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United States & World

Scholar: Poverty Is a 'Culture'

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: it's Labor Day. We're going to hear how a number of people you know earned their first dollar. That's a little later.

But first, the meaning of work is back on the national agenda. Presidential candidates are talking about income inequality - which is at an all-time high -and poverty, which has actually dropped for the first time in a decade, according to the census bureau.

Much of the discussion has to do with jobs. Are some people not getting ahead because there are no good jobs, or because - for whatever reason - they haven't figured it out what it takes to succeed? But what if work doesn't actually help people - poor people - as much as everybody would like to think it does?

The person with this provocative argument is Charles Karelis. He's a professor of philosophy at George Washington University, and he's the author of a new book called "The Persistence Of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-Off Can't Help the Poor."

Professor, thanks so much for joining us.

Professor CHARLES KARELIS (Philosophy, George Washington University; Author, "The Persistence Of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-Off Can't Help the Poor"): Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, in your book, you say - if I'm summarizing correctly - that for many poor people, the cost of working is simply too high. It outweighs the benefits.

Prof. KARELIS: I believe that poverty is actually a disincentive to work. There are a lot of consequences of that assumption, I mean, the conventional one, and you mentioned earlier in your introductory remarks, one of the big ones is that the presidential candidates who are vying to be heard on the subject of poverty sort of start from the assumption that the poorer you are, the more you must rationally want to work.

And when they look at the fact of non-work - and about half of working age poor people don't work at all - they are puzzled. And so they turn - according to their political predilections - either left or right. And if they're turning left, they say there must be obstacles, lack of opportunity kind of obstacles to work. And if they're on the right, then they point the finger at dysfunction and irrationality and people who are lacking discipline.

MARTIN: So what is the reason?

Prof. KARELIS: Well, I think poverty itself. That paradoxically, as you are poorer, you are less rather than more likely to want to work because the value of income goes down, not up, as you reach the bottom ranges of income. Poverty means shortages, and shortages mean trouble. An example that just sprung to mind is dishes in the sink, one of my own problems. You know, when there's 10, the benefit - the relief you get from washing one and putting it away is pretty small. And when you get down to the last one, it makes a big difference.

MARTIN: You're saying, the poorer you are, the less benefit you get from the jobs you're likely to get?

Prof. KARELIS: The poorer you are, the less benefit you stand to get from the dollar that you get from the job. So holding wages equal, which they certainly aren't, but even if they were, the - when you get down to very few dollars and you got a lot of trouble that's not relieved by your income, the marginal bit of trouble that you can relieve by the marginal dollar doesn't make much difference. And given that, your motive for doing something about it goes down.

MARTIN: So what would make people as productive as they can be?

Prof. KARELIS: Make them less poor. I'm a great believer in the idea of gratuitous help as a motivator, not as a demotivator. And we have a bunch of programs, some discredited, unfortunately, such as AFDC, which…

MARTIN: Aid to Families with Dependent children, which we used to call Welfare.

Prof. KARELIS: Right. The welfare that used to be with the no-strings kind of welfare. I like another form of making people less poor, which is income supplements, wage supplements. The famous one is the earned income tax credit. It doesn't matter about the details. Most people know about it, but what it does, in effect, is it takes your $5 an hour and makes it $6 an hour with a government supplement. And that's a good program because: A, it's cleaning up nine of the dishes. And B, it's making it more expensive to stay home because the bigger wage, the bigger the sacrifice if you don't actually work. So it's a double-barreled anti-poverty program. It's a good program.

MARTIN: Not to be telling too much business here, but there was a member of my family who was frustrated with his son because his son doesn't seem motivated to pursue work. And when the son was asked why, he was like, well, I can't find anything that I want to do. And the father said, well, you know what? I like to eat everyday, and so does he.

Prof. KARELIS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I think his argument what - being that, look, if you really were up against it, you'd go and find a job. I think that conservatives would argue that our system of income support offers just enough to keep people from not having to do the hard thing.

Prof. KARELIS: Well, we certainly, in this country, do not take seriously the idea of literally starving people back into the workforce. And I think we take that off the table in the United States. And so once it's not about life and death, then it's about what I'm talking about.

MARTIN: Why do we seem to just have the same template for talking about poverty? I mean, I take your point that, you know, we've got this left, right way of thinking about this. And those all seem to be the only choices, and you're trying to get beyond those choices. But I'm wondering why do you think we're stuck in the paradigm?

Prof. KARELIS: Well, the reason that we're stuck in it is that we're stuck with the theory that says the more you got, the less good you get from a little more. And that theory has a history, and it's not for right now, but it's 150 years old and it's wrong. And that's why we're stuck. And we need a sort of consumer product recall on the econ text books, and then we'd get somewhere.

MARTIN: George Washington University professor Charles Karelis. His new book is called "The Persistence Of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-Off Can't Help the Poor." He was kind enough to join us in the studio for Labor Day. Thank you so much.

Prof. KARELIS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.