$2.00 a day Living on almost nothing in America

Kathryn Edin, 1962-

Book - 2015

"After two decades of...research on American poverty, Kathryn Edin noticed something she hadn't seen since the mid-1990s -- households surviving on virtually no income. Edin teamed with Luke Shaefer, an expert on calculating incomes of the poor, to discover that the number of American families living on $2.00 per person, per day, has skyrocketed to 1.5 million American households, including about 3 million children....The authors illuminate a troubling trend: a low-wage labor market that increasingly fails to deliver a living wage, and a growing but hidden landscape of survival strategies among America's extreme poor. "--

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Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015.
Main Author
Kathryn Edin, 1962- (-)
Other Authors
H. Luke Shaefer (-)
Physical Description
xxiv, 210 pages ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 179-199) and index.
  • Introduction
  • 1. Welfare Is Dead
  • 2. Perilous Work
  • 3. A Room of One's Own
  • 4. By Any Means Necessary
  • 5. A World Apart
  • Conclusion: Where, Then, from Here?
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by New York Times Review

FROM THE LATE 1960s to the mid-1990s, a number of developments turned out to have profound effects on destitute families in the United States, which Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer's "$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America" brings into sharp relief. Critics of welfare repeatedly argued that the increase of unwed mothers was mainly due to rising rates of welfare payments through Aid to Families With Dependent Children (A.F.D.C.). Even though the scientific evidence offered little support for this claim, the public's outrage against the program, fueled by the "welfare queen" stereotype that Ronald Reagan peddled in stump speeches during his 1976 run for the presidency, led to calls for a major revamping of the welfare system. In 1993, Bill Clinton and his advisers began a discussion of welfare reform that was designed to "make work pay," a phrase coined by the Harvard economist David Ellwood in his 1988 book "Poor Support." Ellwood, one of Clinton's advisers, argued that to ease the transition from welfare to work, it would be necessary to provide training and job placement assistance; to help local government create public-sector jobs when private-sector jobs were lacking; and to develop child care programs for working parents. President Clinton's early welfare-reform proposal included these features, as well as another component that Ellwood submitted - time limits on the receipt of welfare once these provisions were in place. Republicans, however, seizing control of Congress in 1994, devised a bill that reflected their own vision of welfare reform. Designed as a block grant, giving states considerably more latitude in how they spent government money for welfare than A.F.D.C. permitted, the Republican bill also included a five-year lifetime limit on benefits based on federal funds. States were allowed to impose even shorter time limits. Although the bill increased child care subsidies for recipients who found jobs, the all-important public-sector jobs for those unable to find employment in the private sector were missing. Moreover, there wasn't enough budgeted for education and training. Much to the chagrin of the bill's critics - including Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who predicted in 1995 that the proposed legislation would lead to poor children "sleeping on grates" - President Clinton signed the bill, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), on Aug. 22, 1996, two days after his signing into law the first increase in the federal minimum wage in five years. In the immediate years following the passing of welfare reform, supporters of TANF argued that Moynihan and other critics were proved wrong. The number of single mothers who exited welfare and found work exceeded all expectations; child poverty rates fell; the expansion of the earned-income tax credit, a wage subsidy for the working poor, combined with the 1996 increase in the minimum wage and the additional availability of dollars for child care (as long as the parents were employed), boosted government provisions for working-poor families. Timing, though, had something to do with the apparent success of welfare reform. The tight labor market during the economic boom of the late 1990s significantly lowered unemployment at the very time that TANF was being implemented. Besides, despite improvements for the working poor, studies revealed that the number of "disconnected" single mothers - neither working nor on welfare - had grown substantially since the passage of TANF, rising to one in five single mothers during the mid-2000s. This is the group featured in "$2.00 a Day," a remarkable book that could very well change the way we think about extreme poverty in the United States. When Edin returned to the field in the summer of 2010 to update her earlier work on poor mothers, she was surprised to find a number of families struggling "with no visible means of cash income from any source." To ascertain whether her observations reflected a greater reality, Edin turned to Shaefer, a University of Michigan expert on the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation, who was visiting Harvard for a semester while she was a faculty member. (Edin and I served on three dissertation committees together; she is now a professor at Johns Hopkins.) Shaefer analyzed the census data, which is based on annual interviews with tens of thousands of American households, to determine the growth of the virtually cashless poor since welfare reform. His results were shocking: Since the passage of TANF in 1996, the number of families living in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled, reaching 1.5 million households in early 2011. Edin and Shaefer found additional evidence for the rise of such poverty in reports from the nation's food banks and government data on families receiving food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and in accounts from the nation's schools on the rising numbers of homeless children. In the summer of 2012, the authors also began ethnographic studies in sites across the country: Chicago, Cleveland, a midsize city in the Appalachian region and small rural villages in the Mississippi Delta. In each of these areas it did not prove difficult to find families surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day during certain periods of the year. Edin and Shaefer's field research provides plausible reasons for the sharp rise in destitute families. The first has to do with the "perilous world of low-wage work." The mechanization of agriculture has wiped out a lot of jobs in the Mississippi Delta, and even in cities like Chicago, the number of applicants for entry-level work in the service and retail industries far exceeds the number of available positions: "Companies such as Walmart might have hundreds of applicants to choose from" for any one position. Moreover, work schedules are often unpredictable, with abrupt ups and downs in the number of hours a worker gets. Responding to decreasing demand, "employers keep employees on the payroll but reduce their scheduled hours, sometimes even to zero." Furthermore, given the glut of applicants, an employer can quickly move to the next person on the list if a job seeker can't be reached by telephone immediately, which is a real problem for those who live in homeless shelters and lack cellphones. Finally, many applicants who are eligible for TANF aren't even aware that it is available. The authors meet people who "thought they just weren't giving it out anymore." there are various strategies that the $2-a-day poor use to survive - from taking advantage of public libraries, food pantries and homeless shelters to collecting aluminum cans and donating plasma for cash. Still, in small Delta towns "the nearest food pantry is often miles away, despite the sky-high poverty." SNAP constitutes the only real safety net program available to the truly destitute - but it cannot be used to pay the rent. "While SNAP may stave off some hardship," the authors write, "it doesn't help families exit the trap of extreme destitution like cash might." All of the $2-a-day families highlighted by Edin and Shaefer have had to double up with kin and friends at various times because their earnings were insufficient to maintain their own home. Some had to endure verbal, physical and sexual abuse in these dwellings, and the ensuing trauma sometimes precipitated a family's fall into severe poverty. This essential book is a call to action, and one hopes it will accomplish what Michael Harrington's "The Other America" achieved in the 1960s - arousing both the nation's consciousness and conscience about the plight of a growing number of invisible citizens. The rise of such absolute poverty since the passage of welfare reform belies all the categorical talk about opportunity and the American dream. Since 1996, the number of families living in $2-a-day poverty more than doubled. WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON, a professor of sociology and social policy at Harvard, is the author of "More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [September 6, 2015]
Review by Booklist Review

Nearly one of every 25 American households, or 1.5 million, live on less than $2 per day per person, defying every image of what it means to live in the developed world. Sociologist Edin and researcher Shaefer document a troubling trend since the enactment of welfare reform and the decline in worker wages. American families in urban and rural areas, across all races and family structures, are living on wages so low they can barely sustain themselves. Focusing on families in the inner cities of Chicago and Cleveland; the small Appalachian town of Johnson City, Tennessee; and the small rural towns of Jefferson and Percy, Mississippi, the authors highlight the day-to-day struggle of families living well below the poverty line. Edin and Shaefer spent months and even years following 18 families to learn how they survived on a combination of occasional government assistance and a constant search for work. Among the strategies of the eight featured families are living in shelters and doubling up with other family members. Beyond the statistics, this is a close-up, heartbreaking look at rising poverty and income inequality in the U.S.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2015 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

This slim, searing look at extreme poverty deftly mixes policy research and heartrending narratives from a swath of the 1.5 million American households eking out an existence on cash incomes of $2 per person per day. Edin and Shaefer, respectively professors at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan, trace the history of welfare in the U.S. up to the cuts enacted by President Clinton. They also explore the worlds of the desperately impoverished, profiling people who are able to find, at best, low-wage jobs with no bargaining power. Their subjects' wrenching stories demonstrate the huge obstacles created by unstable housing and prevalent racial discrimination. Edin and Shaefer examine the many survival strategies used by the very poor to generate cash, including selling plasma, trading food stamps for discounted cash payments, and even selling their children's Social Security numbers to people with fixed addresses, which the poorest lack. The strain of "the work of survival" has not defeated every person depicted in this book, but when a Mississippi teen is quoted saying that constant hunger can make you "feel like you want to be dead," it's impossible to ignore the high costs of abject poverty. Mixing academic seriousness and deft journalistic storytelling, this work may well move readers to positive action. Agent: Lisa Adams, Garamond Agency. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

In their research, coauthors Edin (sociology & public health, Johns Hopkins; Promises I Can't Keep) and Shaefer (Univ. of Michigan Sch. of Social Work) easily found people living on less than two dollars a day in every region of the United States. This ease could be equated to a staggering number uncovered from Shaefer's findings: "In early 2011, 1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash income of no more than $2.00 per person, per day in any given month." The authors reveal that despite the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which sought to reform welfare, the number of individuals living below the poverty line continues to increase. Those documented wish to be part of a transformation that will take them beyond poverty. They strive for a 40-hour workweek, safe housing with affordable rent, and enough income to have food on the table every day. This book explains what happens to individuals who are still struggling to reach working-poor status after a government safety net is removed. VERDICT A must-read, whether you are for or against helping the poor in America.-Angela Forret, Clive P.L., IA © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

An analysis of the growing portion of American poor who live on an average of $2 per day. Welfare in the United States has always been a divisive issue. Most Americans agree that the poor deserve government assistance, but those same people also respond with vitriol at the idea of welfare as a system that encourages entitlement, promotes laziness, and creates a class of "takers." Government assistance programs date back as far as the post-Civil War era, but only recently has the public's outrage over government spending on welfare become so controversial. Following the wildly exaggerated myths of figures like Ronald Reagan's "Welfare Queen" and the influential though dubious analysis of Charles Murray's Losing Ground (1984), policy was reshaped in the 1990s under President Bill Clinton, changing the nature of government assistance to the poor. Edin (Sociology and Public Health/Johns Hopkins Univ.; co-author: Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, 2005) and Shaefer (Social Work/Univ. of Michigan) argue that this shift created a new class of poor in America that fights to survive on barely $2 per person per day because they cannot qualify for the new government aid programs or the assistance they receive is simply not enough to supplement their low-paying jobs. By 2011, more than 4 percent of households with children in the U.S. fell into this category, doubling in the decade and a half since welfare was reformed in the 1990s. Curious as to how this new class of poor survives, Edin and Shaefer traveled to some of the most depressed areas of the country, including Chicago, Appalachia, and the Mississippi Delta. The authors share deeply human stories of the regular people trapped in poverty, typically through no fault of their own. Some are victims of abuse, others are forced to quit their low-paying jobs due to health concerns, and some simply cannot catch a break despite playing by the rules. An eye-opening account of the lives ensnared in the new poverty cycle. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

1   Welfare Is Dead   It is only 8:00 a.m., half an hour ahead of opening time, but already a long line has formed outside the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS) office, which sits on a barren block west of Chicago's Loop. It is a wet summer morning, one of those odd times when the rain is falling but the sun still shines. People are hunkered down, some shielding themselves from the rain with umbrellas or hoods, others holding sodden newspapers and thin plastic grocery bags over their heads. This two-story, yellow-brick office building--windowless on the first floor--is where those seeking help come to apply for programs such as SNAP and Medicaid. But traditionally it has been linked most closely to the nation's now nearly moribund cash assistance program, what many refer to as welfare. Modonna Harris shuffles to the end of the line. A friend, noticing that Modonna had no food in her tiny apartment, convinced her to make the trip. She and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Brianna, have been living in a North Side homeless shelter during this summer of 2012. The shelter provides dinner during the week, and Brianna gets breakfast and lunch through a local nonprofit recreation program, but Modonna and Brianna often go hungry on weekends. The shelter's residents can usually count on a "guy who drops off some surplus food" from an unknown source, but recently all he's brought is nasty-smelling milk well beyond its expiration date. When asked why she hasn't applied for welfare, Modonna shrugs. Actually, it hasn't even occurred to her. She explains, "I've been through this before, and I've been turned down .?.?. They did send me a letter. But they just say, 'You're not eligible,' they don't explain why." How could she not be eligible, she wondered, without even one cent in cash income and a child to provide for? Her aunt's explanation is simple: Hasn't she heard? They just aren't giving it out anymore. To Modonna, that seemed as good an answer as any. "I don't actually know anybody who is getting it. And, you know, when my auntie was saying that, I'm thinking, 'Okay, well maybe that's making sense of why I didn't get it' .?.?. I'm like, 'Okay, maybe that's it.'" Despite her now desperate circumstances, Modonna was deeply reluctant even to go to the DHS office and apply for the cash welfare program. Finally, after much persuasion, she relented. Much of the time, when you ask for help from the government, you can expect the process to take a long time. First, you wait in line to "get a number." (In places like Chicago, you have to get to the DHS office early, because the line can stretch down the block even before the doors open.) Once you get a number, you wait for your name to be called so you can see the caseworker and provide the required documentation Then you go home to wait while they process your paperwork. Finally, if your application is approved, you wait for the mail carrier to deliver your electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card, which works like a bank debit card. One way the poor pay for government aid is with their time. Modonna has a proud, even regal, air about her. Her voice is smooth and her diction precise. Her posture is perfect, her dark skin smooth, her smile warm. But most of the other folks waiting in line look to be in rough shape, with worn, dingy clothing, decaying teeth, painful infirmities, and an air of desperation. The kind-looking woman in front of Modonna seems prematurely old. She turns to Modonna and relates how she struggled to get Medicaid for her oldest adult son, desperately ill and then hospitalized with AIDS. Roadblock after roadblock held up the process; months passed and he died--the day before his medical card arrived in the mail. Now she is here again, this time to apply for Medicaid on behalf of her younger adult son, who is also chronically ill and in need of treatment. Modonna is visibly uncomfortable in this line. She would probably say that she's one of the people who doesn't belong here (although you'd perhaps hear that from many of the people in line). Both of her parents worked steadily while she was growing up. She had close to a middle-class upbringing, although it was far from idyllic. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she lived mostly with her unsupportive mother, who suffered from depression. This was better than being with her dad--who was controlling and demeaning. Despite all this, Modonna managed to graduate from one of the better high schools in Chicago and to start college at a decent private university specializing in the arts. But she attended for only two years. With her family unwilling to provide financial assistance, she maxed out on student loans and had to drop out, with a boatload of student debt and no degree to show for it. She left hoping that one day she might go back to complete her degree. But love intervened. Brianna arrived about a year into Modonna's marriage to Brian, who had swept Modonna off her feet with his drive to make it in the music production business. He had a dream, and he seemed to be doing the work to make it happen. Yet after a few years, it became painfully clear that he was a pathological liar with an addiction to hard-core porn. He would hide his dirty magazines under the rug and deny they were his. "They must have been here when we moved in," he'd claim. One time, the family was evicted because Brian just stopped paying the rent and didn't tell Modonna until it was too late. Brian cheated first, and then Modonna got wrapped up in a turbulent, all-consuming love affair. The marriage broke up about the time Brianna entered the first grade. Modonna had worked off and on over the years before the marriage ended. Now on her own, she needed a full-time job. With no college degree and a sporadic work record, the best position she could find was a daytime shift as a cashier at Stars Music downtown, a position paying $9 an hour. She would hold that job for the next eight years. Modonna loved the work. "I learned so much at Stars," she recalls. The mother-daughter pair found a tiny studio apartment in the South Shore neighborhood, near Lake Michigan, and for a while things were good. The two scraped by on a combination of Modonna's paycheck, a small amount of SNAP, and whatever child support Brian managed to provide. Brianna was doing well in school--she even made honor roll one semester. Modonna felt proud to be the provider for her little family. Then their apartment building started going downhill, fast. Deferred maintenance became no maintenance at all. Modonna couldn't handle the "roaches, the size of .?.?. big water bugs," and the other obvious hazards. She tried to get out of her lease and asked that her security deposit be returned. The tension between her and her landlord escalated, and she ended up calling a lawyer, who requested a list of the building's code violations from the city. When it came, Modonna says, it was "eight pages long!" Right when it seemed as if she might win some concessions from her landlord, Modonna's cash drawer at Stars came up $10 short, and she couldn't account for it. She was summarily dismissed, given no benefit of the doubt, despite her years of service and the small amount of money involved. "Ten dollars short, and they found it after they fired me," she says. But no call of apology came, no invitation to return to work. That's when things really started to fall apart. Modonna was approved for unemployment insurance, which is fairly rare among low-wage workers in the service sector, where low earnings and unstable work hours can make it hard to meet the program's eligibility criteria. She knows she was lucky in this regard. But her benefits--which didn't begin to approach what she was making at Stars--weren't enough to cover the cost of her rent. Excerpted from $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin, H. Luke Shaefer All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.