Labor, The Economy

I often find it painfully tedious to read NY Times stories which try to individualize social problems, but this one, about one woman’s struggle against poverty, is very well written.

The people who received promotions tended to have something that Caroline did not. They had teeth. Caroline’s teeth had succumbed to poverty, to the years when she could not afford a dentist. Most of them decayed and abscessed, and when she lived on welfare in Florida, she had them all pulled in a grueling two-hour session that left her looking bruised and beaten. Under the state’s Medicaid rules as she understood them, a set of dentures would have been covered only if she had been without any teeth at all; while some of them could have been saved, she couldn’t afford to do less than everything. In the end, the dentures paid for by Medicaid didn’t fit and made her gag, so she couldn’t wear them. An adjustment would have cost about $250, money she didn’t have.

It manages to address the structural issues at the same time that it provides a moving individual portrait. She is not portrayed as a passive victim, but as someone who has fought hard to get what little she has. I won’t try to summarize the article, which is rich in detail, but there is one thing I found particularly striking — that nobody would intervene on her behalf to do the one thing that would actually have helped her situation the most: having her employer change her work schedule.

Perhaps the most curious and troubling facet of this confounding puzzle was everybody’s failure to pursue the most obvious solution: if the factory had just let Caroline work day shifts, her problem would have disappeared. She asked a supervisor and got brushed off, but nobody else — not the school principal, not the doctor, not the myriad agencies she contacted — nobody in the profession of helping thought to pick up the phone and appeal to the factory manager or the foreman or anybody else in authority at her workplace.

Indeed, this solemn regard for the employer as untouchable and beyond the realm of persuasion unless in violation of the law permeates the culture of American antipoverty efforts, with only a few exceptions. The most socially minded physicians and psychologists who treat malnourished children, for example, will advocate vigorously with government agencies to provide food stamps, health insurance, housing and the like. But when they are asked if they ever urge the parents’ employers to raise wages enough to pay for nutritious food, the doctors express surprise at the notion. First, it has never occurred to them, and second, it seems hopeless. Wages and hours are set by the marketplace, and you cannot expect magnanimity from the marketplace. It is the final arbiter from which there is no appeal.

Perhaps it is this semi-religious awe of the marketplace that has made the American worker so passive in the face of high unemployment, skyrocketing health care costs, a lack of worker safety, and even being locked in their place of work at night? [Thanks to

Jonathon Delacour for the link.]