Last January I launched a blast against a sob-story in the New York Times magazine about Caroline Payne, a Muncie, Ind., woman (newly moved from a town in New Hampshire) who–surprise, surprise–was down and out, mostly because she had made one dreadful choice after another about how to live her life, including refusing to wear her false teeth. (See my Caroline’s Whine, Jan. 19).
My beef wasn’t so much with Caroline, who I’m certain has mental problems and also has a 14-year-old retarded daughter, but with Times writer David Shipler, who blamed Caroline’s plight on capitalism and the “ruthlessness of the market system” rather than Caroline’s own poor decisions. His theory seemed to be that there weren’t enough government programs around that could have helped this woman. But Caroline had actually received quite a bit of help from the taxpayers over her life but had managed to squander every last cent of it. Here’s some of what I wrote:
“[H]ere’s a list of the government benefits that, according to Shipler, Caroline has received over the years: welfare; Social Security disability for her daughter; Medicaid; public housing; lodgings in a homeless shelter on at least one occasion; a virtually free community-college education that resulted in a two-year associate’s degree in office management and information technology (which Caroline has never used, because she apparently couldn’t get the CEO position she’d been dreaming of–although she did run up $17,000 in student loans in the process); a program that enabled her to buy a house on $1,000 down and another program that handed her $17,000 in grants for repairs to said house; and now, she hopes, $403 worth of job-training designed to turn her into a certified nursing assistant.
“Caroline’s white, so she can’t claim racial discrimination. Furthermore, that house of hers, in Claremont, N.H., cost Caroline only $37,000 in 1997. $37,000 for a Victorian house! And it was only a 20-minute walk from Caroline’s not-too-awful job at Wal-Mart at the time. Shipler, predictably, complains about that walk, too–as though most Americans wouldn’t kill to have only a 20-minute job commute. Shipler also moans that Caroline’s house was ‘mostly owned’ by a bank. Yes, David, there are these things called mortgages.
“Now, here’s what Caroline has done with herself: She’s run up mountains of debt over the years. Shipler doesn’t say whether she ever paid back those student loans, which ran up to $20,000 what with deferred payments, but he does mention that she filed for bankruptcy at one point–after racking up from 10,000 to $12,000 on her credit cards. As Caroline put it: ‘I always wanted things….’I can get spending and overdo things sometimes.’
“She quit her job at Wal-Mart in a snit because she didn’t get promoted. Other jobs she quit because she didn’t like her boss, or her co-workers didn’t like her, or they wouldn’t put her on the day shift, or they didn’t appreciate her toothless grimace, or whatever. She essentially lost her house, selling it for less than what she’d put into it, because one day out of the blue she decided that the schools in Muncie, Ind. (of all places), might be better for her daughter than those in the Granite State (they weren’t, as it turned out). Smart move, Caroline. That meant that she had to pay back most of the $17,000 home-improvement grant as a penalty, Shipler points out lugubriously. Boo hoo. Middle-class people have to pay a penalty, too, when they sell their homes before holding onto them long enough. It’s called a capital gains tax.
“Then there were the rotten men, some of them husbands, others not.”
For my efforts, I was pilloried in liberal blogster-dom. Here’s what the Amptoons blogsite said about me:
“The New York Times Magazine provides an excellent portrait of ‘Caroline,’ whose life is a story of working hard and remaining poor, ‘A Poor Cousin of the Middle Class.’ And those spunky IWF ladies respond to the article, proving that some conservatives are just as mean-spirited (and fact-challenged) as you imagine they are, in ‘Caroline’s Whine.'”
Now, as it turns out, Shipler’s article has morphed into a book, The Working Poor, and it turns out, in this review by Stephen Malanga of City Journal, that Caroline’s behavior was even more self-destructive than he had portrayed it in the abbreviated Times article. Malanga writes:
“We eventually learn from [Caroline’s] caseworkers…that she doesn’t bathe regularly and smells bad, that when she first divorced she refused her in-laws’ offer of help, that she then married a man who beat her (she later left him), and that she keeps managing to get hired but then loses one job after another.”
How is this the fault of American capitalism? As Malanga notes:
“Shipler wants to blame an unjust U.S. economy for the plight of the poor. Yet his own evidence proves a very different, and crucial, point: it’s often dysfunctional behavior and bad choices, not a broken economy, that prevent people from escaping poverty.”
Malanga’s article, “The Myth of the Working Poor,” surveys other entries in the growing body of leftist literature attempting to blame our economic system for the individual bad decisions that hold people back. One of his targets is Barbara Ehrenreich’s overpraised Nickled and Dimed, in which Ehrenreich says she worked for a month as a maid and quit, worked for a month as a Wal-Mart clerk and quit, and worked for a month as a waitress and quit–and then wondered why she couldn’t get ahead. “Nickled and Dimed” is now required reading in many college courses, but as Malanga points out:
“[G]iven the author’s self-absorption, what the reader really gets is a self-portrait of Ehrenreich as a longtime rebel with an anti-authoritarian streak a mile wide, who can’t stomach the basic boundaries that most people easily accept in the workplace.
“At Wal-Mart, for instance, she’s ‘oppressed by the mandatory gentility’ that the company requires of her, as if being nice to customers and co-workers were part of the tyranny of capitalism. (I suspect that most customers, if they encountered a snarling Ehrenreich as a clerk while shopping, would flee for the exit.) Told to scrub floors on her hands and knees by the maid service, she cites a ‘housecleaning expert’ who says that this technique is ineffective. Ehrenreich then theorizes that the real reason that the service wants its employees down on their hands and knees is that ‘this primal posture of submission’ and ‘anal accessibility’ seem to ‘gratify the consumers of maid services.’ Never has the simple task of washing a floor been so thoroughly Freudianized.”
So, liberal bloggers, don’t blame me for not shedding as many tears as you think I should over Caroline Payne (and besides, I’m an optimist–it’s never too late to change your life, Caroline). As Malanga writes:
“[I]t typically is personal failure and social dysfunction that create poverty. To stay out of poverty in America, it’s necessary to do three simple things, social scientists have found: finish high school, don’t have kids until you marry, and wait until you are at least 20 to marry. Do those three things, and the odds against your becoming impoverished are less than one in ten. Nearly 80 percent of everyone who fails to do those three things winds up poor.
“That’s a crucial truth that left-wing social thinkers have tried to deny from the earliest days of the welfare-rights movement. And as these books show, even after the conclusive failure of the War on Poverty and the resounding success of welfare reform, they are still at it.”