David A. Super


Debates over inequality have largely ignored the largest body of people living in poverty. Although anti-poverty policymaking focuses overwhelmingly on the chronic poor, a far larger number of people suffer occasional acute bouts of poverty. The causes of the acute poor’s problems, and their needs, differ significantly from those of the chronic poor. Even short spells of poverty can cause serious, physical, psychological, and material harm as well as impairment in their ability to return to their former circumstances.

Demographically, the acute poor resemble the general population far more than the chronic poor, yet they receive little sympathy: politicians may praise them in the abstract, but all too often the acute poor become collateral damage in struggles over the treatment of the chronic poor. The standard model of public welfare law, which is built around avoiding moral hazard, ill-fits the acute poor. A combination of eligibility limits, arduous procedures, deliberate stigmatization, waiting lists, and conduct requirements reduces the chronic poor’s receipt of aid but often affects the acute poor even more powerfully. More recently, some politicians have begun to attack the acute poor directly. The acute poor pay for the safety net in good times but cannot access it in bad.

Replacing the standard model of public welfare law would allow limited public funds to better serve all low-income people, acute and chronic alike. Greater attention to the acute poor would reduce their hardship and could lead to reexamination of some overly simplistic ideas about the chronic poor as well.



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