Liberals and class: part III

Posted: Jun 12, 2005 12:00 AM

Sometimes it seems as if liberals have a genius for producing an unending stream of ideas that are counterproductive for the poor, whom they claim to be helping. Few of these notions are more counterproductive than the idea of "menial work" or "dead-end jobs."

 Think about it: Why do employers pay people to do "menial" work? Because the work has to be done. What useful purpose is served by stigmatizing work that someone is going to have to do anyway?

 Is emptying bed pans in a hospital menial work? What would happen if bed pans didn't get emptied? Let people stop emptying bed pans for a month and there would be bigger problems than if sociologists stopped working for a year.

 Having someone who can come into a home to clean and cook and do minor chores around the house can be a godsend to someone who is an invalid or who is suffering the infirmities of age -- and who does not want to be put into an institution. Someone who can be trusted to take care of small children is likewise a treasure.

 Many people who do these kinds of jobs do not have the education, skills or experience to do more complex kinds of work. Yet they can make a real contribution to society while earning money that keeps them off welfare.

 Many low-level jobs are called "dead-end jobs" by liberal intellectuals because these jobs have no promotions ladder. But it is superficial beyond words to say that this means that people in such jobs have no prospect of rising economically.

 Many people at all levels of society, including the richest, have at some point or other worked at jobs that had no promotions ladder, so-called "dead-end jobs." The founder of the NBC network began work as a teenager hawking newspapers on the streets. Billionaire Ross Perot began with a paper route.

 You don't get promoted from such jobs. You use the experience, initiative, and discipline that you develop in such work to move on to something else that may be wholly different. People who start out flipping hamburgers at McDonald's seldom stay there for a full year, much less for life.

 Dead-end jobs are the kinds of jobs I have had all my life. But, even though I started out delivering groceries in Harlem, I don't deliver groceries there any more. I moved on to other jobs -- most of which have not had any promotions ladders.

 My only official promotion in more than half a century of working was from associate professor to full professor at UCLA. But that was really just a pay increase, rather than a real promotion, because associate professors and full professors do the same work.

 Notions of menial jobs and dead-end jobs may be just shallow misconceptions among the intelligentsia but they are a deadly counterproductive message to the poor. Refusing to get on the bottom rung of the ladder usually means losing your chance to move up the ladder.

 Welfare can give you money but it cannot give you job experience that will move you ahead economically. Selling drugs on the streets can get you more money than welfare but it cannot give you experience that you can put on a job application.  And if you decide to sell drugs all your life, that life can be very short.

 Back around the time of the First World War, a young black man named Paul Williams studied architecture and then accepted a job as an office boy at an architectural firm. He agreed to work for no pay, though after he showed up the company decided to pay him something, after all.

 What they paid him would probably be dismissed today as "chump change." But what Paul Williams wanted from that company was knowledge and experience, more so than money.

 He went on to create his own architectural company, designing everything from churches and banks to mansions for movie stars -- and contributing to the design of the theme building at Los Angeles International Airport.

 The real chumps are those who refuse to start at the bottom for "chump change." Liberals who encourage such attitudes may think of themselves as friends of the poor but they do more harm than enemies.