The front page of the Marion Chronicle-Tribune featured a piece on a State of the City address Mayor Wayne Seybold gave yesterday. The article featured especially some of his comments on poverty. Here is an excerpt:
"Seybold also said the city needs to continue a 'tough love' approach to poverty. The mayor said jobs aren't the answer to ending poverty. 'We've brought a lot of jobs here,' Seabold said, 'and yet 44 percent of the Grant County population still receives some form of public assistance.
" 'Some people who have been unemployed for weeks and even months have learned they can survive without working,' he said. He characterized poverty as 'big business,' saying federal funding for many programs is based in part by a community's poverty rate, and the definition of poverty keeps expanding.
" 'We no longer have money for those who abuse the system,' Seybold said. 'If we continue to allow abuse, we will not have the money to take care of those who really need help, love and support. Tackling the issue will require hard, politically incorrect conversations,' he warned."
I do not completely disagree with Seybold, but it's hard for me to know what to make of these sorts of comments, so let me only give some of my thoughts and questions.
1. First, I do agree that the system can promote and enable dysfunction. People frequently can get more by not working than they can by working. I agree that the system does not motivate individuals to integrate into working society but seems to reinforce remaining in poverty.
2. I am not convinced, however, that Marion's job market does what Seybold suggests it does. I do not believe that the jobs available for those in longstanding poverty could maintain a similar standard of living to what these individuals currently have on welfare. I do not believe Marion has much of a "middle class" job market either.
3. The most troublesome thing about Seybold's words is the assumption that impoverished people think like middle class people think. Normally, when a middle class person speaks of "those who really need help, love and support," what they mean is middle class people who have been displaced by the economy. These are individuals who want to work, are oriented around working, but who suddenly find themselves in hard times.
4. But those he says need "tough love" are not oriented around working. They almost certainly will not act like middle class people just because you cut off their supply. They have to have support to retrain the way they think. They may not know how to get a job. Where would I go? What would I do? Get them a job--they might not show up.
Trying to empower a person without a home or a person in a cycle of poverty is like trying to help someone who is an alcoholic. In fact, drugs are often in the mix of poverty. My bottom line is that if by "tough love" he simply means cutting off unemployment or welfare without coming alongside them and retraining them, it's just "tough."