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Making It in America

What it's like to survive on developing-world wages in the developed world.
$2.00 a Day. (Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

$2.00 a Day. (Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America
Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Seventeen dollars per person, per day. That’s the United States government’s official definition of poverty, if you’re living in a family of four. Then there’s deep poverty, a classification for those with just half that amount. As a reference point, the average American spends about $22 a day on food alone.

The groundbreaking sociologist Kathryn J. Edin has studied the daily lives and strategies of people scraping by at these meager levels for decades. In 2010, she returned to the field and was shocked to find signs that an extreme level of poverty—deeper than deep, we might call it—was growing across America. Further research backed up her impression: In 2011, 1.5 million households with children were surviving on no more than $2 per person, per day, an amount so low that no one had ever thought to study it.

This class of dire poverty has grown 150 percent over 15 years. Even when food stamps, tax credits, and housing subsidies are counted as cash, the growth rate still comes out to 50 percent.

Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan, alternate between intimate sketches of life on two bucks a day—hungry, unsafe, precarious, chaotic, demoralizing—and analysis of this troubling trend’s roots in the welfare reforms of the Clinton presidency. The analysis is sharp, and it could hardly be more important. But what sticks are the people. “What does it feel like to be that hungry?” Edin asks one of her subjects. “Well, actually, it feels like you want to be dead,” she responds. “Because it’s peaceful being dead.”


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