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View related content: Poverty Studies
Publicity-seeking ‘live in poverty’ stunts ignore the realities faced by the actual poor.
Apparently believing that it’s too difficult to find one of the almost 50 million Americans living in poverty, some politicians are attempting to learn about poverty by trying it out for themselves. The reports of their experiences are pouring in with tweets of planned food purchases, 60-minute poverty simulations, and video documentaries of life on the street.
They need to stop their antics, and we need to stop listening to them. Serious solutions to poverty will come from a real understanding of real poor people, not from week-long publicity stunts of politicians pretending to be poor on social media. These personal experiments may start a conversation about poverty, but it’s the wrong conversation.
People experiencing poverty are complex human beings who live real lives, have real relationships, and make real decisions. It is naïve to think we can disconnect any single hardship from the many other circumstances they face. And naïve thinking leads to ineffective, maybe even counterproductive, solutions.
Consider the handful of politicians who took the “Living the Wage” challenge last week, purportedly stepping into the shoes of those living on the federal minimum wage. Of course, they didn’t actually work minimum-wage jobs, deal with finding low-budget child care, collect food stamps or search for quality doctors who will accept Medicaid. Instead, they took a $77 budget and tested whether they could buy a week’s worth of their normal groceries and transportation with it. Spoiler – they couldn’t. Wealthy politicians restricting their grocery budget for a week is not poverty. It tells us nothing about what poverty is like or what we should do about it.
“Living the wage” tricks our brains into accepting a neat, easy-to-understand mindset with a simple problem (workers don’t have enough money for food and other necessities) and an equally simple solution (force employers to pay higher wages). If we were to instead learn from real-life minimum wage workers, we would understand that they are already fighting for more shifts, which might force us to think about how a higher minimum wage could discourage hiring and intensify competition for fewer hours. We would learn the importance of child care in supporting work. We would hear about the tradeoffs posed by working for uncertain wages and caring for children as a single parent whiledreaming of climbing out of poverty with more education. Real solutions have to be based on the real situations of real people.
As another example of poverty-pretending gone wrong, take the 41-year old former business executive and California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, who recently threw himself onto the streets of Fresno to learn about homelessness. Toting a tattered backpack and wearing a baseball cap, he went door to door – with his cameraman in tow – asking for a job. Unable to find work and with only $40 in his pocket, he soon resorted to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. This “hands-on” experience teaches us nothing about what it’s like to be homeless. And it’s worse than a harmless political stunt because it props up a single-minded view that people are on the street because they can’t find jobs, suggesting that Americans are one missed paycheck away from living on the streets. If that was true, 10 millionunemployed workers and their families would be homeless – the homeless population is actually around 600,000.
These publicity-seeking experiments threaten to distract us from the diverse and serious needs of the homeless population. For example, 20 percent of homeless individuals suffer from severe mental illness, 10 percent are veterans and 22 percent suffer from chronic substance abuse. Some homeless people have part-time jobs but cannot afford housing; others have been living on the streets for years, isolated from family and community. These are not circumstances to be faked. They are lessons to be learned from real-life homeless people.
So what should we do to help the poor in America find the serious solutions that they deserve? First, we should listen to real-life poor people. Tragically, they are very easy to find. And we shouldn’t stop after talking to the first one who confirms our preconceptions. We need on-the-ground accounts that reflect the wide variation in their experiences. Second, we must use data to figure out what works, evaluating how policies actually affect different people with different circumstances. Third, we need to think. Simple solutions like forcing employers to pay higher wages or providing welfare aid that diminishes the reward to work may not be as effective as we would like.
Instead of listening to people who pretend to be poor, let’s listen to the almost 50 million real-life poor people in America and get serious about helping our fellow human beings escape poverty.
Kevin Corinth is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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