Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The post that ensures I will never be linked to in the VISTA enewsletter.

Blog Action Day is here. On Blog Action Day, bloggers are supposed to tie whatever they normally write about to a certain topic to generally raise awareness. Last year it was the environment, so a participating food blogger would have talked about sustainable farming.

This year the topic is poverty, which is sort of weird for me. I suppose that this blog is technically a record of the year I've committed to fighting poverty, but I subject whoever might read this to my external processing on a large-ish, somewhat disjointed pool of topics. (Or I did...)


Side story for just a moment:
My work is in evaluation. I'm building a system for this organization to take an honest look at how well they do what they say they do. At a meeting earlier this week, someone called a nascent evaluation point I'm working on a "dangerous question." This, of course, makes me feel like a real, live researcher.

The point of that story is that in the spirit of asking dangerous questions, I am going to ask myself a dangerous question (or at least uncomfortable) about VISTA and poverty. So here it goes.

VISTA income is below the poverty line, and we are prohibited from having any other employment/income. In training and orientation materials, there are two justifications offered for this. One is that that a more comfortable total income would somehow separate us from the communities we serve. Do I feel more connected to impoverished people in the Indianapolis communities I serve because of my modest living allowance?

Let's start answering this with a financial example.

I live in a pretty nice three-bedroom duplex that costs almost exactly the median monthly rent for the area. My rent is 48% of my living allowance and food stamps income. A household is considered cost-burdened if more than 30% of income goes to rent. About half of Marion County households are cost-burdened, so I'm probably connected to more neighbors this way than I know.

Well, never in my life have I had a complaint-free conversation about rent(not that I would ever talk to anyone my organization serves about housing). Also, I knowingly chose this rent ratio because it means that I live in a safe neighborhood, save gas because it's a mile from where I work, and it's big enough that I don't need to worry about storage. So, I guess I resent that these three fairly simple criteria mathematically indicate that I am somehow living beyond my means.

Is that the basis of a connection between me and impoverished girls in central Indiana? I seriously doubt it. Virtually any example I could use would be this ambiguous. Yes, I went through the paperwork to get on food stamps. But I'm qualified for way more than I would be if I was not a VISTA, and I certainly would never talk about this with the girls we serve.

There are strict limits on direct service where I would have the chance to interact with the girls, but it's probably more important that poverty is not limited to a lack of financial resources. Girls Inc. programs focus on every singe poverty-related resource listed in my VISTA handbook:

emotional stability and control
mental capacity and critical thinking skills
social capital and support systems for times of need
role models
financial assets



Look at that list. Obviously, poverty means more than an outdated math problem. It would be ridiculous to go about connecting with any community through only one of these routes.

And let's not kid ourselves. I won't walk away from this service year with a particularly robust story about a lack of financial resources because I am so rich in other resources. (Thanks for the toilet paper, Mom! Thanks for mailing me your old clothes, Caitlin!)


So I guess the point is that I don't blog much about poverty in my VISTA blog because that subject would make me a big, fat liar. I love what I do, and I believe that I am changing this city for the better, no doubt. But 1/3 of the way through my year of service, I'm the same privileged chick from the suburbs. I just have less money.

That alone does not prevent a connection to any community, impoverished or not. Sitting at a computer all day does.




Edit: I'm worried that this comes off like me making a crass blanket statement about VISTA or the poverty experience of others. I'm not. I'm making a crass statement strictly about my own experiences.

6 comments:

Louis Lopez said...

"VISTA income is below the poverty line, and we are prohibited from having any other mployment/income. In training and orientation materials, there are two justifications offered for this. One is that that a more comfortable total income would somehow separate us from the communities we serve. Do I feel more connected to impoverished people in the Indianapolis communities I serve because of my modest living allowance?"

Response: VISTA subsistence allowance is not income and calculated at 110% of the poverty level. A VISTA member elects to volunteer and live at the income level of the poverty community. The subsistence allowance is authorized by congress and does not count towards income for the receipt of public benefits. It enables members to serve voluntarily and be available 24/7 Volunteer service is not a substitute for employment. Subsistence is indeed modest and entirely voluntary, hence members agree to the terms which provide for the unique status of the subsistence allowance. There are no other assumptions connected to this allowance. If a volunteer wishes to work part time or earn other income, AmeriCorps state and national provides this option. These initives pay a wage.

"Foodstamps: But I'm qualified for way more than I would be if I was not a VISTA, and I certainly would never talk about this with the girls we serve."

Response: VISTA members as a whole choose to forego a significant income in order to serve their community for a year. Members receive compensation which can be up to 300% less than had they chosen employment. That is the rationale for the subsistence allowance which intentional and not a wage.

"There are strict limits on direct service where I would have the chance to interact with the girls, but it's probably more important that poverty is not limited to a lack of financial resources."

Response: VISTA was never established to provide direct service, but rather enable those direct service providers(agencies, organizations etc.) to build and expand capacity to provide new and or better services. This emulates the Peace Corps model. The notion that members are limited in any activity challenges the premise that VISTA programs were never created to replicate or supplant what is already being done.

"And let's not kid ourselves. I won't walk away from this service year with a particularly robust story about a lack of financial resources because I am so rich in other resources."

Response: This is not nor has ever been the intention of VISTA to simulate poverty. At best it provides a sensitivity to the human condition of those communities in poverty.

"So I guess the point is that I don't blog much about poverty in my VISTA blog because that subject would make me a big, fat liar. I love what I do, and I believe that I am changing this city for the better, no doubt. But 1/3 of the way through my year of service, I'm the same privileged chick from the suburbs. I just have less money."

Response: You no more have to experience poverty to be sensitive and assist than does the Oncologist that has never suffered a cancer to be able to treat it. As one who in his youth lived in a one room apartment with a sink and a hotplate over a department store in downtown Gary Indiana; this experience makes me no more able to assist the poverty community than one who has never experienced such conditions.

Your background and experience is what makes VISTA so compelling. You and others sacrifice each day for the greater good of the community. You give above and beyond at a level of compensation far less than you could make employed. Never underestimate the impact you're making as you endeavor to make the world a little better for those truly needy. VISTA members practice citizenship at its highest level every day, by helping other Americans. I applaud you.

Anonymous said...

I'm posting anonymously because I don't have quite the courage to say this that you do. But thank you for saying it, too few actually do.

On the subject of the "entirely voluntary" nature of the service and that "volunteer service is not a substitute for employment" (and meaning no disrespect at all to Louis Lopez), let me just point out that if I'd found a reasonable job before my money was due to run out, I would NOT have chosen to live in poverty as a VISTA. When employment is readily available, VISTA service is indeed entirely voluntary, but you can also draw a parallel to the fact that low-income people enter the military not always because they want to serve in the military, but because that is the most attractive option available for supporting themselves and their families. Sometimes, indeed, VISTA service IS a substitute for employment, even though it theoretically should not be.

We are actually less well off than someone with a minimum wage full time job; at an equivalent pay rate of $5.10 an hour (please don't patronize me, anyone, with the philosophical difference between "wage" and "subsistence allowance") our income is far below the legal minimum wage. This, in fact, is the core of my dissatisfaction with the program; I love what I do and the organization I work for, but I "make" far less than my poverty level neighbors for no good reason whatsoever. Nor am I permitted to do what my neighbors try to do when faced with financial problems: find an additional income.

There is a place for priorities as a VISTA, certainly, but this blanket prohibition is dangerous for those of us without a spouse or parents whose income we can expect to fall back on. If something happens to my health, or my winter heating bill is higher than I can afford, or my car breaks down, I - and many others like me - will have to face the painful decision to either live with our state of financial ruin somehow, or to leave the service that means so much to us - irrevocably harming the organization we serve - in order to take care of our own needs.

Oh, and Mr. Lopez - while it is true that state and national AmeriCorps programs often allow one to have another job, you may have noticed that in many places, including here, there are more VISTA programs available than state/national programs, so it cannot be asserted that the playing field is in fact perfectly level. And neither is it truly voluntary service when we know that our organizations will permanently be stripped of their VISTAs if we, for reasons unrelated to our organization, do not complete the full year of service. Unfair? Unjust, to us and to our organizations.

EmilyK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
EmilyK said...

This is an interesting dialogue and certainly merits a healthy debate. As a result, I feel compelled to lend some clarification on a few points from the anonymous commentary. Before I go into a bit of a rebuttal, let me set the stage with pointing out that President Johnson welcomed the first group of 20 VISTA volunteers saying, “Your pay will be low; the conditions of your labor often will be difficult. But you will have the satisfaction of leading a great national effort and you will have the ultimate reward which comes to those who serve their fellow man.” For over 40 years, individuals throughout the country have felt this call to service and made the sacrifice that President Johnson indicated it would be. This sacrifice is the spirit of the program and the service of thousands of Americans should never be trivialized.

Anonymous: “On the subject of the "entirely voluntary" nature of the service and that "volunteer service is not a substitute for employment" (and meaning no disrespect at all to Louis Lopez), let me just point out that if I'd found a reasonable job before my money was due to run out, I would NOT have chosen to live in poverty as a VISTA.”

It is mentioned that the writer could not find a “reasonable job” however further down it is strongly implied that the VISTA subsistence allowance is unreasonable. One must ask what is meant by a reasonable job. Clearly since the VISTA subsistence allowance in itself falls below a minimum wage, any “job” would be more reasonable financially. (keep in mind the VISTA subsistence package includes travel, training, a health benefit and a generous ed award) Perhaps available “jobs” with more reasonable wages did not provide the experience provided by VISTA. So a choice was made; the choice of professional experience over wages.

Anonymous“ When employment is readily available, VISTA service is indeed entirely voluntary, but you can also draw a parallel to the fact that low-income people enter the military not always because they want to serve in the military, but because that is the most attractive option available for supporting themselves and their families. Sometimes, indeed, VISTA service IS a substitute for employment, even though it theoretically should not be.”

VISTA “Volunteers” In Service To America is entirely voluntary. Just because something happens to be the best choice, does not mean it is the only choice. One could choose to work those higher paying minimum wage jobs as opposed to service. Some may value the short term financial benefit over the long term experiential benefit. Each person makes value judgments and those who serve have volunteered to do so on their own volition. Enrolling in VISTA because the job market did not fit one's personal taste is poor judgement as VISTA has never been nor will it ever be an income transfer or "jobs" program for VISTA members. Just because someone makes the choice to substitute employment with VISTA service, does not mean that the spirit of the program is inherently wrong. It is that the individual doing the substituting has not embraced the spirit. Those that join as a substitute for employment will certainly be unsatisfied, because it is not, nor should it ever be employment. Those that accept VISTA as an opportunity to serve their community while gaining valuable experience, understand that the subsistence allowance is simply the means to provide them with the opportunity to volunteer for a year.

Anonymous: “We are actually less well off than someone with a minimum wage full time job; at an equivalent pay rate of $5.10 an hour (please don't patronize me, anyone, with the philosophical difference between "wage" and "subsistence allowance") our income is far below the legal minimum wage. This, in fact, is the core of my dissatisfaction with the program; I love what I do and the organization I work for, but I "make" far less than my poverty level neighbors for no good reason whatsoever.”

The difference between a wage and a subsistence allowance is neither patronizing nor a trivial “philosophical” difference. It is a core part of the program. The reason members receive a subsistence allowance and a health benefit is because they are NOT being “compensated for their services” (which is what a wage does). They are provided these benefits so that they can live (albeit frugally) while providing full time volunteerism. It is simply part of being a VISTA and it is what makes VISTA members’ commitment and sacrifice so meaningful. They are literally giving a year of their lives in service. To indicate that these benefits are a “wage” is to trivialize the VISTA experience and sacrifice.

Anonymous: "Nor am I permitted to do what my neighbors try to do when faced with financial problems: find an additional income. There is a place for priorities as a VISTA, certainly, but this blanket prohibition is dangerous for those of us without a spouse or parents whose income we can expect to fall back on. If something happens to my health, or my winter heating bill is higher than I can afford, or my car breaks down, I - and many others like me - will have to face the painful decision to either live with our state of financial ruin somehow, or to leave the service that means so much to us - irrevocably harming the organization we serve - in order to take care of our own needs. Oh, and Mr. Lopez - while it is true that state and national AmeriCorps programs often allow one to have another job, you may have noticed that in many places, including here, there are more VISTA programs available than state/national programs, so it cannot be asserted that the playing field is in fact perfectly level. And neither is it truly voluntary service when we know that our organizations will permanently be stripped of their VISTAs if we, for reasons unrelated to our organization, do not complete the full year of service. Unfair? Unjust, to us and to our organizations."

All members knowingly enroll in the program under the terms and conditions established by Congress. There is no outside employment. In response to the availability of AmeriCorps positions, it may be helpful to know that there are significantly more AmeriCorps State & National positions in Indiana than there are VISTA. In the 2007/2008 Program Year there were 43 VISTA positions allocated for the entire state vs. a total of 552 AmeriCorps State and National slots in the state (please visit http://www.nationalservice.gov/state_profiles/pdf/IN_GL.pdf ). VISTA is much more competitive and there are far fewer positions available.

When a member fails to honor their commitment to a full year of service, the state loses that position the following year so hence, the site loses the position and it is not refilled. The VISTA site knowingly accepts the responsibility to recruit and select members that are NOT substituting employment. Those who do have the highest attrition rate given they take service for economic reasons and not for service. It should be made clear before a member is ever selected that this is a serious commitment they are choosing to make. If the site/project did not make the commitment clear and the member does not complete a full year, then they are losing the position because they made an error in judgment or failed to provide information to their candidates. A serious health issue or a death in the family (as indicated by the VISTA member handbook) can be determined a compelling reason to early terminate. Besides such events, members know what they are going to make before they swear in. Not having planned for the basic financial challenges of the meager allowance prior to making the commitment is not compelling. It simply makes it clear the member should have taken a job instead of VISTA from the beginning. If a member is told of the commitment, chooses to tell their project they are ready to fulfill the commitment, knowing full well they are substituting employment, then an early term is not the fault of the VISTA restrictions, it is the member’s. The program does not pretend to be a job or allow outside employment. Projects and members should be aware from the start that this is the program and it is a serious commitment. Imagine if someone signs any sort of contract knowing all of the constraints and the consequences of not fulfilling it. Then the individual breaches this contract. Is it unfair to enforce the aforementioned consequences? I say it is not only fair but just.

To sacrifice the integrity of the program, to allow someone to trivialize the commitment by making it. but not taking it seriously, while others hold to it…that would be unfair and unjust to taxpayers, organizations and to those members that chose to do VISTA with commitment and conviction. Never underestimate the commitment you made and how unique it is. By choosing to do a year of service, you have a story to tell that people can admire and respect. It is so important that members understand the spirit of the program so that they can fully understand what they are a part of and how proud they should be of what they have chosen to do.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your indepth comments.

To clarify what I meant by not being able to find a "reasonable job" - I meant any job I am qualified for, even at minimum wage, which would enable me to pay my rent, etc; most minimum wage jobs are less than full time and wouldn't hire someone with a college degree anyway. (I heard the term "overqualified" enough to be thoroughly disgusted with the concept.) Chastising me for snobbishly turning down minimum-wage positions that don't fit my 'personal tastes' is assuming a bit much, thank you.

While there may be more AmeriCorps State positions in Indiana overall, during the time I was researching (a time period lasting several months) most of the open positions in this area were VISTA, not State/National. I was incorrect to suggest that there are, overall, more VISTA positions in Indiana, and appreciate the correction. This was my impression based on my experience.

Don't fear, I have indeed 'embraced the spirit' of service (which you might have noticed from the way I spoke about my organization and work there). But I do continue to question whether the way the VISTA program is designed is the most beneficial and productive for all involved: the volunteers, the organizations, and the public we are (indirectly, of course) serving.

Perhaps Congress should add a proviso to the VISTA program that requires a successful applicant to have a)several thousand dollars in savings; b)an employed or employable spouse/live-in-significant-other; or c)parents or close relatives who will commit to support the VISTA in the event of a financial emergency. Because, clearly, this ban on outside employment is utterly sacrosanct and cannot be questioned, lest ye be a traitor to the Spirit of Service.

I did hope that there would be more discussion concerning the points I raised; however, this post seems to have generated only more of the same rhetoric.

Unless this develops into an actual discussion of the points I raised, I will not be replying to anything else said about my comments. Thank you.

Louis Lopez said...

It appears obvious that you find the terms and conditions under which you elected to enroll in VISTA objectionable though you did so with full knowledge. From your statement, “Let me just point out that if I'd found a reasonable job before my money was due to run out, I would NOT have chosen to live in poverty as a VISTA”. This is precisely why it was made crystal clear to you and all applicants at the onset that VISTA is not an alternative to employment. The inability on anyone’s part to accept the facts does not change the reality. It’s unfortunate that you hold such a negative view but it is entirely understandable. Failure on your part to secure employment of your liking did not require you to enroll in VISTA, and you did so willingly. Your pronouncements and suggestions flow from the premise that national service does not meet your personal employment needs. Even though you were informed - it was never intended nor presented as such. Your “don’t bother me with the facts” rhetoric is helpful in that it underscores the high dissatisfaction reflected by individuals who enroll in VISTA in lieu of employment. VISTA national service is great source of pride for the tens of thousands of alumni and active members - perhaps someday you will recognize it for what it is and not for what it isn’t.