May 12, 2009

National Poverty News Roundup for 12 May

Amidst what is becoming the ordinary, steady flow of stories about rising demand and lower supply for food banks across the country, and the stories about local businesses pitching in to donate from their (steadily diminishing) surplus stocks and motivated groups and extraordinary individuals doing their part to raise awareness, and the continual reminders that this is a tough job market for everyone, including recent college grads, a few items shone through this week.

First is the increasing media sophistication when it comes to discussing the lives of the poor and homeless in the United States. Going beyond simple sentimentalism, there are increasing number of nuanced treatments of the everyday experience of the economically marginalized, such as this series (the link is to Part One; other parts to follow) on "the new homeless" from the Charlotte Observer. Also noteworthy is a recent NPR Living on Earth story on "food deserts" in urban areas, which draws the connection between poverty and health in a novel and compelling way.

Second is the kind of new thinking that can sometimes arise in a crisis, when researchers and activists step beyond conventional wisdom to tackle problems in novel ways. Witness, for example, recent initiatives in green affordable housing in New York City; Sustainable South Bronx, an advocacy organization solidly supporting such efforts, links environmental justice and economic development in creative ways that perhaps hold the potential to address multiple facets of poverty simultaneously. Or consider the intriguing new research on the neurology of poverty, which continues to look for effects of low and high socioeconomic status on educational outcomes in children in the functioning of specific areas of the brain; while it has not done so, the research has clearly indicated that "language aptitude is . . . damaged by poverty" and that therefore policies need to be designed to "decrease some of the neurophysiological strain of poverty."

Finally, the increasing sophistication of the public policy debate about planning for the future is marvelous to behold. Should fuel taxes pay for alternative transportation with the Highway Trust Fund under considerable strain? one forum asks, and invites a variety of experts to weigh in on the issue. Foreign aid reform is also proceeding. and thanks to online tools like we can now track the progress of bills through committee hearings and floor debates more closely than ever before. It's a new chapter in government accountability, in many ways; will that openness and transparency help to produce more creative solutions?

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