“The Poor You Have Always With You”

A few statistics about my state of Indiana (the state that Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence brags is “a state that works”); these are facts that should “afflict the comfortable” and motivate the rest of us to support policies that will “comfort the afflicted”:

According to the latest Census numbers: More than 1 in 3 Hoosiers remain below self-sufficiency despite increased employment, 21.5% of Indiana’s children live in poverty, and the number of Hoosiers in poverty persistently hovers around one million.

A report on the Status of Working Families in Indiana 2015, issued by the Institute for Working Families, puts the information in an Infographic including state SNAP & TANF responses to poverty, and highlights what it calls the “21st Century Job Swap” from high & middle-paying to low-skilled, low-income jobs by industry;

The June data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Indiana has a 108,400 jobs deficit when population growth since the recession is factored in.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation finds that Indiana ranks #30 in child well-being, having slipped 2 spots relative to other states since 2014.

Women are doing even worse than children in national rankings: Indiana is dead last in Work & Family rankings, 39th in Employment & Earnings, 37th in Poverty & Opportunity, and Indiana received a D- in the National Partnership’s Expecting Better report, “the most comprehensive analysis to date of state laws and regulations governing paid leave, paid sick days, protections for pregnant workers and other workplace rights for expecting and new parents in the United States”

Despite the fact that the minimum wage cannot support even a single adult in any county in the state, Indiana’s legislature has not only refused to raise that wage– but has preempted the authority of cities and counties to do so (or to provide paid leave, or enact environmental regulations, etc.)

To add insult to injury, in 2015, Governor Pence diverted three and a half million dollars of desperately needed TANF funds to  anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers.

There is much more, but rather than get bogged down in the details of one state’s inability to raise living standards–an inability that, unfortunately, is not unique to Indiana–we “comfortable” Americans need to ask ourselves some hard questions, beginning with one posed by eminent economist Robert Samuelson in a recent column for the Washington Post: Is ending poverty impossible?

Samuelson begins by pointing out that neither Presidential candidate has focused on the poor. Clinton’s proposals to decrease inequality are aimed primarily at the middle class, and Trump’s tax cuts would benefit the rich and upper middle class.

Samuelson cites two reasons for ignoring the plight of the truly poor: Poor people don’t vote (they are a disproportionate percentage of nonvoters); and there is no consensus on anti-poverty policies. (That shouldn’t come as a surprise; these days, when there is consensus on anything, that’s a surprise.)

The lack of will to attack poverty can be traced to attitudes about the poor and lack of faith in government. Americans’ widespread suspicion that social welfare recipients are “playing the system” (despite reams of data to the contrary) can be traced all the way back to Fifteenth Century English Poor Laws that forbid “giving alms to the sturdy beggar.” A bastardized Calvinism reinforced the belief that people are poor because they are disfavored by God, probably because they are morally defective. (Or, to use George W. Bush’s more recent formulation of that patronizing analysis in promoting his Faith Based Initiative, because the poor “lack middle-class values.”)

If we ever get serious about eliminating poverty, we will need to do two things, and neither will be simple or easy. We will need to marshal armies of community organizers who can persuade poor people to vote (despite the formidable barriers to their votes put in place by legislators who would not benefit from their participation); and we will need to educate the “comfortable” about the reality of poverty–and especially about the plight of the millions of hard-working Americans who put in forty hours or more a week for wages insufficient to sustain them.

Unless we can do those two things–and not so incidentally, fix our gridlocked political system–the poor will always be with us.


Pay to Play

Economic inequality—the gap between rich and poor—should concern policymakers for many reasons: humanitarian concern for the everyday challenges faced by the working poor; the cost of social supports needed to fill the gap between what people earn and what they need in order to live; and the substantial drag on the economy from weak demand (when people lack discretionary income, they cannot buy many goods and services). And of course, social scientists have long recognized that unequal societies are unstable societies.

Those concerns are widely acknowledged. Less recognized is the harm done to democratic systems when large numbers of Americans live in or on the edge of poverty. Those people lack what political scientists call voice.

Democratic theory begins with the concept of membership, the right–and duty– of (competent adult) members of a society to participate equally in the citizenship responsibilities of the nation.

The most prominent responsibility, of course, is voting, and even before the current Republican efforts to make voting much more difficult for poor and minority citizens, turnout in poorer precincts was low. There are any number of reasons why people preoccupied with making it through the week—paying rent and putting food on the table—have little time or energy left for civic duties. In many states, including my own Indiana, polling places are inconvenient and they close early, making it very difficult for people who work long hours, or who may not have ready access to transportation, to cast a ballot.

If participation at the polls is skewed toward more affluent Americans, giving the comfortable more voice, other mechanisms to influence public policy are even more unevenly distributed.

Poor Americans do not send lobbyists to the halls of Congress or to their local statehouses. They rarely write letters to the editor (assuming that quaint effort to enter the public conversation still matters). When legislators hold hearings on issues that will affect middle class families and the working poor, they are unlikely to face citizens from those constituencies who have come to testify.

Poor citizens are also highly unlikely to make political contributions. (For that matter, according to Open Secrets, only a tiny proportion of the public—fewer than 1%–makes political contributions of $200 or more.)

Even the most conscientious policymakers can only act upon information they receive, and even when there is no quid pro quo, it is human nature to at least listen to people who have contributed to your campaign or your political party.

The result of disproportionate participation and information asymmetry is disproportionate legislative attention to the concerns and desires of those who can and do participate.

It isn’t just legislative inaction. Poor neighborhoods notoriously receive less attention from municipal agencies; streets in such neighborhoods are the last to be plowed or paved, parks and other public amenities are more likely to be neglected, since more empowered residents know how to make their needs known, and have the time and wherewithal to communicate with local government.

Lack of voice translates into a marginalized civic status– poor Americans lack the means to influence the system, or to change policies that operate to keep them marginalized.

In a variety of ways, they are second-class citizens–holders of “class B” memberships in the American polity. It’s something we need to fix, but the remedy is by no means obvious.


There are Jobs and Then There are Jobs

I remember admonishing my then teenage sons that “any job is worthwhile.” But the summer jobs we were discussing were highly unlikely to be permanent.

Things are a bit different for the adult working poor in the Great State of Indiana.

When our Governor or Mayor announces that–thanks to his mighty economic development prowess–Indiana or Indianapolis will be the site of X new jobs, everyone applauds. The media dutifully reports that jobs are being created (or stolen from elsewhere). If the story mentions the average salaries those jobs will generate, it’s toward the end.

There’s a reason for that.

Derek Thomas (full disclosure, a former student of mine) is an analyst for and blogger with the Indiana Institute for Working Families. His most recent blog demonstrates why we need to pay attention to the quality of jobs, and not simply the quantity.

We reported last year that as of 2011, Indiana had a higher percent of jobs in occupations with poverty-level wages than all neighboring states, the Midwestern average and the U.S. average, and that job growth was largely concentrated in low-wage work. New analysis shows that among neighboring states, Kentucky took the 2012 title back by a slim margin. However, Indiana still holds the dubious distinction of having the largest percent growth in occupations with poverty-level wages over the past three years – nearly 12% from 2010 – 2012. Additionally, the percent of jobs in occupations with median annual pay less than twice the poverty threshold is up from 71% to 72.1% – of neighboring states, only Kentucky has more (slightly).

Translation: even when we get new jobs, they aren’t good jobs. The people who fill them aren’t going to fill Hoosier tax coffers, they aren’t going to have disposable income to spend in Hoosier stores, and some percentage of them will have to rely upon social welfare services funded by our tax dollars. (But they’ll have the “right” to work.)

Well, we were recently ranked as the 8th dumbest state.

Honest to goodness, Indiana…


“Those” People

Republicans in the House of Representatives send an “up yours” message to the middle class, while explaining that “job creators” must be protected.

Rick Santorum is quoted as saying that today’s massive inequality is a reflection of the fact that some people work harder than others.

These are just a couple of the the more recent expressions of a persistent sub-text in American life, a perversion of early Calvinism that leads people to justify privilege by diminishing the value of those who have less. The poor, they believe, are poor because they are somehow morally flawed. They don’t put it quite that way, of course–instead, there is talk of “work ethic” and “middle class values” that “those people” lack.

I am a believer in the market. If everyone is playing by the rules, some people will do better than others. Society will value the contribution of some people over others. When markets are properly regulated–when no one can game the system–we all benefit from the efforts of the guy who invents a better widget, the artist whose work adds beauty to our lives, even (she says through gritted teeth) the athlete whose prowess we admire.

When the system is broken, when rewards are distributed on the basis of cronyism and influence-peddling, when those rewards are wildly disproportionate to the social or other value of the work involved (to investment bankers who invent credit default swaps, for example), I suppose it is understandable that the recipients would want to justify their good fortune by claiming that they really have earned their millions. When that self-justification takes the form of dismissing the value of those who’ve been less fortunate, however, is when it becomes truly obscene.

I’ve been haunted by a segment that aired on 60 Minutes last Sunday. The report focused upon the foreclosure crisis, and in particular, on the 11+ million homeowners who–despite being “underwater” on their mortgages–stubbornly continue to make their payments. There were people who had lost jobs, people living paycheck to paycheck, who refused to walk away from mortgages on which they owed twice what their homes are currently worth. In one interview, a woman who was barely eking out a living was asked why she continued to pay when others were abandoning their properties. Her response? “I signed the contract.  I’m not the sort of person who fails to live up to my obligations.”

It may come as a shock to the bankers and assorted plutocrats whose gated communities and social circles protect them from interaction with the American middle and lower classes, but most people–including poor people–work forty or more hours a week.(That’s why we call them the working poor.) They try to pay their bills, help their neighbors, and educate their children. A thousand dollars doesn’t represent a really fancy meal; it makes an enormous difference in their lives.

It’s bad enough when elected officials pursue policies that protect their cronies and contributors at the expense of their constituents. It’s unforgivable when they dismiss those constituents as unworthy of their concern.


Who Deserves?

I caught a bit of one of those interminable talking-head debates on television the other day, in which one pontificator was explaining that in America, we work for what we get, and it is thus unAmerican to begrudge wealth to those who have earned it.

I agree. When someone works hard, innovates and creates that better mousetrap, we all benefit. That person has earned what he or she has. I also agree that this emphasis on meritocracy–the belief (however unwarranted) that anyone can compete and succeed if they just work hard enough–is a quintessentially American belief.

What the talking head didn’t seem to understand was that he was in the wrong conversation.

The people criticizing the status quo today are clearly not angry with capitalism, nor hostile to those who have done well by actually producing something. They are angry–justifiably, in my view–with a government that seems to have two sets of rules, one for those rich enough to hire lobbyists and another for the rest of us. They are angry with a system that confers obscene rewards on people who produce nothing, people who simply play financial games and buy influence.

Genuine capitalism requires the rule of law and a level playing field, where the same rules apply to everyone. When some people–or corporations–are able to buy a pass, buy a separate set of rules for themselves, that is no longer capitalism. It’s cronyism, and it violates deeply embedded precepts of American culture.

I’ve always been puzzled by the double standard so many seem to live by: you’ll hear people talk disparagingly about “welfare bums” who “work the system” and don’t deserve our help. And I know there are people who fit that description–although research suggests they make up only 2% or so of welfare recipients. Until quite recently, however, I did not hear similar opinions offered about people with unearned wealth–those who inherited it, or especially those who broke the rules in order to get it. I heard few complaints about corporate lobbyists who “work the system” to get special benefits others don’t enjoy. If we truly believe that merit should be rewarded, and cheating punished, we aren’t doing a very good job of selecting the winners and losers.

What we are seeing right now is a shameful effort to defend unearned privilege, by claiming that the rich are all “job creators,” or that objections to the status quo are “class warfare.” It’s telling that those who genuinely earned their wealth–think Bill Gates or Warren Buffett–are among the most vocal critics.

If we are going to dispense welfare, who truly deserves extra help from the taxpayers? The single mom struggling to raise her children in an economy she did not produce–an economy hollowed out by wars of choice, tax breaks for the powerful and permissive regulations that enabled dishonesty all the way from Enron to the banksters–or the people who run corporations like Halliburton and banks like Citicorp and Bank of America? I’m prepared to concede that we couldn’t allow the financial system to melt down–the consequences would have been horrific for everyone–but now that we have stabilized it, we need to address the inequities of an economic system that demands far more from the working poor than it does from the well-connected rich.

We Americans need to rethink who we are, where our taxes should come from and where they ought to go, and who “deserves” what.