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the color of money

Shaming the poor ignores the reality of poverty

WASHINGTON — We are heading toward the holiday that encourages gluttony.

Supermarkets are already overstocking their shelves with traditional Thanksgiving food items. But in many homes, there will be people who won’t have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner or a meal at all that day.

Typically at the beginning of the month, I select a personal finance book with wisdom or strategies to help individuals improve their financial situation. This time, I want to take you out of your comfort zone. I’m recommending a book that looks at the deep levels of poverty most of us don’t see.

This year, while you’re shopping for Thanksgiving, or even planning your Black Friday spending spree, pick up “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28) by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. Edin is a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Shaefer is an associate professor at the University of Michigan.

This book asks: “Can you handle the truth?”


Edin and Shaefer set out to learn about the people behind the extreme poverty statistics. They wanted to know:

• What has caused the rise in $2-a-day poverty among households with children?

• Did the landmark welfare reform of 1996 make things worse for the poor?

• What’s the result of a low-wage labor market where people can’t make enough to meet even their most basic of needs?

Sandwiched between historical lessons on welfare and the reform that led to new safety-net programs are the stories of how families live on such a small amount. These profiles illuminate the good and bad public policies on poverty.

The authors interviewed families in Chicago, rural communities in the Mississippi Delta, Cleveland, and Johnson City, Tenn. They spent months and, in some cases, years following the families’ plight.

We’re introduced to Tabitha from the Delta. At 11, she was “small-boned and thin to the point of emaciation.” She was asked what it feels like to be hungry.


“Well, actually, it [feels] like you want to be dead,” she said. “Because it’s peaceful being dead.”

Tabitha said that, in 10th grade, a teacher lured her into an illicit sexual relationship by offering food. What she went through from hungry years to homelessness is heartbreaking.

Contrary to the criticism that the poor are just lazy, Edin and Shaefer found people who don’t want a government handout. They just wanted to work. And many do.

“Yet even when working full time, these jobs often fail to lift a family above the poverty line,” the authors write.

The narratives give context to the complexity of how people end up living on almost nothing. They often come from situations of sexual or physical abuse, addiction, or parental abandonment. And yes, their stories are also rife with bad decisions that keep them down.

Nonetheless, Edin and Shaefer provide a perspective that should stop us from telling poor folks that all they have to do is pull themselves up by their bootstraps. What if you don’t even have a boot?

The solution lies in both public and private intervention, Edin and Shaefer advocate. It requires personal responsibility but also jobs in which people can make a living wage. And we need more affordable housing options.

They ask: “Can our desire for, and sense of, community induce those of us with resources to come alongside the extremely poor among us in a more supportive, and ultimately effective way?”


Michelle Singletary can be reached at michelle.singletary@washpost.com.