As someone who grew up poor in the West Brighton Projects on Staten Island remember public housing as being a place we were proud to live. The grounds were clean, the elevator was never broken, there was always heat when needed and our apartment was big and perfectly accommodated all of us with three bedrooms. My parents did not have money, but we were able to get what we needed to lead a decent life.
In reading $2 A Day by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer I was appalled at the lack of concern and viciousness towards the poorest populations. The book describes horrific situations such as people selling their plasma twice weekly, over 20 people sleeping and surviving in one small location and selling SNAP benefits, going hungry while facing possible fines of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The authors document incredible stories of determination, entrepreneurship and hard work but due to bureaucracy and political circumstance people living on $2 a day have no support to harness such skills to have what they need to live their lives.
The US Government develops programs and tax breaks that help many constituencies if they have political power. The authors show how both major parties use the issue of poverty as a political football to garner votes and actually at times make the situation worse.
The book lays out some viable solutions and hopefully will open up the conversation to make the issue of poverty the priority it should be.
Howard Edelbaum is active with the New York City Independence Clubs and is an Accounting Consultant.
It’s also the story of Welfare “Reform.” Welfare was a hot-button issue for Bill Clinton’s campaign, Dismantling welfare got him elected.
Jessica Marta is an independent activist with Independent Voting and the New York City Independence Clubs. She lives in Manhattan is an Adult Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner.
This is a rather remarkable little book, evoking a range of strong emotional responses. Kathryn Eden and H. Luke Shaefer help the reader understand the current phenomenon of extreme poverty by describing, throughout the book, the history of government assistance to the poor, starting with some state programs following the Civil War to the federal programs of the Great Depression in the 1940s, to the “War on Poverty” of the 60s and 70s, to efforts to diminish this aid by Reagan, and finally to the “Welfare Reform” of the 90’s under Bill Clinton, who proclaimed the “end of welfare as we know it.”
The meat of the book, though, is the painfully intimate immersion in the day-to-day lives of 8 families struggling to deal with life on $2.00 a day per person poverty in America. It’s a heart-breaking struggle, that alternately made me cry at its impact on the human spirit, or to scream in rage at the heartlessness and inhumanity of our society and government. At a time when I find myself consciously reducing my exposure to daily newscasts or newspapers due to the unremitting barrage of horror and tragedy, not to mention farce, I found it hard at first to get into this book; it is not an easy read. But it is worth it.
It’s the third part of the book that brings to the foreground hope, a way forward. Titled “Conclusion: Where, then, from here?, it reminds me of something my political mentor Fred Newman used to say: the solutions to the world’s problems are not that complex. Looking at the specific actions of our government that precipitated the growth of dire poverty, and taking cues from programs implemented, often poorly or underfunded, or policy proposals overlooked or rejected, Edin proposes a way forward that seems sensible and do-able, humanistic and humane. While it’s only decent to have a safety net program of cash assistance for extreme circumstances, what the poor overwhelmingly want is to be a part of this society, to have the opportunity to be productive of needed goods or services, in jobs with dignity, that relate to them as the deserving human beings they are.
Richard Ronner is a nurse practitioner and a long time independent activist. Richard is from Queens.
I’m so glad that this book is our Politics for the People book club selection. I was lucky enough to have been in the room when Dr. Kathryn Edin spoke at the All Stars Project President’s Roundtable event. The event was hosted by Gabrielle Kurlander, President of the All Stars Project and Dr. Lenora Fulani. I knew then that I would be reading her books and learning more about what Dr. Edin had to say as a poverty researcher.
From that event and from reading the book, I also understand that there is a very real relationship between changing public policy and ordinary people being able to see what the problem is in this case, poverty in order to be able to do something about it. As Americans, we have been taught to only see, believe in, and discuss prosperity and success even when that’s not our life experience.
Edin’s book gives us a vivid up close and personal look at the lives of people living in the dire circumstance of abject poverty. This book teaches some very important history lessons of the welfare system in America. As a young person in my 20s during much of Reagan presidency, I remember hearing without understanding about some of the changes that were being enacted in the welfare system. Being able to read the detail of what was happening then as an adult now really clarifies some things for me including the extent to which we have a system that if one is deemed eligible for relief, that relief is not dispensed without kicking people while they are already down.
I believe as Dr. King said in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize address, that we have the resources to get rid of poverty. And now with Dr. Edin’s powerful book in hand have a new tool to help build and shape the political will that this country has never had to create a new standard of decency where it no longer acceptable to allow millions of Americans to live their whole lives languishing in poverty.
Sheryl Williams is a long time independent activist and works at the All Stars Project.
As we head towards our call with Kathryn Edin, one of the co-authors of $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, I wanted to share an interview Dr. Edin did with Hari Sreenivasan on the PBS Newshour from October 10, 2015.