Any American family that spends more than 30 percent of its income on housing is considered “cost burdened” by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Cost-of-living data show that such families pay so much for shelter they risk being unable to afford other essential expenses. By this standard, there is no longer any state in America where a family supported by a full-time minimum-wage worker can find a two-bedroom apartment at fair-market rents without becoming cost burdened.
A powerful and disturbing new book by Kathyrn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,’’ profiles eight families for whom the designation “cost burdened” is a dramatic understatement. The people whose stories they relate have lived for extended periods on $2 or less each day per family member, an income level that cannot provide adequate housing, food, clothing, or much of anything.
Edin and Shaefer have not merely cherry-picked the stories of a few individuals in exceptionally dire circumstances; their case studies range from Chicago to Cleveland to rural Mississippi and Tennessee. And they present multiple streams of data to establish that the families they follow are just a fraction of a large, often invisible demographic of the chronically impoverished and underemployed that spans urban and rural regions and includes people of many ethnic backgrounds.
Edin and Shaefer are professors of sociology and public policy, respectively, at Johns Hopkins and the University of Michigan. Together they have decades of experience studying the causes of extreme poverty in America and the efficacy of various proposed and implemented solutions.
The number of welfare recipients over the last two decades has dropped from 14.2 million in 1994 to 3.8 million in 2014. This decline is often cited as evidence of the success of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform, which imposed lifetime limits on aid and added a work requirement. Edin and Schaefer don’t advocate a return to the pre-reform conditions of 1994, but the carefully documented stories in their book show that finding and keeping even a minimum-wage job can be incredibly difficult.
They profile one woman in Chicago who applied for more than 100 jobs over a few months without getting a single response. Numerous studies have shown that applicants with black-sounding names are far less likely to receive job interviews than applicants with white-sounding names, despite having identical resumes. Researchers even found that white applicants with a felony conviction were more likely to get an interview than black applicants with no criminal record.
The working conditions of many minimum-wage positions are abysmal. They point to one woman who eventually found work cleaning abandoned houses in derelict Chicago neighborhoods in the middle of winter; the harsh cleaning solvents caused her skin to blister and peel, and the dank moldy houses gave her a persistent cough. Taking sick days was not an option; her boss threatened to fire her if she missed work.
Her experience was extreme but not unique. They follow another woman who was told she either could work 70-hour weeks as a cleaner at a spa or lose the position. Many low-wage workers face constantly changing shifts each week, with no guaranteed minimum hours or sick days. For parents with limited child-care options or health problems, highly variable and grueling schedules are often impossible to accommodate.
The end result is that many are left only periodically employed. They are then forced to bounce between shelters and the already crowded homes of friends and families, relying on in-kind assistance programs for food that don’t provide enough support to feed an entire family for a month. Certain survival strategies — from selling plasma to plastic bottles to frequenting food pantries — often provide what few resources the families possess.
Edin and Shaefer’s book is an important exposé on what they describe as “a poverty so deep that most Americans don’t believe it even exists.” They conclude with a succinct set of policy suggestions — from raising the minimum wage to creating government-sponsored job programs — that could address some aspects of the predicament. Combating poverty first requires recognizing its ubiquity in the world’s most advanced capitalist economy; “$2.00 a Day’’ makes its scale and human impact undeniably clear.
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.