Sunday, May 31, 2009

Health Care Lotto: Is Your Number Up?

I'm going to come clean right off the top: I grew up Canadian. And people north of the border are born into this world believing that health care is a human right.
Now that my newly unemployed state has made the fear of losing my health coverage very real, I'm getting a taste of the dark side of the American dream. The waking-up-at-3 a.m.-panic of staring into an abyss that's new to me.
So the specter of the state of Washington getting ready to boot 36,000 working poor people off its basic health care plan in the depths of a recession makes me just plain mad.
Smart, well-educated state legislators approved these cuts. Smart, well-educated state officials are now debating the "best" way to do the deed -- called "involuntary dis-enrollment." (Where do they come up with terms like that?)
One option they're considering is to hold a health care lottery. Not your lucky day? You lose. No matter how sick you are.
And that reminded me of Shirley Jackson's chilling short story by the same name. In "The Lottery," the good people of a small, nondescript American town gather every summer to draw lots. The person who picks the piece of paper with the black mark is calmly stoned to death in a ritual meant to ensure a bountiful harvest for all.
It's a story you don't forget.
(Photo: by Bernard Pollack)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Doggie and The Mailman

There's something about the sound of the postal carrier stuffing letters into our mail slot that turns my gentle cockapoo into a yapping maniac.
Six days a week the same scene plays out: thud-thud of footsteps (she races to the front door), rattle-rattle as the mail slot opens (she barks once, twice), rustle-rustle-thunk as the mails falls (woof, Woof WOOF, WOOF, WOOF.)
She only sounds ferocious. If someone came through the door, she'd high-tail it to her crate.
But I know from personal experience that not all dogs are so benign. You couldn't pay me enough to walk up to strange dogs' houses in a blue uniform.
That's because my puppy and I were attacked by a pit bull as we sauntered through our neighborhood three years ago. It came out of nowhere and struck like a guided missile. Both of us suffered bites. Both of us still fear strange dogs.
So I sympathized when the mailman left a brochure announcing National Dog Bite Prevention Week. It said that 3,000 letter carriers were bitten by dogs in 2007.
I read the brochure's tips about what to do when a dog is about to attack: stand like a statue, don't scream, avoid eye contact with the dog, back away when it loses interest.
That might work with some dogs. Pit bulls don't lose interest. Almost one in five dangerous dog citations and warnings are for pit bulls in Seattle.
If I were Mr. Mayor, I'd ban the breed, as Denver has done.
Don't agree? Bite me.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pay Now or Pay Later: Preschool for At-Risk Kids

Governor Chris Gregoire stunned early-learning advocates yesterday with her last-minute veto of part of the education reform bill that would have provided preschool for at-risk 3-and-4-year-olds.
Her reason? She believes all kids deserve access to preschool, not just poor kids. And she pledged to work on that next year.
But one look at the numbers makes her promise look like pie-in-the-sky. Adding preschool to the state's K-12 system for all kids would cost about $1 billion per year vs. the $170 million price tag for just those at risk. That's going to be a tough sell in this economy.
Why not start with the kids who really need it? The ones whose parents can't afford preschool. Who don't get tucked into bed every night hearing Good Night Moon and The Little Engine That Could and five other books. Who arrive at kindergarten so far behind that the odds are against them from day one.
If we don't pay now, we will pay later. These kids will need tutoring to make it through elementary school. By middle school, they'll be acting out in class or daydreaming in the corner because they've given up. By high school, they'll be dropouts.
And the saddest part of all? Missing the chance to tap into the love of learning that shines so brightly in those early years.
(Photo: by Ann Norman)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dinner Table Bonding?

Eating supper together is a ritual at my house. 
Before my son was born, my husband and I lingered over dinner, chatting about politics, work, books. Post-baby, the evening meal became a race to see if we could stuff down our food before all hell broke loose.
But babies grow up. Somewhere in the toddler years mealtime evolved from NATO-style negotiations over what our son would -- and would not -- eat, to the enjoyable routine I had remembered.
So I was interested in the findings of a recent study by Child Trends called the Strengths of Poor Families. It discovered that 63 percent of families living below the poverty level ate together six or more days a week. Only 47% of richer families did that. 
(It wasn't all good news, of course. Poor kids were less likely to have health and dental insurance and their parents read to them less.)
Here's a good reason to make it a priority: teens from families who eat together are less likely to use alcohol, marijuana or tobacco, get suspended from school or end up in big trouble, the study says.
What is it about higher incomes that makes families more likely to skip meals together? Do ballet lessons and soccer and swimming classes take the place of the dinner table? Are parents stuck late at the office earning those extra bucks? Or at the gym working off the stress?
Food for thought.
(Photo: by Edenpictures)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ten Tips for Getting Along With Jobless Friends

Losing your job in the midst of the worst recession since the Dirty Thirties is a little like falling down a rabbit hole. It's easy to feel like your world has shrunk and you are "shutting up like a telescope," as Alice in Wonderland opined after realizing she was only 10 inches tall.
Everything looks different from the vantage point of unemployment. Your life is in limbo. Your plans are on hold. Even friendships get out of sync.
"You should say what you mean," the March Hare went on. 
"I do," Alice hastily replied. "At least -- at least I mean what I say -- that's the same thing, you know." 
"Not the same thing a bit," said the Hatter.
If your conversations with unemployed friends sound like a Mad Tea Party, here are a few tips to help you reconnect:
1. Do reach out. Email, call, check in with them. Job loss leaves you feeling out of step with the busy world.
2. Skip the well-meaning cliches like "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade" and "when one door closes, another opens" and "you're so talented, I'm sure you'll land on your feet." Your friends have already heard them all.
3. Ditto for pep talks about how it took you only a month to find a job when you were laid off in 1999. This recession is a different animal. It's taking much longer to find work of any kind.
4. Don't give unsolicited jobhunting advice. Your friends don't need a career counselor. They need a friend. Let them vent or have a down day without trying to fix it.
5. Do offer your network of potential job contacts and pass on leads. Then step back and let your friends decide what to do with them.
6. Do invite them over for dinner. Going out to a restaurant and a movie is a luxury that ended with the pay check. What matters is spending time together.
7. Practical gestures are huge. Offer to babysit or let them use your photo-copy machine or drive them to the airport or lend a great book. 
8. Don't make job loss the #1 topic. Acknowledge it and move on. Your friends will welcome a break from talking about jobhunting, the terrible economy and whether the recession has bottomed out.
9. Think twice before complaining about that expensive kitchen remodel or the lousy weather on your Caribbean vacation. Your friends might not sympathize.
10. Do keep trying if you hit a rough patch. Your cranky unemployed friends will thank you.
(Photo: by Sarah G.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Surge in Hate Crimes: What Does It Mean?

A Seattle Times article says that hate crimes jumped 27 percent in Washington between 2007 and 2008, according to the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. 
It's the second year in a row that hate crimes increased in our state. Officials suggested it's because more victims are speaking up. 
Could it also be that the recession is stripping away the veneer of tolerance keeping some in check? When things go wrong, people look for scapegoats. Is this a sign of the times?
Academics who have done studies on this are all over the map: some say there's no connection, others disagree. A recent University of Iowa study found a link between economic downturns and higher rates of crime victimization among blacks and Latinos. But the study was looking at more than hate crimes.
What I do know is that words can wound. Hurling racial slurs during a scuffle turns it into something darker. Scrawling anti-gay graffiti on the fence  of a neighbor is more than vandalism.
It adds up to feeling afraid in your own home. To feeling vulnerable when you walk from the bus stop at night. To wondering what you did to deserve such cruelty.
Multiple those feelings times 235 incidents across our state in 2008 and that's a lot of hurt.
(Photo: by Kables)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Hit-And-Miss Relief

A timely article in today's New York Times describes the confusing patchwork of programs Americans hit by this recession must navigate to get government help:
"Aid seekers often find the rules opaque and arbitrary. And officials often struggle to make policy through a system so complex and Balkanized," Perle writes. "Across the country, hard luck is colliding with fine print."
I know what he means. I've found myself snarled in red tape a couple of times in the two months since my newspaper shut down. I won't bore you with the details. But what worries me is that it took persistence and considerable reporting skills to sort things out. What do folks who aren't investigative reporters do?
The article also links to a graphic that shows the differences in levels of state aide.
Washington state ranks somewhere in the middle on several measures of relief to needy individuals and families. We are in the top 10 states for the percentage of poor children and parents that get welfare benefits (32%) but in the bottom 10 states for the share of people eligible for housing subsidies who get them (24%).
The percentage of unemployed in our state who get benefits? Just 40%, a little under the national average.
(Photo: by JDAC)

The Mother In Me

I've been reading a book called "The Maternal is Political," an inspiring collection of essays by writers about motherhood and social change.
"If my life as the mother of three children has taught me one thing, it's that there is no more powerful political act than mothering," wrote editor Shari Macdonald Strong in her book's introduction.
It made me think back to the days before I became a mom. I was covering social issues for a daily newspaper -- a beat I'd launched because stories about child welfare and poverty and domestic violence rarely got any press. I wrote about emaciated toddlers and babies born brain-damaged to glue-sniffing moms. About little ones shuttled between six foster homes by the time they turned two. I made sure the stories landed on the front page. Maybe, somehow, it would help.
Then I got pregnant. As every new mother discovers, there's something about a pregnant belly that prompts lots of unsolicited advice. One common theme was this: "You won't be able to write about child abuse when your son is born. It will be too hard," people warned. I wondered if they were right.
My beautiful, brown-eyed son arrived on an early-summer day almost 14 years ago, initiating me into heady, exhausting new motherhood. Ten months of maternity leave whizzed by and too soon it was time to go back to work.
My editor called just before my return to suggest I switch to a new beat, partly to fill a gap and partly because she assumed I would want a change. 
My reaction was more mother-lion than rational: I was furious. How could she even think about getting rid of the beat?
That was the moment I knew -- becoming a mother had deepened not eradicated my commitment to telling these stories. Having a baby had schooled me, moment by moment, in the absolute vulnerability of new life: cupping my hand against the tender spot on my son's fuzzy head; answering his fierce cries of hunger; rocking him for hours when nothing else could comfort.
My editor chocked up my emotional reaction to maternal hormones and gave me back the beat. 
(Photo: by Alexis O'Connor)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Child Welfare Turmoil

Two government reports came out this week responding to chronic complaints about the state child welfare office in Colville, a town of 5,000 in northeast Washington. 
The reports are disheartening reading for anyone who cares about protecting vulnerable kids and their families. 
The title of the first says it all: Loss of Trust: A Crisis of Confidence in the Child Welfare System in Colville.  It's a report by Mary Meinig, director of the state's Office of the Family & Children's Ombudsman. Her office spent almost a year investigating after state Rep. Joel Kretz raised concerns about how that office was handling child abuse cases.
The 86-page report cites cases in which child welfare workers "did not comply with law or policy." But even more troubling was "a culture of pervasive distrust" between child welfare staff and medical, legal and community professionals.
The result? Delays in investigations, foster kids moved unnecessarily and children caught in the middle of adult power struggles.
Read the report to find out what Meinig recommends -- starting with making the adults sort out their disputes in mediation. And giving foster parents more voice in what happens to the kids they take in.
The second report is an internal investigation of the Colville mess by the Children's Administration of the Department of Social and Health Services. Officials admit there's been a "systemic lack of communication and cooperation" and are working on a solution.
Let's hope so. For the sake of the kids.
(Photo: by abkfenris)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Mondays After

In the old days, say two months ago, my Monday mornings went like this: run to the bus stop, catch a #18 to work and sip an Americano while savoring that peaceful hour before the newsroom began to hum.
Yesterday I found myself huddled in a lecture hall at North Seattle Community College with four dozen other newly unemployed. Scrawled on the board at the front were the words: "Welcome to Unemployment Insurance Reemployment Orientation." Only a bureaucrat could have come up with that. 
Clutching my Americano, I slid into a hard plastic seat in the front row. I never sit at the front. But one of my former P-I buddies had tipped me off that the front row gets finished sooner.
The earnest lady running the meeting began with a question: "How many of you have never been on unemployment before? Or at least not for many years?" More than half of us raised our hands. I saw kids who didn't look old enough to be there and white-haired folks who thought they'd be retired by now.
She pointed to our information booklets and launched into an hour-long lecture about How Not To Lose Your Weekly Benefit Check Before You Find a Job. 
A photo of a fierce tiger glared at me from the cover of my booklet. A tiger? Hmmm. My mind wandered. What could this mean? I remembered that perky old Esso ad, "Put a Tiger in your Tank." Was the photo some kind of subliminal message? It looked like all of us could use a tiger in our tanks.
Thirty minutes in, the earnest lady twirled her neck scarf and launched into Tough Talk. You MUST be available for work and make at least THREE job contacts a week to file a claim, she warned. Subtext: Don't even think about going on vacation while on the dole. 'Cause if they catch you, kiss your benefits goodbye. 
I waved my hand and asked for clarification. How did she define a job contact? Could I email an employer about a job and count it as a contact if  the person responded? She frowned, paused and said she wasn't sure. My question had her stumped. The reporter in me couldn't help smiling.
The final part of the session was a "one-to-one" chat with the earnest lady. My front-row seat meant I was third in line. She handed me two job openings. I glanced at one of them. My heart sank. It paid half of what I was making two months ago.
I hurried out the door and drove like a bat out of hell to a Ballard coffee shop where a group of former P-I colleagues has gathered every Monday morning since our first, sad Monday after.
 When I explained why I was late, they smiled knowingly and made room in the circle.
(Photo: by Clyde Robinson)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Giving Back

The ad on caught my eye: "Corporate recruiter looking to help those in the community." She was offering free help reviewing resumes and developing jobhunting strategies.
One soft spring morning last week I met with Noele and her puppy at a local cafe. We sat outside, sipping coffee and soaking up a rare bit of sunshine.
It turned out that Noele is also unemployed, laid off from a private equity firm late last year. As a corporate recruiter, she knows what employers are looking for. And she has time on her hands. So Noele is giving back.
An hour later, I'd gleaned some great tips on polishing my resume and a bit more insight into how recruiters think.
Don't be afraid to call an employer back and ask for feedback if you don't get a job, she said. Be persistent but polite. The more you network, the better. About 20 percent of the people she hired came to her attention through personal connections.
But advice wasn't all Noele shared. She lifted my spirits with her gift of time. She listened well. And reminded me that hard times reveal a community's heart.
(Photo: by Sukanto Debnath)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Kids Paying the Price

King 5 report on child abuse cites a disturbing statistic: three times as many kids have been admitted this year at Seattle Children's Hospital because of abuse-related brain injuries than last year.
"All parents are stressed," Dr. Frank Rivara, a Children's Hospital pediatrics professor, told King 5. "And there's a lot who are very stressed because they've lost their jobs and lost their homes."
The story includes a link to a new video with tips on coping with a crying baby and other pressures of new parenthood.
It's a fact of life that when we're struggling we take it out on those closest to us. Bad day at work? Snap at your spouse. Health insurance reject your claim? Yell at the dog. 
Didn't get the job interview? Slam your toddler hard enough to inflict a head injury? I think it's more complex than that.
 Physical violence is a learned response. We learn how to parent from our own parents. If they believed that a good smack was the way to quiet a whining toddler, then you are more likely to do the same. The more you do it, the easier it gets. A guilty habit. And then on that very bad, awful, terrible day when you get laid off and a car rear-ends you in traffic and your baby won't stop crying and you've had a few beers?
It's easy to judge parents who harm their kids. I've interviewed moms and dads who have done things that will haunt them forever -- and put them behind bars.
So what can we do? We need to learn new ways of disciplining our kids before things get out of control. To foster a culture where corporal punishment isn't OK and parents have somewhere to turn in a crisis. To pay for great programs like public health nurses who visit low-income moms and their babies.
To reach out to parents of young kids we know and give them a break by offering to babysit. To call someone in a financial tailspin and take them out for coffee. To nod when they say they're fine and then ask again. 
(Photo: by D. Sharon Pruitt)