More than a million American children live in households surviving on two dollars per person per day in cash.
Think about this. For a single parent and two children, this means no more than $180 dollars per month to cover all the essentials: housing, utilities, transportation, laundry, and absolutely everything else. This family probably receives SNAP (food stamps). But SNAP covers actual food only – not diapers or soap or toilet paper. Their health expenses may be covered by Medicaid. And there is a small chance that they have subsidized housing. But still.
Do you think you could live like this? Here in Washington, DC it costs $2 just to take a bus one way.
Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer’s powerful book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, presents both the data and the very human stories behind this desperate poverty – which has skyrocketed since the “welfare reforms” of the 1990s. While these reforms and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) may have reduced poverty among families able to find steady work, way too many families have been left behind.
Like Matthew Desmond’s brilliant ethnography Evicted, Edin and Shaefer’s book touches on family homelessness. Evicted took us into the world of families doubled up under duress – the most common form of family homelessness. $2.00 a Day takes us into the lives of families in abject poverty – and unsurprisingly, such poverty frequently involves lacking or losing a home of one’s own.
The families profiled by Edin and Shaefer sell homemade goods, recyclables, and blood plasma. They gain and lose jobs. They take advantage of resources offered by charitable organizations. They stay with friends and relatives in overcrowded housing. They spend time in homeless shelters. They barter in creative and sometimes risky ways. And when most desperate, they may take major risks like selling food stamps, sex, or the use of their children’s Social Security numbers.
Despite all this, Edin and Shaefer don’t pine for the days of more widespread cash welfare benefits. When looking for solutions, they emphasize two principles: minimizing stigma and shame for families; and gaining public support by stressing core American values. They discuss subsidized private-sector job creation; WPA-style job creation; raising the minimum wage; and addressing wage theft and just-in-time scheduling. They ask us to consider the contrast between public benefits, which stigmatize, and tax credits, which normalize.
The trouble with American values is that they are sometimes in conflict. Love your neighbor as yourself—and—pull yourself up by your bootstraps. The same week’s news may bring us both discussions of a guaranteed minimum income and proposals for new work requirements in public benefits.
Bottom line: with $2.00 a Day, Edin and Shaefer have made it significantly harder for us to ignore the presence of extreme poverty in our nation. There is no quick fix for this problem. But it’s a crime to look away.