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Image: Julie Jordan Scott via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Image: Julie Jordan Scott via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

by Brian C. Thiede, Daniel T. Lichter, and Scott R. Sanders

Pundits and politicians in the U.S. frequently assume that poverty is the result of joblessness and idleness, and in contrast, upward social and economic mobility is possible for anyone given sufficient work effort. Such assumptions about work and poverty underpin many social policies. For example, minimum wages are largely designed to ensure that work is remunerated with a basic, presumably above-poverty standard of living. Stringent time limits and work requirements on many so-called safety net programs also presume that incentivizing work is an effective means of reducing poverty and public sector dependence.

In contrast to these assumptions, however, evidence suggests that a large share of the poor live in families which are attached to the formal workforce. Yet to date researchers have produced a rather limited set of empirical findings about the working poor. In our judgment, this knowledge gap has largely been due to inconsistent conceptualization and measurement of the working poor across studies. To address this gap, our research has examined the conceptual and normative assumptions behind different measurement choices for studying the working poor, and compared empirical estimates based on a range of measures.  Our findings demonstrate that working poverty is a widespread problem, but also show that estimates of the magnitude of the problem are sensitive to measurement choices.

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