Old Narrative Gets New Life in GOP Policy Proposals

March 15, 2012

I decided to write about Professor Matthew Fraidin’s column on child welfare mainly because it shows how the stereotypes we absorb and construct shape programs and services for low-income people.

Both he and David Henderson, the blogger/consultant I cited, focus on a narrative that predisposes us to think of poor people as incompetent — not as wise as we are about what’s good for them and their families.

But what really got me going is a more pernicious version of the poor people story that’s running just below the surface of some current policy developments.

In this narrative, low-income people aren’t incompetent. They’re lazy, prone to crime and willfully irresponsible.

Newt Gingrich, for example, has floated the notion that poor kids should be hired to clean their schools because their communities offer no exposure to “habits of working” — no “habit” of doing anything in exchange for cash “unless it’s illegal.”

If this were all, we could write it off as Newt spouting whatever comes into his mythy mind.

But Professor James Q. Wilson implied something rather similar when he wrote, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, that “making the poor more economically mobile” will require, among other things, “finding and implementing ways to … induce them to join the legitimate workforce.”

Seems that lawful work just doesn’t appeal to them.

Meanwhile, four states have passed laws requiring applicants for public assistance to pass drug tests. Dozens more considered similar proposals last year.

And again we got a bill to mandate nationwide drug testing in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The sponsor, Senator David Vitter (R-LA), says it’s needed to ensure that “potentially billions of dollars of welfare funds” don’t “end up in the wrong places or being spent on illegal drugs.”

In other words, we’ve got lots of poor parents who aren’t trying to become self-sufficient, as TANF intends. Indeed, they’re spending their meager benefits on drugs instead of on their children’ needs.

The data don’t support this. But the narrative does.

As Jordan C. Budd writes, most of the drug testing bills reflect “the implicit assumption that the poor are inherently predisposed to culpable conduct.” Groundless searches are justified because everyone in the class is suspect.

A bill the House passed in January provides a further twist to the narrative. This one got folded into the original House extensions package and into the final package as well.

The measure is supposed to prevent TANF recipients from using their EBT (electronic benefits transfer) cards to withdraw cash from ATM machines in liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs.

The clear implication is that TANF benefits are going for booze, gambling and oggling naked dancers. Here again, undeserving poor parents indulging sinful appetites — and wasting money that should be spent on their needy, neglected children.

No evidence, however, that they’re spending money in these dens of sin. Some may use the ATMs because they work in those places. Others because there’s a liquor store around the corner, while a bank is several miles away.

These policy initiatives are relatively new, but the narrative is an old one, predating the “Welfare Queen meme” that journalist Ed Kilgore says is making a comeback. The difference is that it’s no longer as overtly racist.

But we know who these undeserving, profligate poor people are, don’t we? Had we any doubt that the mythical welfare queen was black?

UPDATE: After I posted this, I found a just-published article by Barbara Ehrenreich that traces the evolution of the narrative I discuss here. Informative and insightful, as her work always is.

Narratives Prop Up Flawed Social Service Programs

February 21, 2012

“The nuclear secret of child welfare,” writes Professor Matthew Fraidin, “is that most children in foster care shouldn’t be there.” And being there harms most of them more than they’re helped by being taken away from their families.

Fraidin has argued in the past that we need to let some sunshine into the now-secretive proceedings that deliver children into the care of many child welfare agencies — the District’s Child and Family Services Administration included.

He still advocates for this, but he’s turned his attention to the narrative that gives rise to the inordinate number of foster care placements.

Or perhaps it’s actually two related narratives.

One is of “brutal, deviant, monstrous parents” whose children have to be rescued from imminent injury or even death. This narrative is “drummed into our heads” by the press, which likes the sensational cases.

Also, I see, by bloggers. Daniel Hiempel, for example, accuses us of allowing “certain children to be abused, even murdered” by ignoring the “empirically true” fact that “cases of abuse and neglect soar in poor neighborhoods.”

Note the class bias here.

The other narrative extends beyond parents who get ensnared in the child welfare system. It’s the propensity of legal service providers, among others, to view low-income clients as “the sum of their needs” — to focus on weaknesses and ignore strengths.

Start instead, Fraidin says, from the premise that clients are “bundles of assets.” Look at what they as individuals can do because then they’ll bust through the narrative and emerge as “complicated, three-dimensional, real” people.

Once we change the story in our heads, we can “change the conversation.” And, I gather, represent clients differently, since Fraidin links the internal narrative change to limiting foster care entries and speeding exits.

The “we” he exhorts are lawyers — and perhaps judges. The article I’m linking to began as a speech delivered at the University of Michigan’s law school.

He refers in passing, however, to anti-poverty programs in general. And surely his message has clear implications for caseworkers and the agencies they work for — nonprofits as well as government entities like CFSA.

David Henderson, who consults for nonprofit service providers, observes that they “too often base their interventions on a presumption of irrationality among the poor” — or he adds in a comment, “assumptions of general incompetence.”

Look, he says, at programs that force parenting classes on homeless people. We’ve got many other examples of this sort.

I’m reminded of a classic — if perhaps mythical — exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

“The rich,” said Fitzgerald, echoing a theme from his Great Gatsby, “are different from you and me.” “Yes,” said Hemingway. “They have more money.”

Seems to me that we as a community could purge the narratives in our heads if we started from the premise that the poor are no different from us, except for having less money.

That would change how we advocate and what we advocate for.

UPDATE: Professor Fraidin has written a very thoughtful response to this post. As he explains, his opposition to secret child welfare proceedings and the prevalent narratives are two sides of the same coin. He also tells us some shocking things we’d learn if proceedings were open.