America's Poorest Are Getting Virtually No Assistance

Here’s how this came to be.

People who pay attention to poverty, including the poor themselves, know one thing all too well: Over the past few decades, anti-poverty policy in this country has evolved to be “pro-work.” This means that if you’re a low-income parent who’s well connected to the job market, the government will help you in a variety of ways. But, if you’re disconnected from the job market, public policy won’t help you much at all.

How do people in that second group survive?That’s a question that Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, a sociologist and a social-work professor, answer in their new book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. It is, as the title suggests, a devastating portrait of families struggling to get by on impossibly low incomes.

A few of their strategies: availing themselves of charities and public spaces (like libraries), selling food stamps for cash (illegal, and they typically get just 60 cents on the dollar on the street), relying on relatives (who can be as hurtful as helpful), selling scrap metal or aluminum cans, selling plasma (which involves considerable angst as to whether a person’s blood’s iron levels are sufficiently high, especially difficult around menstruation), receiving some public support (housing vouchers, nutritional support, disability payments), occasionally holding a job, and—the most common strategy of all—just going without.