Princeton sociologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Matthew Desmond’s latest book, the New York Times best-seller Poverty, By America, explores why poverty is so prevalent—and persistent—in the richest nation on Earth. We spoke about his excellent book not long ago, but with the House Republicans demanding new work requirements for Medicaid and food-stamp recipients in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, I figured Desmond would have some thoughts.
There’s certainly little evidence that work requirements achieve their goal—that is, if the goal is to improve people’s lives. But this is a charitable view of Republican intent. If their goal is to push needy people off the rolls, then sure. And if the goal is to reduce the deficit—and the debt-ceiling bill has a bunch of provisions that would do the opposite—there are ways to do it that don’t target and scapegoat America’s most vulnerable. I reached out to Desmond to talk about these things and more. As always, our chat has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your first thought when you heard the Republicans were seeking to impose new work requirements for food stamps and Medicaid?
That it doesn’t have anything to do with work. When Arkansas imposed work requirements on Medicaid in 2018, I believe 18,000 people lost their health insurance and the state did not witness any growth in employment. Work requirements are not about work; they’re about a commitment by the modern Republican Party to harm the poor, really. It’s hard to say it any other way. If we’re going to balance the budget and tackle the deficit, why is it always the poor who have to pay that price, especially given all the tax avoidance and shenanigans that we experience today?
As the public sees it, there are three questions. First, are work requirements reasonable? Second, what’s the goal? And third, does the policy achieve the goal? To get food stamps now, so-called able-bodied adults under 50, without young children, have to spend 20 hours a week doing paid or unpaid work or work training. If you presented that to the average person on the street, they might say, “That sounds pretty reasonable.” But what does it look like for the people in need of aid?
So many of of the aid recipients are working already, and many are working in ways that aren’t recognized as work. One of the things that is completely baffling and frustrating to me is how we ignore the caretaking work of raising kids and also caring for the old, and render that work invisible with respect to these requirements.
I would love a public conversation about the incentives to work. You know, often these low-wage jobs are grueling and you have no power and your pay hasn’t gone up in years. These conversations seem just out of touch with the everyday experiences of folks in jobs like that.
What do you know about these work training programs?
I haven’t studied them. I do think there’s an idea among some policymakers that if we just had the right credentials, or right education, people could achieve some financial stability. I think the research is in on that: One-third of Americans who have a college degree earn less than the median income. In the United States, we’ve had incredible growth and educational attainment at the secondary and post-secondary levels over the last 40 years, and yet poverty has really persisted. To me it’s not about credentialing or job training, it’s really about the imbalance of power in the labor market.
Work requirement policies are often sold as a way to push people to improve their lot and make themselves more self-sufficient. Do you think that’s one of the actual goals?
No, because we have so many people working already that would be affected. I think the idea of work requirements rests on the image of a layabout—a person who isn’t working pulling a check—and that just isn’t supported by the data. Brookings had a study [that looked at] how many people can be considered non-working poor, disconnected from the labor market for reasons we don’t understand? They found it was like 3 percent of folks.
And so part of what this policy proposal does is continue this myth of poverty being connected to non-work, where today there are so many people working and still mired in poverty.
Matt Gaetz used the term “couch potatoes” to describe certain aid recipients. It’s kind of like the “welfare queens” of the Reagan era.
Yeah, here we are, again—same old story.
Matt Gaetz called people who use food stamps, “couch potatoes.” pic.twitter.com/baGDzWLpyr
— PatriotTakes 🇺🇸 (@patriottakes) February 4, 2023
I was just reading about how the term “able-bodied,” which we hear a lot in these debates, has quite a history.
Isn’t it in the poor laws of England?
Yes, exactly. And it was rooted in the church and meant to carry moral weight. And it’s still around. I mean, you write about the dehumanizing aspects of poverty. Over the years, this kind of rhetoric has advanced certain cultural narratives about the poor. From your experience, how do you view those narratives?
When you talk to folks in violence reduction programs or reentry programs who have experienced hardship and are trying to make a change, it’s often really hard to connect them with jobs. There’s this idea that there’s just a bunch of jobs out there that people who grew up in incredibly difficult circumstances could just step into if they wanted. And that seems really out of touch with the lived experience of poverty. The broader point my book is trying to make is that this moral division between the working and non-working—”makers and takers” is the Republican phrase—is not the moral line that’s most salient to this debate. First, we’re all kind of takers, right? We all benefit from government programs in one way or another, even if we don’t recognize it. But more importantly, I feel like the moral bright line should be between the exploiters and the exploited—or as Orwell put it, the robbers and the robbed.
I can only imagine work requirements are especially hard for people with a felony on their record.
Yeah, there is a lot of data on how a felony record, especially when it compounds with racial discrimination in the job market, can really be an impediment. I just wonder whether any of the folks pushing these policies have real relationships with constituents who are in poverty—if they know them, if they’re in touch with their lives and their struggles. Because if they did, they couldn’t in good faith be asking our poor families to pay the price of the debt-ceiling debates.
If we wanted to get serious about reducing the deficit, we could insist on tax fairness. What did the IRS chair say: We’re losing $1 trillion a year in tax avoidance and evasion? And so this seems like such a distraction. If the deficit concern is driving it, there is a clear solution that is not being pursued. I think that’s incredibly telling—and frankly, cruel.
Right. We don’t ask able-bodied rich people to work in exchange for their tax breaks—which are far more generous than aid for the poor.
That’s much better than I could have put it. It’s also, I feel like we don’t devalue the importance of work when we make a claim that no one in America should fall below a certain level. We’re talking about food and healthcare here! Medicaid and food stamps. There shouldn’t be any qualifications to meeting basic necessities in this land of dollars.
I’ve spent a lot of time in poor communities and this myth of the couch potato—I’ve not met that person. I’ve spent time with folks who are on disability and out of the workforce. And I’ve spent a ton of time with folks who are working like crazy but aren’t shown to be working on official documents because they’re working under the table. They’re working for cash and working in places that don’t take your Social Security number.
The Republican Party decries the bureaucratic state and how burdensome it is, and regulations and all that—but work and training requirements create a huge bureaucracy that enriches private contractors while subjecting people who already have a lot on their plate to mountains of paperwork.
That’s right. And we see this in the data. If we had a country of welfare dependency, why do we see over $140 billion in unused aid left on the table every year by families that are disconnected from programs that they need and deserve? Why do most elderly Americans who qualify for food stamps pass on them, one in five workers who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit not claim it—this isn’t a picture of welfare dependency, this is a picture of bureaucracy and red tape and administrative burden. No one is asking me to get photographed and fingerprinted to take my mortgage-interest deduction.
Michael Harrington had this phrase in The Other America: socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor. I feel it’s like, the deregulation of the rich and regulation of the poor. These administrative burdens are pushed down on families that have the least resources.
Right. And I gather there is evidence that when you make a benefits process more onerous, people drop off the rolls. And perhaps that’s the goal.
Yeah. A reasonable counter-explanation would be solid evidence that work requirements lead to increases in employment and do not result in people losing their benefits. But the way I read the evidence, work requirements lead to people losing their benefits and have a very mixed record on increasing employment.
The modern welfare state is tilted toward the employed. The work of Robert Moffitt, a great economist at Johns Hopkins, shows that our poorest families today get less than they did 30 years ago, but the families right around the poverty line and above it get a lot more because we’ve embraced this employment-based welfare state. But the way people talk, you would assume that we haven’t been undergoing this process for the past 30 years.
Another notable aspect of these programs is that they’re very paternalistic—shaming, even. I mean, you can’t use food stamps for certain items—not just tobacco and alcohol, but also toiletries and pet food and dietary supplements. Yet we don’t tell well-to-do takers how to spend their money.
I remember listening to an interview where a conservative guest was saying, “I don’t want my tax dollars going into gambling and alcohol,” or something like that. [Economist Thorstein] Veblen wrote about the forced continence of the poor—that often they just can’t afford alcohol because of poverty. If you look at the data today, there’s a lot more drinking with the upper classes than with poor folks. But again, no one’s asking me if my tax breaks are used to buy alcohol or cigarettes or a trip to Vegas, right?
Correction: The study on the situations of people living in poverty came from Brookings, not the Urban Institute. The figure for impoverished people who weren’t working for reasons unknown was 3 percent, not 2 percent as originally stated.