It’s Not Like I’m Poor: How Working Families Make Ends Meet in a Post-Welfare World

by Sarah Halpern-Meekin

Marissa Lopez and her toddler were scraping by on welfare in the late 1990s. Soon after she had her second daughter, she hit Massachusetts’ two-year time limit on welfare receipt. While her mother watched the girls, Marissa combined work and school, earning a certificate as a medical assistant. Now 31 and a single mother of three, Marissa’s hourly wages are decent, but because she’s employed through a temp agency, her earnings can fluctuate drastically. “Sometimes I’m able to get forty hours a week. Other times I’m lucky if I get eight hours a week,” she explains. While Marissa’s eligibility for SNAP benefits can change from month to month as her paycheck rises and falls, and she can’t count on her kids’ fathers to pay child support, there’s one time a year when she knows her finances will improve: tax time

Marissa’s is one of 115 families whose stories are chronicled in our book, It’s Not Like I’m Poor, which details how everyday Americans have gotten by since welfare reform’s sweeping transformation in the 1990s. Via the dramatic expansion of tax credits for low-income workers, the economic fortunes of one group of poor households, the working poor, have been bolstered as never before.

Refundable tax credits support far more families than welfare ever did—with the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) reaching some 26 million households today. This lump sum at tax time gives families the ability to catch up on debts, pay ahead on bills, and make large purchases in ways that are unimaginable at any other time of the year. And there’s a further benefit: while cash welfare stigmatizes and ostracizes its recipients, tax credits create feelings of inclusion and hope for upward mobility. “Hitting the lottery” at tax time doesn’t erase the month-to-month challenges of making ends meet on meager wages; nonetheless, the new welfare system makes the dream of a middle-class life for parents like Marissa feel more tangible.

It’s Not Like I’m Poor: How Working Families Make Ends Meet in a Post-Welfare World, written by Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Kathryn Edin, Laura Tach, and Jennifer Sykes, will release in January 2015 and is now available for pre-order. Sarah Halpern-Meekin is Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.