No Single Solution For Emerging From Poverty

Guests

Sudhir Venkatesh, professor of Sociology, Columbia University
Arthur Berman, executive director, Twin Cities Rise
Ben Mangan, CEO, EARN

2010 Census data shows a record 46 million Americans now live in poverty. For each person below the poverty line, there is a unique story of how they got there. Regaining your financial footing, many experts argue, requires a number of specific steps.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The latest census data reports that the poverty rate in the United States rose to 15 percent, up nearly one percent since last year. That's about 46 million people.

We all know how people slip below the poverty line - they lost a job, a catastrophic illness in the family. We know that people of color, people who grew up poor and single mothers are vulnerable. But behind the numbers are stories of millions of Americans trying to get out of their current situation.

Today we're talking about how to get out of poverty, what works and why. And we'd like to hear from you. If you got out of poverty, tell us how you did it. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, President Obama vows to veto any bill that cuts Medicare unless it also raises taxes on the rich. But first, how to get out of poverty. And to help us get a better understanding of the census data, we begin with Sudir Venkatesh, professor of sociology at Columbia. He joins us now from a studio at the university there in New York City. Nice to have you with us again.

SUDIR VENKATESH: It's great to be here, thank you.

CONAN: And these are dismal numbers. Do we know anything? Do they tell us anything about those who get out of poverty? Is there a silver lining anywhere in here?

VENKATESH: You know, we should always try to look for a silver lining. They are dismal numbers, 46 million people, the highest number in 52 years. that's a pretty depressing number, and it tells the tale of where our economy is. I think there are incredible stories of resilience.

There are people such as those who are going to be on the show in just a little bit that will tell you some of the - their experiences getting folks out. I think there are silver linings. I think one thing that we should remember is that the figures don't take into account the non-cash benefits that people receive.

There are ties to community-based organizations that often help them to stay afloat when times are tough.

CONAN: Do they take into account the black economy?

VENKATESH: They don't, they don't, and if I could tell a 30-second story of somebody who is - I find it very instructive. I can give you a sense of why that - the underground, the black market, plays an important role.

One of the people that was in my study, Lele Henderson(ph), was a - is a mother of several children in Chicago, and she lost her job. Like many employers, one of them told her how they couldn't afford to keep her full-time, they'd have to keep her part-time.

What she did - and I observed her - is she kind of picked herself up. She went to a job-training facility. She learned a set of skills on the computer. She borrowed money from friends to be able to take this course and to keep her rent paid, and she was able to then take the time necessary, several months, to go and find another set of jobs, part-time, but to stay on her feet.

You know, I find those stories instructive because it forces us to remember that people and poor, are nevertheless, often in networks. And the more we can get to them and help them withstand these bouts, the better off we'll be. And also inspiring, because it shows that there is an incredible amount of resilience out there.

And in between these movements, what Lele did was that she relied on part-time work. She cooked. She helped people prepare taxes off the books. She cut hair. She did a whole bunch of things that weren't necessarily illegal - criminalness(ph) , but they helped her to earn a little bit of money to get by. And that's what a lot of Americans are doing.

CONAN: There are, as you noted, though, other and less socially valuable ways to earn money if you're pressed to it.

VENKATESH: Absolutely, and we are seeing in - we are seeing rising crime. We're - and where that crime is occurring should be of particular concern. You know, the image that we have, might have a poverty and crime, and we often link those two together in the United States, is that of a central city, the inner city. You know, in fact the greatest rise in poverty is occurring in our suburbs. The greatest rise in crime is occurring in our suburbs.

And that's important to note, to get behind the numbers a little bit, because these areas don't really have the infrastructure - they don't have the churches, the food banks and the history of philanthropic investing that can respond to crime, respond to a black market and so on. So they're even more hard-pressed than we might otherwise think.

CONAN: You said crime is up; actually, the FBI statistics came out today, and crime is down, property crime down, I think - violent crime down for the fourth year in a row, property crime down for the fourth year in a row, too.

VENKATESH: That's right. So overall, nationally, we are at historic lows for violent crime and property crime, but in a couple of places we have to really look out for, and those places are what we call exurbs, places that are outside of metropolitan areas, and in new suburbs, where they don't have a history of being - of a poor population that they service, and they have a dramatic rise in the number of people becoming poor, and they don't quite know how to handle it.

CONAN: We're talking with Sudir Venkatesh, and we're talking about how to get out of poverty. We want to hear your story. What worked? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Mika(ph), Mika with us from Newburg in North Carolina.

MIKA: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Mika.

MIKA: I spent a couple years in college when I turned about 18 and then left at about 20. After I did that, I found that I could find pretty much no jobs that would do me any good at all, spent my time bouncing from retail job to retail job, and then was looking at being a parent when I got a girl pregnant. And, you know, looked at the fact I was making, you know, maybe $300 a week, $400 a week, depending on how - what I could do.

And, you know, didn't really have a house to live in or anything like that, piggybacking on most everybody else, racking up a whole lot of debt. And, you know, finally I just looked at the fact that the only way I'm going to be able to get out of this is to join military service.

And at this point, I am virtually debt-free, have a three-bedroom, two-bath house, have a wonderful little boy, and so far I'm looking, probably, at 12 years of military service.

CONAN: Congratulations, and I'm glad your son is doing well, too. I just wanted to ask Sudir Venkatesh, jobs in the military have become competitive.

VENKATESH: They certainly have, and we just heard one of the reasons why, because they offer a number of things, from immediate cash for families that are in need of it to the opportunity to get retrained, to get educated and to have credentialing. To be able to go out in the world and be able to say that I can work at a job, and I can be responsible, et cetera.

And it's great to hear those stories. There are not a lot of opportunities for that. Another example might be teaching, that when people go and get credentialed for teaching, they can often get incentives to teach in communities that are underserved. And so they might have a stint in a rural community, for example, and then go to a place where they have a preference.

Again, wonderful to hear. There's just not a lot of places to go to get those kinds of - to get a little bit of help and assistance. We really need programs and policies that can do that at a scale.

CONAN: Mika, I wonder, of the men and women you served with, is that a lot of their stories, too?

MIKA: For a good number of them. I've got a small chunk of people that actually have thriving businesses and, you know, were making six figures a year and, you know, just decided to join the military. And of course, they're looking at that pay cut now. But the biggest thing that we're running into is that with all the budget cuts and everything, we can't keep the same personnel that we had before.

So everybody that's re-enlisting and trying to stay in the military is having a lot of difficulty with that because of the different restrictions, and they can be more choosy now. And on the other side, you're looking at...

CONAN: What they call retention figures, people aren't staying in.

MIKA: I lost my train of thought.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: All right, Mika, thanks very much. We're going to hear more about possible budget cuts later in the program. So stay tuned for that. But in the meantime, we want to bring in another voice. One of the groups working to help people out of poverty is Twin Cities Rise, a Minneapolis-based program that focuses on job training and life skills.

Arthur Berman is executive director, and he joins us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Nice to have you with us today.

ARTHUR BERMAN: Good afternoon.

CONAN: And the common threat here is finding a job. Clearly, Mika found one in the military, but again that's not an option for all that many people.

BERMAN: That's right, and just to set the context for what we do, the population we work with is really an underclass in society. Average age is mid-30s. It's a predominately African-American population. Eighty-five percent of them come to us unemployed, and most of those have been long-term, chronically unemployed.

CONAN: Isn't that sort of the definition of underclass, long-term, chronically...?

BERMAN: Yes, yes. And another definition, I think it's important to bear in mind in terms of the challenge here, is they come with significant number of high barriers to long-term employment success. So 75 to 80 percent of them are ex-offenders. Sixty percent of them have addiction histories. And there are a litany of other barriers that are challenging that we have to work with them to help overcome.

CONAN: And how do you do that?

BERMAN: Well, the program, it's quite intense. It takes - it's 12 to 18 months long. And we measure success by not only helping our participants find jobs, but to keep jobs. And the ultimate success measure for us is long-term job retention. So what we do is we provide, basically, a, sort of, multidimensional program.

There's a sort of convention hard-skills training program, which would include computer skills and basic reading - sorry, writing skills, math skills and then a lot of career readiness. The second component, which is the most important part, in my opinion, is our life skills training program, and that's - it's a six- to nine-month very intensive program, we call personal empowerment.

And it's based on the principles of emotional intelligence, and it basically gives our participants the soft skills that they need to succeed on the job and that they lack when they come into the program.

CONAN: Soft skills like communications with other people?

BERMAN: Well, it's really relationship management skills. So what we find is participants who come in - and this is based on, you know, the history of our program is we didn't have this component, and we found that we were able to get - help people get jobs, but they were failing on the job at a high rate.

And what we found is they basically didn't have the soft skills, the relationships management skills, to succeed on the job. And fundamentally, people coming from deep poverty have very damaged belief systems. So them come in feeling - with very low self-esteem. They feel victimized. They place blame. They don't take responsibility. And, just, they lack basic skills for regulating emotions.

So all of those factors can lead to behaviors on the job that are quite destructive. So our program helps to essentially change that picture, starting with developing a better self-awareness, of, you know, why they are where they are, recognizing emotions, their source and what the effects are.

And over time, we help them to develop skills in regulating their emotions. We help them to develop self-esteem, self-respect...

CONAN: In this economy, though, all those things are great - this economy, even with those skills, it can't be easy getting them jobs. Briefly, what's your success rate?

BERMAN: Our success rate is about 60 percent.

CONAN: Sixty percent, yes, that's fantastic.

BERMAN: Yes, we also provide a personal coach. Everybody who comes in, gets a coach. So it's a very high-touch program, and it works.

CONAN: We're talking about how to get out of poverty, what works. If you've done it recently, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Nearly one in six of us now lives in poverty; that's more than 46 million Americans. But some manage to get out. We're talking about what works to get out of poverty. We'll talk with the head of one program that focuses on teaching people to save and better manage their money in a moment.

Other programs to help people get back to work, Georgia Works is one that's gotten a lot of attention recently and bipartisan support, and here's how it works: Unemployed residents of Georgia are matched with employers who agree to give them up to eight weeks of training. Employers pay nothing.

The checks come from the state unemployment funds, but they include a stipend to cover transportation, child care and other costs. Employers get a chance to assess job candidates. Those who need work get training, a chance to learn about a company and a paycheck.

We'd like to hear from you. If you've gotten out of poverty, tell us how you did it. 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Sudir Venkatesh, who's a professor of sociology at Columbia University; and also still with us Arthur Berman, executive director of Twin Cities Rise. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Bud(ph), and Bud's with us from Rock Springs in Wyoming.

BUD: Hi.

CONAN: Yeah, go ahead, Bud.

BUD: Well, I grew up in poverty. Both of my parents made under $12,000 a year. And how I got out is I messed around, and then I got into about my mid-20s, and I decided I wanted a decent job. And I got student loans and went to WyoTech. But what you paid for tuition and all your expenses aren't - doesn't even come close to what I make a year now. So that is how I've gotten up and out.

CONAN: You got up and out. How are your parents doing?

BUD: Well, my dad has cancer, and he's on Social Security. And my mom got a large inheritance a little while ago, but...

CONAN: That always helps.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BUD: They're still mildly in poverty.

CONAN: Well, I'm sorry to hear about the cancer, and I know that's very tough. But I'm glad you got out. And I wonder, of those people who you saw in school, was this their story, too?

BUD: Yeah, a lot of kids got out of poverty from going to WyoTech. My tuition was $20,000, and the average amount that you make a year is $40,000, $45,000 a year. So it's easy to pay it back, and you have plenty of money leftover for yourself.

CONAN: Congratulations, Bud, thanks very much for the call.

BUD: Thank you.

CONAN: Sudir Venkatesh, education always said to be the way out if you can get a loan.

VENKATESH: If you can get a loan, and Bud's story is quite interesting because it points to one aspect of poverty which social scientists might call the intergenerational kind of poverty, which is the families that have children who end up remaining poor and children of children who end up remaining poor, and it's great to see that Bud is able to move out of those circumstances.

Part of the census figures that were released last - recently suggested that there were about 48 million people between 18 and 64 years of age who didn't work even one week last year. That by itself is quite a large number, and it's up about seven percent.

You can break those down - break that number down by also seeing that a lot of that is in families in which the parents might be poor, the children are unable to find a job and so on. So there's a little bit of a cycle here, and that can lead to many of the problems that we've just heard about in terms of a household where everyone feels a certain sense of loss of self-esteem.

There's no one there with credit or immediate resources to be able to help another member withstand the bouts of hardship. And so I think we want to have the qualitative side of this, too, where we see that the texture of living in poverty can be different if you're, you know, just the first person who's - and you've lost a job - not saying that's easy - but it can be a lot different if you're in community where you have multiple generations of poor people.

CONAN: Here's an email from Cat(ph) in Berkeley: What's the best strategy for people with disabilities to get out of poverty? And Arthur Berman, I wonder if your program addresses that?

BERMAN: No, we don't. We do have some great programs here in the Twin Cities designed for helping people with disabilities and placing them in the workforce. But we are not one of them.

CONAN: And let me ask you another question, and this may also be a swing and a miss: We've read about retraining programs, people who have lost their jobs, typically factories close down when jobs are outsourced, and that these are not very successful. Their success rates don't approach yours. I wonder if your kind of an approach could be adapted to that.

BERMAN: I think it could, but that is not exactly where we're focused. Professor Venkatesh mentioned the intergenerational poverty versus what we call the situational poverty, where someone loses a job, as the example you just cited.

We really focus very much on the intergenerational poverty issues because those are the deepest, most intractable poverty issues here in terms of helping people get back on their feet and becoming financially independent. So that's where we focus, and that's how our program is tailored.

CONAN: I can understand that. I just thought that perhaps the loss of esteem that many people who might be 50 and out of a job for the first time, and low expectations, that part might be adapted. I'm not saying they enter your program, but one might be crafted.

BERMAN: Absolutely, and I should say we also have programs serving people like that here, as well. We are just not one of them.

CONAN: OK, Arthur Berman, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

BERMAN: My pleasure.

CONAN: Arthur Berman is executive director of Twin Cities Rise. He joined us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Let's see if we can get another caller in. Let's go next to - this is Tim(ph), Tim with us from Wichita.

TIM: Hi, Neal, how are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

TIM: Hey, my comment really, when I hear situations like this, is I come from an all-military family, and although we're all well-educated and have all done our bout in the military, being institutionalized in that military (unintelligible) of being paid twice a month, I have a saying for that, which isn't all that flattering. But it doesn't really teach you to be fiscally responsible.

So when I got out, you're facing these realisms that I don't know how to manage money. Well, as the years go on, you realize that now you have a family and kids, and you're going to perpetuate this cycle of low-income, poverty if we don't find a way to educate ourselves.

So how we resolved that in our household was we did away with credit cards, and it took us 11 months to combine our forces, essentially my wife's income and my own, and we made everything cash. We contacted every creditor, told them that we're happy to help you, but we're facing hard times. And this is right when the boom was - or right when the crash was going on.

And they were more than willing to try to accommodate or make some payment arrangements, but we literally paid off every bill to make things go away. And I think a part of what helps people be more responsible with money is that you need to have a physical ability to tangibly touch - to touch the money and understand how much money you really have.

CONAN: And what did you find that you could spend a lot less on? What were you wasting money on?

TIM: Well, you know, we don't live extravagantly anyway. And we're more of an adventure family. Rather than buy something, we'd rather take a trip or have an experience. But what we did differently was rather than the pizza on Friday night, we made a pizza at home. And did it save a little money? Sure. And we all kind of sucked it up.

But you can - we marked it off on our - we made a list. We tried to visualize everything we were doing and it got off the list. Once it got crossed off, we left it up there so we could see how far we were advancing. And my children were involved. They're only eight and 10, but they understood that these are hard times, and I'd rather my sons realize these are hard times, and this is how you get out of hard times.

CONAN: Well, Tim, congratulations, thanks very much.

TIM: Well, thank you.

CONAN: And here with perhaps some very similar advice is Ben Mangan, CEO of EARN, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps low-income families escape poverty by building assets through money management. He joins us now from our member station in San Francisco, KQED. Nice to have you with us today.

BEN MANGAN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And work like that, cut up your credit cards, is that the kind of advice you give your clients?

MANGAN: It is. And, you know, Tim mentioned something that's really important. He talked about the importance of learning and being able to track what you learn. And that reflects something that we see happen at EARN all the time, which is you need to be able to link knowledge with behavior. And that's really the cornerstone of the program that we run, which does teach people about money but, more importantly perhaps, actually matches people's savings.

And so people have a strong incentive to actually learn about money and how to manage their finances because they have a real opportunity to save and invest in one of the assets that have been proven to create prosperity across generations in a way that starts to really combat the cycle of intergenerational poverty that Professor Venkatesh mentioned.

CONAN: So you're not just talking about money. You're talking about wealth, create wealth.

MANGAN: Exactly. And it's a very important piece of this puzzle. In fact, when you look at the data on what predicts the economic chances of a child, wealth actually is a far greater predictor than income alone. And if your intention is to create long-term prosperity for low-income workers in this country, you have to address the question of how you help people accumulate wealth.

CONAN: And if you give people a specific goal, do you find that motivates it?

MANGAN: Absolutely. And along the way, you know, people not only have the opportunity like Helena Edwards who was on the beginning of the show talking about the...

CONAN: Talking about the credit card condom...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MANGAN: Yes.

CONAN: ...a pretty interesting concept.

MANGAN: So, you know, Helena not only is a homeowner now, but she was really transformed by her experience saving with EARN. And we operate an internal research institute at EARN that studies the cognitive side of this in addition to the pure economic outcomes. And one of the things that we find is that there is some science behind this transformation. People build the practice of saving, which gives them an increased sense of control over their lives and leads to much longer-term financial capability where they make better choices and have a different vision of the future for themselves and for their kids.

And if you look at some of the data that's emerging now on wealth, this really matters. Saving is something that seems old fashioned. And in a world of innovation and trying to change the world, you often look for the bold new ideas. But saving happens to be something which the Pew Charitable Trust, for instance, and their data on economic mobility, they find that it's one of the greatest predictors of people leaving the bottom 20 percent of the economy. And at EARN since 2002, we've had thousands of people who, when they begin with us, are earning under $20,000 a year who have saved over $5 million of their own money since then and invested millions of this in college degrees, in small businesses and in homes.

CONAN: We're talking with Ben Mangan, CEO of EARN. He's with us from San Francisco. Still with us as well is Sudhir Venkatesh. He's a professor of sociology at Columbia University. We are talking about ways to get out of poverty. What actually works? I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Elena(ph) on the line. Elena with us from Trenton in New Jersey.

ELENA: Hi. I'm sorry to say I don't see myself getting out of poverty. I actually went the other way. I grew up upper-middle class. I'm well educated. And thanks to a car accident, I found myself disabled in my early 30s and living off $1,000 a month. And I had a very loving boyfriend until he found out that I was pregnant. Now, I find myself living off $21,000 a year on Social Security and child support. So - and I agree with some of your previous callers: Money management is everything because I've been able to keep my head above water, and, you know, I do things like I spend 87 percent of my income on housing, you know, which is sad, but it keeps a house over my head - a roof over my head. But I don't see wealth creation in my future. And that's just sad. And I look at my son, and it's just not the way I want to raise him.

CONAN: Ben Mangan, is there anything like your program in New Jersey that you know about?

MANGAN: You know, I believe there are programs like this, but the caller's point begs a different question that's really critical here, and that's the role of public policy in wealth creation. Because there's a dangerous methodology around the American dream, and it goes something like this: If you work hard enough, you'll get a piece of that dream. But if you're not getting that dream, it's your own fault. And the reality is there is a history of public policy that's behind the way we create wealth in this country, and it's very much mattered on - it matters who you are in terms of your ability to accumulate wealth.

And it's not been a fair set of public policies, including for people who are disabled. And we take a lot of these things for granted. For instance, the Homestead Act is thought to have created 25 percent of the wealth in the United States. Other things like the creation of the 30-year mortgage or the creation of the 401(k) system have generated a tremendous amount of wealth but not for everybody. And there's a recent bit of data on the racial wealth gap, which is astonishing. People talk about the income gap being big, but there's a 20-to-one differential between the wealth in black households and white households. And so...

CONAN: I just wanted to follow up on your point about government policy; this an email from Kathy(ph) in Meridian, Idaho. After World War II, the government paid a part of the wages for returning veterans to become new employees for some period of time, encouraging the phone company, the power company, the police department to give them jobs that they would have when trained. I think it worked well. We need some version of this.

We had a caller who escaped poverty by joining the military, and then we hear all the sad stories of the numbers of veterans who are now homeless. So clearly, there's some dysfunction there.

ELENA: And many of them are disabled...

MANGAN: You know...

ELENA: ...veterans, which is sad to see because - I mean, it sounds great in terms of the job retraining and all of these housing programs, but a lot of them just don't apply to me. And it's sad. And I'm not calling in to tell a sob story. It's actually I wanted to point out that, you know, I did the research, and I was astonished to realize that the average disabled household like - or person lives off $1,000 a month. And how do you live off $1,000 a month in expensive states? I just don't know how people do it. So I think public policy, you know, is really an important component in this.

CONAN: Elena, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it. And I'm sorry, Ben Mangan, I cut you off before you wanted to make a point.

MANGAN: No problem. I was actually just going to say that, you know, after World War II, the GI Bill also sent many returning soldiers to college, and a lot of people believe that that was a cornerstone to the rise of the middle class after the war. And economists think there was an 11-to-one return on that investment. And so, you know, even in a time when resources are scarce and there are fierce political battles over how we invest, when you talk about wealth creation, there's a strong argument for a long-term return on investment that benefits all Americans. And I think it's time that the president and Congress actually take this on if they're sincere about creating opportunity in the economy.

CONAN: I'd like to end with a couple of emails. This is from Michelle(ph) in Wilmington, North Carolina - Wilmington, Delaware, excuse me. My parents are a great example and a warning for those who make it out of poverty. They are both Puerto Rican, grew up poor. My mother had a dirt floor in her first home, no indoor plumbing and a bathtub in the kitchen of her first home in America. They married young. My father went through to an Ivy League medical school and worked up to jobs to support his family.

Later in life, my mother returned to school and received a master's. However, no one instructed them on managing this type of money. Now, in their 60s, my father lost his job. They're about to lose their house. I think it's important to talk about how to get out of poverty and then to stay out, again, that money management issue.

And this from Mary: The first time I escaped by marrying someone who had money. Now that I'm retired, I'm a little more than thin air. I supplement my income by offering a service.

Last year, I spent a third of the year traveling, living a lifestyle which few people with my paltry income could dream of. I'm not particularly smart, but where there's a will, there really is a way. Talk - think about what talents you do have and element them. So there's a success story. Sudhir Venkatesh, thank you very much for your time today. Our thanks as well to Ben Mangan there in San Francisco. This is NPR News.

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