Work requirements can’t solve poverty because 97 percent of the poor are either children, retired, disabled, students, caregivers, or already working. Public opinion research consistently shows high levels of support for aiding the poor, matched with equally high levels of concern that aid only be given to those who deserve it. This concern to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving, while an understandable impulse, has been extremely harmful to producing effective anti-poverty policies. It has also mixed with racial stereotypes of lazy blacks to produce an image of the poor as undeserving others who can be dismissed as ‘takers’ unworthy of aid and bent on gaming the system.
Perhaps the simplest way to remind the public that the poor really do deserve our help is just to remind the public of who the poor are, as Brookings does in the graph below:
I believe all people deserve aid, but even if you use a stricter criteria or you think aid needs to come with tough love, the overwhelming majority of the poor aren’t poor because they’re too lazy to work and need paternalistic oversight – they’re poor because they’re children, elderly, students, disabled, or already working a job that doesn’t pay enough to lift them out of poverty. Even among the 3 percent that aren’t in the labor force, many have probably given up after a long bout of unemployment.
Effective work policy for the poor means getting jobs to pay enough to lift people out of poverty, not adding to the misery the poor already experience by punishing them for being unable to find good work.
Most importantly though, work is never going to replace public and non-profit assistance to children, the elderly, students, the disabled, and caregivers. Cuts to anti-poverty programs have a real impact on people who are going through hard times. Children didn’t choose to be born into poverty. Students are trying survive poverty while bettering their future. Caregivers are often the only ones available to help others in their families. The disabled and the elderly aren’t able and aren’t expected to find productive employment. These are people who deserve help, not a government making a concerted effort to make their lives even more difficult.