The Working Poor: When a Job is a Chore

TPOHStaff

Too few poor Americans work. That may seem obvious, but maybe the reason is not.

The most common explanations given by nonworking, poor adults for why they aren’t employed are family and home responsibilities and disability and illness, not inability to find a job.

The full-time working poor make up only 17 percent of the 46.7 million Americans in poverty in 2014. Meantime, most working-age adults in poverty — 61.7 percent — did not work at all in 2014.

Work is a central part of the American dream. Steady employment supplies income to households, provides opportunities to move up the income ladder, and minimizes the risk of being in poverty. Only 3 percent of adults who work full-time, year-round live in poverty.

More importantly, work is often a source of dignity and purpose and is an important way in which everyone can contribute to society.

While working for pay is something that enables families to thrive and fosters a sense of pride, labor economist Angela Rachidi asserted that “labor force participation rates among prime-age workers have declined over the past two decades, suggesting that America is facing a work problem.”

If not working is a choice, then it may be of little concern to public policy. But when a lack of employment leads to poverty, it raises important questions about the role for government. In many ways, government can make poverty less painful through income transfers, but the important question is whether government can encourage those who are not employed to work and provide for themselves. …
Notably, fewer than 10 percent of nonworkers in poverty reported inability to find work as their reason for not working. This suggests that current economic and workforce development policies, which primarily focus on people already working or looking for work, have limitations. With over 60 percent of poor working-age people not working at all, public policies aimed at increasing work may have stronger effects than these other policies.”

Rachidi looked at people in poverty as described by the federal government’s definition as well as the supplemental poverty measure, which includes government benefits in determining a poor person’s income.

“Ultimately,” she wrote, “the results related to work and nonwork for people in poverty according to both measures were similar, and the conclusions were the same.”

Rachidi suggested that anti-poverty efforts may have to focus on the larger variables that drive people from the workplace, including health issues and family responsibilities, as well as disincentives to work, like those seen in disability insurance programs, which TPOH has previously noted.

Otherwise, Rachidi said, “we can either accept the status quo, which would mean leaving millions of Americans in poverty, or continue funding large government programs that transfer income from working taxpayers to the nonworking poor.”

Neither of these seems like a good option.

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