When sociologist Kathryn Edin walks into a room, her mental calculator begins its tallies. How many people are here, and how do they make ends meet? Her calculator has been running since she and Laura Lein wrote their revelatory book Making Ends Meet nearly 18 years ago. When you have less money coming in than you need, what do you do?
In 2010, Edin was interviewing a new mom by the name of Ashley in Baltimore’s LaTrobe Homes, a group of public housing projects on the city’s eastside. There was no baby formula in the house, virtually no furniture, and Ashley was definitely depressed. Edin kept asking her questions about her day-to-day routines, how she got things done, and whether she was receiving food stamps (she was not). That’s when the realization struck: this was a situation unlike others Edin had seen over the years; Ashley had virtually no cash coming in.
A year later, Edin started talking to sociologist Luke Shaefer, who teaches at the University of Michigan but was a visiting scholar at the Kennedy School of Government where Edin was teaching. Shaefer happens to be an expert on a vast survey administered by the U.S. Census that asks how a nationally representative group of people corral their incomes from a variety of sources: gifts from family and friends, odd jobs, part-time work, regular paychecks, you name it.