I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
$2.00 a Day is my first serious attempt to dig into present-day social realities, and I'm lucky to have found it comprehensive, concise and rather powerful. Much of that power comes from the way the book works from the ground up, from the daily realities of $2-a-day poor--which takes up the bulk of the book--to viable policy proposals on the federal level that make me wish these authors were participants in Congress.
Up until 1996, Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty" created the most robust government programs for the poor up to that point in history with the Great Society, expansion of Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Thus came into being a conflict in American values between compassion for the poor and the belief in economic autonomy. When David Ellwood attempted to defend welfare in the public spotlight, he was met with astounding backlash, prompting him to formulate a multidimensional proposal based on publicly funded work opportunities, a raised minimum wage, and high-quality education and training programs--components he believed aligned with American values and were more likely to win the public's approval.
Then came the presidency of Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress. Long story short, Ellwood's plan--long admired by Clinton--met with opposition among policymakers and ended up being thoroughly repackaged. Federal welfare funds were given to states in the form of block grants, but with strict requirements in workforce participation that states managed to meet by slashing assistance when its allotment of funds ran out. Though lower unemployment rates signaled success of the reform in the public eye, the poor continued to suffer, relegated to low-wage jobs in the service sector where fierce competition left (and still leaves) prospective employees vulnerable to exploitation. The majority of these jobs are usually unstable, unsafe and insufficient to provide for even the most basic of material needs: food, housing, clothing, and least of all a modicum of dignity.
What follows is a series of personal stories. Believe me when I say it is soul-crushingly depressing, least of all because the primary cause of $2-a-day poverty is a mismatched scattering of resources--not personal laziness. The path to poverty is a downward spiral. Don't have a car to make it to your job interview? Take public transportation. Wait, no cash? Then you have to walk...twenty miles across the city and show up late. Oh, you're late? That means you're not a serious employee and your chances are out. Trudge back home--assuming you have a home, or a homeless shelter that will evict you within three months if you don't find a job--and start over from nothing. From a string of nothings, over months and years and decades.
I also thoroughly appreciated this book's focus on women and single mothers. Not to sound like a raging feminist...again...but gender inequality does get dramatically worse the farther down the social and economic ladder. Single mothers, particularly divorced or those who never married, are the victims of huge social stigma. One of the most heartbreaking stories was that of Tabitha, who in 10th grade enters into a 7-month sexual relationship with her gym teacher in exchange for food. (He was never prosecuted.) Modonna trades sex with a "friend" for food and shelter, but when she defends her daughter from said "friend's" growing sexual attentions, the mother-daughter pair is thrown out into the streets.
To repeat what other reviewers have said, this is an important book and one that I'm heartily glad to have read. It's probably going to hang over for quite some time, but I think I need it.