What the Times misses in pro­file on work­ing poor

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - Mona Charen She writes for Cre­ators Syn­di­cate.

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 ado­les­cent 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. 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 monthly, 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.

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 full­time, year-round.

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,” writes Des­mond.

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 with three chil­dren.

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? A real so­lu­tion needs to ad­dress the root of so much dys­func­tion in Amer­ica — fam­ily dis­so­lu­tion.

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