Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

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$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America Summary

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The winner of the 2016 Hillman Prize for Book Journalism, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2015) by American sociologists Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer explores why the number of American households living on two dollars a day or less per person has skyrocketed to one and a half million, including three million children. Throughout the book, the authors interview a number of families to determine how they arrived at this level of poverty and how they survive.

Edin and Shaefer begin by examining the broader political context of poverty in America. Starting in the 1960s, welfare critics began to argue that rising welfare payments through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program had resulted in an increase in the rate of unwed mothers. Particularly under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, the racist stereotype of the “welfare queen” emerged, depicting welfare recipients as immoral, unwed African-American women living the good life off fat government checks while the rest of Americans work hard for their paychecks.

In large part due to these stereotypes, a public appetite for welfare reform emerged, resting on President Bill Clinton’s shoulders to accomplish it. But while Clinton’s initial plan included funding for job training assistance, childcare for working parents, and new jobs in the public sector, Republicans in Congress had other designs for welfare reform. Upon taking control of Congress, Republicans proposed a much less generous legislative package that allowed states to impose stringent limits on welfare recipients. Their bill also cut funding designed to create new public sector jobs. Despite opposition from critics like Senator Daniel Moynihan who predicted children would be “sleeping on grates,” Clinton signed the Republican-spearheaded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) act in 1996.

In the short term, the TANF seemed to have a positive impact. Child poverty rates plummeted, and the number of single mothers who obtained jobs soared. Edin and Shaefer argue, however, that these positive developments were more the result of an overall economic boom in the 1990s, along with an expansion of the earned-income tax credit and a small bump in the minimum wage. Moreover, by the mid-2000s, the number of single mothers who were both unemployed and denied welfare benefits—so-called “disconnected mothers”—had skyrocketed to one in five single mothers. According to Edin and Shaefer’s analysis of census data, the number of “cashless” households subsisting on two dollars a day or less per person more than doubled between 1996—the year Clinton signed the TANF—and 2011.

Having established the size and scope of the problem, and having posited a reasonable hypothesis behind its cause, Edin and Shaefer set out to find families who met the description of surviving on two dollars a day or less per day, either year-round or for significant stretches. In Chicago, Cleveland, Appalachia, and the Mississippi Delta, it wasn’t terribly difficult to find such families. Jessica Compton, the matriarch of a family of four in Tennessee, would have zero income if not for twice-weekly plasma donations. Modonna and Brianna Harris, a mother and daughter, had consumed nothing but spoiled milk for days. One tenth-grader trades sex with a gym teacher in return for food. Edin and Shaefer also interview Jennifer Hernandez, a Chicago janitor suffering from asthma who pushes through it and excels at her job. Her job ends, however, when she is tasked with cleaning the mold out of freezing, foreclosed homes, becoming gravely ill. A woman in Cleveland, Rae McCormick had a cashier’s job until her housemates used all of her gas, forcing her to miss a day of work and lose her job.

While the problems facing these individuals are unique, they stem from common problems Edin and Shaefer identify in the field of low-wage work in America. For a great deal of low-wage, entry-level work, the ratio of applicants to available positions is 100-to-1. Some big employers like Wal-Mart will technically keep workers on the payroll while reducing their hours to zero, meaning that these employees have no income and yet do not qualify for many welfare benefits. Those who live in homeless shelters or do not have cell phones often lose out on jobs because they are not near the phone number provided when an employer calls back to offer them a position. On top of all that, a significant number of Americans eligible for TANF benefits are unaware that they qualify, nor do they know how to claim these benefits.

There are resources for those suffering in extreme poverty, from public libraries to homeless shelters to food pantries. The most impact, Edin and Shaefer argue, comes from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or “SNAP,” colloquially and often derisively known as “food stamps.” However, “While SNAP may stave off some hardship,” Edin and Shaefer write, “it doesn’t help families exit the trap of extreme destitution like cash might.”

$2.00 a Day provides a startling and infuriating look at a form of American poverty “so deep that we, as a country, don’t think it exists.”