What It's Like to Live On Less Than Two Dollars a Day

Sociologist Kathryn Edin talks about what she learned from spending time with families that live on less than the price of a gallon of milk.
What It's Like to Live On Less Than Two Dollars a Day
Image: Martin Prague / Shutterstock

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.

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.

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.

Is welfare reform the problem?

The welfare reform is a mixed story. It’s not all bad. We did see people go to work, and they got a big enough tax credit that they were no longer poor. But it seemed at least possible that there were groups of people still living off what remained of the safety net, programs like Medicaid and food stamps and the housing subsidy. I imagined this group would be pretty well-supported by social programs, but just lacking cash.

But when we looked at the best government data source available, which is the Survey of Income and Program Participation, we saw a very different reality: a 130 percent rise since 1996 in the number of households living on less than $2 a person per day.

What’s distinctive about this group is not that they’re hopelessly unemployable and need to be taken care of. Among those we met in Chicago and Cleveland, the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, everyone saw themselves as a worker, and virtually everybody had recent work experience. They wanted to give back to society and pay taxes. But they were hanging on to the ragged edge of a very, very badly degraded labor market, and their lives were complicated. When you mix complex lives with a badly degraded labor market, you get a lot of lost jobs. And then there was housing instability, which both deepens and prolongs spells of two-dollar-a-day poverty.

Are the people that you study cut off from institutions like churches?

Yes. It’s very striking. They’re incredibly disconnected from institutions. Only one of our respondents, Paul, goes to church, in this case a fundamentalist sect. This church has just been really fantastic. He tells a story of getting these envelopes on Sunday mornings filled with cash. And I have to say, I didn’t know if I believed him. So I started going to church with him, and I decided I would go until I saw at least two of these envelopes. And sure enough, I did.

It’s very striking. They’re incredibly disconnected from institutions. Only one of our respondents, Paul, goes to church.

I also got to know the brothers he talks about, the ones who will lend him a car, or let him get water from the spigots outside their houses when his water gets shut off. The congregation has supporting this extended family for around eight years now, dating back to when Paul was a young person without a job after his sort of trade disappeared. (He was a repairman at a big department store.) They gave him employment for years doing odd jobs on their construction crews. Without that connection, I don’t know if Paul would have survived. As it is, he’s on the edge. He sends me an email with Bible verses every day. So I always know how he’s feeling.

What is it like for somebody like Paul, living with this little money?

You are completely consumed with the work of survival. With Jennifer, who I met in Chicago, I remember walking with her family in the neighborhood around the shelter. She was literally combing the sidewalk for any sort of pamphlet, be cause she’s extremely adept at finding free stuff they give out in Chicago. She had just taken her kids to see Shakespeare in the Park. She’d gone to a local hospital for a dental fair and gotten her kids free checkups. She figured out every charity that offered school supplies. She found school uniforms through another giveaway.

She used to pick up tin cans and sell them, but that only pays about a dollar an hour. Now she takes surveys online, with the money going to a PayPal account. If you know these surveys, they pay maybe $1.50 or $2 per survey. And she makes just enough cash to get her kids the socks and underwear they need.

She’s in this desperate scramble to find work, pounding the pavement with her badly decayed gums and her broken Medicaid glasses, getting rejection after rejection. It took her 11 months to find a job, the first job we saw her in. And, of course, it was horrible job cleaning foreclosed homes in the Chicago winter. It made her so sick she had to quit.

How do these people manage to be so ingenious and resilient?

There is a lot of ingenuity. Some people have this indomitable spirit, as if nothing can keep them down. But others get visibly worn down. Like Ray from Cleveland: If you go to her neighborhood, there’s a corner store just a couple of blocks from her house. The owner was friend of her father before the father passed away. And he’s got a picture of Ray at 16. You see this gorgeous girl. This is just a few years after her dad had died, and her mother had run off to Tennessee with her lover. She was raising herself in this house with her pit bull, Sweetie.

When we met her at 21, she had already lost all her teeth, because she hadn’t had any dental care since she was 12. She covers her mouth with her hand when she smiles. Now, at 24, she is really, really beaten down. She looks like she’s 35. Her mouth is sunken in around the missing teeth. Her features are sort of constricted. She’s on over a dozen daily medications, probably related to the chronic stress of living under extreme poverty.

I think there is a point when this beats you down to a degree that you might not get out.

What do people eat when they have so little money?

We could have called the book America Runs on Ramen. We saw so much Ramen and so many Ramen recipes. But a diet like that is devoid of vitamins and minerals that are crucial for kids’ physical and mental development.

Almost all of them are essentially homeless, unless they have a housing subsidy of some kind. (About 20 to 25 percent of this extreme poor do.) Otherwise, you’ve doubled up, or you’re in a homeless shelter, or you’re living on the street.

Take Madonna from Chicago…[she] goes into McDonald’s, gets a cup of coffee, and adds enough cream and sugar to make a meal.

So it becomes this chicken-and-egg game. They live precariously, and they eat badly. Kraft macaroni and cheese and Ramen noodles are the two most common staples. I’ve also noticed for a long time how the poor drink coffee. Take Madonna from Chicago: seven creamers and nine sugars. If you go to homeless shelters, you see the same pattern: tons of cream and sugar. This is a meal. Madonna goes into McDonald’s, gets a cup of coffee, and adds enough cream and sugar to make a meal. Almost all these fast food restaurants keep the cream behind the counter, probably to prevent people from drinking their breakfast.

Having witnessed so much suffering, what keeps you going?

You start to feel lucky all the time. At Harvard for eight years, I was around the elite, and I would feel disadvantaged. But if you hang out with the extreme poor, you feel lucky. And “luck” really is the right word, because these bad things can happen to people. You begin to see that. There’s an aspect of “There but for the grace of God go I.”

I don’t know if it’s a coping mechanism or a spirituality, but the poor have a very strong sense of gratitude, like being grateful that you’re living to see another day, or recognizing how much worse things could be. This is a large part of their speech and their stories. They really are very spiritual, although they may not be churched. And they see God intervening in vivid ways. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism. And I guess you could argue that it’s negative to draw the line so low. But it’s really a striking feature of life among the poor.

I also would say that giving a voice to people is very powerful. We read portions of the book to every respondent we could find. In the case of Tabitha, I was worried about how she’d take it, because her story is very personal and really painful. But she said, “I’ve always wanted to write the story of my life. This is a dream come true.” There’s real value in the idea that your invisible suffering can be made visible, and your private pain made public, in a way that doesn’t bring shame.

How has your faith influenced the way you think about issues of poverty?

I came of age in a really good time, I think, for young Christians. Books by Tony Campolo and Ron Sider, along with Catholic writers like Henri Nouwen, were the stuff of my young adulthood.

I kind of thought this concern for the poor was normal. This is what you’re supposed to do, because it’s all over Scripture. And what’s amazed me is how Christian culture has moved away from that. In the academy, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t conceive of a Christian as a bigoted person who hates the poor.

The real way forward is recognizing that what people want most of all is dignity and inclusion. And that can only happen if their lives look like the lives of other Americans. In the American context, to be a worker is to be a citizen.

It’s not just a question of individual charity. It’s really a question of policy. In the old days, you essentially had to trade in your citizenship card to get welfare, and in some ways you still do. And that’s why people don’t go on the rolls. They’re not willing to bear the stigma. They want to be part of the mainstream. They really want to be a part of the rest of us. That’s what we need to aim for.

Americans value work. Welfare recipients value work. Well, let’s expand work opportunity. Let’s think about this in ways that everybody can get on board with. I believe we can find more ways to help the poor without shaming them, ways that help restore their dignity. If we can give them a sense that the little they are able to work earns them a safety net of a kind, that helps in hard times. But it can be perceived as earned. Americans are willing to spend a lot of money on the poor if those policies are in line with their values.

We really do need a safety net. But the real way forward is recognizing that what people want most of all is dignity and inclusion. And that can only happen if their lives look like the lives of other Americans. In the American context, to be a worker is to be a citizen.

December
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Christianity Today
What It's Like to Live On Less Than Two Dollars a Day