About one in twenty Americans—or almost 16 million people—are struggling to survive in conditions of “deep poverty.” As Eduardo Porter observes, “No other advanced nation tolerates this depth of deprivation.
Clearly, as can been seen in the chart above, the number of people below 50 percent of the poverty threshold would be higher—more than three times higher—without some form of government assistance.* Still, the persistence of such poverty a fundamental change in the nature of government anti-poverty programs—from helping all poor people to increasing benefits only to those who work.
All in all, in the early 1980s more than half of government transfers to low-income families went to the very poorest. Thirty years later these families received less than one-third of the government’s help.
This choice, as a society, to target most of our help only to those who can help themselves exhibits a blinkered understanding of what perpetuates the deep, intractable poverty that affects many communities. But it serves a purpose. By believing the poor are not exerting enough effort, we allow ourselves not to care. This permits politicians — and voters — to go normally about their business while 16 million Americans live on $8.60 or less a day.
One might argue that fundamental change in anti-poverty programs, starting with Clinton’s 1996 welfare overhaul, represents an increasingly cruel and callous country, one that seeks to punish a large portion of the population that it has pushed into deep poverty. Alternatively, it’s a sign that the key criterion for government programs is not to alleviate poverty per se but to put increased pressure on poor people to be forced to have the freedom to work for someone else.
In the United States, we often refer to poor people as being “dependent” on government assistance. But the real dependence we have to face up to is the use of government programs to force people to make themselves available so that someone else can profit from their labor.
*The number and rates are calculated according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which includes the value of cash income from all sources, plus the value of in-kind benefits (such as nutritional assistance, subsidized housing, and home energy assistance) that are available to buy the basic bundle of goods, minus necessary expenses for critical goods and services not included in the thresholds.