Chico Harlan and some colleagues at the Washington Post have done some terrific reporting recently on the poverty-heaviness of the American South and especially the new developments fueling it, and his piece this week on its increasing suburban-ization is no exception. (Click here and here for two earlier articles.) Except I take exception in one regard. Harlan here seems to gloss over the role played by poor – and avoidable – personal choices, both by currently poor southerners and by their forebears.
By following the odyssey-like travel forced on one young low-income Atlanta-area woman even to go job-hunting, Harlan convincingly shows the harm done by the dispersal of poor populations from inner cities combined with the lousy mass transit systems in suburbs and equally bad transit links between those suburbs and urban cores. And in fact, recent research makes clear that the transit dimension of poverty and near-poverty is hardly restricted to the south. So it’s completely appropriate to sympathize with Lauren Scott, who can’t afford a car, as she spends literally hours on buses heading to and from job interviews and following up other employment leads. It’s just as appropriate to condemn the zoning laws and other state and local policies that make such travel so excruciating and time-consuming.
At the same time, I wish Harlan had spent more space discussing other aspects of Scott’s life that deserve more scrutiny, and that shed more light on poverty in America today. For example, she’s a single mother, which the author documents both pushed her below the poverty line to begin with, and which has limited the kinds of positions she could hold and applied for. In Scott’s case, Harlan writes, she was misled by a faulty medical diagnosis of permanent infertility. At the same time, that’s hardly the only, or even a major, reason for out-of-wedlock births by mothers who literally can’t afford motherhood.
In addition, she has a battery charge on her record. A dubious roommate helped drain her modest savings, and her family was in position to help. Her daughter’s father had flown the coop. Scott had “long ago lost contact with her mother.” The article makes no mention of her own father. And although one of her siblings is serving in the military, another has just been released from prison.
All of which puts in interesting, to say the least, perspective Harlan’s observation that “A generation earlier, even people in Scott’s situation had advantages that she lacks. They tended to live in the middle of Atlanta, near the subway, and they received welfare, cash payments from the government that were available to nearly all in deep poverty, regardless of whether they had a job.”
Not that the author implies that this system was ideal. But Scott’s personal and family history strongly indicates that it wasn’t even acceptable – and had destructive effects on its intended beneficiaries.
I also wish that Harlan had mentioned other sources of new and resurgent poverty in the south and elsewhere in America – especially the offshoring-friendly trade policies and Open Borders/amnesty-friendly immigration measures that have destroyed so many family wage job opportunities for the nation’s working class and working poor. Some attention is now being paid throughout the policy community to domestic moves that could alleviate poverty – like the aforementioned transportation improvements and more generous family and medical leave requirements, along with more familiar proposals like further expanding the earned income tax credit, raising the minimum wage, and of course improving the schools. But the near future could well see trade and immigration pressures on native-born workers – which have the greatest direct effects on job-creation and preservation – grow even stronger.
As a result, I’m hoping like heck that 2016 is a better year for Lauren Scott, who like many of America’s poor really does want to overcome past mistakes and work for a living. I just wish I was more optimistic.