Response to Mr Blair 2

What you – and a lot of other people; you’re not alone – don’t seem to realize is that poverty is not a state of mind. It’s an economic condition that’s often forced on people.

[T]here are a lot of people…who think poverty is the result of stupidity or laziness, people who simply can’t believe that in America talent and intelligence could go unrewarded. Well…they do. Every day.

One of the smartest people I know is a cook at a nursing home. He had two years at a technical college where he learned how to be a tool-and-die maker because he liked to work with his hands. That craft has been taken over by computers, so now he cooks. He’s good at it, proud of what he can do and how people feel when they eat what he makes. He can do wonders with a budget slim as a Chihuahua hair. He makes $9/hr. His family wants to know why he doesn’t do more with his life. In a weak moment (when we’d been drinking), he told me that, and then he told me what he didn’t dare tell them–that he kept the job because he was happy doing it, and that money really wasn’t very important to him as long as his family had a roof over their heads and enough to eat.

He was lying, like a lot of us do, by telling himself that what he could get was all he wanted. I challenged him, and he admitted he’d really like to learn gourmet cooking and work in a legitimate restaurant where he didn’t have to make superior food out of inferior product. I asked him if he’d considered going back to school, get a degree in Culinary Arts. Sheepishly, he told me he’d applied but his income ($9/hr!) was over the guidelines and there was no financial aid available since the Feds had cut their grant programs to the bone.

The most brilliant guy I know is a Hungarian émigré. He was trained as a surgeon in Eastern Europe, has a raft of degrees on the wall of his tiny apartment, and speaks 4 languages, 3 of them reasonably well (English, he tells me, is tough). But the degrees aren’t recognized in America, he’s over 50, and his accent is so thick, his English so rudimentary, that a lot of prospective employers thought he was retarded. He works as a janitor. He makes $7/hr after three years; he started at $5. It was all he could get. His shame is so great that he won’t tell his family where he is or what he’s doing now.

If intelligence and talent were what counted in America, that janitor would be running a huge hospital and Bill Gates–who stole everything MicroSoft is from smarter people–would be sweeping the floors of the wards. But they aren’t.

It’s a rigged game, Mr Blair. Leaf through the categories Poverty and/or The Class War and/or War on the Poor on this blog and you will find dozens of posts written over the last few years documenting the tricks, lies, and outright cruelty practiced on the poor by conservatives, first because they believe poverty is the result of laziness, and second because it’s what their corporate supporters want.

They play games with statistics:

In January, a conservative think-tank called the Heritage Foundation published what purported to be a statistical study of poverty. Titled “Understanding Poverty” and authored by by Robert E. Rector and Kirk A. Johnson, it contains this paragraph:

In good economic times or bad, the typical poor family with children is supported by only 800 hours of work during a year: That amounts to 16 hours of work per week. If work in each family were raised to 2,000 hours per year–the equivalent of one adult working 40 hours per week throughout the year–nearly 75 percent of poor children would be lifted out of official poverty.

This is the standard right-wing answer to the poverty problem: The poor should work more. There are several difficulties with this simplistic conclusion.

First, a large majority of those on welfare are single mothers with young children who have little or no access to child care; there was never much but what little there was has been cut by the Bush Administration to almost nothing. You could say ‘eliminated’ and you’d be close to right. It’s more than likely that those mothers would only be able to work a small number of hours because they’ve got nobody to watch the kids when they’re at work.


But the worst problem of all is that the conclusion is based on false data–the numbers they’re using aren’t real. Sharp-eyed Phaedrus at the blog No Fear of Freedom, a self-described ‘genuine member of the lumpen proletariat’, smelled a rat and did some investigating. He found a report based on census data by the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities titled ‘Poverty increases and median income declines for second consecutive year’ which contained this paragraph:

Nearly two-thirds of all poor families with children included a worker in 2002. These individuals typically work a significant amount. In 2001 (data for 2002 are not yet available), workers in poor families with children worked an average of 44 weeks per year, and an average of 41 hours during the weeks in which they were employed. (The average exceeded 40 hours a week because some poor families have more than one worker.)

Phaedrus replied:

You can do the math yerself if ya wanna, but it works out to around 1200 hours worked per poor family with children.[His math is wrong; at 44hr/wk, it’s 2200hrs/yr, not 1200.–MA] I don’t know how the Heritage Con Artists massaged the data (But I do know they massage data.), but it sure looks ta me like they’s lyin. Remember, too, that in many cases they’s a good reason why nobody’s workin’ in that other 1/3 of families. Disability, off tha top a my head, but they’s probly other good reasons. An’ I got severe doubts ’bout that 75% a children bein’ lifted outta poverty. Full time work at the US minimum wage only brings in about $11,000 a year, which is way b’low that poverty line for a fambly wit’ kids.

Indeed. The Heritage Foundation’s research is the cornerstone of the radical conservatives’ faith-based science, the same approach which the Bush Administration has made such an important part of its strategy: Assert your belief and then twist the evidence until it supports that belief. If twisting the data isn’t good enough, invent it. Conservative ideology says poor people are poor because they’re lazy, so HF set about proving that it was true. When the real numbers didn’t support their cherished belief, they ‘massaged’ the numbers that could be massaged and invented numbers when they couldn’t. They then disseminated this false information to conservative newspapers, tv networks, pundits, talk-show hosts, and commentators who dutifully repeated it over and over again: ‘Poor people are lazy, and here are the numbers that prove it.’ Convincing–as long as you don’t know they made it all up.

The bogus data is then cited as a reason for cutting services to low-income families. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, as my mother used to say–you create a situation that you then use to manipulate someone who had nothing to do with it…

They cut fundamental programs for the neediest without the slightest qualms or thought for the consequences.

by Bob Herbert (NYT, June 6, ’04)

If you want to see “compassionate” conservatism in action, take a look at Mississippi, a state that is solidly in the red category (strong for Bush) and committed to its long tradition of keeping the poor and the unfortunate in as ragged and miserable a condition as possible.

How’s this for compassion? Mississippi has approved the deepest cut in Medicaid eligibility for senior citizens and the disabled that has ever been approved anywhere in the U.S.

The new policy will end Medicaid eligibility for some 65,000 low-income senior citizens and people with severe disabilities — people like Traci Alsup, a 36-year-old mother of three who was left a quadriplegic after a car accident.

They starved schools and veteran’s services of funds using the “deficit” as the excuse – and this was pre-war.

According to estimates by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Office of Management and Budget guidelines translate into inflation-adjusted reductions in 2006 alone of about $925 million for Head Start and childhood education. That would come at a time when schools are already struggling to meet the demands of Mr. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative without adequate resources. College financial aid, mainly Pell Grants, would take a $550 million hit — at a time when lower-income students are dropping out of school because they cannot meet rapidly rising costs.

The same projections show that veterans’ medical care would be cut by $1.5 billion (after a planned $380 million cut in 2005). All told, under the proposed cuts, total funds for these and other affected programs — like environmental protection, housing programs and nutrition aid for poor pregnant women and children — would be $21 billion less in 2006 than today. By 2009, domestic discretionary spending, not counting homeland security, would be $45 billion below its current level and would be a smaller portion of the economy than it has been at any time since 1963.

And if, gawd forbid, you got a job and wanted to get out from under welfare and stand on your own, they made it almost impossible by cutting away the temporary supports you’d need in the first year or so while you worked on erasing the debts you’d accumulated when you were broke.

I’ve spoken before of the tricks conservatives have embedded in the welfare regs to make the poor ineligible for help the instant they raise their heads above water. The National Center for Children in Poverty has released a study done in Pennsylvania that shows that those tricks, developed under Reagan, are still very much in use.

About 85 percent of low-income children have parents who work, and most have at least one parent working full-time, year-round. Nonetheless, many of these parents are unable to afford basic necessities for their families, such as food, housing, and stable child care. Even a full-time job is not always enough to make ends meet, and many parents cannot get ahead simply by working more. As earnings increase—particularly as they rise above the official poverty level—families begin to lose eligibility for work supports. At the same time, work-related expenses, such as child care and transportation, increase. This means that parents may earn more without a family experiencing more financial security. (1) In some cases, earning more actually leaves a family with fewer resources after the bills are paid.

I could literally go on for pages just listing similar deliberate moves to make sure the poor stay poor, but I’ll let you do that on your own if you’ve a mind to. The point is that NO strategy to help people get out of poverty can work when the govt – the power – is hell-bent on making sure they don’t.

we need to focus on asset-building strategies such as job skills…

Really? What job skills? Which job skills?

Ten years ago, then Wisconsin Gov Tommy Thompson wanted to run for president in 2000 so he initiated a program called “Wisconsin Works” which was the premier pilot project for later “welfare reform” arguments. He spent $$millions$$ on a job-training program aimed at putting welfare recipients back to work that concentrated on teaching basic computer programming skills because there was a heavy shortage in that area at that time. When the program ended three years later, they discovered that very few of the people trained by that program could find jobs: the computer industry had outsourced them overseas, to India and Sri Lanka, and hired cheap-labor programmers with advanced degrees because those countries had a glut of them.

(Incidentally, when Tommy moved to Washington to become HHS Sec in the Bush Administration, Wisconsin conservatives killed the training program while keeping the “find a job or lose your benefits” provision. And after welfare reform, nobody picked up the Wisconsin program because conservatives said it was – wait for it – “too expensive”.)

That has happened time and again since the globalization fad started 15 years ago – jobs going begging in a certain area at a certain time vanish overseas before trainees can even finish the courses that would let them apply for those positions. It’s impossible to tell from year to year – almost month to month – which sector will have openings or how long the shortage will last. So which jobs are you going to train them for? And how do you know that they won’t have been moved offshore by the time the training sessions end?

And then there’s automation, which continues to expand its influence because the corporatocracy wants to eliminate jobs, even if the machines they’re replacing people with cost them more in the short and long runs than the total they used to pay in wages.

A few years ago I went to work for a new company doing the same thing I’d been doing for almost 10 years. They paid a rate that was barely livable but commensurate with what everybody else was paying. Like most business people, they had stars in their eyes and dreams of being rich.

Two months after I started there, they spent $45K for a short conveyor belt, convinced it would increase production and lower costs. It didn’t do either. It was constantly breaking down and they had to hire a full-time mechanic to keep it running. I pointed out to one of the owners that they were spending far more on the belt than they would be if they gave us a raise as an incentive to increase production.

He replied, “If I can get it to work I can get rid of half of you. You’re a pain in the ass, all of you, and if I could replace you with machines, I’d do it today.”

That’s anecdotal and personal, but it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it and it wouldn’t be the last. Owners and corporate managers almost always see employees as the flies in their potential ointment, monkey wrenches in the gears, because we, you know, insist on having lives outside of work. Our kids get sick or we get sick, we demand occasional breaks and reasonable shift-lengths (8 or 10 hours as opposed to 14 or 16 like in the “good old days”), our old cars break down, we fight with our spouses, we probably have money troubles because jobs pay so little, and all these things affect our ability to produce. It’s a headache for managers to work with actual people and they’d really rather not if they can avoid it.

Forty years ago, Sylvania built a brand-new plant where I was living at the time to manufacture glass tubes for neon lights. I applied for a job, along with dozens of others, and got hired. When I arrived for my first day, it turned out that the entire plant was automated. Instead of 20 or 30 new employees, there were two – me and one other guy. A supervisor taught us our jobs and vanished. We saw him once or twice a week when he came to check on us. Otherwise, the only people we ever saw were the three mechanics who serviced the machines. Constantly.

Sylvania had spent several million $$$ building that plant, and then several million $$$ more to automate it. One day I asked the supervisor why.

He said, “Machines don’t get sick. Machines don’t get tired. Machines don’t take the day off to go fishing or show up late because they had a fight with their wife or take off in the middle of the day to pick up their kid from school.” Which opening he then used to lecture me about how I better not do any of those things or I could consider myself fired.

You know the sector you can count on to stay here, right? The only economic sector that has grown rather than shrunk in the past 20 years?

That’s right: the service sector. Wait staff, cooks, hotel maids, convenience store clerks, etc etc etc, all minimum wage jobs. They haven’t been moved offshore or automated only because they can’t be.

…financial education…

Look, I don’t doubt that teaching a broke family how to budget what little it has will help but it’s a band-aid applied to a gaping wound. Reality check:

Wages have been stagnant or slipping for 25 years while basic costs have continued to rise. I make less at the job I’m doing than I made 20 years ago when I started. Meanwhile, rents have almost quintupled – 20 years ago I paid $125/month for an efficiency, including heat and electric. Now I have to pay over $500, and electricity isn’t included. Frankly, I was lucky heat was – very few apartments around here include it any more at that price. I’m barely scraping by and I’m not making minimum wage.

How can you possibly teach people to save when their disposable income doesn’t exist? When they’re always in negative numbers? When affordable housing no longer exists? When rent alone will eat up half or more of what you make and food half of what’s left? And if somebody gets sick or the car breaks down, you’re screwed.

Matching funds is an incentive, which means the assumption is that money is being wasted that could better be put elsewhere. This is a fantasy.

How can you work in this field and not know that?

(to be cont’d)

(Part 1)


4 Responses

  1. […] Minimum Wage Deal Cut in Senate Response to Mr Blair 2 […]

  2. Yes Mr. Response poverty is an actual negative economic condition often forced on people. I see nothing in Mr. Blair Benjamin’s writings that does not acknowledge that sad fact. What’s even sadder is that ongoing deprivation works to create attitudes of learned helplessness, and erosion of hope for the future. These states of mind in turn certainly can influence specific behavioral choices.
    It seems Mr. Benjamin has joined with those progressives who wish to concretely address actual deprivation in conjunction with developing practical incentives and means to help the poor create more solid futures. Indeed, as Michael Sherraden repeatedly emphasizes in Assets For the Poor, current welfare policies are lopsided in that they only address income, while systematically penalizing asset accumulation. New welfare policies in contrast would address both present and potential future income as an orchestrated whole, in a variety of creative ways.

  3. *sigh* jenni, did you read anything I wrote? I’ll try one more time in different words and then give up.

    There is an underlying assumption in the concept of collecting assets that there are assets to collect. Sometimes there are and sometimes there aren’t. I said that asset management is a good idea for a small portion of the upper level poor who have some or have access to some. There’s only one thing wrong with what Sherraden nd Blair want to do: it doesn’t affect, let alone change, any of the major reasons for poverty: low-wage jobs, globalized jobs, a society that’s moving its assets to the top tier, a starved educational system, and the attitude that if you’re poor it’s your fault. You must be lazy or stupid and deserve what you get.

    You cannot put a DENT in poverty unless you find solutions for those meta-problems. Asset management is just dicking around the edges with a small slice of people doing better than most, and while it’s all very laudable, its effect on poverty will be minimal. At best.

    Mark Gisleson has been having an argument over the minimum wage bill with a local columnist who just doesn’t get it. Go over there and read it. Maybe it will help you understand where we’re coming from. He’s a lot blunter than me, and therefore a lot clearer.

  4. A growing number of people are “working poor”. That means they work full time but live in relative poverty because of low pay and high costs of living. If someone like this is victimized by an IRS wage levy the effects can be devastating. Unfortunately the IRS won’t go away. Fortunately there is reasonably priced help available. Get your hands on a copy of the DVD by Attorney Darrin Mish, “How to Get a Release From an IRS Wage Levy.”

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