U-M Expert Visits SSC to Share Lessons Learned About Poverty

Luke Shaefer, professor of social work and public policy, recently stopped by the Shared Services Center to talk about his book $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, which he co-wrote with Johns Hopkins professor Kathryn J. Edin. Shaefer is also the founding director of the university’s Poverty Solutions initiative. The presentation was organized by the SSC’s Diversity Task Force and is part of their ongoing work to raise awareness about topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion and promote dialogue among staff.

Schaefer and Edin have decades of experience studying the root causes of extreme poverty and the efficacy of proposed and implemented solutions. But attendees at the SSC event were moved that the researchers not only analysed data sets, but took the time to observe and speak  to real families affected by poverty, which resulted in a much more personal approach to their research.

$2 a Day highlights eight families from four main areas of the United States: Chicago, rural towns in the Mississippi Delta, Cleveland, and Johnson City in Appalachia. The story of each family is contextualized by data showing larger trends. All of the families were forced to double up their living situations with friends, family, or in shelters because their earnings weren’t enough on their own to pay for housing. Many times these living situations lead to physical, verbal, or sexual abuse, propelling the families further into extreme poverty. The book tackles the difficulty of finding minimum wage work; pervasive stereotypes about poverty; and the lengths families go to increase their income, whether by selling their plasma or returning plastic bottles.

Edin and Shaefer found that in 2011, there were 1.5 million families, including 3 million children, surviving on $2 per day per person with no cash income. $2 a Day seeks to give a voice to these “invisible citizens” and prompt a call to action to change these family’s lives, while investigating larger social questions.

What caused the rise they found in 2011 of $2 a day poverty from the previous decade? Is the 1996 welfare reform partly to blame? Are these families detached from the world of work? Were they enmeshed in a low-wage labor market? How is it possible to live without a cash income in modern America? Many who attended the SSC event were shocked to hear that government assistance programs can be so difficult to obtain for these families, despite their obvious need.

Overall, the SSC attendees were moved and enlightened by the personal stories that Shaefer shared, providing strong positive feedback about the event and appreciation for Shaefer’s visit. As one SSC staff member reflected, “ It was saddening to hear about the struggles some people face, but also nice to hear about the hope that exists for change and making a difference.”

You can learn more about $2 a Day here.