Skip to main content

Janresseger: What If Policymakers Stopped Condemning Poor People and Considered their Real Needs and Circumstances?

In 2012, Mike Rose published Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, a book about the potential of community colleges to help people discover their interests, widen their experiences, and perhaps change the direction of their lives.  He begins: “This is a book about people in tough circumstances who find their way, who get a second… or third.. or fourth chance, who in some cases feel like they are reinventing themselves.  Education can play a powerful role in creating that second chance…  One of the defining characteristics of the United States is its promise of a second chance; this promise is central to our vision of ourselves and to our economic and civic dynamism. When we are at our best as a society, our citizens are not trapped by their histories.” (Back to School, p. xiii)

But we live in an age when work requirements—and participation in sometimes endless workplace training programs—have been added as conditions to qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and when some states have made eligibility for Medicaid and even SNAP (food stamps) contingent on working or participating in basic and overly generalized training programs.  What does it mean when education ceases to be seen as a second chance and is instead conceptualized as a punishment for the those we disdain as dependent.  What if our society were to recover our belief in second chances?  What if we were to begin to consider in human terms the people who care for our grandparents or our children or pour our coffee or change the beds after we leave our hotel rooms—people whose employers may not regularly assign them enough hours to qualify for social program work requirements—people who never know their work schedules in advance—people working at minimum wage?  And how does our opinion of the people struggling to find jobs that pay so little affect the programs we design supposedly to provide that second chance?

To consider this question, in 2013, Rose published a piece in Dissent MagazineThe Inner Life of the Poor, an article he later added as a new chapter in the revised and expanded 2014 edition of his extraordinary Why School?   Rose republished the article last month on his personal blog.  Here’s why: “I reprint it now, for I think it is especially relevant in these times of brutal social policy and the day-to-day dehumanization of vulnerable people both within and at our borders.”

Here is what Rose asks us to consider as he profiles the woman who served as the primary caregiver for his own father: “Officially, there are close to two million home health care workers in the United States, and who knows how many more off the books.  It is one of the fastest growing occupations in the country.  Most are female.  Many are immigrants, particularly in larger cities… Their average wage is $9.70 per hour, and their annual income is $20,500.  But the majority… do not have regular employment and move from one home or facility to another.  It is hard work work with limited, if any, benefits, and it is unsteady.”

Rose writes: “I’ve been interested in the psychological diminishment of poor people for a long time.” “The poor are pretty much absent from public and political discourse, except as an abstraction—an income category low on the Socioeconomic Status index–or as a generalization: people dependent on the government, the ‘takers,’ a problem.  Neither abstraction nor generalization gives us actual people waking up exhausted, getting kids off to school; trying to make a buck; or, in some cases, past the point of trying. And if we lack images of living, breathing people, we doubly lack any sense of the inner lives of the poor… We don’t know them.  And because we don’t know their values and aspirations, the particulars of their daily decisions, and the economic and psychological boundaries within which those decisions are made, they easily become psychologically one-dimensional, intellectually, emotionally, and volitionally simplified, not quite like us.  This fact has huge implications for public policy, education and work, and civic life.”

Rose describes the implications of public policy created by the powerful for people they see as “the other”: “If we are separated from a group not only physically but psychologically, then it becomes all the easier to attribute to them motives, belief, thoughts—an entire interior life—that might be deeply inaccurate and inadequate.  And it is from those attributions that we develop both our personal and public policy responses to poverty. Because the invisibility of the poor is ultimately a sociological and political phenomenon, I am interested in places or occasions where poor people become more fully present, actors on the societal stage, and their thoughts and feelings play out in ways that can have a positive effect on the direction of their lives.” “If they are truly public… our institutions should be run with a deep knowledge of the motives, aspirations, cognitive capacity, and inner and outer barriers of the full range of the people they serve.”

Certainly the considerations Rose describes are missing from too many of today’s policies like the ones that condition food stamps, Medicaid, and cash welfare on a prescribed number of hours of workforce participation or participation in workforce training programs that may or may not relate to people’s needs. Such programs have reduced the number of people receiving assistance, but they haven’t diminished poverty.  In a recent column in the Washington PostAmy Goldstein describes what has happened in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker and the legislature imposed workforce participation requirements as a condition for food stamps: “Since the requirements began, the number of people getting FoodShare across the state has fallen from more than 800,000 to fewer than 650,000.  Nearly 29,000 FoodShare recipients who have been in employment and training programs have gotten jobs, state figures show.  But more than 100,000 people have lost their benefits when they used up their three-month time limits, nearly half of them in Milwaukee.”

SNAP, the federal food stamps progam, is part of the Farm Bill, whose passage has posed an enormous conflict all year between the House, which wanted work requirements added, and the Senate, whose version of the bill did not mandate federal work requirements.  On Wednesday, December 12, Congress finally did pass a Farm Bill that omits any added federal work requirements for SNAP recipients.  The federal bill does not preclude punitive sanctions at the state level like the ones already imposed in Wisconsin, but we must be grateful that Congress chose not to punish the poor by adding federal work requirements to the new Farm Bill.

There is additional evidence, however, about the danger of sanctions for the poor added to social programs.  After more than twenty years since “the end of welfare as we know it,” the evidence about the replacement of Aid to Families with Dependent Children by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) should alarm us all.  A November 2018 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains: “Some policymakers have pointed to TANF as a model for other programs—most recently, proponents of taking away SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits, Medicaid coverage, or housing assistance from people who don’t meet rigid work requirements.  But states’ experience with TANF shows why it should not be held up as a model.  There is strong evidence that TANF’s work requirements and block grant structure exacerbate, rather than reduce, deep poverty (that is, incomes below half of the poverty line).  The federal government has a critical role in ensuring that low-income families have access to a minimum level of support to meet their basic needs; block grants hand that responsibility over to states, which—with no national standards to hold them accountable for assisting families in need—have acted in their own self interest, not in the best interest of the most vulnerable members of society… The decline in access to TANF benefits has left many of the poorest families without resources to meet their basic needs.  TANF has failed to maintain the standard set by AFDC in reaching families, particularly those with children and those in deep poverty.  TANF benefits are not sufficient to lift families out of poverty in anystate, and while AFDC lifted more than 2.7 million children out of deep poverty in 1995, TANF lifted only 349,000 children out of deep poverty in 2015… Evidence shows that the drop in direct financial assistance receipt under TANF is a main driver of rising ‘extreme poverty,’ a measure the World Bank uses of the number of households surviving on $2 or less per person per day.” (emphasis in the original)

While this week Congress protected SNAP recipients, there is reason to worry that America’s promise of second chances is in jeopardy.  In his 2014 book, Why School?, Mike Rose defines the meaning of opportunity—the second chance that seems to be threatened in so many of our welfare, healthcare, and immigration policies today. Rose, of course, considers opportunity in an educational setting: “(T)he creation of opportunity involves a good deal of thoughtful work on the part of the provider, and, as well, demands significant effort on the part of the recipient…  In this regard, I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like.  Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation. But what is the experience of opportunity?  Certainly one feels a sense of possibility, of hope.  But it is hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do—pathways to a goal. And all this takes place with people who interact with you in ways that affirm your hope.” (Why School? pp. 13-14, emphasis in the original)

This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...