Global moderate poverty is defined as living on less than two dollars a day, and it’s something that Americans often believe only exists in other parts of the world. $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer is a harrowing look at the lives of the ‘$2-a-day poor’ in the United States. The authors follow a handful of the more than 1.5 million families in Chicago, Cleveland, Appalachia, and the Mississippi Delta who attempt to live on almost nothing.
It’s easy to think that most low income families receive some form of assistance from local, state, or federal governments. One of the most astonishing things about $2.00 a Day was the revelation that surprisingly few low income Americans receive cash assistance: “Just 27 percent of poor families with children participate” in our modern cash welfare program. Many more low income Americans participate in in-kind programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But why aren’t more households – especially those living on only $2 a day – taking advantage of welfare programs?
Edin and Shaefer place much of the blame squarely a the feet of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, more commonly known as ‘welfare reform.’ What began as a bold proposal to bring welfare more in line with supposed American values like hard work and independence became a program that put more burdens on the people who needed help while also providing them with less assistance.
Recognizing that “Welfare brings some of our most precious values— involving autonomy, responsibility, work, family, community, and compassion— into conflict,” Harvard professor David Ellwood proposed encouraging work by raising the minimum wage, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), furnishing temporary cash assistance, providing education and training opportunities, and guaranteeing a minimum wage public sector job to those who couldn’t find work in the private sector. This plan wouldn’t provide help to low income people in general, it would provide help to low income people who were employed or making progress towards employment.
Actual welfare reform was initially based on Ellwood’s ideas, but ending up being altogether different. Under President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress, the law made federal welfare funds into federally-capped block grants to states, imposed strict ‘workforce participation’ requirements that could be met simply by kicking people off of the welfare rolls, imposed lifetime benefit limits, and made certain there was no legal right to aid. And, of course, there was no dramatic increase in the minimum wage (the minimum wage went from $4.25 per hour in 1991 to $5.15 per hour in 1997), no job training program, and no guaranteed public sector job. The reformers didn’t replace welfare, they killed it.
One of the effects of welfare reform is especially notable. Because it is now more difficult to qualify for cash assistance, and because qualifying (and proving that one qualifies) is no guarantee of actually receiving that assistance, a surprising number of people who Edin and Shaefer – even people in desperate need – believe that it no longer exists:
No one in Modonna’s network of family and friends knew anyone who was getting welfare— even those in obvious need… By 2012, welfare was far from the minds of the $ 2-a-day poor. So far, in fact, that Modonna Harris, living in a shelter on the Near West Side of Chicago, and Susan Brown, living in the dilapidated family home on the South Side— both eligible for the program— thought they just weren’t giving it out anymore.
Of course, this means that those people also aren’t receiving help that could start to lift them out of poverty. A subsidized job would be extremely helpful, but absent that cash assistance could help the extremely poor maintain housing, obtain child care, buy clothing, and do all of the things that are necessary to get a private sector job. The fact that people believe that this assistance isn’t available – and that it often truly isn’t available – means that people are left living in poverty that many of us can scarcely imagine.
Ellwood’s proposals were focused on helping people enter and benefit from being part of the workforce. While people frequently imagine that low income families are dependent, entitled, or lacking in their work ethic, the fact is that many low income people are working.
Some are working in the formal economy. Edin and Shaefer follow Jennifer as she works at a custodial company in Chicago, “deep cleaning… condos and office suites between tenants and… foreclosed homes being readied for resale. Low paying, hazardous jobs – and deep cleaning foreclosed homes in Chicago in the winter is a surprisingly hazardous job – are standard for the working poor. Through Edin and Shaefer’s eyes, we watch Jennifer get sick, see her hours cut, and eventually leave her job and reenter $2-a-day poverty.
As the authors write, “Few families in $ 2-a-day poverty are chronically disconnected from the workforce.” Instead, many of these families live on a border. When unemployed, they are $2-a-day poor. When they find steady work, they’re merely poor. Work alone is not enough to move these families out of poverty.
Some are working in the informal economy. Since there is no welfare to provide a reliable cash floor, families must do whatever they can to earn enough money to survive. Some people can use public spaces (like libraries) to meet some needs and private charities (like homeless shelters and transitional houses). But even with those resources, many families need to generate income by any means necessary: selling plasma, selling SNAP benefits, recycling aluminum, running an informal bodega, operating a gypsy cab, and even prostitution are surprisingly common (though some more common than others). And many of the tactics on that list are illegal. Surviving can be a crime.
Some are living in areas of concentrated poverty. Edin and Shaefer take us to a small town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta where cash assistance is nonexistent, public spaces are uncommon, charitable organizations are rare, and the formal economy is microscopic. In this other world, we see the results of concentrated poverty: there are no ambulances, police, public transit, restaurants, grocery stores, shopping centers, libraries, food pantries, plasma clinics… or jobs. What there is, is a shadow economy that preys off the lack of infrastructure and the desperation of residents.
While Edin and Shaefer don’t discuss it, this gets to an important fact about concentrated poverty. The infrastructure that people and businesses rely on is paid for by taxes and we do not tend to use those taxes to invest in poor communities. The result is areas like the Mississippi Delta: areas where citizens are “cut off from any legitimate access to a cash income”; areas that “may seem unrecognizable as part of ‘America.'”
While I’ve touched on a couple of larger points from $2.00 a Day, the bulk of the book is about the people who Edin and Shaefer followed. Their stories are at once disturbing and heartwarming. These are people in terrible positions working remarkably hard to succeed according to the traditional American values that Ellwood recognized when he made is proposals for welfare reform. After reading these stories, we’re left with a single question: what can we do about $2-a-day poverty?
Edin and Shaefer provide three potential answers: more employment opportunities coupled with better worker protections, more affordable housing, and a real cash cushion for low income families.
The job creation agenda that Edin and Shaefer propose is, in their own words, “beyond anything America has undertaken since the Great Depression.” It includes subsidized private sector job growth, public sector job growth, increased wages, more hours, more stable schedules, and encouraging businesses to treat employees better. Effectively, they are proposing that we do nothing else than reform work under American capitalism.
The cash cushion for low income families would appear when, as Edin and Shaefer put it, work fails. As they point out, there are many reasons that a family might need an emergency infusion of cash. One idea is a family crisis account. Under this plan, families would essentially save their Earned Income Tax Credit in an account that they could make withdrawals from when needed. This would allow families to respond to emergencies without having to resort to drastic measures.
Those are relatively straightforward ways of addressing poverty. They’re also in line with the American values of work and thriftiness. We can hardly argue with the idea of investing in job training and job creation. And we can certainly accept the idea of making it easier for families – even families without much income to start with – to save. The housing issue, however, is a little less intuitive.
As Edin and Shaefer point out, housing is a major burden for low income families: “there is no state in the Union in which a family that is supported by a full-time, minimum-wage worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent without being cost burdened.” Being cost burdened means spending more than thirty percent of one’s income in rent, putting a family at serious risk of being unable to pay other bills or save. Making housing more affordable would be a massive boon to low income families as it would free up money for other purposes.
The obvious solution would be to increase the incomes of renters, but even a significant increase in the minimum wage – even to fifteen dollars an hour – would only help so much. In addition, Edin and Shaefer increasing the stock of affordable housing by using the National Housing Trust Fund to encourage development and ending exclusionary zoning regulations that prevent apartments or set large minimum lot sizes.
These are all excellent suggestions, but there’s another part to Edin and Shaefer’s suggestions: the assumptions that lay behind them. Edin and Shaefer aren’t simply proposing ways to solve poverty; they’re proposing ways to solve poverty that are – more or less – in line with the same American values that Ellwood identified: autonomy of the individual, the virtue of work, the primacy of family, and the desire for and sense of community. This keeps them from proposing more radical solutions like the restoration of pre-reform welfare or something like a universal basic income.
For Edin and Shaefer, it isn’t enough to say that people shouldn’t have to live in poverty. Instead, people living in poverty must work: “work opportunity is vital and must be at the center of a multipronged strategy to help the $ 2-a-day poor.”
$2.00 a Day isn’t a book about policy. Despite its chapter on the history and death of welfare, its chapter on suggestions for ending $2-a-day poverty in the United States, and occasional looks at systemic issues, this is an ethnography: a deep look into the lives and stories of people living in deep poverty.
That’s not a bad thing. The fact is that many of our national conversations about how to end poverty are based on mischaracterizations of people living in poverty. The political and media elite rarely have any recent lived experience of poverty. Put simple, low income families are people who are talked about more often than they are listened to. That makes books like $2.00 a Day critical to our conversations about addressing poverty; they provide an opportunity for those in power to hear the stories of low-income families and learn that they don’t fit the stereotypes prevalent in our political discourse (and, frankly, in the nonprofit sector).
$2.00 a Day is, in other words, an important reality check for those who believe that they can theorize poverty in terms that demand more austerity simply because it exposes the human faces and human stories of the people so often lumped together as ‘the poor.’