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Other Americas

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I saw the new issue of Reason magazine yesterday, and it contained a retrospective on Michael Harrington’s The Other America that I thought would fit right into this–but it is the new issue, and the piece isn’t up on their website yet that I can find.

But let me try to address a few things here, starting with Cathy’s complaint that the blog posts are talking about people who grew up poor, not just people who had a crisis where they were poor for a while.

And I’ll skip commenting at length on the idea that any crisis that lasts a decade ought to count, because it’s more complicated than that.

Let me just say, first, that I’m with Cheryl–there is nothing in these blog posts to indicate that the writer grew up poor.  What he seems to say is that he made himself poor through a long period of alcoholism.

But whether he grew up poor or made himself that way through liquor, the fact remains that “buy canned vegetables instead of fresh” is a different kind of marker of poverty than “spend down the entire EITC check the minute it comes” or “go crazy with Christmas presents we can’t afford.”

It’s different in kind because it’s a forced choice, where the others aren’t.  If you really have to buy all your groceries only once a month, then buying canned instead of fresh is pretty much the only option you have.  Fresh will go bad in a week.   

And there even are occasions and circumstances under which spending the entire big check the minute it comes in makes sense–for instance, if you have a whole slew of back bills you haven’t been able to pay until now.

Knowing which choices are open and which are forced is important–it keeps both the people in the situation and the government planners trying to help them from making stupid mistakes about what will and won’t make things better.

But I would object that even “growing up poor” doesn’t lead to blowing all the EITC money in one go or overspending on Christmas presents to the detriment of the rent and light bill.

Virtually everybody reading this–or at least the US people–is related to at least some people who grew up poor, often in immigrant neighborhoods at times when building codes were lax and nonexistent and social programs had yet to be conceived.

If they were like my father’s parents, they came from villages in Southern Europe where there was no electricity or running water to large American cities where they had to sleep eight to a bedroom and suffer through with few or no windows.

There are people now in the same situation–poor in the countries they came from, even poorer when they get here, speaking no English, breaking their backs.

It doesn’t seem to me that poverty per se is the issue here, except in the sense that the structural realities make poverty worse and harder to get out of.

And by structural realities I don’t mean payday loans.  I mean long lists of regulations and requirements that make getting out of poverty harder.  Let’s start with the municipal regulation of street vendors, which has made walking around the city with a pushcart a very expensive proposition.  Those regulations exist not to protect the public, but to protect the owners of brick and mortar stores from competition by upstart immigrants.

Most of my students (my remedial students, now) would fit the blogger’s picture of poverty–and worse pictures of poverty, too.  Almost all of them grew up poor. 

The difference between my students and the Chinese family that runs our cheapest Chinese take out is not that one group grew up poor and the other didn’t, but that the two groups grew up different kinds of poor.   It’s that they grew up different kinds of poor and among other poor people with different kinds of attitudes and assumptions about life.

The passivity of my students and their families is not innate, and it’s not an automatic response to poverty.  It’s learned, and we teach it to them on purpose.

It seems to me that some of the things Ehrenreich talked about in that article were further expansions of the attempt to teach passivity–certainly things like charging room and board for your time in jail.

We need to get rid of those things, and anything else that artificially impedes people from making their situation better. 

I’d even make their situation better, not by “programs” but by simply giving them money.  (I’ll say it again–fire the social workers and the case workers and the administrators and put that money into the pool to be given out as an EITC.  Give the poor people the money and let them decide what to do with it from there.)

Because it seems to me that the only alternative we have to that is to do what Michael Harrington wanted us to do and what we more or less seem to be actually doing–treating poor people like mental defectives whose lives have to be monitored and micromanaged on a nearly daily basis. 

I think that’s what Ehrenreich is trying to protest against when she comes out with silly statements about how the only thing that causes poverty is lack of money.

I do think we do less damage running on that assumption than on the assumptions we run on now.

Written by janeh

May 22nd, 2012 at 8:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Other Americas'

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  1. I don’t see how charging inmates for room and board encourages passivity, as much as I think it unfair as part of a criminal justice system. Some other aspects of a modern welfare state, yes, but not that. The regulations around whether you can supplement your benefits with paid work without losing all of them combined with the complications of reporting your income spring to mind.

    The vegetable issue has been nagging at me. Not only are canned vegetables really practical if you get money only once a month, don’t have a freezer, and want to turn the money into a month’s supply of food, they’re quite nutritious, not to mention cheap to buy and heat up. So why is is such as disaster if children learn to prefer the taste and texture of canned to fresh (or even frozen) vegetables? That’s not an inevitable outcome – I know people who never did lose their taste for canned peas, but, while not developing a taste for peas of any kind, I adored fresh tomatoes when I first encountered them. Either way, it’s a personal taste. You can be well-fed and healthy whatever kind of vegetables you like eating. Or is there some kind of stigma associated with eating canned vegetables?

    Cheryl

    22 May 12 at 12:43 pm

  2. When an otherwise intelligent person says something silly once, it’s reasonable to assume they weren’t clear, or were misunderstood. When they go on saying silly things for decades, those assumptions are no longer reasonable, and you may want to rethink the “otherwise intelligent” bit.

    Given that Ehrenreich is incapable of writing as article–let alone a book–without a call for more regulations and more regulators, I have great difficulty believing that her “silly” statements are a call for fewer regulations and regulators.

    Yes, of course, many of our regulations and regulators make it harder to escape poverty. You’d have to be a career bureaucrat, an academic or an “activist” not to see that. And when Ehrenreich says “these named programs should be eliminated and the bureaucrats in them turned into private-sector taxpayers” I’ll start regarding her as an adult.

    But she, and not her apologist, has to say the words.

    robert_piepenbrink

    22 May 12 at 3:55 pm

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