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poverty

The worst person in America

From Slate

Dear Prudence,
I live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, but on one of the more “modest” streets—mostly doctors and lawyers and family business owners. (A few blocks away are billionaires, families with famous last names, media moguls, etc.) I have noticed that on Halloween, what seems like 75 percent of the trick-or-treaters are clearly not from this neighborhood. Kids arrive in overflowing cars from less fortunate areas. I feel this is inappropriate. Halloween isn’t a social service or a charity in which I have to buy candy for less fortunate children. Obviously this makes me feel like a terrible person, because what’s the big deal about making less fortunate kids happy on a holiday? But it just bugs me, because we already pay more than enough taxes toward actual social services. Should Halloween be a neighborhood activity, or is it legitimately a free-for-all in which people hunt down the best candy grounds for their kids?

—Halloween for the 99 Percent

Dear 99,
In the urban neighborhood where I used to live, families who were not from the immediate area would come in fairly large groups to trick-or-treat on our streets, which were safe, well-lit, and full of people overstocked with candy. It was delightful to see the little mermaids, spider-men, ghosts, and the occasional axe murderer excitedly run up and down our front steps, having the time of their lives. So we’d spend an extra $20 to make sure we had enough candy for kids who weren’t as fortunate as ours. There you are, 99, on the impoverished side of Greenwich or Beverly Hills, with the other struggling lawyers, doctors, and business owners. Your whine makes me kind of wish that people from the actual poor side of town come this year not with scary costumes but with real pitchforks. Stop being callous and miserly and go to Costco, you cheapskate, and get enough candy to fill the bags of the kids who come one day a year to marvel at how the 1 percent live.

—Prudie

Homeless in Saskatoon

Homeless in Saskatoon

I just posted this photo Bridge City.  I took it today while walking in Cosmopolitan Park by Saskatchewan Crescent.  I thought it was some stuff that had been stolen out of a vehicle but then I noticed the gentlemen sleeping there.  I was going to chat with him but he was soundly sleeping I snapped the photo and left.

I don’t often walk from Confed Bus Terminal

I don't always walk from Confed

Thanks to Hilary for this.

Going for a walk

A couple of weeks ago a local politicians phoned me up and simply said, “You are stupid and naive”.  That intrigued me so I said, “go on”.  During the conversation I was told the city “actually works” and no one cared about the social issues I was talking about.  I was reminded that “people vote in their own self interests” and they don’t care for others.

They are right.  Statistically I can prove to you that people don’t care about poverty issues.  People don’t care about battered women unless it is an NFL player hitting them.  People don’t care about the children being prostituted or the girls taken from reserves to work the streets.  People don’t care about global warming very much or at least not enough to change.  People don’t care about how we can built a better city.  They only care about their own commute.  The proof is in the hashtag #yxetraffic when there is an accident on Circle Drive.  You would think the world has ended because people are delayed a little bit.

People do care about their taxes.  Personally I have long felt that I am under taxed for the services we get but despite having a really low property tax rate, people tell me all of the time how much tax they pay.  Apparently they don’t read about anyone else’s tax rates.  People care about how rough they have it.  I get letters from people who live in multi million dollar homes on Whiteswan Drive telling me how bad it is there because of the traffic noise.  When I minimized the road design of Saskatchewan Crescent, I got email from many people who live there about how hard it is to live on Saskatchewan Crescent.  I know, who thought the two worst streets to live on are Whiteswan Drive and Saskatchewan Crescent and where do I send a donation to make it better?  

Politicians tell me all of the time of the people that they fear the backlash from.  It’s not those that are struggling.  They don’t donate and they don’t vote.  It’s those who complain about their taxes, who think the city is spending their money in the wrong places, that only care about the pothole on their street.  It is why the communications that the City of Saskatoon ran as soon as the lockout started mentioned keeping a promise to taxpayers (a promise I can’t find anywhere) and putting the blame on the ATU.  Who runs ads attacking the group of people you are supposed to be negotiating with? 

The special city council meeting that was called to vote on the pension changes had a great Q & A with Murray Totland where each councillor lobbed softball question after softball question at him to help build political cover.  What never came up?  What the city was going to do to help people who rely on transit.  

This is a city council that spent hours a couple of years ago debating what kind of fence that the city should build.  Should it be wood, brick, chain link, cement block, a combination of materials?  Seriously, they went around and around over the most minuscule of things.  Yet when a couple of thousand of people were left out in the cold with no transit, there was no discussion at all?

I agree with labour action.  Lockouts and strikes are part of the process.  At the same time this lockout is different.  There are some hard working people that are being negatively affected.

  • A guy I know who pulled himself off the streets lost his job because of not being able to get to work because he lived on the westside yet had a job in the far north side of the city.
  • A waitress I talked to lived on the westside, attends University of Saskatchewan and works downtown.  It’s almost impossible to get to class, work, and home in the same day.  When I went back to talk to her about it, she broke down in tears from just trying to spend an additional three hours a day walking and not being able to get home between class and work.
  • A couple that has been married for 62 years in our neighbourhood was separated last year when Alan had to be placed in a care home because of his dementia.  He doesn’t eat when his wife isn’t there so she takes Saskatoon transit from Mayfair to his care home everyday to help make sure he is okay.  Now she can’t see him and he isn’t eating.  As she said, “I talk to him on the phone but it’s not the same.  I’m so lonely without him”

And where are city councillors?  Well they are refuting a story from the Huffington Post on property taxes but are silent on a transit lockout that is hurting all sorts of people.  I have some on council that I consider friends but as I have told them, they are failing the city as politicians and as human beings.

A couple of people I have talked to have told me that they are leaving Confederation area at 6:30 a.m. to get to work or class on time.  Next Wednesday I am leaving the Confederation Bus terminal at 6:30 a.m. and am walking to the University.  It is 6.1 kms.  Google Maps tells me it is a 90 minute walk.

To keep me company on the walk, I invited City Councillors along with me.  I thought we could talk about some poverty issues and maybe even a little about the lockout.  So far two have gotten back to me on the record. (out of town)

We will be walking through parts of Wards 6, 4, 3, 2 and 1.  

I am not sure why I am doing this except to work through the incredible disappointment I have with all of city council.  It’s not just disappointment with them as politicians (I feel that after every single city council meeting ever) but rather with them as the leaders of the city.  Of my city.  They are hurting people that I spent almost every waking moment for a decade trying to help and none of them even want to acknowledge that they exist.  Maybe by walking with me we can get some sort of understanding of the challenges they face just getting to work or class.

You can come with me if you want.  We can talk minimum wage increases, Saskatoon Transit, and what it is life to work hard and be ignored.  You will see first hand that I can’t type on a phone and walk at the same time.  

I’m not leading a protest.  I’m just trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with a city that hurts that many people and doesn’t think twice about it.  If you have any ideas why, let me know.  Or join me on Wednesday at the Confed Bus Terminal at 6:30 a.m.  I’ll be the guy that looks like me.  Bring your own coffee.

For a Worker With Little Time Between 3 Jobs, a Nap Has Deadly Consequences

This is so sad

But dreams rarely pay the rent. So Ms. Fernandes worked three jobs, at three Dunkin’ Donuts stores in northern New Jersey, shuttling from Newark to Linden to Harrison and back. She often slept in her car — two hours here, three hours there — and usually kept the engine running, ready in an instant to start all over again.

The last day of her life was no different. She got off work at 6 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 25, and climbed into her 2001 Kia Sportage, officials from the Elizabeth Police Department said. She was dreaming again, this time about taking a break to celebrate a milestone with friends. But first, she told her boyfriend, Mr. Carter, during a brief cellphone conversation, she was going to take a nap.
She pulled into the parking lot of a Wawa convenience store, reclined in the driver’s seat and closed her eyes. The store’s surveillance camera videotaped her arrival at 6:27 a.m.

Detectives would pore over those tapes after her body was found later that day. It was the last image that anyone would see of her alive.

City of Saskatoon’s Response to the Transit Lockout

Let them eat cake

I can’t claim credit for this artwork or the quote but that is Saskatoon City Council’s response to the great Transit Lockout of 2014.  The mayor is hoping for increased car pooling.  

Well high school attendance is down.  In one high school it is down by 50% today.  Think about that.  Half of the kids can’t get to school and the only solution the mayor has is “We are hoping people will carpool more”.  That’s it. They aren’t even negotiating.  There is no plan b.  No way to even get high school kids to school, even those that are high risk.  Everyone is left to their own devices.

You can expect that in the event of the strike but it was a lockout.  The city gave advance notice, created radio ads, and distributed talking points.  All of the things to cover themselves politically but nothing to help at risk high school students to get to school or low wage earners to get to work.

Even in the emergency council meeting to ratify the changes for the city’s pension fund where councillors took all sorts of time to ask questions designed to provide political cover did the topic of “how do we help people get to work”.

You have your answer.  Maybe they can car pool.  City administration cares about the bottom line, city council cares about re-election.  No one cares that much about you.  Despite their promises to taxpayer.

The Case Against Summer Vacation

I have been saying this for years.

Once school is out for the summer, the opportunity for children to engage in educational activities of any kind decreases. Studies show that, on average, students lose about a month’s worth of instruction, as measured by standardized test scores. But not everyone is average and, as a 2011 RAND Corp. report finds, summer learning loss disproportionately affects poor students, who already begin school behind their more affluent classmates. Research shows that any high-quality summer program that keeps children engaged — whether that is a traditional camp, summer school or even frequent trips to the museum — can mitigate summer learning loss.

The problem is, not everyone can afford to send their kids to a fancy summer program. That means low-income children (exactly the children that could benefit most from such programs) cannot afford to participate. Meanwhile, in a world in which most children grow up in a household without a full-time caregiver, low-income parents not only struggle to find full-time care but also must divert large a large fraction of their limited salaries to pay for it.

Worst of all, this loss is cumulative, with serious consequences as the achievement gap widens every summer. Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist, tracked 650 children in the Baltimore public schools, recording their scores on the California Achievement Test in June and again in September, after summer break had ended. Alexander found that the poorest kids “outlearn” their wealthier peers in terms of knowledge gained during the academic year, but during the summer months they fall further behind. In contrast, the wealthier children, aided by a home full of books, organized summer camps and “concerted cultivation”-type parenting, continue to develop their skills.

Increasing Number Of Homeless Students Puts Pressure On Public Schools

I’d love to see a study of this in Saskatoon.  From what I have heard from educators, it too is rising.

Nicole Lee-Mwandha oversees homeless programs for D.C’s public school system. She says every year the numbers of homeless children increase. Since the 2009-10 school year, it has jumped by 60 percent.

“DCPS is about five percent [homeless], but in my heart I strongly believe students go unidentified because of the shame and stigma surrounding homelessness,” she says.

Lee-Mwandha is getting more buy-in from school staff and has begun holding training workshops for them at shelters.

“Instead of a training in a nice cushy air-conditioned room, I do training in D.C. General and really see where their homeless children are coming from,” she says.

Lee-Mwandah says there’s a sense of urgency to help these homeless children. Stanton Elementary packs food for its approximately 70 homeless children to take home for the weekend. Roosevelt S.T.A.Y., with more than 100 homeless students, has a relationship with a bakery so families get fresh bread. She says some schools’ homeless liaisons even provide turkeys for homeless families on Thanksgiving, but, she says, it’s still not enough.

“And that’s the hard part when they need to select how many families out of the abundance of families they can help. We’re doing the best we can with the resources we have, it’s still very limited,” she says.

For school staff on the front lines, the fear is the issues these children deal with are much bigger than what can be addressed during the hours they’re at school.

 

U.S. Initiative to Reduce Hunger and Poverty Effective, Report Shows

This is huge and really encouraging.

An Obama administration program set up to reduce chronic hunger and poverty has contributed to rising incomes for farmers around the world and helped save millions of people from starvation, according to a report released Monday by the United States Agency for International Development.

The program, Feed the Future, was started by the agency four years ago after a rapid rise in global food prices. It has helped more than seven million small farmers increase crop production and has provided nutritional foods to 12.5 million children in countries hit hard by drought, war or poor development, the report said.
In addition, the United States government received more than $160 million in private sector investment in 2013 to help farmers and small businesses increase their food production, the agency said, a 40 percent increase from 2012.

Dr. Rajiv Shah, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, said the report provided the first comprehensive look at the program’s effectiveness.
“We have real numbers for the first time,” Dr. Shah said, adding that the new data showed that the administration’s efforts to end extreme poverty were having some success.
The administration has made food security one of its top foreign policy priorities and has pledged billions of dollars in aid for agricultural development to help countries sustainably grow enough food to feed their people.

Feed the Future works with American universities including Texas A&M and Kansas State, which have provided agriculture research and technical help. Private companies such as Cargill, DuPont and Walmart have provided new types of seeds, fertilizer and equipment to farmers.

Gregory R. Page, executive chairman of the board of the Minnesota-based Cargill, said it was essential that private companies be involved in the Feed the Future program.
“Governments and development groups have been at this for years and it hasn’t worked,” he said. “The only way that this is going to succeed is if we treat agriculture production as a business, not as aid. Feed the Future is the perfect example of this.”

The program operates in 19 countries, mostly in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and has seen the greatest success in Senegal, Bangladesh and Honduras, the report found.

In Senegal, efforts financed by the United States helped the country reduce its dependence on food imports, particularly rice. The country’s rice imports fell more than 20 percent between 2008 and 2011.

Community Support Officers (funding) Down

It looks like the Community Support Officer program is about to be killed.

The price and focus of community support officers is putting the whole program in jeopardy.

“$450,000 (a year) is a lot of money,” Ward 9 Councillor Tiffany Paulsen said at the administration and finance committee Monday. “I don’t see how council can measure if this program is working.”

At the end of July funding for the Community Support Officers (CSO) program expires. The city’s administration presented a report recommending city council expand the program for another three years into the end of 2017 for $1.35 million.

However, questions about what the CSOs patrol, how much its work overlaps with police officers, and the funding plan have put the future of the program on the bubble.

After reviewing the reports Ward 8 councillor Eric Olauson said he didn’t see the value of this program.

“I have a tough time supporting this because I think police here have to change their focus. This was a good idea at the time but I think its run its course,” Olauson said.
Councillor Zach Jeffries echoed his colleagues concern noting that five CSOs have written only 15 bylaw infraction tickets over 18 months. He said if they wrote more tickets, council could better measure the success of the CSOs.

“The number of tickets is very small … people say they want to see more tickets written,” Jeffries said, adding it would give council a measurement to determine the program’s success.

“I would personally appreciate seeing something more measureable and in my mind it’s something to focus on.”

Saskatoon Police Chief Clive Weighill said he supports the CSOs, and although he sees how the police officers and the CSOs overlap, he sees the police acting more as a protection measure for the CSOs.

“We’re always concerned about their safety so on occasion we will send a patrol car just to make sure there isn’t going to be any violence,” Weighill said. “We’re supportive of the program we think there’s a space for them to do the work they do.”

For the program’s initial 18 months, the city resolved that funding for the CSOs would come from parking meter revenues because the patrolling areas (Downtown, Broadway, Riversdale) were metered. However, Riversdale Business Improvement District (BID) executive director Randy Pshebylo said he wants that money to go back into streetscaping.
“The BID board has been very clear that they’d support a pilot program and that would then extend to an alternative source of funding and that the existing funding revert back to the streetscape reserve,” he said.

Well let’s get the obvious one out there.  Eric Olauson doesn’t see the value in any program that doesn’t involve his ward getting sound walls.  That is his M.O.  

Secondly a year ago the same councillors were praising the work of the CSOs and talking about how awesome they were.  What happened?

The Partnership’s CEO, Terry Scaddon retired and he was one of the biggest champions for the program.  Without him there, councillors are feeling far more free to criticize the program.

The program was designed from the start to pressure the province in giving money to help with social issues in Saskatoon.  We had the Safer Streets Commission and the hope was that the province would help fund some of the solutions to social programs that we have in the cities.  It wasn’t a real need, crime in downtown Saskatoon was quite low but there was a perception out there.  Unfortunately we overlooked the fact that the Wall government is very comfortable with the status quo on social issues and that the Treasury Board doesn’t include a single member from Saskatoon.  To make a long story short, we never got the funding and the program is going to die.

Finally, I can’t leave Coun. Jeffries comment alone.  Could it be that the reason that there was not a lot of tickets written is that there was not a lot of need in the first place?  Also, encouraging law enforcement to write tickets is a really bad political direction to be giving them.  The intention of the CSOs was to be helping people access needed services, not writing tickets.  Countless cities across North America have cracked down on panhandlers and the homeless and it doesn’t work.  Criminalizing behaviour that is driven by extreme poverty is the worst form of public policy.  Zach should know better than that, regardless of which ways the winds are blowing in his suburban ward.

After Cold Lake soldier caught busking to make ends meet, viability of military pay in booming ‘little Fort McMurray’ called into question

Lower ranked soldiers struggle to pay rent in Cold Lake

“A lot of oil patch people will call Cold Lake ‘little Fort McMurray,’” said the town’s mayor, Craig Copeland.

“Rent in Cold Lake has gone up from five years ago. You used to be able to get a two-bedroom apartment around $1,000 to $1,200 a month and now, because of the latest boom in the oil patch, in the last year and a half or so … rent has really shot up. Now two-bedroom apartments, good ones, are going for between $1,800 to $2,200.”

About a decade ago, the military stopped subsidizing its on-base housing. Instead, they began to charge the local market rate for rents. In order to maintain a “nationally consistent process,” the military calculates the rents in Ottawa using Canadian Mortgage Housing Corporation data.

That process isn’t forgiving to soldiers who live in remote towns struck by oil wealth.

“A normal person would look at this story, see a house built in the ‘50s and ask ‘Why in the world are you charging market rate rents for these people? They work for you? Why do we need to gouge them on the rent?’” said the mayor.

Fearing backlash, few soldiers were willing to speak candidly about the situation. Christine, a soldier’s wife with three young children, said even spouses are too concerned to complain publicly.

“We get crap living conditions,” she said. “Every year my husband gets a raise and our rent goes up. It doesn’t matter.”

After almost two years on the base, she said her husband’s paycheque of about $58,000 is not covering basic expenses.

“Our paycheques do not pay our day-to-day living. We were very lucky in the sense that when we came here, we had money saved up, but that’s all dwindled and we’ve been pulling out of our house-savings fund,” she said.

“There are no extra-curricular activities for the kids, we didn’t have birthday parties for the kids this year, we can’t afford it. Our quality of life is shot,” she said.

The mayor estimates 30% of the employees at CFB Cold Lake — many of them young soldiers with young families — have taken second jobs, like delivering pizzas.

A July report on economic conditions at the base from the Canadian Forces Ombudsman found 35% of one unit had taken on second jobs.

“It was to make ends meet,” said Alain Gauthier, the director-general of operations at the Ombudsman’s office.

In 2012, the ombudsman held four town hall meetings. He heard from military families who couldn’t pay Internet or phone bills, were dipping into their RRSPs and selling their belongings to cover the skyrocketing costs of rent and goods and services.

The report found that the average rent for a three-bedroom home on the base, $1,032, was about double the cost of identical accommodations in Quebec and Nova Scotia.

To add insult to injury, of the 854 homes on the base, almost 97% of them were listed in either poor or fair condition. The report noted that most of the homes have asbestos in the insulation, and many have problems with the electrical outlets and water lines.

So let me get this straight.  Soldiers in the Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Air Force can be ordered to give up their lives defending our way of life and for the privilege of doing that, they have to live in substandard housing AND take on part time jobs for the right to do so?

The end result?

Unsurprisingly, Cold Lake is registering high release rates as highly skilled soldiers find better-paying work in the labour-starved oil patch right next door.

According to the ombudsman, the release rate in Cold Lake is double the national average. Highly skilled military personnel are leaving their jobs at an alarming rate.

Christine said she had had that very conversation with her husband this week. If it means another three to four years of living in Cold Lake, she said, her family will leave the military.

“We can’t physically survive another three to four years here. We’re getting closer to debt every month and we don’t have snowmobiles or second vehicles. We don’t have anything,” she said.

I am pretty sure this isn’t just a Canadian problem.  Former General Norman Swatzkoff walked about U.S. soldiers in Europe having to use food banks to feed their families (especially when their wives could not work off the base) and substandard military housing has been a problem for years for most armed forces.  Yet it is disappointing that when you see the money that goes into weapons programs that we can’t figure out how to feed our troops and fairly compensate them based on their posting.  On top of that, Canadian soldiers can be punished for having too much debt or declaring bankruptcy.  Putting them into that situation where debt and having to live off of saving is unacceptable.

For the record, I also agree with those voices in the story that say that the soldier should be disciplined for using his helmet and mention himself being in the service while busking.  Mentioning his military service and using military equipment showed very poor judgement.

Poverty’s Toll on Mental Health

This is discouraging

One of the most insidious effects of living in high-poverty, chronically disadvantaged neighborhoods is the severe strain these areas have on residents’ mental and emotional health. New research shows that poverty imposes a psychological burden so great that the poor are left with little mental “bandwidth” with which to perform everyday tasks.

The constant anxiety and stress resulting from witnessing and experiencing trauma and violence in distressed neighborhoods, negotiating the sacrifices and trade-offs caused by food insecurity, living in unstable housing conditions, struggling to pay bills, and dealing with numerous other worries burn up cognitive capacity that could otherwise be used for productive activities like navigating public assistance systems, providing for an entire family on a limited budget, and helping children with schoolwork.

For children, the long-term mental health effects of poverty are even more alarming. In addition to occupying cognitive resources needed for education (arguably the clearest path out of poverty), poverty is toxic to children. Persistent stress and exposure to trauma trigger harmful stress hormones that permanently affect children’s brain development and even their genes. The damage to childhood development is so severe that medical professionals now describe the early effects of poverty as a childhood disease.

Because of the debilitating cognitive effects of poverty on both adults and children, clinical mental health services are a central component of the Urban Institute’s Housing Opportunities and Services Together (HOST) demonstration. HOST is testing an intensive, dual-generation, case management model for children and adults who live in public and mixed-income communities suffering from concentrated poverty, chronic violence, and low levels of trust and social cohesion. HOST’s coordinated and comprehensive place-based intervention aims to stabilize whole families and improve a range of educational, health, and employment outcomes.

Baseline survey data from the first two HOST sites—Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens, a large public housing development that has high rates of crime, and Portland’s mixed-income New Columbia and Humboldt Gardens—clearly illustrate a relationship between distressed neighborhoods and mental health. Rates of elevated worry among HOST adults in both sites are up to six times higher than rates among adults nationwide, and depression among adults in the Portland site is nearly four times more prevalent. Even more disturbing, youth in the Chicago HOST site experience long-term anxiety and worry at levels seven times higher than those of youth nationwide.

In other words for many youth, even if they escape the economic impact of poverty, the mental health part of it remains.

Unaccountable

Because of its persistent inability to tally its accounts, the Pentagon is the only federal agency that has not complied with a law that requires annual audits of all government departments. That means that the $8.5 trillion in taxpayer money doled out by Congress to the Pentagon since 1996, the first year it was supposed to be audited, has never been accounted for. That sum exceeds the value of China’s economic output last year.

Reuters journalist Scot J. Paltrow investigates how the US military’s bad accounting not only wastes taxpayers money, but helps ruin the life of ordinary soldiers and veterans.

Aiken, then 30 years old, was in his second month of physical and psychological reconstruction at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, after two tours of combat duty had left him shattered. His war-related afflictions included traumatic brain injury, severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), abnormal eye movements due to nerve damage, chronic pain, and a hip injury.

But the problem that loomed largest that holiday season was different. Aiken had no money. The Defense Department was withholding big chunks of his pay. It had started that October, when he received $2,337.56, instead of his normal monthly take-home pay of about $3,300. He quickly raised the issue with staff. It only got worse. For all of December, his pay came to $117.99.

All Aiken knew was that the Defense Department was taking back money it claimed he owed. Beyond that, “they couldn’t even tell me what the debts were from,” he says.

At the time, Aiken was living off base with his fiancee, Monica, and her toddler daughter, while sharing custody of his two children with his ex-wife. As their money dwindled, the couple began hitting church-run food pantries. Aiken took out an Army Emergency Relief Loan to cover expenses of their December move into a new apartment. At Christmas, Operation Santa Claus provided the family with presents – one for each child, per the charity’s rules.

Eventually, they began pawning their possessions – jewelry, games, an iPhone, and even the medic bag Aiken used when saving lives in Afghanistan. The couple was desperate from “just not knowing where food’s going to come from,” he says. “They just hit one button and they take your whole paycheck away. And then you have to fight to get the money back.”

Aiken’s injuries made that fight more difficult. He limped from office to office to press his case to an unyielding bureaucracy. With short-term and long-term memory loss, he struggled to keep appointments and remember key dates and events. His PTSD symptoms alienated some staff. “He would have an outburst … (and) they would treat him as if he was like a bad soldier,” says Monica. “They weren’t compassionate.”

They were also wrong. The money the military took back from Aiken resulted from accounting and other errors, and it should have been his to keep. Further, even after Aiken complained, the Defense Department didn’t return the bulk of the money to Aiken until after Reuters inquired about his case.

The Pentagon agency that identified the overpayments, clawed them back and resisted Aiken’s pleas for explanation and redress is the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, or DFAS (pronounced “DEE-fass”). This agency, with headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana, has roughly 12,000 employees and, after cuts under the federal sequester, a $1.36 billion budget. It is responsible for accurately paying America’s 2.7 million active-duty and Reserve soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

It often fails at that task, a Reuters investigation finds.

A review of individuals’ military pay records, government reports and other documents, along with interviews with dozens of current and former soldiers and other military personnel, confirms Aiken’s case is hardly isolated. Pay errors in the military are widespread. And as Aiken and many other soldiers have found, once mistakes are detected, getting them corrected – or just explained – can test even the most persistent soldiers (see related story).

“Too often, a soldier who has a problem with his or her pay can wait days, weeks or even months to get things sorted out,” Democratic Senator Thomas Carper of Delaware, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote in an email. “This is simply unacceptable.”

It’s a pretty widespread problem

A review of multiple reports from oversight agencies in recent years shows that the Pentagon also has systematically ignored warnings about its accounting practices. “These types of adjustments, made without supporting documentation … can mask much larger problems in the original accounting data,” the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said in a December 2011 report.

Plugs also are symptomatic of one very large problem: the Pentagon’s chronic failure to keep track of its money – how much it has, how much it pays out and how much is wasted or stolen.

This is the second installment in a series in which Reuters delves into the Defense Department’s inability to account for itself. The first article examined how the Pentagon’s record-keeping dysfunction results in widespread pay errors that inflict financial hardship on soldiers and sap morale. This account is based on interviews with scores of current and former Defense Department officials, as well as Reuters analyses of Pentagon logistics practices, bookkeeping methods, court cases and reports by federal agencies.

As the use of plugs indicates, pay errors are only a small part of the sums that annually disappear into the vast bureaucracy that manages more than half of all annual government outlays approved by Congress. The Defense Department’s 2012 budget totaled $565.8 billion, more than the annual defense budgets of the 10 next largest military spenders combined, including Russia and China. How much of that money is spent as intended is impossible to determine.

In its investigation, Reuters has found that the Pentagon is largely incapable of keeping track of its vast stores of weapons, ammunition and other supplies; thus it continues to spend money on new supplies it doesn’t need and on storing others long out of date. It has amassed a backlog of more than half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts with outside vendors; how much of that money paid for actual goods and services delivered isn’t known. And it repeatedly falls prey to fraud and theft that can go undiscovered for years, often eventually detected by external law enforcement agencies.

The consequences aren’t only financial; bad bookkeeping can affect the nation’s defense. In one example of many, the Army lost track of $5.8 billion of supplies between 2003 and 2011 as it shuffled equipment between reserve and regular units. Affected units “may experience equipment shortages that could hinder their ability to train soldiers and respond to emergencies,” the Pentagon inspector general said in a September 2012 report.

The American military has about 5,000 different accounting programs in use.  Most of them are incompatible.

In a May 2011 speech, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described the Pentagon’s business operations as “an amalgam of fiefdoms without centralized mechanisms to allocate resources, track expenditures, and measure results. … My staff and I learned that it was nearly impossible to get accurate information and answers to questions such as ‘How much money did you spend’ and ‘How many people do you have?’ ”

It gets better

The practical impact of the Pentagon’s accounting dysfunction is evident at the Defense Logistics Agency, which buys, stores and ships much of the Defense Department’s supplies – everything from airplane parts to zippers for uniforms.

It has way too much stuff.

“We have about $14 billion of inventory for lots of reasons, and probably half of that is excess to what we need,” Navy Vice Admiral Mark Harnitchek, the director of the DLA, said at an August 7, 2013, meeting with aviation industry executives, as reported on the agency’s web site.

And the DLA keeps buying more of what it already has too much of. A document the Pentagon supplied to Congress shows that as of Sept. 30, 2012, the DLA and the military services had $733 million worth of supplies and equipment on order that was already stocked in excess amounts on warehouse shelves. That figure was up 21% from $609 million a year earlier. The Defense Department defines “excess inventory” as anything more than a three-year supply.

Consider the “vehicular control arm,” part of the front suspension on the military’s ubiquitous High Mobility Multipurpose Vehicles, or Humvees. As of November 2008, the DLA had 15,000 of the parts in stock, equal to a 14-year supply, according to an April 2013 Pentagon inspector general’s report.

And yet, from 2010 through 2012, the agency bought 7,437 more of them – at prices considerably higher than it paid for the thousands sitting on its shelves. The DLA was making the new purchases as demand plunged by nearly half with the winding down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The inspector general’s report said the DLA’s buyers hadn’t checked current inventory when they signed a contract to acquire more. 

Mind boggling stuff.

Your Brain on Poverty: Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad Decisions

And why their “bad” decisions might be more rational than you’d think.  From a comment on the research from Gawker that kind of sums it all up.

I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be. It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. There’s a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there’s money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days anyway. When you never have enough money it ceases to have meaning. I imagine having a lot of it is the same thing.

Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It’s more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that’s all you get. You’re probably not compatible with them for anything long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.

I have written about this before and at the end of the day, this seems to sum it all up better than I ever have.  Make sure you read the entire post at The Atlantic.

You don’t lose the house. The house loses you.

When a Roseanne writer became homeless.

I sent off resumes and scored occasional interviews. But the interviewers mainly wanted to hear Hollywood stories and then said, “Thanks we’ll be in touch.” I don’t blame them. I’d hire the person currently working in the magazine business instead of the guy who had a lot of amusing stories about comedy writing but hadn’t worked in a publishing environment for more than a decade.

By 2008, with the older children off at college or working and my job prospects bleak, Marina and I decided to separate. She moved to San Francisco with our two youngest daughters and settled in temporarily with two of our oldest daughters who worked there. I could no longer even afford to house myself. I found friends to take in my two remaining high schoolers.

And then I became homeless.

Yes, I, David Raether, the smart and funny guy who graduated with honors from college and read thousands of books and played the piano and went to church and won television awards, was homeless.

What happens when you hit bottom? I can tell you one thing: you don’t bounce back. You crawl back, fighting every step of the way. It isn’t a straight arc back up either; there are dozens of setbacks every step of the way. And the place you land isn’t anywhere near where you were when you slipped off the cliff.

In the first days and weeks after I became homeless, I was in a daze, utterly and completely disoriented. I felt like a boxer staggering around the ring after a rapid series of blows I didn’t see coming. It took me several months to figure it all out.

When you become homeless, you face a number of practical issues. In fact, when you are homeless, all you face are practical issues.

Where am I going to sleep tonight?

What supermarket has the best samples today with the most protein in them?

How am I going to deal with rainstorms dumping water into my usual sleeping spot?

I have a job interview; I have clean clothes, but how can I make sure I don’t smell?

These are the issues you deal with on a daily basis. Dreary, boring, painful issues that relate directly to your body. And that’s because homelessness is a dreary, boring, and often painful condition.

Your days are very long. The rhythm of work followed by home is gone. It’s replaced by long stretches of empty time. No company, no conversation, no deadlines, nothing.

Several years earlier, one of my sons played on a mainly Hispanic soccer team in Bell Gardens, a working class Hispanic suburb of Los Angeles. I got to know one of the fathers quite well. He was from Guatemala City.

“What’s Guatemala City like?” I asked him one day.

“The days are very long in Guatemala City,” he said.

That was all he said about his life there. And that would probably be the best description of life as a homeless person. The days are very long.

In my past life, I spent a typical autumn Saturday reading the paper and drinking several pots of coffee while working two or three crossword puzzles. Around 11 a.m., Marina and I would drive one or two or six of the kids to the farmers’ market in the parking lot at Pasadena High School. Then we would return home and I would come up with an interesting set of reasons for not working in the yard while settling down on the couch to watch college football. Several hours later, I’d pour a glass or two of wine as the day turned into night, watch a movie, and settle into bed. Not much of a day, really. But when I think of those days now, they seem like some kind of lost paradise.

A Saturday during my homelessness went like this.

I would wake up around 4 a.m., brush myself off, and wander around the streets for awhile until Starbucks opened. I’d spend what little money I had on coffee and hope someone left a copy of the Los Angeles Times so I could work the crossword puzzle. I’d wait. And wait. At 10 a.m., the Pasadena Central Library opens. I would walk up there and surf job websites and send off some resumes and read articles online during my allotted time until noon, or, if I was lucky, early afternoon.

That was the hard part of the day. I’d be hungry. Really hungry. A week since I had a real meal hungry. I’d walk over to Whole Foods on the Arroyo Parkway, which has good food samples on Saturdays, grab a cart, and pretend to shop. (It always helps to put some items in the cart to look the part.) The fruits are by the door – I’d grab a bunch of orange slices and watermelon chunks. Next I go upstairs to where the muffin bits and cheese chunks are and gorge as subtly as possible. I’d return the unpurchased items to their places in the store and exit.

By then it would be mid-afternoon. I’d dream of lying on a couch in a warm living room, watching college football. Instead I would walk to another public library to access the Internet. As the sun sets, I’d head to a coffeehouse in South Pasadena called Kaldi where I could find someone to talk with. It wasn’t the company of loved ones, but they were decent people who didn’t ask too many questions about my circumstances.

Night. At 8 p.m. I’d return to the Starbucks. I would find discarded copies of the New York Times and start working the crossword puzzle. And that was Saturday.

Sundays were the same, and so were Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday. On public holidays, the libraries closed and I needed to find someplace else to spend my days. Only the rare job interview broke the monotony.

Gradually, however, I adjusted. I accepted that I was not going to have a career anytime soon, but I did need a job. I was not going to own a house, but I did need to find a place to live. I couldn’t cook or afford restaurants, but I did need to eat.

After the first few disorienting weeks of homelessness, I got myself up off the canvas and begin to bob and weave and shake my head. I sniffed the ammonia capsule of reality and realized that I was in the biggest battle of my life.

During the nearly 18 months I spent homeless off and on, and during the ensuing years, I learned that I am more resourceful than I ever imagined, less respectable than I ever figured, and, ultimately, braver and more resilient than I ever dreamed. An important tool in my return to life has been Craigslist. It was through Craigslist that I found odd jobs — gigs, they often are called — doing everything from ghost-writing a memoir for a retired Caltech professor who had aphasia to web content writing jobs to actual real jobs with actual real startups.