01/24/2014 04:10 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2014

The Poor Don't Lie and Cheat Any More Than the Rest of Us


Those no-good, dirty, rotten poor people. They lie, and they steal, and they spend our money.

Or so I've been told by readers since my last post, where I did the math proving that government benefits aren't generous enough to make people want to be poor.

But you're just doing the legal math, said one reader. What about what goes on under the table? Surely all that welfare fraud is proof that poverty can be the good life, if only you have the gumption to bilk the taxpayer.

First of all, the government has conducted investigations of fraud in programs like welfare and food stamps, and they've found it to be shockingly low. Less than two percent of the programs' budgets get ripped off. That's lower than the private sector, where the average business loses five percent of its annual revenue to fraud.

Second, and perhaps more surprising, investigators have found that the majority of government fraud is committed by the middle class and the rich -- not the poor!

After Hurricane Katrina, for example, the investigative reporter Eric Schnurer discovered that most of the $500 million lost to fraud did not go into the pockets of the poor people who lost their homes, but rather to the "shifty contractors" who were supposed to be rebuilding the homes.

Similarly, reported Schnurer, "Medicare and Medicaid fraud is largely committed not by patients -- very few people are trying to rip off taxpayers to obtain unneeded spinal taps or root canals -- but by providers: unscrupulous (or sometimes just incompetent) doctors and hospitals billing for procedures the patient didn't need or didn't receive."

Throw in another $100 billion a year in defense contractor fraud, and you quickly find that fraud is more likely to make the rich richer than it is to make the poor want to be poor. It's redistribution alright, but the wealth is moving up -- not down -- the ladder.

Once upon a time, I might have been surprised by these findings, but in writing my new book Letter to the One Percent, I found a consistent pattern in the research literature. Psychologists have conducted many experiments on the rich and the poor, and they've found that the rich are less likely to have empathy for other human beings. They're more likely to break the rules and feel that they've earned the right to do so. They're less likely to think of the moral consequences of their actions, especially when money is involved, and they're more likely to put their own needs ahead of others'.

The notion that the poor are uniquely morally deficient, it turns out, is completely backward. They're actually more virtuous, on average, than the rich.

And yet, we have politicians who assume that the poor are less trustworthy and therefore less deserving of our help. On the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, they took to the floor of Congress and criticized "single mothers" and "deadbeat dads" for dropping out of school and having babies and cheating the system. Then they proposed a budget that would cut government benefits for tens of millions of Americans.

Meanwhile, in Florida, they're fighting a recent court decision that struck down a law requiring drug testing of all welfare applicants. But they don't seem concerned about corporate executives who apply for billion-dollar subsidies. They're not clamoring for drug testing doctors who receive Medicare payments or retirees who receive Social Security checks or Congress members who receive six-figure salaries.

Why? Because they assume that the poor are more likely to waste taxpayers' money on drugs. Well, I've got news for them: The rate of illicit drug use is no higher among the poor than it is among the rest of us, and the rate of alcohol addiction is actually lower.

Human nature is human nature. There are liars and cheaters in every walk of life. But the facts are irrefutable: The poor are not poor because they lie and cheat, nor are they responsible for high taxes and mounting debt. If anything, they have contributed less to fraud and waste than the rest of us. The next time you hear Senator Marco Rubio and his Republican colleagues say otherwise, remember: That's a stereotype, and it's wrong.

This post originally appeared 'South Florida Sun-Sentinel.'