In 2007, for instance, 6.4 percent of adults who lived under the poverty line and didn't work in the past year said it was because they couldn't find a job. As of 2012, the figure had more than doubled to a still-small 13.5 percent. By comparison, more than a quarter said they stayed home for family reasons and more than 30 percent cited a disability.
As you might expect, the are some big differences between the genders on this front. Women are far more likely than men to cite family. Men are more likely to cite their inability to find a job.
To me, these are the sorts of numbers that raise more questions than they answer. Are women staying home because they prefer to be mothers, or because they can't find jobs that pay enough to make working a financially viable choice, once the cost of family care is factored in? Are youngish retirees really choosing to leave the workforce early, or are they cashing in their social security benefits prematurely because they're out of other options? Of the 1.2 million adult men who said they couldn't hunt down work, how many really couldn't find any job, and how many couldn't find a job they wanted? Of the millions of apparently impoverished college students in the country, how many are essentially living on loans or their Pell Grants? You get the idea.
If you do choose to take the Census figures at face value, though, I think there are a couple of lessons. First, the recession changed poverty to some extent. More of the non-working poor claim they cannot find a job than at any point in the past two decades. Given that there are three unemployed Americans for every job opening, that shouldn't be much of a surprise. Second, the poor who choose not to work aren't necessarily doing so out of laziness, but because they have other obligations: they're trying to take care of relatives, they're ill, or they're attempting to make their way through school.
And taking away their meal tickets won't fix any of those problems.
Americans 18 to 64 who lived under the poverty line in 2012 and did not work during the year, by reason for not working (U.S. Census, in thousands)
|Year||Total||Ill or Disabled||Retired||Home or Family Reasons||Could Not Find Work||School or Other|
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Jordan Weissmann is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.
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