Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 23, 2016

Living on $2 per day

Filed under: poverty,racism — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

In the latest NY Review of Books, there’s a review of Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer’s “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” by one Christopher Jencks, a name I am familiar with even though I know next to nothing about his ideas or what he stands for. After reading the review titled “Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer”, I decided to have a closer look.

“$2.00 a Day” has been hailed by most reviewers. For example, William Julius Wilson concluded his NY Times review with this:

This essential book is a call to action, and one hopes it will accomplish what Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” achieved in the 1960s — arousing both the nation’s consciousness and conscience about the plight of a growing number of invisible citizens.

Jencks does appear in places to side with the authors, but in a highly qualified way. Last year he wrote an article in the NY Review claiming that “official” poverty statistics were misleading since they neglected to include food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that can yield a refund for the lower-income families that qualify. For Jencks, this has led to “roughly half the families now counted as officially poor” having “a higher standard of living than families with incomes at the poverty line had in 1969.”

But after reading Edin and Shaefer, Jencks is forced to admit that “the poorest of the poor are also worse off today than they were in 1969.” So, what accounts for the discrepancy?

Much of “$2.00 a Day” is devoted to reporting on the problems faced by poor women with children who used to depend on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) that was abolished by President Clinton in 1996 as part of a “welfare reform” that Hillary Clinton supported at the time and still supports.

AFDC was replaced by something called TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) that allowed states to shaft indigent mothers through a variety of methods, especially the right to reallocate TANF funds to financial aid for college students, etc. Many women give up on TANF because the application process is so discouraging, intentionally so. Jencks recounts what one woman had to put up with:

[Modonna] Harris looked for new jobs, without success. After her unemployment benefits ran out, a friend noticed that Harris had no food in her apartment for herself or her child and persuaded her to apply for TANF. The welfare office opened at 8:30 AM, so Harris showed up at 8:00. At least on that particular day, however, there were only enough appointment slots for applicants who had joined the line in the rain outside the welfare office before 7:30. After waiting most of the day, Harris left without having been given a chance to apply, convinced that TANF would never help her.

This is obviously related to the “discouraged workers” syndrome that led many men and women with good jobs all their life to remain permanently unemployed after losing jobs when they were in their fifties. It was just too demoralizing and pointless to apply for positions that they had no chance of nailing down. As it happens, such people are not considered to be unemployed by government agencies.

Jencks ultimately returns to his food stamp/EITC arguments in order to demonstrate that despite all the difficulties, Modonna Harris was not that bad off since the authors leave that out of the equation. There is another criticism I found positively chilling:

Another concern about Edin and Shaefer’s estimates of extreme poverty in $2.00 a Day is that they include families whose income fell below $2 a day per person for even one month. If a single mother loses her job, has no relatives, no close friends, no romantic partner, and no assets she can sell or borrow against, one month without income can be catastrophic now that TANF is so hard to get. However, a single mother who has just lost her job often has some of those assets, as $2.00 a Day shows. When that is the case, her first month without income does not always mean that her family will go hungry, much less that they will all be put out on the street for not paying the rent. The longer she goes without income, however, the more likely she is to exhaust her relatives’ sympathy, her boyfriend’s willingness to bring over pizza for dinner, or the cash she had left from her EITC refund for her work during the previous year. There is no “one-size-fits-all” rule for deciding how long a family can survive without income, but for some, at least, one month need not be disastrous.

I lingered for a minute on this sentence realizing that Jencks was trying to minimize the impact of trying to live on $2 per day for a month. This is a Harvard professor who has no idea what kind of suffering that entails. Plus the business about the “romantic partner” and “her boyfriend’s willingness to bring over pizza for dinner” smacks of the welfare investigator’s mentality that was embodied in the Clinton administration’s “welfare reform”.

Wikipedia indicates that Jencks is hardly the sort of person a “liberal” magazine like the NY Review should be calling upon to review such a book:

Jencks was on the dissertation committee of former member of The Heritage Foundation Jason Richwine, who completed his Ph.D. thesis, “I.Q. and Immigration Policy,” at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Widely discredited for the way it linked race to I.Q. levels, the thesis lost Richwine his job at the Foundation. Asked to pass comment on his involvement in what journalist and historian Jon Wiener calls a “travesty,” Jencks replied “Nope. But thanks for asking.”

The dissertation chair was one George Borjas, a conservative economist who writes about immigration for National Review and The Wall Street Journal according to Wiener but he had trouble understanding why Jencks would vote with Borjas on approving a dissertation whose last sentence was: “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.”

This perplexed Wiener who described Jencks as “a leading figure among liberals who did serious research on inequality—a contributor to The New York Review of Books, the author of important books, including Inequality: Who Gets Ahead?, The Homeless and The Black White Test Score Gap.”

In 2004, Jencks co-authored an article with Scott Winship for Harvard Magazine titled “Understanding Welfare Reform”. ()  Winship was a Harvard grad student when he wrote this neoliberal article but he continued rightward until he finally settled into a position at the toxic Manhattan Institute where he writes articles like “Inequality Does Not Reduce Prosperity”. Nice.

Winship and Jencks argue that the Clinton abolition of AFDC was not so bad because of the provision of food stamps, EITC and Medicaid. In fact, poor people probably benefited from the changes:

Fast-forward to 2002, when the welfare legislation was set to expire. That year the welfare rolls were less than half their size in 1996. Female-headed families with children were less likely to receive welfare benefits than at any point in at least 40 years. The magnitude of the change surpassed everyone’s predictions. Even more remarkably, however, the official poverty rate among female-headed families with children — based on $14,500 for a woman with two children in 2002 — had fallen from 42 percent to 34 percent during this period. At no time between 1959 (when the Census Bureau first began tabulating such data) and 1996 had this figure dropped below 40 percent. Welfare reform is now widely viewed as one of the greatest successes of contemporary social policy. [emphasis added]

I have to give credit to people like Barbara Ehrenreich and Charles Platt who took minimum wage jobs to be able to write about what life is like when you are poor. This is something that Christopher Jencks obviously would never consider. Let him try to live on $2 for “only a month” and see what it is like.

Although I never did this myself, I got insights on what this meant when I worked for the Department of Welfare in Harlem back in 1968. This and the war in Vietnam was enough to turn me into a revolutionary. Here’s an excerpt from my memoir that is covered under fair usage law that covers this shattering experience:

UnrepMarx 1_Page_047 UnrepMarx 1_Page_048 UnrepMarx 1_Page_049 UnrepMarx 1_Page_050


  1. Back in 2008-2009, I took a “sabbatical” on my puny savings to work on some writing projects. With the savings I had, I figured I could survive 6-8 months in a really cheap country. I wanted to spend some living time in Vietnam, and knew a few cities where I could get rooms for $4-5/day, and figured I would need another $3-5 for food, water and other things like the occasional beer and cigarettes; yeah, I know I shouldn’t smoke cuz’ it’s bad for me. But, when you’re hungry all the time, cigarettes are the best appetite suppressants, and cigarettes were cheaper than food.

    I survived on $8-10/day for about ten months (I had to borrow money for the last three); and that is in Vietnam. Most days I only had one meal a day, some days two; never had three meals in one day. I drank lots of water.

    Now … Even if my lodgings were free in Vietnam, I could not survive on $2/day in a country where rent and food prices, at that time, were less than a tenth of the US prices.

    Forget a month! If this Harvard shyster could live on $2/day in the US for two weeks, he might get a glimpse of the enormity of the economic and social violence visited on poor people on an oppressively constant and choking basis, day after day, month after month, year after year, for all their lives. And maybe he would stop publishing lies.

    But of course I know he is absolutely unlikely to stop writing bullshit. I am sure it pays well enough to enable the bullshitter to live in the stratosphere, relative to the poverty line, so that he never has to contend with, nor even touch or see, the reality he writes about. Now, isn’t that the academic world of the ‘social sciences’ for you?

    Comment by Reza — May 24, 2016 @ 2:48 am

  2. Defenses of dissertation are by and large a formality in many academic fields. I have never heard of anybody failing one. In fact, when I was a graduate student at U.Va. back in the late seventies, the really hot job candidates actually boasted about writing cod dissertations. The very eminent Mary Poovey say she wrote hers in six weeks (of course a lengthy bibliography now attests to Ms. Poovey’s unquestionable abilities–whether or not one agrees with her general approach, BTW). People whose dissertation advisers allowed them to complete the work were pretty well assured of passing the defense.

    The work of weeding out was expected to be performed by the principal advisers, who simply withheld approval for disappointing candidates, thus ensuring that a completed dissertation would never be produced in the first place. The Ph.D. orals, which preceded the dissertation, were far more rigorous–and people did in fact fail these with some frequency.

    I believe it is all but unheard of nowadays for the members of a dissertation committee to deny approval of a completed thesis.

    So Jencks may actually have had no sympathy for Richfield, but have felt he had no choice but to approve. He would also feel himself to be under an obligation not to discuss the matter, as all of this stuff is regarded as extremely confidential.

    This is not honest, but, IMHO, is pretty much universally how the academic game is played. It comes under the ironic heading of “professional ethics,” which is pretty similar to “business ethics.”

    An additional factor is that, at Harvard, in particular, “liberals” in the ’80s considered themselves under a heavy sporting obligation to “the intelligent conservative,” before whom in general they felt obliged to bow and scrape as low as possible. Let’s not forget that this was the period during which the deeply reactionary Harvey Mansfield was reaching his apogee and the ideas of Arthur Jensen were gaining widespread currency even among avowed social democrats and liberals.

    Evidence that Jencks actually believes or believed in the then fashionable IQ bullshit would have to come from his own writings (open question).

    As it is, he stands convicted of a failure to speak out, which is bad enough, but a lesser offense than actually being an apologist for racism. One must condemn the academy in general and Harvard in particular for this problem, not just Jencks, who in all likelihood was just helping the train run on time, and would have had to throw himself under it to make it stop.

    Among the surprisingly good points made by Chomsky in his video on the American Dream is that the whole of the nineteen seventies and eighties can be seen as a (successful) attempt to stuff the genie of the nineteen sixties back into its bottle. The virulence of the hatred felt at Harvard in particular for the “little” leftwingers who had actually dared to lay hands on the sacred person of a Dean in 1968 was something that had to be experienced to be believed. This in turn, of course, was a vector for the long-suppressed distaste for the civil rights movement and for people of color, even though this could not be expressed directly.

    This hatred–however dissembled–was IMHO very much in the saddle in academia in the 1980s, and very few of the tenured offered any serious objections.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — May 26, 2016 @ 5:20 pm

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