Sunday, March 1, 2009

Student Reaction Paper on Nature and Causes of Poverty

My comments are in blue, and the student's work is in black typeface.

After reading Chapter 8 about the Nature and Causes of Poverty, the one thing that stuck out in my mind related to the myths about poverty that we seem to continue to perpetuate. I think if you ask people what poverty looks like to them, or what image they hold of the type of people who receive assistance programs, they will generally remark that it is minority single women with many children, or lazy people who would rather collect money from the government rather than earn it themselves. I wonder why these beliefs are the ones we so quickly come to equate with poverty rather than a truer picture. Is this because most people are uneducated about this issue or are Conservatives driving this? You can never get an accurate perspective from the media. You either have a conservative or liberal point of view. I read the article about Mark Rank and his studies on poverty. His research really flies in the face of what many believe to be true about poverty. If two-thirds of us will receive assistance from a welfare program at some point in our lives and 58% of Americans experience at least one year of poverty between the ages of 20 and 75, then how is it that we only identify this to be a problem for a small segment of society? Rank and Hirschl have empirical data to support their assertions. Why is this not a better known fact in our society?

Mark was asking the same thing informally after he gave a talk in New Orleans in January of this year. He was saying how the data he and his colleagues had collected proved that most of us went through a time at some point in our lives when we were poor and were receiving means-tested welfare. This then implied that the people who received welfare were not a special sub-class of American. On the contrary, most Americans at some time collect welfare. So, it can’t be the case that welfare recipients are generally lazy, undeserving, or dependent. In fact, Rank’s research shows that most of us get welfare at the times you would expect, right when we are young, and freshly out of school and getting a start in life. That is a time when we’re more likely to earn low wages, or have children and new families while simultaneously starting at the lowest rungs in our careers. Then, if we get in a divorce or meet with some accident or economic disaster (becoming unemployed), we tend to go on welfare for a short period. Also, when we are first born, it’s more likely we’re being born into a family of young parents who are early in their careers, so as young children we’re likely to be on welfare. But most of us get off welfare, and we only are ever receiving it once, or maybe twice in our lives. This is clear, and when you think about it, it’s not really very surprising.

Rank said something to the effect of, “yeah, I can show this research to politicians, but then they’ll point to some report from the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute and tell me, ‘yeah, I hear what you’re saying, but there is this report over here that says something closer to what I believe, so I’ll go with this other report instead of yours.’” And he’s right. For ever carefully-crafted study done by a non-ideological scholar who is just intellectually curious about what the facts are one of the conservative think-tanks will generate a biased and methodologically sloppy report that sounds good and fits into the world-views of the people who don’t want to know what is really going on. Of course the left is also guilty of sometimes giving credence to weak and biased scholarship, but Rank is no ideologue, and I know other scholars like him who really just care about practical solutions to problems and want to get good information into the hands of the public and decision-makers. These are people who are open to suggestions and solutions no matter the source or ideology that generates them, but they care about the craft of doing good scientific work and getting the facts right. And you look at the junk generated by the conservative think tanks (well, some of it is in fact rather good, but there is a higher ratio of junk and garbage to good information that comes out of places like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, and you’ll get more accurate stuff from the best peer-reviewed academic journals or the more neutral think-tanks, or the Congressional Budget Office, or whatever).

It’s true that there are some long-term hard-core welfare dependent people out there. They may be about 4% of the population. But think about things like the rate of intellectual impairments and disabilities (mental retardation), and consider the rates of serious chronic mental illness like schizophrenia, and right there you have over half of the hard-core welfare-dependent. Throw in the people with chronic illness, physical disabilities, and all the people who are not quite mentally retarded but are almost meeting the diagnostic criteria, or the people with personality disorders that make it hard for them to hold jobs, or the people with mild psychotic disorders, serious post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addictions, moderate mood disorders, and other issues that make it difficult for them to work, and you end up with almost the full 4% of hard-core long-term welfare dependent right there.

And there are people who really are stuck because of a few poor choices, an environment that makes it harder for them, and continuing barriers to success. How about a person from a historically-oppressed ethnic group whose parents and grand-parents and ancestors were discriminated against, and so this person comes into the world and joins a family that hasn’t had a chance to accumulate much in the way of financial assets or higher education. Then, this person happens to be reared in an area of concentrated poverty, surrounded by many peers who drop out of school or get involved with illegal activities. Then, as a young person, this hypothetical person makes some bad choices in early romantic relationships, and becomes a teen-age parent with a partner who is abusive and unfit as a spouse or parent. Then, instead of getting a good education (if that is even possible given the poor schools available to this person), this hypothetical person gets a sub-standard education, isn’t encouraged to develop a love of learning, and takes low-wage jobs with no future in them. And, because the person is from a bad neighborhood, and because employers are wary of hiring someone with such an ethnic background, this person has difficulty getting better jobs. And, the person is somewhat demoralized and stressed out by economic and personal responsibilities, a fairly dysfunctional family or origin, and some friends and family who run into problems with drugs and the law. Partly because of these problems, the hypothetical person’s work performance is barely adequate, and they get laid off or fired, or the place where they work closes. And so it goes, year after year. This is a mentally and physically person of average intelligence who just has all the odds stacked against them, and their income bounces between $8,000 and $16,000 per year, which keeps them under poverty or near poverty, and so they get Medicaid, Food Stamps, and perhaps WIC. Such a hypothetical person is plausible, don’t you think? Yeah, we can blame the person for some bad decisions related to love and romance, and some poor parenting decisions perhaps. The person wasn’t very much into academic stuff, and has found it difficult to hold a job for more than a few years at a time, partly because the jobs they have held have been uninspiring. Surely there must be many people in this situation, and if they fall prey to unscrupulous lenders, con artists, abusive lovers, manipulative family members or friends, and various other problems, they’re going to have a hard time getting out of poverty. Are they in some way undeserving because they only work 1,000 hours per year at $8.50 instead of the 1,900-2,000 that many of us do for $15-$25 per hour?

The standard conservative point is that if this hypothetical person would just work harder, be smarter in the jobs they take, and look for opportunities, and make canny choices, they would be able to get out of poverty. Yeah, that is true. The top quarter of people in a situation like I’ve described probably have the intelligence, the luck, or the work motivation and social skills to help themselves eventually get out of poverty forever. But I think most people given the sort of life I’ve described just don’t have the exceptional personal resources or the luck of circumstances that will bring them into a lasting prosperity and financially flourishing lives.

I think the attitudes that much of America holds about poverty and the people in poverty really divide us. Our textbook discusses the different views held by Conservatives, Liberals and Radicals. I believe that one of the ways we can address poverty is by making information like the longitudinal study conducted by Rank and Hirschl more widely known to create a more unified approach to helping people out of poverty. I realize that is a reach, however, until everyone realizes that we are ALL best served by helping people leave poverty, we will continue to argue our positions about who is to blame and never make any progress in this endeavor.

And one of Rank’s points is that welfare does help people out of poverty. Most people who use WIC and Food Stamps and TANF and Unemployment Benefits and Medicaid only use these for months or a few years, and then they move on up. When you look at the people who don’t ever move up, or move up and then fall back down into poverty, you usually find people with extraordinary problems in their lives.

I remember watching a documentary by Morgan Spurlock and his fiancée titled "30 Days". You may be familiar with another documentary he did, "Supersize Me." In "Supersize Me," Spurlock ate nothing but items on the McDonald's menu for thirty days and reported the physical effects this had on him. In "30 Days," he and his fiancée experienced what it is like to be one of the working poor. After they both secured jobs, they quickly found that they were unable to make ends meet. They both decided to get second jobs and found that one visit to the emergency room sent them spiraling into this pit of debt that they could never really recover from. It was not hard for them to see the toll this takes on relationships, and could not imagine having to care for children in this situation. Maybe if we all experienced this, we might not have such animosity towards the poor in our country. Given our current economic climate, it is not hard to imagine.

Social workers shouldn’t have animosity toward the poor. We may be more realistic and tough when we consider the needs of the poor, because we’ll encounter the cheats and free-riders. We’ll work with deceptive clients and see people who abuse the system. So, we’ll know that there isn’t much romantic or noble or healthy about poverty. We’ll come to understand the gray areas and see the issues of poverty, crime, addictions, family problems, mental health, prejudices, economic injustices, and structural problems. They all relate, and there are no simple solutions or simple explanations. But no, we won’t feel animosity toward the poor. We’ll feel solidarity toward most of those in poverty, and we’ll be on their side. Not in some paternalistic way where we arrogantly think that we know best and can show them what they ought to do because they’re stupid and ignorant. Rather, we’ll help work with their strengths and help them find their abilities and wisdom, and we’ll advocate for them and push for them and encourage them along with some practical and useful help. That’s what social work training and the social work profession is about. And you’ll see, as you work with those in poverty, that many of them are very hard working. Many of them are brilliant, and given alternative circumstances, many of them could be big successes in economic realms of our society. They are held back because they are caring for friends, family, or children, or a mental illness or health problem is keeping them back, or they made a few reckless choices as adolescents and they fell so far behind they have never yet caught up, or they got tripped up by drugs, or messed up by a bad love or toxic family of origin (you'll have many clients who have survived abuse and neglect, even incest). It's hard to feel too much animosity against people who have survived in the face of such odds and had to deal with such hardships.

No comments: