K & I live pretty cheaply.
We try not to spend too much on food, but we always buy fresh fruits and vegetables. We stock up on pasta when it’s on sale — on a recent shopping trip we bought 40 pounds at $0.50 per pound — and we eat a lot of rice, homemade bread, lentils, beans we rehydrate ourselves. Still, I give us a budget of $30 per day for food, almost double what SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program, or “food stamps”) would let somebody spend.
Then there’s our mortgage, which costs another $30 per day. We have two phones between us, which together cost $1.80 per day. Internet, $1.50 per day. Heat, water, and electricity? Another $5.00 (which might sound like a lot — our little city prices water such that you pay more per unit the more you use, and N wears cloth diapers). Our car needs gas and maintenance; even though we had enough in savings to buy it outright, it still costs us close to $2 per day. Our sundry insurance policies (car, health, life, homeowner’s), roughly $20 daily.
We’re not profligate spenders. Graduate school stipends aren’t huge amounts of money, and California’s Bay Area is an expensive place to live, but we were able to put away a lot of savings during our time there. Starting salaries for public school teachers aren’t so high, either — because K had eight years’ worth of continuing education credits from her Ph.D., she started at $37k here — but we were supporting four adults on her salary for a while. During those first few years we made do without a car, and the rent we were paying was cheaper than our mortgage is now, and I had to cut our food budget back from grad school’s fancy-pants $15 per person per day to about $6. We had fewer treats like cauliflower, eggplant, and chocolate than we do now.
We’ve been lucky enough to rarely visit doctors or hospitals (except when I’d go retrieve K’s father after his government-funded surgeries). The cost of what little care we receive is typically bundled up with our insurance. But we maxed out our co-pay when N was born, and we’ll max it out again when we have another kid. So — most years, zero, some years, $10 per day. I’ll budget the higher number.
We pay $1.90 per day for childcare. People who look after children ought to be compensated much better than they are now; it’s absurd how little this is valued in our country. At the same time, I’m grateful that we can afford such high-quality childcare.
We wear clothes till threadbare. I’d estimate that our whole family spends no more than $0.50 per day on clothes. Most of my best shirts have come from the dumpsters after the university students moved out.
Still, our current version of austerity has us spending over $100 per day.
Reading Kathryn Edin & H. Luke Shaefer’s $2.00 a Day was brutal.
Edin & Shaefer spent time with impoverished families to learn what life is like at the bottom of our nation’s income distribution. Their work focuses on anecdote and portraiture. Despite the fact that, as a math brain, I love numbers and statistics, I was completely convinced that their method was best for this project. In their words:
In big, nationally representative surveys (like the one that provides the hard numbers for this book), families may not always tell researchers (usually government employees) about income from all of the survival strategies described in this chapter. A mom with one child who tells a researcher that she had $120 in income during a particular month might actually have had $180 because she donated plasma twice or sold $100 in SNAP benefits in exchange for $60 in cash. When queried by researchers, a mother may fear prosecution if she reports that she got money from a “friend” in exchange for sex. Some may simply forget to report the cash they get from collecting aluminum cans — perhaps because it is so irregular or the profit is so small. Others — particularly those who are homeless or otherwise on the move, shifting from the home of one relative to another — may not even appear in big government surveys because they have no stable address. The only way to get a true accounting of the resources of the $2-a-day poor is to spend large amounts of time with them, build trust, and meticulously document their circumstances. But this kind of research is time-consuming. Without millions of research dollars, it is impossible to identify and follow a large random sample of the $2-a-day poor, which would be the only way to paint a reliable national portrait of what they must do to survive.
Because it takes a lot of ingenuity to survive extreme poverty, everyone’s solutions are unique. Aggregate statistics would cause you to overlook the idiosyncratic blend of trash picking, plasma selling, sexual favor trading, and apartment sharing that allows people to scrape by. But Edin & Shaefer, by taking time to get to know people, were able to see these strategies.
Edin & Shaefer argue — correctly, I’m convinced — that you can’t learn what it takes to survive poverty when you think about people as numbers. You have to get to know people as individual human beings. Then you can understand.
Here’s a quick summary of what they found: 1.) People are hungry. 2.) When you’re depending on others for shelter, sexual assault is rampant. 3.) These assaults, and negative encounters with the police, and pervasive fear — that the car will break, that Walmart won’t assign enough hours, that there won’t be food tonight — has led to innumerable cases of PTSD. Which makes it even harder to think, to plan, to do anything but worry.
The statistical problems Edin & Shaefer described in the quote above mean we don’t know how many people are living this way. But a reasonable guess is: many. In their words again:
Where do we see hard evidence of the rise in extreme poverty among families with children? It is evident in the SIPP, the nationally representative survey that does the best job of capturing the incomes of the poor. It is seen in SNAP administrative records, which show a sharp uptick in the number of families reporting no other form of income save SNAP. In fact, the SNAP estimates match those from the SIPP survey remarkably closely. Reports in some major cities suggest increased demand for family shelter beds starting in the early 2000s, as well as an increase in the number of families seeking emergency food services that predates the Great Recession. But the best proof of all that the $2-a-day poor exist is that finding people who fit this profile … is not that hard. It can be done in a relatively short amount of time in a number of locales across the country. This virtually cashless form of poverty is out there, even though we wish it weren’t. And it has grown.
Perhaps I should mention, now, that the comparison between my family’s spending and the daily cash allotment of many people in extreme poverty is somewhat flawed. For instance, I included our mortgage. Many people in extreme poverty spend a portion of each year paying no rent — they might be renting an apartment but using their money on other expenses, knowing that they’re about to be evicted, or they might be in a shelter, or sleeping in a car, or sharing housing with a relative or romantic partner or complete stranger.
But, during those times when people at the bottom of the income distribution do pay for their own housing, they often pay more than my family does. For unsafe, unsound properties. This phenomenon is described in Matthew Desmond’s Evicted:
… rent in some of the worst neighborhoods was not drastically cheaper than rent in much better areas. For example, in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where at least 40 percent of families lived below the poverty line, median rent for a two-bedroom apartment was only $50 less than the citywide median.
This has long been the case. When tenements began appearing in New York City in the mid-1800s, rent in the worst slums was 30 percent higher than in uptown. In the 1920s and ‘30s, rent for dilapidated housing in the black ghettos of Milwaukee and Philadelphia and other northern cities exceeded that for better housing in white neighborhoods. As late as 1960, rent in major cities was higher for blacks than for whites in similar accommodations. The poor did not crowd into slums because of cheap housing. They were there — and this was especially true of the black poor — simply because they were allowed to be.
There are so few options at the bottom that poor people get squeezed much harder than those who could actually afford it.
Similarly, my family’s $100+ daily expenses includes everything we spend on food. At the bottom of the income distribution, most people have access to SNAP — other than my wife, everyone in her family received these.
K’s father actually had enough to eat when he was on SNAP. We helped him buy a bus pass, so he was able to ride out to a real grocery store. But many people who receive SNAP don’t have access to transportation, which forces them to shop at the one small store nearby, which means they often pay more than wealthier shoppers for equivalent items. When you’re getting gouged, food stamps don’t go far. Worse, you might need to buy gas so that you can get to work. Food stamps don’t buy gas. You’d be stuck trading your stamps for cash at something like 50 or 30 cents to the dollar. At the end of the month, you & your kids won’t eat.
Childhood food insecurity causes lifelong mental and physical changes. My dear friend who made it gets laughed at all the time because food makes her behave so strangely — she still hears that voice in her head urging her to stake out her own portion when she sits down to a family-style dinner with people.
The people laughing have never been hungry.
The people laughing have bones that break less easily.
And I included the amount K & I spend on insurance. So many types of insurance! People living in extreme poverty often pay nothing for insurance. There’s no money for it.
But this means, obviously, that poor people have to spend more eventually. In Hand to Mouth, Linda Tirado writes that she did not grow up impoverished. But she was poor enough as a young adult that she couldn’t afford insurance, which meant she was a single flood away from losing everything she owned.
There are countless stories of U.S. citizens who were getting by — not doing well, but not struggling to survive — until a medical disaster left them unable to work & swamped with unpaid bills.
Which means yet another challenge that poor people in this country have to face that us lucky wealthy ones can remain blissfully ignorant of. Honestly, the fact that I could list my family’s expenses at all reveals how well off we are. We can budget our spending, because spending, for wealthy people, is relatively stable. We have enough money that we can set some aside for eventual car repairs, which means we won’t have to borrow when our car breaks, or lose a job, or…
Could people living in extreme poverty set aside money for those eventual expenses? Honestly, no. If you’re hungry — worse, if you’re watching your kid be hungry — you spend money on food. Or so I’ve heard. I’m lucky. I get to learn about poverty from books instead of by living it.
Of course, this also means I have to deal with the attendant shame of reading books like Edin & Shaefer’s. The message is clear: we, as a people, are failing. We should not have made a world where people have to live like this.
It’s not as though the solution is so difficult to come up with, either. I disagree with some of Paul Theroux’s economic ideas here, but you should take a moment to read his lovely editorial, “The Hypocrisy of ‘Helping’ the Poor.”
Yes, food stamps help. No, they don’t help enough. But the real solution isn’t to boost social welfare spending (although that would be a step in the right direction). Many people living in extreme poverty want to work. But there aren’t jobs. (In the future, there’ll be even fewer).
And yet much of our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling. We would all be better off if the federal government started pouring money into laying fiber-optic cable; fixing roads; manufacturing, installing, & maintaining solar panels; providing low-cost, well-compensated, high-quality childcare…
There’s plenty that could be done, and there are people who would be thrilled at the chance to do it. Instead, we’re leaving them stranded: hungry, assaulted, cold, traumatized.