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What If Everything You Knew About Poverty Was Wrong?
April 10, 2014 6:33 PM   Subscribe

"A sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, Edin is one of the nation's preeminent poverty researchers. She has spent much of the past several decades studying some of the country's most dangerous, impoverished neighborhoods. But unlike academics who draw conclusions about poverty from the ivory tower, Edin has gotten up close and personal with the people she studies—and in the process has shattered many myths about the poor, rocking sociology and public-policy circles.

For three years Edin lived with her family in a studio apartment smack in between the two crime scenes we just passed and a few blocks from one of the city's largest and most notorious public housing projects. Here she spent years doing intensive fieldwork for her latest book, coauthored with husband and Johns Hopkins colleague Tim Nelson, on low-income, unwed fathers. Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City is a complicated portrait of a group of people all but ignored by statistics-driven social-science research—in large part because there's little ready-made data about them."
posted by Bella Donna (114 comments total) 88 users marked this as a favorite

 
Poor people stay poor when they fall into the car trap. The dependency is easy to see, transit sucks, winter makes walking moot in a lot of places, so the car gets bumped up to the from of the queue every time they get a buck ahead the car will eat it. The slow drain from everything else's budget to the car budget takes a toll on teeth, good shoes, better diets, does not lead to less stress and less anger.

That and the inflation everywhere that seems invisible to the DC mindset who hold that poor people have it good......I just don't know.

60's looking good in hindsight.
posted by Freedomboy at 6:46 PM on April 10 [17 favorites]


I look forward to her book. She sounds like a remarkable person.
posted by emjaybee at 6:49 PM on April 10 [2 favorites]


in the process has shattered many myths about the poor, rocking sociology and public-policy circles.

I guess it depends on whose myths these are supposed to be, but I certainky wouldn't say they seem like a good description of the average MetaFilter or Mother Jones reader's preconceptions about poverty, or the academic consensus on it. I suspect the foundations of sociology are not quite as rocked as this article would have you believe.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:50 PM on April 10 [18 favorites]


I agree, that was overstated. Still, as a person who was raised by a single mom on welfare, I am thrilled that there are academics who do this kind of difficult, intensive, evidence-based work.
posted by Bella Donna at 6:53 PM on April 10 [7 favorites]


Poor people stay poor when they fall into the car trap.

Cars may be financial traps, but they also are pretty significant tools for finding and keeping employment, according to this recent study:

Housing voucher recipients... with cars were twice as likely to find a job and four times as likely to remain employed... The importance of automobiles arises not due to the inherent superiority of driving, but because public transit systems in most metropolitan areas are slow, inconvenient, and lack sufficient metropolitan-wide coverage to rival the automobile.
posted by wikipedia brown boy detective at 7:02 PM on April 10 [19 favorites]


The "and in the process has shattered many myths about the poor, rocking sociology and public-policy circles" appears to refer to her multi-decade long career studying poverty rather than just the content of her most recent book.
posted by riruro at 7:02 PM on April 10 [1 favorite]


The problem is not enough of the poor have boots and those that do rarely have boots with straps. How are they supposed to lift themselves up?
posted by Joey Michaels at 7:06 PM on April 10 [7 favorites]


For a similar discussion of how communities in poverty actually function, Sudhir Venkatesh is also a good read. He 'embedded' in the south side of Chicago and wrote several books, one on the economics of dealing drugs, and one on the grey market economy of the neighbourhoods, which tends to emphasize the same points Edin is making: that such communities are frequently more normal and functional in a daily sense than our stereotypes articulate, while they deal with a wide variety of poverty driven issues. People are more thoughtful and adaptable than you expect, and more industrious, and frequently live by much more rational calculations than any middle class person does.
posted by fatbird at 7:07 PM on April 10 [6 favorites]


On Friday and Saturday, I visited many more [of the poor] as I could. I found some in their cells underground; others in their garrets, half-starved both with cold and hunger, added to weakness and pain. But I found not one of them unemployed who was able to crawl about the room. So wickedly and devilishly false is that common objection, “They are poor, only because they are idle.”

-The Journal of John Wesley, February 9-10, 1753
posted by 4ster at 7:11 PM on April 10 [115 favorites]


Ugh. I guess it compelled me to read the article but the framing is completely absurd.

Low-income mothers want to marry mature, stable, economically secure men, and low marriage rates are linked to the limited supply of such men? And this situation is made worse by sky-high incarceration rates?

Men generally view unplanned fatherhood as a blessing and not a burden and express a desire to be involved with their children, but their level of involvement fades over time, and typically their relationships with the unmarried mothers of their children are not very stable?

A need-influenced welfare system that provides stronger benefits when the father is absent also provides incentives for fathers to be absent?

People work in the underground economy because they make more money there?

People who are poor tend to be rational actors who are doing the best they can, but their behavior patterns are also not entirely ideal and can lead to suboptimal outcomes for their children?

Wow, it's like everything we knew about poverty was right!
posted by leopard at 7:32 PM on April 10 [14 favorites]


it's like everything we knew about poverty was right

Common sense, experience, and intuition are different than primary research.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 7:37 PM on April 10 [13 favorites]


Rather than viewing unplanned fatherhood as a burden, the men almost uniformly saw it as a blessing. "It's so antithetical to a middle-class perspective," Edin says. "But it finally dawned on us that these guys thought that by bringing children in the world they were doing something good in the world." Everything else around them—the violence, the poverty, their economic prospects—was so negative, she explains, a baby was "one little dot of color" on a black-and-white canvas. . . .

Multiple-partner fertility is a formula for unstable families, and it's really bad for children, which Edin acknowledges in the book. But rather than view "serial dads" as simply irresponsible, Edin suggests that they suffer from unrequited "father thirst," the desire for the intense experience of being a full-time dad. Consciously or not, they keep trying until they finally sort of get it right, usually with the youngest child, to whom they devote most of their resources at the expense of the older ones.


This is heartbreaking.
posted by medusa at 7:40 PM on April 10 [25 favorites]


At the end of the day, people need to get that American society places such little value on black life. I had hoped with the president's election and reelection that it would create a huge dent in that radiating hate black people get from American society. It has had an effect, but it has turned toward him and the year in and year out, dog you at every turn politics has ruined much of the initial fervor and feelings of joy that were there. Toward the end of that second piece when the republican starts talking about holding people accountable or some nonsense, it just burns me up. I have to read a lot of these articles quickly, because they make me angry with the nonsense they spew. It's a complicated set of situations for sure.
posted by cashman at 7:50 PM on April 10 [33 favorites]


Common sense, experience, and intuition are different than primary research.

And "what if everything you knew about poverty was wrong" and "rocking sociology and public policy circles" is a different sort of hook than "academics work hard gathering, analyzing, and synthesizing empirical evidence."
posted by leopard at 7:58 PM on April 10 [8 favorites]


For a similar discussion of how communities in poverty actually function, Sudhir Venkatesh is also a good read

You thought so?I read his first book, and thought it was pretty terrible. Suffered grin a huge ego and a chronic case of engineers disease. Hours total ignorance of general sociology and anthropology principles was really obvious, as was the fact he hammy bothered reading the decades of literature already produced in the field -pretending like he was the first to do anything he wrote or thought about.

I was gobsmacked that it got past an ethics committee and found his freaking extremely egotistical and patronising, putting himself and his feelings at the centre of everything.
posted by smoke at 8:00 PM on April 10 [2 favorites]


Multiple-partner fertility is a formula for unstable families, and it's really bad for children, which Edin acknowledges in the book. But rather than view "serial dads" as simply irresponsible, Edin suggests that they suffer from unrequited "father thirst," the desire for the intense experience of being a full-time dad. Consciously or not, they keep trying until they finally sort of get it right, usually with the youngest child, to whom they devote most of their resources at the expense of the older ones.

Which is pretty fucking irresponsible.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:15 PM on April 10 [7 favorites]


Hours total ignorance of general sociology and anthropology principles was really obvious, as was the fact he hammy bothered reading the decades of literature already produced in the field

I had the same reaction to Venkatesh's book, but I am loving the amazing autocorrect typos in the comment.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:15 PM on April 10 [19 favorites]


-it's like everything we knew about poverty was right

--Common sense, experience, and intuition are different than primary research.


As I often find myself saying, Yes, the study was funded by a Water is Wet grant from the No Shit, Sherlock Foundation, but it's still helpful to have it down in black and white if it's going to have any influence on policy.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:17 PM on April 10 [30 favorites]


At the end of the day, people need to get that American society places such little value on black life.

Cashman, that was a great comment and I wanted to thank you for saying it "out loud," as it were. We as a society can talk idealistically until we're blue in the face about "eradicating inner-city povery" and helping families and so on, but the grim fact remains that this is a legacy of entrenched structural discrimination as well as being a legacy of deindustrialization. I wanted to expand on your comment a bit from a geographer's perspective.
A second prominent approach to investigating racial discrimination in employment has relied on in-depth, in-person interviews, which can be effective in eliciting candid discussions about sensitive hiring issues. Kirschenman & Neckerman (1991), for example, describe employers’ blatant admission of their avoidance of young, inner-city black men in their search for workers. Attributing characteristics such as “lazy” and “unreliable” to this group, the employers included in their study were candid in their expressions of strong racial preferences in considering low wage workers (p. 213; see also Wilson 1996, Moss & Tilly 2001). source
That cited study was 23 years ago. Strike one for a young, black male job seeker? Zip code? Census block?
The restructuring of metropolitan labor markets affects employment opportunity, and lack of opportunity is a primary factor contributing to the growth of an urban underclass (Wilson 1980, 1990, 1996, Anderson 1990, Singh 1991, Fernández-Kelly 1995). The urban underclass has been defined as the resident population of inner-city areas where the highest rates of school dropout, poverty, welfare dependency, and family disorganization intersect. These areas are highly isolated spatially, socially, and economically from mainstream society (Ricketts and Sawhill 1988, Singh 1991). source
It becomes a tautology: you live in the inner-city brownfield zone where there are no jobs. No one outside the zone will hire you due to racial and sociogeographical class prejudice; therefore, you cannot escape the inner-city.
According to Wilson (1987, 1996) and Massey and Denton (1993), concentration of poverty in inner-city neighborhoods started in the 1970s with the start deindustrialization. source
It is supremely unfair that our most vulnerable inner-city familiies are suffering both from the legacy of terrible economic policy across the breadth of American society, and still have to bear the brunt of our society's increasingly covert forms of racial and class discrimination. So many incredibly complex factors influence this situation, and it makes my blood boil when low-income parenting is reduced to a perceived moral failing. It's not that simple, no matter how the media commentariat would like for it to be. It will take concentrated, long-view policy initiatives to turn inner-city poverty around (gentrification isn't the answer that planners think it is; it just pushes out the poor to the next available location), and in our current political climate, that's about as likely as world peace at this point.

This book really speaks to the greater issues that Elin is highlighting:
Unhealthy Cities: Poverty, Race, and Place in America

Um, I think this is the longest comment I've ever made on the blue. I hope it's not too far off the mark. Be gentle?
posted by cardinality at 8:41 PM on April 10 [50 favorites]


If you're interested in this, read Michael Harrington's influential "The Other America".

It should basically be required reading to be a citizen of planet Earth.
posted by loquacious at 8:53 PM on April 10 [7 favorites]


In human societies, our implicitly *wired* propensity to obtain status leads to all kinds of imbalances and suffering - as represented by Edin.

Given our human propensity toward achieving status - as well as our propensity toward tribal separatism (fear of "the other) - the best we can do is try to become aware of these now-harmful propensities and do whatever we can to mitigate them. Maybe we can evolve these propensities out of our humanness.

We need to keep reminding ourselves that we are "sinners" re: status seeking, tribalism, etc. and keep trying harder to mitigate their influence. (btw, no Christian here, just using the word "sinner" rhetorically because it seems to fit).
posted by Vibrissae at 8:55 PM on April 10 [1 favorite]


But unlike academics who draw conclusions about poverty from the ivory tower, Edin has gotten up close and personal with the people she studies—and in the process has shattered many myths about the poor, rocking sociology and public-policy circles.

I don't mean to be critical of the post, but this is an unfortunate mischaracterization of the sociological literature and of academics' work in general. Don't get me wrong, Edin's work is great and she's studying crucial issues, I'm not against her at all (nor the OP). It's just that sociologists (and most social scientists) have taken poverty much more seriously than most groups, certainly more than politicians or others who are prone to take credit for living in the real world, outside the proverbial ivory tower.

For a similar discussion of how communities in poverty actually function, Sudhir Venkatesh is also a good read

You thought so?I read his first book, and thought it was pretty terrible. Suffered grin a huge ego and a chronic case of engineers disease. Hours total ignorance of general sociology and anthropology principles was really obvious, as was the fact he hammy bothered reading the decades of literature already produced in the field -pretending like he was the first to do anything he wrote or thought about.

I was gobsmacked that it got past an ethics committee and found his freaking extremely egotistical and patronising, putting himself and his feelings at the centre of everything.


Your instincts were right. He basically betrayed his informants, and people suffered because of that. I think he's a disgrace to the profession frankly.
posted by clockzero at 9:03 PM on April 10 [8 favorites]


And, while Edin's work is very good, while she's affirming and demonstrating important things very convincingly, the strength of her work isn't principally in its theoretical novelty. It's deeply empirical, and very valuable for that. It should be appreciated for what it's really contributing, which is ample, not what someone who maybe isn't entirely familiar with the literature thinks it might be contributing.

What the government actually does and what sociological research implies should be done are rarely the same.
posted by clockzero at 9:10 PM on April 10 [3 favorites]


You thought so?I read his first book, and thought it was pretty terrible. Suffered grin a huge ego and a chronic case of engineers disease.

I read Off the Books. The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, and found it to be a very straightforward presentation of a lot of very plausible things that made local sense. People with working vehicles making money as gypsy cabs, selling lunches on foot or giving back alley oil changes, local pastors mediating between parents and drug dealers to limit drug sales around schools, etc. He described a reasonably smoothly functioning local economy and culture that's predictable in light of being cut off from larger economic opportunities and services. I didn't find Venkatesh to be much of a presence in the book at all, though maybe that was a reaction to criticism of the first book. I was reminded, actually, of Scalzi's list of what it's like to be poor--the same sort of decisions and accommodations being made to circumstances, and in defiance of the moral hectoring of their "betters".

I am loving the amazing autocorrect typos in the comment.

As am I, unless you can smell burning toast, in which case you should probably go to the hospital.
posted by fatbird at 9:11 PM on April 10 [5 favorites]


Kinda upworthy breathless style of framing, and needless contemptious of academics... But the core is interesting... Like upworthy itself I guess
posted by edgeways at 9:12 PM on April 10


Still, as a person who was raised by a single mom on welfare, I am thrilled that there are academics who do this kind of difficult, intensive, evidence-based work.

There are lots of them. You just don't hear about them because they don't have as much clout as someone from Hopkins.

Either way, this is what academia should be...making the world better by analyzing it.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:38 PM on April 10 [2 favorites]


our implicitly *wired* propensity to obtain status

This belief isn't as destructive as the belief that economics is a science (instead of what it is: politics), but it's in the same neighborhood.
posted by MillMan at 9:44 PM on April 10 [8 favorites]


I saw Venkatesh appear on a talk show once, and he really had his hustle down.
posted by wuwei at 10:58 PM on April 10


What is everything you knew about water was wrong?
5 water myths, busted:

1) Water expands as it heats up, thus becoming lighter by volume.
This is only partially true as water actually becomes denser from 0-4°C and then becomes less dense as temperature increases

2) Water is an effective insulator
Water actually conducts temperature quite well and is therefore a poor insulator

3) Water boils at 47 °C
Physicists have determined that water actually boils at 100 °C (212 °F).

4) Water can be used as fuel in you car.
The NHTSA has determined that water is not usable as a fuel in an internal combustion engine. In fact, inadvertent water ingestion into the engine causes a dangerous condition known as hydrolock.

5) Water does not appear naturally on planet Earth.
There are reports of water appearing in large pools on the surface of Earth. These are often referred to as lakes or seas if salt has dissolved into the water.
posted by Authorized User at 11:36 PM on April 10 [12 favorites]


In other news, Republicans have just repealed the clean water act on account of water being "a magical gas made of Jesus that never gets polluted."
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:41 PM on April 10 [8 favorites]


The argument that people are a product of their circumstances shouldn't be surprising, but seems to be. Look at the Republican who, later in the article, declares that these men should be trying harder. And... yes, maybe some of them should, but policy interventions should be designed to effect the full population. So if you want to know why there are lots of single parents, pointing to deadbeat dads is all very well, but why are these dads deadbeat? What causes this? Do we believe that pointing our finger at them will make them change their behaviour? What difference is there between a deadbeat dad and a good one?

This research, and research like it is useful because it goes about trying to answer those questions. If we can understand what the root causes of undesirable outcomes are, then we might be able to solve them.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 1:46 AM on April 11


What If Everything You Knew About Poverty Was Wrong?

What if for once we didn't assume that "poor people" were a class of individuals who never actually had contact with the internet? I don't necessarily think the research approach is actively harmful, but the framing makes me grind my teeth and I don't think it should have been repeated when posting it here. If what I know about poverty is wrong, then I have been suffering from about thirty years of being completely delusional. (Subtract two where I was actually making a decent living, although I'm not sure if they count since my now-ex was busy re-impoverishing me the whole time.)

The problem with typical approaches isn't that the researchers aren't living in poverty themselves, it's that nobody in the establishment believes poor people when we discuss our own authentic experiences and therefore they all need to be translated into something palatable by a person from outside. Like we don't know what we need ourselves, we need to be told by people from better socioeconomic strata. She gets to be described breathlessly as living in that neighborhood like she's risking life and limb to do it, and never mind all the millions of people who live just like that every day without any choice in the matter. Why is it courageous and ground-breaking when she does it? Why do rich people get book deals for being willing to speak to poor people? Why does Mother Jones, in this day and age, think that the most relevant detail about Edin to lead with, in the very first word, is her blondness?

Maybe it'd be better if we started with a different question: What If We Paid Poor Brown People To Talk About Being Poor Brown People Instead Of Paying The White People Who Were Willing To Hang Out With Them?
posted by Sequence at 2:02 AM on April 11 [54 favorites]


What If Everything You Knew About Poverty Was Wrong?

Then you'd be a Republican.
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:10 AM on April 11 [24 favorites]


This sounds like an important book, but I agree - the journalist's framing is extremely problematic: the blondness, the emphasis on the radicalism/saintliness of living with her children where poor black people live. I also think that the journalist's focus on Joe White in the second section undermines what Edin's book seems to highlight: the complex structural constraints under which the people she studies operate. As the Wesley quote above highlights, an all-too common response to poverty is to turn a blind eye to those constraints and to view it as resulting from individual (in)action. By focusing on Joe White, and his efforts, the journalist (like Ron Haskins) is suggesting that escaping from this is all about 'shaping up' - it's peddling the (perhaps particularly American) myth that if you work hard, your situation can improve.

In fact, on just the limited issue of how likely the children of parents of low socio-economic status are to do well in school and to move up the social scale (leaving aside how problematic that notion is), comparative sociological research shows that children born to low income parents in the US are twice as likely as children born in the most European countries, to end up in that same group. 42% of US children observed around age 35 whose parents were in the lowest earnings groups when those children were 15, remain there as adults. [Ermisch, Jantti et al] If you exclude African American children from the sample, the figure is still 38% - and that's presumably only measuring people who are recorded in the census etc, so the figures are likely to be even worse for those who are off the grid. i.e. the chances of escaping poverty in the US are even worse than they are in Western Europe, where they're already pretty bad. What the comparative research cited also shows is clear evidence of the impact of certain policy decisions on these outcomes. Highlighting the individual is just concealing and excusing the multiple failures of society, the state and policy-makers to create the conditions whereby people can flourish or even just live in tolerable circumstances.
posted by melisande at 3:17 AM on April 11 [5 favorites]


One day, she was out doing fieldwork when she spotted her three-year-old crossing Route 130, a major highway, trailing behind her teenage babysitters without anyone holding her hand. "It's just an expectation of maturity that middle-class parents do not expect their kids to have," she says. "When you're poor and you're a single mom, you have to raise your kids to be tougher and more savvy sooner."

I don't even......
posted by jpe at 4:32 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


As for me, with my middle of the road liberalism, middle class life and life long professional commitment to working with the disenfranchised, economically disadvantaged and ethnic/racial minorities it really boils down to this for me: 1) public economic and social policy should focus on achieving a normal (bell shaped) distribution of wealth and income, 2) the economically disadvantaged (regardless of the causes) will stay economically disadvantaged until their birth rate and age of first birth drops, 3) it is much to easy( if not sloppy) to attribute disadvantage to racism rather than economic discrimination, 4) ennobling or vilifying the disadvantaged does nothing to change the situation 5) understanding the life of the poor/minority/disadvantaged may increase empathy but does little to change the situation 6) at some point if the extremes of wealth and disadvantage are to be reconciled there must be rewards for increased personal responsibility, smaller families, rewards for contributing to the common good and sanctions/disincentives on the possession/creation of extreme wealth ( at least 2 S.D. out). And I think all of this is generations and generations out. Until then I am content to share the benefits of being one of the privileged in the US, spending the benefits of that in the country I have come to love (Ireland) and contributing time and money to projects that economically and socially empower women and move us towards a more balanced and bell shaped distribution of wealth and income.
posted by rmhsinc at 4:35 AM on April 11 [6 favorites]


Edin says her willingness to put up with the same routine annoyances as her neighbors helped persuade them to open up. "Lots of people said, 'We know you're the real thing. You're not here just to study us, because you live here, too.'"

This is an odd quote to read in an article that suggests Edin is extraordinary because she moved into a poor neighborhood so she could study the people who lived there.
posted by layceepee at 5:45 AM on April 11


I know folks mean well when they talk about ivory tower research, but social scientists have been studying up close and personal in poor neighbourhoods for decades, maybe even over a century.

And then reporting back uncomfortable truths to governments and policy makers.

And writing books based on the research for laypeople we can all read. And going back to do follow up research. And continually reporting on how convenient policies are the very source of the grinding poverty.

And then some douche comes along and writes a skewed politically driven piece of shit article about how blacks are all making themselves the new slaves and how can something good for white male privilege be bad because we are in a post racial America and those ivory tower intellectuals are actually one source of the problem anyway. Because.

And we fucking lose our minds allowing shit like this the same air time as real research, and policy makers trip over their dicks passing laws that implicitly put those recommendations into place as fast as their white male privilege allows.

I wonder how that happens. Maybe we need to have more social scientists spend more time in the field instead of in their garrets made of elephant tusks. Maybe that's what we need.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:51 AM on April 11 [6 favorites]


The problem with typical approaches isn't that the researchers aren't living in poverty themselves, it's that nobody in the establishment believes poor people when we discuss our own authentic experiences and therefore they all need to be translated into something palatable by a person from outside.

OMG, so much this. HOW many times have I described my experiences of growing up poor, only to be told I must have been some kind of outlier, because those experiences didn't fit the popular narrative?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:52 AM on April 11 [20 favorites]


Just to add something positive, there's an urban farm in my city. This is their second year doing a csa. It's smack dab in the middle of the area where "there was a shooting/stabbing/whatever" always is on the news for our area.

They hire local people from that area and also include a number of shares that you can work in kind for.

Plus they have a stand at the market, meaning they're employing a few more people and fresh, local produce.

I only hope that it grows and prospers because yep...when no one will hire you because you live in the city and there are no jobs in the city, where are you gonna get work?
posted by sio42 at 5:55 AM on April 11 [2 favorites]


Qualitative research is nice, but please remember the statisticians and economists when considering what interventions are likely to be practical and effective.
posted by zscore at 6:08 AM on April 11


Is it actually possible to completely avoid getting up close and personal with impoverished neighborhoods while studying at Hopkins?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:28 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


At the end of the day, people need to get that American society places such little value on black life.

It ain't just blacks.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:28 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


Is it actually possible to completely avoid getting up close and personal with impoverished neighborhoods while studying at Hopkins?

I'm not familiar with the case in Baltimore specifically, but seeing as getting up close and personal requires time and effort (and perhaps the rejection of convenience) I'd be willing to lay a bet.
posted by mr. digits at 6:33 AM on April 11


NOT EVERYONE COMES to the same conclusions. Ron Haskins, a Republican architect of the Clinton-era welfare reform, is an old friend of Edin's but thinks she's being too kind to her subjects. Her book, he says, is "extremely valuable. But I think she put the best possible face on these young men. I think it's possible to be much less sympathetic than she is. Someone has to start demanding that these guys shape up."


Talk about missing the point!
posted by TedW at 6:43 AM on April 11 [3 favorites]


Wow, it's like everything we knew about poverty was right!

If you knew all this shit, why didn't you publish it?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:45 AM on April 11 [5 favorites]


Yes, it would be possible to avoid getting up close and personal with poor neighborhoods working at Hopkins. Easier on some campuses than others, but plenty of people in both Baltimore and DC manage to do no more than drive through poor neighborhoods, regardless of where they work and live.
posted by EvaDestruction at 6:46 AM on April 11


I think it's possible to be much less sympathetic than she is.

I really don't mean this to be snarky, but the fact that this statement is preceded by "a Republican... says" is (so very sadly) unsurprising, and sums up the fundamental differences in approach between right and left on this topic quite succinctly.
posted by adamp88 at 7:16 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


I think most conversations about the "poor" aren't even really about the poor. They're about the people having those conversations.

I grew up in a family that lived below the poverty line. It mostly sucked. But that experience didn't give me any sense of certainty about what should be "done" about poverty. I also didn't come away with certainty about the one misguided political idea held by my ideological opponents that is responsible for all of our problems.

If you knew all this shit, why didn't you publish it?

Because plenty of other people were publishing this shit already. People have been researching poverty for a very long time now.

Here is a 24-year-old newspaper article about "a shortage of 'marriageable' young black men... [that] fosters a cycle of poverty." Applying rational choice models to study general human behavior is such an old idea that Gary Becker won the Econ Nobel for it more than 20 years ago. People have been talking about perverse incentives and welfare traps ever since we've had welfare programs.

Not only are these ideas not revolutionary and foundation-shaking, they don't even challenge conservative ideas about poverty. Half the stuff in the OP article could come out of Charles Murray's mouth for Christ's sake.
posted by leopard at 7:20 AM on April 11 [4 favorites]


I liked looking at all your comments and I have no real dispute here. I also am grateful for the work put into Mother Jones, even though I often can't read it because it hurts me when I got plenty of stuff already just waiting to hurt me.

I'm not a social scientist, but I do understand that "emphatic insight" and "intuition" do not equal...uh I can't remember it's from Hempel talking about Weber.

But, that standard applies to all our off the cuff comments I guess.

My real dispute is what's going on in Camden. It's a meat grinder. It's a disgrace.
posted by sirlikeitalot at 7:26 AM on April 11


My god, academic work doesn't need to be earth shattering or revolutionary. She added to the literature. Job well done. Mission accomplished.

If you think that 1000 word newspaper article is enough knowledge, and that Edin's book adds nothing, well then you don't understand how academic research works, or what the goal of it is.

Also, if you knew all of this, and Edin's book is just a retread of old stuff, then why are these people wrong:

"Doing the Best I Can will change the way we think about unwed fatherhood in the inner city."

"It will be an eye-opener, a detailed portrait we have not seen before.”

"This book smashes the stereotype of poor dads as the ‘hit and run’ or ‘deadbeat’ men who care only about casual sex and have no interest in the resulting kids."

Those quotes are from William Wilson, Andrew Cherlin, and Paula England. All PhD holders, all professors at elite universities, all specialists on poverty.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:35 AM on April 11 [4 favorites]


My god, academic work doesn't need to be earth shattering or revolutionary. She added to the literature. Job well done. Mission accomplished.

Sorry dude. Yeah, you're right. This is just an article about an academic doing some work. No one asked "What If Everything You Knew About Poverty Was Wrong?" and made it the title of a Mother Jones article and a Metafilter post. No one contrasted Edin's work with the labor of people who "draw conclusions from the ivory tower." No one said that she has "shattered many myths about the poor, rocking sociology and public-policy circles." I'm just an asshole who pulled these quotes from thin air, and you sir are a hero for setting me straight.
posted by leopard at 7:42 AM on April 11 [5 favorites]


The problem with typical approaches isn't that the researchers aren't living in poverty themselves, it's that nobody in the establishment believes poor people when we discuss our own authentic experiences and therefore they all need to be translated into something palatable by a person from outside.

Yes, partly because the conclusions of actual poor people wouldn't please the white liberals who lap this stuff up. I work with poor inner-city people every day (mostly black and Hispanic, though not uniformly), and actual poor black people are both clear-eyed about the way the system sets them up for failure *AND* brutally unsparing in their condemnation of the guys who get a girl pregnant at 17 then walk away because "it's not working out." Unlike these nice white ladies, they don't take at face value mutterings about "Well I would *like* to raise my kids, but y'know, it hasn't worked out, so I gotta go, but I sure do want to be a good father, you bet." This kind of wllingness to believe what people say instead of what they do is a sure sign of an outsider.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:11 AM on April 11 [5 favorites]


Wow, it's like everything we knew about poverty was right!

If you knew all this shit, why didn't you publish it?


David Simon beat me to it?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:19 AM on April 11 [4 favorites]


Yes, it would be possible to avoid getting up close and personal with poor neighborhoods working at Hopkins. Easier on some campuses than others, but plenty of people in both Baltimore and DC manage to do no more than drive through poor neighborhoods, regardless of where they work and live.

Maybe I should rephrase that then: Is it actually possible to completely avoid getting up close and personal with impoverished neighborhoods while studying at Hopkins anywhere without actively trying to avoid them?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:24 AM on April 11


Maybe I should rephrase that then: Is it actually possible to completely avoid getting up close and personal with impoverished neighborhoods while studying at Hopkins anywhere without actively trying to avoid them?

In DC it certainly is; I used to work in very, very poor parts of the city but now that I don't I live and work and hang out in a fairly proscribed area that's much wealthier (or actively gentrifying). It's not intentional and I'm not trying to avoid impoverished neighborhoods, it's just that they're in a different part of the city and outside my current sphere of activity. I know plenty of people who haven't spent time in the really poor parts of DC because there's just no reason they'd go there.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:33 AM on April 11


I really don't mean this to be snarky, but the fact that this statement is preceded by "a Republican... says" is (so very sadly) unsurprising, and sums up the fundamental differences in approach between right and left on this topic quite succinctly.

The thing is, contrary to what is implied in some of the comments above, the differences between the left and the right are fundamentally a matter of philosophy. It's not just a matter of understanding objective facts.

Nothing I see in the Mother Jones article serves as proof that the Republican is *wrong*. He just seems like a dick. On one side of the spectrum we have the idea that "there but for the grace of God go I," this notion that we are all human beings shaped heavily by our circumstances, and on the other side we have this idea that people have to take full responsibility for themselves. Generally our facts are too thin to thoroughly demolish either of these perspectives. The liberal technocrat dream seems to carry out a study of some policy intervention that clearly reduces poverty rates by 50% and that can then be applied everywhere, but how many things are that clear cut? So most of these discussions really just boil down to personal statements about the relative virtues of empathy and toughness.
posted by leopard at 8:34 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


...and to move up the social scale (leaving aside how problematic that notion is...)

...create the conditions whereby people can flourish or even just live in tolerable circumstances.


I've been thinking a lot about these ideas, too. A lot of thought around poverty (except for certain periods in history known for social reform) is focused on "How do we get poor people to not be poor anymore?"

Because the idea of "The system we've set up so that a few people can become really, really, really, reeeeally, REALLY rich inevitably results in a f***ton of people being poor, so how do we make it so being poor isn't like Hell on Earth?" is apparently the equivalent of "What's a good marinade recipe for barbecued babies?"
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:47 AM on April 11 [3 favorites]


Because the idea of "The system we've set up so that a few people can become really, really, really, reeeeally, REALLY rich inevitably results in a f***ton of people being poor, so how do we make it so being poor isn't like Hell on Earth?" is apparently the equivalent of "What's a good marinade recipe for barbecued babies?"

I don't know, I don't see a clear link between Mark Zuckerberg's or Warren Buffet's wealth and inner-city poverty. Everything is connected but I don't think it's that connected. Quite frankly a lot of the things that make life difficult for poor people can be directly traced to the behavior and political preferences of middle-class people (I'm thinking the war on drugs, white flight, suburbia, highways).

I do support the idea that we should make the lives of poor people more comfortable and less difficult.
posted by leopard at 8:55 AM on April 11 [2 favorites]


I briefly lived in Friendship Heights. For those that aren't aware of where that is, it's the part of DC where we keep the Neiman Marcus store. Once while riding the metro home two homeless people got on the car and sat behind me where I could overhear their conversation. They were sharing tips and news that one would assume would be useful to the homeless, weather, new bread lines opening, others closing, etc. Both were headed to a church in Friendship Heights where they could get a meal at a certain time and then, as I found out, panhandle from the people coming and going from the chichi stores.

I use this example to point out that while not actively heading to the very poorest parts of town is certainly an option for many if not most folks in DC, not encountering the poorest of DC is something you would have to go out of your way to do or intentionally shut your eyes to. Even in the toniest parts of town, the poor are present. Living outside the White House are tons of homeless people sleeping on air grates. It takes an army of security to keep them out of the inner grounds and even then Obama heads to places like Bladensburg High School where he has to do things like shake hands and talk to poor people. I once say George W. Bush carrying on a jokey banter with a group of low level Federal workers, who statistically would have had to have contained at least a few people living below the poverty level, shocking I know for a man not exactly known for being in touch with the bottom rungs.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:06 AM on April 11


In that case, yes, there are definitely very, very poor people all over DC, even in very wealthy areas, but encountering people living in poverty in rich parts of town is not the same as "getting up close and personal with impoverished neighborhoods".
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:14 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


MisanthropicPainforest >

Those quotes are from William Wilson, Andrew Cherlin, and Paula England. All PhD holders, all professors at elite universities, all specialists on poverty.

It's worth pointing out that they're all praising her work very specifically for demonstrating that poor unwed fathers aren't actually what the media and popular culture tend to say they are. So, not to put too fine a point on it, but this work is extremely valuable in large part because it's demonstrating something that lots of people (including most social scientists and millions of actual poor folks) already understood. This is public sociology, and it's important work that will hopefully improve the lamentably reactionary public discourse around poverty.

Sequence >

The problem with typical approaches isn't that the researchers aren't living in poverty themselves, it's that nobody in the establishment believes poor people when we discuss our own authentic experiences and therefore they all need to be translated into something palatable by a person from outside.

This is an important point. On the other hand, if social science is to be regarded as capable of making real contributions to knowledge, which I think it is, then presumably good work might be capable of empirically corroborating the reality of the patterns which people living in poverty are already familiar with and building on their knowledge; and what's more, looking at social patterns from "high up," so to speak, or by investigating them in a systematic and expansive way can reveal new insights that weren't visible before, even to people who have lived in poverty. So I think Sequence is making a morally powerful point about poor people not being listened to which can't be denied or downplayed, but at the same time, there are important things to know about poverty as a large and systemic social structure that social science is well-suited to describing and characterizing in formal ways.

Vibrissae and MillMan:

In human societies, our implicitly *wired* propensity to obtain status leads to all kinds of imbalances and suffering - as represented by Edin.

Given our human propensity toward achieving status - as well as our propensity toward tribal separatism (fear of "the other) - the best we can do is try to become aware of these now-harmful propensities and do whatever we can to mitigate them. Maybe we can evolve these propensities out of our humanness.


This belief isn't as destructive as the belief that economics is a science (instead of what it is: politics), but it's in the same neighborhood.


I have to respectfully disagree, MillMan. To the extent that we can make generalizations about human social behavior, we can safely say that people exhibit tendencies both toward social stability and schismatic outcomes, and social schisms aren't possible (or at least, don't happen) without defining one kind of person against others. Of course, the extent to which people evince one and not so much the other tendency is high contingent on local conditions, so the putative "drive" to produce principles of distinction that pertain to people themselves can't be taken as a non-contextual principle upon which other things are merely epiphenomenal.

zscore >

Qualitative research is nice, but please remember the statisticians and economists when considering what interventions are likely to be practical and effective.

To be honest, we who do qualitative work would say exactly the same thing to you about ourselves. Ideally, we would see differing methods as merely differing ways of arriving at truth and utility, and so would work together more closely. But that's only possible when we agree about what outcomes we want to effect and what is justifiable in the pursuit of those outcomes.
posted by clockzero at 9:31 AM on April 11 [4 favorites]


Really interesting article, thanks for posting.
posted by vignettist at 9:37 AM on April 11


I do support the idea that we should make the lives of poor people more comfortable and less difficult.

But how are we going to do this?

There's the Achilles heel, right there. Everyone reads this and says - there should be different government policies!

Sure. But what, exactly, will those policies be?

If decent jobs would help stem the decline, how do you get those jobs there? What are those jobs? There are already government-backed programs to redevelop inner cities and create jobs. Have those solved the problem? No? So we need more of them, then? What's that going to cost and who is going to pay for it?

Fifty years after declaring War on Poverty, the U.S. has not conquered poverty, not by a long shot. You know what? We never will. All you can do it mitigate the circumstances, because the reality is, even if you could come up with a policy that would pass muster from both the left and right, then you're faced with the question paying for it (tax the rich! Great idea, I'm all for it - is that going to get through the Republican House and soon-to-be Republican Senate, do you think?)

Can government or better government "solve" poverty? Maybe smarter government. But we don't have smarter government. I'd like to have it, a government that can convince everyone that these investments are necessary and then deliver on them, actually reducing poverty. But will we actually get that consensus, and how likely are we to see the results promised? And if a new front in the War on Poverty is opened and bogs down like the last one - what then?
posted by kgasmart at 9:48 AM on April 11 [3 favorites]


Fifty years after declaring War on Poverty, the U.S. has not conquered poverty, not by a long shot.

Yes but Johnson's War on Poverty was spectacularly successful and helped the lives of millions of people.

I think talking about 'solving' poverty is kinda useless at best and counterproductive at worst.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:51 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


I think I find this piece the most interesting:
In a foreword to the book, Jencks notes that this simple math had been kept out of the political debate for years, as conservatives refused to admit that welfare benefits couldn't support a family, and liberals were reluctant to acknowledge the extent of the deceptions.
It certainly seems to jive with my own experience - seeing people who are working but also collecting nonworking benefits, then seeing how impossible it would be to live solely on the nonworking benefits, but there are no benefits for people who are working. Meanwhile, no one wants to let go of their position because they're worried where the whole thing will wind up.
posted by corb at 9:54 AM on April 11 [4 favorites]


I do support the idea that we should make the lives of poor people more comfortable and less difficult.

But how are we going to do this?

There's the Achilles heel, right there. Everyone reads this and says - there should be different government policies!

Sure. But what, exactly, will those policies be?


Those are good questions. Yes, that is the hard part. But saying the hard part is actually the Achilles heel is rather perverse and tendentious.

If decent jobs would help stem the decline, how do you get those jobs there? What are those jobs? There are already government-backed programs to redevelop inner cities and create jobs. Have those solved the problem? No? So we need more of them, then? What's that going to cost and who is going to pay for it?

Again, those are all good questions. I'm not sure I follow the logic which stipulates that if there aren't already perfect answers we can conclude that the problem is insoluble, because otherwise we would obviously have completely solved it already. That seems like circular reasoning.

Fifty years after declaring War on Poverty, the U.S. has not conquered poverty, not by a long shot. You know what? We never will.

There's no factual basis for that last assertion. I mean, believe whatever you want, sure, but just unilaterally declaring poverty unfixable is not at all convincing unless one already agrees with it.

All you can do it mitigate the circumstances, because the reality is, even if you could come up with a policy that would pass muster from both the left and right, then you're faced with the question paying for it (tax the rich! Great idea, I'm all for it - is that going to get through the Republican House and soon-to-be Republican Senate, do you think?)

This has been an unusually fact-free dismissal of the very idea of ameliorating poverty clad disingenuously in the guise of telling the hard truths. It's the logical equivalent of Zeno's paradox: to solve poverty, first you have to figure out what works, then you have to figure out how to pay for it, but before you can even do that...and, like the original paradox, it's nothing more than radical skepticism untroubled by the weight of reality.

The truth is that we have made lots of progress, but the welfare system in the US has always been aimed at managing poverty, which you seem to think would be a different paradigm than what attains now. You're factually mistaken. If you actually look at the legislation and the explicit agendas outside of the most macro-level rhetoric, it's easy to see that nobody at the top levels of government has ever intended to make poverty go away, despite your implications to the contrary. Perhaps if that did become the explicit goal, conditions would be right to make it happen.
posted by clockzero at 10:13 AM on April 11 [3 favorites]


Perhaps if that did become the explicit goal, conditions would be right to make it happen.

Sure. The poor have always been with us - but with the right government policies, we could eliminate poverty forever.

Welcome to Utopia.

It's right to ameliorate suffering, it's right to try and make individuals' lives more bearable. It's right to try and understand why poverty perpetuates, per the topic of this thread.

But I don't know if you taken a look at "the top levels of government" recently, and if you have you'll notice there aren't too many with the view that if we only adopt Edin's recommendations and implement a raft of innovative new approaches that have never really been tried and increase spending to pay for it. So what's different now than before? We have more "insight" - great. I ask again: How does that get put into play. What ARE the policies? Tell me how - beyond what's already being tried - we generate more jobs in places where people who need them can get hired and don't need a car to get to work.
posted by kgasmart at 10:29 AM on April 11


What ARE the policies? Tell me how

A helicopter, slowly flying over every poor area, with a pilot, and one other person whose job it is to throw money out of the helicopter into the neighborhoods below.

Simple, easy, and dollar for dollar, really effective.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:32 AM on April 11


kgasmart,

I'm not going to claim I have any solution for "solving" poverty (quite frankly I am not a huge fan of the liberal technocratic view on poverty that speaks of "solutions" and "policy interventions"). But you are basically setting up a Strawman Battle between "this policies will solve poverty once and for all" and "we live in the best of all possible worlds, because if there was an anti-poverty policy that was both effective and feasible it would have already been implemented."

Some things change and some things stay the same. Some things change sometimes and stay the same at other times. Some things cannot be changed and some things are easy to change and some things are hard to change. Some things we know we cannot change and some things we don't know we cannot change and some things we know we can change. I mean, you're really not going to have a constructive discussion at this level of abstraction.

As I mentioned above, I grew up in poverty. There were government programs that aided my family and enabled me to move into the upper-middle-class. I've also seen firsthand how hard it can be to help someone who does not help themselves, how hard poor people can work compared to most upper-middle-class people, and how the view that individuals are ultimately responsible for their destinies can be both incredibly helpful and incredibly harmful. This shit isn't easy and just as there's no magic bullet that will create a utopia there's no airtight argument that says we can't possibly make things better for people than they are now.
posted by leopard at 10:41 AM on April 11 [4 favorites]


I'm not going to diss this woman's work, but I would rather read more from actual poor people (or formerly poor) and people of color. Otherwise things are inevitably going to be distorted through a white non-poor filter. I already have one of those.
posted by desjardins at 10:47 AM on April 11


That stuff about the kid going across the highway semi-unsupervised rings pretty true. My wife goes into poor neighborhoods daily for her work and as you go into some of these neighborhoods there are definitely way more kids, even young kids, just sort of wandering about with no adults in sight. Not necessarily good or bad - maybe those kids are more self-sufficient than kids from rich neighborhoods due to need, or cultural differences, or something. Very noticeable though.
posted by freecellwizard at 10:50 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


I think we don't hear from actual poor people more often because of what was mentioned above.

No one wants to take poor people's stories seriously because it doesn't fit the not-poor person's narrative. ("It can't be THAT bad.")

But once you are no longer poor, to the point of making your voice heard, no wants to listen because you're not poor anymore, and it couldn't have been THAT bad, because you're not poor anymore.
posted by sio42 at 10:57 AM on April 11 [7 favorites]


Anyone saying that they would rather hear from poor black people and not from rich white people should put their money where their mouth is and send some money this way:

One Step Away.

"One Step Away is Philadelphia's first street paper aimed at raising awareness of homelessness and providing employment to those in need. With each dollar received, 75¢ goes directly to the vendor. The other 25¢ covers the printing costs. The vendors are people experiencing homelessness or joblessness. While the vast majority of One Step Away vendors are living on the street or in temporary shelters when they start with the project, most are able to use the money earned by distributing One Step Away to secure their own housing."
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:00 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


Or to see if there are street papers in your area: International Network of Street Papers. The DC region's Street Sense has a subscription option for anyone who doesn't encounter vendors regularly.
posted by EvaDestruction at 11:18 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


Anyone saying that they would rather hear from poor black people and not from rich white people should put their money where their mouth is and send some money this way:


Oh for... Most poor people, including most poor black people, are not homeless. And most street papers are very heavily edited by rich white people.

You would get a much better idea of what actual poor people think by reading Pentecostal and Baptist church bulletins, or watching the many YouTube videos they produce. Hell, just trawling through WorldStar would give you a less manicured view. But you might not encounter such an unbroken landscape of your own thoughts being gracefully served to you by black hands.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:31 AM on April 11


Most poor people, including most poor black people, are not homeless.

Why is relevant how exactly? because all homeless people are poor.

And most street papers are very heavily edited by rich white people.

One Step Away is not, which is why I linked to it.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:39 AM on April 11


No one wants to take poor people's stories seriously because it doesn't fit the not-poor person's narrative. ("It can't be THAT bad.")

There are other uncomfortable realities that don't fit non-poor-person narratives -- like the fact that people with problems are often their own worst enemy.
posted by leopard at 12:13 PM on April 11 [3 favorites]


Sure. The poor have always been with us - but with the right government policies, we could eliminate poverty forever.

Welcome to Utopia.


I'd like to point out that you are the one who spoke about getting rid of poverty, not me. I said that if the explicit policy goals were aligned with reducing or ameliorating poverty, it might be more likely that such would occur, since the goal has more or less always been managing it since we got serious social benefits in the 20th century. It's not at all utopic to expect that we can significantly reduce poverty as a structural phenomenon; this is different from claiming that we can ensure nobody will ever be poor or something like that.

It's right to ameliorate suffering, it's right to try and make individuals' lives more bearable. It's right to try and understand why poverty perpetuates, per the topic of this thread.

All agreed, so far.

But I don't know if you taken a look at "the top levels of government" recently, and if you have you'll notice there aren't too many with the view that if we only adopt Edin's recommendations and implement a raft of innovative new approaches that have never really been tried and increase spending to pay for it.

I'm not sure if you think you're disagreeing with something I said here, because I pretty clearly stated that, indeed, the political elite are not interested (and have not really been interested) in reducing poverty, nor in taking to heart the kind of insights Edin is uncovering and publicizing.

So what's different now than before? We have more "insight" - great. I ask again: How does that get put into play. What ARE the policies? Tell me how - beyond what's already being tried - we generate more jobs in places where people who need them can get hired and don't need a car to get to work.

I have to say, your approach is very plainly technocratic interventionism, so it's a little odd that you would throw around accusations of utopian thinking. That's not to say that your implicit claim that with the right ideas we could formulate good policy interventions is actually false.

Now I have to point something out, and you're probably not going to like it, but I don't think you know much about the actual legislation that underlies welfare policy in the US, because if you were, you'd understand why Edin's research and recommendations are both relevant and directly actionable. Here's the first few lines of Clinton's 1996 welfare reform legislation:

The Congress makes the following findings:
(1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.
(2) Marriage is an essential institution of a successful
society which promotes the interests of children.
(3) Promotion of responsible fatherhood and motherhood
is integral to successful child rearing and the well-being of
children.


She's speaking directly to the existing structure, and demolishing the flimsy, specious, and paternalistic justifications that are at the very core of the policy.

It's fine if you're interested in thinking about what can be done to reduce poverty in terms of job creation. That's not unimportant. But that's just one piece of a much bigger structure, it's not what Edin's work is primarily about, and it's not necessarily the best place to start changing policy, especially if this awful garbage about promoting marriage being the basis for "fixing" poverty continues to inform the logic of the interventions.
posted by clockzero at 12:18 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


With respect to the costs of solving poverty. The U.S. Federal budget is $3.8 trillion. The U.S. population is 314 million. The threshold for individual poverty is $11,700.

$11,700 * 314 million = 3.67 trillion

In other words, the U.S. government could solve poverty simply by cutting everybody a check. No tax increase required.

Mind you, it would have to do practically nothing else, but there are plenty of people who argue that that's a good thing.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:23 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


People with problems don't need to be poor to be their own worst enemy. And that's not an uncomfortable narrative.

People with problems being their own enemy who have those problems exacerbated by a society and system that wants to act like poor people don't deserve the same help as a wealthier person is the uncomfortable narrative which many on the right don't want to hear.

They prefer to think the poor are just people with problems who need to just do better and try harder.
posted by sio42 at 12:27 PM on April 11 [4 favorites]


That stuff about the kid going across the highway semi-unsupervised rings pretty true. My wife goes into poor neighborhoods daily for her work and as you go into some of these neighborhoods there are definitely way more kids, even young kids, just sort of wandering about with no adults in sight. Not necessarily good or bad - maybe those kids are more self-sufficient than kids from rich neighborhoods due to need, or cultural differences, or something.

Actually, I think a lot of it has to do with racism.

I'm Hispanic, but my daughter's bio-father was white. She looks like an adorable, perhaps mildly tanned, idealized white child. When I started having her walk the whole two blocks to school by herself at an entirely appropriate age, I had concerned people checking to make sure I knew, if she was okay, if it was dangerous, etc. Telling me about the family residential mixed Hispanic/black dangerous and frightening and raucous neighborhood.

I see lots of kids visibly identifiable as black or Hispanic all over the streets much younger. Police and Kindly Neighbors (tm) aren't stopping them to make sure they haven't been kidnapped and abandoned. Nobody's questioning them. Nobody's questioning their parents. They live and let live and figure stuff out on their own.

I don't think it's any kind of special skills minority kids gain. I think it's because while we hyper-obsess over protecting the ideal childhood, there's kind of a notion in this country that it doesn't apply to minorities. There's also that thing where people estimate the age of minority children as higher - there was an FPP about it recently, as I recall.
posted by corb at 12:44 PM on April 11 [3 favorites]


People with problems being their own enemy who have those problems exacerbated by a society and system that wants to act like poor people don't deserve the same help as a wealthier person is the uncomfortable narrative which many on the right don't want to hear.

Yeah, but this is mostly between you and your political opposites. Coming to grips with the just-world fallacy is surely a transformative process that radically elevates one's soul above the little-mindedness of everyday life, but it doesn't actually do that much for poor people.
posted by leopard at 12:49 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


In other words, the U.S. government could solve poverty simply by cutting everybody a check. No tax increase required.

Your calculation should probably account for the fact that a huge chunk of that federal budget number is already spent simply cutting checks to people.
posted by leopard at 12:51 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


Your calculation should probably account for the fact that a huge chunk of that federal budget number is already spent simply cutting checks to people.

I assume you mean corporate welfare and not, say, TANF, which is a miniscule .47% of the Federal budget.
posted by clockzero at 1:02 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


Or maybe I was referring to an obscure government program called Social Security. Medicare or Medicaid fit the bill too.
posted by leopard at 1:04 PM on April 11 [3 favorites]


Well, social security is a method of returning money to people that they already paid in, so saying that the government is "cutting them a check" is somewhat misleading, though perhaps not literally false. As for Medicare and Medicaid, the people getting the "checks" there are health care providers, not the beneficiaries, so that doesn't really fit the bill at all. We spend almost a trillion dollars a year on Medicare and Medicaid, and that money goes right into the pockets of corporations and other private, profit-oriented actors that only exist in that form because of intense and ceaseless lobbying counter to the interest of the public. So you're not entirely wrong that the government is blithely cutting checks, but I'm not sure if it's appreciated that we're not cutting them to the poor.

I think cash disbursements have potential in terms of ameliorating poverty, but it's a mechanism that the US doesn't really utilize (with the possible exceptions of TANF and the EITC), so the claim that we spend a "huge chunk" of the federal budget on "cutting people checks" is difficult to understand. If the government did decide to use the cash disbursement mechanism, it probably wouldn't be advisable to do exactly what Zalzidrax (I think somewhat light-heartedly) proposed.
posted by clockzero at 1:16 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


At the end of the day, people need to get that American society places such little value on black life.

It ain't just blacks.


I think this is a complicated issue, in that, by the numbers, there are many, many poor people who aren't black, but black people have been used (politically, in the media, etc) as the "face" of poverty in order to capitalize on racism to make the poor seem less sympathetic (to the general public) and more "other" as a group, and therefore less "worthy" of help.

When AFDC became synonymous with a poor black mother (aka, a "Welfare Queen") instead of a poor white one, it suddenly became a whole lot easier to cut. That wasn't the *only* reason why or how it got cut, but the reason for using that (racialized) imagery in the media was to capitalize on racism in order to make the public more comfortable cutting support programs. By and large, people don't *want* to cut income support programs, people *want* to help ameliorate poverty, especially for the "sympathetic" poor, like children or workers. So if politicians or other influential people want to cut support programs (which they often do, for ideological and financial reasons), they have to make those "sympathetic" groups less sympathetic (ie, tell people these are *black* children and *lazy* parents the support programs help), and either erase or completely vilify other poor groups (like ex-offenders).

If our society weren't racist, that tactic wouldn't work, but because it is racist, it does. Or at least it does to an extent -- not everybody buys into it, of course. But think of the poor white men who vote for the Tea Party or who support arch-conservatives (ie, politicians who run on anti-labor and anti-income support platforms) -- that imagery allows many of them to "otherize" the poor *even though they themselves are poor* and makes them willing and maybe even happy to cut programs *they themselves or their relatives/friends/communities would likely benefit from.* Pitting poor people against each other along racial lines is something that has been going on since slavery, and people continue to do it, because apparently, it still works.

Also, because our society is racist, black people *are* more likely than other groups to suffer things like multi-generational poverty and to live in concentrated poverty (which are extremely difficult types of poverty to escape), and *do* get paid less on average than whites (in the same way that women get paid less than men on average). So to a certain extent, connecting race with poverty *isn't* wrong, people do pay a financial price for being black. (I can look up the data to support this, this is coming from papers I've read and not just common sense -- so if anyone wants the links just memail me. But this is also common sense, so I'm not going to bother preemptively putting a lot of citations here unless people want them).

The truth is that we have made lots of progress, but the welfare system in the US has always been aimed at managing poverty, which you seem to think would be a different paradigm than what attains now. You're factually mistaken. If you actually look at the legislation and the explicit agendas outside of the most macro-level rhetoric, it's easy to see that nobody at the top levels of government has ever intended to make poverty go away, despite your implications to the contrary. Perhaps if that did become the explicit goal, conditions would be right to make it happen.

To piggy back on this, or maybe complicate it, I guess:

Our (mainstream) paradigm in the US right now is that our programs are aimed at ameliorating *absolute* poverty, which basically means that our programs are about making sure people don't literally starve or freeze to death, that everyone can get the *bare minimum* they need to *survive.* It is possible to "solve" poverty in that paradigm, in that as long as you give everyone enough money or housing or food (or whatever you think is necessary to bare survival, which might also include things like health care and education/job training, or might not) you've arguably "solved" poverty.

Many politicians and other influential people in the US may not even want to solve poverty in that sense, and are arguably not even all that keen on working to ameliorate it at this point. Many people seem to me to be working from an ideological (and maybe moral) paradigm that I frankly don't even understand, where the poor are basically to be exploited as labor or source of inelastic demand for certain goods and otherwise assumed to "take care of themselves" somehow. That kind of "dog eat dog" world is a view that's so far outside my wheelhouse that I can't even comment on it really, except to say that it's not a paradigm that's compatible with any kind of income or social support and so it's only relevant in a practical sense (as in, people working within that paradigm are in office and their votes count, and so they have to be included in the vote tallies when it comes to legislation) -- there's no way to engage with it in a policy development sense, though, because the ideology is explicitly anti-poor/pro-financial-elite and there is not going to be an anti-poverty program that those politicians and people are going to support. Policy can't solve ideological or moral or values differences like that, it just doesn't have that kind of reach.

The paradigm in a lot of other places (most of Western Europe, for example), is that they're aiming to allow all citizens (maybe residents as well) to fully participate in society, and so they are trying to keep *relative* poverty in check. That means that they don't want people becoming so poor that they can't participate in civil life, meaning that they can't vote or they can't be part of the culture, etc. It's not really possible to "solve" poverty in that paradigm, because unless everyone has the same income and the same luck and is basically the same person, some people are going to be better off relative to other people and there will always be a "lower class." As a society, you're always going to have to be trying to reduce inequality and keep the lower class (and the elite) from diverging so far from the middle that everyone can't participate in the national culture.

We (meaning ordinary people, maybe everyone) switch mentally between those paradigms all the time, because we're going off common sense and moral/social values as much as anything else when we think of poverty. So we (as an aggregate) tend to think things like, everyone should have enough to eat (paradigm 1). At the same time, we tend to think, everyone needs to work to eat (paradigm 2). At the same time, we tend to think, if all a person has to eat is rice, then they're too poor even if they have enough rice -- having enough to eat means being able to eat basically like the "rest of us" (paradigm 3). If we're working from three different paradigms, one of which is trying *not* to solve poverty and another one of which sets up poverty as unsolvable, then of course we're not going to ever be able to solve poverty in a way that us ordinary, paradigm-mixing people could understand as "solved."

Poverty isn't going to be "solved" because our understanding of what poverty is and how it functions within the society as a whole (ie, the poor as fellow members of society who deserve society's basic protections v. the poor as a group "we" benefit from exploiting v. the poor as fellow members of society who should be supported in a way that allows them to participate in their/our society) is complex, and that means we have multiple goals at the same time and shift our goalposts all over the place. That's not cause for cynicism, however.

To bring it back to the link, I do think that personal experience tends to be undervalued in policy and the social sciences right now, in favor of quantitative research/data, and in that sense, I think it's *possible* that Edin is an iconoclast in that, by being so explicitly *qualitative* in her research she's going against the current social science research trends. It's not that other people aren't doing qualitative research or that we've never been interested in qualitative research in the social sciences, it's just that quantitative research and "data driven policy" is "the thing" right now, and she's a relative big shot who's not very interested in that. As a sociologist, she also gets more leeway in that, but poverty research is multidisciplinary enough that it's still a big deal that she's veering so strongly toward the qualitative.

I also tend to be *cough* a bit cynical when it comes to self-reports of how people parent or how involved they are with their children or how they feel about having children, because those are incredibly freighted topics and people all want to say "the right things." I could knock on every door on my block and I doubt there would be too many people saying anything but children are a blessing and they break their backs for theirs, though whether that's reflected in their actual behavior or not would be up for a lot of debate.

However, I think Edin is doing a great thing by paying attention to people's perspectives on their *own* situations, and by emphasizing that there are many, many different perspectives on any given behavior, and that the accepted "truth" is but one perspective among many. So, my former English major self is happy with how she's tackling the problem of point-of-view, which I think is a *major* problem with social science research generally, in that there's a desire to try to collapse all points of view into a single data point or a single "take," which I think tends to privilege the status quo and the "accepted wisdom" of a situation over other perspectives, and to erase or at least elide over those other perspectives (including the perspectives of the people actually living in the context that's being discussed).
posted by rue72 at 1:20 PM on April 11 [10 favorites]


I'm not sure what was so hard to understand about my comment, clockzero. If you replaced all federal govt spending with a program that wrote 12k checks to everyone, you wouldn't have elimintated poverty at all, because there would no longer be Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, three items that make up *half* of the federal budget in the first place. What would a poor old person with medical bills do?
posted by leopard at 1:41 PM on April 11


Western nations did a lot in the New Deal/postwar era to improve the lives of all citizens without necessarily raising the private incomes of individuals. Many nations instituted national health plans. Public education was, and in many places remains, a quality investment. It used to go a lot further, with free city and state colleges for high achievers. Public libraries and museums had the funding they needed. And there are more, many more things we could do to make life so much better for every citizen that the size one's private income, while still relevant and important, would be less of a deciding factor between life and death, or between a life of human dignity and one of inhuman degradation.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:57 PM on April 11 [4 favorites]


I meant that it was hard for me to tell what programs were being implicated through "cutting checks to people," and what that was understood to imply about the nature of the benefit. It's a somewhat ambiguous phrase when we're talking about policy at such a fine-grained level, that's all. And I agree that replacing all federal spending with direct cash benefits, just like that, would be extremely disruptive and absolutely not a good historical development in the interest of ameliorating poverty anyway for a number of reasons I won't go into here.

So, I think we're agreeing on that, normatively. However, I am not sure if we agree empirically about what Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are and what they do. I was saying that characterizing them as programs that cut checks to people was a vague statement and possibly not really accurate. I would contrast them with direct cash benefit programs, not characterize them as forms of the same.
posted by clockzero at 2:07 PM on April 11


"Yes, partly because the conclusions of actual poor people wouldn't please the white liberals who lap this stuff up. I work with poor inner-city people every day (mostly black and Hispanic, though not uniformly), and actual poor black people are both clear-eyed about the way the system sets them up for failure *AND* brutally unsparing in their condemnation of the guys who get a girl pregnant at 17 then walk away because "it's not working out." Unlike these nice white ladies, they don't take at face value mutterings about "Well I would *like* to raise my kids, but y'know, it hasn't worked out, so I gotta go, but I sure do want to be a good father, you bet." This kind of wllingness to believe what people say instead of what they do is a sure sign of an outsider."

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you're here to speak truth to liberal orthodoxy, but if you bothered to read the article instead of just letting your knee jerk, you'd see that she is basing her conclusions on what people do, not what they say — the fathers go on to have more kids, and with each one, focus a higher proportion of their resources on the youngest. That speaks to the pattern she described, not your moralizing dismissal of irresponsibility.

But tell us more about your black friends. They certainly wouldn't tell you what they thought you would want to hear, not like a nice white lady. I mean, they know enough to be completely candid with the nice white man you are, right?
posted by klangklangston at 3:48 PM on April 11 [3 favorites]


When folks talk about how hard it is for government to fight poverty, I'm reminded of some comments made by a gentleman at Rice University in 1962 about another task believe to be impossible.

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win"
posted by Megafly at 4:13 PM on April 11


"Irresponsibility" is a fundamentally moralistic term. Whether or not someone is irresponsible is not generally an objective fact, it's a moral judgment based on a subjective vision of how the world *should* be.

Sociological research that determines that poor people are complex human beings with virtues and flaws just like everyone else is great, but it doesn't settle the question of whether behavior should be considered irresponsible or not.

And while it may be enlightened to not attribute 100 percent of poverty to the freely chosen actions of individual poor people, "irresponsibility" is still a widely applied concept and it's not clear why it should be off the table for just the poor. I've never seen anyone here respond to a comment with "well of course you believe what you believe, you are a product of your circumstances and you really can't help doing what you do, I'm also a product of my circumstances and I also can't help but act the way I do, but we're all doing the best we can, it just happens that we have divergent views". I've seen thousands of comments that imply that the commenter occupies some sort of high ground and that anyone who disagrees is dumb or evil or both. So what is it about being poor that requires a different set of standards? Part of it seems to be that there's something so awful about poverty, something so antithetical to our sense of place in the world, that it calls forth feelings of unworldliness.
posted by leopard at 4:42 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


And while it may be enlightened to not attribute 100 percent of poverty to the freely chosen actions of individual poor people, "irresponsibility" is still a widely applied concept and it's not clear why it should be off the table for just the poor.

Speaking for myself, I don't think it's unenlightened to argue that poverty is 100% attributable to freely-chosen actions, it's merely empirically false. When there are literally no jobs for millions of people, for instance, I find it irrational to the point of nonsense to claim that they must not want to be employed.
posted by clockzero at 7:26 PM on April 11 [2 favorites]


""Irresponsibility" is a fundamentally moralistic term. Whether or not someone is irresponsible is not generally an objective fact, it's a moral judgment based on a subjective vision of how the world *should* be."

… yes, which is why responding to an argument that the pattern of behavior isn't simply irresponsible with, "that's pretty fucking irresponsible," is empty moralizing.

"Sociological research that determines that poor people are complex human beings with virtues and flaws just like everyone else is great, but it doesn't settle the question of whether behavior should be considered irresponsible or not. "

When it describes a set of motivations within which a pattern of action is actually striving to take responsibility, but has a negative effect, it makes charges of "irresponsibility" irrelevant.

Further, because it's a moralizing term, and presumes a shared morality that may not connect with the nominal targets of said moralizing, it can actually be counter-productive itself. Irresponsible to over-emphasize irresponsibility, even.

"And while it may be enlightened to not attribute 100 percent of poverty to the freely chosen actions of individual poor people, "irresponsibility" is still a widely applied concept and it's not clear why it should be off the table for just the poor."

It should be off the table when it's ineffective and needlessly reductive. That's got less to do with Hard Determinism vs. The Poor, and more to do with, "We agree this behavior has unnecessary costs, what can be done to reduce those costs?" This is especially true when it's pretty unlikely that any of the people nominally addressed are pretty likely to not be in this conversation — it's unlikely that there are any poor, single dads from Camden who can leap in here to correct misconceptions.

"I've never seen anyone here respond to a comment with "well of course you believe what you believe, you are a product of your circumstances and you really can't help doing what you do, I'm also a product of my circumstances and I also can't help but act the way I do, but we're all doing the best we can, it just happens that we have divergent views"."

I can't help it if you're not paying attention. The easiest example would be that people tend to like the sports teams that they grew up rooting for. While I'll joke that Ohio State fans are depraved, unamerican fascists, that cultural value is pretty much the definition of "product of circumstance."

"I've seen thousands of comments that imply that the commenter occupies some sort of high ground and that anyone who disagrees is dumb or evil or both."

Leaving aside the generally known fact that Ohio State fans are dumb and evil (or both), there are many views that are dumb, slightly fewer that could be safely called "evil," and that there are also viewpoints or value systems that are disagreeable but neither is not a surprise nor a contradiction.

"So what is it about being poor that requires a different set of standards? "

Being poor is neither posting on MetaFilter nor being dumb and/or evil?

"Part of it seems to be that there's something so awful about poverty, something so antithetical to our sense of place in the world, that it calls forth feelings of unworldliness."

Maybe for you, but not for me. I know plenty of dumb and/or evil poor people, but I also know plenty of dumb and/or evil rich people. (Likewise, irresponsible.) Money isn't a good moral marker.
posted by klangklangston at 9:16 PM on April 11 [3 favorites]


As I mentioned above, I grew up in a family of five living well below the poverty line. It's bullshit to think that having money and being a good person are synonymous or even closely related. It's even more bullshit to think that my family was living in poverty just because of "society" and not at all because of actions that my parents took and didn't take. It's also bullshit to think that feelings of personal responsibility are completely irrelevant to how people behave.

*All* moralizing is empty. Maybe if you were in Newt Gingrich's shoes you'd do what he did, who are you to judge? Maybe he suffers from "husband thirst."

By the way, people do tend to like the sports teams they grew up rooting for. They also tend to like the political teams they grew up rooting for. But we still hold people responsible for their political opinions, despite the fact that the evidence strongly suggests that political ideology is largely a product of circumstance.
posted by leopard at 3:40 AM on April 12 [1 favorite]


Yeah, it's pretty obvious that there's no shortage of dumb, irresponsible rich people. And people– especially people on this site– are rightly quick to say that, for example, banksters' irresponsibility has profound consequences and regulations should be built that hem in the danger caused by behaving badly.

But klang seems to think the consequences of bad decision-making by the poor (and the rich?) is like what sports team you cheer for– something amusing and inconsequential. An attitude you could only take if you think that children whose parents don't have the resources to raise them are a funny little fact of life, like jowls, not something you'd want to relieve.

Now obviously, moral hectoring via PSAs is not going to solve all problems, or even a third of them, when the economic system is so brutally unfair. But it's equally obvious that even if you're dropping palettes full of money over poor areas, people who have six babies by age 24 are going to be poor forever. If you are not willing to deal with that, then you do not care about alleviating the ill effects of poverty, and are just using the poor as rhetorical chess pieces in your social positioning battle with other white people, playing endless games of "Who Cares More" blissfully indifferent to what works.

The comparison to bankster irresponsibility or Newt Gingrich is telling, though, because two great planks of much commentary here is that 1) personal decisions made by poor people are irrelevant to their lives or anyone else's and 2) only black poor people are in the category of people whose personal decisions don't matter. Draw your own conclusions about why so many people who want to help are so eager to disempower.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:54 AM on April 12


"As I mentioned above, I grew up in a family of five living well below the poverty line. It's bullshit to think that having money and being a good person are synonymous or even closely related. It's even more bullshit to think that my family was living in poverty just because of "society" and not at all because of actions that my parents took and didn't take. It's also bullshit to think that feelings of personal responsibility are completely irrelevant to how people behave."

Wait, so for you, while responsibility is moral, it has nothing to do with being a good person? Morality doesn't have anything to do with being good?

And where did I say it was entirely society and not your family's actions? Can you point that out to me? What I did say was that heaping moral opprobrium over responsibility should be off the table when it's needlessly reductive and counter-productive. Maybe you yelling at your folks about their irresponsibility making them poor has brought them to the middle class and jazzed up a lot of family reunions, but in this case the "deadbeat dads" already hear that from pretty much all sides, and their pattern of behavior is one that looks to them like seeking responsibility, even as it is ultimately irresponsible.

"*All* moralizing is empty. Maybe if you were in Newt Gingrich's shoes you'd do what he did, who are you to judge? Maybe he suffers from "husband thirst.""

Well, no, plenty of moralizing is justified. Dumping your wife while she's in the cancer ward is pretty fucking terrible. But what you don't seem to be grasping here is the difference between individual actions and public policy: I don't think that we prevent many shitty divorces by hollering about Gingrich being a shit. Perhaps you'd like to argue otherwise.

"By the way, people do tend to like the sports teams they grew up rooting for. They also tend to like the political teams they grew up rooting for. But we still hold people responsible for their political opinions, despite the fact that the evidence strongly suggests that political ideology is largely a product of circumstance."

You complained about never seeing people treated as having diverging views that were essentially legitimate and a product of circumstance. I pointed out a counter-example. Your original line there was pretty clearly facetious, and ostensibly justification for your moral opprobrium based on the commenting standards of MetaFilter. I just pointed out that it was a dumb justification.
posted by klangklangston at 10:00 AM on April 12


I think I grasp the distinction between public policy and individual actions pretty well. Let me give it a shot: public policy preferences are something that bourgeois liberals can get personally invested in, because it gives them something to fight bourgeois conservatives over and feel superior about. Meanwhile, the individual actions of poor people are just things that matter a great deal to poor people, so why wouid anyone commenting here give a flying fuck?

Also, you are surely right about how moralizing is generally useless at changing behavior. Father thirst, divorce, Newt Gingrich, my own parents' behavior -- all impervious to moralizing. Since moralizing can't change behavior, it just serves the useless purpose of making us feel good about themselves. But I think we would agree that moralizing can have an impact in one area, and that's when it comes to building support for public policy that helps poor people. In this one case, moralizing is an extremely effective and invaluable tool for changing the thoughts and behavior of others, and we can't pass up using it.

(Sometimes I wonder if moralizing in this area is actually any more effective than moralizing in other areas; could it also just be something that people are invested in more because it gives them good feelings of self-worth than because it does a lot to help people and reduce suffering? No no of course not; only Republicans fall victim to that mental trap.)
posted by leopard at 12:26 PM on April 12 [2 favorites]


As an aside, I don't know how the Camden dads would fit into conversations here if they were to drop by somehow. But here's a data point about how a compassionate and pious liberal might react to 2 contrary comments from someone with some experience being poor:

Maybe you yelling at your folks about their irresponsibility making them poor has brought them to the middle class and jazzed up a lot of family reunions

The depth of understanding and compassion is really just so profound. It's like looking into the face of God, if God was a smug POS.
posted by leopard at 1:28 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]


, the individual actions of poor people are just things that matter a great deal to poor people, so why would anyone commenting here give a flying fuck?

Leopard, I think I'm in love with you. I keep thinking of Isiah Washington's speech towards the end of "Get On The Bus".

you are surely right about how moralizing is generally useless at changing behavior. Father thirst, divorce, Newt Gingrich, my own parents' behavior -- all impervious to moralizing.

I'm not entirely sure this is true. Gingrich's womanizing pretty much torpedoed his chances of getting Christian conservatives to vote for him. While this doesn't do the first Mrs. Gingrich much good, future would-be candidates looked at that and thought "Geez, I'd better keep it in my pants lest I end up a stain on the pavement like Newt." That's the thing about moralizing---it's not meant to save sinners as much as discourage future sinners from making the same mistake. Meanwhile moral hectoring in addition to public policy has worked wonders with regards to drinking & driving and smoking.

Whether it would be effective at teen pregnancy and negligent fatherhood is more debatable, though. It's been tried, not by bougie liberals but by the churches and community organizers that are the community's bedrock, with little effect. That's where research like Edin's could actually be useful, if done with less wide-eyed credulity. If 18-year-old guys really are willing and eager to be fathers to their children, why are they fucking up, and what can convince them to stop fucking up? An important question, which can't really be answered until you're willing to say that a man who has a kid and then doesn't get around to taking care of it is fucking up.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 5:34 PM on April 12


Let me give it a shot: public policy preferences are something that bourgeois liberals can get personally invested in, because it gives them something to fight bourgeois conservatives over and feel superior about.

It also has the benefit of enacting liberal public policies towards the poor, which in addition to making feel liberals superior, has the added benefit of HELPING LIFT MILLIONS OF PEOPLE OUT OF POVERTY.

Not like that is important or anything.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:25 AM on April 13 [10 favorites]


the claim that we spend a "huge chunk" of the federal budget on "cutting people checks" is difficult to understand.

I think when people say that, they are speaking from frustration, not necessarily from a viewpoint of strict accuracy. Just like when people say that "half the federal budget is welfare." They don't just mean TANF, they mean food stamps and medicaid and social security. They mean that more than half the federal government's money is going into programs that are attempting to affect the poor - because whether or not Social Security just returns money paid into it may be debatable, but no one really cares about social security for people who already have a secure retirement, it's all "keep old ladies from eating tins of cat food."
posted by corb at 7:02 AM on April 14


corb: when people say that "half the federal budget is welfare." They don't just mean TANF, they mean food stamps and medicaid and social security... They mean that more than half the federal government's money is going into programs that are attempting to affect the poor

Except they're still wrong unless they also include Medicare, which they're definitely not talking about when they make statements like this. The conflation of Social Security (which most of them don't have the courage to say they want to eliminate) with other forms of anti-poverty spending is intentionally misleading.

And either way, the statement is disingenuous, because these programs have their own dedicated taxes to fund them, and there's no offer on the table of using that same money on something else. You can't make an argument about the percentage of total spending which relies on the funding for that spending being taken away if we suddenly decided anti-poverty spending wasn't important.

corb: because whether or not Social Security just returns money paid into it may be debatable, but no one really cares about social security for people who already have a secure retirement, it's all "keep old ladies from eating tins of cat food."

Actually, a majority of the public wants keep Social Security and Medicare from being means-tested, not because they want to make sure older rich people get even richer, but because making it a universal benefit increases the program's political viability, which means it's more likely they get their own benefits, regardless of what their income is now or will be in the future. As soon as you start deciding who can and can't get a benefit, it's easy to chip away at the public support using divide and conquer, and that's exactly what the GOP has done with the various means-tested programs. In this case, it's actually the GOP who would love to take these programs away from the wealthy if they could, but only as a Trojan horse with which to undermine them politically so that they can take them away from everyone.
posted by tonycpsu at 7:50 AM on April 14 [4 favorites]


I, personally, do include Medicare along with Social Security when I think about the federal government's percentage of safety-net spending. I don't generally call it 'welfare spending', but we're at the potato/po-tah-to sort of differentiation there.

Why do you say you can't make an argument about percentage of spending which relies on funding being cut? I mean, I could understand why you might not agree with that argument, but it seems weird to suggest that it's impossible.
posted by corb at 8:19 AM on April 14


corb: but we're at the potato/po-tah-to sort of differentiation there.

That might be true if there had been a decades-long campaign to make people recoil at the sight of a potato. The word "welfare" has negative connotations that can't be divorced from the political realities of today, so just because you don't "generally" use it doesn't change the fact that it's being used to tie popular spending (on seniors) to less spending (on the poor.)

corb: Why do you say you can't make an argument about percentage of spending which relies on funding being cut? I mean, I could understand why you might not agree with that argument, but it seems weird to suggest that it's impossible.

Of course people can make flawed arguments -- I obviously wasn't saying people are physically incapable of doing so.

Let's assume we did eliminate all safety net spending -- suddenly, defense/security spending would be well over half the federal budget. But we didn't increase the actual size of that spending at all. The relevant metric is the real amount of the spending, and when you see people trying to inflate the real amount of "welfare" spending by including very popular universal benefits only when they're talking about the costs (but not when they talk about who the programs benefit) you know there's some serious bullshit being shoveled.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:36 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


I think you're doing that thing where you're arguing with someone who is not here, and since I'm not that person, I don't know what to tell you, except perhaps that it's rare I'm accused here of catering to the popular and I appreciate the novelty.

I think many people, including myself, have an idea of rough proportions we think the government should be spending money on, and taxing for. Sometimes, I'll admit, those proportions may be unrealistically laughable in terms of what could or should happen - (I remember at some activist group, doing this thing with "How many pennies out of a dollar would you like to give this program?") but I think that's why things like the proportional size of the defense budget or the proportional size of the safety net budget bother some people (again, including myself) regardless of their numerical size. It's about how much priority the government should be assigning to each area, rather than how many billions of dollars are flowing there.
posted by corb at 8:52 AM on April 14


corb: I think you're doing that thing where you're arguing with someone who is not here, and since I'm not that person, I don't know what to tell you, except perhaps that it's rare I'm accused here of catering to the popular and I appreciate the novelty.

As anyone who reads the first paragraph I quoted you on can plainly see, you came to the defense of people who conflate Social Security spending (which they approve of) with other safety net spending (which they don't) in order to artificially inflate the amount of "welfare" spending -- using Social Security's price tag to make other forms of support sound more expensive than they actually are.

You may not personally care about whether cuts are popular, but you are explicitly defending that flawed logic, and since you tend to get into trouble with the "I don't really believe this, but I'll argue on behalf of people who do" routine, maybe it's best that we drop this.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:59 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


"But klang seems to think the consequences of bad decision-making by the poor (and the rich?) is like what sports team you cheer for– something amusing and inconsequential. An attitude you could only take if you think that children whose parents don't have the resources to raise them are a funny little fact of life, like jowls, not something you'd want to relieve."

No, I think that moralizing at poor people is generally a poor solution to the costs of the behavior being condemned. Since you consistently end up wildly off-base when parsing my comments, perhaps you should employ someone to run them by so that you don't embarrass yourself with replies like these.

"Now obviously, moral hectoring via PSAs is not going to solve all problems, or even a third of them, when the economic system is so brutally unfair. But it's equally obvious that even if you're dropping palettes full of money over poor areas, people who have six babies by age 24 are going to be poor forever. If you are not willing to deal with that, then you do not care about alleviating the ill effects of poverty, and are just using the poor as rhetorical chess pieces in your social positioning battle with other white people, playing endless games of "Who Cares More" blissfully indifferent to what works."

So, I grew up poor, in a Section 8 neighborhood. My best friend's mom had three kids by 24 as a single mom (her fourth came much later, in her early 40s). She's pulled herself out of poverty by getting a secretarial job at the local university then going to school for a grad degree. Does she not count because she didn't have six kids? Or are you just reducing people to stereotypes because for your vaunted moralistic compassion, you're more invested in creating a moral distinction between you and them?

And again, let's see some evidence that moralizing works over policy.

"The comparison to bankster irresponsibility or Newt Gingrich is telling, though, because two great planks of much commentary here is that 1) personal decisions made by poor people are irrelevant to their lives or anyone else's and 2) only black poor people are in the category of people whose personal decisions don't matter. Draw your own conclusions about why so many people who want to help are so eager to disempower."

Actually, my conclusion there would be that you're not actually bothering to engage with what's being written, and instead going off on another of your jeremiads about the hypocritical liberals. But, see, poor black people hear your bullshit at every turn, so I'm not sure why your voice is so important to hear again here.

"I think I grasp the distinction between public policy and individual actions pretty well. Let me give it a shot: public policy preferences are something that bourgeois liberals can get personally invested in, because it gives them something to fight bourgeois conservatives over and feel superior about. Meanwhile, the individual actions of poor people are just things that matter a great deal to poor people, so why wouid anyone commenting here give a flying fuck?"

It seems like you're pretty wildly over-estimating your ability to comprehend the distinction if that's what you're coming up with. Perhaps your parents should have chosen to raise you smarter. If only someone had told them that their choices were creating an oblivious child?

How about: Public policy is based on evidence, good public policy is based on actually listening to poor people when they talk about their needs, and moralizing is something that you seem pretty invested in because it lets you feel superior to liberals. Meanwhile, the individual actions of any given poor person may have great impact on that person's life, and even the lives directly around them, but when you get to the point of having millions of poor people, they matter a lot less in aggregate, and insisting on an individualist approach is masturbation for assholes who don't really care about improving the situation of the poor so much as creating a moral justification for why those assholes aren't poor.

"As an aside, I don't know how the Camden dads would fit into conversations here if they were to drop by somehow. But here's a data point about how a compassionate and pious liberal might react to 2 contrary comments from someone with some experience being poor:"

As an aside, I grew up poor too, so I'm not going to give you the special Certificate of Poverty Participation you want — from one poor to another, I don't give a fuck about your moralizing or your whining or your calling me a piece of shit. Not all us "compassionate and pious liberals" were to the manor born, and not all of us give a shit about your precious fee-fees and moral righteousness. Some of us care about what can be demonstrated to work and what can't.

"I'm not entirely sure this is true. Gingrich's womanizing pretty much torpedoed his chances of getting Christian conservatives to vote for him. While this doesn't do the first Mrs. Gingrich much good, future would-be candidates looked at that and thought "Geez, I'd better keep it in my pants lest I end up a stain on the pavement like Newt." That's the thing about moralizing---it's not meant to save sinners as much as discourage future sinners from making the same mistake. Meanwhile moral hectoring in addition to public policy has worked wonders with regards to drinking & driving and smoking. "

And this is another danger of moralizing: It creates fantasy narratives that aren't borne out by the facts in order to justify that moralization. Gingrich actually won primaries in large part because of the support of conservative Christians. Gingrich was much more hurt by the perception of being an "Establishment Republican," and by his wildly incompetent campaign staff, the first group of which resigned en masse in late 2011 because they felt Gingrich was more interested in selling books than winning elections, and the second batch which were fired in March. (And despite being an "Establishment Republican," Establishment Republicans themselves turned against him, including a famous National Review article that basically painted him as a lunatic.)

As to smoking and drinking and driving, no, moral hectoring has not had great results. With smoking, it's been public policy, like restricting areas where smoking is allowed and increasing tobacco taxes, along with the message of health effects that's been the most effective. You know the problem with believing that anti-smoking moralizing campaigns have been effective? A lack of evidence, which is how we do public policy.

"An important question, which can't really be answered until you're willing to say that a man who has a kid and then doesn't get around to taking care of it is fucking up."

How about, and I quote myself here: "We agree this behavior has unnecessary costs, what can be done to reduce those costs?" Because, you know, if you tell someone they're fucking up, they're less likely to listen to you. It's just you making yourself feel good, with no real care to, you know, actually proving it's effective. It's bullshit masturbation, so congrats on your moral wank I guess.
posted by klangklangston at 9:49 AM on April 14 [6 favorites]


leopard >

As I mentioned above, I grew up in a family of five living well below the poverty line. It's bullshit to think that having money and being a good person are synonymous or even closely related. It's even more bullshit to think that my family was living in poverty just because of "society" and not at all because of actions that my parents took and didn't take. It's also bullshit to think that feelings of personal responsibility are completely irrelevant to how people behave.

I hope you realize that "those people are impoverished because of society" is a classically banal reduction to absurdity of what social science can tell us. You're not disagreeing with or refuting something meaningful, you're knocking down a straw-man.

I don't think the linked research (or much other empirical work on poverty) is stating or implying that personal responsibility has no role in any individual's life. The point is that anyone's life chances are determined by a number of important factors, some of which individuals have control over, but many of which they simply don't. People who succeed in getting out of poverty definitely have to work their asses off to do so, but lots of people work their asses off and never, ever get out, or can't get into a position to do their best because they're inhibited and impeded by structural factors like discrimination, lack of access to necessary resources, and more.

If you're going to take issue with reductive narratives, that's fine, but don't blithely conflate those with actual research or perspectives that come closer to appreciating the complexity of life.

>

Meanwhile, the individual actions of poor people are just things that matter a great deal to poor people, so why wouid anyone commenting here give a flying fuck?

You should not pick a fight with the rest of the userbase on the site simply because you have a problem with false liberal piety.

corb >

I think when people say that, they are speaking from frustration, not necessarily from a viewpoint of strict accuracy.

I suspect it's true that they feel frustrated, but it's self-defeating to make such big factual claims if you have no idea whether they're actually true or not. I don't know what a "viewpoint of strict accuracy" is supposed to mean, but it amounts to a sophistic way of unduly dignifying "wants to have the facts on their side but doesn't care what the facts actually are".

If someone were to say instead something like "I think the government spends too much money on helping people," then they might have to think about how much money is wasted on corporate welfare, the rentier class and other, similar outlays. The problem is that people have no idea what the government actually spends money on and who benefits most from the contemporary distributive paradigm.

Just like when people say that "half the federal budget is welfare." They don't just mean TANF, they mean food stamps and medicaid and social security.

Since those things aren't welfare, those people are wrong, end of story. Those people could learn enough about how their own government works to comment meaningfully, but if they don't have to know anything in order to complain about how things are, I'm not inclined to take their arguments seriously at all.

They mean that more than half the federal government's money is going into programs that are attempting to affect the poor -

That, also, is factually wrong, since Medicare and social security are absolutely not aimed at poor people. They both have other standards. But I guess any non-fact that supports one's most misanthropic and mean-spirited biases should be considered as good as true, for some reason?

because whether or not Social Security just returns money paid into it may be debatable,

What's debatable is the ratio of money paid in to money paid out, at best; what's not debatable is that the program is structured to work that way, and that people benefit directly from the SS tax, whereas with other programs the benefit is more indirect.

but no one really cares about social security for people who already have a secure retirement, it's all "keep old ladies from eating tins of cat food."

Is there something wrong with that?
posted by clockzero at 11:49 AM on April 14 [3 favorites]


[You can remake your comments without the sneering and jeering. Feel free to email us if you need a copy of your comment sent to you]
posted by jessamyn at 10:02 AM on April 15


Meanwhile, the individual actions of any given poor person may have great impact on that person's life, and even the lives directly around them, but when you get to the point of having millions of poor people, they matter a lot less in aggregate

For your homework, I want you to type that sentence over and over, until you realize why it's so wrong-headed. If you still haven't got it, go to the aforementioned friend of your mom and ask her if she made decisions that made it possible for her to be less poor, and if other decisions would have made that harder. Ask her what made it possible for her to make those decisions. Consider whether she is so unique in the world that no other poor person could make similar decisions.

I don't give a fuck about your moralizing or your whining or your calling me a piece of shit.

So far, klang, you are the only person who's using that phrase. It doesn't improve things.

And it is perhaps impeding your ability to read your own links. One primary is not the same as "primaries", and it's quite possible to win an occasional primary and still not have much of a political future.

More importantly, your linkless assertions that moralizing campaigns are ineffective is not borne out by evidence. Studies have shown that "moral hectoring" has been quite effective in campaigns against smoking and drunk driving. It must be supported with policy, yes. But policy, like better individual decision-making, is not enough on its own.

The constant deployment of slurs is also disguising the extent to which you are not in the group of "Some of us care about what can be demonstrated to work and what can't." After all, religious attendance (as distinct from "religiosity) and two-parent households have been quite consistently shown to improve income mobility. But I don't see you plumping for that, even though it demonstrably "works".

The problem with such working solutions, of course, is that it is morally unkind to demand that people stay in bad marriages for the sake of their or their children's upward mobility. But that's a long way from insisting that you just care about "what works".

There is some research being done on whether making marital counseling available to the poor can make it easier for those men with "father hunger" to stick around, though it is as yet inconclusive (which is to say, it doesn't prove it works or that it doesn't work). Hopefully we'll know more soon; certainly it will help distinguish those who really do want to be fathers from those who are just telling this nice rich researcher-lady what she so obviously wants to hear.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:53 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


"For your homework, I want you to type that sentence over and over, until you realize why it's so wrong-headed. If you still haven't got it, go to the aforementioned friend of your mom and ask her if she made decisions that made it possible for her to be less poor, and if other decisions would have made that harder. Ask her what made it possible for her to make those decisions. Consider whether she is so unique in the world that no other poor person could make similar decisions."

What made it possible for her to make those decisions? Well, Section 8, welfare, EITC, food stamps, a woman's shelter, scholarships for minorities and single mothers, massive state investment in institutes of higher learning, funding for social services through the county where she works… You're right, when you put it like that, she was able to build a massive infrastructure all on her own with no help from anyone else. It was all her deciding to make those opportunities exist, and there was no public policy involved at all.

Maybe for your homework, you can write a 1000-word essay on what institutions gave you the idea of assigning someone on the internet "homework."

"So far, klang, you are the only person who's using that phrase. It doesn't improve things."

Ah, yeah, when Leopard wrote: "The depth of understanding and compassion is really just so profound. It's like looking into the face of God, if God was a smug POS," he didn't mean "piece of shit," he meant "person of specialness."

I assume that the deleted comment was you hectoring him about bringing the conversation down? I mean, since you professed your love already, perhaps he'd listen to you.

"And it is perhaps impeding your ability to read your own links. One primary is not the same as "primaries", and it's quite possible to win an occasional primary and still not have much of a political future."

Fair enough. So, your objection is that I wrote "primaries," but you leave the larger point of religious conservative support for Gingrich uncontested, right? I'm happy to admit my mistake in saying "primaries," since you've been so gracious in admitting your mistake as characterizing Gingrich's failure in the primaries as due to a lack of conservative Christian support.

"More importantly, your linkless assertions that moralizing campaigns are ineffective is not borne out by evidence. Studies have shown that "moral hectoring" has been quite effective in campaigns against smoking and drunk driving. It must be supported with policy, yes. But policy, like better individual decision-making, is not enough on its own."

Man, for someone concerned about reading links… did you actually read your links? The anti-smoking campaign that was most effective wasn't focused on moralizing; it was focused on the health costs of smoking. From the article:
New shock tactics such as posters showing cigarettes dripping fat to demonstrate the effect of smoking on arteries, have helped quadruple the effectiveness of the government's anti-smoking campaign, according to research by the Tobacco Education Campaign Tracking study for February 2004.
"By spreading the load, there was less chance that smokers would feel victimised," said a report on the campaign, which won a gold award at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising effectiveness awards this week.
What we see there is that a focus on health costs, not a campaign of hectoring, is most demonstrably effective.

Likewise, with drunk driving, what you linked to is a discussion of mass media communication around drinking broadly, but one that doesn't distinguish in efficacy (though it notes content) the different modes of mass media communication around drunk driving, nor does it compare it to other interventions. (Different modes can include: Notice of increased law enforcement, modeling safer behavior, fear-based campaigns showing wreckage, etc.)

Compared to Schutz et al. in AJPM (PDF), or this meta-analysis from AAA, both conclude that media campaigns are most effective when they are educational about increased enforcement, specifically drunk-driving checkpoints, which are by far the most demonstrably effective in reducing a myriad of drunk-driving related outcomes.

So, on that, you're not even wrong. You simply don't know enough about what you're talking about to define your terms and make an argument supported with evidence. It's not just that it must be "supported by policy," it's that media campaigns themselves support that policy and without that policy, they have not been demonstrated to be effective. Your causal relationship is flatly wrong.

"The constant deployment of slurs is also disguising the extent to which you are not in the group of "Some of us care about what can be demonstrated to work and what can't." After all, religious attendance (as distinct from "religiosity) and two-parent households have been quite consistently shown to improve income mobility. But I don't see you plumping for that, even though it demonstrably "works"."

What slurs? And what evidence? To your religious contention, it's notable that you linked directly to the subhead on "reverse causality," which highlights the confounding factors with religious attendance in a causal study. There are potential effects, but as the Pew Study on Economic Mobility notes:
Such a result is not unexpected, as individuals who share a common thread are
able to take advantage of more opportunities through interaction with members
of their community. Potential mechanisms through which involvement in religious
institutions affects child outcomes could include increased social interaction with
one’s neighbors as well as the additional insurance that religious organizations
may offer families against sudden economic shocks, both prime examples of
the resources to which social capital provides access.
Likewise, they see a decrease in the significance as religious density increases (they hypothesize that religious segregation decreases the network effects of religious attendance). I'd be willing to wager that you'd find similar effects on economic mobility if you examined other forms of regular civic participation, though they do note that religious organizations may be philosophically more inclined to support fellow members during times of financial catastrophe. But all in all, Pew found those effects to be significant, but small: 0.9% increase in household income for every ten percent increase in co-religious density (which highly correlates with religious attendance).

(This is further borne out when discussing the South, where the correlation between religious attendance and economic mobility is much weaker and may be influenced by — wait for it — the over-emphasis of white Southern churches on individualist explanations for poverty.)

It's also worth noting that, as Pew says, "In this way, the family environment that a
child grows up in, which is highly correlated with family structure, determines many
of the outcomes, such as he alth, education and cognition, that drive economic mobility."

Similarly, the effects of a two-parent home can be overstated:
Some studies, such as another Economic Mobility Project
report, Upward Intergenerational Mobility in the United States, have found that
African Americans growing up in two-parent families have a slightly higher probability
of moving out of the bottom quintile relative to those who grow up in single-mother
households (59 percent compared with 54 percent). However, even after accounting
for differences in family structure, the probability that an African American will
make it out of the bottom quintile by adulthood remains well below that of whites.
"The problem with such working solutions, of course, is that it is morally unkind to demand that people stay in bad marriages for the sake of their or their children's upward mobility. But that's a long way from insisting that you just care about "what works". "

Again, according to that Pew meta-analysis of economic mobility, education accounts for a 30 percent difference in economic mobility, race accounts for 14 percent, and for African Americans, a two-parent home accounts for five percent. Or, in the more recent Geographic Economic Mobility study from Harvard, they find that while single-parentage percentage has a correlation of 76 percent with economic mobility for the overall geographic cohort (commuting zones), that correlation only drops to 66 percent for children of married couples within the CZ; their total individual effect would be 10 percent, meaning that population-level interventions are going to be more effective than an individualistic intervention strategy.

So, yes, while it is immoral (and counter-productive) to insist on stigmas for single parents, there's also the broader issue that there are many other policy strategies that work better.

"There is some research being done on whether making marital counseling available to the poor can make it easier for those men with "father hunger" to stick around, though it is as yet inconclusive (which is to say, it doesn't prove it works or that it doesn't work). Hopefully we'll know more soon; certainly it will help distinguish those who really do want to be fathers from those who are just telling this nice rich researcher-lady what she so obviously wants to hear."

Or… we could look at the pattern that her research has already shown, instead of dismissing her as a nice rich researcher lady (I assume you gendered that because it was important to you somehow) and incorporate that into further research on how to teach good parenting skills, along with other public policy interventions to help reduce the costs of parental poverty on children.

I'm willing to bet, though, that when that research is concluded, there'll be nary a word about how we should be hectoring people into the behavior we'd prefer, and that narratives of personal responsibility are only effective when presented as part of a much broader policy and support program.
posted by klangklangston at 12:52 PM on April 15 [5 favorites]


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