Jason DeParle's front-page story in the New York Times on Sunday, "Two Classes in America, Divided by 'I Do'," is another instance of his important work covering American poverty over the years. Putting a human face on the story is one of his strengths, and he did that yet again with his picture of the differing experiences of two mothers, one married and the other not. The point for those who didn't see it was that the differences between children having two parents in the home and those with just one go well beyond income possibilities. The money matters a lot, but a caring dad combined with the money add up to effect the experiences children have as they grow up. Harvard's Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) is finding the same thing in his latest research on class and mobility.
DeParle focused particularly on dramatizing the time dimension of what it means to be a single parent (usually a woman) with a low-income job. Her income translates into constricted time and capacity to enrich her children's childhoods as well as coping with phenomenal stress as she tries to manage everything by herself.
So one part of the story is time. The other part is, of course, money. Jessica, the single mom in the piece, is one of tens of millions in the same boat -- just one of the huge number of people stuck in the low-wage morass. Jessica does have some help from good public policy, as do many others. Jessica and her three children receive the Earned Income Tax Credit (or EITC), which reaches 27 million adults plus their children, and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), which reaches many of the same people. She also receives food stamps, which now reach 46 million people. In all, although DeParle doesn't total it up, she gets help worth perhaps $10,000 on top of her $25,000 annual income. We've done quite a bit for low-wage workers, although not nearly enough (and, by contrast, we've decimated the safety net of cash assistance for women with children who don't have a job and have exhausted or never qualified for unemployment compensation).
Jessica is not poor as we define that word in the United States. Her wages get her just beyond the poverty level, which is $23,000 a year now for a family of four -- try to live on that in most of the country. And close to a quarter of all jobs in the country pay less than Jessica makes. The income supplements bring her income to about 50 percent above the poverty line and make life navigable, although just barely.
So what is happening in our politics? Wide recognition that we are providing needed help? No. The Republican response is an attack on the "new welfare" of food stamps and the EITC and the CTC. There is something very wrong when more than half of the House of Representatives wants no more taxes on the wealthiest people, even to return just to the tax levels we had before 2001, and favors slashing food stamps and other programs that ease the struggle of low-wage workers.
Jessica is getting help she needs. The debate should be about how we get child care to everyone who needs help with it, paid parental leave, assured child support and a decent system of income assistance in all other respects.