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.