I’m teaching a first-year student seminar this semester on challenges and solutions in global health and international development. It’s a fun weekly bookclub. Last week we read $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. This week we’ll discuss Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day. I assigned these books to kick off our semester with the hope that students will gain a more nuanced understanding of the lives of the very poor in the U.S. and around the world.

Both books present a descriptive analysis of data on poverty. In $2.00 a Day, Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer blend an analysis of data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP)—a nationally representative panel survey—with ethnographic research on the lives of a group of very poor Americans. In Portfolios of the Poor, Collins and colleagues describe financial diaries kept by more than 200 households in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa.

Causal inference gets most of our attention, but sometimes what you need is good description to establish a baseline of knowledge and generate new ideas to explore.

Image: peterhaden on Flickr