U Record spotlights Luke Shaefer, “Associate professor studies extreme poverty in America”

November 11, 2015

When living in extreme poverty, people make use of whatever assets they have as a means of survival, whether it means selling plasma, junk yard scrapping, food stamps or sex just to get by.

"It's both depressing and uplifting," Luke Shaefer says of witnessing these efforts firsthand through his research. He describes these means as exemplifying a sort of entrepreneurial spirit that arises from extreme poverty.

Shaefer is an associate professor of social work and public policy, splitting his time between the School of Social Work and Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

His research focuses on data analysis to better understand how economic programs work, and the effectiveness of the social safety net in serving those who are economically disadvantaged. Recently focusing on rising levels of extreme poverty across the nation, Shaefer also has looked at barriers to unemployment insurance and the effects of programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Through household surveys and data sets, Shaefer analyzes the causes and consequences of extreme poverty, such as housing instability, low-wage labor markets, fluctuating hours, unsafe working conditions, wage thefts, instability in available jobs and instability in family lives.

Leading primarily graduate classes, Shaefer teaches subjects such as social welfare policy, as well as nonprofit management.

Based on his research, Shaefer proposes expanding the number of decent jobs through programs and government-business partnerships, as well as providing jobs out of prisons. Policies should also address the issue of housing affordability. He believes policy changes like these could cause ripple effects leading to more stability across many facets of life.

Shaefer recently applied his research to co-author a book that looks at extreme poverty in America. "$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America," which he wrote with Kathryn J. Edin, observes families across the nation surviving on a daily cash income of only $2, and serves as a call to action. The book was featured in The New York Times in September.

"A lot of people want to work," Shaefer said of the people he met who lived in poverty. "They see work as healing in a way. It's their ability to make a contribution."

Spending time with families was a new mode of research for Shaefer, who describes the book as his first real venture into qualitative work in addition to data analysis.

"It's emotionally taxing, but perhaps definitely the research that's been the most meaningful to me," Shaefer says. "You see the resilience of the human spirit."


Q: What moment on the job stands out as the most memorable?

A: In teaching, I love it when a former student writes to say that something I did helped them in life — get the job they wanted, or be successful in a project. In research, I love that first moment of discovery. That first data output or fact that you uncover and say, "Wow, I think this might be important."

Q: What can't you live without?

A: I can't live without my family — my wife Susie and kiddos Bridget, 6, and Michael, 2. And coffee.

Q: What is your favorite spot near campus?

A: I love Ali Baba's for a quick lunch, and Red Hawk for happy hour. Best nachos in the world.

Q: What inspires you?

A: People working hard to help others, and having fun while they do it. Fun is important. Broadly speaking, creativity inspires me — seeing how someone thinks about something or does something in a new and exciting way. Finally, careful and thoughtful scholarship is always inspiring.

Q: What are you currently reading?

A: "The Bully Pulpit" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and their relationship with the press of their day.

Q: Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

A: There have been so many people who have altered the course of my professional life. John Tropman, now my colleague at the School of Social Work, was the first person to suggest I get a Ph.D. in social work and consider becoming an academic, and he's been an important advisor to me ever since. Julie Henly, Harold Pollack and Susan Lambert at the University of Chicago all shaped my development as a scholar, and Sheldon and Sandy Danziger here at Michigan have been incredible mentors. The list could go on. I feel very lucky to have learned from all of these folks.


“Associate professor studies extreme poverty in America,” by Jordan Swope, was originally published in the November 9, 2015 edition of The University Record. The Record’s weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, email the Record staff at [email protected].