The Poorest of the Poor

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 down arrowexist.  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 largerphilly love 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.  job magnifying glassUnfortunately, 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.

Welfare Reality Check

narcissus-6368_640I am always disconcerted when I hear someone discussing or read a statement suggesting that people in poverty who are receiving government assistance are undeserving of their benefits or are choosing to live the easy life on welfare instead of working for a living.  Encountering these various statements one too many times is actually why I decided to start this journey to help the food insecure and advocate for the poor.  During the past couple of weeks I have been confronted more frequently than normal with this sentiment, so I feel it is important to respond to the notion that living comfortably on welfare is a lifestyle choice or even possible.  What many refer to as welfare, cash assistance from the government, dramatically changed in 1996 with the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA).  Not only has welfare been reformed, but in recent years cuts in funding to other programs that make up the social safety net have resulted in reductions in either benefit amounts or the number of eligible people receiving benefits.  The changes brought about through reform, coupled with funding cuts in safety net programs, have greatly changed the landscape of what is collectively called welfare.

As mentioned above PRWORA, signed into law on August 22, 1996, is the piece of legislation that ended welfare as we knew it.  PRWORA replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which had been in place since 1935, with Temporary Aide to Needy Families (TANF).  In addition to this change, PRWORA also imposed stricter conditions for tulips-1134103_640
the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), reduced aid to immigrants and introduced work requirements for aid recipients.  Temporary Aid to Needy Families is what most people think of when they say welfare, cash assistance given to indigent families.  With the passing of PRWORA, a lifetime limit of 60 months was imposed on families receiving federal aid money.  States were given wide discretion in how to distribute these funds, and consequently, a few states have even shorter lifetime limits on receiving federal aid.  One state has a lifetime cap of only 24 months.  Additionally,  PRWORA  requires recipients to get a job within 24 months of receiving assistance.  In order to continue receiving benefits, single parents are required to participate in a work activity at least 20 hours per week and for 2 parent households the requirement is 35-55 hours per week.  Failure to comply with any work requirement can result in reduction or termination of benefits.  With that said, no federal limit exists on how long TANF recipients can receive state funded assistance.  Furthermore, states are allowed to issue a limited number of exemptions, extensions or both.

Another program Americans think of when referring to welfare is the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP), formerly referred to as Food Stamps.  This program is natural-1225186_640 (1)the largest of the 15 nutrition programs administered by the federal government.  It is a mandatory or entitlement program which means the federal government is required to fund benefits for all eligible recipients.  Additionally, this program does not have a lifetime limit on receiving benefits for most recipients.  The only exception being able bodied adults without children (ABAWDs), who are permitted only 3 months of SNAP benefits in any 36 month period when they are not employed or participating in a work training program for at least 20 hours per week.  Just because only a few face lifetime limits for this program does not mean its benefits have not been limited.  SNAP has experienced several cuts in funding in recent years resulting in an average household benefit reduction of 5 percent.  Under current regulations, for many households living in poverty SNAP is the only governmental assistance program for which they qualify, or as explained below, are able to receive, even though they are eligible for other programs.

The remaining programs people think of when referring to welfare are housing and child care subsidies.  Housing subsidies from the federal government include, but are not limited to, public housing and Housing Choice vouchers, called Section 8 housing.  All of thesemuscari-562110_640 housing assistance programs have experienced funding reductions, resulting in long waiting lists with some people reporting being on a waiting list for 10 years before receiving any assistance.  Furthermore, it is estimated that only 1/4 of eligible recipients ever receive any subsidy.  Like housing subsidies, child care subsidy programs have experienced funding cuts resulting in lengthy waiting lists and a reduction in benefits.  Additionally, when a subsidy for child care is awards it is often a pittance, unable to begin to cover the actual cost of childcare.

I have discovered in discussing poverty with others, as well as just listening to and reading what people say about the poor, that many people either do not know about welfare reform and funding cuts in safety net programs, forgot they happened or have little idea the extent of the changes these actions have caused.   I don’t know that the ability to live much more than a hand to mouth existence on welfare ever existed, but regardless of whether it did at one time, it does not exist now.  America’s social safety net has been shredded or at least has big gaping holes in it.  Since the passage of PRWORA, getting welfare has gotten more hare-1215096_640difficult.  Less assistance is available due to budget cuts and more restrictions on getting assistance have been put into place, including lifetime limits for some types of assistance or recipient groups.  The reduction in welfare caseloads has been touted as proof of successful reform.  In spite of the dramatic reduction in welfare caseloads, however, welfare reform has done little to reduce poverty and may be responsible for the increase in the number of people in the United States experiencing extreme poverty.  Americans receiving welfare, in any of its forms, are not living on easy street, and if you asked them, they would almost certainly rather receive a paycheck from a stable, good paying job over receiving welfare.

This week’s blog pictures brought to you by Spring!

 

Who is on Welfare?

About a month ago my husband was reading an article on why people who live in impoverished areas of the country have started to vote against their own best interests by supporting politicians who campaign on abolishing votingsocietal safety net programs.  This article caused him to ask the question “Who is the typical person receiving welfare?”  We have since had a few conversations on both the topic of why some people are voting against their own best interests and who the typical public assistance recipient is.  When we have a minute or two, both of us have been searching for an answers to his question.

So I wasn’t surprised when a few days ago when I received an email from him with a link to an article written by a woman calling herself a welfare mom.  This poignantly written article discusses the nightmare in which this woman finds herself and her children living after her husband abandons them.  Prior to her husband leaving she was a stay at home mom, so when he left she had no way to support her children.  Realizing she needed to take drastic measures to keep her family from ending up homeless and hungry, she went to the Department of Human Services for help.  After waiting for 6 hours with her infant and toddler, she finally was able to see a social worker, only to be told the waiting list for section 8 housing was 5 years long and they were not taking any new applicants.  The social worker gave her information about a shelter, which offered a maximum of 6 weeks residency, when there were beds available.

She tried to get cash assistance, what used to be referred to as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and is now called Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF).  She qualified for the meager amount of less than $100 per week for her family of three, but would have volunteer 20 hours per week as a requirement to get the assistance.  She had no complaint with the requirement to volunteer, but she had two young children who would need daycare during the hours she volunteered.  Unfortunately, she was told the waiting list for daycare assistance was 6 month long, meaning she was unable to receive this assistance because she was unable to fulfill the required volunteer hours.

She did sign up for, and receive benefits from, The Special Nutritional Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and thefood pantry good Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  She was forced to give up the WIC benefits because she lacked daycare for her kids so that she could attend the classes required by the program.  Her SNAP benefits took 6 months to get because of a delay due to an in-house paperwork backup.  In the end, her SNAP benefit is so low she is still forced to go to a food pantry monthly to have enough food for her family.

She and her children also got free health insurance trough Medicaid, but have suffered heartbreaking experiences nonetheless.  As she put it, “We have free health insurance, but that doesn’t mean we have healthcare.”  Her children’s pediatrician is located several hours away and her local hospital is considered out of network.  She has a special needs son, who at the time she wrote the article, had hospitalbeen waiting 18 months to see a specialist.  The receptionist confided in her that he would probably never see the specialist, because privately insured patients would constantly be moved ahead of him.

All of this is pretty horrific to me, but perhaps what seems to be the most egregious aspect of her situation is that she is trapped in this state of poverty.  If she makes $100 more a month she will be ineligible for almost all of her public assistance, what used to be referred to as welfare.  She will have to cover the total cost of her children’s daycare, food and health insurance.  She can not plan ahead by saving her money, as you and I do, because she becomes ineligible for public assistance when her savings account exceeds $3,000.  So for her to lift her family out of needing public assistance, she must somehow accumulate the money necessary to pay all those bills in a month’s time with her current income.  That is a herculean task, which I am certain very few accomplish.

Neither my husband, nor I have found an article defining the typical public assistance recipient, but all of my research, reading and volunteering experience indicates that this mother and her family are fairly typical.  The manner in which she found herself needing public assistance, due to circumstances beyond her control, is fairly typical.  I have encountered or read accounts of numerous individuals who find themselves in desperate need due to loss of a job, illness, injury or abandonment by a spouse.  Not only is her reason for need typical, but her experience once she requests assistance is typical too.  In the book, All You Can Eat:  How Hungry is America? I encountered this quote describing our food safety nets as providing “enough food to prevent widespread starvation but not enough to actually end hunger in America.”  This assessment is accurate for all our societal safety net programs.  They provide just enough to keep people from slipping further into poverty, but never enough to pull themselves up and out of poverty.