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Disgusting: 7 Million Kids and Mothers Suffer Extreme Poverty in the Richest Country in the World

Despite being the richest country in the world, our poverty rate is one of the highest among highly developed nations.

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Editor's note: This piece is cross-posted at the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Georgetown law professor Peter Edelman, to discuss his decades of anti-poverty work and his new book,  So Rich So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty In America. Peter Edelman was legislative aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and accompanied Kennedy on his 1967 visits to the deep South to understand hunger and poverty in this country and how to fix it. Edelman also served as Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services years later under President Bill Clinton. He resigned this post in protest of Clinton's signing of the welfare reform legislation that converted the federal anti-poverty cash-assistance entitlement into a state block grant program that severely restricted the availability of cash assistance to those in need. [Disclosure: Edelman serves an adviser to the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and sits on the board of one of the project's current funders, the Public Welfare Foundation.]

Karen Dolan: Peter, you tell us in your book that "extreme poverty" in the U.S. is increasing. Can you explain what this means with regard to things like shelter and food and whether it's getting a lot harder to be poor than it was a few decades ago?

Peter Edelman: Extreme poverty means having an income of less than half the poverty line. That's less than $9,000 a year for a family of three. The stunning fact is that in 2010, there were 20.5 million people who had incomes that low. And perhaps even more disturbing -- 6 million people have no income other than food stamps (SNAP). That means an income at one third of the poverty line or less than $6,000 a year for a family of three. You can't live on that.

So, these are people who are really in extreme trouble. In fact, many of them will get out of extreme poverty fairly quickly, and that makes it even more inexcusable not to have a basic safety net for them when their income dips so low. How do they survive? We don't really know. They obviously have to have the support in one way or another of family and friends-- if they have such networks. They sleep on couches, they move around a lot. If they can find casual work to get a little extra money, they do. But they are in a very tough place. The percentage of people in extreme poverty has doubled since 1976, so it is getting worse.

Public benefits, which are not counted in official poverty figures insofar as they’re not paid in cash, make the situation a little better, but not much. The fact that there could be 6 million people who only have food stamps is because of another fact: that welfare --Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) --  is basically unavailable in many states in the country. In Wyoming, for example, 4% of poor children in the entire state -- that's 644 people including the mothers -- receive cash assistance. In 19 states, fewer than 20% of poor children are receiving cash assistance. So that's how you can have 6 million people living only on food stamps. About 7 million of those in extreme poverty are mothers and children. We can only imagine the damage that this does to the children. It really is a crisis, and very few people are aware of it.

KD: Would you say that it is harder to be poor in 2012 than in recent decades?

PE: Insofar as there’s more deep poverty, clearly yes. Overall, I don't know. The cost of shelter has certainly gone up. The shortage of affordable housing has grown quite significantly, so that is one factor that must mean that being in poverty is even tougher now than in the past. If people have work and are parents, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a stronger form of assistance than what was available in the 1980s because it was increased significantly under President Clinton. For those who aren't working -- single mothers and children -- it is harder because of the near disappearance of welfare, of cash assistance. I think overall it is probably harder to be poor.

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