7 Harmful Myths We Need to Stop Telling About Poverty


Conservatives have been hounding the poor even more than usual lately.

They're worried that poor Americans are buying lobster dinners on the government dime, and they're bent on making sure welfare recipients aren't going to the movies or abusing hard drugs. In light of these anxieties, state legislatures across the country have been considering and implementing a variety of policies designed to ensure that the poor aren't taking taxpayers for a ride.

But the classic American blend of condescension, suspicion and outright disdain for the most economically vulnerable members of society is, on the whole, deeply misguided. Myths about the poor — that they're lazy, that they exploit benefits, that they neglect obvious opportunities to escape their fate — manufacture the idea that their lives are easier than most, when in fact their lives are exceptionally hard.

The reality is that there's a wealth of data that shows the poor are as responsible and interested in working as everyone else, and that their place on the bottom rung of the economic ladder is often due to circumstances out of their control.

Here's a breakdown of some of the most common myths about poverty in America, and why they're wrong:

Myth: The U.S. offers unparalleled opportunity to escape poverty.

Reality: America has far less social mobility than most comparable nations, including France, Germany, Denmark and Canada. Inequality in access to education, health care and home ownership has hardened class disparities. A 2006 study found that 42% of American men who grew up in the bottom quintile of incomes remained there are adults — a rate that's much lower in other developed countries. According to a 2013 Hamilton Project report, "a child born to parents with income in the lowest quintile is more than 10 times more likely to end up in the lowest quintile than the highest as an adult."

Myth: Education is the silver bullet for solving poverty.

Reality: A paper at the 2014 Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's annual conference revealed that class is a far better predictor than education level of where someone ends up. In the study, rich people who dropped out of high school maintained their wealth as often as poor people who acquired college degrees remained frozen at the bottom of the income ladder. In fact, a college degree does not even guarantee a middle class life: According to Mother Jones' analysis of census data, in 2012, more than 1 million people with bachelor degrees made less than $25,000 a year while working full-time.

Myth: Welfare makes the poor lazy.

Reality: People across the income ladder strongly prefer working to being unemployed, and the data show that this is very much the case for poor people receiving support from the government, especially after having time to recover from emergency. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "Among SNAP households [households receiving food stamps] with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP — and more than 80% work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children — more than 60% work while receiving SNAP, and almost 90% work in the prior or subsequent year."

Not only is there an absence of evidence that government aid causes rampant laziness, but there's also research suggesting that it promotes entrepreneurialism by mitigating the risk of launching businesses — many people are more ambitious with a safety net. Gareth Olds at the Harvard Business School has shown that access to government aid in the form of food stamps or health care corresponds directly with business ownership.

Myth: We should test all welfare recipients for drug use because they're all addicts.

Reality: A recent analysis by ThinkProgress found that in seven states requiring welfare applicants to be screened for illicit drug use, they exhibited rates of drug use lower than the general population. A 1996 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found no significant difference in drug use between the welfare-receiving population and the non-welfare-receiving population, and a 2002 government survey found that welfare recipients clocked in at less than half a percentage point higher than non-welfare recipients for drug use. If it were an actual problem, then public health groups wouldn't adamantly oppose drug testing welfare recipients.

Myth: Poor people get by on benefits while the rest of us have to work for everything.

Reality: People from every stratum of society are beneficiaries of government benefits. According to political scientists Suzanne Mettler and John Sides, 96% of Americans have received government assistance, and most of it is has nothing to do with easing poverty. Student loans, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Social Security benefits are all forms of government aid. Some benefits are "submerged," or camouflaged because they work through the tax code or private organizations. An example of a submerged benefit is the home mortgage interest deduction, the kind of benefit for homeowners that in fact favors the rich over the poor.

Myth: Food stamps are used to buy junk food and other unnecessary items.

Reality: A 2015 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that people who receive SNAP benefits don't consume sugary drinks at higher rates than others in their demographic who don't receive them. Welfare experts like Washington University professor Mark Rank say SNAP beneficiaries use them very carefully. "There are some isolated cases of abuse, sure," Rank told the Washington Post. "But they are hardly representative of what the people struggling to get by on SNAP are actually buying... These people are spending their money extremely frugally."

Myth: Single parenthood is causing poverty.

Reality: Two-parent households are generally going to make more money than single-parent homes, but the reason that single parents end up in poverty isn't pure recklessness or a cultural aversion to marriage. A number of studies suggest just the opposite: Economic insecurity actually discourages people from getting married. Despite the fact that low-income people generally possess traditional values about getting married, they view marriage as a risky investment of resources in an environment of economic and social instability, and opt for more tentative arrangements (moving in together) instead. Similarly, conservatives often point to absent fathers as a sign that poor men, stereotypically black, have shunned norms of child-rearing. But these critics pay little attention to the role that chronic scarcity and instability of jobs for low-income workers and mass incarceration plays in displacing fathers from households.