Ex-Voxer Ezra Klein takes on an extremely complicated and highly controversial issue at the New York Times addressing the tipping point between enabling sloth and the dignity of poverty labor. It’s a fascinating issue, and if it interests you, you should go there and let Ezra know what you think, because that’s not the focus of this post and I don’t want to hear it.
Rather, Ezra opens with the obligatory anecdote to set up his readers’ emotional reaction to what follows, and that’s the point here.
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.”
The opening story is about Wanda Lavender, and it’s told to pose a question. I know this because Ezra says so.
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?
But does the story of Wanda Lavendar raise the question of policy failure or success, or raise the question of logistics? She had six children. We know how that happens now. There’s no mention of the father of these children. Social constructs notwithstanding, it takes two to tango.
She apparently worked hard, although calling her day care job a “teacher” is a bit of a stretch, more in the rhetorical sense than the occupational sense. Had she been a teacher, a person licensed to engage in that occupation, she would likely have earned a great deal more money and been working at a school rather than day care, which is more baby sitting than teaching.
Why Ezra picked this anecdote as the paradigm for raising the “virtue of work” problem is a curiosity. Had she not had six children, not to mention a grandchild at 39, would her financial position have been as badly strained? Had the father of the children either been there for the family, or at least provided support, would the scenario have been less burdensome? Had she obtained training or education for a job that paid better, would she have suffered as much from the strain of caring for her kids?
People make poor choices, do things that are, in retrospect, unhelpful for themselves and their families. And for that reason, society provides a safety net so that neither mother nor children go hungry. That the safety net may be inadequate is another matter, one not addressed here. Or whether the demands of the safety net that puts work above childcare, that pretends there is some inherent dignity to working low paying jobs that will never be sufficient to put food on the table, is sound policy.
But at the same time that Ezra elevates the story of Wanda Lavender as the example of our social safety net policy conflict, can we ignore the facts giving rise to her circumstances? Can we ignore that the social justice solution is to refuse to place any expectation of bourgeois values, like paternal responsibility, nuclear family, like family planning, like valuing education and training, on the table as well?
Wanda Lavender sounds like a hard-working woman who has done her best to care for her children and allowed her own health to suffer to do what’s right. She’s no slacker. She is, in the anecdote, the embodiment of the work ethic, not that it’s done her much good. But her efforts and suffering aside, her story only answers part of the question. The other part doesn’t just disappear into the woke ether because it’s not politically correct to mention that this situation didn’t have to happen.