Little attention has been paid in this presidential campaign to the lives of the poorest Americans, even though more of us live in deep poverty than you might imagine.
Maybe poverty will come up at the third presidential debate Wednesday. Probably not. There’s been little attention paid to the lives of the poorest Americans so far, even though more Americans live in deep poverty than you might imagine.
Everyone knows inequality is at record levels, but the attention to income gaps is mostly about the 1 percent prospering while the middle class declines.
Kathryn J. Edin, who has studied poverty for decades, says Americans are allergic to talking about poverty. She’s right. The thought of it makes people uncomfortable, maybe because we don’t want to imagine ourselves destitute.
Edin spoke in Seattle last Thursday about the increase of deep poverty and how we might help people out of dire circumstances. She was one of several speakers at the annual conference of the Seattle Jobs Initiative, which drew people from government, nonprofits and business who want to address the issue.
Most Read Business Stories
- Boeing abandons its failed fuselage robots on the 777X, handing the job back to machinists WATCH
- Stock scams bring 15-year sentence for former Eastside man who posed as a billionaire
- Bill Gates tops Jeff Bezos as world’s richest person with Amazon slide
- Anatomy of a fraud: Fake billionaire's $6M scams claimed dozens of local victims VIEW
- Experts speculate on Amazon's approach to future grocery stores — a new format, lots of automation?
She said deep poverty around the country has increased since 1996 when then-President Clinton signed into law a compromise welfare-reform bill he’d worked out with the Republican Congress.
Edin, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, noticed a change when she went out to talk with poor people in 2010. She was meeting a significant number of families that had almost no cash coming into their homes.
A colleague did a statistical analysis and sure enough, there were 1.5 million households with children that had less than $2 a day in cash income, up since 1996. That number, $2 a day, is what the World Bank uses to assess poverty in the developing world. Edin’s 2015 book, written with H. Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan, “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” tells the story of the change.
Welfare reform succeeded in moving more people into jobs and lowering poverty among children, but the changes also meant there would be no cash support for people who didn’t find work in the time allowed.
What people have now is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which replaced food stamps. The poorest of the poor are usually left out.
Welfare reform wasn’t designed to make getting help easy.
The reform bill was heavy on enforcing responsibility. There is a strong tendency in this country to view poor people as lazy and undeserving of help, and it can even be politically popular to paint poor people in negative ways.
In the book, Edin writes about the presidential campaign of 1992. Bill Clinton announced he was running in October 1991 and declared it was time to “end welfare as we know it,” which, the book argues, gave him a popularity boost that helped him overcome news reports of sexual infidelities and other character issues.
Policy based on shaming, blaming and isolating poor people is not the most effective strategy for fighting poverty, Edin said. The people she gets to know want to work and to contribute.
The earned-income tax credit, for instance, takes advantage of that desire to work. It delivers cash to working poor people as a tax refund like other families get. There’s no embarrassment, and it’s credited with encouraging more people to work and lifting millions out of poverty. It should be expanded to include even more of the working poor.
Edin also sees value in making sure people who are employed are treated fairly, including having enough hours to keep them from falling into the lowest rung of poverty.
Just last month Seattle adopted a secure scheduling ordinance that includes requirements for predictable schedules and more hours. You can’t make a budget if you don’t know how much you’ll be working in a month or hold a second job if your schedule changes erratically.
Most people want to help themselves. It would be great to have a national conversation about how best to support their aspirations.
Maybe next time.