Groping Towards a Right Understanding

Filed under:Language Barrier,Priorities,Wacky Oregon — posted by Anwyn on September 30, 2007 @ 2:13 pm

In S. Renee Mitchell’s Oregonian column a week ago, she strongly disapproved Mayor Bloomberg’s “Opportunity NYC” program, which will pay poor adults to do things like attend parent-teacher conferences and hold down full-time jobs and poor teenagers to pass their school certification tests. The bulk of her column is overflowing with unintended irony–she sees and remarks on the incentives and motives that keep some poor people poor, sometimes for generations, and objects strongly to fostering a “gimme” mentality, but reverts right back, like a rubber band relaxing back into place, to the major bugaboos of the liberal attitude toward the poor as victims of a corrupt “education, banking and government systems that stubbornly keep people under poverty’s thumb.”

We can’t throw money at the poor here and magically expect those whose lives are the hardest to more closely resemble those whose lives are the easiest. Giving cash incentives won’t automatically end high-interest loans, reduce their vulnerability to crime, or jolt them out of the depression that often comes with living life every day on the edge.

Tell it to LBJ. If money is the difference between the poor and middle class and wealthy, then how is it that throwing money at the poor won’t change that gap? Obviously, what Ms. Mitchell comes so close to here but never quite hits on it is that it isn’t just money–it’s working for that money, understanding that nobody will give you money if you don’t work for it, and spending the money on appropriate necessities and luxuries for yourself and your family. And by her own statement, then why shouldn’t welfare systems heavily involved in “throwing money” be abolished? Ms. Mitchell speaks of her children as “not entitled to be lazy” as long as they’re under her roof. There is no more effective incentive for adult citizens not to be lazy than to have to work to eat because nobody “throws” money at them, and arguably none that will work at all if that one doesn’t.

And Ms. Mitchell clearly knows this. After describing her own childhood poverty, she states:

Eventually, my parents educated themselves out of abject poverty, but I’ll never forget the experience of never having enough. You can’t buy the kind of inner fire that stems from trying to escape a cycle of constant lack.

Incentive. And yet with her very next sentence Ms. Mitchell demolishes the idea she was so blithely tripping toward in the previous:

Productivity and self-reliance increased my self-respect. But over the years, I’ve encountered some low-income parents who share those values and some who don’t.

So now earning your own way is a value that can either be espoused or discarded. Tell me, Ms. Mitchell, what is a societal solution to the problem of those who choose to discard it?

While in Orlando, I wrote about an innovative — and expensive — Walt Disney World pilot program to get rid of all of the excuses that multigenerational welfare mothers had about why they didn’t work. Disney offered decent-paying jobs, as well as classes on budgeting, parenting and goal-setting. The participants received free rides to and from work, free child care and a chance to save for retirement.

An excellent experiment in incentivizing. Take away the excuses of those people who may not even recognize them as excuses, and see what incentive comes out ahead:

After a few weeks, I revisited one of the mothers I had interviewed for my article. She told me that she had quit her Disney job — and the opportunity to give her four children a better life — because she missed watching her afternoon soaps.

Implicit in this pathetic and disgusting story is the certainty that whatever assistance this person was receiving from sources that did not require her to work was sufficient to allow her to 1) feed herself and her children some amount of food and 2) watch television, which apparently are all she wants out of life. How can there be anything appropriate to do for that person other than to give her the incentive to work that her current source of subsistence does not? While I doubt that Mayor Bloomberg’s program will do the trick, certainly the current welfare system doesn’t either.

Poverty starved that mother of her productivity, integrity and self-respect. A hustler at heart, she wanted the most money for the least amount of effort. So, a job opportunity wasn’t appreciated in her household, where children were considered as excuses not to work.

Exactly backwards. She didn’t become a hustler because she lost her self-respect to poverty. She is a lazy sort of hustler who found out how to get something for not much and decided her self-respect and poorer lives for her children were a reasonable price to pay for the opportunity to go through life lazy and idle. Whatever sort of subsistence she’s on, and I have to assume it’s welfare, possibly supplemented by things like church food pantries and assistance programs, it’s been enough to incentivize her hustler mentality to remain on top, as well as setting a bad example for her children that one hopes they will find enough education to counteract.

Sadly, I doubt there’s any amount of money this program could afford to pay that would make people already not inclined to hold down full-time jobs do otherwise. But Ms. Mitchell’s closing comments about “the system” fall right back into the mindset that people have no choices or cannot be motivated by things that are implicitly important to them. Implicitly important to the mother in the story was her desire not to work, and whatever system she’s on is feeding it. At the worst, Mayor Bloomberg’s system will probably be indifferent in its effects, since if people are “getting by” on welfare they will not be inclined to get off their butts for a couple thousand more. At best, it might actually give some struggling families a leg up. Regardless, the contradictions inherent in Ms. Mitchell’s own mindset are the contradictions inherent in welfare systems nationwide. Returning to a right understanding about human nature and the factors that work to influence and incentivize it, rather than blaming a system that, surprisingly enough, works perfectly well for a vast majority in this country, is the only way we will stop “throwing money” and throw out the most insidiously enabling aspects of the welfare system instead.

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