The Myth of the Lazy Poor
The Trump administration has recently suggested that recipients of Medicaid – health insurance for the poor – be forced to have a job or go to school if they want to retain their health insurance, however limited. This revives a theme which has been current in American mythology for a long time. The story is that the poor are to be blamed for their own poverty. They are poor because they refuse to work. Poverty is not anyone's fault except for the poor and their laziness.
People actually believe this, however incredible that may seem. But look at the plain facts: Beginning January 1, 2018 workers on federal contracts must be paid at least $10.35 an hour. If someone works a 40 hour week that amounts to $414. On an annual basis this would amount to $20,700.00. Federal guidelines defined a family of three persons as poor if they are earned $20,780 or less. If two parents have one child and one partner works 40 hours a week all year they are still poor. If two parents both go to work who will take care of their child and how much will that cost them? But what if they want two children?
Disneyland in Anaheim, CA employs more than 30,000 workers. Half of them earn $15.00 an hour or less. In Anaheim, in Orange County, the cost of living is exceptionally high. It takes $33,000.00 for a single person to live, to pay rent, buy food, insurance and maintain a car. If you earn $ 15.00 an hour your annual income is $ 30,000.00. Many Disneyland employees live in their cars or trucks.
People are not poor because they are too lazy to work. They are poor because their earnings are very low. This story about the poor who only have themselves to blame is a myth propagated by employers who pay minimum wage. "It's not our fault" they say, "it's the fault of the poor people themselves." But as we can see there is no truth to this.
Some time ago, I published a blog that dealt with an aspect of these questions. I pointed out that making poor people work for public housing, or Medicare, or food stamps or what have you is often defended on the grounds that everyone ought to work. Against that I argued that it matters a lot what sort of work people are made to do. There is work that is mind numbing and destroys the soul. No one should be forced to do that sort of work. In fact no one should have to do that sort of work. If people were offered work that is interesting, that makes one happy, few would have to be forced to do that.
But now an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Aaron E. Carroll, MD "The Problem with Work Requirements for Medicaid" February 20, 2018, page 646) examines the facts bearing on this project.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 80% of Medicaid recipients "are from working families." This breaks down as follows: 42% work full time, 18% work part-time, 14% do not work at all because they are disabled or ill, 6% attend school. That leaves 19% of Medicaid recipients who do not work at all. Of those 12% are caregivers for ill or disabled family members. Of all Medicaid recipients 7% are not working at all. Among those remaining 7%, some are looking for work and can't find any, and others are retired and or elderly. There remain about 3% of Medicaid recipients who could be described as "able-bodied adults" who choose not to work. This is a very different picture from the "lazy poor" narrative promoted by employers and their advocates among politicians.
Dr. Carroll's article quotes two other studies which find a higher numbers of able-bodied non-working Medicare recipients but those usually include older Americans or Americans who are in some way disabled. There is no evidence that there are a large numbers of poor people who refuse to work. In fact, there are probably more rich people who inherited large fortunes from their parents and grandparents, who are not working than people who live at the edge of poverty. Why allow the rich to be idle and keep bearing down on the hard working people who get paid so poorly that they remain in poverty?
The wealthy who can leave large fortunes to their children and grandchildren often acquire those fortunes by paying poverty wages to their workers. That is a pretty shameful way of making money. Instead of recognizing the immorality of that and paying workers a living wage, many employers use some of the money made by paying too little to live on to get politicians to repeat the myth of the lazy poor.
Do not be taken in by their lies!