$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn J. Edin & H. Luke Shaefer


Did you think that the days of extreme poverty in the U.S. were over? Did you think there was a safety net in place? Think again.

After over 20 years of poverty research, Kathryn Edin began to see an entirely new level of despair: families in the U.S. getting by with almost no cash income. Luke Shaefer, an expert on the Survey of Income and Program Participation administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, didn’t believe her. He decided to prove Edin was wrong, using the World Bank’s poverty threshold as his upper limit. After crunching the numbers, however, he found that in 2011, “1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month.”

How could this happen in a country so prosperous? We hear a lot about income inequality these days, but not about this kind of extreme poverty. Through stories of individual families backed by solid research, the authors detail the reasons why this kind of poverty has been increasing since 1996, “and at a distressingly fast pace. As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.”

1996: you remember. That was the year welfare reform destroyed the safety net. No longer was there any guarantee for those whose severe poverty qualified them for assistance. And what federal money remained was changed to go to the states as block grants with wide leeway on how they could spend it; it didn’t actually have to go to poor people. As documented in this book, people are so routinely denied—often being told there is no more money—that most poor people don’t bother applying. Many don’t even know there is a benefit for which they qualify. The authors call the commentators who in 1996 foresaw the coming catastrophe “remarkably prescient”, but those of us who’d been poor saw it all too clearly; we knew how fragile and under siege our benefits had always been.

The other factor, of course, is the ever-worsening lack of jobs. Even if they can get a job—as everyone interviewed has done in the past—the pay is so low, the hours unreliable, the benefits non-existent, that it is not enough to lift them out of poverty. And that’s not even considering the ways that bosses take advantage of their employees, since it’s a buyer’s market for them.

How is it even possible to manage without a cash income? You can only use food stamps for actual food, not soap or kids’ shoes or rent or light. We meet many families in this book, each with their own strategies. Their stories are told with the calm of a social scientist, tempered by compassion. You cannot help but be moved by the stories of people like Modonna Harris standing in line for hours to apply for benefits only to be turned away. “Everyone knows you have to get here by at least 7:30, a full hour before the office opens.” We learn about her background, her search for work, everything that led her to this point.

The authors see this work experience as a cause for hope: those they interview have worked in the past and are desperate to work again. I found the same thing when I was on welfare 40 years ago. In the final chapter Edin and Shaefer lay out a roadmap for getting people back to work and helping those who cannot work.

My only disagreement with them is their blithe statement that “reverting to the old welfare system is not the answer.” I agree that in addition to money, Aid to families with Dependent Children (AFDC) dispensed stigma and isolation. As a former AFDC recipient, I experienced both and the hopelessness that comes with them. However, I would take that stigma and isolation a thousand times over to spare my children what happened to the children we get to know in this book: chronic malnourishment, abuse by sexual predators in overcrowded households, the temptation for a tenth-grade girl when a teacher offers her food in exchange for sex. I would make the same decision I made all those years ago when I said to myself: the kids come first.

Of course, I know there’s no going back to AFDC, even though it would be better than what we have now. The voting public has been too blinded by politicians determined to demonize the poor—such a handy target! so powerless to fight back. They have also been blinded by their own comfortable lifestyle, not recognising the privilege that got them there, or, for those in a lower income bracket, their fear of falling into poverty themselves.

I do endorse the authors’ proposed solutions. However, it will take a huge groundswell of public opinion to overcome our society’s bias against helping the poor. It will take all of us speaking out.

I hope you are moved. I hope you read this book. I hope you act.

When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley: Selected and New Poems, by Terese Svoboda


I keep coming back to the poems in this newly released collection by award-winning author Terese Svoboda. They are not always easy to read. Some I still don’t understand, but others call me back with their fierce tenderness, their blend of humor and tightly controlled anger. She writes about small betrayals and huge atrocities, a man who leaves with a stinging goodbye and Japan’s lethal human experimentation in World War II.

Some poems speak of experiences in far-off places such as New Guinea, Japan, Polynesia, New Zealand. Others tell of things closer to home. But I warn you: they are not for the faint-hearted. These poems cut close to life, telling the truth about the violence that co-exists with beauty and art. For example, “Slaughter of the Centaurs” tells of finding, amid a soft green mist “the coarsely forelocked boys,/none more than fifteen,/beardless, death//catching them cantering,/berets cocked, weapons not.” And then there is “Eurydice Abandoned in the Caves of Hades”:

You hire a guide. See several waterfalls,
a dock for a boat, and why not a boat?
You rock to a shore where bats rise as gulls.
Or fall. Such silence. You keep your head low,
wade black pools, one for each of the senses.
You light a cigarette, unnerved, defenseless
in the blue of that smoke. You see the roots
of trees — your sisters’ hair unpinned — you see
what leads out. The sky! Then the guide rapes you,
steals your purse, and disappears. You really seethe.
Oh, god. Even Orpheus has lost it.
You can hear him through the rock, if that Shit!
is him shouting. You say, Let the stones drip
their milk.
You’ll sing louder, sing till you drop.

Some poems examine the family, and our familiar/unfamiliar Western milieu: the twisting power of money, a rescue in a library. Others celebrate small moments such as an evening when “a kid changes/into her tutu and tap shoes/and sings ‘Swanee’ by the light/of the high beam.//We go wild. Even the baby,/nude as a June bug, tattoos/out a step.”

I love the word play, especially when Svoboda uses homonyms to create layers of meaning, like kakekotoba, the use of pivot words in Japanese poetry. Here’s an example from “Fuel Adieu!” where the narrator imagines herself as a seal: “If you//lichen on Facebook the box/unlichens, living living living/on margins really singular//for the green electricity/that meets its demand, the seal/no-friended on account of/gamboling on lichen . . .”

Some poems seem bound together more by sound than by the sense of the words. Others use imagery to distance the pain enough to write of it: a dog trapped in a wall, a car leaving the road, a brother on blue satin. Either way they touch something deep and hard and true. These are poems where humor walks hand in hand with an unswerving attention to the dark things of this world.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor


Elizabeth Taylor was a well-known and much-loved British author, publishing thirteen novels and short stories in magazines such as The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post. She has been praised by writers such as Kingsley Amis and Hilary Mantel; Anne Tyler compared her to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, and Elizabeth Bowen. However, since her death in 1975, her fame has faded; somehow women, especially those who write about society and the family are less likely to make it into the literary canon. The Telegraph calls her “one of the forgotten geniuses of the [short story] form.”

I came across her name and this title on one of those lists of best books. Mrs. Palfrey arrives at the Claremont on a dreary January day, comforting herself with the words “If it’s not nice, I needn’t stay.” Recently widowed, she is coming from a visit with her golf-mad daughter and her family in Scotland. Once in her room “she thought that prisoners must feel as she did now, the first time they are left alone in their cell, first turning to the window, then facing about to stare at the closed door: after that, counting the paces from wall to wall.” But she thinks this “briskly”. After all:

She had always know how to behave. Even as a bride, in strange, alarming conditions in Burma, she had been magnificently calm–when (for instance) she was rowed across floods to her new home; unruffled, finding it more that damp, with a snake wound round the bannister to greet her. She had straightened her back and given herself a goo talking-to, as she had this afternoon on the train.

I love this kind of everyday courage. It is so rarely celebrated. It stands her in good stead as she adjusts to the routines of the somewhat seedy hotel, where long-term residents mingle with “birds of passage”. The residents are a marvelously eccentric bunch, their world narrowed to the hotel and its inhabitants, the predictable dinner menu a source of endless speculation. Mr. Osmond tells racy stories and frowns on Mrs. Burton’s nightly drinks–they cost extra–as does Mrs. Arbuthnot, a rather stern woman crippled with arthritis, but also the person who first spoke to Mrs. Palfrey, including her in the group, a kindness Mrs. Palfrey never forgets.

Before she realises that visitors are a major topic of conversation, Mrs. Palfrey mentions that her nephew Desmond lives in London. When he doesn’t show up, Mrs. Arbuthnot and the others commiserate with her, something she cannot bear. When she encounters a young writer on one of her walks, Ludo, and repays his kindness by inviting him to dinner at the Claremont, she decides to pretend that he is Desmond.

The webs become ever more tangled, but–as with Anne Tyler–Elizabeth Taylor treats her characters with respect. She may invite us to laugh at them sometimes, but never loses sight of their essential goodness and the courage it takes to face a lonely and penurious old age. I found this novel satisfying and unexpectedly moving. I see that it was made into a film in 2005 and hope that I can find a copy.

What other once-famous writers can you recommend?

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler


My book club rarely comes up with a unanimous verdict on a book, but we all loved this book by Anne Tyler, as we have loved other of her books we’ve read. It’s not just because she writes about Baltimore, and specifically the part of Baltimore we are most familiar with. No, it is something more.

In this, her 20th novel, Tyler introduces us to the Whitshank family. You know families like this one: while there are tensions and long-held grudges between Abby and Red and their four grown children, there is also love and concern and care, even if these emotions are sometimes tempered with frustration or incomprehension. They take for granted their connection with each other, just as they know that if asked to go for a walk on the beach, one is expected to agree.

Part of the glue holding them together is their belief that they, as a family, are special, though Tyler undercuts this assertion by telling us that it is based, among other things, on their ability to keep pets alive to a great age. There are also the stories that they tell about themselves. One has to do with the way Red’s father came to build and then own their house on Bouton Road. The house itself is a character, a vessel for all of their narratives: the wide, deep porch where Abby discovered her love for Red, the curving staircase that funnels sound up to someone hidden upstairs, the kitchen where the real heart-to-hearts take place.

Abby and Red, in their 70s, are starting to experience the effects of aging. Red has trouble hearing and has pulled back from the family construction business started by his father. Abby has begun to blank out for periods of time, finding herself in odd places when she comes to. Over their protests, their dutiful son Stem and his family move in with them, only to be joined unexpectedly by Denny, the black sheep son.

Abby’s baffled love for Denny, a rebel from a young age whom she has never understood, won my heart for this story. I know so many families where one child seems to absorb all the oxygen in the room, driving parents and teachers to distraction. In some ways I was that child, with my constant refrain: Leave me alone! Tyler’s portrait, not just of Abby, but of Denny himself subtly evolves through the book and is just so utterly true to life.

My book club had a long discussion over one critic’s remark that this was a “comic novel”. We agreed that Tyler’s humor is everywhere, but that it is subtle and witty rather than comic. One person, reading it a second time to remind herself of the story, suddenly noted all the little clues scattered in the text that would come to fruition later. Tyler’s craft is astonishing; she distracts us with a compelling story so that we do not notice her writer’s guile.

What we love about Tyler’s novels is her genuine compassion for her characters. She does not shy away from their faults and peculiarities, but she never mocks or criticises them; she instead treats them with respect and dignity. In a recent post on Writer Unboxed, literary agent, author, and writing teacher extraordinaire, Donald Maass suggests that readers are drawn to positive characters, those who have a hopeful outlook on life (though not the uniform optimism of a Pollyanna). These are the kind of characters we readers want to spend time with, whose spirit inspires us. Maass says in another post, “Generally speaking, we choose company that is pleasant. People who are warm, open, curious, compassionate and interesting are good to be around. We gravitate to people like ourselves, who share our outlooks, interests and values.”

In a story, characters encounter obstacles that try them to their limit (in a workshop with him, I started calling Maass The Don—thinking of The Godfather—because of the creative ways he kept pushing us to torment our protagonists). A positive character, confronted with barriers, does not wallow in helpless despair but pushes forward. As Maass says, “The human race is hopeful, yearning, seeking a more perfect world and full of faith that we can make it one.”

It is this quality that we love in Tyler’s novels: her ability to give us people who, with all their quirks and flaws, yearn for something better and have faith that they can get there, people whose stories play out in families so true that we recognise them immediately.

What do you look for in the protagonist of a novel?

Emily, Alone, by Stewart O’Nan


O’Nan is one of my favorite writers, for his appreciation of and immersion in his characters, however humdrum or exciting their lives might be. Here, we inhabit Emily Maxwell, an elderly woman living out the tail end of her life in the modest home in a Pittsburgh suburb, the one she’d shared it with her husband Henry until his death. Her friends are also dying off, leaving her with her brash sister-in-law Arlene as her regular companion for breakfast buffets and conversations about the grown children. Alone at home besides her elderly dog, Emily makes an elaborate routine out of her regular chores.

Emily relies on Arlene’s driving which, if shaky, is better than her own. However, all of Emily’s arrangements are thrown into disarray when Arlene faints in a restaurant. Not only does she have to drive Arlene’s car, but she has to navigate the hospital and run errands for Arlene. As her confidence blossoms, she buys a small car and, little by little, begins to expand her world.

I love how O’Nan uses specific details to bring a memory to life and then submerges you in Emily’s reactions and emotions. Here, she is recalling a birthday dinner for her daughter, Margaret, at the country club Henry had introduced her to:

It must have been forty-five years ago, because Margaret was slim as a ballerina in her pinafore, curtseying to everyone for the fun of it. Emily’s own parents were there, a rare occasion, her father gawking in his cheap brown suit, impressed by the high windows and the murals on the ballroom’s ceiling, the white-gloved waiters circulating between tables to deliver iced pats of butter stamped with the club crest. Emily would have arranged for Margaret to have her favorite–yellow cake with chocolate icing–and Henry would have paid by signing his name. Forty-five years.

She could not stop these visitations, even if she wanted to. They plagued her like migraines, left her helpless and dissatisfied, as if her life and the lives of all those she’d loved had come to nothing, merely because that time was gone, receding even in her own memory, to be replaced by this diminished present . If it seemed another world, that was because it was, and all her wishing could not bring it back.

This 2011 novel is a sequel to Wish You Were Here which I read in 2007. I have to admit I don’t remember much of it beyond the characters’ names, the premise of the story and how much I liked it. Liked it? I was buried in it.

I came to this one with some apprehension. Though younger than Emily, I know what it is to live alone once children are grown and gone. I know what it is to have to create a life almost from scratch once work and family fall away, how to find new routines and habits. But once engaged in the story, I thought mostly of my mother, how she sat alone in her townhouse for years until, over her vociferous protests, we persuaded her to move to a comprehensive care facility. She bloomed there, making friends, taking up water-color and quilting.

As Emily blooms here. Although I’m not there myself yet, I believe O’Nan captures the inner life of an elderly woman, moving through her days accompanied by memories of the past, finding ways however unexpected to be in the present and look forward to the future. I enjoyed spending time with Emily. I saw much of myself in her and the potential for more. I especially loved her conversations with her dog, Rufus. She calls him Mr. Feisty, Mr. Excitable, Mr. Pork Pie, and Chubbers McBubbers. They share the same difficulties moving around, taking multiple medications. They remind me of my conversations with my little cat, the Love Bug.

I’m not exactly looking forward to aging, though of course it’s better than the alternative, but Emily’s story helps me prepare myself for times to come, and more patiently appreciate those who are there now.

What books about aging and loneliness have you read?