American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks recently claimed the right needs to declare a ceasefire on the safety net, a controversial statement for the leader of what is arguably Washington’s top center-right think tank. According to Brooks, those in need want three things – transformation, relief, and opportunity.

Forthcoming research from Mark Rank of Washington University in St. Louis, Thomas Hirschl of Cornell University and Kirk Foster of University of South Carolina helps to bolster his case. Their research shows that during the last 40 years, almost 40 percent of Americans lived in poverty for at least one year between the ages of 25 and 60. But while many Americans find themselves falling on hard times, only 11.6 percent spend five or more years in poverty. Even more importantly, only 6.1 percent of adults in this range spend five consecutive years in poverty, and less than 2 percent stay there longer than ten years.

So for a large swath of Americans, poverty is a temporary circumstance. Many of these Americans take advantage of means-tested welfare programs while they are there. But most of them move out of poverty, and out of the programs.

However, given the 11.6 percent figure, it’s worth noting that many Americans either are hovering around the poverty line or slipping back into poverty through repetitive hardship. It wouldn’t appear, though, that these individuals aren’t trying to take advantage of opportunity, or, as the harsher rhetoric would have it, becoming dependents. The reentry into poverty is more likely due to some combination of the changing nature of work, family hardship and lack of educational attainment.

Brooks called the ability to provide a safety net one of the Western world’s greatest achievements. With 40 percent of Americans experiencing extreme want at some point in their lives and too many living at the edge of poverty for extended periods, Republicans would do well to think through Brooks’ message.

Certainly incentives matter, and welfare programs should always be structured as a hand up, but this snapshot view of 40 years of economic life in America shows it to be uncertain and difficult. It adds to the already large literature on decreased mobility, stagnating wages and broken civil society. But it also shows that Americans are taking opportunities as they find them and attempting to move up. Conservatives should tread carefully when discussing a side of life so many Americans have experienced and programs in which even more Americans have taken part.

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