It's Not Like I'm Poor
I was very happy recently when Internet research revealed the
existence of more books coauthored by Kathryn Edin. Needless to say,
I was off to the Orono Public Library to order them by Inter Library
For most of our nation's history our leaders have at least paid
lip service to the idea that workers should have, in the words of
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "the right to earn enough to provide
adequate food and clothing and recreation." The reality, however, has
often been a lot less rosier. The shift from a manufacturing to a
service economy, with its weakening of unions and outsourcing of
decently paying jobs, has resulted in a lot of exploitive gigs that
often can't even provide shelter.
In 1972 the earned income tax credit was created. Unlike the
greatly despised (by policy makers) welfare, it rewarded, rather than
penalized, reported income. Legislators on both sides of the aisle
sang its praises since it couldn't be seen as rewarding idleness. In
1996 expansion of this program was coupled with ending welfare as we
"In many ways, cash welfare is no longer the way that we support
low income families in the United States. Working or not, poor
families with children have access to in-kind benefits such as food
stamps, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program),
and Medicaid. But the EITC has become central to a new work-based
approach to addressing the needs of the poor."
Edin wanted to know just how the EITC helped and/or failed to
help low income workers. With colleagues she went out in the field,
in this case low income neighborhoods in the Boston area, places where
tax refunds including EITC provide substantial cash infusions. A
preliminary survey yielded 332 names from which 120 were drawn
randomly. Of these qualifiers, 115 people were surveyed in depth in
their homes. This research led to the publication of It's Not Like
I'm Poor: How Working Families Make Ends Meet In A Post-Welfare World,
from which the above quotes were obtained.
The people interviewed were highly enthusiastic about the
program. Many saw the cash infusion as better than Christmas.
Surprisingly little was spent for what most people would consider non
essentials, usually modest treats for children such as an outfit or a
trip to the movies. A significant amount was devoted to future
oriented purchases (i.e. a stand up freezer to allow money saving bulk
meat purchases) and savings (i.e., for home ownership). The
recipients felt good about the money because they had earned it. They
received their refunds in the same way as other people. There was not
the marginilization and stigma associated with receiving welfare.
These positive notes occur within am alarming context. The
biggest category of EITC expenditures is the paying down of debt or
bills. Not only do the jobs the interview subjects hold pay well
below a lifting-out-of poverty wage, they are precarious. Many have
irregular and unpredictable schedules. Others are seasonal. Still
others are here today, gone tomorrow. So a pattern is created in
which three months of relative financial stability are alternated with
nine in which even the most basics can't be counted on.
Additionally the shift from welfare to tax credit leaves a lot
of families out in the cold. "...This includes the 1.46 million
households with children who, in any given month, have fallen
completely through the cracks, living with virtually no income from
work or welfare, on little more than in-kind benefits--if that. The
EITC may rescue over three million children from poverty each year,
but in any given month about the same number of children are living in
households with incomes of less than $2 per person per day--a common
metric used by the World Bank to measure Third World poverty."
And we, as a society, are supposed to be proud of this?
It's Not Like I'm Poor, like Edin's other books, is eminently
readable, beautifully interweaving theory and background with the
narratives of people who greatly personalize the bigger picture. I
think all social workers, social work students, nurses, teachers, and
others in the helping professions should add this volume to their
summer reading lists. Additionally it is very enlightening for
citizens like me who are troubled by the great gap between the wealthy
and the poor in today's America.
On a personal note, two additional aspects of the EITC as it is now
delivered bother me. One is the additional public subsidy (in
addition to the SNAP and Medicaid huge numbers of their workers need
to get by) given to large corporations like WalMart that enable them
to increasingly make wages and working conditions a race to the
bottom, give them an edge over small businesses, and provide a huge
pool of potential wage slaves to be used and discarded. The other is
the deepening of the split between the "deserving" (workers) and "non
deserving" (welfare recipient) poor. It's one of the faces of the
divide and conquer strategy that gubmint uses so well to keep the 98%
fighting each other instead of uniting in solidarity to change the
practices and policies that endanger us all.
Sent from my iPod