The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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November 17, 2013

The poor don't get lazy overnight

Budget cuts to food stamps will hurt the economy

The Free Press recently published the results of an online poll, asking readers if America provides too much aid to the poor. While the poll provided an opportunity to air opinions (a slight majority felt “too many people receive government assistance”), it may be more enlightening to not only consider a few facts, but re-phrase the question.

Because the problem isn't that too many people are receiving government assistance. The problem is that too many people need government assistance.

The first step in differentiating between opinion and fact is recognizing that many Americans have a peculiar propensity for conflating poverty with morality. There's a line of reasoning that says if someone is poor, it's probably their fault. They're unwilling to work, and lulled into dependence by all that sweet, sweet government money.

That's an opinion. Here's a fact:

In 2000, there were about 16,300 people living in poverty in the nine counties of south central Minnesota, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. After a couple recessions, that number had swollen to 28,000 by 2011. Did nearly 12,000 of our friends and neighbors suddenly become lazy?

Of course not. The fact is that macroeconomic conditions determine the number of people needing government assistance. We're still slogging along in the aftermath of the greatest financial shock to rattle world markets in nearly 80 years. Our neighbors didn't bring the world economy to its knees, but many of them are bearing the burden through lost jobs and reduced earnings.

Which brings us to the great American fable that anyone willing to work can hoist themselves up by their own bootstraps, kick down any obstacles and march directly to the promised land.

There's no doubt that gainful employment provides the most direct route out of poverty for those capable of working. The catch, though, is the word “gainful.” The Jobs Now Coalition recently looked at south central Minnesota, and found that while there were more job openings than at any time in the last eight years, nearly half of those jobs were part-time positions paying a median wage of less than $9 an hour.

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