Learning How to Help the $2/Day Poor
In the book $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, we peer into the lives of those left out of the 1996 Welfare Reform. While the Clinton / Gingrich welfare reform offered a helpful hand up to some – the working poor; it put those who can’t manage to find or keep a job into a hopeless predicament of not being able to dig out . . . and more and more Americans are joining this group of people who live in deep poverty, a hidden poverty that goes unseen by most Americans.
Many think that those who can’t manage to find or keep a job are at fault, but we don’t take into account what makes finding or keeping a job nearly impossible: the horrendous, difficult circumstances they face at home; the costs associated with acquiring skills and an education; the deprived working conditions they’re subjected to; the bad luck that hits them, such as sickness, broken vehicles, child-care problems, etc.
Though in many respects, I’m far removed from the lives of the $2/day poor, I have seen some of these struggles up close in the lives of a few family members: one who became a single mother of five children with virtually no child support from her ex-husband and no college degree; and one who, at a young age, became a widow with no college degree and eight children. Both have had phases of struggling to find or keep a job. Similar to what’s described in the book, each has faced mounting family medical bills, or has had to board with family or friends, be very resourceful at scrimping, or has even had to resort to some borderline tactics in finding money for food, the next utility payment or other life necessities.
There was a “break-through” with one when it finally became clear to us, her loved ones, that there was no way she could support herself; she didn’t have the credentials / skills to find a decent job to cover her expenses and had a high amount of debt and was facing some mental health challenges. Rather than demanding she get a job before lending a hand, we finally realized that she needed to be substantially helped in order to get back out on her own. One family member agreed to pay her student loans each month; one family member paid her utility bills each month; one family member paid her car payment; one family member helped with a limited amount of “spending money cash” each month, and she was resourceful in finding a family member to board with, and she utilized SNAP for food. This allowed her to focus on acquiring skills in a good-fit profession, and she has now acquired certification and a job.
But I’m sad that it took years before we realized this. Family members would help her out here and there when she would urgently beg for help; but otherwise, she was left in her desperation to try to make life workable in her incredibly difficult situation, with us all baffled as to why she couldn’t stay employed and be more self-sufficient.
The book makes clear that the $2/day poor don’t see “a handout” as a solution; they simply hope for the chance to work, to find a full-time job paying $12 – $13 an hour, a modest dwelling in a safe neighborhood, and some stability. As a society, we really need to focus on how we can create more decent paying jobs.
As the book explains, the 1996 welfare reform pushed millions of low-income single moms into the workforce, but it did nothing to improve the conditions of low-wage jobs, and arguably worsened the quality of the average low-wage job in America. For example, many employers utilize work loading and on-call shifts, where employees get few hours and unpredictable schedules, but are on-call 24/7 without full compensation for such. How can someone find child care in these circumstances, or earn a living wage? Workers also face “wage-theft,” with violations of labor standards, where they get less than the minimum wage, do not collect overtime pay, and are required to work off the clock. Housing prices have also skyrocketed such that there is nowhere in America where a family supported by a full-time minimum wage worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market value without being heavily cost burdened.
Though I have watched some family members struggle greatly, they have at least had supportive family to help; they belong to caring church communities, and they were raised in a loving, nurturing middle class family environment. Their children have risen above the circumstances of their parents. So many of the $2/day poor are raised in hellish home/community conditions, and have very little family or community support; the cycle of abject poverty is repeated from generation to generation.
There are no easy answers. Edin and Shaefer discuss the feasibility of raising the minimum wage, if not to $15/hour, then to at least $10/hour; they support government-subsidized private sector job creation, as well as creating more government-sector jobs. They mention expanding the earned income tax credit (EITC), recognizing that this is a more dignified way of helping people than the shame-filled TANF. The book also advocates for improving labor conditions and changing negative incentives such as TANF block grants that subsidize the states more than the working poor.
I believe some policy changes will likely help; for example, tax deductions for big mortgages that subsidize the rich could instead expand the EITC; laws could be passed to prohibit uncompensated on-call labor; benefits could be more flexible so that beneficiaries have access to cash to meet their individual needs, etc. Some policy changes need to be carefully approached so that drastic increases to the minimum wage don’t just result in high inflation, or major housing subsidies don’t result in higher rents, defeating their purpose. Jobs created need to be sustainable. If we’re helping people improve their skill sets and life circumstances to rise above what’s holding them back, we’re making good investments.
Ultimately, though, we need a change of heart, a deepening of our cultural values to help solve the problems of poverty. The Teach for America teacher who helped Tabitha Hicks was a genuine example of what needs to happen throughout our society if we want to truly help the poor. Good people need to be willing to provide service, whether it be a highly qualified individual giving up a lucrative consulting job to teach and go the extra mile in the rural, poor south; or people making an effort to give long-term sustained help to family members; or people volunteering as tutors, caring for the elderly, etc. It will require employers (such as the owner of Market Basket) to voluntarily raise their minimum wage or labor standards, which ultimately “forces” employers such as Walmart to make some of the same changes. We need to integrate and interact with one another so that we see the humanity and recognize that with just a few differences in life circumstances, it could be us.
With the ever-broadening automation of jobs, it’s even more crucial that we quit worrying about partisanship and ideological purity (that contradicts itself in practice), and start working together to expand the economic pie, reduce the selfish greed that drives exploitation, and find ways to help everyone around us find hope in reaching the simple American dream of having a job, a home and providing for their families.
Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.
TONIGHT @ 7 pm EST
Please Join the Politics for the People Conference Call
With Kathyrn Edin
We will be discussing:
$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America
Call In and Join the Conversation
641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#