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Finding a way to win the war on poverty in America

Jack Lessenberry

Except for a few brief years in the 1960’s, it has never been fashionable to care about the desperately poor in this country. John F. Kennedy did challenge us to do something about poverty in his inaugural address:

“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

But today, we have a President-elect who said:

“Benefits should have strings attached to them."


"If [people] can stay poor for so many generations … they’re morons."

Well, those of us who thought we understood politics got a rude shock two months ago. But if you think you understand poverty, the odds are that you too are mistaken.

I’ve just finished an amazing short book which I think everyone should read.

It’s called $2.00 A Day – Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer.

Edin is a distinguished professor of social work at Johns Hopkins; Shaefer, an Ypsilanti native, is an associate professor in both the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work and the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy.

Their book looks at a handful of the perhaps four million people in America who have no social safety net, who are living, literally, on less than two dollars cash a day.

The people here are real, though their names have been changed to protect their privacy. They aren’t people who have deliberately self-sabotaged by turning to drugs or hard-core crime.

Some have made “choices” that haven’t helped, such as having children too early, without a stable income. But mainly, they’ve been unlucky. Over lunch yesterday, I talked to Shaefer, who is 38 and has two children of his own, about the implications of his study.

Those too were surprising.

So-called welfare reform, which was enacted by Congress and Bill Clinton in 1996, was great in many ways for the working poor, though there have been many attempts since to cut their benefits, such as Michigan’s gutting of the EITC, the Earned Income Tax Credit. But for those who can’t work or find work, it has been a disaster.

Shaefer found that virtually everybody wanted to work. Not only their finances, but their sense of well-being vastly improved. But it’s hard to keep a steady job when you have unreliable transportation, a sick child, and health issues yourself.

"The great conservative economist Milton Friedman recognized the liberating power of cash."

There’s a major problem with today’s programs designed to lift people out of poverty. We’ve virtually eliminated cash assistance. Regardless of whatever other benefits we give people, they need some cash in their pockets.

“The great conservative economist Milton Friedman recognized the liberating power of cash,” Shaefer told me.

To get some, the poor survive by selling their plasma, illegally selling their food stamps for half their value; occasionally, their bodies. And they go hungry.

This is, simply put, something that should not and need not happen in America.

Last fall, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel announced Poverty Solutions, a new initiative aimed at finding out how to fight poverty, and appointed Shaefer to lead it.

That seems fitting, given that it was at the Big House where Lyndon Johnson announced the first War on Poverty more than half a century ago. It would really be something if this time we could find a way to win.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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