"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Life On The Margins–The Working Poor

Ross Douthat has written in the New York Times (2.24.13) about the demise of low-wage jobs, the growing unemployment of people who had formerly worked “stacking shelves at Wal-Mart”; and the irony that those who were supposed to be the new leisure class – the wealthy – are working longer, harder, and for more hours per day:

Imagine, as 19th-century utopians often did, a society rich enough that fewer and fewer people need to work — a society where leisure becomes universally accessible, where part-time jobs replace the regimented workweek, and where living standards keep rising even though more people have left the work force altogether.

This, Douthat contends, is now happening in America among the poor; and far from lamenting this marginalized life, he takes it as a sign of structural adjustment – that while the working class go through a newly partially-employed life, the wealthy are making enough to subsidize a transition to a more fully productive society.

Those riches mean that we can probably find ways to subsidize — through public means and private — a continuing decline in blue-collar work. Many of the Americans dropping out of the work force are not destitute: they’re receiving disability payments and food stamps, living with relatives, cobbling together work here and there, and often doing as well as they might with a low-wage job. By historical standards their lives are more comfortable than the left often allows, and the fiscal cost of their situation is more sustainable than the right tends to admits. (Medicare may bankrupt us, but food stamps probably will not.)

This is downright scary.  I am currently living in a small town in the Deep South where I meet many of these people that Douthat describes, and their life is not pretty at all.  One, a single mother at 37 still lives with her parents and makes a minimum wage as a waitress.  She can only make ends meet if she takes a cash salary, pays no income tax or social security, and takes her chance on not getting sick.  When she did get seriously ill, a few years ago and needed emergency surgery, the private, non-profit hospital ate the $50,000 in costs since she had no money and no savings.  She says that her life is “pretty good right now”, but with no savings, no Social Security, and no health care, she knows that tomorrow it could all end. 

Another acquaintance runs a small business, and only through 14 hour days, paying low wages, avoiding taxes, and taking chances on health care can he survive.  He has never been eligible for a loan because he has never had the capital to put up as collateral; and all the infrastructure improvements needed to attract customers has had to be done by him and his family.  He has had four heart attacks, is beyond any further cardiac repair surgery, and the doctor has told him that he is living on borrowed time. He has the most basic health care policy and any serious and inevitable illness will bankrupt him and his family.

A former long-haul truck driver I recently met, crippled and barely mobile, was almost killed in a black-ice accident a few years ago.  His company had some insurance, but not enough to compensate for the long months in hospitals, rehab centers, and physical therapy; and he has had to rely on public assistance.  He has fought and clawed for every penny, and would certainly not be as desperate physical condition if he had had money, access to proper insurance and health care.

Another man I have spoken to is addicted to painkillers because he fell off a roof while working on a piece-work job a few years ago.  He got paid cash, his employer had no insurance, and had no money and no education to be able have the wherewithal to sue.  Tragically and ironically his son suffered the same fate – he fell to his death from a roof while on a job.  His mother, disconsolate, tried to commit suicide and rarely leaves the house.

These people are not desperate, and they are not sleeping on the street.  Nor are they on welfare.  They are working, working hard, working to stay alive and to maintain a modicum of dignity.  They do not like having to rely on others to keep them going.  The waitress was not pleased with herself that the Methodist Hospital had to raise its charges for those with insurance, thus contributing to rising health care costs nationally.  She and the small business owner are not happy about having to cheat on their taxes and avoiding Social Security.  As much as they both hate paying any kind of government tax, they are aware of their social irresponsibility.  If the owner complied with all government rules and regulations he would go out of business; and it is the only thing that keeps him going after a hard, dirt-poor life on the road, time in a federal penitentiary, and scraping a few dollars together to start his business out of the back of a pick-up truck.

These people are living OK lives, says Douthat, and “by historical standards [are] more comfortable than the Left often allows”.  This is a cynical, uninformed, callous, and ignorant statement.  They are comfortable only compared to the alternative of real poverty – going hungry in some backwoods holler of Appalachia or dodging bullets in some inner-city, dysfunctional slum.  They are not otherwise living particularly easy or happy lives.  Yes, they make it through hard work, the support of family and friends, and private and government support and subsidy, but barely. These people and millions like them are living on the margins, on their own economic cliff, living a life which could go totally bad in a day.

This arrogant, misinformed opinion is compounded by yet another:

Here the decline in work-force participation is of a piece with the broader turn away from community in America — from family breakdown and declining churchgoing to the retreat into the virtual forms of sport and sex and friendship. Like many of these trends, it poses a much greater threat to social mobility than to absolute prosperity.

The people I have met in this small Southern community don’t have the money or time to retreat into virtual forms of sport, sex, and friendship; and there is no family breakdown in their lives – it is only family which keeps them from real poverty.  They have not abandoned the church at all, and are in fact far more religious than any of my family, friends, and acquaintances in Washington.

These marginally-employed people are not ‘of a piece’ with any erosion of community, family, or religious values.  On the contrary. They are still on the margins and not upwardly mobile because of a raft of factors – none of which have to do with the deterioration of values.  They are the children of marginally poor parents, have low levels of education, and have no world-view other than the narrow life of a small low-income Southern community in one of the least well-off states in the country.  They have no money in the bank, work two jobs, cut corners and take chances and still tread water.

I will grant Douthat one thing – that it is ironic that in a country as wealthy as ours fifteen percent of its citizens live below the poverty line, and hundreds of thousands if not millions more – like the people I have mentioned here - live barely above it. It is not for lack of political commitment and desire that this unfortunate situation persists.  The Left has been trying, through social engineering, taxation, and government welfare to address the problem; and while those in poverty have no doubt benefited to a degree from welfare, food stamps, and Aid to Dependent Children, the working poor have not – nor do they want to.

The Right has also tried in its own way to come to grips with poverty through the encouragement of private enterprise, increased economic opportunity, and a more fluidly mobile movement of labor and capital.  Neither Left nor Right have solved anything for the famous ‘Middle Class’ about which we heard so much in the recent Presidential campaign.  They believe in and rely on community, family, and church. They do not take welfare.  They find work, cobble together an economic life, are in and out of jobs, and survive on their own.  Their lives are not ‘comfortable’.  There is no anger at the so-called One Percent; no vilification of government; no conspiracy theories – just a frustrated, resigned, but insistent to make things work.

Mr. Douthat needs to get out of Washington more.

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