How Poor is Poor in America?

Take a moment to think about how much money you spend each day to exist – meaning how much you spend on food, transportation, and a roof over your head. Let’s ignore any extras like student debt or clothes or anything like that. Just think about eating, sleeping, and existing in your physical space. Okay, so what’s that number? I’ll bet it’s a lot more than $2 a day. And yet, the book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America provides ample evidence that there are millions of Americans, particularly children, living in such dire circumstances.

Two dollars a DayLast week, I met Kathy Edin, one of the authors, when she gave a talk about the book and the research behind it (special thanks to the good folks at Water Street Bookstore and the Exeter Congregational Church).  I found her to be a presenter with warmth and compassion. She was smart, articulate, and quick to reference the sources behind her claims. She explained her background in sociology — a doctorate from Northwestern University, years of conducting welfare research and teaching at several prestigious universities (i.e., Harvard, Johns Hopkins, etc.). Her credentials are impressive.

Now, if you are well schooled in the value of education to empower the individual, you might think, “oh, wow, she’s got a great background to understand and delve deep into the complexities of these problems. I guess I should get the book.” But if you are less academically inclined, with a tendency not to take such national policymaking people seriously, you may be thinking, “oh, here’s another ivory tower person who promotes policies that the ordinary citizen like me cannot afford….” Well, I can tell you that she was down to earth, friendly, and forthright, and she was well armed with tons of statistics from legitimate sources.

What I love about the work of researchers like Edin is the use of mixed methods approaches – meaning they use hard facts from large data sets (quantitative data) combined with true stories that convey all the nuances of real people telling us about their lives (qualitative data). You might want to listen to this C-SPAN interview ( in which she describes the book, or perhaps listen to this May 2017 panel discussion on child poverty programs, hosted by the Brookings Institute (

I took notes while she spoke, such as the story about the young couple in rural Tennessee whose only current income of $60 per week (paid in the form of a debit card) is based on the wife’s weekly plasma donations. Can you live on $60 per week? Remember, you have to pay for food, shelter, and any other necessities. You could say, “why don’t they just move to a more convenient location to improve their situation?” Or you could say, “why don’t they just go back to school?” We tend to produce simple answers to complex problems, especially when we’re not the ones in need. Please read the book to gain a deeper understanding of those living in deep poverty in America. (If you’ve stopped a moment to think about the plasma story, you might want to run a Google search for info about the plasma industry… and then you’ll probably start thinking about the cost of plasma therapies, the life saving value of such therapies, and the new medical industry behind it all. Life in the 21st century is such a complex set of interdependencies.)

Perhaps the most compelling finding of Edin and Shaefer’s work is that most folks living in deep poverty actually want to work and want a chance to contribute to their community and to society. When I listen to casual conversations or to the back and forth of politicians and pundits in the media, what I hear is the common myth that “they are all lazy” or “they don’t want to work or “they are all stupid” or other simplistic impressions of those who have the misfortune of being in such situations. Such generalizations don’t help any of us in the long term. Please read the book to gain a deeper awareness.

Another point that was clearly made by Edin in her presentation was the challenges we face as a nation with 15 million children living in poverty. Yes, you read that number right. Here’s the info from the National Center for Child Poverty:

About 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold, a measurement that has been shown to underestimate the needs of families. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 43% of children live in low-income families.

Having worked in the educational arena all my life, I believe so strongly in the power of education to empower the individual and bring their talents and capabilities out. And I know that a child has great difficulty learning anything when they are hungry or are homeless or have a less than ideal situation at home because of all sorts of complicating factors. My guess is that you and I both know how skewed income levels are in our country. So I am left wondering, how can we, as a society, bear such disproportionate distribution of wealth much longer?

Admittedly, this post is about the talk, the book, and my head and heart’s deep concern that we have so many people living all across our country in deep poverty. The practical side of me wants to list a number of bullet points below to help you and me go “fix” it. But society isn’t so easily fixed with a few bullet points. It takes a deeper desire to know and do better on a collective level. At the very least, you might want to take a look at the resources page on the book’s website here:

Two dollars a day. I spend more than that on my morning coffee at the drive-thru.

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