The ELEVATE Act Explained:

A "Job Guarantee" That Can Actually Work

By Samuel Hammond

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.

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The Persistence of Disadvantage in New York City

A Thee-Year Perspective from the Poverty Tracker


This is the fourth in a continuing series of reports that document key  ndings of the Poverty Tracker, a quarterly survey tracking a  xed panel of approximately 2,000 New York City residents.

As noted in earlier reports, typical surveys of poverty take an annual snapshot based on the federal government’s of cial, income-based measure. Such snapshots suffer two  aws. First, they fail to capture the full extent of disadvantage. Second, these snapshots are static and fail to capture the dynamics of disadvantage, speci cally, how deprived households cope—or fail to cope—with circumstances over time. The Poverty Tracker overcomes both  aws. It surveys residents about a range of hardships and health problems, in addition to assessing in- come-based poverty. It also tracks the same families, quarter after quarter, yielding a dynamic picture of poverty and deprivation in New York City.

The  rst two reports focused on income, wealth and health. The third report, in spring 2016, focused on prev- alence and persistence of severe disadvantage from one year to the next. This report focuses on the dynamics and persistence of income poverty, material hardship and health problems using data from three annual sur- veys that roughly cover from 2012 to 2014.

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Poverty Risk Calculator

Understanding Economic Risk Throughout Our Lives

Have you ever wondered what your risk of poverty might be in the future? This calculator will estimate your personal risk over the next 5, 10, or 15 years.

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Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America

By Susan J. Popkin, Molly M. Scott, and Martha M. Galvez


Read the related handout.

Food-insecure teens who don’t get enough to eat sometimes resort to extreme measures to cope with hunger—from saving school lunches for the weekend or going hungry so younger siblings can eat to stealing or trading sex for money to buy food. The most risky behaviors are by no means typical of all teens, even in the most distressed communities, but they illustrate the lengths to which some of the most desperate and food-insecure teens are willing to go to survive.

An estimated 6.8 million people ages 10 to 17 are food insecure, meaning they don’t have reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food. Another 2.9 million are very food insecure, and roughly 4 million live in marginally food secure households, where the threat of running out of food is real.

Food insecurity takes a tremendous toll on teenagers. Poor nutrition—and the stress of hunger and poverty—can jeopardize their physical and mental health and development and their academic success. But despite the gravity and prevalence of teen food insecurity, we know very little about how these young people experience and cope with hunger.

In this report, we present 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:

  • Teen food insecurity is widespread. Even in focus groups where participants were not food insecure, teens were aware of classmates and neighbors who regularly did not have enough to eat.

  • Teens fear stigma around hunger and actively hide it. Consequently, many teens refuse to accept food or assistance in public settings or from people outside a trusted circle of friends and family.

  • Food-insecure teens strategize about how to ease their hunger and make food last longer for the whole family., Some go over to friends’ or relatives’ houses to eat. Some save their school lunch for the weekend.

  • Parents try to protect teens from hunger and from bearing responsibility for providing for themselves or others. However, teens in food-insecure families routinely take on this role, going hungry so younger siblings can eat or finding ways to bring in food and money.

  • Teens overwhelmingly prefer to earn money through a formal job, but their job prospects are limited, particularly in high-poverty communities. And often, teens can’t make enough money to make a dent in family food insecurity.

  • When faced with acute food insecurity, teens in all but two of the communities said that youth engage in criminal behavior, ranging from shoplifting food directly to selling drugs and stealing items to resell for cash. These behaviors were most common among young men in communities with the most limited job options.

  • Teens in all 10 communities and in 13 of the 20 focus groups talked about some youth selling sex for money to pay for food. These themes arose most strongly in high-poverty communities where teens also described sexually coercive environments. Sexual exploitation most commonly took the form of transactional dating relationships with older adults.

  • In a few communities, teens talked about going to jail or failing school (so they could attend summer classes and get school lunch) as viable strategies for ensuring regular meals.

The story that emerged from conversations with these teens is one of limited options that leaves them with impossible choices. In this report, we use teens’ own words to tell this story and draw on our findings to make recommendations for policy and practice.

Teen-focused strategies to alleviate hunger and direct teens away from risky behavior include increasing nutrition assistance benefits, strengthening teen nutrition programs, creating more and better youth job opportunities, and empowering teens to create community-based solutions. Also, educators and police should be trained to recognize the trauma experienced by girls who are sexually exploited and provide counseling or referrals rather than treating them like offenders.

In the long term, the only way to end teen food insecurity is to address its root cause—family poverty—by improving access to jobs, providing better access to opportunity-rich neighborhoods, and strengthening the safety net when parents cannot earn enough to cover basic needs.

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$2.00 a Day Q & A

With 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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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


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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How Much Do Poor Americans Work? A Comparative Analysis

Analidis Ochoa-Bendaña, MPP

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).



A Top Priority to Address Poverty: Strengthening the Child Tax Credit for Very Poor Young Children


This new paper explains how the poorest children qualify for only a very small Child Tax Credit (CTC) or no tax credit at all, even though they are the children who need it most and for whom it would have the largest beneficial impact.  A single mom (2 kids) who works full-time year-round at the minimum wage does not benefit from the $1,000 maximum credit.  The analysis synthesizes a growing body of research showing that boosting the incomes of poor families can yield important long-term benefits for young children, along with the evidence of the pervasive effects  of “toxic stress” on these children.  Accordingly, the paper recommends that policymakers should make it a priority to strengthen the Child Tax Credit (CTC) for the poorest young children. 
 The CTC (along with the EITC) has been documented as improving children’s health and education gains and their expected earnings as adults. The positive effects of such income support in both the short term and the long term are clearest for the poorest and youngest children.



Repairing the Kansas Safety Net


An in-depth look at how new Kansas policies harm vulnerable Kansas children.  $2 a Day is used as a resource.



Can Poverty in America Be Compared to Conditions in the World's Poorest Countries?


Some contend that the American poor are affluent by international standards, and recent survey evidence finds that Americans have deeply divided views about the conditions faced by the poor in this country. To what extent can poverty in the United States be compared to conditions in the world’s poorest nations? Few analysts have examined this question beyond “instrumental” measures of poverty such as income and consumption that only indirectly capture well-being (Sen, 1999). The current paper uses available evidence to examine this question based on four direct indicators of wellbeing: 1) life expectancy; 2) infant mortality; 3) risk of homicide, and 4) risk of incarceration. By these metrics, well-being is highly stratified in the U.S. Among Americans at the bottom of the economic ladder, quality of life looks similar to what is experienced in countries with per-capita economic output that is a small fraction of that in the U.S.



Understanding “$2 a Day” Poverty: An Explanation for Robert Doar

By Peter Germanis, June 11, 2016

Many conservatives view the 1996 welfare reform law (particularly the creation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF block grant) as an unprecedented success and a model for reforming other safety net programs. I offer an alternative conservative perspective, based on a model developed in the Reagan Administration, which provided states flexibility, but unlike TANF had strong accountability provisions – most notably cost neutrality and rigorous evaluation – to ensure that states actually helped needy families. This approach was continued by President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton. TANF replaced this evidence- based approach with a blank check and no meaningful accountability. For the past year, I have been writing critiques of TANF and “responses” to those who suggest TANF has been a “success.”



Sampling the Extreme Poor: Notes from a Systematic and Venue-Based Study


Our central hypothesis is that a growing number of American families have incomes so low that the difficulties of their living situations are masked by studies that treat the poor as a homogeneous group. A recent study by Edin and Shaefer (2013) suggests that about one-fifth of all poor households with children—and about one-fifth of all poor children—live at the extreme income threshold of only two dollars of cash income per person per day. They refer to this income level as “extreme poverty.” For the purposes of this study, we define extreme poverty as a cash income of no more than 25% of the federal poverty line, which is currently $20,090 for a family of three. Table 1 provides additional detail about measurements of poverty and extreme poverty.



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. 



Understanding the Dynamics of $2-a-Day Poverty in the United States


Shaefer and Edin (2013) have found a large rise in “extreme poverty”—defined as cash income of no more than $2 per person per day, for a month or calendar quarter—among U.S. households with children between 1996 and 2011. This article explores some underlying dynamics of this phenomenon, referred to here as “$2-a-day poverty,” presenting evidence from both qualitative fieldwork and quantitative analysis of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). The rise in $2-a-day poverty has been concentrated among children experiencing it chronically—that is, for seven or more months during a calendar year. Both qualitative and quantitative evidence find that a large majority of children experiencing $2-a-day poverty live in households where an adult worked during the year, while only a small proportion live in households accessing TANF. Finally, households experiencing $2-a-day poverty appear to be more likely to face material hardships than other low-income households.



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


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.



Is Welfare Helping Poor Children?

We know thanks to the excellent work of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that the number of families receiving TANF for every 100 families living in poverty has declined precipitously since welfare reform of the 1990s.

But we wondered how well TANF was covering poor children. The spreadsheet below offers one way to answer this question. We compare the number of individuals under age 18 receiving TANF with the number under 18 living below the federal poverty line. Nationally, there are over 16 million individuals under age 18 living below the poverty line but less than 3 million children receiving TANF. That produces a TANF-to-minors-in-poverty ratio of just 17.5, meaning that just 17.5 children are on welfare for every 100 children in poverty.*

While many states also have a low ratio, there is still quite a bit of variation. The three states with the highest ratios are California (50.3), Hawaii (39.9), and the District of Columbia (38.8), and the lowest ratios belong to Idaho (3.2), Wyoming (3.3), Louisiana (4.4) and Texas (4.4). To illustrate these differences, consider the populous states of California and Texas. California has over 2 million poor children but over 1 million children on TANF. Texas, on the other hand, has almost 1.8 million poor children but only 77,000 on TANF.

Where is your state?

*This ratio should not be interpreted as the percentage of children eligible for but not receiving TANF. For more on this method, see Appendix A of this report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.




This discussion guide is a free resource for groups interested in talking about the themes present in $2.00 a Day. They might be useful for classroom or community small group discussion. Feel free to use the questions you like and discard or change others. If you develop questions you’d like to share, we would love to hear from you.

Chapter 1: Welfare is Dead

Chapter 2: Perilous Work

Chapter 3: A Room of One’s Own

Chapter 4: By Any Means Necessary

Chapter 5: A World Apart

Conclusion: Where, Then, from Here?



CONGREGATIONAL STUDY GUIDE by Rev. Yvette J. Schock and Robert D. Francis


Organization of the Guide

Leading Prayer and Scripture Reading

A Word for Group Leaders

SESSION 1: Building Community

SESSION 2: Introduction

SESSION 3: “Welfare Is Dead” 

SESSION 4: “Perilous Work” 

SESSION 5: “A Room of One’s Own” 

SESSION 6: “By Any Means Necessary” 

SESSION 7: “A World Apart” 

SESSION 8: Conclusion