I have training as a philosopher, but I pay my bills through my employment at a Community Action Program, working with the homeless. Unsurprisingly, working on the practical side of a field in which one has lots of theoretical understanding can be as frustrating as it is rewarding. I certainly wouldn’t expect any of my coworkers to be able to summarize Rawls’ Difference Principle (let alone trace the connection between A Theory of Justice, Johnson’s Great Society, and the subsequent CAPs that were a result of the Economic Opportunity Act), but their lack of interest in foundational issues in economics, politics, and ethics sometimes shocks me. Recently, I had an especially polarizing experience with my co-workers when I was required to sit through the Bridges out of Poverty workshop, based upon the book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby Payne.
If you are not involved in social work, you may be unfamiliar with the work of Ruby Payne, which is primarily based upon anecdotal observations about the "hidden rules" of social class. Despite the fact that Dr. Payne’s "research" is widely dismissed even by sociologists for its lack of methodological rigor, the revelation that poor people have different attitudes about food from rich people appears to be profoundly enlightening to some people, at least if anecdotal observations of my co-workers is any in indication (maybe I should write a book). To be fair, the Bridges Out of Poverty program is well-intentioned, at least as far as I can tell. Though after a seven-hour workshop I was still unable to identify a single explicit foundational principle or specific directive, the implicit theme seemed to be that people in different classes see the world differently, and the general directive seemed to be that we should be sensitive to that fact in our work with the indigent.
The polarizing moment came when talk moved to values. After spending the better part of a morning listing less-than-revelatory observations about how poor people view violence, bedtimes, school performance, and other aspects of everyday life, the speaker cautioned us that these views were not good or bad and the program was only meant to inform us about the different ways in which people in different classes view the same issues. I raised my hand and commented that this seemed like a bit of an exaggeration. "Surely," I said, "we can appreciate that a person living in the inner city has reasons to fight or sell drugs, and we can still make a value judgment about why that behavior is bad." I was met with polite nods, but nobody seemed to appreciate that my comment was a subtle criticism of the myopic relativism of the program. I tried again after lunch. The speaker said explicitly that we were not there to make judgments about the values of the different classes, only to learn something by observing their differences. This time I was more explicit. "But, surely," I blurted out, "we all know that this program and the work that we do is biased toward the values of the middle class. I mean, we may understand why poor people don’t value education the way middle class people do, but we still make a judgment that education is valuable, and we push that value to our clients."
This time I was met with blank stares. Several of the other participants volunteered less-than-useful responses which belied the fact that they really didn’t understand my point. Each response was some version of, "But, poor people really do want the same things as middle class people, they just don’t have the tools/knowledge/resources to achieve those things!" After succeeding in annoying everyone in the room, I waited until break to take up the issue privately with the speaker who nodded sympathetically when I explained that debate about the empirical effectiveness of different means to the same end is not the same thing as a genuine difference of values. "Insofar as there is a genuine disagreement about values, I don’t think that any reconciliation is possible," I said, "But, don’t get me wrong. I think most people value similar things, which is why outreach programs are useful. We aren’t teaching people to value different things, we’re teaching them better means to their ends." Again, I was met with a blank stare, but, perhaps believing I agreed with her, she nodded and walked away.
As I tried to explain to my coworkers, my objection to the Bridges Out of Poverty program is not an objection to the implicit middle-class value judgments that give social work its motivating force. For the most part, I share the same values as my coworkers, and I share the intuition that most of the practices that we push through education and outreach are attractive to our clients precisely because they share those values as well. (Of course, this is another way of saying that I don’t really believe that class plays a major role in determining values in this first place.) My objection is to the absurd and contradictory combination of explicitly stated relativism and implicitly assumed objectivity that is pervasive in the work of Ruby Payne and the people who follow her. And, it maddens me that so many people in social work seem to miss this rather simple point: Either values are objective, or they are not. If values are objective, then they are not relative to class. Also, if values are objective, then there is a fact of the matter about how people should behave, and we absolutely can and should make judgments upon people who fail to promote objective values. If values are not objective, then it is silly to argue about them. The only discussion worth having is about which actions are more efficient means to the promotion of values, not about the values themselves.
Though I find the contradiction between explicit relativism and implicit value objectivity worrisome, I have a pretty good guess about why it is so pervasive in my field. On almost every level, education and outreach work is based upon the assumption that the poor have some control over their poverty. Political activists can organize strikes, mobilize voters, and publicly denounce economic policies that create and maintain class disparity. Social workers take on clients who have very few resources and try to improve their condition by giving them information alone. We may privately believe that poverty persists because of huge variation in the distribution of political and economic power which will never be altered by changes in individual behavior, but our job is to reassure people that they will be able to get out of poverty if they work hard, follow the rules, and take advantage of the meager resources provided by public welfare programs. Unfortunately, the belief that hard work and education will get you out of poverty implies that individuals who aren’t getting out of poverty are either not working hard enough or are ignorant about the resources available to them. It’s a hard truth, and nobody wants to admit it, but discussions about why different classes value different things are pointless. The discussion we need to have is about why different classes have different things. Community Action Programs like mine were founded upon a very simple, value-driven principle: Poverty is a bad thing. We don’t need a framework for understanding it. We need practical strategies for ending it.