Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Only Question

The NY Times has a piece today in its "Fixes" series highlighting The Family Independence Iniative"an organization that is challenging some of the core assumptions that have prevailed in social service work for decades — particularly the assumption that poor families need a great deal of assistance, advice and motivation from professional social workers to improve their lives."  It's premise is that families don't need programs, but rather tools to help them make better decisions, as well as some financial resources to be able to better leverage themselves.

Sounds nice.  I'm all for it.  It's better than nothing.  But here's the problem:

How will we ever eradicate poverty as long as our economy depends on the poverty wages of low-skilled labor?  Who will wash the dishes?  Who will clean the hotel rooms?

This is a crucial element of the "poverty cycle", in which social misfortune drives people into accepting careers of poverty.  This creates property markets that segregate entire neighborhoods of people who make low wages, as well as struggle with social issues.  Their children then go to school together, where their high stress levels and lack of preparedness compound the struggle to get educated.

Some will always make it out.  But they are the outliers, and give lie to the idea that the system is fair or functioning.  Worse, they allow us to ignore the fact that we all depend on poverty wages.  Efforts to enforce minimum wages that would eradicate poverty are met with an argument that jobs will need to be cut.  Even if true, this is an indictment of the economic system.

Truly eradicating poverty and the social ills that it perpetuates requires eradicating our systemic reliance on a low wage underclass.  Do that, and you no longer need the plethora of band-aid interventions we've been trying for over a century - charity, jobs programs, education reform, social work, criminal justice reform, drug prevention, etc.  You can't create a system in which social ills get condensed, enhanced, ingrained and perpetuated, and then expect to be able to come up with solutions to help people "rise out of poverty".

The obvious difficulty is how to do this.  How do we change such a large system?  Raising the minimum wage will indeed limit job growth - at least, as far as I know, and it makes sense.  What would it look like if businesses were all required to raise their wages to $20 an hour, effectively doubling or tripling the labor costs in industries that rely on low wages.  Hotels, fast food, groceries, retail, restaurants - all of these would be severely hit.  They would have to raise prices.  But now the $20 an hour worker has to pay a lot more for everything.  The raised income, in effect, becomes regressive.

Or so goes the argument, and I'm no economist.  But suffice it to say this stuff is really tricky.  But "tricky" is not an excuse for maintaining the status quo, and continuing to relegate millions to lives of poverty, and exploiting a system in which social ills create an underclass of low wage workers.

We need to find a way to make every job a non-poverty job.  Dishwashing.  Picking vegetables.  Cleaning toilets.  Manning cash registers.  Mowing lawns.  Stocking shelves.  Do that, and the problem goes away.  School test scores skyrocket.  Families bounce back from hardship.  Stress levels in families plummet.  Social ills like crime and drug abuse drop.  People can afford to live in nice neighborhoods (actually, most neighborhoods become nice).  Racial resentment ends.

Sounds nice.  But how do you do it?  This is the question that needs to be answered.  It is a hard question.  But it is the only question.

Exciting News

I'm honored to announce that my article, "A Challenge to the Mentalistic Order: Barriers to the Dissemination o fa Behavior Analytic Philosophy", will be published in the B.F. Skinner Foundation's Quarterly journal, Operants.

"The B. F. Skinner Foundation promotes the science founded by B. F. Skinner and supports the practices derived from that science. In so doing, the Foundation advances a more humane world by replacing coercive techniques with positive procedures.

Our goal is to introduce the new generation of scholars and students, as well as general educated public, to the Skinner’s legacy and relevance.

Established in 1988 the B. F. Skinner Foundation has a wealth of material from Skinner’s literary estate, from donations from his colleagues and students, and from family members. The Foundation has received donations from companies that published Skinner materials or films, thus adding to its already extensive collection. The Foundation continues to maintain contact with professionals and students worldwide who are former students, or colleagues or individuals interested in his work. The Foundation is also the prime contact for permissions for reproducing Skinner material or for translations of Skinner’s works."

You can download it here:
Quarter 2, 2017