Reuters

Few say it's because they can't find jobs. But is that a reason to take away their food stamps?

Conservative Republicans have officially made it their mission to end food stamps as we know them. Such was evident last week, when the House GOP voted to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps are now known, by $39 billion over a decade and begin bulking up its work requirements, along the lines of welfare reform in the 1990s. 

Whether you believe this a good or humane idea probably boils down to your take on a single question: why don't the poor, who make up the overwhelming majority of food stamp recipients, go to work? In 2012, more than 26 million 18-to-64-year-old adults lived under the poverty line; about 15 million of them didn't have a job during the year. Is the economy to blame? Or are personal choices at fault? 

If you're a liberal, your answer is probably pretty cut and dry, and these days likely involves the word "recession." But conservatives tend to take a different view. They argue that whereas unemployment among middle class families rises and falls with the health of the job market, poverty is shaped and fueled mostly by cultural forces, that the poor could work if they wanted, and that the safety net lulls them into indolence. One of their key data points on this front comes from the Census. Each year, the bureau asks jobless Americans they've been out of work. And traditionally, a only a small percentage of impoverished adults actually say it's because they can't find employment, a point that New York University professor Larry Mead, one of the intellectual architects of welfare reform, made to Congress in recent testimony

In 2007, for instance, 6.4 percent of adults who lived under the poverty line and didn't work in the past year said it was because they couldn't find a job. As of 2012, it had more than doubled, leaving it at a still-small 13.5 percent. By comparison, more than a quarter said they stayed home for family reasons and more than 30 percent cited a disability. 

As you might expect, the are some big differences between the genders on this front. Women are far more likely than men to cite family. Men are more likely to cite their inability to find a job.  

To me, these are the sorts of numbers that raise more questions than they answer. Are women staying home because they prefer to be mothers, or because they can't find jobs that pay enough to make working a financially viable choice, once the cost of family care is factored in? Are youngish retirees really choosing to leave the workforce early, or are they cashing in their social security benefits prematurely because they're out of other options? Of the 1.2 million adult men who said they couldn't hunt down work, how many really couldn't find any job, and how many couldn't find a job they wanted? Of the millions of apparently impoverished college students in the country, how many are essentially living on loans or their Pell Grants? You get the idea. 

If you do choose to take the Census figures at face value, though, I think there are a couple of lessons. First, the recession changed poverty to some extent. More of the non-working poor claim they cannot find a job than at any point in the past two decades. Given that there are three unemployed Americans for every job opening, that shouldn't be much of a surprise. Second, the poor who choose not to work aren't necessarily doing so out of laziness, but because they have other obligations: they're trying to take care of relatives, they're ill, or they're attempting to make their way through school.

And taking away their meal tickets won't fix any of those problems. 

Top image: Job seekers stand in line to meet with prospective employers at a career fair in New York City. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

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