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?
Jordan Weissmann Sep 23 2013, 4:26 PM ET
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, it had more than doubled, leaving it at 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.
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