Extreme Destitution in America

These are some of Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer’s terrifying observations about living at the bottom of our society, described in their book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, all from the introduction:

* “In early 2011, 1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month. That’s about one out of every twenty-five families with children in America. What’s more, not only were those figures astoundingly high, but the phenomenon of $2-a-day poverty among households with children had been on the rise since the nation’s landmark welfare reform legislation was passed in 1966—and at a distressingly fast pace. As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.”

* “Two dollars in less than the cost of a gallon of gas, roughly equivalent to that of a half gallon of milk. Many Americans have spent more than that before they get to work or to school in the morning. Yet in 2011, more than 4 percent of all households with children in the world’s wealthiest nation were living in a poverty so deep that most Americans don’t believe it even exists in this country.”

* “A hidden but growing landscape of survival strategies among those who experience this level of destitution has been the result. At the community level, these strategies can pull families into a web of exploitation and illegality that turns conventional wisdom upside down.” (xxiii)

Extreme destitution—families with virtually no cash at all—came about because of “welfare’s virtual extinction,” brought about because of plans instigated and implemented by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Reagan talked about the welfare queens, which irked many Americans into believing that such people were numerous, though he made no mention of corporate malfeasance that is much more prevalent. Clinton’s plan to “end welfare as we know it” became the nail in the coffin because it resulted in a two-year limit on welfare, and then you’re out—you must go to work. Those at the bottom continued to receive government support (if they were aware that other programs existed), but the form was no longer cash but the Substitute Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a credit card, loaded each month with money that could only be spent on food.

Recording the activities of a half a dozen families in several different geographical locations in the country, Edin and Shaefer show the tactics those at the bottom must employ in order to pay for everything but food, i.e., their other bills: housing (generally subsidized), the electric bill, their cell phone bill (a must for job searches) and anything else that requires cash: twobucksadaychildren’s clothing that usually isn’t available at the Salvation Army (underwear, socks), school supplies or an occasional treat for their children. These tactics are necessary because there are NO jobs available for many of these people (especially in areas of Appalachia or the deep South) or they have had no success getting a job (because of their shabby clothing, missing teeth or any number of other traits that result in their not being hired). And if they are fortunate enough to get that job, they may not be able to hold it very long. They probably have transportation problems, getting to the workplace; their hours are often changed, at the whim of the boss they work for; they have no vacation time or paid leave for health issues.

What do they do to acquire cash? The most prevalent solution is the abuse of SNAP (which is illegal, and punishable by a huge fine) by linking up with some person or some business that will take a fifty-percent cut of the figure charged to the card and give you the rest in cash The merchant charges the card $100.00 and gives you $50.00. But, as $2.00 a Day makes pathetically clear, if you need $250 to pay for your portion of subsidized housing, $500 is taken from your card, substantially reducing what’s left over to purchase food for the month. Halfway through the month you may have to begin subsisting on Raman noodles (the cheapest food available) or simply going hungry. Consider the affects on children.

Many of the people studied by Edin and Shaefer resorted to other methods to gain a little cash to pay their miscellaneous but necessary bills. Most people at the bottom resort to doubling up, moving into a room or a house with others who may be family, or may not, or taking in a cash-paying renter themselves. Several of the descriptions of this in $2.00 a Day are quite horrifying: five children sleeping in a bed, twenty or more people living in a one-bedroom house. Selling plasma at $30 a session once or twice a week, if you are healthy enough to do so. Resorting to sex for payment, though not as full-time prostitution. There’s also selling tin cans and scrap metal but that pays very little and is incredibly time-consuming. One woman with a car in the Mississippi Delta operated it as a taxicab, though the vehicle had no license plate, no insurance, and she had no driver’s license. The example would be humorous were it not so drastic.

Surprisingly, in the case studies recorded by Edin and Shaefer, the individuals are incredibly optimistic. All they want is a steady job. It doesn’t even need to be full-time with benefits, because the job will result in another form of assistance denied those with no work: the Earned Income Tax Credit, which substantially expands the original amount withheld. Several of the people in the case studies in this book speak of jobs they once held almost with a state of reverence. The job not only gave them dignity but focus. The myth that these people do not want to work is totally obliterated.

I’d like to think that a book like $2.00 a Day (and the multiple suggestions that the authors provide for fixing the system) would result in some change in attitudes about the poor and their treatment in this country. But this book and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed, Sasha Abramsky’s The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth, even Arianna Huffington’s Third World America are not read by the people who most need to read them. So very little changes and the stereotypes of shiftless people for whom work is anathema persist as the numbers of the poor dramatically increase. Which only makes me repeat what I said a few weeks ago (in the context of race in America): significant segments of the country’s population are not being protected or adequately assisted by our government. To me, that constitutes a failed state.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.