Living on $2 a Day

Researchers at Harvard and the University of Michigan have found that 1.4 million American families live in extreme poverty About 2.8 million children are included in those families. “Extreme” is not a strong enough word for the kind of poverty we’re talking about. The researchers defined it as living on less than $2 per family member per day. That’s $2,920 annually for a family of four. The study looked back to 1996 because in that year “Welfare Reform” placed new limits on the amount of time a family could receive public assistance. Between 1996 and now, the rate of extreme poverty has doubled.

For many people, the United States has become a third world country.

The study did not get nearly enough attention, though Gabriel Thompson did a fantastic piece on it forMother Jones. She spent a lot of time in Fresno, Calif., where she met people struggling to get by on temporary, low-wage jobs. Their experiences reminded me of a hypothetical day-in-the-life of a low-income family with a sick child written for this blog.

Welfare no longer provides a safety net since the 1996 “reforms.” As Neil deMause demonstrates in a greatSlate article, changes in the federal law have enabled some states to put a nearly impenetrable wall of red tape and shame between needy families and benefits.

Listen to Neil’s description of one mother’s struggle:

As her 2-year-old son scampers about a vacant office at the Sweetwater Valley Community Action Mission Program where she’s come to seek some help, Cassie explains that — like nearly 2 million other Georgians, almost 20 percent of the state — she receives federal food stamp benefits, which help put groceries on the table. But they won’t pay for non-food items, which is why she’s turned up at this private charity in suburban Cobb County in search of diapers.

Household supplies are a constant struggle for the poor in the absence of cash benefits, notes the charity’s program director Carla Pierce, pointing to the stockpiles of detergent and other items lining the mission’s storeroom shelves. (No diapers today, though; Cassie and her son go home empty-handed.) “Formula and diapers change a family budget in a second.”

 

Newark Mayor Cory Booker decided to live for one week on the amount a food stamps recipient would get. The mayor’s menus drew attention to just how difficult that is. He reported hunger pains. This calorie counter estimates that six-foot-three Booker was getting less than 1,000 calories a day.

Many state and federal officials are talking now about cutting safety net programs. I have one question for them: What safety net? We’d like to believe that no one in this country lives without the basic necessities. But that’s simply not true.

When Booker did his food stamps challenge, many people accused him of grandstanding and grabbing media attention. I have no idea what Booker’s motives were. But I find them far less interesting than the fact that food stamps are inadequate to feed a needy American — and can’t even be used for other necessities like toilet paper, soap or diapers. Focus, people!

The argument against public assistance is that it creates dependence. This argument is generally made by people with a distorted picture of what it means to be poor. (Eating a lot of Ramen noodles in college, by the way, does not give you even a glimmer of what life is like for people living in intractable poverty.)

In fact, the opposite is true. If we keep people in a position where survival is a constant struggle, they are ill-equipped to do the things that will lead to steady employment. Think of Cassie, who can’t even get diapers for her son. No day care will take a child without a supply of diapers. How is Cassie supposed to go on a job interview? Does she have a decent outfit to wear to that interview? How about shampoo and toothpaste? A job applicant who does not look and smell clean has a slim chance, at best.

The big idea was that making poverty even more unpleasant than it already was would give people the incentive to improve their lot. But the percentage of extremely poor Americans has doubled under this policy. Clearly incentive was not the problem.

Throughout human history, the main anti-poverty strategy has amounted to a long lecture on ambition and self-reliance. With centuries of proof that this strategy does not work, it is past time to try something else. Meeting people’s basic needs would be an excellent start.

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post, on January 4, 2013

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Postscript to Memorial Day Post

On Memorial Day, we wrote about the many great organizations that help our service men and women and their families who  tend to marry and start families younger than their civilian counterparts, and are often supporting those families while still very junior in rank, making wages that fall below the poverty level for a family of four.   (Read our original blog post here.) As we noted then, although the pay structure has improved in the last two decades, there is still a sizeable number of military families who receive food assistance, either from military’s Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance program or from private non-profit organizations such as Operation Homefront.

A recent Huffington Post article by Michael McAuliff suggests that the numbers of military members on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is even higher than we had originally thought, with as many as 1000 active duty military members receiving SNAP, and 150,000 households which also receive veterans’ benefits are relying on SNAP.  The SNAP and WIC rolls have expanded because of the economic crisis and the greater number of people at risk of food insecurity.  Inclusion of military families in their numbers reflects the changing nature of the military family.  The Senate has just approved a version of the Farm Bill that cuts SNAP benefits by $90 a month, and the House threatens to cut the program even more.  Religious institutions and other charitable institutions which help families in need are not positioned take up the slack without significant increases in their resources. Families having difficulty making ends meet may need even more help.  Give generously to your local diaper bank to help ease at least one need.

Chart of the day

Although diapers cannot be bought with food stamps or WIC, families that received cash assistance through TANF could use that money to buy diapers (provided there was any money left after buying other necessities). As the amount of unrestricted cash assistance diminishes, families no longer have discretion to use any TANF money they might get to buy diapers. Diaper banks are more critical than ever. Give generously to your local diaper bank. Contact us to find your local diaper bank or for help in starting a diaper bank near you. http://DiaperBankNetwork.org. Help us close the diaper gap!

occasional links & commentary

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (pdf),

Many policymakers continue to claim that the 1996 welfare reform law which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program was a major success. They see the TANF program’s design and block grant structure as a model for the reform of other safety net programs.

TANF’s record over the last 15 years shows, however, that its role as a safety net has declined sharply over time. In 1996, for every 100 families with children living in poverty, TANF provided cash aid to 68 families. By 2010, it provided cash assistance to only 27 such families for every 100 in poverty. . .

The 1996 welfare law gave states broad flexibility over how to design their TANF programs and allocate state and federal TANF funds. This is one reason why the decline in TANF-to-poverty ratios was much more…

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Rising Tides–Food Security and the National Welfare

Advocates for tax cuts often invoke the saying “A rising tide lifts all boats” as support for tax cut policies that favor the rich on the theory that such cuts will support the larger economy.  Tax cuts like the proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as “food stamps,” from which the proposed House Budget plans to cut by $127 billion over ten years.  But apart from the question of whether the underlying premise–that tax cuts favoring high earners helps the economy–this use of the phrase to justify tax cuts ignores the actual reason that a rising tide lifts boats.

Boats, floating on water, rise when the water rises underneath the boat.  The water acts like a floor–below which no boat sails.

Rather than tax cuts, the proverb seems more applicable to those programs that help ensure that people’s most basic needs are met–the floor below which no one should be allowed to sink.  We should apply the proverb to programs that ensure that people have food and shelter, that jobs pay at least a minimum wage, that all children have access to quality educational opportunities.  It is through these programs that the national economy expands and thrives, causing all boats to rise–dinghies as well as yachts.

SNAP, and the other food assistance programs, the National School Lunch Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) help an extraordinary number of people struggling to provide food for their family for comparatively little money.  According to the USDA‘s report on Household Food Security in 2010, SNAP provided an average benefit of $134 to an average of 40.3 million people each month. The School Lunch Program provided lunches to an average of 31.6 million school children each day, 56% of which were provided free to children in low income families.  And WIC served an average of 9.2 million participants each month, providing benefits of about $42 per person.

Although these are not large amounts per person, they are effective.  Census data show while that hunger and food insecurity surged in 2008, it did not increase further in 2009 and 2010 even though unemployment and poverty continued to increase. This is because programs such as SNAP and WIC were expanded to meet the increased need.  We also know that SNAP is effective in reducing the nation’s poverty rate.  In 2010, it succeeded in lifting 3.9 million U.S. residents, many of whom are children, above the poverty line.

But it is not only the recipients who benefit from SNAP dollars, local communities benefit as well.   According to the USDA, for every $5 of SNAP funding, $9 of community spending is generated.  Also, because SNAP and other food assistance programs help people get back on their feet, they contribute to ensuring a productive work force for the community and the nation.  Thirty percent of people who receive SNAP work for wages.  Ensuring that workers are sufficiently fed may help ensure that they and their families are healthier, thereby reducing the number of lost work days due to illness.  Additionally, SNAP benefits, which can be used at local farmer’s markets, help the nation’s family farm economy–in 2010, 1611 farmer’s markets and direct marketing farmers participated in SNAP. Each $1 billion of retail generated by SNAP creates $340 million in farm production, $110 million in farm value added, and 3,300 farm jobs and 8,900-17,900 full-time jobs.

Indeed, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP is considered the one of the most effective government response to the recession, not just for people in need, but for our entire economy.  So the next time someone says that a rising tide floats all boats, agree, but point out that the most effective way to raise the tide is to support SNAP, not by cutting it.  Help ensure that we don’t leave our neighbors under water, and thus further impoverish our nation–support SNAP and the other food security programs.  Don’t leave people stranded at low tide.

Food for Thought on Tax Day

As you scurry to finish your taxes in advance of today’s deadline (or gloat that you have already spent your refund), consider for a moment that there will be many people who receive a tax credit because, even though they are working, that job does not pay enough to raise them over the poverty line.  As noted in this blog post from Bread for the World, “In 2010, 10.7 million people with jobs lived below the poverty line. A full-time minimum-wage earner makes only about $14,500 a year.”  The Earned Income Tax Credit helped lift 5.4 million of these people above the poverty level, but often, depending on where they live, this is not enough to allow them to meet the Self-sufficiency Standard, which defines the amount of income necessary  to meet basic needs (including taxes) without public subsidies (e.g., public housing, food stamps, Medicaid or child care) and without private/informal assistance (e.g., free babysitting by a relative or friend, food provided by churches or local food banks, diapers from a diaper bank, or shared housing).

The family types for which a Standard is calculated range from one adult with no children, to one adult with one infant, one adult with one preschooler, and so forth, up to two-adult families with three teenagers. The Self-Sufficiency Calculator for various states are available on the internet–for example, you can find the calculator for Washington State here, for Colorado here, and for DC here.  You can also look up the most recent tables for your state here.  In each case, the Self-sufficiency Standard is much higher than the poverty level, and demonstrates how much many people with paying jobs must rely on “safety net” programs such as food stamps, housing assistance, and various other forms of assistance to make ends meet.

In the call for lower taxes, many of these same government programs that millions of people rely on are the first programs to be cut.  If your only concern is the bottom-line tax number, one way to lower your taxes yourself is to donate to private charities, which can be deducted from your taxes.  As public services are cut, the need is for private assistance increases dramatically.  Consider lowering your taxes for next year by donating to a charity today.  Some things to think about as you file your taxes.

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