In $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer provide an insight into the lives of people living in extreme poverty in the United States. The book highlights a population that is largely invisible in the United States, those living on $2 a day or less, averaged across the entire year. It is hard to imagine that anyone in the United States could live on such a low income or even have such a low income, but Edin and Shaefer show that it is the case for some American’s and explain what life is like for those individuals.
They write, “Two dollars is less than the cost of a gallon of gas, roughly equivalent to the that of a half gallon of milk. Many American’s have spent more than that before they get to work or school in the morning. 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 even exists in this country.”
About a year ago I did a mini-dive into a series of books on homelessness and extreme poverty in the United States. Our country prides hard work and makes a lot of our social support programs conditional on individuals making an effort to improve their lives through their own industriousness. Our system is designed to reward those who work hard and put forward the effort to make their lives better, certainly something that is admirable and socially desired. However, one downside of this system is that people who either cannot or will not take the steps necessary to work hard and improve their lives are cast aside with minimal support.
I completely understand people’s dislike (in some cases even hatred) of free riders. It doesn’t feel good to have to go to work every day, to sacrifice sleep or spending time with the people and things we like, and to have to pay for for food, necessities, and pleasures out of hard earned paychecks. It is even worse when we see other people getting by without making the difficult choices that we make each day.
But I think the important thing to remember is that we are all humans, and that our true value as human beings doesn’t come from the work we do, but just from being humans. I think it is important that we all recognize how dependent we are on others, how much we have benefitted from other people to get to the place we are in (even if it isn’t where we want to be), and how much we all want to be respected simply for being ourselves. While we like to be admired for the things we accomplish, at the end of the day we want to be valued for being who we are, and not because of the special things we have done. A system that casts people out, allows them to degenerate on the streets with no support, and blames people who fail without aiding them is a system that has forgotten that our value as human beings is not dependent on our value to an economic or social system.
$2.00 a Day is an important book because it acknowledges an uncomfortable truth that most people try to ignore. For many of us we would rather not look at the person on the street corner asking for money, we would rather not think about people living in abject poverty, and we would not like to bear any responsibility for the poor living conditions of others. After all, most of us work very hard to try to maintain the lifestyles we live. $2.00 a Day reminds us that people living in poverty are still human, shows us that sometimes one poor decision multiplied and placed individuals in situations where making the right decisions to improve their lives was nearly impossible. It helps us appreciate how we got to where we are, and recognize a responsibility to the rest of our society, especially the segment of our society that has failed to the greatest extent. Ignoring the worst poverty in the nation and simply assuming that people are lazy and hopeless denies the humanity of those who suffer the most and can only perpetuate a problem we would like to wish away.