When I first started reading and learning about food insecurity and poverty I thought there was just one definition that encompassed all who lived at or below the poverty line. As I read more and dug deeper into these topics I realized that several gradations of poverty exist. The U.S. Census bureau’s poverty threshold in 2015 for a family of 3 (single mother and 2 children) is a salary of approximately $19,000 per year. Households of that size earning less than $19,000 per year are considered to be living in poverty. The next level of poverty is deep poverty which is defined as having a household cash income under half the poverty threshold. Using the 2015 poverty threshold, that same family of three living in deep poverty would have an annual salary of only about 9,500 dollars. The most dire level of poverty is aptly named extreme poverty and to fall into this category households exist on $2.00 or less in cash income per person per day. For that same household of three living in extreme poverty, their annual salary would be a paltry 2,190 dollars.
If you are like me you had to read those last two sentences a couple of times to let those figures sink in. How can it be that in one of the wealthiest countries in the world any of its citizens live at the same level of poverty as citizens in some of the world’s poorest developing countries? In 2011, the most recent year for which I could find statistics, 1.65 million families were living in extreme poverty with at least another 20 million people living in deep poverty. According to researchers, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, using the 2011 statistics, the number of US households living in extreme poverty increased 159% since 1996, the year welfare reform legislation was passed. When these two long time poverty researchers first noticed the disturbing pattern of households where nobody was working and yet nobody was receiving welfare, they realized no entity was tracking the number of people who were the poorest of the poor. To determine just how extreme this level of poverty was they turned to the World Bank marker used to study the poor in developing nations–living on a cash income of $2 or less per person per day. So ironically, at a time when the extremely poor population of developing nations was decreasing, these researchers discovered the number of people living in extreme poverty in one of the wealthiest developed nations had increased.
Who are the drastically poor and where are they located? According to a study by the Urban Institute, the typical individual in deep poverty is white (47%), young, U.S. born and living in a family. Greater than 10% of children under the age of 6 live in families experiencing deep poverty. Single mother households and individuals (single persons) are the households most at risk to suffer from deep poverty. Geographically, the extreme and deeply poor can be found in all areas of the United States, but are located in larger clusters in the Southeast, which includes the Deep South and Appalachia, as well as in larger cities. As it happens, Philadelphia, located about an hour from my home, has the highest rate of deep poverty of any of the 10 most populous cities in the United States. Philadelphia’s deep poverty rate is 12.2%, or approximately 185,000 people, including 60,000 children, which is almost twice the U.S deep poverty rate. While the deep poverty rate seem to be declining slightly in metropolitan areas, the non-metro, rural areas have not seen much if any decline.
Getting by on little to no money in the United States seems almost impossible, and according to Kathryn Edin in an interview on PBS, many in extreme poverty in this country are not making it. As she notes, in developing countries where extreme poverty is present strong barter economies exist so that people living in poverty there do not always need much money to survive. That is not the case here in the United States. So how do they survive? For most of these households cash assistance from the government, welfare, is not a option due to lifetime limits or work requirements. Therefore, those in extreme or deep poverty then turn to In-kind transfers, like SNAP, housing subsidies when they can get them and financial support for healthcare through Medicaid and CHIP. Many also turn to food banks and soup kitchens. Edin also states that uniformly the people in extreme poverty that she interviewed in all geographic locations reported selling plasma. Someone who is deemed healthy can sell plasma roughly 2 times a week and can make up to $30/ time. She also mentions that because these people live without available cash, when they need to pay the utility bill or purchase school supplies or winter coats for their children they often sell their SNAP dollars for cash, knowing it is illegal and they could face punishment. While this not uncommon practice gets them the cash they desperately need, it puts them further behind as they lose $0.50 on the dollar in the transaction.
In every place I have lived in the United States, rural, suburban and urban, I have seen evidence of poverty, so I am saddened by poverty statistics, but not surprised by them. I was, however, quite surprised by the number of people living in deep and extreme poverty. I find myself asking a question I have asked before. How can this happen here in one of the wealthiest countries in the world? One of the main reasons is that there are just not enough jobs at the bottom of the labor market for everyone who needs a job. Most of the people in deep and extreme poverty want to work, and many do on a part time basis. Unfortunately, many can not find a job because the jobs are not there or they lack the necessary skills. Others are unable to keep jobs they do find, because employers are unsympathetic to transportation problems, child care issues, illness and an inability to respond to erratic schedules that change at the last minute. Additionally, many researchers and scholars believe the rise in extreme and deep poverty rates is a consequence of the 1996 welfare reforms, which instituted work requirements and lifetime benefit limits. As Kathryn Edin suggest, when you pair the 1996 welfare reforms with the decline in job opportunities at the very bottom of the job market, the inevitable result will be a rise in deep and extreme poverty.
The motivation behind the 1996 welfare reform legislation, moving people from welfare to employment, has merit. This reform is only successful, however, if those who move from welfare find stable, long term employment. These individuals benefit from not only a steady paycheck, but from tax credits designed to assist the working poor. Unfortunately this movement from welfare to work has not been the outcome for most of the people who no longer receive cash assistance from the government. The result of welfare reform legislation for them has been very detrimental. At best it keeps them stuck in a cycle of poverty, but more than likely it has allowed them to sink further into a deeper poverty. Children born into families in deep poverty are less likely to succeed at all stages of life, and are therefore, less likely to move up the income ladder. According to an article on the Brookings Institute website, 14% of children who are born into deep poverty will still be deeply poor when they are forty. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the passage of the 1996 welfare reform legislation we must accept the reality that this reform has not been the success legislators hoped it would be. Perhaps the time has come to consider reforming the reform legislation so that the social safety net is strengthened, especially for the poorest of the poor. Once the safety net has been shored up, the United States must undertake the necessary work of identifying the causes of poverty and lessening their impact on society.