The People Don't Know What They Want: Social Support

The People Don’t Know What They Want: Social Support

The General Social Survey (GSS) is a long running survey of Americans that considers numerous factors  and capture’s the country’s general thoughts, feelings, demographics, and experiences regarding a range of issues. Sometimes the GSS is useful in distilling the American will, but sometimes it reveals how confused American’s are and the extent to which we don’t know what we want.
 
 
Surveying the public can be notoriously tricky and misleading. When individuals are surveyed about specific clauses of the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare) – for example the requirement that insurances allow young adults to remain covered by their parent’s health insurance until age 26 – people are highly supportive of the policies. However, if you survey Americans about the ACA and  refer to it or any of its policies as Obamacare, then support drops substantially. What people want competes with political identities, and in the end people express a seemingly confused set of political preferences and desires.
 
 
The same happens with social support and welfare, as demonstrated by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. The authors write:
 
 
“The largest, most representative survey of American attitudes, the General Social Survey, has consistently shown that between 60 and 70 percent of the American public believes that the government is spending too little on assistance for the poor. However, if Americans are asked about programs labeled welfare in particular, their support for assistance drops considerably.”
 
 
What the survey shows us is that people don’t understand poverty well, don’t understand social support programs, and don’t understand the role of the government in assisting the poor. The term welfare has been colored to represent lazy people who are taking advantage of the system. People don’t like welfare, even though they like the idea of being charitable and helping those in need. In America, the idea of social support is that it helps someone get back on their feet to provide for themselves, whereas welfare is seen as a system of dependence that devalues the individual receiving the aid and enables laziness and degeneracy.
 
 
This idea is supported by the primary way that many American’s prefer social support and charitable actions to be handled – through religious organizations. In my eyes, religious charity seems to have a quid pro quo element, where the individual receiving support is implicitly expected to attend the church or be more deferential to those who give, and donors also expect some sort of Divine reward. There seems to be more acceptance of strings placed on donations through churches, with the idea that it will be support provided based on the standards set by the church community. This can be a way to screen out individuals who use drugs, atheists, and those who are unwilling or unable to receive counseling that aligns with the worldviews of the donors. Welfare, on the other hand, is simply support from a government bureaucracy with seemingly little to push the recipient to change their lives to the standards of the donor.
 
 
This seems to me to be why people dislike welfare but support the idea of providing more social support. People don’t really know what they want with social support, but they know they don’t want to see homeless people around and want to look charitable. The result is a distrust of welfare, but a feeling that they and others (possibly through government but possibly through other avenues) should be doing more to provide social support to those in need, especially if that support can shape the needy to fit with the ideals of the person donating money or providing taxes to support the poor.

Paying with Time - $2.00 A Day - Edin & Shaefer - Joe Abittan

Paying with Time

“One way the poor pay for government aid is with their time,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day.  In the United States we are wary of people getting things for nothing. We have a social support system that ensures people are worthy of government aid before they receive any support. We often tie work requirements, job search requirements, and drug screens to government aid, ensuring that people who accept aid are still making efforts to contribute to society. Still, even with these requirements people who don’t receive any government aid (at least not in the form of direct cash or in-kind welfare benefits) dislike the idea that so many people can access government aid for nothing.
 
 
However, as the quote from Edin and Shaefer shows, government aid is not really free, and the costs can be significant and even counter productive. On one hand it is understandable that locations to access government aid for things such as food, housing support, or direct cash transfers, would not be located on every street block. It makes sense that service centers would be relatively limited to reduce the government costs for administering programs. However, while this can make fiscal sense for government, it can also be a deliberate strategy to limit the number of people who access welfare benefits and receive services that are available to them on paper. Having a single location that operates standard business hours will necessarily mean that some individuals and families are incapable of accessing aid that is only distributed from that one location. A failure to co-locate aid offices also means that individuals and families may be strained in trying to access the aid that they need. Time can be a limiting factor that prevents people from accessing the aid and services which should help them get to a more stable economic position.
 
 
If people are able to make it to the location, aid often comes after lengthy applications, long lines and wait times, and lengthy commutes. Politicians may deliberately design aid programs to have these time costs as a way to reduce fraud and reduce the appeal and dependence on government aid, but for those who need it, it may mean forgoing necessary aid to help get one’s life back on track or to help put food on the table for a hungry family.
 
 
Often, the programs that provide aid are intended to temporarily support people until they can provide for themselves. However, if short-term aid is truly needed, to the point where the time costs are necessary to go through, then individuals may not be spending time looking for jobs, addressing child behavior issues, or otherwise using their time in a productive manner. These time costs are real, and can limit people’s opportunities in ways that actually make them more dependent on the governmental aid, and less capable of providing for themselves. The aid that people receive may seem as though it is free, but the time costs need to be considered, especially if programs are unwieldly and actually prevent people who do access them from taking steps to no longer need government aid.

Economic Segregation and Poverty

Segregation & Poverty

Raj Chetty, a prominent economics professor at Harvard University, has done fantastic research that shows how varied the level of upward mobility is across the United States. According to Chetty, you can see differences in the level of upward mobility and map those differences onto specific factors about areas at the level of zip codes and neighborhoods. This is an important aspect of poverty to consider, because it means that opportunities and success in life are influenced by social factors that are specific to the places where we grow up. It reveals the danger of economic segregation and the importance of finding ways to work together to address problems of poverty.
Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer address this point in their book $2.00 A Day by writing about the work of sociologist William Julius Wilson. They write, “Wilson argued that the reason poverty had persisted in America even in the face of the War on Poverty declared by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 was that in the 1970s and 1980s, poor African Americans had become increasingly isolated, relegated to sections of the city where their neighbors were more and more likely to be poor, and less and less likely to find gainful employment.”
Opportunity is somewhat dependent on the people around you. That is the lesson from Chetty and from Wilson as presented in $2.00 A Day. If opportunity, success, and upward mobility were entirely within the control of the individual, then we would expect to see uniform mobility across the country. Instead, we see areas where people are more able to advance economically, and areas where almost no one advances.
When you are in a ghetto you are segregated from opportunity. Everyone you know is also likely in the same economic position that you are in. You don’t know anyone who can inspire you to go to school, work hard, and seek out a meaningful career that is a good fit for you. The failure to advance is not a failure of you personally, or even of your family and the people around you. The failure lies with the larger society which allows pockets of deep inequality and economic segregation to persist.
I am not currently part of the solution. My wife and I have chosen to live in a suburban neighborhood where most people presumably are in pretty similar economic states as we are. We are as economically segregated as anyone else in the nation. It is hard to tell people to not chose to economically segregate themselves, and efforts that bring more low-income (or even just affordable) housing to high price neighborhoods are often voted down and rejected. I don’t have a solution to the economic segregation problem, but the research from Chetty and the lessons from Wilson show that it is clear that economic segregation decreases economic mobility, placing the belief that anyone can succeed as long as they work hard enough on shaky ground.
Poverty - $2.00 A Day - Kathryn Edin & H. Luke Shaefer

Who Experiences Deep Poverty

The image of deep poverty in the United States is unfairly and inaccurately racialized. For many people, it is hard to avoid associating words like poverty, ghetto, or poor with black and minority individuals and communities. For many, the default mental image for such terms is unavoidably non-white, and white poverty ends up taking on qualifiers to distinguish it as something separate from the default image for poverty. We use white-trash or something related to a trailer park to distinguish white poverty as something different than general poverty which is coded as black and minority.
This distinction, default, and mental image of poverty being a black and minority problem creates a lot of misconceptions about who is truly poor in America. In the book $2.00 A Day Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write, “the phenomenon of $2-a-day poverty among households with children [has] been on the rise since the nation’s landmark welfare reform legislation was passed in 1996. … although the rate of growth [is] highest among African Americans and Hispanics, nearly half of the $2-a-day poor [are] white.” (Tense changed from past to present by blog author)
Poverty, in public discourse and public policy, is often presented as a racial problem because we do not recognize how many white people in the United States live in poverty. The quote above shows that the racialized elements of our general view of poverty do reflect real differences in changing rates of poverty among minority groups, but also reveals that almost half – nearly a majority – of people in poverty are white.
The consequence is that policy and public opinion often approaches poverty from a race based standpoint, and not from an economic and class based standpoint. Policy is not well designed when it doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation, and public discourse is misplaced when it fails to accurately address the problems society faces. Biases, prejudices, and discriminatory practices can be propped up and supported when we misunderstand the nature of reality, especially when it comes to extreme poverty. Additionally, by branding only minorities as poor and carving out a special space for white poverty, we reducing the scope and seriousness of the problem, insisting that it is a cultural problem of inferior and deficient groups, rather than a by-product of an economic system or a manifestation of shortcomings of economic and social models. It is important that we recognize that poverty is not something exclusive to black and minority groups.
$2.00 A Day

$2.00 A Day

In $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer provide an insight into the lives of people living in extreme poverty in the United States. The book highlights a population that is largely invisible in the United States, those living on $2 a day or less, averaged across the entire year. It is hard to imagine that anyone in the United States could live on such a low income or even have such a low income, but Edin and Shaefer show that it is the case for some American’s and explain what life is like for those individuals.
They write, “Two dollars is less than the cost of a gallon of gas, roughly equivalent to the that of a half gallon of milk. Many American’s have spent more than that before they get to work or school in the morning. Yet in 2011, more than 4 percent of all households with children in the world’s wealthiest nation were living in a poverty so deep that most Americans don’t believe it even exists in this country.”
About a year ago I did a mini-dive into a series of books on homelessness and extreme poverty in the United States. Our country prides hard work and makes a lot of our social support programs conditional on individuals making an effort to improve their lives through their own industriousness. Our system is designed to reward those who work hard and put forward the effort to make their lives better, certainly something that is admirable and socially desired. However, one downside of this system is that people who either cannot or will not take the steps necessary to work hard and improve their lives are cast aside with minimal support.
I completely understand people’s dislike (in some cases even hatred) of free riders. It doesn’t feel good to have to go to work every day, to sacrifice sleep or spending time with the people and things we like, and to have to pay for for food, necessities, and pleasures out of hard earned paychecks. It is even worse when we see other people getting by without making the difficult choices that we make each day.
But I think the important thing to remember is that we are all humans, and that our true value as human beings doesn’t come from the work we do, but just from being humans. I think it is important that we all recognize how dependent we are on others, how much we have benefitted from other people to get to the place we are in (even if it isn’t where we want to be), and how much we all want to be respected simply for being ourselves. While we like to be admired for the things we accomplish, at the end of the day we want to be valued for being who we are, and not because of the special things we have done. A system that casts people out, allows them to degenerate on the streets with no support, and blames people who fail without aiding them is a system that has forgotten that our value as human beings is not dependent on our value to an economic or social system.
$2.00 a Day is an important book because it acknowledges an uncomfortable truth that most people try to ignore. For many of us we would rather not look at the person on the street corner asking for money, we would rather not think about people living in abject poverty, and we would not like to bear any responsibility for the poor living conditions of others. After all, most of us work very hard to try to maintain the lifestyles we live. $2.00 a Day reminds us that people living in poverty are still human, shows us that sometimes one poor decision multiplied and placed individuals in situations where making the right decisions to improve their lives was nearly impossible. It helps us appreciate how we got to where we are, and recognize a responsibility to the rest of our society, especially the segment of our society that has failed to the greatest extent. Ignoring the worst poverty in the nation and simply assuming that people are lazy and hopeless denies the humanity of those who suffer the most and can only perpetuate a problem we would like to wish away.
Delight

Delight

“Delight,” writes Michael Tisserand in his biography of George Herriman, Krazy, “was herriman’s strongest point in a world where most artists had lost it.”
When I was in college there was a spring morning where I went for a run at a local park. I didn’t have a lot going on that day (maybe some classes or work after my run) and I didn’t have to rush home after my workout. The park was up on a hill with a great view of Reno and I was able to sit on the grass and stretch as I cooled down from the run. At the time I was bored, not doing enough to engage with my university or local community, and I had lost a sense of delight with the world around me. As I sat and stretched I thought to myself, “is this really it? Is sitting around stretching after going for a run really all that I am going to do in life? Am I going to be this bored forever?”
It seems to me that as we move through life it is easy to lose our sense of delight. It is easy to become accustomed to the amazing technology of our time, to take something as enjoyable as stretching in park after a run for granted, and to be discontent with lives that by all objective measures are full of enjoyment. Somehow we lose our delight in the marvels of the world, mistaking them as simple, boring, and pedestrian.
George Herriman, Tisserand writes, never lost his sense of delight. His artwork did not turn scornful, sour, or stale. He continued creating comics, continued to brighten the world for others, and never failed to appreciate the position he was in as a cartoon artist.
Keeping delight in our world helps us maintain a sense of presence and helps us approach the world in a grateful manner. If we can be delighted with something as simple as a cup of coffee, a day with good weather, or something funny that a pet does, then we can find something to be happy about and a reason to continue to engage with the world. If we lose our sense of delight, then we risk being overcome with cynicism and selfishness. For Herriman, a man of black and Creole descent passing as a white man in the comics and newspaper industry, perhaps his continually precarious position and the luck and opportunity afforded to him by his light skin color helped him maintain a sense of delight. Perhaps that is what helped him learn to appreciate everything, since he lived a life that so easily could have been denied to him by racism and bigotry.
In my own life I have learned to greatly appreciate the simple moments of stretching in a park after a run, of drinking coffee in the morning, or of walking with my wife and our pup in the evening. These are not exciting moments and are experiences I have almost every day, but by learning to appreciate and find delight in them, I have learned to be more comfortable being who I am and where I am. I have learned to overcome some of my fear of missing out by finding delight in every moment, even if there is nothing remarkable about the moment. I still remember how I felt that day during college, but I look back and appreciate that moment rather than feeling as if my life was not or is not enough.
A Navajo Beauty Prayer

A Navajo Beauty Prayer

In his biography of George Herriman, author Michael Tisserand includes a Navajo Beauty Prayer that Herriman learned in Arizona and found ways to incorporate into his artwork. The poem goes:
“In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk…”
I really like this poem and find it to be a powerful way to find presence, gratitude, and a sense of calmness. The poem reminds me of stoic ideas that I first learned about reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Meditations is a collection of notes that Aurelius wrote to himself, to remind himself to be thoughtful and considerate in all that he did. One of the ideas he returns to throughout the book is the power of being present, of not worrying about a future that hasn’t arrived and not being caught up in regret or sorrow over the past. Focusing on nature, Aurelius notes, can be a powerful way to stay grounded in the present moment and to recognize that much of what troubles us is in our minds, and not in the present world around us.
The Navajo poem focuses our attention in a meditative way on the present, especially if we can be outside in nature to recite the lines of the poem. We can appreciate the beauty of trees, the sky (even if cloudy), and the world around us. What we focus on will become our reality, and looking for beauty no matter where we are will help us see the world through a more positive lens. Our world is defined by how we use our mind and the poem reminds us of the power of our mind as it focuses it on positivity and beauty.
The People Don't Know What They Want

The People Don’t Know What They Want: Art & Design

Apple, especially late co-founder Steve Jobs, has often been criticized and mocked for approaching products with the mindset that they know what is best for consumers and what consumers really want. Whether it was creating a phone without buttons, removing the headphone jack,  or possibly removing the charging port altogether, apple has pushed consumers in a way that says, “we know what you really want, and trust us, we are right in the end.” Instead of maintaining clunky technology or being afraid to push forward, Apple pushes the consumer by dropping old tech in favor of new advances, even if people are not quite ready to let the old tech go. Each time Apple does this it creates controversy and anger in the consumer base, but soon enough everyone adapts and moves forward with Apple, including their competition.
It appears that Apple may be correct. The trite line in the world of business is that the customer is always right. Apple certainly doesn’t buy into this mindset, and the world of technology is not the only space where people don’t know what they want. Michael Tisserand demonstrates this by quoting George Herriman in his biography of Herriman, Krazy. Herriman was interviewed in the late 1920’s by a journalist named Mary Landenberger. The quote from Herriman that Tisserand includes in his book is from Landenberger and reads, “The people don’t know what they want. And if they get an entirely new taste of something that’s good, they’ll want it until they find something better. But we’ve got to give them the initial taste before they start clamoring for more.”
Herriman shows that the Apple mindset was mirrored by cartoonists in the 1920’s. Art styles and fads change and are influenced by many social and cultural factors. People don’t always understand what they like and why, and according to Herriman, it is in some ways up to the artist to show people what they want. I’m sure that Jobs would have thought of himself as an artists, and the way he designed and styled his company’s products certainly fits with the mindset that Herriman, a cartoon artist, expressed.
In television shows and popular media and culture today we still see echoes from creatives of the Herriman and Jobs point of view. The idea that people don’t know what they want is easy to mock and ridicule, but it often turns out to be correct. Companies, artists, and movie studios who buck trends and give people something they didn’t know that they wanted can change the course of events and the form and function of art.
Crass Art

Crass Art

Tyler Cowen recently interviewed Dana Gioia for his podcast, Conversations with Tyler. Gioia is a noted poet and writer and was once the Poet Laureate for California. In the podcast, Cowen asked Gioia an interesting question and received a response from Gioia that I can’t stop thinking about:
“Cowen: Is rap music simply the new poetry? It’s very popular. It is poetic in some broader notion of the term.
GIOIA: Rap, hip hop without any question is poetry. It is rhythmically structured words moving through time. … if I go back to 1975 when I was leaving Harvard, I was told by the world experts in poetry that rhyme and meter were dead, narrative was dead in poetry. Poetry would become ever more complex, which meant that it could only appeal to an elite audience … what the intellectuals in the United States did was we took poetry away from common people.
We took rhyme away, we took narrative away, we took the ballad away, and the common people reinvented it.
This passage is fascinating because it looks at rap music, something that is often hated for its misogyny, drug/sex culture, and general shallowness and appreciates it as a true art form. Gioia’s answer takes our distinction between high culture and low culture, what we consider fine art and crass art, and turns it upside down. Gioia says that poetry was deemed too complex for simple people and that it was taken away from them, only to be reinvented in pop culture through rap music.
Since listening to this podcast I have thought a lot about popular culture and high culture. I always feel a temptation to engage with fine art and to look down my nose at what we generally consider crass art, but at the same time I often find a great pull and fondness toward that crass art. I enjoy Marvel movies, I find myself reflected in the characters of the Harry Potter books, and when I workout I like to listen to rap music or even trendy K-Pop with nonsensical and often ironic lyrics.
What Gioia noted about rap music, and what I have felt with regard to popular mega-IPs and trendy music, has been seen with different artforms and media in human history. In the 1920’s, writes Michael Tisserand in his biography of cartoonist George Herriman Krazy, comics were already seen as crass art. However, a quote from Gilbert Seldes’ book The 7 Lively Arts that Tisserand includes in the biography defends comics in much the same way that Gioia defends rap music. To quote Seldes Tisserand writes, “Reading a comic, Seldes noted, is seen as a symptom of crass vulgarity, dullness, and, for all I know, of defeated an inhibited lives.”
In the 1920’s, when Seldes wrote his art review, comics were already seen as crass art. Their value was misunderstood, and the people who read them were seen as failures. Yet, looking back at comics and pop art from the time tells us something important about the era and the people. We enjoy seeing commonalities between ourselves a century later and the art, worries, thoughts, and ambitions represented in popular culture. We can understand a lot by looking at what was derided as crass art.
When we think about popular culture today, we shouldn’t simply scoff at it as crass art. There are forces the drive the popularity of certain forms of music, cinema, art, television, and media. Understanding what those forces are, recognizing what values, challenges, and life views are present in those forms of art can tell us a lot about who we are. Rather than simply dismissing popular culture as crass art, we should strive to be like Seldes and Gioia who work to understand that art and see its value and merit, even if it appears simple, vulgar, and ephemeral. We don’t have to like it and spend all of our time with it, but we should not simply dismiss it and the people who engage with it.
Pessimist, Optimist, or Just Mist? - George Herriman, Michael Tisserand, Joe Abittan

Pessimist, Optimist, or Just Mist?

In his biography of George Herriman, author Michael Tisserand included numerous comics from Herriman to demonstrate his artistic skill, wit, and general approach to comics. One of the book’s chapters started with the written words from one of Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics from April 23, 1921, and stood out to me:
 
 
Ignatz: Now, “Krazy,” do you look upon the future as a pessimist, or an optimist?
Krazy: I look upon it just as mist–”
 
 
I really enjoyed this line of dialogue when I first read it in Tisserand’s book, and still get a chuckle as I read it now. It is a witty pun, an accurate reflection of our predicament with looking toward the future, and feels entirely fresh 100 years after it was written.
 
 
I feel like I notice false dichotomies everywhere. It is easy to see the world in black or white and tempting to live in a world defined with dichotomies. They make our lives easier by slotting things into neat categories and helping us reduce the amount of thinking we have to do. Unfortunately, living a life that accepts false dichotomies is dangerous and deluded.
 
 
The false dichotomy that the comic pulls apart is the false dichotomy of pessimism versus optimism. If pressed, probably all of us could say we were more of an optimist or pessimist, but it is probably not very accurate to really define ourselves as one way or the other. At any given time we may be more or less optimistic or pessimistic on any number of factors and our views for any of them could change at any moment. We may also be deeply pessimistic about one important area, but very optimistic in another area with no clear reconciliation between those two optimistic and pessimistic feelings. For example, you could be very optimistic about the direction of the economy, but pessimistic about the long-term sustainability of current economic practices given climate change. It is hard to pin yourself as either pessimistic or optimistic overall regarding the economy in this situation.
 
 
Some of us may try to avoid this false dichotomy with a trite response that we are neither an optimist or pessimist, but a realist (or nihilist or other -ist). This dodge acknowledges that the distinction between optimist and pessimist isn’t necessarily real, but fails to provide a legitimate alternative. Is there any exclusionary factor between a realist and an optimist or pessimist? A nihilist might be optimistic that society is going to collapse, even if they feel pessimistic about what will happen to them. My suspicion is that people who call themselves realists simply want to avoid looking like they are optimistic or pessimistic without merit, and as if they base their optimism or pessimism off data and not vague feelings.
 
 
I think that Krazy in the comic is addressing the dichotomy in the most reasonable way possible, by acknowledging the difficulties of predicting the future and accepting that he is overwhelmed with the mist. His answer rejects the false dichotomy of optimism and pessimism and embraces the conflicting factors that might make us happy or sad, financially well off or ruined, or lead to any number of potential outcomes. Rather than trying to hold positive or negative views regarding our futures, the best thing to do is admit that we don’t really know what will happen, but to try to place ourselves in a position where we can have the best outcomes no matter what takes place, even if all we see is mist.