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Dr. Ben Carson, as director of HUD, has proposed raising costs and imposing work requirements for people in public housing or receiving public housing money. I was a little iffy about that – I mean, who’d want to live in the projects or deal with Section 8 requirements if they didn’t have to? I grew up dirt-poor, and I was a poor single mom for over a decade after that. I know what poverty is like. I know the people who struggle at the bottom. It sucks, and having expenses raised sucks worse.
But after reading the details of Carson’s plan, I agreed enthusiastically. His ideas are perfect, and not because they are cost-saving or because they get those deadbeats going.
Because for the most part, those deadbeats aren’t deadbeats. They are people who have been beaten down. They are the same people I taught for about a year in a welfare-to-work program, during the tail-end of the 90s. They are the poor in spirit, in a sense. They don’t believe in themselves, which makes them fail, which makes them poor in cash. They have given up because they don’t know how to work or how to react in a healthy way to failure.
In many ways, they are just like I used to be, before I overcame my own barriers out of sheer stubbornness.
Our program teaching basic office skills was centered around a classroom/lecture segment and a hands-on practical segment. I considered the lecture piece pretty worthless, or at least too extended in time. It was all about how to conduct yourself in an office, how to dress, how to answer a phone, stuff like that. The mostly female classes I taught got that. They weren’t stupid, not by a long shot.
The practical hands-on side was taught by me and another teacher in a room filled with computers. The main problem students had going in was a fear of computers – I solved that by bringing in an old computer, disassembling it in front of the class, passing around its innards, and explaining what each part did. Then I put it back together as each piece returned and – turned it on. Voila! Suddenly the computer was not a magic box; it was just a tool with replaceable parts, like a car.
The next barrier to learning office technology was fear of failure. We overcame that by celebrating each error with great excitement – a learning opportunity! Gather around, everyone, this is how you fix this problem! Thank you, Sarah, for giving us that opportunity to teach! (We used the word “opportunity” a lot.)
Within a week, the fear was gone, replaced by enthusiasm. And they learned. Oh, how they learned! Our eight-week program turned out success after success. We had broken through a cultural barrier!
But there was another element to the poverty culture that caused an equally high barrier. I learned about this by going out with the students on smoke breaks, even though I’m not a smoker. In this relaxed atmosphere, the women bitched about their boyfriends, their family issues, their living situations.
One lived in fear of an ex-boyfriend. One day, she woke at 4 am to find him standing over her, hands around her throat. She didn’t come in the next day; she was ashamed of the bruises. Ashamed.
Another had been a stripper until rheumatoid arthritis took its toll. She had a terrible opinion of men as a result. A mother and daughter – both absolutely beautiful, smart, charming women – were the result of generations of poverty. They had never known anything but welfare.
During smoke breaks, we all worked through these problems – and our two-person teaching team ensured that appropriate interventions were taken in other ways, like posting the boyfriend’s picture and banning him from the premises, encouraging police reports, helping find transportation to potential downtown work sites, ensuring the other barrier-busting programs offered by my employer were available to them.
It was a highly successful program. We had about a 95% completion rate, and about 80% of these landed entry-level office jobs. And because of the way the Gingrich welfare-to-work programs were structured, they continued receiving government assistance for quite a while as they adjusted to work life and even moved up the career ladder a bit.
Now, picture a different world – a world in which Gingrich never pushed for welfare reform, or in which Clinton was never forced by circumstance to sign them into law. NONE of the women who were on welfare would have sought out office skills training on their own. The woman with a violent boyfriend might have turned up dead one day instead of finding a way to stop him. Technology would have continued being an alien thing to them. They would have stayed paralyzed by the fear of failure, instead of learning that mistakes are teaching moments.
They would have been trapped in the black hole that is welfare, never seeing a way up or out or over. But they would have continued receiving welfare, and politicians who enabled their imprisonment would have campaigned on it.
I have nothing but contempt for those who criticize Dr. Carson’s upward-moving ideas. Ephemeral compassion – compassion not tempered by a consideration for the future – is empty, even damaging. Money is not the solution to poverty. Productivity is. And it’s far harder to teach a person to fish than it is to hand them one of your ample catch. It also doesn’t feel as good at first – it’s expensive in time, you have to provide equipment, you have to overcome barriers and help them figure out the right way to do it. And then you have a fishing competitor instead of a daily supplicant!
But there really are plenty of fish in the sea. And our capitalist economy is multiplicative of resources. It needs skilled labor to become more productive, and that increased productivity ensures even more skilled labor is needed.
Earlier I mentioned that my students were in a sense poor in spirit because they lacked faith in themselves. Well, liberals lack faith in them as well. Liberals don’t trust other human beings to make the right decisions, or to be capable of caring for themselves. Instead, they fear those impoverished masses. They make “compassionate” choices for them that, in fact, trap them in the lowest class layer. And then they act as if conservatives, who want them to fish for themselves, are being cruel!
Many conservatives aren’t a whole lot better. Their attitude is laissez-faire – they don’t see the help that does need to happen, so believe that simply cutting off welfare will make those deadbeats get jobs. That doesn’t work either.
Carson is one of the few political figures who really, really understand – his impoverished background, his amazing mother forcing him to learn and overcome the truly damaging impoverished attitudes he grew up around – all those things ensured he would make the correct decision in HUD, to raise prices in order to encourage people to enter programs like the one I described above. Unlike liberals, he believes in the bottomless potential of other human beings, and in giving them a hand up to crawl out of the swampy, sucking pit of poverty. Those who are changed by his decisions are sure to thrive — if his modest changes are allowed to stand.Published in