It is disconcerting in the extreme to acknowledge that America, the consummate success story in the historic struggle of nations, is at once a first, second, and third world country. We often see information about this bizarre paradox. Too often, sources filter the information in ways that leave us perplexed regarding what we can or should do about it, if anything. $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America conveys our reality with penetrating impact.
It doesn’t just tell the story through the lives of real people with whom the authors have shared real time—as boldly crafted as that part of the book is—it does so with breathtaking wisdom. Informative, insightful, authentic, and often moving as well. However, it is the wisdom of its conclusions and the pragmatic good sense of its guidance that distinguishes this book.
Absent insight about the lives of real people who live on the front lines of personal disaster day in and day out, most of us would probably find the exceptional action insights in the last chapter unhinged from reality. It is everything but unhinged. The focus of my commentary is on this part of the brutally honest confrontation with poverty revealed in the previous 156 pages.
A single sentence by the authors captures for me the essence of the book’s common sense. It says, “the primary reason to strive relentlessly for approaches that line up with what most Americans believe is moral and fair is that government programs that are out of synch with these values serve to separate the poor from the rest of society, not integrate them into society.” Yes. Stigma doesn’t work.
We often fail to see complex and unpleasant truths clearly. Why? Because we so often view them through filters instead of prisms. Filters block out light intentionally, just as ideological mind sets block out honest reality and coherent thinking. Prisms, on the other hand, reveal light in its myriad components, revealing clarity impossible to see unaided. This book is a prism.
Would that we could supply prisms to our Legislative and Executive branches (the Judicial is another story) as oaths of office are administered. At least on the issue of poverty in America, we now have a prism with which we can work.
The conventional wisdom is that the poor who barely subsist and often fall below even that miserable metric are a terrible burden to society. Though not directly stated, what I take away from $2.00 A Day is the exact opposite. They are an incredible untapped resource that, if provided with a common sense support system, could not only join society, but significantly enhance it as well. The reality is what it is. How we view it and what we do about it is a matter of choice. Edin and Shaefer offer far better choices than we have seen thus far.
If those who seek to understand the economic, social, and technological trajectory on which our society is now embarked are even in the ball park, how we choose to unfetter this vast human resource can lead the way to the much broader strategy required to head off the massive disconnects we face on a much larger scale. It was one thing to hack off the futures of horse shoers over a hundred years ago as the automobile age hit us full throttle. It is quite something else to contemplate huge swaths of workers across our enterprise sectors finding themselves economic and social salvage.
A great deal is at stake here. This little book vastly outweighs it modest size with the power of its content. So much so, in fact, that I am sending a copy to our two Senators in Arizona, urging them to use their (increasingly) distinctive voices in our current governance wilderness to shape the dialogue on the poverty of our nation in more productive directions.
I cannot end this commentary without expressing my deepest appreciation to Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer for providing such a sorely needed breath of fresh air on a subject suffering so long under stifling ambiguity and distortion. They have given us a tool worth picking up.
Al Bell lives in Peoria, AZ and is an activist with Independent Voters for Arizona.