The Differences Between Poor and Nonpoor Adults

For some time now, I have been banging away at the point that work-focused poverty initiatives are severely limited in what they can achieve. The great majority of poor people are not able to work more because they are children, elderly, disabled, students or already fully employed. Others could probably work more, but not without significant changes, such as with caretakers who will probably need child/elder/disabled care benefits to make work both possible and worth it.

One of the things that has bothered me about this analysis is the way in which it forces me to assign people to one group or another even though they often overlap. So, for instance, many people who are categorized as "unemployed" actually spent many weeks working during the year. Others who are categorized as carers may have only been out of the labor force for a few months and then returned to work for the rest of the year.

So I got to thinking: how could I capture the full reality of what poor people are doing throughout the year? Specifically, I wanted to capture the reality of what poor adults are doing throughout the year, as poor children and poor elderly are almost all in school or simply retired.

What I came up with was to make an average 52-week year based on how many weeks poor people were spending in the various statuses. Here is what that looks like:

I produced this calculation by going through each poor person in the 2015 ASEC file and adding up all the weeks they spent in each status. Then I divided the sum of all the weeks spent in each status by the number of poor people and that produced this 52-week composite poor person. I did the same thing for nonpoor people as well.

Here is the same graph in table form (the numbers are weeks; may not sum to 52 because of rounding):

One way of thinking about poverty and material security more generally is to ask yourself how we intend to deal with the weeks that are spent in a nonworking status. Specifically, how do you intend to get income to people when they are in a nonworking status? For children and elderly (who are not included here), the welfare society answer is very straightforward: child allowance for kids, old-age pension for elderly. For adults, things get a little bit more complicated, but generally, welfare states find ways to fill in the nonworking weeks with benefits of one sort or another, usually based on a person's status: disability benefits or when you are disabled, student benefits for when you are in school, unemployment benefits for when you are unemployed (or also here "discouraged"), and leave/caretaker benefits for carers.

There are some things you can do at the edges to transform some of the nonworking weeks into working weeks, but the room for that is much more limited than most imagine.