In “Why the very poor have become poorer,” Christopher Jencks reviews $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, for the June 9 issue of The New York Review of Books. Written by Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin, $2.00 a Day (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) documents the troubling rise of extreme poverty in the wake of America’s 1996 welfare reforms.
“Half of today’s officially poor families are doing better than those we counted as poor in the 1960s,” writes Jencks, “but as I learned from reading $2.00 a Day (and have spent many hours verifying), the poorest of the poor are also worse off today than they were in 1969. $2.00 a Day is a vivid account of how such families live. It also makes a strong case for blaming their misery on deliberate political choices at both the federal and state levels.”
Describing the failed attempt (documented in $2.00 a Day) of one unemployed Illinois mother to apply for cash assistance, Jencks writes that, “It is tempting to say that [she] was too easily discouraged. However, it is also tempting to say that in Illinois, as in most other states, TANF’s primary goal is not to protect children whose parents cannot find work by ensuring that their family has shelter, heat, light, food, and shoes, but to cut program costs by reducing the number of recipients.”
H. Luke Shaefer is an associate professor of social work and public policy. His research focuses on the effectiveness of the United States social safety net in serving low-wage workers and economically disadvantaged families.