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Extreme Poverty: Living on $2 a day

Kathryn Edin Reveals the Lives of People Who Live on $2 a Day

For our discussion on February 7, 2017, my fellow travelers and I read this article, which reviews the research and work of Hopkins scholar, Kathryn Edin. Edin is a sociologist who, not unlike Matthew Desmond, the author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, combines statistical analysis with old-fashioned story telling.

Edin works with folks in extreme poverty. People who, prior to her work, were largely invisible, even to sociologists who study poverty. These are men, women and children who somehow survive on the equivalent of $2 a day per person. The author of this article provides some perspective on this by pointing out “the official U.S. government poverty line for a family of three in 2015 is $20,090 in income per year; that works out to a bit more than $18 a day per person.”

One of my fellow travelers, a long-time attorney in the public defenders’ office, pointed out that she would sometimes work with clients who, faced with the extreme poverty described in our article and the book it references, didn’t have bus fare to attend court-mandated training or other activities, and as a result lost custody of their children. I don’t want to gloss over this. This attorney was relating cases where women lost their children because they were poor. The attorney told us that she tried to make that very argument to the judges in the cases in question, and it didn’t go over well.

And Edin tells us exactly why:

“Peter Edelman is a law professor at Georgetown University and faculty director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality there; he resigned from the Clinton administration in protest when the president signed the 1996 law. He says, 'If you ask the public, "Do you favor education for low-income children?" they say yes. "Do you think there ought to be help for low-income people for better health?" Yes. "Help with hunger?" Yes. "Housing?" Yes. But when you suggest just giving the poor money, the public has a different attitude. They regard that as giving something for nothing.' Says Edin, 'In America, work is about citizenship. You can't be a citizen if you're not a worker.'” (emphasis added)

We lingered over this for a while in our conversation, with one among us pointing out the fact that only in the U.S. is health insurance tied to employment—another data point to support Edin’s assertion that work = citizenship in America.

We also noted another data point brought to light in the article: “under federal sentencing guidelines, penalties for food stamp fraud are more severe than for voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault with a firearm, or sexual contact with a child under 12.” All of this points to a pernicious and systematic dehumanization of people experiencing poverty.

Interestingly for me, the extreme poverty that Edin studies affects people of all races and shades. According to the article, “The data indicated to Shaefer and Edin that in any given month, 1.5 million families, including 3 million children, were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person per day. More than a third of these families were headed by a married couple. Nearly half were poor whites.” However, the rhetoric of the public discourse aims its dehumanization of the poor at people of color—especially women. The biases revealed by Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen,” that mythical and specifically Black creature, informed the federal sentencing guidelines referenced above as well as Bill Clinton’s “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” also featured in the article. The 1996 act was the one that created the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC. According to the article, the EITC did help a lot of people:

“‘The more you worked, the more you got, and that made them feel a great deal of pride,’ Edin says, ‘whereas welfare had the opposite effect, making them feel shamed and stigmatized. This citizenship-enhancing feature of the EITC is like policy magic. This is probably the best policy we've ever invented for poor people. Except it leaves out our people’—the people in $2.00 a Day—‘because they don't have enough work to claim anything. They are working when they can, but they're at the ragged edge of the labor market. It's like hanging on to a rope that's dissolving in your hands.’”

For the 1.5 million families (FAMILIES! That means there are more than 4 million individuals!) who fall through the cracks of the EITC, there is little safety net. It doesn’t take much for the bottom to fall out of a family’s economic situation, and as it does, they become even more vulnerable to predators.

The article points out “Losing a job or even a week's worth of hours can mean losing the apartment and having to resort to a shelter or a room in someone's house, and the people who take them in might well live in precarious situations of their own, not to mention three bus lines and two hours from that precious job. Children might have to spend six months in a house with relatives or strangers who have drug problems or are physically abusive.”

That passage gave me a shudder. Especially in combination with my discussion participant who had seen women lose their children because of their poverty.

I’m afraid, Dear Reader, there are no easy and no quick answers. The article indicates that Edin has policy suggestions in her book length treatment, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) (I have not read the full book).

For us ordinary mortals, I think the takeaway is to look more closely at our own biases. We must question the rhetoric of the public discourse that says that Welfare is an undeserved handout. To paraphrase Dorothy Day, there is no such thing as “undeserving poor.” People experiencing poverty are people whose circumstances, if slightly different, could be you or me.

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