America is supposed to be the richest nation in the world, right? No way do we have people living in strict poverty, trying to survive on the barest of bones, right? America isn’t some “primitive” third world country, right?
Well, not exactly. In America we have citizens from the largest of metropolises to the most rural of communities struggling to live on a mere two bucks a day. And their lives are fully explained in Kathryn J Edin and H Luke Shaefer’s eye-opening and maddening book $2.00 A Day: Living On Almost Nothing in America.
In the 1990s, politicians, including President Clinton, figured the “War on Poverty” from the 1960s had quite worked out. Far too many families were living on public assistance. Thusly, welfare reform was implemented thrusting many families (often helmed by single mothers) off the welfare rolls. Now, this was deemed a success during the 1990s because of a strong economy and a tight labor market.
But as we know, the economy fell to pieces in 2007/2008, countless people lost their jobs and finding work became hugely difficult. Hence, many people fell into poverty (including those had been living comfortable middle class lives).
But these people weren’t mere statistics we heard about and read about. They were real people living on very little, and using methods, some legal, some not so legal to survive.
In 2012 Edin and Shaefer traveled around the country interviewing various families who were living on very little money. They interviewed families in Chicago, Cleveland and rural areas in the Mississippi Delta. These people’s stories were both unique and similar, and I hope are listened to with an open mind.
Why do we have so many people living on so little? Now part of it is due to the nature of low-wage work, much of it in the service sector. And even in the service sector, many of these jobs have countless applicants. I know this to be a fact; several years ago I applied for a job at a small marketing agency. This agency had over 250 applicants apply for this position. I can only imagine how many applicants apply for positions at much bigger organizations.
And because employers receive so many applications, they can easily move onto another candidate if they can’t reach another. Some of the poor in this book live in homeless shelters and therefore have difficulty being reached by would be employers.
But even those who aren’t in homeless shelters, lived in substandard homes and apartments. Many of the families lived in cramped spaces with many relatives. Some told horror stories of crumbling abodes that slumlord’s ignored. And some even mentioned dealing with various forms of abuse they dealt within their homes
When employed, those profiled spoke of altered schedules (often at the last moment) and employers concerned with the bottom line cutting workers’ hours. Some of these people also worked more than one job, which cut into time they could spend with their families. The poor also had to deal with wage theft and truly awful bosses. And then there were people who had physical and mental issues that made being employed nearly impossible. Some of them were on disability but even disability checks didn’t stretch far.
Many of these people had SNAP (often called food stamps), which was pretty much the only access they had to a public safety net. And many spoke of relying of charity and food pantries. But in rural places, it was difficult to find these places.
So how do these people survive? Selling one’s plasma is a popular tactic, as is selling one’s food stamps. And some mentioned selling sex to make a few bucks to live on.
Many of them live with family members and friends and pooling their various resources. One woman with a car offers her services to help people get around.
And yes, far too many go without. People mentioned skipping meals and not purchasing the basic necessities like buying underwear or having electricity or running water.
But there were places where those profiled could find comfort, libraries being named as one. Some found comfort in their churches or amongst family, friends and their communities. And those who could find good charities, also felt comfort.
Now what can be done? Well, making others aware of these people’s plights is key and this slim volume helps do that. On a personal note, I think it’s important to not see these people as “others” but as our fellow human beings, showing empathy, not scorn. Yes, we could say they shouldn’t have kids if they are so poor and why didn’t they get an education? Sure, but not having children and getting an education is no guarantee that one won’t fall into poverty. Even those of us who “did everything right”-had children when established and in a good relationships, received an education, developed skills and worked hard, may have to worry about falling on hard times. These people are not lazy, most want to work and contribute to society, and $2.00 mentions how both the public and private sectors can do join efforts to make this happen.
$2.00 is an important book at a very crucial time, especially as we get closer to the 2016 Presidential election, and a book I highly recommend.