$2.00 A Day: A Chilling Look at the 1 in 25 American Families Living in Deep Poverty


Image result for $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America
(c) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

$2.00 per person a day is the global poverty level that the World Bank uses to measure poverty in developing nations. In the wealthiest nation in the world, our own United States, $2.00 barely buys a hamburger or a soda.

Yet according to $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, a bleak, riveting ethnography by sociologists Kathryn Edin and Luke Schaefer, a growing number of American citizens are relegated to this level of deep poverty. In fact, in 2011 there were 1.5 million American families, including 3 million children living on this income. That’s 4% of all households with children in the U.S.

To give you a point of comparison, here are a few related U.S. poverty levels:

  • $16.50 per person / day : The U.S. poverty line for family of three in 2011
  • $8.30 per person / day : The U.S. “deep poverty” line in 2011

How could a family possibly survive on that miniscule amount of cash? Why can’t they seem to get a paying job? Where is welfare and government assistance in all this?

The true answers to these questions, and the real power of this book are contained within the turbulent, heartbreaking, and painstakingly-recorded stories of the American families Edin and Shaefer profiled. If you’re interested at all in welfare, poverty, or social inequality in America, read it. The book’s blend of narrative-driven journalistic prose and sociology research is ideal for anyone looking for an approachable but informative nonfiction primer to poverty in the U.S.

However, for those of you who just want the key takeaways, I thought I’d share my book notes on $2.00 A Day here. I’ve collected together what I thought were the most eye-opening quotes and statistics, and laid out the top things you should know about poverty and welfare in America. Italics are all mine, added for emphasis. I’ll be following this post up with a series on related issues (evictions, low-income housing, history of welfare, and the like).

Terms You Should Know

  • SNAP: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Usually called “food stamps.”
  • AFDC: Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The old, traditional American Welfare program. Started in 1935 and ended in 1996 by Bill Clinton when it was replaced by a new temporary and more restricted aid program.
  • TANF: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Started in 1996, the new welfare program that replaced AFDC, drastically reduced aid and added lifetime limits and work requirements.
  • EITC: Earned Income Tax Credit. Rewards low-income workers with a large tax refund each year. Great for the working poor, but it doesn’t help many of the poorest who don’t have a consistent, formal job, or are recently out-of-work.
  • National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). A group formed in the 1960’s by social workers and people on welfare to advocate for fair treatment of welfare applicants and better aid for poor families. Led to court cases that struck down discriminatory practices within the welfare program, like:
    • “Suitable home” requirements allowed social workers to exclude applicants whose homes showed “disorder”
    • White glove tests to assess adequate housekeeping
    • Midnight raids to make sure there weren’t any males living in the house
  • SIPP: Survey of Income and Program Participation. Survey done by the U.S. Census Bureau that interviews Americans in detail about their incomes, formal and off-the-books, and how much they’re using government programs. The data might not always be 100%, but the survey aims to give us as clear a picture as possible of how the poorest Americans are living, economically.

The distressing statistics on the number of Americans in $2-a-day poverty:

“In early 2011, 1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month… not only were these figures astoundingly high, but the phenomenon of $2-a-day poverty among households with children had been on the rise since the nation’s landmark welfare reform legislation passed in 1996 – and at a distressingly fast pace. As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.” (xvii)

Deep poverty is frequent among all races, all types of families:

“the experience of living below the $2-a-day threshold didn’t discriminate by family type or race. While single-mother families were most at risk of falling into a spell of extreme destitution, more than a third of the households in $2-a-day poverty were headed by a married couple. And although the rate of growth was highest among African Americans and Hispanics, nearly half of the $2-a-day poor were white.” (xvii)

“Welfare is dead.” How welfare reform under Clinton in the 1990s reduced cash assistance for needy families to almost nothing:

“Out of every one hundred Americans, fewer than two get aid from today’s cash welfare program. Just 27% of poor families with children participate.” (7)

“At the old welfare program’s height in 1994, it served more than 14.2 million people…In 2012…there were only 4.4 million people left on the rolls.” (7)

The stigma of welfare and American prejudice against the welfare program:

“The General Social Survey has consistently shown that between 60 and 70 percent of the American Public believe that the government is ‘spending too little assistance on the poor.’ However, if Americans are asked about programs labeled ‘welfare’ in particular, their support for assistance drops considerably.” (14)

“Ellwood came to a critical realization: Americans didn’t hate the poor as much as they hated welfare. In fact, during the very years that Reagan was fighting his war on welfare, the number of Americans who thought we were spending too little on help for the poor actually rose, up from 63 percent in 1986 to 70 percent in 1988. The public’s concern with welfare was not about how much it cost, but rather about the terms under which aid was given…Ellwood concluded that if government aid to the poor could be restructured in such a way as to promote work and family, perhaps the American public would come to be more generous.” (19)

In earlier decades, the public criticized welfare for “enabling” unwed mothers to have children out of wedlock:

“By the mid-1970s, with the country grappling with what seemed like a fundamental societal shift, another reason for wariness toward welfare arose. In 1960, only about 5 percent of births were to unmarried women, consistent with the two previous decades. But then the percentage began to rise at an astonishing pace, doubling by the early 1970s and nearly doubling again over the next decade. A cascade of criticism blamed welfare for this trend. According to this narrative, supporting unwed mothers with public dollars made them more likely to trade in a  husband for the dole.” (15)

Like Reagan, Clinton used welfare reform in his campaign as a way to boost his moderate appeal as a Democrat running during a Republican-dominated Congress:

“Clinton first announced that it was time to ‘end welfare as we know it’ in a speech at Georgetown University in October 1991…The popularity of his pledge to end welfare was perhaps the only bright spot in an otherwise brutal few months of campaigning for the southern governor. New allegations seemed to arise almost weekly…It was arguably his pledge to end welfare that kept him in the race.” (21).

“For the first time in AFDC’s sixty-year history, there was a Republican-controlled Congress paired with a Democratic President on record as favoring welfare reform. If ever a window for major reform opened, it was in 1995.” (24)

How 1996 welfare reform ended cash assistance to the poor as an entitlement in America:

“Starting in 2001, more and more families with children who were receiving SNAP began to report that they had no other source of cash income to live on – not from work, not from public assistance. By 2006, the number of such families had grown 142 percent from a decade before. By 2012, 1.2 million families on SNAP told eligibility workers they had no other income.” (31).

Miscommunications around welfare, questionable requirements, and why many families eligible for assistance don’t even bother:

“No one really knows for sure why the TANF rolls have remained so low, even during the Great Recession. The most obvious explanation is that families who have fallen off the rolls have hit their time limits. But as it turns out, such cases account for a rather small number…Those who have not yet come up against time limits and are still eligible may be dissuaded from applying because the process is so time-consuming. And as Modonna learned, there is no guarantee that proving your need will earn you a place on the rolls. Even if you are approved for TANF, the payoff is questionable, given that benefit levels have fallen so much in value over the years. In addition you are now expected to engage in work activities in exchange for your benefits, in some cases with unpaid community service…Prospective applicants might reasonably determine that their time would be better spent hitting the streets in search of a real employer.” (32)

The American work ethic and the stigma of welfare:

“Years after welfare reform, when researchers engaged in further series of in-depth conversations with former welfare recipients, the typical single mom talked about work in a very different way from those interviewed just a few years before. Now she was telling researchers that to be a good parents, she had to model the value of education by getting a job. For these single mothers, the idea of returning to welfare violated their views of what being a good parent required. Adding a self-imposed stigma to the potent societal stigma that came with claiming benefits from the program.” (32)

“Few families in $2-a-day poverty are chronically disconnected from the workforce. Rather, most of them are workers who fall into extreme poverty only when they can’t manage to find or keep a job. Like Jennifer and her children, Kaitlin and Cole, the typical family in $2-a-day poverty is headed by an adult who works much of the time but has fallen on hard times. In fact, roughly 70 percent of children who experienced a spell of $2-a-day poverty in 2012 lived with an adult who held a job at some point during the year.” (42)

Blame low-wage employers, not the workers:

“….Laying the blame on a lack of personal responsibility obscures the fact that there are powerful and ever-changing structural forces at play here. Service sector employers often engage in practices that middle-class professionals would never accept. They adopt policies that, purposely or not, ensure regular turnover among their low-wage workers, thus cutting the costs that come with a more stable workforce, including guaranteed hours, benefits, raises, promotions, and the like. Whatever can be said about the characteristics of the people who work low-wage jobs, it is also true that the jobs themselves too often set workers up for failure.” (45)

The astonishing, depressing effect of race on ability to find work, research from 2000s:

the white applicant with a felony conviction was more likely to get a positive response from a prospective employer than the black applicant with no criminal record. When the study was replicated in New York City a few years later, she and her colleagues saw similar results for Latino applicants relative to whites.” (53)

How pushing many single-moms off welfare and into the workforce in the 1990s may have helped perpetuate many of the exploitative practices of low-wage employers:

“Although the 1996 welfare reform pushed millions of low-income single moms into the workforce, it did nothing to improve the conditions of low-wage jobs. In fact…it stands to reason that by moving millions of unskilled single mothers into the labor force starting in the mid-1990s, welfare reform and the expansion of the EITC and other refundable tax credits may have actually played a role in diminishing the quality of the average low-wage job in America.” (61)

On rising housing costs, scarce housing options for low-income renters, and the impossibility of rising out of poverty from low-wage work:

“Today 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 considered cost-burdened [spending more than 30% of income on housing], according to the HUD.” (66)

“The most obvious manifestation of the affordable housing crisis is in rising rents. Between 1990 and 2013, rents rose faster than inflation in virtually every region of the country and in cities, suburbs, and rural areas alike. But there is another important factor at work here that is an even bigger part of the story than the hikes in rent: a fall in the earnings of renters. Between 200 and 2012 alone, rents rose by 6%. During that same period, the real income of the middling renter in the United States fell 13%.” (74)

“Since the advent of the Great Recession, the number of extremely low income renters has grown dramatically – up to 2.5 million – while the supply of affordable rentals has remained flat. Because one-third of these low-cost rentals were occupied by higher-income renters, in 2011 only thirty-six affordable rental units were available for every one hundred renters with extremely low incomes.” (75)

The complicated relationship between child welfare rules and families trying to stay together through poverty:

“In Chicago, as well as virtually every other jurisdiction in the country, child welfare officials deem it inappropriate for a brother and sister to sleep in the same bedroom once they reach a certain age. At some point, if the authorities were to find out that Kaitlin and Cole were sharing a room, Jennifer would be at risk of losing custody due to “neglect.” (74)

On the rate of traumatic experiences among American poor and the mental and physical health toll that poverty demands:

“In the late 1990s, a team of medical researchers set out to document the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, among a group of mostly middle-aged people. ACEs include emotional, physical, and sexual abuse….64% reported at least one adverse childhood experience…one in five had a history of sexual abuse. The ACE study and more recent follow-up studies offer evidence that the experience of abuse, neglect, and other adverse circumstances in childhood is disturbingly common in the American population as a whole. Yet as shocking as these ACE study finding are, poor children are at far greater risk of such experiences.” (79)

“ACEs were not only unexpectedly common, but their effects were found to be cumulative…Rae likely suffers from the effects of what researchers refer to as ‘toxic stress,’ defined as ‘strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship.” (88)

On frequency of SNAP fraud:

“A 1993 audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that such fraud accounted for about 4 cents out of every dollar of food stamps. But this amount fell to around 1.3 cents out of every dollar in 2009-2011.” (112)

Why does welfare fraud have a more severe criminal penalty than child molestation ($250,000 and/or prison sentence up to 20 years)?

“One signal of how strongly a society feels about a particular violation of the law is the maximum sentence that can be imposed on offenders. Possession of small amounts of marijuana carries little legal penalty in most jurisdictions for a first-time offense. Under the U.S. federal sentencing guidelines, a person with a ‘minimal criminal history’ would have to commit an offense at base level 37 to earn up to twenty years in prison. By comparison, voluntary manslaughter earns a base level of 29, which could result in nine years in prison. Aggravated assault with a firearm that causes bodily injury to the victim merits only a base level 24, which could yield a five-year sentence. Abusive sexual contact with a child under age twelve also merits base level 24.

Astonishingly, at least in terms of the letter of the law, when Jennifer sells her SNAP, she risks a far longer prison term than the one Jose was subject to for molesting Kaitlin.” (110)

Where to go from here and what we should do about welfare:

“An unintended consequence of abolishing the AFDC has been the rise of $2-a-day poverty among households with children. But though welfare reform may have been the cause of this increase, reverting to the old welfare system is not the answer. The flaws of that system were too deep. Ellwood’s basic premise remains as true today as it was twenty-five years ago: any response to the rise in $2-a-day poverty must be in line with America’s values. This is not merely an argument about political feasibility. The primary reason to strive relentlessly for approaches that line up with what most Americans believe is moral and fair is that government programs that are out of sync with these values serve to separate the poor from the rest of society, not integrate them into society. The old welfare system had the virtue of providing a floor of cash income for those in need, but it exacted a heavy price. To be a welfare recipient was to wear a scarlet letter in the eyes of your fellow Americans. The old welfare system separated claimants from the mainstream.” (158)

The bottom line about TANF:

“Even for those who receive TANF, its cash value, though never high, is now very, very low – so low that it doesn’t bring a family’s income even to half the poverty line in any state. In thirty-two states plus the District of Columbia, TANF benefits for a family of three with no other income are now below 30 percent of the poverty threshold. In sixteen states, the maximum payment is below 20 percent of the poverty line. And in one state, Mississippi, TANF benefits are so low they wouldn’t even lift a family above the $2-a-day threshold. One can imagine that very low benefit levels could easily lead a prospective applicant to conclude that it is just not with the trouble to apply.” (170)

Comparing the EITC approach to TANF and why it’s so important to remove the stigma from welfare programs:

“In-depth interviews with 209 EITC claimants in the Northeast and Midwest in 2007 showed that while TANF receipt confers stigma and shame, claiming the EITC gives people dignity and restores their pride. First, the EITC is tied to employment. Second, the tax credits are included as part of your federal tax refund – along with wages that were overwithheld. This lends the impression that the government benefit is ‘earned,’ a just reward to hard work. Third, you don’t have to go to the welfare office to apply – an address that in and of itself connotes stigma….We are not arguing here that the EITC is a solution to $2-a-day poverty. But it does offer a critical lesson in how antipoverty policy ought to be crafted.” (172)

“…ensuring work opportunity and increasing the quality of low-wage jobs will be a sufficient safety net for most of this population, much of the time. But we do need a program that can provide a temporary cash cushion, because no matter what strategies we implement, work – even supported work – will sometimes fail.” (168)

We need to be more vigilant against employer wage theft and the exploitation of low-wage workers:

“For those who actually find work, low hourly pay is not the only issue plaguing the $2-a-day poor. Researchers estimate that American workers lose billions of dollars each year to what is referred to as ‘wage theft’ – clear violations of labor standards that include paying less than minimum wage, forcing employees to work off the clock, and failing to pay mandated overtime rates (like what happened to Jennifer Hernandez at Catalina). If one tallied all of the losses suffered by victims of robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts combined, the figure wouldn’t even approach what is taken from hardworking Americans’ pockets by employers who violate the nation’s labor laws.” (163)

“Insufficient hours and unstable schedules are huge problems. Many low-wage employers choose not to hire entry-level workers full-time, or even to provide stable part-time hours. Unpredictable work schedules multiply the deleterious impact of low pay and too few hours. There’s plenty of evidence that on-call shifts, zero-hour workweeks, variable scheduling, and temporary contracts – practices that skirt worker protections and make it difficult to qualify for unemployment insurance – are all too common.

Policy proposals aimed at improving conditions for low-wage service sector workers include provisions for minimum or guaranteed hours – perhaps thirty-five hours per week for full-time workers and twenty-five hours for part-time workers. Policy makers would have to look hard at how to design these regulations so as not to tie the hands of workers and firms too much. But a rule that could make an immediate impact would be one requiring employers to post schedules at least three weeks in advance. More predictability at work – and in the family’s finances – might bring more stability to the lives of those who otherwise might be prone to fall into $2-a-day poverty.” (163)

Against the offensive stereotype of the poor as lazy, incompetent people who are unmotivated to work and lift themselves out of poverty:

“Is Paul Heckewelder a worker? As of the summer of 2013, it has been about five years since he has held a job, back when he was a proud small business owner. If Paul were to complete one of the official government surveys that captures key statistics about the nation’s workforce, he would be deemed ‘not in the labor force.’ He isn’t employed, and he is no longer looking for a job, in part because his health has deteriorated to the point where he has trouble walking and breathing.

Yet it would certainly be inaccurate to say that Paul has not been working. He has been busy collecting metal for the scrapyard. He’s been busy sitting by the washing machine, waiting to catch the rinse water so that he can reuse it in the next load…He’s been busy driving the kids to the local food pantry – to prove just how many mouths they have to feed. And when he hasn’t been running back and forth, he’s been occupied welding his crumbling van together and buttressing the collapsing floor of his home. None of these jobs can be captured on a resume or in the U.S. government’s official workforce statistics. But this American, who is officially ‘not in the labor force,’ is not exactly a couch potato.
…In terms of his work ethic, he is the archetype. As his story and the others in this chapter show, the work of survival at the very bottom of America’s economic ladder is hard. It’s about turning what little you have in the way of assets into cash or goods, or honing your entrepreneurial skills in ways that allow you to make do with less, in an effort to ease the many hardships associate with life on no income.” (125)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s