I wish I could mandate that only those who have lived in poverty be allowed to make laws regarding the poor. In “Getting Jobbed,” Virginia Sole-Smith outlines the absurdities that result when myths about the poor are translated into law by the Congress. (Harper’s, October, 2015, pgs 52-55) Too many of our elected leaders assume people are poor because they are lazy. In that ignorance, they create legislation which discourages rather than encourages people from finding permanent jobs or obtaining an education that will lift them out of poverty. Take the 1995 Welfare reforms, for example. In an effort to get people off the government’s assistance rolls, it created rules that dropped them into an underground economy where they became invisible.
When the bill was enacted, 14 million Americans received welfare. Today that number is 4.2 million. Did we solve our problem? No. Then where did all the people go? Answer: They became moonlighters, doing subsistence work that keeps them below the federally defined poverty line and gives them little opportunity to advance themselves. (Ibid pg. 55)
Without a safety net, the poor found shelter in our prisons, in alleyways and streets, in their cars and a lucky few moved in with relatives. Their days are spent piecing together a subsistence wage, selling meals out of their kitchens, acting as beauticians in their homes, working as housecleaners, gardeners or babysitters. They aren’t lazy. Often, they work two or three jobs at a time without the benefit of labor laws to protect them.
Mariana Chilton, a public health professor and the director of Drexel’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, has a idea worth pursuing. Why not legitimize these invisible industries and help workers flourish. Why not provide micro-business loans like those that exist in 3rd world countries? We should harness the entrepreneurial spirit the poor exhibit, offering them guidance and education to help them succeed. The result might lead to taxable income. Call Chilton’s plan a form of poor man’s venture capitalism.
Foolishly, American don’t want to admit that our welfare reforms have done nothing about the poor except make them invisible. Today, they struggle on their own, proving they are survivors. Given real opportunity, they could become contributors to our society. Heaven knows we don’t need another start-up tech company. The nation hungers for affordable homecare, services not only for the elderly but for families who require basic assistance as well. We should think of the working poor as having uber entrepreneurial potential, and we should create laws that give them a boost.