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Pissed Off At: Lawrence Mead

February 6, 2012

My original idea in starting this blog was to have a more constructive outlet than yelling at the newspaper or TV screen for the all-too-frequent times when the prejudice, corruption and/or plain heartlessness I find in the news makes me want to punch someone.  Then the Occupy movement started, and I got involved with that, and even though our society’s still plenty fucked up, I became less angry.  But today I found myself yelling at the TV screen again.

On this PBS Newshour segment, Lawrence Mead is one of three commentators discussing the problem of poverty in America.  He says that poverty is

not primarily due to unemployment or inequality.

Those are concerns that affect the bulk of the population and they affect some poor people. Poverty has grown largely due to economic conditions, but it doesn’t follow that most of poverty is due to the economy. That’s really not true. Most poor adults are outside the economy.

They’re simply detached. And they don’t say that the fact that they’re not working is due to the fact that they can’t find a job. That’s seldom the case. It’s usually other factors in their private lives that make it difficult for them to work.  […]  Jobs are usually available. The main problem is to mobilize people to actually get up and work regularly.

Or, in short: the poor are poor because they’re too lazy to go out and get a job.


According to the U.S. Census, in 2009:

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people in the workforce 27 weeks or more grew 30 percent from 1987-2009, but the number in the workforce 27 weeks or more living in poverty grew 65.3 percent:

(Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Annual Social and Economic Supplement, Current Population Survey.  Graphics from What Went Wrong: A Betrayal of the American Dream, a project of the Investigative Reporting Workshop.)

I’m providing the statistics because they show just how horrifying the problem of working poverty has become in the United States.  But I already knew from my personal experience that having a job wasn’t a guarantee of anything.  I knew this from my experience with contract employment, commission sales jobs, part-time and seasonal work, and jobs where the number of hours available depends on the amount of work available, so you never know from week to week whether you’ll be working full-time, part-time or not at all.

I recognize that not everybody has had the experience of being a member of the working poor, but a guy brought in onto a major news show as an expert on poverty should at least know (and care about) the statistics.

How can PBS let this guy spew this poisonous crap with nobody on the show calling him on it?  The other two commentators don’t, including Angela Glover Blackwell, who seemed like someone who’d be able and willing to, given her impressive command of poverty statistics.  Maybe they have a setup where they only hear the questions directed towards them, and don’t get to hear what their fellow commentators are saying?  But the anchor/moderator doesn’t have that excuse.  He could’ve either called Lawrence Mead on his BS or asked Angela Glover Blackwell to comment on it, but instead just stayed on the “how much are we talking about poverty” angle rather than, I don’t know, talking about it.

When I looked up who the guy was–PBS had just introduced him as an NYU professor–it all made sense.  Lawrence Mead is one of the main architects of “welfare reform” or “workfare” policy, whose entire premise is that the poor are lazy schmucks, and which seeks to solve this problem by forcing welfare recipients into jobs.  Whether these jobs are viable paths into the middle class or dead-end, low-wage McJobs does not seem to concern most advocates of welfare reform.

The most thorough examination of the results of his policies that I’ve been able to find is “Welfare Reform and Intergenerational Mobility”, a review of more than 100 studies of welfare reform commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project.  Its conclusion was that the program’s results were mixed, helping some single mothers while pushing others even deeper into poverty.  And the policies that increased household income were the ones that allowed mothers to remain eligible for welfare while working.

Which means that the kind of jobs people get through welfare reform are not enough to push them out of poverty on their own.

But the guy who literally wrote the book on welfare reform would have us believe poor people just need to “get up and work”.

Lawrence Mead’s contact info at NYU is here.  I encourage everybody to email him at with these or other statistics about the working poor, and accounts of personal experience with poverty if applicable.  I know it’s hard to restrain this impulse, but don’t send him any curse words or death threats.  If you go to NYU, I encourage you to protest this asshole any additional way you can think of.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2012 3:52 pm

    This is the email I sent Lawrence Mead at

    Subject: Next time you talk about poverty, talk about the working poor.

    I saw you participate in a panel discussion on poverty on PBS, and was shocked by your seemingly total ignorance of the plight of the working poor.

    [cut-and-paste of statistics from U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics]

    As someone with a good deal of experience working in jobs with low wages and variable hours, I know first-hand what it’s like to be working and living in poverty. To say, as you did, that “the main problem is to mobilize people to actually get up and work regularly” is both untrue and an insult to the many in this country who are working hard with little to show for it.


    Sarah Harper

  2. March 12, 2012 2:44 am

    UPDATE: Lawrence Mead replied to my email, and we did a bit of back-and-forth. I talked about the futility of telling people to just get to work if all they can find are crappy part-time jobs. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, about half of people working part-time are doing so for “economic reasons”:

    He replied that those issues are those that get on the agenda “once the poor are seriously seeking to work.”

  3. September 3, 2013 3:03 pm

    I’ve been on a panel with him. There’s no end to the head-banging frustration. Sorry I just saw this, but I’ve been looking him up for an article I’m writing in part to see how much money he’s gotten over the years from right-wing foundations and think-tanks to spew his poison.

    *btw, I started to blog (see below) but stopped for lack of time…maybe will start again.

    • March 25, 2014 4:08 am

      Larry Mead is so wonderfully informative while the name calling John Krinsky is a little man with no substance….How much do you make little fella ? Does Soros grease your left wing wheels…Hard to find a Professor with Dr. Mead’s credentials that is always spot on right !

      • March 25, 2014 6:08 pm

        I really shouldn’t be getting into flame wars in the comments, but…

        I’ve got a good secure full-time job now, with good pay. But when I wrote that post, I was working at a phone survey place where they had a nasty habit of cancelling shifts–you’d show up for 6pm-12am and be sent home at 9pm because everybody had just been too efficient at their jobs that day. As for John Krinsky, he’s either a tenure/tenure-track professor with a nice middle-class salary, or stuck in part-time adjunct hell.

        The thing is, when you look around and the only jobs you see around you are part-time low-wage crap, it can become real tempting to just say, “fuck it”. Welfare reform can force people to stay in these crappy jobs longer than they would otherwise, but that doesn’t solve the problem of poverty, it just turns non-working poor people into working poor people. To solve the problem, you need to either ensure full employment with every job paying a living wage (unions help with this), or give people a basic guaranteed income not tied to having a job, a la Alaska.

        Oh, and if by “grease your left wing wheels” you mean does Soros pay people to do left-wing blogging, all I can say is, I WISH.

  4. High School Student permalink
    May 9, 2017 6:13 pm

    I am a high school student, andI have recently stumbled upon your blog, and I find it a little harsh. I understand that you are frustrated and may not agree with his opinion, and I respect that you would like to respond; however, I do not think you handled your disagreement to Lawerence’s opinion in the most effective way. I do not think you have the right to make accusations about Lawerence’s life, and his family. For you to say that his family has the “far right money,” is unnecessary. You do not have any proof as to what his life is like, and the audacity that you have to call him an asshole is disrespectful. Do you know anything about his life? I did not think so. All you know is what the media portrays, and personally I find this blog to be ineffective. I do not think that you should have taken what was said personally because it was clearly not directed towards just you. You may disagree with what was said; however, the way that you expressed your opinion was unnecessary. Next time you think about criticizing someone try and consider what their life may be like.

    • May 9, 2017 9:15 pm

      Confused by this comment…yeah, I called Lawrence Mead an asshole in my post, but I never mentioned his family or where he gets his money from. I don’t know or care about either, what I addressed was his blame-the-victim ideas about poverty, which don’t address whether the jobs people are getting actually pay enough to live on. I’m thinking this comment might be a robo-comment, although I hope I’m wrong.

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