Some people argue that the poor are poor because they lack a work ethic. But hard work doesn’t mean American families can pay the bills. Nearly a third of the country’s 32.6 million working families, or 10.6 million, were low-income in 2013, or had incomes that fell below 200 percent of the poverty line, according to a new report from The Working Poor Families Project.
And race plays a huge role. Working families headed by people of color are twice as likely to wind up in poverty anyway as compared with white families. The report finds that nearly half, or 47 percent, of working families headed by racial or ethnic minorities are poor or low income, compared to just 23 percent of white families. Breaking it down further, 55 percent of working Latino and nearly half of African-American and Native American families who work are low income, but less than a quarter of white families are.
The gap is growing. In 2007, just as the recession hit, there was a 23 percentage point gap between how many working white families and families of color were low-income, but it is now 25 points.
Families of color are also likely to fall to the very bottom of the income ladder and rare at the top. More than a third of African-American and Latino working families fall into the lowest income bracket, making less than $32,000 a year. Just 13 percent of white and Asian-American families find themselves in that group.
Far from poor families lacking “a culture of work,” in the words of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) (who later backed away from his statement), other evidence shows many poor people work hard. The majority of poor, able-bodied adults who aren’t elderly — 11 million of 21 million people overall — worked in 2012, and another 3 million were in school. Five million couldn’t work because of an illness or disability. They also don’t end up poor because of bad spending habits, given that they have more frugal budgets than the wealthy.
People of color face particular hurdles. The black unemployment rate has been far higher than the white rate for decades. People of color who can find a job, meanwhile, are overrepresented in minimum wage work. But the minimum wage isn’t enough to afford rent in any state and can’t keep a parent out of poverty, even though it used to be enough to keep a family of three above that line.
The Working Poor Families Project also finds that 24 million children live in low-income working families, and 60 percent of them are children of color. Poverty can have a particularly devastating impact on the young. Growing up poor changes a person’s brain in ways that last far into the future, hurting emotional processing and increasing the odds of mental health issues. It also harms cognitive ability.