Poverty myths: Why don't they just get a job already?

Chandra's picture

I’m back at work and wading through a pile of interesting resources that accumulated in my inbox during my absence. Perhaps one of the most discouraging is this report by the Salvation Army’s Dignity Project on attitudes towards the poor in Canada. This poll really reinforces the notion suggested by John Stapleton that many people believe that the poor are motivated differently than the rest of us.

43% of those polled believe that a good work ethic is all that you need to escape poverty. A quarter of the poll’s respondents believe that the poor are lazy and lack good moral values. 41% say that the poor would just take advantage and do nothing if they were provided with more assistance. It’s hard to believe that we can be so judgmental towards our fellow citizens, particularly those whom God has called us to love and pay special attention to!

But the one that really stands out is the belief of half of those polled that if poor people really wanted to, they could find jobs. Perhaps this is not surprising, since the current government’s response to the very thoughtful and thorough HUMA report on poverty was three words: jobs, jobs and jobs.

There is a persistent belief – and it seems to be equally distributed across the political spectrum – that if we could simply get everyone employed, we could eliminate poverty. This belief flies in the face of the reality that there is a consistently high number of Canadians who are working and yet living in poverty. In 2007, 60% of two-parent families living in poverty received their principal income from employment and received no social assistance or Employment Insurance payments.

But this belief also seems like wishful thinking in view of the fact that we do not now have, nor have we ever had, enough jobs for everyone. In the past thirty years, the unemployment rate in Canada has not gone below 6%, no matter how much the economy has been booming.

And even now, while the government is trumpeting the return of jobs lost during the recession, this hides the fact that the unemployment rate has not moved below 7.8% and a greater proportion of jobs are now part-time, temporary, or self-employed, which means that the people working them are more likely to be financially insecure and at risk of poverty than before. In February 2011, Canada had 156,100 fewer full-time jobs than in October 2008. The proportion of the workforce working part-time, 19.7%, is close to the record high reached in July and August 2010. Fully a quarter of these part-time workers – close to one million Canadians – are working part-time involuntarily because they can’t get full-time work.

In fact, the real unemployment rate, which includes those who have given up looking for work because they’re discouraged and those who are working part-time involuntarily, was 11.7% in February. Millions of Canadians are frustrated because they can’t get work or because the only work they can get is precarious and doesn’t pay enough to make ends meet.

Obviously, our belief that people should just work their way out of poverty has no basis in objective reality. Rather, it is based on an ideological notion of labour. This is something I want to explore further in this space over the coming months. Stay tuned!

Chandra Pasma is CPJ's former Public Justice Policy Analyst.


Submitted by Karen Diepeveen on
Thanks for this, Chandra - the "they should just get a job!" response to solving poverty is probably one of the most persistent - and sometimes the most difficult to answer. I look forward to your explorations around our concept of labour and poverty solutions in the coming months! Also, welcome back :)

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