$2.00 a Day Themes

The main themes in $2.00 a Day are welfare reform, poverty, and discrimination.

  • Welfare reform: $2.00 a day explains the effects of the welfare reform law of 1996, arguing that the law only worsened poverty in the United States by leaving vulnerable populations without resources.
  • Poverty: The authors examine the gap between Americans’ opinions of poverty and welfare, suggesting research-backed solutions to the poverty crisis and detailing the lives of those living on $2.00 a day.
  • Discrimination: For the nonworking poor, discrimination on the basis of race, education, work history, housing status, and criminal record is a major obstacle to securing employment.

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Welfare Reform

Welfare reform and its unintended consequences is the main theme of $2.00 a Day. Challenging popular conventions, Edin and Shaefer maintain that the 1996 welfare reform law led to more poverty, not less.

By 2011, the number of families living in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled. Significantly, this type of soul-destroying poverty was no respecter of persons. While single-mother households were the most affected, married couples headed more than thirty percent of $2-a-day households.

In terms of race, Hispanic and African American families were at higher risk. However, whites made up nearly fifty percent of the households. The authors propose that reform efforts take into account not just the working poor but also the non-working poor. The latter are those without gainful employment and with few job prospects.

Edin and Shaefer maintain that the 1996 welfare reform law completely obliterated America's cash welfare program, to the detriment of many; it essentially took away the safety net for vulnerable populations. The new TANF program (which replaced the AFDC) supports the working poor but offers nothing to those living on the fringes of society. With few marketable skills to net them stable employment, these individuals must rely on friends and family to live. They have no income and no place to call home. Many suffer from chronic conditions (which stress exacerbates), while others are victimized by those they have come to trust.

Edin and Shaefer contend that successful reform lies in the full integration of these “untouchables” back into society. They argue that we must give the poor the necessary resources and the opportunity to work, and we must also reaffirm their inherent worth through the provision of stable, affordable housing.


Edin and Shaefer challenge our conception of the word “poverty” by highlighting the discrepancy between public attitudes toward the poor and collective prejudice against “welfare queens.” But why did the colorful term “welfare queen” earn such public contempt?

The story originates in Ronald Reagan's first campaign for president. On the campaign trail in the 1970s, Reagan touted his strong welfare reform initiatives while serving as governor of California. In his campaign speeches, the villain of the hour was the real-life welfare queen Linda Taylor. Taylor had eighty aliases, thirty addresses, and fifteen telephone numbers, which she used to collect food stamps, Social Security, and veterans' benefits. It was said that Taylor's tax-free cash income from welfare was as high as $150,000. In 1981, Reagan (with support from a receptive Congress) made cuts to the AFDC cash welfare program.

Then came the 1990s, when Bill Clinton ran for president. By this time, the American public wanted comprehensive welfare reform. People chafed against the idea of “welfare queens” living high on “free money” while they toiled long hours at their jobs, and Clinton's message of reform so resonated with the American public that he won the election handily. In 1996, he signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Like Reagan, Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.”

Edin and Shaefer show that, far from eradicating poverty, the new law actually led to the...

(The entire section is 851 words.)