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Poverty in the U.S.: It’s worse than you’re led to believe

There are two competing narratives about poverty in the United States. One is summed up best by commentator and TV host Bill O’Reilly, who argues that poverty is not all that bad in the U.S. and the majority of the poor benefit from the “free stuff” given to them by the government.

“If you look at the studies of poverty, most poor people in this country have computers, have big screen TVs, have cars, have air conditioning. This myth that there are kids who don’t have anything to eat is a total lie,” said O’Reilly in an exchange with guest Kirsten Powers (video at top).

The opposing view is detailed in the recently published book $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by researchers Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. Their research finds that there are 1.5 million American households living on less than $2 per person per day – below the global extreme poverty line. About half of these households do not access the public benefits such as welfare and food stamps.

“Two dollars is less than the cost of a gallon of gas, roughly equivalent to that of a half gallon of milk” according to the book. “Many Americans have spent more than that before they get to work or school in the morning. Yet in 2011, more than 4 percent of all households with children in the world’s wealthiest nation were living in a poverty so deep that most Americans don’t believe it even exists in this country.”

After reading the book, it is hard not to see O’Reilly as someone who is either grossly misinformed or willfully misleading his audience.

Edin and Shaefer illustrate their evidence-based findings with stories about families living in Chicago, Cleveland, the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia. The diversity of these stories show that the problem affects people across the entire U.S. They show how hard-working Americans are struggling to get by and how the social safety net designed to catch them when they fall is riddled with holes.

The book is a serious indictment of the Clinton administration’s welfare reforms. Extreme poverty in the U.S. accelerated in 1996 after the changes took effect. It was partly due to the changes in criteria to qualify for aid – Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (aka welfare) – which became more stringent. At the same time, fewer people are on welfare.

TANF-to-Poverty-Ratio-IBLThe book opens with Madonna, a single mother waiting in line to sign up for welfare benefits in Chicago. Showing up 30 minutes before the opening of the Illinois Dept. of Human Services office was not early enough, she learned. Only the people who arrived an hour early got numbers to proceed with applying for welfare. Madonna wasted her morning just to be turned away  – yet another rejection when trying to get help.

The authors profile others who face varying hardships. Some manage to get food stamps, known officially as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), but for some families the aid doesn’t stretch enough to feed their families for an entire month. Some families fail to qualify for the program because of technicalities. Even with these hand-outs that O’Reilly derides, families in this country are missing meals or not eating enough.

The authors detail the risk that some food stamps recipients undertake to sell their cards in exchange for cash to buy other things their families need. Instead of having the freedom to make choices that are best for their families, our poor cobble together salaries, public assistance and private charity in a hole-filled patchwork quilt. Many people bounce around between shelters and friends’ homes – a situation that is particularly hard on their children – just to get by.

This complex system of “getting by” makes it difficult to find and keep a job. O’Reilly and others are quick to point out when a poor person has a cell phone, failing to recognize how critical a phone is to finding employment. In one case, a woman applied for jobs using the shelter phone number on her applications – a phone she could not consistently use and a signal to her potential employers of her current instability. The same woman managed to get a job cleaning foreclosed homes, but lost her job months later after she missed work, sickened by cleaning chemical fumes.

All of the families in the book are doing what they can to get by. In one case, a woman sells homemade food and treats. The process of re-packaging food or making fresh items and selling them out of the home is the kind of informal business that is found in places like Kenya, India and Haiti. Similarly, people engage in odd jobs and some women turn to prostitution to make ends meet.

Zenobia Bechtol, 18, and her seven-month-old baby girl Cassandra play in the dining room of her mother's apartment, where they live, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Erich Schlegel)

Zenobia Bechtol, 18, and her 7-month-old baby girl Cassandra play in the dining room of her mother’s apartment, where they live, in Austin, Texas. (Credit: AP Photo/Erich Schlegel)

“What is true about each of the families in this book is that they would all rather have a job than engage in any alternative forms of ‘work’ … the weaker the government safety net, the more the informal work described here will proliferate. We know what this kind of economy looks like, because it typifies economies in other, poorer countries in the world,” Edin and Shaefer write in their book.

These people also do not want “free stuff.” They want a chance to make a living and provide for their families. Having support and a hand up could help them achieve the stability needed to get on the right track. The authors make the case that a real safety net for the people who do fall can help keep families out of extreme poverty. Coupled with programs that provide opportunities to work, it may be possible to end extreme poverty in the U.S.

Making such changes requires a basic understanding of what it is like to live in poverty and the needs of the poor in this country. People must recognize that there are people facing choices that seem unconscionable in this country – young girls so hungry that they would trade sex for food from teachers willing to exploit them and employees working in inhumane conditions under the threat that they’ll lose their jobs at any time.

O’Reilly and his ilk espouse the idea that success and stability are the result of hard work. To them, the poor are poor because they don’t try hard enough and government handouts have made them complacent. $2 a Day resoundingly refutes this.

“[D]espite all they’ve been through, despite the abuse and trauma, the hunger and fear, despite the anger they carry with them at what they have endured, many of the everyday experiences of the $2-a-day poor are – truly – American to the core,” Edin and Shaefer write.

For further reading, Dylan Matthews has a really good interview with the authors over at Vox.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]