In October, the World Bank declared for the first time that by the end of 2015, less than 10 percent of the global population will be living in extreme poverty, subsisting on an average of $1.90 per day.
While experts point to reduced poverty in East Asia and the Pacific region as key marks of global progress, many of the people who survive on almost nothing, it turns out, live in one of the world’s largest economies.
In their new book, “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” academics Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer reveal that there are nearly 1.5 million American households with practically no cash income.
That figure has been on the rise, nearly doubling since 1996 — the same year that a major welfare reform bill was passed. Under the new rules, cash benefits known as welfare were paired with strict work or training requirements.
The policy goal was to decrease people’s dependence on government help and that work would then be supplemented if necessary. The reforms successfully encouraged many people to join the workforce. But those unable to find work found themselves falling without a safety net.
The degradation of jobs in the U.S. caused the problem to continue, Edin told NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan in a recent interview, seen in the video below.
“We can’t deny is at the bottom of the labor market, there simply aren’t enough jobs, much less good jobs, to go around. It’s almost impossible to find a full-time job. Even if you find a job, it’s very difficult to pair one part-time job with another because shifts and hours are always in fluctuation. Wages tend to be very low.”
Edin and Shaefer traveled around the country and embedded with communities big and small, from Cleveland and Chicago to the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia regions, to learn how families living on less than $2 a day ended up there and how they survive.
Editor’s Note:Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.
On his way to school, the ninth-grader heard the first gunshot from a distance.
He figured it was meant for him. So he ran.
With the sound of gunfire trailing him, he made his way down the street, through an alley and to the back door of the weathered two-flat where he lives.
"I heard shots coming toward me. I didn't see any faces. I just heard 'ping, ping, ping,'" he recalled while casually browsing pictures on his cellphone.
"All the time, I was thinking, 'I want to get home.' Then I checked my body to see if I was wet (with blood) anywhere."
As the city tries to grapple with the carnage that claimed 786 lives last year, according to data collected by the Tribune, it is worth considering what life is like for a young man coming of age in one of the city's poorest and most besieged communities.
This is a story of a teenager growing up in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood and trying to navigate the landscape of gangs and crime at a time when the city's gun violence is at its highest since the 1990s drug wars. The Tribune is not naming the 15-year-old because he is a minor.
In his North Lawndale neighborhood, it is not uncommon to dodge a bullet on the way to school. For some young people, it is easier to not go at all than to risk their lives waiting at a bus stop.
Alyssa Pointer / Chicago Tribune
But dropping out of school is not an option for this teen. His great-aunt, who has cared for him much of his life, sees to that. She insists that education is the only way he can break free from the cycle of poverty and violence that has plagued this West Side neighborhood for decades.
Barbara Herron, 66, wants a better life for her great-nephew than she has, always struggling to make ends meet. She wants more for him than what he sees on the streets. Young men hanging on the corner day in and day out with no job and no hope for a future, that's not the life she envisions for him.
But it's a constant struggle.
Like on the day he said he was shot at, shortly after school began last August.
"The way he was knocking, I couldn't get to the door fast enough," Herron said. "He said, 'Auntie, somebody's shooting at me.' The first thing was to find out if he was all right, and then I had to decide whether to send him back to school (that day).
"I didn't make him go back because I didn't know what this was about. He has reasons not to tell me things, but I know he has secrets. I know he has another life."
That's not uncommon for young people living at the intersection of poverty and violence.All the time, I was thinking, 'I want to get home.' Then I checked my body to see if I was wet (with blood) anywhere.— Ninth-grader growing up in North Lawndale
Though less than 5 miles from the Loop — the city's economic epicenter — North Lawndale is littered with boarded-up storefronts, empty lots and vacant buildings that once housed the sprawling headquarters of Sears, Roebuck & Co. and thriving industries such as Zenith, Sunbeam and Western Electric.
There are many educated, working-class and professional people in North Lawndale who are raising children in stable families. But of the nearly 40,000 residents, more than 43 percent live in poverty. There were more than 280 shootings in North Lawndale in 2016 and more than 30 homicides during that time. Only Austin had more violent crime, according to the city.
The city's systemic segregation is largely responsible for the concentration of poverty in North Lawndale and other predominantly African-American communities.
"When you have economically disinvested communities, people are cut off from opportunities," said Stephanie Schmitz Bechteler, executive director of the Chicago Urban League's Research and Policy Center. "Over time, the community instability grows and trickles down to the families. When you have that, you more likely will also have symptoms of poverty, such as crime and under-resourced schools."
In impoverished neighborhoods, parents often find themselves in a tug of war with the streets. Prison, drugs and joblessness have left too many homes without a father, forcing mothers, grandmothers and aunts to fight the battles alone. Sometimes, no matter how tight the grip, a child can slip away, turning into someone even a mother no longer knows.
During a 15-month period, there have been 23 shootings and three homicides in the six-block area where Herron lives. Once her great-nephew walks out the door, she realizes that she cannot protect him. That's when the young man does what he feels he must to protect himself.
"You've got to protect yourself because you never know if someone is going to be shooting at you or hit you with a car or something," the teenager said. "Sometimes people just think you have money, and it can cost you your life. I have to look at that person like he's trying to hurt me or take what I've got.
"Because he's black like me means nothing. It's all about protecting yourself and protecting your loved ones."
The Rev. Robin Hood, a longtime North Lawndale community organizer who knows the family, said the neighborhood is engaged in a block-to-block war that has been going on for years.
"You can't label them all a gang, but they are cliques," said Hood, a former activist with CeaseFire, which deploys former gang members and ex-felons to intervene in violent feuds. "They're still doing gang stuff, but it's not over drugs. It's over personal vendettas that start on social media."
Hood said it's imperative to reach troubled teens before they fall off what he calls the "eighth-grade cliff."
"If you don't have them in check by then, they fall right off the cliff," Hood said. "And it becomes a continuous vicious cycle of violence that happens over and over again."
Born into a violent culture
The young man didn't create the violent culture he lives in. He was born into it.
His mother was 14 when she had him. He doesn't even know his father's name.
When he was just 2 months old, his great-grandmother, Effie Herron, took him in and raised him. His great-aunt Barbara lived with them. So did four of Barbara's brothers.
Alyssa Pointer / Chicago Tribune
The boy's mother lived there, too, for a while. She left when her son was still very young, and since then, he has barely had contact with her.
Effie moved to Chicago from Mississippi with her husband in the 1950s. She got a job on the assembly line at Oscar Mayer, her daughter said, and later did domestic work to purchase the two-story walk-up on the block where the family has lived for more than 60 years. One of her sons, Mack "Mini-Mack" Herron, was a running back for the New England Patriots in the 1970s, and helped the family financially for a while.
The brick-sided two flat, with three bedrooms upstairs and two downstairs, would be a family treasure, passed down through generations long after she was gone. Or so she thought.
Three years before her death in 2013, Effie Herron signed away the family home in an alleged reverse-mortgage scheme that threatened to leave Barbara Herron and her great-nephew with no place to live. For months, they were threatened with eviction.
Last year, a judge ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and ordered Chicago businessman Mark Diamond and several of his companies to pay almost $2.4 million in restitution to Barbara Herron and other victims.
Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas, Jason Meisner and Gregory Pratt
Recently, with the help of Hood, the pending eviction was resolved, and Barbara Herron no longer has to move. She has yet to collect the compensation, though.
Herron said her mother was ill and thought she was signing papers that would provide assistance for much-needed repairs. The basement continues to flood and is in disrepair, the upstairs heating unit needs to be replaced and mildew has spread throughout the building.
Barbara Herron suffers from severe asthma and is unable to work. She used to do odd jobs and take in sewing, but now she supports her great-nephew on a $733-per-month disability check and $194 monthly in food stamps.
After food, medical bills, utilities and other household expenses, there is little money left for anything else. She can't afford the gym shoes her great-nephew wants and certainly not the Xbox he's been asking for. The most she can do is slip a couple of dollars into his pocket now and then.
"Things are pretty tight right now, but I don't feel like I'm poor," Herron said. "We were poor when I was younger because there were big rats running through the house, and my father didn't have a job. He used to hustle cans to put food on the table. (Her great-nephew) doesn't have to worry about anything. He knows I'm going to take care of him."
But that doesn't stop his begging for money.
"Auntie, can I have a dollar?" the teen pleads, snuggling up to his great-aunt and resting his head on her shoulder.
"For what?" Herron asks.
He looks at her and beams with a boyish grin. "I want to go to the store. C'mon, Auntie, just a dollar."
"I don't have it," she answers.
He gives his great-aunt a hug and walks away.
His auntie is the most important person in the teenager's life. With his great-grandmother, his grandfather and his favorite Uncle Mack all deceased, she is all he has left.
"This is my mom," he said, placing his arm around his great-aunt's shoulders. "Just because a lady gave birth to me doesn't mean she's my mother. (A mother has) to take care of me. And that's what my auntie did all my life."
She looks at him and smiles. "Thank you."
At home, Herron tries to give the teenager a comfortable life. He has his own room, a pit bull puppy named Smokey and a smartphone. There's food in the refrigerator, and she tries to cook a hot meal at least on Sundays.Just because a lady gave birth to me doesn't mean she's my mother. You have taken care of me. And that's what my Auntie did all her life.— Ninth-grader growing up in North Lawndale
Their first-floor living space is small and sparsely furnished. There's no dining room table. There's no artwork on the walls. The entertainment center in the living room is an end table holding a small TV. But there are reminders that a large, tight-knit family once occupied these rooms. On a built-in oak shelf in the dining room, framed photographs of Barbara's mother, Effie, and a cousin dressed in his naval uniform are displayed alongside her great-nephew's eighth-grade diploma.
For a teenager, though, comfort isn't always enough.
Impressing girls is a top priority. He's at the age when most young men are thinking about getting their learner's permit, but his great-aunt doesn't own a car. He wants to dress nicely, but he doesn't own designer jeans. He wants money for pizza and movies. But there's barely enough for school supplies.
The teenager is too young to work most jobs. And summer work programs designed for at-risk youths like him have dwindled in Chicago under budget cuts.
"I would love to have a job to go to after school and on weekends," the teenager said. "If I had money, life would be different. I could buy me a car when I'm 17."
In the meantime, he and his friends sometimes hustle, selling candy door to door in the suburbs.
The teenagers purchase boxes of candy at the neighborhood Save-A-Lot for $1.23. Then they hop on the Pink Line to the Metra station downtown and then on to Oak Park, Naperville or Arlington Heights.
They wear T-shirts emblazoned with their school logo, to "look more professional," the teenager said. And as an extra measure, he takes off his hoodie and ties it around his waist. They choose their customers carefully — they are deemed to have wealth if there's a nice car parked in the driveway.
The teenagers memorize a spiel designed to evoke empathy, though most of it is made up. He agreed to recite it while sitting in his living room.
"Hello, my name is ... We are with the Better Boys Foundation. Basically, we are a group of positive teens like myself who are staying away from guns, drugs and violence. We've formed a basketball team called H to G, Hard to Guard. I was wondering if you would like to buy one or two items to help purchase our jerseys?"
A six-pack box of candy sells for $10. And on a good day, they can make more than $100.
Victor Dickson, who runs a job training and placement program for ex-offenders, said this shows how enterprising many young men can be.
"It tells me that there is a real entrepreneurial spirit there," said Dickson, president of the Safer Foundation. "These kids have figured out wholesale and retail — how to pay for transportation and other expenses and make a profit. That's a business plan."
Guns are for protection
The teenager is well-known in the juvenile system. He started getting into trouble in 2015.
That year, he stole a car — twice, according to court records. Another time, he snatched a woman's purse. Police also caught him with a .25-caliber handgun. He'd bought it on the street for $90, using money from his candy sales, he said.
Since spending last summer under house arrest with an electronic monitor around his ankle, he had managed to steer clear of trouble. Two weeks before Christmas, police caught him allegedly with a gun on his way to his court-mandated after-school program. He spent Christmas and New Year's in juvenile detention.
The teenager is quick to point out that he has never shot anyone. Guns, he said, are only for protection.
"I'm not a violent person. I'm a good person. I've made some bad choices, hanging with the wrong crowd, taking cars and things like that," he said.
"When I took the car, I just drove it around the neighborhood. I wasn't thinking about what it meant. I was just driving. I wanted to drive, and nobody could afford to buy a car."
Sometimes those trips to the suburbs to sell candy make him and his friends realize how much they don't have. It is one thing when no one in your neighborhood has anything, and quite another when you go places and see that other young men, the same as you except for skin color and affluence, have what seems like everything.
In his neighborhood, some young people consider a gun a necessity in order to feel safe. In his case, it was more important to purchase a weapon than the Xbox he wanted.
Clifford Nellis, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, estimates that more than 90 percent of the young people his agency comes in contact with are carrying guns for self-defense.
"These kids have a real risk of being shot, and they tend to have guns because that's the reality they live in," said Nellis, whose organization offers pro bono legal services and runs the after-school program the teenager attends. "If you look at the number of shootings in North Lawndale, how they've had to dodge bullets and have seen their friends gunned down and killed, this isn't an unreasonable fear."
Crossing gang boundaries to go to school is a serious problem, Nellis said. What you end up with, he said, is kids who are carrying guns to protect themselves from other kids.
To get to school, the teenager takes a meandering route from the Blue Line. He crosses the street and charts his path through residential backyards, behind abandoned buildings and through a narrow alleyway before reaching his high school. The route is lined with garage doors and brick walls marked with gang graffiti.
Even with such meticulous planning, he doesn't always arrive safely. He has been shot at more than once.
The streets have hardened some of his friends. Their prospects for finding work are severely hampered by criminal records, a problem that affects roughly 70 percent of North Lawndale's young men between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the community-based North Lawndale Employment Network.
Many of those charges stem from drug-related crimes, the network found. Even if the young men wanted to turn their lives around, their criminal records follow them for life.
According to Nellis, this has a direct effect on the traditional family structure in North Lawndale.
"If you talk about the breakdown of the traditional family home — a mother and father raising their children — you have to put into perspective how families have deliberately been broken up through the criminal justice system," said Nellis, the lead attorney for his nonprofit legal group.
"When you deliberately pull men from a small community and put them in the criminal justice system in alarmingly high numbers, mostly for drug offenses, you are taking away fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins. You are literally breaking up families, which is a major blow to the neighborhood."
Dickson, of the Safer Foundation, said incarceration creates more poverty and thus more violence.
"The poor get even poorer because of incarceration. If you have a family living in poverty and the breadwinner is incarcerated, the family's income drops 22 percent. And when they come back home, they're going to earn 40 percent less for the rest of their life because they have a record," he said.
According to Herron, things were different on the block in the 1980s, when her mother purchased their home. Families knew each other and looked out for each other's children. It was considered normal for a parent down the street to punish a child for doing something and then tell the mother so she could punish him again at home. Some called it a "Mayberry" block.
"Now, I don't know their parents," Herron said. "Half of (the young men hanging out on the corners) don't even live on the block."
'Grown ... and moving out'
In this neighborhood, teenagers carry the weight of grown men on their shoulders. But many still have a youthful naivete that reminds you that they are still kids. And like many young people, they don't see beyond the moment.
For their generation, this version of North Lawndale is the only landscape they know. It is their norm, and there is no reason to think anything can — or should — ever change.
At this point in their lives, they aren't concerned about the startling statistics of their neighborhood. It has the city's fourth-highest concentration of households earning less than $12,000 a year. The unemployment rate is more than 21 percent, far higher than the citywide rate of 12.9 percent.
They believe that jobs are plentiful — for those willing to work. The only thing hindering them from working, they say, is their age.
But for them, the future is vague. Even if they make it to adulthood, the scope of their vision is limited.
One day, the teenager says he wants to attend college and become a professional football player, like his late Uncle Mack. But he's not on a high school team.
He says he would like to go to DePaul University. He didn't realize DePaul has no football program. Following the shooting incident last August, he left his public school and enrolled in an alternative school. His grades are poor, but he says he's determined to bring them up. That was before he was jailed on gun charges.
"I'm not going to mess up college," the teenager said prior to his arrest. "They're not going to kick me out (of high school). I'm going to do my work in the daytime, and as soon as 6 o'clock hits, I'm out."
The next week, he said his ultimate goal was to work at the airport. It didn't matter which one. In his youthful mind, that's the ultimate job — one where "they pay good money." The teenager has no idea what kind of airport jobs he would do or what kind of training he will need.
Another day, he said if nothing else works out, he would join the Marines.
There was no talk of becoming a doctor, a teacher or an architect. His dreams don't extend that far. On the island of poverty and violence where he lives, many people die young or end up stuck there forever.
If he is still in North Lawndale when he turns 18, the young man says he will obtain a concealed-carry license and purchase a legal gun for protection. He had no idea that the minimum age for a license is 21.
"I'll be grown, and I have to protect myself," he said. "If somebody tries to run up on me at the stoplight or something, I can protect myself legally, and I don't have to watch my back. I can just walk around without running from the police. Because I won't be doing anything wrong."
Having grown up in Lake Zurich, Nellis said he realizes there is a large segment of society that has no idea what is happening in neighborhoods like North Lawndale. As a white man who lives in North Lawndale, Nellis said he often has heated discussions with his white friends about economic disparities.
"I have friends who grew up poor, with a single mom, and they try to compare it to children in North Lawndale. I say, 'Yes, you've had challenges, but there are two major differences,'" he said. "'You had resources to fall on, not just a family but affluence and better schools. You had a pillow to fall on rather than hit rock bottom.'
"This isn't just a mom and dad issue, it's a community problem," he said. "When so many people on your block are faced with hopelessness, there is no safety net. It's not comparing apples to apples."
Some days, the teenager says he wants to stay in North Lawndale forever. Other days, he considers what it might be like to live someplace else.
"I think about being grown and having kids. Then I'm moving out," he said. "I would put my kids in a better environment. I don't want them to be in the same environment I'm in."
A version of this article appeared in print on March 12, 2017, in the News section of the Chicago Tribune with the headline "A NORTH LAWNDALE TEEN'S STORY - Ninth-grader who says he has had to flee gunfire buys a gun, then gets busted and confined. Now he's trying to figure out how to escape a cycle of poverty." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe