If you were king how would you end poverty? Not an easy question to answer, even if you were king with a magic wand its not an easy problem to solve. Neverthless it was a question that one of our intrepid students put to a Stanford professor one day. This became a common question that we asked almost everyone we met with, and it was a question that generated a lot of good group conversation. I would like to summarize a few of the answers we heard and add my own half-baked idea at the end.
Two weeks ago we visited Dr. David Grusky at the Stanford Center for Poverty and inequality. I took away a couple of key points from this meeting. One of their key tasks is to get better and more frequent data about poverty in the United States. Larry told us that the data we have today is collected too infrequently and by the time the data is published it is nine months out of date! Wow, thats crazy. The software development manager in me says, "you can't fix what you can't measure" If we are not measuring poverty how can we hope to make progress toward fixing it. Hint: We can't.
In terms of a big solution Dr. Grusky expressed his idea quite eloquently. "We have to make everyone live together." At first I rejected the idea as overly simple and impractical. But the more I thought about it the more I liked it. Making people of all income levels live next to each other would surely build community, where we would not see each other as "other" but rather as friends and neighbors. Who doesn't want to help their neighbors? Who is my neighbor is a question that has been nagging us since the disciples first asked the question of Jesus a couple thousand years ago. The more we live in community the more we see each other as people.
To return to the theme of Decorah in the previous post, I think this really is one of the strengths of a small town. Rich people, middle income people, and poor people all live together. Maybe not next door, but definitely on the same block. Our kids go to the same schools and participate on the same teams and choirs and bands together. We meet parents over the common ground of our kids and their achievements. Over the years one of the most amazing aspects of the Decorah schools to me is that there is such a high level of mutual respect among students no matter what they do. The "jocks" are also in the choir, and if not they scertainly support the choir, and vice versa. Its this kind of integration that leads to great things. If you don't believe me I'll tell you that Decorah has won the Iowa Challenge cup so many times in the last ten years that people at the state just call it the "Decorah prize."
Why is this so important? The more integrated we become, and the more we see each other as friends and peers the more we will help each other solve our problems. The more integrated we live the more our kids go to the same schools.
In broad terms the next set of solutions revolve around economic mobility, that is how do we get people to move up the economic ladder?
One answer to this question that came up several times was around education. Even our own president Carlson took a shot at this question at an alumni event we attended. Education leads to opportunity and or the ability to move up the economic ladder. Here's a great story that illustrates Of course not everyone gets to go to Stanford and tap into the amazing group of VC's and successful entrepreneurs that are part of the Stanford alumni network. But education opens many doors to higher paying jobs no matter where it comes from. The theme of education was also evident at the Creative Commons where we discussed open source licensing models and how organizations like Open MIT and others are making high quality courseware available on the web. This of course is not unlike what we are doing at Runestone.
Another really interesting discussion about economic mobility comes from Kiva . While Kiva has been making loans abroad for a few years, Kiva has started to make micro loans (up to $10,000) right here in the United States. The Kiva story goes something like this. A micro loan is not going to vault you up the economic ladder, it may not even get you onto the first rung. But it will give you a foothold on the ladder where you might just be able to reach the first rung with a little time and experience. Without the microlending infrastructure in place, we wondered how Kiva decides who to loan to. The answer is simple, "If you can show us that you have convinced 25 people to loan you 25 dollars then we will put you on the site." Between Kiva and the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University we have enough examples of these small scale loans in action to make it very believable that it is a path up the economic ladder.