THE BLOG
01/04/2013 12:13 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2013

Living on $2 a day

Researchers at Harvard and the University of Michigan have found that 1.4 million American families live in extreme poverty About 2.8 million children are included in those families. “Extreme” is not a strong enough word for the kind of poverty we’re talking about. The researchers defined it as living on less than $2 per family member per day. That's $2,920 annually for a family of four. The study looked back to 1996 because in that year “Welfare Reform” placed new limits on the amount of time a family could receive public assistance. Between 1996 and now, the rate of extreme poverty has doubled.

For many people, the United States has become a third world country.

The study did not get nearly enough attention, though Gabriel Thompson did a fantastic piece on it for Mother Jones. She spent a lot of time in Fresno, Calif., where she met people struggling to get by on temporary, low-wage jobs. Their experiences reminded me of a hypothetical day-in-the-life of a low-income family with a sick child written for this blog.

Welfare no longer provides a safety net since the 1996 “reforms.” As Neil deMause demonstrates in a great Slate article, changes in the federal law have enabled some states to put a nearly impenetrable wall of red tape and shame between needy families and benefits.

Listen to Neil's description of one mother's struggle:

As her 2-year-old son scampers about a vacant office at the Sweetwater Valley Community Action Mission Program where she’s come to seek some help, Cassie explains that -- like nearly 2 million other Georgians, almost 20 percent of the state -- she receives federal food stamp benefits, which help put groceries on the table. But they won’t pay for non-food items, which is why she’s turned up at this private charity in suburban Cobb County in search of diapers.

Household supplies are a constant struggle for the poor in the absence of cash benefits, notes the charity's program director Carla Pierce, pointing to the stockpiles of detergent and other items lining the mission’s storeroom shelves. (No diapers today, though; Cassie and her son go home empty-handed.) “Formula and diapers change a family budget in a second.”

Newark Mayor Cory Booker decided to live for one week on the amount a food stamps recipient would get. The mayor’s menus drew attention to just how difficult that is. He reported hunger pains. This calorie counter estimates that six-foot-three Booker was getting less than 1,000 calories a day.

Many state and federal officials are talking now about cutting safety net programs. I have one question for them: What safety net? We’d like to believe that no one in this country lives without the basic necessities. But that's simply not true.

When Booker did his food stamps challenge, many people accused him of grandstanding and grabbing media attention. I have no idea what Booker’s motives were. But I find them far less interesting than the fact that food stamps are inadequate to feed a needy American -- and can't even be used for other necessities like toilet paper, soap or diapers. Focus, people!

The argument against public assistance is that it creates dependence. This argument is generally made by people with a distorted picture of what it means to be poor. (Eating a lot of Ramen noodles in college, by the way, does not give you even a glimmer of what life is like for people living in intractable poverty.)

In fact, the opposite is true. If we keep people in a position where survival is a constant struggle, they are ill-equipped to do the things that will lead to steady employment. Think of Cassie, who can’t even get diapers for her son. No day care will take a child without a supply of diapers. How is Cassie supposed to go on a job interview? Does she have a decent outfit to wear to that interview? How about shampoo and toothpaste? A job applicant who does not look and smell clean has a slim chance, at best.

The big idea was that making poverty even more unpleasant than it already was would give people the incentive to improve their lot. But the percentage of extremely poor Americans has doubled under this policy. Clearly incentive was not the problem.

Throughout human history, the main anti-poverty strategy has amounted to a long lecture on ambition and self-reliance. With centuries of proof that this strategy does not work, it is past time to try something else. Meeting people's basic needs would be an excellent start.

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