The Forgotten Poorest of the Poor

One of the most maddening things about contemporary conservative attacks on the “undeserving” poor–you know, the people Thom Tillis wants even the disabled to “look down on” and that Jack Kingston wants to cut off from public assistance and that Paul Ryan warns have lost their moral fiber–is that the current system does relatively little for them. That’s made manifest in a must-read Wonkblog post by Emily Badger presenting some research findings from Johns Hopkins economist Robert Moffett, who finds that most of the growth in means-tested programs in recent years are in forms of assistance the poorest of the poor can’t access:

[T]he programs that have made up the largest share of that growth aren’t geared toward the poorest Americans, those who earn little or no money at all. Supplemental Security Income is only available to the elderly, the blind and the disabled. The Earned Income Tax Credit only benefits families who earn enough to qualify for a tax credit (generally those families making from $10,000 to $20,000 a year benefit the most). Families that don’t make enough to owe taxes similarly don’t benefit from the Child Tax Credit….

The distinction between who we’re effectively helping and who we’re not has grown sharper since the 1980s, Moffitt argues. Today, the “deserving” are working, married and have children. The undeserving are single parents, childless adults and anyone who’s out of work and so doesn’t qualify for tax breaks.

“Single mothers seem to be especially viewed as undeserving,” Moffitt says, “as though that’s a choice somehow….”

Moffitt isn’t arguing against the value of work in welfare programs. “I would never say that’s a bad thing,” he says. “That’s been very rewarding for society, and I think that has generated lots of additional help for people who are able to work.” The Earned Income Tax Credit is probably the best example of a program that rewards working parents. “But I think there’s a perception – it’s an old perception – that the people who aren’t working, who are down at the bottom, somehow aren’t exercising personal responsibility, they’re not trying their best to succeed.”

The reality, he says, is that many of them are trying, but our welfare system is only designed to help them if they do succeed. “If you’re trying and not succeeding,” Moffitt says, “the welfare system today gives you basically nothing.”

It gives you food stamps, worth about $5 a person, a day.

And food stamps (SNAP), of course, are the form of assistance conservatives are most avid to cut as “waste” and “abuse.”

If you’ve got nothing, you are most likely to be left to rely on your own non-existent resources. Tough luck, losers.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.