Pathways: A magazine on poverty, inequality, and social policy

The number of adults on welfare has dropped dramatically since its reform in 1996. As of 2011, a little over 1 million adults remained on the welfare rolls in a typical month, down from about 4.6 million at the program’s peak in the early 1990s. As these numbers plummeted, the number of single mothers joining the workforce or returning to it grew at rates that were largely unexpected. For these reasons, welfare reform has been touted as a success.

At the same time, in the years since 1996, a new group of American poor has emerged: families with children who are liv- ing on virtually no income—$2 or less per person per day in a given month. These are America’s “extreme poor.” The U.S. offi- cial poverty line for a family of three would equate to roughly $17 per person per day. What scholars call “deep poverty”—incomes at less than half the poverty line—is about $8.50 per person per day, over four times higher than our cutoff. This new group of American poor, the extreme poor, are likely experiencing a level of destitution not captured in prior poverty measures, one that few of us knew even existed in such a rich country.

The purpose of this article is to expose the rise of extreme pov- erty and to examine how the safety net is—or is not—addressing it. We cannot fully address why extreme poverty is on the rise, but it may well be related to the landmark 1996 welfare reform. After 1996, it became far more difficult to get any cash assistance from the government if you didn’t have a job, even if you were raising young children and had no other sources of income.