Saturday, April 22, 2017

Student reflects on anecdotes from $ a Day

I chose to write a reaction to the book “$2.00 A Day, Living On Almost Nothing in America.” This book was written by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. Instead of focusing on all of the characters in the book I would like to react to specific events described in the book that I find myself thinking about over and over again. One of those events occurred in the first chapter titled “Welfare is Dead.” In this chapter a young woman named Madonna and her teenage daughter Brianna are standing in line waiting to apply for welfare. Madonna is a single parent who has been staying in different shelters along the North Side of Chicago. Madonna had been convinced to go to the welfare office by a friend. Madonna got to the welfare office hours before opening because she wanted to be seen as early as possible. There was a long line outside of the welfare office before Madonna arrived. When the building opened and Madonna had made it through the line to be seen by a case worker, she was told that there had been enough people for the day and that she should come back early the next day. 

This part of the book was significant to me because I know of people who have waited and who have been applying for welfare but are constantly denied, and some do not have the chance to be seen by a case worker. This particular event relates to topics discussed in class because during class; we’ve discussed the process of applying for welfare benefits such as SNAP and Section 8. I feel that this part of the book corresponds to some of the struggles people still face today. In class one of the other students admitted to have been applying for welfare benefits, but she had been constantly denied, even though she works a minimum wage job and is a single parent. 

Another event in the book that was significant to me what the third chapter. Jennifer was a single mom with two and was also living in a shelter. Jennifer has been living in different shelters across Chicago for several months. After living in so many shelters, Jennifer was not able to keep coming back to live in shelters because she was there for too long. To me it seemed as if she had over-stayed her welcome at the shelters. This was absolutely unacceptable to me because she is homeless. Where else did they expect her to go? After reading this book, I do understand that the authors were bringing people’s attention the poor; however, I feel as if writing about the poor and the history of welfare will not make life any easier for families such as the ones in the book. 

I am glad you were also touched by stories in this book.  The stories about poverty in Illinois always seem to come back into my thought, since these persons described in the book may practically be neighbors; I may walk past them when I am in Chicago. We always have a few students in class who are from Chicago, and they sometimes know the places and situations described in the book. 

Many scholars—perhaps especially in our field of social work—hope that their research and publications will become influential and make a difference.  Edin has already been extremely influential, as her 1997 book (Making Ends Meet, co-authored with Laura Lein) was read by everyone who studies poverty. It helped reduce the idea that poor women who received welfare had been lazy or passive, as Edin described just how hard women had to work to survive when the welfare benefits they received were insufficient to sustain life.  Back in the 1980s and 1990s part of American political culture and debate was a position that people on welfare were generally lazy, and they remained at home collecting benefits, isolated from mainstream values because they could live well on the welfare benefits they received.  After that book came out and was widely read, fewer of the intellectuals and scholars who sell their services to conservatives were willing to characterize the poor that way, because Edin had demonstrated that such an image of the poor was pure fantasy. Most people today understand more realistically how difficult life is for the poor, and this improved understanding enables these people to defend their minds against the lies and false characterizations of “the poor” offered in films, television, and political debates. At least this happens to some degree.  There has not been a total victory yet.

Other authors and scholars such as Mark Rank, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Elijah Anderson (just to name a few) wrote similar influential books raising awareness of how poor Americans were actually living.  They followed in the tradition of Michael Harrington, Jacob Riis, Jack London, John Steinbeck, Douglas Massey, Jonathan Kozol, and Studs Terkel, who created works of fiction or non-fiction that let America understand the problems of poverty.  By helping Americans understand poverty, these authors outraged the moral conscience of some readers.  Some of those readers were in government, or were going into government.  And so, these descriptive works have shaped how people think about poverty, how people advocate for policy, and how people implement policy.  You and tens of thousands of other persons have read $2 a Day, and most of you are now more likely to agree that we have a moral imperative to provide stable housing to poor persons.  You probably join thousands of other readers in understanding that in many cases the poor would be very glad to work, and are capable of working, but they must have stability in their housing and job opportunities.  When you see politicians with good ideas about ending homelessness or keeping the unemployment rate down below 3%, you can guess that they have read $2 a Day, or someone who advocated with them has read it, or someone who works on their staff has read it, and these people have all been influenced by the stories of Madonna and Jennifer, just as you were. 

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