Comments from reading $2:00 A Day, Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer
The book $2.00 A Day, Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer shines a spotlight on the consequences of government policies on the lives of individuals and families caught in deepening poverty in the years since the welfare reform legislation of 1996 and after the 2008 financial crisis. Living on two dollars a day is ”one of the World Bank’s metrics of global poverty in the developing world” but Edin and Shaefer document this level of extreme poverty in America. $2:00 A Day details the lives of people who want to work but cannot find decent jobs and families with children in desperate circumstances.
Chapter 1, “Welfare is Dead” documents how welfare reform policies were formed, highlighting partisan compromises during the Clinton presidency. “Just 27 percent of poor families with children” get aid from the current cash welfare program.
The main welfare program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was a New Deal program which grew exponentially in the 1960’s and 70’s. In 1996 under President Bill Clinton’s signature welfare reform eliminated this 60 year old program and replaced it with state block grants through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) which has lifetime limits on aid and mandatory work requirements. In contrast to relying on work requirements and lifetime limits on aid, the work of scholars such as David Elwood, who served in the Clinton administration, called for efforts to integrate the poor into the overall society with high quality education and training. Welfare reform ignored the causes of poverty and narrowed Elwood’s recommendations to cut aid to the poor.
Poverty in America is not new but it is worsening and a greater percentage of the American people are now living in poverty. The overall unemployment rate including those who are unable to find full time work and those who are no longer actively looking for work is over 10 %. The domestic American economy has never given equal opportunity to all segments of the country with the highest unemployment rates among people of color.
In the concluding chapter of the book, in the sections on work and “All Deserve the Opportunity to Work” the importance of work and ensuring income is discussed. “Everything we’ve learned about the $2.00 a day poor suggests that it is the opportunity to work that is lacking, not the will, and that ensuring work opportunity would do no end of good.”
Dr. King spoke about the need to integrate the poor into the economic mainstream of America, and he understood the barriers and challenges to the poor making that transition. Speaking at a convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967 he said “We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other.” There are so many ways in which poor people are excluded, shut out and humiliated. “Without cash, they can’t meaningfully participate in society”, ” ..research shows that the intrusive treatment people typically receive at the welfare office can undermine their confidence in government and erode political participation.“
For America to grow all of its people must grow. Helping the poor is not a moral imperative alone, it is not separate from the hard day to day economic and social consequences of underdevelopment and rising inequality.
Dr. Lenora Fulani writing about the All Stars Project in her paper The Development Line, Helping the Poor to Grow: A Special Report on Solving the Poverty Crisis in America addresses this question, “The vision of the All Stars Project programs instead operates with the politic and on the assumption that in order to mount an actual and successful “War on Poverty,” the poor Black and Latino communities must be supported to connect with the mainstream of American life and be exposed to the very best approaches to education and human development.” Solving the poverty crisis requires social transformation and a fundamental broadening of our democracy that includes leadership from the poor. The All Stars approach involves everyone from poor to affluent in the transformations necessary to bring forward such innovative and developmental approaches.
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