The Missing Class
Is there more, or less, awareness today of the challenges facing the working poor than when you began your research?
There's greater recognition now that we actually have a population called the working poor. I think that attempts to beat back some of the more successful policy innovations, like the earned-income tax credit, have failed in part because there's recognition that these people exist, that they should be supported and that we need to do something about their health insurance. What I don't see is much attention to fostering mobility out of working poverty. We seem to feel that as long as we've taken people off public assistance, our job is done. But it isn't done--it isn't good enough in a country as wealthy as this to replace welfare-dependent poverty with working poverty.
Yet welfare reform has not led to the disaster some people predicted. Haven't those who feared this, including yourself, been proven wrong?
What I didn't anticipate, and I don't think anyone anticipated, was that in the late '90s we would have really tight labor markets, a roaring economy, very high growth, very low inflation. We basically had the opposite of a perfect storm--we had perfect weather, and that provided a lot of mobility opportunity even for the people I study. But welfare reform won't receive its real test until we see a big recession and we can see what happens to people without any safety net beneath that. We haven't seen that, so it's not easy to know what it would mean.
In your previous book, Chutes and Ladders, you told the stories of two groups: the "high flyers," who succeeded in climbing out of poverty, and the "low riders," who didn't. What was the main difference between them?
For the most part the difference is explained not by their desire for upward mobility but by their family circumstances. Everybody wants a better job and everybody is willing to work for it. But women who had children and no one to help them with those kids were much more likely to get trapped--they couldn't get more education, which limited their job options; their contact with the labor market was more fragile and episodic. Whereas the people who could afford childcare or who worked out elaborate arrangements with extended family members were able to stay on the job, get more training and move upward.
That sounds like an answer conservatives would love--it's all about family.
But when we say it's about family, we're really talking about the burdens people face in simultaneously trying to combine family responsibilities with the demands of the labor market. And we don't make it easy for them to do that. In Italy, you have access to full-time, high-quality childcare from the time your child is an infant. Similarly in France. A lot of families I studied who didn't make it out of poverty were the ones where the childcare options were so dangerous they couldn't leave their kids, so they ended up dropping out of the labor market, which isn't good for them or for their children. I don't think conservatives have much of an answer to this. The only answer I hear them giving is that poor people shouldn't have children at all.
If you could take the platform of the Democratic candidate for President and insert three provisions for the missing class into it, what would they be?
Universal, high-quality, early-childhood education would be very high on my list, because the more we can do for kids when they start out to level the playing field, the better off the whole country will be in the long run. Universal healthcare would be hugely important, not only because of its health consequences but because it frees up income for other things. And opening up and maintaining access to higher education, because the people on the losing end of this economy are the poorly educated. Instead, I fear we're going in the opposite direction--we're seeing increases in public higher-education tuition, which will make it very hard for new generations to succeed.