Two years ago, Harvard professor Kathryn Edin was in Baltimore interviewing public housing residents about how they got by. As a sociologist who had spent a quarter century studying poverty, she was no stranger to the trappings of life on the edge: families doubling or tripling up in apartments, relying on handouts from friends and relatives, selling blood plasma for cash. But as her fieldwork progressed, Edin began to notice a disturbing pattern. "Nobody was working and nobody was getting welfare," she says. Her research subjects were always pretty strapped, but "this was different. These people had nothing coming in."
Edin shared her observations with H. Luke Shaefer, a colleague from the University of Michigan. While the income numbers weren't literally nothing, they were pretty darn close. Families were subsisting on just a few thousand bucks a year. "We pretty much assumed that incomes this low are really, really rare," Shaefer told me. "It hadn't occurred to us to even look."