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.
More From the Authors:
Welfare Reform and the Families It Left Behind
By H. Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin
Since the early 1990s, the safety net for families with children has been funda- mentally reformed. The expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in the early 1990s and of public health insurance in the late 1990s are two classic reforms that are largely viewed as highly successful.
Yet the legacy of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) remains less clear. This landmark legislation replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which offered an unlimited legal entitlement to aid among those who could demonstrate need, with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which ended the legal entitlement to aid and imposed work require- ments and lifetime limits.
The ELEVATE Act Explained:
A "Job Guarantee" That Can Actually Work
By Samuel Hammond, Niskanen Center
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:In simple economic models, workers disrupted by trade or automation are instantly reallocated from declining industries to ones on the rise. Yet that is rarely if ever the case in the real world. Labor markets are highly complex institutions, riddled with frictions created by geography, social networks, discrimination, and regulations that vary from place to place.
In a world where nothing ever changes, this wouldn’t be a big problem. Yet in a dynamic, growing economy, change is the rule, particularly with increased foreign trade and major breakthroughs in AI and robotics on the horizon. This demands that the United States finally get around to constructing a truly national labor market — one with robust employment, training, and relocation supports that follow workers wherever they go.
The “Economic Ladders to End Volatility and Advance Training and Employment” or ELEVATE Act is a big first step in that direction. It provisions include:
A new title to the Social Security Act for states to fund and implement subsidized employment programs;
Guardrails that ensure states pursue re-employment and retraining programs with a strong evidence base and low overhead;
Funding conditioned on states’ quarterly unemployment rates to create aggressive and fast-acting “automatic stabilizers”;
A demonstration project to identify “pro-worker employers” to ensure subsidized job placements don’t erode job quality;
A national self-employment benefit for recently unemployed workers to pursue entrepreneurship;
And a national relocation assistance program to reimburse eligible individuals for the expenses associated with “moving to opportunity.”
Inspired by over 40 years of research into employment subsidies, including about a dozen controlled pilot programs, the ELEVATE Act is the most carefully constructed and evidence-driven proposal for strengthening labor markets in a generation. And as discussed below, while there are several areas for improvement, it has the potential to appeal across partisan lines by tying employment security to a vision of an even more free and dynamic market economy.