Should a MacArthur “Genius” Lecture Us About the Poor?

Michael Bernick
Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP, a Milken Institute Fellow and former Director of the California Employment Development Department

(This is a longer version of an article that appeared recently in Forbes. It draws on the approaches of the Catholic Worker and Dorothy Day, pictured below.)

What authenticity should we expect from persons who want to lecture us about compassion, welfare and poverty? Should we not expect them to help individual poor persons they encounter? To understand the institutions that help the poor? To invest time on local efforts?

These questions arise from a much hyped recent article in the New York Times by sociology professor, Matthew Desmond, past winner of one of the MacArthur “genius” awards. The Times suggests the article breaks new ground in understanding welfare and low wage work. It doesn’t. But it says a lot about the empty posturing present in current welfare and low wage work discussions.

The article starts by telling us about a single parent Vanessa with three children, ages 17, 14 and 12. Vanessa works as a home health aide, earning around $1200 a month. She clearly provides valuable service caring for elderly and infirm. She enjoys helping others and finds a sense of purpose in her work.

She also is presented as a very involved parent. She worries about her children, and tries to steer them into education and positive activities. Given her limited income and help from other family adults, she is constantly struggling for money, adequate food for her children, stable housing.

But we don’t really learn much more about Vanessa, and how the family’s situation can be improved, since Professor Desmond soon turns away from her. Most of the article is to lecture us about tolerating poverty in America. According to Desmond, it is a national shame; Americans have become a people without compassion.

One irony of Desmond’s lecturing, is that most Americans encountering Vanessa would reach out to help her in some way if they could—to find a better job situation for her or supports for her children. When Vanessa’s corporate supervisor hears about her income needs, he immediately gives her a $50 gas card to Shell and a $100 grocery card to Shop Rite. Compassion is defined mainly by our individual efforts, not grand pronouncements above poverty.

Desmond provides no original research on low wage jobs or welfare; and as the article proceeds, it’s clear that Desmond is mainly interested in Vanessa as a vehicle for his ideology. He is highly critical of the current welfare system and its work requirements—rooted in President Clinton’s federal welfare reform of 1996. According to Desmond, the welfare system today punishes the poor, pushes vulnerable people, especially women, off the rolls even if they cannot find jobs due to family responsibilities or their own health problems.

Desmond presents no evidence this is occurring, and has no experience with local welfare offices. Case managers at local welfare offices (persons who do work with public assistance recipients) tell a different story. The system is far more focused on job placement than prior to 1996. But case managers do not try to remove benefits from recipients who have mental and physical issues or family responsibilities that make employment unrealistic. The system exercises flexibility.

Further, anyone familiar with the welfare system in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States knows that a major impact of President Clinton’s welfare reform was to change the culture of the system in a positive way; to encourage, even require, case managers to do more than dispense benefits. Work orientations in welfare and other federal benefit programs might not have moved  all or even the majority of former welfare recipients into the middle class. But it did help many, who otherwise might have continued on benefits, and it encouraged case managers to see the strengths and abilities among the poor.

Desmond presents no ideas on how to improve welfare or low wage jobs, or Vanessa’s situation. He is content instead to make pious pronouncements, condemning “our unconscionable and growing inequality”, smirking at America’s work ethic, and announcing “nobody in America should be poor, period”—all without saying what might be done.

Meanwhile, outside of the sociology department, practitioners are engaged in actually trying to do something, in hundreds of major initiatives to try to improve pay and opportunities in low wage jobs—for nurse’s assistants in long term care facilities, help desk staff,  farmworkers, distribution center workers, property service workers, and child care workers. These initiatives are being led by community groups, labor unions and individual entrepreneurs. Their goal is to make these jobs sustainable, to professionalize low wage workforces.

These initiatives are still small in scale, advancing slowly, balancing worker and employer needs.    It is from them, though, that we not only build a better structure, but also are able to gain insights into improving low wage jobs.

Further, local and state workforce development boards across the nation (the boards charged with administering public workforce funds) are experimenting with upskilling projects for low wage workers. Their efforts involve closely understanding individual industry sectors, building partnerships occupation by occupation, showing real, if gradual, impacts.

We don’t need anyone to lecture us about the poor. And if we are to listen to anyone about low wage jobs, it should be to these practitioners, who are engaged in the day-to-day efforts, eschewing ideology, not trying to draw attention to themselves.

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