The Myth of the Systemic Obstacle

To the editor:
Steven Malanga’s “The Myth of the Working Poor” (Autumn 2004) is a complex knot of misrepresentations and red herrings. Rather than giving thoughtful analysis of the texts in question, he supports his own “corporate-America-can-do-no-wrong” preconception with ad hominem attacks and selective, out-of-context citations.

Malanga unfairly characterizes David Shipler’s The Working Poor as some kind of left-wing diatribe in favor of unrestrained welfare. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the level of intellectual dishonesty apparent in Malanga’s work is unbecoming of such an otherwise respectable journal.

Why does Malanga accuse Shipler of advocating a welfare state when he clearly states
precisely the opposite by doc-umenting the hard work of organizations like So Others Might Eat in helping those otherwise locked in generational poverty navigate the unfamiliar waters of the upwardly mobile workplace? Why does Malanga cite Shipler’s documentation of the bad decisions of individuals (dishonestly presenting them as unintentional revelations on Shipler’s part), while completely ignoring his documentation of the corporate maliciousness and greed directed toward the poor in the form of sub-prime lending, “payday loans,” and the like? Why does he accuse Shipler of unfairly trying to persuade people by his choice of chapter titles such as “Work Doesn’t Work” (which actually comes from a quote made by one of the individuals he studied, rather than being his own conclusion)?

He concludes by writing, “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.” What does Shipler propose can be done about individuals who have failed to do those “simple things”? What about those whom Shipler accurately describes as being born into generational poverty, who have been exposed to nothing but illegitimacy and truancy, with no examples to the contrary? The welfare state is certainly not the answer, but Malanga’s uncompassionate ultra-conservatism, accompanied by a denial of the systemic obstacles to overcoming personal poverty and stopping its proliferation, leaves us with no other options than a ruthless social Darwinism that writes off the real working poor, or a proliferation of entitlement programs. Neither, in my opinion, is an acceptable solution.

Joe Roberts
Dallas, TX

To the editor:
Steven Malanga has done well with “The Myth of the Working Poor”; please keep hammering this point home.

I am a leading provider of Section-8 housing for the Denver Housing Authority. I see every day the devastation that government-subsidized programs cause the poor.

But is “poor” even the right word? Consider everything they receive: free rent; free food with food stamps; free health care, if they use a hospital and skip out on the bill (no one is turned away for not having health insurance); free water and utilities, if they choose not to work (and many work off the books, taking in a couple of thousand a month); most own cars, though few drive with auto insurance—you pay for it every time you write your premium check. When I pull their credit reports, they usually have a dozen items in collections. God only knows in what other ways they are stiffing society.

The Democratic Party knows that the more people they can get addicted to the welfare state, the more Democratic voters there will be in the future.

Mike Stein
Denver, CO

To the editor:
Steven Malanga’s “The Myth of the Working Poor” is insightful, but it misses one of the basic flaws of Nickel and Dimed: Barbara Ehrenreich approaches the job market as a complete stranger in each region, with no local relationships—even considering it cheating when she occasionally calls up a friend. While it may be interesting to pose the question whether someone can start in a vacuum and survive, that is by no means a measure of a healthy economy. People have friends and family, and these bonds are what make life possible when all else goes wrong. Anyone who has no friends and family is indeed in trouble—but primarily because something has gone wrong socially, not economically.

Dan Kornfield
Via e-mail

To the editor:
One reason many have problems getting a decent-paying job is that “schooling” has replaced education. Schools have naively assumed that students not attending college need only be trained to work with their hands, not with their minds. But an academic high school education has always been a prerequisite for vocational and technical education. That requirement is of even greater importance as manually operated controls of machine
tools and other manufacturing processes have been replaced by computerized electronic devices. Without an academic high school education, graduates do not have the academic ability to complete a vocational and technical program to acquire the requisite skills and knowledge to qualify for the many high-paying jobs that are available. A good CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machinist with the ability to program, set up, and operate computerized machine tools can find employment paying between $15 and $20 an hour (check the classified ads in many major papers under “Machinist” with keyword “CNC” ).

Richard Becker
Broomfield, CO

Steven Malanga responds:
Joe Roberts accuses me of misrepresenting David Shipler’s message; but perhaps Mr. Roberts himself is confused about the intent of The Working Poor because the book lacks the anti-bourgeois venom of Barbara Ehrenreich’s works. Still, Shipler’s message is very clear: since our current economic system does not work for the poor, massive government intervention is necessary.

In “Work Doesn’t Work,” the chapter that Mr. Roberts says I distort, Shipler says early on and quite directly that most jobs available to those bumped off welfare “paid low wages, offered no benefits, and went nowhere”; (emphasis added). Later, Shipler tells us that generational economic mobility—which allows someone to climb out of poverty in a lifetime—is disappearing from the U.S., so that most of the working poor are condemned to a lifetime of poverty. But there is overwhelming evidence, some of it cited in my story, that this is not the case. In the rare instance where Shipler tells us that work does work—in his profile of the Tran family—he opines that their success story is so rare that it is “no model at all, just an exception”; but abundant evidence exists that many Californians are following the Tran family up the economic ladder.

Mr. Roberts says that Shipler does not advocate a “welfare state”; this says more about Mr. Roberts’s notion of what constitutes a welfare state than it does about Shipler’s views. True, Shipler is not in the extreme socialist tradition of Ehrenreich and welfare-rights advocates who argue that the poor have a right to lifetime welfare benefits. Nonetheless, Shipler urges massive government intervention while simultaneously ignoring the billions of dollars of taxpayer money already spent so ineffectively on poverty programs. Among his solutions to help the poor: raising the minimum wage and enacting more generous living-wage laws in cities (despite the job-killing effects of these increases); more money on public education (with no reference to the vast per-pupil sums spent in cities like Washington D.C. and New York, whose schools fail to prepare students sufficiently for the opportunites—like those Mr. Becker describes—that surround them); and more funding for Head Start, social workers, health care, and on and on. Shipler approvingly cites a federal pilot program in which children around the country “were bombarded with attention from pediatricians, social workers, home visitors and others who monitored their health, referred families to services, provided education child care, and the like.” Anything short of this kind of total government care represents a failure. Yet, as Mr. Stein suggests in his letter, we already provide an avalanche of aid to the poor, with failures as numerous as successes.

Shipler artfully tries to place himself above the current debate about welfare reform by saying that to solve the problem of the working poor, we must get beyond the ideological debate of liberalism versus conservatism. This is a typical rhetorical strategy these days—and perhaps Mr. Roberts falls for it. But in the final analysis, Shipler’s prescriptions are nothing new.

Security Barriers

To the editor:
Thanks to Heather Mac Donald for her informative article “Homeland Security? Not Yet” (Autumn 2004). However, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security has been a disaster. The clamor to give the FBI more authority and funding and to centralize federal law-enforcement functions is wrong. The bureau cannot handle what it has, let alone take on the customs functions. INS is a mess. And what does Bush do? He places officials from the INS and DEA in charge of customs. Mac Donald laments that there still isn’t a centralized list of terrorists; maybe the question should be: What happened to the Customs Service TECS II system and its archived database of people entering our country? No one seems to give a damn.

Robert Sheridan
Via e-mail

To the editor:
Heather Mac Donald’s “Homeland Security? Not Yet” was outstanding and covered every problem I have with the Department of Homeland Security—or Homeland Insecurity.

As a military veteran with over 30 years’ service with the U.S. Border Patrol, I have never seen such a massive invasion across our border with Mexico. Here in Arizona, there is a definite national security problem, ignored by both political parties. Thank you for a concise and well-researched article.

John W. Slagle
U.S. Border Patrol (Ret.)
Three Points, AZ

To the editor:
Thank you, Heather Mac Donald. My husband and I both work for a Texas police department and deal with illegal aliens every day. Now it seems that the majority of Congress is more afraid of the 9/11 Commission and victims’ families than they are of terrorists. They skirted the issue of securing the borders and dealing with illegals’ getting driver’s licenses. They pacified the military’s worries concerning real-time intel. It seems to have turned into a political game instead of real legislation to secure the U.S. Thank you for keeping their feet to the fire.

It seems that is the only way citizens can get anything done to enhance our security.

Chris Waguespack
City of Clute Police Department
Clute, TX

To the editor:
Heather Mac Donald’s recent article infuriates me! As a pilot with 39 years of worldwide experience, my sincere conviction is that we are a helpless giant, and this article confirms it. While our soldiers root out the monsters of Fallujah, we sit here helpless with our leaders asleep at the switch. It is only a matter of time before a dirty bomb, a suitcase nuke, or a biological attack hits an American city. Your article should be required reading for every political hack inside the Beltway.

Fred Moore
Via e-mail

To the editor:
Good article on how political correctness hampers U.S. national security. Here in Canada, political correctness has killed people. Our Red Cross Society, afraid of possible allegations of discrimination, allowed homosexual men to donate blood—against the advice of its lawyers.

Tens of thousands of people contracted Hepatitis B and C through transfusions. The matter is still before the courts.

David Mason
Via e-mail

Nurtured Evil?

To the editor:
Having read a good number of Theodore Dalrymple’s articles, I listen to his opinions with respect and attention. I have lived a privileged and comfortable life and have rarely, if ever, met the sort of people whom he describes in “The Frivolity of Evil” (Autumn 2004). I have studied history and read widely, though, and I wonder if he would agree that, rather than being born good or bad, human beings are born malleable and adaptive. As children, we learn to play the roles that paid off best for us. In a feral environment, that means having no better nature, being meaner, more selfish, and more merciless than others. In a privileged, loving environment, it usually means reciprocating: being good to others, as they are good to you. We do what has paid off in the past. The tragedy, I feel, is that after a certain age the mold gradually hardens—and that that age is a very young one.

Tom Welsh
Via e-mail

To the editor:
I grew up in Brixton in London. My front door looked out onto its famous prison. The changes that Theodore Dalrymple describes are tragic. The doctor has hit the nail squarely and resoundingly on its head. I hope it becomes a chorus rather than one voice in the wilderness.

Colin Mackenzie
Santa Cruz, CA

Theodore Dalrymple responds:
I have no definitive answer for Mr. Welsh. I think family and cultural and political conditions can certainly favor the development and spread of evil, but I also think that evil is a permanent human possibility, and have known many cases where its development is not explicable by reference to any external conditions whatever.

A Modest Proposal

To the editor:
With regard to “Dads in the ’Hood,” by Kay S. Hymowitz (Autumn 2004): we as a people are responsible for the disintegration of the black family. In promoting government programs that gave people money according to their needs, we stripped them of motivation. We didn’t do this because they were black. We did it because they were poor.

If you question my hypothesis, I propose a simple experiment that we can perform to prove it. With your approval, I will send each of your children a $500 check every week. This will ruin them as surely as our poor citizens have been ruined by government largesse. Your children will develop all the problems we see in the poor communities in America. Worse yet, I could do it without your approval, and I could refuse to stop it no matter how much you implore me to.

Roy Grossman
Via e-mail

Uh, Nothing’s the Matter with Kansas

To the editor:
Steven Malanga is spot-on in his analysis of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (“What’s the Matter with Thomas Frank?” Soundings, Autumn 2004). I grew up in Johnson County, Kansas, left for several years to live in South Florida, and (I hope you’re listening, Thomas Frank) chose to come back here to Johnson County to raise my kids. My choice to move here is precisely because of what’s right with Kansas in general and Johnson County specifically.

Mr. Malanga certainly understands that Frank’s analysis is condescending, convenient (you can imagine the thought process: “It’s Kansas: I can embellish at will, because my liberal pals have never been there”), and doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. If you’d ever like to know just how wrong he is, I’d be glad to tell you—and him, for that matter.

Rick Burgess
Via e-mail

To the editor:
Great article. A must-read for anyone caught up in the Red state–Blue state syndrome.
I don’t know what Frank is smoking, but it has to be illegal.

Ken Gott
Leavenworth, KS

¡Habana Libre!

To the editor:
I cried as I read Theodore Dalrymple’s magnificent and utterly painful article, “Why Havana Had to Die” (Summer 2002). From the bottom of my heart: thank you so much.

I cannot ever recall a non-Cuban discovering the simple truth about Castro and describing it so objectively. Havana (as well as the rest of Cuba) had to be destroyed by that megalomaniacal psychopath and his gang of thugs. Perhaps other reasons could be added for this otherwise unexplainable madness: deeply entrenched resentment toward that magnificent city and its inhabitants; his warped and twisted personality; his class hatred because of his bastard origin. In any case, Dalrymple’s article somehow manages to restore that city’s hope and dignity, long lost in the middle of so much pain, humiliation, and embarrassment.

Thank you.

Luis M. Valdivieso
Via e-mail

Subjected to Sondheim

To the editor:
I want to thank Stefan Kanfer for his interesting and well-written “Sondheim vs. Sondheim” (Autumn 2004).

My husband adores Sondheim, so I am subjected to him on a regular basis. I don’t deny his extraordinary talent; I just always feel as if I’ve been dragged through the sewer by his songs and books.

Variety’s review of Company, while crude, was true: “Sondheim’s songs proved ‘undistinguished’; furthermore, it was ’evident that the author, George Furth, hates femmes and makes them all out to be conniving, cunning, cantankerous, and cute. . . . As it stands now, it’s for ladies’ matinees, homos, and misogynists.’ ”

Perhaps Sondheim’s repeated failures stem from the fact that, while many people enjoy bathing in his intellectualism, most of them are put off by his worldview: his misogyny, his moral relativism, his obsession with death and filth, and his belief—unsurprising, given his mother—that all people are basically morally soiled. Yuck.

Andrea Widburg
Via e-mail

A Fundamental Difference

To the editor:
In “I Wed Thee, and Thee, and Thee” (Soundings, Autumn 2004), Kay S. Hymowitz refers to Principle Voices of Polygamy as “a Mormon group.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints does not support or condone efforts
to legalize polygamy. In fact, the church supports federal and state marriage amendments defining marriage as between “one man and one woman.”

The group to which you refer evidently thinks of itself as “fundamentalist Mormon.” We encourage journalists and authors to follow the Associated Press style guide, which discourages the use of “Mormon” for any group other than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

We bring this to your attention in a spirit of helpfulness.

Michael Otterson
The Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-Day Saints


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