The University of Wisconsin has long been home to an Institute for Research on Poverty.  New graduate students arriving without financial aid would hear the wisecrack, "Talk to the poverty people.  They have lots of money."  The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel profiles Timothy Smeeding, a Wisconsin Ph.D. a few years before mine, who currently directs the Institute.

Ronald Reagan or Paul Ryan notwithstanding, it's not exactly the case that poverty won.
Smeeding has a more nuanced view.

"It's not exactly a war that we lost (or that) we fought the war on poverty and poverty won," he said. "It's that the economy has turned against less-skilled people and people at the bottom of the barrel socially. Those people are having a harder time."

"The answer is jobs, but we don't have enough jobs, especially for them," he added. "The jobs we're creating are part-time service-sector jobs that don't pay enough. So we have these programs, food stamps or SNAP, the earned income credit, and they are really saving people's bacon. They're keeping the poverty rate far below (what it) would have been."
There is, in fact, a complicated research question lurking in that response. Goods at Wal-Mart are cheaper, food at McDonald's is cheaper, parking is cheaper because labor is cheaper. What are the distributional or tax incidence consequences?  Get back to me in ten years with your answer.
Smeeding is from Buffalo, N.Y., the oldest in a family of five. His dad was a union carpenter. His mother was a homemaker. He said he grew up in a neighborhood of "cops, firemen, Irish Catholic people."

One of his neighbors was Tim Russert, the late broadcast journalist. Smeeding attended Canisius High School and credits the teachers there for most everything he has ever done.

"Otherwise, I'd still be in south Buffalo with my buddies," he said.

As a kid, he held various jobs, including delivering newspapers, working at a hardware store and a supermarket. Before becoming an academic, he delivered mail, worked on the railroad and tended bar in Detroit.

He spent six months at General Motors Institute, the forerunner of Kettering University, intending to be an engineer. But he didn't like it.

Eventually, he found his way back to Buffalo and earned an undergraduate degree in economics at Canisius College. After a year in a master's program in economics at the University of Connecticut, he came to study at Madison in 1971, starting as a summer research assistant in the Institute for Research on Poverty.

Robert Haveman, who directed the poverty institute in the early 1970s, oversaw Smeeding's doctoral research. Haveman recalled that Smeeding, a big man with a striking voice, could be heard long before he arrived for a meeting as he stopped and chatted with colleagues.
There's that "talk to the poverty people" at work.

But back up ... Canisius High and Canisius College.  Not Buffalo's public schools.  Venue notwithstanding, it takes teachers who recognize the talent in their students.  They're less likely to recognize that talent in disruptive students.  And teachers burdened with disparate impact mandates that constrain their ability to discipline disruptive students are going to miss the Tims (Russert or Smeeding) among them.
Smeeding acknowledged that sometimes the research can get depressing, especially lately, because of the slack labor market.

"There are a lot of desperate people out there," he said.

The answer to poverty, he said, "is a good job for most able-bodied people."

The middle class is also getting squeezed he added. Kids who thought they might follow in the footsteps of their parents into factory jobs are hitting a dead end.

"I think Americans can tolerate a lot of inequality of outcome, but they want their kids to have a chance," Smeeding said.

"Americans also believe in equality of opportunity. And we don't have that now. The kid who starts at the bottom has a harder time — than when I was a kid — moving their way up. They're not going to follow my path, walk into a plant, a construction job and join the middle class."
Yes, recent skill biases in technical change have not favored a strong back and a weak mind.  Economics can take you a long way, but at the end, it's not money, it's mind-set.
Through his years of research, Smeeding said, he has "come to believe that work is an important value, an American value."

Smeeding added, "I've come to realize when I want to talk about helping poor people, it's better to talk about promoting economic independence and self-reliance, which is what we want in the end, rather than fighting poverty."

1 comment:

Dr. Tufte said...

Here's a chip-in from a Buffalo native (suburbs actually).

Canisius High School is not just a parochial high school that is better than the public schools in the city.

Canisius is the parochial high school at the top of (what was in Smeeding's time there a) huge parochial school system. It was absolutely competitive with the top private boy's high school in the city (Nichols) and better academically than the top girl's high school (Buffalo Seminary). It was certainly better than all but one city high school (Hutch Tech), and better than probably 90% of the suburban high schools.

So, Smeeding attended the sort of place where you're expected to excel in broader society.

FWIW: For suburban kids, like several of my friends, getting to Canisius each day involved a local school bus to a hub, and then another bus that went to several of the non-public schools in the city. This was over an hour each way, tacked onto the normal school day.