The 'Too Good' Life

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In an interview with Politico earlier this week, the Senate majority leader made his views on America’s labor market plain:

Asked about the improving economy, McConnell scoffed: Business leaders tell him they have “a hard time finding people to do the work because they’re doing too good with food stamps, Social Security and all the rest.”

For those who believe this description of American poverty, I would heartily recommend the new book, $2.00 a Day, by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, which we excerpted recently here on The Atlantic. In the excerpt, Edin and Shaefer tell of how poor people resort to selling their plasma (not a pleasant process) in order to stay afloat week to week. Would people be selling their plasma if they were doing “too good” with their public benefits?

What Edin and Shaefer’s book demonstrates is that for people who don’t have work in America, the safety net is practically non-existent.

The reasons for this go back to Clinton’s mid-’90s reform of the welfare system, which restructured public benefits to be more firmly linked to working (for example, see the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides supplemental income to existing wages, but nothing for those without wages). This is a somewhat humane strategy for a time when there are ample jobs (such as the late ‘90s). It is a travesty of a strategy for a time when there is not enough work to go around. As economist Jared Bernstein wrote for The Atlantic in a recent review of Edin and Shaefer’s book:

I cannot overemphasize the importance of this fundamental flaw in poverty policy, i.e., the assumption that there is an ample supply of perfectly good jobs out there that poor people could tap if they just wanted to do so. To this day, this misguided notion underlies the conservative policy agenda that views anti-poverty policy as a narcotic that weans people away from the jobs awaiting them. Kill the programs, and they’ll get out of their hammocks (Rep. Paul Ryan’s term for the safety net) and get to work.

For more on the 1.5 million American households with virtually no income at all, and how they survive in the absence of robust public assistance, see my recent Q&A with Edin and Shaefer here.