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You Can’t Play Someone by Doing What They Want (a Story)

Once upon a time, a woman went to a park with coolers full of 100 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

She gave the sandwiches out to anyone who came to her. Some people took a sandwich and left. Some people took a sandwich and, a little while later, came back for a second one… or a third… or even a fourth. Some were children and some were adults. Some were dressed in rags and some were dressed in business suits. Some said ‘thank you’ and some did not.

After a while, she had given out all of her sandwiches and she left.

The next day, she came back with 100 more sandwiches and the same thing happened. Some people took a sandwich and left. Some people took a sandwich and, a little while later, came back for a another. Some were children and some were adults. Some were dressed in rags and some were dressed in business suits. Some said ‘thank you’ and some did not.

And again, after a while, she had given out all of her sandwiches and she left.

On the third day, as she was setting up her table and laying out her sandwiches, some other women who usually sat nearby came up to her.

They said, “We think you’re doing such a great think, giving out sandwiches to people who are hungry. But we’re worried that you’re getting played. Some people are taking a sandwich and, a little while later, coming back for another. Some people are adults who should be working for their food. Some people are dressed in business suits and could clearly afford to buy a sandwich. You really should be more careful.”

And the woman said, “No, no. You don’t understand. I’m here to give out sandwiches. Anyone who takes one is helping me do that.

“They’re helping me if they take a sandwich and leave. They’re helping me if they take a sandwich and, a little while later, come back for another.

“They’re helping me if they’re children. They’re helping me if they’re adults.

“They’re helping be if they’re dressed in rags or if they’re dressed in business suits.

“I cannot be played when people are doing what I want.”

And the other women left her, bewildered.

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People I Read: Vital Signs and Statistics

In the early-ish days of blogging, it was normal to have a blogroll: a list of links to other (often more popular) blogs that the author was interested in. The blogroll would sit calmly in the sidebar and let readers browse their way to other blogs and other authors, discovering fresh ideas and insights. Now, nobody maintains a blogroll. The best hope you have of finding someone else is to follow a link in the body of a post or in a comment or in a link dump. Around here, they also show up in link posts that I share fairly frequently.

But the fact is that I kind of miss the blogroll, and I think that it’s worthwhile to share some of the blogs I read and a note one why I read them. I’ll try to put up one example every couple of weeks.

This post’s person I read is everyone at Vital Signs and Statistics.

I’m an advocate of data. The choices we make in congregations and other nonprofits tend to be better when we have a firm grasp on what is happening in our communities and organizations. And good data is a vital tool in making sure we have that firm grasp.

But raw data by itself isn’t very useful. In order to make it useful, we need to contextualize it, interpret it, and turn it into information. The distinction between data and information is important: data is raw, information has a context. For example: the number of visitors to your website, broken down by country, is data; knowing that your number of visitors in the United States is going down is information.

What does that have to do with this post’s person I read? Vital Signs and Statistics is the blog of the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data. These are the fine folks who collect data on a variety of topics from throughout the United Church of Christ. For example, they maintain Access UCC, where I can look up any congregation and see financial data, membership information, and so on. At Vital Signs and Statistics, they make the data that they collect – and data from other sources – and turn it into information. If you want to learn how a pastor spends her time, the benefits of youth programs, or how a church welcome affects people, among other things, this is the blog for you.

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Proof of Identity

For people who are low-income, it can be surprisingly difficult to obtain identification. The reason for that is surprisingly simple: you need proof of identity (and often residency) in order to get proof of identity! This creates a vicious circle where not having documentation of your identity means not being able to get proof of your identity; and not having proof of your identity makes it harder – if not all but impossible – to get documentation.

This is something that most people – people who aren’t in this vicious cycle – don’t realize. Since I recently encountered some people who couldn’t believe that it can be so difficult to get identification, I thought I’d do a little thought experiment.

Meet Bob. Bob needs to obtain proof of identity in the form of a state ID card. He lives in Iowa in an ‘informal’ arrangement: he crashes in the spare bedroom of his sister’s apartment. He isn’t on the lease. He also doesn’t have a copy of his birth certificate or Social Security card. He’s unemployed and has been for several months. Put simply, he’s an adult who isn’t in the system.

The first thing Bob needs to do to get an Iowa ID card is… prove his identity. There are several documents that he can use to do this, including a valid passport, a birth certificate, a certificate of citizenship, or various immigration records. He doesn’t have his birth certificate, but that’s the document that will be easiest for him to get.

Bob was born in Illinois, so he’ll have to get his birth certificate from that state. Since he doesn’t have an ID, he needs to submit two pieces of documentation with his name, one of which must also have his current address. One of them can be a bill or another piece of mail, and we’ll assume that he can produce that. The other must be one from a list. He doesn’t have any of those documents, but his sister will help him open a bank account – a pretty big feat since he has no ID – so he can produce a bank statement. With those documents and $10, he can get his birth certificate mailed to him in about a week.

Now he needs a document with his name and Social Security Number. He doesn’t have his Social Security card, a W-2, or a 1099. Looks like it’s time to go get a Social Security card!

In order to get a replacement Social Security card, he needs two things: proof of citizenship and proof of identity. Since he has his birth certificate, he can prove his citizenship (he was smart enough to get multiple copies… for an extra $2 a piece). Identity is going to be harder. He doesn’t have any of the standard documents – state ID card, driver’s license, passport, military ID card, etc. – so the Social Security office will ask for other documents.

It’s hard to know what proof of identity they’ll ask for and accept, so this might be a dead-end for him. We’ll assume he eventually manages to get a Social Security card.

Having sufficiently proof of his identity – the very thing he’s trying to get – Bob must now prove his residency. He has his bank statement now, since he needed that for his birth certificate. His sister also got him a subscription to The New Yorker for his birthday, so he has a postmarked magazine with his name on it.

With those documents and $8, he can now go to the DMV and get his ID card. Provided, of course, that they actually accept his documents.

But there’s a problem here. This scenario is unrealistically easy. Many low-income individuals are unbanked, and opening a bank account without an ID or source of income isn’t always possible. If Bob hadn’t been able to open that bank account, he wouldn’t have been able to get a bank statement, and that would have kept him from getting his birth certificate. Perhaps he would have been able to find another form of documentation. More likely, this would have been a dead-end for him.

Similarly, there’s no reason to assume that the Social Security office would have accepted whatever alternative documents he would have been able to provide. In all likelihood, this would have been another dead-end.

Of course, this is only meant as an illustration of how difficult it can be to obtain proof of identity even when things go in your favor. When things don’t go so smoothly, it quickly becomes impossible.

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Faith

This sermon was delivered at Union Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline, Illinois on August 7, 2016. The scriptures for this sermon are Hebrews 11:1-3 and Luke 12:32-40.

You may not know this, but I’m a professional fundraiser for a little nonprofit organization in Biloxi, Mississippi. I live here in the Quad Cities and I world from home quite a bit. But I also travel about a quarter of the time. And that means a lot of time in airports. And that means a lot of kind of awkward conversations in gate waiting areas.

One time, I was chatting with someone while we waited in line for zone three to be called to board the plane. He asked me what I did, and I told him pretty much like I just told you. He asked what my organization did, and I told him that we worked on issues around housing, homelessness, and poverty on the Gulf Coast. He asked me how I liked it and – since I had been on a stressful trip and I had been in the airport for a while – I said that I liked it enough… it keeps a roof over my head.

And someone a few people ahead of me in line – someone who I’m guessing had also been on a stressful trip and spent too long in the airport – turned and said, “so you’re better off than the people you serve.”

Ouch. Burn.

But I was convicted. I complain about work just like everyone else. And sometimes I forget that I am incredibly fortunate. I have a place to live. I have plenty of food. I have a steady income and health insurance and a loving family. And while I’m far from the top 1%, I’m doing a lot better than far too many in the United States and around the world.

But, like everyone else, I worry. I worry about my job and about bills and whether I will ever pay of my student loans. Like every one else, I worry.

And here’s Jesus, saying, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.”

Let me back up.

“Faith,” writes the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Abraham had faith; he left the safety of his home and followed God’s call to Canaan. Moses had faith; he confronted Pharaoh and demanded freedom for his people. Jesus had faith; he endured the cross.

Now, it’s easy to think that faith is about putting little checkmarks in little boxes on a list of beliefs.

It’s easy to think that Abraham had faith because he believed that God would make a nation of his descendants. Or that Moses had faith because he believed that God would make Pharaoh let his people go. Or that Jesus had faith because he believed that he would sit at the right hand of God. But belief – the intellectual assent, the little checkmarks in little boxes – isn’t the same as faith.

Believing things, after all, is simple. Some people can even believe six impossible things before breakfast.

In Petersburg, Kentucky, there is a creation museum. And about forty-five minutes down I-75, in Williamstown, Kentucky, there’s a “life-sized” Noah’s Ark Encounter. Both of these are owned and operated by the same group: a group that has put little checkmarks in little boxes on a list of beliefs.

They believe that the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible are the written word of God, divinely inspired and inerrant in every detail. They believe that the Bible is inerrant when it makes spiritual and theological statements. They believe that the Bible is inerrant when it makes historical and scientific statements.

They believe – with the fervor necessary to build a museum – that God created the world in six twenty-four days about six thousand years ago. They believe – with the passion necessary to build a “life-sized replica” – that God commanded Noah to build an ark and save his family from a global flood.

They’ve put their little checkmarks in their little boxes on their list of beliefs. They believe their impossible things.

But those beliefs aren’t faith.

Faith is like this. There was a swimming class for adults who almost died from drowning. At one lesson, their teacher told them to float: lie back, relax the body, let the water carry them. And they believed their teacher. They believed that if they lay back and relaxed their bodies, the water would carry them. They could check the box.

But they couldn’t do it. They had survived drowning. They were afraid. They couldn’t relax. They couldn’t lie back. They couldn’t let the water carry them.

They believed. But they didn’t have faith.

Belief is having it in your head that the water will carry you. Faith is lying back, and relaxing your body, and letting the water carry you.

Abraham believed many things; his faith was going into Canaan. Moses believed many things; his faith was confronting Pharaoh.

Jesus believed many things; his faith was going even to the cross and the tomb.

And in his faith, Jesus could say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.”

Let me back up again.

A few minutes ago, Jesus finished telling a story to a crowd. And a few seconds ago, Jesus finished giving some advice to the disciples.

The story went like this. There was once a man whose fields produced so abundantly that he didn’t know what to do with all of his crops. So he tore down his barns and built bigger ones. And he said to himself, “Self, you’ve all you need for years now stored away; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”

And God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

And because Jesus had faith, he could say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.”

The advice went like this. Don’t worry! Consider the ravens. They neither sow nor reap, but God feeds them. Consider the lilies.

They neither toil nor spin, but God clothes them in glory. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink or wear. Instead, seek the kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

And now we’re here: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.”

Now… I can tell you’re worried about where this is going to go… I’m not going to tell you to sell your possessions and give alms.

I’m not going to sell my possessions and give alms.

But I will tell you that it never hurts to think about our possessions. And it never hurts to ask if we’re just building up bigger barns to store more stuff or bigger accounts to store more money. And it never hurts to ask where all of the things we’ve prepared will end up. It never hurts to give alms. It never hurts to be rich towards God.

In fact, I’ll tell you this. Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid. Be charitable. In the broadest definition of the word, be charitable. Be charitable with your money. Be charitable with your time. Be charitable with your companionship. Be charitable with your love.

Because, when you get down to it, that’s what charity is: love.

Worry is not love. Being so worried about my student loan bill that I won’t give to a child who needs school supplies is not love.

Being so worried about my rent that I won’t help someone who needs a place to stay tonight is not love. Being so worried about my bank account that I won’t give up a little of what I have to make sure that people are fed and clothed and housed and cared for it not love.

Fear is not love. Being so afraid for my property that I won’t let ‘those people’ live in my neighborhood is not love. Being so afraid for my life that I won’t let refugees into my country is not love. Being so afraid for my purity that I demand control over other people is not love.

I know that it’s easy to worry. I know that it’s easy to be afraid. I know that there are people in this world – it is election season after all – who will tell you to be worried and afraid. But I also know that my faith is not in my bank account. And my faith is not in the things that I own. And my faith is not in my reputation.

My faith is in the God who feeds the ravens. My faith is in the God who clothes the lilies of the field. My faith is in the God whose good pleasure it is to give us the kingdom.

And I can’t think of any news that is better than that.

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People I Read: Samantha Field

In the early-ish days of blogging, it was normal to have a blogroll: a list of links to other (often more popular) blogs that the author was interested in. The blogroll would sit calmly in the sidebar and let readers browse their way to other blogs and other authors, discovering fresh ideas and insights. Now, nobody maintains a blogroll. The best hope you have of finding someone else is to follow a link in the body of a post or in a comment or in a link dump. Around here, they also show up in link posts that I share fairly frequently.

But the fact is that I kind of miss the blogroll, and I think that it’s worthwhile to share some of the blogs I read and a note one why I read them. I’ll try to put up one example every couple of weeks.

This post’s person I read is Samantha Field.

Samantha Field grew up a military brat in the deep South, spent a number of years with her family in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church, and is now “dismantling [her] life, deconstructing it.”

Her blog covers a range of topics, including the hard reality of leaving a cult, theological reflections, and discussions of important social issues. All of these are excellent. But where she shines, in my opinion, is in her extended reviews and examinations of evangelical relationship advice books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Real Marriage. In these posts, she takes us through each book – usually one chapter or so per post – with a deeply critical eye. Through these posts, we learn about relationships in the evangelical world. We also learn about her life, how she’s been shaped by her fundamentalist youth, and how she is working to reshape her life.

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$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

Global moderate poverty is defined as living on less than two dollars a day, and it’s something that Americans often believe only exists in other parts of the world. $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer is a harrowing look at the lives of the ‘$2-a-day poor’ in the United States. The authors follow a handful of the more than 1.5 million families in Chicago, Cleveland, Appalachia, and the Mississippi Delta who attempt to live on almost nothing.

Killing Welfare

It’s easy to think that most low income families receive some form of assistance from local, state, or federal governments. One of the most astonishing things about $2.00 a Day was the revelation that surprisingly few low income Americans receive cash assistance: “Just 27 percent of poor families with children participate” in our modern cash welfare program.1Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2015 Many more low income Americans participate in in-kind programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But why aren’t more households – especially those living on only $2 a day – taking advantage of welfare programs?

Edin and Shaefer place much of the blame squarely a the feet of  the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, more commonly known as ‘welfare reform.’ What began as a bold proposal to bring welfare more in line with supposed American values like hard work and independence became a program that put more burdens on the people who needed help while also providing them with less assistance.

Recognizing that “Welfare brings some of our most precious values— involving autonomy, responsibility, work, family, community, and compassion— into conflict,”2Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 19 Harvard professor David Ellwood proposed encouraging work by raising the minimum wage, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), furnishing temporary cash assistance, providing education and training opportunities, and guaranteeing a minimum wage public sector job to those who couldn’t find work in the private sector.3Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 19-20 This plan wouldn’t provide help to low income people in general, it would provide help to low income people who were employed or making progress towards employment.

Actual welfare reform was initially based on Ellwood’s ideas, but ending up being altogether different. Under President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress, the law made federal welfare funds into federally-capped block grants to states, imposed strict ‘workforce participation’ requirements that could be met simply by kicking people off of the welfare rolls, imposed lifetime benefit limits, and made certain there was no legal right to aid. And, of course, there was no dramatic increase in the minimum wage (the minimum wage went from $4.25 per hour in 1991 to $5.15 per hour in 1997), no job training program, and no guaranteed public sector job. The reformers didn’t replace welfare, they killed it.4Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 34

One of the effects of welfare reform is especially notable. Because it is now more difficult to qualify for cash assistance, and because qualifying (and proving that one qualifies) is no guarantee of actually receiving that assistance, a surprising number of people who Edin and Shaefer – even people in desperate need – believe that it no longer exists:

No one in Modonna’s network of family and friends knew anyone who was getting welfare— even those in obvious need… By 2012, welfare was far from the minds of the $ 2-a-day poor. So far, in fact, that Modonna Harris, living in a shelter on the Near West Side of Chicago, and Susan Brown, living in the dilapidated family home on the South Side— both eligible for the program— thought they just weren’t giving it out anymore.5Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 34

Of course, this means that those people also aren’t receiving help that could start to lift them out of poverty. A subsidized job would be extremely helpful, but absent that cash assistance could help the extremely poor maintain housing, obtain child care, buy clothing, and do all of the things that are necessary to get a private sector job. The fact that people believe that this assistance isn’t available – and that it often truly isn’t available – means that people are left living in poverty that many of us can scarcely imagine.

Lost Communities

Ellwood’s proposals were focused on helping people enter and benefit from being part of the workforce. While people frequently imagine that low income families are dependent, entitled, or lacking in their work ethic, the fact is that many low income people are working.

Some are working in the formal economy. Edin and Shaefer follow Jennifer as she works at a custodial company in Chicago, “deep cleaning… condos and office suites between tenants and…  foreclosed homes being readied for resale.6Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 35 Low paying, hazardous jobs – and deep cleaning foreclosed homes in Chicago in the winter is a surprisingly hazardous job – are standard for the working poor. Through Edin and Shaefer’s eyes, we watch Jennifer get sick, see her hours cut, and eventually leave her job and reenter $2-a-day poverty.

As the authors write, “Few families in $ 2-a-day poverty are chronically disconnected from the workforce.”7Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 42 Instead, many of these families live on a border. When unemployed, they are $2-a-day poor. When they find steady work, they’re merely poor. Work alone is not enough to move these families out of poverty.

Some are working in the informal economy. Since there is no welfare to provide a reliable cash floor, families must do whatever they can to earn enough money to survive. Some people can use public spaces (like libraries) to meet some needs and private charities (like homeless shelters and transitional houses). But even with those resources, many families need to generate income by any means necessary: selling plasma, selling SNAP benefits, recycling aluminum, running an informal bodega, operating a gypsy cab, and even prostitution are surprisingly common (though some more common than others). And many of the tactics on that list are illegal. Surviving can be a crime.

Some are living in areas of concentrated poverty. Edin and Shaefer take us to a small town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta where cash assistance is nonexistent, public spaces are uncommon, charitable organizations are rare, and the formal economy is microscopic. In this other world, we see the results of concentrated poverty: there are no ambulances, police, public transit, restaurants, grocery stores, shopping centers, libraries, food pantries, plasma clinics… or jobs. What there is, is a shadow economy that preys off the lack of infrastructure and the desperation of residents.

While Edin and Shaefer don’t discuss it, this gets to an important fact about concentrated poverty. The infrastructure that people and businesses rely on is paid for by taxes and we do not tend to use those taxes to invest in poor communities. The result is areas like the Mississippi Delta: areas where citizens are “cut off from any legitimate access to a cash income”; areas that “may seem unrecognizable as part of ‘America.'”8Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 155

Proposed Solutions

While I’ve touched on a couple of larger points from $2.00 a Day, the bulk of the book is about the people who Edin and Shaefer followed. Their stories are at once disturbing and heartwarming. These are people in terrible positions working remarkably hard to succeed according to the traditional American values that Ellwood recognized when he made is proposals for welfare reform. After reading these stories, we’re left with a single question: what can we do about $2-a-day poverty?

Edin and Shaefer provide three potential answers: more employment opportunities coupled with better worker protections, more affordable housing, and a real cash cushion for low income families.

The job creation agenda that Edin and Shaefer propose is, in their own words, “beyond anything America has undertaken since the Great Depression.”9Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 159 It includes subsidized private sector job growth, public sector job growth, increased wages, more hours, more stable schedules, and encouraging businesses to treat employees better. Effectively, they are proposing that we do nothing else than reform work under American capitalism.

The cash cushion for low income families would appear when, as Edin and Shaefer put it, work fails. As they point out, there are many reasons that a family might need an emergency infusion of cash. One idea is a family crisis account. Under this plan, families would essentially save their Earned Income Tax Credit in an account that they could make withdrawals from when needed. This would allow families to respond to emergencies without having to resort to drastic measures.

Those are relatively straightforward ways of addressing poverty. They’re also in line with the American values of work and thriftiness. We can hardly argue with the idea of investing in job training and job creation. And we can certainly accept the idea of making it easier for families – even families without much income to start with – to save. The housing issue, however, is a little less intuitive.

As Edin and Shaefer point out, housing is a major burden for low income families: “there is no state in the Union in which a family that is supported by a full-time, minimum-wage worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent without being cost burdened.”10Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 66 Being cost burdened means spending more than thirty percent of one’s income in rent, putting a family at serious risk of being unable to pay other bills or save. Making housing more affordable would be a massive boon to low income families as it would free up money for other purposes.

The obvious solution would be to increase the incomes of renters, but even a significant increase in the minimum wage – even to fifteen dollars an hour – would only help so much.11Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 174 In addition, Edin and Shaefer increasing the stock of affordable housing by using the National Housing Trust Fund to encourage development and ending exclusionary zoning regulations that prevent apartments or set large minimum lot sizes.12Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 166

These are all excellent suggestions, but there’s another part to Edin and Shaefer’s suggestions: the assumptions that lay behind them. Edin and Shaefer aren’t simply proposing ways to solve poverty; they’re proposing ways to solve poverty that are – more or less – in line with the same American values that Ellwood identified: autonomy of the individual, the virtue of work, the primacy of family, and the desire for and sense of community.13Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 157-158 This keeps them from proposing more radical solutions like the restoration of pre-reform welfare or something like a universal basic income.

For Edin and Shaefer, it isn’t enough to say that people shouldn’t have to live in poverty. Instead, people living in poverty must work: “work opportunity is vital and must be at the center of a multipronged strategy to help the $ 2-a-day poor.”((Edin and Shaefer, $2.00 a Day, 158)

Conclusion

$2.00 a Day isn’t a book about policy. Despite its chapter on the history and death of welfare, its chapter on suggestions for ending $2-a-day poverty in the United States, and occasional looks at systemic issues, this is an ethnography: a deep look into the lives and stories of people living in deep poverty.

That’s not a bad thing. The fact is that many of our national conversations about how to end poverty are based on mischaracterizations of people living in poverty. The political and media elite rarely have any recent lived experience of poverty. Put simple, low income families are people who are talked about more often than they are listened to. That makes books like $2.00 a Day critical to our conversations about addressing poverty; they provide an opportunity for those in power to hear the stories of low-income families and learn that they don’t fit the stereotypes prevalent in our political discourse (and, frankly, in the nonprofit sector).

$2.00 a Day is, in other words, an important reality check for those who believe that they can theorize poverty in terms that demand more austerity simply because it exposes the human faces and human stories of the people so often lumped together as ‘the poor.’

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