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QEDaily: Here's How the Poor Really Live

Getty: Spencer Platt

The Pew Research Center on Thursday released a massive report about public opinion. One finding jumped out immediately. Pew had asked respondents about the poor—whether “they have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough,” or if “they have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything.” Opinion overall was split, but, as my colleague Danny Vinik noted, it wasn’t evenly distributed. The committed liberals in the survey were overwhelmingly likely to say the poor had it tough. The conservatives were just as likely to say they had it easy.

Hardship Rates for Poor and Near-Poor, via CBPP

As it happens, we don’t need a poll to tell us how the poor are doing. We have empirical evidence. It suggests they don’t have it easy at all. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities late last year complied some statistics on people with household incomes below the poverty line, which today would be a little less than $20,000 a year for a family of three. More than half reported difficulty paying for food, living in overcrowded housing, paying rent or mortgages late, or having utilities cut off. The figures for people with incomes up to twice the poverty line were not that much better. Although statistics like that can inflate the extent of true hardship, the phenomenon is real. Luke Shaefer, from the University of Michigan, and Kathryn Edin, from Johns Hopkins, once did a study of “extreme poverty”—people living on less than $2 a day. In early 2011, when they conducted their study, nearly 3 million children lived in such families.

Sometimes anecdotes convey the reality of these lives better than statistics. You can find them in the works of writers like Katherine Boo and David Shipler, or more recently Monica Potts. (Her story on “the weeklies” living in budget hotels, struggling to keep their kids in school while finding work and places to live, was one of the best pieces I read last year.) The picture that their journalism paints is complicated. It turns out that some poor people have made some really bad choices—they took out loans they couldn’t afford to pay back, they had kids when they were still young teenagers, they got addicted to drugs or mixed up with the wrong people, and so on. It’s these decisions that sometimes make them unsympathetic, and not just to conservatives.

But poor people aren’t the only ones who make these kinds of mistakes. They are, in many cases, the least equipped to recover from them. Particularly if you’ve spent your whole life in an economically depressed environment, chances are good you lack the resources—financial, social, or even emotional—to deal with setbacks like an accident or illness, a lost job, or a foolish financial decision. You’ll need help. And without a government safety net, you’re less likely to get it.

Worth reading:

ECONOMY: As Millennials become a larger part of the economy, they're going to have a big impact on the housing market. Emily Badger at Wonkblog explains what to expect.

PUBLIC HEALTH: It's the end of the line for New York's big soda ban, because an appeals court refused to reinstate it.

WORK AND FAMILY: Will Monday’s summit on work and family lead to actual policy changes? Writers at the Nation’s new blog, “The Curve,” don’t seem optimistic.

Obamacare can’t win. The law is causing health care spending to skyrocket—no, wait, it’s causing spending to plummet. Jonathan Chait would really appreciate if the Wall Street Journal editorial page would make up its mind. Relatedly, Greg Sargent is getting ready for the next Obamacare freakout.

How to win the war on poverty: Dylan Matthews at Vox highlights yet another study suggesting that simply giving poor people money is the easiest, most efficient way to help them.

Stories we are watching today: Nothing, really. Maybe the news will surprise us.

Now at QED: We have maps that break down the HIV epidemic, census tract by census tract, plus an animation of what environmental progress looks like.