The Myth About Poverty: A discussion with Joe Soss

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The Myth About Poverty: A discussion with Joe Soss

 Joe Soss

Joe Soss

For the very first episode of our TPA Voices podcast, Diana Dollar, Executive Director of The Prosperity Agenda, sat down with Joe Soss, co-author of "Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race". In this episode, we discuss neoliberal paternalism and how racialized the U.S. welfare system has become since the War on Poverty began in the 1960's.

TPA Voices Podcast: Tuesday, November 20th, 2018

The Prosperity Agenda works to end persistent poverty by changing the way organizations think about, and create programs for, families under financial stress. Rejecting the dominant narrative that “the poor”, particularly people of color, are inferior and therefore deserve to live in poverty, TPA instead designs tools and methods that reflect the idea that all people are capable of making good decisions for themselves and their families.

Diana Dollar

What motivated you to write, Disciplining the Poor with your coauthors?

Joe Soss

Disciplining the Poor is a book that emerged over time with my co-authors, Sanford Schram and Richard Fording, as we had conversations among ourselves, puzzling over these pretty dramatic changes in what we came to call poverty governance, the way in which the United States, our society, and our government manages problems and populations associated with poverty. It seemed to us that there had been a really dramatic transformation over time, especially over the past 40 years or so, in that approach to poverty. We had really shifted from focusing on things like income support and community participation, to instead having a very strong focus on the idea that what the poor lacked most was self-discipline, and that what needed to be done in poverty programs was to set expectations and to enforce them. And in a sense, reform people so that they would make choices better for themselves. I think that in many ways, there's a long history of this sort of thinking about poverty, centuries of it, but we felt that there was a very distinctive form that had come into being that really blended together market-centered approaches to organizing governance and to thinking about what a person should be, with some new ideas about the deficiencies of poor people, some new stereotypes about the poor that were being put to different kinds of uses.

Diana Dollar

That's a big part of what we focus on in your book, this idea of the market-centered approach and the idea of discipline, but you use a term in the book called Neoliberal Paternalism. Can you explain that?

Joe Soss

So let me start with neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a contested concept. People disagree about what it means. That's nothing unusual, we disagree about a lot of important concepts like, what do we mean by power? People have different visions of democracy. People even disagree about what they mean when they use the term poverty, right? But neoliberalism means different things to different folks and in our case, we emphasize a few things. So neoliberalism generally is a form of market fundamentalism, it tends to take the economic values of liberalism and economic priorities, the emphasis on markets and things like that, and places it above the political values of liberalism. It's less concerned with equality and political participation than it is with emphasizing the importance of the freedoms of the market. As a kind of governance, neoliberalism is the shifting of government from acting as a countervailing force to the market, to really re-positioning government as something that is responsible for creating markets, expanding markets, and making markets profitable, creating compliant workers for markets, and all of those things. We oftentimes think of market fundamentalism as what is called 'laissez-faire'. It's about making the state small, making government small, and allowing the market to take over everything. And the assumption is if you roll back government, everyone will sort of naturally act like a market actor and be free. Neoliberalism is really not the same as laissez-faire in the sense that it's based on the idea that government has a responsibility to step in--and has to step in to construct markets. They don't want to just naturally emerge, and people left to their own devices won't necessarily step up and be competent workers and market actors. There isn't a natural propensity to truck and barter that's just waiting to break free. Actually, people to be made into good economic actors, they have to be taught prudence in their choices, they have to be taught responsibility, and they have to be taught diligence. And so the state is actually in this kind of market fundamentalism not really rolled back to let the market emerge, it's authority is instead embraced to change people. And to do so in a way that is profitable in a variety of ways.

So neoliberalism in many ways in the US rewrote poverty governance, in the sense that the state itself became a site for applying market principles. Suddenly, government was being judged in the area of welfare, for example, in terms of cost benefit analysis, in terms of return on investment, the bottom line. All of the sudden people were sort of judging whether or not government was performing well in turning welfare clients into employees, and the goals of what clients should be turned into focused less on other things, such as the stability of their lives or their ability to set their own courses, than on whether or not they could fulfill this role of being the worker, which was equated with being a good citizen.

Diana Dollar

That idea of rewriting poverty governance, it was called out very specifically, and then you went one level deeper and dedicated a full chapter on the intersection of neoliberal paternalism and race. Why did you decide to turn the spotlight on that specifically?

Joe Soss

I think I can start with the idea of neoliberalism and say that what's interesting is a lot of people when they talk about this idea of neoliberalism, they don't really talk enough about race. There's a model historically in the United States of the person who should be working, but needs to be forced in some way, needs to be observed, needs to be pushed and punished, then told how to live their life. That model comes from a whole history of oppression, and of exploitation, of various groups of color, particularly black people in the United States, but other groups as well. So I think there's this deep connection between race and this notion.

The argument that we make in the book is the neoliberalism was one side of what happened in transforming poverty governance. The other was paternalism, and this paternalist idea that it comes together with is really the emphasis on the idea that the problem is with "the poor". It isn't so much that they have bad intentions or don't want good things, it’s that poor people, in the language of Lawrence Mead, one of the great new paternalist of the era, lack the ability to discipline themselves in a way that would bring their behavior in line with their intentions, as he put it. That they want to hold off on having children until later but they can't stop themselves. They want to get married, but they don't follow through. They'd like to work, but they can't discipline themselves. And that it's really the responsibility of government to step in. Again, this is oftentimes seen as a conservative idea. It's not a small state, a rollback the state kind of idea, though, that the government has an obligation to step in and set expectations, monitor behavior, and then distribute consequences in the form of whatever it might be, for not living up to those expectations. So the idea was to use benefits in a more disciplinary way, what Mead called directive and supervisory programs, to tell people what to do to direct them and then to supervise them and ultimately to take away their benefits if they don't behave as a desired. I think that to understand that project, you have to understand the fundamental ways in which it's entwined with race in the United States.

I'll give one example, when we looked at even public opinion for example, what we found was that when people were asked about how much should be spent on a welfare program, some people wanted more, some people wanted less. And yes, it was bound up with their views of whether or not, say, black people are lazier than white people, those kinds of stereotypes. But when you switched over to questions about monitoring behavior--when he talked about bad behavior and the need to be directive and supervisory in these ways, it turns out that the relative impact of racial attitudes just went off the charts relative to other factors. The more you talked about the idea of needing to crack down on behavior in this paternalist way, the more racial attitudes became important. When we looked at which states did what after welfare reform, we found consistent evidence of that. We found that, in fact, the states that passed the toughest rules for their welfare recipients were the states that had the largest numbers of black and Latino clients in their caseload.

Diana Dollar

You spoke about the connection between neoliberal paternalism and our history when it comes to race. Was there anything in the research as you were digging into, because it's not as if we didn't know our history, but was there anything surprising to you as you were looking at this larger connection between when the war on poverty really started to take hold ,and then after 1964, the development of neoliberal paternalism, and this idea that we're really just perpetuating, or it seems like we're perpetuating, practices that were more informal, that became embedded in programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), for example. So, was there anything that surprised you as you were digging into this?

Joe Soss

Well, I think that certainly one of the interesting things is that as we were doing this work and talking about this work, people would frequently bring up the idea that welfare had become racialized at some point. That it had become racialized maybe in the sixties or seventies with the war on poverty, but that it used to not really be racialized, and then people liked it more. But that now it's become associated with blackness and with immigrants, that this had really undermined support. I think what's interesting is when you go back and look historically, there was never a time when these programs were not racialized. In fact, much of the support for these programs in the past were built on the fact that they were racialized in a way that aligned with whiteness. That in fact some of the early poverty programs in the United States, the mother's pensions and age dependent children, and things like that we're actually oftentimes defended on the basis of fighting off the race death that was threatened by various people of color and various groups considered to be "inferior races", such as those from southern and eastern Europe, who were immigrating into the country. There was a sense of threat, and the idea of supporting mothers and raising their kids, some of those programs found support in the racial politics. There's always been a sort of ebb and flow and changes in the racial politics. I think that as part of that there's also been always a shifting line of people trying to defend the programs by cutting smaller and smaller groups of deserving recipients away from the rest and leaving the rest high and dry by saying, well, these are the deserving people. And so at the very beginning of the program you had people saying, well, this is really a program for women who've been deserted by their husbands. And then pretty soon people started saying, yeah, well some of those women, maybe they did something bad to drive their husband's away. And so on and so on. Then they switched and said, well, it's really about widows, because it's harder to say it’s their fault when, well, their husband die. With the widows, things got taken away because they created survivor's benefits and the social security program, so then they had to scramble for something else. And there's always something else, this is only for workers, or this is only for certain people. In a sense, it's a story of constantly trying to justify that people should receive assistance because of something especially sympathetic about them, that makes them deserving, rather than because they're human beings, they're members of society, they're fellow citizens, whatever it might be.

Diana Dollar

You go further on the subject of race by talking about race and social control, which is really what you're getting at, it seems like. Which is controversial. You've described here a little bit, and definitely in your book you break it down in a historical way, a very compelling story that says our country is less interested in ending poverty and more concerned about just keeping people in their proper place. Could you go just a little deeper on that, and what does that really mean?

Joe Soss

All social relationships involve social controls. Social controls are just the way in which we tried to curtail certain forms of deviance, or put more simply, we try to say that there are norms about what's right and wrong. We try and get people to keep their behavior in line, in some way. So it's unimaginable that we could have a family, or any kind of organization, without some kind of what social scientists call social controls. The question is what are the terms of those social controls? So the the critique that we're advancing is not that we wish we could live in a world where everyone was just free to do whatever they want. In that sort of world, the powerful would be free--they wouldn't be under controls--they would be free to do whatever they wanted to the weak, for example.

The argument that we're making is that we've built a system that asks so very little from employers, asks so very little from the rest of society that has it better off, that's benefiting from current arrangements, and is really about controlling the behavior specifically of groups that are in many ways subordinated by race and by class and by gender. That it’s about specifically controlling their behavior. If you look at what's happening out there, jobs stand at the center of what is being done to and for poor communities and welfare programs, and it's very much on the terms of making people more suitable for the available jobs rather than making the jobs more for people's lives. So the question becomes what are the terms of social control? And our argument is that the reason the terms of social control look the way they do in those ways has a great deal to do with race in this country. So if you look at who gets punished and has their benefits taken away, what we find is that even when we did experiments where we took the exact same case, and then just simply changed the race of the client and the characteristics of the client, we could raise the rate at which people sanctioned, that people who were black got sanctioned more often. Especially if they had some sort of record that made it look like maybe they weren't the ideal client in some way, something discrediting. And that fit with the same pattern that we found at the county level, where we found that the racial characteristics of the county drove sanctioning. And that fit with what we found at the state level, with states passing tougher rules if they actually had more black and brown people in the case load. And, and on, and on and on, with the kind of racial imagery that was used to pass welfare reform in the first place. The racialized images of the welfare queen, and on the criminal justice side, the gang banger in the thug, and street crime and all that. At every level of practice that we could look at empirically, whether it was in the field through interviews and ethnography, or through administrative data, or state level data, it all pointed in the same direction--that there was this deep entwinement between the effort to control people's behavior, and race.

Diana Dollar
At The Prosperity Agenda, we firmly believe that this neoliberal paternalism has really formed a powerful myth about people who are impacted by poverty in this country. The myth that people who are poor are there because of their lack of motivation, or as your book discusses, their lack of discipline, and this powerful myth continues to influence how policy is formed, how resources are distributed, and even how our social norms in our communities are established based on that myth. That's definitely something that is a heavy thing to think about. I wonder, it seems to me knowing that the poverty rates have pretty much remained the same since the 1960's, relatively speaking, I mean, is there another approach to creating or establishing a totally different narrative that would right this wrong, knowing how much is pushing this myth forward? There is a possibility for us to form a new narrative that's based on the reality that we know that people are motivated, they're not just wanting to survive, they want to succeed. Is there anything in the way that the research guided you, that gave you some bright light, a bright spot that shows how we might actually start to shift this narrative in a positive way?

Joe Soss

Yes. There are lots of different ways to shift the narrative and I think we have lots of good historical examples of it. It doesn't mean that we've always wound up ultimately producing a perfect system or that we've banished all the old problems. It's an ongoing struggle, and that's just to say that we're humans and politics doesn't stop, and you've got to keep fighting. I think that it's certainly the case these days that part of what we need to focus on are the basic questions of the quality of jobs that are available. If we value work, and if we want people to work, we have to begin from the idea of making sure that jobs fit their lives, and can allow them to actually have lives, including supporting them with enough income and benefits. We have to sort of start talking about if there aren't going to be enough jobs, as we automate production and all sorts of other things. We need to start talking about whether we're going to move to something like a universal basic income that would allow for people to be supported when there isn't work for them. And that is really just an extension of something we've had all along, which is that however much we may value work, there are a lot of people out there who can't work. That's just a reality. When I've done research out in poor communities with people in welfare programs, part of the thing I think a lot of people don't understand is that a lot of people who wind up in welfare programs are really there as a place of last resort. It's the program that's there when they can't get into other things, and you have a lot of people who are struggling with some incredibly difficult life conditions, sometimes because they're having to take care of elders, or take care of children who have a very difficult health situation, or because in some cases they've experienced domestic abuse or sexual abuse, in a way that they are traumatized because of crises in their lives. There's a lot of people who are not in a position to work. So as much as we need to think about transforming work so that it serves people's lives, we also have to really get serious in this society about talking about the fact that, both because of changes in the labor market and automation, and the disappearance of certain types of work, and because the conditions of people's lives, that not everybody can work.

Diana Dollar

I would say that what you just hit on in terms of really focusing on the quality of jobs, jobs fitting the lives of the individuals. There's a lot of discussion here in Seattle, where TPA is located, about pay and the hourly rate. There's a narrative that is certainly wrapped around the compensation side. I think what you propose is interesting for us to consider, the idea of the quality of the job fitting the life of the individuals and really understanding what that really means. It's really, again, back to, it's working, but it's not about the quality of jobs. Currently in the political environment, talking about how to connect work requirements to benefits. And again, it doesn't have anything to do with the quality of job. It has everything to do with just putting people to work

Joe Soss

Here's where I think it's important to go back to what Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward said years ago in Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, which was that efforts to contract, or put conditions on, welfare are about pushing people into the market in a way that they have to take what they called the meanest jobs with the meanest wage, on the meanest terms. In many respects, welfare programs operate almost like a kind of minimum wage, right? Because you can't offer wages for a job that are lower than the welfare benefits, if people have access to them. So if you put in administrative hurdles, if you stigmatize it, if you put in all sorts of extra requirements, you can offer those benefits but actually still pressure people to take those rotten jobs at the bottom of the labor market. And I think what we argued in Disciplining the Poor was it had actually gone beyond just that dynamic of denying benefits to force people into the worst jobs, that actually the programs themselves, if you get into them, have now been structured to force people into jobs--with the work requirements, with all kinds of efforts to service the local employers and connect to people in the program, and push those people into those jobs, with efforts to put people through various kinds of disciplinary trainings to change the way they behave, and all these things. So in many respects, part of what we're talking about in moving away from this model of welfare is in fact creating the space to say, hey, if it's actually the case that welfare programs are about connecting people with jobs, or workers with employers, let's balance that out in some way. Let's think about what the employers need and think about what the workers need for their lives.

Diana Dollar

That's a great way of ending. We are unfortunately out of time, but I am so grateful that we shifted in our discussion here from the idea of discipline, that we want to press onto people who are affected by poverty, and more towards this idea of creating quality work experiences as a way of shifting that narrative. So thank you for that and I appreciate that being our last note, or our last comment. Thank you, Joe, for being with us today as our guest. I want to encourage folks to read Disciplining the Poor. It was an incredibly moving and impactful read for us here at The Prosperity Agenda and I know you can buy it pretty much where most books are sold. Again, thank you Joe for your time!

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Financial Institution Community Member Survey

We want to change the way financial institutions serve you and your communities! 

The Prosperity Agenda is interested in hearing about how you feel like financial institutions in the King and South King County are serving you and your community. Those who participate have the opportunity to win a $50 Safeway gift card! Please note: Only those in Washington State are eligible to win a gift card. 

 

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A Missing Element Of Financial Capability: Your Money Mindset

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A Missing Element Of Financial Capability: Your Money Mindset

What was the last significant financial moment of your life?

Maybe it was brought on by a financial misstep: you took on more debt than you could manage or you maxed out your credit card. It could have been a big financial choice: you bought a car or a house or you adopted a dog. It could have been a big event that strained your finances, like having a child, losing a job or a health crisis in the family. No matter what the moment was, you probably could not have predicted how or when it would happen.

Many workforce programs have taken the initiative to integrate financial literacy and capability into their curriculum and services to make these financial events more manageable. They may choose to integrate services like financial coaching, credit counseling, credit building and most commonly, financial education. Yet despite research showing that financial education impacts behavior minimally, many programs continue these services by default. But what if there are overlooked elements of financial capability, such as elements that precede more technical financial information and are more accessible for workforce programs to integrate into their programs?

With support from JP Morgan Chase, The Prosperity Agenda partnered with Seattle Goodwill and ANEW (Apprenticeship & Non-Traditional Employment for Women) to learn more about the challenges and opportunities that exist in workforce development programs to integrate financial capability services.

On Thursday, July 26th, we will be sharing our findings from this partnership. We're excited to share what we learned with our audience and invite you to listen!

Thursday, July 26, 10:00 AM (PST)

 

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Career & Life Coaching: Transforming Case Management through Coaching

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Career & Life Coaching: Transforming Case Management through Coaching

We've recently debuted the Career & Life Coaching Report and we're excited to share our findings with you!

Join us Wednesday, July 18 10:00 AM (PST)/ 1:00 PM (EST) for a special discussion on the report, its origins, and what we discovered.

The Career & Life Coaching approach was piloted in Washington State's Department of Social Health Services' Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. We'll be joined by coaches and supervisors who were directly involved in that pilot, as well as Devin Stubblefield, our Lead Consulting Trainer.

Webinar Panel:
Diana Dollar, The Prosperity Agenda
Devin Stubblefield, The Prosperity Agenda
Martha Barboza, DSHS
Maryanne Murphy, DSHS

Wednesday, July, 18

10:00 AM (PST)/ 1:00 PM (EST)

 

WHERE WE'RE TRAINING:

Training: Family-Centered Coaching Train-the-Trainer
Partner: Multiple
Location: Tacoma, WA
Dates: June 19 & 20

Training: Financial Coaching Train the Trainer 
Partner: LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation)
Location: Chicago, IL
Dates: June 27 & 29

Training: Career & Life Coaching
Partner: Michigan PATH
Location: Multiple locations in Michigan
Dates: July 9-13

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May FCC Webinar Recap | Family-Centered Coaching and Its Tools

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May FCC Webinar Recap | Family-Centered Coaching and Its Tools

Fresh off an amazing Financial Capability Summit, we held our monthly webinar series highlighting Family-Centered Coaching. 

This month, we discussed the Family-Centered Coaching approach and its many benefits. Joining us this month was Melissa Sommer of the Brighton Center, who along with our Lead Consulting Trainer, Devin Stubblefield, discussed the impact of this approach within her organization.

If you'd like to learn more about FCC and its tools, contact Rachel Brooks at rachelb@theprosperityagenda.org to schedule a training

Click, HERE to download the webinar presentation.

 

Join us for our next webinar!

Date: Thursday, July 19th

Time: 10:00 AM (PST)/1:00 PM (EST)

 

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2018 FCS Speakers Announced

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2018 FCS Speakers Announced

The 2018 Financial Capability Summit is fast approaching, and we're excited to announce this year's panel of speakers who will be discussing various topics surrounding the narrative of poverty and its effect on financial capability.

What role does poverty's narrative play in how we serve families and individuals?

This year's theme, Poverty's Story: Reconstructing the Narrative Through Organizational Change, is sure to inspire great discussion and action. Don't miss out on the amazing talks by our panel. Tickets are now on sale and will sell out!

2018 Summit Speakers

Jhumpa Bhattacharya
Director of Racial Equity and Strategy

Insight Center for Community Economic Development

Karen Dove
Executive Director
Apprenticeship & Nontraditional Employment for Women

Ernesto Fonseca
Chief Executive Officer
Hacienda Community Development Corp

Bill Henkel
Executive Director
Community Action Skagit County

Ted Piccolo
Executive Director
Northwest Native Development Fund

Anne Price
President
Insight Center for Community Economic Development

Dave Willard
Vice President, Clean, Safe and Outreach Operations
Downtown Seattle Association

Dion Willis
PC/Job Training Instructor, Community Jobs
YWCA Seattle

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Our Innovation Lab

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Our Innovation Lab

The Prosperity Agenda’s Innovation Lab is where our programs, services, and solutions are developed. In partnership with nonprofits, government agencies, financial institutions and employers, we create programs that make meaningful change for families experiencing poverty.

We start small and measure impact in real time. As we test solutions in quick cycles, we can iterate quickly on the direct feedback from staff and families. This allows us to continuously improve and ensure that we are meeting the needs of those experiencing poverty. 

We're always looking for new partnerships. Whether you'd like to donate to our efforts, join the design team, or have an interesting problem you'd like help solving - let's have a conversation. Contact us at design@theprosperityagenda.org.

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