The Census Bureau just released their annual report on poverty, and Vox took a close look at the details, revealing information that may come as a surprise to many people.
Some people like to paint the poor as shiftless, lazy freeloaders, who refuse to work or otherwise make bad choices. But the numbers say otherwise. Of the people whose incomes fall below the poverty line, 68.6% are children (24.2%), elderly (27.7%), or disabled (15.7%). So the (super)majority of the poor are completely outside the job market (unless you are in favor of bringing back child labor).
An additional 19.2% are students (5.7%), caretakers (7%), or were involuntarily unemployed (e.g., laid off) for at least part of the year (6.5%). And another 4.9% are fully employed, but their wages are lower than the poverty level. That leaves just 5.4% in the “other” category. Why these last people are not earning a living is not specified, but even if nearly all of them are lazy freeloaders, that’s still just around 5% of the total poor, which corresponds to close to 1% of the US population.
The second interesting fact is that our “welfare state”, which is actually pretty weak compared to other industrialized nations, still manages to pull quite a few people out of poverty. Most successful is our Social Security program, which manages to reduce the poverty rate among the elderly from 43.7% to only 10%. Less effective are our programs for the disabled (blind, deaf, crippled, etc.) where government programs reduce their poverty rate from 49.9% to 30.7%. Even with government assistance, a third of all blind people live in poverty.
Increasing programs even a small amount can reduce our poverty rates even more. Canada – under a conservative government no less – recently expanded their benefits for children and saw a significant reduction in poverty.
So does this mean I’m advocating for a socialist welfare state, where everyone is guaranteed an income above the poverty line? Not at all. I think things can swing too far in the other direction. I lived in England during the 80s (the height of their dalliance with socialism), and I met people who had simply decided to leave their jobs and go on the dole, for no particular reason other than they didn’t feel like working for a while. But people like that are no reason to demonize the vast majority of the poor, who currently have no alternatives.
There is a reasonable middle ground. At the very least, we should be able to eradicate poverty among the elderly, children, and disabled populations – those people who are outside the labor market entirely. Having senior citizens, children, or seriously disabled people starving or homeless is obscene. Unemployment insurance should help people temporarily unemployed. The minimum wage should keep track of inflation, and I would eliminate the exemption for restaurant waitstaff. We should also have a discussion about financial aid for students, and assistance to help with care for the elderly and disabled (healthy people shouldn’t have to quit their jobs in order to care for an elderly parent or disabled child).
Then, after we establish a real working social safety net for these people – who are legitimately poor – then we can do something about any remaining freeloaders we keep hearing about.
So how do we pay for all this? There are plenty of ways. We could switch to a single-payer healthcare system. Every single-payer health insurance system in the world is less expensive than the current American health insurance system. Even with Obamacare saving us money while insuring more people, a single payer system would save us around $5 trillion.
Don’t like that? There are plenty of other ways to save money. Like reducing corporate welfare, the $217 billion we spend on subsidies and tax breaks to big corporations. Speaking of freeloaders, how about taxing inheritance fairly so we aren’t subsidizing lazy rich kids? Or avoid starting any new stupid wars, like the one in Iraq that cost us over $2 trillion and will cost an additional $4 trillion over the next four decades. And that’s not counting what it is costing us to fight terrorism (like the radical Islamist militants who were reinvigorated by the war in Iraq).