This Is What It's Like To Live On $2 A Day

Extreme poverty is on the rise in America, but we can change that.
Credit: John Moore via Getty Images

What's it like to have no source of income? That's life for millions of Americans, although the political debate barely acknowledges that reality. When conversations about poverty take place in Washington, they typically focus on the working poor, rather than the non-working poor.

A new book titled $2.00 A Day: Living On Almost Nothing In America seeks to change the debate. Written by well-respected social scientists Kathryn J. Edin of Johns Hopkins University and H. Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan, $2.00 A Day looks at the poorest of the poor.

One prominent reviewer has already likened Edin and Shaefer's book to Michael Harrington's The Other America. Many historians believe that 1962 classic of journalism and sociology helped galvanize support for the War on Poverty -- an effort that, for all of its shortcomings, substantially improved living standards for some of the most destitute Americans.

Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Nobody expects a similar effort today. But a presidential campaign is underway, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Clinton-era program that replaced the old welfare system, is up for reauthorization. Sooner or later, the topic of extreme poverty is bound to arise in the national conversation. A few politicians might even be interested in doing something about it.

So what would that entail? What's making these people so poor? Why aren't they working? How do they get by and pay for basic necessities? And is there any reason to think public policy could make a difference?

The Huffington Post put those questions to Shaefer. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

What inspired the book?

My co-author, Kathy Edin, has been visiting with poor families for more than two decades, and a few years ago, she found herself going into more and more homes where families had no cash income coming in -- something she hadn't seen much of before. Some had food stamps, the program we now call SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]. A few had housing help. But there was no cash coming into the home, and a lot of the time there was not much hope of getting any.

Kathy mentioned this to me, since I'm a bit of a data nerd. And we decided to see whether the best available data would show an uptick of families living on virtually nothing. As a measuring stick, we used the World Bank's standard for poverty -- $2 per person per day. What we found frankly shocked us. As of 2011, in any given month there were 1.5 million families, with about 3 million children, with cash incomes below this extreme threshold.

When you add in some important non-cash programs, it puts a dent in this number. But we're still very much heading in the wrong direction.

That's a lot of people, for sure. But is the problem actually getting worse? Are there more extremely poor Americans than there were before?

Yes. In 1996, about 1.7 percent of all households with kids were under that $2-a-day threshold. It was up to 4 percent in 2011. That's about 1 in every 25 families.

HuffPost infographic by Alissa Scheller

Let's talk about exactly why and how these Americans got so poor. To what extent is it their own personal qualities and failings, and to what extent is it the system around them? Or, to put it a bit more crudely, are these people lazy and irresponsible? Or do they have the deck stacked against them somehow?

I think Kathy and I were both surprised to find that most of the people we talked to were workers. They had been working -- and wanted to work -- but because of the instability in their jobs and the instability in their family lives, they had lost a job and things had spiraled out of control from there. When we looked back to the nationally representative data, the story it told was much the same. Loss of a job was a primary precursor to a spell of $2-a-day poverty.

You mentioned family instability. Get a little more specific here. What's going on in these families?

I want to be clear that this isn't a story about poor families in general, but among those at the very bottom. We found a lot of examples where these people had turned to families and friends for help, and it turned out really badly. These families and friends were actively part of the problem.

One woman, a mother, lost her job because she missed work because a housemate had used up all the gas in the shared car. We also saw many, many examples of abuse -- physical, emotional and sexual. The people we studied are extremely vulnerable, often in shock, and this can lead to victimization.

What about their employment situation, which you also mentioned? Is the problem that they can't find jobs? Or that they can't find good jobs that pay decently and reliably?

We saw a lot of examples of wage theft, labor law violations and just plain unsafe working conditions. Take the example of Jennifer Hernandez -- that's a pseudonym, like in the rest of the book.

Jennifer, who lives in Chicago, finally found a house cleaning job after months of searching for one while living at a succession of homeless shelters. But as winter got colder, she ended up mostly cleaning boarded-up foreclosures, trying to scrub clean empty houses and prepare them for resale. There was no heat and no running water. Her team would work in their coats and take their buckets up to the nearest gas station to refill in the bathroom. Eventually she started getting sick, and as she started to call in sick too often, her hours got cut. Eventually, she decided she needed to leave the job so she could get healthy and take the necessary time to look for another one.

Fluctuations in work hours are really common, and there's a rising prevalence of "on-call" shifts -- when workers have to be ready to go in if needed, but they're not paid unless they're called in. Shifting the timing of work from week to week is hard to handle when you have kids. It all adds up.

You picked 1996 as a date of comparison, and that's right before welfare reform took effect. How much is this a story about changes in the welfare system, as opposed to changes in the economy?

We think it's definitely a matter of both, but there's no denying this is linked to the changes we made to our welfare system. In the data, we see that the old cash welfare system [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] was lifting more than a million families above the $2-a-day threshold in early 1996. In many parts of the country, the replacement program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is all but nonexistent, with only a handful of people getting help.

To us, the two things you mention are linked. The new safety net is supposed to be based on work. But work -- the kind of work these people can get -- makes for a very shaky foundation.

What about welfare reform has made this happen? Is it TANF's time limits? The cash value of the assistance people are getting? The way states are using their allotted moneys from the block grant?

It's a little bit of all-of-the-above. But I think a lot of it boils down to how the program is structured. The law puts some pretty stiff requirements on states, in terms of making benefits available only to people who are working. And if the states don't spend money on helping people with cash assistance, they get to use the funds for other, related purposes with fewer restrictions.

So the states have both an easy way to keep people off the rolls and a motive to do so. In some states, they've reallocated TANF dollars to things like the child welfare and foster care systems, which are certainly worthy but on which they would probably have spent money anyway. In these cases, TANF is acting as a welfare program for states instead of people.

We also heard of people being turned away from TANF, and we are dead sure these people were actually eligible. We also heard a lot of people who didn't even know about TANF, because it's become so uncommon.

A volunteer unloads donated baked goods at a food pantry in Des Moines, Iowa.

A volunteer unloads donated baked goods at a food pantry in Des Moines, Iowa.

Credit: Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Did welfare reform do any good at all? The idea was to get people back into the workforce, partly by supplying them with supports they didn't have before. Are there signs that other people -- maybe not the ones in your book -- are better off?

That's an important question. In a lot of ways, we increased aid to poor families during the 1990s, most importantly with an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC gives a big wage supplement to low-income working families, a group that didn't get much help before that. We expanded health insurance for low-wage working families too, with the passage of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. All of these things have done a lot to improve the lives of poor families with children where the adults work, when they are working, and that's an important piece of the puzzle. Kathy's got a book on the EITC called It's Not Like I'm Poor. We think that's a companion piece to our book.

But $2.00 a Day is about the folks who we think were left behind. Now there's less aid for families at the very bottom, and the aid that's available comes in the form of in-kind assistance, not cash. In effect, we argue that the transformation of the safety net in the 1990s largely took us in the right direction, but it's incomplete, with dire consequences. We think it's time to finish the job.

One obvious question is how these people and their families get by. These people aren't dying in the streets from hunger and exposure, right?

We really found that the families we followed were very entrepreneurial in finding ways to get that little bit of cash to keep going to the next day. Selling blood plasma, selling your food stamps, sometimes selling sex -- whatever it takes. But these survival strategies come with a lot of risks. Many of them constitute felonies. And they take time, which pulls people away from the work of finding a job in the formal economy.

There is also a lot of hunger, too. Rae McCromick from Cleveland sometimes goes for days without eating, and Tabitha, who recently turned 18 and spent much of her childhood in $2-a-day poverty, said that going hungry makes you "feel like you want to be dead."

So let's pretend that Hillary Clinton or Paul Ryan or, heck, Donald Trump called you in and said, 'Hey, we want to help these people.' What would you suggest they try? How much of this seems possible in a world of constrained government spending and a near total lack of bipartisan trust?

One thing that came out very clearly when we talked to families was their desire to work -- and the extent to which working made other problems better. For example, we'd hear a lot from parents with mental health issues that, when they were working, those issues seemed most at bay. When they had jobs, they had a routine, a way to contribute. That's why our first policy priority really should be to expand work opportunity for families at the very bottom of the labor market.

I think there are ways of doing that that could get bipartisan support, even in this political environment. There was a temporary federal program a few years back that gave states funds to partner with employers to create jobs for people like those in our book. A majority of states participated, and it was well-liked by the states, participants and employers. Let's start by bringing that back.

But simply creating jobs may not be enough. Some of these folks need some support in order to maintain jobs. That will require some new investment. But from what they tell us -- and there's some solid research to back this up -- these programs could pay for themselves, frankly, in improved outcomes. One program that provided work supports and a guaranteed job in Milwaukee significantly increased marriage rates among never-married mothers. The program didn't have anything to do with marriage! It was all about work!

Clearly we have to do something about the affordable housing crisis in this country. And we should have a functioning cash safety net. But in my mind, it all starts with expanding work opportunity.

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