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It's Not Like I'm Poor

It's Not Like I'm Poor: How Working Families Make Ends Meet in a Post-Welfare World

Sarah Halpern-Meekin
Kathryn Edin
Laura Tach
Jennifer Sykes
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    It's Not Like I'm Poor
    Book Description:

    The world of welfare has changed radically. As the poor trade welfare checks for low-wage jobs, their low earnings qualify them for a hefty check come tax time-a combination of the earned income tax credit and other refunds. For many working parents this one check is like hitting the lottery, offering several months' wages as well as the hope of investing in a better future. Drawing on interviews with 115 families, the authors look at how parents plan to use this annual cash windfall to build up savings, go back to school, and send their kids to college. However, these dreams of upward mobility are often dashed by the difficulty of trying to get by on meager wages. In accessible and engaging prose,It's Not Like I'm Poorexamines the costs and benefits of the new work-based safety net, suggesting ways to augment its strengths so that more of the working poor can realize the promise of a middle-class life.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95922-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    February means snow in Boston, and this year is no exception—nearly two feet of it last weekend and another three to six inches today. City workers in orange vests use snow blowers and shovels to dig out storm drains, while residents’ shovels sit ready to clear the stoops and sidewalks once more.

    Among East Boston’s working poor, however, February means more than just snowfall. Indeed, despite the dreary weather, it is the most eagerly anticipated month of the year—some say that it’s even better than Christmas. And it is this keen sense of anticipation that drives Toni Patturelli...

    (pp. 23-58)

    What does it really mean to have a social safety net organized around the principle that, if you work you shouldn’t be poor? The American poverty line is neither an absolute measure of what it takes to survive—an estimate of what a basic “market basket” of necessities costs—nor a relative measure, like poverty thresholds in Europe that identify households falling below some percentage of the median income; the figure in the European Union is 60 percent. Instead, it is based on 1950s surveys of the cost of a minimally nutritious diet on an “emergency” or short-term basis (which...

  7. 2 Tax Time
    (pp. 59-99)

    “Thank God for tax season!” Debra McKinley exclaims, as she reflects back on the hardships of the past few months. Debra, a twenty-eight-year-old white mother of two, and her fiancé, Sonny, who is eight years older, have been behind on their bills all year. Sonny works seasonally as a carpenter, and until recently Debra worked on and off at a restaurant owned by her sister. But there is a familiar refrain to the balance sheet: even in a good month Debra and Sonny bring home barely enough to cover their expenses. This past month, Sonny earned nearly $3,000—a top...

  8. 3 The New Regime through the Lens of the Old
    (pp. 100-125)

    The story of the modern EITC, created in 1993 and fully implemented by 1996, must be understood in the context of the larger story of the landmark 1996 welfare reform. It was no accident that the two were forged during the same presidential administration. But converting a tiny tax credit into the program we have today—a pay raise for the working poor—was the brainchild of Harvard economist David Ellwood and a team of dedicated public servants who had worked on antipoverty legislation in Washington for decades.

    Ellwood began his career as a defender of welfare after finding that...

  9. 4 Beyond Living Paycheck to Paycheck
    (pp. 126-151)

    Except for the small portion some manage to keep in long-term savings, our families typically fully allocate their tax refund in three months’ time. For the other nine months of the year many find themselves living in the red, as the story of Ashlee Reed, in chapter1, illustrates. With this in mind, it is quite remarkable that the typical household still manages to reserve nearly four refund dollars in ten for purposes they associate with getting ahead. Similarly, one in four dollars are devoted to paying off past debts, often with the goal of laying the financial groundwork for upward...

  10. 5 “Debt—I Am Hoping to Eliminate That Word!”
    (pp. 152-181)

    The demise of welfare and the rise of the work-based safety net, most notably the EITC, has been nothing short of revolutionary. Working-poor parents are now better off economically than at any time in US history, given tax credits and in–kind benefits. We’ve described how they feel better off as well, as their status as workers has ushered them into the American mainstream. But there has been another revolution as well—a dramatic rise in consumer debt at the bottom of the income distribution.

    Federal regulations used to make lending to the poor and near poor unattractive. Starting in...

  11. 6 Capitalizing on the Promise of the EITC
    (pp. 182-216)

    Throughout the late 1990s, when the economy was booming, many celebrated the success of welfare reform. But critics warned that such high praise was premature—the true test of the system, they said, would come when the economy took a turn for the worse, not when jobs were abundant. While the downturn of 2001 and the period of slow growth that followed took a palpable toll on the employment and wages of unskilled and semiskilled workers, many still didn’t end up on the welfare rolls.¹ Just as we finished interviewing families for this book, the Great Recession took hold, offering...

  12. APPENDIX A: Introduction to Boston and the Research Project
    (pp. 217-223)
  13. APPENDIX B: Qualitative Interview Guide
    (pp. 224-234)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 235-260)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 261-282)
  16. Index
    (pp. 283-286)