A couple of days ago, I went back to the shelter that I wrote about here for a second round of “job readiness” volunteer work with the residents there.
This time, I worked with a woman, Maxine, who has three children, all under the age of four. The kids, two girls and a boy, were pretty unkempt, a little snotty and dirty. And it was challenging working with their mom, who was probably in her early twenties, because her attention was always being pulled in multiple directions at once. What do you do with a small child (let alone three of them) when you are trying to type and look up stuff on the internet? (I’m especially curious because typing and Googling is basically what I do all day. Ha!) Well, from watching Maxine, it is clear that the secret is to keep saying, “In a minute!” And “Mommy is busy right now!” And stuff like that. She was amazingly patient with the kids, and I could tell they loved their mama.
Working with Maxine, in a shelter, made it hard to suppress a twinge of judgment. I almost wanted to say, “Why in hell did you have so many damn kids? Did you not notice that you’re homeless and such?”
But I know that this is a stupid thing to think because factors like class and race profoundly shape a woman’s ability–her power–to say no to sex and to her sense that she has control (or not) over her own body. (Not to mention the fact that it is patronizing to even assume that Maxine didn’t actually WANT and PLAN all her kids.)
However, the three kids definitely deepened Maxine’s predicament, which was pretty serious from what I could tell. She said that she had never had a job before. No previous employment at all, officially. Of course, unofficially she had done lots and lots of work, mostly work that involved caring for other people. As a teen, she babysat her cousin’s daughter for years. She had also cared for her grandmother, who suffered from diabetes. She even had to take her blood sugar! Of course, now, Maxine cares for her own three children. What’s the use of putting any of this on a resumé though? Few employers are likely to see ‘motherhood’ or ‘caring for grandma’ as real skills that prove Maxine’s worthiness to take up paid employment, even if that employment involves caring for others.
Which is, not surprisingly, all Maxine could really imagine herself doing.
When I asked her what kind of job she would like, Maxine said she thought she could work as a Home Health Aide. These are the people who go into homes and care for the elderly and the sick. Maxine is not wrong to imagine that these jobs are available. Social assistance jobs in the health care field account for as many as one-third of all private sector jobs in Brooklyn and the Bronx. One third! This fact alone is pretty shocking, especially because most of these HHA workers are immigrant women who receive low pay, work long hours, and receive no benefits, according to this article.
On Craigslist, Maxine and I found dozens of HHA openings. Of course, all of them asked for certification, something that is a real barrier for her because how is she supposed to get the training? Who would pay for it? And what would she do with her kids?
More importantly, how much do these jobs pay? That is not a rhetorical question. The New York Times article explains that many HHA jobs pay about $7.50/hour, and many of these workers have no access to health care or other benefits. Can a mom with three kids support herself on that wage in NYC? That is not a rhetorical question either because the answer is, undoubtedly, “um, no.”
I have bitched and moaned a lot about the fact that low wages are a far greater barrier to self-sufficiency and full employment than, say, lack of education. When I make these arguments, I get accused of saying that working-class people shouldn’t get to go to college, or I get lectured for seeing education solely through an economic lens, as a means to a job. What I am saying is what Richard Rothstein says in his book Class and Schools.
“One of the great impediments to effective policies that might enhance more equal outcomes between children of social class backgrounds is the tendency of educators to think only about school reforms. In reality, however, for lower-class families, low wages for working parents with children, poor health care, inadequate housing, and lack of opportunity for high-quality early childhood, after-school and summer activities are all educational problems” (I put those italics in there myself!)
Fair housing and wage policies ARE education policies! If you think even the best schools in the universe can erase, or even noticeably ease, the “achievement gap” or the cycle of poverty that Maxine’s kids have been born into, then I seriously do not know what you are smoking. School reform needs to be part of broad social reform.
More people are making this argument. The NYT recently asked a bunch of smart, experty-type people what they think is wrong with the economy. Now of course, you have your usual responses like this one in which the author trots out the same tired argument –stop me if you’ve heard it–that people who have college degrees earn more money so people who want to earn more money should go get degrees. (This is not wrong; it’s just not a long-term strategy for mass upward mobility.)
But, then, there are other NYT contributors who say that “More Education Isn’t The Answer” because the real problem is that more and more companies are offshoring their labor these days. Even white-collar workers are not immune to having their jobs outsourced to Vietnam and India where someone else will do the same work for a pittance.
WHAT? Are you telling me labor policies of big companies that hire workers might have something to do with the fact that folks can’t find work? Shocking.
Hal Salzman from Rutgers says that “[i]mproving education is important but focusing on top tier skills is not a panacea for unemployment or poor economic performance.” Researcher Ron Hira’s findings also run “counter to the standard prescription given by pundits and many economists that American workers simply need to ‘up-skill,’ get more education, and concentrate on ‘innovation’ and creativity.” In fact, Hira says a big problem with the economy is the lack of power of American workers. “In the longer term,” he writes, “we need to fashion structural changes that would give American workers better representation and more power in labor policy. Some 93 percent of the private sector workforce is not represented by a labor union. Those workers have little or no ability to push for policies that might help retain jobs in this country.”
Structural changes? More power to workers? Who is this guy, a pinko commie? Surely he must be some kind of anti-American nutbag for suggesting STRUCTURAL changes. No one wants that unless they hate America!
Finally, there’s an interesting blog called New Deal 2.0 about the current economic crisis. In a recent piece, Mike Konczal, a researcher for the Roosevelt Institute, addresses the question: why is unemployment so bad this recession? He says that there are two kinds of explanations. The first says that there aren’t enough jobs to go around, especially in the sectors that employ the most people. The recession, according to this logic, has deepened as a result of lack of “aggregate demand.” The second argument says that people do not have enough of the right skills for the jobs that are out there. In other words, unemployment has been caused by a “skills mismatch.” Which argument is correct? Konczal includes a lot of graphs and charts which I don’t really understand. (Graphs and charts make me incredibly nervous for some reason. I’m a person who likes things to be explained in prose.) Economists and science-types seem to like charts and grafts, however, and chartmonger Konczal uses them explain that a lot of people who want to work full-time (and who have the credentials to do so) are only working part-time because there are no full-time jobs available. This is called “underemployment,” and this number is important, he writes, because “every one of the nine occupations we obtained data on had a doubling, at least, of underemployment. . . . Everywhere we look, across occupations and sectors, people with the skills to work their jobs are more likely to be working part-time for economic reasons in 2010 than they were before the recession. This is a story of aggregate demand, not a story of skills mismatch.”
So Konczal is saying that unemployment rates are NOT the result of people not having the right education or skills. Instead, unemployment is the result of not enough jobs. This means that there isn’t some secret stash of decent jobs in some heretofore unknown industry that is dying to hire people if they just had the right skills. That’s a myth which goes back to what Ron Hira argued in the New York Times: The recession was caused by structural problems that can’t be fixed by education alone.
And the Roosevelt Institute is not the only smartypants group making this case. Economists at the The Economic Policy Institute recently released a report called “Reasons for Skepticism about Structural Unemployment” in which they make the same argument. “Even if every single job opening in the United States was filled,” they write, “80% of the unemployed would still be unemployed because there are no jobs for them.” The situation, it seems, is not hard to understand, though we are constantly told that it is very complicated, and only Wall Street financiers know what’s up.
Maxine, of course, doesn’t really care about any of this. And I bet she doesn’t have the time or the inclination to study the various arguments put forward by intellectuals and policy wonks in the NYT, either. (That’s for nerds like me.) She was happy to print out her sparse resume, the one that listed all her unpaid labor as a caregiver, and head out the door with her kids to who knows what future.
My fellow volunteer said to Maxine, “Did we change your life? You didn’t have a resumé, and now you do!” which made me cringe in futility and despair.