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Kathryn Edin on the 25th Anniversary of Making Ends Meet

  • Kathryn Edin
  • June 15 2022
  • PC114-2022

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low Wage Work, by Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein. The book was based on interviews with low-income single moms that took place between the late 1980s and early 1990s. Edin and Lein detailed the women’s household budgets, the strategies they used to support their families, and the unforgiving choice between welfare and low-wage work. In this episode, we hear from Kathryn Edin about what she learned from talking to these mothers and about the changes in U.S. antipoverty policy in the 25 years since Making Ends Meet was published.


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Dave Chancellor [00:00:02] Thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of the book Making Ends Meet How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low Wage Work, which was written by Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein. The book was based on interviews with low income single moms that took place between the late 1980s and early 1990s in four U.S. cities Chicago, Boston, Charleston and San Antonio. Edin and Lein detailed the women’s household budgets and the strategies they used to support their families and the unforgiving choice between welfare and low wage work. It was such a privilege to be able to talk with Professor Kathryn Edin about the book and the major changes that have taken place in U.S. anti-poverty policy in the 25 years since it’s been published. So when we started talking, I asked Professor Edin what led to this book.

Kathryn Edin [00:01:03] I often tell my students that I spent my twenties following my advisor’s advice. The research took six years. The interviews took six years. And it all started when I was moonlighting in Chicago to subsidize my graduate stipend. I graduated because there are nothing like they are today, and I couldn’t make ends meet. So I took a job teaching a college courses to welfare recipients. And of course, after, you know, this is in North Lawndale, at that time, Chicago’s most challenged neighborhood on the west side. And at the same time, I was teaching a course with my advisor, Christopher Jencks. Very famous poverty scholar wrote the book Inequality and many others. So I would hang out with my students after class and they would tell me all this, all this interesting stuff about poverty. And then I would go and talk to Christopher Jencks about what I was learning. And one day I was in his office and he said, So what are you learning from North Lawndale? And I said, Well. Nothing much, except that no one can live on welfare. You’ve got to cheat to survive. And he paused. Looked at me and he said, Can you prove it? So for the next six years and with the help, I should say, of the Russell Sage Foundation, who sort of took me in and funded this whole crazy endeavor with Laura. Laura and I traveled the country interviewing hundreds of low income single moms, and we talked to them at least two times. So we got to know them pretty well, well enough to ask these nosy questions about about their budgets and about what they really had to do to survive. So that’s what led to the book.

Dave Chancellor [00:03:01] So much of what I read in the book could be written about today. Right? Like the strategies and the challenges that these moms were having to deal with, especially, I mean, like raising children in many ways does not change a lot. But at the same time, I think this book feels like it’s rooted in a very, very particular historical moment. All right. Just before major welfare reform hit and there’s all these things going on, the late eighties and early nineties. Could you help us sort of understand that or how how do you see that?

Kathryn Edin [00:03:30] So welfare really wasn’t an entitlement in the United States in a real way in that the majority of eligibles, a large proportion of eligibles, actually took it up until the seventies. You know, we had all of these ways of keeping people, especially black and brown women, off the rolls. And women who were who were never married. But that really changed in the seventies. And we had this huge increase, mainly because a lot of people who had been eligible hadn’t been getting the benefits. So by the time I started studying, welfare take up was pretty high. Welfare benefits were meager. Only about $400 or $500, less in the South. You know, just just. Just a little over between 100 and $200 in a lot of southern states. But there was sort of a floor, you know, beneath people if you could show that you were needy. They had to give you the money, even if it was only a couple hundred dollars. So that was really different. We don’t have that today except for in the food stamp program, which of course is not cash, it’s not fungible. It can’t be used to pay the light bill or buy your kid a backpack for school. So we had we had that entitlement. We did not yet have the modern EITC that came about in 1993. So just when the interviews were concluded, there was a small EITC but nothing like it is today. So there was very little for the working poor. And, you know, half the moms we interviewed were working poor and they were really struggling, really, really struggling more so than the welfare recipients. Their budget shortfall was greater. So those are two really big differences. The third difference is that the rhetoric around motherhood was really different and it really changed pretty rapidly in the mid 1990s. So the women we talked to were really struggling with whether their work was compromising their kids well-being. Not just the young moms, but the teenage moms. And some of these more challenged neighborhoods across these cities were really worried about their kids and worried about their lack of supervision, especially when they had to work the night shift or the the evening shift and couldn’t be home when their kids were home. So all that has changed, right when we reformed welfare. We got rid of it. And we barely have a cash welfare system today. It is atrophied to an amazing degree. We have the modern EITC, which is… Welfare never got people out of poverty because it didn’t pay enough. The payment standards were unbelievably low. But the EITC is a wage supplement and that does… It’s really changed the portrait fortunes of those low wage workers who are now considerably better off really maybe than they ever have been. And of course, then the third thing that changed is women began to think that work was important to parenthood. Mothers began to tell me over and over again, how can I be a good role model for my kids if I’m not working? I don’t show them the value of education if I’m not working. So. And since then single mothers’ work effort increased dramatically in the 1990s. It declined a little bit with the recession of the early 2000s and has really stayed though at a very high level. They’re the most likely group of mothers in the United States to work. Much more so than than married mothers. So it is it’s a period piece, I would say, in all of those ways.

Dave Chancellor [00:07:37] At the beginning here, you talked about how you went around the country in these four cities, really, and talked to all these mothers. And I think I’ve got a few questions about that process. But in broad strokes, who are they? They’ve all got their own individual stories. And I mean, so many of those appear in the book, I mean, there there’s so much diversity but what are you know, are some of the themes there? And secondly, how did you get connected with them and sort of build these relationships where they were willing to talk to you about their budgets? I mean, you know, I mean, that that’s a that’s an uncomfortable thing for a lot of people, especially those who might not have a lot of trust in. Well, people coming to ask them about their budgets.

Kathryn Edin [00:08:15] You know, I have to really credit those students in my class, four of them. Who are thanked at the beginning of the book. Really acted as my ambassadors in the city of Chicago. They introduced me to people. They taught me how the system really worked as opposed to how it was supposed to work on paper. You know, they showed me where you sell scrap metal or, you know. They really translated they were translators between me and the city of Chicago, where I started the project for my dissertation. And I spent three years with the first 25. We interviewed 379 women, I think, in the end. But for the first 25, we hung out for three years and they took me around Chicago and showed me, you know, they showed me how these survival strategies worked. I began, you know, I’d attend church with them. I meet their relatives and friends. I got very close with a young couple in Cabrini Green, a third generation family there, and their young daughter. So I just became immersed in their lives and began learning, you know, what the shape of that experience was like. At the same time, Laura was actually living in the Alazan Apache Courts, which is the first Texas housing public housing complex with her family. And she’s just an extraordinary is an extraordinary anthropologist of poverty. And so she was kind of doing the same thing, but with Hispanic population and in a completely different context. So it was actually Mary Jo Bain, emeritus at Harvard now, a poverty economist who hooked us up as she had known Laura in grad school and said, you guys have to get together. You’re interested in the same thing.

Dave Chancellor [00:10:35] Earlier you talked about how you stopped into Christopher Jencks’ office and said, I don’t see how these women are getting by. If they’re doing it, that they’re having to cheat.

Kathryn Edin [00:10:44] Yeah. So it was literally my students who said, you can’t live on welfare, you have to cheat. I was merely repeating it. I was not doing any kind of analysis or deep thought. You know, I was like, Oh, that’s what they told me. You know? So it was really Sandy Jencks who made me realize how important that statement was. So it was interesting. I began always by collecting people’s expenditures. You know, it sounds weird, but it can be really, really interesting and engaging to talk about how you get by. You know, when you’re raising a family with children. So we begin there. We begin with with the life history always. And then we begin to talk about, you know, like, so what’s it like, you know, just getting by month to month. And once all of that was tallied. Often in the second interview, I’d say, so how do you make ends meet? And the stories that would come out were just. Remarkable. And it’s interesting, although technically illegal. Right. If if you reported your income to your welfare caseworker, she would take a dollar away for every dollar you learned. That’s still true. So, you know, there was just this the sense that that the state was really making, you know, criminalizing this group of mothers who really wanted to do their best for their kids. But three basic categories of strategies emerged. And by the way, every no one, not even in generous Massachusetts, could make ends meet on their welfare check, except one mother in Boston who what her child did not have a change of clothes and no winter coat. And she was actually… So when I was really cold, he just didn’t go to school. And she was actually in the process of losing custody of that child for neglect. So sort of the the exception that proves the rule that if if you did try to live on your welfare check, you lose your kids to the state because that would be abusive. Yeah. So first you had these work based strategies and this is people, you know, people were the public discourse was denigrating these moms as non workers, you know, the welfare hammock to use Paul Ryan’s term. This is a trope that’s been with us for, you know, 300 years, this idea of malingerers and and shirkers and how the state had to avoid that at all costs. But what we saw was mothers, you know, running their own informal bakeries, doing hair, working under the table. But for short stints at fast food restaurants, just the the amount of work effort and the creativity of the work was quite astonishing. I should say that some of the work was not just under the table, it was illegal, and that is selling sex or drugs. About 9% of the women we talked to said that that was one of the things they had done to to make ends meet. But the rest were very conventional pursuits. So, you know, they were working even though they couldn’t tell us that they were working. And and I remember a very famous poverty expert who I won’t name said, well, if Edin and Lein are right about this under the table work that everybody was working on. Welfare reform is going to work because they know how to work. And he was completely skeptical. He thought, you know, we had we had not been careful in our methods. And, of course. Single mothers once welfare reform hit and this expanded EITC gave them a huge wage subsidy. The calculus changed. Indeed, the vast majority did go to work and remain employed today. So that was the first. The second was private charity. Private charities is the bedrock in some ways of a lot of American communities. We do it in ways that the rest of the rich world doesn’t. The problem is that it’s a drop in the bucket in a sea of need. And so you could make it a full time job just to get, you know, a little bit of a little bit of this and a little bit of that from agencies. And they have all kinds of rules as to how often you can come and how much you can take and all of that. I think there’s also another thing that I saw a lot, and that is that. Unfortunately, in some private charities, there was a lot of judgment. So when you’ve got your $30 bag of groceries, you also got a load of social shame. And I’ve gone around the country talking about that a lot in the 25 years since and really tried to convince people that shaming people is… Is in itself an impediment to mobility from poverty. It affects youth physiologically in ways that are really, really deleterious. So this agency based strategies are vital, but a drop in the bucket, sometimes stigmatizing, sometimes done with love and compassion and real human connection. And the third were really absent dads. And so kin, a little bit, although, you know, a lot of poor folk have poor, poor kin. So there’s not a lot of excess in in the family network. But absent fathers in particular were really involved in supplementing moms’ budgets. And in fact, it was the largest source of supplementation. Many of them were not paying through the formal system. The formal system is extremely punitive. I’ve written a lot about that in the years since. But many of them were making regular cash and in-kind contributions.

Dave Chancellor [00:17:16] I’m going to kind of combine a couple observations here in the book. And one of them you mentioned this story, this metaphor that a mom in Chicago used of this patchwork quilt of sort of this and how she was always having to repair this sort of like run down patchwork quilt. And as part of that patchwork. One of the things you emphasized is that, you know, in all these sort of detailed tables, that you didn’t want people to be misled and think that, oh, these are all just these income streams that people have. But it was changing month to month and and rarely could it be something that could be counted on for very long in many mothers cases. I mean, I just wonder if you could talk about that a little bit more.

Kathryn Edin [00:17:55] Yeah. Well, let’s talk about work first. Let’s say you were working at Popeye’s Chicken. Kind of the the word on the street was that you could work for a quarter. And if you worked more than that, you’re going to get caught and and charged with welfare fraud. So almost endemic to the survival strategy in that case was the short term nature of it all. Also, it’s really easy to get part time work around the holidays. And so we saw a lot of that. You know, Ronnie comes to mind from Charleston, South Carolina. She some months she was able to to sell meals. So she contacts all her friends that she was cooking in. And she would sell meals for three or $5 a plate and people would come by. Another strategy she had was telling her caseworker she didn’t know who the father of her child was. Moms are forced to go through this sort of degradation ritual. And if they don’t name the father, they’re asked a lot about their sex lives and the state does a lot to try to track those guys down. But she had a she had a dad who was really helping and paying and very involved. And she didn’t want him to end up in trouble. So she was quite a quite an actress and recounted the story for us of going into the welfare office. And and this this woman was staring her down, asking her about her sex life. And she’s like, you know, I’m just going to play. I’m just going to play it up. So she says, Oh, I don’t even know who I’ve been having sex with. I’m so ashamed. And she’s getting louder and louder and really into this dramatic performance, you know, and she’s in this cubicle with her caseworker, and then she comes out at the end and she realizes the whole waiting room has been hearing her performance in order to to protect the the father of her child. She also worked bingo night but that was on and off, you know, a local church ran a a bingo game. And sometimes people didn’t show, sometimes it wasn’t on. So she just she was always scrambling to find something. And, you know, from any one of these activities, she was just gleaning, just a small amount of money, but added up over the month. 2/5 of her income. She got 2/5 of her cash income from all of these creative things that she was doing.

Dave Chancellor [00:20:37] I think, you know, one of the sort of myths of welfare dependency, you know, and the book seems to be coming in part response to write is, is that if people just did X or they stopped doing X, that, you know, things would take care of themselves. This is simple. This is not hard. And I mean, I think, you know, this is like 300 pages of like that is not true, you know? But, you know, it does seem like it very painstakingly sort of document all the complexity of these of these women’s lives. And what would you want people who are reading this in 1997 or reading it now? What would you want them to know?

Kathryn Edin [00:21:15] Well, I think first, you know, if anything, it’s gotten harder for the the poor, especially those in the bottom fifth of the income distribution. Right of our safety net since 1996 has shifted dramatically toward the second fifth of the income distribution. Almost all of our cash aid at side of food stamps and Medicaid goes to the second fifth, and that has come at the expense of the bottom fifth. So this goes on. I wrote of our recent book with Luke Shaefer called $2 a Day showing how people survive in a world where welfare is no longer an option. Which is which? It is not. In most communities across America. And we could go into that if you want. But welfare’s basically dead. And because of that, people in the bottom fifth there are worse off than they were before. The struggle continues. The other thing I think to remember is that this situation gets worse every year. So we tend to think of welfare reform as something that happened in 1996. But welfare is being reformed every year because of the way that we reformed it. The block grant system. It’s so, so prone to abuse, you know. And in Mississippi, I think that’s like it takes the cake. Commissioner John Davis was funneling millions of dollars of welfare money through a nonprofit run by a woman named Nancy New. And they were sending pro wrestlers to rehab in Malibu. They were paying Brett Favre for speeches he he never gave. And they were flat out embezzling, according to the charges, which have yet to be adjudicated. Just millions and millions of of dollars meant for Mississippi’s neediest. Meanwhile, Mississippi is rejecting 98% of people who apply for welfare. So variations on this story are going on all over the country. But there’s virtually no oversight. It’s a it’s an incredible temptation for a governor to fund a college tuition. This is Michigan, right? To give college scholarships to middle class kids. That’s a lot more, you know, more popular than bolstering the welfare system. So lots of the money’s gone into child welfare. A lot of the money is gone into state EITCs, which, again, don’t cover the poorest, only the working poor. So it is interesting how profoundly the logic has shifted, right, from ensuring the well-being of children. Which I know has kind of been the logic at least since the New Deal. To punishing parents who don’t work. Or don’t work enough. Almost everybody works. We know that. But they don’t work or they’re not able to work full time, full year. And there’s there’s stiff penalties for that.

Dave Chancellor [00:24:47] You know, we’ve had this movement towards the welfare system being really a tax based system. Talk about how it really works. Not the not the bottom 20%. And you’ve talked a lot about this in your one of your other coauthored books. It’s not like I’m poor. And, you know, so I’m wondering if you can sort of describe that policy picture and also if some of these sort of survival strategies have changed a lot.

Kathryn Edin [00:25:09] Yeah. So. So interesting. One of. So there are a lot of ironies in first of all it’s not like I’m poor its first author is is a University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist Sarah Halpern Meekin and fantastic she does fantastic work.

Dave Chancellor [00:25:28] I talked her about this before we talked.

Kathryn Edin [00:25:33] Yeah so we we looked at, you know, we said, gosh, you know, now the the main welfare system is, you know, earned income tax credit, which again was introduced in its modern form in 1993. Maybe we should study how people what it’s like to get that kind of welfare money. And so we did. We, you know, we parked in front of H&R Block’s and Liberty Tax and had big signboards, you know, $10 for 5 minutes of your time. And we began sampling low income tax filers and we followed them until there for about six months until their EITC was spent. And one cannot imagine how these two different forms of welfare were thought of by recipients. So, you know, welfare is such so shamed in this Boston. One of the neighborhoods we worked in the old welfare office is just this huge, dingy Dickensian building with, you know, mesh metal on the windows and and above the door, it says overseers of the public welfare. And, you know, if you’re walking through those doors, everyone knew. It was like wearing a crown of shame. And mothers talked about that a lot. How? Debilitatingly shameful. It was it was like having to trade your citizenship card for a little bit of money, you know, the pittance the state would give you. So we were stunned when people came out of H&R BLOCK and they had their papers in hand. And we would begin our interviews with them and they would say things like, I feel like a real American. They you know, you get $5,000 a year from welfare. About $5,000 a year from tax credits. And these two forms of cash aid were received in a dramatically different way. It was almost like a crown of citizenship. Now, this association with being a taxpayer, even if you were being paid the minimum wage. So this I thought this was really interesting that, you know, maybe there was a way to recast the safety net in a way that conferred dignity and not shame and was attached to a social identity that people really valued. And so that’s when we began thinking about and writing about the child tax credit. So as you know, the current child tax credit doesn’t cover the poorest American families. And so it really doesn’t aid in reducing child poverty in the way that it should. It’s another program for the second fifth. But, you know, in the last part of last year, we experimented with what it would mean to pay families. All families almost universally to offer them some help because they were doing this really important job for society of raising kids. We can’t get along without parents. Parenting is a very valued social role. And from what we can tell, people really felt that that was a dignified source of of assistance. They felt they’d earned it. They they felt honored as parents. And a lot of their spending reflected that honoring, honoring of parenthood. So, you know, I think that’s a really creative way to avoid avoid some of these… the shame that’s been so long associated with welfare is thinking about programs that are that do the same thing. I mean, if you had two kids, you were getting more in most states than you would have gotten from welfare and your work wouldn’t have been taxed at all. Or your EITC. So it’s an exciting experiment and we’ll see if we have the really the moral will to to bring it back. Well, the thing I wanted to say, though, about tax the tax system. So the reason the tax and I don’t think that the people who designed the EITC thought of it this way. But the reason using the tax system is so magic in a way is that it is this link to this. Americans get their value from their work. Now, is that a good thing? I’m not going to comment on that. But it remains it remains so that Americans get a lot of their value. That may be changing right now within the in the face of the great resignation. And we might be embracing a lot of other ways to gain meaning and identity. And that that is probably really good. But, you know, that’s why I think running programs through the tax system has been effective, at least so far. The bad thing is that. You could think of the EITC as a subsidy for low wage employers rather than a subsidy for families. And we know that employers lower their wages in the face of the EITC. There’s also the fact that many low wage workers work full time shifts and still are collecting food stamps. So a lot of our social welfare programs, because wages are so lower, are really benefiting low wage employers as much as maybe as much as they are families. So that’s that’s the downside of of that.

Dave Chancellor [00:31:41] Because you offered to talk about $2 a day your share for I do have I do have a question in the conclusion to $2 a day you and Shaefer wrote. That factor is not related to the availability of jobs can throw families, especially those with already complicated lives, into disarray, into crisis. And I think that as we sit here in what is probably a fairly tight labor market, you know, wages at some for some of the lower wage labor market have gone up. But but still there are you know, we have been through this pandemic for the last couple of years. And, you know, what do you make of all that and what do you see moving forward here that you think we should be paying attention to?

Kathryn Edin [00:32:24] Yeah. So $2 a day, the data were collected in the, you know, between 2010 and 2014, I guess. And so we’re coming we’re coming out of the recession into right into a pretty good period. But the thing that one of the things we learned is that since welfare has been reformed over the last 25 years, work has become more perilous at the bottom. And we know all of these things have grown. Right. Involuntary part time employment is a huge problem that no politician that I know of is addressing. It is an absolutely huge and fundamental problem. Wage theft has grown. The actual physical dangers one faces at work have increased. You know, Jennifer Hernandez is literally entering her family into a cycle of sickness as she cleans the foreclosed homes on the south side of Chicago in the aftermath of the housing bubble. So these and then the other thing about these jobs is that the employees are treated as replaceable. So we tell the story of Ray McCormick, the sort of the Wal-Mart and two time Wal-Mart employee of the year. She’s a cashier. She’s got a lot of health problems. She keeps a medication and a B in her locker. But she loves working and. Her work is predicated on the cooperation of a whole group of other people who she lives with in an abandoned building on the west side of Cleveland. They’ve kind of jerry rigged the water and the and the electricity in there, and they’ve got space heaters heating the place. And she’s given a significant amount of her wages over to someone who has a truck who can get her to work. And that person uses up all the gas. And she’s left bereft. She’s crying. She calls her manager. Could someone give me a ride or a break? And he’s thinking, here’s this mom. She’s got two kids. She’s got medication in her locker. You know, she’s got every every health problem you can imagine. And now she doesn’t have reliable transportation here. I can get somebody better. So there’s this just this sense that you’re kind of worthless. And I think this is maybe, you know, I don’t really understand I don’t think anyone really understands the the great resignation. But many of these jobs were really bad jobs. They were jobs who did in the middle of the night where no one saw you. But no one can live on $14,000 a year. Let’s stop fooling ourselves. You know, our wage crisis continues. It’ll be very interesting to see how these gains now and in wages in some of our lowest paying sectors. What impact? That has. But what employers seem absolutely unwilling to do is to hire people full time. And of course, that’s about the benefits that usually come with work and their utter resistance to offering their workers those benefits.

Dave Chancellor [00:36:03] Is there anything that you want to leave us with? You’ve been doing this work for for a while now. And and I think we talked about sort of different strands of it. What’s what’s your take away?

Kathryn Edin [00:36:16] Well, you know, child poverty is back up. It’s above what it was in 19 2019. When we hear that statistic, what does that mean? Right. So the poverty level is very, very low. You know, my students every year, they pretend they’re the woman who made the first poverty line, Molly Oshinsky, and they devise a poverty line and it’s always about twice or two and a half times the US poverty line. So the poverty line is really low. What this tells you is that there are families with children who are really, really struggling in almost unimaginable ways. And the country, many of them are working. And in fact about even among the most the poorest families, about 70% have someone who’s in the formal labor market some point of the year. So this is a very working age group. But work is perilous. Personal lives are perilous. Personal lives and perilous work come together in toxic ways that leave people without work. Mental health is challenged. We have a group of. Really, really. Struggling. Parents with children, and many of them are, as I said, working or trying to work. And we make it almost impossible for them to to to get by, much less get ahead. I do think that we are beginning to approach a poverty trap. You know, you begin to compound childhood trauma, neighborhood danger, toxins in the environment, violence, poor schools. Right. All of this all of this accumulates. And so. If we continue down this road. Which we seem to be willing to do for the last 300 years. I think we’re betraying the American dream. We’re telling a whole group of people. You can make it if only you pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And when they try, they’re kicked down.

Dave Chancellor [00:38:52] Thanks again to Professor Kathryn Edin for taking the time to talk with us. This podcast was supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office. Any other agency of the Federal Government or the Institute for Research and Poverty. Music for the episode by Martin de Boer. Thanks for listening. 


Children, Children General, Economic Support, Family & Partnering, Means-Tested Programs, Parenting, Social Insurance Programs


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