The myth of the unemployed freeloader

More cracks in the stereotypical view of poor people as freeloaders: it turns out unemployment benefits don’t diminish a person’s motivation to find work. Just the opposite, in fact.

In a post on BillMoyers.com, Joshua Holland shared the findings from a multinational study by Jan Eichhorn, a sociologist at the University of Edinburgh. The study was published in the October issue of Social Indicators Research.

The key finding was that the generosity of unemployment benefits had no effect at all on people’s drive to go out and try to find a job. “This means that claims about unemployment benefits resulting in complacent unemployed people who chose the situation and would be satisfied with it cannot be retained uncritically,” [Eichhorn] wrote.

This confirms similar findings from a 2011 study by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, which found that people who qualify for unemployment benefits actually spend more time looking for jobs than those who don’t quality.

In short, when society gives its most vulnerable members a hand up, they are more likely to demonstrate a strong work ethic, not less.

Poverty is more than a matter of poor decision-making

Behind the controversy over Dave Ramsey’s “20 Things” post and his defense of it, there’s an assumption that poverty in America is fundamentally different from poverty in the developing world.

Almost everyone — including Dave Ramsey — accepts there are systemic, structural injustices which cause poverty in the other parts of the world. “The third-world economy is and should be a whole different discussion,” Ramsey writes.

When it comes to poverty in America, however, it gets written off as a consequence of poor decision-making by individuals:

If you are broke or poor in the U.S. or a first-world economy, the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is YOU. You can make better choices and have better results. If you believe that our economy and culture in the U.S. are so broken that making better choices does not produce better results, then you have a problem. At that point your liberal ideology has left the Scriptures and your politics have caused you to become a fatalist.

How is it that we can see the systemic causes of poverty elsewhere, but not in our own country? Do we think because our ancestors got rid of institutional slavery and child labor that there are no more structural injustices to be rooted out? Or are we so beholden to a capitalist, materialist ideology that we can’t even entertain the possibility of any flaws in our economic system?

Or do we just think we’re better than everyone else? Again, Ramsey:

One of the main reasons our culture has prospered is because of our understanding and application of biblical truths.

Translation: we prosper because we understand the Bible better. The Bible gets reimagined as a roadmap to prosperity, instead of a roadmap to the cross. Financial success is reimagined as proof of God’s favor; Jeremiah’s lament against the wealth of the wicked is quietly purged from our scriptures.

And so we tell ourselves (and our impoverished neighbors): if you are poor and you live in America, it’s your own fault.

Really?

Sure, there are people in financial distress because of bad choices that were made. (In fact, in recent years almost all of us have experienced some measure of financial distress because of bad choices made not by those at the bottom of the economic ladder, but by those at the top.) But do we really believe there are no structural or systemic factors at work, causing and perpetuating poverty in America?

Blacks and Native Americans are nearly three times more likely than whites to live in poverty. Do we really believe the economic and social disparities affecting black communities have nothing to do with centuries of slavery and segregation — not to mention subtler forms of discrimination that persist in our day? Do we really think the massive displacement (and partial genocide) of Native Americans is unrelated to the comparatively poorer health and economic outcomes they experience today?

Do we really think we can end poverty just by telling people to “live within their means” when a quarter of all jobs in this country don’t pay enough to put a family of four above the poverty line? Do we really think it’s just a matter of telling people to be smart with their money when the average amount needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment exceeds the average renter’s wage by $4.50 an hour?

Do we really think poverty is just a failure of personal drive to get an education when schools in poor communities receive less funding and have to cope with outdated equipment and crumbling infrastructure?

Do we really think poverty in this country is just a matter of personal decision-making?

To fail to acknowledge the systemic factors affecting poverty is to perpetuate them.

In response to the list I shared yesterday, someone rightly asked, “Where’s the hope?” It’s all well and good to diagnose, but what about actually helping people out of poverty? It’s a fair question. I believe the first step in tackling poverty is to be honest with ourselves about the causes and contributing factors. We cannot help someone until we dismantle the stereotypes that prevent us from seeing and understanding them properly.

20 things the poor really do every day

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Dave Ramsey probably wasn’t expecting this much pushback when he shared a piece by Tim Corley contrasting the habits of the rich with those of the poor. In her response on CNN, Rachel Held Evans noted that Ramsey and Corley mistake correlation for causality when they suggest (without actually proving) that these habits are the cause of a person’s financial situation. (Did it never occur to them that it might be the other way around?)

Ramsey fired back, calling the pushback “immature and ignorant.” This from a guy who just made 20 sweeping assertions about 47 million poor people in the US — all based on a survey of 361 individuals.

That’s right. To come up with his 20 habits, Corley talked to just 233 wealthy people and 128 poor people. Ramsey can talk all he wants about Corley’s research passing the “common-sense smell test,” but it doesn’t pass the “research methodology 101” test.

To balance the picture a bit, I wanted to take a fact-based look at 20 things the poor do on a daily basis…

1. Search for affordable housing.
Especially in urban areas, the waiting list for affordable housing can be a year or more. During that time, poor families either have to make do with substandard or dangerous housing, depend on the hospitality of relatives, or go homeless.
(Source: New York Times)

2. Try to make $133 worth of food last a whole month.
That’s how much the average food stamp recipient gets each month. Imagine trying to eat well on $4.38 per day. It’s not easy, which is why many impoverished families resort to #3…
(Source: Kaiser Family Foundation)

3. Subsist on poor quality food.
Not because they want to, but because they can’t afford high-quality, nutritious food. They’re trapped in a food system that subsidizes processed foods, making them artificially cheaper than natural food sources. So the poor are forced to eat bad food — if they’re lucky, that is…
(Sources: Washington Post; Journal of Nutrition, March 2008)

4. Skip a meal.
One in six Americans are food insecure. Which means (among other things) that they’re sometimes forced to go without eating.
(Sources: World Vision, US Department of Agriculture)

5. Work longer and harder than most of us.
While it’s popular to think people are poor because they’re lazy (which seems to be the whole point of Ramsey’s post), the poor actually work longer and harder than the rest of us. More than 80 percent of impoverished children have at least one parent who works; 60 percent have at least one parent who works full-time. Overall, the poor work longer hours than the so-called “job creators.”
(Source: Poverty and Learning, April 2008)

6. Go to bed 3 hours before their first job starts.
Number 15 on Ramsey and Corley’s list was, “44% of [the] wealthy wake up three hours before work starts vs. 3% of [the] poor.” It may be true that most poor people don’t wake up three hours before work starts. But that could be because they’re more likely to work multiple jobs, in which case job #1 means they’re probably just getting to bed three hours before job #2 starts.
(Source: Poverty and Learning, April 2008)

7. Try to avoid getting beat up by someone they love.
According to some estimates, half of all homeless women in America ran away to escape domestic violence.
(Source: National Coalition for the Homeless, 2009)

8. Put themselves in harm’s way, only to be kicked to the streets afterward.
How else do you explain 67,000 63,000 homeless veterans?
(Source: US Department of Veterans Affairs, updated to reflect the most recent data)

9. Pay more than their fair share of taxes.
Some conservative pundits and politicians like to think the poor don’t pay their fair share, that they are merely “takers.” While it’s true the poor don’t pay as much in federal income tax — usually because they don’t earn enough to qualify — they do pay sales tax, payroll tax, etc. In fact, the bottom 20% of earners pay TWICE as much in taxes (as a share of their income) as do the top 1%.
(Source: Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy, January 2013)

10. Fall further behind.
Even when poverty is the result of poor decision-making, often it’s someone else’s choices that make the difference. If you experience poverty as a child, you are 3-4 times less likely to graduate high school. If you spend your entire childhood in poverty, you are 5 times less likely to graduate. Which means your future has been all but decided for you.
(Sources: World Vision, Children’s Defense Fund, Annie E. Casey Foundation)

11. Raise kids who will be poor.
A child’s future earnings are closely correlated to their parents’ earnings. In other words, economic mobility — the idea that you can claw your way out of poverty if you just try hard enough is, more often than not, a myth.
(Sources: OECD, Economic Policy Institute)

12. Vote less.
And who can blame them? I would be less inclined to vote if I didn’t have easy access to the polls and if I were subjected to draconian voter ID laws that are sold to the public as necessary to suppress nonexistent voter fraud.
(Source: The Center for Voting and Democracy)

13. When they do vote… vote pretty much the same as the rest of us.
Following their defeat in 2012, conservatives took solace by reasoning that they’d lost to a bunch of “takers,” including the poor, who voted for Democrats because they want free handouts from big government. The reality is a bit more complex. Only a third of low-income voters identify as Democrats, about the same for all Americans, including wealthy voters.
(Sources: NPR, Pew Research Center)

14. Live with chronic pain.
Those earning less than $12,000 a year are twice as likely to report feeling physical pain on any given day.
(Source: Kaiser Health News)

15. Live shorter lives.
There is a 10-14 year gap in life expectancy between the rich and the poor. In recent years, poor people’s life expectancy has actually declined — in America, the wealthiest nation on the planet.
(Source: Health Affairs, 2012)

16. Use drugs and alcohol pretty much the same as (or less than) everyone else.
Despite the common picture of inner city crack houses, drug use is pretty evenly spread across income groups. And rich people actually abuse alcohol more than the poor.
(Source: Poverty and Learning, April 2008)

17. Receive less in subsidized benefits than corporations.
The US government spends around $60 billion on public housing and rental subsidies for low-income families, compared to more than $90 billion on corporate subsidies. Oil companies alone get around $70 billion. And that’s not counting the nearly $60 billion a year in tax breaks corporations enjoy by sheltering profits offshore. Or the $700 billion bailout banks got in 2008.
(Source: Think By Numbers)

18. Get themselves off welfare as soon as possible.
Despite the odds, the vast majority of beneficiaries leave the welfare rolls within five years. Even in the absence of official welfare-to-work programming, most welfare recipients enroll in some form of vocational training. Why? Because they’re desperate to get off welfare.
(Source: US Department of Health and Human Services)

19. Have about the same number of children as everyone else.
No, poor people do not have loads of children just so they can stay on welfare.
(Source: US Department of Health and Human Services)

20. Accomplish one single goal: stay alive. 
Poverty in America may not be as dire as poverty in other parts of the world, but many working poor families are nonetheless preoccupied with day-to-day survival. For them, life is not something to be enjoyed so much as endured.

These are the real habits of the poor, those with whom Jesus identifies most closely.

[Note: For a followup to this post, see “Poverty is more than a matter of poor decision-making.]

Photo: 401kcalculator.org / CC BY-SA 2.0