"The Working Poor and Welfare Recipiency,"by Madeline Kim January/February 1996 issue of Poverty & Race
Sixty years of welfare programs are being unraveled by the new Congress, which believes that work will solve the problem of poverty and that we have been too generous to the poor for too long. Requiring food stamp recipients to work (advocated by Republicans) and continuing workfare programs for AFDC recipients (advocated by both the Congress and the Clinton Administration) reflects this first belief Cutting benefit levels and adding eligibility restrictions reflect the second assumption. Despite data showing that welfare benefits have fallen rather than risen, and arguments that not enough jobs, child care services and adequate transportation are available to enable the poor to work, and that workfare pro grams yield too few benefits to lift the non-working poor out of poverty, the cutting and hacking continue.
This PRRAC-funded research project examined two additional arguments against these prevalent beliefs: First, since many of the poor do work, work by itself does not eradicate poverty. Second, many of those who qualify for welfare do not receive these benefits. In other words, the poor do not necessarily take full advantage of the welfare system.
I examined the working poor population who qualify for food stamps, AFDC and Medicaid and the proportion who receive benefits. Data were from the US Census's Survey of Income and Program Participation, a national database collected by surveying a random sample of households in the United States.
I found that a surprising amount of the working poor do not receive benefits for which they qualify. Two-thirds of those who qualified for food stamps did not receive benefits. One-third of those who qualified for AFDC failed to receive benefits.
In addition, those who qualified for assistance were in their prime working years-between the ages of 25 and 45. Most of those who qualified for food stamps worked full time, while most of those who qualified for AFDC worked at least half time. Those who qualified for AFDC or food stamps were also likely to hold high school degrees or greater. The majority of those who qualified for food stamps, and one-third of those who qualified for AFDC, lived in married-couple families. (One can qualify for AFDC even if in a married couple family if one of the parents is incapacitated. In addition, married couple families can qualify for AFDC-U if the primary earner is unemployed or underemployed.)
Thus, the portrait of working poor is not one of marginal workers-either young workers or older retired workers-or a population that is out of the ordinary. Most were in married-couple families, in their prime working years, worked many hours and had at least a high school education.
These workers were poor not because of abnormal lifestyles or deviant behavior, but simply because they earned too little or were in unstable jobs. Most, almost 60%, worked in clerical, private household service or labor occupations and in retail, agricultural, personal household services, health care or residential care industries. These are among the lowest-paying occupations and industries. Far too few (7%) were represented by labor unions, which also depresses their wages.
Those who failed to receive food stamps or AFDC did not seem to do so because of the lack of need. If need were a factor, income should be higher for those who choose not to participate. However, those who did not participate had lower incomes than those who chose to participate in these programs. Thus, lack of information, lack of access to welfare programs, reluctance to participate or simply being deemed ineligible by case workers more likely explains why so many fail to participate in these programs.
Preliminary findings that extend this research indicate that receiving benefits would substantially improve the resources available to the working poor. Thus, the fact that the working poor are not receiving benefits is a serious concern. Cutting benefits for this population, which is likely to occur with the current Congress, will seriously harm the standard of living for the working poor.
Much of the support for cutting the food stamp and AFDC programs centers on motivating the non-working poor to work. (The logic is that if the non-working poor have less money from welfare, they will be forced to work in order to make ends meet.) Regardless of where one falls on the issue of the non-working poor, it is important to remember that cuts in programs for the non-working poor will also hurt the working poor.
The working poor will be harmed because much of the debate around welfare reform has centered on policies for the non-working poor. There are no comprehensive policies for the working poor, because policy makers and politicians have effectively stuck their heads in the sand, pretending that this population does not exist, or that work (or more work: working more hours or additional jobs) will solve the poverty problem. But by ignoring the existence and growth of the working poor, we are left with policies for the working poor that were tailored for the non-working poor. Work will obviously not solve the problem of poverty for those who are already working. The growth of the working poor-up to 9 million today, and double this amount if more reasonable poverty thresholds are used-is a fact that we cannot ignore. To stem its growth, we need policies regarding jobs and wages, so that if one works, one receives an income to support one's family.
As Congress reshapes and hacks away at the welfare system, it is essential to remember the important safety net that the welfare programs provide, and that many people who are regarded as playing by the rules by working will be harmed from these changes. Cutting some programs while expanding others, depending on the programs, may be a good idea. However, the current Congress is cutting al/of the programs that can assist the working poor, including the universally applauded Earned Income Tax Credit. As those on the bottom of the income distribution continue to reap less and less of the rewards in this country, and as the working poor swell in numbers, such cuts are unconscionable.
Instead of presuming that welfare recipients take unfair advantage of the welfare system, it is important to remember that most working poor who qualify for welfare benefits do not receive assistance. It is also important to remember that a growing population does work and remains poor. Given current welfare proposals, which will increase the number of those required to work in order to receive assistance, the number of the working poor is certain to grow. Rather than harm this population by cutting the little assistance for which some qualify and even fewer receive benefits, it is far more reasonable to expand assistance for this population, as well as to formulate policies that can alter the structure of jobs and wages in order to stem its growth.
Advocacy work that pursues some of these concerns will likely be conducted by Ken Grossinger of the Service Employees International Union. The nature of this work will be determined once the Congressional budget is approved.
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