Editor’s note: New Mexico Appleseed executive director Jennifer Ramo talks about what the state needs to change the dynamics of poverty here.
Jenny Ramo would rather talk about her work than about herself – which explains an early morning email: “Having 3 a.m. fears,” she wrote about her interview, “was worrying we just got chatting and didn’t really get to what I am passionate about: permanent and dramatic improvements for children and families.”
Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, need not have worried. She jumps at the chance to talk about Appleseed’s work, New Mexico’s poverty challenges and how the state must focus on bipartisan and data-driven solutions in order to change our last in most everything trajectory.
“I genuinely believe there is a path forward for our state,” she wrote. “We don’t have to be permanently stuck in the cycle of poverty. It’s just that the process to get to the answer is uncomfortable and credit can’t matter. It means using data to shine a light on what we are bad at. And we have to admit that what we’ve been doing doesn’t work.”
Ramo, who majored in cultural anthropology at the University of Southern California before earning her law degree at Tulane University, is no stranger to the spotlight or to activism.
Her work with Appleseed on projects like Breakfast after the Bell and getting rid of lunch shaming have attracted national news coverage and acclaim.
She is the daughter of cardiologist and TV doctor Barry Ramo and lawyer/former American Bar Association President Roberta Ramo. Brother Joshua is a renowned author, speaker and China expert. Her grandfather, David Cooper, owned Western Warehouse, which had 24 stores in the Southwest, and was known for his activism as well as his business success.
“My grandfather used to take out ads in the Journal about Planned Parenthood and why it was important to support it,” she said. “So getting in the mud, in the arena, is part of our family’s DNA. Try to make our community better even if it’s a bit of a scrap.”
Ramo traveled “quite a bit when I was younger doing service projects to places like Costa Rica and Dominican Republic doing things like planting trees.”
After college, she did a fellowship that included working with farm workers in California. “I ended up going back there in law school and fell in love with them and their cause.”
As a kid, she also worked in the Western Warehouse store – with one of her jobs punching in the letters when somebody wanted a custom cowboy/cowgirl belt.
“But my big claim to fame as a kid was, I was in a commercial selling boots. My brother and I and a couple other kids sitting on a hay bale.”
Appleseed nationally was started by the 1968 class of the Harvard Law School with the goal of systems change. “What they want to do isn’t to focus on one guy getting evicted but to look at the pattern of evictions.”
Ramo took the executive director position in New Mexico in 2009. The organization has an annual budget of about $650,000, mostly from individual donors, some foundations and an annual Parade of Playhouses fundraiser. It has a staff of four and a half people with offices in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
For a relatively small operation, it has made a big impact.
Breakfast after the Bell, which was hard sledding, given teacher union opposition, was signed into law by then-Gov. Susana Martinez. It requires high poverty schools to serve breakfast in the first 10 minutes of class. The program feeds about 116,000 kids in New Mexico every morning and has been replicated by dozens of school districts and states around the nation.
“We really showed New Mexico can be a model for good policy,” she said. “It brings in about $25 million in federal money. It brings jobs to communities.”
And by feeding kids, she says the hope is that helps address hunger as a root cause of behavioral and academic problems and will lead to better outcomes.
Next up is a push by Appleseed to get free meals to an additional 11,000 children in New Mexico by eliminating reduced-price co-pays charged to children in households earning between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty level.
“These children are at high risk for food insecurity but don’t qualify for free meals,” she said. “The co-pay often means they simply don’t eat.”
New Mexico Appleseed also won national recognition for a Department of Agriculture demonstration project on the Navajo Nation. That program uses federal dollars to fuel economies while meeting nutritional needs.
“The mutton guy filled the protein requirement, and the blue corn the vegetable requirement. The mutton guy needs the delivery guy and the delivery guy needs the truck repair guy. Through these microeconomies you can cut poverty and improve family income.”
But it was lunch shaming – aka Appleseed’s first in-the-nation Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights project – that truly put the national stamp on the efforts of Ramo and her team.
The term itself, she said, has gone “crazy viral” and is now being talked about by presidential candidates.
Congress – Ramo especially praises the work by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. – has taken up the issue.
New Mexico’s lunch shaming law was passed and signed by Martinez in 2017.
There were those who argued the problem of school lunch debt was the fault of parents and asked why the state should make up for bad parental decisions.
“That assumes these people (parents) are devious and trying to rip off the system instead of the possibility that they have multiple jobs and multiple bills and just aren’t making it all work,” she said. “But the reality is even if you want to shame the parents, the kids have no ability to fix the problem.”
The New York Times published a story the day after the bill was signed. CNN and “Good Morning America” covered it. So did the BBC and Al Jazeera news agencies. “CBS Sunday Morning” flew out and did a segment.
“You can’t make kids work for food or stamp their hand because they can’t pay for food,” she said.
Hurricanes and red chile
Ramo, 49, met her future husband, psychologist David Kutz, at Jazzfest in New Orleans while she was in law school.
“I knew immediately. He’s the best person I’ve ever met, and he makes me laugh.”
They live in Santa Fe with children Carlos, 14, and Rafael, 10.
“I hang out with my kids, travel and ski. But I’m in the thick of it. Work. Basketball practice. Science fair. There’s not a lot of time for hobbies.”
Mother Nature was responsible for the family’s decision to locate in New Mexico.
“We were living in New Orleans, and I evacuated from Katrina when I was five months pregnant with Carlos. We went to Houston and waited to see if we could go back. Then there was another hurricane, at which point I was like, ‘I need a place to have a child.’ So we came back here, and we stayed at my brother’s house. I went into labor at The Shed in Santa Fe after eating red chile enchiladas.”
They returned to New Orleans, “but it was not a place for a new baby. There were boiled water advisories. Gang infestations. We just didn’t want to be there with our child, so we moved back here and I stayed home for a year, and then the opportunity to start Appleseed here came up and it was exactly what I wanted. It was a perfect way for me to be of service and use my legal training.”
Data is key
Ramo turns up the intensity level a notch when the subject turns to her efforts to push the state to data-driven solutions to poverty.
“I love the accomplishments we’ve made and I’m proud of them. I don’t think of them as Band Aids, but they still don’t address the root cause sufficiently.”
That would require taking data from various agencies that interact with families, protecting identities, and looking at overall patterns and results.
“What we started to see was this diagram that illustrates what children most likely to fail look like and a real lack of responsiveness to deal with the complexities of their lives. We need to look at the whole family, and we need to look outside individual systems and individual incidents.”
Now, she said, data is kept in separate silos.
“So if a child is abused by his dad, you have one record at the ER, another at CYFD, another related to an arrest and maybe one at Corrections (not to mention schools, etc.) When you look at them at scale (without identities) you begin to see how we are not serving these children. There is no ability to figure out who are the most at risk. There is no ability to evaluate what they are getting. We don’t know who needs services, who don’t know what services they are getting and we don’t know if any of them work.”
“When I think about this early childhood permanent fund, I think it’s a wonderful idea. But how are going to evaluate if it’s effective? How do we know if anything we are doing is changing their lives?”
The current legislative permutation of the data effort is a House Memorial called the Family Success Lab and is being carried by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque. The state Department of Health is also doing a pilot with data from several agencies.
“I think people misunderstood the word data and thought we were following people. But what we are advocating is a privacy protected, ethically bound tool to use data and science to make better social policy.”
Liberals and conservatives alike should favor this, she said.
“We’re spending $900 million on a bunch of programs and have no idea if any of them work,” she said. “I fail to understand how that isn’t alarming to everyone.”
A version of the databank legislation last year passed the House unanimously but never got a floor vote in the Senate.
Ramo pointed out that a databank in Los Angeles “was able to show the top two factors for infant maltreatment were no daddy on the birth certificate and mommy didn’t get prenatal care in the first three months. Once you identify that, these people get raised to a higher level of care.”
“So if we already know that of 100 babies born today in New Mexico that 15 will be drug addicted and 10 will end up in prison, not only is it our moral obligation to intervene it also happens to be more cost effective to do so.”
“If you remove the dogma of blame from all this and look at the data, these interventions are effective. That’s what we are really trying to do. Let’s replace dogma with data and then have a conversation about what works.”
Ramo’s data over dogma view extends to most issues.
“Some people say don’t just give people housing. They don’t deserve it. But housing actually stabilizes people. For example, it keeps them out of the ER. There are lots of reasons to do it even if you think these are horrible lazy people – which I don’t happen to think – but even if you have the most dramatic negative view of people in need, a lot of these interventions are cost effective, make our society better and are worth pursuing.”
Homeless kids are a special point of concern.
“The only way you know if a child is homeless is they self report to a school or if they have been in a shelter. Yet the definition of homelessness is far more expansive. So if you’re doubled up or bouncing from house to house or even living in one of those motels you can be homeless. Research shows that kids who are homeless by any of that broad definition are the same regardless of the type.”
Appleseed is working now on documenting the size of the problem.
She cites a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention self-reporting survey taken by about 70% of New Mexico high school kids.
“Kids are answering questions like where are you living at night. In northern New Mexico this self-reporting study shows this high rate of homelessness but by other standards there is zero. So here is this impact clearly happening to these kids, but we aren’t using the data, the bread crumbs to follow, to find the origin.”
A progressive Democrat, Ramo headed Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s transition teams for the state’s four social service agencies.
As a youth, she went to Sandia High School for a year before transferring to Albuquerque Academy, where she graduated. At Sandia, she said, “this one girl would chase after me and try to beat me up and I’d run into (principal) Richard Romero’s office. So I decided I should study and went to Albuquerque Academy.”
She says her parents – she describes them as spectacular people who are funny, kind and engaged – didn’t become celebrities until she was an adult.
And she is the first to acknowledge her “silver spoon” childhood.
“I have lived a life of privilege for sure. It’s critical to acknowledge that. I do believe in that adage, when much is given much is expected. Live that and it also changes how you think about life.”
So where does Jenny Ramo, poverty warrior, see New Mexico 10 years from now?
“What does 2030 NM look like if we do nothing? And what does it look like if we change fundamentally how we address the issues of poverty?” she asked.
There is a chance to change that outcome if we use data, collaboration and seek bipartisan solutions, she said.
“The time of top-down policy making is over. You really have to engage people at the level they are living to know what they need and what they want.
“Community members not only have a right to be a part of the solution to their challenges but you are going to get it wrong if you don’t involve them. Every day we hear about some government agency that thinks they have it wrapped up and then you talk to the families that are still not getting what they need.”
And, she said, “it really makes no sense to mark people as having nothing to add just because they are a different party.”
“As much as I am a progressive, I don’t think we have a corner on the market for knowledge or good ideas.”