Working Poor - Conceptualizing Working Poverty

Conceptualizing Working Poverty

In the United States, the issue of working poverty was initially brought to the public's attention during the Progressive Era (1890s–1920s). Progressive Era thinkers like Robert Hunter, Jane Addams, and W.E.B. DuBois saw society's unequal opportunity structure as the root cause of poverty and working poverty, but they also saw a link between moral factors and poverty. In his study of Philadelphia's African American neighborhoods, W.E.B. DuBois draws a distinction between "hardworking" poor people who fail to escape poverty due to racial discrimination and those who are poor due to moral deficiencies such as laziness or lack of perseverance. Later, the working poverty debate became more polarized, with liberal thinkers concentrating on structural factors and conservative thinkers focusing on moral factors.

After the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II, the United States experienced an era of prosperity during which most workers experienced significant gains in wages and working conditions. During this period (1930s–1950s), scholars shifted their attention away from poverty and working poverty. However, in the late 1950s and early 1960s American scholars and policymakers began to revisit the problem. Influential books like John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society (1958) and Michael Harrington's The Other America (1962) reinvigorated the discussions on poverty and working poverty in the United States. In fact, many of the policies enacted during Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty were inspired by Harrington's The Other America.

Since the start of the War on Poverty in the 1960s, scholars and policymakers on both ends of the political spectrum have paid an increasing amount of attention to working poverty. One of the key ongoing debates concerns the distinction between the working and the nonworking (unemployed) poor. Conservative scholars tend to see nonworking poverty as a more urgent problem than working poverty because they believe that non-work is a moral hazard that leads to welfare dependency and laziness, whereas work, even poorly paid work, is morally beneficial. In order to solve the problem of nonworking poverty, some conservative scholars argue that the government must stop “coddling” the poor with welfare benefits like AFDC/TANF.

On the other hand, liberal scholars and policymakers often argue that most working and nonworking poor people are quite similar. Studies comparing single mothers on and off welfare show that receiving welfare payments does not degrade a person's desire to find a job and get off of welfare. The main difference between the working and the nonworking poor, they argue, is that the nonworking poor have a more difficult time overcoming basic barriers to entry into the labor market, such as arranging for affordable childcare, finding housing near potential jobs, or arranging for transportation to and from work. In order to help the nonworking poor gain entry into the labor market, liberal scholars and policymakers argue that the government should provide more housing assistance, childcare, and other kinds of aid to poor families.

Discussions about the alleviation of working poverty are also politically charged. Conservative scholars and policymakers often attribute the prevalence of inequality and working poverty to overregulation and overtaxation, which they claim constricts job growth. In order to lower the rate of working poverty, conservatives advocate reducing welfare benefits and enacting less stringent labor laws. On the other hand, many liberals argue that working poverty can only be solved through increased, not decreased, government intervention. This government intervention could include workplace reforms (such as higher minimum wages, living wage laws, job training programs, etc.) and an increase in government transfers (such as housing, food, childcare, and healthcare subsidies). Whereas conservative scholars blame working poverty on too much government intervention, liberal scholars see the working poverty problem as a case of too little government intervention.

In recent years, the concept of “working poverty” itself has been subject to criticism. According to scholars like Alice O'Connor, separating the working poor from the working class, “depoliticizes poor people by divorcing their interests in better wages and income from those of more organized labor groups”. O'Connor also argues that the distinction between “working poor” and “nonworking poor” is counterproductive, especially in light of evidence that, on average, there are few real differences between the two groups. O'Connor claims that the politically charged image of the nonworking poor as “welfare dependent” and morally deficient made welfare reform seem like a more pressing issue than working poverty in the 1980s and 1990s. She argues that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (a welfare reform law passed in 1996), which moved millions of poor parents off the welfare roles and into the workforce, should only have been considered after addressing the problem of working poverty. That is, before sending millions of low-skilled workers into an already crowded labor market, the government should have improved conditions at the bottom of the labor market.

Though most would agree on the most basic definition of the working poor (workers whose earnings fall below a given poverty threshold), the meaning and significance of the term remains under dispute.

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Famous quotes containing the words poverty and/or working:

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