Why Is There Even a Debate about Trying to Help the Poor?

The New York Times Magazine had a wonderful, but at the same time depressing, story about what it’s like to be poor in the United States today. Written by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Matthew Desmond, the article offers insight into world of poverty, and provides evidence and sound reasoning as what is the best way help the poor.

The story focuses on one single mother of three children Vanessa,  and her struggles to make ends meet. Rather than try to rewrite the words of a Pulitzer Prize winning author, I thought it would be best to just share some statistics from the story.

  • These days, we’re told that the American economy is strong. Unemployment is down, the Dow Jones industrial average is north of 25,000 and millions of jobs are going unfilled. But for people like Vanessa, the question is not, Can I land a job? (The answer is almost certainly, Yes, you can.) Instead the question is, What kinds of jobs are available to people without much education? By and large, the answer is: jobs that do not pay enough to live on.
  • Since 1973, American productivity has increased by 77 percent, while hourly pay has grown by only 12 percent. If the federal minimum wage tracked productivity, it would be more than $20 an hour, not today’s poverty wage of $7.25. American workers are being shut out of the profits they are helping to generate. The decline of unions is a big reason. During the 20th century, inequality in America decreased when unionization increased…
  • It’s not that safety-net programs don’t help; on the contrary, they lift millions of families above the poverty line each year. But one of the most effective antipoverty solutions is a decent-paying job, and those have become scarce for people like Vanessa. Today, 41.7 million laborers — nearly a third of the American work force — earn less than $12 an hour, and almost none of their employers offer health insurance.
  • Because large companies now farm out many positions to independent contractors, those who buff the floors at Microsoft or wash the sheets at the Sheraton typically are not employed by Microsoft or Sheraton, thwarting any hope of advancing within the company. Plus, working harder and longer often isn’t even an option for those at the mercy of an unpredictable schedule. Nearly 40 percent of full-time hourly workers know their work schedules just a week or less in advance.
  • The nation’s safety net now strongly favors the employed, with benefits like the earned-income tax credit, a once-a-year cash boost that applies only to people who work.

The following paragraph was particularly tough to read, since it highlights the prevailing, and past, attitudes of many about the poor:

  • In America, if you work hard, you will succeed. So those who do not succeed have not worked hard. It’s an idea found deep in the marrow of the nation. William Byrd, an 18th-century Virginia planter, wrote of poor men who were “intolerable lazy” and “Sloathful in everything but getting of Children.” Thomas Jefferson advocated confinement in poorhouses for vagabonds who “waste their time in idle and dissolute courses.” Leap into the 20th century, and there’s Barry Goldwater saying that Americans with little education exhibit “low intelligence or low ambition” and Ronald Reagan disparaging “welfare queens.” In 2004, Bill O’Reilly said of poor people: “You gotta look people in the eye and tell ’em they’re irresponsible and lazy,” and then continued, “Because that’s what poverty is, ladies and gentlemen.”
  • Americans often assume that the poor do not work. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, nearly two-thirds of respondents did not think most poor people held a steady job; in reality, that year a majority of nondisabled working-age adults were part of the labor force. Slightly over one-third of respondents in the survey believed that most welfare recipients would prefer to stay on welfare rather than earn a living. These sorts of assumptions about the poor are an American phenomenon. When Americans see a homeless man cocooned in blankets, we often wonder how he failed. When the French see the same man, they wonder how the state failed him.
  • When it comes to poverty, a willingness to work is not the problem, and work itself is no longer the solution.
  • Without guaranteed cash assistance for the most needy, extreme poverty in America surged. The number of Americans living on only $2 or less per person per day has more than doubled since welfare reform.
  • If all states instated Medicaid work requirements similar to that of Arkansas, as many as four million Americans could lose their health insurance.
  • The Congressional Budget Office estimates that work requirements could deny 1.2 million people a benefit (SNAP) that they use to eat.
  • A 1988 review in Science concluded that “the welfare system does not foster reliance on welfare so much as it acts as insurance against temporary misfortune.”
  • The nonworking poor person getting something for nothing is a lot like the cheat committing voter fraud: pariahs who loom far larger in the American imagination than in real life.
  • During the early days of welfare reform, some local authorities thought up useless jobs for single mothers receiving the benefit. In one outrageous case, recipients were made to sort small plastic toys into different colors, only to have their supervisor end the day by mixing everything up, so the work could start anew the next morning. This was thought more important than keeping children safe and fed.
  • Ask us why the poor are poor, and we have a response quick at the ready, grasping for this palliative of explanation – the poor are lazy
  • How can a country with such a high poverty rate — higher than those in Latvia, Greece, Poland, Ireland and all other member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (except for Israel) — lay claim to being the greatest on earth?
  • Safety-net programs that help families confront food insecurity, housing unaffordability and unemployment spells lift tens of millions of people above the poverty line each year. Effective social-mobility programs should be championed, expanded and stripped of draconian work requirements.

Demond concludes by stating that we need a new language for talking about poverty. “Nobody who works should be poor,” we say. That’s not good enough. Nobody in America should be poor, period.

Sobering stats indeed.

While safety net programs are key, I think the biggest change needed is a change in mindset.

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. 

Let me  tell you about the poor. They aren’t different from us at all. They just need our help.

4 thoughts on “Why Is There Even a Debate about Trying to Help the Poor?

  1. Hi Jim,

    One of the problems with helping the poor in the USA is that programs to help the poor are often widely abused. Illinois found that half the people on Medicaid were not eligible for Medicaid, often those illegally receiving long-term nursing care. The Social Security Disability Program is also widely abused by scammers.

    There are over 49 million families receiving food stamps when there are not 49 million families below the poverty line. Among the most notorious USA scams are parents living together unmarried just for food stamps, child welfare, and Medicaid.

    Probably the most notorious abuse is in the underground (unreported cash economy) that USA Today estimated to be over $2 trillion per year. The woman (Laura) and her mother who spent a half day per week cleaning our house in San Antonio had an underground economy unreported income of well over $70,000 per year while Laura lived with the father (an undocumented immigrant roofer) of her children and had food stamps, child welfare, and Medicaid. Between them they owned three cars that were all newer than my two cars.

    The NYT never reports the scams, only the probably-true sob stories. The easiest fraud in the USA is to scam the poverty safety nets.


    1. Hi Bob,

      I am sure there is fraud in the welfare system; just like there is fraud in corporate America That doesn’t make it right, but it doesn’t mean we should penalize or vilify the poor for the actions of a few. And the stats I found (https://www.quora.com/How-much-welfare-fraud-is-there-really) show that it is not nearly as widespread as you state. And in many cases, the ones perpetrating the fraud, particularly with Medicare and Medicaid seem to be health care professionals, not just the poor. I’m willing to live with a little bit of fraud in welfare programs if overall it means that the people who need help are getting it. Just like I’m happy to support capitalism, despite the crimes of some top executives.


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