Welcome to Part Two of Talking About Poverty, PLACE’s five-part series on poverty and our deep-seated assumptions about our fellow Americans who are poor. As our guide, we will be using the excellent series, Busted: America’s Poverty Myths from WNYC’s On the Media.
In this, our second part, we examine the long-held notion that people who are poor are poor because they do not have the same work ethic as those in the middle class. This assumption leads to the belief that some people deserve to be poor because of bad decisions they have made, or that they just don’t have what it takes.
For example, Walter Mischel’s famous Stanford Marshmallow Study offered a group of children a choice: They could eat one marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows. The ability to hold out for the promise of that second marshmallow correlated with greater success later in life.
People have naturally concluded that kids lacking in self control were missing something vital to success. The kids with the ability to delay their gratification, with self control, simply had what it takes.
The University of Rochester recently revisited the Marshmallow Study. In their twist, before administering the marshmallow test, the U of R team offered the kids a chance to play with some blunt and broken crayons while they were waiting, or hold out from some brand new crayons later. After a long wait, half the kids got the brand new crayons (The Reliable Group), and half were told that there weren’t any new crayons after all and they would have to use the broken ones (The Unreliable Group). Then they gave all the kids the marshmallow test. What do you think happened?
The kids in The Reliable Group were able to delay their gratification four times longer than those in The Unreliable Group. The kids in the Unreliable Group ate the marshmallow in front of them pretty quickly. They had already internalized the notion that one bum steer leads to another.
That’s what poverty does to you.
As Linda Tirado writes in her book Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, “We don’t plan long term, because if we do, we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.”
What about the notion that poor people don’t have the same work ethic as middle-class people? Studies that have been done for a long time now show it is a common misperception. People with higher incomes attribute the causes of poverty to internal and individual factors.
So from where does this idea come?
Ignorance for starters. For a long period of our history, the media barely covered poverty. Time, Newsweek and U.S. News each ran only sixteen stories on poverty for the entire decade of the fifties, leaving Upper-and-Middle-Class America with only their stereotypes of poor people.
Another source of loathing for poor people came from President Reagan and his tale of the Welfare Queen, a story meant to represent rampant abuse of the welfare system. Americans were led to believe that poor people on welfare were actually collecting large sums on welfare, and staying in the system for generations. Linda Taylor, on whom the story was based, was a suspected kidnapper, and murderer, and was eventually sent to prison. While she defrauded the system, she was not a typical welfare recipient. The typical recipient is on the program for an average of two years.
Error rates in the system, often referred to as fraud, are actually low, and usually attributable to honest mistakes, not people abusing the system. A recent audit of the food stamp system, for example, showed error rates of less than three percent. Actual fraud rates are much smaller.
How about the idea that the ranks of entitlement recipients are swelling? Not so. The vast majority of poor households don’t receive any help. Since Bill Clinton’s effort to “end welfare as we know it,” resources to help poor people only reach a quarter of those who need it, with over ninety percent going to the elderly, disabled and working adults and children, not to able-bodied, working-age Americans who choose not to work.
Clinton’s program did move people to work, but many of the jobs didn’t stick without any support for training, rent, childcare, or medical care. While moving to work may work for some, there is strong doubt that it works for single mothers or their children. Recent research suggests that single parents may not be better off by moving into the workforce after all.
Before the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, the system supported over 600,000 people working toward four-year college degrees, helping many of them to rise out of poverty. Now, that number is just 35,000. Even then, most colleges can’t cope with the challenges faced by their poorer students, their food stamps, childcare, homelessness. How are the severely impoverished supposed to make a better life for themselves and their children, when failure seems baked into the system, for many, from birth?
The PLACE team is focused on using design thinking to offer people opportunities to get ahead. We ask ourselves how can we design a neighborhood that does not simply offer more affordable rents, but also food, jobs, transportation, utilities, health insurance and access to art and creativity.
Our St. Louis Park, Minnesota project is an eco village, offering healthy homes for people of all incomes. The campus is designed around alternatives to automobile ownership (itself an average cost of over $600 per month), including commuter bike trails, buses, shuttles, and soon a light rail station at our doorstep. A nonprofit-owned Marriott hotel will offer job training, as will small businesses like cafes and coffeehouses. Food scraps from the community will be used in PLACE’s E-Generation process to produce energy to power the community and food to feed people affordable greens.
You get the idea. A whole-systems approach to create more affordable living, not merely affordable housing, surrounded by the art and creativity that create quality of life and inspiration for people. We have designed our communities to offer a chance to make a transformational change for people, not an incremental one.
The next part in our series, Talking About Poverty, will discuss the myth of Rags to Riches, that with a strong work ethic, anyone can start from the bottom and work their way to the top. We hope you will continue to send us your thoughts.
To Listen to Busted: America's Poverty Myths, click here.
Chris Velasco is Co-Founder and Executive Director of PLACE, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable, just and inspiring world.