When sociologist Kathryn Edin walks into a room, her mental calculator begins its tallies. How many people are here, and how do they make ends meet? Her calculator has been running since she and Laura Lein wrote their revelatory book Making Ends Meet nearly 18 years ago. When you have less money coming in than you need, what do you do?

In 2010, Edin was interviewing a new mom by the name of Ashley in Baltimore’s LaTrobe Homes, a group of public housing projects on the city’s eastside. There was no baby formula in the house, virtually no furniture, and Ashley was definitely depressed. Edin kept asking her questions about her day-to-day routines, how she got things done, and whether she was receiving food stamps (she was not). That’s when the realization struck: this was a situation unlike others Edin had seen over the years; Ashley had virtually no cash coming in.

A year later, Edin started talking to sociologist Luke Shaefer, who teaches at the University of Michigan but was a visiting scholar at the Kennedy School of Government where Edin was teaching. Shaefer happens to be an expert on a vast survey administered by the U.S. Census that asks howa nationallyrepresentative gKathryn Edinroup of people corral their incomes from a variety of sources: gifts from family and friends, odd jobs, part-time work, regular paychecks, you name it.

As Schaefer ran the numbers, he and Edin didn’t expect there would be so many Ashleys. In 1996, just as the Clinton administration was announcing the end of welfare as we knew it, there were 636,000 households living on $2 a day per person. By 2011, that number had nearly tripled to 1.5 million households.

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“We needed to put flesh on these numbers and explore what this actually looks like,” Edin says. “What is the daily texture of life in households with no cash? Until you know what it looks like, you can’t understand what kinds of strategies might be most important for addressing it.”

To write $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, they traveled across the U.S. to spend time with 18 families trying to survive with dignity but with very little cash.

Engaging people who endure these circumstances is not easy. “It takes a long time to get into a place. Thankfully, we had networks, good contacts,” Edin says. She moved to Chicago in the summer of 2012 to set up shop in a basement apartment where she worked through her contacts with local nonprofits. They also hired a researcher, a young African-American man who graduated from a local high school.

Soon after Edin, Shaefer arrived in Chicago toting his 3Luke Schaefer-year-old daughter. He recalls his first day visiting some of the families he had known only through statistics. “When you’re sitting in Susan Brown’s house and she tells you about her brother who was shot just a block away, you definitely get a sense of vulnerability.” Although the house’s porch slanted from disrepair and a damp spot on the ceiling inside indicated more troubles to come, the family also had a dining room with its table draped by linen, china set in place, and ornate water goblets standing ready for a special occasion. “It is not a place where they eat but a place that expresses their aspirations,” Shaefer says. He ended his first day of interviews ashen-faced. Back at his hotel, he cried to himself.

Edin and Shaefer searched out these virtually cashless households in cities and in rural areas across the country. After Chicago, they headed to Cleveland, Ohio. From Johnston City, Tennessee, they traversed the Mississippi Delta.

As they met more families, they came to realize the importance of dignity and social inclusion. A number of the families they met refused to apply for government assistance, though they qualified for it. Why? Many insisted that they are workers and are able to work. (Besides, most government assistance now comes in-kind rather than in cash.)

Although we might expect families living in extreme poverty to be embittered or battling for radical policy change, $2.00 a Day paints a portrait of families attentive to their dignity, wanting to provide their children with the role model of a striver eager to protect. “If I could just get a job that pays $12 an hour and offers stable hours,” one family to the next told the authors, “and if I could get my own place, that would be my dream.”

Photo above right is Kathryn Edin by Aaron Clamage; photo above left is Luke Shaefer by Myra Klarman.  

Frederick Wherry is a professor of sociology at Yale University. He is writing a book about low- and moderate-income minorities on the margins of mainstream banking.