A World Apart - $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2016)

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

Chapter 5

A World Apart

MARTHA JOHNSON RESIDES in a small town of about 2,000 in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. As she holds her grandson in one arm, she pushes open the screen door of her government-built home and steps outside onto her shallow concrete porch to greet the day. From this vantage point, she can see nearly every place that she has ever lived. Across the field bursting with soybeans is the farmhouse where she was born, and just down the street is the small brick abode where her father raised Martha and her siblings with a strict hand after her mother “run out” on them when Martha was just a baby. Ever since she and the father of her youngest child split up for good a decade ago, when she was forty, she has lived in different units in this very apartment complex, which she refers to as “the projects.”

The fields that Martha gazes out on are those where her father spent his lifetime as a farmhand. Martha’s front porch is so close to these fields, in fact, that on days when the fluorescent-yellow-and-black planes come at dawn to dust the crops with pesticides, they shower her building, too. On those mornings, the sky remains dark long after sunrise. On some early summer days like today, she can sometimes see dirty plumes of smoke rising from red flames all across the horizon as planters burn their fields in preparation for crop rotation. All through the growing season, Martha, her two daughters, and their neighbors complain of a unique local ailment—an upper-respiratory condition folks refer to as “Delta crud,” which many believe is brought on by these farming practices. The symptoms are wheezing and nausea, sometimes followed by chronic congestion.

Today Martha is dressed in a thin cap-sleeved T-shirt and a pair of black track pants that end at the knees. Her size-ten feet are clad with Nike shower shoes. She’s nearly six feet tall, with an athletic build, dark skin, and permed hair ending just below her chin. She has big eyes, thick brows, a strong jaw, and a wide smile. As she talks with a friend, her long, strong arms transfer her six-month-old grandson, who is the size of an average one-year-old, from shoulder to shoulder.

Martha has stable housing thanks to her Section 8 voucher. Her rent is limited to 30 percent of her official cash income, which runs only $150 a month for her family of three—now four since the arrival of her daughter Alona’s baby six months ago. Heading back inside her apartment, Martha steps directly into the unit’s sole common space, the front half of which serves as the living room, while the back wall makes up the kitchen. Under the window next to the front door sits a card table choked with blue-and-gold trophies, all carefully arranged. Trophy tables are prominent features of many homes here in Martha’s hometown of Jefferson, because the schools give out so many. Alona, who has just finished high school and is one of the few in her class who plans to head to college in the fall while Martha cares for the baby, reveals that most of them are hers—this one for track, that one for basketball, another one for soccer. She inherited her mother’s athletic ability as well as her build. Most of the trophies, though, were given for what she views as the most mundane of accomplishments: scoring in the proficient range on the math or reading sections of a state standardized test, or even for school attendance. She isn’t much interested in these.

Later today she’ll head to graduation practice, but at the moment she’s got both hands full carrying a papier-mâché volcano that she and her twelve-year-old sister, Candace, finished the night before. Alona considers herself a bit of an expert on the volcano homework. She watched as her older brother and sister constructed their volcanoes. When it was her turn, she relished the opportunity to create her own papier-mâché structure and was sorry to see it erupt with the well-known mixture of baking soda and vinegar. So last night, when Candace was struggling with the assignment, Alona was glad to stay up late to finish it off, long after Candace had given up and gone to bed.

Martha, Alona, and Candace form a close-knit family, eager to help one another in times of need. Unlike many of the homes of the desperately poor, there is an air of contentment here. Things are far from easy, with just $150 a month in cash income between them, but the pain of poverty seems to have been salved, at least in part, by the strength they find in one another.

In Jefferson, one could probably throw a stone in any direction and hit the residence of a family below the $2-a-day threshold. The Mississippi Delta is a world unto itself, with a unique history and a distinctive set of social conditions. The region has always been desperately poor. Even now, nearly fifty years after Robert Kennedy’s 1967 visit, delving into the texture of a typical small town in the Delta can be jarring. First, there is the extent of the poverty. In Sunshine County, small cities of just a few thousand like Jefferson record poverty rates of well over 40 percent. Although the nation’s child poverty rate is high—about one in five children live in poverty—here the levels can be three times greater than that. In many of the smaller towns of only a few hundred folks, typical household incomes fall below $20,000, and the child poverty rate can surpass 65 percent.

Many consider the Delta to have the richest farmland in the nation—with topsoil running as deep as thirty feet. In an earlier era, local plantations once employed (and before that enslaved) thousands. Lynetta Williams, a neighbor of Martha’s, recalls that a few decades ago, local planters would still “take care of you”—to some degree anyway—if you were willing to work. For all the problems back then, she feels that those were better times, because folks didn’t need to worry about where they would live or whether they would be fed. Today, she says, that’s not a given.

Although Mississippi’s social safety net has always lagged far behind that of the rest of the country, AFDC was operational in the Delta by the mid-1960s. In 1970, the program covered only about 30 percent of poor children here, as compared to nearly 60 percent on average across the nation. However, that figure soon shot up as the court cases spurred by the National Welfare Rights Organization broke down discriminatory barriers that states had used to keep blacks off the rolls. By 1990, roughly half of the state’s poor kids were covered by AFDC. During those years, desperate parents with no other source of income could claim cash from the welfare office—cash they were entitled to by law (see chapter 1). And many did so. The state had a cash safety net, however modest.

Since the 1996 welfare reform, Mississippi’s TANF rolls have seen an astonishing decline, more so than in most other places. As of 1965, the program was serving 83,000 residents, and that number grew to nearly 180,000 at its peak. By 2002, however, the rolls had plummeted to only 40,000, and by the fall of 2014 the figure had fallen even further, to only about 17,000 statewide, around 0.6 percent of the state’s population.

In sum, Mississippi, like the rest of the country, is a place where the cash safety net has all but disappeared. This has paved the way for steep growth in the new poverty that has been documented throughout this book—households with children living on virtually no cash income. But what is distinctive about the Delta, along with other rural and semirural places concentrated in the Deep South and Appalachia, is that by the time welfare reform came along, with its new rules around work, opportunities for work had already virtually disappeared for those with low levels of education.

It is not merely the case that welfare reform and the accompanying changes left single mothers at the mercy of the perilous world of low-wage work, as it did in many places. Over the long term, work has been much less available here than it has been in most parts of the country, especially since the mechanization of agriculture. The unemployment rate in this central Delta county has been far above the national average for decades. This was true even during the historic economic expansion of the late 1990s, when the economic needle didn’t move here to the extent that it did in other parts of the country. In recent years, the rate of joblessness has been truly staggering. Halfway through 2014, more than 10 percent of adults were out of work and looking for a job (compared to the national rate of 6.3 percent). Most notable, at last available count, more than 35 percent of prime-working-age men were either unemployed or had left the labor force altogether, compared to the national average of just over 20 percent.

The cause of the economic free fall varies from place to place across the Deep South and Appalachia. While the collapse of the coal mining industry is the story in eastern Kentucky, mechanized farming techniques, including today’s high-tech, computerized tractors and combines, have allowed the agricultural industry to operate with only a tiny fraction of the workers once required in the Delta. Some of these machines are so fully automated that people say an operator can take a nap while his machine runs the length of a furrow. But it is also true that operating such a machine demands math and computer skills. Therefore, agriculture is not always a viable option for a high school dropout, especially one educated in the Delta, where many local schools earn a C, D, or F rating from the state.

Even among African Americans from around here with the skills to do these jobs, many recoil at the notion of toiling away in the same fields where their great-great-grandparents endured cruel forced labor. One local planter claims that the only way to get enough skilled and willing workers to plant, groom, and harvest his fields is to import them from South Africa. The wages he pays these college-educated guest workers for one planting season—roughly $8 an hour for forty to sixty hours per week—are more than they could make in a full year at home.

You might be able to claim a few hours at the Dollar General or the Double Quick convenience store, staples of many of these towns. There is the occasional Walmart or Kroger grocery store in the bigger cites, but they offer very few full-time positions. A small group of low-skilled individuals find work at municipal buildings or in schools (perhaps as cafeteria workers or bus drivers), but prison inmates are sometimes used for maintenance and janitorial services in these places. There are a few factory jobs in some of the larger cities, the closest of which is a half hour away by car, but most people are too poor to purchase and maintain a vehicle. There are minimum-wage jobs cleaning hotel rooms at the casinos down the road—if you can find a way to get there. Yet even these jobs are harder to come by now. The casino business in the Delta has declined as competition for gamblers has heated up in the region. More and more casinos have sprung up near Memphis, the city where most of the people with real money in the Delta live. All told, the job situation in the Delta can quickly begin to feel hopeless even for the most earnest job seeker, especially if she’s hoping for a full-time job.

The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation remains thick in places like Jefferson. There are nearly always two sides to these small communities, one white and one black. One is marked by stately redbrick structures shaded by old-growth oaks and outfitted with manicured lawns, sprawling magnolia trees, and the omnipresent crape myrtle. The other side of town teeters. Its tiny wood-frame shotgun-style houses and decrepit trailers sit askew or have imploded altogether. Yards are choked with sunken-in garages, derelict appliances, and junk cars. Narrow porches are lined with old kitchen stools or broken-down living room chairs. Each time a car goes by, which isn’t that often, the air fills with dust. The stark contrast between the two sides of town isn’t new—it’s always been like this.

Many of the old main streets in these Delta towns, built up about a century ago, now sit virtually empty. Jefferson’s downtown still has some vitality to it, but just down the road lies another little town with an impressive cluster of red-brick buildings and streets that are utterly still, even on a weekday afternoon. In a third hamlet, a group of old black men spend their afternoons playing cards on the porch of a dilapidated former general store, just as they might have when the town was bustling. Here and there across the county, the carcasses of abandoned schools sit empty, windows busted out, rooflines sagging, lawns choked with weeds. In one, the sun shining in through the broken windows highlights a bird’s nest and several old textbooks strewn across the floor. In most of the cities and towns, there are large, empty, unsightly warehouses where cotton was once stored. King Cotton must now compete with the lowly soybean and ethanol-producing corn.

Health care in the Delta ranks among the worst in the nation. Some counties don’t even have an ambulance. One person reports that if you want to get your loved one to the hospital, you must drive to the county line and meet the ambulance from the next county over, which is hard to do if you don’t have a car. And despite high crime rates, some of the smaller towns lack a single police officer. All of these features impede the possibility of future economic growth. Businesses don’t want to locate in a place where the workforce has so little experience and so many prospective workers may be functionally illiterate. What firm could convince its middle management to move there?

These small Delta towns, along with other sparsely populated farm hamlets and derelict mill towns across the Deep South and Appalachia, contain a disproportionate share of the $2-a-day poor. Locales like the Delta have long been among America’s poorest places—stops on the “poverty tours” of generations of politicians—due to economic travails evidenced generations ago.

If legitimate means for getting cash—from either welfare or employment—have become increasingly scarce, the infrastructure necessary to earn cash in the informal economy isn’t much in evidence either. There are no plasma clinics to be found, and only a few scrapyards in the region’s biggest cities. Private charity, which is in greater abundance in rich cities such as Chicago, is noticeably absent here, and many of the public spaces are in disrepair. For the residents of these little towns, the nearest food pantry is often miles away, despite the sky-high poverty. Jefferson’s public library, crafted from an abandoned railroad depot, has only a few worn best sellers and a couple of computers on hand. Not surprisingly, you may find it empty even on a weekday in those prime hours just after school, and it’s often closed due to the lack of funding.

When the new poverty of those living on $2 a day meets the old poverty of long-term economic stagnation, a whole region can become starved of cash. In places like the Delta, the bite of $2-a-day poverty is experienced on a community level. Under these conditions, a subterranean economy can spring up in place of the formal one, intricately interweaving the lives of the $2-a-day poor, the just plain poor, and even those slightly higher up the economic ladder. This shadow economy springs forth in living rooms, in parking lots, in the checkout line at Kroger, and even inside the legitimate businesses that have managed to survive. At its best, it forges bonds of interdependence that inspire the slightly better-off to aid those who are struggling in ways that speak to the marvel of human goodness. But at its worst, when the new poverty meets the old, it warps human relationships and puts those at the very bottom of society in a position that is ripe for exploitation.

Aside from the crowded trophy table, Martha’s apartment is neat and clean, but noticeably bare. There is only a love seat and a couch, and the dozen or so family photos hanging on the wall (some shellacked on antiqued wooden boards)—neither the clutter nor the decor one might expect in a household with two teens and a baby. What stands out most is the wooden dining table that separates the kitchen from the living area. The table reveals Martha’s method for surviving on virtually no legitimate source of cash other than the $150 a month in child support she gets from Candace’s father. On it, she has neatly arranged an assortment of snacks, some in woven baskets. The offerings are modest—a dozen bags of chips, some cherry- and grape-flavored suckers, a few other varieties of candy. Inside the refrigerator’s freezer, though, there are dozens of Dixie cups filled with Kool-Aid, Popsicle sticks taped into place so they stand straight up. All morning, Martha has been checking to see whether the Kool-Aid inside has frozen hard enough to ensure that the sticks will stand upright minus the tape.

At about 10:00 a.m., the first customers come by. A dad wearing a white tank top, jean shorts, and white sneakers is looking to treat his two daughters, about six and eight years old. The fifty-cent Dixie cups he hoped to purchase for the girls still haven’t frozen. There are some dollar-size pops in Styrofoam cups left over from yesterday, but he has only $1 and two eager girls, so he’ll have to come back in about an hour. Over the next thirteen hours, a similar ritual is repeated over and over again. People knock at the door, and Martha shouts for them to come in. Sometimes parents accompany their kids, sometimes the kids come on their own. Most leave with a special treat.

Martha’s business model is simple: buy in bulk, sell for roughly twice the price. Nothing in her store has a sale price of more than $1. The frozen pops yield the highest profit—all they require is Kool-Aid mix, Popsicle sticks, and a supply of Dixie and Styrofoam cups. In the summer, when the neighborhood kids are around all day, she diversifies her inventory some, offering Kool-Aid pickles (Martha’s secret recipe: add Kool-Aid mix to the pickle juice, let the pickles marinate for two or three days, and serve) and pickled pigs feet. If she’s feeling ambitious and has the supplies, she may offer chitlins, too, the local delicacy made from the small intestines of a pig.

In the bare-bones Delta economy, Martha Johnson has devised a survival strategy that trumps most others in the vicinity, both in terms of the cash it yields and in the lack of a toll on self-respect. In keeping with the biblical parable of the talents, rather than bury her proverbial treasure in the ground, Martha invests the SNAP she receives for herself, her two daughters still at home, and her six-month-old grandchild into a small capitalist enterprise that allows her to provide a minimally decent life for her family in the face of highly precarious financial circumstances. She’s spent a decade building up her business, one frozen pop and bag of potato chips at a time.

For Martha, cash is an absolute necessity of life. Her biggest bill is for the utilities, which run about $250 a month on average. She suffers from asthma, so she feels she needs a phone in case of an emergency. She can’t afford a smartphone, but she does have a basic flip phone, which costs another $25 a month. She has to keep her grandson in diapers and formula, and Alona, the three-season athlete, in athletic shoes. She must provide school uniforms for the girls. Her goal is to ensure that there is toothpaste and toilet paper in the bathroom and laundry soap to wash the clothes. With the tiny profit she makes on her store—plus a little bit of help here and there from Alona’s boyfriend, the part-time Walmart employee whom Martha calls “my angel”—she brings her meager budget into balance. A good day at the store yields $20 in profit for thirteen hours of work, an hourly wage of less than $1.50. If she has a good day every day for an entire month, her proceeds can reach $600. In reality, though, she usually nets only about $400.

Running a little store out of the front room of her apartment is, in many ways, the perfect job for a woman who is too sick to hold down a job but not quite sick enough to qualify for disability benefits. Even outside the path of crop dusters, the health conditions of many poor folks in the Delta are abysmal, and Martha is no exception. The other trophy table of sorts in her home is her bedside dresser, where eight pill bottles stand in a row. Two are for hypertension, two for anxiety, one for the blood clots in her legs and feet, and so on. She’s been to the Social Security office to file for disability, but she’s been denied. They have told her she’s healthy enough to work as a hotel maid, even though there are no hotels anywhere nearby. Even if she could get to a hotel, trying to work such a job doesn’t seem realistic to Martha: after about twenty minutes on her feet, they swell up like grapefruit.

Like many of Jefferson’s residents, Martha does not own a car, and there are no buses or public transportation of any sort. There is also no place in town to buy groceries, just the Double Quick, the Dollar General, and a tiny restaurant and general store. To acquire products for the store, she must travel to a larger city a twenty-minute car ride away. For transportation, she relies on “Miss Clark,” a neighbor lady who lives down the road. On these outings, their first stop is the local butcher, who sells snacks in bulk, as well as pigs feet and chitlins. Then they are on to Walmart or Kroger.

Dorothy Clark is one of the Delta’s just plain poor, kept well above $2-a-day poverty by her government disability check, yet she still struggles to raise her three children. She supplements her disability by using her van as a gypsy cab. Miss Clark’s neighbors keep her busy driving back and forth to “town.” Passengers pay their $30 fare in cash or SNAP. Occasionally, she drives folks around for free due to an abundance of Christian charity. Martha, a fellow churchgoer and close friend, is often the beneficiary of her generosity. Without Dorothy Clark’s kindness, the profit margin of Martha’s store would be perilously low.

Others in the taxicab business are a bit more hard-nosed. Up in the hamlet of Percy, a town of about three hundred a few miles away, Loretta Perkins uses her “little raggedy car” to transport folks where they need to go, but she never fails to charge a fee. “Nobody even gets in my car unless we go right to the gas station and they fill up the tank with gas,” she says. She is available every day but Tuesday, which she calls “National Highway Patrol Day,” due to the high number of patrol cars on the road that day of the week. Miss Perkins never drives on Tuesdays because she has no license plate for her vehicle, no insurance, and no driver’s license.

In the informal economic system that has arisen in these towns, most people are poor or nearly so, like Dorothy Clark. But some are poorer than others, like Martha. Some have a little cash but not much in the way of SNAP. Some get a large infusion of SNAP each month—though not necessarily enough to make it through—but no cash. Both groups can benefit by engaging in SNAP trafficking, though the strategies used here are a little different from those used by folks up north in Chicago. Here everyone knows everyone else, so finding a business partner who’s got some cash but no SNAP is often as simple as going next door. In the typical exchange, those with cash get their groceries for half price. The going rate for a dollar of SNAP is just 50 cents here, rather than the 60-cent rate in places where far fewer folks are involved in trafficking. Those trading SNAP for cash may not be happy about the exchange rate, but with so much SNAP and so little cash in the local economy, it is a buyer’s market.

Up in Percy, Alva Mae Hicks is raising ten children under the age of eighteen, plus she has three more who are a little older. She worked on and off as a hotel maid for several years, taking a shuttle van to Greenville each day. For the past decade or so, she hasn’t held a job. These days, she couldn’t possibly afford child care for all her kids, not to mention that the fee for the shuttle to work now costs $15 a day, a quarter of her potential gross pay. With such a large family, Alva Mae has to go above and beyond selling SNAP to have any chance of keeping her household going. Just this past year, she struck on a new strategy that may help fill the gap a little.

With no job, Alva Mae can’t take advantage of the refundable tax credits that the federal government uses to buttress the wages of low-wage workers. While she may not be employed, she does have relatives a few towns over who are, but they don’t have any children whom they can claim as dependents. She also has family over in Jonesville—just a hop, skip, and a jump from Percy—whose kids are grown. Recently, one of her relatives offered to buy one of her kids’ Social Security numbers for $500. Alva Mae then sold two more to other kin, reaping $1,500 in cash for her household—which currently contains twenty-one people. These relatives can “carry” the child whose Social Security number they purchased as a dependent on their taxes and collect the refundable tax credit for which neither they nor Alva Mae is eligible. Last year, Alva Mae used the proceeds from these transactions to buy a used car—mostly so she could visit the food pantry in a nearby town. This turned out to be a poor investment. Just two months later, the car broke down, and Alva Mae has no money to fix it.

It is not possible to tell how common this practice is in the Delta. No family in any of the other three places included in this book (Chicago, Cleveland, and Johnson City, Tennessee) admitted to selling their kids’ Social Security numbers at tax time. But conversations with residents across the central Delta suggest that the strategy may not be uncommon. In all likelihood, those who buy the right to claim a child as a dependent on their taxes make out a lot better than those who sell that right: a single person making minimum wage who claims two children can boost her tax refund by more than $5,000. Still, if these examples are any guide, the cash windfall that comes to the region at tax season—with its hefty refunds for the working poor with dependent children—may be shared by workers and nonworkers, parents and nonparents, alike.

Formal Economy, Shadow Economy

At the turnoff from the highway that leads to Percy sits the small town’s busiest, and most notorious, enterprise. Salvatore’s, a nondescript red-brick and plate-glass 1970s structure, is a white-owned liquor store and bar with an attached but shuttered convenience mart complete with two nonfunctioning gas pumps. The gas station and convenience mart have long since closed, likely casualties of the Double Quick convenience stores that have sprung up here and there along the highway. But the liquor store and bar remain the town’s most popular sites for socializing, especially after sundown. Indeed, people come from miles around. Mr. and Mrs. Salvatore do a brisk business, selling alcohol to be consumed both on and off the premises.

During the day, sunlight reflects off the hundreds of beer cans and liquor bottles that have been tossed into a deep ditch along the main highway fronting the property. Sometimes the bottle heap reaches a foot high. The owner is occasionally (though rarely) pressured by the city to clean up around the place. It’s hard to put any kind of pressure on Salvatore when he controls one of the town’s three remaining businesses, plus virtually all of the rental properties around town. According to one resident, “He own [sic] Percy. There’s maybe only four or five houses that somebody actually owns here. About ninety percent he owns.”

Salvatore rents out a set of generations-old sharecropper shacks he’s hauled from the field and plunked down by the main highway. Each has been repaired to some degree, but according to one former tenant, the insides still smell of decades—maybe even a century—of decay. You can rent one of these places for about $200 a month. For as little as $150, you can move into one of Salvatore’s collection of barely inhabitable mobile homes, some lacking any source of heat. These shacks and trailers form a ragged necklace around the intersection that marks the entrance to town. Their condition makes the weed-eaten, derelict Section 8 development where Alva Mae Hicks and Loretta Perkins live seem desirable by comparison.

The other two businesses in Percy are run by relatives of the Salvatores. At the Percy Diner, the “diner” part consists of a Formica table and four metal chairs with vinyl seats tucked back by the beverage coolers chilling cans of Coca-Cola. The coolers are the only modern touch to the place. Here, Miss Carol takes orders from the almost entirely black clientele, while Mr. Mike works the grill, dishing up hamburgers (“everything on it” means tomatoes, red onions, a piece of lettuce, and lots and lots of mayonnaise), Philly cheesesteaks, and the like.

Kitty-corner to the diner is Valentine’s General Store. Its white proprietor was mayor of Percy for nearly thirty years before losing an election to a black man who used to sweep his floors. Valentine’s sells hot dogs, sandwiches, sodas, chips, cupcakes, and Ding Dongs at lunchtime. Loaves of Wonder bread sit on the shelf ready for purchase. Anyone using SNAP here must beware, though. Some locals say that if purchasers aren’t paying attention, the Valentines may add a little something extra for themselves when they ring through groceries on SNAP cards.

Of course, if someone were to catch Mr. or Mrs. Valentine cheating them out of their food stamps, they would have little recourse. Percy has no police force. Such an offense probably wouldn’t even register with the county sheriff’s office, which has plenty of violent crime to deal with. Some years ago, Percy town officials tried to hire a semiretired cop from a larger town nearby to patrol the streets part-time. According to one local resident, after just one night on the job, the new hire called an emergency meeting with the city council to ask, “What part of the law do you want me to enforce?” Reportedly, the officer claimed that if he were to enforce the law in full, he was quite certain that most of the town’s residents would be imprisoned by week’s end. After getting some guidance from the council, he went back out on the streets for a second night. The next day, he quit.

In the evenings, and especially on the weekends, trucks, with their radios blasting, fill the parking lot at Salvatore’s. People come to drink, dance, and play pool. It’s the only source of entertainment in the immediate vicinity. According to one nearby resident, “It’s like you’re going by a football stadium or something like that, where everybody’s out and about, tailgating, something like that. Just like everybody doing different stuff up there, everybody’s dancing, they got their cars out there, they got bottles flying. That stack of bottles comes from somewhere. It comes from all these people.” Shanea Robinson, who lives in one of Salvatore’s trailers located just across a small bayou from the store, claims that out back there are “drugs and oral sex and all that stuff.” All this activity makes Salvatore’s a prime place for a mom desperate for some money—a respectable mom by day—to meet a john and “go for a ride” when a bill needs to be paid.

Especially at Salvatore’s, but pretty much everywhere else, too, it’s all but impossible to tell where the formal economy ends and the shadow economy begins. Although it’s nothing like prostitution, Martha Johnson’s little store, for all its virtues, is still an illegal enterprise. Every time she purchases inventory using her SNAP card, she commits a crime. Not revealing her “income” to the housing authority, not to mention the IRS, is also a crime. Operating a business without a license? That’s yet another offense. Dorothy Clark and Loretta Perkins operate informal taxi services, the latter without a license plate, insurance, or even a driver’s license. In addition to selling her SNAP every month, Alva Mae Hicks has sold some of her kids’ Social Security numbers, defrauding the IRS.

Yet one might argue that these activities are more in line with conventional morality than what goes on in many of the town’s legal enterprises. There is no way of telling whether Mr. and Mrs. Valentine really cheat people out of their SNAP whenever the opportunity presents itself. But the heaps of liquor bottles that collect in the ditch fronting Salvatore’s seem to broadcast the owner’s contempt for his customers to those passing by. Salvatore’s “legal” pool hall and liquor store are the most fertile ground for vice that Percy has. And Mr. Salvatore is a notorious slumlord. Sure, the places are cheap, but stepping inside, you have to wonder whether most of them are worth any rent at all.

What is the price of the world apart that has arisen in these Delta cities and towns? What happens when a community starved for cash forges a shadow economy that threatens to overtake the formal one—and the two become commingled, almost indistinguishable from each other? Does it become that much harder for a community to right its collective course, to return to a formal system with rules by which people play? The old poverty was linked to an economy based on exploitation of the worst sort. But there were still jobs to be had. Then, for a time, there was a cash floor that kept families with children above a certain threshold. Now there are neither jobs nor a cash safety net. And a place that has experienced entrenched poverty for decades has met a new poverty of the deepest sort.

Growing Up in a Sea of $2-a-Day Poverty

Tabitha Hicks, Alva Mae’s daughter, was in sixth grade when a rookie corps member of Teach for America (TFA) was assigned to her classroom. After graduating from a prestigious East Coast university, Mark Patten was offered a high-paying consulting job, but at the very last minute his heart said he was supposed to be somewhere else.

Sixth grade with Mr. Patten was like nothing the students in his class had experienced before. Tabitha looks back on this time fondly. “Normally when you have a teacher, he just give you free grades. You just go and you be the teacher’s pet, you just get a free 100. But with Mr. Patten, you had to do the work and stuff. And I kind of liked that,” she says. Mr. Patten also was the first to notice that something was wrong with Tabitha. She reports, “It was in sixth grade, I think. And I think I had, like, a lot going on, I didn’t focus in class. I do my work, but it was, like, to a certain point. I couldn’t see! I didn’t have glasses or anything.”

One evening, when eleven-year-old Tabitha—small-boned and thin to the point of emaciation—was standing in front of the stove in her mother’s kitchen making macaroni for her younger siblings, Mr. Patten knocked on the apartment door. She was holding a baby in her left arm, resting on her hip. Another baby sat in a nearby high chair, and a toddler was asleep on the couch. Six other children, all younger than Tabitha and all separated by about a year in age, hovered around the stove, waiting for their meal. Alva Mae was out running errands, and Tabitha was in charge of the house. What a time for her teacher to show up! “I was embarrassed, because there are a lot of kids, and I was trying to cook and I was cleaning, and I had the baby on my hip, and I told my little brother to answer the door, and he came back and said, ‘Hey, there is a white man at the door!’ I was like, ‘Who that?’ And I went to the door, and it was Mr. Patten!”

By the time of this visit, Tabitha had been evading her teacher’s request to come to the house to meet her mother for quite some time. “He kept saying he was gonna come ’cuz my grades [were bad], he wanted to meet my mom, and stuff like that. I kept making excuses, like, ‘My mom stay gone! She gonna be out of town. She don’t ever be home!’ And he showed up at the house and she was gone and I had the baby on my hip. I didn’t want to let him in!”

Eventually, she opened the door, and to Tabitha’s surprise, within minutes all of her younger siblings had warmed to Mr. Patten’s presence. “I let him in, and he was, like, totally comfortable. He sat on the couch and he played with the kids, and it was, like, different! The kids was loving him, jumping on him, he was playing with them and stuff like that! And he was talking to me about getting my glasses. I couldn’t [see the blackboard]. Talking to me about [if that’s] why I wasn’t focusing in class and all that. He talked to me about what I wanted to do in life … I kept thinking he was going to stop talking to me because I was babysitting—my mom had all them kids! I thought he was going to think I didn’t have no potential in me.”

Never before in Tabitha’s memory had a white person crossed the threshold of their home. And this particular white person acted in a way that was totally contrary to expectations. “Well, living in Percy, it’s some Caucasian people but it’s not a lot. And the ones that we have, they’re basically, you know … They look at you like the kids is nasty!”

Tabitha had learned what to expect from white folks from her interactions with the owners of Percy’s general store. She says, “They can be friendly sometimes, but it’s only if you can be showing them that you have, like, an education … They don’t call [my brothers] by their name … They say ‘Hey boy.’ … Like he’ll say ‘boy,’ and my brother, he’ll say, ‘My name is Stephen.’”

Despite years—even generations—of knowing one another, precious few pleasantries are exchanged between the white folks and black folks in town. To eleven-year-old Tabitha, this made Mr. Patten’s behavior completely enigmatic. “So I came home [with my glasses], my mom, everybody was happy and stuff. And then it was, like, [Mr. Patten and I] got closer because he started taking the kids to the dentist and stuff, the eye doctor, all my other brothers and sisters! It was, like, he was there for everybody! Like we’d tell him about our problems, like even my mom called him sometimes. It’s not normal for [someone like] him to be that close to our family!”

Further visits by Mr. Patten revealed that Tabitha’s nearsightedness was only the tip of the iceberg. Poverty was like a millstone around his young student’s neck. The most obvious manifestation of this poverty was in the extreme overcrowding. After giving birth to five children by Tabitha’s father—who moved to Biloxi to work on the oil rigs just after Tabitha was born—Alva Mae fell for a much younger man about the time Tabitha turned three. Cliff, who was only sixteen to her twenty-six, was a brutally abusive drug addict who worked as a farmhand for a local planter. He wielded nearly complete power over Alva Mae. She gave birth to eight of his children in almost as many years. By the time Tabitha had turned ten years old, there were thirteen children at home. Over the next few years, several of the older children left, formed families of their own, and then bounced back at regular intervals due to money troubles, sometimes bringing their kids or lovers with them. Although Cliff has been ordered by the court to pay child support of $107 a week, he does so only sporadically. Other than that, Alva Mae and the kids see none of his money. Cliff is cruel. His own children loathe him. He has been known to beat Alva Mae until her face is covered in blood, and he manipulates his family in ways clearly calculated to cause deep psychological wounds. He has an official address elsewhere but is often in the home.

Between Tabitha’s sixth- and ninth-grade years, only Alva Mae and ten of her thirteen children had the legal right to live in their government-subsidized apartment. At times, however, up to twenty-four people could be found packed into the unit. “It’s a three-bedroom apartment,” Tabitha says. “So it was very hard, because … basically you slept wherever you wanted to lay your head. Some of them slept on the couch, some of them slept on the floor. Eight of us slept in the bed. But there’s like only two beds in the house. So it was really hard. My mother, she would put the covers over us. She would set us in the bed. Like, she had to put the bed against the wall for more support. She just pack us all into the bed. We just lay straight. We try not to complain, because, you know, basically we see our mom going through this and it’s painful, it’s depressing to her, and then we don’t want to bring it to anyone’s attention.”

Mr. Patten had rocked Tabitha’s world just by caring enough to show up at her home one day and then by arranging trips to the eye doctor, as well as medical and dental appointments for her siblings. Then he and a couple of other TFA teachers organized a spring break field trip to Washington, D.C. “My first time out of the Delta. First time out of the Delta, I went to Washington, D.C. It was a lot of us that hadn’t been out of the Delta. It was, like, the majority of the school. It was only fifteen of us [that got to go], and it was so exciting and I was so happy … My mom was kind of skeptical. ‘What? You going out of town with those white men?’ They trusted [them], but they was still [nervous].”

As they prepared to leave for the nation’s capital, the teachers learned that hardly any of the children had more than one change of clothing, underwear, or socks. A trip to the nearest Walmart—with funds from a few generous donors—provided the provisions needed to get the kids through the week they would be away. Tabitha had even less than the rest. “That was stressful, ’cuz I was, like, everyone gonna judge me, and I was, like, I didn’t want anyone to know that we didn’t, like, have clothes or anything. Because, like, what my mom said, ‘What goes on in the house stays in the house.’ We … didn’t really have no clothes, just wore the same uniform over and over again … Basically, that was normal to me. Not that it was normal and I was happy or anything like that. I knew that it was not a good thing, but I was so used to it!”

The trip was the highlight of Tabitha’s young life. “It was so exciting. We were on an airplane! Saw the White House, the Washington Monument … It was so cool because a lot of white people actually were the ones would talk to us.” It was a shock to have white folks addressing her and the other kids in a friendly manner. Also on this trip, many of the children saw an elevator for the first time. Initially, some of them didn’t believe that the box behind the doors could actually transport them from one floor to another. They honestly thought it was some sort of joke that the teachers were playing on them.

At the end of the trip, a strange melancholy fell over the band of sixth graders. As they boarded the plane, “everyone was so mad at Mr. Patten ’cuz we was, like, ‘You take us all the way out here, you show us this, and then you take us back to the Delta where there’s nothing?’” Once they were back home, it would be back to “waking up every day, not having enough food, sleeping with seven of us, it was, like, seven, eight of us in the bed and the rest of them on the floor. And sometimes a week or two we go without the lights, and then just the feeling, like, you’re just starving.”

What does it feel like to be that hungry? Tabitha pauses, then says, “Well, actually, it feel like you want to be dead. Because it’s peaceful being dead. Going through seeing your little brother and them, you know, wake up crying, and then [them saying] they don’t want to go through this anymore … And then my mom, she saying she don’t want to go through this anymore. It’s like really hard because you wake up some days in the dark. And just go for two weeks, three weeks [without lights, heat, or air-conditioning]. [When] stamp day rolls around again, [my mom] sell the stamps and that’s how the lights get back again.”

Tabitha spent her seventh-grade year, the year after the D.C. trip, hungry. Same with her eighth- and ninth-grade years. Finally, in the tenth grade an opportunity arose. Her gym teacher messaged her on Facebook and said he had been watching her for years, waiting for her to “mature.” “Since you were real young,” he wrote. He wanted to meet—in secret—at his house after school. He promised food.

Tabitha was deeply conflicted about the teacher’s offer. What if accepting it meant that she might finally be able to sleep at night without gnawing hunger pains, afraid that if she moved to clutch her empty stomach, she’d be evicted from the bed she was sharing with seven siblings, forced to sleep on a rug she knew had been fished out of the Dumpster? What if going along with the gym teacher meant she would finally be able to concentrate in school? She was so afraid of disappointing Mr. Patten. Maybe she could even sneak some of the food she was given into her backpack so she could stop her four-year-old brother from crying himself to sleep at night.

Tabitha’s dilemma was made worse by the fact that in Percy, conventional morality is often turned upside down. Most grown-ups in this little town claim to be God-fearing; you can almost take that for granted. But what was Tabitha to make of the fact that Mr. Valentine, the store owner who called her brothers “boy” just to show he could, was the town’s former mayor, its chief public servant? How was she supposed to think about the fact that her next-door neighbor, who attended the local Baptist church and sang in the choir, was also known to walk the half mile to Salvatore’s on a Friday (payday for the farmhands) whenever her family was really desperate to get the power back on? After socializing for a while, she would disappear into a beat-up truck with some guy, the two of them heading off down the road. Forty-five minutes later, the truck would roll back into the parking lot, kicking up dust as it came. She would reemerge from the passenger side, straightening her hair and rearranging her clothing. Once more, twice more, as often as it took to make sure the light bill got paid.

How was Tabitha supposed to come to terms with the fact that it was a teacher—a man in a role she had been taught to respect—who was the one offering her special attention in the form of sex after school in return for a full stomach? If a teacher said it was okay, could it really be so wrong? Besides, could she say no to a teacher?

Tabitha shudders, recalling the liaison that lasted seven months. “He said he had been watching me. Watching me! Since I was young! Like I was meat! He was watching me all that time.” Finally, Tabitha, fraught with guilt, sought out Mr. Patten, who was no longer teaching at her school but had chosen to stay in the area after his stint with TFA was done. She told him what was going on. She blamed herself. Mr. Patten tried to convince her that a sixteen-year-old could not consent to a sexual relationship with a grown-up, especially a teacher.

Acting on his instructions, Tabitha reported the gym teacher to the county attorney and the high school principal. At first, nothing happened. Finally, after Mr. Patten insisted, the teacher was removed from his post, although they gave him other work at the school. To date, there has been no criminal prosecution by the county attorney. In fact, there has been no response from his office at all. Tabitha has four sisters under her who will go to the same high school. The thought of this man claiming another victim from among them keeps her awake at night.

Alva Mae and her ten children living at home constitute the “official” SNAP assistance unit. She gets $1,600 in food stamps each month, but she has no cash to pay the utility bills (electricity, water, and sewer), to buy clothing, and so on. In a climate where the temperature has ranged from 9 to 109 degrees in just the past six months, it is clear that electricity is essential to heat and cool the apartment. The thirteenth of each month, when the family’s SNAP card gets replenished, always feels celebratory. But with bills that can only be paid with cash, the relief is short-lived. When asked how much of their monthly SNAP gets sold, Tabitha says, “She sell enough to get the light bill paid. So if the light bill comes to three hundred dollars, she take … enough out to get three hundred dollars left over.” (At the Delta’s going rate, it takes $600 in food stamps to yield $300 in cash.) Then “whatever other bills she has [she’ll sell more]. But the food stamps don’t last because of it.”

Somehow, this serious-looking young woman, now eighteen, has been able to see the larger picture and feel moral indignation rather than resignation. Her weight, still so low, is a testament to what it has cost her and her brothers and sisters to live for so many years among the $2-a-day poor. When asked how long the food each month lasts, she says, “It only last a week or two—maybe a week and a half, if we eat one meal a day … The kids, they so, they so, emotional [about it]. My little sister in the room, and she just crying. My little brother in the room, and he just crying, like, it’s sad … They cry because they compare their life to someone else. Like, a lot of my little sisters and brothers and them say they wish they wasn’t alive. And it’s sad because when my [older] brother died … I remember my little brother and them breaking down, and … my little brother said, ‘I wish I was Mike, too. I wish I was dead.’”

When Tabitha was sixteen and her older brother Mike was twenty-two, he went to visit their oldest sister, who was in the army and stationed in Knoxville, Tennessee. One Saturday, “he and his friend decided to go [cliff diving]. Well, we seen the video. They [made] a video ’cuz they was just having fun. It’s [a place] on a river … that used to be a park. But [in the river], it was rocks or something on the bottom.”

At this point, Tabitha pauses, lowering her voice as if revealing a secret. “I think he’s happy. I know he’s happy. That’s what I tell my little brother and them. I just don’t want for them to feel that they should go there. That they should do something to hurt theyselves. Me personally? [I think he did it on purpose.] Yes. ’Cuz in the video he went to a corner and he prayed. In the video, [his friends] say, ‘Hey man, what you doing over there praying and stuff?’ And he put his hands together, he say a prayer and he just run and jump off, and his body just float. And you see it, he had a white shirt on. He just was gone.”

One might think that her brother’s death or her liaison with the gym teacher was the low point of Tabitha’s young life. But according to her, that moment had to do with Cliff. It came in the fall of her junior year. Alva Mae and Cliff were fighting, and Tabitha intervened to protect her mom. “I jumped in it like I always do. I jumped in it, and then I was like, ‘You’re not gonna hit her, not in front of the kids,’ because the girls gonna think, you know, that’s how men love them, is to take a hand to them … Then he pushes me, [holds a gun to my head], and says he’s gonna kill me.”

With the attention drawn off her and onto Tabitha, Alva Mae fled to Salvatore’s, with Cliff following in pursuit as soon as he realized she was gone. Tabitha and her siblings trailed behind him at a safe distance, intent on protecting their mother. At Salvatore’s, several patrons had to pull Cliff off Alva as he tried to beat her to a bloody pulp. After the fight was over, Cliff presented Alva Mae with an ultimatum. Tabitha says he told her mother, “‘You need to make a choice, me or [Tabitha]. Before tonight, one [of] us is leaving.’ And [my mom] was like, ‘Well, Tabitha, what do you think about staying with your friend for a while?’” Tabitha’s mother had chosen Cliff over her. “And I knew at the time what she was saying. So I just broke down and started crying.”

Now Tabitha was virtually homeless. Mr. Patten found a boarding school in Memphis that had scholarships and helped her apply. By January, when she was first interviewed for this book, she was living in Memphis, with her own bed to sleep in, only one roommate, and three meals a day.

Her struggle isn’t over, though. “When I’m alone, I’m thinking about [home]. Well, then it’s kinda hard. Well, it is hard. ’Cuz then, when I call my mom and [say], like, ‘What you doing,’ and just to hear the pain in her voice?” She says, though, that “every time I look in my little sisters’ and brothers’ eyes … they’re proud of me, like if no one else is proud of me, I know my little sisters and brothers [are] proud of me. That’s why I said, when I graduate, my mom don’t have to come, [but] every one of my siblings have to be there. They have to be there. Like, if one of them just don’t come, like, I would be sad … Like it would be a waste of time. Like I want them to see me graduate. But the scary thing is that I’m scared what if I don’t make it in college?

“Like, my sisters have always seen other kids who get up and fail. That’s why they don’t want to get up, because they always seen someone fail. I tell them, ‘You got to get all As and Bs!’ and they say, ‘Why get all As and Bs and I fail this test?’ In the house we so scared of failing. I’m scared about failing. When I care about something, I give it my all. I care about going to college, so I’m trying to give it my all. But what scares me is that the family I come from has no money! We have no money, so [how am I going to go to college without even one cent]?”

Tabitha’s experiences—and the intense hunger and material deprivation that she and her siblings have suffered—reveal the sickening underside of the shadow economy that has sprung up in these little Delta towns. Those trading SNAP for cash might be able to keep the lights and heat on, but doing so virtually guarantees that someone—probably everyone—in the house will go hungry. Hunger, in turn, may put mothers and children at risk of demeaning and dangerous sexual liaisons. To put it simply, not having cash basically ensures that you have to break the law and expose yourself to humiliation in order to survive. And when some among the community leadership—teachers, shop owners, public officials—prey on the poor by charging too much for decrepit trailers or by offering food or vital cash in exchange for sexual favors, the line between good and bad blurs even further, especially in the eyes of a child.

There are certainly many good folks, black and white, in these Delta towns. The loving, supportive bond that is so palpable in Martha Johnson’s home is the kind that most American families hope for in their own. Dorothy Clark may be struggling herself, but she is still willing to lend a hand to her fellow parishioner Martha. In Jefferson, a group of business owners have launched—and help fund, out of their own pockets—a small after-school program that has boosted student achievement among participants, helping several to go on to college. There are many good teachers, principals, and public officials to be found in the Delta, too. But how is even the most caring educator supposed to cope when confronted with so many hungry children arriving each morning at school, a school whose state rating is a D? What resources does the current mayor of Percy, the first black mayor in the city’s history, really have at hand to change the living conditions of his constituents, given the lack of jobs and basic public infrastructure? What examples of good government has he seen to guide him?

By no stretch of the imagination is the Mississippi Delta representative of the rest of the United States. There’s no place in America that has the Delta’s history or its particular constellation of challenges. Our country’s original sin of slavery lives on here more palpably than in many other places. The degree to which the economy has broken down—in spite of some of the richest farmland in the world—is an order of magnitude greater, perhaps, than in any other region of America. As such, our account of $2-a-day poverty in the Delta might be seen as an outrageous outlier that should be discounted.

In fact, however, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, there are more than twenty other cities and towns that are even poorer than Jefferson. A number of these places are located in Appalachia and the Deep South, including Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. They are places you’ve probably never heard of, with names such as like Tchula, Cullen, Sneedville, and Munfordville.

A deeper look into these Census Bureau statistics reveals that all across America, there are thousands of struggling cities and towns. Many of these places, and the rural regions where they are located, are hidden from view in pockets of the country that other Americans have largely forgotten. In these communities, too, the formal economy has all but disintegrated, and the social safety net—both public and private—is threadbare. To visit these impoverished regions is to experience what Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy did fifty years ago, when they were visibly shaken by the conditions there. With so many of their citizens cut off from any legitimate access to a cash income, these places may seem unrecognizable as part of “America.” And yet they are America, as much as any other place in the country.

Though these forgotten places are indeed a world apart, much of what the extreme poor in other regions experience is reflected in the experiences of these families, too. In the central Delta, welfare is just as dead as it is in the rest of the country, if not more so. The affordable housing crisis and the perils of doubling up are also richly evident in the Delta. So is the stubborn spirit of those with nothing to survive by any means necessary. But a key difference between other places and the economically distressed small towns and rural regions concentrated in the Deep South and Appalachia is the combination of a virtually nonexistent cash safety net and the virtual lack of any formal-sector jobs. In these places, the impact of $2-a-day poverty—a shadow economy that may all but supplant the formal one—can be felt on a community, not just an individual, level.

With virtually no work, no cash safety net, and a shadow economy that erodes many aspects of “community,” the impact on children can be especially severe. Tabitha Hicks would be the first one to tell you that were it not for Mr. Patten, she would still be hungry three weeks out of the month. She might have gotten pregnant—perhaps by her gym teacher. She could have dropped out of school. It would have been easy to enter adulthood with as little hope as her mother had, even before all the hope had been beaten out of her by a violent partner like Cliff.

Yet the Delta’s children are not alone in feeling the keen fallout from life among the $2-a-day poor. At this writing, three of the parents who appear in this book have a child who has attempted suicide. Another—Tabitha’s older brother Mike—may have successfully ended his life. Yet another, only age nine, is being treated with antipsychotic drugs because he threatened his sister with a knife. Two of the girls whose families we describe have ended up selling their bodies in exchange for food and money. One had to be treated for multiple sexually transmitted diseases at age fifteen. Certainly, this is too high a price for children to pay.

Conclusion: Where, Then, from Here?

BEFORE EXPLORING STRATEGIES that will lift up the $2-a-day poor in a radically different way than has been done before, it’s worth revisiting recent welfare history. We’ve seen that David Ellwood’s 1988 manifesto, Poor Support, called for replacing welfare, not just reforming it. He turned a spotlight on a portion of the poor who rarely got any attention—or much help—from the government: the working poor. Ellwood believed that by shifting the social safety net to support those who worked but remained in poverty, America could design a form of poor support that would avoid the criticisms lodged against welfare. In the 1990s, President Clinton and Congress acted on Ellwood’s ideas and bolstered the well-being of working-poor parents dramatically through tax credits that provided a substantial pay raise in the form of a wage subsidy. The largest of these programs, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), is now generous enough to lift more than 3 million children above the poverty line each year. Millions of struggling working families have been made much better off as a result of these changes, a triumph of social policy.

Ellwood’s conclusion—that welfare must be replaced, not just reformed—was based on a crucial insight: any program so out of sync with American values was doomed to fail. He made the case that four values were especially important: the “autonomy of the individual,” the “virtue of work,” the “primacy of the family,” and the “desire for and sense of community.” The old welfare system was portrayed, if unfairly, as supporting the opposite—indolence and single parenthood. Because of this, Ellwood argued, virtually everyone disliked the program. Many hated it—even many of its claimants.

An unintended consequence of abolishing AFDC has been the rise of $2-a-day poverty among households with children. But though welfare reform may have been the cause of this increase, reverting to the old welfare system is not the answer. The flaws of that system were too deep. Ellwood’s basic premise remains as true today as it was twenty-five years ago: any response to the rise in $2-a-day poverty must be in line with America’s values. This is not merely an argument about political feasibility. The primary reason to strive relentlessly for approaches that line up with what most Americans believe is moral and fair is that government programs that are out of sync with these values serve to separate the poor from the rest of society, not integrate them into society. The old welfare system had the virtue of providing a floor of cash income for those in need, but it exacted a heavy price. To be a welfare recipient was to wear a scarlet letter in the eyes of your fellow Americans. The old welfare system separated its claimants from the mainstream. It may even have created a class of outcasts forced to trade their sense of citizenship for relief.

The ultimate litmus test we endorse for any reform is whether it will serve to integrate the poor—particularly the $2-a-day poor—into society. It is not enough to provide material relief to those experiencing extreme deprivation. We need to craft solutions that can knit these hard-pressed citizens back into the fabric of their communities and their nation.

With this in mind, we propose a radical return to the central idea that was behind the 1996 welfare reform: work opportunity is vital and must be at the center of a multipronged strategy to help the $2-a-day poor. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—welfare reform—delivered on the “personal responsibility.” It ended widespread reliance on cash welfare. But for too many, it failed to deliver on work opportunity.

Our approach to ending $2-a-day poverty is guided by three principles: (1) all deserve the opportunity to work; (2) parents should be able to raise their children in a place of their own; and (3) not every parent will be able to work, or work all of the time, but parents’ well-being, and the well-being of their children, should nonetheless be ensured.

All Deserve the Opportunity to Work

Everything we’ve learned about the $2-a-day poor suggests that it is typically the opportunity to work that is lacking, not the will, and that ensuring work opportunity would do no end of good. For Rae McCormick and Jennifer Hernandez, work is what keeps the problems of mental distress and family dysfunction at bay. The routine, the ability to get lost in one’s work, may have a certain healing power.

There’s no getting around the fact that there aren’t enough jobs—much less ones with adequate pay, hours, and stability—to go around. The solution is a robust program of job creation—one that goes beyond anything America has undertaken since the Great Depression.

Government-subsidized private sector job creation is one way forward. Recently, the federal government sponsored a promising short-term subsidized jobs program through something called the TANF Emergency Fund. States that chose to participate were allowed to use TANF dollars to provide employers (mostly in the private sector) with incentives to hire unemployed workers, targeting those on TANF or those who were in a spell of extended unemployment. Each state was given considerable leeway to design the program however it saw fit, often in close collaboration with employers. Across the District of Columbia and the thirty-nine states that took part in the program, employers created more than 260,000 jobs with an investment of only $1.3 billion dollars. Roughly two-thirds of participating employers said they created positions that would not have existed otherwise, and the businesses that took part expressed, on the whole, eagerness to participate in such a program in the future. Further, many participants remained employed after the subsidy ended, and those who had experienced significant trouble finding work especially made gains. Researchers who studied the program noted that it garnered “widespread support from employers, workers, and state and local officials from both ends of the political spectrum.”

Creating a subsidized jobs program modeled on the TANF Emergency Fund would be one way to improve the circumstances of America’s $2-a-day poor. These individuals tend to be at the end of the hiring queue for a multitude of reasons and would likely benefit from an approach targeting workers who have the greatest challenges finding work. A program that included some support services could be particularly effective. In Michigan, a program called Community Ventures not only helps place individuals in jobs but also goes further by providing a set of services that make it easier for workers to stay in those jobs, such as assistance in arranging transportation or child care in a pinch. Imagine if Rae McCormick had had a resource like this when the truck had no gas and she couldn’t find a way to get to her job at Walmart. Including a caseworker who can counsel workers when conflict arises or advocate on their behalf might make a program like this especially valuable. What if Modonna Harris had had someone to advocate for her when her cash drawer came up $10 short, or if Jennifer Hernandez could have gotten counseling about the laws governing overtime work and pay when she was working double shifts at Catalina? Perhaps her family’s sojourn to Texas could have been avoided. Such work support programs could even be paired with mental health services. With the routine and structure that a job provides, and with access to quality mental health services, it seems possible that Jennifer and Rae might be able to really get a handle on their mental health challenges.

Some argue that stimulating private sector job growth doesn’t go nearly far enough. Harvard economist and former Clinton treasury secretary Larry Summers predicts that among working-age American men, one in six could be out of a job due to changes in technology even when the economy has fully recovered from the Great Recession. If that trend continues, he says, in a generation “a quarter of middle-aged men will be out of work at any given moment.” Economists Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of the University of Oxford estimate that jobs are at a high risk of being automated in nearly half of all occupational categories. If these predictions are correct, the seemingly endless hunt for work won’t just be the lot of the $2-a-day poor; many in America will be joining them.

If that is the case, we need to think bigger. Much bigger. If the private sector isn’t up to the task of producing enough jobs, one could make a strong argument that government itself ought to create a substantially larger share of the jobs than it does now—jobs like those provided by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Certainly, there is ample work to be done in our communities. The nation’s infrastructure is badly out-of-date in many places—often crumbling, sometimes downright dangerous. The National Park Service and state and local park districts are underfunded; this limits hours and upkeep. Safe, stimulating day care centers—the kind of environments our toddlers and preschoolers require to thrive—are too few. We need many more after-school programs for school-age children. There are too few tutoring programs. There is too little elder care. Our public libraries, pools, and recreation centers—vital institutions for the safety and well-being of our children—sometimes limit their hours due to lack of funding. Trash litters our rural byways and our city streets. There is a widespread need for treatment centers for the chemically addicted and shelters for the homeless. There is enough to do.

In addition to increasing the number of jobs, we need to improve the quality of the jobs available for Jennifer, Modonna, Rae, Travis, Jessica, and the others described in this book. Since the mid-1990s, the country has relied on tax credits to make up for low pay. But a detailed look at the budgets of taxpayers who claim the EITC shows that even those who are stably employed for much of the year can’t make ends meet each month on their wages alone. As a result, a significant portion of their tax refunds go to paying off debt accrued over the course of the year. A large share of their tax refund is, in effect, claimed by creditors, who sometimes charge interest at rates as high as 30 percent.

The most straightforward way to improve the payoff of low-wage work is to raise wages. Americans, on the whole, like the idea of increasing the minimum wage, and all signs suggest they would support a substantial increase in it. Some states and cities have grown impatient with Congress and have enacted higher state and local minimum wages through legislation or by popular referendum. These changes offer fertile ground for research. Seattle’s minimum wage will rise to $15 an hour for large employers over the next few years. Is such a rate sustainable? The jury is out and will be for some time to come. But most economists now agree that the minimum wage could be raised to at least $10 per hour without driving down the supply of jobs to a meaningful degree, and that doing so might modestly boost economic growth. All of the adults we have written about in this book have worked for less than $10 per hour for much or all of their working lives. Boosting their wages may make their personal circumstances less precarious, which in turn may make it easier for them to stay in their jobs and avoid falling into a spell of extreme destitution.

For those who actually find work, low hourly pay is not the only issue plaguing the $2-a-day poor. Researchers estimate that American workers lose billions of dollars each year to what is referred to as “wage theft”—clear violations of labor standards that include paying less than the minimum wage, forcing employees to work off the clock, and failing to pay mandated overtime rates (like what happened to Jennifer Hernandez at Catalina). If one tallied all of the losses suffered by victims of robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts combined, the figure wouldn’t even approach what is taken from hardworking Americans’ pockets by employers who violate the nation’s labor laws. And the victims are generally the most vulnerable among us.

Insufficient hours and unstable schedules are huge problems. Many low-wage employers choose not to hire entry-level workers full-time, or even to provide stable part-time hours. Unpredictable work schedules multiply the deleterious impact of low pay and too few hours. There’s plenty of evidence that on-call shifts, zero-hour workweeks, variable scheduling, and temporary contracts—practices that skirt worker protections and make it difficult to qualify for unemployment insurance—are all too common. Policy proposals aimed at improving conditions for low-wage service sector workers include provisions for minimum or guaranteed hours—perhaps thirty-five hours per week for full-time workers and twenty-five hours for part-time workers. Policy makers would have to look hard at how to design these regulations so as not to tie the hands of workers and firms too much. But a rule that could make an immediate impact would be one requiring employers to post schedules at least three weeks in advance. More predictability at work—and in the family’s finances—might bring more stability to the lives of those who otherwise might be prone to fall into $2-a-day poverty.

Legislation can help, but we, as consumers, can also make a difference with our dollars. To do so, we need better sources of information about which employers treat their workers well—or poorly. Casting a bright light on poor working conditions, and on their consequences for parents and kids, may catalyze the public’s approbation, and there’s evidence that it could lead to real change. In 2014, the New York Times reported on the deleterious impacts of Starbucks’s “just-in-time” scheduling practices on one mother of young children. The resulting uproar compelled the chain to pledge that it would revise its procedures. In the early months of 2015, Walmart announced that it would raise wages for its associates to $10 per hour by 2016 and change its scheduling practices so that workers will get at least two and a half weeks’ notice of their shifts. These changes appear to have been spurred at least in part by public criticism over the low wages the company offers and the precarious schedules it often imposes on workers. Could drawing more attention to such practices create a race to the top among low-wage employers, especially as the labor market tightens? The nation needs an index of retail firms that offers information on how each one treats its low-level workers—pay, working conditions, scheduling practices, the proportion of employees working full-time—that consumers can use to make decisions about where to shop.

Can firms afford to treat their workers better? New research shows that when workers are treated well, they work harder and more productively, delivering value to investors and customers alike. Fewer things get mis-shelved or priced incorrectly, both major sources of lost profit in the retail sector. When workers are treated better, they might in turn treat customers better, too, leading to more sales. Market Basket, a successful grocery store chain operating in New England, starts employees off at $12 an hour and offers health insurance and paid sick leave to everyone. Wegmans, another regional grocery store chain, QuikTrip convenience stores, and Southwest Airlines are all profitable while treating their employees well. Each firm differs, but as a group they tend to pay higher-than-average wages, rely more heavily on full-time workers, employ more stable scheduling practices, offer more fringe benefits, and invest in their workers through on-the-job training. And their workers seem to perform better because of it.

What is different about these firms—and there are far too few—is not just the pay, hours, or benefits. Market Basket employees say that their CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas, makes it a point to know his employees by name. He attends their weddings and funerals. When he was fired by his board of directors in a turf battle over control of the family-owned company, workers went on strike in protest. They weren’t risking their jobs for increased wages or benefits. They were risking their jobs for their boss.

In contrast, the relationship between low-wage employers and their employees is badly degraded in too many cases. The decision makers rarely meet the rank and file. Restoring the relationship between employers and employees may be especially critical for the $2-a-day poor, who tend to have complex personal lives that may spill over into their work lives. Only employers who know their employees personally can exercise the discretion to discern whether someone like Rae, the two-time “cashier of the month,” has missed her shift because she’s a shirker or is a valued employee who has hit a rough patch.

We recognize that not all among the $2-a-day poor will be able to claim opportunities in the workforce without support. Some among them, like Martha Johnson down in the Mississippi Delta, have physical limitations that prevent them from taking many jobs, but are not disabled enough to qualify for disability benefits. Among the families followed for this book, this group was small—most families had a parent who had successfully worked full-time at some point. But without a larger study, we can’t say for certain how many among the $2-a-day poor fit into this category. However large this group, they, too, should have a chance to contribute. We need to be creative about work to ensure that everyone can make a contribution and thus find a way to belong. Extending opportunities for supported work, much as we do for some adults who are officially disabled, would offer a middle ground. Another creative option for informal entrepreneurs like Martha are the small business “incubators” that have sprung up all over the country helping to formalize the “brown”—informal yet not illegal—economy. A food incubator, for example, might provide access to a professional kitchen that’s up to code, allowing Martha to produce her Kool-Aid pickles and market them on grocery store shelves.

Parents Should Be Able to Raise Their Children in a Place of Their Own

We believe that, at the very least, all Americans willing to work full-time throughout the year should be able to maintain a place of their own. Rae deserves to have that place where she can “just relax and enjoy being with my daughter,” where she can give Azara the “decked-out Dora room” she’s been dreaming of.

Since 2000, more and more Americans have found that the price of an apartment is out of their reach. Those concerned about the affordable housing crisis often focus a spotlight on rising rents. Clearly, a few million additional government rental subsidy vouchers would help. In addition, there is a place for investment in the building or rehabbing of more affordable housing. There’s actually already an underutilized mechanism in place at the federal level that could help with this—the National Housing Trust Fund. The NHTF is supposed to act as a pot of money that could be tapped by states to help support the building of affordable housing developments. Yet the recent housing crisis derailed efforts to fully fund the NHTF, and the federal government has yet to build the program up. One idea to fund such an initiative is to limit the home mortgage interest deduction on mortgage values above a certain level, perhaps half a million or a million dollars, in effect shifting a subsidy away from very wealthy families to some of the very poorest ones. Another possible avenue to increase the stock of affordable housing and decrease residential segregation is to reduce the prevalence of discriminatory “exclusionary zoning” regulations. Through such provisions, municipal (often suburban) governments restrict what kind of housing can be built in a community—such as by prohibiting apartment buildings or setting large minimum lot sizes—so as to limit the supply of housing available to low-income families.

Rising rents are certainly a big part of the problem, but the concurrent fall in renters’ incomes has outstripped the rise in prices by a factor of more than two to one. And while exploitation certainly exists, even nonprofit housing providers find it difficult to deliver housing to the poor for much less than it costs in the private market. Many smaller landlords and real estate investors, especially the mom-and-pop operators who provide the bulk of the nation’s housing, report profit margins that are perilously slim.

It follows, then, that part of the solution to the affordable housing crisis is to increase the incomes of renters. By ensuring the opportunity to work, and by taking strides to improve wages and guarantee hours, we can alleviate at least some of the pressure. In no state today does a full-time job paying minimum wage allow a family to afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. But a family with a full-time earner making $15 an hour can afford a two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rent in twenty-two states and can come very close in another four.

Interviews with landlords of low-income renters in three cities offer at least anecdotal evidence that these investors factor in the job and income instability of their prospective tenants when setting rents. If a landlord anticipates that she’ll be able to collect rent in full and on time for only two-thirds of her tenants, she may factor that into the prices she charges. In the summer of 2014, some landlords with units in the tougher sections of Cleveland said they could count on getting only about 50 percent of their rents paid on time in a given month. Most attributed the problem to the unstable earnings of their tenants. Even if some tenants might pay up eventually, in other cases the landlord will have to forgo rent for a month or more while evicting the current tenant and finding a new one. If these considerations do indeed factor into rental prices, it follows that ensuring work opportunity might well provide benefits that trickle up to landlords, allowing them to make apartments available at lower prices.

Government housing subsidy dollars could be redirected to cover more eligible households if a greater number of families with housing subsidies earned more. Currently, subsidized renters must put 30 percent of their net income toward rent. Researchers found that roughly 45 percent of non-elderly, nondisabled housing subsidy holders reported no earnings in 2010. What if even one-third or one-half of these households instead earned net incomes of even $15,000 a year? The total savings could conceivably reach into the billions. If these dollars could then be reallocated to alleviate the housing burdens of a greater proportion of the poor, the United States would make even more progress toward closing the gap between income and rents.

Sometimes Work Won’t Work

One very good piece of news about the $2-a-day poor is that most have a recent history of work. Seventy percent of children in $2-a-day poverty live in a household where someone has worked in a formal job during the year, while only about 10 percent are in households that have claimed TANF. The high level of attachment to work in the formal economy indicates that ensuring work opportunity and increasing the quality of low-wage jobs will be a sufficient safety net for most of this population, much of the time.

But we do need a program that can provide a temporary cash cushion, because no matter what strategies we implement, work—even supported work—will sometimes fail. Factors not related to the availability of jobs can throw families into crisis, especially those whose lives are sometimes overwhelmingly complicated. In difficult times, they need a real safety net to catch them. In-kind benefits such as SNAP and Medicaid offer a lifeline to families in these straits, but they just aren’t the same as cash. They don’t offer the flexibility of cash—the kind of flexibility that the stories in this book have shown to be so crucial. For many of our families, their downward spiral into $2-a-day poverty might have been reversed by a timely infusion of cash.

Right now, we don’t have a functioning cash safety net to catch people when they fall. Thus, too many families at the very bottom feel compelled to secure a modicum of cash by trading their SNAP. This isn’t good for them, and it’s not good for society. Beyond the fact that it’s illegal, it’s a waste of government money. When Jennifer Hernandez decides she must sell some of her SNAP to buy socks and underwear for her kids, or when Alva Mae Hicks trades away her SNAP to pay the utility bill, they lose a whopping 40 to 50 percent in purchasing power. And as a result, they and their children go hungry.

In many cases, a relatively small infusion of cash might be all it would take. Since most families work, perhaps something called a “family crisis account” might be built on top of the EITC—something that families could tap a finite number of times over a given period to help them bridge the gap during a crisis. Credits could be earned with work effort and banked until needed. The key would be that families would be able to access these resources quickly, in a pinch, without having to cut through too much red tape. One idea is to provide those claiming the EITC the option to “save” some of their refund—to have it disbursed at intervals throughout the year rather than in a lump sum at tax time—and offer them incentives to do so. That way, when families hit a rough spot or face a sudden crisis, they have a self-made safety net to draw on.

Providing the ultimate safety net is the role that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is supposed to play, but it hasn’t proved to be up to the task. Part of the reason TANF isn’t doing its job is that it is a block grant given to the states, which have broad flexibility as to how they spend the money. This means that they have plenty of reasons to keep families off the rolls, because if they do, they get to use the money for other, related purposes. Of the $16.5 billion the federal government transfers to states for TANF, more than $11 billion is siphoned off for other uses, sometimes to fund a state’s child welfare system. Strained state budgets are thus eased. TANF has become welfare for the states rather than aid for families in need.

Beyond eligibility rules and other formal restrictions on who qualifies, there’s evidence that some prospective applicants may be “diverted” from applying for aid in unauthorized ways. After nearly a year without employment, a desperate Rae McCormick swallowed her pride and finally took a trip to the welfare office to apply for TANF. She says she was told, “Honey, I’m sorry. There are just so many needy people, we just don’t have enough to go around.” Rae’s visit to the welfare office is not the only evidence of this kind of behavior. In Georgia, one study found suggestive evidence that the state welfare commissioner’s oft-repeated phrase, “Welfare is not good enough for any family,” may have led caseworkers to actively discourage families from following through on their applications.

Rather than providing short-term aid that families can gain access to quickly in a pinch, TANF offices in nearly every state require applicants to jump through numerous employment-related hoops before they can be deemed eligible, including attending an orientation, making an employment plan, registering for employment services, or engaging in hours of job search activities. For those who do manage to get on TANF, stringent work requirements must then be met—typically thirty hours a week of work for a private employer or at a community service job—the latter in return for only a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of benefits each month. Ironically, this work may put them no closer to finding a “real” job.

Even for those who receive TANF, its cash value, though never high, is now very, very low—so low that it doesn’t bring a family’s income even to half the poverty line in any state. In thirty-two states plus the District of Columbia, TANF benefits for a family of three with no other income are now below 30 percent of the poverty threshold. In sixteen states, the maximum payment is below 20 percent of the poverty line. And in one state, Mississippi, TANF benefits are so low they wouldn’t even lift a family above the $2-a-day threshold. One can imagine that very low benefit levels could easily lead a prospective applicant to conclude that it is just not worth the trouble to apply.

Even taken together, though, these factors cannot fully explain why struggling families aren’t getting TANF. The main problem is that prospective applicants are failing even to show up at TANF’s doors. With the rolls so small, information about what TANF has to offer is presumably less likely to spread. If our families’ stories are any guide, many people may not even know about the program, or may dismiss the idea of applying for it for any number of reasons. When we asked Travis and Jessica Compton, in Johnson City, Tennessee, why they hadn’t applied for TANF, they asked, “What’s that?” Modonna Harris had heard they just didn’t give it out anymore. In some parts of the country, even the advocacy community seems to have given up on the program. “We don’t talk about TANF anymore,” Atlanta’s food bank advocacy and education director Laura Lester told Slate in 2012. “We don’t even send anybody in to apply, because there’s just no point.”

What would happen if states were incentivized to spend a far greater proportion of what they received from the federal government for the TANF program on basic cash assistance? While welfare has never been in line with America’s core values, help for the poor has. Americans’ sense of, and desire for, community—one of the core values Ellwood pointed to in Poor Support—mandates that we help those who, through no fault of their own, can’t help themselves. While there is no going back to AFDC, helping TANF fulfill its mission—as a temporary hand up—is a worthy goal, one that most Americans may support if the overarching direction of antipoverty policy is to ensure work opportunity for all.

For generations, welfare served to separate the poor from the rest of society. It robbed people of their dignity, their sense of self-worth. Now welfare is dead. Now it is not the receipt of cash benefits, but the lack of any cash at all, that serves to separate the $2-a-day poor. Without cash, they can’t meaningfully participate in society. Furthermore, no American should have to resort to the lengths they must go to in order to generate that critical resource. Most Americans cringe at the idea of fellow citizens having to spend hours scrounging for aluminum cans or to take iron pills to ensure they can donate plasma twice a week—just to keep their families barely treading water. Selling your SNAP, your kids’ Social Security numbers, or your body are strategies that the $2-a-day poor believe are immoral, not merely illegal. Parents should not be forced to cast aside strongly held notions of right and wrong simply to keep their kids in socks and underwear.

In our search for a model—an antipoverty program that incorporates rather than divides—we need not go very far. We can find it in our own made-in-America revolutionary approach to helping the working poor. This is the other half of the idea David Ellwood took with him to Washington back in 1993: to replace welfare by expanding a tiny refundable tax credit that had been on the books since 1975. As it turned out, however, the most revolutionary aspect of the EITC was that it managed to fold the poor back into society.

How did it do so? In-depth interviews with 209 EITC claimants in the Northeast and Midwest in 2007 showed that while TANF receipt confers stigma and shame, claiming the EITC gives people dignity and restores their pride.First, the EITC is tied to employment. Second, tax credits are included as part of your federal tax refund—along with wages that were overwithheld. This lends the impression that the government benefit is “earned,” a just reward for hard work. Third, you don’t have to go to a welfare office to apply—an address that in and of itself connotes stigma. Instead, roughly 70 percent of EITC beneficiaries find their way to a professional tax preparation firm such as H&R Block, Liberty Tax Service, or Taxman. There you are not a supplicant. Instead you are a customer, there to claim your tax refund like any other American.

In particular, it is the treatment they receive at H&R Block that the EITC’s claimants wax most eloquently about—part of why they are willing to fork over roughly $200 for the service. “I’ve got people!” was a common refrain among those interviewed, parroting the popular H&R Block slogan. Upon entering the front door, claimants are welcomed with a smile: “How can we help you?”

We are not arguing here that the EITC is a solution to $2-a-day poverty. But it does offer a critical lesson in how antipoverty policy ought to be crafted. Too often, America has gone down the road of trying to shame those in need. We’ve put up barriers. We’ve made people jump through hoop after hoop—all based on the not-so-subtle presumption that they are lazy and immoral, intent on trying to put something over on the system. TANF is a perfect example. Yet research shows that the intrusive treatment people typically receive at the welfare office can undermine their confidence in government and erode political participation. It stands to reason that this kind of treatment could also erode the very confidence that is so necessary for pulling yourself out of $2-a-day poverty. Shame may act as a barrier to claiming that little bit of cash that might stop a downward spiral. As a nation, the question we have to ask ourselves is, Whose side are we on? Can our desire for, and sense of, community induce those of us with resources to come alongside the extremely poor among us in a more supportive, and ultimately more effective, way?

As the stories told in this book show, the circumstances of the $2-a-day poor are worlds apart from the experiences of most Americans. Many among them feel that they are forced to do things that they believe are morally objectionable—actions that further separate them from the rest of society—just to get by. And the experience of surviving a spell of extreme destitution often leaves deep physical and emotional wounds—wounds that further serve to separate, not incorporate. For the rest of her life, Rae McCormick will be hiding the fact that she has no teeth, cupping her hand over her mouth when she laughs. And from now on, Tabitha Hicks will carry with her the experience of being lured into a sexual relationship by her high school gym teacher with the promise of food.

Yet despite all they’ve been through, despite the abuse and trauma, the hunger and fear, despite the anger they carry with them at what they have endured, many of the everyday experiences of the $2-a-day poor are—truly—American to the core.

After a visit with Travis and Jessica Compton in their small one-bedroom home in Johnson City, Tennessee, one thing that stays with you is little Blythe’s delight when she pops out of that pink stroller—“Boo!” Nearly toppling over with laughter, she is happy and confident in her parents’ care.

On the Near West Side of Chicago, Kaitlin and Cole Hernandez are outfitted in matching khakis and polo shirts. You can’t help but notice the bounce in their step as they walk down North Avenue ahead of their mother, Jennifer, toward their favorite public library.

Deep on Chicago’s South Side, Susan and Devin Brown take joy in watching little Lauren toddling along while holding the edge of their old couch, in awe of how those big brown eyes and that one-toothed smile can utterly captivate.

Brianna Harris loves to match her mother Modonna’s steps as they stride side by side. They smile at each other while doing so, even while enduring another spell among the $2-a-day poor, this time living at a Salvation Army shelter on Chicago’s North Side.

Among Paul Heckewelder’s enormous brood in Cleveland, the grandkids who have been living on virtually nothing for months are endearingly curious. With no cable TV in the house, they have nearly depleted the public library up the street of its books. Shawnee, age twelve, reads tomes about the origins of the universe, while several of her male cousins vie for the latest science fiction find. When Shawnee overhears her granddad describing the family’s many ingenious approaches to their struggles, she quips, “It’s like pioneer days!”

Just down the road, in Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood, Rae McCormick’s daughter, Azara, sees that her mother is upset. She walks across the empty lot next to their house, plucks the tiny flower of a clover in the median between the sidewalk and the street, and solemnly presents it to her mother. Rae picks her up, laughing. The two then smile and rub noses. It is their little ritual.

Clearly, there is much to cherish here—much worth protecting and nurturing.