It is way too common in this town to run into people who think that poor people are poor because they don’t work. Influential Congressman Paul Ryan has referred to safety net benefits as “a hammock” that create “poverty trap” and a culture of non-work, a rap as old as poverty itself. Various critics of poverty programs argue that their benefit structure dis-incentivizes work and are increasingly calling for more work requirements.
I needed to look into the numbers of working poor persons for a project I’m doing and I found the results kind of interesting (h/t: AS and DT). I suspect everyone brings different priors to this question, but some might be surprised by these results.
In fact, among poor people who are neither kids, elderly, nor disabled, half (49%) worked in 2012, when the unemployment rate was 8.1%. If you take out those who didn’t work because they were going to school, 57% worked (i.e., among poor, non-disabled adults, 18-64, not in school, 57% worked).
Digging a bit deeper in these numbers, of the 46 million poor people in 2012, about 20 million (43%) were kids (35%) or elderlies (8%). The other 26 million poor were 18-64. Of those, about 11 million worked and 16 million did not work (rounding screws up the totals a bit).
However, of those non-working 16 million adults, 5 million did not work due to illness or disability. So, of the about 21 million, non-disabled poor adults, half worked (and another 3 million did not work because they were in school).
To be clear, it is definitely the case that the poor work less than the non-poor—which is one of the reasons they’re poor, of course. Among non-poor adults (again, 18-64), 81% worked in 2012 and if you take out non-poor, disabled adults, 85% worked. So, no question poor adults are less likely to work than non-poor adults. And some may raise fair questions about how ill or disabled those poor non-workers are who claim that as a reason for sitting out of the job market.
Also, the 18-64 year-old working poor put in fewer hours than the working non-poor. In 2012, the non-poor worked about 1,900 hours, on average, close to full-time, full-year, while the poor worked about 1,200 hours.
Still, even with these pronounced differences, the idea that the poor don’t work, or work very little, is clearly wrong. Moreover, in the latter 1990s, when demand for low-wage workers was uniquely strong, employment rates and hours worked among the poor and near-poor reached historical highs (new welfare-to-work rules play a role here as well, but a minor one, according to analysis of that period).
These facts–the numbers of working poor as well as the extent to which such persons have responded to strong labor demand in the past–belie the idea that our safety net is a hammock or that the structure of benefits* prevents the poor from working (which, to be clear, is not saying you’ll never find examples that go the other way; I’m talking averages). We should certainly promote policies that increase labor market opportunities for those with low incomes. But we should not assume that they’re deeply disconnected from the job market.
*Here, I’m referring to the fact that means-tested benefits often fall as earnings rise.