Ethics & Public Policy Center

What the Times Misses about Poverty

Published in National Review Online on September 14, 2018


It’s an affecting story. Matthew Desmond, writing in the New York Times Magazine, profiles Vanessa Solivan, a poor single mother raising three children. Vanessa works as a home health aide, yet she and her three teen children are often reduced to sleeping in her car, a 2004 Chrysler Pacifica. In the morning, she takes her two daughters and one son to her mother’s house to wash and get ready for school. Vanessa has diabetes. Her work brings in between $10 and $14 per hour depending upon the health coverage of the mostly elderly patients she cares for. But because of her responsibilities to her children, Vanessa works only 20 to 30 hours per week. That doesn’t provide enough to keep this family of four above the poverty line.

Yes, Vanessa gets government benefits. Between the Earned Income Tax Credit and child credits, she received $5,000 from Uncle Sam last year. She also gets SNAP (food stamps), but when one of her daughters qualified for SSI last year due to a disability and began receiving $766 per month, the family’s SNAP assistance was reduced from $544 to $234 per month.

And so, they struggle. When they can find an apartment Vanessa can afford, they have a home. But they fled the last one when a young man was shot and killed nearby. When they have no fixed address, they often eat grab-and-go food, which tends to be unhealthy, especially for someone with diabetes. The local food pantry offers mac and cheese, which is also an undesirable option for a diabetic, but it’s her son’s favorite. Vanessa’s son has gotten into trouble at school for fighting. Her father became ill and she nursed him too, spooning food into his mouth and changing his bed pans.

Desmond’s aim in this profile of poverty is to challenge the assumptions that many Americans harbor about the poor. “In America, if you work hard, you will succeed. So those who do not succeed have not worked hard.” This is the idea Desmond describes as “deep in the marrow” of the nation. He suggests that this is mostly myth, but the data he cites are carefully phrased, and frankly, misleading. He juxtaposes a survey showing that most Americans believe the poor don’t want to work with the following statistic: In 2016, “a majority of nondisabled working-age adults were part of the labor force.” Yes, but the data are quite different for the poor. Census Bureau data show that among adults living in poverty aged 18–64 in 2015, 63 percent did not work, 26 percent worked part-time, and 11 percent worked full-time, year-round.

The descriptor, “part of the labor force,” includes everyone who works at all and includes those looking for work. As for the disabled category — which has become somewhat controversial because the definitions are so variable from state to state — it includes a great many non-workers now for complex reasons. As Nicholas Eberstadt notes in Men Without Work, one out of six prime-age men (18–54) is not connected to the labor force.

Desmond cites changes to work itself. Vanessa’s story is meant to be emblematic. “Millions of Americans work with little hope of finding security and comfort. In recent decades, America has witnessed the rise of bad jobs offering low pay, no benefits, and little certainty. When it comes to poverty, a willingness to work is not the problem, and work itself is no longer the solution.”

It may well be true that low-level, unskilled jobs are less of a ladder out of poverty than they once were. But the other aspect of Vanessa’s plight, and that of her children, Desmond and most analysts resolutely refuse to grapple with. It’s familial. We learn that the father of two of her children has made erratic child-support payments, and apart from one trip to Chuck E. Cheese, has played no role in his children’s lives. The father of the youngest was sent to prison when she was 1, released when she was 8, and murdered shortly thereafter. There is no indication that Vanessa was ever married.

Work is available in America, but for those with low skills and major family responsibilities, one income is simply not enough, especially for three children. According to US News and World Report, home health aides average $23,600 per year. If two home health aides are married, they earn enough to be comfortably in the middle class. They will almost certainly not face homelessness.

The New York Times Magazine was attempting to spotlight the failure of work to solve all problems. But it felled a straw man. Who thinks work alone is sufficient? And it failed to address the root of so much dysfunction in America — family dissolution.

Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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