The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 29, 2016

How do so many people get stuck in poverty?

February 29, 2016

Though Kathryn Edin, author of $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, spent much of her career researching welfare, it wasn’t until she really got to know the adults and families who receive it—or don’t—that she fully understood the complicated hurdles of making ends meet. Last week at the Urban Institute, Edin joined experts on welfare, employment, and the economy to discuss insights and findings from her book.

While researching families and transitions to adulthood, Edin interviewed Ashley, a woman living in a Baltimore housing development. Ashley was so tired, she could barely hold up her young infant’s head. She had almost no furniture, no formula for her child, no food, and no cash. Ashley’s deep poverty was beyond Edin’s expectations, particularly at a time when welfare reform was supposed to have greatly lessened it.  

When Edin looked at Census’s Survey of Income and Program Participation data with fellow scholar and later $2.00 a Day coauthor Luke Shaefer, the evidence confirmed what she saw in Ashley and other public housing residents’ lives. Shaefer and Edin’s research found that the number of families with a cash income of $2.00 a day or less had grown from 600,000 in 1996 to more than 1.5 million in 2011. Families reporting no cash income to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the food stamp program) rose from 300,000 in 1995 to 1.2 million in 2013. The number of children without a regular place to live and the number of people visiting food banks also saw precipitous rises.

But if welfare reform of the nineties was meant to encourage work, how did so many people end up living on so little and remaining stuck in poverty?

  • Many people have misconceptions about government assistance. Edin’s interviews with those living in poverty revealed many of the “soft aversions” to applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or welfare. When Breanna, a Chicago mother who was in and out of homeless shelters was told by her friend to go to the TANF offices, her mistaken reaction was “Haven’t you heard? They just aren’t giving that out anymore.” Other interviewees had never heard of TANF, while some were aware of it but saw applying for or receiving benefits as a sign of weakness and dependency.
  • People were willing to resort to desperate measures to survive. Some people living on less than $2.00 a day frequently sold their own plasma even though it could leave them tired and iron deficient. Others sold their food stamps for cash, a rarity among recipients overall but more common among those living in deep poverty.
  • People want to work, but work needs to pay off. Edin explained that for many, holding a job and paying taxes were fundamental components of their self-worth. Many felt that work was therapeutic: the structure and sense of pride it provided gave them a needed mental respite from other stresses. One woman was relieved to find work cleaning foreclosed homes without heat one Chicago winter, despite her severe asthma. 
  • Mothers have to make tradeoffs between parenthood and self-sufficiency. While many mothers wanted to find jobs and demonstrate work ethic to their children, the opportunities available to them were often low-wage labor with long commutes and limited benefits. Despite a desire to become self-sufficient, the low-wage jobs available usually meant an unpredictable schedule, less time with the children, less income to support them, and less stability overall.

What can we do about it?

Edin and the other panelists, Urban Institute’s Gregory Acs, Susan J. Popkin, and Margery Austin Turner and executive director of the DC Housing Authority Adrianne Todman, explained how improving support systems for families living in poverty could improve quality of life and mobility.

  • Restore a source of emergency aid. Edin explained that many of the people she interviewed often experienced a downward spiral into deeper poverty from a single event: no money to pay for gas meant a missed shift at work and getting fired; getting fired meant losing income to pay rent and getting evicted. An emergency aid fund could help prevent these single events from unfolding into a cycle of misfortune.
  • Increase federal funding for public housing. Both Popkin and Todman noted that many of the basic but critical gains in housing quality that developments saw in the nineties have largely been lost due to a lack of federal funding.
  • In public housing, service provision should focus on the individual, rather than using cookie-cutter solutions. In DC’s public housing developments, many residents only need specific services like child care or transportation. Targeting services to those who need them most could make provision more efficient.
  • Make it pay to work. Acs explained that in order to keep the value of work, work needs to pay more than welfare. The TANF block grant hasn’t been adjusted for inflation for about 20 years. If it were, putting the additional funds from the adjustment toward cash benefits could help “raise the floor” of welfare so it acts as a better stepping stone to employment.

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.

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Panelists (from left) Margery Austin Turner, Susan J. Popkin, Adrianne Todman, Gregory Acs, and Kathryn Edin speak at the Urban Institute event Desperate Measures: Survival Strategies of the Poorest of the Poor on February 26, 2016 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Lydia Thompson/Urban Institute