6. Over 1.5 Million American Families Live on Two Dollars Per Person Per Day

by Project Censored
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According to Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, sociologists and authors of the book $2.00 per Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, in 2011 more than 1.5 million US families—including three million children—lived on as little as two dollars per person per day in any given month. Edin and Shaefer determined this figure on the basis of data from the US Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), income data from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), additional data on family homelessness, and their own fieldwork in four study sites, including Chicago, Cleveland, and rural communities in Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta.

As Marcus Harrison Green wrote in YES! Magazine, their depiction of what poverty truly looks like in the US reads “like a Dickens novel.” As Green noted, US media often neglect the experiences of the poor, making the study’s findings “startling for many.” (For previous Project Censored coverage of how corporate media neglect to cover poor people, see “Millions in Poverty Get Less Media Coverage Than Billionaires Do,” Censored story #9 in Censored 2016.) From families who depend on their mother making plasma donations twice a week for their income, to others with nothing but a carton of spoiled milk in their refrigerator, Edin and Shaefer documented family households living “from crisis to crisis.” One of their informants told Shaefer that she had been beaten and raped and was always “looking out for the next threat.”

As Jared Bernstein noted in his September 2015 report for the Atlantic, in addition to providing a vivid account of what it’s like to live in extreme poverty, Edin and Shaefer’s research also offers a policy critique that highlights the long-term consequences of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform initiative. Since then, Bernstein wrote, “anti-poverty policy in this country has evolved to be ‘pro-work,’” with the fateful consequence that “if you’re disconnected from the job market, public policy won’t help you much at all.” As Edin and Shaefer found, the number of families living on less than two dollars per person per day has more than doubled since 1996. The working-age people in their study wanted decent, steady jobs—not only because work was an economic necessity, but also because they understood jobs as a source of dignity for themselves and their families. A “huge flaw” in welfare reform, Bernstein reported, is the “insistence on work without regard to job availability.”

The jobs held by members of poor families typically pay low wages with unstable hours and unsafe working conditions, contradicting the consistent assumption of conservative policy agendas that there is “an ample supply of perfectly good jobs” that poor people could have if they really wanted to work. Instead, the extreme poverty documented by Edin and Shaefer is driven by the “state of the low-wage labor market,” Shaefer told YES! Magazine. “People make the assumption that low-income families don’t work or don’t want to work.” In the Mississippi Delta, Shaefer described, “Work isn’t just hard to come by, it’s often nonexistent.” Otherwise, however, the norm among the families with children that they studied is “a parent who works or has worked recently.”

Edin and Shaefer proposed three policy changes to address extreme poverty in the United States. First, policy must start by “expanding work opportunities for those at the very bottom of society.” This means improving the quality of the jobs available by raising the minimum wage, stabilizing work schedules, and increasing accountability for labor standards that often go unenforced. It also means countering the ideological assumption that poor people are unwilling to work. Second, policy must address housing instability, which Shaefer described as both a cause and a consequence of extreme poverty. “Parents should be able to raise their children in a place of their own.” Third, families must be insured against extreme poverty even when parents are not able to work. Edin and Shaefer proposed to revive and scale up employment programs that were part of the 2009 Recovery Act. As Bernstein reported, “If America’s anti-poverty policy framework is founded on work in the paid labor market, and if that labor market doesn’t provide the necessary quantity or quality of jobs, public policy must make up the difference.”

Corporate coverage of Edin and Shaefer’s sociological study of extreme poverty has been limited. In early 2012, USA Today published a straightforward report on a previous version of their findings, which indicated 1.46 million families lived on less than two dollars per person per day. USA Today quoted a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who disputed Edin and Shaefer’s findings: “When you look at that type of family, you don’t see the type of deprivation this study suggests.” More recently, the Los Angeles Times ran an opinion piece by Edin and Shaefer, and the New York Times published William Julius Wilson’s favorable review of their book in its Sunday Book Review. Wilson, a leading sociologist in the study of poverty, described their book as “an essential call to action,” and observed, “the rise of such absolute poverty since the passage of welfare reform belies all the categorical talk about opportunity and the American dream.”

Marcus Harrison Green, “1.5 Million American Families Live on $2 a Day—These Authors Spent Years Finding Out Why,” YES! Magazine, September 24, 2015, http://www.yesmagazine.org/commonomics/13-million-american-families-live-on-2-a-day-these-authors-spent-years-finding-out-why-20150924.

Jared Bernstein, “America’s Poorest are Getting Virtually No Assistance,” Atlantic, September 6, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/09/welfare-reform-americas-poorest/403960/.

Student Researcher: Rupert Watson (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Tiffany Scott (Napa Valley College)