Shattering a Povery Myth

ECM’s Maine and New Hampshire Director, MaryLou Beaver, recently spent time at workshops on poverty. One of the questions raised was “What is the public’s perception of the people who live in poverty.”

According to MaryLou, a recurring opinion by some workshop participants was, “If people want to escape poverty, all they need to do is get themselves motivated and get a job. The economy is getting better and there are jobs available for those who want them.”

This is an opinion we all encounter at one time or another. It seems like a viable solution. So why hasn’t this happened? Are people just so unmotivated that they fail to apply for available jobs? On the contrary, low-income workers are putting in more hours than ever. So, why doesn’t the reality we experienced before the ‘70’s hold true?

Communicating with her Maine and New Hampshire readers, MaryLou refers to an article by Neil Irwin, Growth has been good for years. So why hasn’t poverty declined?

Published in The New York Times on June 5, 2014, Irwin’s article sheds some light on the topic. He talks about the break in the 1970’s in the usual pattern of fighting poverty by achieving stronger economic growth. According to Irwin, this is a key finding in a new study of wages from the Economic Policy Institute.

“From 1959 to 1973, a more robust United States economy and fewer people living below the poverty line went hand-in-hand. That relationship broke apart in the mid-1970s. If the old relationship between growth and poverty had held up, the E.P.I. researchers find, the poverty rate in the United States would have fallen to zero by 1986 and stayed there ever since.

“Debates over what kind of social welfare system the United States ought to have are always polarizing, from the creation of the Great Society in the 1960s to the Clinton welfare reforms of the 1990s to the Paul Ryan budgets of this era. Conservatives tend to attribute the persistence of poverty, even amid economic growth, to the perverse incentives that a welfare state creates against working.

“But the reality is that low-income workers are putting in more hours on the job than they did a generation ago — and the financial rewards for doing so just haven’t increased.

“That’s the real lesson of the data: If you want to address poverty in the United States, it’s not enough to say that you need to create better incentives for lower-income people to work. You also have to devise strategies that make the benefits of a stronger economy show up in the wages of the people on the edge of poverty, who need it most desperately.”

And as MaryLou concludes, “… we need to stop blaming the poor for being poor.”