Sunday, November 10, 2013

Harris Rosen and a Real Helping Hand

I had never heard of Harris Rosen until a few minutes ago. Thanks to Reddit, I've heard of him now...and I think everybody should hear about him. He's a self-made millionaire in the hospitality industry, and his story is inspirational on so many levels, it practically left me breathless reading it.

Here's a man raised in Hell's Kitchen in the 1940s and 1950s--an aptly named stinkhole of poverty and disease--who was launched into the hospitality industry by a chance encounter with Marilyn Monroe...and propelled after launch by his mom, who told him the ticket out of Hell's Kitchen was education.
After spending some time chafing under Disney, Inc. -- he developed the Polynesian, Contemporary, and Fort Wilderness resorts, but never felt entirely comfortable -- Rosen took all the money in his savings account and put a downpayment on a Quality Inn. From there, his empire blossomed: it now includes 3500 employees overseeing 6300 rooms, not to mention the premier hospitality college in the United States.

Oh, yes, and Tangelo Park.

Tangelo sounds like another Florida hotel. It isn't. It's an isolated Orlando neighbourhood, and until Rosen adopted it, not a nice one. Much like the Hell's Kitchen of Rosen's youth, Tangelo Park was riddled with poverty and crime. Over ninety percent of the population is African-American and more than half of the people in the neighbourhood are either families headed by single mothers, or not families at all.

Rosen "fell in love" -- his words -- with this place, and set out to do something about improving it. Here's what he did. He offered free daycare all children between 2 and 4, free parenting classes, free vocational training...and free, all-inclusive scholarships for any neighbourhood child that graduates high school.

Needless to say (or at least it should be), the elementary school in Tangelo Park became a model school very quickly;  the high school graduation rate has dramatically increased; and three quarters of Rosen scholarshiip recipients graduated with post-secondary credentials...the highest rate among an ethnic group in the U.S. The students who have been through the program stand to collectively earn over a million dollars more (pdf) through their lifetimes than they would have without the program. And that's not even accounting for the dramatic decrease in the crime rate that has seen fewer people incarcerated.

All because one man gave about nine million dollars...a lot for one person, no doubt, but pocket change for a nation, even a nation as indebted as the United States undoubtedly is.


There is this mentality running rampant in both our countries that just giving people money is counterproductive, even evil. What have they done to deserve it? People wedded to this attitude can find plenty of justification for many billions of dollars have been spent on Africa over the decades? How much money does Canada spend per Aboriginal? And most of the Native reservations resemble deepest darkest Africa, still, in their poverty and despair. (Though it bears mentioning that many people living in Africa, particularly, have been unaffected by the affluenza virus that has swept the Western world and thus remain happier than many of us would, or even can, imagine). Still, it is my contention that every least one of us deserves, by virtue of being born, access to the basics. Those include nutritious food, clean drinking water, shelter against the elements, reasonable health care, and an education. Those five things are fundamental to success. They don't guarantee success for every individual, but they give everyone a fighting chance. To me, access to these things should be guaranteed in any Constitution worthy of the name...especially one from a country which takes as its motto "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". 

Dauphin, Manitoba tried a Mincome program between 1974 and 1979.  Dauphin, at the time, was a town of ten thousand: every family in town and in the surrounding rural municipality was included.
Strangely, despite some positive outcomes, the program was scrapped after four years and much of its data was either destroyed or never collected properly in the first place. The reason was political: both the provincial and federal government shifted rightward in the face of an economic recession and helping poor people suddenly became less of a priority.
There were some grave administrative faults behind this program. Perhaps the biggest was that, although the benefit was (quite properly) indexed to inflation (which was becoming a real issue in the late 70s), the actual budget for the program was not. The cost overruns were then cited as a good reason to kill Mincome entirely. The oversight here is so glaring that the cynic in me suggests it was intentional.

But both testimonials and academic analysis show that MINCOME had a positive effect in many areas, some of which may not seem obvious. For instance, hospitalization rates in Dauphin decreased by eight percent over the MINCOME experiment. This is attributed in part to a decrease in domestic violence, better mental health, and a decline in workplace-related injury (which tends to occur when people continue to work in dangerous situations when ill or fatigued).
The most interesting thing, to me, is that the employment rate actually increased. This finding runs counter to everything we're told about welfare: give people money and they'll sit on their asses and thumb their nose at doing anything productive, right?


Two groups of people did tend to stay home: new mothers (who suddenly could) and adolescents, who no longer needed a job and could devote more time to their studies. The rest of the population kept their jobs, or acquired new ones. That's what having the basics provided for will do: oddly enough, most people aren't satisfied with just the basics...not only that, but they think it's fair to work for anything beyond those basics if those basics are provided for. But when a large part of the money you make goes to food and shelter, with little left over, it stands to reason you will be stressed...and probably resentful, too.

It seems to me that our current civilization--I use that word guardedly, since we often don't seem very civilized--places a higher priority on maintaining wealth than it does on eliminating poverty. What's more, the definition of wealth is exceedingly narrow. To me, wealth, like anything else, only truly exists when it is shared. That's something Harris Rosen obviously understands, and it's something the rest of us could stand to learn.

Whenever I have ventured into enemy territory and brought this thesis forward, it has been seen as an attack. Fair enough: it is. But it's not a personal attack. I try very hard not to do that, because (a) it hurts and (b) it never works. I do believe it's possible to attack attitudes rather than people, though, and the attitude that 'what's mine is mine and you can fuck right off' is one that should be vanquished if our society is ever to evolve.

 I'm not naive enough to believe that communism will ever work on anything other than a very limited scale (although its precept, 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs', is possibly the most beautiful guiding sentiment penned by man since 'love thy neighbour as thyself'.) I would suggest, though, that the raw capitalism favoured by certain elites nowadays is every bit as corrosive to society as unalloyed communism has proven to be. There is always a happy medium, and whether it comes from benevolent wealthy people with society's best interests in mind (there are damned few of those, it seems)...or governments that are supposed to have society's best interests in mind...well...that happy medium is the place to be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said