How American Poverty Works
Jesus promised that he would especially present himself to us in the suffering of the poor. Though the United States is a very rich country—the only country with greater wealth per capita is Switzerland—we nevertheless have a very high rate of poverty. In 2017, if you just count the money people made from work and capital income (together called market income), 25% of Americans were poor according to the supplemental poverty measure. America’s existing programs to reduce poverty brought that amount down to 13.9%. Even after every welfare program, Social Security, and disability transfers, more than 1 in 7 Americans lived in poverty in 2017. This is a staggering amount of human need and suffering: in 2018, 11.1% of American households struggled to feed everyone due to a lack of material resources according to the USDA.
What causes this problem? One theory goes that it’s joblessness: people who live in poverty often live in parts of the country employers have abandoned, or live in low-investment neighborhoods where businesses don’t open—or perhaps there are simply not enough jobs available, in total, to get everyone working. Some even argue that many in poverty in the United States are poor because they simply do not want to work or personally lack abilities that are valuable in the labor market.
There is certainly almost always a group of people who are looking for work but who haven’t found it—that number is represented by the unemployment rate. But though the unemployment rate has high and low points, American poverty doesn’t seem to go away even when unemployment is in the low single digits: the unemployment rate was only 4.1% at the end of 2017, but the poverty rate, as we mentioned above, remained stubbornly high.
It turns out whether someone works or not is still the key to understanding poverty. Does that contradict what I just said about unemployment? Does that mean that the poor really are just lazy? It actually does not!
Nearly half of Americans earned no market income in 2017. So why can’t they just get jobs? It turns out that 86% of them were either children, elderly, disabled, or students according to an analysis of census data. An additional 7.8% did not work for some or all of the year because they were caring for family members. That means almost 94% of all non-workers in 2017 were people we don’t want to go get a job! We want children to be able to grow up with curiosity for the world, we want the elderly to be able to live lives of dignity during their last years, for students to focus on their studies, for the disabled to live free and beautiful lives, and for parents to be able to care for their children (and adult children their elderly parents). But since these stages of life require people to put their attention to something other than working for an employer, that means they’re dependent on others to ensure they have the material means to flourish.
Unsurprisingly, rates of poverty are far higher among non-workers than among workers: a staggering 34.4% of non-workers live in poverty if welfare payments are excluded. This rate is only so low because many non-workers also live with people in the household who work, but this reveals another side of the problem: many people who would be above the poverty line on their own are poor because of the non-workers who live in their household. A single person making $30,000, in most parts of America, can get by quite decently, but a married person whose spouse takes care of their three kids at home making $30,000 is living in poverty. Add an elderly or disabled relative into the mix, and the situation becomes even more desperate.
Clearly, making more jobs might help a little bit, but it will only potentially help the 6% of non-workers who aren’t children, elderly, disabled, students, or family caretakers. What would, then, lower poverty for non-workers? There are ultimately four possible solutions.
Reduce the number of non-workers. Unfortunately this is an argument people have actually made—sterilization and birth control efforts targeted at the poor in order to limit their ability to have children is clearly not the right solution for Christians.
Force everyone to work. Essentially, even children, the very old, the disabled, and stay-at-home parents should be made to work if they want to survive. This is clearly undesirable—we have child labor laws for a reason!—and it’s not even clear that this would eliminate poverty, given that some will simply be unable to work because of physical or mental limitations.
Improve wages. If people at the lowest end of the income distribution were given more money for what they do, they could bring that money home to their families. This is good, but employers generally don’t take into account the number of children you have or whether your spouse stays at home into what they pay, and it still doesn't account for non-workers who may live alone or only with other non-workers.
Allocate transfer income to non-workers. This is, ultimately, the only solution to make a direct, significant difference in reducing poverty, and it’s how we already reduce it by the amount that we do: programs like Social Security and disability ensure that non-workers have income.
For Christians interested in significantly improving the lives of the poor, the clear path is by advocating transfer income to those who don’t work and to ensure that everyone who works gets a decent wage.
At one point in our lives, we are all non-workers: Everyone is a child. We hope for everyone to grow old. Many of us are full-time students. Many care for family full time. Many have work-disabling physical or mental characteristics. But we all have dignity made in God’s image, and we ought to understand that we want to care for one another as God has cared for all of us by freely giving us our life, the abundance of his creation, and even his only son.