Steven Malanga of the City Journal has an interestingdeconstruction of Barbara Ehrenreich and David Shipler’s works on poverty in America. He notes that both authors paint a highly distorted view of the American economy:
What’s utterly misleading about Ehrenreich’s exposÃ©, though, is how she fixes the parameters of her experiment so that she inevitably gets the outcome that she wantsâ€””proof” that the working poor can’t make it. Ehrenreich complains that America’s supposedly tight labor market doesn’t produce entry-level jobs at $10 an hour. For people with no skills, that’s probably true in most parts of the country; but everywhere, the U.S. economy provides ample opportunity to move up quickly. Yet Ehrenreich spends only a few weeks with each of her employers, and so never gives herself the chance for promotion or to find better work (or better places to live).
In fact, few working in low-wage jobs stay in them long. And most workers don’t just move on quicklyâ€”they also move on to better jobs. The Sphere Institute, a California public-policy think tank founded by Stanford University professors, charted the economic path of workers in the state from 1988 to 2000 and found extraordinary mobility across industries and up the economic ladder. Over 40 percent of the lowest income group worked in retail in 1988; by 2000, more than half of that group had switched to other industries. Their average inflation-adjusted income gain after moving on: 83 percent, to over $32,000 a year.
Indeed, Ehrenreich’s book is very interesting, in the same way Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media is interesting – as both books are examples of drawing a conclusion then selectively chosing evidence to match that conclusion. Ehrenreich’s dripping contempt for her employers makes it quite clear why she didn’t do so well. As Malanga points out, had Ehrenreich not spent her time in each job for only a few weeks and played the role of the anti-authoritarian rebel at every turn, after a year she’d probably end up in a comfortably middle-class existance. Instead, Ehrenreich spends her time engaging in dime-store psychoanalysis and showing her distaste for the proletariat. Everyone has had a point in their life where they’ve been stuck in a low-paying job they hate. Unlike Ehrenreich’s flawed experience, most people either move up or away after a period of time. The fact that Ehrenreich didn’t even give the market a chance to work says more about her professional credibility than it does about the job market itself.
By all objective accounts, upward mobility has increased since the signing of the welfare bill. As Malanga points out:
Such results are only the latest to confirm the enormous mobility that the U.S. economy offers. As a review of academic, peer-reviewed mobility studies by two Urban Institute researchers put it: “It is clear that there is substantial mobilityâ€”both short-term and long-termâ€”over an average life-cycle in the United States.” Perhaps most astonishingly, mobility often occurs within months. The Urban Institute report points out that several mobility studies based on the University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which has traced thousands of American families since 1968, show that about 20 percent of those in the lowest economic quintile rise at least one economic class within a year. If Ehrenreich had given herself 12 months in her low-wage stints, instead of a week or two, she might have worked her way into the lower middle class by the end of her experiment.
This mobility explains why poverty rates didn’t soar in the 1990s, even though some 13 million people, most of them dirt-poor, immigrated here legally. In fact, the country’s poverty rate actually fell slightly during the ninetiesâ€”which could only happen because millions already here rose out of the lowest income category.
The fact is that the “working poor” is a transient category. Very few people remain in entry-level jobs for long (hence the term “entry-level”). Those who treat their employers with contempt and take the attitude that a job is an entitlement as Ehrenreich did aren’t going to be successful regardless of what position they are. Actual peer-reviewed numbers utterly contradict Ehrenreich’s essential thesis – but peer-reviewed studies don’t get presented as gospel fact to college freshmen.
The fact is that welfare is the perfect example of why liberal means can never achieve liberal ends. The best way to end poverty is through employment. Being stuck on the government dole saps the critical values of self-reliance and the work ethic that’s needed to succeed in life. Those who want to see welfare come at no stigma to the recipient fail to understand human nature. Being a virtual serf to the state not only drains the resources of the state, but takes away from the self-worth of the individual. The highest human need is the desire for self-actualization — and being stuck on the government dole is not a situation that leads to the increased personal responsibility necessary for personal advancement and a healthy society.