Robert Reich: Debunking the top three lies about poverty in America

06/17/2014 5:42 PM

06/17/2014 6:40 PM

Rather than confront poverty by extending jobless benefits to the long-term unemployed, endorsing a higher minimum wage or supporting jobs programs, conservative Republicans are taking a different tack. They’re telling three big lies about poverty.

Lie No. 1: Economic growth reduces poverty.

“The best anti-poverty program,” wrote Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, in The Wall Street Journal, “is economic growth.”

Wrong. Since the late 1970s, the economy has grown 147 percent per capita but almost nothing has trickled down. The typical American worker is earning just about what he or she made three decades ago, adjusted for inflation.

Meanwhile, the share of Americans in poverty remains about 15 percent. That’s higher than it was in the early 1970s.

How can the economy have grown so much while most people’s wages go nowhere and the poor remain poor? Because almost all the gains have gone to the top.

Research by Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty shows that 40 years ago, the richest 1 percent of Americans got 9 percent of total income. Today they get more than 20 percent.

Lie No. 2: Jobs reduce poverty.

Sen. Marco Rubio said poverty is best addressed with “reforms that encourage and reward work.” This has been the standard Republican line ever since Ronald Reagan declared that the best social program is a job. A number of Democrats have adopted it as well. But it’s wrong.

Evidence suggests that jobs are crucial not only to economic well-being but also to self-esteem. Long-term unemployment can even shorten life expectancy.

But simply having a job is no bulwark against poverty. Across America the ranks of the working poor have grown. About a fourth of all American workers are in jobs paying below what a full-time, full-year worker needs to live above the federally defined poverty line for a family of four.

Why are more people working but still poor? More jobs pay lousy wages. While low-paying industries such as retail and fast food accounted for 22 percent of the jobs lost in the Great Recession, they’ve generated 44 percent of the jobs added since then, according to a recent report from the National Employment Law Project. Also, the real value of the minimum wage continues to fall.

In addition, government aid now typically requires recipients to be working. This hasn’t meant fewer poor people. It’s just meant more poor people have jobs.

Lie No. 3: Ambition cures poverty.

Most Republicans, unlike Democrats and independents, think poor people are poor because of a lack of effort, according to a Pew Research Center/USA Today survey.

Obviously, personal responsibility is important. But there’s no evidence that people who are poor are less ambitious. In fact, many work long hours at backbreaking jobs. What they really lack is opportunity.

It begins with lousy schools. America is one of only three advanced countries that spends less on the education of poorer children than richer ones, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Among the 34 OECD nations, only in the United States, Israel and Turkey do schools serving poor areas have fewer teachers and crowd students into densely populated classrooms than do schools serving more privileged students. In most countries, it’s just the reverse: Poor neighborhoods get more teachers per student. And unlike the other countries, America doesn’t put better teachers in poorly performing schools.

So, why do so many right-wing Republicans tell these three lies? Because they make it almost impossible to focus on what the poor really need: good-paying jobs, adequate safety nets and excellent schools.

These things cost money. Lies are cheaper.

Robert Reich is the chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

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