Living on $2 A Day

About a year ago I did something that I hadn’t done before. I came back to work at an organization I had left at the end of 2007 — The Center for Community Solutions. I was fortunate enough to return as the President and Executive Director. During my previous time at CCS, I had worked on many policy/advocacy issues related to the local implementation of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, more popularly known as “welfare reform.” Some of the advocacy work we did was successful, but on some of the larger issues like time limits for cash assistance, we weren’t successful.

Since being back at CCS, I have had a few Aha! moments. One of them was while I was at a meeting with Cuyahoga County officials and it was reported that there were approximately 1,500 adults remaining on the caseload of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program. I was stunned because, when I had left Community Solutions towards the end of the last decade, there were 10 times that many people on the caseload. Some of them have been forced from the rolls by Ohio’s three-year time limit, while likely an equal number got tossed from the program after being sanctioned for various infractions. States became more likely to sanction after changes in federal TANF rules had the effect of requiring larger numbers of recipients to be working 20-30 hours a week.

The fact that the caseload wasn’t larger, despite the county not having escaped the grip of the Great Recession in terms of high poverty levels in the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, was shocking. The number of persons in the City of Cleveland living in extreme poverty has grown by 40 percent since 2007, and it has increased by roughly 30 percent in Cuyahoga County as a whole. These are individuals who live with incomes below 50 percent of the federal poverty level. For an individual, that’s roughly $5,800 or less than $16 a day. National research has shown that children are likely to be living in half of these households facing extreme poverty.

The growth in deep poverty has continued despite the fact that the overall economy has improved. The grim stats left me wondering how these families, most of them with children, are surviving with little or no cash. In Ohio, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we know that two out of every 10 participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program report having no cash income at all.

It has been about 14 years since anyone has reviewed the impact of welfare reform on poor families and children in Cuyahoga County. In 2001, Claudia Coulton, the Lillian F. Harris Professor of Urban Research & Social Change at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University (and also my second cousin), had authored a study called Monitoring Outcomes for Cuyahoga County’s Welfare Leavers: How Are They Faring? That report found considerable hardship despite the fact that unemployment rates were largely below 4 percent in the county. It’s easy to conclude that these hardships have grown even more pronounced in a tougher economy and largely without the safety net of any cash assistance.

Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their just-published $2.00 a Day reveal that these hardships have only gotten worse, and there are now one and a half million American families living on $2 per day, and that these households include three million children. They visited Chicago, Johnston City, Tennessee, and Cleveland to talk with some of these families in an effort to put a human face on families that most of us didn’t think existed in the United States.

There is the story of Paul in Cleveland whose business went bust during the beginning of the Great Recession, and who was unable to work because of a disability. His children and grandchildren ended up living with him as their lives were buffeted by the economy, and his uninsured wife developed terminal cancer. At one point, he housed 22 family members in his house, with children doubled up in bunk beds in almost every room of the house. They went without running water for weeks because of an unpaid water bill.

Then there is Rae, who lives in Cleveland’s Stockyard neighborhood with her young daughter (only a few blocks from where I live today), and who lost her job at our neighborhood Kmart after it closed when the Walmart Supercenter opened in Steelyard Commons. She ended up taking a job at a Walmart in Parma but lost it when she couldn’t afford to pay for the gas to get to work.

None of the individuals in $2 a Day are perfect. You can make a long list of the bad choices they may have made. But some are the victims of larger economic forces and governmental policy choices. We also increasingly understand the negative impact that such extreme poverty has on the development of young children. Most of these individuals work very hard to try and keep their lives together, and they display a degree of ingenuity and grit that few of us, or at least I, would be able to match.

I see that grit displayed every Thursday in my Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood as women and men push their shopping carts along the road looking for metal cans that I or my neighbors might have placed in our blue recycling bins. It reminds me of the stories my grandmother would tell me about the men that would come to the back door of their University Circle house, in the midst of the Great Depression, looking for rags and metal that they could collect to sell. Back then there was no safety net, but for those living in deep poverty today it must feel like they have fallen through whatever safety net still exists.

So what can we do? First, we could use some of Ohio’s accumulated unspent TANF dollars to create subsidized jobs. This would help many of the individuals in $2 A Day who want to work but are unable to find employment. (The August unemployment rate in the City of Cleveland was 6.1 percent, almost 40 percent higher than the state rate.) We should increase investments in behavioral health services since many of these individuals experience higher rates of substance abuse, depression, and other forms of mental illness that make work difficult. Investments in literacy and adult education could help the 66 percent of Cleveland adults who are functionally illiterate, allowing them to get better jobs. Domestic violence is also more likely to be part of these family’s lives, so services and TANF work exceptions to help support those fleeing a violent situation are critical. Finally there are some individuals, who for any number of reasons, may never be able to work or who will work for only short stints of time. For them, we need some sort of alternate cash benefit that lessens the deprivation that they and their children face.

I realize that these aren’t likely to be popular policy prescriptions in today’s political climate, but I think we owe it to Rae, to Paul, and to the children they care for to raise these issues up, and to make combatting poverty an issue to be addressed in 2016 presidential and congressional campaigns. Let me know what you think, how you would address the issues of deep poverty that Edin and Schaefer address in $2.00 a Day. You can email me at