by Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater
This book by two distinguished sociologists and public policy professors is immensely depressing. That fact, though, should not discourage an audience from being educated about the struggles of those living in poverty and the governmental policies which have led to this situation. The authors share their research through statistics and narratives about those who live on two dollars a day per person. These heart breaking stories about the struggle of families with finding jobs, housing, food, and transportation should bring shame to all those who believe that poor people are lazy and really don’t want to work but prefer to live on government handouts.
The real problem with this attitude is that there is no longer any monetary handouts available from the government. The authors begin their book with a concise history of welfare and its reform which ended in 1996 under the Clinton administration. While single mothers with children—the main recipients of welfare– did indeed try to go to work, the consequences of this legislation led to the rise of households with children with no cash assistance available. There are one and a half million households and three million children who live on two dollars a day per person (This calculation is explained in the introduction as including any dollar that made it into a household, no matter what the source, would be considered part of the family’s income, including SNAP (food stamps) which is more like cash than any other governmental program).
These authors present compelling narratives of the struggles of the working poor and the sacrifices they make in order to survive: giving plasma twice a week; living on ramen noodles for two weeks; leaving children in perilous child-care situations; shuttling between family and friends’ couches and shelters, working at less than minimum wage jobs. Many of the stories about the working poor include having to quit jobs when the transportation costs are too high to get to a job, when working conditions cause or exasperate health problems, or where a child becomes ill and the parent needs to stay home, or when food stamps have to be traded for children’s underwear and socks.
Even though the statistics and narratives about those living in poverty are depressing, the authors end their book with some realistic solutions to the overarching problems of the poor in this country and of income disparity. One solution addresses the right of everyone to works and earn a living wage. The authors admit that job creation would cost money and if the private sector didn’t take up this task, the government would need to step in as they did during the Great Depression. They list many jobs that could be funded starting with rebuilding the infrastructure through jobs in after school programs and elder care. In addition to providing an adequate wage, work conditions also need to be safe and fair. One of the narratives about the working conditions of a mother who labored for a cleaning company stands out. She was part of a team that cleaned houses of the evicted which most of the time did not have water. This woman and her team had to provide the water for cleaning, often begging water off of filing stations or neighbors.
Another solution involves safe and affordable housing. If this means subsidized governmental housing, then it must be up to code and not limited to segregated spaces. If a family is living on a full time salaried job at $15.00 an hour, they could afford an apartment with two bedrooms in twenty-two of our states, the researchers conclude. So jobs and housing go hand in hand. A story about housing stands out because of its consequences. One girl, between sixth and ninth grades shared a subsidized three- bedroom apartment with twenty-four other people. And of course there was never enough food. When this young woman was in ninth grade one of her teachers offered her food in exchange for sex.
Finally, the authors suggest that a program that provides actual cash is important. While SNAP help families with hunger, these benefits are often sold for half of their value to help with utilities and rent. Currently there is no cash safety net for families that fall. And, as the authors suggest: “Without cash, they [the poor] can’t meaningfully participate in society.” There is no need to return to our previous welfare system that stole the dignity of the poor. There are other solutions and this book provides them in its conclusion. Like all of the other books that show how institutions fail—The New Jim Crow; Evicted; Nickle and Dimed, So Rich, So Poor, this book provides amble data and amble solutions for dealing with poverty. Read it. Be depressed but be educated as well.