Vox had a thought-provoking article last week on people in the US who live on less than $2 per person per day. It’s adapted from the book of the same title by Kathryn Edin & Luke Schaefer. They find that millions of Americans (including up to three million children) have months where they live on next to nothing, frequently going hungry and facing homelessness as a result. The entire article is essential reading. Here are some of the main points:
- There’s no clear demographic pattern among people who face extreme poverty. As Edin says, “It’s racially and ethnically diverse, it’s regionally diverse. You see both married and unmarried couples in this situation.” However, poverty tends to be worse in rural areas and in the South, where fewer services are available.
- People want to work, but find it difficult to hold down jobs. Edin notes that “almost all of these households actually do have workers… You still see these pretty lengthy spells in extreme poverty, but these people are in and out of the low-wage labor market. Seventy percent of them have had a worker in the low-wage labor market in the past year.” Schaefer adds that “it’s very hard to find a job. The unemployment rate has been very high for low-educated workers for a long time. These folks are at the back of the line.”
- Social services and family support networks rarely help. Many eligible households either don’t apply for TANF, or (in some cases) have been told mistakenly that they’re not eligible. Only a million people in the entire country receive TANF at present, although 15% of the population or 45 million people live below the poverty line. In addition, few people seem to receive much assistance from their families.
- People come up with creative ways to access even small amounts of money if they can’t work. Selling plasma is one of the most common, followed by cashing out food stamps (which cuts the value of the stamps by about half), collecting scrap metal for redemption, and doing sex work. Selling sex can be a way to access housing or food as well as cash.
- And my own takeaway: While the availability of formal employment is different, overall this is quite similar to what extreme poverty looks like in countries around the world. People find various ways of making claims on others in order to access food, shelter, and clothing, or the cash to buy the same.
Perhaps what’s most striking in this context is that, while we do have a wide range of social safety nets, none of them are designed to address this type of poverty. Nor has half a century of prolonged economic growth done much to reduce it. I came away from this article thinking that it’s one of the strongest claims I’ve yet seen for the value of a universal basic income grant.