James Robinson of Detroit walked 21 miles a day back and forth to his hourly wage job, where he had chalked up a decade of perfect attendance. When Robinson's plight was reported in the press, his life quickly changed. An area dealership gave him a new, loaded Ford Taurus. Several people set up fundraising sites for him that yielded $360,000 in donations. Mr. Robinson finally called a halt to those efforts, saying that people should give their money to others in more need.
I'm glad that James Robinson is no longer struggling. I admire the many people who generously helped him. I would not wish one bit of the kindness that came his way to be undone. But I do wish that he had not been in need of so much kindness.
People responded to Robinson as an individual -- by all accounts a hard-working and big-hearted individual. But there were many large, social problems that had him leaving his house at 8 a.m. and returning at 4 a.m., just to put in a single day's work. Fixing those problems would have helped James Robinson - and a whole lot of other people in similar situations. So why can we summon compassion for individuals, while as a society we consistently fail to support policies that will combat poverty and the various miseries that go with it?
Item: Robinson's employer left urban Detroit for a suburb, making the commute much longer. That is a common problem. According to the Brookings Institute, the number of jobs close to residents living within a major metro declined by 7 percent from 2000 to 2012. Minority residents were most likely to live in areas where there was job loss. And in high poverty, predominately minority neighborhoods, the loss most extreme.
Item: There was no public transportation between this home and job. "While transportation alone is unlikely to lift people out of poverty, it is also hard to imagine that we could to lift people out of poverty without transportation," according to Joshua L. Schank of The Eno Center for Transportation. But access to good public transportation is far from universal, which is a real barrier to employment for people who cannot afford a car. The suburban community where Robinson's job relocated had opted out of a regional bus service.
Item: A long-time employee with an excellent record, James Robinson was making just over $10 an hour. Inflation adjusted wages in the United States have been stagnant for five years. Though unemployment is declining, many Americans have given up and left the workforce, while others are working part-time - whether they want to or not. So the climate is definitely more favorable for employers than employees.
It's great that people were moved to help James Robinson. It would be greater still if we found ways to help people in neighborhoods like his get decent jobs. That would include things like improving public transportation and knocking down housing barriers that keep workers from following jobs to the suburbs. Finally, we need to make sure that anybody who puts in a full day's work makes enough to support a family. Robinson is single, but his pay could still not be stretched to get him a reliable car.
James Robinson is not only a contradiction of many stereotypes about poor people; he is simply a remarkable human being - more hard-working and stoic than most of us will ever dream of being. Maybe that's what makes me uncomfortable with this overwhelmingly positive story. An exceptional person got extraordinary attention and help. In a just world, an average, hard-working person would be able to climb out of adversity without an extraordinary intervention.
We should all be working toward a world with fewer Cinderella stories - and a lot more happy endings.