1.5 Million American Families Live on $2 a Day — How the Poorest Get By

By Marcus Harrison Green. Originally published at Yes! Magazine. Cross posted from Alternet

If she did not make plasma deposits twice a week at a donation center in Tennessee, Jessica Compton and her family would have no income. If not for a carton of spoiled milk, Modonna and Brianna Harris’ refrigerator would be barren.  The Harris and Compton families’ stories are just two accounts of devastating poverty documented in sociology professors Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer’s book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.

The book, released in September, documents the rise of 1.5 million American families, including 3 million children, who subsist on as little as $2 per person per day.  It reads like a Dickens novel. Edin and Shaefer spent years immersed in the lives of financially deprived families, combing through the budgets of welfare recipients and surveys of poor people’s cash flows. Additionally, they set up study sites in diverse locations like metropolitan Chicago and rural Mississippi to find out where and how severe poverty was concentrated.

The stories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse seemed like the norm rather the exception.

In a media environment where the experiences of the poor are often neglected, the book’s revelations about the depth and pervasiveness of poverty in the United States have been startling for many—including its two authors. YES! Magazine spoke with co-author H. Luke Shaefer about what poverty truly looks like in America, the stigmas attached to it, and just what can be done to eradicate it.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Marcus Harrison Green: What would you say was the most harrowing experience you encountered during your research?

H. Luke Shaefer: The thing that keeps me up at night the most is the fact that these families face so much instability in their daily lives, and that leaves them open to all sorts of risks. The stories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse seemed like the norm rather the exception, as families moved from crisis to crisis. One contact of ours went to live with her family and walked in on her uncle molesting her 9-year-old daughter. Another one told us, “I’ve been beat, I’ve been raped,” matter-of-factly. They have to always be looking out for the next threat.

Green: Your book documents a 70 percent increase in families living on $2 a day, per person. You talk about the welfare reform of the mid-90s, but what were the additional drivers of this development?

Shaefer: We point to changes in the government safety net, but a big driver of this is the state of the low-wage labor market. The parents of many of the families in our study think of themselves first and foremost as workers, but the jobs that they typically can get pay low wages, offer inadequate and unstable hours, and leave them exposed to unsafe work conditions. Couple that with the instability in their family lives and it leads to what we see in the book.

Another important factor is housing stability. There’s an affordable housing crisis in this country and it doesn’t just affect the $2-a-day poor. But housing instability seems to be both a cause and a consequence of extreme poverty.

Green: The poor are often demonized in this country, with politicians and others saying their problems are their own fault. Your book re-examines that narrative. How do you think we can change the idea that people are poor because of their own personal failings? Does this have implications for the amount of money society spends on the poor?

Shaefer: Interestingly, as we write about in the book, we’ve actually increased the amount we spend on poor families over the past few decades. But most of the new spending goes to poor working families—when they are working. Much less now goes to those at the very bottom, and that’s what we have to fix.

Much of the narrative about the deserving and undeserving goes back to work. People make the assumption that low-income families don’t work or don’t want to work. And that’s just not true. The norm among families with children is a parent who works or has worked recently. But I don’t think people fully grasp the conditions of jobs in the bottom rungs of the labor market.

I think changing people’s views on this could go some distance in changing what people think about poverty in this country.

Green: What methodology did you and your co-author use in coming to the 1.5 million number?

Shaefer: There is a survey called the SIPP (Survey of Income and Program Participation). It captures most of the incomes of the poor. We found that the people living off of $2 a day had doubled. Surveys are obviously not perfect so we also looked at SNAP income data, as well as family homelessness data.

Green: You purposely chose different “study sites” for your book: Chicago, Cleveland, and rural areas. Were there significant differences between these locations, and has your research shown any patterns in terms of where extreme poverty ends up concentrated in our country?

Shaefer: There were differences between Chicago, Cleveland, and our study site in Appalachia, but in general the stories followed a similar arc. The Mississippi Delta, though, was a different place altogether. Work isn’t just hard to come by, it’s often nonexistent. Virtually everyone is poor, and it seemed to us that many of the systems that protect people had broken down. It truly was a world apart. It some ways it is a unique case. But our time there made me want to spend more time in our poorest, rural areas to see if this deep poverty at the community level was having a similar effect in other communities too.

Green: Your research showed that about half of families living on $2 a day are white. This may come as a surprise to some readers who remember the image of a “welfare queen” bandied about to vilify poverty programs in the 80s and 90s. Do you think race has factored in to either dismantle or limit the social safety net?

Shaefer: Absolutely—the racialization of poverty has played a critical role in all this, creating one more domain of difference that divides people and facilitates the “othering” of a group. And it has always been inaccurate. Many of the families we write about in this book are white, just as the numbers suggested.

Green: People often look at Scandinavian countries as places that get poverty alleviation right. In your opinion, what existing models should we attempt to emulate?

Shaefer: One thing in particular that Scandinavian countries do right is focus primarily on universal programs—rather than ones directed only at the poor. I think that that’s a good thing to emulate.

But when we asked the families we got to know what they wanted, the answer went in a different direction. They wanted decent jobs. “I don’t like pity,” one of our contacts said. Often they note that, when they do manage to find a job that’s not completely unstable or unsafe, that’s when things are best for them. In a way, work may have a healing power.

So our policy proposals start with expanding work opportunities for those at the very bottom of society. We’ve got some models to look to and expand on. And we’ve got to improve the quality of the jobs we have. We should raise the minimum wage, try to stabilize schedules, and put some teeth into our labor standards that often go unenforced.

Of course, sometimes employment won’t work, and that’s why we need a functioning cash safety net that will catch people when they fall. Right now, we don’t have one.

Green: With U.S. inequality growing quickly, many in the middle class are anxious about falling into poverty. How easy is it for someone who’s living paycheck-to-paycheck to end up in the same predicament as one of the people featured in your book?

Shaefer: It’s maybe not common—but not impossible. One thing is being at the bottom of the labor market. Middle-class jobs often have a lot more give. Next is having an unstable personal network. Many of the families in our book really have no one they can rely on. Often, middle-class people have a more secure job or a more supportive family. The folks in our book usually have neither.

Green: If we were too launch a new war on poverty, what policies must be put into place as soon as possible?

Shaefer: As I mentioned before, I’d start with expanding work opportunity, and improving the quality of the jobs we have. That’s what one of our contacts said she wanted, and I can’t tell her that we can’t do that for her.

I think this means partnering with employers to create jobs that they wouldn’t create otherwise. If they won’t do it, we need to get government more directly involved.

Next we have an affordable housing crisis and we need to do something soon—not just for the $2-a-day poor, but well up the income distribution. I think this means getting the number of housing vouchers back up to where it has been in the past, and looking for ways to break down barriers to building affordable housing.

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  1. say_what?

    “Much of the narrative about the deserving and undeserving goes back to work. People make the assumption that low-income families don’t work or don’t want to work.” Shaefer

    Meanwhile, the publicly subsidized banks and their so-called creditworthy borrowers have automated and outsourced jobs away with the public’s, but most painfully the poor’s, legally stolen purchasing power.

    Bring on the robots to make it abundantly clear that we don’t suffer a shortage of jobs but a shortage of justice. Perhaps when critics of the poor lose their jobs too the light will begin to dawn in them.

    1. cwaltz

      That, I think was why in 2008 we saw people starting to empathize with the poor a little more. All of a sudden many in the middle class, who in the past had assumed poverty was solely about “other people making poor choices,” got to see how it felt like to not know where their next paycheck was coming from. You could be the hardest worker in the world and find yourself downsized and having to take a position that was low paying service industry job to pay the bills(and find out first hand how it felt to not be able to stretch the income you made doing so to pay for everything despite your best efforts.)

      I do also think that the middle class is foolish if they think the rich will start cutting costs from the bottom. It’s going to be way more cost effective to have an expensive robot replace the guy making $50,000 before going after the guy making $25,000.

      1. lylo

        I’ve been recently telling friends who don’t like their immediate supervisors not to worry as they’re the next ones to be axed. Middle management is soooo doomed the next recession (which I think is pretty much here.) No way to squeeze any more productivity out of the lowly workers, and the robots are more expensive than the people. Upper management wouldn’t fire itself.
        But middle management has really been allowed to proliferated these last few years (often with more than a hint of nepotism) for no really good reason other than it made upper management look good to have more subordinates reporting to them and they had the extra money as the productive workers were too scared to ask for a raise.
        With all the innovation in computers monitoring output of employees, and it’s all already implemented, why do we need several people over our shoulder making sure we get things done correctly?
        As soon as times are tough, they are going to wonder just how many assistant managers they actually need, and why the three managers working on that shift already can’t possibly make sure people are standing where they are supposed to be, and exactly how many managers need be employed just to send emails to other managers, and that will be that. As you said, cost effective (and no fancy robots even required as the jobs were make-work anyways.)

        1. Carlos

          Well I’m of the opinion that only about 20% of working activity is actually doing anything that benefits humanity. That would be nurses nursing, doctors diagnosing, truck drivers driving, chefs cooking, mechanics fixing etc.

          The 80% of work time that is of no benefit to mankind is like: 99% of meetings, all financial jiggery pokery, management induced non-productive activity, customer bamboozlement, general arsing around and goofing off.

          It’s about time we admitted hardly anyone is doing anything useful and figure out what to do with the 80% of wasted time. Just cut the bullshit and we can all go home after an hour of actual work a day.

          1. jrs

            Since few workers actually work the full 8 hours (sorry if you someone with a strong work ethic doesn’t like to hear this but studies show this), wouldn’t it just be much more honest to just reduce the workweek than make people put in face time where they are checking their personal emails, goofing off, or doing other personal business etc.?

            1. cwaltz

              I think the 30 hour work week was a decent start although with wages at their present rate it has made things hard for the minimal skill level set. It was hard enough for them to survive on less than $300 a week let alone trying on less than $250.

              Anecdotally though there is a reason those same employers are trying to push the definition back to 40, my 3rd just entered the work force and was hired as “part time” employee. In the six weeks he’s been employed they’ve managed to keep him under 28 hours exactly 2 weeks of the 6 he’s worked. Most weeks he’s being scheduled for 30-36 hours.

  2. Alex morfesis

    Ronnie raygunz welfare queen was in fact a white woman living on the south side of Chicago…details details…

  3. JTMcPhee

    Siggy Freud observed that the two principal elements of a decent sane life are “arbeiten,” meaningful work, and “lieben,” that network of affections and connections that the libertarianeolib perversions have so assiduously labored to demolish. On the way to setting up maximal titillation and imperious and unaccountable Pleasure Domes for themselves, IBG-YBG as the modus operandi…

    Surgery is still one of the more effective treatments for many cancers, but only before the aberrant cells metastasize… I wonder how long the doctors will give us to live, as they say, and what palliatives they can provide…

  4. JTMcPhee

    And what’s with the insane notions that robots and 3-D printing and bioengineering and re-Terraforming and Counterinsurgency and all that are somehow going to produce the Workers’ Paradise? Or anything like?

    Oh well, at least those notions will open up new wounds for the human pathogens and parasites to “profitably” infest… So hey, it’s all good, right? Meantime, let’s distract ourselves further with Fantasy League Presidential Campaign XLV…

  5. PQS

    “The thing that keeps me up at night the most is the fact that these families face so much instability in their daily lives, and that leaves them open to all sorts of risks. The stories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse seemed like the norm rather the exception, as families moved from crisis to crisis.”

    I think the vast majority of middle class Americans (and other Western Europeans) have zero idea how difficult it is to just function in this kind of environment. How grinding it is, how demoralizing, how much it makes people want to escape into drugs and alcohol. How hard it is the find those “bootstraps” and make another life. Especially on $10/hour. Add in (in America, at least), persistent and horrible street violence (often with guns), and many of our fellow citizens are struggling with major depression and dysfunction on top of crappy jobs, unsafe homes, and neighborhoods full of decay.

    I see this disconnect when I talk to relatives who are bitter and angry about “welfare queens” or “illegals”. They claim THEY had a hard life growing up too, and THEY turned out just fine….but when I point out they had two parents, a clean and safe home, no matter how humble, and food on the table every night, plus reasonably good and safe public schools and institutions, I just get blank stares. And then have to listen to a diatribe about “unions” or some such nonsense.

    So, so much easier to blame individuals than to really take a hard look at “the system”.

    1. Carlos

      Unfortunately it’s a common human condition to blame other people for things that go wrong in our own lives. People usually look for someone smaller and weaker to blame.

    2. jrs

      “I see this disconnect when I talk to relatives who are bitter and angry about “welfare queens” or “illegals”. They claim THEY had a hard life growing up too, and THEY turned out just fine….but when I point out they had two parents, a clean and safe home, no matter how humble, and food on the table every night, plus reasonably good and safe public schools and institutions, I just get blank stares.”

      It may not be the best approach. They may well have had a bad life, they had all this and daddy fondled them regularly for his jollies (you probably wouldn’t know about it if he did), or got drunk and scary or mom was high, or they suffered what even a a fly on the wall would have said was neglect and noone seemed to pay any attention to them at all, or at least things may have seemed calm on the home front but they dealt with chronic school bullying that their parents couldn’t help them with etc.. H*ll, h*ll is for children.

      But it is still a fact they may not have been hungry and that is something. It’s the first levels on Maslow’s hierarchy. And furthermore, however badly emotionally damaged they might be, if growing up middle class they probably learned to play the middle class game, do all the conscious and unconscious things that help one be middle class (go to college, how to dress for an interview and how to interview, etc.)

      I agree unions are more the solution than the problem. I agree the middle class doesn’t have a clue how non-middle class people live. I think there is a socialization that creates this! They never even SEE non-middle class people usually. But the U.S. is a working class and often very poor country. I know, but middle class socialization is a protective bubble and creates an inability to see it. Unless one goes above and beyond the socialization someday (or falls out of the middle class I guess!). It’s just when they are talking about their own personal childhoods being bad, I suspect they tell the truth. While Alfred Adler may be right that pampering occasionally creates messed up narcissistic people, I think it’s more often abuse and neglect.

      1. BEast

        Good points. I would add that early childhood abuse and neglect can predispose its survivors to all sorts of dysfunctionality, such as drug addiction and mental health issues. Those too we blame people for, but I remember one doctor interview on Democracy Now saying all of his female heroin user patients (at a safe injection site in Vancouver) were survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

        It’s not just that people are medicating their pain, but that their brains have developed in ways that make them prone to such addictions.

        If we’re going to deal with inter-generational poverty in this country, we have to deal with child abuse. And vice versa.

    1. cwaltz

      No they don’t. Imagine week after week having to throw your bills into a hat and juggle which ones get paid and which ones you are going to fall behind on. Then multiply that stress by 10 because the next week your tire needs to be replaced (the third time this year because you keep having to buy cheap retreads)or your kid is sick and it means you can’t work(and your job doesn’t pay if you aren’t working.)

      I’ll do you one better poor people don’t have the time or energy to read a book on how poor people live. The book is for the rest of the people who seem to think that the solution to poverty is to continue to cut their safety net or to disabuse them of this idea that the poor are poor because they are somehow different then the rest of us( Reality check when Cheney got a DUI he didn’t lose his job like the really poor person would have or when Noelle Bush stole a prescription pad she didn’t go to jail like the poverty stricken person would have. Their money protected them from consequences in a way the really poor can only imagine.) Being really poor means never ever being able to make a bad decision because if you do you get to deal with the consequences on levels the people who have money never ever have to, and then having that ill advised decision thrown in your face as the reason you DESERVE poverty.

      1. BEast

        Or even be accused of making a mistake. I heard Michelle Alexander on the radio talking about how a young black man told her cops had planted drugs on him. He pled out to avoid jail time, without knowing it would screw up his whole life in terms of ever getting a job, an education, housing, etc.

        Alexander didn’t really believe his story… But awhile later the P.D. that the kid said did that was busted for habitually planting drugs on residents.

        However hard it is to escape poverty, it’s exponentially harder to do so when the local government funds itself off your unjust impoverishment.

  6. RUKidding

    LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has declared a state of emergency in LA due to the huge numbers of homeless there. I have read somewhere that the Mayor was finally “moved” to “do something” bc LA lost the bid for one of the upcoming Olympics (gee too bad/s) due, in part, to the homeless issue.

    Homeless people have only increased since the 2008 crash, and I don’t see – anecdotally – that things have gotten much better. But yes, we’ve all be carefully taught to blame the poor for making bad choices and/or being lazy and/or having their hand out and/or not being willing to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

    I’m not sure what the solution is. Unions have done some good in the past, but there’s huge resistance to unionization these days, even from unionized workers who enjoy the benefits.

    The vast transfer of wealth to the mega-rich is not by accident. Something’s gotta give. Sad thing is, how much longer before those in the middle class find themselves in a similar position? No one cares as long as they don’t have to deal with it directly.

    1. jrs

      It’s not just that it hasn’t gotten better since 2008. It has gotten WORSE. Official unemployment is down. But homelessness in L.A. county has increased 12% from 2013-2015 and 16% from 2011 to 2015. What gives? Long term unemployed aren’t counted as unemployed. I’m speculating but I imagine the process over time goes like this: 1) lose job 2) collect unemployment and look for work – it was for a pretty generous period right after 2008, nearly 2 years of it, maybe why things have gotten worse is the period of time you can collect unemployment for has since been reduced 3) spend savings if any, cash out all 401k and IRAs if lucky enough to have anything 4) rely on family and friend couches if possible 5) used up all other options = homelessness. Meanwhile on the other side of it rents have only been increasing putting additional pressure on people from the cost side.

    2. BEast

      It’s a similar dynamic to people blaming rape survivors for being assaulted. Saying “you shouldn’t have done x, y, z,” is about pretending that, because you don’t do x, y, z, you’re safe.

      People need to believe it can’t happen to them to function day-to-day.

      Problem is, that also impairs their empathy, and their ability to correctly assess the problem.

  7. Edward Qubain

    “I’d start with expanding work opportunity,”

    This is what was done during the Great Depression; the government undertook programs with the idea that they would create jobs.

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