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$2.00 A Day

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Scott’s latest posts on performative cruelty and Trumpism/Republicanism (a distinction increasingly without a difference) reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about Kathryn Edin’s and Luke Shaefer’s great ethnography of extreme poverty in contemporary America.

$2.00 A Day follows the lives of a diverse group of American families living on less than two dollars per day cash income per family member.   At any one time, millions of Americans are in this category.  People in this situation have been devastated by “welfare reform,” the now nearly a quarter century old package of federal legislation that shredded the social safety net for the very poor in particular.

A few quotes:

Two dollars is less than the cost of a gallon of gas, roughly equivalent to that of a half gallon of milk. Many Americans have spent more than that before they get to work or school in the morning. Yet in 2011, more than 4 percent of all households with children in the world’s wealthiest nation were living in a poverty so deep that most Americans don’t believe it even exists in this country.

At the old welfare program’s height in 1994, it served more than 14.2 million people—4.6 million adults and 9.6 million children. In 2012, the year Modonna took her trip to the DHS office, there were only 4.4 million people left on the rolls—1.1 million adults (about a quarter of whom were working) and 3.3 million kids. That’s a 69 percent decline. By fall 2014, the TANF caseload had fallen to 3.8 million.

. . .

Survival strategies come in three forms. The first is taking advantage of public spaces and private charities—the nation’s libraries, food pantries, homeless shelters, and so on. Then come a variety of income-generation strategies, such as donating plasma—means for gleaning at least some of that all-important resource that families seem unable to survive without: cash. Finally, there’s the art—often finely honed through years of hardship—of finding ways to stretch your resources and make do with less.

. . .

Cash resources freed up by SNAP not only make it less likely that a household with children will fall behind on rent and utilities, but they also reduce the chances that someone in the house will skip a visit to the doctor because of the cost. Thus, SNAP not only puts food in the stomachs of hungry kids, but it also buffers families from other kinds of hardships. There is a downside to this type of substitution, though. A considerable number of families on SNAP continue to experience what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls “food insecurity,” meaning they run out of food before the month is over. The budgets of these working-poor families are often so tight—and so far in the red—that some level of substitution is needed to avoid eviction and to keep the lights on. For many families, these concerns can outweigh the need to stave off hunger. Families who substitute in this way aren’t breaking the law, not even close. They aren’t even doing anything unethical. They are simply reallocating some of the money they had been spending on food to other uses. Yet trading SNAP for cash—the most common strategy used for survival among the families in this book—is a crime, and a serious one at that. The reason the $2-a-day poor do so anyway is that the practice of substitution doesn’t work for them. They have no cash to spend on food in the first place. Meanwhile, the need to pay the light bill, or even get the kids new socks and underwear, can seem more compelling than the need to eat in a couple of weeks’ time. What’s more, it’s easier for a family with nothing to get food from another source—such as a food pantry—than to acquire those other things from charities. This is why food stamp “trafficking,” though rare among the poor more generally, is common among the $2-a-day poor.

. . .

Parents like Jennifer, Susan, and Rae express desires that are quite modest. Full-time hours come first. That is a prize that can be astonishingly hard to wrest from a low-wage employer who wants to avoid added costs associated with full-time employment, such as health insurance and paid time off. A predictable schedule, so parents can arrange for safe, reliable child care, comes next. A few say they would be happy if they could get just those two things. Yet finding a job with even those basic attributes is something Susan Brown feels she can only dream of, not expect. Most parents, like Jennifer and Rae, hope for a little more. If they could just make $12 or $13 per hour, they say, they could make it; $15 per hour is really shooting the moon. Safe working conditions, and some sick or personal days, would be a real plus. The other “extras” that once came routinely with a full-time job—health insurance, vacation days, and retirement benefits—don’t often come up in conversations with the $2-a-day poor. These perks are so uncommon among the jobs available to low-wage workers that they seem all but outside the bounds of reality.

. . .

A few of the many thoughts this ethnography elicited:

(1) Very poor people often work far harder than any economically successful person I’ve ever met. Reading this book drives home the point that the belief that economic security in this country is a product of “hard work” is actually obscene.

(2) A related claim that becomes positively rage-inducing after reading this book is that we live in a meritocracy.  I re-read $2.00 A Day the same week the latest college admissions scandal broke, and reading about the struggles of the single mothers portrayed in the book the same afternoon as learning the details of Olivia Jade’s Instagram travails made me understand how things like the Cultural Revolution end up happening.

(3) One thing about concepts like the poverty line is that they create a psychological frame in which people, very much including myself, tend to think of poverty as what life is like at around that income cut point.  But this book is a reminder that there are literally millions of Americans, including millions of American children, who spend large parts of their lives at income levels vastly below the poverty line.  The 5th percentile of household income in 2018 was $8,820, i.e., $735 per month for everything — and 15 million Americans live on less than that — indeed, as Edin and Shaefer reveal, sometimes far less.

(4) It’s very expensive to be very poor.

(5) Welfare reform was on net probably a benefit to what might be called the upper lower class — the so-called “working poor,” who benefited from the creation and expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.  But in an economy which creates and in fact relies on enormous amounts of more or less permanent under-and-unemployment (i.e., ours), people who can’t get or hold steady genuinely full-time work are going to be in truly desperate situations at various points in their increasingly precarious lives.

(6) If you’re poor, the child care and transportation systems in this country are a cruel joke, and play a huge role in keeping you that way.

This book, along with Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, ought to be read by everybody who cares about poverty in America: a subject that was almost literally not mentioned in the 2016 presidential debates.

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