What the NY Times Misses About Poverty

 

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 $5000 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.

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There are 21 comments.

  1. Member

    Another story of leading a quiet life of desperation. The poor will always be with us, wish I would have said that.

    • #1
    • September 13, 2018 at 12:25 pm
    • 3 likes
  2. Member

    But would we help this family stay together if the children’s father lived with them? Having him help out with child care would enable Mom to work more hours. It would relieve some stress. It would allow someone in the home to get some fresh salad vegetables for dinner.

    I had neighbors once upon a time where I saw how well this can work as a long-term strategy. The father had suffered a bad back injury. He was on SSI. There were four children. Mom went to school and work, and he took care of the kids. They all did well after about eight years. The kids went to college too. It was wonderful.

    This is where I think we went wrong, in forcing fathers to leave the family home in order for the family to get some needed help.

    I would vote for us to help whole families.

    • #2
    • September 13, 2018 at 12:38 pm
    • 8 likes
  3. Member

    Good column, Ms. Charon.

    Ms. Solivan has my sympathies, as her life seems quite tough. I agree with you that the assessment of fault seems misplaced, and the writer’s math doesn’t add up either.

    In addition to your identification of familial dissolution, there was another serious problem. Ms. Solivan’s father is described as a “functional crack addict for most of her life.” This seems likely to have contributed to the family’s challenges.

    On the math issue, the article claims (as you report) that Ms. Solivan works 20-30 hours per week at $10-14 per hour. Using the average of these hours and rates, she should have been earning about $15,600 per year. But the article reports significantly lower earnings than this (the average is about $11,000/year for 2015-2017, though I had to do the calculation myself, because the article reported the figures for each year).

    If we take the reported average wage at face value ($12/hour), this implies more like 17-18 hours of work per week.

    So I’m going to summarize as a harsh conservative jerk:

    Ms. Solivan came from a family ravaged by her father’s chronic crack addiction. Her parents were Puerto Rican immigrants. There’s no shame in being an immigrant, but immigrant families typically start at the low end of the economic ladder, and hope to work themselves up. Ms. Solivan had three children, by two different men, with no indication that she was married to either, and it appears that the children receive no financial support from their absentee fathers sperm donors. One of the sperm donors went to prison and then was killed upon release, with no details given (but it certainly seems plausible that he was involved in a drug gang). Ms. Solivan has worked around 17-18 hours per week for the past three years. Her children range in age from 12 to 17, old enough not to require constant care and supervision, if they are well socialized.

    This hardly seems a story of a typical, hard-working American family.

    • #3
    • September 13, 2018 at 12:47 pm
    • 7 likes
  4. Member

    You last sentence nailed it. While reading the entire column I kept wondering, where is the other parent. I don’t even care if there is another parent of the same sex (I know that is not how the kids got here). The data is overwhelming that two parent homes result in much better outcomes for the kids. Also why did she choose to have kids she can’t afford (there wasn’t any mention of rape. so it was a choice).

    So the article points out that she is having a hard time. All I can say is…well yeah!

    • #4
    • September 13, 2018 at 1:22 pm
    • Like
  5. Member

    The New York Times and almost all the media that “reports” on poverty.

    This is my problem with almost all of the coverage of “the poor in America” – the coverage ignores or glosses over that there is almost a 1:1 correlation with single motherhood. The more I read of this coverage, the less sympathy I have.

    Maybe the fathers of her children would have made lousy fathers. But then why did she choose to have sex with them? Or, if those fathers were forced to step up to the plate (by social pressure if not the law), might they have risen to the occasion?

    A while back the regional newspaper where I then lived (Rochester, NY, which has a very high poverty rate and a very high single parenthood rate) used a particular family for the sob story in the paper’s report on some issue that I don’t remember. What I do remember is that the family was at least three generations into single teenaged motherhood, with nary a man in sight. 

    I was told by a teacher in the city school district that an eighth-grade boy was bragging about his fourth child being born (by four different girls, with none of whom he was living, nor was he providing any support, emotional, financial, or otherwise), and his classmates were congratulating him!

    • #5
    • September 13, 2018 at 1:22 pm
    • 3 likes
  6. Member

    Mona Charen: And it failed to address the root of so much dysfunction in America – family dissolution.

    I thought it was Trump. But congratulations on two sane posts in a row.

    • #6
    • September 13, 2018 at 1:36 pm
    • 4 likes
  7. Moderator

    The NYT has been telling this same story for decades now, conveniently only ever when Republicans are in the White House. I read nearly identical hits in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s too. It’s a recycled “interest” piece. It has always been easy to find those who fall through the cracks, and it’s lazy journalism to extrapolate from them to the entire nation. But they’re well practiced at it.

    • #7
    • September 13, 2018 at 1:52 pm
    • 4 likes
  8. Member

    Well, I’m a mom. And a granny. Why isn’t this woman and her children staying at her mother’s house?

    I know someone from church who was suddenly and tragically widowed last year with four children, high school aged to two years old.

    She had to vacate the apartment immediately; she moved in with her father. All five are sharing a bedroom.

    I always say that the only way I’ll be homeless is if my entire extended family is also.

    • #8
    • September 13, 2018 at 2:03 pm
    • 3 likes
  9. Thatcher

    Mona Charen:

    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,

    So simple and yet political correctness has stopped this simple message from being transmitted. How much human misery is being caused by an elite that wants an ever more perverse agenda to be normalized by general society while ordinary people are abandoned or told fantasies that will destroy them rather than help them. Are there 47 (or whatever) genders? Is a man now a woman because he puts on a dress and fantasizes he is? Will not having children free women to lead the life they really want to lead?

    If you tell a lie often enough they’ll believe it’s true, so says Dr Goebbels. However, there are some lies no matter how often they are told that will never be believed. Those are the lies that encourage us to abandon our own souls. Haven’t we all had enough of those lies yet?

    Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.

    Regards,

    Jim

     

    • #9
    • September 13, 2018 at 2:14 pm
    • 1 like
  10. Member

    In America, if you work hard, you will succeed. So those who do not succeed have not worked hard.

    Ms. Charen nailed it with her “straw man” comment, but this unfortunately runs deeper. The article sets out with an agenda (disprove the above), finds an example, and ignores the fact that the “truth” it’s disproving is overly simplified and that nobody really believes it.

    There are many instances of this form of “journalism” every year. It’s a thing. Ignore the fact that, to succeed by working hard, one must make reasonable decisions. Ignore any degree of personal responsibility. Trust your writing skills and the biases of your readers to make your article a success. Done.

    • #10
    • September 13, 2018 at 4:56 pm
    • 2 likes
  11. Member

    This has been a theme of liberals and mediums such as the Times for time immemorial. When I was young, and the Democrats seemed to be in power in Congress permanently, they would call hearings, and only call people that would confirm their penchant for doling out welfare benefits to anyone they could. 

    By misleading people in this way, as to the truth of things, Liberals are not only conceding their need for power, they are not helping anyone. Yet they continue to do it, to their shame.

    Thanks, Mona, for showing us yet again that we rely on organs like The Times at our peril.

     

    • #11
    • September 14, 2018 at 4:22 am
    • 2 likes
  12. Member

    Mona Charen: Who thinks work alone is sufficient? And it failed to address the root of so much dysfunction in America – family dissolution.

    And there is the problem – neatly summed in two simple sentences. But the Left will never accept that because such hard Truths don’t engender the voters’ favor.

    • #12
    • September 14, 2018 at 6:56 am
    • 1 like
  13. Member

    If poor people had sex with robots instead of other poor people this wouldn’t be a problem.

    • #13
    • September 14, 2018 at 11:58 am
    • 1 like
  14. Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    If poor people had sex with robots instead of other poor people this wouldn’t be a problem.

    That’s true, but not satisfying.

    I’d rather see people have sex only with people with whom there is mutual commitment to live and work together for very long term (in my formulation, lifetime, i.e., marriage). And it’s not just poor people. Single motherhood not only perpetuates existing poverty, it is also a path from not-poor to poor.

    • #14
    • September 14, 2018 at 12:21 pm
    • 1 like
  15. Member

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    If poor people had sex with robots instead of other poor people this wouldn’t be a problem.

    That’s true, but not satisfying.

    I’d rather see people have sex only with people with whom there is mutual commitment to live and work together for very long term (in my formulation, lifetime, i.e., marriage). And it’s not just poor people. Single motherhood not only perpetuates existing poverty, it is also a path from not-poor to poor.

    I have zero expectations that this will happen. Shouldn’t we just accept that humans are designed to do the procreative act stupidly and find a viable workaround. 

    • #15
    • September 14, 2018 at 12:57 pm
    • 1 like
  16. Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    If poor people had sex with robots instead of other poor people this wouldn’t be a problem.

    That’s true, but not satisfying.

    I’d rather see people have sex only with people with whom there is mutual commitment to live and work together for very long term (in my formulation, lifetime, i.e., marriage). And it’s not just poor people. Single motherhood not only perpetuates existing poverty, it is also a path from not-poor to poor.

    I have zero expectations that this will happen. Shouldn’t we just accept that humans are designed to do the procreative act stupidly and find a viable workaround.

    One viable work around would be, if you are getting government assistance, you must be on birth control. If you can’t support yourself, you can’t support others. Please don’t tell me this is a individual right issue. It’s not. It is simply adding a requirement to receive aid. No one would be forcing anyone to be on birth control. It would be a choice.

    • #16
    • September 14, 2018 at 1:04 pm
    • 2 likes
  17. Member

    I just started to get into Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier today. Where he alive and writing today, I doubt that he would ignore the family structure of the poorer classes. When did lefty writers feel that that they weren’t able to explore the question of poverty fully?

    • #17
    • September 14, 2018 at 2:20 pm
    • Like
  18. Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):

    I just started to get into Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier today. Where he alive and writing today, I doubt that he would ignore the family structure of the poorer classes. When did lefty writers feel that that they weren’t able to explore the question of poverty fully?

    Because the sexual revolution means you can’t criticize or judge anyone’s sexual behavior. The War on Poverty and Sexual Liberation are the one-two punch that virtually destroyed the impoverished American family. 

    • #18
    • September 14, 2018 at 5:13 pm
    • 1 like
  19. Member

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    I have zero expectations that this will happen. Shouldn’t we just accept that humans are designed to do the procreative act stupidly and find a viable workaround. 

    There is no viable workaround. Human nature is what it is, and absent a standard of morals and ethics, external to man, which is generally acknowledged by the majority of members of society, the society crumbles. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

    In my 23 years as a private investigator, working primarily on major felonies, I have found one common denominator. With a very small number of exceptions, the thing linking nearly all of them is that the defendants come from single-parent homes. And nearly every single-parent family unit I encounter is in poor financial condition.

    The liberal mantra is that poverty begets crime. I have found this to be wrong. But there is a relationship. It’s this: crime begets poverty.

    I’ve had reason recently to think back over the juvenile cases I’ve handled, or just been aware of. I don’t remember a single one where there was a father or father figure in the picture. I don’t mean that such things don’t occur. They certainly do. But not often.

    Bottom line: As the traditional, two-biological-parent family disappears, so does society. We devolve to nothing more than animals. And with that I refer you to paragraph 1.

    • #19
    • September 14, 2018 at 8:43 pm
    • 5 likes
  20. Coolidge
    TBA

    Write Your Own Times Article! 

    1. Select Poster Child
    2. Photograph poster child from most tragic angles. 
    3. Airbrush out non-tragic facts. 
    4. Insert statistic salad 
    5. End with even-handed sounding blaming of Republican admin/policy. 
    • #20
    • September 14, 2018 at 9:48 pm
    • 3 likes
  21. Member

    Quietpi (View Comment):

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    I have zero expectations that this will happen. Shouldn’t we just accept that humans are designed to do the procreative act stupidly and find a viable workaround.

    There is no viable workaround. Human nature is what it is, and absent a standard of morals and ethics, external to man, which is generally acknowledged by the majority of members of society, the society crumbles. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

    In my 23 years as a private investigator, working primarily on major felonies, I have found one common denominator. With a very small number of exceptions, the thing linking nearly all of them is that the defendants come from single-parent homes. And nearly every single-parent family unit I encounter is in poor financial condition.

    The liberal mantra is that poverty begets crime. I have found this to be wrong. But there is a relationship. It’s this: crime begets poverty.

    I’ve had reason recently to think back over the juvenile cases I’ve handled, or just been aware of. I don’t remember a single one where there was a father or father figure in the picture. I don’t mean that such things don’t occur. They certainly do. But not often.

    Bottom line: As the traditional, two-biological-parent family disappears, so does society. We devolve to nothing more than animals. And with that I refer you to paragraph 1.

    Hmmm-mmm. (He said thoughtfully.) Your first paragraph is similar to GrannyDudette’s lamentation that we can’t judge a person’s sexuality anymore. Without society judging you, human nature is neither constrained or directed to a more noble form of behavior. 

    But how do you actually have the wherewithal to speak your mind? A boss of mine said that she wanted universal healthcare because she was a single Mom. In a previous conversation she said that the man who made her pregnant wasn’t into sticking around. I forgot her exact wording but she mentioned that he wasn’t really the type to do anything for her or their child. How do I say, “Whether or not universal health care as dictated by the government is a good thing, why did you go and get impregnated by a man who immediately abandoned you?” What can I practically say in that situation? 

    Sex robots are just easier.

    • #21
    • September 14, 2018 at 10:56 pm
    • 2 likes