There’s no milk in the fridge at Sandra Brown’s home in the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Not much food in the cabinet, aside from Ramen noodles. Were it not for the kindness of Sandra’s great-grandmother, who owns the house, Sandra and her family—her husband, baby daughter, grandmother, step-grandfather, and an uncle—would be living on streets. The Browns, like more than a million American families, live on less than $2 in cash a day.
“Many Americans have spent more than that before they get to work or school in the morning,” write sociologist Kathryn Edin and her co-author, H. Luke Shaefer, in $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. “Yet in 2011, more than 4 percent of all households with children in the world’s wealthiest nation were living in a poverty so deep that most Americans don’t believe it exists in this country.”
Edin, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, first studied the lives of poor families while volunteering at the now-demolished Cabrini-Green housing project as a student at Chicago’s North Park University. She went on to earn a PhD from Northwestern and has spent her career detailing the effects of poverty on family life. $2.00 a Day follows the lives of families who have been left behind by the welfare reform of the 1990s. These are families “caught in an endless cycle of jobs that don’t pay nearly enough and periods of living on virtually no income.” She spoke with former CT senior news editor Bob Smietana last fall.
Why do so many people live on two dollars or less each day?
I wrote my first book on how single mothers make ends meet. I toured the country for six years, interviewing hundreds of single mothers about their budgets. This was right before the Clinton-era welfare reform, and people on welfare generally had about 500 bucks a month.
That wasn’t enough to survive, of course. So you basically had to work under the table to make up the difference. But the importance of that story is in spending so many years asking poor people about their budgets, you get this mental calculator going in the back of your head.
I came to Baltimore in 2010 to lead a research team working with young people who had been born in high-rise public housing, but had moved on to better neighborhoods through a variety of interventions—demolition, voucher programs, and so on. That summer, I came into contact with a lot of really disadvantaged people, more disadvantaged even than the working poor I had been hanging out with.
And I ran into this mother, Ashley, who still lived in one of the units that had not been demolished. Walking into her home, you knew something was wrong. She just looked depressed. She was visibly unkempt. She had a two-week-old baby, and she was not supporting the baby’s head properly as she rocked her. Which is really scary. No food in the house, and, more worryingly, no formula. And it turned out that she had absolutely no cash coming in, nor did anyone else in the household. They had a housing subsidy. She hadn’t yet enrolled in food stamps. There was just nothing, nothing in the house.
I knew enough about welfare reform to know the rolls had gone down dramatically, but no one really knew why. The assumption was that welfare reform had been a success, and people were working. The numbers didn’t quite add up. So I kind of had this in the back of my mind all along. And once I met Ashley, I became actively interested in whether there was a whole new class of poor people that have arisen as an unintended consequence of welfare reform.