Poverty is foremost a cycle of too few jobs and too little wages

tasOn Monday I wrote about a legislative effort in Tennessee that seeks to tie low-income student academic performance to payments under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), where a failure to maintain “satisfactory progress” would result in a thirty percent reduction of benefits. I gave a fairly straightforward explanation of TANF and described these (and similar other) types of policy as rather cruel, or more specially ‘poverty punishment policies.’

Jason Palmer, of Politic Discourse and fellow co-blogger over at The McLean Parlor, wrote a lengthly response in which he respectfully disagrees with my characterization.

Unfortunately this has caught me at a bad time, as I was planning to go into relative-hiatus for the next week and half due to a couple of deadlines at school. He’s clearly put some thought into this (refer to the postscript) so I really encourage you go read his piece in total as I only have the opportunity to make a few points right now.

First, there are two interconnected threads in his response; one on education reform specifically, and another that is a common cultural critique of low-income people in general. Palmer writes that his personal teaching experience, which he considers representative, is “clearly indicative of the two most pervasive problems facing America’s future generation of coddled underachievers.” Those two problems are, respectively:

Problem #1: There is no longer a way for schools and teachers to hold students accountable–at least not without activating a ridiculous self-destruct sequence.

Problem #2: An overwhelming number of students receiving taxpayer subsidized free and reduced school breakfasts and lunches own smartphones.

I’ll be entirely upfront by saying that I’m not as well-steeped in education policy — in particular K-12 — as I am on other subjects. It simply has not been my focus of interest. Therefore I don’t feel comfortable agreeing (or disagreeing) on the first problem. I have educators in my family that routinely complain about a lack of parent involvement, so Palmer’s frustrations aren’t new to me, but those are second-hand anecdotes and hardly enough for me to make a judgement on something as complex as education reform.

However, I do disagree on the second point. In this instance, and in general, I’m dismissive of normative judgements on the consumption habits of the poor vis a vie household appliances and gadgets. Usually they’re besides the point. Having smart phones, Xbox’s and refrigerators doesn’t miraculously vault you into the middle class. Nor can they, but for the existence of these items, suddenly allow you to afford housing, health care, reliable transportation, communication, or higher education. Which is to say, if the answer to the question “Would they still be poor without them?” is yes, in any meaningful way, then I don’t see this as a particularly useful critique or the basis by which we should judge public policy. Our disagreement on this second aspect is important, as Palmer uses this as justification for supporting Tennessee’s actions. Yet the thinking seems to be that without such amenities the factors that frustrate him would disappear, which I do not believe to be true. It might be less irksome to his values, but I don’t see their absence as the difference between poor grades and good grades.

Now Palmer is skeptical of the Republican motive behind this legislation in Tennessee, something we agree on, but believes it to be a step in the right direction regardless because of “Problem #1.” He, and many others, are upset about the lack of low-income parental involvement in the education of their children. I understand, and can even sympathize, with such a grievance. Yet the application of that grievance to the point of being a solution for breaking the cycle of poverty strikes me as over-reaching. Because of this he’s willing to overlook the likely possibility that threatening a family’s assistance to goad better academic achievement would actually lead to worse outcomes. It’s quite well documented, as I’m sure Palmer knows, that there is a strong correlation between poverty rates and poor academic performance. He sees this a matter of incentives, so “economic principles therefore imply that the best, and perhaps only, practical way to reach many of these poor failing parents is through what they do value, their welfare benefits.” I see this as a matter of relative positive correlation, which is to say, if poverty increases then so does poor academics. In other words, making people poorer would exacerbate those aspects of poverty that lead to doing badly at school. It isn’t that I disagree that incentivizing low-income parents’ involvement should be an objective of public policy. I simply disagree that punishing families is the right incentive, or even an incentive at all. In that regard I just don’t know what part of Tennessee’s legislation being a “poverty punishment policy” that Palmer sees his disagreement. It is most certainly a policy of punishment for those who exhibit deficiencies due to living in poverty. The real difference seems to be that he believes it would make things better, whereas I think they would make things worse.

There is one other, and final, portion of his analysis in which I find myself on an entirely different page. In his lead-up to the justification for Tennessee’s actions he writes “Bear in mind that many of the parents that would be subject to these legislative measures are poor because they are uneducated.” While I understand how he arrives at this supposition, I tend to see this more simply as people being poor because they don’t have enough money. Now that may seem trite, but it’s illustrative in one important way; while it may be true that any one person has a statistically better chance of not being poor because they’re educated, the entirety of the bottom 20 percent cannot escape poverty through education. If not that particular parent, then another. If not that particular child, then another, and so on. To be sure, that should be great incentive for any one person to become educated and escape. Palmer is quite correct that the value of education is important, individually speaking, and his role and interest in the subject makes that a logical source of his reform attention. But that doesn’t help those who don’t, can’t, or won’t make it past high school and whose services as low-wage workers will still be in demand even if Palmer’s utopia of upward mobility through education occurs.

None of this means Palmer and other’s reform efforts aren’t laudable or well-worth pursuing in the abstract (they are), but not through a mechanism of punishment that accepts a different type of status quo beyond “semi-comfortable poverty” — one where market wages from too few jobs are accepted as social gospel. If everyone in the bottom quintile had B.A.’s tomorrow we wouldn’t see an end to poverty, we’d simply have better educated people who are still poor fighting for too few jobs that don’t pay a living wage. This isn’t, incidentally, just a fanciful thought experiment; a microcosm of that is essentially happening right now. He may see the cycle of poverty as a deficit of acquired knowledge, but I see it as a deficit of livable incomes.



– Wow was that longer than I intended. Honestly, it contains a lot of thoughts and concepts that have been bouncing around my head for awhile. They happen to be relevant in this case, but I also recognize that some of them may be less formed than others. If there’s any confusion as a result I apologize.

– Please don’t misconstrue anything I’ve written here to be of a personal natural with Jason. In fact you should safely assume this about everything I write, regardless of the person or opinion. This is a just a respectful disagreement, however the rhetoric or words appear to you. I really appreciate his response and look forward to any other fruitful discussions in the future (just not until after next week!).


4 responses to “Poverty is foremost a cycle of too few jobs and too little wages

  1. I have to agree with you. Net worth is a better indicator of where someone stands in terms of their current class, not clothing or smartphones.

    • Thanks. People are attracted to judging such conspicuous consumptions choices because, more broadly, they’re considered something of a signaling device. In my experience this was exactly, and especially, the case with low-income kids. When you’re a teen and poor the last thing you want is to broadcast your destitution – if anything, you’d want to do the opposite.

  2. Pingback: Paying the scarcity tax in poverty | The McLean Parlor·

  3. Pingback: Paying the scarcity tax in poverty | Punditocracy·

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