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Mike Rowe: What politicians get wrong about poor people

Mike Rowe: What politicians get wrong about poor people

How the politicization of work ethic is failing

On the rare occasion Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame wanders into quasi-political discourse, he shares a perspective severely lacking in this overly-politicized world — common sense observation. Usually, these observations are served up via Rowe’s mail bag.

Sunday afternoon, Rowe responded to a message from Craig P.

Craig wrote:

Your constant harping on “work ethic” is growing tiresome. Just because someone’s poor doesn’t mean they’re lazy. The unemployed want to work! And many of those who can’t find work today, didn’t have the benefit of growing up with parents like yours. How can you expect someone with no role model to qualify for one of your scholarships or sign your silly “Sweat Pledge?” Rather than accusing people of not having a work-ethic, why not drop the right-wing propaganda and help them develop one?

Mr. P. makes several good points, namely — despite the oft interneted mantra, just because someone’s poor certainly doesn’t mean they’re lazy.

In response to Mr. P., Rowe pointed out what’s probably the single most productive observation I’ve seen on the matter (emphasis added):

Hi Craig, and Happy Sunday!
I’m afraid you’ve overestimated the reach of my foundation, as well as my ability to motivate people I’ve never met. For the record, I don’t believe all poor people are lazy, any more than I believe all rich people are greedy. But I can understand why so many do.

Everyday on the news, liberal pundits and politicians portray the wealthy as greedy, while conservative pundits and politicians portray the poor as lazy. Democrats have become so good at denouncing greed, Republicans now defend it. And Republicans are so good at condemning laziness, Democrats are now denying it even exists. It’s a never ending dance that gets more contorted by the day.

A few weeks ago in Georgetown, President Obama accused Fox News of “perpetuating a false narrative” by consistently calling poor people “lazy.” Fox News denied the President’s accusation, claiming to have only criticized policies, not people. Unfortunately for Fox, The Daily Show has apparently gained access to the Internet, and after a ten-second google-search and a few minutes in the edit bay, John Stewart was on the air with a devastating montage of Fox personnel referring to the unemployed as “sponges,” “leeches,” “freeloaders,” and “mooches.”

Let’s pause here for a moment. It’s simply fact that any society will always be plagued with a certain percentage of lazy people. There will always be those willing to kick back and relax, contented to let others do the back-breaking work in their stead. But are those few indicative of a whole? And should the greater whole be labelled as “sponges” and “leeches” because of a few proverbial bad apples? Will calling someone a “mooch” prompt sudden repentance for their freeloading ways? Probably not. But it does add to the noise, and it does provide ample fodder to argument that “Republicans don’t care about poor people.” Most importantly though, divisive, judgmental language makes no effort to solve a problem.

Over the next few days, the echo chamber got very noisy. The Left howled about the bias at Fox and condemned the one-percent, while the Right shrieked about the bias at MSNBC and bemoaned the growing entitlement state. But through all the howling and shrieking, no one said a word about the millions of jobs that American companies are struggling to fill right now. No one talked the fact that most of those jobs don’t require an expensive four-year degree. And no one mentioned the 1.2 trillion dollars of outstanding student loans, or the madness of lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back, educating them for jobs that no longer exist.

I started mikeroweWORKS to talk about these issues, and shine a light on a few million good jobs that no one seems excited about. But mostly, I wanted to remind people that real opportunity still exists for those individuals who are willing to work hard, learn a skill, and make a persuasive case for themselves. Sadly, you see my efforts as “right wing propaganda.” But why? Are our differences really political? Or is it something deeper? Something philosophical?

You wrote that, “people want to work.” In my travels, I’ve met a lot of hard-working individuals, and I’ve been singing their praises for the last 12 years. But I’ve seen nothing that would lead me to agree with your generalization. From what I’ve seen of the species, and what I know of myself, most people – given the choice – would prefer NOT to work. In fact, on Dirty Jobs, I saw Help Wanted signs in every state, even at the height of the recession. Is it possible you see the existence of so many unfilled jobs as a challenge to your basic understanding of what makes people tick?

Last week at a policy conference in Mackinac, I talked to several hiring managers from a few of the largest companies in Michigan. They all told me the same thing – the biggest under reported challenge in finding good help, (aside from the inability to “piss clean,”) is an overwhelming lack of “soft skills.” That’s a polite way of saying that many applicants don’t tuck their shirts in, or pull their pants up, or look you in the eye, or say things like “please” and “thank you.” This is not a Michigan problem – this is a national crisis. We’re churning out a generation of poorly educated people with no skill, no ambition, no guidance, and no realistic expectations of what it means to go to work.

These are the people you’re talking about Craig, and their number grows everyday. I understand you would like me to help them, but how? I’m not a mentor, and my foundation doesn’t do interventions. Do you really want me to stop rewarding individual work ethic, just because I don’t have the resources to assist those who don’t have any? If I’m unable to help everyone, do you really want me to help no one?

My goals are modest, and they’ll remain that way. I don’t focus on groups. I focus on individuals who are eager to do whatever it takes to get started. People willing to retool, retrain, and relocate. That doesn’t mean I have no empathy for those less motivated. It just means I’m more inclined to subsidize the cost of training for those who are. That shouldn’t be a partisan position, but if it is, I guess I’ll just have to live with it.

If there is a lesson here (and I’m prone to looking for a good truisim anywhere they might be burried) it’s that politicization of issues like work ethic and integrity has proved to be a failing strategy. Perhaps it’s time to ignore political boundaries and work to help those willing to help themselves.

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Freddie Sykes | June 8, 2015 at 10:17 am

Given that not two humans are alike, there are always exceptions to every rule. But the fact remain that the odds are stacked against children from communities like Baltimore where less than 20% of children live in an intact family. The city may spend / waste $180k per child on those who graduate high school but these kids need to be exceptionally motivated to overcome their environment.

You can blame society, the government or the parents for the situation but the only real hope these kids have is developing a work ethic on their own to succeed.

Keep harping, Mike: you actually may save a few of this lost generation.

Humphrey's Executor | June 8, 2015 at 10:35 am

And then there are the perverse incentives the welfare state provides for people not to work or to move up the ladder. As Milton Freedman said, they’re not lazy, they’re just making rational choices.

“an overwhelming lack of “soft skills.” That’s a polite way of saying that many applicants don’t tuck their shirts in, or pull their pants up, or look you in the eye, or say things like “please” and “thank you.””
a nice public/private partnership in SC has a job program that teaches people to be on time, dress right and talk right. Half the day is in class the other half in a minimum wage job provided be the local branch of a major manufacturer. They teach how to dress for work AND interviews. They do practice interviews to learn how to talk, behave and answer the questions.
It’s intended for people that have been out of the workforce awhile

    Anchovy in reply to genes. | June 8, 2015 at 11:34 am

    Oh come on now…. you are advocating a form of cultural genocide from an obvious perspective of white privilege. When our strength is derived from our diversity insisting on standard English instead of Ebonics derived street English or pants worn from the waist down instead of showing 4″ of underwear has to be counterproductive for any progressive employer.

    Why hire someone who has led such a sheltered life that they have no experience with police procedures, jail policies, and the general criminal justice system when you can hire individuals that have been students of the system since they were 13 years old? If a job applicant does not have at least three Department of Assigned Council attorneys setup on speed dial on their Obama phone, they simply don’t have enough diverse acquaintances with advanced degrees.

inspectorudy | June 8, 2015 at 11:37 am

By bringing up the “Soft skill” issue it becomes obvious that we have to go back to the root cause of this unemployable problem. The foundation for this problem and many more in our society come from the terrible “Great Society” that was forced on us by LBJ. That one single law has decimated the black and now Hispanic families with negative incentives. Until all people are given a helping hand but not an unlimited free lifestyle we will be fighting a losing battle. Since the mid 60’s we have turned out generation after generation of people who have no work ethic nor do they have any pride. They are now wards of the state and will remain so until they are forced to work for their food or sent to prison as an alternative carefree lifestyle. We have to stop the source of this failure and that is the welfare state.

    NC Mountain Girl in reply to inspectorudy. | June 8, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    It’s not limited to the urban underclass. There are a lot of middle class suburban high school graduates who lacked the self control to listen to the boss, follow orders, be nice to customers and zip the cute commentary.

    A year ago I asked one of them what value he brought to an employer that made it worthwhile for someone to hire him. This 18 year old did not understand the question. To him, a job was about self expression. He was also addicted social media. He had been fired from one job he had held because he couldn’t refrain from commenting about the customers; choices in toppings on their pizzas or saying things like he’d never eat the food there.

    He seemed to think he go would be able to go through life eating the electronic likes he had learned to crave.

    There were multiple causes. His divorced parents were too wrapped up in themselves to ever pay much attention to him. Of course he had been given ADHD medications and had a full course of special snowflake talk from shrinks and guidance counselors to improve his self esteem. He was visibly stunned when I told him that scientifically he was average, just average. “But, but, but I am unique! We are all unique!”

I don’t think poor people are lazy; they are either stupid AND/OR lazy.

When you’ve got enough money to not “piss clean” when you are out of work, your life’s choices and motivation are ripe for criticism.

    Ragspierre in reply to Andy. | June 8, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    That’s WAY too broad. I’ve been poor, and it wasn’t because I was either stupid or lazy.

    I expect a lot of working Americans experience a period of being “poor”, and by no fault of their own. As a matter of fact, right now there are millions of them.

    Now, I think that is by design from the very top of the Federal government. The middle class has been attacked successfully.

      Andy in reply to Ragspierre. | June 8, 2015 at 1:18 pm

      Operative word: “been” poor. Except for the trust fund kids whose parents and grandparents were poor at some point too, we’ve all “been” poor.

      You are not serially poor and that’s not the “poor” Rowe is talking about.

      -oh the other thing “poor” people of today is they LOVE to share the reasons of why they can’t get ahead; “Please validate my bad decisions and lack of ambition.” In the day of our grandparents… there was a great deal of shame in that.

        MouseTheLuckyDog in reply to Andy. | June 8, 2015 at 2:02 pm

        -oh the other thing “poor” people of today is they LOVE to share the reasons of why they can’t get ahead; “Please validate my bad decisions and lack of ambition.” In the day of our grandparents… there was a great deal of shame in that.

        No doubt there are a lot of people who “love to share the reasons of why they can’t get ahead”, but there are also a lot of people who tell you why they can’t get ahead because you tell them there is no reason they can’t get ahead.

        You can’t very well blame someone for responding to a point you make.

Midwest Rhino | June 8, 2015 at 11:40 am

” politicization of issues like work ethic and integrity has proved to be a failing strategy. Perhaps it’s time to ignore political boundaries and work to help those willing to help themselves.”

It’s a very successful strategy for Democrats. They give free stuff and say “it’s not your fault”. The collapse of Detroit or other inner cities is a direct result of such successful Democrat/Jesse/Sharpton politicization, replacing traditional work ethic with “it’s not your fault, here’s free stuff, whitey owes you” racism. They even call themselves Reverend, but subverted Christianity with racist/Marxist liberation theology.

But indeed for Republicans that insist on more self reliance, they are easily seen to be taking away the free stuff.

Rowe even concludes: “That doesn’t mean I have no empathy for those less motivated. It just means I’m more inclined to subsidize the cost of training for those who are. That shouldn’t be a partisan position, but if it is, I guess I’ll just have to live with it.”

Of course it is partisan … Democrats say “you didn’t build that”, or that the rich “won the lottery”. As black unemployment skyrockets, they import 30 million via open borders to “do the jobs Americans won’t do”. Democrats build the welfare state, buying those votes that get sucked into it.

And public unions ensure that lazy vindictive incompetents can never be fired, a sort of working welfare that rewards mediocre seniority over results oriented merit pay.

Since victimization is so successful, perhaps playing the victim would work for conservatives. The victim is the successful charter school that loses funding, the black kid honor student that gets shot by the gangs, the store owner that got shoved aside by Michael Brown, the good people in black neighborhoods that fear retribution if they talk to cops, the company that is closed by lawfare, etc.

Traditional America is being raped and brutalized by racists and PC bigots … we need to “go to the mattresses”. (that’s a comparison to fake rape mattress girl, not going to gang style warfare … )

healthguyfsu | June 8, 2015 at 12:43 pm

This story is not source-linked properly.

There’s also the unrealistic concept of what their skills, education and experience are worth in a competitive job market.

MouseTheLuckyDog | June 8, 2015 at 3:30 pm

In the next 20 years the US and the world will experience 50% to 80% unemployment!

This won’t be work ethic or bad economic policy. This will be more basic: The law of scarcity is a piece of shit!

This fact, like many others in our modern age, is being best demonstrated by desktop computers. For a long time the desktop computer market was going great. But about ten years ago it fell of a cliff. Why? Well people make a lot of assumptions based on the Chromebook/Tablet/Recession phase which hid the mechanics of the situation pretty well.

The fact is that the PC market for a long time was driven by improvements in computers, whatever you had was not good enough, so when your computers were approaching “beater” status, you replaced them bigger newer faster ones. Ten years ago, that stopped.The computers you had were good enough ( in fact many of the computing devices now are smaller then the big PCs of that time ). The point is that scarcity of desktop computing power vanished and it was no longer feasible to replace a working computer.

But in ten years fast food jobs will gone. We’ve talked about that here. Office maintenance will be gone, replaced by the “Office Roomba Mark III”. Uber drivers , who will replace taxi drivers, will be replaced by automated cars. Office workers aren’t immune, either.

Because it has been politicized, a lot of this is difficult to discuss without taking a side. So let me say that a lot of people who are not working are lazy, but a lot of people who are not working are very industrious. The OWS crowd is wrong about the “1%”, it’s more like the “0.01%” and guess what–most of them are Democrats!

To see the effect of all this let us look at two modern situations that in part came across because of the excessive number of qualified employees.

The first is the “2008 crisis”. It was basically cause by three things, The idea that your home is an “investment”. ( Nope your home is a palce to live. You will need one no matter how much it costs. ) The idea that everyone should own a home, and that everything should be done to get poor people into their own homes–even if they cannot in reality afford it. ( Getting people into their own homes is a good idea. It’s the “cannot afford it” that is the problem. ) The final is the end of the cold war and the cancellation of SSC.

Ok. I can hear the objections to the last point right now. here are the facts. The push to get people into their own homes, created a need for home loans that exceeded availability. The end of the cold war and the cancellation of SSC caused a glut of physicists who turned to academia for jobs. So what happened to the theoretical physicists in acadenia who lost their jobs? They became “quants”.

That’s right, these physicists started tweaking the whole housing loan market to squeeze out the last penny, without really understanding the risk of what they were doing. They didn’t make the collapse, but they turned the collaspe into one big supercollapse,

The second career is Attorney at Law, We’ve seen a glut of lawyers for a long time. The results is a lot of bottom feaders, doing frivolous law. One example is Prenda law. Another example are the patent trolls.

The point is that when you put on people to have jobs, but do not provide jobs, those people will ( en mass ) find jobs where they do a lot of damage to the system.

In sum let me state, I think the idea of people working is a good one. I think the idea of promoting “working is a good thing”, is a good idea.

However, I don’t think you gain anything by calling people lazy, when there is no work available. I also do not like the idea of creating make work for people, so that they have something to do because you cannot stand them not working. ( A lot of this is from unnecessary government regulation. )

NC Mountain Girl | June 8, 2015 at 3:36 pm

I have found there tends to be a lack of imagination among many on the right when it comes to understanding the inner cities. Many inner city residents live in fear. Ironically, the people who are most likely to threaten them are the very same government bureaucrats who work so hard to demonize Republicans each election cycle. A lot urban votes know those bureaucrats are false friends, but the bureaucrats hold too many tools with which to intimidate and punish.

I have seen a lot of underground economic activity in inner cities that would be perfectly legal if it wasn’t for an overreaching local government. Illegal cabs, unlicensed beauty parlors, informal daycare arrangements, the permanent yard sales the backyard smoker that seems to be cooking barbecue every weekend. But get to big and the regulators will either shut you down or bleed you dry.

Then there is the heavy handed ways the Democrat political machines get out the vote. People who live in cities like Chicago and Detroit are not likely to think how they vote is secret. They also see that people like the minister who supported the Republican over the Democrat in last year’s Illinois governor’s election get their churches burglarized and have to send families into hiding. The odds are far higher those were unionized city workers doing that mischief than welfare mothers. So they go to the polls and vote as they are told to vote, much like Soviet voters used to do.

Henry Hawkins | June 8, 2015 at 4:28 pm

“How the politicization of work ethic is failing…”

Whenever something is ‘politicized’, it isn’t with the goal of making that thing successful. The goal is use (politicize) that thing in such a way as to make it politically beneficial to the one(s) doing the using. They couldn’t care less about the ‘thing’ itself, whether it’s work ethic, personal responsibility, the Boy Scouts, whatever, i.e., the politicization of anything will end up a failure. It’s a given; it needn’t be said.

Back when I was in college, my parents moved to south Florida so I followed them to keep paying in-state tuition. When I arrived, it was at the height of a recession. Since the unemployment rate among people 16-25 was near 30%, I was told that no jobs were available. Period. Within 24 hours of arriving, I had two job offers. Sure, they were minimum wage, but what other kind of job was I qualified for? I took both job and continued to work them until I graduated from college two years later with no debt (and I carried a full load while majoring in Chemistry). It was not fun by any stretch of the imagination, but it had to be done so I did it. Now my beliefs are highly colored by this experience.
Are all poor people lazy? Absolutely not. But when I hear people complain about no jobs being available while standing in front of a McDonald’s that has a help wanted sign out front, then you begin to wonder. I firmly believe that we have transitioned from the “Me Generation” to the “Gimme Generation” and are now in the “It’s not my fault Generation”. The teeming ignorant masses seem now to think that sagging your pants, not being on time, not being able to follow directions, arguing with the boss at every turn, demanding to be in charge because you know more than everyone else, lying, stealing, and disrespecting customers are necessary job skills. Unfortunately, they are just so smart and know so much that you cannot teach them otherwise. Because of their attitude, they have become untrainable, but none of this is their fault. (sarcasm)