Monday, July 11, 2016

$2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

Kathryn J. Edin and H/ Luke Shaefer's $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2015) is an excellent examination of "welfare" and the working poor. The authors combine different methods (including in-depth interviews) to provide a compelling, measured, and very readable picture of people who are literally surviving on the equivalent of $2.00 a day. They examine everything from every angle, always thinking about how people might reasonably argue against them. So you get both analysis (with 20 pages of endnotes, which never disrupt the flow of the narrative) and the stories of people struggling on almost nothing.

There are so many lessons to pull out of it. Three stood out for me in particular. First, contrary to popular opinion it is incredibly hard to keep a job when you're very poor. Already you face serious problems of transportation, clothing, and other basics (dental care, for example, as some lost teeth when they were children and cannot afford to replace them). But in recent years the nature of low-wage work has changed and become highly contingent. Your hours are unpredictable, so you can be employed yet unable to pay your bills. If you complain about bad hours, you're fired. Done. The low-wage service economy has no mercy. People want to work but it's an uphill battle.

Second, a cash-less welfare system forces people to make choices they don't want to make. If I need a new outfit from Salvation Army to go for job interviews but have no cash, I may have to barter my SNAP card. I can't get a job in raggedy clothes, so I have to break the law in order to get a job. The authors note how the current welfare system goes against many of our basic values. Providing such benefits is one of the policy prescriptions, and they have some interesting ways of conceiving it.

Third, and most importantly, President Clinton's 1996 welfare reform was a disaster for the very poor. It was intended to promote work but provides no safety net. It also provides no public service jobs for those who cannot get private sector jobs. The reform makes it very, very hard for people who want to work to actually do so. Creating those jobs represents one of the main recommendations of the book. Recipients want to work and contribute, and we need a system that facilitates it.


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