$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin & H. Luke Shaefer
Non-fiction | Social Issues | Economics
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Released September 1, 2015
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Every single one of us knows that poverty exists. You may have even experienced poverty yourself. The fact that there are people and families that are trying to get by on less than $2.00 a day is a little less known because many of these people fall under the radar in America.
Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer’s nonfiction book about these families is both eye-opening and disheartening. In a country where we pride ourselves on our standard of living and consumerism seems to rule our habits and thoughts, it’s shameful learning about people who are skipping meals or turning to prostitution just to make sure their children have something to eat come dinnertime.
The authors took a look at families in a few different areas, from the south side of Chicago to the rural areas of Tennesee. There were examples of people whose only income was from donating plasma a few times a month, or of a family with nearly twenty people under one roof, all just trying to just survive.
By the end of this book, I found that I was angry at the systems in place that are supposed to be helping people like this.
Something that I don’t talk about very often is that I spent two years at university studying political science and dropped out because the idealism I’d always had turned into cynicism at realizing that there’s not enough that one person can do to change things. This book reminded me of that. Yes, there are definitely ways to help, such as donating food to a food pantry, volunteering time or money to organizations that bring food to low-income areas, and more, but those things are minuscule in the grand scheme of things. For people to get out of that sort of severe, hard-to-fathom poverty, it’s going to take a lot more, and a lot of help from local, state, and the federal government.
Read Yourself Happy is not a place where I want to get political. This is a space for literature and wellness. Therefore, I’m not going to get into any long rants about the state of our country and social programs. Suffice it to say that this book left me in tears and that no one should have to resort to some of the extreme measures that the people interviewed for this book has. In a country of relative wealth and plenty of resources, it’s a disgrace that there are people working trying to survive by selling their SNAP benefits or turning to illegal means because they literally have run out of other options.
Today there is no state in the Union in which a family that is supported by a full-time, minimum-wage worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent without being cost burdened, according to HUD.
This book does a great job of looking at America’s social programs throughout the last few decades, such as Welfare and TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). It also shows how it’s not a matter of people not having jobs – most of the people interviewed for this book want to work, but they either don’t have access to a job or get fired for trivial reasons because they work for companies that do not have their workers’ welfare in mind.
Not only do they pay low wages, but those who work them are often subject to variable hours and are seldom offered benefits such as affordable health insurance, paid vacations, or retirement plans.
Another thing the book does very well is by showing the reality of this kind of poverty. Things such as having to stand in line for hours to try to get government aid, and even then not be guaranteed to be seen that way. Also, while SNAP is a great benefit for people, it doesn’t turn into cash for them to pay their electric or water bills. Also, the mental strain on people living like this can be extreme:
Rae likely suffers from the effects of what researchers refer to as “toxic stress,” defined as “strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship.” She is on near-constant high alert—never knowing when a new threat may emerge or an old one may reappear. And she is always dealing with crisis in one form or another. Exposure to toxic stress affects people mentally and even physically. It can impair “executive functions, such as decision-making, working memory, behavioral self-regulation, and mood and impulse control.” It “may result in anatomic changes and/or physiologic dysregulations that are the precursors of later impairments in learning and behavior as well as the roots of chronic, stress-related physical and mental illness.” Toxic stress can literally wear you down and, in the end, kill you.
I think this is an important book that everyone should read, and I think books that discuss poverty in America, including what’s come to be called “the working poor” (people who work 40+ hours a week and are still below the poverty line), should be required reading in high schools and universities throughout the country. If you pick this book up, prepare to be infuriated at the conditions that the poorest in America have to live with.
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