A Serious Look at a Serious Problem: Extreme Poverty

H. Luke Shaefer pursues research on America’s poorest people and also advocates for their needs

(This article appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of SSA Magazine.)

How can the US spend so much money fighting poverty and be the wealthiest country in the world, yet still have so many people who are barely surviving?

That is the question that drives H. Luke Shaefer, who has built a career shining a light on those living on society’s margins. Shaefer’s prodigious research has been published in academic journals, in mainstream media, and in his widely-acclaimed book, $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. The research has made him an authority.

Dr. ShaeferShaefer, AM ’05, PhD ’08, Associate Professor of Social Work and Public Policy at the University of Michigan, was the 2016 recipient of the Elizabeth Butler Award, given to a graduate who has shown exceptional promise in the field of social work. The award honors the late Betty Butler, AM ’46, a retired hospital social worker, Assistant Professor, and Life Member of the SSA Visiting Committee.

“I always wanted to do work that helped make life better for economically disadvantaged families experiencing poverty and helped different groups understand each other,” Shaefer explains. “I feel very fortunate to have ended up at SSA, where I could get great training and focus on rigorous research, but also be connected to real things going on.”

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A native of Michigan, Shaefer literally was born into his field of study. While never nearly as desperate as the subjects he profiled, his family constantly struggled, trying to stretch every dollar, he says. “I was just always aware of the differences. Everyone seemed to have bigger houses and more stuff than we did.

After high school, I thought I’d join the military because I assumed we wouldn’t have enough money for me to attend college. Finally, it was my girlfriend, now wife, who convinced me to apply to schools that were a match for my grades.”

Shaefer ended up earning a scholarship to Oberlin College, where he majored in politics. He found the class divide he experienced growing up becoming even more glaring. To help make ends meet, he held a variety of jobs, including managing a warehouse for a local food pantry. When the staff caseworker left unexpectedly, a then 20-year-old Shaefer stepped up to fill the void for about six months. Every day was spent lurching from crisis to crisis, pleading with landlords not to evict clients or negotiating with utility companies to keep on the lights. “That’s when I got interested in the larger safety net and the idea that there were much bigger structural issues at play.”

At SSA, he found his true calling. Associate Professor Julia Henly was Shaefer’s advisor and dissertation chair. She recalled her former student as someone who was always animated by social and economic challenges that demand policy responses.

“He brings to these questions his deep interest in the history of the welfare state, his knowledge of key perspectives from the social sciences, and a strong empirical toolkit,” she explains. “With this understanding, Luke is able to address important policy questions creatively and rigorously with an eye toward finding answers that are relevant and useful to a broad set of stakeholders concerned with improving our social safety net.”

As a student, he immersed himself in the curriculum, completing both degrees in five years, by taking courses that were listed at both the AM and PhD level. His work documented Americans who were supporting families with only part-time jobs, drawing “needed focus on the holes in our system of unemployment insurance,” Henly says.

Both of Shaefer’s field placements were at Work, Welfare & Families, a now-defunct nonprofit, where he facilitated community forums and participated in efforts to raise Illinois’ minimum wage and expand access to health insurance. “Looking back, that experience was invaluable, I got to know a lot of different service providers and models for delivery.”

Sandra Danziger, the Edith A. Lewis Collegiate Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan, met Shaefer while he was still a doctoral student and interviewed him for a faculty position, intrigued by his wide-ranging grasp of hardship.

“Professor Shaefer is making tremendous contributions to social work and social policy research and doing so very early in his career,” Danziger says. She praised him as a “public intellectual committed to translating academic research into policy advocacy, design, and implementation.”

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However, it was $2.00 A Day, which he co-wrote with Kathryn Edin, a Johns Hopkins sociologist, that really attracted a broader audience. The New York Times named it one of the “100 Most Important Books of 2015,” proclaiming that it could “very well change the way we think about extreme poverty in the United States.”

The book grew out of two overarching questions: Are more American families living with little or no cash than ever before? And if families had access to benefits, such as Medicaid and food stamps, did cash matter?

$2 A DayTogether, Shaefer and Edin made a startling discovery: In 2011, approximately 1.5 million households affecting about 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 a day—twice the number of households since the mid-1990s, according to US Census data. Numerous other data sources confirmed this disturbing trend. The downward spiral coincided with the start of welfare reform in 1996, when benefits were tied to strict work requirements. The overhaul succeeded at getting many recipients into the labor force, but those unable to find employment sunk even lower into destitution.

Once the co-authors were able to quantify this burgeoning population, the next step was to learn as much as possible about them. From 2012 to 2014, they recruited research subjects in Chicago, Cleveland, Appalachia, and the Mississippi Delta. They hung out at food pantries and tent cities, slowly gaining trust. They discovered that their subjects would go to great lengths to earn a few dollars—collecting scrap metal and donating at plasma centers.

What had caused the safety net to unravel so quickly? While Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) exacerbated the lack of money, other factors also played a role, such as low-wage jobs and scant affordable housing. Often, but not always, the families they followed received food stamps, Medicaid, and, in a few cases, housing subsidies. But they found this in-kind aid didn’t replace the need for money in 21st Century America.

Based on their research, Shaefer and Edin concluded that cash is still essential and argued in follow up work that a relatively small investment (a monthly check of $250 per child, replacing existing child tax credits and deductions) could keep the poorest of the poor above water. In fact, such cash aid could slash child poverty by 40 percent and deep poverty by half, they found.

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Almost from the beginning, $2 A Day generated buzz. In addition to The New York Times recognition, it received the prestigious Hillman Prize for Book Journalism and was covered by numerous media outlets.

It also brought invitations to the White House and to appear before a Congressional committee. Bringing to light a problem that hadn’t been addressed before exemplifies SSA’s tradition of “action-based scholarship,” says John Tropman, AM ’63, the Henry J. Meyer Collegiate Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan. “It’s what we all aspire to, but very few of us actually do.”

Shaefer had hoped their work would cross over to the mainstream, but the response exceeded his expectations. “There were weeks when I was doing radio interviews every day. It was both wonderful and totally exhausting,” says the selfdescribed introvert.

If there’s one lesson for researchers, it is “the power of human voices,” he says. To measure these vulnerable households, Shaefer delved into years of the US Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, but statistics, he says, can take you only so far.

“When you do research that combines both quantitative analysis with qualitative in-depth stories, you learn a lot that just doesn’t come out in surveys or administrative data.”

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He has lots of advice for prospective students like himself from working-class backgrounds who lack a road map to pursue higher education, including: Be strategic, take classes that excite you, and make steady progress. Seek out exceptional teachers and mentors.

Last fall, Shaefer took on additional leadership responsibilities as director of Poverty Solutions, an ambitious initiative launched at Michigan to explore new models for preventing and reducing indigence.

It’s all a bit heady for someone who thought he’d be living on a pinched livelihood.

“Being a professor researching and teaching about poverty has been an exciting choice for me. And now to be recognized from the place you got trained? There’s nothing better or more meaningful.”

—Bonnie Rubin