Kathryn Edin’s newest book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, has been praised in the New York Times Book Review, at the Huffington Post, and at Vox.com. Co-authored with H. Luke Shaefer, it is Edin’s fourth book-length exploration of the lives of victimized populations: welfare recipients, single mothers, absent fathers, and now those living in extreme poverty. Unfortunately, as in her previous books, here she uses selective evidence and uncritical testimonies to shape a predetermined, politically driven narrative.
Building on a research paper they published in 2013, Edin and Shaefer claim that extreme poverty has increased as a result of the welfare-reform legislation signed by Bill Clinton in 1996. Their claim, however, is based on an extreme poverty threshold, $2 a day, that is less than one quarter the “deep poverty” threshold used by the Census Bureau and most economists, including those at the liberal Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty. Among the most vulnerable population, never-married single mothers, deep poverty decreased dramatically between 1996 and 2000, from 35.3 percent to 23.4 percent. Though it increased moderately for this group during the subsequent economic slowdown, deep poverty was still less prevalent in 2007 than in 1996. This evidence brings into question the claims that welfare reform exacerbated extreme poverty.
In $2.00 a Day, Edin and Shaefer choose to take family-supplied income data at face value. This is odd, because Edin’s first book, Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work (1997), makes clear that, to a serious degree, the poor report their income to be lower than it is. For her second book, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage (2007), Edin interviewed women during the era of welfare reform. The vast majority of her subjects were neither on welfare nor significantly employed, meaning that many of them would presumably fall under the extreme-poverty threshold used in $2.00 a Day. Yet nowhere in Promises do these women complain about experiencing material deprivation themselves, or watching their children experience it.
Evidence from single mothers like the ones Edin interviewed has led many observers to conclude that consumption surveys rather than reported income should be used to determine material well-being. The Congressional Research Service found that consumption expenditures by the poorest single mothers increased 18 percent between 1994 and 1997, just when Edin was doing her interviews for Promises. In assessing the disparity between income and consumption changes among the poorest single mothers, Bruce Meyer and James Sullivan of the Brookings Institution found that “consumption is probably measured with less error than income for poor families,” given that “there is overwhelming evidence that income is underreported by these mothers.”
Willingness to take victimized groups at their word has been a hallmark of Edin’s research.
Unfortunately, this willingness to take victimized groups at their word has been a hallmark of Edin’s research. In Promises she reported single mothers’ child-rearing practices in terms of the idealized vision that the mothers articulated. She never bothered to compare that vision to the numerous studies that researchers had conducted on actual childrearing practices. In Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City (2013), Edin’s book on absent fathers, Edin reported uncritically the statements of poor men on their attitudes toward fatherhood.
Most shocking, Edin in Doing the Best I Can accepted the statements of these men that they were loving fathers but were kicked out by the mothers of their children solely because they were unable to earn a decent wage. This, of course, stood in total contradiction to the reasons given by the mothers in Promises and, indeed, to some of the evidence from the Fragile Families studies that Edin reported elsewhere. It is also contradicted by the evidence I previously reported of widespread abandonment by absent fathers and substantial maltreatment by men toward children they had not fathered.
It is also troubling how Edin has failed to explain these contradictions. After the release of Doing the Best I Can, she wrote:
As the author of two books about low-income single mothers, . . . I thought I had learned everything there was to know about these men from the moms. . . . In 2008, even presidential candidate Barack Obama called them out, saying they had better stop acting like boys and have the courage to raise a child not just create one. . . . We were all dead wrong — me, the country, and even Barack Obama.
But Edin knew of this contradiction well before she published Promises in 2005. Most of the father interviews had already been conducted. Indeed, in 2000, in language that would be replicated in Doing the Best I Can, her research team reported on the importance that children had in these men’s lives: “Once you have children, then you got to live for them. It ain’t just about you no more, it’s about them.”
That same year, Edin also published some of the findings from her mother interviews. She wrote: “Many women say they regard men simply as ‘children; ‘no good,’ or ‘low-down dirty dogs.’ Women tend to believe . . . that the men will not (or cannot, in some women’s words) be sexually faithful.” Reflecting the high incarceration rates, one black respondent told Edin, “There’s a shortage of men so that they think, ‘I can have more than one woman . . . and I am going to have two or three of them.” Edin pointed to their irresponsibility, quoting one respondent who recalled how her child’s father spent their “son’s Pamper money on partying.”
These 2000 publications indicated one of the problems that Edin would face: What to do when fathers and mothers give different narratives of the fathers’ behavior and the reasons for breakups? Even though some of the men in Doing the Best I Can were likely to have fathered children with the same women she interviewed for Promises, Edin and her co-authors chose not to make any comparisons. In addition, in questions 14–18 in Promises, mothers were asked to document the efforts of the fathers. These mothers’ answers found their way into Edin’s 2000 article but not into Promises.
While Edin’s goals are praiseworthy, her approach is faulty. It is important to give voice to groups that are often disparaged and whose grievances are dismissed. However, we should not take unsubstantiated claims at face value, particularly when they are contradicted by compelling evidence or the testimony of other victimized groups. Her research shortcomings verify the problems that occur when we are governed by our hearts.