Calling for shame and charity in order to get our country to pay attention to poverty or the lack of mobility is old, and wrong. For 50 years, the stories from the war on poverty have almost singularly tried to shame us into addressing these issues, but, ultimately, they harm the cause.
Last month I attended the Clinton Global Initiative America conference. In his address, Julián Castro, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), cited a recent report revealing that there is currently no place in the United States where a family living on minimum wage could afford a two-bedroom apartment, and only a couple places where they could afford a one-bedroom place. This is terrible, of course, and I applaud the efforts being made in places like Seattle, Los Angeles, and my own hometown of Oakland to raise the minimum wage. Maybe it can finally catch up with inflation, though it is unlikely to increase enough to make that two-bedroom apartment affordable.
While Secretary Castro made us all feel guilty about the situation, he didn’t directly address the reality that many of the families he was referring to actually do live in one and two-bedroom units. How are they doing it? After working with low-income families for more than 30 years, I’ve learned that the answer is simple: families are generally working more than one job, and/or have side businesses in order to afford rent and make ends meet.
This narrative can be viewed in two ways. One: we should feel sorry for the millions of families having to do this and we should shame government and philanthropy into doing something about it. The second way of looking at it is to admire and respect families that are working that hard and to understand that their resourcefulness is our country’s most effective means of addressing poverty and economic mobility. This resourcefulness is something we should invest in.
If pity and shame are the drivers inspiring change, then we look to those who control resources as the designated problem solvers. Secretary Castro can argue for more funding to HUD to test new solutions. The foundation executives who attended CGI America can look for a new theory of change when they develop their next strategic plan.
But if we, as a society, actually acknowledge the talent, work ethic, and resourcefulness it takes to juggle two jobs and grow vegetables to sell on weekends—like many families I’ve known—then we start to look at millions of families differently and realize that they’ve taken the first steps forward, and that Secretary Castro should ask Congress to invest directly in the solutions the families themselves are developing.
The family I grew up in – my mom, my sister, and me – was much like these families. Mom worked several jobs at once to meet basic needs. I know families like mine do not want to be characterized as charity cases. We did not look to be saved by outsiders. We wanted to be recognized and to procure investment for our talents and what we contribute to society. All the people getting by on low-wages keep our homes and hotels clean, grow and harvest the food we eat, and care for our children and elderly parents. This contribution keeps our country running.
The neighbors I grew up with and the families I work with through the Family Independence Initiative contribute to society, both by paying taxes and creating jobs. Studies by CFED and other researchers show that the poorest 2/5 of our families pay a higher percentage of their wages in taxes than the rich, and in many states sales, excise, and property taxes paid by the poor represent a huge part of their revenues. And, yes, they pay rent and hopefully the landlord pays taxes. My mother and others like her also create, rather than export, jobs out of their trucks or kitchens. They are the backbone of the growing movement towards local economies. They are also a part of the sharing economy, sharing food, cars and services.
At the same event where Secretary Castro presented, I sat next to a senior staffer from the Urban Institute. I asked if they had done any studies on the informal and non-traditional economy (not prostitution and drugs). She sent me the one study published in 2011. The study states that while there are lots of studies of the informal economies in other countries, very few are directed at that sector of our economy in the United States. If these studies existed we would have a more complete picture of the talents, economic power and contributions of all those minimum wage workers. Then we could develop policies to recognize and invest in this part of our economy. For many of the families enrolled in FII it can easily be a quarter or more of their earnings.
For nearly 15 years, the Family Independence Initiative has been collecting data from low-income families all over the country about how they make ends meet. We can’t help but admire and find hope in the innovation and initiative demonstrated by the lowest income sector of our society. I think they come up with better, more local, more culturally appropriate solutions than HUD—or any social sector service, or program—could ever develop. These solutions could scale and impact millions of people if we gave families access to some of what we spend trying to help them.
But first we have to see them. We need to get the research done that reveals this invisible asset while changing our perception of low-income families as helpless people who can’t help one another (or themselves) and don’t contribute to society.
As this invisible asset is made visible, we have to invest in it. One of FII’s board members invested in the online apparel business his daughter was developing. As a parent, he didn’t wait until his daughter failed at the business and couldn’t afford a one-bedroom apartment. He invested in her initiative as she took it. We, too, should recognize and invest in the initiative of families across the country. No one wants to feel that failing and then turning to charity is the only way to get help. We needn’t wait for sad stories about lower income families before we take action. We shouldn’t wait for guilt, pity, or shame to move us to support others. The initiative is there and it demands investment not charity. Let’s be moved by respect, inspiration, and hope.
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