Wanda And The Minimum Wage
Wanda Lavender lives in Milwaukee. She’s 39, with six children and one grandchild. She used to be a day care teacher and proud of the work. But after a decade, she was still making $9 an hour. She was a single mother by then, and the money wasn’t enough. So she began working at Popeyes, too. She did both jobs for a time, putting in more than 60 hours a week.
“It took a toll on my health,” she told me. “I have rheumatoid arthritis and sciatica. It degrades your body. It messes with your mental status. You never get to see your kids. You’re always working.”
Here’s the question: Were those years in which Lavender worked night and day barely seeing her children, feeling her body break under the labor, a success of American public policy or a failure?
Now, before I say anything about that, let me send you to Leah Libresco Sargeant’s NYT piece in support of the Romney plan and critical of the Lee-Rubio approach. Excerpt:
In contrast, the position of Mr. Lee and Mr. Rubio isn’t pro-family; it’s pro-employer. Their goal seems to be to fit parents to the needs of increasingly totalizing work, rather than expect jobs to accommodate the needs of families. It’s the same attitude lurking behind the proposal from Kamala Harris when she was a senator, to cover the gap between the ends of school days and workdays. She proposed extending the school day by three hours, rather than shortening the workday. When children and work come into conflict, work usually wins.
It’s almost as if some critics of the Romney plan are asking: How can we work around the demands children place on their parents? This is a shallow liberty that treats parents as equal only if they are equivalent to childless job candidates.
But parents are usually worse employees from their employer’s point of view. What employer prefers someone who could be chronically sleep deprived for months? All else being equal, who would pick the person whose children spend the winter working their way through every stomach bug at school? Pregnancy is a protected category in employment law, just as disability is, because an employer that views its employees simply as raw material will treat anyone facing physical challenges as dispensable.
For employers who see employees as short-term line items, the ideal worker is an unencumbered individual. No kids, no parents old enough to need care, no strong commitment to anyone outside themselves and their work.
I wish to associate myself with this position.
But the thing that struck me in reading the lede to Ezra Klein’s piece was: how do you get to be 39 years old, with six children and one grandchild, and no husband in the house? From The American Prospect magazine:
Lavender works two jobs, 60 to 70 hours per week, and neither job provides health care. One of her jobs is teaching at a day care—she’s worked there for 12 years and has always received $9 per hour. Her other job is at Popeye’s, where she fares no better. “I should be able to make $15 an hour and take care of my children,” she says. “I should be able to keep my gas and electricity paid and pay for child care if I need it. … You get in one of these [low-wage] jobs, and you’re stuck.”
Lavender keeps going back because she considers her co-workers family but also because she needs the money. She’s the main provider for her children — ages 8, 9, 11, 13, 16 and 19. Her 19-year-old daughter has a son. They all live with Lavender.
“I am the sole breadwinner for my family,” she said, though her daughter recently took a job also at Popeyes.
“I’ve gotten to the point where I’m working long hours and have to come home and homeschool my kids.”
OK, wait a minute. Wanda is clearly working very hard to support the family, but: why did Wanda have six children if she can’t support them? Nobody can raise six kids on low-wage work, with only one income. Is there a government policy shift that can make a radical difference in the lives of people like Wanda, and her children? If we are asking about the failure of public policy in Wanda’s life, shouldn’t we also ask about Wanda’s failures to the same public that she depends on to support her and her large family?
I don’t say this in a “punish the welfare queen” way. Most people who would be affected by a minimum wage increase aren’t raising six children as a single parent. And I don’t know the particular circumstances of Wanda’s life. Her six children and grandchild are growing up in a home without a father, and all of them are in part dependent on Wanda’s fast food worker salary. How can this not be important to the question of what to do about persistent poverty? The black scholar Glenn Loury, in 2018, gave an interview about this topic to the Institute of Family Studies at the University of Virginia. Excerpts:
IFS: To what do you attribute the persistent patterns of social inequality between African Americans and whites that we see today in the United States?
Glenn Loury: My lecture [at UVA] developed off of the contrast between what I call the bias narrative and the development narrative. The bias narrative calls attention to racial discrimination and exclusionary practices of American institutions—black Americans not being treated fairly. So, if the gap is in incarceration, the bias narrative calls attention to the behavior of police and the discriminatory ways in which laws are enforced and attributes the over-representation of blacks in the prisons to the unfair practices of the police and the way in which laws are formulated and enforced.
Agency is a fundamental issue when talking about how African Americans deal with our continued subordinate status in American society.
The development narrative, on the other hand, calls attention to the patterns of behavior and the acquisition of skills and discipline that are characteristic of the African American population. So, in the case of incarceration, the development narrative asks about the behavior of people who find themselves in trouble with the law and calls attention to the background conditions that either do or do not foster restraint on those lawbreaking behaviors. Now, the position that I take is that whereas at the middle of the twentieth century, 50 to 75 years ago, there could be no doubt that the main culprit in accounting for the disadvantage of African Americans was bias of many different kinds (bias in the economy, social relations, and in the political sphere), that is a less credible general account of African American disadvantage in the year 2018. And the development narrative—the one that puts some responsibility on we African Americans ourselves, and the one that wants to look to the processes that people undergo as they mature and become adults and ask whether or not those processes foster people achieving their full potential—that, I think, is a much more significant dimension of the problem today relative to bias than was the case 50 years ago.
I think it’s a combination of things. Opportunities have opened up, but bias hasn’t completely gone away. On the other hand, I think it’s very hard to maintain that bias hasn’t diminished significantly. And when I look at things like the gap in the academic performance of American students by race, or the extent to which the imposition of punishment for lawbreaking falls disproportionately by race, or when I look at the conditions under which children are being raised (and to the extent that those conditions are less than ideal) and the patterns of behavior that lie behind that, that is between parents or prospective parents and the responsibilities that they take for the raising of their children. These are dimensions that I think are relatively more important today and are questions about the behavior of African American people.
IFS: The media response to the latest Raj Chetty study seems to be an example of what you’ve described as the “deficient, accusatory or even dishonest” discourse surrounding our cultural discussion of racial inequality. One pundit said of Chetty’s new findings that “family structure doesn’t explain the racial mobility gap.” Yet, as Brad Wilcox recently wrote here, one underreported finding is “a strong positive association between black father presence [in the neighborhood] and black males’ income.” How important are present and involved black fathers to upward mobility in black communities, particularly for boys?
Glenn Loury: I agree with Brad Wilcox that this important finding and the implications it has for why father absence matters in a negative way for child development has been underplayed by the press. I haven’t done a systematic survey of all the press reports, but from what I’ve seen, they call attention to bias. They say, because the black boys are more likely to have downward mobility, it shows that they’re not facing the same opportunities in society. But of course, father absence is more prevalent in African American households, and to the extent that people congregate in neighborhoods that are relatively racially homogeneous, you’re going to have many more black boys growing up in areas where there are few fathers than you are white boys. And this is something that should be taken more seriously than it has been.
But I don’t think the data available to these researchers are finely gauged enough to permit answering the question that you’ve asked me, which is about the importance of fathers. Although it is suggestive that fathers matter at the level of the neighborhood, if not at the level of the individual household.
If you’re asking Glenn Loury—and this is not a scientific conclusion, it’s just an observation after being a student of these matters for decades—how could it not be true that fathers matter? They’re not the only thing that matters by any means, and a bad father—an abusive, drunken, unsupportive person in the household who happens to be male and may have contributed the genetic material to the production of a child—is certainly no panacea for any kind of social problem. But a neighborhood in which two-thirds of the households are women raising their children alone is a different neighborhood, it would appear, than one in which one-fifth or one-eighth of the households [are headed by lone mothers], and in which the patterns of behavior associated with responsible men who are working and caring for their families are modeled before the young men as a normal practice. But I don’t want to speculate about this because it’s a serious matter.
Now, having identified that it matters is not the same thing as knowing what to do about it. These things are not going to be flipped around by just pulling on a string and everything is going to be made right. These patterns are deep. They’ve been a long time in the making.
When Sen. Patrick Moynihan wrote that report 50 years ago, he was alarmed that it was a 25% or 23% out-of-wedlock birthrate amongst African Americans…Moynihan was very alarmed. He thought the world was coming to an end for black people…Well, those rates of non-marital birth that you saw amongst blacks in the 1960’s are now characteristic of whites broadly in the society. Norms and social practices change. The bottom has not fallen out, although if you believe people like Charles Murray in his book, Coming Apart, or Robert Putnam or J.D. Vance, there’s a whole lot of white people who are not doing so well, and instability in their family lives seems to be associated with that. Again, I’d stress this is the kind of thing that deserves to be studied with precision. But that’s one of the developmental issues that I try to encourage people that think about racial inequality to take more seriously: how we are raising our children and how are they being socialized?
There’s no substitute for the guidance and loving hand of structure, and the teaching and the infusion of norms and establishment of a sense of worth that’s happening inside the households where children are being raised.
School discipline is another area where you get higher suspension rates. And in the bias narrative embraced by the Obama education department in its efforts to get school districts to lower the racial disparity in suspension rates, it basically attributes a high rate of black suspensions in school to school districts being racially biased and not knowing how to handle misbehaving black kids. So, they suspend them, but white kids doing the same thing don’t get suspended.
I don’t find that at all persuasive…What I think is more likely to be the case is that these African American kids, those who end up getting suspended (and not all of them, for sure) are exhibiting patterns of behavior—whether it’s getting into fights or it’s using profanity with the teacher or insubordination—that are a reflection of the failures of their families to socialize them in a manner that instills the behavioral restraints associated with being able to function within that kind of environment. That’s a developmental issue—if the issue is the mother is stressed out, there’s not enough money to go around, or there’s a lot of time the kids are being unsupervised in their behavior. And it’s something that one shouldn’t just speculate about. But if the kids are really not getting the developmental experiences that are crucial to them being able to be effective adults, then that’s a serious problem. And it may actually have something to do with the adult incarceration rate inequality that we end up seeing.
It’s important to emphasize Loury’s point about the white rate of out-of-wedlock childbearing now reaching and maybe exceeding the black rate when the Moynihan Report came out. This is not just a black problem. It’s a vexing problem, though, because no decent society wants to punish children for the failures of their parents, but at the same time, no wise society wants to subsidize the behavior that causes people to be poor and remain poor.
I have a friend, a white male, who works in the inner city, which is to say, in the poor black part of the city where he lives. He grew up in a working poor family. I haven’t spoken with him in a while, but in the past, when we have discussed his work, he speaks as if he is living in a different country when he goes to work. He interacts with the people of that neighborhood every day. He’s a big-hearted man who has struggled to understand them, even as he serves them in his job. The thing that stands out most to him about the people he serves is how the idea of family structure is non-existent, at least compared to the American norm. He says it’s total chaos. He doesn’t say this in a hard-hearted way — in fact, just the opposite. He keeps trying to tell me that what people like me see as normal is light years away from what is normal where he works.
When we’ve talked about this stuff in the past, I’ve asked him: How do things change for the better for those folks? He just shakes his head. He has no idea.
I asked the same question of an older white man in my own city, a man who until recently lived in the poor black part of town, in a house that had been in his family for decades. He talked about how hard the grandparents who lived on his block worked to keep their grandchildren from sinking (the parents’ generation were in jail or strung out on drugs). The white man said that when the grandparent generation dies, only God knows what will happen to the young.
How do things change for the better for those folks? I asked. He doesn’t really know either, but he said that the change is going to have to come from within the black community, because “whites have no authority there.”
Look, it has been amply demonstrated by social scientists that there is an indisputable connection between persistent intergenerational poverty and family structure, and family culture. Glenn Loury talks about that in his interview. This is not just about black family structure, but family structure, period. There is no policy fix that is going to make it feasible for a 39-year-old woman with no husband to raise six kids and a grandchild on a fast-food worker’s salary. That is not an argument against raising the minimum wage — most people who make minimum wage aren’t living in Wanda’s circumstances — but it is frustrating how the foolishness of the choice’s Wanda has made in her life doesn’t seem to cross Ezra Klein’s mind. From his column:
Now, with both President Biden and Senator Mitt Romney proposing ambitious plans for cash grants to parents, irrespective of the parent’s work status, some conservatives are warning that these plans would lead to sloth and single parenthood. It is here that you see how the veneration of work, at any and all costs, has come to dominate conservative policy thinking: Even higher rates of child poverty are a price worth paying for more working mothers. Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio quickly dismissed Romney’s plan as “welfare assistance,” warning that “an essential part of being pro-family is being pro-work.”
Like I said, I’m more in line with Romney’s plan than with the standard conservative plan. Wanda’s kids aren’t abstractions — they are human beings, and I don’t want them to suffer because of decisions their mother made. Nevertheless, Lee and Rubio aren’t necessarily Scrooges for making their point. In their complaints I hear the voice of my late father, who worked long hours at his job, then came home to work his cows, all to make enough money to keep our family afloat in the 1970s. My mom drove a school bus. I did not realize until I was well into adulthood how close to the margins my family lived. My mom and dad kept it from us kids. I went through a crusading liberal period in college in which I held up my dad’s complaints, when I was a kid, about people in line ahead of him at the grocery store buying fine cuts of meat with food stamps, whereas he could only afford ground chuck, and cheaper cuts. This is why he, a Democrat, voted for Reagan. I thought of him as mean-spirited back then. Years later, when I realized how little extra money we had had, and how hard my dad hustled just to pay the bills, I understood that his resentment against the food stamps people was more complicated than I had thought. But you could not have convinced me of that when I was a college liberal. I considered anybody who thought like my dad did as racist.
Now, it is true that there have been massive structural changes in the US economy since the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a lot harder to support your family now. Ideas that made sense in the 1980s need updating today. That said, there will never be a time in which people without the means to support a large family can have such a family without living under serious economic duress. From Klein’s column:
These days, Lavender told me, she works full time at Popeyes. They promised her a promotion if she left her day care job, so now she makes $12 an hour, working 40 to 60 hours a week. I asked her how something like the Romney plan might change her life. “That means the opportunity to return to school, to open my own business. It could mean buying a house so I don’t need to catch the bus to work.”
I’d met Lavender because she’s organizing for a $15 minimum wage, and she said the experience had been transformative. She was considering running for alderwoman in Milwaukee so she could keep fighting for workers like herself. I wondered, as she said that, where she’d find the time. But that, too, is the kind of choice a child allowance could enable — it would give her breathing room to run for office so that in the future policy would be made by people like her, who trusted people like her.
We want Wanda to get elected to public office so she can pass laws that raise wages so that women can have six children with no husband in the house, and afford to buy a house? Where is that money going to come from? From the pockets of people who are more self-disciplined, that’s who. From people who don’t have six kids, even if they would like to have them, because they can’t afford them.
There’s no question that we need to have some serious structural adjustments to America’s economy to make it possible for more people to live stable lives. This is going to have to include redistributing some of the wealth away from the tip-top earners, within whose class it has become concentrated. Standard Reagan-era Republican shibboleths won’t do anymore. On the other hand, people who are busting their butts to work to support their families, and making hard choices to defer gratification for the greater good of the family, are going to wonder why they should subsidize the Wandas of the world, whether they are black, white, Latino, or whatever.
It is hard to build a meaningful sense of solidarity with the working poor if all the solidarity comes from one side. I have a friend who lives in the Baton Rouge area, a white friend, whose extended white family is one hot redneck mess. Lots of kids out of wedlock, divorces, drug and alcohol abuse, welfare fraud, you name it. My friend is just about the only one who works in that family. Everything “happens” to them — they have no sense of moral agency. They think that they are taken advantage of by the world, and the reason other people have stable and productive lives is because those other people are somehow cheating, or are otherwise favored by fortune. My friend excepted, this is a family of layabouts. They believe other people — “society” — ought to be supporting them, but that they have no particular obligation to society to live a certain way. These are white people, but I feel no solidarity with them as a white person. They are pothead mooches who are chiefly responsible for their own miserable situation. The idea that what holds them down can be solved by policymaking in Washington is risible. It royally ticks me off how they exploit my friend’s willingness to work hard, and to keep giving them all money, because my friend doesn’t want to see them suffer.
These people aren’t abstractions either. They are shiftless. They are undeserving. The children born into that clan don’t deserve to suffer either, but it’s hard to know what the morally correct thing to do here is. (And if any of those kids want to make a decent life for themselves, they are going to have to move far away from the clan.) I’m not saying Wanda is like them — Wanda clearly works very hard. But you see the point: poverty in America is not simply a matter of wages.
How do we fix that? Has anybody figured that out yet? Why doesn’t the moral choices Wanda has made concern Ezra Klein? It’s not about “why isn’t Klein shaming Wanda?”, but rather about whether or not the people who are going to be asked to help the world’s Wandas out by paying more for consumer goods to pay her a $15 minimum wage have a right to expect anything from them. We are supposed to pity Wanda for working so hard as the sole supporter of six kids, but can we not ask Wanda why she had six kids with no father in the home? Poverty is about wages, but it is also about culture.
We know that the Great Society doesn’t work. But what does?