Economy & Business

What the Times Misses about Poverty

Abandoned homes in East Orange, N.J., in 2015. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
The root of much American dysfunction isn’t a failure of work but of family dissolution.

It’s an affecting story. Matthew Desmond, writing in the New York Times Magazine, profiles Vanessa Solivan, a poor single mother raising three children. Vanessa works as a home health aide, yet she and her three teen children are often reduced to sleeping in her car, a 2004 Chrysler Pacifica. In the morning, she takes her two daughters and one son to her mother’s house to wash and get ready for school. Vanessa has diabetes. Her work brings in between $10 and $14 per hour depending upon the health coverage of the mostly elderly patients she cares for. But because of her responsibilities to her children, Vanessa works only 20 to 30 hours per week. That doesn’t provide enough to keep this family of four above the poverty line.

Yes, Vanessa gets government benefits. Between the Earned Income Tax Credit and child credits, she received $5,000 from Uncle Sam last year. She also gets SNAP (food stamps), but when one of her daughters qualified for SSI last year due to a disability and began receiving $766 per month, the family’s SNAP assistance was reduced from $544 to $234 per month.

And so, they struggle. When they can find an apartment Vanessa can afford, they have a home. But they fled the last one when a young man was shot and killed nearby. When they have no fixed address, they often eat grab-and-go food, which tends to be unhealthy, especially for someone with diabetes. The local food pantry offers mac and cheese, which is also an undesirable option for a diabetic, but it’s her son’s favorite. Vanessa’s son has gotten into trouble at school for fighting. Her father became ill and she nursed him too, spooning food into his mouth and changing his bed pans.

Desmond’s aim in this profile of poverty is to challenge the assumptions that many Americans harbor about the poor. “In America, if you work hard, you will succeed. So those who do not succeed have not worked hard.” This is the idea Desmond describes as “deep in the marrow” of the nation. He suggests that this is mostly myth, but the data he cites are carefully phrased, and frankly, misleading. He juxtaposes a survey showing that most Americans believe the poor don’t want to work with the following statistic: In 2016, “a majority of nondisabled working-age adults were part of the labor force.” Yes, but the data are quite different for the poor. Census Bureau data show that among adults living in poverty aged 18–64 in 2015, 63 percent did not work, 26 percent worked part-time, and 11 percent worked full-time, year-round.

The descriptor, “part of the labor force,” includes everyone who works at all and includes those looking for work. As for the disabled category — which has become somewhat controversial because the definitions are so variable from state to state — it includes a great many non-workers now for complex reasons. As Nicholas Eberstadt notes in Men Without Work, one out of six prime-age men (18–54) is not connected to the labor force.

Desmond cites changes to work itself. Vanessa’s story is meant to be emblematic. “Millions of Americans work with little hope of finding security and comfort. In recent decades, America has witnessed the rise of bad jobs offering low pay, no benefits, and little certainty. When it comes to poverty, a willingness to work is not the problem, and work itself is no longer the solution.”

It may well be true that low-level, unskilled jobs are less of a ladder out of poverty than they once were. But the other aspect of Vanessa’s plight, and that of her children, Desmond and most analysts resolutely refuse to grapple with. It’s familial. We learn that the father of two of her children has made erratic child-support payments, and apart from one trip to Chuck E. Cheese, has played no role in his children’s lives. The father of the youngest was sent to prison when she was 1, released when she was 8, and murdered shortly thereafter. There is no indication that Vanessa was ever married.

Work is available in America, but for those with low skills and major family responsibilities, one income is simply not enough, especially for three children. According to US News and World Report, home health aides average $23,600 per year. If two home health aides are married, they earn enough to be comfortably in the middle class. They will almost certainly not face homelessness.

The New York Times Magazine was attempting to spotlight the failure of work to solve all problems. But it felled a straw man. Who thinks work alone is sufficient? And it failed to address the root of so much dysfunction in America — family dissolution.

© 2018 Creators.com

 

Most Popular

White House

Another Warning Sign

The Mueller report is of course about Russian interference in the 2016 election and about the White House's interference in the resulting investigation. But I couldn’t help also reading the report as a window into the manner of administration that characterizes the Trump era, and therefore as another warning ... Read More
Film & TV

Jesus Is Not the Joker

Actors love to think they can play anything, but the job of any half-decent filmmaker is to tell them when they’re not right for a part. If the Rock wants to play Kurt Cobain, try to talk him out of it. Adam Sandler as King Lear is not a great match. And then there’s Joaquin Phoenix. He’s playing Jesus ... Read More
World

What’s So Great about Western Civilization

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays. Dear Reader (Redacted: Harm to Ongoing Matter), One of the things I tell new parents is something that was told to me when my daughter still had that ... Read More
U.S.

Supreme Court Mulls Citizenship Question for Census

Washington -- The oral arguments the Supreme Court will hear on Tuesday will be more decorous than the gusts of judicial testiness that blew the case up to the nation’s highest tribunal. The case, which raises arcane questions of administrative law but could have widely radiating political and policy ... Read More
White House

The Mueller Report Should Shock Our Conscience

I've finished reading the entire Mueller report, and I must confess that even as a longtime, quite open critic of Donald Trump, I was surprised at the sheer scope, scale, and brazenness of the lies, falsehoods, and misdirections detailed by the Special Counsel's Office. We've become accustomed to Trump making up ... Read More