Could you survive on $2 a day?

Published on People’s World, by GABRIEL THOMPSON, December 18, 2012.

Two years ago, Harvard professor Kathryn Edin was in Baltimore interviewing public housing residents about how they got by. As a sociologist who had spent a quarter century studying poverty, she was no stranger to the trappings of life on the edge: families doubling or tripling up in apartments, relying on handouts from friends and relatives, selling blood plasma for cash.  

But as her fieldwork progressed, Edin began to notice a disturbing pattern. “Nobody was working and nobody was getting welfare,” she says. Her research subjects were always pretty strapped, but “this was different. These people had nothing coming in.”

Edin shared her observations with H. Luke Shaefer, a colleague from the University of Michigan. While the income numbers weren’t literally nothing, they were pretty darn close. Families were subsisting on just a few thousand bucks a year. “We pretty much assumed that incomes this low are really, really rare,” Shaefer told me. “It hadn’t occurred to us to even look.”

“Deep poverty” to “extreme poverty”:

Curious, they began pulling together detailed household Census data for the past 15 years. There was reason for pessimism. Welfare reform had placed strict time limits on general assistance and America’s ongoing economic woes were demonstrating just how far the jobless could fall in the absence of a strong safety net. The researchers were already aware of a rise in “deep poverty,” a term used to describe households living at less than half of the federal poverty threshold, or $11,000 a year for a family of four. Since 2000, the number of people in that category has grown to more than 20 million-a whopping 60 percent increase. And the rate has grown from 4.5 percent of the population to 6.6 percent in 2011, the highest in recent memory save 2010, which was just a tad worse (6.7 percent).

But Edin and Shaefer wanted to see just how deep that poverty went. In doing so, they relied on a World Bank marker used to study the poor in developing nations: This designation, which they dubbed “extreme” poverty, makes deep poverty look like a cakewalk. It means scraping by on less than $2 per person per day, or $2,920 per year for a family of four.

In a report published earlier this year by the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center, Edin and Shaefer estimated that nearly 1 in 5 low-income American households has been living in extreme poverty; since 1996, the number of households in that category had increased by about 130 percent. Among the truly destitute were 2.8 million children. Even if you counted food stamps as cash, half of those kids were still being raised in homes whose weekly take wasn’t enough to cover a trip to Applebee’s.

In the researchers’ eyes, it was a bombshell. But the media barely noticed. “Nobody’s talking about it,” Edin gripes. Even during a presidential campaign focusing on the economy, only a few local and regional news outlets took note of their report on the plight of America’s poorest families. Mitt Romney told CNN that he wasn’t concerned about the “very poor,” who, after all, could rely on the nation’s “very ample safety net.” Even President Obama was reticent to champion any constituent worse off than the middle class. As journalist Paul Tough noted in the New York Times Magazine this past August, the politician who cut his teeth as an organizer in inner-city Chicago hasn’t made a single speech devoted to poverty as president of the United States. (Although Paul Ryan has).

Fresno, California: Second poorest:

If you want to explore the dire new landscape of American poverty, there’s perhaps no better place to visit than Fresno, a sprawling, smoggy city in California’s fertile Central Valley. Heading south on Highway 99, I pass acres of grapevines and newly constructed subdivisions before reaching the city limit, where a sign welcomes me to California’s Frontier City. Ahead, no doubt, is a city, but all I see is brown haze. It’s as if a giant dirt clod had been dropped from space. The frontier looks bleak.

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina briefly focused the nation’s attention on the plight of the poor, the Brookings Institution published a study looking at concentrated poverty. Only one city fared worse than New Orleans: You guessed it, Fresno. Earlier this year, the US Census identified Fresno County as the nation’s second-poorest large metropolitan area. Its population has nearly doubled over the past three decades, which means more competition for minimum-wage farm and service-sector jobs, and a quarter of the county’s residents fall below the federal poverty threshold. With fewer than 20 percent of adults 25 and up holding bachelors degrees, there’s little prospect of better-paying industries flocking here.

Crossing the tracks, I find myself in a virtual shantytown, with structures of pallets, plywood, and upended shopping carts

For those living on the margins here, daily life can be a long string of emergencies. “There’s this whole roiling of folks,” says Edie Jessup, a longtime local anti-poverty activist. “They are homeless, move in someplace else, lose their jobs and are evicted, maybe end up in motels.”

If I want to see how bad things are, Jessup advises, I should check out the area southwest of downtown. She gives me directions, and after crossing some train tracks near a pristine minor-league baseball stadium, I find myself in a virtual shantytown. Amid boarded up warehouses and vacant lots, the streets begin to narrow. They are filled with structures made of pallets, plywood, and upended shopping carts. A truck pulls up filled with bottles of water, and a long line of thirsty people forms.

Amid the makeshift shelters, one section of pavement has been cleaned up, fenced off, and filled with more than 60 Tuff Sheds-prefab tool sheds brought in to provide emergency housing for Fresno’s growing street population. “It’s not ideal,” concedes Kathryn Weakland of the Poverello House, the nonprofit that oversees the encampment and doles out 1,200 hot meals a day. “But like one of the homeless told me, it beats sleeping in a cardboard box.”

The collection of sheds even has a name: “Village of Hope”.

Working poor: … //
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