Kathryn Edin has spent more than two decades studying poverty and welfare, researching how people on extremely low-incomes manage with few resources, but she confesses to being “stunned” by what she has discovered most recently. After going back into the field in 2010 to follow up on earlier research with very poor people in the US the Johns Hopkins University professor was staggered when interviews with families revealed that the “poorest of the poor” were often surviving with “no visible means of cash income” whatsoever. Family after family was telling Edin that they were frequently completely destitute.
Landmark welfare reforms rolled out under the Clinton administration in the mid-90s all but killed cash welfare payments for the very poorest, Edin says – just two out of every 100 recipients now get any cash benefits. But what her latest research shows is that some of the consequences have been so dire over the longer term that politicians elsewhere, including Britain, should think carefully before following the US approach.