Living on $2 a day in America

When we first met Ashley, she was 19 and a new mom, living with her mother, brother, uncle and cousin in one of Baltimore's public housing developments. Everyone in the home was out of work; no one was on welfare. The unit was furnished with only a three-legged table propped up against a wall, a ragged couch and one chair. The fridge was empty, the cupboards bare. Visibly depressed, Ashley's hair was unkempt, and she was having difficulty supporting her baby's head as she held her.

Ashley and her relatives were lucky in that the government was at least helping out with a place to live, but they lacked that crucial ingredient for survival in America: cash. This extended family had spent the last few months on cash income so meager that it added up to less than $2 per person per day.

Their story is far from unique. In fact, we estimate that in 2011 there were 1.5 million households with 3 million children scraping by on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person per day, up 130% from 15 years earlier. That's about one of every 25 families with children living in a kind of poverty so deep that most Americans don't think it even exists here.

How do families get by with so little? Noncash benefits like food stamps — now called SNAP — can go only so far. We've found that family members are perpetually at work — although without a job — in efforts to raise enough money to make it through the day.