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The Undeserving Poor

Allan Lichtenstein
November 18, 2014
by Allan Lichtenstein IsDissASystem-72dpiRGB-300x300WITH THE REPUBLICAN TAKEOVER of the Senate and their augmented majority in Congress, cuts in safety net programs are now a real possibility. Yet the little discussion that has occurred on the subject of poverty has come, perhaps surprisingly, from the Republicans — from Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, in particular. Earlier in the year, on the fiftieth anniversary of President Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty, in a report prepared for the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan reflected that the failure to achieve “total victory” was a consequence, in his view, of both “changes in family, structure, changes in labor-market opportunities, and changes in broader demographics,” along with the failure of federal policies to “promote work and improve upward mobility.” Ryan noted that “public policy is still a factor, and government has a role to play in providing a safety net and expanding opportunity for all.” More recently, in a discussion draft prepared for the House Budget Committee entitled, “Expanding Opportunity in America,” Ryan laid out a specific plan for the government’s role in fighting poverty and promoting upward mobility. Building on the notion of the American Dream, he declared that in America “if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead.” For those Americans who have failed to “get ahead” and are still living in poverty, Ryan proposed an Opportunity Grant program to facilitate their transition to “a sustainable trajectory toward advancing their career.” This program would assign poor people to a social service provider who “would work with the people one-on-one and provide personalized aid through case management.” In other words, the path to a better future would be realized when someone living in poverty succeeds in overcoming his or her personal failings in the one-on-one personalized case management process. Although Ryan appears concerned for the well-being of all people in need, the poor people identified as in need of personalized case management have long been stigmatized as the “undeserving poor.” Historically, they have been "undeserving of help because they brought poverty on themselves,” as Michael Katz has explained so eloquently in his book The Undeserving Poor. Typically, they are presumed to be African American and to not work. THE POVERTY RATE RECENTLY DECLINED SLIGHTLY according to the Census Bureau’s September release for 2013, but it remains high (see my Blog-Shmog article from July 8, 2014), four years since the end of the Great Recession, with more than 45 million people still living in official poverty — eight million more than at the onset of the recession and about two million more than at the conclusion of the recession. Yet the numbers show that the so-called “undeserving poor” are, in fact, a small minority of these 45 million. The vast majority of the poor in this country are children, the elderly, disabled adults, and working adults. Among the non-working adult population, white non-Hispanic males and females are a larger share of the total population living in poverty than are either black or Hispanic males or females. The first figure below shows the breakdown of the total U.S. population and the poverty population in 2013. Children (under the age of 15), people with a work disability (15 and above) and the elderly (65 and above who do not have a work disability and are not working) made up 38 percent of the total population and almost 53 percent of the poverty population. The working population (anyone above the age of 15 working either full-time or part-time) was almost 49 percent of total population and almost 23 percent of the population living in poverty. Together, children, the work disabled, the elderly, and the working population are a little above three-quarters of the population in poverty. The non-working population (between the ages of 15 and 64 who have no work disability) is a little more than 13 percent of the population and a little less than one-quarter of the poverty population. Microsoft Word - The Undeserving Poor_Chart_111814.docxSource: US Census, Current Population Survey A breakdown of the non-working population (10 percent) and the non-working poverty population (20.7 percent) by race/ethnicity and gender shows that non-working white non-Hispanic male and females are the largest share — 1.8 percent and 1.5 percent of the total population and 3.6 percent and 3.8 percent of the total poverty population, respectively. In contrast, non-working black non-Hispanic males and females are a much smaller share — just 0.6 percent and 0.8 percent of the total population and 1.9 percent and 2.4 percent of the total poverty population, respectively. Microsoft Word - Document4Source: US Census, Current Population Survey Any budget cuts to the already fragile safety net that may be enacted in the upcoming session when the new Congress reconvenes next year will not only affect the “undeserving” minority but all poor people, the vast majority of whom are children, elderly, disabled, or working. Allan Lichtenstein has a Ph.D in urban planning from Rutgers University and has been working in the field of poverty research for eight years. He grew up in South Africa, lived in Israel for sixteen years, and has lived in the U.S. since 1986.