A pack of gum? A greeting card, if you buy generic? The loose change in your purse?
It’s something else in Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer’s new book: a daily income.
A shockingly large number of people in this country, they write, are living on $2 a day — the World Bank’s definition of global poverty in the developing world. Including people in Chicago. Possibly the ones asking for money outside the Starbucks where I start my day with a grande cup of tea — for $2.71.
Chicago figures prominently in “$2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.” The city has served as an education and laboratory for Edin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who attended North Park University and graduate school at Northwestern University. Her first book looked at how single mothers on welfare in Chicago managed their budgets, and she considers the city a quintessentially American one.
So when she began looking for people experiencing the extreme poverty she had started to see, and that Shaefer confirmed by analyzing Census Bureau data, she came to Chicago to search for people living on $2 or less a day as their entire cash income, counting jobs, money from family or friends — any cash coming in to the household.
She found lots of them here. Easily.
The book tells some of their stories. The mother and teenage daughter bouncing between shelters and desperate attempts to find a job. The family crammed with relatives into a rundown house where the only food in the refrigerator is a few bottles of baby formula.
Edin found their stories heartbreaking.
“I’ll never forget, the first time I met with Susan (the mother with the nearly empty refrigerator) … she was describing to me just this unbearable process of trying to find employment,” Edin said by phone. “She would put her head down and just shake with sobs.”
They represent a staggering number of others.
“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,” the authors write. “That’s about one out of every 25 families with children in America.”
And it is a relatively recent phenomenon, they write: “As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.”
“It’s really the combination of the death of welfare and the degradation of work,” Edin said.
In 1996, landmark welfare reform legislation ended the nation’s cash grant program for the poor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The programs that replaced it — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the earned income tax credit — tied benefits to jobs.
Which wasn’t necessarily bad, Edin says. The earned income tax credit has greatly benefited low-income workers, and welfare recipients wanted jobs.
“Getting people to work is a good thing. We don’t quarrel with that,” she said. “But work availability is a huge problem. You can’t have a work-based safety net if you don’t have enough jobs.”
And when the boom times of the 1990s ended, the nation didn’t have enough jobs.
“These people are hanging on to a vestige of work,” she said. “You can’t get enough hours — and you can’t count on the hours you get. Employers are parceling them out, measuring demand. As soon as foot traffic slows, you go home without pay.”
Eventually, you live on $2 a day.
How do they survive? They live in shelters. They comb alleys for scrap metal to sell, though it is low-paying labor. One woman Edin writes about made $10 for 13 hours of work. They eat ramen noodles. They go hungry. Edin met a woman in Chicago who had a strategy if she got a little cash.
“She’ll go to a diner, put 7 creamers and 9 sugars into a cup of coffee, and that’s what she lives on for the day,” she said.
Some sell sex. Some sell blood plasma.
“Many have a little divot inside their elbow that looks like a drug track line from giving plasma so often,” Edin said.
Some illegally sell food stamps, the SNAP benefits claimed by about half of people in $2-a-day poverty. As badly as they need food, they also need underwear for their children.
What they don’t do is get welfare.
“It does exist,” in the form of TANF, Edin said. “It is there. They could, in theory, get it.”
But they have heard that welfare is dead. They don’t know anyone who gets it. Or they may be dissuaded from applying by state employees. States benefit from fewer people getting TANF, Edin said, either by getting grants tied to cutting welfare rolls or by using unspent TANF money on other programs.
The solution, she and Shaefer write, lies in jobs.
They propose subsidized private-sector job creation, public job programs on the scale of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, raising the minimum wage and improving low-wage jobs with guaranteed minimum hours and predictable work schedules.
Meanwhile, their book presents a hard truth — that we share our streets with people living on less every day than what we spend on our morning coffee.
A ChapStick. Scotch tape. A gallon of gas, almost.
We live in the same city, but another world.
©2015 Chicago Tribune
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