What Do Low-Income Communities Need?

Laura at 11D thinks that low-income communities need jobs to fix their schools:

While I totally support the programs that Ladd and Fiske suggest, I sincerely doubt whether a mentoring program would really put a dent in the depressing school/income correlation.

The people in low income community need jobs. If you have a job, then you're not depressed and can interact with your kids, follow up with teachers, and vote at school board elections. You will vote to approve the school budget, because you can afford to pay the extra $50 in taxes. If you have a job, you can afford to move to the next town where they have better schools. Maybe jobs are the silver bullet.

I just re-read Jason De Parle's American Dream and it drives home just how inadequate virtually every theory about what the poor need is--liberal theories about benefits and training; conservative theories about jobs and marriage.  As I wrote in an op-ed for the Daily that came out today, it's all too common for well-meaning middle class people to think that if the poor just had the same stuff we do, they wouldn't be poor any more (where "stuff" includes anything from a college education to a marriage license to a home).  But this is not true.  

Welfare reform, by pushing mothers into work, produced real if modest improvements in most measures of average well-being.  But as Jason De Parle documents, it didn't make them act like middle class parents.  They were still single mothers with a lot of kids and no very helpful men available, and their kids did not start going to school more--in fact, more work hours meant the kids were less carefully supervised, and the daughter of one of the three women he followed got pregnant at 17, continuing a major portion of the "cycle" that welfare reform was supposed to break.

If poor people did the stuff that middle class people do, it's possible--maybe probable--that they wouldn't be poor.  But this is much harder than it sounds.  As John Scalzi once memorably put it, "Being poor is having to live with choices you didn't know you made when you were 14 years old."  Which often means, he might have added, spending your whole life doing the sort of jobs that middle class people sometimes do when they're 14.  It isn't that people can't get out of this: they do it quite frequently.  But in order to do so, you need the will and the skill--and the luck--to execute perfectly.  There is no margin for error in the lives of the working poor.

And some problems are collective problems.  It's all very well to say that poor women shouldn't have kids unless they can find a solid man to help raise them.  (And I agree that this is a superior strategy).  But men with solid jobs are rather scarce in many poor communities, not least because we've imprisoned so many of them.  What you're asking poor women to do is actually, for most of them, to not have babies.  This is an easy edict to deliver from a comfortable middle class home where you have all the kids you want.  It probably sounds pretty shitty, however, to the poor women who you are blithely commanding to spend their lives alone.

Poor people are people who make decisions.  They are not a combination of circumstances that can be tweaked to make them stop acting like poor people.   They like babies and sleeping in for the same reasons you do.  And they are generally asked to give up those things in return for much less reward than the middle class people who cluck at them for their bad decisions.  (The poor and near poor face some of the highest marginal tax rates in the country due to loss of benefits.  For some reason, the GOP has not put much of its policymaking effort into rectifying this supply-side nightmare.)

I'm not arguing against incentives, or a safety net--I favor a generous EITC, substantial (if usually brief) unemployment benefits, etc.  I think that the low salaries available to people who are not cut out for school represent a real problem for our society (unfortunately, not one I have any idea how to solve, which is why I rarely blog about it). And I also think that welfare reform was a good idea.  But I chafe at the supposition that anything as simple as "jobs" could fix the problems in poor schools, or poor lives.  

A girl I grew up with basically voluntarily dropped out of the middle class and into the underclass, complete with a baby by her 30-year-old drug dealer boyfriend who then went to jail.  She got her GED because she didn't like the strictures of school.  She has worked at a series of low wage jobs--sometimes quite hard, working two jobs at a time.  She's also lost a lot of jobs, and it's hard to believe that it's all bad luck.  She's on the Section 8 waiting list, and has at various times been on other forms of state assistance.  She buys her 5 year old daughter a cell phone and a television for her birthday, but takes little interest in her education.  Her family is completely horrified.

What program would fix this festival of dysfunction?  Would a higher paying job make her get out of bed even when she doesn't feel like it?  To assume that there is something that could change her behavior is to assume away her agency.

Obviously, most poor people did not choose to be poor in the same stark way: she doesn't have racial prejudice against her, grew up in a middle class home which would happily have paid for college (and which sent her sister through a PhD program), and still has access to cultural and (limited) financial capital that people who grow up in a housing project don't.  But I use her story to illustrate a point: while she may have had far more choice in the matter, she is poor because she does the things that poor people do.  Is it meaningful to say that she has agency in her choices, while "real" poor people (ie., people who grew up that way) don't?

A middle class parent after a long and crappy day at work struggles to deal with the kid's school because other parents expect it, because they were raised to treasure education, and because people will work harder to avoid loss (a kid who drops out of the middle class) than to achieve gains (a kid who makes it into the middle class).  Also, that middle class job probably isn't as miserable as changing diapers on Alzheimer's patients, or cleaning houses, so you have more psychic energy to spare.  Or you can blame a "sick culture" or personal laziness, as some conservatives do--at some level, it doesn't matter.  Poor people are actually choosing not to hassle with their kid's school.  It's a real choice that they have made.  There is no reason to assume that you will be able to override it if you just get the policy levers in the right position.

What I am struggling to say is that however much those choices are now inflected by what went before--and the problems of other people in their families and communities--they are choices. We understand that the middle class girl I grew up with is driving her situation by behavior that is probably not very amenable to outside influence.  Why do we assume that people who grew up poor are somehow more pliable simply because similar choices are influenced by decades of generational poverty?

As adults they are the products of everything that has happened to them, and everything that they have done, but they are also now exercising free will.  If you assume you know the choice they should make, and that there is some reliable way to entice them to make it, you're imagining away their humanity, and replacing it with an automaton.

Having higher wage jobs available would give people more money which would be a good thing, and it would solve the sort of problems that stem from a simple lack of money.  But it would not turn them into different people.

Public policy can modestly improve the incentives and choice sets that poor people face--and it should do those things.  But it cannot remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers.  And it would actually be pretty creepy if it could.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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