36 pages 1 hour read

Kathryn J. Edin, H. Luke Shaefer

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 2015, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America is a nonfiction investigation into how a new form of virtually cashless poverty emerged in the United States. Authors Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer are both academics with extensive experience researching poverty, but it is only in recent years that they have come across households with almost no cash income at all. There are now 1.5 million families with children in the US who must survive on less than $2 per person, per day. It is a level of extreme destitution that most Americans are unaware exists in the United States. Edin and Shaefer trace the rise of $2-a-day poverty to a welfare reform in 1996, which expanded aid for the working poor while killing the cash welfare system.


How did these families become so poor while living in the richest nation in the world? How do they manage to survive with so little money? Edin and Shaefer discuss the lives of eight families who live in $2-a-day poverty. They conducted fieldwork over many months by visiting these families in their homes, observing how they lived, and talking with them about their daily lives. Their narratives form the backbone of the book, giving names and faces to the poorest members of society. The authors show some of the unimaginable adversities these families have had to endure, the difficult decisions they have had to make, and how structural inequalities make it virtually impossible for them to escape their circumstances.


In the Introduction Shaefer analyzes survey data to show how $2-a-day poverty has risen in households with children since the welfare reform of 1996, while Chapter 1 shows how the welfare system came to be so unpopular among the American public in the first place. Chapters 2 through 5 investigate how the $2-a-day poor live, surveying their employment struggles, their housing insecurity, the abuse and trauma they experience, how they find ways to survive, and the effect extreme poverty has on children. Despite the hard work these families put into trying to improve their lives, they can never seem to escape poverty. They endure things no one should have to endure.


There is no single reason why these families are so poor, but there are many commonalities among their stories. They are at a disadvantage when trying to find jobs, of which there are far too few. Any job they do find never pays them a living wage. Rents are far higher than they can afford, and government housing assistance is far too difficult to get, so many families stay with relatives or at homeless shelters. They resort to making money in ways that exact a physical, legal, and psychological toll, such as by selling plasma, selling sex, or illegally selling government benefits. Both the parents and children in these families suffer in various ways. In the concluding chapter Edin and Shaefer recommend a new antipoverty system that is in line with American values—one that enables the poor to obtain decent jobs and housing, and that provides a cash safety net without instilling a sense of shame in those who receive it.