Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: poverty in the USA

Covers for Jan's three "Cops in Space" books, "The Other Side of Fear," "What's Bred in the Bone," and "A Bone to PIck."

What should police do?

By Jan S. Gephardt

We rarely think to ask a fundamental question: what should police do? What part should they play in a multicultural, representational democracy? The ubiquity of police forces around the world argues that many societies believe police do have a role in civilized life. But what – exactly – should it be?

As a novelist whose primary characters are science fictional detectives, I am in an unusual position, both to ask and to answer this question. But I believe it’s also a question everyone should ask. Especially every citizen in a representational, multicultural democracy.

Why should we ask? Isn’t the answer to that question obvious? Well, no. We’ve all grown up “pre-loaded” with conscious and unconscious attitudes and understandings of what police officers and police forces do, and why they exist. But clearly, those seldom-examined attitudes and understandings aren’t leading to very good outcomes. Not in much of the world. And certainly not here in the United States.

"Understand, our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day. They've got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law." - Barack Obama.
Many thanks to BrainyQuote.

Asking as a Novelist

One of the best things science fiction does is hold up a mirror to society. If you think about it, all fiction does that in a certain way, because all fiction is a reflection of our experiences of life. I’ve written elsewhere about the role of the novelist in society. And yes, a fundamental aspect of our work is purely to produce entertainment.

But it’s not the only aspect. I would (and frequently do) argue that it may not even be the most important aspect, particularly in the realm of science fiction. That’s because science fiction is all about thought experiments.

When we start asking “what if?” a whole multiverse of possibilities opens up. What if a recent scientific discovery led to a new technological breakthrough? How would that change the world we live in? What if our society continues on its current course in this aspect, what might the future look like? How would our world change? How would we react?

So, as a novelist who writes about police in a future society, I must ask “What Should Police Do?”

"My role as a novelist is to explore ideas and imagination, and hopefully that will inspire people from my world to continue dreaming and to believe in dreams." - Alexis Wright.
Thanks again, BrainyQuote!

Asking as a Citizen

But I’m also a citizen: of the world, and also specifically of my country and community. I’m a taxpayer, a voter, a member of “the public.” I can be sliced and diced out and defined demographically, culturally, and any other way you choose. Mother. Wife. Daughter. Woman. Educated. Teacher (retired). Middle class. United Methodist. White. Senior citizen. Democrat. Science fiction fangirl. Creative person. Animal lover. Multiculturalist. I am all of those things and more.

And as that complex, multi-aspect creature, I bring all of my experiences, understandings, and biases into my role as a responsible adult in contemporary society. For me, that involves an active interest in news and politics. I have formed some rather strong opinions over the course of my life. Each day I refine them or adjust them or reinforce them as I receive and process information.

I see it as my right – indeed, my responsibility – as a citizen to ask if my government and community leaders are representing me and governing in a way I think is appropriate. Are they respecting and honoring values I share? If they’re not, then I have a right to question them, and to seek better representation. As do we all.

This means, as a citizen in contemporary society, I must ask “What Should Police Do?”

"Each day, millions of police officers do the selfless work of putting their lives on the line to protect civilians, frequently responding to or preventing crises completely with no recognition." - Letitia James
You’re now 3-0, BrainyQuote!

What Do We Ask Police To Do?

We currently ask police to fill a wide range of roles. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said in a 2016 interview by the Washington Post. “We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

I tend to agree with Chief Brown. As a teacher, I learned all too much about the many things our communities want to dump in the laps of their public servants. Usually while also underpaying them, restricting their operating budgets, and asking them to do work they never trained or signed up for. I get it, and I agree.

But what problems are the police meant to solve? Unlike some observers on the leftward end of the spectrum, I do believe there is a role for police in society. Unlike some observers on the rightward end of the spectrum, I don’t believe we will ever be well served by our current system. Certainly not when it’s focused on criminalizing poverty and mental illness. Not when it majors on crackdowns on minority populations and small offenders. And certainly not when it perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline.

This graph charts United States crime clearance rates in 2020, the most recent year for which the statistics are available. “Murder and nonnegligent homicide:54.4%. Aggravated assault: 46.6%. Violent crime: 41.7%. Rape: 30.6%. Robbery: 28.8%. Arson: 21.5%. Larceny-theft: 15.1%. Property crime: 14.6%. Burglary: 14.%. Motor vehicle theft: 12.3%”
Graphic ©2023 by Statistia.

What Problems WERE Police Meant to Solve?

If you were to ask the average “person on the street” this question, they’d probably say “Solve crimes,” or maybe “keep public order,” or perhaps “enforce the law.” Fair enough. So, how well are they doing?

Let’s take that first one, “solve crimes.” A look at the crime clearance rates (percentages of crimes that are cleared in a given year) is downright discouraging. “Clearance rate,” by the way, does not mean the full Law & Order-style litany of captured, charged, tried, and convicted. No, “clearance” means at least one person has been arrested and charged, or it means the probable perpetrator(s) are identified, but outside circumstances make arresting and charging them impossible. For two examples, circumstances could include that they died. Or maybe they’re in another country from which we can’t extradite them. Stuff does happen sometimes.

Clearance rates vary by the type of crime. But according to Statistia.com the only type that gets solved more than half the time in the USA is “murder and non-negligent homicide.” The clearance rate for that is 54.4%.

Flunking Crime-Solving

Think about it. That’s only a bit better than a 50-50 chance that any given murder will be solved. If I were grading a test and my student made a 54.4% on it, their grade would be an F (On a normal grading scale, 0-60% = an F). And that’s the best they do! You want them to solve your burglary? Sorry to tell you, but you have only a 14% chance that the perpetrator will be caught and charged with the crime. Someone stole your truck? Oh, dear. You only have a 12.3% chance they’ll ever arrest the thief.

So, basically, police in the United States flunk at crime-solving. Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons, and many of them are tied up in the other answers to the question “What should police do?”

"When you have police officers who abuse citizens, you erode public confidence in law enforcement. That makes the job of good police officers unsafe." - Mary Frances Berry
Thanks yet again, BrainyQuote!

What Should Police Do to “Serve and Protect”?

What does “keep public order,” “enforce the law,” or “protect people” look like, when it’s happening? Does “keeping public order” mean bulldozing camps of unhoused persons? Or imposing a curfew on a small population’s free movement during a specific part of the day or in a specific place? Does it mean beating or injuring protesters? The words “keeping public order” have been used to justify all of those actions.

On the other hand, it also could mean directing traffic away from an accident. Maybe it means repelling a violent insurrection from the Capitol. And it could mean shielding a person who has not been convicted of any crime from a lynch mob that wants to kill them. It’s an umbrella phrase, broad and nonspecific enough to be both used and abused.

Standards Without Clarification

And in the end, it’s not a very helpful standard without further clarification. The seemingly obvious “protect people” brings the same host of issues when we try to apply it to specific cases. Which people are the police to protect? From whom or what? In a racist, sexist society (don’t kid yourself: that’s this one), how many ways could that go wrong?

“Enforce the law” is only deceptively “more specific.” Does that mean “enforce all the laws, all the time?” By that standard, most of us should be, or should have been, arrested at many points in our lives.

People are fallible. There are times when we’re sick and can’t cut the noxious weeds in our front yard. Or we’re forgetful and only notice later that our driver’s license has expired. Perhaps we’re tired or in a hurry, so we jaywalked when we saw an opening, instead of walking down to the corner and waiting for the lights to change. Minor traffic violations, legally carrying a gun, or simply walking down the street have resulted in citizens being killed by police in the name of “enforcing the law.”

"Accountability for police officers should be an expectation, not an aberration." - Alex Padilla
You rock, BrainyQuote!

Okay, so: What SHOULD Police Do?

As we’ve seen, that’s a really problematic question! But, both as a citizen and as a novelist, I want to find better answers to it. I cannot endorse a blanket approach such as “abolish the police.” I’m not a fan of “defund,” either. Neither of those represent where I think this conversation should go.

On the other hand, a thoroughgoing interrogation of that “what should police do?” question isn’t going to deal kindly with old-school “cop culture.” Not with many contemporary police training techniques and approaches, either. Nor even with a fair number of contemporary laws and standards.

Yes, dear reader, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m cueing up a series of blog posts on this topic. I’m not sure how long it’ll be. Considering our upcoming publication schedule, it most definitely won’t be every single post for the next umpty-dozen times without a break!

But over the next few months, I propose to take up one aspect of “what should police do?” at a time. I’ll examine how it’s currently being handled in the USA, survey the critiques, and then explain “how we handle it on Rana Station” and why I think that might work better. I hope you’ll find the series interesting.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to BrainyQuote (what would I have done without you for this post?) and Statistia.

“The American Dream Game,” 2014 David Horsey cartoon

What kind of environment?

What kind of environment would enable all of my students to reach their full potential?

In last week’s post I explained that I built my fictional Rana Station’s system on ideas garnered from decades of teaching, studying history, and observing our contemporary society.

I first studied this question in grad school. Many of my projects centered on the question of what kind of environment students needed to support their success.

How can students succeed?

Schools traditionally have been held solely responsible for students’ academic success. The last part of my teaching career played out during the devastating early onset of “No Child Left Behind,” so I saw this taken to extremes.

President George W. Bush waves to a crowd. Behind him a sign reads, “No Child Left Behind.”
President George W. Bush waves from a crowd of woman and children, in front of a sign like a chalkboard, emblazoned “No Child Left Behind.” The education “reform” law instituted high-stakes testing, but did not improve schools. (Photo from Reuters, via The Atlantic).

But carrot-and-stick approaches such as funding penalties for low-performing schools or incentive pay” for teachers were foolish from the outset.

Why?

Because even without penalties, I’ve worked in schools where we ran out of supplies from lack of funding halfway through the school year.

And anyone who’s been around a good teacher for five minutes will figure out s/he isn’t in the profession for monetary bonuses.

How can we improve kids’ outcomes?

Schools alone can never control enough variables to ensure student success. We found out the hard way that a school-only approach doesn’t work.

The most brilliant teacher in the world can’t make a child pay attention if he’s hungry.

Or if her mouth hurts from an abscessed tooth.

Maybe he can’t see the materials he’s supposed to read. Or hear the teacher’s words.

Maybe she was raped last night.

Those are all examples drawn from my own students’ lives. Many (though not that last one) stem from poverty, and the chronic unavailability of services in poorer communities. Any answer to “what kind of environment could enable students to reach their full potential?” must include health care.

I stopped teaching before the advent of the Affordable Care Act. But even after its passage added millions of new first-time-ever insured, there are still holes in the safety net. Especially in states such as Kansas and Missouri, where Medicaid was never expanded.

This quote from Barack Obama reads, “You look at something like health care, the Affordable Care Act. And for all the controversy, we now have 20 million people who have health insurance who didn’t have it. It’s actually proven to be more effective, cheaper than even advocates like me expected.
(AZ Quotes)

Would better safety nets fix the problem?

Better safety nets would be a great place to start.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatized the gaping inequities in our society. Food insecurity, always a problem, has grown more acute than ever.

In many parts of the country shortages of affordable housing on top of other issues created a wave of homelessness even before the virus struck. Today an eviction can become a literal death sentence.

The logistics of managing “life-support basics” makes even “minor” tasks excessively hard in some impoverished communities. Affluent people easily overlook this.

Remember how people in charge failed to realize it’s near-impossible to follow an evacuation order if you have no transportation, in the 2005 Katrina disaster? That blindness pervades our society on the decision-making level. Clearly, all stakeholders—including members of the community to be served—need their voices added to the discussion.

But better safety nets won’t fix everything.

Equal opportunity for who, did you say?

If you look at students who succeed in school, the ones who end up at the top of the heap tend to be affluent White kids. We all know that’s not by accident. There are lots of reasons, but the most systemic underlying reason is racism. I’m not saying all affluent White folks are racist, but I will categorically say the system is.

This quote from Hillary Clinton reads, “We have to face up to systemic racism. We see it in jobs, we see it in education, we see it in housing. But let's be really clear; it's a big part of what we're facing in the criminal justice system.”
(QuoteMaster)

We are not all born with an equal chance to succeed. Centuries of disempowerment and discriminatory practices have kept minority persons of color from accumulating wealth.

This has fallen especially hard on Black families, but practices of exclusion, redlining, and violent reprisals against minority advancement (such as race riots, started by White people) have affected Latinos and Asians as well. And the entire history of the so-called “New World” has been a long, dreary exercise in conquest and genocide against indigenous people.

The myth of the level playing field

In American society today, no such thing as a “level playing field” exists.

Not even among White folks. Purely by the numbers, there are more impoverished White people than there are people of color. But that’s still only 10% of the White population.

All minorities experience higher percentages of poverty, from Asians, at 12%, to 28.3% of Native Americans/Alaskan Natives.

We must find ways to open up all manner of opportunities. What kind of environment allows all racial and ethnic groups to acquire and build multigenerational wealth? Until we find a way to build such a system, broken safety nets will remain only one part of the problem.

This cartoon shows what looks like a board game. One route, marked “Black” at the starting point, is long, winding, and includes lots of lost turns. Some of the sections say things like “Slavery, lose 100 turns,” or “Denial of Voting Rights, lose 10 turns.” The other route, marked “White” at the start is short, straight, and has sections that say “Free land from Indians, jump 2 spaces,” and (2 spaces later) “Free Labor from Slaves, take another turn.” A young White man near the end turns to his Black competitor and asks, “Are you just slow, or what?”
(LA Times, #142 of 200)

Thriving students come from thriving communities

The bottom line, I discovered, is that thriving students are the natural outcome of thriving communities. Until the entire fabric of the community is vibrant, whole, and functioning well, students remain at risk.

Physical health and the ability to accumulate wealth are vital, but they aren’t the whole story. A truly functional society needs good mental health care, freedom from fear, and actual justice for all.

Solving problems on my fictional space station is one thing. It’s easy to overhaul institutions and rework laws in a story. It’ll be lots harder to do it in real life, especially with the inevitable forces working against us.

What kind of environment would enable all of my students to reach their full potential? To more completely answer that question, we’ll need to fill additional deficits. Read more about those in future posts.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to Reuters, via The Atlantic, for the “No Child Left Behind” photo. I appreciate AZ Quotes, for the quote from Barack Obama on the Affordable Care Act, and QuoteMaster for the quote about systemic racism from Hillary Clinton. And I love the LA Times cartoon “The American Dream Game” by David Horsey, that so beautifully illustrates the reasons why Black and White people don’t start out with an equal shot at life.

What is poverty, and what should we think of the poor?

The Artdog Quote(s) of the Week

We celebrated Human Rights Day last week, but human rights should be part of our values every day, all year long. As noted in last week’s quotehousing is listed in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of the fundamentals. Yet homelessness is a widespread phenomenon, both in the USA and around the world.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Nyamnyam via Pinterest, for the quote-image from Bryan Stevenson. Unfortunately, Nyamnyam.mobi doesn’t seem to exist anymore. I did find a Nyamnyam.net that appears to come from a similar place philosophically. You might enjoy their page. Many thanks also to QuoteHD (also here), for the Sheila McKechnie quote-image (see also her foundation), and to Liberals are Cool via Summer Rain, for the “Poverty is not a lack of character” quote-image.

No accident

The Artdog Quote(s) of the Week

I recently realized that I’ve talked about habitat loss several times this year on this blog, but always in the context of plants and animals in the environment, never about humans losing their homes, except in the context of natural disasters.

But there’s an ongoing, not-too-dramatic-looking but heartbreaking and needless disaster unfolding in our country. Not the addiction epidemic, although it’s related. It’s a crisis of homelessness.

I’ll focus mainly on the US for my thoughts about homelessness in my December Quotes of the Week, because that’s a political system and society in which I participate. But it’s a global problem that all too few people are thinking about or addressing.

It’s time we started improving our record. Practical steps:

(1) Educate yourself. Start on the Internet but don’t stop there.

(2) Contribute as you can to a local, well-run homeless shelter or food bank.

(3) Educate others. Post, tweet, talk, participate.

(4) Advocate for change. Write, call, or otherwise communicate to local, state, and national government that you care about this issue!

IMAGES:Many thanks to Quote Addicts, via Joyce Naren’s Pinterest board , for the Linda Lingle quote-image; to UNDP (the United Nations Development Program) and the Summer Rain website, for the Nelson Mandela quote-image; and once again to Summer Rain for the Mahatma Gandhi quote-image.

Deserts and Swamps: a closer look at food insecurity

The Artdog Image of Interest

Do you know what a food desert is? What about a food swamp? Do you live near one?

They exist in all kinds of places, including rural areas, where you really wouldn’t expect them–but viewing an area in terms of food deserts and food swamps is a way to key in on some root causes of food insecurity.

We can join in the effort to fight this trend. First, support community gardens, and efforts to bring farmers markets to low-income areas near you. A quick Internet-search should offer local options.

Also, pay attention to how poverty-stricken communities in your area are treated. I really hope you’ll encourage your civic leaders to remember that poor people are people. People with rights, like everyone else. It’s a myth that most are lazy or poor because they made bad choices. Most people who are born into poverty must overcome huge obstacles to climb out of it.

Another good way to fight food deserts and swamps is to advocate for programs such as SNAP, the US government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is part of the Farm Bill, renewed every five years (including now!).

And in the meantime, contribute to local food banks. Again, they’re only an Internet search away.

This infographic may be focused on a particular region, but it’s instructive as an example in a broader sense, offering a snapshot of the problem’s impact.

IMAGES: Many thanks to AZ Quotes for the quote image featuring author Michael Pollan, and to Brown is the New Pink blog, for passing along the infographic on food deserts and swamps.

Not perfect yet

The Artdog Images of Interest

In a perfect world, everyone would work at jobs they love, reach their full potential, and have a good life. If that sounds like socialist pie-in-the-sky to you, double-check your Kool-Aide. I’m paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

Unfortunately, we’re not perfect yet. We weren’t in 2001 when Mike Konopacki drew the cartoon above, and we’re not perfect now, either. We still have people who work hard at one or more jobs (if they can find them), yet still have no choice but to rely on public assistance to make ends meet. In my opinion, raising the minimum wage is a social justice issue.

I know the arguments against raising the minimum wage. We hear them each time the question gets raised. The Cato Institute lists the four most common ones, which I have listed below. I’ve also listed the Department of Labor’s answers to these objections, which are called myths on its “Minimum Wage Mythbusters” page.


1. It would result in job loss, because employers would cut back on employees. Not true, says the DOL page. Research shows “increases in the minimum wage have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers, even during times of weakness in the labor market.”


2. It would hurt low-wage employees, because because employers would cut back on employees. Not true, says the DOL page: “Minimum wage increases have little to no negative effect on employment as shown in independent studies from economists across the country.”


3. It would have little effect on reducing poverty, either because employers would cut back on employees, or because most poor people don’t make the minimum wage. Not true, says the DOL page, citing a survey of small business owners who say an increase “would immediately put more money in the pocket of low-wage workers who will then spend the money on things like housing, food, and gas. This boost in demand for goods and services will help stimulate the economy and help create opportunities.”

4. It might result in higher prices for consumers, because some prices have gone up in the past. While some prices might indeed go up, the DOL page categorically states that it would not be bad for the economy: “Since 1938, the federal minimum wage has been increased 22 times. For more than 75 years, real GDP per capita has steadily increased, even when the minimum wage has been raised.” In other words, prices go up all the time, whether the minimum wage does or not. 


Side question: if raising the minimum wage is a bad idea, isn’t the recent upward trajectory in CEOs’ compensation also a bad idea? Just asking.


As someone who has taught in a high-poverty school, I’ve seen what happens to families when there is not enough money to make ends meet. Students’ health, ability to learn, and many other areas of need aren’t met, either. There is often hunger, and there can be homelessness.

These kids’ parents weren’t lazy. It amazes me, how often rich people think the poor are lazy. I suspect they’re mistaking resentful for lazy. Most of the poor folks I’ve known worked several jobs, postponed their own health care to take care of their kids’, went hungry so their kids could eat, and worried a lot.

It’s not exactly the picture Thomas Jefferson painted, is it?

IMAGES: Many thanks to the Workplace Justice Project, for the Mike Konopacki “Poverty” cartoon, to The Times of San Diego, for the photo of workers marching for higher wages, and to We Party Patriots, for the Rick Flores cartoon about wages. 

Liberty: Mission NOT yet accomplished

Artdog Quote of the Week: 


In case you were wondering, John F. Kennedy said this in his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961. He was speaking to the world, during the Cold War with the then-Soviet Union, and he had human rights all over the world–particularly in impoverished countries elsewhere–on his mind when he said it. 


I’m not sure he gave as much thought to the poor of the United States when he addressed “those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery.” But we had our own share of huts, villages, and the urban equivalent when he addressed the nation that day.

Kennedy didn’t need to look beyond our own shores for people “struggling to break the bonds of misery.” This Appalachian man’s rural Kentucky community had lost most of its jobs by the time John Dominis took this photo in 1964.
Urban poverty in Harlem, New York: the Fontenelle Family, outside their home in 1967, as photographed by the legendary Gordon Parks.

When you speak stirring words, people everywhere may challenge you to live up to them. What we now know as the Civil Rights Movement and the Feminist Movement already had begun to stir before this speech, but they grew in impetus during the decade that followed this speech. 


Unfortunately, the work of neither movement is anywhere near being finished yet.


Later in his speech Kennedy proclaimed “a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself,” and at the end he challenged his countrymen to “ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” 

Long-term poverty persists in Appalachia, despite 50 years having passed since the “War on Poverty” was declared in 1964 (in another Inaugural Address, this one from Lyndon B. Johnson).

I would submit to you that the work Kennedy laid out for us is as much needed as ever, and nowhere near finished. Not even right here in our own back yards. 

Not as much has changed on those fronts since 1960 as we’d like to wish, and while the problems grew worse for many in 2008, they have been far more deeply entrenched, for far longer. There’s never yet been a golden era when poverty was eradicated for everyone.

Homelessness among the urban poor grew worse when the psychiatric hospitals began discharging many of their patients in the 1970s and 1980s. It got another boost during the Great Recession that began in 2008.

And it seems to me that a greater sense of civic duty among all of us, directed at making our communities safer and more healthy for ALL of us, would go a long way toward preparing us for our country’s greatness in the future. 


Liberty for all is an ideal, a goal–but never a destination. We can never stop and say, “okay, that’s done.” Now: do I mean to say that freedom from poverty equals liberty? No, not at all. But it’s only when people find ways to ease the desperate burden of poverty that they can begin to find ways to live up to their truest potential and be their best selves. Once they can do that, they can begin to participate in the joys of liberty.Without those base-line necessities, the rights, privileges and duties of liberty can seem a distant, impossible dream.


IMAGES: Many thanks to Quoteszilla, via the Quote Addicts “Patriotic Sayings and Quotes” page, for this image. Thanks also are due to the UK Daily Mail, for the photo of the Appalachian man (photographed in 1964 by John Dominis for LIFE Magazine) and the Harlem family (photographed in 1967 by Gordon Parks), to the Turkish Daily Sabah for the photo of the homeless US veteran (photographer unattributed), and to the New York Times for the photo of Ms. Short and her dog in West Virginia (photo by Travis Dove).

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