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This Simple Solution Has Cultural Resonance

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 02, 2015

A Little Fish Fights a Big Problem

Christopher Charles, a Canadian epidemiologist, saw the disheartening impact of widespread iron deficiency in large segments of a population when he lived in Cambodia in 2008.  Iron deficiency means there aren’t enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body, and that can cause fatigue, lethargy, dizziness and other ills. Iron deficiency in children can impair long-term physical and mental development.

Anemia is a multifaceted global health problem with dietary and non-dietary components, but iron deficiency is major cause.  Dr. Charles’s research on anemia in Cambodia suggested more than half the population suffered from iron deficiency, with even higher rates among women and children. Iron supplements were too costly for large scale use and their side effects would spur resistance.

The Lucky Iron Fish is a small piece of utilitarian art that fits in your hand. It has reduced anemia by half in places where it’s been used, and a Wired magazine story by Margaret Rhodes reports more than 5,000 are in use in Cambodia now with thousands more on the way.  It took several iterations for Dr. Charles and colleagues to come up with this inexpensive, low tech innovation to address a complex health problem.  

Dr. Charles knew a chunk of iron in a pot of cooking food would release 60 to 300 milligrams of iron into heated food or water, enough for about 75 percent of a family’s daily nutritional needs. But the rectangular chunks first distributed to people were ugly. As a Slate story by Kristin Hohenadel notes, people used them for door stops and props for furniture legs.  The next step was to round corners so they wouldn’t scratch cooking pots, but people still found them unappetizing. Then promoters molded iron into the shape of a little lotus flower, a spiritual symbol in Cambodia. But that didn’t catch on for meal prep either.  Dr. Charles, Gavin Armstrong and others who formed the Lucky Iron Fish project, began seeking clues in Cambodian culture that might help adoption. They discovered that the kantrop fish, a staple in the diet, was also considered a symbol of hope and good fortune. The Slate story says Dr. Charles and colleagues distributed a newly designed iron kantrop fish replica to 400 people in five test communities and were delighted to find 90 percent were complying with daily use. Later blood tests have confirmed improved health among users.

Surprisingly, the best source of available iron turned out to be used auto parts, according to Armstrong, who explains that all materials used are carefully screened to prevent any contaminants in the finished iron fish. Watch Armstrong’s video presentation here.  Watch Dr. Charles describing his work here.

The fish won this year’s Cannes Lion Grand Prix award in product design. The Wired story notes that’s an impressive achievement for a lump of molded metal competing in a category filled with such high tech entries as a DNA sequencing food testing kit and a gamified studio cycling bike. Despite a later dustup over whether the entry should have been submitted by the Lucky Iron Fish organization or its marketing partner, there has been no question about the health benefits of the little iron fish.

Dr. Charles told The Atlantic that the genius of the Lucky Iron Fish is that it does not have to be shaped like a fish. “If we were to go to sub-Saharan Africa,” he said, “or a dry area where fish is not an important part of the diet, we could very easily change it to a different symbol of luck.”




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Organizational Succession Should Be a Process, Not an Event

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, June 26, 2015
Updated: Friday, June 26, 2015

It Helps to Have Friends When a Firm Loses a Leader


David Goldberg, the CEO who had built Survey Monkey into a company valued at $2 billion, died of an accidental injury while vacationing in Mexico in May.  He was 47 years old, and the company had no succession plan in place.

A week after Goldberg died, the company announced that Zander Lurie, one of Goldberg’s long time close friends, and an executive of the sports camera company GoPro, would step in as interim executive chairman while a new CEO is being sought both inside and outside the organization.  

A New York Times story by Quentin Hardy describes some of the unusual steps Survey Monkey leadership has taken to navigate the search, keep the company running and pay attention to the morale of its 500 employees. The Times and other publications mentioned the personal popularity and professional respect in Silicon Valley and elsewhere for Goldberg, who was married to Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook.  Goldberg’s friend Donald E. Graham, former owner of the Washington Post, addressed the Survey Monkey staff about managing loss and described the experience of his own mother when she took over the newspaper after her husband’s suicide. The Times reports that 18 other executives including the leaders of LinkedIn, GoPro and Twitter, agreed to be paired with senior employees of Survey Monkey for a few hours of mentoring. Recruitment calls from rivals seeking to poach Survey Monkey talent augmented stress. The company management began regular surveys of its own employees to see how they were coping, and complied with their requests for more communication with more updates about the CEO search, customer growth and product milestones.  

Goldberg had led Survey Monkey since 2009 and was board chair as well as CEO, so both employees and board members faced unexpected transition. Lurie, who was a Survey Monkey board member before the interim appointment, has said he is not a candidate for CEO.

Business theoreticians and scholars emphasize the need for succession planning.  Walter Frisk,  senior associate editor at Harvard Business Review (HBR), writes that while interim CEOs are quite common, firms that appoint an interim CEO as part of their succession process generally don’t do as well as those that appoint a permanent CEO immediately. However, he writes, an interim CEO may help avoid old biases in the CEO search.

In another HBR article Joseph L. Bower writes that the most successful transitions happen when those involved realize that succession is an ongoing process, not an event.  Insiders and outsiders begin with strengths and weaknesses, he observes. Insiders know the company but may be blind to the need for change. Outsiders see need for change, but may not be able to foster it because they don’t know the company.  Bower suggests organizations need to nurture development of what he calls inside-outsiders—internal candidates who have an outside perspective. He also suggests individuals can develop themselves as inside-outsiders by careful review of what their company offers in training, mentorship and experience, examining their own performance, and broadening their knowledge. He thinks community involvement and getting to know people with different backgrounds can aid future leadership skills. Read Bower’s piece here and the Times story here.

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A Time Machine in a Drop of Blood

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, June 19, 2015

Probing the Interplay Between Viruses and the Immune System

 Scientists have developed a new test that can identify almost every viral exposure a person has ever had using only one drop of blood. 

The research has potential for new discoveries on the interplay between the human immune system and the vast array of viruses that can infect humans.  The test is expected to become an important research tool for epidemiologists seeking to track patterns of diseases in various populations, and may shed light on whether viruses or the body’s immune responses to them contribute to chronic diseases and cancer.

 Researchers from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital tested blood samples from 600 people from the U.S., Peru, South Africa and Thailand. A Harvard Medical School release explains the researchers developed a library of peptides—the short protein fragments derived from viruses—representing 1,000 viral strains. That’s pretty much the whole human virome, or all the viruses to which humans are susceptible. Using a test called VirScan on a single drop of blood, the scientists were able to detect evidence of past and present viral exposure.  The study is published in the journal Science.    

“VirScan is a little like looking back in time,“ senior author Stephen J. Elledge, a Harvard professor of genetics said in the release, because the test shows viruses a person has had over many years. “A viral infection can leave behind an indelible footprint on the immune system,” he said. “Having a simple reproducible test like VirScan may help us generate new hypotheses and understand the interplay between the virome and the host’s immune system, with implications for a variety of diseases.”

 For instance, researchers may be able to identify correlations between an early exposure and a disease later in life.  A connection is already known between the Epstein-Barr virus, one of the most common viruses observed in this study, and certain cancers.  Dr. Elledge also notes that a unique feature of the new research is scale: now, doctors have to test individually for any viruses they suspect whereas VirScan tests for almost every virus known in one test.

 A New York Times story by Denise Grady quoted several scientists on the vast potential for the work.  Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, likened the research to the introduction of the electron microscope.  He also suggested that tests in large populations could identify the ages at which children are most exposed to various illnesses, which could help find the best timing for vaccinations.  Others hailed the possibility for new discoveries through big data on viral exposure. The Times story notes researchers have long suspected that such autoimmune disorders as Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis may be related to viral exposure that provoke the immune system to produce antibodies, which then mistake the body’s own cells for viruses and attack them. Further, the technology may help researchers learn why cancers progress faster in some patients than others, and why responses to treatment differ.

“I am sure there will be lots of applications we haven’t even dreamed of,” Dr. Elledge told the Times. “That’s what happens when you invent technology. You can’t imagine what people will do with it.”


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Musical Insights from Evolutionary Biology

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, June 15, 2015

Musical Inheritance: Modification by Descent

Evolutionary biologists and computer scientists who analyzed 50 years of Billboard’s Hot 100 songs the way a paleontologist would study a fabulously intact fossil find believe their recent work on  pop music illustrates a new approach to the scientific understanding of culture. Music, art and culture generally are similar to living organisms, Armand Leroi explains.  They are diverse and have many different kinds of species and they all evolve trough a process Darwin called modification by descent.    

“No song or specie arrives from nowhere,” Leroi told NPR Science Friday host Ira Flatow. “It happens because there was something before it.”

Leroi, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College in London and colleagues investigated musical properties of 17,000 songs that topped the Billboard charts between 1960 and 2010.  Their paper is published in Royal Society Open Science online.  Although music has evolved continually, they write, the scientific measurements of changes in chords, tones, rhythms and other features uncovered three stylistic revolutions in music around 1964, 1984 and 1991.  The authors say the findings point the way to a quantitative science of cultural change because they expect that statistical tools used to analyze musical structures will permit evolutionary analysis of many other dimensions of modern culture.

The greatest revolution in American pop music history, they found, was in 1991 when hip-hop entered mainstream consciousness and hit the charts.   That style, exemplified by Busta Rhymes, Nas and Snoop Dogg, featured energetic speech, dominant percussion, and rare use of chords. They found that contrary to the popular notion, the style changes that took hold in 1964 did not come from the “British Invasion”—the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  Those groups were a bit ahead of the musical curve, the authors found, so their influence helped further an existing trend rather than starting one.  The research identified changes in trends rather than the origins of musical styles. However the authors were able to say the 1984 change was the result of technology—musicians just loved the new synthesizers and drum machines.  

For  a while, Leroi told LA Times writer Eryn Brown, everything sounded like Duran, Duran.  However, Leroi and colleagues say that’s the only period when diversity suffered.  He says data show diversity actually has persisted over time. Further, the data on the musical revolutions show that like dramatic changes in other complex systems, changes in music took place in spurts rather than by slow, steady increment.

Read the Royal Society paper here. Watch the “Song of Songs” video in which Leroi tells how he and musician Brian Eno talked about doing for songs what scientists have done for genes. Click here for more about Leroi’s work.   

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Disrupting ISIS Networks Could Thwart Growth

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, June 09, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, June 09, 2015

ISIS Wives Collaborate to Evade Surveillance    

Twitter and other social media platforms are integral to ISIS's global recruitment and radicalization efforts. Twitter has shut down some of the more inflammatory ISIS accounts, but Isabel Nassief, a social media analyst, suggests in a New York Times story that ISIS’s far flung reach may be more important than the content of its messages. She reports that on Twitter, a relatively small group of pro-ISIS accounts disseminate information that is then broadcast by their followers to thousands of other users. This process repeats itself over and over every day. As more than 20,000 foreigners have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join extremist groups, she writes,  ISIS's strategy is clearly working. She suggests disrupting ISIS’s social media networks to thwart its growth.

Another New York Times story by Eric Schmitt describes a trove of intelligence that American agencies recovered from computers, cell phones, electronic devices and other materials seized after an air strike on the headquarters of an ISIS leader in eastern Syria. The information yielded clues on how ISIS’s shadowy leader Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi and regional leaders keep their locations and activities secret. Among other tactics, the wives of ISIS leaders pass information among themselves and then to their spouses, to evade detection.  U.S. officials said ISIS is sophisticated,  highly networked and resilient. The information also provided insight into ISIS’s business enterprises, which include kidnap for ransom, and its oil, gas and financial operations. Read the stories here and here.

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Bin Laden’s Bookshelf Reflected Managerial Concerns

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 04, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Readings on Networks, Leadership, and Politics

Future  challenges for counterterrorism efforts won’t be Al Qaeda but what will follow Al Qaeda—a decentralized network of radical extremists that will be more difficult to identify and monitor,  Paul R. Pillar wrote  more than a decade ago.

Pillar, now a Brookings Institution scholar, is a former deputy chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Counter Terrorist Center, and author of Terrorism and U.S.  Foreign Policy. He wrote in 2004 that the centralized organization that Osama bin Laden had headed before the September 11 attacks was already in disarray, with many senior and mid level leaders incarcerated or dead, and others on the run. But he warned that the roots of the extremism were very much alive and growing deeper in a global network that extended well beyond Al Qaeda itself.

 Pillar predicted new threats would emerge from an eclectic and decentralized array of groups, cells and individuals, including jihadists  who might not be attached  to a particular group but  who could draw support from  networks of like-minded extremists He also suggested decentralization would increase the complexity of combating terrorism. Intelligence would become harder to gather and analyze, and lack of a large, visible and well financed centralized organization could make it harder to enlist foreign and domestic support for anti-terrorist initiatives.

Pillar’s essay, from a 2004 issue of  the Washington Quarterly,  was among the books, journals press clippings and other documents found. in Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbotabad  when U.S. Navy SEALs captured him. The director of U.S. National Intelligence released a declassified list of the reading matter. New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kukatani  called the collection a “weird hodgepodge” that included mainstream scholarly works on economics and U.S. foreign policy and wild conspiracy theories. It’s not clear what Bin Laden actually studied or thought. But Kukatani and other reviewers say the material reflected Bin Laden’s ambitions and managerial concerns. AlQaeda had become a kind of giant corporation—prospective fighters had to submit a thee page  job application and those accepted had to turn in expense reports. The library suggests the terrorist leader was trying to keep tabs on his own splintering organization and understand global issues, probably in search of wiser ways to attack his perceived enemies.  

Pillar wrote that post Al Qaeda terrorism would have “more moving parts, more geographically disparate operations, and more ideological momentum.”  He predicted new leaders would emerge. But he said the looser the network connections become, and the less terroristic activities are associated with a single individual, the harder it will be to identify operatives and track their movements and relationships.    Given these limitations, he said, counter terrorism will have to rely on other policy instruments, such as physical security to thwart attacks and efforts to understand and address the appeal of the radical extremists. The growth Islamist extremism in the Muslim world, he asserted, was fostered by distrust of America and its Western allies, and by the lack of credible alternatives to oppose the despised established order.

In a 2014 essay, Pillar discusses ISIS as one of the organizations that emerged in the aftermath of Al Qaeda’s deterioration and the dispersal of its leadership. Despite the horrifying and highly publicized brutality of ISIS, Pillar warns against a U.S. policy narrowly focused on destroying it; he says we want to be sure that in going after one monster we don’t create another one.  The lessons from Al Qaeda, he writes, illustrate that even though a particular organization might be destroyed, its methods and ideologies are likely to emerge elsewhere and take other forms as long as he underlying enabling conditions exist. .

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Simple Rules from a Founding Father?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, May 29, 2015

When Benjamin Franklin was in his 20s, he began what he called “the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He created a catalogue of 13 virtues. He made a chart to record his daily performance on each one by itself for one week. The plan was to cycle through the list four times each year and persevere for as long as it took to make all the virtues habitual.

In his Autobiography, Franklin explains he devised the plan after first finding behavior change much harder than he’d expected. “In guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another;” he wrote. “habit took the advantage of inattention.” He decided good intentions weren’t enough to prevent “slipping” and that bad habits needed to be broken and good ones established before one could depend on “uniform rectitude of conduct.”

The virtues he pursued were temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. That last was added because a Quaker friend suggested Franklin needed to counter his tendency to be argumentative, overbearing and too proud of his own assertions.  Franklin describes maintaining simplicity in his definitions and the steps for achievement.  For example, to achieve temperance, he would  “Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”  Confining the goal to food and drink, he didn’t have to moderate all other appetites and passions while working on temperance. For the virtue of moderation, his meaning was “Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”  He made an ink dot on the chart for each slip, and his goal was unmarked pages.

He describes his trouble with order. Putting things neatly in place and a keeping a strictly scheduled day  didn’t come naturally to him. But the hardest job was humility. His simple strategy was enormously complex: “Imitate Jesus and Socrates. “

“I cannot boast much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it,” he wrote after years of experimenting. He noted wryly that if he had actually suppressed his pride, he would have become proud of his humility. A black mark generator!  But the project was more than a check list. He learned to eliminate aggressive contradictions and dogmatic language and to pleasantly concede some value in opinions he opposed. He reported conversations and relationships improved. He credited his new skills with enhancing his influence with fellow citizens and others in the councils he joined and the diplomacy he negotiated.  When proposing new institutions or alterations to old ones, he wrote, “I generally carried my points.”

Does Franklin’s project exemplify simple rules?

In addition to extraordinary leadership as a Founding Father who helped draft the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Franklin was a diplomat, scientist and social innovator. He was also a pioneer or continual self improvement and behavior plans.  Franklin made a conscious choice to change old patterns in his behavior, create new ones and align his actions with his objectives.  He had profound impact on those around him.

Much of the scholarship on simple rules deals with how people function in organizations and businesses. A thoughtful Harvard Business Review article “Simple Rules for a Complex World” by Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt discusses research on some of the simple rules that have helped decision making and problem solving in business environments where fast pace, competition and change are the norm. The authors even suggests rules for developing simple rules:

Identify bottlenecks that pose barriers to organizational goals

Let data trump opinion.

Let users make the rules.

Rules should be concrete and easily understood  

Rules should evolve as circumstances change.


Two books that explore this topic and the science behind it are Simple Rules: A Radical Inquiry into Self, by Malary Tytel and Royce Holladay, and Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World by Donald Sull and Katheen M. Eisenhardt.

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Drugs in Water May Be More Potent After Purification

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, May 22, 2015

Unintended Consequences of Wastewater Treatment

Some pharmaceuticals that find their way into sewage may emerge from wastewater treatment with intensified potency because of unexpected chemical interactions between the drugs and the agents intended to purify the water.

Scientists have found two common methods of purification may have the unintended consequence of strengthening prescription medication residues in water instead of removing them. In one instance, researchers performed tests on wastewater before and after treatment with microbes often used to decompose organic matter at the South Shore Water Reclamation Facility in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, which serves the greater Milwaukee area. They found carbamazephine, an anti-seizure and mood stabilizing drug sold under brand names that include  Tegretol, Carbarol and Epitol,  was 80 percent stronger than when it went into the sewage.  The same researchers found ofloxacin, an antibiotic sold under many brand names, was 120 percent stronger.  The findings are described in Scientific American and Environmental Health stories by Brian Bienkowski.

Similar findings were reported elsewhere, though the strengthen effect was not discovered in most testing.  Canadian researchers found that carbamazephine more than doubled its medicinal strength after passing through treatment in a plant in Peterborough, Ontario, Bienkowski writes.  Blair and colleagues found 48 pharmaceuticals in the wastewater they tested, and carbamazephine and ofloxacin were the only two that increased in strength. 

It’s not surprising that sewage contains pharmaceuticals, because people who take prescription drugs excrete whatever passes through their systems, unused drugs are often flushed down toilets, and some pharmaceutical manufacturing plants emit waste products into the environment. But how do the drugs get stronger? Dr. Benjamin Blair, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado, began the research when he was a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin. He thinks when people take medications, their bodies break them down into different metabolites, and that the microbes used in water treatment take those different parts of the drug and put them back together, recombining them in new ways that intensity potency.

Dr. Oyla Keen from the University of North Carolina and colleagues found that when the common antibiotic doxycycline was exposed in laboratory tests to the chlorine used to treat wastewater, the resulting product was even stronger than the doxycycline that had been the parent compound. A ScienceDaily story reports that chlorine treatment may even encourage the formation of new previously unknown antibiotics that could contribute to antibiotic resistance when they enter the environment. Research is underway to identify the new products.  

“Treated wastewater is one of the major sources of pharmaceuticals and antibiotics in the environment,” Keen told ScienceDaily. “Wastewater treatment facilities were not designed to remove these drugs. These molecules are typically very stable and do not easily get biodegraded. Instead, most just pass through the treatment facility and into the aquatic environment,” and into streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs and eventually drinking water.  Environmental groups have asked drug companies to design medicines that are more efficiently metabolized by the body.  

The World Health Organization reports that the very low concentration of pharmaceuticals that get into drinking water pose a very low human health risk. But WHO calls drugs in the water an emerging issue that needs continuing review. The effects of long term exposure and the possible combined effects of pharmaceutical mixtures are unknown. Keen says pharmaceuticals can harm aquatic creatures, slowing their reaction time in the wild and disrupting their hormone systems. The Harvard Health newsletter says estrogen and similar chemicals have had feminizing effects on male fish and have altered male-to-female ratios among fish. The newsletter also reports fish downstream of wastewater treatment plants have been found with antidepressant medications concentrated in their brain tissue.  

Read an Associated Press report on pharmaceutical chemicals found in drinking water in American cities.


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Neighborhoods Impact A Child’s Future Income

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Surprising New Discoveries in Research Revisited   

New research shows that where we grow up influences the rest of our lives, and that wealth isn’t the whole story. The findings suggest place plays a big part in which poor kids escape poverty as adults, and that a childhood move to a better neighborhood can change a life trajectory.

After the Los Angeles riots 20 years ago, Congress created an antipoverty initiative called Moving to Opportunity, which provided vouchers to help poor families move to better neighborhoods.  The vouchers were randomly assigned so that researchers could study the neighborhood effect. Initially, little economic difference was found. Though some health benefits were identified, the program was considered a failure.

In a new study on upward mobility across America, researchers examined earnings records of millions of families who moved with children.  The mass of data they gathered showed poor kids who grew up in some cities and towns had a much better chance of escaping poverty as adults than similar poor kids who grew up elsewhere.  The researchers, Harvard economist Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, found that among those who had moved, every year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood contributed to measurably improved economic outcomes as adults. For kids whose families relocated to worse neighborhoods, adult economic outcomes changed by the same degree but for the worse. The research is described in a New York Times story by David Leonhardt, Amada Cox, and Claire Cain Miller.    

“The data show we can do something about upward mobility,” Chetty told The Times. “Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter.” Because each year had an impact, the research showed a teenagers’s year in a better neighborhood mattered as much as a younger child’s year. Chetty and Hendren reexamined Moving to Opportunity, and with longer-term and more recent data, found that those children too benefited financially as adults.

Places most conducive to upward mobility shared several traits: good elementary schools, stable families, high levels of civic involvement, less income inequality, and more residential integration of affluent, middle income and low income families.  Future prospects for low income children varied significantly depending on location. . For instance, data showed the probability of a child reaching the top quintile of the national income distribution starting from a family in the bottom quintile is 4.4 percent in Charlotte but 12.9 percent in San Jose.  

Areas that fostered measurable upward mobility for poor kids included large cities—San Francisco,  San Diego, Salt Lake City, and Providence, R.I., and suburban counties such as Fairfax, VA, Bergen, NJ,  Bucks, PA, and Macomb, MI.

Researchers found low income children from Baltimore faced the worst odds of escaping poverty. Boys who grew up poor in Baltimore earned 25 percent less as adults than similar low-income boys who were born there and moved away as children. Other places where poor kids faced daunting odds included areas of some of the nation’s biggest cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, The Bronx and parts of Manhattan. The Times published charts showing how childhood location influenced adult income.  See The Times interactive map on the best and worst places for upward mobility.   The researchers’ Equality of Opportunity Project has a wealth of information, including a listing of the future income impact for poor kids in the country’s 100 largest counties. 

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Can One Prosecutor Disrupt Mass Incarceration of Black Men?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, May 11, 2015

A Prosecutor as a Change Agent


The mass incarceration of African American men and the high percentage of young and middle-aged African America men missing from life in their communities is a growing focus for scholars and political and social leaders. There is even growing agreement across the political spectrum that we incarcerate too many people. But where can reformers start?


State and national criminal justice systems are huge collections of entities that interact but don't necessarily collaborate productively. Elected politicians legislate definitions of crimes and their penalties. Police decide whom to arrest, and prosecutors, grand juries, trial juries, judges, lawyers and probation and parole officers, all operating in their own distinct environments, influence individual fates and the way the law is carried out.


In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar and civil rights advocate, documents historical, economic and social forces that coalesced in recent decades to cause the disproportional incarceration of black men. She and other scholars say the inducement of millions of dollars of federal funds in the 1980s led local police departments to target black communities in the War on Drugs. Alexander wrote that in 2003 the justice system employed nearly 2.4 million people, and that government figures showed the U.S. spent $185 billion on police protection, detention and related activities, a figure that had risen to $212 billion a year by 2013. That's a lot of jobs and strong economic incentive to maintain the criminal justice system as is.


Who can initiate changes? Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin describes the central role played by prosecutors: they decide whether to drop a case or take it to trial, what charges to bring, and whether to demand prison time or accept probation. In his New Yorker article "The Milwaukee Experiment" Toobin tells how Milwaukee County Prosecutor John Chisholm is fostering reform. He invited independent researchers examine the work of his own office and they found racial disparities in charges and prison time for low level drug offenses, prostitution and property crimes. Chisholm initially thought the larger number of white people arrested for property crimes suggested some racial balance until further probing found suburban property crimes got more attention. What the data really meant, he told Toobin, was that "we devalue property crimes in the center city." Car theft? Probably just a junker anyway. In Chisholm's view, that was one more disparity to address.


Chisholm began what he called an "evidence-driven public health model." He wanted his staff to do more than just process cases. He realized the least experienced staff members were handling the most minor cases, and generally following what had been done in the past, without examining whether the person should be charged with a crime and whether incarceration was necessary. Chisholm began community outreach and an early intervention program that allowed some low risk offenders to be diverted into unofficial probation or more intensive post-arrest supervision initiatives and drug rehab. Those who successfully completed alternate programs could have their criminal records expunged, increasing their chances for employment. A Chisholm staff member convinced Habitat for humanity to renovate houses in a particularly crime-ridden neighborhood, and the crime rate dropped precipitously. Still, Chisholm's approach has had critics. Governor Scott Walker and allies who favor tough arrest and sentencing policies are adamant ideological opponents.


The effort has been partially successful. Chisholm's office is sending far fewer low level offenders to prison. But violent offenders are still being locked up and racial disparities in incarceration persist. Chisholm says broad forces beyond prosecutorial control-poverty, hopelessness, lack of education, addiction and the easy availability of guns-impede solutions. Toobin calls that a lesson in humility. "We redesigned our system," Chisholm told him, "but we learned that no individual actor can change the dynamics of what goes on in a complex larger system like a city." Read Toobin's piece here.  


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