Misconceptions about people in poverty appear to drive proposed changes in social welfare policy, particularly the work requirements either being promoted by the Trump Administration, and discussed or implemented in several states.
A fuller understanding of factors underlying the problem of poverty suggests that these policies will be counterproductive, neither reducing the incidence of poverty nor helping those individuals and families targeted by these new policies.
The concentration of poor black and Hispanic people in central cities has allowed politicians to characterize the poor as “others” — people unlike white suburban majorities in upstate metropolitan areas, and to disparage them as dishonest, lacking in ambition and willingness to work.
For example, Ronald Reagan claimed the existence of a “welfare queen,” who supposedly cheated the government of $150,000. Josh Levin, in “The Welfare Queen,” describes Reagan’s line of argument: “When he ran for president in 1976, many of Reagan’s anecdotes converged on a single point: The welfare state is broken, and I’m the man to fix it. … ‘In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record,’ the former California governor declared at a campaign rally in January 1976. ‘She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.’”
The story was untrue. The real welfare queen had defrauded the government of $8,000 using a few false identities.
Reagan was not alone in stoking resentment against poor beneficiaries of government assistance. Donald Trump more recently claimed that, “I know people that work three jobs and they live next to somebody who doesn’t work at all. And the person who is not working at all and has no intention of working at all is making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his and her ass off.”
Trump also claimed, in 2011, the existence of “a food stamp crime wave.” Neither of these claims was supported by evidence.
Like much of the public, Trump believes that most black people are poor. The New York Times reports that, “Trump also said to black voters: ‘You’re living in poverty; your schools are no good; you have no jobs.’”
Those who see people in poverty as “others” are more likely to ascribe their condition exclusively to lack of personal responsibility, ignoring other factors, like education, disability, racial discrimination and family structure. These beliefs often lead to support for coercive government assistance policies for the poor, such as work requirements for medical, food and housing assistance.
Poverty in upstate metropolitan areas
More than one in seven (540,000) residents of five upstate metropolitan areas – Albany-Schenectady-Troy, Buffalo-Niagara Falls, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica-Rome – lived in poverty in 2016, roughly comparable to the national average of 15 percent.
Most people view poverty as primarily a problem of the central cities. Concentrations of poverty in Upstate New York cities are far higher than in suburban areas. In the Rochester MSA, more than 30 percent of city residents live in poverty, compared with about 10 percent outside the city.
But the concentration of poverty in upstate cities does not tell the full story. Although the percentage of people living in Rochester who are in poverty is much higher than in the rest of the metropolitan area, 55 percent of area residents living in poverty live outside the city of Rochester. This is true because only 19 percent of metropolitan area residents live in the city of Rochester. The higher rate of poverty in the city does not offset the larger population in poverty outside Rochester.
Because only one in 10 people living outside central cities in upstate metropolitan areas is poor, the suburban poor are relatively invisible despite their relatively large numbers, while those living in central cities, with higher poverty concentrations, are much more visible.
The issue of race
Possibly due to a higher concentration of poverty in central cities, many people believe that people living in poverty are primarily members of racial and ethnic minorities (who are concentrated in cities). Yet in upstate metropolitan areas, more than 60 percent of people in poverty outside central cities identify as “white alone, not Hispanic or Latino.” In upstate central cities, the picture differs. Only 25 percent of central city residents in poverty identify as “white only.”
In the city of Rochester, 19 percent of residents living in poverty identify as “white only,” while this share is nearly reversed in suburban areas (81 percent).
Overall, 65 percent of all residents of Upstate New York (the part of New York outside the New York City metropolitan area) living in poverty identify as white, not Hispanic or Latino. In the Rochester metropolitan area, 51 percent of those in poverty identify as white, not Hispanic or Latino.
Employment among the poor
In upstate metropolitan areas, nearly half (46 percent) of people in poverty are working. A Brookings Institution report notes that most of those who do not work nationally are caregivers (15 percent), students (13 percent), disabled (22 percent), or early retirees (6 percent).
People in poverty who work were more likely to work part-time than full-time in 2016. One third of this group report that they would take full time work if it were offered. In contrast, 86 percent of workers not in poverty worked full-time.
The high percentage of people who work less than full-time year around is the result of several factors. A study by the Center for Budget Priorities points out that these include:
- Low-wage jobs often have irregular work schedules.
- These jobs often lack paid sick leave or other paid leave.
- Job turnover is high among low-paid workers.
- Many low-paid workers are unable to find affordable child care arrangements.
- Some low-paid workers lack stable housing arrangements.
Work requirements for safety net programs
Stereotypes about people in poverty and their relatively low participation in the labor market have spurred policy proposals that make Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and Medicaid benefits conditional on beneficiaries participating in worker training or gaining employment.
Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) claims that employment levels of people on major government assistance programs are low: 60 percent of Medicaid recipients, 60 percent of SNAP (food stamps) recipients, and 52 percent of housing assistance recipients who were working age and not disabled worked less than 20 hours a week, or not at all.
The Council argues that “expanding work requirements, similar to those in place in TANF, to the three non-cash welfare programs discussed here (Medicaid, SNAP and housing assistance) would affect the majority of program recipients and require major increases in the work effort of non-disabled working-age adults, potentially helping recipients and their families.”
The CEA substantially overstates the number of poor people who receive government assistance who do not work. A Center for Budget and Policy Priorities analysis of the workforce participation data from the Council of Economic Advisors concluded it was based on a significant methodological error. The CEA report looked at “whether an individual receiving assistance worked in a single month (December 2013), ignoring the fact that many workers have unstable jobs and receive help when they are between jobs.”
A report by the Brookings Institution, “Work Requirements and Safety Net Programs,” shows “42 percent being out of the labor force and roughly 11 percent unemployed in the one-month snapshot – leading to more than half of the group being labeled ‘not working’ in the one month snapshot – [but] roughly 29 percent are out of work and just 1 percent are persistently unemployed over two years, meaning fewer than one third are not working consistently.”
To be sure, personal responsibility can be a factor in poverty. Single parents are much more likely to encounter poverty, for example. It certainly makes sense to implement policies that educate and remind people of the difficulties faced by single parents, encourage family planning, and hold absent fathers responsible for a share of the cost of raising children.
Instituting additional work requirements for participation in programs like SNAP and Medicaid would likely reduce participation levels and would increase administrative costs associated with compliance requirements. Many of those who could lose benefits would lose assistance when they most need it.
Brookings found that “for those who qualify for exemptions, satisfy waiver requirements, or work enough to meet the requirements, there are still significant informational and administrative barriers to compliance. Program participants must understand how the work requirement policy relates to them, obtain and submit documentation, and do so at the frequency prescribed by the state (Wagner and Solomon 2018). … These continuing roadblocks to participation, with attendant informational and transactional costs, are likely to result in lower take-up among the eligible population and disenrollment (Finkelstein and Notowidigdo 2018).”
An analysis of the implementation of work requirements for Medicaid in Arkansas by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that recipients lost benefits because “many Medicaid enrollees (were) still not aware of program changes despite substantial outreach. In addition, an online reporting requirement is proving difficult for many enrollees due to limited knowledge of the requirements as well as lack of computer literacy and internet access.”
The fundamental question that these approaches raise is whether the government should condition access to essentials for human life, such as government-provided food or health care coverage for unemployed poor people, on participation in training programs or gaining employment. If such an approach is an acceptable incentive, why not limit public schools, police and fire services to those who work as well?
Because of false stereotypes about people in poverty that emphasize their differences from white suburban majorities, attitudes of much of the public to programs like SNAP and Medicaid and the poor people who receive assistance from them are negative.
Politicians have fostered these attitudes by promoting ideas like the “welfare queen” who supposedly abused the system, and people who don’t work who do better than those who “work his and her ass off.” They use these stereotypes to promote punitive approaches to policies that help people in poverty pay for food, receive medical care and find housing.
These coercive policies are not responsive to the practical obstacles confronted by individuals and families in poverty. Instead, they will further harm some who need assistance.
John Bacheller, former head of the policy and research division of Empire State Development, is an author of Policy by Numbers, a blog that focuses on data and policy at the state level, with a focus on Upstate New York.