Life Add a Comment »
and Eugene Steuerle
and Signe-Mary McKernan Sisi Zhang
| Posted: April 2nd, 2013
Our recent study “Lost Generations? Wealth Building among Young Americans” showed that young Americans are falling behind in building wealth. While the average wealth of American households doubled over the last quarter century, people in their 20s and 30s did not share in that growth. The average wealth of 20- and 30-year-olds in 2010 was 7 percent lower than the average wealth of those in their 20s and 30s in 1983. Those who took the largest hit were people ages 29 to 37 in 2010—their wealth fell by 21 percent. Why?
The foreclosure crisis gutted home equity
Lost home equity associated with the housing and foreclosure crisis played the largest role in the wealth declines for those ages 29 to 37. Their home equity fell by an astonishing 65 percent between 2007 and 2010, and a longer-term view also shows large declines in home equity for this group (figure 1). Between 1989 and 2010, home equity fell by nearly half.
People typically buy their first home in their early 30s, so many young adults bought their first home in the years leading up to the housing crash. These homeowners had large mortgages relative to their home value and many ended up in underwater mortgages. Of the young adults able to hang on to their homes, many were unable to take advantage of the low interest rates following the recession because they had little to no home equity, further limiting their ability to save and build wealth.
Ballooning student loan debt played a role
Student loan debts are a smaller but still important part of the story. Student loan debt stands out because it has increased sharply in recent years while all other debts have fallen (figure 2). At roughly $1 trillion in our economy, student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt. For 29–37-year-olds in 1989, it was a relatively small component of debt; for 29–37-year-olds today, it is second only to mortgage debt.
Beyond the burden of paying back student loans, this early debt can have ripple effects, delaying homeownership and saving for retirement, meaning the process of building wealth is delayed.
Credit card debt was not a major factor
What about credit card debt? Is it a key driver in this "lost generation"? The simple answer is no. Credit card debt for younger Americans did rise prior to the Great Recession, following overall trends, but has fallen in recent years. Vehicle loans, business debt, and other types of debt have also fallen since the Great Recession.
Business equity and other assets fell…
Other pieces of the puzzle include drops in non-retirement financial assets and business equity, which were 22 percent and 15 percent lower for 29–37-year-olds in 2010 than in 1989 (figure 1). Non-retirement financial assets and business equity are important components of average wealth for this age group (nearly 30 percent each). However, nearly all young adults have non-retirement financial assets, while only a small minority owned their own businesses (1 in 10 in 2010, down from 1 in 7 in 2007 and 1989).
…but retirement wealth has been stable
On the positive side, the retirement wealth of younger Americans has been relatively stable over the past decade. Those who had their retirement savings invested in stocks and were able keep the money invested benefited from the recent recovery of the stock market. The increase in retirement wealth over the previous decade (figure 1) likely reflects the switch from defined-benefit plan retirement savings (which are not captured in these data) to defined-contribution retirement savings (which are represented in the data).
What steps can 30-somethings take to improve their wealth holdings?
Research shows that even people living below the poverty line can build wealth, so get started. Make saving automatic. Set up automatic deposits into a saving account each pay period for emergencies and into a tax-preferred account for retirement.
Despite the experiences of the Great Recession, homeownership remains a key avenue for wealth building for most Americans over their lifetime. It provides an automatic mechanism for homeowners to build wealth as they pay off the principal on their mortgages and as inflation erodes the real value of their debt, even in the absence of property value appreciation.
What can policymakers do to help?
Policymakers can help by focusing more attention on wealth building among younger households and other low-wealth groups. Reforming the home mortgage interest tax deduction, avoiding high down payment requirements for homeownership, and making higher education more accessible for low- and middle-income families are all important steps to help younger generations.
Filed under: Economy, People 2 Comments »
Erwin de Leon
| Posted: March 26th, 2013
Photo by Simona Combi, Urban Institute
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in two landmark gay rights cases. At issue in Hollingsworth v. Perry is the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 banning same-gender marriage, while in United States v. Windsor, at issue is whether Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law for all citizens.
DOMA’s Section 3 limits marriages to those between a woman and a man. This means that lesbians and gays legally married in states that allow same-sex marriage are denied the 1,138 federal benefits, rights, and privileges enjoyed by couples whose marriages are recognized by the federal government. To date, gay marriage has been recognized in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington, the Coquille Tribe (Oregon), the Suquamish Tribe (Washington), and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (Michigan), but lesbian and gay couples legally married in these states and jurisdictions are not treated equally under federal law.
In 2009, the Tax Policy Center and the Williams Institute held a panel discussion called “The Higher Cost of Being Gay: Life, Death, and Taxes.” As Howard Gleckman wrote,
when it comes to federal taxes the question is not whether you are gay or straight, but whether or not you are married. Depending on the relative income of each spouse, married couples either enjoy a marriage bonus or suffer a marriage penalty. Of course, heterosexuals can choose to marry or not and live with the tax consequences. Gays and lesbians have no such option. Even though a handful of states now recognize gay marriage, for federal tax purposes their marital status is irrelevant.
In short, it costs to be born and married gay. And it’s not just the tax code. Gay couples are denied Social Security, inheritance (i.e., estate tax and retirement savings), and health care benefits taken for granted by their straight counterparts. A few years back, the New York Times estimated the lifetime penalty for a gay couple. In the best case scenario, it would be about $30,000. In the worst case, it comes out to well over $200,000.
Filed under: People 1 Comment »