Poverty Mythbuster: You need to work harder

June 6, 2016

Poverty Mythbuster - Pull yourself up by your bootstrapsWe have all heard this notion that you just need to “pull your­self up by your boot­straps” and work harder to get your­self out of poverty. The idea behind our Amer­i­can Dream is that any­one who works hard will get rewarded. But how accu­rate is this?

It’s a lot more com­pli­cated than this.

Did you know that low income earn­ers work just as many hours as mid­dle income earn­ers? Peo­ple are work­ing hard at all income lev­els, but not every­one is able to pay for all their basic needs — no mat­ter how hard they are work­ing. Why is that?

It turns out that even if they are work­ing hard, they just are not earn­ing high enough of a wage to meet all of their basic needs. With Oregon’s cur­rent min­i­mum wage ($9.25), a fam­ily of 3 with 1 min­i­mum wage earner would be con­sid­ered as liv­ing below the poverty line (earn­ing less than $20,160 for a fam­ily of 3). Learn more about the poverty guide­lines here.

In addi­tion, the major­ity (74.1%) of fam­i­lies expe­ri­enc­ing poverty have at least one work­ing par­ent. Again, the issue is not work ethic or not work­ing hard enough, it is not earn­ing enough in their employ­ment to make ends meet. Learn more about work­ing Ore­gon fam­i­lies here.

So next time you hear some­one talk­ing about how if that fam­ily just “worked harder” they wouldn’t be strug­gling to put food on the table, share some infor­ma­tion with them so that more peo­ple are aware that hard work is not always a ticket out of poverty — liv­able wages are.

-Melinda Gross, Exec­u­tive Director


  • Bern­stein, J., Mishel, L., & Boushey, H. (2002). The state of work­ing Amer­ica 2002-03. Wash­ing­ton, DC: Eco­nomic Pol­icy Insti­tute. As cited by Eric Jensen in Engag­ing Stu­dents with Poverty in Mind (2013). Alexan­dria, VAASCD.
  • Ore­gon Cen­ter for Pub­lic Pol­icy (2015). Poverty Despite Work: A Grow­ing Prob­lem in Ore­gon. Accessed online at: http://www.ocpp.org/2015/12/16/fs20151216-poverty-despite-work-oregon/
  • U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices (2016). Poverty Guide­lines. Accessed online at: https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines

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  • The training taught me to “manage what I have better and be more aware of the stress level it causes to not be able to meet ‘your’ needs.” (Poverty Awareness Training participant)