Compassionate Charlotte, you temper justice with mercy. And rightly so. I’ve probably been too hard on Caroline Payne, the hapless (and, because she won’t wear her dentures, toothless) middle-aged waif in Muncie, Ind., who stars in David K. Shipler’s NYT magazine story this week as an example of America’s “invisible” working poor (see “Caroline’s Whine” and “Caroline’s Whine–the Riposte” downscreen on Jan. 19.) I’ve made a lot of mistakes in life myself, indeed more than my share. Furthermore, Caroline had a genuinely tough and emotionally crippling childhood, and she has had to face frightening financial crises without the resources on which most Americans can draw.
Nonetheless, Caroline seems to have learned nothing from all her bad experiences. And that might actually be society’s–or rather, the government’s–fault, for handing her things free that other people have to work and save for. If she hadn’t had substantial help from two government programs that allowed her to buy and renovate her house in New Hampshire for next to nothing, she might have valued the house more–it was a genuine asset–and not have walked away from it when the impulse seized her to move (she wanted to be with her daughter, but she didn’t think about what the costs might be). And after that mistake, the government has picked up the pieces one more time, moving Caroline into a brand-new housing project in Muncie.
Too many safety nets under Caroline have permitted her to drift through life, from city to city, entry-level job to entry-level job, without exercising self-restraint or thinking ahead. She claims that her associate’s degree in office skills from a community college wasn’t enough to qualify her for an office job, for which she discovered that a B.A. was essential. I find that hard to believe. At the university where I teach, few of the administrative assistants possess so much as an associate’s degree, but they’ve managed to find decent work. Many of them struggle with the same problems that Caroline does: vanished husbands, zero child support, and the burden of raising kids alone. Furthermore, if you visit a community college in any U.S. urban area, you’ll find the campus crowded with immigrants and first-generation Americans. Most of them work full-time, and they’re there only because they know the degree they’ll earn–computer skills, licensed vocational nursing, whatever–will lead to a better job.
My critique of Caroline, I also must admit, was colored by my annoyance at writer Shipler’s snide and condescending tone, as he tries to blame Caroline’s woes on an uncaring society and a ruthless free-market economy. He seems to think that people like Caroline eat junk food because they can’t afford anything better. I walked up to the Safeway in my own un-chic Washington neighborhood (which includes a number of housing projects) to test his theory. There I found, on special: split chicken breasts for 99 cents a pound, pork blade roasts for $1.59 a pound, spaghetti for 94 cents a pound, baking potatoes for 69 cents a pound (these prices even in high-cost Washington). Plus a dazzling array of fresh fruits and vegetables, including at least six varieties of apples and citrus from the peak of the Florida harvest. Shipler’s obviously the kind of New York Times writer who thinks that if you don’t shop at Zabar’s, you can’t eat nutritiously.
Finally, as The Other Charlotte has pointed out, nothing seems to make Caroline happy. Right now, in fact, she doesn’t sound too miserably off. Bankrupty has erased her debts, she’s making $10,000 a year, which isn’t bad for part-time work, and she’s ‘s getting her daughter’s Social Security disability check, Medicaid, decent government-subsidized housing, and more job training. But she’s still complaining. Turns out she hates Muncie, misses her friends from New Hampshire, doesn’t seem to have bothered to try to make new friends. I think Caroline’s problems run a little deeper than the economic