In the United States, we often talk about poverty as a line: You are above it or below it; you escape it or can’t get out of it. Every year, the government defines that line with a number. Right now, if you’re in a family of four, you’re considered poor if you get by on less than $16.60 per day.
What we tend to ignore, though — and almost never bother to quantify — is the vast spectrum of poverty itself. And that’s why a new book, “$2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, is so eye-opening. It exposes in devastating detail the lives of millions of Americans who aren’t just in poverty, but extreme poverty, the kind you’d normally associate with the developing world. Edin and Shaefer crunched census data and other numbers and calculated that 1.5 million American households are surviving on no more than $2 per day, per person. They also found that the number of households in such straits had doubled in the previous decade and a half.
It’s worth pondering for a moment just how difficult it is to survive on $2 per day. That’s a single gallon of gasoline. Or half a gallon of milk. If you took a D.C. bus this morning, you have 25 cents left for dinner. Among this group in extreme poverty, some get a boost from housing subsidies. Many collect food stamps — an essential part of survival. But so complete is their destitution, they have little means to climb out. (The book described one woman who scored a job interview, couldn’t afford transportation, walked 20 blocks to get there, and showed up looking haggard and drenched in sweat. She didn’t get hired.)
Edin is a professor specializing in poverty at Johns Hopkins University. Shaefer is an associate professor of social work and public policy at the University of Michigan. In several years of research that led to this book, they set up field offices both urban and rural — in Chicago, in Cleveland, in Johnson City, Tenn., in the Mississippi Delta — and tried to document this jarring form of American poverty.