Most of the Poor in America Work

Working PoorYou know how Republicans are always going on about lazy welfare recipients and hammocks and making out how destroying the social safety net would be the best thing for the poor? That’s just what they talk about so that their vile policies sound reasonable. Most of the poor work. And this is getting more true every day. Everyone knows about all the public assistance that gets given to Walmart employees because they are paid so badly. These are the working poor and they are who you should think of when you think of “welfare” — not Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen.”

I recently had a conversation about welfare with a conservative and he told me that the problem with it was that people just live on it their whole lives. “How what that?” I asked. Had he not heard of how we ended welfare as we knew it in the 1990s? Did he not know that there are extreme lifetime limits on welfare? It doesn’t matter how much we as a society do to harm the poor, people continue to think that it is 1970 and we are in the middle of the Great Society. This is how Republicans continue to win elections. They just keep making the same arguments, even though things have utterly changed.

It isn’t just me saying this. Last week I read, Most of America’s Poor Have Jobs, Study Finds. A study by “sociologists at BYU, Cornell and LSU” looked rigorously at the data and found that, “The majority of the United States’ poor aren’t sitting on street corners. They’re employed at low-paying jobs, struggling to support themselves and a family.” It isn’t surprising. What else are these people going to do?

The truly sad thing about all this is that the whole idea of “welfare reform” was if you could just get people working, then they would be able to climb out of poverty. But of course, they don’t. That’s because we’ve allowed our country to become the New Feudalism. We have an economic system that is set up to over-reward the winners. And a big part of this is taking tax revenues — that get more regressive all the time — and use it to allow companies like Walmart to pay far less than the market rate for employees. There are plenty of other ways this is done. But it is important to remember that when the government gives food stamps to a Walmart employee, what’s actually going on is the government is giving money to Walmart by allowing it to pay people less than a living wage. This is welfare for the billionaire Walton family.

At the same time that we have an incredibly unjust economic system, we have a social system that is devoted to the idea that we have a perfectly just economic system. Thus, we lionize the rich — even though very few of them even earned their wealth and those who did have no special abilities outside their own professions. And far worse, we scapegoat the poor. It’s bad enough being poor, but we blame the poor for their poverty and then blame them for much that is wrong with the society.

So stop and think the next time you hear someone like Paul Ryan say, “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into complacency and dependence.” Remember: most of the people depending upon the safety net are not lying in a hammock; they are working the swing shift at Walmart.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

5 thoughts on “Most of the Poor in America Work

  1. It is a subtle but unmistakable tell when a conservative talks about women “having more kids to get more welfare” or even a detail as minor as “government cheese” or “a fist full of food stamps” or “trading those food stamps for beer.” The more antiquated one’s image of poverty and public assistance, the more fervently one opposes “welfare.” I do not expect a person to be a policy wonk on all issues related to poverty and government aid but people, whose views are formed based on pre 1996, third hand stories, are deeply unserious when it comes to these issues. All they know is that lazy, thugs are breeding like rabbits and living the high life on their dime and actual details, let alone facts, from this century, be damned.

    • Colin — I used to love that cheese when I was a kid! I don’t think they give it out anymore, sadly . . .

    • And the terrible thing is that you can find poor people doing illegal or unethical things, just like you can find priests or presidents. The problem is the narrative and how everything is funneled through that. The struggling poor person, although the overwhelming majority, is the “exception.” It would help to have a better media. But asking for that is like asking to be born into a different universe.

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