$2.00 a Day

by Kathryn J. Edin, H. Luke Shaefer

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$2.00 a Day Summary

$2.00 a Day is a nonfiction book that presents groundbreaking research into the poverty crisis in the United States.

  • In 2012, researchers Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer began an exhaustive study of American families living in $2-a-day poverty, focusing on cities in the Midwest and South.
  • Edin and Shaefer found that the 1996 welfare reform law had exacerbated conditions for both the working and non-working poor, forcing many to live and work in unsafe conditions.
  • The authors propose several solutions to the crisis, including an increase in the minimum wage and the creation of government-subsidized private sector jobs.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

In the summer of 2012, Kathryn Edin, a top poverty researcher, and Luke Shaefer, a professor and National Poverty Center research affiliate, embarked on an extensive study of the poorest families in America. They set up field sites in Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Johnson City, Tennessee; and rural towns in the Mississippi Delta. In $2.00 a Day, they highlight the plight of single mothers and low-wage earners.

Edin and Shaefer found that the American welfare system changed considerably after the passage of the 1996 welfare reform law. Then, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) replaced AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). Unlike AFDC, TANF imposed time limits and work requirements on recipients. Those who were chronically unemployed were denied aid.

The 1996 law earned widespread support from the public. While Americans felt more should be done for the poor, they balked at the term “welfare,” which conjured up images of Cadillac-owning “welfare queens” in fur coats. By the time President Bill Clinton began his first term in 1993, the public distaste for welfare was at a record high. Meanwhile, those who would be directly affected by welfare reform were left out of the debate altogether, despite enduring poor housing conditions, low pay, and hazardous working environments.

To moderate welfare reform, David Ellwood, a Harvard professor, proposed that aid should be restructured. He championed training programs and public minimum-wage jobs for recipients. However, his recommendations didn't make it into the 1996 law. Under the new law, families with children could be denied benefits if they exceeded the time limit of five years. Although many former welfare recipients found jobs in the booming 1990s economy, others weren't so lucky. Without employment prospects, they lost their benefits and became part of the $2-a-day poor.

Edin and Shaefer found that the members of the typical family living in $2-a-day poverty were often employed; however, their jobs failed to lift them above the poverty line. Many worked in the notoriously volatile, low-wage service sector, where few employers offered benefits like affordable health insurance and paid vacations. In addition, those living in $2-a-day poverty had their food stamps or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits cut by about thirty cents for every dollar earned. To add insult to injury, work paid only a little more than welfare but came with added expenses for childcare, transportation, and healthcare.

On the surface, the 1996 welfare reform law was a success: it pushed an army of single mothers into the workforce. However, it did nothing to improve the conditions at low-wage jobs. Most single mothers yearn for full-time hours and reliable schedules, yet many service sector jobs offer neither. Thus, $2-a-day poverty remains a grim reality for many. Edin and Shaefer also found that hiring discrimination against people of color and those with criminal backgrounds kept many from climbing out of poverty.

Another factor compounding the challenges of the poor is housing instability. In most states today, a family headed by a full-time minimum-wage worker cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market prices. Thus, many families must share living spaces with relatives or friends. This can lead to toxic living conditions, where the vulnerable must endure sexual, emotional, and physical abuse.

Edin and Shaefer found that children in $2-a-day households endure more adverse childhood experiences (ACE) than others. Often, unscrupulous landlords permit extra tenants in a living space in exchange for silence about unsafe living conditions. All of these factors contribute to toxic stress for an already vulnerable population.

To survive, many who live in $2-a-day poverty sell plasma, but frequent donations can deplete one's energy...

(This entire section contains 887 words.)

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and physical strength. To supplement this income, many resort to food banks, private charities, and under-the-table work opportunities. A small percentage of single mothers offer sex work for cash, while others resort to collecting metal for scrapyards.

A common practice is “SNAP trafficking,” or the trading of SNAP cards for cash to pay rent, utilities, and medication expenses. Edin and Shaefer maintain that the flexibility cash provides cannot be underestimated. Cash allows an individual to buy a Goodwill outfit for a job interview and pay for the bus fare to the interview. When push comes to shove, many living in $2-a-day poverty survive by simply making do with less. It is their unwavering resilience that ensures their survival.

The last stop for Edin and Shaefer is the Mississippi Delta, which has the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in the country. Due to the mechanization of agriculture and few job opportunities for low-skilled workers, many are excluded from the formal job market. Here, there are few private charities, food pantries, plasma clinics, and scrapyards; to survive, some resort to SNAP trafficking and “selling” their children's social security numbers. Often, those who “buy” these social security numbers are minimum-wage workers looking for a higher tax refund.

With no jobs or cash safety net, those living in $2-a-day poverty must rely on a “shadow” economy that does little to protect their basic legal rights. Edin and Shaefer point out that poverty affects children the most, leading to increased suicide attempts among them.

To handle the $2-a-day poverty crisis, Edin and Schaefer propose several solutions. These include government-subsidized private sector job creation, the provision of support services, a federal increase in the minimum wage, laws guaranteeing minimum hours to low-wage workers, and the creation of small business incubators.


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