In the conclusion of their 2013, Public Education Under Siege, historian Michael B. Katz and education professor Mike Rose advocate for a new and honest narrative about the challenges for public schools: “A new narrative need not be entirely positive; it need not cast a false glow over the past or rehash outworn myths… Inequality is the spine of the new narrative…. Throughout American history, inequality—refracted most notably through poverty and race—has impinged on the ability of children to learn and of teachers to do their jobs.” (p. 228)
The problem for most of us is that, although we are rapidly learning the statistics about growing inequality in our society, we view life through the lens of our personal experience. Even the sociologists who researched and wrote $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America were surprised when their data confirmed that, “In early 2011, 1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month. That’s about one out of every twenty-five families with children in America. What’s more… the phenomenon of $2-a-day poverty among households with children had been on the rise since the nation’s landmark welfare reform legislation was passed in 1996—and at a distressingly fast pace. As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.” (p.xvii) “The number of children experiencing a spell of $2-a-day poverty is about the same as the number of kids lifted above the poverty line by the tax credits now extended to the working poor—a program federal taxpayers spend roughly $66 billion on.” (p. 126).
Kathryn Edin (a professor of sociology and public health at Johns Hopkins University), an ethnographer who has for 20 years spent time with very poor families to learn about their lives, returned to the field in the summer of 2010, “to update her work on the very poor. She was struck by how markedly different things appeared from just fifteen years before… (S)he began to encounter many families… with no visible means of cash income from any source. These families weren’t just poor by American standards. They were the poorest of the poor. Some claimed food stamps, now called SNAP, for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A few had a housing subsidy. Most had at least one household member covered by some form of government-funded health insurance. Some received an occasional bag of groceries from a food pantry. But what was so strikingly different from a decade and a half earlier was that there was virtually no cash coming into these homes.” (p. xv)
In the fall of 2011, Edin found herself teaching for a semester at Harvard, where she encountered Luke Shaefer (of the University of Michigan School of Social Work and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy), an expert on the data set called the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. Edin and Shaefer began collaborating to explore America’s deepest poverty. While the official U.S. measure of deep poverty is $8.30 per person, per day, Shaefer calculated data for the United States by using the World Bank’s designation of poverty in the developing world, $2.00 per person, per day. Then Edin set up field sites in four locations to identify particular families and study their economic circumstances: Chicago, Cleveland, Johnson City, Tennessee, and the hamlets of the Mississippi Delta. In the book they published last September, Edin and Shaefer collaborate to profile the families they discovered and to connect the stories of these families with Shaefer’s data.
Many of the families profiled have been chronically poor, but the crisis of living with no cash—only food stamps—constitutes a temporary crisis. For others the temporary crisis involves a cycle of climbing out of the deepest poverty only to fall back again and again. “In each of these places, we looked for families with children who had spent at least three months living on a cash income of less than $2 per person, per day. In most cases, these spells of dire poverty proved to be much longer. We visited with these families over the course of many months—and, in some cases, years—talking with them frequently sharing meals, and observing their daily lives.” (p. xxii)
Although Edin and Shaefer’s book does not specifically address the connection of family poverty with the test scores of the children in their public schools (the measurement by which our federal government and our states evaluate schools and teachers these days), one cannot miss the implications for schools:
First, every one of the families profiled in this book spends time doubled up in the homes of relatives—sometimes doubled up in the homes of a succession of relatives interspersed with periods in homeless shelters in those cities that are generous enough to provide shelters for homeless families. “Every family whose story is told in this book has doubled up with kin or friends at some point, because their earnings haven’t been sufficient to maintain a place of their own. While living with relatives sometimes offers strength and uplift, it can also prove toxic for the most vulnerable in our society, ending in sexual, physical, or verbal abuse. The trauma from this abuse is sometimes a precipitating factor in a family’s fall into $2-a-day poverty, or the calamity that keeps them in such a state for far too long.” (p. 73)
Second, families in need of affordable housing struggle to find any kind of access to public housing. In Chicago, “the city’s waiting list for a Section 8 voucher or public housing included 85,000 families. To make matters worse, the list was closed… And Chicago’s backlog is short compared to New York City’s, where about 268,000 families were in the queue for a voucher or public housing as of March 2013.” (p. 77)
Third, working in low wage jobs involves many difficult trade-offs for parents: “About one in four jobs pays too little to lift a family of four out of poverty. Low-wage workers are concentrated in the service sector…. The sectors of the economy populated by low-wage workers now dwarf those that the country once relied on to provide jobs in the working class trades that paid a respectable wage. Manufacturing, which once accounted for more than 30 percent of all jobs in the United States, now provides less than 10 percent of jobs… Service sector employers often engage in practices that middle-class professionals would never accept. They adopt policies that, purposely or not, ensure regular turnover among their low-wage workers, thus cutting the costs that come with a more stable workforce, including guaranteed hours, benefits, raises, promotions…. Work schedules are often variable, meaning that the days and times you are required to work can shift from day to day or week to week. To get enough hours at any given job, an employee has to be flexible… Even more challenging for workers than an unpredictable schedule are abrupt ups and downs in the number of hours a worker gets. Many employers with a large low-wage workforce engage in a practice termed ‘work loading,’ which responds to downturns in demand with informal layoffs: employers keep employees on the payroll but reduce their scheduled hours, sometimes even to zero…. The extreme of this phenomenon is the growing prevalence of ‘on-call’ shifts. In recent years, many service sector employers have begun requiring workers to be available on certain days and at certain times even when they aren’t working… If they are not needed, they get no compensation for the time spent on call.” (pp. 43-46)
“Welfare as we know it” was ended in 1996, when Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children with a new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. “At the old welfare program’s height in 1994, it served more than 14.2 million people—4.6 million adults and 9.6 million children. In 2012… there were only 4.4 million people left on the rolls—1.1 million adults… and 3.3 million kids. That’s a 69 percent decline. By fall 2014, the TANF caseload had fallen to 3.8 million… By mid-2011, TANF was lifting only about 300,000 households with children above the $2-a-day mark.”
Improvements in government sponsored health care have helped poor families and their children. So has the Earned Income Tax Credit. “These expansions of aid for the working poor mean that even after a watershed welfare reform, we, as a country, aren’t spending less on poor families than we once did.” “But here’s the catch: only those who are working can claim them.” (p. 9) Now, for the poorest of the poor, including 3 million children, there is only SNAP—food stamps, and, “Without cash, they can’t meaningfully participate in society.” (p. 171)