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Getting by in America on $2 a day

The number of people in the U.S. who are extremely poor is increasing. Christopher Hollis/Wikimedia Commons

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It seems inconceivable that anyone in America could survive on $2 a day or less.

Kathy Edin, a sociologist from Johns Hopkins University, and Luke Shaefer, of the University of Michigan, have discovered not only does it happen, but that the number of the country’s extreme poor is going up. They reported their findings in a new book, “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.”

Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin (Photo credits from left: Myra Klarman and Aaron Clamage)

Two dollars a day is barely a gallon of gas, it’s not even a gallon of milk. It’s not doable, so how do they do it?

Edin: Yes, that’s interesting. You know when we think about this threshold, we think about the developing world where it’s usually used. Here we are in the nation’s, or the world’s, most developed capitalist country where you have to have cash to survive, but not having that vital resource of cash is profoundly disadvantageous for these families. Maybe in particular the housing conditions. One family, Ray McCormick’s in Cleveland, is doubled up with a number of other families in a derelict house in the stockyards neighborhood. The house has been the victim of scrappers, so it has only one working outlet, because the rest of the wiring has been pulled out of the walls; the copper pipes have been stolen. These kinds of living conditions are common, because these people don’t even have enough money to buy their kids socks and underwear, much less paying a kind of stable rent.

Why aren’t these people getting the benefits that are out there, like SNAP, the supplemental nutrition program, and TANF, the temporary assistance for needy families?

Edin: So this is the big question, right? Way before welfare reform in 1994, TANF touched the lives of about two-thirds of the poor at any given year. Now that figure is down to 25 percent. Why this is so is a multifaceted question. Most poor people have not heard of TANF, at least in our sample. Ray McCormick actually went to the TANF office in desperation after months and months with no cash income, and she was told by a caseworker, “I’m sorry, honey, there’s not enough to go around. Come back next year.” And of course, this is not what caseworkers are supposed to say. But more and more, we’re gathering evidence from states that caseworkers are engaging in these kinds of practices, practices called informal diversion, to keep the rolls low. And if they do that, by the way, the state can spend the block grant on other purposes. They’re not required to spend it on TANF.

Where then from here?

Edin: What we learned from spending so much time with the $2-a-day poor was how important dignity and respect were to them. They wanted above all to be workers. You know Luke would ask the question at the end of the conversation with them, “What would it mean for you to make it? When would you feel like you were OK?” And you know, their dreams were sort of endearingly modest. They’d say, you know, “I’d like a $12-a-day job, full time, with regular hours, maybe. Then I could have some stability, and I could give my kids the kind of life that I’ve always dreamed of.” So from that, we’ve sort of derived the following principle that anything we do to aid the poor should bring dignity and not division. You know, the old welfare system made you feel like a criminal. It was wearing a scarlet letter, and you know welfare recipients were some of the most hated people in America.

Shaefer: So I think anything we do has to start with increasing the number of jobs that are available for people at the very bottom of society and improving the quality of the ones that are out there. Next, we have to do something about housing because the affordable housing crisis isn’t just a crisis for the $2-a-day poor, but it goes well up the economic ladder. When you have millions of people, millions of families who are spending more than half their income on housing alone, leaving far too little for anything else. And finally, we really need a cash safety net. Right now TANF is failing in most places, and what it was supposed to be — a temporary program providing assistance to needy families — I think that we need to fix that, because sometimes work just doesn’t work.

 Read an excerpt from “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” below. 



 Welfare Is Dead 

It is only 8:00 a.m., half an hour ahead of opening time, but already a long line has formed outside the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS) office, which sits on a barren block west of Chicago’s Loop. It is a wet summer morning, one of those odd times when the rain is falling but the sun still shines. People are hunkered down, some shielding themselves from the rain with umbrellas or hoods, others holding sodden newspapers and thin plastic grocery bags over their heads. This two-story, yellow-brick office building—windowless on the first floor—is where those seeking help come to apply for programs such as SNAP and Medicaid. But traditionally it has been linked most closely to the nation’s now nearly moribund cash assistance program, what many refer to as welfare. 

Modonna Harris shuffles to the end of the line. A friend, noticing that Modonna had no food in her tiny apartment, convinced her to make the trip. She and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Brianna, have been living in a North Side homeless shelter during this summer of 2012. The shelter provides dinner during the week, and Brianna gets breakfast and lunch through a local nonprofit recreation program, but Modonna and Brianna often go hungry on weekends. The shelter’s residents can usually count on a “guy who drops off some surplus food” from an unknown source, but recently all he’s brought is nasty-smelling milk well beyond its expiration date. 

When asked why she hasn’t applied for welfare, Modonna shrugs. Actually, it hasn’t even occurred to her. She explains, “I’ve been through this before, and I’ve been turned down .?.?. They did send me a letter. But they just say, ‘You’re not eligible,’ they don’t explain why.” How could she not be eligible, she wondered, without even one cent in cash income and a child to provide for? Her aunt’s explanation is simple: Hasn’t she heard? They just aren’t giving it out anymore. To Modonna, that seemed as good an answer as any. “I don’t actually know anybody who is getting it. And, you know, when my auntie was saying that, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, well maybe that’s making sense of why I didn’t get it’ .?.?. I’m like, ‘Okay, maybe that’s it.’” Despite her now desperate circumstances, Modonna was deeply reluctant even to go to the DHS office and apply for the cash welfare program. Finally, after much persuasion, she relented. 

Much of the time, when you ask for help from the government, you can expect the process to take a long time. First, you wait in line to “get a number.” (In places like Chicago, you have to get to the DHS office early, because the line can stretch down the block even before the doors open.) Once you get a number, you wait for your name to be called so you can see the caseworker and provide the required documentation Then you go home to wait while they process your paperwork. Finally, if your application is approved, you wait for the mail carrier to deliver your electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card, which works like a bank debit card. 

One way the poor pay for government aid is with their time. 

Modonna has a proud, even regal, air about her. Her voice is smooth and her diction precise. Her posture is perfect, her dark skin smooth, her smile warm. But most of the other folks waiting in line look to be in rough shape, with worn, dingy clothing, decaying teeth, painful infirmities, and an air of desperation. The kind-looking woman in front of Modonna seems prematurely old. She turns to Modonna and relates how she struggled to get Medicaid for her oldest adult son, desperately ill and then hospitalized with AIDS. Roadblock after roadblock held up the process; months passed and he died—the day before his medical card arrived in the mail. Now she is here again, this time to apply for Medicaid on behalf of her younger adult son, who is also chronically ill and in need of treatment.

Modonna is visibly uncomfortable in this line. She would probably say that she’s one of the people who doesn’t belong here (although you’d perhaps hear that from many of the people in line). Both of her parents worked steadily while she was growing up. She had close to a middle-class upbringing, although it was far from idyllic. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she lived mostly with her unsupportive mother, who suffered from depression. This was better than being with her dad—who was controlling and demeaning. Despite all this, Modonna managed to graduate from one of the better high schools in Chicago and to start college at a decent private university specializing in the arts. But she attended for only two years. With her family unwilling to provide financial assistance, she maxed out on student loans and had to drop out, with a boatload of student debt and no degree to show for it. She left hoping that one day she might go back to complete her degree. But love intervened. 

Brianna arrived about a year into Modonna’s marriage to Brian, who had swept Modonna off her feet with his drive to make it in the music production business. He had a dream, and he seemed to be doing the work to make it happen. Yet after a few years, it became painfully clear that he was a pathological liar with an addiction to hard-core porn. He would hide his dirty magazines under the rug and deny they were his. “They must have been here when we moved in,” he’d claim. One time, the family was evicted because Brian just stopped paying the rent and didn’t tell Modonna until it was too late. Brian cheated first, and then Modonna got wrapped up in a turbulent, all-consuming love affair. The marriage broke up about the time Brianna entered the first grade. 

Modonna had worked off and on over the years before the marriage ended. Now on her own, she needed a full-time job. With no college degree and a sporadic work record, the best position she could find was a daytime shift as a cashier at Stars Music downtown, a position paying $9 an hour. She would hold that job for the next eight years. Modonna loved the work. “I learned so much at Stars,” she recalls. The mother-daughter pair found a tiny studio apartment in the South Shore neighborhood, near Lake Michigan, and for a while things were good. The two scraped by on a combination of Modonna’s paycheck, a small amount of SNAP, and whatever child support Brian managed to provide. Brianna was doing well in school—she even made honor roll one semester. Modonna felt proud to be the provider for her little family. 

Then their apartment building started going downhill, fast. Deferred maintenance became no maintenance at all. Modonna couldn’t handle the “roaches, the size of .?.?. big water bugs,” and the other obvious hazards. She tried to get out of her lease and asked that her security deposit be returned. The tension between her and her landlord escalated, and she ended up calling a lawyer, who requested a list of the building’s code violations from the city. When it came, Modonna says, it was “eight pages long!” 

Right when it seemed as if she might win some concessions from her landlord, Modonna’s cash drawer at Stars came up $10 short, and she couldn’t account for it. She was summarily dismissed, given no benefit of the doubt, despite her years of service and the small amount of money involved. “Ten dollars short, and they found it after they fired me,” she says. 

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