correction: This piece incorrectly suggested that data drawn from Christopher Faricy’s book “Welfare for the Wealthy” were from 2016. The figures, on federal Medicaid spending, employer-based health insurance, and Pell grants and college-related tax deductions, were from 2012.
The argument over which poor people deserve aid has begun anew thanks to incipient Republican efforts to harshen work requirements attached to welfare programs. For conservatives and thus-inclined Democrats, work requirements are about making sure that people who receive federal aid aren't lazy loafers living off the dole — "welfare queens" in Reaganite parlance.
It's a badly mistaken point of view. Built into the claim that it's only fair that poor people should be made to work for welfare are a few troubling assumptions: that poor people don't or won't work; that only compensated, market labor is real work; that society (and the state) always require work to precede income; and that each person is due to receive simply what they earn. Each of those is false.
According to 2013 congressional testimony from Lawrence Mead, who supplied much of the intellectual groundwork for our last round of welfare reform, "by requiring and promoting work, [welfare reform] integrated [recipients] into mainstream American life as never before." In fact, though, the number of impoverished people who could work but are neither working nor seeking work is already vanishingly small. As the leftist think tank People's Policy Project has shown, able-bodied adults who elected not to work or seek work in 2016 made up a scant 1.6 to 2.3 percent of America's poor. (Disclosure: My husband, Matt Bruenig, is founder of the think tank.) A recent study likewise found that 87 percent of able-bodied adults covered by the Medicaid expansion are already working, in school or seeking work, and that about 75 percent of those not working are full-time caregivers.
The lion's share of poor people are elderly, children or disabled persons; another chunk are caregivers. And while caregiving isn't compensated as market labor, parents looking after children and people caring for elderly or sick family members are hardly shiftless layabouts. Being both a mother and a writer, I am well aware that the less compensated of my two jobs is the more demanding one.
But what about that small number of people who could work but, for whatever reason, don't? Shouldn't they have to? Well, before deciding whether it's morally right for them to receive income without working, consider a far larger group that takes in far more money without toil: the idle rich. They soak up plenty of unearned money from the economy, in the form of rent, dividends and capital income. Salaries and wages — that is, money paid for work — only make up about 15 percent of the income of Americans making $10 million per year or more; the rest is capital income from simply owning assets.
And yet rarely do politicians inveigh against the laziness of the well-off. In fact, the government shells out huge sums of money to the rich every year through tax breaks and subsidies. As Syracuse University professor Christopher Faricy points out in his book "Welfare for the Wealthy," the federal government is hardly generous with the poor alone. In 2016, for instance, Social Security kept 26.1 million people out of poverty to the tune of $911.4 billion paid out in disability and old-age pensions; during that same year, federal tax subsidies for the pensions of the more affluent totaled $179.9 billion . Faricy observes that the same pattern holds in health care and education: While the government spent some $200 billion on Medicaid in 2012, it also spent $120 billion subsidizing employer-based health insurance; and while students whose families make under $20,000 per year are the main beneficiaries of federal Pell grants, households that earn between $100,000 and $200,000 receive roughly 50 percent of the benefits of college tuition-and-fee tax deductions.
In other words, the well-to-do already do what workfare advocates seem so nervous about: rake in money they haven't earned through market labor and thrive off the government's largesse. Perhaps that itself is unfair — so why duplicate it on the other end of the economy? Put simply, it seems ludicrous at best and sadistic at most to start one's fairness policing from the bottom up. If we mean to transform our economy into one in which people earn precisely what they work for and no more, and receive nothing from the government lest their work ethic wither, it would be best to start from the top down, where nobody runs any risk of starvation or homelessness if they lose their benefits.
In fact, none of us live entirely on what we earn. We rely on the infrastructure, knowledge and technology developed by those who have come before us, and those contemporaneous with us. Instead of trying to mince each person's life's work into careful calculations of contribution and merit, it seems more sensible to pursue a fairer economy overall: one that directs its excesses not to the already rich, but to those who have the greatest need; one that recognizes in its distributive structure that every person is immeasurably valuable, deserving of life and dignity.
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