Adverse Childhood Experiences

Adverse Childhood Experiences

In $2.00 A Day, authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and how they can contribute to and create a reinforcing cycle with poverty and homeless. Citing a study from the late 1990s the authors write, “When … researchers surveyed more than 17,000 people from San Diego – most of whom were middle-class and had gone to college – they found alarmingly high rates of ACE exposure. Sixty-four percent reported at least one adverse childhood experience; more than a third had experienced two or more such events.”
This finding is alarming, and one that I would expect to have either remained constant since the late 1990s or increased. People across the United States, the research suggests, are living with past traumas that they may or may not have fully worked through and processed. The majority of people in the United States have suffered at least one ACE (if you extrapolate to the whole population), and over a third had experienced more than traumatic event as a child. Edin and Shaefer go on to write, “exposure to jut one ACE seems to negatively affect a child’s life chances, but what about the effect of multiple and repeated occurrences? The ACE researchers reported that ACEs were not only unexpectedly common, but their effects were found to be cumulative.”
ACEs negatively impact an individuals life as they grow older. This can be seen in individuals who have trouble managing daily stress, have trouble forming trusting relationships, or in those who develop dangerous addictions. All of these negative consequences can impact the economic, social, physical wellbeing of the individual, and can have impacts of the lives of their family, friends, and communities. As the number of ACEs in an individual’s life increases, the consequences also seem to increase, creating deeper problems.  An individual with relationship and financial problems could find themselves in an insecure living arrangement, and if they have children, that could increase the ACE risk for that child, potentially recreating the cycle.
It is important that we as a society recognize the seriousness of ACEs. Children can hardly be blamed for the situations they find themselves in, but these situations can have life-long impacts on their behaviors, psychologies, and life outcomes for which we may blame them as adults. Failing to truly address ACEs and improve the lives of children by reducing the numbers of ACEs that any child may face, means that we will be living in the ongoing cycle of ACEs leading to worse life outcomes, increasing the chances of more ACEs for children in the future, leading to still more negative life outcomes in an ACE doom loop. Its clear that we cannot put the responsibility on individuals who have faced multiple ACEs to right their lives and stop this cycle on their own. It will take compassion, concern, and effort from those who were lucky enough to grow up without debilitating ACEs to make a difference.


When I was in high school I took a class my senior year that followed the secular personal financial management course from Dave Ramsey. Ramsey provides many practical lessons about money management and financial well-being. One area that he focuses on is how much of your income you should spend on different areas, such as on housing, groceries, and other necessities. Ramsey follows the standard recommendation that you don’t spend more than 30% of your income on housing, a great goal, but one that really isn’t a possibility for many Americans.
Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer examine the high cost of rent and how it impacts the lives of those living in poverty in their book $2.00 A Day, originally published in 2015. “Between 1990 and 2013, rents rose faster than inflation in virtually every region of the country,” the authors write. This has serious impacts for the lives of those living in poverty. One impact discussed by the authors, that I had not considered, was child custody. In some cities and states there are limitations on how many children can share a single room. At a certain point, too many children, especially of mixed gender, are not allowed to share a room and doing so could constitute neglect and lead to parents losing custody of their children.
Edin and Shaefer continue, “between 200 and 2012 alone, rents rose by 6 percent. During that same period, the real income of the middling renter in the United States fell by 13 percent.” While wages had stagnated and real incomes had fallen for lower class workers, rents across the country were rising. The increase in rent was particularly high in large cities where most of the economic output and job creation in the country has taken place. Renters faced a choice, live where rents are cheap, but where there are no jobs, or live where rents are high, and where jobs can be found. Living in a cheap place may mean an unreasonably long and expensive commute, but living where the jobs are might mean sharing a place with non-familial renters and crowding into living conditions that put renters at risk.
I haven’t studied affordable housing, and I don’t know the solution to rising rents for low income individuals and families. But I think it is important to know the statistics shared by Edin and Shaefer. I live in a city where rents and home prices have skyrocketed (Reno, NV). One consequence of the rising rents is an increase in homelessness, particularly in short term homelessness. We all see people on the streets and notice when there are more people on the street, but we don’t always notice the short term homeless. The chronic homeless overshadow what is sometimes a larger, yet less visible form of homelessness. Understanding the rise in rents, the stagnation of income (which we might hopefully be getting out of as we recover from COVID) and the impact on short-term homelessness helps us think more clearly and accurately about the challenges that renters face, and about ways to help those who are unable to keep up with rising rents. It is important that we think about the obvious consequences of increased rents, like homelessness, and also the less obvious consequences, such as families potentially losing custody of their children. As rents have risen, Dave Ramsey’s advice to keep your housing costs below 30% of your income just isn’t possible for many Americans, and the consequences have been dire for many individuals and communities.
When Personal Responsibility Runs Into Trauma

When Personal Responsibility Runs Into Trauma

Recently, my reading and writing has been critical of the idea of personal responsibility. Because we live in a society that is hyper focused on personal responsibility, because we live in an economic system where success is taken a representation of individual characteristics, and because the dominant religious views in our nation have viewed success as rewards for good individual choices and attributes, I find it necessary to push back against that narrative and look for examples of how personal responsibility can be discounted in evaluating the success or failure of another person. Perhaps living in a society that hyper devalued personal responsibility I would feel the need to highlight the role of individual responsibility in our lives, but as things are, it feels important to me is to write about the ways that structural and systemic forces can influence our lives, including the level of personal responsibility we are able to bring to individual situations and circumstances.
Trauma is one of those large structural and systemic forces that should make us re-think personal responsibility. Entrepreneurial autobiographies, self-help books, and even philosophical thinkers (like Ryan Holiday who I really find influential) talk about the importance of being able to overcome obstacles to become successful. However, a failure to adequately address and process trauma, something almost no one can (perhaps no one at all), can do on their own can prevent individuals from being able to overcome even the smallest of obstacles. Trauma can originate from incredibly early on in our lives, at a time when our brains are in their infancy and unable to even remember and recall the trauma. This doesn’t mean that trauma won’t still influence a life for decades to come. There have been lots of studies that look at childhood violence, food scarcity, and other traumatic factors and life outcomes for individuals as adults and found that those who experienced trauma have worse economic outcomes later in life.
This isn’t surprising, but somehow these findings never seem to properly make it into self-help books or our narrative around personal responsibility. Often, if past trauma is addressed in our personal responsibility culture, it is presented as another personal responsibility of the individual facing the trauma to seek out the proper help and therapy to be able to reprogram their mind.
This leaves individuals who have faced trauma in a precarious position. Their trauma is ignored and when it is recognized, it falls back onto the individual to do something to overcome it. Larger structural forces and systems don’t make an effort to understand an individual’s trauma and we don’t have larger systems and structures to provide a robust social support system to encourage and provide therapy to those who need it.
In $2.00 A Day authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer demonstrate how severe the trauma of others can be in shaping their lives and driving them into $2.00 a day poverty. Regarding one individual presented in the book they write, “surviving repeated abandonment by the adults in her life and a nearly constant exposure to danger had left Rae with underlying feelings of rage. Even at the relatively calm Parma store, Rae’s temper could flare up unexpectedly with slight provocation.”
For Rae, past trauma made it almost impossible for her to function in an individualistic and capitalistic society. Our individualism and capitalism has helped propel America to be the richest country on earth and has given us great luxury and has improved our world in many ways, but it has also left those who faced severe trauma, such as repeated abandonment as a child and physical danger, left alone with no appropriate way to cope with routine stresses and anxieties. It is no surprise that Rae had trouble holding a job, trouble connecting with other people to be a stable roommate, and  trouble containing her anger when provoked by rude customers. When living with the kind of trauma of physical abuse and abandonment that Rae experienced, self-preservation required a fierce and powerful reactions to threats, and that mindset could not simply be turned off even if Rae had read the best self-help book on the market.
We need to think of the trauma of others in our daily interactions and judgements of them. The United States does not have ample social support systems such as professional therapists, well trained mentors, or robust family networks for most people to receive the support necessary to overcome severe trauma. It is easy to dismiss someone who seems to act irrationally, as we can imagine Rae often did on the job or in her personal relationships, because we focus so intensely on the individual and personal responsibility. However, if we don’t recognize the role that trauma plays and the importance of social support for individuals who have been traumatized, then we risk pushing people to ruin, to $2.00 a day poverty, and potentially to suicide. It is not unreasonable to argue that our society needs to do more to support these people than say it is their personal responsibility to seek out the help they need on their own.
A Clash Between Personal Responsibility and Structural Forces

A Clash Between Personal Responsibility and Structural Forces

Personal responsibility in the United States is huge. It drives much of how we understand ourselves, others, and our economic and political systems. We believe that the individual has the power to shape their life for the better, to overcome obstacles, and to find success as long as they take the responsibility to do the right things. We reward those who are responsible and succeed and we offer little aid or assistance for those who can’t seem to figure it out on their own.
“Yet laying the blame on a lack of personal responsibility obscures the fact that there are powerful and ever-changing structural forces at play,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. In the United States there is opportunity to achieve the American Dream and to reach for a better life, but there are also challenging factors that limit the opportunities for some while amplifying the opportunities for others. There are real structural forces which limit the opportunities and second chances for some people, and are ignored by those who don’t face such challenges.
Writing specifically about the low-wage job market, Edin and Shaefer continue, “whatever can be said about the characteristics of the people who work low-wage jobs, it is also true that the jobs themselves too often set workers up for failure.”
Edin and Shaefer explore commonalities among low-wage jobs that seem designed to provide marginal benefits to employers by making the jobs themselves more challenging for the employees. Service sector jobs often have unpredictable hours, don’t come with any benefits, don’t include opportunities for promotion, and can be physically demanding without appropriate supplies and materials for employees to complete their work. When low-wage workers are desperate for employment, they cannot complain to any government agencies about unfair or poor working conditions. If the employer is shut down, then they loose their source of income, even if it is dehumanizing. As a result, hard work doesn’t pay in these low-wage jobs. After enough poor experiences where working hard doesn’t help someone get ahead, it is not surprising that many opt out all together or put forward minimal effort when they do get an opportunity.
The larger structural forces, however, often end up being ignored. In the United States we chose just to focus on the individual and their responsibility, blaming them for quitting a job which was designed to make them fail. We blame the individual for not being smart enough, skilled enough, or resilient enough to stick it out and get to a better position after starting at a minimum-wage, dead-end job. Personal responsibility and structural forces clash, but from the outside we are only able to focus on the failures of the individual, giving little thought to the larger forces at play.
Social Construction Framework and the Working Poor

Social Construction Framework & The Working Poor

A framework for understanding public policy that I learned about during my graduate studies at the University of Nevada, Reno is the Social Construction Framework (SCF). The SCF argues that we project social constructions onto groups and that the targets of a policy and the social constructions attached to the targets greatly influence the form of the policy. Some groups, like military veterans, are advantaged in this system while others are seen as deviants, like drug addicts. Policy directed toward an advantaged group tends to be more generous while policy directed toward a deviant group tends to be more punitive in nature.
In exploring the history of welfare in the United States, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day share several quotes from Bill Clinton, whose presidential administration reshaped the welfare system of the 1990s. What the authors present is an administration that is designing policy to aid the poor as we would expect based on the SCF. The category of poor people was split into two distinct sub-categories, the deserving and undeserving poor. The deserving poor were those who worked hard, didn’t take advantage of the system, but had some bad luck and needed help getting by. The underserving poor did not have jobs and didn’t seek out jobs. They may have been drug addicts and may have had other problems that were attributable to poor decision-making or poor character.
In the book they write, “as Clinton was announcing plans to bolster the efforts of the working poor – whom many saw as deserving, but for whom there was little to no aid – he once again borrowed from [Harvard professor David] Ellwood, making the case that the working poor play by the rules but get the shaft. It was time to make work pay.”
Clinton’s policy was designed to help those who were seen as the deserving poor, who would fit a category in the SCF usually named dependents. The working poor are economically and politically weak, and policy which targets them usually provides more positive rhetoric than substantive aid. The underserving poor, the deviants in the SCF, were targeted with policies which took away benefits. Failing to work, testing positive for drug use, or being unable to submit a form, would result in the underserving poor losing their benefits. When we think about social assistance programs we see a lot of policies that can be understood through this SCF lens. We craft policies and narratives based on the social constructions of our target populations, bringing real world outcomes from the fictional narratives and social constructions of our collective minds.
Hating Welfare

Hating Welfare

Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write about David Ellwood, a Harvard Professor who studied welfare during the 1980’s and 90’s. Ellwood studied welfare and found that most welfare recipients used the program as temporary assistance, not as permanent support. His findings contrasted with the popular narrative that welfare made people lazy, dependent, and degenerate, leaving them stuck in the system with no possibility of ever escaping. Ellwood had trouble getting traction with the lessons he learned from his studies and as the authors write, “Ellwood came to a critical realization: Americans didn’t hate the poor as much as they hated welfare.”
Welfare represents the opposite of the American Dream. We believe that anyone can improve their situation in life as long as they are willing to work hard enough, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and apply ingenuity and grit in pursuit of their goals. Welfare says that individuals have no chance of improving their situation on their own, and thus require assistance from the government for basic functioning and survival. The American Dream is individualistic, creative, nimble, and innovative. Welfare is slow, bureaucratic, and lazy. It threatens the American Dream, and is hated by those who pursue the American Dream and by those for whom the American Dream has slipped away.
Edin and Shaefer note that at the time that Ellwood was presenting his research, a time when Ronald Reagan was pursuing a war against poverty and welfare, American opinions captured in surveys showed that the percentage of Americans who thought the country was spending too little on help for the poor rose from 63% to 70%. People wanted to do more to support the poor, but they hated the systems and institutions that existed to provide aid.
This reveals a challenging paradox that our country still has not solved. We all want to pursue the American Dream, but we also still want to be generous and good people. Our highly consumeristic and capitalistic culture tells us that we should constantly be pushing for economic success, that having a big house, numerous cars, and nice things is a reward for our hard work, and that these purchases are socially beneficial because they power the economy to keep everyone advancing along the American Dream. At the same time, we still manage to feel compassion for those who fall on hard times, and we want to have a social system, especially one backed by the government, that helps people when in need. However, we hate the system we have developed for that purpose.
We have developed highly individualistic institutions to support our American Dream and our consumer culture.  We strive to live in the best neighborhood possible, economically segregating ourselves from lower socioeconomic status individuals and families. We push ourselves to constantly work harder, maintaining longer work weeks and hours than most other western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic countries. We spend our time as part of professional organizations more than as part of social missions. Nevertheless, we still want to help the poor who we run away from. We still want government (someone else) to solve the problems of people who fail in our capitalistic society. We want to be generous, but we only invest in the institutions which have furthered our own individualistic paths toward the American Dream, leaving others behind. We don’t have the institutions which would truly help those in need, and we chide the welfare institutions that do help them. This is the paradox we face, and the only way to get out is to find new institutions that allow us to continue to work toward a version of the American Dream while simultaneously being more socially active.
Misperceptions About AFDC

Misperceptions About AFDC

Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was the welfare system in the United States from the 1930’s to 1997 when it was eventually replaced with a new system for welfare. In the book $2.00 A Day authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write about the history and legacy of AFDC to explore how America ended up in a place where so many people in our country still live in a poverty that many don’t believe could exist in the richest nation on earth.
One of the challenges, the authors note, about welfare programs in the United States is that most people have serious misperceptions about how the programs operate and who is being served by the programs. These misperceptions are worsened by our country’s troubled racial history, and narratives about welfare beneficiaries in some instances are more influential in the design and implementation of welfare programs than real facts.
Edin and Shaefer demonstrate that this was true of Ronald Reagan who focused on AFDC and presented a racialized stereotype of welfare beneficiaries. Reagan popularized the narrative of the welfare queen which the authors describe by writing, “she was black, decked out in furs, and riving her Cadillac to the welfare office to pick up her check.” This narrative played on racial stereotypes, fears, and the dehumanization of black and poor people.
Edin and Shaefer continue, “None of these stereotypes even came close to reflecting reality, particularly in regard to race. It was true that as of the late 1960’s and beyond, a disproportionate percentage of blacks participated in AFDC. But there was never a point at which blacks accounted for a majority of recipients. The typical AFDC recipient, even in Reagan’s day, was white.”
The racialized stereotypes were used to justify changes to the welfare system, less generous benefits, and to demonstrate the idea that aid to the needy actually harms them rather than helps them. A narrative that was based more on anecdote and fear than reality shaped public opinion, perception, and policy. Misperceptions about AFDC meant that policymakers and their constituents were focused more on the narrative of welfare and less on the actual needs, systems, structures, and institutions of those living in poverty and ways to help them improve their lives.
Compelling Narratives

Compelling Narratives

“Although there is little evidence to support such a claim, welfare is widely believed to engender dependency,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in $2.00 A Day. People hate welfare and distrust welfare recipients. Part of the reason why is because compelling narratives have been developed and routinely deployed to argue that welfare creates dependence, that it weakens the person receiving aid, and creates a cycle where those who are poor lose skills and work ethic, becoming more dependent on a system of support.
“Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed that welfare is a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit,” write the authors. Rather than viewing welfare as a system that ensures everyone is able to meet their basic needs or as a system that provides a stable foundation for everyone to live a healthy life, welfare is viewed as a system that ruins the lives of those who receive it by draining their motivation to anything productive with their life. In the United States, a country founded on Protestant ideals where hard work is rewarded with divine riches, the idea of welfare runs against the concepts that have fueled capitalism and our independent spirit.
But the narratives around welfare are often little more than narratives. When it comes to government aid and social support, people are more interested in stories than statistics. A single anecdote about a greedy individual is more powerful than research on economic mobility, the long history of racism in the United States, or randomized controlled trials and natural experiments which show the benefits of social support systems. Research shows that economic mobility is not as simple as hard work and pulling oneself up by bootstraps. The long history of racism in America shows how black ghettos were the result of deliberate racist policies designed to hinder the economic and social advancement of black people. And natural experiments from Oregon regarding Medicaid lotteries show that individuals who receive Medicaid experience less stress and are more willing to engage economically when they are not worried about providing for their healthcare. “Sometimes evidence, however,” write Edin and Shaefer, “doesn’t stand a chance against a compelling narrative.”
When it comes to social support, we want to feel as though we are generous and we want to use charity to signal our wealth and success. Welfare provided through the government does not help us achieve these ends. Additionally, in our own narratives we like to tell ourselves that we are hard working, that we overcame obstacles, and that we are making worthwhile sacrifices for the good our families and communities. Providing welfare through the government to anyone who is below an economic threshold accepts that failure is not due to personal work ethic, challenging the idea that our success is purely a result of how hard we work. It acknowledges that racism has played into the economic outcomes (positive and negative) that we see today, it acknowledges that having a stable footing helps people get ahead, diminishing our personal narratives of overcoming obstacles. The narratives around our own success and the failures of others drive our views and opinions of welfare much more than the evidence of how welfare actually works and impacts the lives of those around us. This is true for the every day citizen on the street and many of the presidents and political leaders throughout our country’s history. These narratives also prevent us today from truly moving forward in a way that supports those who are the poorest among us.
The People Don't Know What They Want: Social Support

The People Don’t Know What They Want: Social Support

The General Social Survey (GSS) is a long running survey of Americans that considers numerous factors  and capture’s the country’s general thoughts, feelings, demographics, and experiences regarding a range of issues. Sometimes the GSS is useful in distilling the American will, but sometimes it reveals how confused American’s are and the extent to which we don’t know what we want.
Surveying the public can be notoriously tricky and misleading. When individuals are surveyed about specific clauses of the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare) – for example the requirement that insurances allow young adults to remain covered by their parent’s health insurance until age 26 – people are highly supportive of the policies. However, if you survey Americans about the ACA and  refer to it or any of its policies as Obamacare, then support drops substantially. What people want competes with political identities, and in the end people express a seemingly confused set of political preferences and desires.
The same happens with social support and welfare, as demonstrated by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. The authors write:
“The largest, most representative survey of American attitudes, the General Social Survey, has consistently shown that between 60 and 70 percent of the American public believes that the government is spending too little on assistance for the poor. However, if Americans are asked about programs labeled welfare in particular, their support for assistance drops considerably.”
What the survey shows us is that people don’t understand poverty well, don’t understand social support programs, and don’t understand the role of the government in assisting the poor. The term welfare has been colored to represent lazy people who are taking advantage of the system. People don’t like welfare, even though they like the idea of being charitable and helping those in need. In America, the idea of social support is that it helps someone get back on their feet to provide for themselves, whereas welfare is seen as a system of dependence that devalues the individual receiving the aid and enables laziness and degeneracy.
This idea is supported by the primary way that many American’s prefer social support and charitable actions to be handled – through religious organizations. In my eyes, religious charity seems to have a quid pro quo element, where the individual receiving support is implicitly expected to attend the church or be more deferential to those who give, and donors also expect some sort of Divine reward. There seems to be more acceptance of strings placed on donations through churches, with the idea that it will be support provided based on the standards set by the church community. This can be a way to screen out individuals who use drugs, atheists, and those who are unwilling or unable to receive counseling that aligns with the worldviews of the donors. Welfare, on the other hand, is simply support from a government bureaucracy with seemingly little to push the recipient to change their lives to the standards of the donor.
This seems to me to be why people dislike welfare but support the idea of providing more social support. People don’t really know what they want with social support, but they know they don’t want to see homeless people around and want to look charitable. The result is a distrust of welfare, but a feeling that they and others (possibly through government but possibly through other avenues) should be doing more to provide social support to those in need, especially if that support can shape the needy to fit with the ideals of the person donating money or providing taxes to support the poor.

Paying with Time - $2.00 A Day - Edin & Shaefer - Joe Abittan

Paying with Time

“One way the poor pay for government aid is with their time,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day.  In the United States we are wary of people getting things for nothing. We have a social support system that ensures people are worthy of government aid before they receive any support. We often tie work requirements, job search requirements, and drug screens to government aid, ensuring that people who accept aid are still making efforts to contribute to society. Still, even with these requirements people who don’t receive any government aid (at least not in the form of direct cash or in-kind welfare benefits) dislike the idea that so many people can access government aid for nothing.
However, as the quote from Edin and Shaefer shows, government aid is not really free, and the costs can be significant and even counter productive. On one hand it is understandable that locations to access government aid for things such as food, housing support, or direct cash transfers, would not be located on every street block. It makes sense that service centers would be relatively limited to reduce the government costs for administering programs. However, while this can make fiscal sense for government, it can also be a deliberate strategy to limit the number of people who access welfare benefits and receive services that are available to them on paper. Having a single location that operates standard business hours will necessarily mean that some individuals and families are incapable of accessing aid that is only distributed from that one location. A failure to co-locate aid offices also means that individuals and families may be strained in trying to access the aid that they need. Time can be a limiting factor that prevents people from accessing the aid and services which should help them get to a more stable economic position.
If people are able to make it to the location, aid often comes after lengthy applications, long lines and wait times, and lengthy commutes. Politicians may deliberately design aid programs to have these time costs as a way to reduce fraud and reduce the appeal and dependence on government aid, but for those who need it, it may mean forgoing necessary aid to help get one’s life back on track or to help put food on the table for a hungry family.
Often, the programs that provide aid are intended to temporarily support people until they can provide for themselves. However, if short-term aid is truly needed, to the point where the time costs are necessary to go through, then individuals may not be spending time looking for jobs, addressing child behavior issues, or otherwise using their time in a productive manner. These time costs are real, and can limit people’s opportunities in ways that actually make them more dependent on the governmental aid, and less capable of providing for themselves. The aid that people receive may seem as though it is free, but the time costs need to be considered, especially if programs are unwieldly and actually prevent people who do access them from taking steps to no longer need government aid.