2016 Hillman Prize for Book Journalism

People and policy-makers alike have put welfare on the back burner. There are still so many who are denied the opportunity to make a living because of governmental and societal neglect.  In writing $2.00 a Day, Edin and Shaefer have become leading voices in this conversation. Senior White House officials have stated that their research has led directly to the inclusion of a new anti-poverty proposal called the Emergency Aid and Service Connection in the President’s Budget. If funded, this new $2 billion dollar Presidential initiative will provide funding to test new poverty-fighting methods, including faster short-term aid in addition to long-term programs. Shaefer and Edin have both testified before Congress, and have spoken before many of the nation’s largest charitable foundations, and at numerous centers for research on poverty. As Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” did 20 years ago, $2.00 a Day has sparked a conversation and promising changes of which Sidney Hillman would be proud.

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J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize Shortlist

The J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize recognizes superb examples of nonfiction writing that exemplify the literary grace, the commitment to serious research, and the social concern that characterized the distinguished work of the award’s namesake, J. Anthony Lukas.  Books must be on a topic of American political or social concern and must have been published between January 1, 2015, and December 31, 2015.

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Political Rifts Over Bill Clinton’s Welfare Law Resurface as Aid Shrinks

Political Rifts Over Bill Clinton’s Welfare Law Resurface as Aid Shrinks

With little debate, Arizona last year became the only state to impose a one-year limit on cash assistance to needy families, cutting the maximum duration of benefits for the third time since 2010. The newest limit has begun to hit home for welfare recipients who are learning that their benefits are nearing an end.

Anna Robinson, the mother of a 4-year-old boy, received cash assistance for about eight months in 2013, until she landed a job at a call center for a pet-supply retailer. Then her job was automated and her position was eliminated. She will receive about four months of cash payments before they dry up.

“I was really proud of myself when I got a job, but now I need help again,” Ms. Robinson said as she picked up a box of free groceries at St. Mary’s Food Bank in West Phoenix.

As the 20th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s welfare law approaches, the impact of its requirements is being felt more than ever, with the political rifts that it exposed in 1996 resurfacing on the 2016 campaign trail.

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House introduces series of bills targeting program for poor families

House introduces series of bills targeting program for poor families

The House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means focused on the issue of family poverty last week. They passed three pieces of legislation and are scheduled to consider two more at a future date that aim to improve the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program. TANF is the country’s main cash assistance program for poor families and was scheduled for reauthorization in 2010, but has been operating on continuing resolutions since.

The House Committee’s markup comes at a time when critics of TANF have become increasingly vocal. Even before authors Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer argued that TANF is essential non-existent in their book $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, critics were sounding alarms about the shrinking caseloads and TANF’s apparent inability to respond to recessions.

The critics are not entirely wrong as Robert VerBruggen persuasively argued last March. But they are not correct either. TANF has benefited a large number of families and most are better off than they would have been had TANF not existed. Some argue that something better could have been put in place instead of TANF, but that is mere speculation. TANF largely achieved what it set out to do – it reduced dependence on cash welfare, increased work, and lowered poverty for those directly affected by it.

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More Americans Live on Less

More Americans Live on Less

If you stopped at Starbucks for a cup of coffee on your way in to work today, you have already spent more than what many in the United States subsist on for an entire day. Some level of extreme deprivation has always existed in America — but, in the past two decades, the number of people in its grip has exploded. 

This — the steep rise of extreme poverty, particularly among households with children — was the topic of a panel discussion at the Harold Washington Library here in Chicago recently. The event’s featured speaker was Kathryn Edin, a sociologist and one of the nation’s leading poverty researchers. She spoke about her and Luke Shafer’s recently published best seller, $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America — a mix of sociology and storytelling that puts faces to the millions of Americans who live on virtually no income.

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What It's Like to Live On Less Than Two Dollars a Day

What It's Like to Live On Less Than Two Dollars a Day

Sociologist Kathryn Edin talks about what she learned from spending time with families that live on less than the price of a gallon of milk.

There’s no milk in the fridge at Sandra Brown’s home in the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Not much food in the cabinet, aside from Ramen noodles. Were it not for the kindness of Sandra’s great-grandmother, who owns the house, Sandra and her family—her husband, baby daughter, grandmother, step-grandfather, and an uncle—would be living on streets. The Browns, like more than a million American families, live on less than $2 in cash a day.

“Many Americans have spent more than that before they get to work or school in the morning,” write sociologist Kathryn Edin and her co-author, H. Luke Shaefer, in $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. “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 exists in this country.”

Edin, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, first studied the lives of poor families while volunteering at the now-demolished Cabrini-Green housing project as a student at Chicago’s North Park University. She went on to earn a PhD from Northwestern and has spent her career detailing the effects of poverty on family life. $2.00 a Day follows the lives of families who have been left behind by the welfare reform of the 1990s. These are families “caught in an endless cycle of jobs that don’t pay nearly enough and periods of living on virtually no income.” She spoke with former CT senior news editor Bob Smietana last fall.

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Author Edin to discuss and sign latest book

Despite nearly three decades of researching urban family structure and poverty, Kathryn Edin was shocked when she discovered data showing the number of American families living on $2 per person, per day, has skyrocketed to 1.5 million American households. That number includes about 3 million children.

What Edin, director of the 21st Century Cities Initiative learned is the subject of her latest book, “$2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015; $28). The initiative is one of the signature projects of the Johns Hopkins Rising to the Challenge capital campaign.

“Once you know it’s there, you can find evidence for it everywhere—in the SNAP data, data from food pantries and reports from schools,” said Edin, who co-authored the book with Luke Shaefer, an expert on calculating incomes of the poor. “In Baltimore, signs are appearing offering diabetic patients who are cash strapped cash for their diabetic test strips. If your kids needed socks and underwear or you needed to keep the lights on, would you be tempted to endanger your health for that little bit of cash? Probably so.”

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House Democrats Hold Hearing on Poverty in America

The House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee held a hearing on April 14 titled “The Failure of Trickle Down Economics in the War on Poverty.,” Witnesses spoke about families struggling to make ends meet while stuck in an endless cycle of poverty that leads to poor health and educational outcomes, harming community wellbeing and the overall U.S. economy. Housing was discussed as a key issue to be addressed for ending systemic poverty.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in her opening remarks, “Addressing poverty in America is a searing challenge to the conscience of our country. How can it be that we, the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth, that in our country one in five children lives in poverty? How could it be that maybe one in four children in America goes to sleep hungry at night? How can it be that in the land of the American Dream, so many of our fellow Americans are stuck – so many are struggling?”

Dr. Kathryn Edin, who recently spoke at NLIHC’s Policy Forum (see Memo, 4/11), testified about her research on welfare reform and the myths about low-income families, detailed in her book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. She explained that the number of people subsisting on $2 per day rose dramatically after welfare reform and that a very small percentage of households eligible for Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) actually receive assistance. She also pointed out that the poor are deeply committed to work but that jobs available to them do not provide enough to shield them from poverty.

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Extreme Poverty in Ohio: How Many People in Ohio Live on Less than $2.00 Per Day?

The World Bank and other international organizations frequently cite incomes of less than $2.00 per person per day as a benchmark for poverty levels in developing countries. Policy experts in this country have also analyzed data on the extremely poor in the United States using this same standard. Next week, the authors of $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, will visit Ohio to talk about the plight of Americans living in extreme poverty.

As groups prepare for those events, they asked Community Solutions, “how many people in Ohio live at this level of extreme poverty?”  Doing some quick calculations, we estimate that between 184,000 and 198,000 Ohioans live on less than $2.00 per day.  Here, we describe our methodology.

Our estimate is based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) five-year sample data from 2010 to 2014. We used the Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) from those years, as maintained by the Minnesota Population Center (IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota, www.ipums.org). The ACS counts total household income for the past 12 months from the following sources: wages/salary, self-employment, interest, dividends, rent, royalties, income from estates or trusts; Social Security retirement, survivor, and disability income; Supplemental Security Income (SSI), cash public assistance (TANF), other retirement, survivor, or disability income; unemployment, worker’s compensation, VA payments, alimony and child support, and other periodic income other than earnings. It should be noted that the value of SNAP (food stamp) benefits is not counted as income in the ACS.

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The End of Welfare as We Know It

The End of Welfare as We Know It

America’s once-robust safety net is no more.

By the numbers, welfare reform was a success.

More than 13 million people received cash assistance from the government in 1995, before the law was passed. Today, just 3 million do.

“Simply put, welfare reform worked because we all worked together,” Bill Clinton, who signed into law welfare reform, or the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times in 2006. Clinton had campaigned on a pledge to “end welfare as we know it” and today it is all too apparent that he succeeded.

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Stats: The Democrats Ignore the Poor at Their Own Peril

Stats: The Democrats Ignore the Poor at Their Own Peril

The Democratic presidential primaries have been upended by Bernie Sanders's populist revolution on the "left," which has tapped into the deep discontent of a broad swath of the population that is still suffering the after-shocks of the Great Recession. Sanders' success has forced Hillary Clinton to adjust her rhetoric. Claiming she is the real "progressive" who will get "Wall Street to work for Main Street," Hillary insists she is best equipped to bring about the reforms needed to improve the lives of working families and hard-working Americans.

Both Sanders and Clinton invoke the hardships suffered by the large section of the population that has been bypassed over the seven years of economic recovery. Both candidates draw attention to an electorate that has been shut out of the political process by the billionaire 1 percent class. Both use the term "middle-class" to describe this broad segment of the population, the 99 percent. However, folding the poor, at the bottom end of the 99 percent, into the middle class does not serve the cause of their campaigns. More important, it does nothing to negate the image of the "undeserving poor" and reestablish people living in poverty as full members of our society.

In their campaign strategies, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ignore the pervasiveness of poverty, the unique experience of people living in poverty, the growth in the number of households at the bottom of the income distribution. It is this segment of the population that suffers the greatest hardships and is most likely to be supportive of the safety-net policies the candidates are proposing. It is this group that is most likely to be sympathetic to "populist" rhetoric -- but least likely to participate in the election process.

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Resisting Welfare Reform

Resisting Welfare Reform

Twenty years ago President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, better known as welfare reform. Among other provisions, the law required that able-bodied adults go to work within two years of receiving assistance and imposed a lifetime limit of five years of welfare benefits. The American Catholic bishops called the law “deeply flawed” and harmful to “hungry children.” At the time we noted the “laudable goal of moving people from demeaning dependency to dignifying work” but concluded, “this is not welfare reform but a redistribution of income—from the stigmatized poor to the fortunate classes” (“The ‘Other’ America Revisited,” Editorial, 8/31/1996).

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Clinton-era welfare reforms haunt America's poorest families, critics say

Clinton-era welfare reforms haunt America's poorest families, critics say

At the Cultural Cup food bank in Phoenix, Arizona, Sabiha Keskin has watched a growing trend in recent years of people forced to sell food stamps for cash to help pay the rent or utilities, and then coming to her food bank to feed their children.

“There’s a lot more single parents coming in, male and female, because they have cash issues,” said Keskin who herself relied on welfare payments to raise her five children after she served seven years in the US air force and then was unable to find work.

“I was on assistance for 18 years on and off. I got cash assistance, I got food stamps. That’s mostly gone today. When I first got out of the military we got food stamps and $725 in cash. Now it’s nothing like that. The system was better then. Now it’s a joke. Sometimes the money is so little people don’t even want to bother with the paperwork.”

In Arizona today, if Keskin even qualified for cash welfare payments at all they would be a fraction of what she once received. That is true across large parts of the US where the number of low-income parents who receive cash welfare payments they can use to pay bills or buy clothes for their children has been cut dramatically over the last two decades.

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Janresseger: Exposing the Effects of Child Poverty Hidden in Plain Sight

While there is widespread agreement that family poverty is highly correlated with low achievement at school, it is a difficult issue to discuss because people immediately become defensive.  “Don’t tell me poor kids can’t learn,” people say.  Many children living in poor families do thrive at school. But life circumstances present challenges that too often interfere.  Here is long-time education researcher David Berlinerexplaining that, in the aggregate, poverty lowers school attainment:  “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… These stories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives…  But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American… But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students.”  There is much to read this week that elucidates the kind of crisis poverty imposes on poor families and explains how families’ circumstances affect children in school.

What would it be like to raise children while living in extreme poverty? In their new book $2.00 A Day, Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer follow some of the 1.5 million American households (including roughly 3 million children) living without any cash income—only food stamps. (This blog covered Edin and Shaefer’s book in January when it was published.)  Too often families in extreme poverty cannot find anywhere they can afford the rent:  “Every family whose story is told in this book has doubled up with kin or friends at some point, because their earnings haven’t been sufficient to maintain a place of their own. While living with relatives sometimes offers strength and uplift, it can also prove toxic for the most vulnerable in our society, ending in sexual, physical, or verbal abuse.  The trauma from this abuse is sometimes a precipitating factor in a family’s fall into $2-a-day poverty, or the calamity that keeps them in such a state for far too long.” (p. 73)

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It Pays to Work: Work Incentives and the Safety Net

Some critics of various low-income assistance programs argue that the safety net discourages work.  In particular, they contend that people receiving assistance from these programs can receive more, or nearly as much, from not working — and receiving government aid — than from working.  Or they argue that low-paid workers have little incentive to work more hours or seek higher wages because losses in government aid will cancel out the earnings gains.

Careful analysis of the data and research demonstrates, however, that such charges are largely incorrect and that it pays to work.  In the overwhelming majority of cases, in fact, adults in poverty are significantly better off if they get a job, work more hours, or receive a wage hike.  Various changes in the safety net over the past two decades have transformed it into more of what analysts call a “work-based safety net” and substantially increased incentives to work for people in poverty.

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Sanders: Welfare reform more than doubled 'extreme poverty'

One thing that sets Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders apart from opponent Hillary Clinton is that he opposed a 1996 law known widely as welfare reform.

The Vermont senator said the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which both Democratic President Bill Clinton and a bipartisan Congress supported, contributed to poverty today.

"What welfare reform did, in my view, was go after some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in this country," Sanders said at a Feb. 24 press conference in South Carolina. "During that time, I spoke out against so-called welfare reform because I thought it was scapegoating people who were helpless, people who were very, very vulnerable. Secretary Clinton at that time had a very different position on welfare reform. ... Now what happened as a result of that so-called welfare reform bill? Since legislation was signed into law, the number of families living in extreme poverty has more than doubled from 636,000 to 1.6 million."

We wondered if the number of families living in extreme poverty — defined as households living on less than $2 in cash per person per day — has more than doubled, and we also wanted to know if the 1996 legislation caused that trend.

We found that the best estimates show Sanders’ numbers are right on, and there is some well-regarded research that ties welfare reform to the rise in extreme poverty.

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Growth in extreme poverty seen to parallel history of 1996 welfare reform law

Quinn Washington always considered herself a “worker bee.”

A single mother of six, Washington, 32, worked long hours to provide for her kids, taking on overtime most weeks at Invacare, a global health equipment manufacturer in neighboring Elyria. When she gave birth to her now 4-year-old son, she kept maternity leave to a minimum.

“Even though I was making good money, I didn’t want to appear to be too lazy,” she said. “So when I had my son I went straight back to work. That’s the way I am.”

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Welfare Reform, Then and Now

Welfare Reform, Then and Now

The welfare reform bill Hillary Clinton championed has doubled the number of people living on less than $2 a day.

In 1996, Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law.

Here’s Hillary Clinton talking about her role in the bill’s passage seven years later, in her memoir Living History:

The President eventually signed this third bill into law. Even with its flaws, it was a critical first step to reforming our nation’s welfare system. I agreed that he should sign it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage.

Here’s the Washington Post talking yesterday about the bill’s impact on the poor:

Hundreds of thousands of Southern families are living on less than $2 in cash a day as a result of legislation President Bill Clinton signed in 1996, according to new research by Johns Hopkins University’s Kathryn Edin and University of Michigan’s Luke Shaefer. . . .

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Bernie Sanders is right: Bill Clinton’s welfare law doubled extreme poverty

Bernie Sanders is right: Bill Clinton’s welfare law doubled extreme poverty

After 20 years, Bernie Sanders wants to put welfare back on the national agenda, seeing a chance to use his message of economic equality to undermine Hillary Clinton's base of support among black voters.

Primaries across the South over the next few days give him what might be the best chance he'll get. Hundreds of thousands of Southern families are living on less than $2 in cash a day as a result of legislation President Bill Clinton signed in 1996, according to new research by Johns Hopkins University's Kathryn Edin and University of Michigan's Luke Shaefer.

In South Carolina this week, ahead of that state's primary election on Saturday, Sanders brought up the 20-year-old law in a press conference. "What welfare reform did, in my view, was to go after some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in this country," he said on Wednesday, noting that Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, supported the legislation.

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