Conservatives who say getting a job is the answer to poverty fail to acknowledge the realities of low-income work.
Les Misérables returned to Broadway last week, just in time for Victor Hugo’s tale of poverty and redemption to provide some context for thinking about the poverty report Rep. Paul Ryan released Monday. With a history of more than 6,000 Broadway performances and a Hollywood spin-off starring Anne Hathaway, the lavish musical has probably engendered more popular sympathy for the down-and-out than any progressive politician sticking to her talking points ever could.
When the resident villain, Inspector Javert, castigates characters who can’t find jobs, can’t feed children, can’t escape a past mistake, with his motto, “honest work, just rewards,” the American viewing public – conservative and progressive alike – laugh bitterly at his naïveté. “They are trying,” we want to shout at the stage.
But what if you live in a society where honest work doesn’t always lead to just rewards? This question, at the center of upheaval for both the characters and the society Les Mis portrays, is also worth asking in 21st century America.
The central flaw of Ryan’s report is his assumption that a job will lift incomes for poor Americans. Progressives agree that work should provide a path out of poverty, but given the dysfunction of our current labor markets, we know that Ryan's assertions hit the same false notes as Javert’s.
It is impossible to talk about poverty in the U.S. without addressing the fact that today work does not guarantee economic security.
Of the 26 million working-age adults living in poverty in 2012, more than 10 million were working full- or part-time. (This is according to the Official Poverty Measure used by Ryan, though most anti-poverty advocates, including me, prefer the Supplemental Poverty Measure.) Two-thirds of children in poverty live in a household with at least one working adult. But with the minimum wage stagnating at nearly 25 percent below its historical value, and part-time work at historic highs, a job in America no longer means independence. More than half of fast-food workers rely on one of the public assistance programs mentioned in Ryan’s report, according to an analysis from the UC Berkeley Labor Center. Nearly a quarter of the total workforce relies on public programs.
There are 16 million poor adults who aren’t working. Ryan suggests they are stuck in a “poverty trap” of federal programs that create disincentives for work. Incentives aren’t the whole story (there are plenty of Jean Valjeans out there facing structural disconnection from the labor market), but I will concede that incentives are a part of the problem. Indeed, research shows that single mothers must often choose between a bad job with no benefits or a meager government check that at least allows them to care for their children.
The conservative solution has been to cut government support in order to force workers into poverty-level work. This was the philosophy behind the 1996 welfare reform law, which Ryan’s report trumpets as one of the great successes in the war on poverty. Welfare reform did raise incomes for some of the American poor, but as my colleagues Andrea Flynn and Ellen Chesler write in a forthcoming paper, “increases in employment and wages moved many women off welfare, but also failed to enable them to achieve long-term economic independence” because the work they took on did not allow them to complete their education or provide health care benefits.
Progressive solutions to poverty include a range of policies designed to make work a true pathway out of poverty. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would lift 900,000 people out of poverty, according to the conservative CBO report, or nearly 6 million, according to Arindrajit Dube’s review of 12 different minimum wage studies. Paid family leave can help single moms stay in the workforce and earn higher wages. Recent reviews of California’s 10-year-old paid leave policy show that women who have paid leave work 16 percent more weekly hours and make 5 percent more in hourly wages than women who don’t. A government-funded work program could reintegrate the 3.8 million adults who have been out of work and looking for more than 27 weeks, and has been supported by conservative economists who understand that sometimes the down-and-out need a hand finding “honest work.” None of these policies were mentioned by Congressman Ryan, nor did he even acknowledge the state of work in America.
I believe Mr. Ryan is sincere in his attempt to propose solutions to poverty. Javert himself is ultimately a sympathetic character, eager to do his duty. The problem with Javert, and some conservative leaders, is that they cannot tolerate a world of nuance and moral ambiguity where truisms like “honest work, just rewards” are insufficient answers to societal challenges.
With so many Americans living in poverty, including 22 percent of our children (the highest child poverty rate among rich countries), we should have an honest debate about which policy responses are effective and which are not. The reality of low-income work must be part of that debate.
Nell Abernathy is the Program Manager for the Roosevelt Institute's Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.
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