Yesterday the Boston Globe had an interesting article on the absence of men, in particular Black men, in antipoverty policy. Children have always been considered “deserving poor” because they are largely helpless, and women have long been considered deserving because their plight was usually the result of widowdom. For the most part, Americans have taken care of the “deserving poor” not necessarily through the best means available (read: poorhouses) but nonetheless, the intention was to create a better living situation, and hopefully better life chances, for those in social programs.
The icon of the “undeserving poor,” by contrast, has always been the able-bodied man. Although some programs in the New Deal and the War on Poverty provided them with jobs and training, social welfare policy has otherwise largely ignored men. One practical reason is that as a rule, aid to children – the paragons of vulnerability – has been channeled through mothers. Equally potent, though, is the longstanding cultural belief that men, barring economic disasters, should be able to take care of themselves. Today, especially, low-income men have an image problem. Many are convicts and “deadbeat dads,” widely seen as deserving blame, not bailouts.
But according to a new wave of thinking, the next front in the fight against poverty should consist of policies aimed at these very individuals. Experts say that poor men, caught in profound economic and social changes, now number among society’s most vulnerable members. The economy has shifted its weight to the service sector, shedding the manufacturing jobs that once offered low-skilled men the promise of good wages to support their families. Alarming percentages of poor men – disproportionately African-Americans – pass through the criminal justice system, further undercutting their employability. And child support laws have driven them deep into debt.
I must admit, this is probably the first time I’ve seen mainstream media consider these men vulnerable. Let’s just take a little look at the many systems that keep Black men in poverty.
- * education – If CNN didn’t beat this into the ground, the high school drop out rate for African Americans is now up to 50%. We all know that not obtaining a college degree, let alone a high school degree, significantly decreases one’s lifetime earnings.
- * incarceration – you send a Black man to jail and his likelihood of finding employment to sustain him, let alone and his family, drops at an incredible rate.
- * child support - I’m not advocating that men don’t pay, but simple changes will make it much easier for men to pay. For example, if we stop considering incarceration “voluntary unemployment” and stop adding onto the principal while men are in jail, this would make their arrears repayment much easier upon their release. Or instead of taking out the entire amount of arrears from a man’s paycheck (and leaving with him with nothing in that paycheck), we should leave enough money for men to support themselves.
- * lack of low skill labor – this has been a problem since the 1970′s and employment is becoming more technical and analytical. Low education and low skill men are going to continue to have a hard time finding a job that provide liveable wages and any sort of benefits. That said, low skill jobs are not going to return. We need to educate these men and provide them with the skills to compete in today’s workforce.
The article points to many initiatives to help these men – most through financial incentives. That makes sense, a major reason men turn to crime is financial, however, this has been met with resistance.
In certain quarters, these ideas have generated controversy. Conservative critics oppose the expenditures, while others, especially feminists, fear that limited antipoverty funding could be diverted from poor women, who are by and large still struggling to raise the kids. From this perspective, the question is, why should men who have shirked their obligations be rewarded with assistance?
“If men were taking responsibility for their children, they would be receiving benefits,” says Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women.
These objections underscore one of the central challenges of any strategy designed to benefit poor men. Although policy analysts describe them as among the most vulnerable citizens in contemporary America, they are commonly viewed as more menacing than helpless. Many of them have broken laws and are severely alienated from mainstream society. The new proposals raise the question: How can you justify devoting scarce resources to helping people who most Americans see as culpable for many of their own – and society’s – problems?
And there’s the problem. Even though they need a lot of help, men are not considered deserving. And in some cases, ok a lot of cases, men are directly responsible for their current situation. I get frustrated when I see men refuse to acknowledge their role in their predicament and instead blame the system or “the man.” Yes, there are systems at work against you but you dropped at of high school, committed a crime, etc., etc. I question the effectiveness of a program if a man cannot accept the role his decisions have made on his situation, and also how those decisions affect others – his children, his babymama, his family, and his community.
And before you get all, she’s blaming the victim on me, I do understand the frustration of feminists and conservatives. Yes these man make poor decisions, but we need to give second chances. One dumb decision a man makes when he’s in his teens or early twenties really should not haunt and hinder him for the rest of his life. We need to recognize that if we don’t help these men the problem will get worse.
My thought is this, if you help Black children while they are the “deserving” you won’t need to help them when they are the Black men, and therefore “undeserving.” Seems simple enough to me.
I uploaded the article to my server in case it’s down on the Boston Globe site – you can read it here.