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Practically Idealistic blog
The title for this blog originated with use of the term “practical idealist” in this 1996 opinion piece, which asked: “To what kind of work should a practical idealist aspire?” A century and a half earlier, Emerson, in his 1841 essay Circles, wrote: “There are degrees in idealism.  We learn first to play with it academically. . . .  Then we see in the heyday of youth and poetry that it may be true, that it is true in gleams and fragments.  Then, its countenance waxes stern and grand, and we see that it must be true.  It now shows itself ethical and practical.”  John Dewey and Mahatma Gandhi embraced practical idealism in the 20th century, as did UN Secretary General U Thant.  Al Gore invoked it in a 1998 speech. In the context of this blog, the term is meant to convey idealism tempered but not overwhelmed by realism: a search for the ideal on a path guided by common sense.
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Friday, April 25, 2008

Pollution and Policy, Then and Now

Before the Clean Air Act was amended to allow pollution credits to be traded--an innovation which has been suggested for greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit the risks of global climate change--this 1988 letter to the editor of the New York Times concerned air pollution, politics, and public opinion.

There is a legitimate debate about the merits of a "cap and trade" versus "tax and dividend" approach to addressing greenhouse gases.  Done progressively--with the revenues returned to stimulate alternative energy and greater efficiency, create related jobs, and assist those who can least afford to pay higher taxes for polluting sources--the "tax and dividend" strategy deserves careful attention.

7:50 pm edt 

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Inequality in Connecticut and beyond

Several recent articles and studies highlight growing income and wealth inequalities in Connecticut and nationally.  There are policy implications for business climate and job growth, a possible state earned-income tax credit, housing, health care, child care and the quality of and access to pre-K to 16 (early childhood through college)  educational options.

New York Times  April 9, 2008
Income Gap in Connecticut Is Growing Fastest, Study Finds
By Alison Leigh Cowan  “The income gap between the have-lots and the have-nots is widening faster in Connecticut than in any other state, a new study says.”

This Times article, which discusses a joint study of the Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, concludes by quoting a domestic-violence counselor who has to work multiple jobs to live modestly.  The Times article also mentions the  Connecticut Voices study issued with the report of the two national research and advocacy groups.

Connecticut Voices for Children, April 2008
"Pulling Apart in Connecticut: Trends in Family Income, Late 1980s to Mid 2000s"

By Douglas Hall, Ph.D. & Shelley Geballe, J.D., M.P.H.

“Over the last two decades, the gaps in average, inflation-adjusted ("real") income between wealthy and poor Connecticut families and between wealthy and middle-income families have grown more in Connecticut than in any other state in the country. While real income for the poorest families in the state has declined since the late 1980s by 17%, the largest drop of any state, the wealthiest families have enjoyed an increase in their real income of 45%. Middle-income families have seen little change in their real incomes, which increased by only 5.1%. This modest increase for middle-income residents was the lowest among all states. Connecticut is the only state in which real income for the poorest fifth of families declined significantly since the late 1980s. On average, real income for low-income families in the U.S. increased by $1,814 (11%), but in Connecticut, real income for these families actually declined by $4,437 (-17%). The average income of the wealthiest fifth of Connecticut families now is 8 times greater than the income of the poorest fifth, compared to 4.6 times in the late 1980s. The wealthiest families now have income 2.7 times that of middle-income families, compared to 1.9 times in the late 1980s. Both of these increases in income inequality are the greatest among all states.”

An earlier, December 2007 Connecticut Voices study focused on disparities in wealth, which are even greater than the growing gaps in income:

"Connecticut Family Asset Scorecard, 2007-08"
By Joachim O. Hero, MPH, Douglas J. Hall, PhD, and Shelley Geballe, JD, MPH

“Despite the state's apparent overall prosperity, Connecticut's ranking in the latest Family Assets Scorecard fell from an A to a C since the 2005 Scorecard, reflecting wide disparities in assets by race, ethnicity and gender; high levels of debt; declining homeownership; and growing numbers of households with no employer-provided health insurance. Despite losing ground, Connecticut continues to rank well compared to other states on some measures, ranking fifth among states in net worth of its households and fourth in the concentration of workers with college degrees. However, other measures show that a lack of assets among many families, high levels of debt, and racial disparities threaten the state's overall quality of life and economic security. One in five households in Connecticut is asset poor, meaning they do not have sufficient resources to survive at the poverty level for three months without any income. Connecticut's racial disparities in assets are among the greatest in the nation. Minority households are much less likely to be homeowners and are more likely to have low assets, as compared to white households. For example, the median white household in Connecticut is nearly 27 times wealthier than the average minority household.”

With this in mind, here’s news of some big winners amid the current economic and financial turmoil:

New York Times April 16, 2008
Wall Street Winners Get Billion-Dollar Paydays
By Jenny Anderson

More on income (and ultimately wealth) inequalities can be found in the work of economists such as Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, who explore the historical evolution of income inequality in the U.S. and how the progressivity of the federal tax system has changed over decades.  A summary of their findings, as well as links to extensive other material about budget and social policy, is available from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.


11:26 pm edt 

Monday, April 7, 2008

Literacy and writing skills, 1980s and today

This occasional blog begins with a juxtaposition of journalistic accounts two decades removed.  Here was the title and lead of an article Fred Hechinger wrote in December 1986 based on NAEP results at that time:

"Stubborn Pockets of Illiteracy"

Published: December 16, 1986, New York Times

"THE United States faces a serious deficit of young adults who read and write well enough to perform the complex technological, scientific and managerial tasks on which the nation's future depends.

This does not mean that great portions of American are illiterate, as some sensational reports have suggested. It does mean that a level of literacy that may once have been sufficient is no longer good enough to keep the United States competitive. . . ."

And here was Sam Dillon's recent take in the Times:

"U.S. Students Achieve Mixed Results on Writing Test" 

Published: April 4, 2008

"About a third of the nation’s eighth-grade students, and roughly a quarter of its high school seniors, are proficient writers, according to nationwide test results released Thursday.

That proportion of students demonstrating writing proficiency is about the same as in 2002, when a similar exam was last given.

But the results of the latest test, administered last year, also found modest increases in the skills of lower-performing students. Nearly 9 students in 10 can now demonstrate at least a basic achievement in writing, defined as partial mastery of the skills needed for proficient work.

As in the past, girls outperformed boys by far, most decisively at the eighth-grade level, where 41 percent of them achieved proficiency, compared with 20 percent of boys. The racial achievement gap narrowed slightly, with black and Hispanic students’ writing improving a bit more than did whites’.

The results for eighth graders, though not for seniors, were broken down by states, the top performers of which were New Jersey, where 56 percent of students scored at or above proficiency levels, and Connecticut, where the number was 53 percent. Nineteen states ranked above New York, where it was 31 percent.

That a third of the nation’s eighth graders can write with proficiency may not sound like much, but it is the best performance by eighth-grade students in any subject tested in the national assessment in the last three years. Only 17 percent of eighth graders were proficient on the 2006 history exam, for example. . . ."

There is some encouraging news here for Connecticut, though reading performance on the NAEP and other measures continues to lag writing performance, and there is some controversy about the value of the writing assessment. Will Fitzhugh is quoted on this point in Dillon's article. The gender gap, among other achievement gaps cited here, is striking. Connecticut deserves credit for continuing to gauge and emphasize writing even though it is not required for NCLB purposes.

The 1986 Hechinger article is a reminder that concerns about literacy skills, particularly in an economy that increasingly emphasizes formal education, are nothing new.

9:46 pm edt 

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