Written by Frances Marion Platt
Published in the New Paltz Times
One Book/One New Paltz, the annual joint community reading and discussion experience, returns to town with a week’s worth of activities from November 13 to 20. But this year it’s going to be a little different: Instead of the usual novel, the book selected by the One Book/One New Paltz Committee is a sobering non-fictional account of the lives of people living in extreme poverty. The 2016 Community Read is titled $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).
“It’s such an important, compelling topic,” says Shelley Sherman, a longtime member of the Committee. “And as for programming, it presents so many possibilities.” That a book will “lend itself to programming” is one of the criteria by which a One Book/One New Paltz selection is chosen, Sherman explains, along with being well-written, accessible and not more than about 350 pages in length. The Committee has also looked for a representation of diversity in both topics covered and authors as well.
But it wasn’t simply a matter of One Book being “due” for a nonfiction title this year, says Sherman. The multi-tiered selection process starts each year around February, with a list of 50 or 60 titles suggested by Committee members, derived from surveys of attendees at the previous year’s events or added to suggestion boxes placed at the Elting Memorial Library, the Sojourner Truth Library at SUNY-New Paltz and local bookstores. The initial list is weeded down to about 20 semifinalists, then to five or six titles thought to be especially strong. Committee members will then make sure to read the finalists and prepare to “come in with arguments pro or con” at the meeting where the final selection is made.
Certainly the long, slow recovery from the Great Recession and many of the topics in the air during a presidential election year make a book about the poorest of the poor in America a good fit with the current zeitgeist. “You know that saying about how we’re all one paycheck away from poverty? Well, most people are, to some extent,” Sherman notes. She says that the families profiled in the book often start out middle-class, but are struck by one or more turns of ill fortune, such as the catastrophic illness of a breadwinner or the need to take in other relatives who have a disability or an unplanned baby on the way. When the family’s income is nearly nonexistent, efforts to improve their circumstances are often severely limited by such factors as the cost of child care, transportation and other logistical difficulties or simply the inability to afford to buy appropriate clothing for work.
Edin and Shaefer are sociologists who traveled around the country to spend time with 18 families, both urban and rural, to gain a better understanding of how the 1.5 million households living “under the radar” in such extreme poverty, including 3 million children, are able to get by at all. Some manage to get sporadic seasonal work; some collect cans and bottles for deposits; one woman they interviewed periodically sells her blood plasma. They are the legacy of the “welfare-to-work” social services reforms of the 1990s, and America provides no safety net for them beyond food stamps. “The book is not like a college sociology text,” says Sherman. “These are interesting tales of real people.”
$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America can be found at local bookstores (Inquiring Minds and Barner Books, both on Church Street in New Paltz) and at the Elting Library and Sojourner Truth Library, as well as on Kindle. The week of One Book/One New Paltz programming scheduled from November 13 to 20 will include more than a dozen events: presentations on poverty as seen through the lenses of various academic disciplines; book discussions; an open mic night for creative expression; discussions and perspectives on poverty by those experiencing it directly; and a workshop on résumé building and job search. Full program details are available at the One Book/One New Paltz website,www.onebookonenewpaltz.com.