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AgBookClub review: ‘$2.00 a Day’

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AgBookClub was created by Gracie Weinzierl and Laura Wolf to spark discussions in the agriculture community on consumer-facing books on food, farming and related topics. They cover a new book each month and host weekly Twitter chats on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Central using the hashtag #AgBookClub. If you missed last month’s discussion, here’s what the duo thought of their latest read.

 

“$2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, takes readers on a deep dive into a kind of poverty most of us can only imagine. It introduces families with combined incomes of less than two dollars per day, examining what they do to survive — and how they try to pull themselves out of their situations. The authors discuss government shifts in welfare payments, and assert that trading cash payments for in-kind aid is not a fair trade.

Laura’s thoughts:

Growing up, I sometimes came home to what I thought was an empty fridge. Not a single appealing snack. When I’d ask my mom when we’d get more, the answer was something along the lines of “later” — a few more days ’til payday, a couple more imaginative snacks. The truth is, there has always been more than enough in my house. We had our days, but we never went without. Neither, honestly, did most of our neighbors. But it turns out you don’t have to look far to find people living on next to nothing — in big cities and tiny towns across the U.S., poverty that measures up to less than $2.00 per day exists. And it’s on the rise.

“$2.00 A Day” was eye-opening for me. I had a vague idea that it was crazy difficult to navigate the federal, state, and even private safeguards that are meant to help people at the very bottom. A vague idea that something needed to be done. The authors take that idea a step further — adding faces, names, and stories to remind us of the human beings behind the statistics. They examine how current safety nets help — or don’t — in individual situations, and propose one possible set of policies to address the issue.

What stuck with me most after reading this book was the sheer determination — the smarts, resourcefulness, and drive — with which people are capable of facing even the most dire circumstances. People without any income (or a stable address, or food on the table, you name it) absolutely are pounding the pavement looking for jobs. They’re using the resources they do have to provide for their children and take one day at a time. I think the stories in this book challenge the assumption that people who continually live on government “handouts” aren’t trying hard enough.

At the same time, the book left me wanting a more balanced account. Were the families profiled the exception or the norm? I’m still not sure, and I would have loved to see more coverage of the particularly difficult version of $2-a-day poverty that exists in rural America. That’s where I think our weekly chats added to the experience — bringing the stories home and comparing with our understanding. If this topic is close to your heart, I highly recommend checking out #AgBookClub over on Twitter. We had some great conversations about the charitable work being done in our areas, and what we would add to the author’s solutions.

I’d give this book a 3 out of 5. It humanizes a crucial subject, and highlights a real need for policy change. It’s hard to pack this much into a slim book, but it felt to me like just one side of a larger story.

Gracie’s thoughts:

Which is worse — urban poverty or rural poverty? Urbanites have the population densities to support programs designed for low-income households, but the cost of living in rural areas is significantly lower. This struck up a great conversation about poverty in rural America on Twitter during one of our weekly chats.

To be honest, I chose this book because I wanted to see what the authors had to say on $2.00-a-day living. Looking back, our student lunch price in high school was $2.00, which made me wonder whether it was possible. Of course, there were always the free and reduced ($0.40) options available to those who truly needed it, so maybe that’s how some have been able to scrape by on such meager incomes.

But what about the meals for those students when they weren’t at school? Weekends? Holidays? Months over the summer? It’s a real problem, even in my home (rural) school district. There are tons of programs in place now to help those students — breakfast and lunch is offered daily, local churches offer Snak-Paks with small, microwavable meals and various snacks to tide the student over for the weekend — and bigger programs to support families, such as food pantries and other opportunities.

While I am fortunate enough to never remember a time where I felt threatened that my basic needs wouldn’t be met, there were kids in my class that I realize now probably were experiencing or were close to experiencing that. There are many families in my hometown of 600 in not-so-great financial situations right now. I know that only because my 4-H club started a food pantry and clothing exchange 10 years ago, and we’ve heard from some that “it’s the best thing that’s ever happened in this town.” The town is well past its heyday, but once was a thriving farm community with a handful of grocery stores. Today? Just a handful of ag businesses, none of which include a grocery store. Not even a gas station. Nearest place to buy food would be the next town over. Walmart is 15 minutes by car in the other direction. Could my hometown be considered a food desert? If you don’t count the food pantry, yes.

We had one family show up at the food pantry during one of our monthly distributions in the first four months we were open. Ten years later, we’re up to 20 to 25 families regularly, with around 40 on the list. That’s more than 100 people who feel that they are in a situation where they need food assistance in a town of around 600. Rural poverty exists.

What this book showed me is that there are more things associated with poverty to consider than just food. Housing is a big one. And that’s followed by clothes and other necessary possessions. It’s hard to hang onto things when you have no place to call home, so the few clothing items you may be able to keep get dirty and wear out real quick. But I believe that private charity helps more people than what the book touched on — at least it does in the rural area I grew up in.

Like Laura, I’d give this book 3 out of 5 stars. It hits on an important topic, but it took me a while to find the hook that got me to keep reading. It also felt like some things were glossed over in favor of talking about more policy, but it’s not the end of the world. The best thing it can do is inspire the reader to be involved in charitable work happening in their community. You could volunteer or donate to the many holiday food, clothing, toy, or fundraising drives kicking off as we approach the holiday season — from my 4-H community service experience, any little bit is welcomed, but never expected. Savor the feeling of gratefulness you have for your good fortune this Thanksgiving holiday.

 

AgBookClub is wrapping up its final book for 2017, “The Worst Hard Time,” and will begin discussing January’s book, “Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America,” on Jan. 3. Visit their website for the full reading schedule.

 
Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of AGDAILY. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.