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By Courtney Hamilton
September 8, 2015
Caption : Of all the nation’s poor, 82 percent experience circumstances that make it difficult or impossible to secure income, a new analysis by policy think tank Demos shows. The author of this analysis, Matt Bruenig, calls this population “the vulnerable poor.”     

Of all the nation’s poor, 82 percent experience circumstances that make it difficult or impossible to secure income, a new analysis by policy think tank Demos shows. The author of this analysis, Matt Bruenig, calls this population “the vulnerable poor.”

“In a country that relies heavily on the market to distribute the national income, the first question should always be: why isn’t the market giving the poor enough income?” Bruenig writes. His analysis explores the relationship of the poor to the economic system, and the results reveal a barrier to even accessing the opportunity to secure income.

Vulnerable populations struggle to work due to impeding circumstances. Such populations include children (anyone under 18), the elderly (anyone over 64), people with disabilities, students, carers (someone who cannot secure employment because they care for a family member), and the unemployed. While some categories overlap, these populations together constitute 82 percent of the nation’s officially poor. Fully employed persons and those who fall into a catch-all “other” category make up 9.6 percent and 7.6 percent, respectively. While Bruenig has not crunched the numbers, he also notes that many who fall into the latter two categories live with someone who is vulnerable.

In some cases, fully employed and “other” people are poor because they live with vulnerable individuals. “Poverty is defined on the family level, and thus living with children or disabled people or others who have little market income can make your own income inadequate for escaping poverty given your overall family size,” Bruenig explains.

The analysis counters mischaracterizations of the poor as lazy or failing to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” demonstrating that poverty is a systematic failure rather than a personal lack of effort. “This pattern of impoverishment tells me that poverty is primarily a consequence of the market’s inadequate distributive mechanisms,” Bruenig says. “People whose life circumstances impair their ability to work are, not surprisingly, at heightened risk of poverty in a market society that directly provides such people nothing.”

Using the same categorization approach, Bruenig also accounted for supplemental assistance in his “supplemental poverty metric.” Even accounting for welfare supplements like food security programs, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit, 77.6 percent of the nation’s poor fell into vulnerable categories.

The analysis comes in anticipation of a new crop of poverty data to be released by the U.S. census starting September 16. With this analysis, Bruenig attempts to refine his “life status” approach in categorizing poverty, as “conventional categorization approaches tend to mislead more than illuminate.”

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