In 2011, when Kathy Edin and Luke Shaefer started their work together, “As far as [they] could tell, no one had ever looked to see whether any slice of the American poor fell below the … threshold of $2.00 a day for even part of a year.”  $2.00 per person, per day, in cash income is one of the metrics that the World Bank uses to measure extreme poverty throughout the world. Edin, a professor of Sociology and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, was a field researcher who had interviewed countless families over the last several decades. She hypothesized that, in the U.S., more families than ever were surviving with virtually no income, but her sample wasn’t large enough to be conclusive.
Shaefer, on the other hand, had doubts about the hypothesis. As an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and a research affiliate at the National Poverty Center, he had become an expert on the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). One purpose of the survey, which is administered to tens of thousands of people every year, is to “get the most accurate accounting possible of the incomes of the poor.”
With his expertise, Shaefer was one of the few people in the world with the ability to run the numbers and find the answer to how many people live on only $2.00 a day in the U.S. And the answer turned out to be “staggering,” as Shaefer and Edin describe in their new book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. “In early 2011, 1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month. That’s about one out of every twenty-five families with children in America.”
After reading $2.00 a Day, I ran some numbers on the demographics of the people that Connections serves, wondering how many of them also have no incomes. “Staggering” is a good word to use for what I found. In 2015, 411 people out of 1,007 (41%) came to us for help with no income whatsoever. Most of the people I deal with are acutely aware of the presence of poverty in our community. However, people often assume that most other community members—even the very poor -- have some type of income, through employment, public benefits, or even family members. The data does not support this assumption.
The case managers at Connections are about the only people I’ve talked to who are NOT surprised by this. They know that many of those who come to Connections have lost virtually everything. They know that people without income are very resourceful in figuring out how to survive, and that many do this for a very long time. And while they know that income is the first step to getting housing, they also know that gaining income is very difficult when you don’t have anything—especially housing. Our case managers know the steps to help people with no income move towards stability, but they also see, first-hand, how low-wage jobs, unaffordable housing, and public policy decisions that shut out the poor can make taking these steps next to impossible.
To explore the issue of extreme poverty further, Connections has engaged Luke Shaefer, one of the $2.00 a Day authors, to speak at INSPIRE, our annual fall luncheon, on September 27. We will be providing more information, including discussions of some of the book’s contents, in the time leading up to the event. We encourage you to get a copy of the book, read it, and join the conversation. And we hope that you will save the date and join us to hear more about the research results from Luke Shaefer himself.
Buy Your Copy at Beck’s and Benefit Connections
Beck’s Book Store has copies of $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America available for $28 at 716 Clark St. in Evanston. They will be donating 20% of the book's sales to Connections and will also be selling the book at our event on September 27. Many thanks to Beck’s for their generosity!
 All quotes taken from $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, Kathryn J. Edin & H. Luke Shaefer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.