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Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage
December 2, 2004 10:47 PM   Subscribe

Our nation so richly endowed with natural resources and with a capable and industrial population, should be able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day's pay for a fair day's work . - Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1937

Chapter 1 [PDF] of Ending Poverty as We Know It - Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage. Here is a Q&A with William Quigley, its author.
posted by y2karl (29 comments total)

 
"there is no such thing as a free market because all of our markets have rules".

Any type of rule makes a market not free?

This guy's an idiot.
posted by zelphi at 11:38 PM on December 2, 2004


He's kinda fuzzy regarding the question where that work is supposed to come from, isn't he?

I see "public works" mentioned somewhere in the Q&A. Essentially that means things like keeping the lawns in parks tidy and such, which would be a) paid by tax hikes and b) drive companies doing this stuff out of business.

Alternatively, you could raise the minimum wage to 10$ or whatever he proposes, which would drive up inflation a bit, but would probably result in a net loss of jobs, because a lot of manufacturing jobs would leave the country.
posted by sour cream at 12:27 AM on December 3, 2004


I think guaranteeing the make a proper living is a good thing. Free markets so far haven't succeded in abolishing poverty - and without pressure from worker movements social rights and social security would have never come into existence.

Maybe his ideas are not fully acceptable or unfished, but it's certainly worth tackling that problem - not only in the US.

Overall real income for workers in western nations have been sinking the last few decades, while companies make more and more money. A fair distribution of wealth is certainly not working yet.
posted by homodigitalis at 1:16 AM on December 3, 2004


Wealth doesn't come from nowhere. If you reaise the minimum wage, it's a drain on the economy. Raise it enough, and you destroy the economy completely. Communism is probably the best example of an attempt to guarantee jobs.

Fundamentally, the idea doesn't work, because not everyone is the same. I, for instance, am a lazy bastard, and as such, I shouldn't be paid as much as someone who works hard. But if the minimum wage is set high enough, it removes the ability of the employer to reward good employees, and removes encouragement to work hard. If you're guaranteed a good wage for a shitty job, why work hard? If all jobs pay the same, why bother improving yourself?

Capitalism fundamentally means 'capital rules', which probably isn't precisely the right way of doing things. However, capitalism also generates wealth and prosperity faster than any other system we've yet come up with... so keeping the fundamentals, but filing off the roughest edges, seems likely to give good overall results.

The degree to which central control is exerted over an economy is a very strong inverse indicator of that economy's health. Central control is inferior to distributed control, because of lost flexibility. And draining away resources to pay for consumption, like higher wages, destroys that wealth; saving and investing it generates new wealth in later years.

You can eat your cake, or you can save it and have more cake later. We do entirely too much of the former, and this argument more or less advocates eating cake by the truckload. Feels great for a while, but.....
posted by Malor at 1:19 AM on December 3, 2004


It's a shame they didn't ask him in the Q&A about the former communist governments of Eastern Europe, which implemented the "right to a job" ideal with some not-so-spectacular results. In socialist Yugoslavia, for example, everyone was guaranteed not only a job but an apartment and health care. The fact that good work generally went unrewarded and bad work generally unpunished led to across-the-board shoddiness. (A common joke back then was that people went to work to relax, and then came home to work.)

The problem is that people prefer nice things, so superior goods were smuggled in from the west and a titanic black market appeared to pick up the slack left by the clumsy local economy. In the end, the country was left with factories producing things nobody wanted (but kept producing anyway, since universal employment was a top priority) while hefty amounts of capital were being vacuumed away by the black market. In the end, the economy just stopped functioning and it was hammertime.
posted by Ljubljana at 2:33 AM on December 3, 2004


I'm a big proponent of paying everyone, whether they are working or not, a minimum weekly benefit, or allowance, no questions asked, but basically leave everything else as it is. You'd do away with massive bureaucracy costs of maintaining social security. Most people would still seek employment in order to buy more possessions, while the more spiritual, artistic and academic of us would be be free to pursue and enrich society in ways that are not normally compensated for in any monetary way, if only for certain phases in our life. I'm sure there would be less petty crime, and people would feel more confident in general knowing that they could survive and pursue their more outlandish dreams and ideas even if they lost their jobs. I think society would be much better off under this scheme and I certainly don't believe it would lead to inflation or an implosion of the economy.
posted by Meridian at 3:02 AM on December 3, 2004


zelphi- Any type of rule makes a market not free? This guy's an idiot.

Well, rules do make a market less free, whether in a good way, such as pollution controls and health & safety laws, or in a bad way such as laws passed to protected out-dated business models.
posted by Meridian at 3:06 AM on December 3, 2004


"there is no such thing as a free market because all of our markets have rules".

Any type of rule makes a market not free?

This guy's an idiot.
posted by zelphi at 11:38 PM PST on December 2


He's kinda fuzzy regarding the question where that work is supposed to come from, isn't he?

I see "public works" mentioned somewhere in the Q&A. Essentially that means things like keeping the lawns in parks tidy and such, which would be a) paid by tax hikes and b) drive companies doing this stuff out of business.

Alternatively, you could raise the minimum wage to 10$ or whatever he proposes, which would drive up inflation a bit, but would probably result in a net loss of jobs, because a lot of manufacturing jobs would leave the country.
posted by sour cream at 12:27 AM PST on December 3


I think guaranteeing the make a proper living is a good thing. Free markets so far haven't succeded in abolishing poverty - and without pressure from worker movements social rights and social security would have never come into existence.

Maybe his ideas are not fully acceptable or unfished, but it's certainly worth tackling that problem - not only in the US.

Overall real income for workers in western nations have been sinking the last few decades, while companies make more and more money. A fair distribution of wealth is certainly not working yet.
posted by homodigitalis at 1:16 AM PST on December 3


Wealth doesn't come from nowhere. If you reaise the minimum wage, it's a drain on the economy. Raise it enough, and you destroy the economy completely. Communism is probably the best example of an attempt to guarantee jobs.

Fundamentally, the idea doesn't work, because not everyone is the same. I, for instance, am a lazy bastard, and as such, I shouldn't be paid as much as someone who works hard. But if the minimum wage is set high enough, it removes the ability of the employer to reward good employees, and removes encouragement to work hard. If you're guaranteed a good wage for a shitty job, why work hard? If all jobs pay the same, why bother improving yourself?

Capitalism fundamentally means 'capital rules', which probably isn't precisely the right way of doing things. However, capitalism also generates wealth and prosperity faster than any other system we've yet come up with... so keeping the fundamentals, but filing off the roughest edges, seems likely to give good overall results.

The degree to which central control is exerted over an economy is a very strong inverse indicator of that economy's health. Central control is inferior to distributed control, because of lost flexibility. And draining away resources to pay for consumption, like higher wages, destroys that wealth; saving and investing it generates new wealth in later years.

You can eat your cake, or you can save it and have more cake later. We do entirely too much of the former, and this argument more or less advocates eating cake by the truckload. Feels great for a while, but.....
posted by Malor at 1:19 AM PST on December 3


It's a shame they didn't ask him in the Q&A about the former communist governments of Eastern Europe, which implemented the "right to a job" ideal with some not-so-spectacular results. In socialist Yugoslavia, for example, everyone was guaranteed not only a job but an apartment and health care. The fact that good work generally went unrewarded and bad work generally unpunished led to across-the-board shoddiness. (A common joke back then was that people went to work to relax, and then came home to work.)

The problem is that people prefer nice things, so superior goods were smuggled in from the west and a titanic black market appeared to pick up the slack left by the clumsy local economy. In the end, the country was left with factories producing things nobody wanted (but kept producing anyway, since universal employment was a top priority) while hefty amounts of capital were being vacuumed away by the black market. In the end, the economy just stopped functioning and it was hammertime.
posted by Ljubljana at 2:33 AM PST on December 3


I'm a big proponent of paying everyone, whether they are working or not, a minimum weekly benefit, or allowance, no questions asked, but basically leave everything else as it is. You'd do away with massive bureaucracy costs of maintaining social security. Most people would still seek employment in order to buy more possessions, while the more spiritual, artistic and academic of us would be be free to pursue and enrich society in ways that are not normally compensated for in any monetary way, if only for certain phases in our life. I'm sure there would be less petty crime, and people would feel more confident in general knowing that they could survive and pursue their more outlandish dreams and ideas even if they lost their jobs. I think society would be much better off under this scheme and I certainly don't believe it would lead to inflation or an implosion of the economy.


Well, Meridian, I personally agree with you, but since most people seem to believe that poverty is some sort of rightful punishment and not a spinoff of the theft of human rights by the misapplication of corporate law, I doubt such a civilized and humane plan will ever come to be...
posted by fairmettle at 3:33 AM on December 3, 2004


Meridian: What you are describing is what many countries are doing in Europe, the only difference being that some questions are asked, but then again, it would be difficult to explain to the public why the likes of George Soros or Whatshisname Branson need a "weekly allowance", so we haven't done away with the bureaucracy yet.

The net result of this is that there is a defacto minimum wage in many of these countries, even though there is none by law. Essentially, even if you don't work, you will still get, say, 2000 Euro per month. So if you have the choice of working for 1800 Euro/m or surfing the net for 2000 Euro/m, what's it going to be?

This is also the reason why service is generally so shitty in many European countries (although things are getting better), and why taxes are so high.
posted by sour cream at 3:45 AM on December 3, 2004


What fairmettle said.

Too much of a wall of greed by the haves for the have-nots to ever climb over. Unless you have revolution. Then redistribution occurs for a period of time but it always goes back to the wealth created by the common worker going to the upper echelons of aristocracy, that being the corporate owners today.

Exactly what is the matter with a fair day's pay for a fair day's work? Should not a person willing to work be able to live off the wages? Why should the wealthy be able to rest in luxury on the backs of the laborer?
posted by nofundy at 5:44 AM on December 3, 2004


Why should the wealthy be able to rest in luxury on the backs of the laborer?

Because the wealthy often (not always but often) achieve wealth by by putting in more work than anyone else, taking more risks than anyone else and being more productive than anyone else.

...it always goes back to the wealth created by the common worker going to the upper echelons of aristocracy

Or that common worker could himself move up the echelons.

Or would that be just a bit too much hard work?
posted by PenDevil at 5:59 AM on December 3, 2004


Because the wealthy often (not always but often) achieve wealth by by putting in more work than anyone else,

Bullshit. That is the very rare case, never the rule.

Or that common worker could himself move up the echelons.

As sometimes happens. But the societal structures are most often stacked against that happening. Poor kids seldom get into Harvard and Yale whiel wealthy kids have this as a default.

You seem to think that most wealthy people are not born to wealth. You would be very wrong.
posted by nofundy at 6:05 AM on December 3, 2004


When I lived in Oregon in the mid-90s, a referendum was passed raising the minimum wage to $6.50 an hour, over the hysterical fears of those who alleged that it would lead to rampant unemployment. According to research in the late 90s the unemployment rate there did not spike.

And this was $6.50 an hour-- $260 a week. I wouldn't advocate giving people a minimum that would allow any sort of bling-bling lifestyle, but $13,520 a year doesn't seem like too much to ask for someone who works full time, no matter what their job.

It's easy to have 'conventional wisdom' about stuff like this: the unemployment rate would rise, businesses would move overseas, etc. But haven't we seen that anyway, with a wage structure that's ridiculously low? Maybe it's time to be reasonable, not go as far as the communist bloc but advocate for a living wage that makes sense.
posted by miss tea at 6:22 AM on December 3, 2004


Bullshit. That is the very rare case, never the rule.

That might be the case for the ultra wealthy who are rich enough to pass on their wealth to many generations of descendants. But the fact is that the majority of people who are "wealthy" in the states achieve it from small and family owned businesses that are probably less than a generation old. In fact small businesses, in 2000, contribute nearly double ($8Bn) to the GDP than large businesses ($4Bn)[1]. 99 percent of all enteprise in the states is small business[2].

Poor kids seldom get into Harvard and Yale whiel wealthy kids have this as a default.

And why would not going to Harvard and Yale somehow preclude you from being able to one day be successfull?

You seem to think that most wealthy people are not born to wealth. You would be very wrong.

You seem to think that the US is literally overflowing with billionaires who haven't worked a day in their life. For every one inherited billionaire there are literally 10 000 millionaires who got there through sheer determination and hard work.
posted by PenDevil at 6:34 AM on December 3, 2004


Rising above your current monetary status at ALL requires hard work. I don't mean to denigrate the work that wealthy people put into achieving their position, but there are wider gaps between the wealthy and the not than just how hard they work.
posted by 4easypayments at 6:42 AM on December 3, 2004


OK. So people aren't making enough money. Should we:

A) force their employers to pay them more, or:
B) force their landlords to take a bath by refusing to subsidize any form of housing, thus removing the artificial floor on the price of housing. (No landlord will rent to a middle class person for less money than he/she would get from the government for renting to a poor person.)

If B) didn't mean a period of tumult where people get kicked out of homes until landlords realize that the market can't support current rents, I'd be all for it. Screw the landlords anyway. (Or, screw the banks that lent them money, knowing full well that the price of housing is unsustainable in America!)

One reason many of the wages can't be lived on is because of all the upward pricing pressures our government puts on basic necessities like housing and medical care. (That, and Americans have had a fear of free markets since the great depression. Even though lots of us have been conditioned to think that our In some cases over-regulated) markets really are free.)
posted by bugmuncher at 7:03 AM on December 3, 2004


I love how so many people are against any type of wage concessions because they think it will ruin our economy. Apparently they never heard of John Nash or any of his Nobel Prize winning theories about economics, game theory, and the dynamics of complex systems.

It's not rocket science people.

First off, you have to look at the situation we are currently facing, and the direction in which the "business" community wishes to take us. They want the cheapest costing labor market they can have with the highest possible revenue they can get out of the market. They want slave labor. End of story. You don't have to pay a slave. So you have the highest possible return on your labor expenditures (basically getting something for nothing). Now this end will not come about anytime soon (until they figure out how to make robots that never break down, or until they find just the right mind-control to overwhelm the population), however, you do have to look at this as the sinking weight that needs to be buoyed (sp?) by the off-set of a) taxes to create a social safety net for the working class and b) a wage rate that sufficiently allows people to live life in a modest amount of comfort (I mean, like running water, electricity, and enough food intake for proper nutritional sustinence [notice I say nutritional sustinance, meaning living off Ramen and Cheezewhiz is not good enough], and the ability to create savings through proper (and possibly manditory) budgetting). But, hey, I'm a realist most minutes of the hour, so I understand that having consideration for others is a trait severely lacking in most humans. Especially when money is involved.

Ah, civilization, how you have entertained us so much with your creations of war, money, and terpitude.
posted by daq at 7:10 AM on December 3, 2004


PenDevil, I think you also have to look at the fact that even moderate wealth is passed on to successive generations. It isn't always in the form of capital, either. It could be a better education, a more stable household, a general understanding of how to conduct oneself in a business setting, etc. All very ephemeral, subtle benefits to having a middle to upper middle class home that are often ignored.
posted by Doug at 7:59 AM on December 3, 2004


until they figure out how to make robots that never break down

As in Marshal How Stuff Works Brain's Robotic Nation:

The term "worker productivity" in this quote means "robots". We are seeing the tip of the iceberg right now, because robotic replacement of human workers in every employment sector is about to accelerate rapidly. Combine that with a powerful trend pushing high-paying IT jobs to India. Combine it with the rapid loss of call-center jobs to India. When the first wave of robots and offshore production cut in to the factory workforce in the 20th century, the slack was picked up by service sector jobs. Now we are about to see the combined loss of massive numbers of service-sector jobs, most of the remaining jobs in factories, and many white collar jobs, all at the same time.
When a significant portion of the normal American population is permanently living in government welfare dormitories because of unemployment, what we will have is a third-world nation. These citizens will be imprisoned by unemployment in their own society. If you are an adult in America and you do not have a job, you are flat out of luck. That is how our economy is structured today -- you cannot live your life unless you have a job. Many people -- perhaps a majority of Americans -- will find themselves out of luck in the coming decades.

The arrival of humanoid robots should be a cause for celebration. With the robots doing most of the work, it should be possible for everyone to go on perpetual vacation. Instead, robots will displace millions of employees, leaving them unable to find work and therefore destitute. I believe that it is time to start rethinking our economy and understanding how we will allow people to live their lives in a robotic nation.

posted by y2karl at 8:12 AM on December 3, 2004


Poor kids seldom get into Harvard and Yale while wealthy kids have this as a default.

You seem to think that most wealthy people are not born to wealth. You would be very wrong.


Children of wealthy families tend to be successful, true; but the success of children adopted by wealthy families can NOT be predicted.

The income of biological children increases strongly with parental income but the income of adoptive children is flat in parent income... The graph does not say that adopted children necessarily have low income. On the contrary, some have high and some have low income and the same is true of biological children. What the graph says is that higher parental income predicts higher child income but only for biological children and not for adoptees. What do parents transmit to their biological children but not to their adopted children? Genes. When we observe, as we do, that low-income parents tend to have low-income children and high-income parents tend to have high-income children, we should not bemoan the inequities of nurture but rather the inequities of nature.

In other words, gifts like natural intelligence, impulse control, and physical attractiveness are passed from parent to child, tending to result in financial and professional success; these traits matter much more than being raised in the right environment and having the benefit of Daddy's money.

Additionally, research consistently shows that Ivy League educations cost more than they pay over the lifetime of the student. Additionally, students that are accepted into Ivy League schools but who choose less expensive schools (or no school at all) are consistently just as successful as their Ivy League peers. People get into Ivy League schools because they have the qualities needed to succeed, they don't succeed because they got into an Ivy League school.
posted by gd779 at 9:21 AM on December 3, 2004


You seem to think that most wealthy people are not born to wealth. You would be very wrong.

About 80% of America's millionaires are first-generation wealthy. That means they started poor and worked hard all their life and became richer.

Most of them (2/3) worked long hours running their own businesses to get where they are. 20% didn't go to college. In 1996, the most popular auto for these folks was the Jeep Grand Cherokee, followed by the Ford F-150.

Lots of what we think about the rich is mythology - see this book for more
posted by iwearredsocks at 9:24 AM on December 3, 2004


The net result of this is that there is a defacto minimum wage in many of these countries, even though there is none by law. Essentially, even if you don't work, you will still get, say, 2000 Euro per month. So if you have the choice of working for 1800 Euro/m or surfing the net for 2000 Euro/m, what's it going to be?

Sourcream - the SMIC or minimum wage in France is horrifically low even by US standards and one minimum wage group, waiters/servers, don't get US-generous tips. RMI, revenu minimum d'insertion, which is for people not working, is about 400 euros per month. People on RMI often do work 'in the black' as well and thus secure two incomes and are often stereotyped and ridiculed as such. So while there are people who sometimes wonder why they work and pay for childcare when they could just stay home and have babies (because you get government help for having children), most people are willing to chip in to help others (if only 'cause they know that if not forced to, they'd never do it on their own). At any rate, your 2000/1800 euro figures and in fact most of your words are just way off and seem almost willfully misrepresentative.

Nickel and Dimed is a good book on the minimum-wage world in the States.

Finally, rich people work harder than poor people? Have you picked grapes for a wine harvest, or cotton, or worked in 19th century Lowell textile mills or sweatshops 7 days a week 16 hours a day with no pee breaks and... I mean, c'mon?
posted by faux ami at 10:32 AM on December 3, 2004


There's very little causation or even correlation between working hard and getting rich. The way to get rich is to find a business opportunity and act on it.

To find a business opportunity, you need to have connections. The more connections of various kinds you have - financial, governmental, technical, creative, whatever - the more likely it becomes that an opportunity will present itself to you (or be cleverly discerned by you). The better the connections are, the better the opportunity will be.

In order to act on the opportunity, you need, well, capital. You need to buy things, and pay employees, and feed yourself and your family.

It's easy to see that these are conditions which are not easily met by many people. A strong set of connections is the product of an upper-class upbringing, and I won't belabour the obvious difficulties surrounding access to capital.

Sure, you'll have to work hard to make your business work, but LOTS of people work hard, and most get nowhere.

Therefore, statements like

...millionaires who got there through sheer determination and hard work

and

...they started poor and worked hard all their life and became richer

are entirely misleading, to the point of being invalid in the support of an argument. They're examples of the "Fallacy of the Single Cause".
posted by jeffj at 11:23 AM on December 3, 2004


I love how so many people are against any type of wage concessions because they think it will ruin our economy. Apparently they never heard of John Nash or any of his Nobel Prize winning theories about economics, game theory, and the dynamics of complex systems.

Um, it helps to have actually read and understood those topics if you're going to bring them up to buttress your position; nothing in what you say gives me the slightest reason to believe that you possess said understanding.

Of course, you're welcome to prove me wrong by showing just what relevance Nash's work has to your claims, which in fact go against standard economic theory, but until that glorious moment I shall proceed on the assumption that you just wanted to engage in a little name-dropping to daze and confuse the uninformed.
posted by Goedel at 4:42 PM on December 3, 2004


Have you picked grapes for a wine harvest, or cotton, or worked in 19th century Lowell textile mills or sweatshops 7 days a week 16 hours a day with no pee breaks

I would guess almost no one working today has picked cotton in the US (it's automated), and no one under 104 has worked in a 19th century textile mill. There are modern day examples of very hard work: re-planting pine trees by hand in a clear-cut swath, wearing a weedeater for 10 hours at a time, back-to-back fast food shifts in a busy mall, roofing in 100 degree weather.

For what it's worth, I have worked at all these, and I will also be wealthy 10 years from now. Do I think my hard work has helped lead me to the path I'm on to wealth. Of course.

There's very little causation or even correlation between working hard and getting rich.

You're incorrect. Of course causation is hard to prove, but it's well documented that the majority of America's rich worked very hard to get where they are. Maybe the wealthy people you know personally are of the minority who inherited their money. But most the rich I know have a tremendous work ethic, and have had for years.

...they started poor and worked hard all their life and became richer . . .examples of the "Fallacy of the Single Cause".

I may not have been clear in my comment, but I wasn't implying that all who work hard become wealthy, or that the only source of wealth is hard work. The single-cause fallacy doesn't apply.

It is not misleading in the least to state that the majority of millionaires in the US "started poor and worked hard all their life and became richer". It is only a description of historical fact. To say that it doesn't happen in every case doesn't change the fact that it is a true statement for most of our rich overlords.
posted by iwearredsocks at 4:54 PM on December 3, 2004


faux ami: At any rate, your 2000/1800 euro figures and in fact most of your words are just way off and seem almost willfully misrepresentative.

Well, there's this article, saying that a family with three kids in Germany will easily receive 2000 Euro in welfare, possibly more depending on where they live. 2000 Euro is maybe not very much if you have 3 kids, but on the other hand, low-paying jobs in the service industry don't pay more either (in fact, many pay less), so there is zero incentive for the father to take a job paying, say, 1500 Euro as a waiter in a restaurant or as a cab driver for example.
BTW, the article also says that the average income for a West-German "worker" (whatever that means) is slightly over 2500 Euro (pre-tax; about 1500 Euro after taxes).

Another aspect is that many countries have unemployment insurance, meaning that if you lose your job, you will receive, say, 50% or so of what you earned before for the next 5 years or so.

So faux ami, my false friend, you seem to be from France. I don't know anything about the situation there, so please tell me: let's say an engineer who has earned 5000 Euro/m loses his job. Will he slide down to the 400 Euro RMI you mentioned immediately? How much state assistance will he receive in the following years if he doesn't bother looking for a job?
posted by sour cream at 5:29 PM on December 3, 2004


sour cream - what you are saying is just an argument that families who work at low paying jobs should not lose their welfare, so that they can begin to move out of poverty.

I am not fond of the Tories in Ontario, but one good thing they did was to allow welfare and family benefiits recipiants to keep the first $100/month they earned, and then 50% of the next hundred or so, before their welfare would be reduced.

That said, my mother worked for years while on welfare (long before this policy was introduced). She didn't earn one cent above what she would have had if she had chosen not to work, but she still continued to work - to do inhome daycare, to clean washing machines, later to work as an adminstrative assistant. By the time I was a teenager, her family benefits check was $2.50/month. That $2.50 (and that decimal point is in the right place) was necessary to bring her fulltime office job wages up to the level of welfare.

So the lesson? a) wages are too low and b) some people may be lazy, but many more aren't, and will work because they believe they should, whether they gain or not. Because not everyone is driven by their own selfish needs.

jeffj makes some very good points on the importance of social and cultural capital as well as literal capital.

But what do you mean, iwearredsocks, that most millionaires "started poor and worked their way up" (paraphrased)? Do you mean they started middle class? Or do you mean they started at minimum wage, children of a family who worked at minimum wage, who were themselves poor? Because that's what poverty means. It doesn't mean growing up in a good home with literate parents and good schools, being able to afford to go to college (which even if you get financial aid and stay at home, some people can't do because they cannot afford to work), and then having some minimum wage jobs along the way.

As for social mobility, I would not claim that the U.S. currently is in very good shape. As RichLyon points out in this comment in a previous thread, "the poor are less likely to exit poverty in any one year than the poor in Canada, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and the UK - and if they do they are more likely to re-enter poverty in 5 years" (references below).

That is not a land of opportunity, that is a land which has let its own myths become more important than its reality. The U.S. does offer opportunity, but it is opportunity which is extremely circumscribed by ones socioeconomic position, family background and education. It is not, and never has been, an equal playing field.

I deeply respect those who have made their own success - especially those who start with little and through their own tenacity and hard work make their own success. But we all must recognise that for someone who is middle class to stay middleclass does not take extraordinary talent or effort, but for someone poor to become middleclass, let alone rich, it does take a great deal of effort.

We can never eliminate inequality - always someone will be more capable, more sucessful. But if we really are civilised, we can make it so that if we must have heirarchy, the least among us nevertheless has a chance for a decent life, for a stable home, for small pleasures, and the chance for their children to play on the field of life with children from luckier families.
posted by jb at 1:30 AM on December 4, 2004


what you are saying is just an argument that families who work at low paying jobs should not lose their welfare, so that they can begin to move out of poverty.

Yes, I agree that this is preferable to an all-or-nothing system that removes the incentive to work.

Also, I applaud your mother, but I wonder if her attitude is really typical. You could argue that she was essentially working for free, because (if I understood you correctly) her fulltime office job salary was still $2.50 below welfare. So why did she work? Perhaps because she is the type of person who just needs to be active or maybe out of a sense of responsibility, but I wonder if that would actually be enough incentive for many people.
posted by sour cream at 2:25 AM on December 4, 2004


Right on, jb.

Life is different in Europe. Stores aren't legally allowed to be open on Sundays or after 19h00 in many French and German cities unless otherwise authorized by local governments. Overtime pay is limited, but vacation time is extensive. Even being a waiter, which is tough work with little pay, affords you a life with healthcare and the possibility of free education for your children, back-to-school money for your kids, unemployment benefits, help if you're terminated improperly. State functionaries (teachers, EDF, France Telecom workers, police, bureaucrats, etc.) get housing benefits. You have to pay a TV tax here and in England, but you get a lot of commercial-free broadcasting.

I harvested grapes in late September 3 years ago with 5 brothers and sisters (4 of whom blind) from Spain, who did itinerant seasonal work from Northern Spain to Southeastern France. This was harder work than my teaching and was paid much less and offered no up-ladder to 'get out.' The welfare system may be nearing implausibility, but artisanal work (carpentry, wine-/cheese-making, construction work, baking) is just flat out better here than in the States.

Sometimes medical care is better and sometimes worse here (though, as you know, it's guaranteed) and in England, but on the whole a minimum-wage SMICard in France has a much better life than someone 'nickel-and-dimed' in the States (where impuissant labor unions are as much a joke as the constantly-striking French labor unions). I'd wager, all in all, that the rags-to-riches success stories in the States are as likely as a Frenchman changing from carpentry to medicine in the same lifetime - and they insult the tens of millions of people who work in the minimum-wage economy who often live in cars, get sick but can't take a day off, can't gather the money for a rent deposit... What's the use of saying they work less hard than you?
posted by faux ami at 2:27 AM on December 4, 2004


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