The Magnitude of the Change in $2-a- Day Poverty since 1996 is Even Larger After Reducing Survey Bias

Back in the field in 2010 to study the deeply poor, Kathryn Edin began to encounter something markedly different from anything she had seen in 20 years of canvassing poor communities: families with no visible means of cash income from any source. As Edin and I write in $2 a Day: “[W]hat was so strikingly different from a decade and a half earlier was that there was virtually no cash coming into these homes.”

Has there been a spike in the number of children going for periods with virtually no cash in the U.S.? We began to test this with the Survey of Income and Program Participation (the SIPP), where we saw a striking spike in the number of households with children reporting cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day over a month, a calendar quarter, and a year. To date, we have substantiated our core findings in two other major household surveys. Yet all of these surveys suffer from problems—some people may not want to reveal all their sources of income, they may forget, or they may misunderstand the questions. Perhaps our findings across three surveys were driven entirely by faulty data.

We tested this first by examining administrative records from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps)—which told much the same story as the SIPP. But another important source can help here—the federal government supports a micro-simulation model called TRIM, which is constructed by the non-partisan think-tank, The Urban Institute. TRIM corrects Current Population Survey (CPS) data for the “under-reporting” of public benefits—when people forget or choose not to say they receive benefits from a program like TANF. We can use it to examine data that is adjusted for these factors. Even with these corrections, survey data remain imperfect. And when extreme poverty is measured with an annual recall, you might expect it to be subject to a lot of error (people might not remember their income from January well when reporting after the end of a year; TRIM doesn’t correct for reporting in other forms of income besides public participation). But TRIM is a significant improvement over unadjusted survey data from the Current Population Survey, and we seek to determine if results using TRIM match our previous findings from other data sources.

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What is the Evidence of Worsening Conditions among America’s Poorest Families with Children?

Revised December 7, 2016

By H. Luke Shaefer and Kathryn J. Edin

Introduction

No data source is perfect for measuring the conditions faced by the nation’s poorest families. Following Edin’s initial qualitative insights from her qualitative research in Baltimore in 2010, we began to test a hypothesis that there had been a deterioration in the circumstances of America’s poorest families with the most reliable, nationally representative household survey data available, the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). We then checked our findings from the SIPP against numerous other sources of data, including SNAP administrative records, school reports of homeless children, and data on utilization of charitable emergency food programs. Finally, for a number of years we conducted in-depth ethnographic research in four sites across the country, seeking out families whom we believe would register as $2-a-day poor if they were survey respondents in the SIPP. All these sources of data paint a strikingly consistent picture of worsening conditions faced by the nation’s poorest families.

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Profiles in Extreme Poverty

Michelle stands with her partner Juan and their friend Angel in the shade against the brick wall, trying to avoid the full 90 degree day, waiting for 9 a.m. to arrive.  She has an off-the shoulder floral blouse on over a tank, paired with tight jeans.  Juan has the wire cart they’ll need to tote any groceries they glean from this west-side food pantry.  They are among the first to arrive this morning; each takes a number—3, 4, 5.  As they sit and wait for their turn at intake, Michelle shares that she hasn’t eaten in 4 days.  Then she shares why—2 years ago, Juan lost his job at the Ford Motor Plant.  The savings eventually ran out.  Then he, Michelle, and the three kids were evicted.

A friend let them bed down in his unfinished basement—where they tried to make a semblance of a life between the water heater, furnace, and pipes.  Suspicious—perhaps because of a sudden rise in the water usage—the landlord illegally entered the home and found the family huddled there.  The friend refused to throw the family out in the face of a threatened eviction.  Two months later, all of them were out on the street, possessions scattered across the lawn for neighbors to pick through before the landlord hauled the mess away. 

Since the loss of his factory job, Juan had been making the trek to a day labor facility several miles away, starting out at about 2am to arrive at 4, when the first picks were made.  By eight, he knew it was either time to begin his walk home or he was out on a job.  Unfortunately, he was put on a job only about one day out of five.  Even then, the yield—after FICA and transportation deductions, is just 30 bucks.  Prior to the eviction, Michelle had been cleaning houses in the suburbs.  To make ends meet, she cleaned like crazy, taking every job she could get in the wealthy Cleveland suburbs, where work was to be had.  But then the car was repossessed. Undaunted, Michelle hauled herself to the local plasma clinic—on west 25th street—about 2 miles away.  She “donated” steadily before being pronounced anemic and barred from giving any more.  Soon afterwards, she was rushed to the emergency room after passing out—dangerously low levels of potassium was the cause.  She is unsure whether that was related to the plasma donation or not.

As a result of her efforts, over three months’ time she managed to save the $425 to secure an apartment just four days after the second eviction.  With too many evictions on her record, the lease was held only in Jose’s name.  But it was a one bedroom, meaning the kids had to be sent off to live with relatives.  Michelle wept as she told me that she had said goodbye to her 15-year-old just that morning, before coming to the pantry.  She had never been apart from her children before.  When I asked her why she hadn’t applied for TANF, she looked at me blankly.  A TANF check would have kept she and Jose in their apartment, their kids in their schools.  It would have shielded the family against that stay in a damp, unfinished basement.  It would have kept the little family intact.  Yet Michelle had never even heard of the program.

Finally, her number was called.  She emerges from intake on moments later.  She had been denied.  Her name was not on the lease so she wasn’t eligible to receive food at this particular pantry.  She’s not on anybody’s lease anymore.  Hungry beyond belief she sits in a chair while Jose is called, approved, and apportioned enough to feed one person for several days.  Jose had exhausted his SNAP benefits.  Michelle has not yet claimed SNAP, but now, as a “single”, she would be limited to three months.

- Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer

Reflections from a Former Mississippi Delta Teacher

By Julie Wilkens

I lived in Mississippi for 5 years in the late ‘90s. I taught high school for four years in the Delta and in north Mississippi, then attended Ole Miss and worked at Square Books for another year. My husband, whom I met at a potluck on a dark road halfway between Indianola and Scottsville, taught at a different Delta high school for three years. 

Living in Mississippi, particularly the Delta, was definitely a shock to the system at first, but that was confounded with being a recent graduate with my first full-time teaching job and having never been further south than North Carolina. I lived in my Delta town for three years and taught French at the high school. There are a thousand issues I could discuss--from the comments, both outwardly racist and more subtly so, that came from some white people I met; the fact that the AP English class some of my seniors were in was only sporadically attended by the teacher, who was also the head of the district's English department; "free" Fridays, during which teachers required no work of their students because, you know, it's Friday!; that the pool in the neighborhood where I lived for two years stated in its rules that it was whites-only; that my students--and at least one teacher--had never met a Jewish person before and thought I might possibly be the devil; that a guidance counselor who was taking money for passing summer school grades was reassigned to the behavior alternative school rather than being fired.

Some of what struck both my husband and me the most were a) the nearly universal low expectations for behavior and academics; b) the crushing poverty; and c) the way most everyone just figured this was how things were. 

This included many, many students with babies--some with more than one--because it was "God's plan," in the words of one student; that people spent money on nice shoes and their cars but had holes in their front porches, because appearances matter when you're very, very poor; that the families of my students kept all their money, in cash, in their houses, rather than in a bank; that one of my husband’s students got into Ole Miss but would not sign off on a very generous student work-study agreement because the idea of owing anyone that much money was terrifying.

But I adored living in the Delta, in part because it was challenging. Maybe because it was challenging. And every time I read or see anything about the place, I still claim it as mine.

I did find northern Mississippi to be very different from the Delta, and while I adored Oxford, it felt very special to live in the Delta and get to know it well. We thought about moving back, but after visiting Mississippi friends with kids the same age as ours, we decided that raising kids in the Delta was a battle we were not willing to fight. However, living and teaching in Mississippi changed the trajectory of both our lives. After teaching there, I have chosen to work over and over again with students in poverty and students in need, from Alaska to   an urban charter school in Boston to several non-profits in Rochester, NY. My husband, a professor at a SUNY school, does research on educational equity issues in special education.

As might be expected, living in a relatively tony suburb outside of Rochester means that there is not a huge amount of economic or ethnic or racial diversity in our town or in our children's school. Most of the kids of color that we know are adopted kids in white families. We try to make an effort to make sure our kids have chances to interact with a wide variety of kids from a wide variety of backgrounds. This may or may not have been easier if we had raised them in the Delta.

About a week ago, someone dropped fliers on driveways in neighborhoods near ours advertising a white supremacist group's website, "Make Rochester Great Again." For our own kids, it's shocking, but also unbelievable. At a community meeting, though, people began to speak up, particularly those whose spouses and kids are mixed-race or non-white. As it turns out, many of them have experienced subtle racism in our fancy little town—side comments, looks, confusion over which family members belong in the same family. This incident, though reprehensible, has brought issues of race into daily conversation in our town and reminds us that we need to constantly address these issues with our kids. Living in a place like the Delta, where race is often on the forefront of everyone's minds might have made these conversations happen sooner, but I’m not sure they would have been any easier.

Note: This is an entry we received from a reader who had first-hand experience in the Delta.

Profiles of Extreme Poverty

We are excited to offer a series of entries collected by reporters at Groundcover News, a news organization that seeks to “empower low-income persons to make the transitions from homeless to housed, and from jobless to employed.”

Here is the first, a story of survival in Detroit. Thanks to La Shawn Courtwright for this powerful reporting.

 - Luke Shaefer & Kathy Edin

 

Surviving Without A Check

as told to La Shawn Courtwright

Groundcover Vendor #56

When I was homeless at the age of 32, I lived on Belle Isle with Frank, my best friend. We obtained two grocery carts that were in the grocery store parking lot after the store’s hours of operation. We had taken the things we needed to the island and stashed them not too far from the Turkey Grill Restaurant, an easy marker. 

We would go bottle and can hunting all day until we got as many as we could take at one time. We put the glass in the shopping cart and hung extra bags around the cart for cans.

We would, at times, be offered food by people at the park and gladly accepted what was palatable. We also ate plants that didn’t require cooking and ate at the mission or a restaurant.

We had a large sleeping bag and an abundance of blankets and warm clothing. We used the shelter of the racquetball courts and collected a bunch of twigs or old coals that could be burned to produce enough heat until we fell asleep. We slept in the same bag to maintain warmth throughout the night.

We used the locker rooms to shower. Frank would wait for me by the door once we knew that no one was lurking there. We used the lockers for our clean clothes. We did our laundry at the laundromat about 3 blocks away. That was our day, most of the time.

 - Reporting by La Shawn Courtwright

Percent of Families Eligible for TANF Who Are Receiving It Hits All-Time Low in 2013

The Department of Health and Human Services annual report on “Welfare Indicators and Risk Factors” was just released a few weeks ago. In it they use administrative records and survey data that has been corrected for underreporting of income to estimate the percentage of families eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits (as well as other programs) who are receiving it. Here we include figure 8 from the new report, which shows that the take-up rate among families eligible for TANF hit an all-time low in 2013, at 30.7%. That’s a drop from 84.3% in 1995.

Thus, we can confirm it is not a matter of families rising above deep poverty that has spurred the declines in TANF alone. Much of the drop in the TANF caseload is related to a 63.6% drop in the proportion of eligible families who actually receiving benefits. Note that this doesn’t account for the fact that many states have tightened their eligibility requirements over this time.

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The Rise in the Number of Children in $2-a-Day Poverty Evident in Three Large Nationally Representative Surveys and Administrative Records

$2.00 a Day began with observations by one of us, Kathryn Edin, who by 2010 had spent more than twenty years canvassing poor communities all over the country. Back in the field to study the deeply poor, she began to encounter something markedly different from anything she had seen before: families with no visible means of cash income from any source. Some had SNAP (food stamps), a small group had a housing subsidy, and most had a household member on government-funded health insurance. But as we write: “[W]hat was so strikingly different from a decade and a half earlier was that there was virtually no cash coming into these homes. These families didn’t just have too little cash to survive on…. They often had no cash at all.”

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$2.00 a Day Q & A

With Authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer

Since $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America was published in 2015, its claim about the increasing number of families with virtually no cash incomes has sparked a lively debate. Here we review the central arguments of the book and offer additional evidence on trends in access to cash, hardship, and broader indicators of wellbeing among families at the bottom of the income distribution. 

While any one source of data has flaws, across multiple data—quantitative surveys and administrative data, evidence from randomized trials, and ethnographic work—we find a consistent portrait of worsening conditions at the very bottom. In many cases, the data suggest that the 1996 welfare law may have driven, or exacerbated, these trends.

The evidence points not just to worsening conditions among families at the bottom of the income distribution, but also to increasing heterogeneity in income among poor parents with children. Just prior to welfare reform in 1993, the Earned Income Tax Credit was expanded (enacted in 1994 and 1996)—a program that virtually guaranteed that parents with children who worked full time, full year, would be lifted above the official poverty line. During the tightest labor market in generations, unprecedented numbers of single mothers began to enter the formal labor market, a trend that most agree was bolstered by the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, or “welfare reform.” Due to the booming economy and the EITC, those parents who have managed to find, and keep, full time jobs were arguably better off economically than ever before. Kathryn Edin and her colleagues Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Laura Tach, and Jennifer Sykes write about the success of the EITC and the challenges that still face working poor families in their 2015 book, It’s Not Like I’m Poor: How Working Families Make Ends Meet in a Post Welfare World. But in $2.00 a Day, we explore the underbelly of this period of change, those who are much worse off in terms of access to cash aid. It is their story that we explore in $2.00 a Day.

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Pockets of Populations Living Without Basic Plumbing

By Cecilia Watt

Investigation

The United States is, for the most part, a relatively wealthy, developed nation. And most Americans live in the kind of housing structures you’d expect to find in a relatively wealthy, developed nation: the kind with indoor plumbing. Ever since the Great Depression and the housing crisis it caused, the U.S. Census Bureau has been compiling data on the types of houses Americans live in: when they were built, how much they cost, and other information that allows the government to assess the quality of the country’s housing stock. To the Census Bureau, a house with “complete plumbing facilities” is one that has hot and cold running water, a bathtub or shower, and a toilet that flushes. More than 99 percent of the country’s occupied households have complete plumbing facilities.

But over 1.5 million Americans don’t. To find out who they are and where they live, we looked at data from the 2013 American Community Survey, one of the methods the Census Bureau uses to track housing statistics. We looked at the survey results on the census tract level, and we tried to identify geographic regions where lots of homes were lacking plumbing.

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Plasma Collections Hit All-Time High in 2014

Plasma Collections Hit All-Time High in 2014

Based on donation records published by the Plasma Protein Therapies Association (PPTA), source plasma donations have almost tripled since 1999 (figure 1). In just 15 years, plasma donations have ballooned from 11.4 donations per year to 32.6 donations per year. As the number of Americans living in extreme poverty has risen in the past two decades, it may not come as a coincidence that the number of people donating plasma has also increased dramatically. Donating plasma has seemingly become an economic coping strategy for the poor, those who may have no recourse but to donate their blood in exchange for cash earnings. Commercial plasma donation centers compensate donors for their time; a single donation can garner a payment of $20-$50 and FDA regulations permit donors to give plasma up to twice a week. Additional earnings can be generated from a variety of promotions, including bonus payouts and rewards programs that are meant to lure new donors and incentivize repeat donors. As such, plasma donation earnings can add up to a few hundred dollars a month, a lifeline for many who have limited or no other sources of income. 

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How Much Do Poor Americans Work? A Comparative Analysis

In the United States, working families are not precluded from being poor. Although Americans annually work longer hours than people in most developed countries (figure 1), including Germany, Australia, Canada, and the UK, poverty rates are higher in the United States. In comparison to other developed countries, U.S. children are most likely to live in households where both parents work and least likely to live in households with no working adults (figure 2). Of households with children, 65% of children in the U.S reside with two working parents and only 8.8% live in a household with no working adults. Similarly, in Germany, 62.2% of children reside with two working parents and 9.2% reside with non-working parents. However, a significant discrepancy exists between the child poverty rates of these two countries; while the U.S. exhibits a child poverty rate of 20.9%, Germany’s child poverty rate is 7.4%, close to a third of that of the U.S. (figure 3). 

Evidence suggests that the steep level of poverty among American children has less to do with parents not working a sufficient number of hours and more to do with the low wages associated with low-skill jobs. The incidence of low-paying jobs is higher in the U.S. than in most developed countries. For instance, of all dependent full-time workers, one-quarter of Americans earn incomes equivalent to less than two-thirds of the national median income (figure 4). The same is true for 19.94% of UK households and 18.37% of German households. The minimum wage is also lower in the United States than in most developed countries, with the exception of Japan (although Japan’s incidence of low-wage jobs is almost half of that of the U.S.) (figure 5). 

Thus, in comparison to other developed countries, it is especially difficult for low-earner families to escape poverty in the United States. A one-earner family with 2 children making a wage at the bottom decile of earnings would need to work for 60 hours per week to exit poverty  (figure 6). The same could be accomplished by working 35 hours per week in Canada or 17 hours per week in France.  This may help explain why relative poverty in the United States is so high in comparison to other industrialized nations (figure 7).

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The Number of American Households Seeking Help at Food Pantries Hits Highest Point in Two Decades in 2014

The Number of American Households Seeking Help at Food Pantries Hits Highest Point in Two Decades in 2014

For the past 20 years, an increasing number of families are using food pantries and food banks as a way to cope with lack of access to adequate and sufficient food. Since 1995, the U.S. Census has been measuring food pantry use among American households through the Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement (CPS-FSS). In 2014, over 6.70 million households, received emergency food from a church, food pantry, or food bank, representing a near doubling of food pantry user rates since 1999, 2.3 percent to 5.5 percent, respectively. Moreover, use of food pantries is more prevalent among households with children. For instance, in 2014, household with children were more than twice as likely to obtain emergency food from food pantries as households with no children, 7.3 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively. 

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The Big Business of Blood Plasma

From families low on income to students struggling to cover their college expenses, the appeal of donating plasma is simple, quick access to much needed cash.  There are a few requirements; you must be 18 years of age, weigh over 110 pounds, and have passed medical examinations. The first donation will take a little longer, about 2 hours, but thereafter, visits take about 90 minutes. The compensation? A debit card you can use immediately. Compensation varies by location and by the amount of plasma you are able to give (depending on weight) and will typically fluctuate between $20-$50 per donation. In the United States, donors can give plasma up to twice a week. For families in dire need of income, this can translate to a few hundred dollars a month. 

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TAMEKA, 33

"I could have done better with my life, you know, but I didn't."

Tameka cannot conceal her disappoint when she talks about her life. She is 33 years old, lives with her 13-year old daughter in a pleasant townhome in a small Maryland town, and she thinks she could have done better. Raised by working, middle-class parents, she feels like she “messed up” by not going from high school to college. “My dad was in the military,” says Tameka, “so I'm different than I would say most black girls because I had a little bit more of an opportunity to succeed just because my father stayed on me.”

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SHARON, 26

"Life sucks, kid."

Sharon’s smile is the first sign of hardship in her life, and, perhaps, of dubious choices she has made: her wide grin reveals a mouth full of worn, brown nubs. Yet she is unabashed, energetic, and friendly. She is 26 years old, though she looks older. A white mother of one, she is four-and-a-half months pregnant with a girl. Lacking a car in a small town without much public transportation, Sharon rarely leaves her apartment. She is starved for company, and happy to bend the ear of anyone who happens by, although such unannounced visitors are rare. She prefers to stand as she talks, a sign of excessive nervous energy or maybe the fact that there is only one place to sit in her living room, a well-worn love seat.

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Evidence of Employment Losses After Seattle’s Minimum Wage Hike? A Cautionary Note About the use of Data

Please note that since the writing of this research note, Professor Perry has noted that he incorrectly used two data sources for the chart in question, and has updated the chart accordingly.

In recent years, advocates and policymakers in states and municipalities have been steadily pushing to increase state and local minimum wage rates. A long contested issue, many scholars have contributed to the debate about whether minimum wage increases reduce employment, and the latest round of policy changes has sparked more debate. One of the most vocal contributors of late is American Enterprise Institute (AEI) scholar and University of Michigan Flint Professor Mark Perry. He has written dozens of pieces about the minimum wage in Seattle and other locales that have increased their minimum wages.

Here, we examine his February 18th article, “New evidence suggests that Seattle’s ‘radical experiment’ might be a model for the rest of the nation not to follow.” We believe that this conclusion—even as it is cautiously stated—may depend in large part on a use of two different sources of data to compare employment in Seattle versus the number of jobs in the surrounding MSA.

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Measuring Extreme Deprivation in the United States: Is Income or Consumption the Right Measure?

Consumption measures of poverty attempt to take the resources that families expend on consumption and assign them a cash value, with the goal of estimating a dollar value for what that family consumes over some period of time. Some researchers argue that a consumption-based measure of poverty may more directly reveal the resources available to families and be a more direct measure of material well-being than an income-based measure of poverty (Bavier 2014; Meyer & Sullivan 2003). Chandy and Smith (2014), for example, report that the World Bank prefers a consumption-based measure of poverty when estimating rates of global poverty (although some countries do use income-based measures), in part because people in developing countries often survive solely on resources that never take the form of cash, such as raising and tending to livestock or subsistence farming.

In $2.00 a Day, we use an income-based rather than consumption-based measure in part because of concerns regarding the quality of available survey data that captures household consumption (see more on this below). But more importantly, our central argument is that cash resources have a particular salience in the United States. The various forms of non-cash aid available to the American poor are important—even vital. Yet reductions in the accessibility of cash among the poorest of the poor in America signal a decline in a critical component of “capability” well-being, to borrow from Amartya Sen (1999). To be without cash income in the United States is to be without a flexible resource that is vital to having a chance of bettering one’s circumstances in this country. As two experts on global poverty put it, living without cash in the U.S. might be thought of as a kind of “purgatory,” and the rise of $2-a-day poverty here implies “a severe form of poverty in both a practical and intangible sense” (Chandy & Smith 2014, p. 15).

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Lia Sophia, Part II

This is the second in a series of blog posts by our good friend and colleague, Lia Sophia, who has had both the experience of being a social policy researcher, and of being a new mom trying to navigate the system of public programs. We are delighted that she has offered to write some advice for others who may be struggling to get help. She tackles a number of topics, which we will post over the next two weeks. Thank you Lia Sophia!

Having trouble getting public assistance but you are almost certain you qualify?

Applying for public assistance can be daunting. Not only is the application long and tedious, but you may also wish you were not applying in the first place. As someone who has applied for public assistance, one of the reasons why I postponed applying as long as I could was because I wanted to avoid having to deal with a caseworker. Over the past 10 years, I have found myself in situations where I needed to apply for SNAP and Medicaid. The treatment I have received from the workers assigned to my case has varied considerably. The first caseworker I ever had was not very helpful and made me feel uncomfortable. When I went to the DHS office for appointments, he avoided eye contact at all costs. One time he even walked out on one of our appointments. When I asked him were he was going, he said he was done and had nothing further to discuss with me, even though I was in the middle of asking a question. He always seemed annoyed with my presence and my inquiries. He made me feel unimportant and inferior. In an effort to avoid further visits to the DHS office, I would try contacting him over the phone. Despite leaving multiple messages, he never called back. I understand caseworkers are often overworked and underpaid, however, this is no way to treat a client. I know that now because every other caseworker I have had since then has proven far more personable and helpful.

So what do you do if you get stuck with that caseworker that makes you feel like he/she is looking down on you? First of all, keep your cool! Getting angry at your caseworker is unlikely to improve the situation.  Although it is possible to request a new caseworker, it is highly unlikely this request will be granted in the short-term. Keep in mind that the reason why you are applying in the first place is to receive much needed assistance for your family. As such, you need to try and communicate with the caseworker you are assigned so that your case can be processed expeditiously. In order to accomplish this, make sure you provide all the documentation requested in a timely manner. The quicker you provide your documents, the quicker your case will be processed and the sooner you can start receiving assistance.  Moreover, it is helpful to know that you meet eligibility requirements before applying. If you have access to the Internet, you can look up requirements on your state’s Department of Health and Human Services website. This is helpful because in case your caseworker says you are not eligible for a certain assistance program, you can question that decision based on your knowledge of the eligibility requirements for the program.

That being said, if you get to the point where you feel you just cannot communicate with your caseworker then you should request to speak with a supervisor. Be aware that this does not mean you will be assigned a new caseworker; the supervisor may simply try to ease your relationship with the caseworker. This may or may not ease tensions. If you remain unsatisfied then you could request a new caseworker. Regardless, don’t let a caseworker make you feel ashamed of applying for benefits. Public benefits exist to help people during times of need. With some assistance, whether it be food, cash, or medial public assistance, hopefully you and your family will be able to surpass this difficult time you are experiencing.

Lastly, if the issue that is preventing your communication with a caseworker is a language barrier, ask for an interpreter. Your children should never have to translate for you; this puts your child in an unfair and uncomfortable position. DHS needs to provide you with an interpreter. If one is not available at the time, DHS needs to make arrangements for adequate interpretation.

- Lia Sophia

Lia Sophia, Part 1

Today begins the start of a series of blog posts by our good friend and colleague, Lia Sophia, who has had both the experience of being a social policy researcher, and of being a new mom trying to navigate the system of public programs. We are delighted that she has offered to write some advice for others who may be struggling to get help. She tackles a number of topics, which we will post over the next two weeks. Thank you, Lia Sophia!

LIA SOPHIA, PART I

Public assistance programs exist as a safety net, to help those who have fallen on hard times get back on their feet. Job loss, unexpected illnesses, and other unforeseeable circumstances occur in life and while we struggle to pick up the pieces, it is useful to know that a safety net exists. Most public assistance programs are meant to be used on a temporary basis, however, given that many low-skill jobs don’t offer a living wage or health benefits, families often find themselves enrolling in public assistance programs such as SNAP and Medicaid for extended periods of time. While you work toward providing a better living for your family, these programs can provide a lifeline; you should apply if your family is in need.

Applying for Public Assistance—Where to fill out and application and how to locate your local office

Applying for public assistance can be complicated. I applied for Medicaid for the first time in 2006 when I needed health coverage for my son. I lived in Florida and would soon be moving to Illinois; I assumed the case would somehow be transferred to my new state of residence and that my son would not experience a gap in coverage. Surely, the eligibility requirements would be the same throughout the U.S.

I was wrong.

Although programs such as SNAP and Medicaid are federal programs, they are run at the state level. As such, you must apply for public assistance in your state of residence. This means that if you move to a new state, you need to fill out a new application. Every state has a different application process. Some states allow applicants to fill out one application to apply for various programs; others require a separate application for each program.  The application process has been somewhat eased by the availability of online applications. Most states now allow and prefer online applications. To check if an online application is available in your state, go to http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/apply. If you prefer to visit your local office in person, go to http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/outreach/map.htm to find a location near you. The same office that processes SNAP applications usually also processes applications for medical assistance and other pubic assistance programs. Check your state’s Department of Health and Human Services to learn more about the programs available in your state.

*TIP: When applying for public benefits, although you are encouraged to fill out as much application as possible, you do not need to fill out the entire application for it to begin being processed (although the process will move along faster if you are able to provide complete information). At a minimum, you should include your name, contact info, and signature.  A caseworker will contact you to request more information. You may request for a caseworker to be sent to your home to assist you in filling out the application if you are unable to make it to the local DHS office. You may also request a phone interview if you are unable to attend an in-person interview. 

- Lia Sophia

Welfare, a shadow of its former self

In 1994, 9.6 million children and 4.6 million adults received cash assistance. Today’s program covers only a fraction of that—less than 3 million kids and only about a million parents. Back in 1994, Aid for Families with Dependent Children—welfare’s name pre-reform—touched the lives of about two thirds of poor families with kids. Now, only a quarter are aided by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

What happened? Welfare reform. As we argue in our new book $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, one unintended consequence of the 1996 reforms was a dramatic rise—130 percent—in the number of households with children living on cash incomes of no more than $2 a day per person. That’s according to the best (though not perfect) data available, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP).

The 1990s also saw many positive changes in social policy for poor, working families with children. A major expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit greatly increased the benefits of work, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) now plays a vital role for poor families.

Yet you don’t get the EITC when you cannot find a job, and SNAP cannot be used for non-food purchases. Some cash assistance is vital for those at the bottom. Jessica Compton from Tennessee, a wife and mother of two, has an obvious indentation at the crease of her arm, the result of many needle pricks. To get some cash, she sells her blood plasma as often as the law allows.

TANF: failing to reach the neediest

Why is TANF failing to live up to its charge? Partly because it takes the form of a federal block grant to the states, who are therefore incentivized to keep the TANF rolls down. In some states, TANF dollars are siphoned off to cover services that states would have paid for anyway, such as child welfare systems.

Some prospective applicants are “diverted” when they seek aid.  After nearly a year without employment, a desperate Rae McCormick, from Cleveland, Ohio, swallowed her pride and walked into the welfare office. She says she was told, “Honey, I’m sorry.  There are so many needy people, we just don’t have enough to go around.”

There is also good evidence that many people eligible for TANF do not claim it, because of a lack of knowledge or a belief that it will not be paid out.

Even for those who receive it, TANF’s cash value is now very low. In no state does it bring a family up to even to half the poverty line. In 32 states and the District of Columbia, TANF for a family of three with no other income is now below 30 percent of the poverty threshold.

States need to be better motivated to put more of the TANF money they get into the pockets of needy households. Making work pay is a worthy goal. But so is ensuring that those without work do not fall into desperate poverty. Welfare reform, then, was a decidedly mixed blessing.

- Kathy Edin & Luke Shaefer