Do one in five American children grow up in poverty because of limited opportunity, a drastic decline in real wages and an inadequate safety net? Or is it because Mom is using her food stamps to buy ice cream?
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof struggles to decide in his latest column. When someone generally identified as a progressive humanitarian waffles, it gives the public license to blame it all on Mom - a choice that leaves the rest of us delightfully free of responsibility.
Last week, Kristof wrote that the presidential candidates are not paying enough attention to poverty. I wrote a post in August lodging the same complaint. Unfortunately, in the course of decrying child poverty, Kristof falls into the familiar trap of blaming parents for the plight of poor children. The title of his essay is "3 TVs and No Food: Growing up Poor in America." That should give you an inkling of the tone.
The column focuses on 13-year-old Emanuel Laster, painted by Kristof as a kid making good grades and dreaming of college. But Kristof dwells on Emanuel's grim home, where dirty dishes are piled in the kitchen, the smell of marijuana pervades and the boy's room has three televisions, something that bothers Kristof mightily. He thinks that Emanuel's mother should not have fallen for the rent-to-own scheme that will surely end in the repossession of the sets that still work.
There is a lot to unpack here, so I'll take it point by point.
- I hope that no one from The New York Times inspects my kitchen. I take that back. Middle class women are allowed to have bad days. Poor women are not.
I suspect that women are more driven to keep a clean house because they know they--before their male partners--will be judged for having a dirty one.
- Agreed: People shouldn't be impaired when they are taking care of children. They should not have illegal drugs in their homes.
Emanuel has three televisions, two of which work and are in danger of being repossessed. Kristof finds these televisions emblematic. He objects to their size and existence.
- As mentioned earlier, poverty is a high-stress, depressing way to live. These factors erode what's called executive function, which includes planning - financial and otherwise.
Liberals too often are reluctant to acknowledge that struggling, despairing people sometimes compound their misfortune by self-medicating or engaging in irresponsible, self-destructive behavior. And conservatives too often want to stop the conversation there, without acknowledging our society's irresponsible, self-destructive refusal to help children who are otherwise programmed for failure.
I have no problem acknowledging that poor people sometimes make bad, self-defeating decisions. Rich, poor, or somewhere in between - we all make mistakes. It is the false equivalency that is disturbing. On the one hand, our society does little to improve the lot of poor children. On the other, their parents are human and therefore fallible. The implication is that both problems need to be solved. Society needs to become smarter and more compassionate, while poor people need to become pillars of virtue. And really ... until the poor get their act together, what point is there in changing policy and structures?
A person should not need to be perfect before they are entitled to a fair shake. Kristof refers to the poor as a "broken class." Well, we're all a little broken. That knowledge should make us kind.
He goes on to inform us that 80 percent of the American poor have air conditioning, which makes them materially better off than the poor in India and Congo. Last summer in New Orleans, there were 43 nights where the mercury never dipped below 80 degrees. I'm not sure that we can consider air conditioning a luxury in much of the country, particularly in homes that include the elderly or children with asthma. Be that as it may: Is this the bar? How is it significant that America's poor have more amenities than the poor in India and Congo?
It is significant because he argues that poverty is not primarily about material deprivation. "What many Americans don't understand about poverty is that it is less about money than about not seeing any path out," Kristof writes.
That is not even in the neighborhood of the truth. Poverty is a lack of money - not a lack of vision. The column praises the Earned Income Tax Credit, which has been a great success at lifting families out of poverty. It does that by giving them money. Similarly, we know that kids do better by many measures when their families receive food stamps or assistance through the Women, Infants and Children program - in other words, material help. Poverty is about resources. To imply otherwise is to say that poverty is really OK, because it is a natural consequence of people's free choices.
Nobody chooses to be poor.
Kristof expresses a great deal of sympathy for young people: " ... we fail them long before they fail us." But there seems to be an expiration date on that sympathy. While he interviews several young people living in poverty for the article, we never hear from Emanuel's mother in her own words. Instead the writer paints a picture of her by telling us about her dirty house.
She may not say anything, but she serves her purpose. The "bad mother" figure makes it easy for our leaders to keep doing precisely the thing Kristof says he wants them to stop. It makes it easy for them to ignore poverty in the United States.