Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has ensured that charges of Dickensian harshness will once more rain down on conservatives. In a November speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Gingrich proposed that poor kids labor as janitors in their schools; later, he expanded on the idea, noting that “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works.” His words provoked predictable liberal outrage, culminating in Charles Blow’s emotional New York Times column “Newt’s War on Poor Children.” Unfortunately, if Gingrich had been more careful, he could have made an important point: poverty in America today, unlike poverty in Dickens’s time, is closely associated with unemployment and underemployment.
Blow chides Gingrich for ignoring the facts about poor working parents. What are those facts? “Three out of four poor working-aged adults—ages 18 to 64—work,” Blow observes. “Half of them have full-time jobs and a quarter work part time.” Blow also cited an analysis of census data by Andrew Beveridge, a sociologist at Queens College, who found that most poor children live in a household with at least one employed parent. “Even among children who live in extreme poverty—defined here as a household with income less than 50 percent of the poverty level—a third have at least one working parent,” Blow continues. “And even among extremely poor children who live in extremely poor areas—those in which 30 percent or more of the population is poor—nearly a third live with at least one working parent.”
A less sunny way of putting Blow’s initial point, however, is that fully half of poor working-age adults work less than 35 hours a week, the Labor Department’s current definition of “full-time,” and that a quarter don’t work at all. It’s hardly cheering news, moreover, that only a third of children in extreme poverty live with a working parent—especially because (though Blow doesn’t say it) precious few of those parents work full-time. Further, by using the phrase “working parent,” the columnist obscures a key fact: poor kids almost always live with a single mother. As he surely knows, the poverty rate for children living with single mothers is 30 percent, compared with 6 percent for those living with married parents. The fair-minded would probably look at the facts put this way and support neither Gingrich’s overly broad statement nor Blow’s indignation about it: a lot of poor people clearly aren’t employed full-time, or at all.
The problem of the unemployed and underemployed poor predates the Great Recession and persists through good times and bad. During the late nineties, the best labor market in 30 years—the unemployment rate was 4 percent—poor black men continued a long trend of leaving the workforce. In a 2003 paper, Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution calculated that the yearly working hours of the poor were half those of the nonpoor; full-time work, they argued, would probably do more to reduce poverty than any other antipoverty measure—including increasing educational attainment and doubling cash welfare. Yet in 2005, 38 percent of poor men between 25 and 35 weren’t working at all; those working full-time peaked that year at 29 percent.
The general rule that work reduces poverty has held during the Great Recession. Census Bureau data show that poverty jumped from 13.5 to 14.5 percent among people working fewer than 35 hours a week between 2008 and 2009. Among those who didn’t work, poverty rose even more, from 18.9 percent to 22 percent. But full-time workers saw no increase in poverty. And just 2.7 percent of men and women working full-time live in poverty.
In fact, as economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano, among others, have shown, since the 1970s, the hours worked by the richest quintile of the population have increased substantially—particularly among those working 50 hours or more—while the hours worked by the poorest quintile have declined. None of this is to say that low wages among those at the bottom aren’t a problem or that there aren’t powerful reasons—mental illness, physical disabilities, poor skills, prison records—that people who want work can’t find it. But evoking the Dickensian trope of the near-starving, exhausted worker is a fantasy that will do little to alleviate poverty.