News and analysis
October 20, 2015

Book Details the Hardships of Living on $2 a Day

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer's new book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America tells the stories of people who live nearly cashless lives.

The World Bank sets the bar of poverty in the developing world at $2 a day per person. In their new book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer introduce readers to people who are living at that level in this country, and their ranks are increasing. About one out of every 25 American families — 1.5 million households, including roughly 3 million children — lives under such conditions, according to Mr. Shaefer’s analysis of Census data.

The book spotlights a number of families living nearly cashless lives, reflecting policy changes that began with the overhaul of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families system in 1996. Ms. Edin, a veteran poverty researcher at Johns Hopkins University, and Mr. Shaefer, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s social-work and public-policy schools, tracked families living on the edge in four places: Chicago, Cleveland, Johnson City, Tenn., and a rural section of the Mississippi Delta.

Charity workers play white knights in some of the tales the authors tell: Employees at a Salvation Army shelter bend the rules to give a traumatized family a private room; a Teach for America volunteer finds a vulnerable student a scholarship to boarding school. But the safety net nonprofits provide is inconsistent and virtually nonexistent in some of the places it’s needed most, the authors write. Mr. Schaefer spoke to The Chronicle about what philanthropy can do to serve the poorest Americans better.

Nonprofits play sometimes downright heroic roles in the stories you tell in your book. But you also point out that charities aren’t always a consistently reliable resource: Shelters have different rules, for instance, or workers might not always be well trained or respectful of clients. Does that inconsistency prevent the social-service safety net from being as strong as it could be?

I think so. We have some examples of charities that were lifesavers. But we also heard examples of places that seem not respectful. I think it’s very easy when you’re deluged with too much work, and you’ve seen bad actors in the past, people who did try to cheat your program, to get to a point where that is the lens through which you see people. It can affect the relationship.

Take the family homeless shelter. You’ve taking a bunch of people, of desperate families, who have really had bad experiences, and putting them all together. And so sometimes these centers don’t feel safe. It’s not necessarily because of the staff.

But especially if you don’t have a sense that the staff is protecting you, that can really cloud how you view what’s being offered.

One of the principles of the solutions you suggest is "parents should be able to raise their children in a place of their own." Are traditional homeless shelters an antiquated idea, especially for families? And should philanthropy be focused on other housing solutions?

I don’t know that I’ve thought of it quite so starkly. But it’s a problematic solution even when administered at its best.

I’d like us to think very creatively in the 21st century about how do we meet housing needs. How can we create a little space that doesn’t make families give up all their autonomy? That doesn’t cluster a bunch of hurting people together?

I don’t know what that looks like, exactly. But it’s something I’d be very excited about thinking about, how we could do that better.

The book highlights the fact that charities are plentiful in some parts of the country but more sparse in places where poverty is most deeply rooted or increasing. What could be done to increase the nonprofit infrastructure in areas that need help the most?

This I think is a primary challenge for the charitable sector going forward. We see that poverty is growing fastest not in the center cities but in the suburbs.

It seemed to me like Chicago was the most resourced [place we studied]. You can see that in the book: Jennifer Hernandez’s kids look really good, and you’d never really know they’ve been surviving on no income for months on end. It’s because there were lots of resources [in Chicago], and Jennifer was also really good at finding them and making the most of them for her kids.

But in Cleveland, we saw maybe a little less resources. In Johnson City, even less. And in the Mississippi Delta, there was nothing. In a lot of the places we went, no food banks, no homeless shelters.

And it’s hard to know how we tackle that. In a lot of these places, there just isn’t the scale. In the Delta, in these towns, there might be only 500 or 1,000 people.

Could we figure out some way to do satellites? I know there’s some charitable services in the bigger cities in those places. [If they could] have a regular presence in a place like Percy [Miss.], I think it could go a long way.

There’s also not a lot of philanthropy in rural areas, in particular. Is this something that foundations need to get more involved in?

I really think so. I had been, like everyone else, focused on urban poverty, but you start to look at a lot of health indicators — look at the counties with the lowest life expectancies — and those are almost all rural counties.

I don’t want to take resources away from urban areas, but [foundations] ought to reconsider how they roll things out in these rural, high-poverty parts of the country.

Cash assistance for the poorest Americans has been much harder to come by since the 1990s. But your book makes a strong case for the need poor households have for cash because of the flexibility it provides. Do you think the nonprofit world can play a role here, or is this something that can only be resolved by changes in government policy?

I think it at least has to be both. It’s not my impression that the charitable sector has the resources to solve this problem on its own.

The reason I think TANF is not even fulfilling its mission is the way the program is funded, through a block grant. It gives incredible flexibility to states for what they use the money for. So it’s created this perverse incentive to keep your cash-assistance caseloads low.

What I’d really like to see is more charitable organizations piloting temporary-cash-assistance programs. [In the book] we have posited a hypothesis: For a lot of our families, if they had been able to access cash quickly, and not necessarily a lot of it, it might have kept their lives from spiraling out of control. What I have in mind is short-term cash-assistance grants that they can access very quickly.

Maybe we should just get rid of TANF and start over. And maybe create something that isn’t so out of line with American values but is also more effective in helping families. And maybe the charitable sector could take the lead in helping us figure out what that is.

If you were to set forth three advocacy priorities for the nonprofit world geared toward alleviating deep poverty in America, what would they be?

We have this overarching principle of social incorporation. I would like people in the nonprofit world to look at every program they have and ask themselves, Is this something that’s going to isolate people? Are they going to feel stigmatized when they come in the door? Or is this going to help them feel more a part of society?

One thing I’d really like to advocate is giving people choices. A lot of times with services, you come in, you get 60 days or you get three bags of groceries or something. Are there ways in which you provide services in which you can give families a choice: You can get this or you can get this or you can get both. Choices are really empowering, and they let people feel that they’re somewhat in control of their life.

The second thing is really employment. We come down on the side of, we need to fight poverty with more jobs. And that really wasn’t where I started. I was sort of a negative income-tax guy: Let’s just give everybody money, bring everybody up to a base level, and not worry about it anymore.

I really think that we want to be in the business of trying to provide opportunity for people to make a contribution to society and have a job. Because that’s sort of a defining characteristic of who people are in the United States.

Are there ways you can actually employ some of your clients? Some organizations already do this. In a lot of cases, if it’s done in a respectful manner, many people would like the opportunity not just to be given things but to earn and to contribute.

And I think the final element is the cash, experimenting and exploring with ways we can get people cash again, so families can have some control over their lives and get themselves out of these types of circumstances.

I think asking people to tell their stories is a socially incorporating process. If you have staff that are, say, asking people to provide a dinner at a soup kitchen, can you encourage your staff or volunteers to get out from behind the counter and go sit with families, to engage them as people, instead of just somebody to be served?

Talk about your kids! The challenges of parenting faced by people getting services are not that different from the challenges of the volunteers. That dignity of human contact can make a big difference.

Send an email to Heather Joslyn.