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Homelessness in America: Confronting the Stalemate

Every year with the coming of winter, new attention focuses on the problem of homelessness in America. This week’s photojournalism essay by The New York Times places American homelessness on par with some of the worst slums in the world. Even our president has called homelessness a “disgrace to our country.”

It is important to put the current visible challenges in American cities in the context of trends, the entire complex of homelessness (including rural), and current public policy. Read more

The Social Challenge of Jump Starting Cities

My May Op-Ed in the St. Louis Post Dispatch argued that we should take advantage of Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson’s analysis in Jump Starting America to create an inclusive science based economy:

OP-ED in the May 25th Post Dispatch

Top Social Policy Books 2018

The vast majority of last year’s popular writing in social policy falls into two categories: “What is wrong with America?” or “What is wrong with Trump?” The best of this genre for observers of social policy was Steven Brill’s Tailspin, a wide-ranging critique and analysis of recent misguided political and policy history. Brill believes that many of America’s ideals – a meritocracy, freedom of speech – have turned back on themselves as financialization, short-termism, cronyism, and our deep polarization have created a profound downward spiral with deep implications for lower and middle class citizens.

While this kind of commentary was sucking up much of the political and policy oxygen – American book buyers seem to have endless appetite for books on the Trump administration – several important alternatives appeared in the 2018 literature. They consist of narrative accounts of the ingredients of successful local communities and institutions, the changing nature of work and its implication for jobs, and the plight of the most vulnerable, including those in the criminal justice system. Most importantly, despite the headwinds of Washington we have scholars developing new policy agendas for social policy. Read more

While We Are Distracted: Social Policy and the War on the Poor


Michael Lewis, author of the important new book The Fifth Risk, has said, “we’re a society of distracted drivers. We’re not paying attention to the thing that matters most…. The society–we don’t–doesn’t function without the government. Government is–it’s been subjected to decades and decades of abuse and scorn, and it’s collected rust. And this guy has come in with a sledgehammer and is having at it. And nobody’s paying much attention because it’s a slow-moving story.”

The day-to-day media cycle of scandals, tweeting, and outright political diversions has shifted attention away from major social policy changes either proposed or implemented in federal agencies. While environmental regulatory changes have received substantial public visibility, important social policy changes in contrast have received very little public attention. Even when individual policy changes surface in the media, they are often out of context of the overall administration agenda. Some have labeled this agenda the “War on the Poor,” as contrasted with the “War on Poverty.” Read more

Top Ten Social Policy Books 2017

You can judge the mood and the priorities of the country in part by the flow of books in the pipeline.

This past year, the marketplace for social science and social policy books emphasized race, policing, criminal justice, and inequality. Books on social policy per se were in scarce supply, no doubt a reflection of the disinterest and dysfunction in reasoned policymaking in the federal government and in many state capitols. As in other aspects of American life, the book market has been dominated by Trump analyses and reactions, perhaps crowding out the market and sapping the mental energy needed for more serious social policy analysis. Of course, much of this new literature provides insight into the circumstances of many Trump voters. Read more

Cairo, Illinois (repost and update)


If you look at a map Cairo, Illinois, jumps out as a place where you should stop. Betsy has always wanted to visit Cairo. It is the southernmost town in Illinois, at the intersection of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and at the intersection of three states. It has much history and reputation. Mark Twain saw Cairo as the promised land in Huckleberry Finn. It was treated as the gateway to the West in Michener’s Centennial.

Cairo has also been depicted as an American “abandoned” community, included in a British expose as a symbol of the decline of the American heartland. It has been called America’s most depressing city, its forgotten city,  a ghost town.

After a short visit, we concluded Cairo is a defining community in our current American challenge and narrative. Cairo is perhaps the epitome of economic decline, mostly unreconstructed from the catastrophic physical effects of a natural disaster, and carrying the look and feel of a community that has experienced devastating racial conflict. Read more

Social Justice Americana

A broad and remarkable new collection of books by journalists and social scientists helps us understand the ferment and frustration in America — from nomads, to trailer parks, to fracking communities, to rebounding neighborhoods in Detroit. This literature follows a special American tradition of documenting people and places.  Read more

We have no aging policy


We have no national aging policy. Medicare and Social Security provide a critical foundation, but are politically vulnerable and long overdue for an upgrade. More importantly, the vast array of supports and opportunities that need to go along with a rapidly aging population – from long term care and housing to new technology – are going completely unattended. The national silence about the demands of our aging population is deafening. Read more

A Lost Teaching Moment on Mass Incarceration: The St. Louis “Workhouse”

Last fall, during the campaign, I wrote a piece called Where is the Outrage?  that asked why there was not more political attention and policy clamor to address the stark examples of homelessness and other in-your-face examples of social policy failure in our midst.

Last week, the extreme heat of St. Louis produced an example so egregious that it is worth asking again why it did not receive larger national media visibility and outrage Read more