Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks confessed that he rooted for Duke to win the NCAA championship because he thinks rich people work harder than poor people do. Meanwhile, those on the news end at his paper reported that lawmakers are rethinking the 1996 welfare reform law. The goal of the reform was to push people off the welfare rolls, but that undermined the safety-net purpose of welfare during a downturn like the one we're having now:
The 1996 law changed the culture of cash assistance. The number of people on welfare fell more than expected, the employment of single mothers increased and child poverty declined.
But those trends have not been sustained. Child poverty has increased. Since 1996, the proportion of poor children receiving assistance has declined by more than half. Fewer than half of eligible families participate in the program.
It's a good reminder that cash assistance for families in need was meant to be an anti-poverty measure. Promoting work and providing job training is fine, but let's hope limiting the kind of help families can receive is on its way out.
But back to what Brooks said. I've had a hard time coming up with the stats he used to say that, for the first time in human history, the rich work longer hours than poor people do. The closest thing I found was this, a 2008 op-ed from the Times that argued that increasing income disparity, along with more mobile devices that make it possible for white-collar workers to work 24/7, have probably helped spur the desire by top earners to make more money by working more. Some of that, says the author, Dalton Conley, is because the top income bracket encompasses a huge range of incomes. Wealthy people are more likely to see or know people who are even wealthier, and that will make them relatively less happy.
Matt Taibbi rightly echoes a lot of what Gail Collins said in the chat that led Brooks to let loose with that rich-people-are-great thought: Low-wage earners are much more likely to do jobs that suck. It's relatively easy to work all day when that work doesn't include physical labor and allows you to eat at your desk. It's also easy if you have people taking care of things at home.
But both missed one thought I had about those stats. I suspect that low-wage earners just aren't allowed to work as much as they might want to. They're probably the employed -- not the employers -- and their bosses aren't going to let them work overtime just because they need more money. If they do work overtime, they're probably asked to work off the clock, or just aren't paid properly. The people I know who work at or near the minimum wage have hours that are intensely managed by their superiors just so they don't get more money or qualify for benefits. Unless the workers are unionized, there's little recourse. And none of that counts those who want to work but simply can't get hired full time. I suspect that, if you dug behind those numbers a bit, there isn't a lot of choice involved in working hours at the lowest income levels.
-- Monica Potts
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