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August 1989, Vol. 112, No. 8
Reasons for not working: poor and nonpoor householders
Mark S. Littman
Despite a great deal of discussion about what the work activity of the poor is and should be, there is no consensus. Published views range from implying that none of the poor work to implying that they all work year round, full time or have unquestionable reasons for not doing so.1
This article compares the work experience of poor (income below the poverty level) and nonpoor (income above the poverty level) heads of family households (hereafter called "householders") between 1959 and 1986.2 It also examines how the reasons given by the poor for not working or for working part year differ from those given by the nonpoor. The data are based on the official poverty figures from the Bureau of the Census and labor force activity as measured in the Current Population Survey (CPS).3
In 1986, about 80 percent of nonpoor family householders worked, down from 90 percent in 1959, but unchanged overall in the 1980's. Although several reasons for the decline have been expounded, none has been universally accepted.4 For example, earlier retirement (before age 65) has been one reason given, but even when the age universe is restricted to householders of preretirement age (22-64), the proportion working in the preceding year declined from about 95 percent of the nonpoor in 1959 to 91 percent by 1986.
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1 For an example of the former, see Lawrence Wade, "The Illusions and Realities of Poverty and Income," The Washington Times, Aug. 7, 1987. Wade writes, "Many lazy people are poor. The problem for taxpayers is . . . poverty experts refuse to measure laziness." An example of the latter is Sheldon Danziger and Peter Gottschalk, "Work, poverty, and the working poor: a multifaceted problem," Monthly Labor Review, September 1986, pp. 17-21. Danziger and Gottschalk assume in their conclusion, for example, that society at large does not expect college students or women with young children to work, when neither view seems to be supported by the actual recent labor force activity of these groups.
2 Family householders were chosen because three-fourths of the poor are in families and three-fourths of household members are children or householders themselves, the former presumably dependent on the latter. It should be noted that these are not work history data for this group, and thus the data do not represent changes in the work experience of the same householders over time. The data presented here are derived from tables published by the Census Bureau in the P-60 series of Current Population Reports. The data shown for male householders refer to families in which no spouse was present and to married-couple families. Between 5 percent and 10 percent of householders in poor married couple families are women.
3 In 1986, the average poverty threshold ranged from about $5,600 for a person living alone to $22,500 for a family of nine or more. For a description of the Federal Government's official poverty definition, see Poverty in the United States: 1986, Current Population Reports, Series P-60, No. 160 (Bureau of the Census, 1988).
4 See Howard Hayghe and Steven E. Haugen, "A profile of husbands in today's labor market," Monthly Labor Review, October 1987, pp. 12-17. One reason given has been the advent/availability of disability insurance. See David T. Ellwood and Lawrence H. Summers, "Is Welfare Really the Problem?" The Public Interest, Spring 1986, pp. 66-67; and "Work Disincentives and Disability Insurance," in P. Royal Shipp, ed., Work Disincentives and Income Maintenance Programs (Washington, Congressional Research Service, 1980), Report No. 80-111 EPW.
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