“Poverty Is First and Foremost a Problem of Work”

A thought-provoking Q&A session with Professor Peter Edelman and Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for America Progress.

The occasion was Edelman’s new book, So Rich, So Poor. And like the book, the discussion revolved around poverty in America — why we have so much of it, what we could do to have less.

For both Edelman and Boushey, the key to both is work. Poverty is “first and foremost a problem of work,” Boushey said.

She wasn’t referring to the current shortage of it, but rather, as Edelman later put it, “work that produces a decent income.”

Back in the mid-1970s, “something happened to male wages,” Boushey said. The “something” was a leveling-off in their real value — and an actual drop in wages for men with, at most, a high school diploma.

Family incomes were “held up by women.” Many more of them in the labor force and remaining there after marriage or rejoining when things got tough.

But workplaces are generally “hostile to families,” Boushey added. And it’s still the case that work/family conflicts affect women more than men.

The bigger issue, however, is the growing number of single-mother families — a major theme in Edelman’s book.

No second income here. And wage losses — job losses too — because there’s no dad around to help cope with the child who gets sick or the late-announced scheduling changes that throw child care arrangements out of whack.

Family-friendly workplaces won’t solve the wage problem, however.

Edelman attributed it in part to macroeconomic policies, citing trade and immigration specifically.

He’s referring, among other things, to trade agreements that advantage imports from countries with low labor standards.

Also, I would guess, to policies that allow employers to import temporary workers who will accept lower wages than would otherwise have to be paid. Policies that enable U.S. companies to maximize profits by exporting jobs belong in this category too.

Coming at the issue from a different angle, Boushey said that our macroeconomic policies need to focus on good jobs — specifically, on developing “human capital” by investments in education.

Edelman concurred. He’d like our high schools to offer pathways to work other than college prep — vocational and technical training for bona fide careers.

This, he said, is especially important for youth — most of them racial and ethnic minorities — who are in danger of becoming disconnected from both school and work.

Solutions like these could perhaps lift more of the upcoming generation into the endangered middle class. But what about people who are already working age?

Some, of course, are doing very well, thank you. But, according to Edelman, half the jobs in our economy pay less than $34,000 a year. For a family of four, that’s less than 150% of the federal poverty line — the standard commonly used for low-income.

No silver bullets identified. Edelman, in fact, said he was “very concerned about the next decade.”

He floated some policy changes that could make a difference, but added that we’d first have to decide we have “an income problem.” We’re not facing up to that, he said.

People deflect attention from the wage issue, e.g., by blaming single mothers for having children. Those low on the income scale think that’s where they are because of their “failings” — or because that’s “just how things are.”

Edelman is refreshingly optimistic. We’ve “had other times that were really terrible,” he said. Think of the robber-baron era at the beginning of the 20th century.

But then “people stood up.” They voted to put an end to it. We’re “voting against our own interests now” — and at a time when “we need the largest we we can get to defend what we have.”

Recall that Congressman Paul Ryan, among others, is claiming that we’re helping people too much — and for too long.

So where will the “largest we” come from? Ironically, given the context, Edelman’s said that what we need to do is get people outside of think tanks thinking and talking about poverty — or perhaps about specific poverty-related problems.

This seems to me one of the big challenges of our time.

What will create a broad-based, sustained conversation about work, wages, income supports and the rest? What will translate talk into a political force?


2 Responses to “Poverty Is First and Foremost a Problem of Work”

  1. Great post, again, Kathryn!

    You end with a question. I’ll hand questions back. You know I’m doing the “Talk About Home” project (http://speakforwe.com/talk-about-home/) to get voters engaged on affordable housing and homelessness issues by first asking them about the values they assign to their home: (1) when you think of “home” what do you think of? (2) Do you have any memories that pop into mind when you think of “home”

    And then I ask them to address systemic problems: (1) Any reaction to the fact that low-wage full-time workers can’t afford housing in this community? and (2) What are your reactions to the dramatic growth in homelessness over the past 30 years?

    I’m impressed with the degree of knowledge and comfort regular folks have in talking about these issues in both personal and systemic ways. I think part of the trick is starting conversations on the personal level to get values and then going systemic to get solutions.

    Would you agree? If so, what questions would you suggest asking voters to get them to struggle with poverty in America? What questions should advocates use to frame the conversation appropriately so they “get it” personally and then systemically?

    I’m sure I’ll be blogging about this later. I’ll also try to get get ahold of Edelman and Boushey to see what they think.

    Thanks for blogging!

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    Michael, you know more than I about how to get individual voters thinking and talking about poverty issues — at least for the period of time you’re interacting with them. I suppose they go on thinking about the issues for some time thereafter.

    The question in my mind is, Do they behave any differently? Do they, for example, initiate conversations about the issues with their friends or relatives, in faith-based or other community organizations they belong to? Do they use social media to extend the conversation?

    I know these questions are unanswerable at this point. I do think, however, that they point to the challenge.

    Jared Bernstein, whom I admire a lot, wrote a long post on messaging complex economic and social issues, http://jaredbernsteinblog.com/the-challenges-of-messaging-political-economy-version/.

    A big point he made is that we need to answer “What’s in it for me?” Some application here to the question you pose, I think.

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