Introducing Luke Shaefer, associate professor of public policy and social work

July 14, 2015

The Ford School is delighted to announce that a number of faculty members will join our community this fall. To introduce them to the Ford School and University, we’re running weekly Q&As throughout the summer that touch on their policy and personal interests alike.

Here’s Luke Shaefer on living on almost nothing in America, iterative mixed-methods, what's on his nightstand (hint, a lot!), abbreviated workdays in San Diego, and the teen-drama he'll never admit to loving....

Q. What inspired you to pursue a career in poverty studies?

Shaefer: Since I was very young I’ve always wanted to do work that helped make life better for families experiencing poverty in the United States. For a long time I struggled to figure out what was the professional path where I could maximize my ability to do that. But at some point after talking with wise people, I came to the conclusion that it’s not as much what kind of work you’re doing that matters, as it is how you do it. In any of the things I was considering (law, working in DC, being a professor doing applied research) there were opportunities for me to make a difference, but there was also a lot of opportunity not to make a difference. Picking the type of environment that keeps you most engaged, and looking for opportunities for impact—big and small—is the key. I’m an introvert but I love teaching. I love research. So being a professor researching and teaching about poverty in America was an exciting choice for me.

Q. Teaching any courses this year? 

Shaefer: This coming winter I’ll be teaching Pubpol 746, Social Welfare Policy in the United States. I hope you’ll take it!

Q. Tell us about your new book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.

Shaefer: I wrote it with Kathryn Edin from Johns Hopkins. By the time Kathy and I met up in 2011, she had spent more than two decades in poor communities all over the country, talking in-depth with hundreds of low-income parents about their lives. In 2010, she was back in the field to update her earlier work from the 1990s on the economic lives of the very poor, and was struck by something that she hadn’t seen before: many of the families she interviewed didn’t just have too little in the way of cash income; they had virtually no income at all. And the absence of cash seemed to permeate every aspect of their lives. Kathy shared these findings with me; much of my research centers on measuring the incomes of the poor using the best available sources of nationally representative data. I immediately went to work to see if there had been an uptick in the number of families with children living on incomes so low as to be unthought-of by many in the United States—below $2.00 per person, per day.

What this investigation uncovered stunned us both. As of early 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. What’s more, the number of families in such extreme destitution had been on the rise since the mid-1990s, and at a distressingly fast pace. What were the causes of this massive rise in $2-a-day poverty among households with children? How did families find themselves in such dire circumstances? Does it matter that they have no cash if they have access to non-cash benefits like SNAP, groceries from food pantries, or free housing? These are the questions that motivated $2.00 a Day.

Q. Is it based on qualitative research then? 

Shaefer: This book is my first venture into mixed methods research. We’ve been calling our method “iterative mixed methods” where both quantitative and qualitative lines of research proceed in tandem, informing each other along the way.

But at the heart of $2.00 a Day is our qualitative work. From 2012 to 2014, we recruited eighteen families in Chicago, Illinois, Cleveland, Ohio, a small city in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and in a set of tiny towns in the Mississippi Delta (thanks only to a Ford School student who helped us make connections down there). We recruited at food pantries and asked for help from trusted local nonprofits. When we found a family, we would spend time with them, asking them to tell us their stories, sharing meals, observing their daily lives. We visited with them over the course of many months, and in some cases years, to learn as much as we could about their lives. $2.00 a Day tells the stories of about a half dozen of these families, the challenges they confront, and what they do to survive.

Q. Can you recommend any other books for students with an interest in domestic poverty?

Shaefer: The Truly Disadvantaged (Wilson) is a defining book about the structural forces leading to the concentration of poverty, and the consequences of it; Promises I Can Keep (Edin & Kefalas) explores rising rates of single parenthood among low-income families; I finished Scarcity (Mullainathan & Shafir) recently and thought there were a lot of interesting ideas in there; I just finished Punishment and Inequality in America (Western) and The New Jim Crow (Alexander) and am grappling with how important it is to understand trends in incarceration if you want to understand poverty in America.

Q. Are you reading anything for pleasure? 

Shaefer: Finishing a short biography of Emma Goldman, which is a lot of fun. Just starting The Most Southern Place on Earth (Cobb), which is a much easier read than I was thinking it would be! And there’s usually a copy of Dwell on my nightstand.

Q. You do a lot of reading...ever watch any TV? 

Shaefer: Just in the past few months my wife Susie and I started watching The Good Wife and Friday Night Lights. Some of the best TV I’ve ever watched! I can’t believe I was so late to the game on these shows! Perhaps my favorite TV show of all time was a certain mid-2000s teen drama set in Orange County. But I’ll never tell you its name or admit to it in public.

Q. Ha, you don't need to (seen it once or twice). What do you do for fun? 

Shaefer: I just starting running. Did my first 5k in May. Not long distances (let’s not get carried away), but I am loving it. All thanks to my wife Susie who got me into it. Ten years ago I would have never expected to be running every week now!

Q. Have a favorite vacation spot? 

Shaefer: Italy. My wife and I have an agreement that neither of us can ever go to Italy without the other. It would create too much marital discord. We have also loved our time in Puerto Rico and San Diego. In San Diego I swear people get to work at 10 am, take a two-hour lunch, and are back headed home by 2 pm. Hard to work when the weather is good all the time…

Q. What do you feel most proud of?

Shaefer: Definitely my kiddos Bridget (6) and Michael (2), who are the two coolest people I’ve ever met. Very similar and totally different from each other. 

Check out Luke's bio and head over to Twitter to welcome him to the Ford School.