Authors of New Book Discuss Deep Poverty in America

September 11, 2015 —

Selling plasma for cash. Collecting rainwater to flush toilets when the water is turned off. Living with relatives in a tiny space. These are some of the ways that those in deep poverty make do, say the authors of the new book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). 

Johns Hopkins University Professor Kathryn Edin, who coauthored the book with University of Michigan Professor Luke Shaefer, revealed that one and a half million households in America live on $2.00 per day per person. In 1996, only 636,000 households lived below this $2 threshold — a shift that the authors attribute to changes in the welfare system in the 1990s. “We’re absolutely heading in the wrong direction,” Shaefer said.

And stories like those of Ashley — living in crowded public housing in Baltimore with broken furniture, no food and no formula for her three-week-old baby  — would indicate that they are not faring well. “If you don’t believe the numbers, all you have to do is turn to the stories of our respondents to understand how thoroughly welfare has died in America,” Edin said.

Edin and Shaefer spoke at a September 9th event here co-sponsored by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Cecilia Muñoz of the White House Domestic Policy Council lent their thoughts on the book. Brown said its stories were what made it “so poignant and compelling.” Muñoz told of the ways the Obama Administration is working to protect and expand Americans’ safety net, noting that veterans’ homelessness has fallen by one third. “The work on homelessness teaches us this bigger lesson, which is that success is possible,” she said. 

Georgetown Law Professor Peter Edelman, faculty director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty, led a panel discussion with the authors and with Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America (Henry Holt, 2001) and Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute.

Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor, who opened the event, said that he hoped the book would “change our understanding of poverty in the United States.” He noted that the Center on Poverty is an important presence at the Law Center — with Edelman leading the fight against social injustice. “The scholarly work we honor today describes a prevalence in our society of deep poverty that is shocking and gut-wrenching,” Treanor said. “It’s a powerful call to action.”

A webcast is available here.

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