Living on $2.00 a day may sound difficult, but it’s a reality for many Americans.

Kathryn Edin, a professor of sociology and public health at Johns Hopkins University, and H. Luke Shaefer, a public policy and social work professor at the University, discussed their recently released book, “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.”

The event was hosted by the Ford School of Public Policy and co-sponsored by the National Poverty Center and the University’s School of Social Work.

Public Policy Dean Susan Collins introduced the authors, noting that poverty in the United States is increasing. She said the current number of people living below the federal poverty line, which is set at $24,250 for a family of four, is striking and warrants attention.

Edin described how she became interested in families who live essentially without cash when she visited a woman at home named Ashley during the course of another research project. Ashley had recently given birth, and was visibly unkempt, depressed and struggling to physically hold her child.

At the end of the interview, Edin paid Ashley the required agreed-upon $50 for her participation in Edin’s research study, and returned to Ashley’s home the next day to find her transformed. Ashley had gotten her hair styled, was wearing a new pantsuit and was on the way to a job interview. Edin wondered about the major difference the cash infusion had caused, which ultimately inspired her book.

“What was it about the cash that was so special?” Edin asked. “If it was true that there was a whole group of people living without cash since welfare reform, what did that look like and what were the implications for the well-being of families and children?”

Using data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, a household-based survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, Edin and Shaefer found that in 2011 there were 1.5 million households — which included 3 million children — living on $2 a day.

Edin and Shaefer chose to investigate the $2 mark specifically because the World Bank defines moderate poverty worldwide as surviving on less than two U.S. dollars per day.

For “$2.00 a Day,” Edin and Shaefer conducted research in Chicago, the Mississippi Delta, Cleveland and Tennessee. Edin said they found many impoverished residents did not know about welfare programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or were told by social services that they did not qualify for assistance.

The authors discussed the major welfare reform in 1996 that established TANF and eliminated a previous program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. They cited that in 1994, AFDC served 14.2 million people, but TANF today only serves 4.1 million people.

The authors said this decline in numbers of people receiving government assistance has contributed to the problem, and as a result, those who are extremely impoverished turn to other means of earning money — even repeatedly donating their own blood plasma.

Edin said Jessica Compton, a resident of Johnson City, Tenn., sometimes relies on the $30 she makes from donating plasma despite the negative health effects many repeat donors experience, like exhaustion from low iron levels.

“Plasma sales are so ubiquitous that many people (interviewed) had a little divet in their arm,” Edin said. “(It is) a marker of $2 a day poverty.”

The United States is the only developed country that allows blood plasma donations more than once a week.

The authors also encountered a 15-year-old girl living on $2 a day in Mississippi who resorted to exchanging sex after school with her gym teacher for food.

“We do understand that our book is depressing,” Shaefer said. “So, sorry about that.”

Edin and Shaefer said parents do their best to maintain a sense of dignity for their children, and anti-poverty policies should focus on incorporating the poor and not isolating them.

They also emphasized that many people living in poverty want to work and not rely on welfare programs, saying everyone deserves the opportunity to work.

“This very strong connection to work in part comes from a desire to be a part of a community, to be apart of America,” Edin said.

Sandra Danziger, director of the Michigan Program on Poverty and Social Welfare Policy at the Ford School and professor of social work and public policy, said the topic of “$2.00 a Day” is important for fostering dialogue.  

“As much as the media and information is supposed to be so broad, you can live in this country and have no idea that this is happening,” Danziger said. “I think every college student should have to read it.”

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