Stop Worrying About the Nature of Poverty. Start Worrying About the Nature of Work.

David Brooks made quite a splash last week, as he loves to do, when he penned a column on “The Nature of Poverty,” stating:

[T]he real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.

We’ve heard this before: the idea that the culture of people and communities in poverty is what’s keeping them there. That culture consists of attitudes, behaviors, and norms that, in Brooks’ view, add up to people preventing their own success. (Others have tackled what is problematic about this way of thinking.) As evidence for these cultural problems, Brooks claims that “federal antipoverty spending has exploded,” without making much of a dent in the official poverty rate.

His point is diminished by some pretty bad math, as Annie Lowrey explains: the spending tally Brooks is referencing includes government programs like Medicaid, the earned-income tax credit, and food stamps that are not counted as income when the poverty rate is calculated. And much of the spending he’s citing supports more than just low-income families, like grants to low-income school districts (not individuals), and Medicaid funds that support the disabled, as well as funds that go to doctors, hospitals, and administrators. Matt Bruenig dismantles Brooks’ argument further, showing poverty has fallen almost 40 percent in the past five decades when you do include things like food stamps and EITC as income. Bruenig also explains, “80%+ of the American poor in a given year are people who fall into vulnerable population categories: children, elderly, disabled, students, and those who faced at least one spell of involuntary unemployment during the year.” These vulnerabilities—of age, economic transition, and physical or mental health—aren’t ameliorated by ambition and a sense of responsibility.

But Brooks’ ideas about lack of ambition and responsibility just don’t make sense in the face of one big economic reality: there aren’t enough good jobs. And there certainly aren’t enough good jobs in low-income communities. With increasing economic segregation in our sprawling Southern metros, it’s difficult for low-income people to physically get to where the jobs are in general. In an earlier post, we talked about how our labor market extends benefits and protections only to the types of occupations we value—and the determination of which occupations are valued is based largely on cultural assumptions about who works those jobs and what kind of treatment they deserve. If we focus only on career pathways into “good jobs,” then we ignore the concrete and realistic steps that could be taken to improve the quality of all jobs.

Maureen Conway of The Aspen Institute addressed this issue in a Time column this week:

One factor glaringly absent from all the celebratory discussions of education is the changing condition of work. The reason it remains a good idea for most individuals to at least try to get a college degree is not because today’s jobs require college level skills. Rather, it’s because employment options available to people without a college degree are terrifyingly awful. And in a country that purports to value work, we ought to consider why we are so unwilling to pay for it. We should ask ourselves why the people who care for our children and elderly parents or grandparents, the people who prepare and serve us food, the people who clean our homes and secure our office buildings — why do all of these people deserve poverty-level wages?

There’s a lot of work that we aren’t willing to pay much for. A surprisingly large proportion of full-time workers in the U.S. don’t currently make $15 per hour (which, by the way, is still less than a living wage for one parent with one child in every Southern state):

Share of full-time workers earning at least $15/hour by race/ethnicity: United States


In most Southern states, it’s even lower. Take North Carolina:

Share of full-time workers earning at least $15/hour by race/ethnicity: North Carolina


Conway calls us to focus on the quality of all jobs in addition to strategies to improve educational attainment:

It is undeniable that investing in education is a good thing. But if we want the masses to get “good jobs” so they can support themselves through their work — and not just the lucky few who can get ahead of their peers through education — then we need to look much more carefully at the nature of work and the kind of opportunity a job offers. Businesses have choices about the ways they structure work just as surely as individuals have choices about pursuing education. Our society is unlikely to address the inequality we face by encouraging an arms race among people desperate to gain access to shrinking opportunities for decent work. We must address the dynamics that encourage companies to extract from, rather than invest in, their employees. We need to raise our expectations of the rewards of work and improve the quality of opportunities available to people willing to work hard. If we want people to climb the economic ladder through education, then we need to ensure that ladder rests on a stable foundation of work that pays enough to live on.

Brooks is worried about a culture that doesn’t value hard work and responsibility. Well, so am I. But where Brooks is worrying about the culture of low-income people, I’m worrying about our broader American culture that is content to lay blame on the poor while devaluing so many jobs. He’s worried about a social psychology that discourages responsibility and future-oriented thinking, and so am I: we’re discouraging the responsibility employers have to their employees and making short-sighted decisions about where to invest or who is worth our investment. If we follow Brooks’ logic, our economic and political systems are blameless. That unwillingness to consider structural and systemic reforms, in favor of faulting individual choice and community culture, means poverty will remain high, mobility will remain low, and inequality will rise. And that should worry all of us.