The P-Word

Several local media outlets have recently

reported on the Jacksonville pilot program “1,000 in 1,000,” which seeks to address the problem of poverty and move people toward economic self-sufficiency. The objective is to move 1,000 people out of poverty in 1,000 days. This is a praiseworthy goal, and the Jax Chamber and Family Foundations — the program’s two lead sponsors — should be recognized for their efforts. It’s especially welcome given the almost universal avoidance by public officials, including President Obama, of the “p-word.” Instead, almost all attention has been on the mythical “middle class,” despite the fact that it’s been progressively hollowed out and downsized by neoliberal economic policies for 30 years; yesterday’s middle class is today’s working poor. A serious conversation about poverty is long overdue.

The “1,000 in 1,000” initiative employs a program design targeting the social, human and financial assets of the working poor. According to the program model, if the value of these assets can be enhanced — primarily through financial planning, career counseling and parenting training — the poor will be able to improve their standard of living and become more self-sufficient and less dependent.

Sponsors report preliminary progress in moving working poor toward self-sufficiency, but the program’s success will be severely limited by its own assumptions. Most significant of these is the belief that poverty is mostly a product of individual deficiencies. More specifically, it is assumed that poor individuals lack the requisite human capital skills, motivational traits and decision-making abilities to be economically independent and financially successful. This “human deficit model” leads logically toward a policy aimed at changing people who are poor — through counseling, training and self-help planning — rather than addressing the broader socioeconomic conditions responsible for poverty.

It is here where one can benefit from the insight of the late sociologist C. Wright Mills, who reminded us that what might appear to be a personal problem may in fact be the result of larger social forces. Mills provided a simple way to determine the difference. When only a small number of people suffer from a problem, it’s a personal problem; when millions suffer, it’s a social problem with social causes. In 2012, 46.5 million Americans, or 15 percent of the population, lived in poverty. In 2012, 40 percent of workers made less than $20,000. These figures do not reflect personal deficiencies; they signal a problem with our socioeconomic system.

Getting the cause of poverty wrong can result in misplaced emphases. One example is

found in a recent Times-Union editorial praising the “1,000 in 1,000” program and endorsing the idea that the poor need to adopt “middle-class skills.” But if middle-class skills are the key to success, why is it that America’s suburbs, presumably the bastion of middle-class life, have had the largest and fastest-growing poor populations in the country? As reported by the Brookings Institute, “Suburbs in the country’s largest metro areas saw their poor population grow by 25 percent — almost five times faster than primary cities and well ahead of the growth seen in smaller metro areas and non-metropolitan communities.”

Clearly, the poverty problem here cannot be explained by underdeveloped skill-sets or inappropriate cultural dispositions. Further, many of the so-called individual deficiencies are in fact a consequence of economic deprivation and struggle. A recent study published in Science reports that cognitive functioning — managing finances and making decisions — is impeded by the objective state of poverty.

If the “1,000 in 1,000” program is to have its intended impact, it will have to acknowledge and recognize the three most significant contributors to poverty. The first is low-wage work. Jobs that pay at or slightly above minimum wage are insufficient for full-time workers to raise themselves above the poverty line. Some of the largest and most profitable employers in the nation — in fast-food and retail — pay a poverty wage. If workers were paid a living wage, they wouldn’t have a poverty problem, nor would they have to rely on government assistance. As recent studies have shown, highly profitable corporations, including Walmart and McDonald’s, pay their workers such a meager wage, most must rely on government assistance to make ends meet. For the labor force as a whole, it’s estimated that a quarter are enrolled in or qualify for at least one form of public assistance. Therefore, it’s not the working poor who are deficient, but rather their employers, who at the same time are dependent on taxpayers to subsidize their low-wage regime.

A second rather obvious factor contributing to current poverty is the double-edged sword of under-employment and unemployment. For the vast majority of jobless Americans, the absence of employment is not a personal choice but an involuntary state that reflects a failure of economy to generate employment opportunities. Currently there are approximately three job seekers for every available job. Flooding the labor market with highly trained, motivated and financially responsible people won’t eliminate unemployment — to put it in the language of economics, labor supply does not create its own demand. Nor will increasing the supply convert low-wage jobs into high-paying jobs.

Together, low-wage work and unemployment inevitably produce significant rates of poverty in our society and communities. No amount of financial planning, job training or the instillation of a work ethic will eliminate these structural features of the national and local economy.

But the “1,000 in 1,000” program proposal is conspicuously silent on the issue of raising the minimum wage, establishing a local living wage or creating jobs. With the Jax Chamber directly involved in this, it’s odd that there’s no mention of its members’ responsibility to provide workers with higher wages or greater and better employment opportunities. And it’s unlikely the Chamber would endorse a measure strengthening labor union representation that would allow workers to collectively bargain for higher wages and greater job security.

The third critical factor in understanding poverty is residential segregation by race/ethnicity and social class. There are certain communities in every city that suffer from the highest rates and concentration of unemployment and poverty. As it applies to addressing poverty here, a more complete model would include a community-based component that takes place seriously. That is, how can communities where people live be transformed so they provide an environment for economic security and healthy lifestyles? Many of the poorest, most poverty-stricken communities have become this way over time as a result of private sector (dis)investment decisions. Therefore, a poverty program should include a component aimed at rebuilding sources of wealth and livelihood in those economically depressed communities and neighborhoods.

If these three factors — low-wage work, unemployment and community deprivation — were considered in the analysis of Jacksonville poverty, the policy implications would be radically different from those proposed by the “1,000 in 1,000” program. One example of a nationwide strategy moving in this direction is the initiative. As the name suggests, its primary purpose is to develop, create and nurture community wealth-building institutions that serve and are controlled by the local community and its residents. These can include municipal-owned enterprises to provide services and produce revenue, community development corporations and worker-owned and worker-directed businesses and cooperative enterprises.

What these institutions have in common is their deep connection to the local community and the potential for democratic control and management of wealth. This can be contrasted with the standard governmental approach using financial incentives, tax breaks and subsidies to lure and retain footloose corporations. This conventional strategy has neither prevented widespread fiscal crises nor provided local residents with economic security. It’s for this very reason that there’s now a national movement seeking alternative local economic development models that are community and worker controlled.

The “1,000 in 1,000” program has raised the

consciousness level about a serious social problem. Now it’s time to move the conversation to the next level by considering additional strategies and alternative models designed to achieve the common objective of securing a better quality of life for all our citizens.