What It's Like to Live On Less Than Two Dollars a Day

Sociologist Kathryn Edin talks about what she learned from spending time with families that live on less than the price of a gallon of milk.

There’s no milk in the fridge at Sandra Brown’s home in the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Not much food in the cabinet, aside from Ramen noodles. Were it not for the kindness of Sandra’s great-grandmother, who owns the house, Sandra and her family—her husband, baby daughter, grandmother, step-grandfather, and an uncle—would be living on streets. The Browns, like more than a million American families, live on less than $2 in cash a day.

“Many Americans have spent more than that before they get to work or school in the morning,” write sociologist Kathryn Edin and her co-author, H. Luke Shaefer, in $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. “Yet in 2011, more than 4 percent of all households with children in the world’s wealthiest nation were living in a poverty so deep that most Americans don’t believe it exists in this country.”

Edin, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, first studied the lives of poor families while volunteering at the now-demolished Cabrini-Green housing project as a student at Chicago’s North Park University. She went on to earn a PhD from Northwestern and has spent her career detailing the effects of poverty on family life. $2.00 a Day follows the lives of families who have been left behind by the welfare reform of the 1990s. These are families “caught in an endless cycle of jobs that don’t pay nearly enough and periods of living on virtually no income.” She spoke with former CT senior news editor Bob Smietana last fall.

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