CRF Blog

Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer

by Bill Hayes

In Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer for the New York Review of Books, Christopher Jencks reviews $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer.

In $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer argue that what they call “extreme” poverty roughly doubled between 1996 and 2012. If they are right — and I think they are — the reader might wonder how I can still claim that poor families’ living standards have risen. The answer is that inequality has risen even among the poor. Half of today’s officially poor families are doing better than those we counted as poor in the 1960s, but as I learned from reading $2.00 a Day (and have spent many hours verifying), the poorest of the poor are also worse off today than they were in 1969. $2.00 a Day is a vivid account of how such families live. It also makes a strong case for blaming their misery on deliberate political choices at both the federal and state levels.

Kathryn Edin is a professor at Johns Hopkins University who has spent much of the past twenty-five years talking with low-income Americans about their lives. In 2010, when the national unemployment rate was over 9 percent, she began meeting parents who said they had no regular income whatever from work, from welfare, or from any other source. Their economic plight sounded worse than anything she had previously encountered, and she began pondering how to figure out what had happened, and why.

In 2011 Edin met Luke Shaefer, a young professor at the University of Michigan who had worked extensively with the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). This survey was the best available source of data on poor families, and Edin persuaded Shaefer to investigate what it showed about households with little or no income. [more]