By Diane Majeske | Photos by Tobi Hollander
This is what it’s like to be incredibly, desperately poor in America today:
- You live in a crowded homeless shelter with nothing but spoiled milk in the fridge. Without a permanent address, potential employers are reluctant to hire you. But you can’t get a permanent address without a job.
- You find a job, and it seems like a pretty good one at first, paying a little above minimum wage. But the shifts are uneven and the working conditions are unsafe, and you start getting sick. But with a job, you can get a housing subsidy, so you need the money. So you keep going to work. Until one day you just can’t. Your hours get cut. Then you get fired. And you have to start all over again.
- As frequently as the law allows, you sell plasma, for around $30 each time. You even take iron pills to make sure you’re not too anemic — and barred from donating. Because that cash makes the difference between eating and going hungry.
These scenarios are true. They’re from $2.00 a Day, Living on Almost Nothing in America (Mariner Books; Reprint edition September 13, 2016) by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. The book was named one of the 100 Notable Books of 2015 by the New York Times Book Review and won the Hillman Prize for Book Journalism, among other awards.
Shaefer is an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He is also the director of Poverty Solutions, a U-M initiative launched in 2016 that focuses on understanding the causes and consequences of poverty and works with both community groups and students.
Shaefer can recite those poverty scenarios by heart. Since the book was published, his life hasn’t been the same.
“It was both the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my work life and the most rewarding,” says Shaefer, who traveled across the country with Edin to speak with families living in extreme poverty to write the book.
“It was hard to hear these stories, but making connections across those barriers was incredibly important to me,” he says. “Meeting those really interesting and loving people enriched my life. We’re still in touch with some; we’ve lost touch with others … but the ones we showed the book to generally appreciated the opportunity to tell their stories. We told them we would tell them in an honest way. We weren’t going to cover anything up, but we would also be respectful and compassionate, and they appreciated that.”
Shaefer, husband to Susie, father to young Bridget and Michael, is soft-spoken and obviously passionate about his cause. He had a slight taste of that life before he began studying it. Born and raised on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, his family was fairly low-income, he says.
“We never had to go to the welfare office; we could go to Grandma and Grandpa,” he recalls. “We were never like the people in the book.”
But he remembers when he was in junior high, his father changed careers and for a few years, money was exceptionally tight. His upbringing affected his view of the world, he says.
“From a very early age, I grew up understanding poverty and disadvantage in the U.S. and wanting to do something about it.”
Lending a helping hand
That dedication became more focused as he grew older. During his undergraduate years at Oberlin College, he served as a relief caseworker, helping low-income residents negotiate with landlords, and working with the city so water and utilities weren’t shut off. He became more involved in advocacy, in helping solve larger issues.
While studying at the University of Chicago, where he received his advanced degrees, he became interested in the more structural issues: welfare and social policies. He began teaching as well as studying the incomes of the poor through the Survey of Income and Program Participation, administered through the U.S. Census Bureau.
In 2011, he met Edin, a long-time researcher of welfare trends, while they were both teaching at Harvard University.
Edin had been doing field work, updating research she’d done a decade prior by interviewing low-income families. She was struck by the fact that so many of them were living on virtually no income, and the lack of cash permeated nearly every aspect of their life. She shared her findings with Shaefer, who found them startling. After all, how could a person live in today’s society with essentially no money?
He began sifting through available sources of nationally representative data.
“When I met Kathryn and she began telling me about these families that were so deeply, deeply poor and lacked access to cash — that’s what propelled us forward on this project,” Shaefer recalls. “It started as a five-page policy brief, then a magazine article, and then a book.”
Together, their extensive research uncovered surprising statistics: As of 2011, 1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2.00 per person per day in any given month.
Think of it this way: that’s about one out of every 25 families with children in America. Poverty is often closer than we think — it could be affecting coworkers, friends, neighbors.
Also, the authors claim, that number has been on the rise since landmark welfare reform legislation was passed in 1996. According to their calculations, as of 2011, the number of families in $2.00-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.
This level of poverty doesn’t discriminate, either, they found. While families headed by single mothers were most at risk of falling into the demographic, more than a third of the households in $2.00-a-day poverty were headed by a married couple. And nearly half of the $2.00-a-day poor were white.
Meeting the disadvantaged
The two set up field sites and traveled throughout the country from 2012 to 2014 finding the faces behind the numbers — in Chicago, Cleveland, the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee, and the Mississippi Delta, historically one of the poorest places in the U.S.
Eight of the 18 families they followed are featured in their book and profiled in detail.
Shaefer didn’t know what he’d find on the journey. He realized afterward, though, he’d held a few preconceived notions.
“I didn’t expect to find so many people who really want to work, and who had such a history of work,” he admits. “I thought they would be more detached from society … then I heard story after story, of, you know, ‘I was working and then this happened, and this happened…’ Working in the office, like I do, with large-scale data, you don’t realize the barriers that families face that are part of the system.”
Many of the profiles in the book are unforgettable, like young Tabitha Hicks, who matter-of-factly explained what it was like to sleep with eight siblings in one bed, when there had been no food in the house for days.
The researchers asked her what it felt like to be that hungry. “Well, actually it feels like you want to be dead,” she told them. “Because it’s peaceful being dead.”
Shaefer’s research changed him, he says; even the simplest of moments became profound.
He recalled one afternoon in Chicago, when he and his then three-year-old daughter met up with several of the women being profiled and their families. All the children began playing together. The odd juxtaposition hit him — how the children were so alike, yet their lives were so different.
“That was a time I’ll never forget,” he says. “They were playing in a park, just kids, but with such very different life trajectories. You know that … but when you see kids just playing with each other, it makes you wonder why. It was incredibly intense for me. From a research standpoint, you learn things from field work that you just can’t learn in your office.”
Since its publication, the book has made quite an impact; both authors have testified in front of House and Senate committees and policy makers continue to debate and discuss solutions.
Shaefer candidly admits that not all responses have been favorable.
“We’ve been incredibly gratified by the reception of the book,” he says. “But we did receive criticism from some conservative think tanks that say our data is too flawed to tell us anything. And if that’s true, we’d have to throw out our case studies and say that OK, we probably found about half a dozen families in the worst shape in the country.”
He stands by their findings and doesn’t mind the critiques. “We only really started receiving criticism when it was clear the book was making an impact,” he says.
As Shaefer has spoken about the book — in the community, around the country, to media — he’s found others who are concerned about the growing rift between haves and have-nots in the U.S., particularly as the political climate is changing.
It’s a difficult situation, he says. The book offers a multi-pronged solution that centers on developing more and better jobs, creating housing opportunities, and designing a social assistance program that could provide a temporary cash cushion in times of crisis.
“I hope our book does something to bring people together,” Shaefer says. “Society is segregated by geography and by income. It’s hard to make policy decisions when we’re so separated like that. I hope people realize that these people are not just numbers. They’re not just problems. They’re people. They want to do well by their kids. In general, they want to work.
“I have people ask what they can do. There’s lots of ways they can help. If they volunteer at a soup kitchen or a kids’ program, I tell them, ‘Try to make a connection — don’t just be a face behind a desk or behind a table. Get out there, talk to people. Share a little bit, learn a little bit. We’ll all be the better for it.’”
Because in the end, it isn’t just about money or jobs, Shaefer says. It’s far more than that. And that’s what the book concludes:
“The ultimate litmus test we endorse for any reform is whether it will serve to integrate the poor — particularly the $2-a-day-poor — into society. It is not enough to provide material relief to those experiencing extreme deprivation. We need to craft solutions that can knit these hard-pressed citizens back into the fabric of their communities and their nation.”