America's Work Problem

Despite the fact that most people seem to complain about their jobs, the truth is that the overwhelming majority of working people are content. In 2015, Gallup reported that 86 percent of full or part-time workers were “somewhat” or “completely satisfied.” Perhaps this level of satisfaction reflects not the day-to-day routine of the job itself, but, rather, the sense of pride and belonging that employment provides.

This is a major reason why the trend toward fewer Americans working is so worrisome, especially in light of the relationship between not working and being poor. In “America’s Work Problem: How Addressing the Reasons People Don’t Work Can Reduce Poverty,” I explore poverty in America from a work perspective. The results show that unlike 20 years ago, three out of five poor adults of working age in America today don’t work at all. The reasons why have little to do with the inability to find a job and more to do with health problems and family responsibilities. To reduce poverty, we need to focus on the specific reasons poor adults give for being out of the workforce. 

Using data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) from 1995 to 2014, I examined the characteristics of poor Americans who do not work by the reasons they cite. Some give school or retirement as the reason for not working, while those with children mostly cite family responsibilities as the culprit. Those without children typically identify illness or disability. Only a small fraction cite the inability to find a job as the reason for not working. These patterns hold over time, even as the share of poor, working-age adults out of the workforce has grown compared to those working full- or part-time. 

Perhaps most alarming is the fact that most poor people of working age are not looking for work at all. In 2014 (the most recent available data), only 9.8 percent cited an inability to find a job as the reason for not working. In this group, the rate was slightly higher for poor men than poor women, but still well below the share who cited other reasons. Even among poor, prime-age men (18-34 years old) who were not in school, only a minority of those most likely to be looking for work cited the inability to find a job as the reason they were not working. 

Rather than citing scarcity of jobs, a shocking 56 percent of all poor, non-working, Americans of working age in 2014 reported health issues or family responsibilities as the reason. The overwhelming majority of those citing family responsibilities were women between 25 and 54, two-thirds of whom had children who were minors. Those citing health issues were only slightly more female than male and were, for the most part, older than 35 years old with no children under 18. Illness or disability was the most common reason for not working among men of all ages — except those 18 to 24 years old — and most of them were unmarried and without children at home.

Some argue that focusing on work as an anti-poverty measure has limitations because many of those in poverty are children and the elderly, who cannot work. But my research shows that almost two-thirds of poor children lived with parents at least one of whom worked less than full-time. My research also shows that while most of those citing family responsibilities for not working (primarily women) had married or cohabitating partners in the home, only 40 percent of these partners had full-time jobs.

Today, anti-poverty proposals focus on the demand side of the labor market, such as minimum wage increases, subsidized jobs, and education and training efforts. Sadly, these policies do little for those not working and not searching for work. They also fail to address the two most common reasons for not working: health issues and family responsibilities. 

We need new policies that take into account the reasons that the unemployed, themselves, cite for not working. This means reforming disability-assistance programs so that they encourage rather than discourage work as well as new public health efforts aimed at keeping people healthy enough for employment. Similarly, government assistance programs should encourage people to work, too. This may involve reasonable work requirements in programs such as federal nutrition assistance, but also increased supports, such as childcare assistance or expansions to cash assistance programs that help motivate people to work by balancing work requirements with job search assistance.

The official poverty rate in the United States, which measures a person’s ability to escape poverty without much government help, has been stuck for years, leaving few options. We can either accept the status quo — which means leaving millions of Americans in poverty — or fund large government income transfers from working taxpayers to the non-working poor. Or, better yet, we can ensure that more Americans are working by focusing on the reasons why many don't in the first place.

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