Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer

Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer

According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of Americans living in poverty is higher today than it was in the late 1960s. Last year I argued in these pages that these “official” poverty statistics are extremely misleading.1 When the United States first explicitly defined an official poverty line in 1969, it was supposed to be adjusted every year to ensure that it represented a constant standard of living. However, two problems arose and were never fixed.

First, the Consumer Price Index, which was supposed to be used to adjust the poverty line for inflation, turned out to have flaws that made it rise faster than the cost of living. Second, the official measure uses pretax money income to measure families’ economic resources; but anti-poverty measures enacted since then, such as the expansion of food stamps and then the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), made low-income families’ total economic resources increase faster than their pretax money income. As a result of these problems, roughly half the families now counted as officially poor have a higher standard of living than families with incomes at the poverty line had in 1969.

In $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer argue that what they call “extreme” poverty roughly doubled between 1996 and 2012. If they are right—and I think they are—the reader might wonder how I can still claim that poor families’ living standards have risen. The answer is that inequality has risen even among the poor. Half of today’s officially poor families are doing better than those we counted as poor in the 1960s, but as I learned from reading $2.00 a Day (and have spent many hours verifying), the poorest of the poor are also worse off today than they were in 1969. $2.00 a Day is a vivid account of how such families live. It also makes a strong case for blaming their misery on deliberate political choices at both the federal and state levels.

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“I Agreed That He Should Sign It”

“I Agreed That He Should Sign It”

In the left-wing case against Hillary Clinton for president, a central plank is her support for the 1996 welfare reform bill, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by Bill Clinton. “I spoke out against so-called welfare reform,” Bernie Sanders said while campaigning in South Carolina earlier this year, “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—strongly supported it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage.” In her influential essay “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote,” Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, writes of how Hillary Clinton “ardently supported” welfare reform. In the new anti-Hillary feminist anthology False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, contributors Frances Fox Piven and Fred Block write that Bill Clinton “took Hillary’s advice” to sign welfare reform, as if he might not have otherwise. 

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The Disconnected

The Disconnected

 met Laura Grennan on a cold morning this past winter in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In a gray sweatshirt, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, Grennan was pushing her daughters in a double stroller. Angel is her 2-year-old, and her 3-year old is named Isis—like the Egyptian goddess, Grennan is quick to explain. “I love Egyptian mythology,” she says, “so I just picked the name out of a hat, and I thought it was beautiful—until, of course, all the news of the terrorist group came out.” She sighs. “But we work around it.”

“Working around it” is something Grennan, 30, has had to become very good at in her life. Grennan grew up in foster care. Moved around a lot. Dropped out of high school. By her mid-20s, she had found some degree of stability—gotten her GED, held a series of jobs she liked. “I’m kind of a Jill-of-all-trades,” she says. She’s worked in an eyeglasses lab, done retail, and most recently, taken tickets at a “witchy tour” in her hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. She had been bringing in a steady, if modest, paycheck for several years by the time she and her husband were expecting their first child.

Then came what Grennan calls “the downward spiral.” “It’s one thing and then you lose another thing and then you lose another and it just keeps going.”

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“Oh My God—We’re on Welfare?!”

“Oh My God—We’re on Welfare?!”

“All right, so we’re gonna talk about love styles!”

On a Thursday night in Oklahoma City this winter, Scott Roby— white goatee, polo shirt, and slacks—stood at the front of a crowded conference room, next to an image of a big colorful heart projected on a PowerPoint screen. The heart was divided into six different sections representing different “love styles.”

“There’s DoBeGiveEncourageTalk, and Touch. Those are the six different dimensions,” Roby, an instructor for a program called “Forever. For Real,” told his audience. “We all have all of these within us.”

As he talked, the 50 or so people in the room nudged their partners, exchanging knowing looks when their preferred love style came up. “Now, sensual touch—if it’s really gonna feed the love style and feed the relationship, it’s not always about ‘landing the plane,’ if you know what I mean,” Roby said with a wink.

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The Failure of Welfare Reform

The Failure of Welfare Reform

How Bill Clinton’s signature legislative achievement tore America’s safety net.

If you want a sense of how thoroughly America’s welfare system has decayed thanks to the reforms Bill Clinton signed into law two decades ago, consider Arizona.

Despite being home to one of the nation’s most crushing child poverty rates, the state has all but stopped giving cash assistance to its needy. During 2014, for every 100 poor families with children in Arizona, just 8 families received aid. And even that tiny fraction is likely to shrink. Last year, while trying to chip away at a $1 billion budget deficit, lawmakers lowered the maximum amount of time Arizonans could receive welfare payments before being kicked off the rolls permanently—it’s now just 12 months.

This was a first. Most states enforce a five-year time limit. Some, including Arizona, have gone as low as two years. None had tried the one-year-and-you’re-out approach.
The move was expected to save up to $9 million—for perspective, the state’s board of tourism spends about three times that much annually—while cutting off aid to some 2,700 children. Nonetheless, Republican state Sen. Kelli Ward, who is now challenging John McCain for his U.S. Senate seat, said that the 12-month cutoff would “encourage the able-bodied to treat welfare like a safety net rather than a hammock.” The line might have been more convincing if benefits for a family of three in Arizona didn’t already max out at a miniscule $278 per month. Some hammock.

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On Welfare Reform, Moynihan Was Right

On Welfare Reform, Moynihan Was Right

Twenty years ago, to acclamation in some quarters and disdain in others, Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted devastation would trail in the wake of welfare reform, especially for children, whom he anticipated would be “put to the sword” and collected “sleeping on grates.” Sometimes decades are required to prove visionaries right.

While I was writing a book on Moynihan’s political thought, even admirers of the late statesman often asked: “What are you going to do with welfare reform?” The implication was a widespread assumption that the prophet who had called so many future events correctly had missed his mark on this one. The correct answer: With respect to the worst poverty, Moynihan was right.

Welfare reform appears to have made several salutary gains, many of which would have pleased Moynihan, including some that might have surprised him. But when it comes to the most vulnerable, about whom Moynihan was most concerned, time is tragically revealing his foresight. They have been left without a lifeline in a society saturated with plenty.

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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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