Why the Poor Don't Work, According to the Poor

Few say it's because they can't find jobs. But is that a reason to take away their food stamps?

Conservative Republicans have officially made it their mission to end food stamps as we know them. Such was evident last week, when the House GOP voted to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps are now known, by $39 billion over a decade and begin bulking up its work requirements, along the lines of welfare reform in the 1990s. 

Whether you believe this a good or humane idea probably boils down to your take on a single question: why don't the poor, who make up the overwhelming majority of food stamp recipients, go to work? In 2012, more than 26 million 18-to-64-year-old adults lived under the poverty line; about 15 million of them didn't have a job during the year. Is the economy to blame? Or are personal choices at fault? 

If you're a liberal, your answer is probably pretty cut and dry, and these days likely involves the word "recession." But conservatives tend to take a different view. They argue that whereas unemployment among middle class families rises and falls with the health of the job market, poverty is shaped and fueled mostly by cultural forces, that the poor could work if they wanted, and that the safety net lulls them into indolence. One of their key data points on this front comes from the Census. Each year, the bureau asks jobless Americans why it is they've been out of work. And traditionally, a only a small percentage of impoverished adults actually say it's because they can't find employment, a point that New York University professor Lawrence Mead, one of the intellectual architects of welfare reform, made to Congress in recent testimony

In 2007, for instance, 6.4 percent of adults who lived under the poverty line and didn't work in the past year said it was because they couldn't find a job. As of 2012, the figure had more than doubled to a still-small 13.5 percent. By comparison, more than a quarter said they stayed home for family reasons and more than 30 percent cited a disability. 

As you might expect, the are some big differences between the genders on this front. Women are far more likely than men to cite family. Men are more likely to cite their inability to find a job.  

To me, these are the sorts of numbers that raise more questions than they answer. Are women staying home because they prefer to be mothers, or because they can't find jobs that pay enough to make working a financially viable choice, once the cost of family care is factored in? Are youngish retirees really choosing to leave the workforce early, or are they cashing in their social security benefits prematurely because they're out of other options? Of the 1.2 million adult men who said they couldn't hunt down work, how many really couldn't find any job, and how many couldn't find a job they wanted? Of the millions of apparently impoverished college students in the country, how many are essentially living on loans or their Pell Grants? You get the idea. 

If you do choose to take the Census figures at face value, though, I think there are a couple of lessons. First, the recession changed poverty to some extent. More of the non-working poor claim they cannot find a job than at any point in the past two decades. Given that there are three unemployed Americans for every job opening, that shouldn't be much of a surprise. Second, the poor who choose not to work aren't necessarily doing so out of laziness, but because they have other obligations: they're trying to take care of relatives, they're ill, or they're attempting to make their way through school.

And taking away their meal tickets won't fix any of those problems. 


Americans 18 to 64 who lived under the poverty line in 2012 and did not work during the year, by reason for not working (U.S. Census, in thousands)

Year Total Ill or Disabled Retired Home or Family Reasons Could Not Find Work School or Other
1994 9738 3027 660 3379 851 1820
1995 9398 2799 589 3363 810 1837
1996 9526 2983 669 3364 716 1794
1997 9116 3128 639 2932 732 1684
1998 8,914 3,019 760 2,703 582 1,850
1999 8,333 2,813 786 2,476 420 1839
2000 8,221 2,866 897 2,446 432 1580
2001 9,588 3,291 1,011 2,806 557 1,923
2002 10,253 3,269 1,085 2,951 793 2155
2003 10,951 3,618 971 3,106 867 2390
2004 11,510 3,716 1,147 3,386 847 2,415
2005 11,450 3,750 1,058 3,563 671 2,407
2006 11,385 4,003 1,048 3,312 619 2403
2007 11,627 4,035 1,103 3,281 747 2,461
2008 12,365 4,225 1,175 3,317 1,177 2,470
2009 14,291 4,336 1,065 3,726 2,200 2,964
2010 16,037 4,764 1,201 4,136 2,382 3,552
2011 16,147 4,917 1,352 4,034 2,352 3,492
2012 15,825 4,908 1,312 4,074 2,132 3,399
Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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