Subject to Debate | The Nation

Subject to Debate

Katha Pollitt

How do we know the economy is in bad shape? Unemployed white male
hotshots are back in the news. "This man used to make $300,000 a year,"
reads the New York Times Magazine's cover. "Now he's selling khakis."
The grim black-and-white cover photo shows a resentful-looking bald man
with a clipboard and Gap tag, sporting a Silicon Alley hipster's
five-day-old beard. He's "interactive industry pioneer" Jeff Einstein,
one of three men profiled in "Commute to Nowhere" by Jonathan Mahler who
lost their high-paying jobs when the New Economy tanked and have had
trouble resigning themselves to the kinds of jobs that are left: selling
pants for Jeff; substitute teaching in the public schools for Lou
Casagrande, a former information-technology consultant (at $100,000 a
year); and volunteering as a "networking" coordinator for Tom Pyle,
who'd left the stressful life of banking ($200,000) for the calmer
waters of the nonprofit sector ($100,000), only to be laid off within
six months.

After more than a year holding out for the next big thing, their wallets
are thin, their cars are falling apart, their self-esteem is wilted and
their marriages aren't in such great shape either: jeff takes the Gap
job only because his wife finally threatens to evict him if he doesn't
start helping out with the rent. (Just between you and me, I suspect he
could have done better but took the Gap job just to spite her.) It's all
about masculinity, Mahler informs us. Women have been as likely to lose
their jobs as men in the current climate, but "for most women, survival
trumps ego; they simply adapt and find some job." I like that "simply."
No cover story there.

But wait. Those $10-an-hour jobs, the ones we're supposed to pity the
men for having lowered their masculine dignity to take, look kind of
familiar, don't they? They're the "good jobs" women on welfare are
encouraged to get, the ones that are supposed to transform them from
mooching layabouts to respectable, economically self-sufficient, upright
and orderly citizens. (Of course, both Tom and his stay-at-home wife
recoil at the possibility that she may have to get a job. I guess this
is because, unlike poor single mothers, she's a "homemaker.")

What happened to all those homilies about personal responsibility and
the dignity of a job--any job--that were trotted out to justify forcing
welfare mothers to work off their checks at subminimum wage by cleaning
toilets in public parks or scraping chewing gum off subway platforms?
Somehow, those sermons don't apply to Mahler's guys, but only to those
single mothers of small children who get up at dawn for long bus rides
to jobs as waitresses or hotel maids or fast-food workers--jobs that one
calls "menial" at the risk of being tarred as an elitist snob by
welfare-reform enthusiasts. The point is not so much work--the exchange
of labor for pay and benefits--but work experience: work as behavior
modification. For Mahler's subjects, work is about masculine identity,
so a low-status job is worse than none. Poor women apparently have no
dignity to be affronted.

Take the first job you can get and be glad you have it is the philosophy
of welfare today. If you are poor and had the bad judgment to become a
single mother, well, no education and training for you. The welfare
reauthorization bill, approved by the House and soon to be voted on by
the Senate, raises the percentage of welfare clients who must work from
50 to 70 percent and ups work requirements for single parents from
twenty to forty hours a week. This is much more even than the norm for
working mothers, which is thirty-one to thirty-five hours. A proposal by
House Democrat Ben Cardin that education and training count toward that
total was rejected along party lines. In New York City, where
unemployment is 8.6 percent, and half of welfare clients didn't graduate
high school, Mayor Bloomberg vetoed a similar set of modifications from
the City Council. (The Council overrode his veto, and he has threatened
a legal challenge.)

Is there a middle-class person in America who doesn't understand the
relation of education and skills to self-support in the twenty-first
century? You'd almost think the people who write the welfare laws don't
want poor women to earn a middle-class income--just to adopt the
imaginary middle-class sexual values embodied in abstinence classes and
marriage promotion schemes, which welfare reauthorization funds to the
tune of $50 million and $300 million a year, respectively.

Maybe I lack sufficient regard for the male ego, but I found it hard to
shed a tear for the men in Mahler's profile. They may have lost their
dreams of financial glory, but this is not exactly King Lear. By the
standards of normal life they're not doing so badly: They live in safe
suburban neighborhoods, with food on the table and good schools for the
kids. Indeed, Jeff's wife earns $80,000 a year, which puts the family in
the top third of US household incomes before he's sold a single pair of
jeans. At the end of the piece, we learn that Lou and Tom have come to
terms with reality and are planning to become public school teachers.
This is hardly a tragedy. In fact, it will likely be the first really
useful and important work either has ever done.  

Zora Neale Hurston, a great writer who made quite a bit of money in her
time, ended her days as a cleaning lady. That's what I call tragic. All
over America, single mothers with nothing like the advantages or
prospects of Jeff, Lou and Tom are being told to sink or swim, and their
children along with them. That's tragic too.

* * *

Once again, the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt, a German human rights
group, is providing "vacations from war" for displaced children and
teens of all Bosnian ethnicities. Through their generous donations over
the years, Nation readers have become a mainstay of this wonderful
project, which last year provided two weeks of summer camp on the
Croatian seacoast for an astonishing 1,500 children. (This year, for the
second time, the group hopes to bring a hundred Israeli and Palestinian
kids together as well.) It takes $130 to give one child respite from war
and its aftermath, but donations of any size are appreciated. Checks
made out to Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt can be mailed to me at The
, 33 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003, and I will forward

"We are in a funding emergency today," read the e-mail from the New York
Abortion Access Fund.

By the time you read this, the invasion of Iraq may have begun--or it
may be over.

The February 15 demonstration in New York was huge, exciting,
exhilarating--despite the weather (brrrr) and the heavy hand of the NYPD
(see below).

So Laura Bush will not, after all, be discussing the works of Emily
Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes with a selected group of
American poets at the White House on February 12.

My friend Ruth Rosen, who writes a terrific column for the San
Francisco Chronicle
, advised her readers to go to the antiwar
marches organized by International ANSWER but to take their o

One of my cherished childhood memories is of my petite, polite mother
closing the front door firmly on two hulking FBI agents who wanted to
come in and ask her questions.


Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the...