Archive for July, 2010


A stimulus program even a republican can love

There’s at least one stimulus program that’s creating jobs and winning praise from both sides of the political aisle.

A little-known Recovery Act initiative is expected to put more than 200,000 unemployed

people back to work in 32 states and the District of Columbia. It’s called the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Fund, and it subsidizes jobs with private companies, nonprofits and government agencies.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, known as TANF, was created as part of the 1996 welfare reform effort.

States, which received $16.5 billion in federal TANF funds last year, have a lot of flexibility on how to distribute the money to help low-income households with children.

But the $5 billion it receives runs out on Sept. 30, even though employers and state officials administering the money say there’s lots more demand out there.

“It would be such a shame,” said Jan Vogel, executive director of a Los Angeles area agency that has placed more than 10,000 workers. “How much more productive can a program be than putting people to work?”

Congress is considering a year-long extension that would add $2.5 billion. But the proposal is bogged down in political wrangling over the nation’s exploding deficit.

While the Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus program has become a popular target for GOP attacks, the subsidized jobs initiative has been adopted by Republican and Democratic governors and policy analysts alike.

“It’s a pretty cost-effective way to create jobs,” said Kevin Hassett, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a business-oriented group that promotes free enterprise. “We should be creative about seeking ways to get people connected to the workforce again.”

Even Haley Barbour, the Mississippi governor who headed the Republican National Committee in the mid-1990s, had high praise for the effort.

The “program will provide much-needed aid during this recession by enabling businesses to hire new workers, thus enhancing the economic engines of our local communities,” Barbour said when the initiative launched last year. (Read ‘Stimulus: The big bang is over’)

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, known as TANF, was created as part of the 1996 welfare reform effort.

States, which received $16.5 billion in federal TANF funds last year, have a lot of flexibility on how to distribute the money to help low-income households with children.

Putting the unemployed to work

Around the country, companies have signed up for a wide range of reasons. Some are eager to expand, but others see it as a way to dip their toe back into hiring.

DBA Logistics, a freight forwarding company based in Hawthorne, Calif., took 32 previously unemployed people to work in its warehouse and in other departments. It receives a subsidy of $10 an hour per employee.

The program has allowed DBA to broaden its hiring base. The company plans to keep most of the new employees even after the subsidy runs out.

“It gives us access to a new pool of labor that we otherwise wouldn’t have,” said Duke Dukesherer, the firm’s executive vice president for the Americas. “They are good workers.”

The workers are thankful to have a job. After hitting the unemployment line six months ago, Michael Terry now loads and unloads trucks, drives a forklift and stacks boxes for DBA.

“I’m financially stable right now,” said Terry, a Los Angeles resident who has two toddlers and another baby on the way. “I can pay my bills.”

Dorothy Polite, meanwhile, saw the stimulus program as a way to expand her one-woman enterprise, which focuses on speech therapy and training in the Los Angeles area. She brought on two workers to answer the phone, schedule appointments and organize her files — all tasks she used to do herself.

Instead, Polite has focused on getting more certifications and lining up more contracts with agencies.

“It gave me more time to generate more business,” said Polite, who is looking to hire both workers permanently.

In Louisville, Miss., Taylor Machine Works used the subsidy to rehire 13 people it had laid off. The forklift truck manufacturer has seen business pick up lately and needs more welders, machinists, painters and assemblymen.

Mississippi provides six months of subsidies, paying 100% of salaries for two months and then gradually reducing the assistance to 25% by the sixth month. The program has proven very popular with employers, who have kept all but 3% to 4% of the participants, said Stan McMorris, deputy executive director of the state’s Department of Employment Security.

Taylor intends to hire more people if it can before the program ends on Sept. 30.

“This money has helped us bring them back to work sooner,” said Inez Blumenfeld, employment supervisor. “We don’t intend to lay them off again.”


Growing in wealth, south africa battles obesity

Gugulethu, South Africa — In restaurants in this township outside Cape Town, South Africa, barbecue grills crackle with chains of sausage, marinated chicken quarters and boulder-sized slabs of beef and lamb.

Organ meats — livers, lungs and hearts — are sold in bustling marketplaces.

In the city, customers order fried chicken, meat pies, biltong (beef jerky), French fries, sausages called boerewors and burgers, a combination of Western and South African fast foods.

Along with growing prosperity, a culture of high-fat foods has taken hold in urban South Africa. In a country where malnutrition is one of the major causes of children’s deaths, South Africa is also experiencing an increase in obesity-related conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

The country has enjoyed economic growth in recent years and is host of the World Cup, which ends Sunday. But growth also comes with risk.

Cerebrovascular diseases, which cause strokes, and diabetes are the fourth- and fifth-leading causes of death in South Africa, according to the latest report on mortality. Ischemic heart diseases, which can cause artery blockage and heart attacks, are the 10th-leading cause behind HIV, which is ninth-leading killer.

Deaths caused by HIV infection declined in the country; however, these deaths could have been registered as other causes, according to a national report from 2007.

“We’re in transition from poverty to economic development,” said Dr. Thandi Puoane, associate professor at the University of the Western Cape School of Public Health.

The influx of people to urban areas has caused major dietary shifts that are more starchy, sugary, fatty and salty and feature bigger portions, according to South African research.

In townships, predominantly black communities located outside cities, being overweight does not carry negative connotations.

“Black South African women are not keen on weight loss, because in this era, people think you are thin, you have HIV — that’s the thinking,” said Tandi Matoti-Mvalo, a dietitian.

And health experts worry that many people aren’t receiving messages about proper diet and exercise.

“Because of the advertisements, people drink Coke and eat KFC and think it’s hip and cool,” Puoane said. “I haven’t seen advertisements for broccoli and beans.”

About 56 percent of women and 29 percent of men in South Africa were reported to be overweight or obese, according to a 2003 national survey, echoing similar findings from a 1998 report.

Black African people have the lowest rates of cardiovascular diseases, but there are some concerns about changing diets and habits.

“People in the townships, they feel they need to have meat on the plate daily,” said Puoane. “They end up eating chicken fat and skin, they want that taste. People really, really want to have meat on their plate.”

It’s a departure from maize, porridge and beans.

Dumile Klaas and Zandise Mtzang enjoy an afternoon snack in Gugulethu, near Cape Town.
Dumile Klaas and Zandise Mtzang enjoy an afternoon snack in Gugulethu, near Cape Town.

At Mzoli’s, a popular braai (barbecue) spot, Tembela Maweka, who lives in Kuils River, near Cape Town, waited for his platter of meat.

“When you have beers or whiskey, you have to have meat,” he said. “You need that fat.”

When asked whether he worried about the health implications of a high-fat diet, he paused.

“It might make effects in the body, like in the heart because of fat,” Maweka said.

His remedy: “You eat, and drink and exercise.”

A few miles away from the restaurant, traders in an outdoor marketplace sell organ meats such as stomachs and lungs. These have higher fat content but are more affordable, said Matoti-Mvalo.

Much like food deserts, described in American urban settings, residents of these areas face a vicious combination of the lack of money and access to nutritious foods.

“They cannot afford healthy food,” Puoane said. “They cannot afford chicken breast. They end up buying chicken skins.” Chicken breasts are stripped to be sold in affluent markets, and the discarded skins are sold in the townships, she said.

“Accessibility to fresh fruit and vegetables are a little bit difficult,” Puoane said. “People have to spend money to get to a minibus taxi, go to the supermarket to buy healthy food. There’s less accessibility to healthy food.”


Why Face Recognition isn’t scary – yet

Most of the time, Stacey Schlittenhard finds facial recognition technology to be extremely useful. When she uploads her family photos to the website Picasa, for instance, the program automatically tags her friends and family members. This lets her share the photos easily and saves her hours of organization.

But every now and then, the computer gets things flat wrong.

“Babies,” she says. “That’s the hardest thing. All babies kind of look alike — they all have little round faces. If I label one baby as my [2-year-old] son, it will label almost every baby as my son.”

In another instance, she said, Google’s Picasa thought a lollipop was her friend.

As she uses facial recognition programs, Schlittenhard is coming face to face with a fact that has been troubling computer scientists for decades:

It’s hard to teach a machine to know a human face — and it’s harder still to teach a computer to identify one face from any other.

That may be comforting news for people worried about governments using facial recognition systems to surveil the public — in effect, ending anonymity.

Technologists say those ideas exist only in science fiction movies — at least for now.

“I don’t think, currently, any facial recognition system is good enough for security purposes — not even close, actually,” said Yi Ma, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois, and a visiting researcher at Microsoft Research in China.

Using face recognition for surveillance or to identify people at borders and in airports has been tried in limited settings, Ma said, but it is at least a decade if not much further away from becoming real and reliable.

Meanwhile, a handful of consumer apps are using available technology to detect faces in family and party photos — where accuracy is not as important.

On July 1, for example, Facebook announced it would give its users the ability to use facial detection software to select faces from photos on the site.

Facebook’s new feature only selects faces. It doesn’t identify the people in photos by name. But in a blog post, Facebook product manager Sam Odio said that updates to this system will be coming.

“Stay tuned for future posts about other work on browsing, uploading and tagging,” he wrote in the post.

Some photo tools go further than Facebook by identifying people in photos automatically., a company that builds the face-recognizing software behind apps like Photo Finder and PhotoTagger, identifies friends in your photos by comparing them with similar shots on Facebook.

The company’s CEO, Gil Hirsch, said the goal is to make photo sharing fast.

“Tagging the whole [photo] album — let’s say 200 photos — takes less than 30 seconds” when using technology, he said.

Google’s Picasa and Apple’s iPhoto perform similar functions. A Google test product called Goggles may also identify faces from mobile phones.

Michael Sipe, vice president of product development at PittsburghPattern Recognition, a Carnegie Mellon University split-off company that makes face-recognizing software and is funded in part by the U.S. military, said the family photo programs are a response to the hassles of curating digital photo collections.