Bill Clinton’s Five Major Achievements Were Longstanding GOP Objectives

Sunday, 15 May 2016 00:00

Truthout | Interview with Thomas Frank: 

Bill Clinton, standing between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, taking the oath of office of President of the United States on January 20, 1993. Clinton ran for president as a champion of the working class, but largely abandoned their economic interests while in office – preferring Wall Street to Main Street -- beginning with his signing of NAFTA.

Bill Clinton, standing between Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, taking the oath of office of president of the United States on January 20, 1993. Clinton ran for president as a champion of the working class, but largely abandoned their economic interests while in office – preferring Wall Street to Main Street — beginning with his signing of NAFTA. (Photo: White House)

What is the core philosophy of today’s Democratic Party and does it serve anyone’s interests other than a wealthy elite? Thomas Frank lays bare Democrats’ abandonment of their purported values — and the role this has played in entrenching economic inequality — in his sardonic new book, Listen, Liberal. Order your copy by making a donation to Truthout today!

Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal, discusses the Hillary Doctrine’s basis in neoliberalism, how the Democratic Party stopped governing on behalf of the working class and how President Bill Clinton’s major achievements actually enacted conservative goals, and ultimately hurt working people.

Mark Karlin: The innovation class, the creative class, the wealthy class, the professional class with Ivy League degrees: How did President Obama become the avatar for believing these groups should be the decision makers in government?

Thomas Frank: Obama thinks such people should be in charge because they came up through the same system as him. “Because he himself was a product of the great American postwar meritocracy,” his biographer Jonathan Alter writes, “he could never fully escape seeing the world from the status ladder he had ascended.”

Most of our other Democratic leaders (the Clintons, for example) came up the same way and believe the same thing. Indeed, what Alter describes is standard-issue stuff for Democrats these days. The Democrats are a class party in the fullest sense of the phrase, and the class whose perspective they reflect and whose interests they serve is the highly educated, white-collar professional class. Theirs is a liberalism of the rich.

Can you describe a little about what you call “The Hillary Doctrine,” including how microlending is a good example of her belief in opening doors of entrepreneurship to solve the world’s economic problems?

The Hillary Doctrine was Clinton’s understanding of American national interest when she served as Obama’s secretary of state. The idea was that the US would henceforth be the world’s defender of women and girls. Hillary didn’t mean this in a general sense, however. The kind of women we were committing ourselves to specifically were female entrepreneurs.

The source of this notion of liberation through female entrepreneurship is the microlending movement, in which Hillary has been an enthusiastic participant for many decades. It arose as part of neoliberalism in the 1990s: The IMF [International Monetary Fund] and World Bank would “structurally reform” a country’s economy, and to help out with the human dislocation that resulted, they would give microloans to small entrepreneurs, who were encouraged to start tiny businesses like gardening or handicrafts. Over the years, the microlending movement accreted all these details: The entrepreneurs had to be women. They had to be hooked up to a bank. They had to have a Western mentor. They had to have smartphones. And so on.

You can see the appeal of this movement: It’s telling you that the solution to poverty is not unions or government or anything like that, but for everyone to work hard and start their own businesses — and, incidentally, to extend the reach of Western financial institutions to every village on the planet. A pure win-win. Everyone feels good. Everyone feels virtuous.

Except for the people who live in those countries, of course, because they know it doesn’t work. You don’t build a country’s economy by having everyone buy a goat and sell milk to one another. All these people have to show for this strategy is debt. Some empowerment.

I was captivated by your description of Hillary Clinton being surrounded by a “microclimate of virtue.” Can you describe what you mean by that and how it was represented in your section, “No Ceilings,” that included Melinda Gates and a panel to show how much women in power “cared” for poor women? I love your sardonic description, “the presenters called out to one another in tones of gracious supportiveness and flattery so sweet it bordered on idolatry.”

Every biography of Hillary Clinton talks about her goodness, her high-mindedness, her rock-solid dedication to principle. Reading those books, I couldn’t imagine what they meant, since Hillary is as much of a shape-shifter and a compromiser as any other politician.

When I saw her in person, however, it all made sense. It was at a Clinton Foundation event, as you mention. Everyone took their turn on the stage, praising everyone else, in the highest and most gracious forms you can imagine. There was an almost intoxicating sense in the room of the goodness and virtue of everyone present, with Hillary herself anchoring the swirl. It must be hard for someone who wasn’t there to believe, but these people seemed to regard her with an idealism that was almost cult-like.

The exaggeration of it all showed me that this sense of virtue is not only central to Hillary Clinton’s appeal, but to liberalism generally. This is a movement that has done tremendous harm to minorities and working people over the last few decades, and yet liberals have such an elevated sense of what fine people they are. It is a precious self-image.

You trace the modern abandonment of working men and women by the Democrats to a book by Fred Dutton in 1971. Can you explain the tome and its implications?

Dutton was a high-ranking Democratic Party official who later became a prominent Washington lobbyist. Among other things, he served on the McGovern Commission, which worked to reorient the Democratic Party away from labor and working people. Dutton’s book was called Changing Sources of Power, and it was sort of an explanation of why the McGovern Commission did what it did. Basically, Dutton was one of those establishment people who were simply bowled over by the sheer righteousness of the youth movements of the 1960s — something I also found a lot of in the advertising industry in my first book, The Conquest of Cool. The kids were so wise and so profound, Dutton thought. They had brought politics to a whole new philosophical level. And, meanwhile, as everyone could see, working people were so backward and so ugly, supporting the Vietnam War and all that stuff. Of course you wanted to ditch one group and embrace the other.

Given what was going on back then, it’s easy to understand why Dutton felt as he did. He wasn’t totally wrong about blue-collar workers and the Vietnam War, for instance. But turning your back on the concerns of working-class organizations for whatever reason meant turning your back on their issues, with consequences that are all too clear today.

You argue the abandonment of labor by the Democrats came to full fruition in the two administrations of Bill Clinton? How did Clinton who came from a working-class upbringing eventually betray the workers of the United States?

First of all, I’m not so sure about his background. It is true that he came from a very poor state, and that his family struggled, but Clinton’s biographers always emphasize that he wasn’t really of the working class: He always drove a new Buick, etc.

Clinton never had a really great relationship with workers’ organizations, but the worst thing Clinton he did to them was NAFTA. There were many trade agreements, of course, but NAFTA was the one that mattered, both because it was the first one and because labor put everything into stopping it. Indeed labor had stopped it when George H. W. Bush tried to get it through Congress. Clinton got it done, however, with a little muscle and a vast fog of preposterous claims about how NAFTA would increase exports and manufacturing employment.

His admirers saw NAFTA as his “finest hour,” because he had stood up to a traditional Democratic constituency. What an achievement. NAFTA handed employers all over America the ultimate weapon against workers: They could now credibly threaten to pick up and leave at the slightest show of worker backbone — and they make such threats all the time now.

How did the Clinton administration become a surrogate of Wall Street, resulting in the far-reaching repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act?

In 1992, Clinton ran as a populist, deploring income inequality, but that was just an act. As president he seems immediately to have decided to cast his fortunes — and those of his party — with Wall Street. Bank deregulation was a persistent policy of his from the very beginning — he signed the Riegle-Neal Act in 1994, for example, and the Mexican bailout (a big favor to Wall Street) came shortly thereafter. Along the way, he helped bail out a too-big-to-fail hedge fund, he twice appointed Alan Greenspan to run the Federal Reserve and he ensured that certain derivative securities would not have any kind of federal supervision at all.

At the time, Clinton’s admirers thought this record was something to boast about. He had brought his party out of the Rooseveltian dark ages and had embraced modernity, etc.

Why did he do it? My explanation is simple class identification. Clinton’s real class story has to do with his career in college and graduate school, where he became a star of the rising professional cohort. People with this kind of background saw (and still see) Wall Street as a part of the enlightened world, a part of the world inhabited by people just like them. They’re so smart! Plucking wealth from thin air!

This is a little off message regarding the book, but can you speculate why the Republicans were so obsessed with removing Clinton from office when he was fulfilling so much of the GOP agenda, including negotiating with Newt Gingrich about cutting Medicare and Social Security?

“Fulfilling so much of the GOP agenda”: That is a point worth reiterating. Clinton had five major achievements as president: NAFTA, the Crime Bill of 1994, welfare reform, the deregulation of banks and telecoms, and the balanced budget. All of them — every single one — were longstanding Republican objectives. His smaller achievements were more traditionally Democratic (he raised the earned-income tax credit and the minimum wage), but his big accomplishments all enacted conservative wishes, and then all of them ended in disaster.

So why did the right try so hard to get rid of him? For one thing, because they always do that. They never suspend the war or stop pushing rightward. There is no point at which they say, “OK, we’ve won enough.” For another, because Gingrich couldn’t control the rank and file, a problem that persists to this day.

The final conservative consequence of the impeachment, although this one was surely not intended: impeaching Clinton made him a martyr and hence a hero to Democrats. It secured his family’s and his faction’s grip on the Democratic Party apparently forever.

You write in your last chapter: “And every two years, they [the Democrats] simply assume that being non-Republican is sufficient to rally the voters of the nation to their standard.” That sure sounds to me a bit like Hillary Clinton’s basic pitch (paraphrased): “I’m not going to get a lot done because that’s reality, but I’ll be sitting in the Oval Office instead of that demagogue Trump. So vote for me.” Any resonance there?

That is exactly how I meant it, although of course I couldn’t see that Trump was going to be the GOP nominee when I was writing the book.

Is the Acela Express the main transportation route between lawmakers, regulators, lobbyists and financiers?

The Acela runs between Washington and New York just a little bit faster than the ordinary Amtrak train. It costs much, much more, however. Because once you’re on that Acela train, you’re instantly in the secured precincts of the tidy and prosperous professional class. All these nicely dressed people typing away on their keyboards. People looking over spreadsheets. People reading management books and talking management talk. People flattering each other. People shushing each other in the quiet car. Shushing each other so vehemently I once saw a quiet car dispute almost turn into a fistfight. It is literally the express train of the class war. Every sort of narcissism and upper-class social pathology is on full display.

A few weeks ago on the Acela train, I sat near a man who seemed to be some sort of Hillary Clinton adviser. He was talking very loudly on his cellphone about her latest TV commercial, about how she was finding her own voice, which sounds banal but which I guess is a good thing to do if you want to be president of the United States.

When you end with a rather pessimistic notion that the betrayal of the Democrats in power will not easily change, you state “that the problem is us.” Who are you referring to as “us”? Liberals? How does the Bernie Sanders movement that came near to toppling Clinton Inc. fit into your answer?

“The problem is us” in the sense that liberalism is dominated by a certain class outlook and that I am part of that class. I am calling on other members of that class to look in the mirror and understand who they are — that they are just as much products of their economic position as are the blue-collar workers they so hate. In particular, I am calling on them to understand that they aren’t the fine and virtuous people they believe they are. That it is because of them that inequality is out of control, that Wall Street is wrecking the world, that middle-class America is falling apart. And that they have an obligation to do something about it.

I like to think that Bernie is saying the same thing, in his own way.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Mark Karlin is the editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout. He served as editor and publisher of BuzzFlash for 10 years before joining Truthout in 2010. BuzzFlash has won four Project Censored Awards. Karlin writes a commentary five days a week for BuzzFlash, as well as articles (ranging from the failed “war on drugs” to reviews relating to political art) for Truthout. He also interviews authors and filmmakers whose works are featured in Truthout’s Progressive Picks of the Week. Before linking with Truthout, Karlin conducted interviews with cultural figures, political progressives and innovative advocates on a weekly basis for 10 years. He authored many columns about the lies propagated to launch the Iraq War.

 

http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/36035-thomas-frank-bill-clinton-s-five-major-achievements-were-longstanding-gop-objectives

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Lesser Evil Voting and Hillary Clinton’s War on the Poor

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French President Jacques Chirac was elected to his second term in office in 2002. In the first round of the election, French voters had an array of choices on their ballots, ranging from Greens to Communists to various right-wing parties to two competing Trotskyist groups that each received well over 4% of the vote. In the runoff, this narrowed down to a dismal choice between the hated conservative incumbent and Jean Marie Le-Pen of the neofascist National Front. Many French leftists announced their intention to wear rubber gloves to the polling places to vote for Chirac.

Here in America, leftists argue every four years about third parties and ‘lesser evil’ voting and ‘tactical voting’ and the rest. A victory for Bernie Sanders would dramatically change the face of that debate. With Bernie and Hillary tied in Iowa, Bernie likely to win big in New Hampshire, and Hillary likely to win even bigger in South Carolina, it’s too soon be sure what will happen, but as things stand, the odds favor Hillary. Even if superdelegates didn’t exist, Wall Street’s favored candidate beating a self-described socialist who looks like Doc Brown from Back to the Future would be the least surprising political development of all time.

Certainly, on the Republican side, it’s far too early to know who will emerge from the clown car this summer, his lips smeared with the blood of all the other clowns he had to eat to get out of the car. What we can be sure of is that if Hillary is the Democratic nominee, the great majority of good-hearted progressive people will feel duty-bound to vote for her to keep Cruz or Trump or Rubio or Pennywise or whoever out of the Oval Office. It’s both understandable and depressing, because this is how the system works. Republicans trade on their base’s fears about Muslims and gays and gun-confiscating liberals to corral them to vote against their economic interests, and Democrats trade on their base’s fear of abortion-banning conservatives to corral them to vote against their economic interests. Wall Street cashes in either way. So do military contractors.

I voted for Jill Stein in 2012, and I’ll do so again as a matter of course if Hillary is nominated in 2016. I’m cautiously optimistic that a non-trivial fraction of those currently Feeling the Bern may do the same, just as a spillover effect from Ron Paul’s liberatarian-ish Presidential campaign in 2012 seems to have contributed to the unprecedented million votes received by Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson in the 2012 general election. I would argue that breaking the stranglehold of the two-party ‘duopoly’ on American politics is clearly in the interests of working people—not to mention the interests of all the people in the third world who live in fear of American bombs. As OACW union leader Tony Mazzocchi was fond of saying, “The bosses have two parties. We need one of our own.”

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that I’m wrong about all of that. Let’s assume, as liberal pundits uniformly insist, that it would be dangerously irresponsible to even consider voting for anyone but Hillary Clinton in the general election. Even granting that premise, why not vote for her with rubber gloves and open eyes?

Instead of emulating the French, scolding liberal commentators constantly tell us that the differences between Hillary and Bernie shouldn’t be “exaggerated.” They tell us that Hillary is a flawed but basically progressive candidate who shouldn’t be “demonized.” After all, she’s spent her “entire life” advocating on behalf of “women and girls.”

As Doug Henwood has pointed out, most of what Clinton did “for women and girls” as Secretary of State was to do photo-ops with women around the world wearing colorful ethnic garb. Indeed, it’s revealing that, when you dig beyond bumper sticker slogans like “advocacy on behalf of women and girls,” Clinton supporters rarely want to discuss the particulars of her record. The candidate herself frequently talks up the sheer number of miles she traveled as if this alone added up to some sort of praiseworthy political accomplishment. The fact is that the policies she flew around the world supporting were a disaster for poor people around the world, and especially for poor women.

During the early years of the Obama administration, the Haitian government tried to raise the minimum wage there to all of 61 cents an hour, which works out to about five dollars a day. (The minimum wage before the proposed increase was 22 cents.) Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2011 show that the sweatshops supplying Hanes and Levi-Strauss made a huge stink, and got the State Department involved to lobby the Haitian government against their plan to go to all the way up to 61 cents an hour. The U.S. State Department has a fairly massive level of sway in the deliberations of the Haitian government, considering the United States’ long history of meddling, backing coups, and even invading the country when governments there displease Uncle Sam. Nor is this ancient history from the Cold War. U.S. Marines removed the democratically elected President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 2004. So when the U.S. Embassy says jump, the Haitian government tends to ask how high. In this case, they ended up cutting the proposed minimum wage hike of 39 cents an hour all the way down to 9 cents. It might be worth thinking hard about the fact that the girls sewing your jeans have Hillary Clinton to thank for their current salary of 31 cents an hour next time a liberal scold tells you not to “demonize” Secretary Clinton.

Of course, Haitians are foreigners, and black foreigners at that, so maybe they don’t quite count. (After all, Hillary’s liberal supporters are willing to overlook that small matter of her support for the invasion of Iraq.) Perhaps, in evaluating her record, we should focus on her no-doubt glorious history of domestic progressivism.

Back in the mid-1980s, the Clintons and a lot of their friends founded something called the Democratic Leadership Council to move the Democratic Party back to “the center.” Throughout that decade, Ronald Reagan had led the Republicans in demonizing “welfare queens” allegedly ripping off vast sums from the hard-working taxpayers. The evidence for the claim that a non-trivial amount of money was being lost to welfare benefits being paid out to people who simply didn’t want to work was always pretty thin, but it hardly mattered. The racial subtext was powerful and it was thinly disguised, and Reagan’s skillful use of this rhetoric paid off in a big way for the GOP.

When the Democratic Leadership Council, which still claimed to be “socially progressive,” talked about moving “to the center” on economic issues, this is precisely the center they were talking about capturing. Bill Clinton made it explicit in 1992 with his campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.” Unlike quite a few of his other promises, he kept this one, signing away the end of federal welfare requirements in 1996. The impact of this “reform” on millions of desperate people was predictably grim, even for those who did manage to hold onto some kind of benefits so they could keep the heat on and make rent.

(Google “workfare” to see what this often looked like in practice. One of the options Google helpfully offers you when you type that word into the search engine is workfare is a form of slave labor.) With federal requirements abolished, the paltry funds made available for welfare were sent out as bloc grants to the states, where bloody-minded conservative state legislatures could have their way with the programs. In the years since “welfare reform” was passed, the percentage of Americans living in extreme poverty has greatly increased. As Ryan Cooper puts it, “Even after the worst economic crisis in 80 years, TANF has basically ceased to exist in much of the country. Eligibility requirements have gotten so onerous, and benefit levels so miserly, that many poor people haven’t even heard of the program, or think it was abolished.”

So, where was Hillary Clinton in all this? She was an enthusiastic supporter of her husband’s initiative, both in her role as an administration advisor and in her many public statements on the matter, including ones that she made after Bill’s Presidency ended and she was elected to the Senate. She called single mothers on benefits “deadbeats” and talked about them over and over again in the most offensively cliched terms, as people who knew nothing but “dependency” and had no inkling of the value of work. So, for example, using Ronald Reagan’s trademark rhetorical technique of a supposedly representative anecdote that sounds authoritative becomes it comes with a proper name, Clinton talked about a former welfare queen named Rhonda Costa. “Rhonda Costa’s daughter came home from school and announced, ‘Mommy, I’m tired of seeing you sitting around the house doing nothing.’ That’s the day Rhonda decided to get off welfare….”

Because it’s just that easy, right? These people are clearly on welfare because they don’t want to work, and any time they decide that they’d like a job, one will fall in their lap. It’s certainly not as if holes on resumes matter, or workfare requirements often prevent welfare recipients from being able to go to job interviews, or “structural unemployment” is a feature of market economies.

Matt Bruenig sums things up nicely:

For lifelong upper class pundits, these statements may not actually cause much feeling inside of them. But, as someone who actually grew up in and adjacent to the class of people being described here, I can tell you that these are really the height of anti-poor slurs. Under Clinton’s estimation, welfare beneficiaries are dignity-lacking dependent deadbeats who are such losers that even their own kids think they are trash. We don’t talk a lot about classism in the US (and frankly I don’t like the term), but that’s what this is. It is the class equivalent of calling women airhead bimbos.

Nor, of course, are the class and gender dimensions of all this entirely unrelated. Not so coincidentally, the picture of an allegedly typical welfare recipient you get from Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric on this—the “Rhonda Costa” of her anecdote—is a single mother.

As Bernie Sanders tried to keep the focus of this year’s Democratic debates on economics and his proposals to expand the welfare state, Hillary Clinton changed the subject as often as possible to guns. This is the one issue where the Secretary thought she had an opening to outflank Bernie Sanders on the “left,” on the grounds that Senator Sanders has sometimes been insufficiently enthusiastic about gun control.

It’s a complicated issue. On the one hand, the statistics about gun accidents, never mind gun crimes, are pretty grim. On the other hand, the fact that “stop and frisk” started as a program to go after illegal guns should make leftists who harbor concerns about police power and the carceral state think twice about bold new gun regulations are likely to play out. On a normal day, I’m not entirely sure what to think.

Today, after preparing to write this article by reviewing Secretary Clinton’s disgusting rhetoric about welfare mothers and reviewing the facts about workfare, benefit reductions, and the uptick in extreme poverty, I know exactly what to think. Guns should be confiscated from NRA members and redistributed to single mothers who have been kicked off of benefits. Lacking money from the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children program to help them keep the lights on and buy groceries for their kids, let’s give them the ability to procure groceries by other means.

Ben Burgis is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Underwood International College, Yonsei University.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/02/09/lesser-evil-voting-and-hillary-clintons-war-on-the-poor/

It Is Expensive to Be Poor

Minimum-wage jobs are physically demanding, have unpredictable schedules, and pay so meagerly that workers can’t save up enough to move on.

Binita Pradham is a single mother who runs a food business and raises her 4-year-old son. (Barbara Reis)

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson made a move that was unprecedented at the time and remains unmatched by succeeding administrations. He announced a War on Poverty, saying that its “chief weapons” would be “better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities.”

So starting in 1964 and for almost a decade, the federal government poured at least some of its resources in the direction they should have been going all along: toward those who were most in need. Longstanding programs like Head Start, Legal Services, and the Job Corps were created. Medicaid was established. Poverty among seniors was significantly reduced by improvements in Social Security.

Johnson seemed to have established the principle that it is the responsibility of government to intervene on behalf of the disadvantaged and deprived. But there was never enough money for the fight against poverty, and Johnson found himself increasingly distracted by another and deadlier war—the one in Vietnam. Although underfunded, the War on Poverty still managed to provoke an intense backlash from conservative intellectuals and politicians.

In their view, government programs could do nothing to help the poor because poverty arises from the twisted psychology of the poor themselves. By the Reagan era, it had become a cornerstone of conservative ideology that poverty is caused not by low wages or a lack of jobs and education, but by the bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles of the poor.

Picking up on this theory, pundits and politicians have bemoaned the character failings and bad habits of the poor for at least the past 50 years. In their view, the poor are shiftless, irresponsible, and prone to addiction. They have too many children and fail to get married. So if they suffer from grievous material deprivation, if they run out of money between paychecks, if they do not always have food on their tables—then they have no one to blame but themselves.

In the 1990s, with a bipartisan attack on welfare, this kind of prejudice against the poor took a drastically misogynistic turn. Poor single mothers were identified as a key link in what was called “the cycle of poverty.” By staying at home and collecting welfare, they set a toxic example for their children, who—important policymakers came to believe—would be better off being cared for by paid child care workers or even, as Newt Gingrich proposed, in orphanages.
Welfare “reform” was the answer, and it was intended not only to end financial support for imperiled families, but also to cure the self-induced “culture of poverty” that was supposedly at the root of their misery. The original welfare reform bill—a bill, it should be recalled, which was signed by President Bill Clinton—included an allocation of $100 million for “chastity training” for low-income women.

The Great Recession should have put the victim-blaming theory of poverty to rest. In the space of only a few months, millions of people entered the ranks of the officially poor—not only laid-off blue-collar workers, but also downsized tech workers, managers, lawyers, and other once-comfortable professionals. No one could accuse these “nouveau poor” Americans of having made bad choices or bad lifestyle decisions. They were educated, hardworking, and ambitious, and now they were also poor—applying for food stamps, showing up in shelters, lining up for entry-level jobs in retail. This would have been the moment for the pundits to finally admit the truth: Poverty is not a character failing or a lack of motivation. Poverty is a shortage of money.

For most women in poverty, in both good times and bad, the shortage of money arises largely from inadequate wages. When I worked on my book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, I took jobs as a waitress, nursing-home aide, hotel housekeeper, Wal-Mart associate, and a maid with a house-cleaning service. I did not choose these jobs because they were low-paying. I chose them because these are the entry-level jobs most readily available to women.

What I discovered is that in many ways, these jobs are a trap: They pay so little that you cannot accumulate even a couple of hundred dollars to help you make the transition to a better-paying job. They often give you no control over your work schedule, making it impossible to arrange for child care or take a second job. And in many of these jobs, even young women soon begin to experience the physical deterioration—especially knee and back problems—that can bring a painful end to their work life.
I was also dismayed to find that in some ways, it is actually more expensive to be poor than not poor. If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced. If you need a loan, as most poor people eventually do, you will end up paying an interest rate many times more than what a more affluent borrower would be charged. To be poor—especially with children to support and care for—is a perpetual high-wire act.

Most private-sector employers offer no sick days, and many will fire a person who misses a day of work, even to stay home with a sick child. A nonfunctioning car can also mean lost pay and sudden expenses. A broken headlight invites a ticket, plus a fine greater than the cost of a new headlight, and possible court costs. If a creditor decides to get nasty, a court summons may be issued, often leading to an arrest warrant. No amount of training in financial literacy can prepare someone for such exigencies—or make up for an income that is impossibly low to start with. Instead of treating low-wage mothers as the struggling heroines they are, our political culture still tends to view them as miscreants and contributors to the “cycle of poverty.”

If anything, the criminalization of poverty has accelerated since the recession, with growing numbers of states drug testing applicants for temporary assistance, imposing steep fines for school truancy, and imprisoning people for debt. Such measures constitute a cruel inversion of the Johnson-era principle that it is the responsibility of government to extend a helping hand to the poor. Sadly, this has become the means by which the wealthiest country in the world manages to remain complacent in the face of alarmingly high levels of poverty: by continuing to blame poverty not on the economy or inadequate social supports, but on the poor themselves.

It’s time to revive the notion of a collective national responsibility to the poorest among us, who are disproportionately women and especially women of color. Until that happens, we need to wake up to the fact that the underpaid women who clean our homes and offices, prepare and serve our meals, and care for our elderly—earning wages that do not provide enough to live on—are the true philanthropists of our society.