Bernie Sanders greets you with this image when you visit his website:
It’s an appealing idea that the vast majority of Americans probably agree with. The problem is that it excludes the vast majority of people in poverty.
Sanders commonly talks about how it’s shameful that the United States has 46 million people living in poverty, a rate much higher than other developed countries. But according the the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, out of those 46 million, less than 5 million are full time workers, or less than 10% of the total poor population.
Part of the reason so few poor people are not full time workers is that they can’t find work. But even if you give a full time job to every poor person looking for one, it still leaves out more than 80% of poor people.*
By saying “no one working 40 hours a week should live in poverty” Sanders at best ignores the plight of the non-working poor and at worse implies they deserve their fate. By only addressing the working poor, he excludes 38 of the 46 million people in poverty.
But worse than Sanders’ ineffective plans at combating poverty is his rank hypocrisy.
While he campaigns against President Clinton’s welfare reform in the 1990s, that law did a lot to help the working poor. The basis of criticism of welfare reform is that it helped the deserving (i.e working) poor but made things worse for those deemed undeserving.
While Sanders campaigns against the welfare reform law, he has no alternative welfare plan. Worse, his rhetoric emphasizing the “working poor” reinforces the division between the deserving and undeserving poor that was the basis of welfare reform in the first place.
The New York Times account of Sanders’ press conference on poverty illustrates the tension well:
“What welfare reform did, in my view, was to go after some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in this country…scapegoating people who were helpless, people who were very, very vulnerable…What we are going to do in this country if I have anything to say about it is to say if somebody works 40 hours a week, that person is not going to live in poverty,” Mr. Sanders said , adding that he would raise the federal minimum wage to $15.”
While rallying against Clinton for scapegoating the weakest and most vulnerable in society, he continues to reinforce the notion that only people who work full time deserve not to live in poverty.
People who don’t work are not undeserving of aid. They are commonly students, caregivers, elderly, children, or disabled. To combat poverty and bring the U.S closer to other developed countries, you have to help everyone in poverty, not just those who work.
*Another problem for Sanders’ strategy on poverty is his plan, (A $15 dollar minimum wage) could increase unemployment. While it certainly would raise a lot of incomes for those that can find jobs, it could make a of people too expensive to employ.
Princeton economist Alan Krueger pioneered the research showing that modest minimum wage increases has little effect on employment, but even he thinks $15 dollars is too much. While Dr. Kruger is a Hillary supporter, his view represents an emerging consensus among left wing policy analysts.
If Kruger isn’t left wing enough to trust, Matt Bruenig should be. He’s a socialist who just got fired from his job for his avid support of Sanders and the poor on Twitter. In his post on the minimum wage, he supports a formula that would set the minimum wage at 50% of the median wage in each minimum wage zone, indexed to inflation. Even in states with high median wages like California, this would come out to less than $15 dollars an hour. In states with low wages like Wisconsin, it’s comes out to less than $9 an hour.
While the minimum wage should be increased, it shouldn’t do all the work in helping the working poor because it would make it hard to find jobs. It instead should be used in conjunction with wage subsidies and a more robust welfare state. My point: even Sanders very limited plan to combat poverty is flawed.