Kathryn Edin reveals the lives of people who live on $2 a day
Image: Mark Smith
By Dale Keiger
Kathryn Edin has been an itinerant scholar of the poor for more than 20 years. She is a sociologist who works like an anthropologist, melding numbers and narrative to examine in illuminating detail the lives of poor people all over the United States. She has worked in Austin, Texas; Baltimore; Boston; Charleston, South Carolina; Camden, New Jersey; Chicago; Cleveland; Dallas; Milwaukee; New York; Philadelphia; and San Antonio; as well as Appalachian Tennessee and the Mississippi Delta. Her book titles signal where she has focused her effort: Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work; Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City; and Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage.
In the summer of 2010, Edin was in the seventh year of a long-term study of children born in public housing in the early 1990s. At Latrobe Homes, a 700-unit housing project in East Baltimore, she encountered the 19-year-old woman she calls Ashley. “She had a two-week-old baby,” Edin recalls. “When we walked into the house, the first thing I noticed was that as she was rocking her baby, she wasn’t adequately supporting the head, and as a mother you know something’s wrong. She just looked depressed, no expression on her face. She was visibly unkempt.” Edin was sitting on the kitchen floor while she interviewed Ashley—there was only one chair—and she could look up and see there was no food in any of the cabinets. Despite six people living in the unit—Ashley, her baby, her mother, her brother, an elderly uncle, and a young cousin—there was almost no furniture. Edin noted a table with three legs that wouldn’t stay upright unless propped against a wall, a filthy mattress with a Bugs Bunny fitted sheet, and a couch. The elderly uncle was on the couch nodding over in a heroin daze. Edin had witnessed plenty of poverty in her career, but not this bad. She knew from Ashley that no one in the household had a job, nor was anyone receiving public cash assistance. This was a family with no income. Edin recalls: “My first thought was that we’d found a whole new kind of poverty that we didn’t think existed, and I wondered what was going on.”
Since 2014, Edin has been a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in the Krieger and Bloomberg schools, and recently she became director of the 21st Century Cities Initiative, one of the signature initiatives of the Johns Hopkins Rising to the Challenge capital campaign. But when she came across Ashley, Edin was on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. A young visiting professor named Luke Shaefer had recently arrived at Harvard, and he was expert at mining a government data set that social scientists refer to as “the SIPP,” the Survey of Income and Program Participation compiled by the United States Census Bureau. The SIPP captured more of the income of the poor than any other representative survey. “I told him about Ashley,” she says, “and I said, ‘Let’s work out something together. Let’s figure out if this is a thing.'”
It was a thing. The SIPP polls about 40,000 households all over the United States regarding any source of cash income they have had in the previous four months, including government assistance. The data indicated to Shaefer and Edin that in any given month, 1.5 million families, including 3 million children, were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person per day. More than a third of these families were headed by a married couple. Nearly half were poor whites. Shaefer says, “I can picture in my head that very first readout of the data. I was sitting in the main Harvard library reading room. I hadn’t really known what to make of what Kathy said she was seeing, and then out pops this output. I was just wowed by it. I said a couple of words I’m pretty sure cannot appear in your magazine.”