A revelatory account of poverty in America so deep that we, as a country, don’t think it exists.
Jessica Compton’s family of four would have no income if she didn’t donate plasma twice a week at her local donation center in Tennessee. Modonna Harris and her teenage daughter Brianna, in Chicago, have gone for days with nothing to eat other than spoiled milk.
After two decades of groundbreaking research on American poverty, Kathryn Edin noticed something she hadn’t seen before — households surviving on virtually no cash income. Edin, whose deep examination of her subjects’ lives has “turned sociology upside down” (Mother Jones), teamed with Luke Shaefer, an expert on surveys of the incomes of the poor. The two made a surprising discovery: the number of American families living on $2.00 per person, per day, has skyrocketed to one and a half million American households, including about three million children.
But the fuller story remained to be told. Where do these families live? How did they get so desperately poor? What do they do to survive? In search of answers, Edin and Shaefer traveled across the country to speak with families living in this extreme poverty. Through the book’s many compelling profiles, moving and startling answers emerge: 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. Not just a powerful exposé, $2.00 a Day delivers new evidence and new ideas to our national debate on income inequality.
20 Years Since Welfare Reform
America’s poorest are still dealing with the consequences of the legislation that Bill Clinton signed into law two decades ago today.
As recently as April of this year, former president Bill Clinton defended the welfare reform bill he signed into law on August 22, 1996—twenty years ago today—as one of the great accomplishments of his presidency. The bill scrapped the welfare program known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) and created a new one that lasts to this day—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). There was a grandiose idea behind the change: TANF was no simple safety net; it was also meant to be a springboard to self-sufficiency through employment, which it encouraged recipients to find by imposing work requirements and limiting how long they could receive benefits.
Today, across the country, welfare is—at best—a shadow of its former self. In much of the Deep South and parts of the West, it has all but disappeared. In the aftermath of welfare reform, there has been a sharp rise in the number of households with children reporting incomes of less than $2 per person per day, a fact we documented in our book, $2 a Day. As of 2012, according to the most reliable government data available on the subject, roughly 3 million American children spend at least three months in a calendar year living on virtually no money. Numerous other sources of data confirm these findings. According to the most recent data available (2014), TANF rolls are now down to about 850,000 adults with their 2.5 million children—a whopping decline of 75 percent from 1996. TANF was meant to “replace” AFDC. What it did in reality was essentially kill the U.S. cash welfare system. (We use the term “cash welfare” to distinguish it from other forms of assistance, such as housing vouchers and food stamps, which have pre-designated uses.)
Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America
Findings from a small, exploratory study on how food insecurity affects teens (ages 13 to 18) and threatens their well-being. Across 20 focus groups in 10 diverse communities, we heard similar themes:
- Teen food insecurity is widespread. Even in focus groups where participants were not food insecure, teens were aware of classmates and neighbors who regularly did not have enough to eat.
- Teens fear stigma around hunger and actively hide it. Consequently, many teens refuse to accept food or assistance in public settings or from people outside a trusted circle of friends and family.
- Food-insecure teens strategize about how to ease their hunger and make food last longer for the whole family., Some go over to friends’ or relatives’ houses to eat. Some save their school lunch for the weekend.
- Parents try to protect teens from hunger and from bearing responsibility for providing for themselves or others. However, teens in food-insecure families routinely take on this role, going hungry so younger siblings can eat or finding ways to bring in food and money.
- Teens overwhelmingly prefer to earn money through a formal job, but their job prospects are limited, particularly in high-poverty communities. And often, teens can’t make enough money to make a dent in family food insecurity.
- When faced with acute food insecurity, teens in all but two of the communities said that youth engage in criminal behavior, ranging from shoplifting food directly to selling drugs and stealing items to resell for cash. These behaviors were most common among young men in communities with the most limited job options.
- Teens in all 10 communities and in 13 of the 20 focus groups talked about some youth selling sex for money to pay for food. These themes arose most strongly in high-poverty communities where teens also described sexually coercive environments. Sexual exploitation most commonly took the form of transactional dating relationships with older adults.
- In a few communities, teens talked about going to jail or failing school (so they could attend summer classes and get school lunch) as viable strategies for ensuring regular meals.
The story that emerged from conversations with these teens is one of limited options that leaves them with impossible choices. In this report, we use teens’ own words to tell this story and draw on our findings to make recommendations for policy and practice.