The Myth Of The Working Poor

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 exposé, though, is how she fixes the parameters of her experiment so that she inevitably gets the outcome that she wants—”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 quickly—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 mobility—both short-term and long-term—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 nineties—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.

10 thoughts on “The Myth Of The Working Poor

  1. Any nation whose largest employer is Wal-Mart cannot lay claim to the sort of privileged discourse you use to urinate on your political base. The fact that so many in this demographic choose to align themselves with people like yourself, who are openly hostile to their ability to earn a living wage, is a testimonial to how smart they are (or rather how smart they aren’t). People who fill these kinds of jobs are generally not intelligent. There are obvious exceptions, but my mom works in a grocery store and can attest to fact that there aren’t many card-carrying MENSA members in the “nickeled and dimed crowd.” With that in mind, and the increased prevalence of children exposed to meth, will produce a generation of future workers intellectually qualified for little more than the types of jobs the Bush administration is “creating”. For your hypothesis to be correct, everybody would have to possess the same level of intelligence, or at least a level of intelligence necessary to acquire new job skills frequently enough to increase their marketability. That may sound good to former leaders of the Gustavus Adolphus Republicans who have known nothing but privilege since the cradle, but it’s far removed from any basic understanding of the reality of humanity’s diversity.

    Your party is at the point where it has little to gain by eviscerating the working poor. I realize is as American to the Republican party as baseball and apple pie to disparage anyone whose paycheck is smaller than their own, but when you look at the American political landscape of today, it becomes clear that the “tax cuts, deregulation and privatization” gravy train for Republican power players wouldn’t stay on course were it not for the naive support of the very people whose existence you deem a “myth”. Yet you claim Democrats are “arrogant”?

  2. People who fill these kinds of jobs are generally not intelligent. There are obvious exceptions, but my mom works in a grocery store and can attest to fact that there aren’t many card-carrying MENSA members in the “nickeled and dimed crowd.” With that in mind, and the increased prevalence of children exposed to meth, will produce a generation of future workers intellectually qualified for little more than the types of jobs the Bush administration is “creating”.

    So, poor people are poor because they’re stupid.

    So much for the much-vaunted compassion of the liberals…

  3. Jay,

    I haven’t read Ehrenreich’s book (although I’ve read a lot about it), but she is undoubtedly right that there are lots of dreary “entry-level” jobs with lousy pay and few or no benefits. I’ve worked at such, and so have most people who weren’t born to independent wealth.

    It’s a painful experience, no argument. But the beauty of our system is that, unlike in the late unlamented Communist states, no one is stuck in such jobs. You show up on time, you don’t steal, you’re polite to the customers, and before long you’re offered a supervisory position with more pay or you have a work record that gets you a better gig somewhere else.

    No one is trying to hold down the entry-level worker or keep her in her place. The fact is that most employers are only too happy to find room for someone with the skills and, perhaps more important, the aspiration to do a good job. And when they find such employees, they’re generally willing to pay what they need to keep them.

    Our culture does do a poor job of explaining how the system works to those who are starting at the bottom. Maybe we do need to offer more encouragement and inspire people to appreciate the benefits of being on the path to self-support and greater responsibility. But tying people who are capable of achievement to state benefits, which is a polite way of saying being supported by other people, is not in their long-term best interests.

  4. Rick, your analysis applies the same erroneous standard Jay’s does….that everybody has a comparable intelligence and corresponding skill level that you do. Here’s a novel thought. Actually talk and interact with the working poor some time, and you will discover their situations are not as agreeably cookie-cutter as welfare-baiters and privileged suburbanites would like us to believe.

  5. Jay, the fact that the working poor are generally less intelligent than their wealthier counterparts is an alien concept to you speaks volumes about your inability to comprehend this country’s fast growing poverty culture. Your rhetoric would lead one to believe that you attended a private prep school where you got to rub elbows with children of privilege daily and are thus sufficiently clueless about the plight of your financial inferiors. However, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you attended a public school and actually came into contact with the sort of people whose existence you disqualify as mythological. Remember those guys who took shop classes throughout high school? Or the kids who struggled to C’s and D’s no matter how hard they tried? Their struggles are often the result of bad choices, whether their own or their parents or both, but clearly they were not on a path to success in life. They do not bring the intelligence or skills to the job market necessary to earn them financial bliss. Couple that with a globalizing economy that continues to push low-skill and semi-skill workers to the margins and you have a recipe for the exact scenario we’re seeing….declining real incomes for the lowest two quintiles of workers, increased poverty and increased drug use as a response to hopeless conditions. Most despicable of all is when snot-nosed children of privilige like you refuse to accept the most serious domestic issue of our lifetime is a “myth” simply because it’s politically inconvenient to your platform of tax cuts for yourself and spending cuts for others.

  6. Mark: Yes, Jay did attend public school, I can vouch for him (for at least the three years I was in high school with him). And yes, I agree with you on the conservative tendency to, (ironically enough) believe that everyone is equally intelligent, capable, and endowed with equal willpower. Of course, it’s hard to say what this has to do with maintaining an insolvent welfare-state structure…

  7. Jay, have you ever read Nickel and Dimed? It wasn’t clear to me.

    I have. The author was not trying to prove that she couldn’t move up from the bottom rung, and that is one reason Malanga’s arguement is misleading. Rather, she was trying to show how people cannot make it on $5.15/hr with no benefits in America. Do the math and tell me how someone can pay for a place to live, transportation, health insurance, food and clothing expenses and all the other essential costs needed on $200/wk, before taxes. If you factor in a single child then you can just forget it.

    I’ve worked summer jobs with people who live out of their cars. It’s not because they want to. Do you think the 40 million Americans without health insurance prefer it that way? Do you think the working poor don’t want a better life, and would not move up the pay scale if they could? They may not have the same education and intelligence as you and I, but please don’t think that they are so stupid as to not want to do better in life.

    If you have not, I’d suggest you read the book. It is a very worthwhile read, especially to country club types who have no concept of the working poor.

  8. Yes, I have read the book. I found it unconvincing for the same reasons that Malanga did.

    The “working poor” don’t stay that way for long. Someone with a reasonable amount of intelligence can easily find a job that pays well over minimum wage.

    It also depends on where you choose to live. If you’re trying to make ends meet while living in a big city like Minneapolis you’re going to have a much worse time than taking the same job in Mankato, Sioux Falls, or even some of the outer suburbs. You have to be willing to follow the market, even if it means living in a place you’d rather not for a time.

    There’s absolutely no substitute for hard work. Anyone with so much as an ounce of brains can make more than minimum wage – and it is exceptionally arrogant to argue that the reason people work for minimum wage is because they’re too stupid to have a “real” job. In fact, if you spend so much time with working-class people, I’d love to see you explain that theory to these people in person. I’m sure the reaction you’d get would be illuminating… and you’d get a nice tour of the health care system afterwards.

  9. Jay, anyone who can spout the snotty, clueless country club drivel you have done in this thread is in position to call Jacques Chirac or anyone else “arrogant”. My mom works in a small-town grocery store with a number of middle-aged women who have been there for years, are making $7 an hour, and are barely scraping by living in cockroach-infested rental ratholes, often without health insurance. The beauty of a non-union shop (at least if you’re an employer) is that there are no seniority rights…so the more desperate an employee, the more likely they can be taken advantage of and kept in the poorest-paying departments of the store for years while fresh faces off the street get higher-paying positions (relatively speaking) in the store.

    As for your ingenius “move to a small town and your problems will be solved” advice, there are substantially fewer jobs in small-town America and a vast outflux of population because of it. There are substantially more underemployed people in rural areas and small cities than in places like Minneapolis. I don’t know what the cost-of-living is in Sioux Falls, but I do know what the wages are there after doing a substantial job search there. I could make more on the night crew at my hometown grocery store than I could at a professional position in Sioux Falls, so that doesn’t give me much optimism for what the city’s largest industry–retail–pays in proportion to cost-of-living. Plus, considering South Dakota’s non-existent poverty assistance programs for low-income residents compared to those of Minnesota, it’s highly unlikely the city would prove to be utopia for poor people in Minneapolis.

    Another you’re missing from your ivory tower of dangerous privilege is that many poor people have obligations in their own community, particularly children whom they have shared custody with, or whom they depend on their parents for free babysitting that would not be available in “Mankato or Sioux Falls”. I’m sure none of this is even a consideration for you, who like most apologists for increasing poverty and underemployment, view the victims as uncomplicated, one-dimensional chess pieces rather than human beings with unique sets of circumstances trapped in an increasingly exploitative system. If you were to view them as actual people rather than “myths”, you would have to revise your one-size-fits-all worldview that suggests all underachievers are merely people who worked less hard than you did.

    I’ll make you a deal. I’ll tell a group of lower-level service employees the truth…that most of them are less intelligent and have fewer job skills than people who live on the other side of the tracks from them and drive Lexuses. You tell this same group that the working poor are a myth and that they should leave everything they know and move to Mankato if they can’t make ends meet. We’ll see whose eye ends up being blacker.

  10. Mark, well said. Having been around many people who make minimum wage and knowing their situations I find it amazing that the people who tend to most vehemently oppose social programs for the poor are loudest about their Christian beliefs, i.e., the religious right. I cannot think of another administration that has been so anti-family as this one, despite Bush’s claims to faith.

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