Clear-eyed compassion for the many Americans living on "$2 a Day"

For "Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage," Kathryn J. Edin, with coauthor Maria Kefalas, immersed herself in the lives of Philadelphia-area unwed mothers, exploding myths about their choices. She found that many of these women sought children as a source of love and meaning while disdaining marriage to men unable to provide economic stability.

In her latest book, "$2.00 a Day," she applies the same analytical skills to a harrowing examination of deep poverty in the United States. This time, Edin, professor of sociology and public health at Johns Hopkins University, teams with H. Luke Shaefer, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, to report on both historically destitute regions and those suffering more recent economic decline.

Their research, backed by income data, takes them into the homes of severely cash-deprived families in Chicago, Cleveland, the Mississippi Delta and Johnson City, Tenn. We meet a mother bouncing with her daughter from one homeless shelter to the next, desperate for a minimum-wage job; chronically hungry children who live in cramped, fetid houses often lacking heat, electricity or running water; a woman who sells her blood plasma twice a week to pay the bills; and a 10th-grader who opts to trade sex with a gym teacher for food.