Two sociologists are trying to redefine the image of the poverty-ridden in America, saying that far from being government-dependent, most are desperate to work but red tape, complex family situations and a sluggish economy keep them from getting jobs.
In a new book due out Tuesday, titled “$2 a Day,” Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer say most states have cut welfare payments over the last 20 years. They argue a boost in one welfare program, known officially as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), could help break the cycle of unemployment and get would-be workers into the labor force.
“Whatever else could be said for or against welfare, it provided a safety net for the poorest of the poor,” they wrote in their book. “In the late 1990s, as welfare reform was gradually implemented across the states, its impact in reducing $2-a-day poverty began to decline precipitously. By mid-2011, TANF was lifting only about 300,000 households with children above the $2-a-day mark.”
Ms. Edin, a Johns Hopkins University professor, and Mr. Shaefer, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, looked at the 1.5 million households, including 3 million children, that live on no more than $2 a day.
The two researchers set out to detail some of the families’ stories, hoping to break the persistent image of welfare recipients and others out of the workforce as eager to live on the dole, saying they found people who work jobs nobody else wants, and often face illegal working conditions and get no overtime pay.
One of their cases, Jennifer Hernandez, a single mother of two often unemployed and occasionally homeless, was working 70 hours a week in a job, but could not keep it because of the demands of child care. She then took a job cleaning abandoned, foreclosed houses in winter, without heating or lighting, and she ended up with health problems.
“[Ms. Hernandez] is kind of an example of what these jobs at the very bottom of the labor market looks like,” Ms. Edin said. “She and her two children are asthmatic, she starts missing work, her employer punishes her by cutting her hours. She’s down to 15 hours a week and it took months to even find this job, and she has to quit it.”
The researchers chose the $2 mark because it represented a deep level of poverty, well below the federal government’s stated threshold. It is the measure used by the World Bank to determine poverty across the globe, including the world’s poorest countries.
Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, said the $2-a-day figure is catchy, but could be misconstrued, because most of families with that little income are getting thousands of dollars in government support every year.
“The United States spends a trillion dollars a year between the federal government and states on means-tested benefits, so even if they work part-time, they’re eligible for a series of benefits,” Mr. Haskins said. “Public policy does a lot to help these people. Food stamps alone gets them over [the $2-a-day threshold].”
As many as 25 percent of single mothers well below the poverty level aren’t eligible for TANF benefits because they can’t hold down a job and care for their children, and they end up running afoul of the program’s work requirements. But they are usually eligible for other programs such as food stamps, he said.
Mr. Haskins said there are very real “barriers to work” for many in poverty: “Low IQ, inadequate literacy or math skills, three or more kids, problems with transportation, mental issues, which especially likely is depression, and it’s usually two or three or more of these barriers to work that can cause them not to work.”
“They work for a while, they lose their job. Things that cause middle class people to hiccup can knock them out of the labor force and they don’t recover so easily,” he said.
TANF was the result of the 1996 welfare reform law, passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Clinton. It was designed to turn federal welfare payments into a block grant program, with money sent to the states, who were then encouraged to do what they could to reduce welfare rolls and pressure recipients to try to get back to work — including limiting them to a maximum of five years’ support.
Nearly two decades later, the reforms are coming under attack by progressive think tanks who argue the changes have denied some families the help they need to break out of poverty.
Just two states — Maryland and Wyoming — have maintained the same level of welfare spending over those decades when adjusted for inflation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Nearly half of the states have reduced payments by more than 30 percent, the liberal-leaning think tank said.
States have been trying to keep their TANF caseloads minimal, Ms. Edin said. Mississippi served 83,000 people in 1965, hit 180,000 people at its peak and then declined steadily to 17,000 people in 2014, the authors wrote.
The researchers said the government must go back to a “cash safety net” to support would-be workers, saying that boosting government payments for child care and other programs could help welfare beneficiaries get back on the job.
Mr. Shaefer also said the government needs to push businesses to offer quality jobs to the poor.
“A lot of families would stress, ‘When I had a job, I was most stable and my health challenges were most in check.’ They like stability and their ability to make a contribution,” he said. “Their comments and the notion that the effects of having a job is not just a matter of income. It can have all these ripple effects, if you will, to improve their lives and [make them] empowered to improve their lives.”
The Government Accountability Office reported Monday that about 80 percent of welfare beneficiaries are employed, suggesting a high level of labor participation.