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The Working Poor and the Working Homeless

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Some readers will likely remember Matt Desmond as the author of the award-winning Evicted, which documents in intimate detail the eviction crisis in Milwaukee.

Desmond has a new piece in the Times Magazine about poverty wages in a job-flush economy, and the simultaneous meanness and lunacy of governmental policy toward the poor. It’s interesting and important unto itself, and is also interesting to read alongside pieces advocating federal jobs guarantees (like Erik’s). I expect that Loomis and Attewell especially would/will have more policy insights since this is more their beat, but I’m posting a short section below and recommending the whole:

We might think that the existence of millions of working poor Americans like Vanessa would cause us to question the notion that indolence and poverty go hand in hand. But no. While other inequality-justifying myths have withered under the force of collective rebuke, we cling to this devastatingly effective formula. Most of us lack a confident account for increasing political polarization, rising prescription drug costs, urban sprawl or any number of social ills. But ask us why the poor are poor, and we have a response quick at the ready, grasping for this palliative of explanation. We have to, or else the national shame would be too much to bear. How can a country with such a high poverty rate — higher than those in Latvia, Greece, Poland, Ireland and all other member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — lay claim to being the greatest on earth? Vanessa’s presence is a judgment. But rather than hold itself accountable, America reverses roles by blaming the poor for their own miseries.

Here is the blueprint. First, valorize work as the ticket out of poverty, and debase caregiving as not work. Look at a single mother without a formal job, and say she is not working; spot one working part time and demand she work more. Transform love into laziness. Next, force the poor to log more hours in a labor market that treats them as expendables. Rest assured that you can pay them little and deny them sick time and health insurance because the American taxpayer will step in, subsidizing programs like the earned-income tax credit and food stamps on which your work force will rely. Watch welfare spending increase while the poverty rate stagnates because, well, you are hoarding profits. When that happens, skirt responsibility by blaming the safety net itself. From there, politicians will invent new ways of denying families relief, like slapping unrealistic work requirements on aid for the poor.

Democrats may scoff at Republicans’ work requirements, but they have yet to challenge the dominant conception of poverty that feeds such meanspirited politics. Instead of offering a counternarrative to America’s moral trope of deservedness, liberals have generally submitted to it, perhaps even embraced it, figuring that the public will not support aid that doesn’t demand that the poor subject themselves to the low-paying jobs now available to them. Even stalwarts of the progressive movement seem to reserve economic prosperity for the full-time worker. Senator Bernie Sanders once declared, echoing a long line of Democrats who have come before and after him, “Nobody who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty.” Sure, but what about those who work 20 or 30 hours, like Vanessa?

Because liberals have allowed conservatives to set the terms of the poverty debate, they find themselves arguing about radical solutions that imagine either a fully employed nation (like a jobs guarantee) or a postwork society (like a universal basic income). Neither plan has the faintest hope of being actually implemented nationwide anytime soon, which means neither is any good to Vanessa and millions like her. When so much attention is spent on far-off, utopian solutions, we neglect the importance of the poverty fixes we already have. Safety-net programs that help families confront food insecurity, housing unaffordability and unemployment spells lift tens of millions of people above the poverty line each year. By itself, SNAP annually pulls over eight million people out of poverty. According to a 2015 study, without federal tax benefits and transfers, the number of Americans living in deep poverty (half below the poverty threshold) would jump from 5 percent to almost 19 percent. Effective social-mobility programs should be championed, expanded and stripped of draconian work requirements.

While Washington continues to require more of vulnerable workers, it has required little from employers in the form of living wages or job security, creating a labor market in which the biggest disincentive to work is not welfare but the lousy jobs that are available. Judging from the current state of the nation’s poverty agenda, it appears that most people creating federal and state policy don’t know many people like Vanessa. “Half of the people in City Hall don’t even live in Trenton,” Vanessa once told me, flustered. “They don’t even know what goes on here.” Meanwhile, this is the richest Congress on record, with one in 13 members belonging to the top 1 percent. From such a high perch, poverty appears a smaller problem, something less gutting, and work appears a bigger solution, something more gratifying. But when we shrink the problem, the solution shrinks with it; when small solutions are applied to a huge problem, they don’t work; and when weak antipoverty initiatives don’t work, many throw up their hands and argue that we should stop tossing money at the problem altogether. Cheap solutions only cheapen the problem.

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