By Any Means Necessary - $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2016)

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2016)

Chapter 4

By Any Means Necessary

THERE IS NO MONEY to be made selling blood anymore, but you can sell plasma, a component in blood that is used in a number of treatments for serious illnesses. Selling plasma is so common among the $2-a-day poor that it might be thought of as a lifeblood. It is legal to “donate” up to two times a week, for which a plasma bank will pay you around $30 each time, $60 total. Jennifer Hernandez says she tried this for a while but gave it up because she couldn’t think straight afterward. She can’t afford to be off her game given her current circumstances.

In Johnson City, Tennessee, though, twenty-one-year-old Jessica Compton donates plasma as often as ten times a month—as frequently as the law allows. Plasma Biological Services, the local donation center, is located in a one-story white building fronted with plate glass, with the business name spelled out in large red letters. Jessica is able to donate only when her husband, Travis, has time to keep an eye on their two young daughters, Rachel and Blythe. He can do that pretty frequently these days, because he’s been out of work since the beginning of December, when McDonald’s reduced his hours to zero in response to slow foot traffic. It’s nearly February now.

Both Jessica and Travis are of slight build. Travis is a towhead, but Jessica’s fair skin and elfin features stand in contrast to a cloud of smoky black hair. Their daughter Rachel, at four, is an electric and precocious child. Blythe, whose blond hair is cut to chin length, making it spin around her tiny face when she shakes her head, is two. She’s tiny—too small to walk the one and a half miles to Johnson City’s downtown from the family’s front door. But mom and dad are constantly back and forth between the apartment and that part of town, seeking a warm spot in the library, with its reading materials, kids’ activities, and Internet connection, which is so critical to finding a job. Thus, Blythe virtually lives in the pink stroller the family acquired at the local Salvation Army. Sometimes it’s a bed—she takes naps there—and sometimes it’s a hideout. She loves to burst forth from beneath the sunshade, hair standing on end with static electricity.

Travis says his mother “dipped out” on his family when he was in third grade. Not long afterward, his father started “drinking alcohol, eating Xanax, smoking crack.” By the time Travis reached fourteen, his dad was a full-blown cocaine addict. His mother made a brief reappearance when he was in eighth grade, only to disappear again a few months later. During those years, Travis thought often about suicide. “I hated myself,” he recalls.

When Travis was about seventeen, he ran across Jessica’s profile on Facebook. “God, she was gorgeous,” he says. It took a full month—“forever,” in Travis’s estimation—for him to convince Jessica to go out with him. Just a few weeks later, “I guess, we fell in love. It was just four months and she was pregnant with Rachel.”

With a baby on the way, Travis was desperate to learn a trade, so he enrolled in YouthBuild, a program that offered prevocational training in basic construction skills plus GED courses. And it paid students to attend. Travis got to work on homes being constructed by Habitat for Humanity one week, and he took job training classes the next. He loved the hands-on learning and spun dreams of becoming an architect. It took him a year to earn his training certificate and pass the GED. But after graduation, McDonald’s was the only place he could land a job, at minimum wage and part-time hours. Since then, he’s had one job after another, but they’ve all been temporary gigs. Most recently, he was back at the same fast-food joint where he had started, until that ended once again. Right now, walking Jessica to the plasma clinic and back, kids in tow, is the most important job he has.

Upon arriving at Plasma Biological Services, Jessica checks in. A regular donor, she can bypass the initial, time-consuming full-on health screening. Instead, she proceeds to a kiosk, rhythmically clicking the mouse to answer the required questions about her health. “When you get there, they have you fill out … twenty-two questions … They ask you about your health and, like, if you’ve had any recent tattoos or been in jail or had any piercings lately … Yeah, if you get a tattoo or something, you got to tell them, and then you got to wait like six months and then they let you come back.” Travis has too many tattoos and doesn’t remember the exact times and places he acquired all of them, details that the plasma center requires. He says he has been told he “need not come by” to donate.

After completing these initial steps, Jessica sits in the waiting room, listening for her name to be called. Then “they take your blood pressure and your temp. And then if everything is okay, you wait and get your finger pricked to test for your iron and your protein and stuff … Usually, it be during my time of the month that my iron really goes down.” Lately, the iron pills Jessica has tried haven’t been working. This terrifies her, because “donating” is the cash bedrock of the family’s finances right now. The phlebotomist in charge of the finger pricking has told her that “if the iron pills don’t help, [it means] I could be, like, anemic.” Anemics are barred from donating.

Today, like other days, she’s nervous. What will happen if she is not allowed to give plasma? The family desperately needs the $30. They’re now nearly three months behind on the rent. Travis often stands at the kitchen window of their cramped one-bedroom apartment as if transfixed—on the lookout for the sheriff, who might show up at any time to evict them.

Jessica says, “Usually they tell me to wait because my blood pressure is always up. So I usually have to wait. They make you wait an extra ten minutes just to see if it goes down.” After failing the test the first time, Jessica sits for a while, taking deep, calming breaths, before getting retested. When asked why her blood pressure nearly always registers as too high initially, she says, “I don’t know! It just must be stress, being nervous about my iron levels or something.”

Once Jessica passes all the tests, she proceeds to the back room, where she’s directed to a recliner. (“It’s just, like, a big open space with a lot of chairs in there. Like machines and stuff … You go back there, and that’s when they just hook you up.”) Today she has brought along a Nicholas Sparks novel she checked out of the library. “I always bring a book with me.” A technician feels around for her vein with a plastic-gloved finger. Once the vein is located, the technician squeezes out some iodine and with a Q-tip begins spreading the thick liquid in a small circle, slowly widening the circle and rubbing the spot for about thirty seconds, staining Jessica’s forearm brown. She positions the IV, snaking it around Jessica’s wrist and over the inner part of her forearm. A needle, banded in green and with two small flaps like wings, is inserted into the vein. (“I can’t ever look at it. I never look at it when they do it. They do it right here,” she says, pointing to the obvious indentation at the crease in her arm, which looks somewhat like a drug track line. Many among the $2-a-day poor bear these small scars from repeated plasma donations.)

She then contracts her fist to start the blood flowing, and keeps contracting it at intervals to keep the purplish liquid moving down the tube to the machine that will separate her blood from her plasma. The goldish liquid is extracted and preserved, while her blood and platelets are returned to her system. First an extraction. Then a return. Another extraction. And so on. While it’s happening, “you just got to sit there” as the tube flows yellow, then red, back and forth. For the usual person, it takes about forty-five minutes, but for Jessica it takes well over an hour. She is just over the minimum weight of 110 pounds. The procedure takes a toll, she says. “I get tired. Especially if my iron’s down, I get, like, really tired.”

She describes the rest of the process as follows: “Then you go up to the front and you get a slip of paper and they put your money on a card. Then you just go home. It’s just like a debit card, like a prepaid.” The ritual takes roughly three hours door-to-door. Even so, the payoff is good, relatively speaking—$10 an hour. As long as her iron, blood pressure, and temperature are okay, she’ll donate as often as she is legally allowed. But no one could reasonably think of a twice-weekly plasma donation as a job. It’s a survival strategy, one of many operating well outside the low-wage job market.

Before welfare died in 1996, a family of three couldn’t live solely on the $360 or so the program provided on average. Just prior to welfare reform, it took roughly $875 to meet such a family’s monthly expenses. But families could generally get only about three-fifths of that amount from cash welfare plus food stamps. To make matters worse, when a mother secured a job, she would lose about a dollar in welfare benefits for every dollar she earned. Yet she couldn’t afford to rely only on earnings from work in the formal economy. Work paid only a little more than welfare but cost a lot more in terms of added expenses for transportation, child care, health care, and the like. It was more expensive to go to work than stay on the welfare rolls.

Back then, neither welfare nor work alone could bring a poor family’s budget into balance, yet the ability to combine them legally was limited at best. How did these single mothers survive? Some gleaned some sustenance through private charities, as Jessica and Travis do now: Goodwill for shelter, as one double-up after another imploded, and the Salvation Army for clothing and that essential pink stroller. In addition, at any given time, almost half of single mothers on welfare were working. Some used a false identity to avoid detection, or hopped from job to job, since short stints wouldn’t typically get reported to the welfare office. Those without a formal job did hair, babysat, sold meals, cleaned homes, or occasionally resorted to fencing stolen goods or selling drugs or sex in an effort to bridge the gap between their income and expenses. All told, poor single mothers drew on dozens upon dozens of different strategies to get by.

What’s different these days—and what affects the $2-a-day poor so profoundly—is that welfare can no longer be counted on to provide a floor of cash that families can depend on. Back in the days before welfare reform, the strategies poor single mothers employed were hardly get-rich-quick schemes; they provided a few dollars here and there, often garnered with considerable effort. But when combined with welfare, plus a lot of old-fashioned frugality, these strategies usually allowed for a bare-bones survival. Today, families who find themselves virtually cashless have no such floor. If the $2-a-day poor were truly to make ends meet, they would have to find a way to generate double the amount their pre-welfare reform counterparts had to produce in addition to AFDC in order to balance their budgets. None among the families featured in this book have managed to come even close to this threshold, despite considerable effort.

The panoply of survival strategies used by today’s $2-a-day poor are variations on the same tactics poor families used a generation ago to get by: private charity, a variety of small-time under-the-table income-generating schemes, and plain old scrimping. Even those somewhat higher up the income ladder today, who have steady jobs or other steady sources of income, draw on such strategies from time to time when the money doesn’t quite stretch to the end of the month for one reason or another. But the degree to which people must resort to the riskiest strategies—those that can exact a sharp psychological, legal, and even physical toll—appears to be an order of magnitude greater for the virtually cashless poor than it is for poor families with some cash on hand.

Far from being passive victims, many among the $2-a-day poor take what few resources they have and try to “make the best out of a bad,” as the son of one parent put it. While the circumstances that they find themselves in may appear wholly un-American, in many ways their actions and outlooks are as American as they come: often surprisingly optimistic, creative, family-focused, scrappy, and imbued with a can-do spirit that belies their desperate circumstances. They may be officially jobless, but they are intently at work. And their work can be hard, even grueling at times. It is work into which families at the very bottom pour their blood, sweat, and tears, because their survival—and that of their kids—depends on it.

The Work of Survival

Survival strategies come in three forms. The first is taking advantage of public spaces and private charities—the nation’s libraries, food pantries, homeless shelters, and so on. Then come a variety of income-generation strategies, such as donating plasma—means for gleaning at least some of that all-important resource that families seem unable to survive without: cash. Finally, there’s the art—often finely honed through years of hardship—of finding ways to stretch your resources and make do with less.

Public Spaces and Private Charities

Jennifer Hernandez, both before and after her family’s trials in Texas, remains an immensely kind woman, an innovator whose singular focus is the well-being of her kids. She utilizes every resource Chicago’s web of private charities has to offer, plus she makes use of the public spaces available to all the city’s residents—especially the public library. Before moving to Texas, while she was living at the La Casa family shelter, Jennifer was known for doggedly scanning the sidewalk for flyers and searching for notices taped to message boards, trees, or light posts that advertised free charity events. That’s how she found out about the school supplies giveaway at a nearby church and the free dental checkups for the kids offered by a local hospital—free, that is, except for a three-hour wait to be seen. That’s why the family was able to take in a free movie down at Millennium Park (not long after attending that outdoor performance of Shakespeare in the Parks). If there’s one person in the world who could write the how-to book about surviving on $2 a day by uncovering every resource available from the patchwork of public spaces and private charities in Chicago, it’s Jennifer Hernandez. There isn’t a free event that she and the kids miss, a free resource they haven’t made the most of.

In the La Casa days, despite all they’d already been through, Kaitlin and Cole remained surprisingly open and unguarded. They showed no visible signs of hardship. On outings, they would blithely bounce down the street in front of Jennifer and then double back from time to time, apparently ready for any adventure.

Those days, their walks most often brought them to the neighborhood library, a one-story brick building taking up most of a city block. The building features columns of windows on each side of the entrance, along with columns of glass bricks in the circular lobby, framing scenes that hold meaning for residents of this predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. The small library has book collections for everyone in the family, computers with Internet access, and programming for neighborhood children. Nine-year-old Kaitlin would dash through the door (hair bobbing as she went). Greeting the librarian behind the checkout counter, she would ask if she could “do my job.” After a warm hug, she would be given a pile of books to shelve, which she would do in short order and with great intensity. Cole would head over to the picture-book section and browse through a number of titles, several of which were well-loved favorites.

The Hernandez family visited this library nearly every day. They couldn’t use the Internet because doing so required a permanent address in the neighborhood and Jennifer was too ashamed to get the requisite letter from La Casa explaining that she was a resident there. Instead, while Kaitlin shelved books, Cole lugged book after book over to Jennifer so she could read to him. During the school year, they did their homework there. This library was a second home to the kids. Maybe it was the closest thing to a childhood home they would ever have.

Places like the public library where Jennifer, Kaitlin, and Cole found refuge are crucial to the day-to-day survival strategies of the $2-a-day poor. They offer a warm place to sit, a clean and safe bathroom, and a way to get online to complete a job application. They provide free educational programs for kids. Perhaps most important, they can help struggling families feel they are part of society instead of cast aside by it. Sometimes these institutions serve those in need begrudgingly—a library might prefer that it not be a rest stop and warming station for the city’s homeless people. But other times they attend to destitute patrons with tremendous love and warmth. Kaitlin’s friend the librarian gave her more than a job; she gave her a way to contribute, a place to belong.

Beyond these vital public spaces, there are many private charities across Chicago like La Casa that serve the poor day in and day out, operating shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens, free health clinics, job training programs, and educational programs for children and youth. Most of this aid comes not in the form of cash, but rather through in-kind assistance targeting basic needs (such as shelter and food) or direct services (such as health exams and mental health counseling). The forms this aid takes are not just determined by what families seeking help need. Rather, the nonprofits must be conscious of the values of the broader community and of the requirements placed on them by the government agencies, private foundations, and donors who fund the work. Sometimes what is offered fits what a family needs well. Sometimes it doesn’t.

As Jennifer could tell you, private charities come in all shapes and sizes. There are the big players like the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, and Goodwill. La Casa, with programs all over the west side of Chicago, is a midsize agency. There are also small outfits that may be operating on a wing and a prayer. Many of these are run out of the basements of houses of worship, which can sometimes become sanctuaries in their own right. Some charities are run by trained social workers, while others are staffed by long-term volunteers with no credentials, just a drive to help that comes from their faith, their life experiences, or the goodness of their hearts. Some agencies have predictable days and hours of operation that someone like Jennifer can count on, while others are open only sporadically, depending on the funding and the supply of ready volunteers.

Private charity in America is often viewed as the little engine that could. It chugs along admirably, providing billions of dollars in aid to the poor each year. And its efforts are valuable—the support that philanthropic organizations provide is part of what makes the lives of America’s $2-a-day poor different from those of the desperately poor in developing countries. Although charity is not absent in the developing world, there are far more dollars per person flowing to the American poor. Yet even in America, and even for those who are most adept at gleaning all that private charity has to offer, it can’t even begin to replicate, much less replace, what the government does. Private charity is a complement to government action, something that bolsters the government safety net.

The availability of private charity is far more limited outside major cities such as Chicago, which has been emblematic of the problem of urban poverty for decades. Yet poverty is actually growing faster outside these large cities than within them. Across the nation, the contours of private charity often reflect local resources. The “haves”—big cities with a lot of wealth, such as Chicago, New York, and Boston—typically have robust nonprofit sectors. Poorer places struggle to find the resources to meet the sea of need there. And in the small towns of the Mississippi Delta, there are precious few charities, if any at all. In Johnson City, Tennessee, in the heart of Appalachia, Travis and Jessica Compton know all too well that there are limited shelter beds. At two of the shelters in town, people bunk by gender. Thus, if a husband and wife with children were lucky enough to get space in either of these, they would be separated at night, with the dad wondering about the safety of the mom and kids as he tried to get some rest. The third shelter makes each family move to a different church basement every night. When Jennifer Hernandez was in crisis in Abilene, the Salvation Army shelter staff had to empty an office to accommodate the traumatized family. As the geographic mismatch between available charity and the people who require it grows, more struggling families living outside the large urban centers find themselves completely disconnected from help when they need it.

The quality of the services provided by charities can vary dramatically. At the time of her reluctant visit to the west side Chicago Department of Human Services office to apply for welfare, Modonna Harris was lucky to have a slot at one of the city’s good shelters, one where she and her daughter, Brianna, had a room to themselves with an actual door, and one where the staff treated them with kindness rather than contempt. Some shelters can feel quite unsafe to a vulnerable mother and child with nowhere else to go, especially to those with a history of victimization. Can the staff be trusted? Will they treat you with respect or like scum? And what about the other families staying at the facility? Family homeless shelters take a collection of hurting, desperate families with nothing in common except destitution and a history of bad breaks and abuse, and mix them together over meals and in programs. As a result, sometimes these shelters can be damaging places in their own right.

A few months ago, while living in another of Chicago’s family shelters, Brianna developed a little crush on an older boy who was also staying there with his mother. At the time, she remained a surprisingly innocent fifteen-year-old, despite her circumstances, and she enjoyed the attention and distraction of this boy, who flirted with her harmlessly in the halls. But over dinner one night, in front of everyone, the boy asked another girl his own age, “So when you gonna give me some more of that hoo-ha?”

Everyone sitting there knew Brianna had a crush on this boy. Here was someone who had made her feel good during a tough time, and now he was making her feel useless, awful, embarrassed, all in such a crass way. Now everyone knew that the object of Brianna’s affection was getting something from this other girl that Brianna was not ready to give, and for which she hadn’t even been asked. Maybe in another setting, this would have been just another example of a teenage boy being vulgar. But for Brianna, having not that long ago endured a stint of living with Modonna’s mother and a cousin who tormented her daily, this vulnerable, hurting girl lost it. She lashed out at the boy, screaming, throwing things, and swearing. In the aftermath, the shelter asked everyone involved to leave. Within days, Modonna and Brianna found themselves back on the streets, once again in a frantic search for a place to stay.

While this particular shelter sojourn was shorter than usual, virtually no family shelter in the city of Chicago will house a family for more than a few months. Although these shelters have good reasons for such policies—often they are a requirement of the funding they receive, or simply a response to short supply given the demand (too many homeless families and too few beds)—a few months is a very short time for any family with no resources to become self-sufficient. As a result, those experiencing a spell of $2-a-day poverty are liable to find themselves in a never-ending hunt for the next place to live, making it even harder for them to find and keep a job.

What’s more, many shelters—in an effort to focus their mission—have strict parameters regarding whom they will help. Some take only women with children under age five. Others require attendance at religious services. Some require that you have recently lost a home, while others mandate a criminal background check. Some have terrific websites, while others are riddled with out-of-date information. Some you can only call, and others you find out about only through word of mouth. Thus, the search for a place to stay can take days of work. And let’s say that you finally find a place for which you are eligible and that happens to have room. To get to your new accommodations, you might find yourself traipsing across the city with all your worldly possessions, which is hard to do when you have no money.

Another dilemma faced by parents like Jennifer is that in the world of private charity, kids, and not their moms and dads, are often the focus of whatever aid is offered. Kaitlin and Cole both get regular dental checkups at various clinics and hospitals offering them for free on designated Saturdays. Jennifer is in serious need of a dentist, too, to care for her receding gums. Yet in the early part of the summer of 2012 (just as Jennifer was desperately searching for a job), the State of Illinois slashed funding for adult Medicaid services so that only emergency extractions were covered. Calls to numerous clinics by a professional social worker on Jennifer’s behalf identified no dental clinic in the Chicago metropolitan area that would provide any sort of treatment for her without payment.

For the $2-a-day poor, America’s private charities are the difference between shelter and no shelter, a meal and no meal, a new backpack for school and none at all. And yet they can provide only an incomplete patchwork of aid, with numerous holes. Even in Chicago, where there are more charities than in many other places, a life dependent on private charity is a life of insecurity.

Income-Generation Strategies

While selling SNAP benefits is rare among food stamp households generally, this is the most common strategy that the virtually cashless poor in our sample resort to in order to generate an even more critical resource—cash. Why and how they do so bears some explanation.

As we’ve seen, in 2011 there were about 1.5 million households with children in $2-a-day poverty in any given month, based on their cash income. If you count SNAP as income—giving it the same value as cash—that number would be cut almost in half, to about 800,000 households. Comparing the two figures, it is easy to see how important SNAP is in the lives of the extremely poor. If you counted Jennifer Hernandez’s monthly food stamp allotment of $500 as cash, she would not qualify as $2-a-day poor. Neither would Travis and Jessica Compton. Clearly, SNAP is one of the most important resources the extremely poor have at their disposal. But SNAP is not the same as cash. One truism about the lives of the virtually cashless poor in this country is that they—like anyone else living here—just can’t manage to do without cash. And for that reason, while SNAP may stave off some hardship, it doesn’t help families exit the trap of extreme destitution like cash might.

Consider the following scenario. Let’s say you were offered a job with a starting salary of $55,000. Coming in to work after a few weeks on the job, you find yourself engrossed in thought about all the things you’ll do with your first paycheck. Just then, you happen to pass your boss in the hallway, and she says matter-of-factly, “By the way, $4,000 of your salary is going to come in the form of food stamps.” Would you simply shrug your shoulders, reckoning that a dollar in SNAP was the same as a dollar in cash? Or would you be angry? Let’s say your boss offers you a choice. Option 1 is that you can take a salary of $55,000 in cash. Option 2 is that you can get $53,000 in cash plus $4,000 in SNAP—a $2,000 raise! Which would you choose? When undergraduate students from various parts of the country are asked questions like this, most (although not all) pick option 1. Most would rather have the flexibility of cash than the added purchasing power.

To understand how SNAP actually works in the day-to-day business of getting by, let’s take the exercise a bit further. If you decided to take option 2—the $53,000 in cash plus $4,000 in SNAP—would you spend $4,000 more on food than you had been spending to begin with? Or would you stop using cash for groceries—using SNAP instead—and spend the cash on something else?

When families enroll in SNAP, most do the latter to some degree: they don’t continue to contribute the same amount to buying food as before and instead use that cash for something else. Economists call this “substitution,” and it is a relatively common phenomenon. Picture a family of four with full-time earnings of $18,500 a year (roughly $9.50 an hour) and no help from the government. In a typical month, they might have only about $300 left over to spend on food after paying the minimum amounts due on basic obligations such as shelter, transportation, clothing, and utilities. On this budget, the cupboards are nearly bare by week three, save for the cheapest food you can buy—ramen noodles. Mom, dad, and the kids must subsist on a ramen diet until next month’s paycheck clears. In America, even full-time, full-year workers earning well over the minimum wage may head a household that runs on ramen, and little else, for a week or more each month.

Now let’s say this family decides to apply for SNAP and qualifies for $400 in benefits each month. Do they still spend that $300 in cash on groceries, plus the $400 from SNAP? If they did, it would bring their total food budget up to $700, more than double what they spent before (although still not a huge amount for a family of four). The more likely scenario is that mom and dad—who, given their earnings and the soaring cost of shelter, were probably falling behind on paying for nonfood essentials such as rent and transportation—would increase their food budget to, say, $500 (a 67 percent increase), combining the $400 from SNAP with $100 in cash. In so doing, they could put an additional $200 in cash toward other bills.

Substitution of this kind is a valuable tool for keeping a struggling household going. Cash resources freed up by SNAP not only make it less likely that a household with children will fall behind on rent and utilities, but they also reduce the chances that someone in the house will skip a visit to the doctor because of the cost. Thus, SNAP not only puts food in the stomachs of hungry kids, but it also buffers families from other kinds of hardships. There is a downside to this type of substitution, though. A considerable number of families on SNAP continue to experience what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls “food insecurity,” meaning they run out of food before the month is over. The budgets of these working-poor families are often so tight—and so far in the red—that some level of substitution is needed to avoid eviction and to keep the lights on. For many families, these concerns can outweigh the need to stave off hunger.

Families who substitute in this way aren’t breaking the law, not even close. They aren’t even doing anything unethical. They are simply reallocating some of the money they had been spending on food to other uses. Yet trading SNAP for cash—the most common strategy used for survival among the families in this book—is a crime, and a serious one at that. The reason the $2-a-day poor do so anyway is that the practice of substitution doesn’t work for them. They have no cash to spend on food in the first place. Meanwhile, the need to pay the light bill, or even get the kids new socks and underwear, can seem more compelling than the need to eat in a couple of weeks’ time. What’s more, it’s easier for a family with nothing to get food from another source—such as a food pantry—than to acquire those other things from charities. This is why food stamp “trafficking,” though rare among the poor more generally, is common among the $2-a-day poor.

What’s so magical about cash? Without it, your activities are restricted. Even if you are among the lucky few to be awarded a rent subsidy, claim government health insurance, and enroll in SNAP—even if you get every in-kind benefit our society might provide—you still lack the $20 in cash to buy an outfit from Goodwill to wear to that job interview, or to pay the bus fare to get downtown. Showing up at a job interview without the proper attire—maybe drenched in sweat after walking several miles on a hot Chicago day—sends the message that you are not taking the opportunity seriously.

Cash is what you need to wash your clothes at the Laundromat rather than in the bathtub at the homeless shelter you call home (assuming you’ve found a way to acquire some laundry detergent), leaving them to dry stiffly on the shower-curtain rod. Cash is what is required to purchase that new pair of shoes or backpack that can buy your kids a modicum of dignity on the playground or in the school lunch line. A little bit of cash means a little bit of freedom. It allows people the flexibility to purchase what they believe their families need most.

In the summer of 2010, a team of researchers began to study the lives of 150 young adults who had grown up in Baltimore’s high-rise public housing projects. As they visited with these young women and men, they noticed there were families who seemed to be living without any regular cash income of any kind. Nineteen-year-old Ashley was one such young mother. Inside an apartment in the Latrobe Homes, where Ashley lived with her mother, brother, an uncle, and a cousin, there was virtually no furniture, only a kitchen table with a broken leg propped up against the wall, a single bar stool, and a mangy couch that looked like it had been fished out of the Dumpster. There was no food in the house and, more important, no baby formula. When asked, Ashley reported that although no one in the house had a job, none got TANF or SNAP—just the rent-free apartment from the housing authority. Ashley, who had just given birth to her first child a few weeks before, was visibly depressed. Her hair was unkempt, and she was having difficulty adequately supporting her baby’s head as she rocked the child.

At the conclusion of the interview, the researchers gave the young mother the standard interview stipend of $50 in cash. When they returned to do a follow-up interview just twenty-four hours later, they found that not only was there formula on the shelf, but Ashley had permed and styled her hair and gone to the thrift store for a new outfit. Leaving the baby with her mother, Ashley was now on her way out the door in her new pantsuit to apply for jobs. The little bit of autonomy that $50 had afforded Ashley had apparently sparked enough confidence in her to begin looking for work.

With no cash income to speak of, yet nearly $500 in SNAP benefits every month, Jennifer Hernandez sometimes feels compelled to sell some of her food stamps when she absolutely needs the cash. The last time she did this, it was to buy socks and underwear for the kids. Before that, it was because they needed school uniforms. Trafficking in food stamps is a criminal offense. Jennifer is embarrassed that she has to resort to it. Yet in the end, she does what she feels she has to do. She believes that seeing to her children’s needs is more important than keeping to the letter of the law.

Jennifer has some inkling of the legal implications of selling SNAP—she knows it is a crime and that she should by no means get caught in the act. In the fine print on a food stamp application, it is made clear that selling SNAP can result in a felony charge. And the penalty can be stiff. The SNAP application in Illinois (and other states) says that you can “be fined up to $250,000 and put in prison up to 20 years or both” for the offense.

One signal of how strongly a society feels about a particular violation of the law is the maximum sentence that can be imposed on offenders. Possession of small amounts of marijuana carries little legal penalty in most jurisdictions for a first-time offense. Under the U.S. federal sentencing guidelines, a person with a “minimal criminal history” would have to commit an offense at base level 37 to earn up to twenty years in prison. By comparison, voluntary manslaughter earns a base level 29, which could result in nine years in prison. Aggravated assault with a firearm that causes bodily injury to the victim merits only a base level 24, which could yield a five-year sentence. Abusive sexual contact with a child under age twelve also merits a base level 24. Astonishingly, at least in terms of the letter of the law, when Jennifer sells her SNAP, she risks a far longer prison term than the one José was subject to for molesting Kaitlin.

As a practical matter, it is far more difficult to traffic in SNAP than it once was. Back in the days when folks got paper food stamp coupons rather than electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, they could easily trade the coupons for cash. But today’s SNAP card has your name on it and requires you to enter a personal identification number, or PIN, when you swipe your card at the register, meaning that in most cases you would want to be physically present at a fraudulent transaction. If you were to simply give someone your EBT card and PIN so that he could buy food for himself and then give you cash back, what’s to keep the person from using up all your benefits? Do you really want to trust someone with one of your most valuable assets, especially when you already know he is not above breaking the law?

In spite of these difficulties, there are other ways to barter SNAP for cash when the need arises. One relatively simple strategy is to find a family member or friend who will pay you back for groceries you buy on her behalf using your EBT card. Not all among the $2-a-day poor can employ this strategy, for the simple reason that their relatives may be nearly as bad off as they are and don’t have any cash either. Others don’t have relatives or friends close at hand. Back in Chicago, Jennifer, who by then had pressed charges against José, was on speaking terms with only one relative, an aunt who lived a train and two bus rides away.

People will sometimes stand outside a grocery store and try to solicit strangers to trade cash for SNAP, but they have to do so at a steep discount. If Jennifer were to try this, most of the entering customers would probably ignore her. Some might lecture her. Some might even call the cops, a nerve-racking prospect. But let’s say after an hour or so she was lucky enough to find someone who was agreeable. Jennifer and her new partner in crime would enter the store together. The other party would go about filling her cart as usual, but at checkout time, Jennifer would pay the bill using her EBT card. Afterward, Jennifer would be paid the agreed-upon amount for the cart’s contents in cash. The going exchange rate in Chicago during the summer of 2012 was roughly 60 cents on the dollar—a good deal for the buyer.

Jennifer has never resorted to soliciting SNAP customers in a grocery store parking lot. It’s too embarrassing, plus there is too much risk involved. It seems to her that only drug addicts are desperate enough to trade SNAP for cash in this way. But she does know of another method—a routine that requires the complicity of a merchant who is willing to trade SNAP for a lesser amount of cash. This strategy requires deep local knowledge—you can’t just approach a cashier and ask if the store provides the service.

After moving from Abilene to Chicago as a child, Jennifer and her mother settled in the Little Village neighborhood, just south of where La Casa is located. According to Jennifer, the neighborhood is full of little bodegas that, from time to time, engage in SNAP trafficking. But the trade shifts from store to store so that owners can avoid detection. Luckily, Jennifer still has a few contacts in the neighborhood who are in the know and will tell her which store to approach.

The bodega owner will ring through, say, $100 in groceries and charge Jennifer’s card that amount. But instead of walking out with the groceries, Jennifer will get, say, $60 in cash. The chief beneficiary of the exchange is not Jennifer but the store owner, who pockets $40 in profit (his price for the risk involved in the exchange). The owners of the Little Village bodegas that Jennifer frequents are smart to be cautious, since this type of trafficking is the kind of SNAP fraud that is easiest for the authorities to detect. What’s more, the best available evidence suggests that its prevalence is actually quite low and has decreased over the years. A 1993 audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that such fraud accounted for about 4 cents out of every dollar of food stamps. But this amount fell to around 1.3 cents out of every dollar in 2009-2011. Still, even one egregious example—and they are out there—can make it seem as though the program is awash in fraud.

Like most of the $2-a-day poor, Jennifer tries to reserve most of her food stamps for food, only trading them for cash when important needs, almost always having to do with her kids, arise. No matter what the need, she still feels that selling SNAP is morally objectionable and has at least some sense of the risks. Although selling SNAP may be one of the more common cash-generating strategies practiced by the $2-a-day poor, it is rarely the preferred one.

Many among the $2-a-day poor, including Jennifer, have tried collecting aluminum cans to be recycled for cash. Collecting cans out of the alleys and your neighbors’ garbage cans, Jennifer has learned, is unlikely to yield more than eight or ten bucks a day, even when you scour the neighborhood for hours, even if you find every last can. As it turns out, if you want to make any money as a scrapper, you’ve got to have some basic resources: a place to store the scrap and a truck or van to haul it to the scrapyard.

In the Cudell neighborhood of Cleveland, Paul Heckewelder’s backyard is home to a stockpile of scrap—aluminum cans, tin, broken-down air conditioners, and so on—that he hauls to the scrapyard every few months. Paul, who is sixty years old, is an animated, deeply religious evangelical Christian with a sturdy frame and graying, dark blond hair. He usually speaks in a booming voice, but his pitch rises—he even squeaks—when he gets excited. Given his energetic disposition, this happens pretty frequently.

After decades of hardship, Paul came to own several pizza parlors beginning in the mid-1990s and enjoyed nearly a decade and a half among the middle class. But in 2008, after the restaurants went bust, there were several years when his family had no income at all to speak of. Scrapping has been one of the strategies Paul has used over and over again to bring in a few extra dollars. “We save all our cans. So we get about sixty dollars [every time we go to the scrapyard]. That’s sixty dollars that would have been dumped in the garbage!”

Paul and his adult son Sam scan the sidewalks on garbage day and sometimes even snatch choice items out of Dumpsters. When the pile in the backyard gets big enough, they take it to the scrapyard. Paul estimates that the current load in the backyard will fetch about $100. “You can get ten, fifteen, twenty dollars from just one air conditioner,” he says, holding up the metal inner element of one of the air conditioners he found alongside the road. “You got the part that’s the copper, the aluminum. That makes the money.”

A little to the south and east of Paul’s place, the Stockyards neighborhood, where Rae McCormick lives, is home to a number of popular scrapyards. Along 65th Street just past Clark Street, truck after truck belonging to full-time scrappers—including criminal scrappers who strip houses, even churches, of valuable metals—pulls into the large semicircular driveway of West Side Metals. Some of the trucks are shiny and new, others are beat-up and barely running, but they are all full of metal junk of all shapes and sizes. These vehicles wait to deposit their loads into one of several bays, where each item is weighed and its value assessed. This is probably where the lengths of copper piping from Rae McCormick’s basement ended up, leaving the tenants without indoor plumbing.

West Side Metals isn’t a place for small-time operators, though, so folks like Paul usually continue south along 65th. On the east side of the street sits a strip mall, formerly anchored by the neighborhood’s Kmart, the very one where Rae worked for several years. Currently, there’s nothing in the massive big-box space, and its signage has been removed. Only a Payless shoe store, a Subway restaurant, and a few other low-rent businesses survive. Past the white stucco shell that used to house Kmart, a large auto repair shop (specialty: trailer hitches) and an auto wrecking company with a vast scrapyard for auto parts dominate much of the block. On the west side of the street sits the American Scrap Mart. This is where Paul can get 65 cents for each pound of tin and aluminum cans he has acquired, plus extra for whatever else he’s scrounged.

Scrapping offers a way to earn some cash, but it requires resources. Few among the $2-a-day poor can make it work as well as Paul does, and even he gets no more than $60 in any given month for doing so. For Jennifer to get that kind of payoff with only a grocery cart at her disposal, she estimates she would have to work at least sixty hours. A place to store the metal and some way to transport it to the scrapyard are assets that are beyond the means of Jennifer and most of the $2-a-day poor. They must look to other strategies and other assets.

In the struggle to generate cash, sometimes the only asset available is your own body. Beyond trading her SNAP or selling plasma, a desperate mother may turn to selling sex. The best available—albeit rough—estimates suggest that a very small percentage of poor single mothers trade sex or sexual favors for money over a year’s time. In our small sample, only three parents out of the eighteen families we followed admitted to engaging in sex for pay, but two had teenage daughters who had done so in an effort to help the family survive.

Sex as a survival strategy for those at the very bottom sometimes looks like what you see on TV, with a weathered woman strung out on drugs hanging out on a dark street corner, waiting to sell a john a blow job or sex in one of its various forms in an abandoned building, back alley, or dirty public bathroom. But not usually. More common is the “trading” of sex or sexual favors. In this scenario, a mom might seek out a “friend,” probably a man she deems safe, or at least unlikely to get violent. It may be someone she knows from around the neighborhood, or maybe she met him in a bar and he bought her a few drinks. Either way, such a friend is probably not that hard to find. She might invite him home or maybe go to his room, and she might have sex with him or just “take care of him” in some other way. In return, he might pay her phone bill or part of her rent, or even let her and her kids stay with him for a little while.

Over breakfast, Brianna Harris spilled the beans about Modonna’s older “friend.” This particular morning, Brianna and Modonna were being treated to breakfast, and so Modonna wasn’t trying to make a meal out of coffee as she would otherwise do—dumping six creamers and twelve sugars into one mug of joe. “Is our ‘guy’ still taking care of us?” Brianna asked with a sheepish grin. For the past couple of months, their “guy” had been paying their cell phone bill, plus the fee for a storage unit that was holding all of their things (most shelters don’t allow more than one bag per person). What do you do with all your stuff if you have to go to a homeless shelter? Does it get left on the street corner? Even your kid’s baby book? Modonna clearly wasn’t ready to elaborate on the relationship, except to say that basically, if she takes care of him, he will take care of her and Brianna. She was obviously not proud of the situation, but she might say that she was doing what she needed to do. Certainly, she wasn’t a prostitute.

A few months after this meal, after Modonna and Brianna were evicted from a shelter for failing to achieve self-sufficiency in three months’ time, they moved in with Modonna’s friend. Just days before Christmas, Modonna caught the man looking at Brianna in the wrong way. When she tried to put her foot down, he responded by tossing Modonna and Brianna’s belongings out his second-story window onto the street. He shoved them out the door and left them standing in the cold with no place to go, their possessions lying in a tangle around them. It took a full week for them to find stable quarters at a welcoming North Side Salvation Army.

The Art of Making Do with Less

Even accounting for what’s made available by the nation’s private charities and for the little amounts of cash that can be generated from the various strategies discussed previously, none of these resources can in and of themselves allow a family in $2-a-day poverty to survive. Survival takes more. It requires a stubborn optimism in the face of very tough circumstances. It requires a spirit of determination that can propel someone forward in his or her effort to make do on next to nothing. So beyond private charity and public spaces, beyond selling SNAP, scrap, blood plasma, and even one’s body, the primary way the $2-a-day poor cope is to find inventive ways to make do with less. Some have spent years, even decades, in and out of poverty, with multiple spells of living on virtually nothing. For these Americans, the entrepreneurial skills that have been honed by the school of hard knocks are impressive indeed.

During the spring and summer of 2013, after the family pizza business collapsed, Paul Heckewelder’s modest residence—totaling about 1,100 square feet on the two main floors, plus an attic and basement—became home to twenty extended family members in addition to Paul and Sarah, his wife of forty years. All of them were trying to survive on Paul’s disability check from an old leg injury that limited his mobility.

These were sharply diminished circumstances for the Heckewelder family. In 2007, Paul’s three pizza shops had done $1.5 million in sales. He and two of his three sons, Sam and Jonah, had gone into the business together, opening their first store in 2004 in the suburb of Lakewood, just beyond Cudell. That store did well, so in 2005 they opened another, in Sandusky, near the famed roller coaster amusement park Cedar Point. Almost immediately, that store made money hand over fist. So in 2007, Paul added yet another, this time in Amherst, a small city between Cleveland and Sandusky. He recruited his two sons-in-law to share the management duties at this store.

Delivery and takeout were their game, with a trademark special offering two pizzas for the price of one—a way to entice their largely working-class customer base into the store. “My best time economically was when I had the stores,” Paul recalls. “I was making $5K a month easily … I was making, like, a $10,000 bank deposit each week!” He and Sarah had lived frugally all their lives, so the $5,000 stretched way beyond their needs. The mortgage on the house consumed roughly $700 a month, but other than that, with just the two of them at home, expenses were low—they were no longer supporting five kids. And Paul had always made it a point to pay off the balances on his credit cards and to pay his other bills every month in full, so he had no other debt to speak of. Better still, with the pizza business he could rest assured that two of his three sons plus his two daughters (via their husbands’ employment) were provided for. He couldn’t control their personal lives, but he had raised his kids to be good workers. He knew they were earning a decent paycheck, because he was the one providing it.

The pizza shops weren’t Paul’s first business venture. From childhood, entrepreneurship was in his blood. When he acquired a telescope at the age of ten, he set it up right along the ever-busy Lorain Avenue, which traverses Cleveland’s west side, and charged passersby 10 cents to look at the moon. “That was a big deal back then! That was before any space program.” One night, he recalls, there were so many eager customers in passing cars that he caused a traffic jam. He also remembers with delight the summer night when he and his cousin Peter set about shining shoes, navigating one side of Lorain, all the way from 25th Street, in Ohio City, down to 150th, in Kamm’s Corners, then coming back up the other side. It had grown dark—the signal that it was time to go home—but the bars were still open. “We would go in the bars and shine shoes, work boots … We were just making too much money to go home—didn’t come back until two in the morning, and the whole neighborhood was up worrying … Everybody was drunk, so we’d get twenty dollars for shining their work boots! … I did that when I was under twelve … That was a special night.”

At sixteen, while still attending high school, Paul worked in a local steel mill to help with the family’s expenses. One day, a large steel beam fell from above, severing his left foot. Even in those days, he had the perspective to know he was lucky—he could have lost his life. After his accident, he had to make his first prosthesis himself. “I made a cast, bought this liquid rubber,” and poured it into a mold. Later on, he made another cast from silicone, “before the industry was doing it that way.” After several months of claiming workers’ compensation, he found that jobs were scarce for a man with one foot and only a high school diploma. Barred from factory work, he and Sarah, then newlyweds, moved to a farm in Amish country, where they got a free place to stay and modest pay working for a local farmer. There, under the farmer’s tutelage, Paul became a jack-of-all-trades, learning all kinds of skills to add to his entrepreneur’s tool kit. When the farmer retired, Paul was able to parlay those skills into a job as a TV repairman at Higbee’s department store. When that trade went bust, he, Sarah, and the kids dipped in and out of poverty for several years as Paul worked odd jobs in construction while pursuing a college degree. Convinced that he would never get ahead without more education, he took a few courses at a time, selling plasma to put enough gas in his car to get to class.

College equipped Paul with the credentials that earned him a five-year stint selling and installing the latest medical imaging equipment in hospitals and clinics all around the world. He began traveling to places such as “Puerto Rico, Philippines, South America. I think I saw all but four [U.S.] states. New York! Nothing is like New York!” Paul loved the travel, loved seeing the world. He picked up quite a bit of Chinese along the way, plus key phrases from a half dozen other languages. But the job meant he was on the road constantly, and by 2004 he had traversed the globe long enough. His kids had come of age largely without his guidance, a fact that he regretted.

Sarah had kept everything together while he was away, and had even homeschooled their five kids. The couple had “gotten saved” in 1979, and homeschooling was a way to try to protect the kids from worldly influences. “[My children] didn’t go out [of the house for school] … ,” Paul says. “They’re not full of the world. They love the Lord. They might not be doing the best, [but] I don’t care if they’re doctors and lawyers, as long as they love the Lord.” As his children grew older, however, Paul worried when they married spouses who weren’t saved and who had troubles of various kinds. Getting into the pizza business, he thought, would allow him to spend more time with his kids and their families and, he hoped, to shape the direction of their lives.

Paul took out a home equity loan to purchase the first pizza shop from the franchisor, violating a principle he had always held dear: “Not the house. Never the house.” He explains, “I didn’t do it for my wife. I didn’t do it for my kids. But I did it for the pizza store. That was my mistake.” Their two-story home, made of brick but covered with faded green siding, was assessed at $70,000 in 2004. Even then, he says, “it wasn’t much,” referring to the home’s worn condition, but he was proud that it was his and was reluctant to go back to owing the bank for it.

With the pizza business, Paul felt he was finally living the life he had dreamed of. Then came 2008. The economy tanked, and he “was losing five thousand a week at some of the stores.” First, he sold off the Sandusky location—the one hemorrhaging the most money—using the proceeds to pay back the franchisor what he owed for two of the three stores. The Giant Eagle grocery chain bought out the store in Amherst, but what he made from that sale was only enough to pay off the remainder of his debt on the pizza shops. The Lakewood site finally faltered when the street that it stood on was shut down for more than a year as part of a major road construction project.

Luckily, Paul came out of the fiasco with no debt owed to the parent company. But he wasn’t able to pay off the home equity loan. What’s more, his home’s condition had worsened considerably over the years, and the Cleveland real estate market had virtually collapsed. “Probably with the condition it’s in, it’s worth fifteen thousand,” he says. “I’m stuck with a sixty-five-thousand-dollar mortgage on a fifteen-thousand-dollar house.” Although a government loan repayment program recently allowed Paul to cut his monthly payment from $700 to $250, he finds even that amount a stretch without a job.

The downside of a family business is that if it falls apart, everyone suffers. Paul had always been the one the rest of the family could depend on, but “between 2008 and 2010 … there was a period there where I had no income.” Without any home equity to fall back on, he maxed out his credit cards. “I was borrowing from this one to pay that one. It was a mess.” Then “I cashed in my life insurance policy. I had an investment account from when I worked [for the medical equipment company]. I cashed that in.”

After spending down those funds, the only thing that kept him going was a series of “blessings” he believes were sent by God. During that period, there were repeated special offerings collected on his behalf by members of his church. Every few weeks during coffee hour, one of the church elders would hand him a white envelope stuffed with a few hundred dollars. One week he found a thousand-dollar check inside. But of equal importance, he says, “the Lord allowed three accidents on my 2004 [Dodge] Caravan [that were the fault of the other guy]. I got fifteen hundred [for] one side, then twelve hundred on the next side, … a thousand on the next … I’d say, ‘Lord, you got one more side, the driver’s side!’” Before the fourth miracle could happen, though, the van went up in smoke, literally. It “ended up burning up in the driveway … The motor caught fire, and we lost it. No insurance on it … just liability.”

Church friends gave Paul a used vehicle—a white panel van with tinted windows that was on its last legs. “Frame [was] totally just rusted out. You [could] grab the frame with your hands and crumble it.” Rather than complain, Paul simply “welded the frame. I bought a welder and I got under there and welded some steel … Welded it up good. And the brake line on the one side was jury-rigged, it was all patched together, and it held together all winter long.”

In 2010, just as every resource he had at his disposal had been expended, Paul was finally approved for Social Security Disability Insurance. In 2009, he had been diagnosed with diabetes, and his bum leg (which caused chronic back problems) had grown too unsteady to support him for any length of time. Qualifying for disability ensured him access to public health insurance via Medicaid. But when Sarah was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, she had to undergo a year of treatment before she managed to get Medicare (a problem she wouldn’t face now, following the expansion of Medicaid in Ohio after passage of the Affordable Care Act). The medical bills accumulated. Paul keeps these bills stacked alongside his computer on his desk. They are nearly a foot high.

Little did Paul know that their trials were just beginning. In the spring of 2013, one son-in-law landed in jail. His pregnant wife (Paul and Sarah’s daughter) and their kids moved in with them. Their other daughter was evicted from her home after her husband lost his job at a muffler store. In Cleveland’s economy, where the unemployment rate exceeded 10 percent during the summer of 2013, it proved harder than expected for him to find employment, and she moved in along with her kids. One of his son’s ex-wives—with kids from several previous relationships—lost custody of all six of her children when she was hospitalized with terminal cancer. When child welfare came calling, Paul and Sarah took them in, too. Then their son Sam’s wife deserted him, leaving him with six young kids to care for, including three from her previous marriage. He had to quit his job and become a stay-at-home dad. Unable to pay the rent, he also landed at his parents’ home.

To say that the place is overcrowded would be an understatement. Sarah’s cancer has confined her to a hospital bed that takes up most of the dining room. The front room serves as a bedroom for four of the kids. The finished portion of the basement houses Sam and his six kids. Five more children and Paul’s younger daughter are stuffed into a tiny bedroom on the second floor (doubled up in two bunk beds and a single bed). Paul’s older daughter and her family are stashed in the tiny attic. “There isn’t a room other than the bathroom where no one’s sleeping.”

Even with Paul’s disability check coming in, with twenty-two mouths to feed, his household income has fallen below the $2-a-day mark. They tried but failed to get additional SNAP for the kids. The caseworker told them they had been denied due to the temporary nature of the living arrangements. Indeed, had the family been completely open about their situation when applying for benefits, the child welfare authorities might have come and taken the kids.

At one point, Paul fell far behind on the humongous water bills that started coming in. “[It] got up to $2,700,” he says. The water was shut off for weeks, but he had “a friend we could go to with five-gallon buckets that was for clean water, dishwater.” Several times a week, the kids would pile in the back of the panel van, each with a bucket or two in hand, to travel the short distance to the friend’s home. There they would fill the buckets and set up a bucket brigade, passing them from hand to hand into the back of the vehicle. Then they would all climb in the van with the buckets for the trip home. For drinking water, “the boys would go to the neighbor’s.” For baths, sometimes “the kids would go to the pool and get their bath[s]” there. And to flush the toilet, Paul “took the gutter apart, rigged it up over the garbage can, and in just one rain we filled one big rolling garbage can, [toting it upstairs one bucket at a time, and] we used that to flush the toilet!”

Over the six months that Paul’s home has housed twenty-two, the family has eaten “a lot of macaroni … a lot of peanut butter and jelly.” Sam bakes pasta in an industrial-size restaurant pan. At the back of the kitchen, plastic shelving units sit under a window so poorly fitted that you can see light between the frame and the wall. The units buckle under the weight of canned goods gleaned from the local food pantry.

Down the narrow cellar stairs lies the partially finished portion of the basement, home to Sam and his six kids. Always a forward thinker, Paul long ago reserved one corner of the room for a cast-iron pellet stove he bought on Craigslist. He believes it could heat the underground space cheaply in case the power is shut off or there is a widespread power outage. No matter what happens or how cold the winter, his family will stay warm.

In the unfinished portion of the basement, metal shelves and a row of old gym lockers overflow with staples. Most food pantries offer too much in the way of grains and pastas, but not enough meat and fresh fruits and vegetables, he says. Not wanting to waste any of the food he receives, he transfers surplus rice, beans, noodles, flour, cornmeal, and other nonperishables into empty containers of all shapes and sizes—milk cartons, juice jugs, water bottles, and plastic containers that once held kerosene, laundry detergent, or dishwashing liquid—anticipating the future hard times that may come. On the floor, next to the lockers, there is a large picnic cooler filled with about a dozen boxes of instant potatoes.

The unfinished part of the basement also holds the washer and dryer. When the water is on, Paul spends hours here employing a time-consuming conservation technique in order to save money on his water bill. “After it goes to [the] rinse cycle, I take the hose and fill up all these old laundry detergent bottles. That’s my next wash load. Then that rinse cycle becomes the wash water for the next load. Saves half the water bill … I fill it up, boom, boom, boom, boom! While I’m sitting down there, I can go through five laundry loads [with that water].” When the water wasn’t on, the washtub and clothesline in the backyard had to suffice.

“It’s good [everyone ended up here] in the summer, because if it wasn’t the summer, we would [have had] to do more inside,” Paul tells a friend, whom he has apprised of his situation. An eight-foot folding table sits in the driveway on the right side of the house, surrounded by an assortment of plastic chairs. One side is flanked by the backseat from the van (you can get more kids in the van without that seat in it). At one end is a pink-and-green children’s picnic table complete with benches, which adds seating for an additional four. “I like it because when they spill their milk, you just hose down the driveway. Like five of ’em generally spill their milk in a meal.” This strategy has a downside, however. “Somehow, we are a magnet for rats … Rats come from all over the neighborhood. They come out and sit right on the table … I take my pellet gun, [and] we have fun using the rats for target practice out of my bedroom window!”

Beyond the dinner table and the big pile of scrap metal, much of the backyard is taken up by a garden that “grew from throwing out spoiling food—cucumbers, tomatoes, spaghetti squash … All from the rotted vegetables. Any rotted potatoes we plant, then in November we have another crop of potatoes.” The garden provides fresh vegetables to supplement the canned goods, grains, and pastas provided by the food pantry. Survival for the extended family in Paul’s home requires that no resource be wasted and no asset go untapped.

Work Without a Job

Is Paul Heckewelder a worker? As of the summer of 2013, it has been about five years since he has held a job, back when he was a proud small business owner. If Paul were to complete one of the official government surveys that captures key statistics about the nation’s workforce, he would be deemed “not in the labor force.” He isn’t employed, and he is no longer looking for a job, in part because his health has deteriorated to the point where he has trouble walking and breathing.

Yet it would certainly be inaccurate to say that Paul has not been working. He has been busy collecting metal for the scrapyard. He’s been busy sitting by the washing machine, waiting to catch the rinse water so that he can reuse it in the next load. (When his water was shut off, he was busy rigging up the gutter and garbage can to catch rainwater that could be used to flush the toilet, and driving to his friend’s house and making trips to the neighbor’s to fill up empty milk jugs with clean water.) He’s been busy driving the kids to the local food pantry—to prove just how many mouths they have to feed. And when he hasn’t been running back and forth, he’s been occupied welding his crumbling van together and buttressing the collapsing floor of his home. None of these jobs can be captured on a résumé or in the U.S. government’s official workforce statistics. But this American, who is officially “not in the labor force,” is not exactly a couch potato.

Paul’s circumstances during his current stint in $2-a-day poverty—he had spells in childhood, as a young adult, and as a middle-aged college student as well—seem relatively good when compared to those of other families whose stories are told in this book. In fact, of all the households included in this study, Paul’s is easily the best off. At first, he had assets to tap, even though he used up nearly every penny of them during the years after his pizza shops went bust. His house is badly underwater, yet at $260 a month it still provides the cheapest possible place he could live. Unlike most of America’s $2-a-day poor, since 2010 he has had a regular income stream. A disability check of $1,025 can’t get him above the $2-a-day mark with twenty-two people living in his home, but it is better than nothing. Plus, it is stable, something he can rely on.

Relatively speaking, Paul is a bit of an outlier among the $2-a-day poor. But in terms of his work ethic, he is the archetype. As his story and the others in this chapter show, the work of survival at the very bottom of America’s economic ladder is hard. It’s about turning what little you have in the way of assets into cash or goods, or honing your entrepreneurial skills in ways that allow you to make do with less, in an effort to ease the many hardships associated with life on no income.

In big, nationally representative surveys (like the one that provides the hard numbers for this book), families may not always tell researchers (usually government employees) about income from all of the survival strategies described in this chapter. A mom with one child who tells a researcher that she had $120 in income during a particular month might actually have had $180 because she donated plasma twice or sold $100 in SNAP benefits in exchange for $60 in cash. When queried by researchers, a mother may fear prosecution if she reports that she got money from a “friend” in exchange for sex. Some may simply forget to report the cash they get from collecting aluminum cans—perhaps because it is so irregular or the profit is so small. Others—particularly those who are homeless or otherwise on the move, shifting from the home of one relative to another—may not even appear in big government surveys because they have no stable address. The only way to get a true accounting of the resources of the $2-a-day poor is to spend large amounts of time with them, build trust, and meticulously document their circumstances. But this kind of research is time-consuming. Without millions of research dollars, it is impossible to identify and follow a large random sample of the $2-a-day poor, which would be the only way to paint a reliable national portrait of what they must do to survive.

Critics might say, “Anyone who reports an income below $2 a day in the United States has resources he or she isn’t telling us about. This problem is not real.” The evidence in this chapter suggests that selling plasma, scrap metal, or one’s body may occasionally raise incomes from $2 a day to, say, $3 or $4 a day instead. But this “measurement error” seems far less important than the fact that the number of families who tell government researchers they are living on virtually no cash has grown so dramatically over time. The number of children experiencing a spell of $2-a-day poverty is about the same as the number of kids lifted above the poverty line by the tax credits now extended to the working poor—a program federal taxpayers spend roughly $66 billion on. Also, some of the strategies the $2-a-day poor must resort to actually reduce their resources. When Jennifer Hernandez sells $100 in SNAP, she loses $40 in purchasing power.

Where do we see hard evidence of the rise in extreme poverty among families with children? It is evident in the SIPP, the nationally representative survey that does the best job of capturing the incomes of the poor. It is seen in SNAP administrative records, which show a sharp uptick in the number of families reporting no other form of income save SNAP. In fact, the SNAP estimates match those from the SIPP survey remarkably closely. Reports in some major cities suggest increased demand for family shelter beds starting in the early 2000s, as well as an increase in the number of families seeking emergency food services that predates the Great Recession. But the best proof of all that the $2-a-day poor exist is that finding people who fit this profile—people like Paul Heckewelder, Jennifer Hernandez, and Travis and Jessica Compton—is not that hard. It can be done in a relatively short amount of time in a number of locales across the country. This virtually cashless form of poverty is out there, even though we wish it weren’t. And it has grown.

It would be tragic beyond belief if some segment of Americans lived in conditions comparable to those of the poorest people living in places like Haiti or Zimbabwe. Due to our public spaces, private charities, and in-kind government benefits such as SNAP, this level of destitution is probably extremely rare, if not completely nonexistent here. However, one might argue that some of the families whose stories are told in this book have experienced a level of material want that may approach bare subsistence. Furthermore, to be without cash in America is to be cut off from society, disconnected from the resources that could help you get out of those desperate straits and move ahead. As one expert on global poverty put it, the rise of the virtually cashless poor in the United States may “imply a severe form of poverty in both a practical and intangible sense.”

What is true about each of the families in this book is that they would all rather have a real job than engage in any of the alternative forms of “work” described in this chapter. Yet the more employment in the formal labor market proves perilous—with low pay, too few hours, and crazy schedules—the more untenable it is for a parent trying to raise kids. And the weaker the government safety net, the more the informal work described here will proliferate. We know what this kind of economy looks like, because it typifies economies in other, poorer countries all over the world. If the experiences of such countries are any guide, the replacement of a formal economy with an informal one—unregulated and unpoliced—may have a self-perpetuating effect of pushing the $2-a-day poor further and further out of the American mainstream. Indeed, as the next chapter explains, some parts of our country have already gone much further down this path than others.