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2018
January
03
Wednesday
David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

For the first time in two years, North and South Korea have agreed to talk to each other.

What prompted the sudden détente? The 2018 Winter Olympics next month.

To be sure, North Korea could be blackmailing the South: Let our team participate or we’ll disrupt your big event with a missile test – or worse. Or Kim Jong-un may simply be attempting to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

The optimistic view is that North Korea, having achieved its goal of perceived greater security by building a nuclear weapon, is now looking for a path to de-escalate tensions. Time may reveal what lies behind this move.

But here’s what we find intriguing: The Olympics provided sports-loving Mr. Kim the opportunity for this small break in his pattern of pugnaciousness.

A core Olympic ideal is to bring out the best in mankind: Courage, teamwork, determination, and commitment are on display in the arenas. The Olympic movement’s stated aim is “to contribute to building a peaceful and better world ... which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

If the fact of the event creates an opening for North-South dialogue, then at the very least the Olympics are living up to its ideals.

Now our selection of five stories that include paths to progress against crime, for better low-income graduation rates, and for less food waste.

1. For Congress, a more urgent call to work across party lines

You can make a case that the prospects for US bipartisan legislation passing could improve in 2018. But honestly, it’s not a strong one. We look at the possible paths to progress in Congress.

David
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Amanda Bayer (l.) and Marisol Maqueda display posters at a rally outside the White House in December. Ms. Maqueda’s daughter is a beneficiary of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which President Trump is ending unless Congress acts.

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Simple math dictates that the parties will have to work together as Congress reconvenes this week, at least on urgent, must-pass legislation such as spending bills, avoiding a default on the national debt, reauthorizing funding for children’s health care, and renewing a key national security provision. Both Democrats and Republicans have incentives to stay in their own partisan lanes. Democratic leaders, with an eye on midterm elections, may not be willing to give President Trump any victories. And Republicans – with a $1.5 trillion tax cut under their belt – may decide that, politically, they don't need to go for a serious bipartisan effort on something big like infrastructure. But nothing on the demanding 2018 agenda can be accomplished without working across the aisle. Unlike last year, when Republicans used special rules to push through a Supreme Court nominee, federal judges, and a major tax cut with just a majority vote, everything will require clearing a 60-vote threshold in the Senate. “I think the parties can pivot,” says Ross Baker, a longtime observer of the Senate at Rutgers University. “The question is, will they?”

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For Congress, a more urgent call to work across party lines

After a year of operating on a strict party-line basis, lawmakers returning to Washington this week will face a new demand: bipartisanship. Nothing on Congress’s long to-do list – from funding the government to avoiding a default on the national debt to finding a legal solution for immigrant “Dreamers” – can be accomplished without winning votes from across the aisle.

But after such a bruising and divisive year, that may be easier said than done. With midterm elections coming up, the Democratic base is intent on opposing President Trump and Democratic leaders may be reluctant to give him any wins. For their part, Republicans already have a big accomplishment to tout – a $1.5 trillion tax cut – and may decide that, politically, they don't need to go for a serious bipartisan effort on something big like infrastructure.

“I think the parties can pivot. The question is, will they?” says Ross Baker, a longtime observer of the Senate at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “There are a lot of hard feelings [among Democrats] from both the attempt to repeal Obamacare and from tax reform. The feeling of exclusion doesn’t promote a disposition to be cooperative.”

Professor Baker says it’s not unlike how Republicans felt after the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed on a party-line Democratic vote early in the Obama administration. In the aftermath, the GOP focused single-mindedly on – as then-Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky put it – making President Obama a one-term president. Republicans were rewarded for their staunch opposition, retaking the House in the 2010 midterms.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine and Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia, both considered moderates within their own parties, are hoping to energize the middle on Capitol Hill.

Simple math dictates that the parties will have to work together, at least on urgent, must-pass legislation such as spending bills, avoiding a default on the national debt, reauthorizing funding for children’s health care, and renewing a key national-security provision.

Unlike last year, when Republicans used special rules to push through a Supreme Court nominee, federal judges, and a major tax cut with just a majority vote, everything on the upcoming agenda will require clearing a 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

That gives Democrats a big say in what happens – particularly with Wednesday’s swearing in of Sen. Doug Jones (D) of Alabama, which reduced the GOP to 51 seats, a razor-thin majority. Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota was also sworn in, replacing Sen. Al Franken (D), who resigned over sexual harassment allegations.

A (small) window of opportunity

Also on Wednesday, congressional leaders from both parties met at the Capitol with senior Trump administration officials to discuss budget and other issues. The federal government is set to run out of money at midnight on Jan. 19 and Democrats want to use that as an opportunity to strike a deal for children whose parents brought them to this country illegally, known as “Dreamers.” Mr. Trump is ending the Obama-era program that allowed them to stay and work legally in the United States.

Democrats have an advantage going into these negotiations and they should use it to get concessions on issues such as the Dreamers, says Democratic strategist Jim Manley.

Resolving the issue of young immigrants is one area where both parties have been cautiously optimistic that they can reach agreement – but not if it means paying for Trump’s wall, Democrats say. Latinos are pushing Democratic leaders to force a government shut-down over the program, if need be. Mr. Manley believes Republicans would be blamed for a shutdown, because they hold all the levers of power. Given the president’s low approval ratings, “there’s no Democrat I’m aware of who’s afraid of the president at this moment in time,” says Manley.

Hill Republicans argue that if Democrats shut down the government in a bid to protect children of illegal immigrants, that will not play well across the country – despite sympathy for their plight.

The window of opportunity – and the will to cooperate – is short, given the high-stakes election year, lawmakers and observers say. Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania, one of the leaders of the moderate “Tuesday Group” of Republicans in the House, gives Congress between now and perhaps April to get anything done. “We’ll be moving into campaign mode fairly quickly,” he says.

Stabilizing health care

Beyond the deadline-driven items are extras, such as stabilizing the ACA now that tax reform has eliminated the individual insurance mandate. And then there’s infrastructure, which the White House wants to tackle this year. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s keen interest in entitlement reform, which he has since narrowed down to welfare reform, appears to have no traction in the Senate, given the tight margin.

When the president meets with Republican leaders at Camp David this weekend, health care is expected to be on the agenda, says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine. In negotiations over the GOP tax plan, which Senator Collins eventually supported, she was promised a vote and presidential backing on two bipartisan health-care measures – one to fund high-risk pools that she co-sponsored with Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida, and the other to help subsidize insurance payments to low-income Americans under the ACA.

The question has been whether these bills will get through the House – or even be taken up by Speaker Ryan – given some members’ staunch opposition to a GOP “rescue” of Obamacare. But Collins says she has talked with the speaker and is “optimistic” about the prospect of the bills in the House. She’s counting on presidential help, and says both bills need to pass in order to counter rising premiums expected from the elimination of the individual mandate.

Getting rid of the individual mandate was “good politics,” but Republicans can’t let a “complete disaster” hit the insurance exchanges, says Republican strategist John Feehery. Health care is still the No. 1 issue for many Americans, and Congress needs to stabilize the exchanges “so they can make the rates not go up for everybody else.”

Infrastructure possibilities 

As for infrastructure, that’s an election calculation, says Mr. Feehery. Do Democrats feel they need a deal now? They might, if the tax cut plays better than expected, the economy surges, and Democrats feel they need a win to take home to voters.

On the other hand, “if the tax cut’s a real dud, and they’re on the offense, they probably won’t need to find ways to cooperate with the president.”

And reaching a deal on infrastructure, despite its broad appeal to lawmakers of both stripes, is not as easy as one might think. Democrats view it as a government responsibility and expense, while Trump and many Republicans believe a relatively modest amount of federal money can leverage mostly private investment.

If the White House is serious about a deal this year, they will have to make a serious offer to Democrats that includes a permanent funding mechanism, such as an increase in the gas tax or a mileage tax, and a tonnage tax for ports, along with tolls for roads, says former Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, who was once Senate majority leader.

“Leaders have to have the attitude that they can find a way to work together for the good of the country, and that was not the case in 2017,” he says. “Republicans were on a mission to get done what they promised, and Democrats completely resisted. If both don’t show some give, it could be an ugly year.”

On the other hand, he says, if the two parties could strike an infrastructure deal, “there will be plenty of credit for everybody.”

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2. What US threats on Pakistan aid may be missing

Our reporter steps back from the immediate event – the United States withholding aid from Pakistan – to look at the changing nature of South Asia relationships. Help from China is making Pakistan feel a bit more independent of the US, while Washington courts India as a regional ally.

David

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After President Trump’s New Year’s Day tweet that the United States had received “nothing but lies & deceit” from Pakistan in return for billions in aid, China was quick to come to Pakistan's defense. “Pakistan has made great efforts and sacrifices for combating terrorism … and the international community should fully recognize this,” China’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday. Pakistan has heard US complaints about a lack of cooperation on terrorism before. That was a problem when it kept almost all its eggs in the US basket. But with China’s expanding role in its economy, Pakistan is quaking a little less at Mr. Trump’s latest broadside, some regional experts say. “This is not the Pakistan of the past,” says Marvin Weinbaum, director for Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “China has provided something like $57 billion in investment in Pakistan’s infrastructure, in energy and agriculture and industry.” Still, experts in the US-Pakistan relationship say the “same old conundrum” exists for US policymakers. Says a former State Department official: “There simply are no solutions to the problems in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s cooperation.”

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What US threats on Pakistan aid may be missing

American frustrations with Pakistan have run high for decades. So perhaps the newest thing about President Trump’s New Year’s Day blast against the South Asian problem partner was how it was delivered – in a tweet.

“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years” in exchange for “nothing but lies & deceit” and giving “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan,” the president fumed. “No more!”

On Tuesday the US announced it was withholding $255 million in planned military financing for Pakistan.

There was also little new in the Pakistani government’s reaction to Mr. Trump’s three-line diatribe: an emergency national security cabinet meeting, a summoning of the US ambassador to Islamabad to the offices of the foreign minister, and a pledge to offer within days a “facts not fiction” defense of Pakistan’s counterterrorism policies and record.

What is new in the context of this latest crisis in US-Pakistan relations is the large and expanding role that China is playing in a country that for decades kept almost all of its eggs in the American basket.

Now with a rising China providing regional support and far more in investment and aid dollars than the United States, Pakistan is no longer feeling so firmly tethered to the US as it deepens relations with Beijing. The result is that Pakistan is quaking a little less at Washington’s latest broadside – and may be less inclined to scramble to make amends with Trump, some regional experts say.

“This is not the Pakistan of the past,” says Marvin Weinbaum, a former Pakistan and Afghanistan analyst at the State Department who is now director for Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“China has provided something like $57 billion in investment in Pakistan’s infrastructure, in energy and agriculture and industry, the links between the two are stronger all the time,” Dr. Weinbaum says. “Now when Washington threatens, [the Pakistanis] don’t feel the pressure and so isolated the way they used to.”

Pakistan fires back

Indeed, as if to underscore the self-assurance the country is feeling as a result in part of having a new and swaggering best friend, Pakistani officials were quick to counter Trump’s threats with their own bravado – and to spotlight advancing ties with Beijing.

“We have already told the US that we will not do more, so Trump’s ‘no more’ does not hold any importance,” Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said in a television interview. He added that the president’s disappointment “at the US defeat in Afghanistan … is the only reason he is flinging accusations at Pakistan.”

Defense Minister Khurram Dastagir told the BBC Urdu service that the US can no longer “dictate terms” to Pakistan through the threat of withholding aid.

Pakistan’s central bank also chose the moment to announce Tuesday that the country would now accept China’s yuan as a currency for bilateral trade – a role the US dollar has largely played until now. The move is seen as further easing the path forward for China’s “One Belt, One Road” global trade infrastructure initiative announced in 2015.

And China was quick to come to Pakistan’s defense in the wake of Trump’s tweet.

“Pakistan has made great efforts and sacrifices for combating terrorism and made prominent contributions to the cause of international terrorism, and the international community should fully recognize this,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tuesday.

As if to underscore China’s defense of a friend under attack, the spokesman added, “China stands ready to further deepen cooperation with Pakistan in various fields to bring greater benefits to the two peoples.”

The friendly and supportive tone was everything Trump’s tweet was not – a contrast China was happy to emphasize, analysts say.

The Afghanistan conundrum

Still, aside from the public nature of Trump’s expression of frustration with Pakistan, there was little new about the point-counterpoint between Washington and Islamabad, experts in the relationship say.

“The reason for the administration’s debate over Pakistan is that the same old conundrum still exists,” says Laurel Miller, who was the State Department’s acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until June. “On the one hand the US is frustrated by Pakistan’s continued harboring of the leadership of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network,” two insurgent groups that cross over to fight in Afghanistan. “On the other hand, there simply are no solutions to the problems in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s cooperation.”

And Pakistan’s response to Trump’s attack was just as predictable, says Ms. Miller, now a foreign policy expert at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. “Pakistan’s reaction was not at all surprising. When they feel publicly cornered, their inclination is to bite back and dig in,” she says.

Indeed, Miller says Pakistan’s key motivations have not varied in recent years. The government (both the civilian leadership and the powerful military) is “motivated by their own view of their national security interests” and their lack of confidence in a US military victory in Afghanistan, she says.

At the same time, the government is ever mindful of a need to not appear weak in the eyes of the public. “They are also motivated by the absolute necessity not to appear to be bending to the pressure of the American thumb,” she says.

The Middle East Institute’s Weinbaum, who visited Pakistan last year, says he noticed a new sense of independence from Washington that stretches from ministry offices to average citizens.

“They don’t feel their relationship with the US is critical to them any more, and that goes right down to the guy in the street,” he says. “The attitude is that if we can’t get weapons from the US, we can somewhere else, maybe Russia. And there’s this expanding confidence – I think probably over-confidence – about what the Chinese can do for them.”

Weinbaum notes, for example, that China’s assistance to Pakistan has largely been in the form of loans. “They’re going to be deeply indebted to China,” he says.

US-India ties

Others sense that Pakistan is keenly aware of a risk of becoming too beholden to its powerful neighbor. But that caution is being outweighed by concerns that the US is deepening its relations with arch-rival India, they add.

“Deepening relations with China are giving the Pakistanis some confidence they are not going to be too isolated in the international community – they’ll take China as a financial backer and as a permanent member of the [United Nations] Security Council,” RAND’s Miller says. “But my sense is that the Pakistanis would prefer not to have to rely to heavily on Beijing, they’d prefer a more diversified set of partners that would continue to include the US.”

In particular, she says, the Pakistani military would prefer to maintain its “deep and valued” relationship with the Pentagon.

In the long run, what seems most likely to drive Pakistan deeper into China’s arms is the US’s strengthening strategic relationship with India, particularly under Trump, Miller says.

“In the past, the US didn’t look at its relations with India and Pakistan as a zero-sum game, but as two distinct relationships, each with its own merits,” Miller says. “But more recently the US has been seen as trying to play the India card with Pakistan – suggesting there is now more of a zero-sum approach.”

Miller worries that in the short term the US will take more punitive action against Pakistan that could prompt Pakistan to respond with acts of its own – closing US military supply lines into Afghanistan, for example, as it did during a previous crisis in 2011 – prompting a further “downward spiral” in relations.

Such a deterioration, especially at the same time the US is building relations with India, would likely only encourage Pakistan to deepen ties to China.

“What we’re seeing is an emerging US-and-India vs. Pakistan-and-China dynamic in the region that won’t be good for anyone,” Miller says, “but which on the contrary will be detrimental to the interests of all four countries.”

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Point of Progress

What's going right

3. In New York, crime plunges to record lows

It’s a common perception that crime in America is rising. But the facts tell a different story. New York City offers a remarkable example of the way a major US city has continued to improve safety and security.

David

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New York’s “mean streets” have become some of the safest in the nation. With a murder rate of 3.4 per 100,000 last year, the city of 8.5 million residents is comparable to sparsely populated states such as Montana and Wyoming. “To have a year like we had last year ... is nothing short of amazing,” said New York Police Department Commissioner James O’Neill. He attributed the sharp declines to “precision” policing, which the NYPD has pioneered since the introduction of its CompStat system more than two decades ago. Other factors: aggressive anti-gang initiatives and a focus on getting guns off the streets, as well as neighborhood policing initiatives that strengthened ties with communities. The drop in crime, too, comes as the NYPD is using less deadly force, has made fewer arrests, and has dramatically curtailed the controversial stop, question, and frisk street tactic. “Like many conservatives, I had grave concerns about curtailing [stop and frisk],” writes Kyle Smith in a National Review article, “We Were Wrong About Stop and Frisk.” “Crime is literally off the charts – the low end of the charts. To compare today’s crime rate to even that of ten years ago is to observe a breathtaking decline.”

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In New York, crime plunges to record lows

Over the past two decades, even as crime rates all around the country were falling to record lows, the drop in crime in New York City was something special.

For the 27th straight year, crime is down again in the nation’s largest city – and once again to record-setting, jaw-dropping lows. In 2017, there were only 290 murders all year, officials estimate, smashing the previous record low of 333, set in 2014 – and an 87 percent decline from 1990, when there were nearly 2,262 murders.

In the United States as a whole, murder and violent crime have generally fallen by half since the 1990s, according to FBI statistics. That rate even falls up to 77 percent, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics, which surveys unreported crimes as well.

And while cities like Chicago and Baltimore contributed to a troubling uptick in the nation’s violent crime rate in 2015 and 2016, preliminary numbers indicate that overall crime in the US likely fell to near-record lows in 2017, compared with 25 years ago, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law. The number of murders in Chicago, though still high, dropped 16 percent last year, from 771 in 2016 to 650 in 2017.

But New York City’s “mean streets” have become some of the safest in the nation. With a murder rate of 3.4 per 100,000 last year, the city that never sleeps, teeming with 8.5 million multiethnic residents living on top of each other, was comparable to sparsely-populated states such as Montana (with a murder rate of 3.5 per 100,000 in 2016), South Dakota (3.1), or Wyoming (3.4).

“To have a year like we had last year ... is nothing short of amazing,” said New York Police Department Commissioner James O’Neill in December.

He attributed the sharp declines to “precision” policing, which the NYPD has pioneered since the introduction of its CompStat system more than two decades ago. And along with aggressive anti-gang initiatives and a focus on getting guns off the streets, the commissioner said his department’s neighborhood policing initiatives have also strengthened ties with communities.

The drop in crime, too, comes as the NYPD is using less deadly force, has made far fewer arrests, and has dramatically curtailed the controversial stop, question, and frisk street tactic.

New York City cops stopped and frisked nearly 700,000 people, mostly young black and Latino men, in 2011. These numbers dropped to less than 46,000 in 2014, after a federal court ruled the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk procedures unconstitutional. In 2016, NYPD officers stopped roughly 12,400 people.

“Like many conservatives, I had grave concerns about curtailing the New York City police department’s controversial tactic of stopping and frisking potential suspects for weapons,” writes Kyle Smith, a critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a National Review article, “We Were Wrong About Stop and Frisk.” “Crime is literally off the charts – the low end of the charts. To compare today’s crime rate to even that of ten years ago is to observe a breathtaking decline.”

The Trump administration has made a priority of reducing violent crime, citing the upticks in 2015 and 2016. The Justice Department in December noted that violence increased again in 2017 in cities such as Baltimore, which saw a record-high murder rate last year with 334 killings. Violent crime is also up in cities such as Charlotte, N.C.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Denver.  

“This is all the more reason why the Department of Justice will keep focusing its efforts on fulfilling President Trump's promise to reduce violent crime, enhance public safety, and stem the tide of a devastating drug epidemic that is decimating communities across America,” said Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior, according to NPR.  

SOURCE: FBI Uniform Crime Reporting, New York Civil Liberties Union, New York City Police Department
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

4. His aim: to change the definition of ‘college prep’

Our editors look not just for good ideas, but for ideas with credible paths to progress. This next story qualifies: It’s about an inspiring program with a decades-long record of preparing low-income students to attend and graduate from the best colleges in the US.

David
Courtesy of Nick Chiles/The Hechinger Report
High school junior Ismelda Mejia chats with Giovanni Luke, another student in the Legal Outreach program in New York. Ismelda, who has her sights set on Brown University, credits the program with pushing her to excel.

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In 1982, after finishing Harvard Law School, James O’Neal found his way to New York. Instead of accepting a lucrative offer from a law firm, he decided his future lay in making change, not money. He had no training as a teacher, but he persuaded a high school principal to allow him to teach a law elective. Mr. O’Neal was convinced that if he could get students excited about the law, they would find the motivation to propel themselves all the way to law school – a path he felt could transform the economic fortunes of entire families. O’Neal’s vision eventually evolved into Legal Outreach, a college-prep program that encourages low-income students to attend the nation’s top schools and prepares them to thrive once they get there. “They’re providing the kind of support that’s just not out there, that’s only provided by a handful of programs,” says Danielle Pulliam, from the Pinkerton Foundation, which has supported the group since 1996. “James O’Neal has found the secret sauce in terms of what’s needed: consistent caring adults in a young person’s life, but also letting them see what’s possible by having high standards.” 

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His aim: to change the definition of ‘college prep’

When Ismelda Mejia, a junior at a large public high school in the Bronx, was invited to the principal’s office earlier this fall along with nine of her classmates, she was thrilled to discover the reason why. Her GPA placed her among the top 10 students in her class. In fact, Ismelda was No. 3.

But after the principal and college counselor praised the students for their academic achievements, the rest of the message fell flat. The administrators presented the students with what Mejia considered a surprisingly narrow set of options: They could attend one of the city or state’s public colleges, known as the CUNYs (City University of New York) and SUNYs (State University of New York), or they could find a job.

“ ‘You guys have really high grades, so we expect you to be able to at least go to a SUNY,’ ” Ismelda recalls staff telling the group. “ ‘But if not, here's a list of things you can do without having to go to college.’ ”

Ismelda, a student with Ivy League aspirations — she has her sights set on Brown University — was appalled. Although her Dominican-born mother did not attend college, Ismelda plans to become a lawyer and specialize in representing children who’ve been abused. Three years ago, she took a big step toward realizing that ambition. She enrolled in a Queens-based afterschool program, Legal Outreach, founded by James O’Neal. It encourages low-income students to attend the nation’s top schools — and prepares them to thrive once they get there.

“They’re providing the kind of support that’s just not out there, that’s only provided by a handful of programs,” says Danielle Pulliam, a program officer with the Pinkerton Foundation, which has supported the group since 1996. “James O’Neal has found the secret sauce in terms of what’s needed: consistent caring adults in a young person’s life, but also letting them see what’s possible by having high standards.” 

Bucking conventional wisdom

Conventional wisdom among guidance counselors holds that high-poverty students may struggle at the nation’s elite colleges, so placing them in less competitive environments offers them more opportunity for success. A 2012 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that most high-achieving, low-income students don’t apply to any competitive colleges. A separate study of 30 million college students from 1999 to 2013 revealed that while the number of children from low-income families attending four-year institutions rose rapidly during the 2000s, the share at selective colleges barely budged. This was despite efforts by schools such as those in the Ivy League to modify tuition policies to attract more low-income students.  

Courtesy of Nick Chiles/The Hechinger Report
James O’Neal, founder and executive director of Legal Outreach, points out a display that greets visitors at the program headquarters in New York.

Mr. O’Neal has dedicated the past 35 years to challenging the kind of thinking that he believes holds low-income students back.

Started with the goal of getting students motivated to perform in school by sparking an interest in a legal career, the organization has evolved into a broader college prep program that offers everything from writing courses and summer internships with blue-chip New York law firms to SAT prep and workshops to help students and their parents prepare for college applications and life.

Students are recommended for the program by their teachers and must come from families that earn below a certain income threshold. Through its College Bound program, summer legal institute, and parent workshops, the organization serves about 400 students and 70 families each year.

Once they get to college, Legal Outreach graduates tend to do well. Nationally, only 18 percent of high school graduates from high-poverty schools achieve a four-year college degree, compared with 52 percent of graduates from more affluent schools, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. By contrast, roughly 79 percent of recent Legal Outreach alumni graduated college within four years, and 93 percent finished in six. Approximately 78 percent of the program’s graduates last year attended colleges considered “highly” or “very” selective, including: Yale, Cornell, Columbia, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, Swarthmore, and Morehouse.

“The opportunities at that level are very different than what you are going to get at a local community college,” says Bethsheba Cooper, co-director of Legal Outreach, who has worked alongside Mr. O’Neal for 34 years. “You're talking about learning from people who are the best in the game.”

Making change, not money

In 1982, just weeks after finishing Harvard Law School, O’Neal found his way to New York. Instead of accepting a lucrative offer from a law firm, he decided his future lay in making change, not money. He had no training as a teacher, but he persuaded a high school principal to allow him to teach a law elective. O’Neal was convinced that if he could just get students excited about the law, they would find the motivation to propel themselves all the way to law school, a path he felt could transform the economic fortunes of entire families.

Standing in front of a classroom of 11th- and 12th-graders at the high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, O’Neal had a startling revelation. Some of the students who sat before him were just as skilled as his Harvard classmates at dissecting an argument. 

“They came up with fascinating arguments to support whatever side they were on,” he recalls. “For a second I thought, Had some of these kids gone to law school and just not told me?” 

But with his revelation came a bracing splash of cold reality: The students might possess nimble minds, but they lacked the basic skills to surmount the educational challenges that awaited them on the way to a law degree.

“Even though so many were good thinkers, they hadn’t acquired the ability to express themselves in standard English, orally or in writing,” he says. “The public education system had failed these kids.”

O’Neal started a program to introduce eighth graders to legal issues common in their communities — police use of force, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect. He also started a mock trial competition — and began to hire staff. With the mock trials, O’Neal saw students surprise even themselves when they realized they could stand in front of a room and present a cogent argument.

But he and his staff soon realized they still weren’t doing enough. He would come across students who’d impressed him as eighth graders and discover they were floundering in high school. They felt lost in schools with thousands of kids, where they received little attention and support from staff. 

“I was operating under the assumption that what they needed was motivation at an early enough stage to discipline themselves and apply themselves toward their dreams,” he said. “But that was naïve.” 

A focus on preparation

So with no real funding to support it, in 1989 O’Neal opened an after-school study center for high-schoolers in Harlem, starting with just eight students.

Each year, O’Neal — joined by Ms. Cooper — began adding new elements to the program, and bringing it to more students. Early on, Saturday writing classes were born. (Nick Chiles, the author of this piece, served as a writing instructor from 1994 to 2004.) But a year-long, once-a-week class wasn’t enough. Students needed writing instruction all four years of high school, with the first year devoted exclusively to grammar. Next came the summer law internships at law firms, then the mentoring program, and the constitutional law debates. 

Courtesy of Nick Chiles/The Hechinger Report
Legal Outreach staff member Tamika Edwards leads a class discussion at the program's headquarters in New York.

Today, Legal Outreach operates with an annual budget of $2.3 million, about $5,764 per participant. There are 17 full-time staff members and 60 part-time.

Carol Van Atten, vice president of the Charles Hayden Foundation, which focuses on at-risk children in the Northeast, said she’s impressed by O’Neal’s willingness to experiment. “Some things have worked, some things haven’t. He doesn’t worry about what the funder thinks,” said Van Atten, whose fund has given Legal Outreach $1.7 million over the past two decades. “He’ll just say, ‘We thought it was going to work, but it didn’t.’ Then he comes to me again and again and says, ‘I want to try this over the summer.’ I’ll say, ‘Go ahead.’ ”

Some students return to work for the program after college and graduate school. Darrius Moore, a 25-year-old Legal Outreach alum, took a job as an academic adviser with the program after graduating from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. Though his degree is in social work, Mr. Moore said his summer internship at a prominent Manhattan law firm paid dividends in college.

“It gives you the opportunity to see what corporate America is like, how a law firm operates, which is a profession that is foreign to most of us,” he says. “It encourages you to think, ‘I can exist in this world.’ So when you get to college, you say to yourself, ‘OK, I have interacted with this demographic of people before. I can compete.’ ”

Sixty-eight percent of Legal Outreach graduates between 2008 and 2015 finished college with GPAs of 3.0 or higher, according to a recent report, with 21 percent at or above 3.5. And many do pursue legal careers: 10 percent of participants who graduated college are pursuing or have obtained a law degree.

“A lot of organizations out there are helping kids get to college, but when you look at the percentages of those who get through college, it’s abysmal,” says O’Neal. “You have to ask yourself ‘Why?’ Part of that has to do with finances; I certainly understand that. But it also has to do with people not being prepared for it.” 

O’Neal has been pressured by funders and other educators to expand, but he says he's wary of sacrificing quality for size — especially given how unreliable funding can be. The program gets about 60 percent of its money from foundations and the rest from individuals.

But O’Neal did help a group in New Jersey start the NJ Legal Education Empowerment Program, a nonprofit affiliated with Seton Hall Law School that uses Legal Outreach’s model. It celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and has graduated more than 140 students to date.

College is like ‘another country’

Of all Legal Outreach’s offerings, Cooper believes the transition-to-college workshop deserves most credit for helping students finish college. It covers academic as well as social issues — the meaning of consent, how to respond to racial micro-aggressions, proper ways of interacting with professors, handling roommate conflicts, and what to do if financial aid falls through. Cooper peruses The Chronicle of Higher Education for real-life case studies to present to students.

“For our kids, going to college is as different as going to another country,” she says. “Knowing what's coming and having tools to deal with it allows them to navigate in this new world.”

Ismelda said she’s grateful that Legal Outreach has pushed her to excel. “The kids I go to school with don’t necessarily try, aren’t the most motivated kids,” she says. Three years at Legal Outreach has changed her outlook, she adds.

“If not for Legal Outreach, I wouldn’t have had any idea of what my options are,” she said. “I would have taken that list my school gave us and told my mom, ‘Hey, I don't have to go to college. I can just work.’ ”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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5. How France became a global leader in curbing food waste

If you agree that one of the paths to a better world is to feed the hungry, check out what France is doing. It’s now No. 1 in the world when it comes to reducing wasted food, and setting a new standard of efficiency.

David

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Food waste, or unused edible food, is a global issue. Each year, some 1.3 billion metric tons, or one-third of all the food produced, is thrown away, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Recovering just 25 percent of that wasted food could feed 870 million hungry people – effectively ending world hunger. In the past year, France has emerged as a leader in the battle to reduce food waste after the passage of a series of laws aimed at boosting waste reduction programs and education. “Making it illegal for supermarkets to throw away food is massive,” says one journalist who covers food waste. “That legislative step has impacted all levels of the French food chain.” And the mandate means that more fresh meat, vegetables, and fruit are landing on food pantry shelves, instead of in supermarket dumpsters.

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How France became a global leader in curbing food waste

France is a culinary leader – both at the table and, more recently, in the trash can.

In February 2016, France became the first country in the world to prohibit supermarkets from throwing away unused food through unanimously passed legislation. Now, supermarkets of a certain size must donate unused food or face a fine. Other policies require schools to teach students about food sustainability, companies to report food waste statistics in environmental reports, and restaurants to make take-out bags available.

These laws “make it the norm to reduce waste,” says Marie Mourad, a PhD student in sociology at Sciences Po in Paris who has authored several reports on French food waste. “France is not the country that wastes the least food, but they have become the most proactive because they want to be the exemplary country in Europe.” 

France’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. The country earned top ranking in the 2017 Food Sustainability Index, a survey of 25 countries across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas conducted by the Economist and Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation (BCFN).

The people of France wasted 234 pounds of food per person annually, according to the BCFN report, which is drastically better than France’s international counterparts, compared to about 430 pounds per capita thrown away year in the United States.

Small scraps make big impact

Food waste, or unused, edible food, is a global issue. Each year, some 1.3 billion metric tons, or one-third of all the food produced, is thrown away, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Recovering just 25 percent of that wasted food could feed 870 million hungry people – effectively ending world hunger.

Not only does food waste fritter away valuable resources like water, arable land, and money, but it also fills up landfills, which emit methane. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter behind the United States and China.

“Food waste is so urgent because where and how we produce food has the biggest impact on the planet of any human activity,” says Jason Clay, senior vice president of food and markets at the World Wildlife Fund.

“In the US, we don't have champions in government who are thinking much about food, nevertheless food waste,” says Mr. Clay. “That has separated us from France: they have people who took up this issue politically.”

French National Assembly member Guillaume Garot helped frame the legislation with his previous experience as the former junior minister for the food industry – a position that in and of itself proves France’s dedication to the issue, say experts.

However, France is not an obvious frontrunner in this field.

Over the past decade, Britain has demonstrated far more statistical success, says Craig Hanson, global director of food, forests, and water at the World Resources Institute, and Denmark has made news with new projects like ugly produce grocery stores. Comparatively, France’s law is new, and as the Guardian reported after it was passed, only 11 percent of France’s 7.1 million metric tons of wasted food comes from supermarkets.

But to Clay, Ms. Mourad, and other food recovery advocates, the law is important symbolically. Neither the United States, nor Britain or Denmark, have comparable government legislation.

“Making it illegal for supermarkets to throw away food is massive,” says Jonathan Bloom, author of the book “American Wasteland.” “That legislative step has impacted all levels of the French food chain.”

Before the 2016 law, French supermarkets typically donated 35,000 metric tons of food annually, roughly one-third of food banks’ total supply, Jacques Bailet, president of the food bank network Banques Alimentaires, told the Guardian in 2016. If supermarkets can increase their food bank donations by only 15 percent this could mean 10 million more meals for needy French each year.

This law improves not only the quantity of donated food, say experts, but also the quality. Food banks typically are supplied with canned goods, rather than nutritionally valuable foods like meat, vegetables, and fruit.

“The fight against food waste should become a major national cause, like road safety, that mobilises everybody,” said Mr. Garot in a press release. “That implies that every authority, at every level, plays its part.”

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The Monitor's View

Americans are sheltering the homeless

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In cities across much of the United States individuals, churches, and charities are stepping in to help local governments provide a warm place to stay as unseasonably frigid temperatures wear on. Many shelters are asking for extra support – from donations to extra volunteers – as they work to meet an increased need. As Americans step up to meet this emergency through their actions and prayers they are being made more aware of the world of the homeless, one too often seen through a distorted lens of oversimplification or stereotypes. Those trying to alleviate long-term homelessness acknowledge it is a many-faceted challenge. Each case needs to be assessed individually, and effective programs carefully identified and duplicated. But the same deep-seated instincts that are causing Americans to help one another during this cold spell can also be applied to defeat the pernicious and tenacious challenge of homelessness year round.

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Americans are sheltering the homeless

Melinda Bowyer gives free rides to homeless people to get them to the warmth of a shelter.

For some time Ms. Bowyer, known locally as the “Uber Queen” of Doylestown, Pa., has been giving her tips to homeless people she encounters. 

But during this winter’s lingering, bitter cold spell in much of the United States she now has turned off her Uber app and lets the homeless ride free of charge. Helping them “is the best feeling in the whole, entire world,” she told reporters from the NBC TV affiliate in Philadelphia. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of homeless people there are.”

In cities across the country individuals, churches, and charities are stepping in to help sometimes overwhelmed local governments provide a warm place for homeless people to stay as night after night of unseasonably frigid temperatures wears on. 

Many shelters are asking for extra support as they work to meet an increased need, from donations of food, hats, scarves, and gloves to personal hygiene items. Some are looking for extra volunteers to handle the influx of shelter seekers. 

“It’s something I don’t understand. We’re the richest country in the world, and yet we have to face situations such as these,” the Rev. Alfred Harrison at the Fellowship in Christ Christian Center in Charlotte, N.C., told the local ABC TV affiliate. Nighttime temperatures in his area have been dropping to well below freezing.

As Americans step up to meet this emergency through their actions and prayers they are being made more aware of the world of the homeless, a world too often seen through a distorted lens of oversimplification or stereotypes. 

One’s image of a homeless person, for example, may be that of an older man who’s facing mental or substance abuse challenges.

But a new study from the University of Chicago, for example, paints a different picture. It shows that 1 in 10 young adults (18- to 25-year-olds) in the US has experienced homelessness, as has 1 in 30 adolescents. Nearly 660,000 adolescents and 3.5 million young adults have been homeless within the past year alone, the study found.

Many of the young adults are well educated, some with college degrees. And they come from both rural and urban areas. 

As might be expected some youths and young adults are fleeing unstable or difficult home situations. But others are having a hard time just finding work and a place to live in a time of rising housing costs. 

The findings “are staggering. They are alarming, but they’re not necessarily surprising,” notes one of the researchers. “Homelessness is young. It’s more common than people expect, and it’s largely hidden.”

Those trying to alleviate long-term homelessness acknowledge it is a multifaceted challenge. Which programs are most effective at getting people off the streets and into stable housing? What are the underlying causes and how can they be addressed? Workers at shelters need to assess each case individually. Could a program that is effective somewhere else work at their shelter? How can government and private efforts blend more closely to be even more helpful?

The same deep-seated instincts that are causing Americans to help one another during this cold spell can also be applied to defeat the pernicious and tenacious challenge of homelessness year round.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Getting unstuck

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Against the backdrop of the daily news that clamors for attention are hardworking, plainclothes folks like you and me. And in our day-to-day lives, challenges come up that threaten to delay or halt our work, making us feel stuck. Is there an alternative to discouragement? There was for the prophet Nehemiah in the Bible, who faced harassment, opposition, ridicule, and deception. But his faith in good, in the one God, or Mind, and his obedience to God’s will gave him the strength and wisdom to persist – and to succeed. Through the understanding of God’s all-power, any roadblocks or opposition to progress can be overcome. Our Father in heaven has given all of us the spiritual strength and dominion to succeed and prosper in our work. As we recognize and yield to God’s law of good, the way will clear, because nothing can resist God, good, and win.

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Getting unstuck

Against the backdrop of the daily news that clamors for attention are hardworking, plainclothes folks like you and me navigating the not-so-easy challenges of the moment. We’re office workers and managers. Contractors and overseers. Parents, coaches, and committee chairs. Folks are counting on us to “get the job done!”

But does it ever feel as if you’re spinning your wheels in the mud? Sudden delays pop up and deadlines fly by. People don’t return your calls. Miscommunication and misfires. And by day’s end, you might feel completely stuck in a pile of discouragement or resentment.

Long ago a man named Nehemiah led efforts to reconstruct the walls of Jerusalem, working with his compatriots day and night to restore the city of the Hebrew people. He faced harassment and opposition, even ridicule and deception. But his faith in good, in the one God, or Mind, and his obedience to God’s will gave him the strength and wisdom to persist – and ultimately to succeed (see book of Nehemiah, Old Testament).

Broadly speaking, one way to characterize any blockage that we might face in our day-to-day lives is “resistance to good.” In the Bible, in the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul calls the unseen negative influence behind this resistance “the carnal mind,” which is “enmity against God” (8:7).

But as Nehemiah’s example shows us, through the power of God and an understanding of God’s all-power, we can overcome whatever would oppose the good we seek to do. Perceived in its inspired, spiritual meaning, the Bible reveals the supremacy, power, and infinitude of immortal Mind, God, the one lawmaker, who is wholly good and ever present. All of us are in actuality God’s children, the outcome, or spiritual reflection, of this singular intelligence, or Mind, which governs all reality. Through such spiritual truths – acknowledged and adhered to in prayer – we can rise above roadblocks and regain needed traction and momentum in our work.

We are all entitled to experience the freedom and success that come from leaning on God and acknowledging His ever-operative law of harmony governing us. Here are a few points that can be helpful:

  • Bring patience, not pushing, to each task. Rather than insisting on the way we think is best, we can take quiet moments to affirm that divine intelligence alone is in control, since God is the only Mind or true wisdom governing all.
  • Keep the joy of trusting God! Any worthwhile endeavor will present opportunities to bless those involved, because God is the source of all good in each of our lives. With every indication of progress, no matter how small, joy and gratitude will allow more and more good to appear.
  • Let go of resentment, criticism, and self-pity. With God, divine Love, at the helm of your thoughts and actions, and knowing that we all reflect divine Love, we’re ready and willing to bring the “oil” of grace, humility, and forgiveness to each task.

No matter how things seems to be going, we have nothing to fear or feel anxious about when we apprehend more clearly each day that immortal Mind governs and protects the unfoldment of every right purpose. God has never authorized a power opposed to the divine power, so we needn’t feel flummoxed, stymied, or stuck if faced with a challenge. Our Father in heaven has given all of us the spiritual strength and dominion to succeed and prosper in our work. As we recognize and yield to God’s law of good, the way will clear, because nothing can resist God, good, and win.

In St. Paul’s desire to share the Christian message he loved with the world, he faced many severe obstacles. Nevertheless he could write: “My beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (I Corinthians 15:58).

Whatever constructive endeavor we’re engaged in, Paul’s words can cheer us on today, encouraging us to know that with God’s power we can move forward unhindered.

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Viewfinder

Deep South deep freeze

Stephen B. Morton/AP
A nearly frozen fountain in historical Forsyth Park, in Savannah, Georgia, keeps flowing Jan. 3 despite freezing temperatures.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( January 4th, 2018 )

David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We are working on a story out of Senegal, where Muslim clerics are playing a pivotal role in introducing birth control to men and women.

Monitor Daily Podcast

January 03, 2018
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