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Homeless Veterans and Suicide

Sleeping bagIn Florida, at any given time, there are 10 or 12 homeless encampments in the general area of Tampa. The estimated 2,200 inhabitants include an estimated 170 veterans. Reporter Kevin Brady quotes Thomas Brown, who is an outreach coordinator for the organization Tampa Crossroads:

There’s a perception out there that homeless veterans are all drug addicts and alcoholics but that is not the way it is.

Brady also quotes a vet known as Ray, who returned from overseas to find that his second marriage had crumbled and he couldn’t get a job. Here is the part that pertains to suicide:

I volunteered for my second deployment for one reason: to die.

The InterAgency Council on Homelessness says there are more than 62,000 homeless veterans in the country. Depending on whose numbers you accept, between 13% and 25% of people experiencing homelessness in the America are veterans.

Whatever the percentage is now, the Veterans’ Affairs Office foresees that it will rise in the next four years, to where half the homeless will be vets. Among all known suicides, the VA guesses that about 22% of them are veterans. A lot of people are working on solutions to both the homelessness and the suicide rate.

Teresa Shumaker of the Mendocino Beacon interviewed the author of The Warrior’s Mantra, a book whose audience includes emergency services personnel. Roger Ruge is a former law enforcement officer who became a crisis intervention counselor. His method of teaching people to condition their minds and avoid post-traumatic stress involves positive affirmations and mantras.

Shumaker obtained this quotation from Ruge, about veteran suicides:

There is the stigma associated with [seeking help]. There is also this distrust and really long waiting period… Plus, [they] have the warrior mindset. The warrior mindset is, ‘I can take of myself.’ They don’t want to admit that there is a problem, because that is admitting there is a weakness… You have this culture of people who don’t want to seek help in the first place, and then a system that is broken, overwhelmed and can’t really help them… When you are having acute symptoms, you need help right now which is why the suicide rate is so high.

National Survey of Homeless Veterans

Interested parties can download a PDF report compiled by the National Survey of Homeless Veterans. The latest numbers available to work with were from 2011, so there will probably be an updated report soon. The 100,000 Homes campaign added up information gathered by volunteers in 47 communities, from more than 23,000 people experiencing homelessness.

They found that veterans tend to be older and to have been homeless longer than civilians. They are more likely to be sick, and more likely to have traumatic brain injury. This organic physical damage is different from, and may co-exist with, PTSD, which is psychological trauma.

The report compared the situations of homeless veterans who are hooked up with the system, and those who are not. Whatever help people are receiving doesn’t seem to make much difference in regard to their health, except that fewer homeless veterans have Hepatitis C than the non-veterans. The report says:

The data […] suggest that VA health benefits alone do not improve the health outcomes in question for veterans, nor do they help veterans escape homelessness more quickly.

Interestingly, there was no significant difference in length of time homeless between these two groups. Neither was there any significant difference in the health, jail, prison or other data…

Strangely, the report doesn’t contain the word “suicide.”

Reactions?

Source: “Missing In America – Homeless Veterans,” The Current, 05/30/13
Source: “Retired officer shares his knowledge on homelessness…,The Mendocino Beacon, 05/23/13
Source: “National Survey of Homeless Veterans, ” 100khomes.org
Image by fullyreclined (don toye).

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Veterans and Suicide, Part 3

Main Street BeggingSuicide among active-duty military personnel has been a much-discussed topic in the past couple of years. The Department of Defense has a system in place that records suicide data from all branches, and the information is available month by month. They don’t wait until the end of the year to tally up and release the total.

Still, the numbers are uncertain, because authorities are not always sure what happened. Here is a sample from a government press release:

For 2012, there have been 182 potential active-duty suicides: 130 have been confirmed as suicides and 52 remain under investigation… For 2012, there have been 143 potential not on active-duty suicides (96 Army National Guard and 47 Army Reserve): 117 have been confirmed as suicides and 26 remain under investigation.

This is just the Army. Though statistics from the other branches are compiled they are hard to find. And even concerning the Army, it is perhaps not widely realized that the category of “not on active duty” (in the reserves) is counted separately from active duty.

Speaking of the National Guard, some journalists conscientiously keep track. For ABC15 News, Lori Jane Gliha reported on one particular group of nearly 200 Arizona soldiers who had been sent to Iraq together. In 2006, only some of them came back. Gliha wrote:

It was a long, tough deployment. Thirty-six members received Purple Hearts and two were killed in Iraq… Since their return, the unit has lost twice as many soldiers to suicide.

After Discharge

Likewise, “not on active duty” is of course different from discharged. When it comes to veterans, no matter who collects the data, or how, it is bound to be approximate. For one thing, death certificates don’t always note whether the person was a veteran, nor do they always specify that the death was by suicide. The federal government gets its statistics from death certificates, so it only know as much as those documents tell. The latest report from the VA’s Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program (59 pages) can be found in downloadable PDF format.

Compiled by Janet Kemp and Robert Bossarte, this report got its information from the State Mortality Project, Suicide Behavior Reports, and the Veterans Crisis Line. Until the system is really up and running, the information only comes in from 21 states. Even more discouraging, the states that have so far caught up with the reporting requirements do not include California and Texas, both of which contain vast numbers of military veterans. So the figures are derived from less than half of the states, and extrapolated to the nation as a whole. In other words, the veteran suicide total is a wild guess.

More Perspectives

Writer Pat Shannan looks at the problem from another angle:

Using figures from the National Violent Death Reporting System, Portland State University noted that male veterans kill themselves twice as often as their civilian counterparts and that female veterans are three times more likely to commit suicide than civilian women… Figures gleaned from the two wars showed while 6,460 died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 11 years, those United States soldiers who died by their own hand is estimated to be greater than that.

In a little over a decade, more active-duty soldiers took their own lives than were killed in combat. (Has this happened ever in history?) The veteran suicide rate is estimated to be about 8,000 per year, which breaks down to 22 per day, which translates to almost one every hour! Among them, Vietnam veterans are still very present. They sometimes refuse to seek help. At-risk vets who have started the process of seeking help for suicide prevention, sometimes don’t follow up. In Psychology Today, Eric Newhouse wrote about the total number of suicides in America for the time period:

Of the 60 year olds, only 8.1 percent were civilians, but 16.5 percent were vets and 19.6 percent participated in the VA system. Of the 70 year olds, only 4.6 percent were civilians, but 18.6 percent were vets and 20 percent participated in the VA system.

In other words, even though one out of five of those older vets were hooked up with the system, it apparently was not able to prevent their self-destruction. This is bitter news.

Collateral Damage

The Military Suicide Research Consortium (MSRC) is an entity created by the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Florida State University, and funded by a $17-million Department of Defense grant. The MSRC’s mandate is to integrate the powers of both governmental and civilian agencies, to turn this trend of military suicide around. It is headed by a colonel and assisted by a military advisory board, so, as the saying goes, “consider the source.” Is it a cosmetic effort to make a bad situation look better?

Apparently not. The MSRC does not seem to be trying to hide a thing. Via its website, a large number of “white papers” are available for consultation, including studies of the efficacy of herbs and nutritional supplements for suicide prevention, and other surprising topics. Also, the site contains such headlines as:

Survivor Suicides: Alarming trend of family members committing suicide after service members die in battle.

Yes, the collateral damage includes the relatives and spouses of the direct-combat casualties. There is yet another layer of complication to cope with, as military courts struggle with the question of whether a suicide attempt by an active-duty service member is a prosecutable crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Furthermore, those who are considering suicide may be reluctant to seek the help they need because if they live, the unfavorable notations on their permanent records will hinder however much of their military career remains. Another unwelcome surprise is the knowledge that personnel who were assigned to more covert activities when on active duty in, for instance, Iraq and Afghanistan, have an even harder time getting help than the average service member.

When it comes to the next subcategory we will consider, homeless veteran suicides, the numbers are even more fuzzy. As far as anybody knows right now, about 62,000 veterans are experiencing homelessness. Although both the Veterans Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development collect data, accuracy is frustratingly elusive. When the suicide of any homeless person is reported to the national database, information about the individual’s military service is provided (or not) to the staff of the funeral home by the family, if there is any family. For many homeless suicides, such information is simply unavailable.

Reactions?

Source: “Army Releases December 2012 and Calendar Year 2012 Suicide Information,” Defense.gov, 02/01/13
Source: “Arizona National Guard soldiers slipping through cracks as veteran suicide rates rise,” ABC15.com, 04/16/13
Source: “Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program,” VA.gov, 2012
Source: “Military Suicides Hit Epidemic Levels,” American Free Press, 03/27/13
Source: “Soaring Vets’ Suicide Rates,” Psychology Today, 03/06/13
Source: “About the Military Suicide Research Consortium,” MSRC
Image by Greg Watt.

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Veterans and Suicide, Part 2

vet“Wait, what?” — is one thing that you’re apt to exclaim, when you can’t believe what you just heard. For instance, on being told that it could take nearly two years for the VA to make a decision about treating her physical disability or psychological problem, a veteran might say, “Wait, what?” — and then probably a whole lot of rougher words.

Coming “back to the world,” a male veteran might learn that he is an expectant father, when that is a biological impossibility. A veteran of either sex might return to find that the promised sweetheart gave up on waiting, and hooked up with his or her best friend. Anybody can come back and face the grim reality that their step-parent got tired of storing their few possessions, and pitched everything — music, high school yearbooks, civilian clothes — in the dumpster.

Although the government is very optimistic about “transferable skills,” anecdotal evidence to the contrary seems to pop up all over the place. We previously mentioned Matt Farwell, whose 4.5 years of military service “provided plenty of skills with no legal application in the civilian world.”

Even with an eminently useful specialty, the returning vet may find protectionist policies that require training as if from the very beginning, in order to be certified. And whether veteran or not, many people these days have learned that a minimum-wage job does not provide a living wage.

The “Wait, what?” reaction kicks in frequently for returning veterans who discover a series of unpleasant surprises in a place that is not the America to which they dreamed of returning. Meanwhile, during all this turmoil, something else might be going on, as Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless suggests:

It is during that first year after discharge that the demons flood their minds and they relive over and over and over again the most horrific and unimaginable events of their lives.

Huge disconnect

If that isn’t enough to handle already, what if the person has a medical condition or an emotional breakdown? After initial contact with the VA system, the average wait, to resolve a first-time claim, is between 316 and 327 days. The latest figures finger Reno, NV, as the worst place, with an average time gap of 681 days. New York, at 642 days, is not far behind.

Normally, the things that tie a person to the world and prevent suicide are few and simple. A person wants to have the sense of belonging, and as if life has some purpose, or at the very least, to feel useful somehow. And the average person who isn’t a veteran probably avoids death and pain.

Now, the veteran. The average military member has formed very close ties to other members of the unit, especially in combat. Back in the USA, that sense of belonging is gone. Faced by unemployment or underemployment, especially if unable to find a place to live, a person is likely to feel useless. Live or die, it makes no difference to the world. And having gained a tolerance for pain and a close acquaintance with death, a person might lose inhibitions about those conditions. In a mental state like this, suicide looks like a viable alternative.

The real costs of war

Some are discarded and forgotten; some are simply beyond the point of being able to accept even the most generous and well-meaning help. Either way, veterans who take their own lives make up a big portion of the real cost of war, and it’s difficult to get a clear perception of just how many such lost souls there are. Turn the clock back five years, to a news item about the same bureaucrat who said “Suicide occurs just like cancer occurs”:

William Feeley, the Veterans Health Administration’s deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management, said in an April 9 deposition that VA did not have a metric to track suicides or attempts. He added that he could not recall a time since he took office in February 2006 when VA had conducted a quarterly review of suicides or attempts…

The VA started to focus on suicide prevention in 2007, but only through connection with its own hospitals and clinics. Statistics were not a huge concern. In 2010, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asked for cooperation from the governors of every state in getting suicide data on veterans outside the Veterans Administration health care system. Problems with access to data contained in the National Death Index needed straightening out. VA records needed to be melded with those of the Department of Defense, and there were yet more numbers to obtain from the Veterans Crisis Line and Suicide Behavior Reports. The project is underway, but as we will see next time, the system hasn’t caught up yet.

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

Source: “Back in the World — Homeless Veterans,” HouseTheHomeless.org, 05/14/13
Source: “Over 600,000 veterans caught in messy bureaucracy awaiting pending claims,” NYDailyNews.com, 05/07/13
Source: “VA Official Says veterans’ suicides not reflection of agency negligence,” GovExec.com, 05/05/08
Source: “Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program,” VA.cov, 2012
Image by weStreet (Werner Schutz).

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Veterans and Suicide

H StreetIn The New York Times earlier this month, Tara Parker-Pope summarized the data on suicide in America, as compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, and also sought confirmation from an expert that the number of people taking their own lives is vastly underreported.

What we do know is that “More people now die of suicide than in car accidents.” The first question that comes to mind is, how can statisticians treat those categories as separate? Surely, a proportion of auto accident fatalities are deliberate and successful attempts at self-extinction. There must be an overlap.

Anyway, the suicide rate has risen most among the “baby boomer” generation. A CDC official theorized, “There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices…”

Interestingly, the demographic includes Vietnam veterans and the widows and bereaved girlfriends of Vietnam casualties. Maybe that is the “something” that makes a difference. And the most popular means of suicide, overall, is by gunshot. Active duty military personnel and veterans of all ages are more likely to have access to, and knowledge of, firearms than the general population. Just sayin’.

Speaking of bureaucrats, remember when William Feeley, who was at the time an undersecretary at the Veterans Administration, said:

Suicide occurs just like cancer occurs.

But negligence on the part of the bureaucracy? Never happens, according to him. Still, two veterans’ groups sued the VA, claiming that the Mental Health Strategic Plan, supposedly adopted in 2004, was never implemented. The VA failed to follow through on providing immediate help for vets with PTSD and/or suicide risk. Shockingly, the Justice Department ruled there is “no such expectation” of a suicide prevention program or anything like it.

In the same year, journalist Joshua E. S. Phillips recalled what the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study had found out about post-traumatic stress disorder. The inner conflicts and moral and spiritual trauma experienced by veterans is perhaps worst among those who took part in “abusive violence” — defined as “torturing, wounding, or killing hostages or POWs.” The psychological consequences can be more serious than those resulting from combat violence.

Phillips wrote that informational piece as background for an American RadioWorks project he collaborated on with Michael Montgomery, titled “What Killed Sergeant Gray.” The 23-year-old had been in Iraq for a year, and apparently wanted to return there. But for some reason, he was found dead in the barracks and the event was declared by the Army to be accidental; it happened because the young man was trying to get high off some toxic chemical.

Maybe so. But it is known that Adam Gray had things on his mind. He and a small group of soldiers had opened fire on an Iraqi family, killing one parent and a little girl, to make sure they were not planting any bombs. He had also participated in detainee abuse. So who knows. One thing is for sure, there are an awful lot of equally troubling individual histories.

Around the same time, there was plenty of public attention for the story of James Blake Miller, the so-called “Marlboro Marine,” made world-famous by the photojournalism of Luis Sinco. Miller’s troubled and problematic road back to some semblance of normalcy put a human face on the abstraction of PTSD for many Americans who had previously ignored the problem.

In other news, Bob Ireland, mental health policy program director for the Department of Defense, reassured the public:

… [F]or the person who’s suffering, if they’re coming to the edge of suicide […] they always have a choice to engage in what the real issues are or not. And the support for them is there…

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of vets found that, actually, support was not there. The Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth didn’t give up. In 2011, reporter Jason Leopold tells us, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared that:

… [Y]ears of ‘unchecked incompetence’ at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was directly responsible for an epidemic of suicides and lengthy delays in processing disability benefits for war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)… Internal VA memos that surfaced during the trial showed VA officials were aware of and attempted to cover-up the fact that 18 veterans per day took their own lives and more than 1,000 veterans had attempted suicide per month…

Two years ago, the federal government settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the family of an Iraq war veteran who hung himself in his parents’ basement in June 2005 after being turned away by doctors at a VA hospital in Massachusetts where he sought help for PTSD.

That one case alone drained the taxpayers of $350,000 plus litigation costs. Wouldn’t it have been more economical to just treat the guy? Now, multiply that by 18 known and admitted veteran suicides per day — all potentially courtroom fodder. And the money is the least of it. What about the lives?

The director of emergency psychiatry at one VA hospital, Dr. Marcus Nemuth, said in a deposition that:

[…] he expected a high volume of post-traumatic stress disorder cases among veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

That was more than six years ago. How come so few others, even now, have caught on to this obvious fact?

(To be continued…)

Reactions?

Source: “Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in U.S.,” The New York Times, 05/02/13
Source: “VA Official Says veterans’ suicides not reflection of agency negligence,” GovExec.com, 05/05/08
Source: “Inside the Mind of a Torturer,” PublicRadio.org, 10/18/08
Source: “What Killed Sergeant Gray,” PublicRadio.org, 01/10
Source: “Court Demands Mental Health Care Reform for Veterans,” Truth-Out.org, 05/13/11
Image by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo).

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Back in the World — Homeless Veterans

Richard McFarthingThe expression was born in Vietnam, a surreal place so different from accustomed reality that many American military personnel spent their whole tour of duty in a state of disorientation. “The world” was anyplace that wasn’t Vietnam, and they longed to return to it, only to find, once they got back, that the USA was even more impossible to cope with.

Things haven’t changed much. Veterans are 50% more likely to experience homelessness than Americans who were not in the armed forces. They tend to stay homeless longer than non-veterans , and are more likely to develop life-threatening medical conditions. They are also more likely to die on the streets.

William Jackson, of the National Association of Black Veterans, has mentioned another facet of the overall problem that is not often called to mind — the fact that many now-homeless vets were not full-time active duty military when they went to Iraq or Afghanistan:

A lot of National Guard soldiers were sent to this war. Many of them only had income from their drill checks before they went off to war. When they come back home, they still have nothing.

What they do have, in many cases, is post-traumatic stress disorder or mental illness.

Faces of Veteran Homelessness

University of Virginia undergraduate Matt Farwell is an accomplished writer whose account of being a 27-year-old homeless vet was published by The New York Times in October of 2011. His biography and resume don’t fit anybody’s stereotypical picture of a homeless guy, and during his time on the streets he kept up a successful facade. This is, in fact, one of the problems with any kind of official census of homeless veterans. One way or another, many of them fly under or above the radar. He writes:

Four and a half years in the Army, including 16 months as an infantryman in eastern Afghanistan, provided plenty of skills with no legal application in the civilian world. It was, however, wonderful preparation for being homeless.

He had lost two close friends in Afghanistan, along with his brother, who was also in the military. A comrade who had likely saved Farwell’s life died of an overdose a year after discharge. One of his former NCOs committed “suicide by cop” after returning stateside. Farwell himself lost his balance for a while, but formed a determination to be treated by a highly regarded VA Facility in California, and received the help he needed to get back on track. He says:

Memories […] helped keep me alive and sane amid the boredom, ennui, confused terror and brief moments of adrenaline-fueled elation of combat — a euphoric sense of zen-like calm and focus that’s better than any drug I’ve ever tried or heard about — but they’ve been doing their damnedest to kill me and my friends since we got back.

The top of Matt Farwell’s Twitter page says, “Turns out I’m not dead, despite what you heard.”

For more individual stories, please consult the documentary “Street Vets,” made by Issac Goeckeritz. One of the homeless vets he interviewed, Eugene Morris, told the filmmaker:

I was severely depressed, and I tried to wreck myself. I tried suicide, and I was addicted to drugs…

Morris was one of the lucky ones, fortunate enough to find First Step House in Salt Lake City, and to find within himself the resources to make use of the opportunity.

Young and Combat-Ready

During 2011, the overall number of homeless vets was said to drop by 7% or thereabouts, but the number of specifically Afghanistan war veterans more than doubled in that time period. Again, the Veterans Administration admitted that the number could be higher because not everyone reports in. For USA TODAY, Gregg Zoroya pointed out an attention-getting statistic concerning folks returned from Afghanistan and the other most recent war, Iraq. Around 70% have had combat exposure, as compared to somewhere around 20% to 30% amongst the total number of homeless veterans.

Psychologically, that can make a big difference. Even if it can be shown that the total number of homeless vets has decreased, the population includes a larger proportion of unstable and volatile personalities than ever before — belonging to relatively young people — which makes it even more essential to help them reintegrate into society. Because the alternatives are not attractive.

The President and the VA

Running for reelection, Barack Obama said:

When you take off the uniform, we will serve you as well as you’ve served us, because no one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job or a roof over their head or the care that they need when they come home.

Sounds good. Maybe there will come a day when vets no longer have to file class-action lawsuits against the Veterans Administration, to force the bureaucracy to stop ignoring post-traumatic stress disorder and brain trauma and the devastating long-term effects of Agent Orange.

A extraordinarily humane story by Kyle Martin for The Augusta Chronicle brought to light some of the daily struggles faced by veterans on the streets:

  • Inability to escape the summer heat, which is exacerbated by some medications.
  • The public library’s locked restrooms and habit of throwing out anyone caught asleep.
  • The extreme difficulty of getting around, and defending oneself from attack, in a wheelchair, whether manual or electric.
  • Walking or wheeling a chair to a soup kitchen can use up as many calories as the food provides.
  • Meals often contain pork or other foods that those with restricted diets can’t eat, making a wasted trip and even more depletion of bodily strength.
  •  Additional danger from attackers who want to steal pills, which veterans lucky enough to receive some kind of treatment will probably be carrying.
  • Long hold times when calling the VA hospital, using up precious phone minutes, and the difficulty of being notified about appointments without an address or phone.

One of the comments appended to Martin’s article castigated fellow veterans who have managed to get their lives back and feel free to criticize the homeless:

In combat we, I never left anyone behind but now that you are ‘back in the world’ it is ok for you to abandon your brothers in arms.

Reactions?

Source: “Veterans 50 Percent More Likely To Be Homeless, Study Shows,” The Huffington Post, 02/10/11
Source: “More Black War Veterans Ending Up Homeless,” BlackAmericaWeb.com, 11/11/10
Source: “Back Home, and Homeless,” The New York Times, 10/05/11
Source: “Unknown soldiers: Documentary follows Ogden’s homeless vets,” Standard.net, 01/30/11
Source: “Number of homeless veterans explodes,” USA TODAY, 07/26/11
Source: “Homeless in the Home of the Brave,” The Huffington Post, 09/14/12
Source: “Conditions dire for homeless veterans,” The Augusta Chronicle, 05/30/11
Image by EsotericSapience.

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Uninformed Forbes Blogger: “The Minimum Wage: More Baloney”

William Dunkleberg

William Dunkelburg, contributor to the Forbes magazine and author of The Minimum Wage: More Baloney, is a special kind of elitist. He is out of step with the times, economists, the Small Business Administration, and the special symbiotic relationship between employers and employees.

He starts off by reflecting upon the small business majority (SBM): “Scientific opinion polls show small business strongly supports raising the minimum wage.” Rather than realizing that countless minimum wage myths been debunked and abandoned as so much “baloney,” he clings to sophomoric perspectives and attacks poll methodologies while ignoring common sense.

For example, on the Small Business Administration website, we found a report by Amy Knaup, “Survival and Longevity in the Business Employment and Dynamics Data Base,” that determined that by the end of the fourth year, 64% of all new business startups fail. The report goes on to announce that by the end of the fifth year, a 90% failure rate occurs.

When examining these failed small business plans, House the Homeless suggests that while adequate attention may be paid to manufacturing, advertisement, transportation, warehousing, etc., when it comes to their minimum-wage workers (restaurant workers, construction laborers, janitors, day care aids, store clerks, bank tellers, fast food workers, theater attendants, farm workers, receptionists, maids, poultry processors, garage attendants, retail salespeople, car washers, manicurists, ambulance drivers, landscape workers, data entry processors, elder care aids, security guards, infant care workers, warehouse, general laborers, etc.), the businesses are setting themselves up to fail by paying less than a stabilizing wage.

They are paying less than a living wage: enough to simply pay for a basic food, clothing, and shelter. That “penny wise and pound foolish” practice destabilizes the business. Many, many small businesses see the pool of unemployed workers as an endless resource for employment. The reality is that the resulting employee turnover attacks the business’ bottom line in terms of retraining costs that are exorbitant. House the Homeless has estimated this to be in the billions of dollars. (See book:  Looking Up at the Bottom Line.)

Furthermore, by paying a stabilizing wage (a living wage), we can drastically reduce taxpayer subsidies in the form of excess food stamps, general assistance, temporary assistance to needy families, Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Medi-cal, etc., which can also result in billions of dollars in savings to taxpayers. (Again, see book: Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage).

Mr. Dunkelburg is correct in that study after study has shown that increased wages to minimum-wage workers have been spent right back into the economy. What he does not realize is that due to businesses paying less than living wages since the 1980s, over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers now needlessly comprise a portion of 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness in this nation. 

Upon passage of the Universal Living Wage, these American workers will instantly be empowered to return to the workforce. Additionally, they all need the same thing: affordable housing. The American housing construction industry, both locally and nationally, will leap at the opportunity to create the affordable housing that this population will again be able to afford.

Mr. Dunkelburg states that: “And geography matters, the minimum wage goes a lot further in Ohio than in New York City.” His core thought is correct but he fails to realize the broader implication and the need to create a stabilized workforce.

The United State Military has adjusted its pay system from Variable Housing Allowance (VHA) to Base Housing Allowance (BAH), recognizing that it costs different amounts to live in different areas of the country, and you must pay accordingly in order to have an economically stable workforce. Similarly, the federal government now pays “Locality Pay” to acknowledge the varying costs and the need to pay living wages, so as to stabilize the workforce across the board.

Mr. Dunkleberg then presents an elaborate (if skewed) observation that there are fewer teenage minimum-wage workers and then makes the assumption that that is due to increases in the minimum wage. The moral standard is to pay a fair wage for a fair day’s work. If the worker successfully completes the unit of work, then it does not matter if they are 17 or 71. It is, however, the prerogative of the employer who is hired, but we don’t discriminate against anyone.

In closing, Mr. Dunkelburg states, “High labor costs ultimately show up in higher prices.” He follows with, “All in all, raising the minimum wage is poor policy.”

An example of the non-inflationary relationship between wages and the cost of goods can be found in the1996 survey report entitled: “Think Again:  A Wage and Price Survey of Denver Area Fast Food Restaurants.” The survey focused on four national fast food chains: Arby’s, Burger King, McDonalds, and Taco Bell. The lowest-paid Arby’s employees were found at a franchise charging the second highest price for a meal. Conversely, a Taco Bell, while paying $1.50 per hour above other restaurants for starting wages, had the lowest food prices among the 12 other Taco Bells restaurants surveyed. Overall, the study showed that just because wages rise, there is not, and does not have to be, a corresponding increase in prices.

It would appear that the rise is more of a question of what the market will bear, not what the consumer will tolerate. This is not to say that there will not be economic pressures of an inflationary nature. However, minimum-wage workers deserve to be paid a wage that will afford them a roof over their heads other than a bridge. They are just seeking the bare minimum to afford basic food, clothing, and shelter (such as an efficiency apartment).

Large employers may need to learn to live with a little less profit, and small employers may need to learn to grow at a much more reasonable rate, but by paying a living wage, they will have a stable workforce that may well ensure their business’ survival. At the same time, a generalized increased demand for goods, and a new reasonable profit share, will protect the business’ bottom line from being negatively affected by wage increases that afford their employees a minimal existence.

Source: “The Minimum Wage: More Baloney,” Forbes, 04/29/2013

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Heroes on the Homeless Front

Homeless man in my basementTwenty years ago, Dr. Roseanna Means looked around Boston and didn’t much care for what she saw — homeless women on the streets. She started volunteering at homeless health clinics, and in 1998 started her own nonprofit, Women of Means, which now encompasses a team of 16 volunteer doctors who collectively chalk up 10,000 professional visits per year with women experiencing homelessness.

For CBS News, Elaine Quijano learned what inspired such activism. Dr. Means told the reporter:

When I see these women, I see this could be me, it could be you, It could it could be any one of us, because there’s nobody that goes through life without having any problems. My own personal life, I’ve been through cancer, I lost a child, I’ve been through divorce, I have steel knees — I’ve been through lots of personal things in my life.

Last year, the same news agency profiled another Massachusetts medic, Dr. Jessie Gaeta of Quincy. This success story, reported by Seth Doane, merits close attention from other cities. Working in the emergency room at the Boston Medical Center made one thing very clear to Dr. Gaeta — for many homeless patients, it was a “revolving door.” She is quoted here:

It wasn’t until I had just a couple of patients housed that I saw this turnaround in their health. Basically I was seeing that if I could write a prescription for keys to an apartment that that was going to do more to improve the health of the patient sitting in front me than the prescription I can write for anything else.

In 2006, Dr. Gaeta got state funding for the program known as “Home and Healthy For Good,” which espouses the “housing first” principle, i.e., first get the person under a roof and between some walls, then bring on the counseling, substance abuse programs, and other measures (a model embraced by House the Homeless at its inception in 1989, as may be guessed from the name).

Here’s what happened in Massachusetts, and watch out, because this part will knock your socks off:

The program has helped reduce homelessness by 63 percent in Quincy and has also cut medical costs for formerly homeless people by more than two-thirds.

‘It was astonishing that a year into this project, we saw such a decrease in medical costs, that we could basically more than afford to pay for the housing,’ said Gaeta.

The “Housing First” philosophy is based on the concept of meeting people where they are, and the reason it works is because where they are is really the only place at which people can be met, no matter how fervently opponents might wish it were otherwise. We hear it again, from Ken Stevens of Waterville, Maine, who says:

My mission is meeting people at their point of need.

The North East Dream Center is where it happens, we are told by journalist Amy Calder. Volunteers pick up or drop off donations for the food warehouse. “Unemployable” people experiencing homelessness and ex-convicts are set to work making furniture and learning skills. Clothes and counseling are also available. The furniture sales help pay for gas to get more donated food so Stevens and his crew can deliver it to food pantries, soup kitchens, and senior citizens all over the surrounding area.

Now Stevens, with the help of Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce president Kimberly N. Lindlof and other supporters, is raising money for a larger space where these activities can continue with the addition of more ambitious plans. Calder writes:

A big part of the plan is to launch a manufacturing incubator that would provide administrative support and space for 20 startup businesses, as well as jobs and training for people, including those who are ‘unemployable.’

When asked if he has formal training to run such an enterprise, Stevens answers:

Yes. I got trained by the best — God’s spirit.

Reactions?

Source: “Boston doctor’s kindness helps save homeless,” CBS News, 04/23/13
Source: “Mass. doctor’s prescription for homelessness,” CBS News, 02/23/12
Source: “From homeless and hopeless to vital link in the food pantry chain,” KJOnline.com, 03/24/13
Image by Matt Lemon.

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Aspects of the Minimum Wage Conversation

minimum wage machineWhat, you may ask, is depicted here? It’s an artwork called “Minimum Wage Machine, (Work in Progress),” a simple but elegant interactive demonstration by which anyone may comprehend the implications of those words. Here is the explanation provided by Blake Fall-Conroy, creator of the device:

The minimum wage machine allows anybody to work for minimum wage. Turning the crank will yield one penny every 4.97 seconds, for $7.25 an hour (NY state minimum wage). If the participant stops turning the crank, they stop receiving money.

Wow, virtual reality at its finest! What if one of these could be placed in the lobby of every office building in Washington and in the chambers of the House and the Senate? Wouldn’t it be instructive if every bureaucrat and elected official could have a taste of what (per the Bureau of Labor Statistics) 3.6 million at-or-below-federal-minimum workers experience every day?

We don’t see that happening any time soon, but in the meantime, here are some aspects and facets of the current struggle to raise the minimum wage in the United States.

How small business owners feel

The CBS MoneyWatch report on this question, written by Erik Sherman, states:

According to a poll of 500 small business owners conducted on behalf of Small Business Majority, an advocacy group, 67 percent of these firms favor boosting the minimum wage from the current rate of $7.25 an hour and adjusting it annually as the cost of living rises… Two-thirds also agreed with the following statement: ‘Increasing the minimum wage will help the economy because the people with the lowest incomes are the most likely to spend any pay increases buying necessities they could not afford before, which will boost sales at businesses.’

The poll, conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, also found that 85% of the surveyed small businesses already pay more than the federal minimum. So those who argue that while big corporations may not feel the hit, small businesses would suffer drastically, appear to be mistaken.

Giving a little background, the Associated Press notes that:

The minimum wage has become an issue since President Barack Obama proposed during his State of the Union address in February that the federal minimum be raised to $9 from $7.25 an hour. Democrats in Congress introduced a bill to raise the minimum to $10.10 an hour in March, but it was rejected by the House.

The survey, commissioned by a group called Small Business Majority, was carried out in early March, a month after the President had addressed the question.

And what about those tips?

For Bloomberg, journalist Jeanna Smialek interviewed an individual in a position to both speak from personal experience and to see the big picture. Gina Deluca quit being a food service industry server two years ago and started a blog called Wiser Waitress. It was an interstate relocation that changed her life. In California, even workers who got tips had to be guaranteed at least $6.75 per hour, even if their tips didn’t bring them up to that.

But when she moved to New Mexico, Deluca was shocked to learn that her wages could fall as low as $2.13 per hour — the federal minimum for workers who get tips. But wait, there’s more. Deluca says on the Wiser Waitress “About” page:

I found that there were many employers abusing the tip credit. Not only were they taking the tip credit, thus allowing them to pay servers a small tiny wage of $2.13, they were also requiring these servers to share tips with back of the house employees, sometimes the whole staff. And unfortunately , these employers were not the exception as I found the practice to be widespread and prevalent.

Smialek writes:

Legislation in Congress this year would raise the $2.13 base for the first time since 1991. The move would help many of American’s 2.3 million servers, advocates of an increase say, as well as manicurists, bellhops and other workers who rely on tips for much of their earnings. It could also spur firings and reduced hours as thin-margin businesses grapple with higher costs, say some restaurant owners and economists.

Worse and worse

Where have we heard that before? And get this: While the nation has changed from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, with more people than ever forced to settle for low-level, non-union employment, the situation for people in tipping jobs is much more severe than it has been in the recent past:

The cash base was 50 percent of the regular national minimum until 1996 legislation froze the lower rate at $2.13. It now amounts to 29 percent of the full minimum, which has been raised four times since.

Does raising the minimum wage cause some jobs to be eliminated because businesses just can’t afford to pay? Depends on whose survey results you look at. Please see Smialek’s article for more details, and last week’s House the Homeless blog post.

And, for an even better solution that could change the lives of millions of workers, please get acquainted with the Universal Living Wage.

Reactions?

Source: “Small businesses back minimum wage hike,” CBS News, 04/24/13
Source: “Small business owners support increase in federal minimum wage…,The Washington Post, 04/23/13
Source: “Waitresses Stuck at $2.13 Hourly Minimum for 22 Years,” Bloomberg, 04/25/13
Image by Blake Fall-Conroy.

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Minimum Wage on the Front Burner

Living Wage

MINIMUM WAGES (hourly):

  • Fought for by President Franklin D. Roosevelt 1938 — 25 cents, which would be more than $4 now
  • In 1974 — $2 per hour
  • Now — $7.25
  • Proposed by President Barack Obama in State of the Union Address — $9.00 per hour
  • How much it would need to be, if equivalent in spending power to 1974 — $9.31 per hour

These are a few of the pertinent facts presented by Angelo Young for International Business Times, before going on to demolish several anti-minimum-wage arguments. He quotes Roosevelt’s 1938 speech:

Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, who has been turning his employees over to the Government relief rolls in order to preserve his company’s undistributed reserves, tell you […] that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry. Fortunately for business as a whole, and therefore for the nation, that type of executive is a rarity with whom most business executives heartily disagree.

Strong words! Young says:

It’s not likely that the debating points will change under Obama’s call to pass wage-increase legislation. His proposal to link the federal wage increase to the rising cost of living will definitely be met with Roosevelt’s ‘calamity-howling.’

What with one thing and another, the minimum wage topic did not, for a while, reside on the front burner of the national stove. That there should even be a minimum wage is still not an idea espoused by all, but as House the Homeless discussed last week, acceptance has made great strides.

It’s a debate that has been in progress for 75 years, and the last 39 years have been especially rough, cost-of-living-wise, Young says, and adds:

[…] [W]ages have not kept up with America’s cost of living, making it more difficult for the working, taxpaying bottom-bracket earners in this country to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps […] working Americans in lower income brackets who live paycheck to paycheck, where any fluctuation […] means much more than just canceling premium cable subscriptions.

To that list at the top of the page, we could add:

  • Amount that Sen. Elizabeth Warren asks why workers are not paid — $22 per hour

Michael Rathbone explains:

Sen. Warren probably is referring to [a] study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research that showed what the minimum wage would be if it had kept up with increases in worker productivity… The study […] talks about average productivity. Average workers do not earn the minimum wage. This study does not track changes in the productivity of workers who make at or below the minimum wage. Isn’t it possible that the largest increases in productivity have been among more skilled employees who already earn above the minimum wage?

This is not exactly an anti-minimum-wage argument, but Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt has an interesting take on it. In The Huffington Post‘s capsulization of his recent Q&A session via Reddit, Levitt says:

Honestly, I don’t think the minimum wage matters all that much to the economy.

Why? Because relatively speaking, the number of minimum-wage workers is small, with about 5.2% of hourly workers making the minimum or below. The article notes:

Some studies have reinforced President Barack Obama’s argument that raising the minimum wage would boost the economy. Raising the minimum wage by $1 would give households comprised of minimum wage workers $2,800 per year more to spend, according to a 2011 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago cited by CNN.

There is a corny but true parable which has many versions. This one one was adapted by the Starfish Greathearts Foundation:

An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.

‘Young lady,’ he asked, ‘Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?’

‘The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.’

‘But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.’

The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying, ‘It made a difference for that one.’

It’s not accurate that only 5.2% of workers would benefit from a minimum-wage raise. There is more to it. But putting that aside, even if the lives of only 5.2% of workers were improved, like the starfish, it would make a difference for them.

Reactions?

Source: “State of the Union 2013: Obama Calls For $9 Minimum Wage,” International Business Times, 02/14/13
Source: “The $22 (An Hour) Question,” Show-Me Daily, 03/31/13
Source: “Freakonomics’ Steven Levitt: The Minimum Wage Doesn’t Matter ‘All That Much’ ,” The Huffington Post, 02/19/13
Source: “Sex Trafficking,” WomanStats, 10/17/12
Image by Barbara Ehrenreich

 

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Minimum Wage Logic Accepted

hopeless

“Consider the source” is usually said skeptically, and, of course, we always do consider it, whether skeptical or not. Here, the source is pretty impressive. It is The Economist, which Steve O’Keefe, writing for House the Homeless, described as “the house organ of the economics profession, the gold standard of consensus among economists.” He discussed an article about the minimum wage in which The Economist said, in effect, “Hey, if you do this, it increases everyone’s wealth, not just those earning the minimum wage,” and said it to the finance ministers of every country in the world.

What’s going on here? O’Keefe says:

Minimum-wage laws actually don’t reduce employment. In fact, they increase the welfare of minimum-wage workers and their employers. The Economist notes, ‘Not only has [the minimum wage] pushed up pay for the bottom 5% of workers, but it also seems to have boosted earnings further up the income scale — and thus reduced wage inequality.’

Like the Magna Carta and common law and other refinements of civilization, this study came from Great Britain, which O’Keefe says:

[…] introduced a national minimum-wage law in 1999. The British government requires a minimum wage equal to about 46% of median earnings — compared with a less generous 40% in the United States. When Great Britain instituted the national minimum wage ‘worries about potential damage to employment were widespread,’ says The Economist (itself a major worrier), ‘yet today the consensus is that Britain’s minimum wage has done little or no harm.’

In Austin, TX, the minimum wage question has been the subject of controversy. That is where House the Homeless is centered, and co-founder Richard R. Troxell was asked by Commissioner Judge Sam Boscoe to give his point of view. In an email that was circulated to all the Austin City Council members, Richard wrote:

The Fed has determined that based on a sophisticated formula that includes a two-year time lag (so as not to be distorted by new housing startups), that in the Austin Fair Market Rent Area, one can reasonably expect to pay $681 for an efficiency apartment and $834 for a one-bedroom apartment.

Apparently, in Austin, tenants would have to be making more than $16 per hour to meet the rest of their living expenses while renting a one-bedroom apartment. That’s barely enough space for a couple, or a parent and a child. In which case the parent would have to be working full-time and bringing in $16 an hour. Who makes that much? Or if it’s two adults, they both have to be working full-time for at least $8 an hour. Minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Austin was debating whether, in light of its intense downtown renewal efforts, it should mandate a minimum hourly wage of $11.

By combining existing governmental guidelines, we establish something called the Living Wage, which means enough to allegedly live on. And even those figures are based on the idea that nobody should be spending more than 30% of their income on housing. Many people are forced to spend a much larger percentage.

As head of the campaign for a Universal Living Wage, Richard tells the world that greater income at the bottom of the economic ladder leads to greater spending at the bottom, and boosts the whole economy. Companies benefit from stabilizing the economic situation of their employees, because turnover is expensive. Then there is the matter of lower government spending, when the lowest echelon of workers rely less on government subsidies.

Richard was also recently quoted in a Fortune CNN article by Eleanor Bloxham, CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance. The subject was the need for increased transparency in corporate dealings, for instance:

One such disclosure would be whether the company pays a living wage to all its employees — and if not, what percentage of workers don’t receive it.

Bloxham’s article went on to quote Richard about the Universal Living Wage. But let’s get back to another interesting thing about The Economist‘s breathtaking discovery, which isn’t such new news after all. Here is a quotation from Richard’s book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, which is available via Amazon, Nook, and Kindle:

Ben Bernanke, during his first month of serving as the newly appointed Federal Reserve Chairman, testified before the House Financial Services Committee. Congressman Bernie Sanders asked Mr. Bernanke if Congress should raise the Federal Minimum Wage…

Mr. Bernanke responded: ‘The concerns that some economists have raised about the minimum wage […] does it have any employment effects? That is, do higher wages lower employment of low-wage workers?’ […] Mr. Bernanke then definitively declared, ‘My response is that I think it doesn’t lower employment.’

Reactions?

Source: “Major Reversal: Economists Agree Minimum Wage Works!,” HousetheHomeless.org, 12/12/12
Source: “How to fix rampant CEO mistrust,” CNN.com, 03/14/13
Source: “The Argument in the Floor,” The Economist, 11/24/12
Image by Aidan Jones.

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