$2.00 a Day:  Living On Almost Nothing In America

(Originally published September 2015)

Kathryn Edin’s and H. Luke Shaefer’s $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America is insightful long overdue scholarship about destitution, its causes, characteristics and consequences, and about possible ways of reducing or even eliminating extreme poverty. This is an important issue for U.S. child welfare systems which are mostly working with poor families, half of whom are extremely poor, i.e., have annual incomes less than half of the federal poverty standard, combined frequently with substance abuse, mood disorders and/or domestic violence. Edin and Shaefer assert that 1.5 million households with 3 million children (4% of the country’s child population) are desperately poor by their definition. More than double this number of children (6.5 million) live in families with incomes less than half of the federal poverty standard, i.e., approximately $11,500 for a family of four.  


Edin and Shaefer are concerned with families who have little or no cash income: incomes of less than $2 per day per family member:


  • Single mother with one child                 $1460 per year or less

  • Single mother with two children, or
    two parents and one child                     $ 2190 per year or less

  • Two parents and two children -            $ 2920 per year or less

  • Two parents and three children -         $ 3650 per year or less


Readers accustomed to paying $2 or more for a cup of coffee may assume that families living on no more than $2 per day per person are (without exception) homeless, but it would be more accurate to describe them as periodically homeless. Some of the parents whose struggles Edin and Shaffer describe at length are occasionally employed in low wage jobs that allow them to afford cheap substandard housing; or they live with friends or extended families or stay in shelters for months at a time.  A few fortunate families have housing subsidies. Many cash poor destitute families also receive SNAP (food stamps) benefits that keep them and their children from starving, though sometimes only by a narrow margin.  Edin and Shaefer provide a useful discussion of why SNAP and cash income are not the same, i.e., for some necessities such as lights and heat, water and clothing families must pay cash. Trading food stamps for cash at a discounted rate (50-60%) is a common survival strategy employed by the cash poor families featured in this book.


One of the “lights on” messages that Edin and Shaefer deliver is that the increase in disconnected, destitute and homeless families in the U.S. is a direct consequence of welfare reform policies enacted during Bill Clinton’s Presidency and celebrated by both political parties as a major policy success. According to these scholars, “As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.” When SNAP benefits are counted as cash “the increase in $2-a-day poverty remained large, up 70 percent in fifteen years. After counting other benefits such as housing subsidies and tax credits, “the data still showed a 50 percent increase” in the poorest of the poor families since the passage of welfare reform.


Edin and Shaefer appear to overreach when they claim that “welfare is dead”, but it’s true that there has been a sea change of historic proportions in determining eligibility for welfare, and in its work requirements, time limits and use. They comment that “This book is about what happens when a government safety net that is built on the assumption of full time, stable employment at a living wage combines with a low-wage labor market that fails to deliver on any of the above.”


Edin and Shaefer provide the following statistics:


  • Fewer than 2% of Americans, and only 27% of poor families receive welfare;
    (In Mississippi, one the poorest states in the country, 0.06 % of the state’s population receive TANF benefits)            

  • In 1994, AFDC provided benefits to 14.2 million people, including 9.6 million children; in 2012 TANF served 4.4 million, 3.3 million of whom were children. “By fall 2014, the TANF caseload had fallen to 3.8 million,” more than a 70% decline in families receiving welfare since the mid-1990s.

  • One-fifth of single mothers report that they are neither on welfare or employed; poverty scholars sometimes refer to these families as “disconnected.”  

  •  In 2012, 1.2 million families receiving SNAP told eligibility workers that they had no other source of income.


Most of the destitute families interviewed by Edin and Shaefer have not bothered to apply for TANF; the ones that have done so were rebuffed by TANF workers with various excuses. One of the results of welfare reform has been to empower eligibility workers to create roadblocks to even applying for TANF, and the eligibility requirements themselves weed out lots of other poor families.  For cash poor families who are in a daily struggle to survive, welfare is indeed “dead”, a politically popular outcome but one with disastrous long term consequences for children in these families. Scholars and advocates who predicted that welfare reform would do “irreparable damage” to poor children were wrong in the decade following welfare reform when the American economy was booming but right in post-recession America, especially in rural areas where there continues to be high unemployment rates, and in urban areas where housing and transportation costs have made it difficult for poor families to get by.


Surviving on $2 per Day


Most of the families whose survival strategies Edin and Shaefer explore at length periodically work in “perilous” low wage jobs that endanger their health, for example, cleaning up slum housing without benefits such as sick leave. Edin and Shaefer assert that “roughly 70% of children who experienced $2 per day poverty in 2012 lived with an adult who held a job at some point during the year.” During periods of employment, their incomes rise above $2 per day per person, but for cash poor parents these periods of employment are interrupted by lengthy stretches of unemployment. Some employers ignore labor laws that regulate work hours, require employees to be available on short notice to work varying shifts, increase or reduce hours from week to week and fire employees who fail to show up for work for a couple of days regardless of their reasons. Nevertheless, most of the parents in $2 Per Day who are not working are looking for work, both for economic reasons and because work relieves stress and takes the edge off emotional suffering. As difficult and risky as some of their jobs are, working beats looking for work and experiencing multiple rejections from prospective employers. Some of the women featured in $2 Per Day have applied on-line for hundreds of jobs. However, when these women have criminal records or are living in homeless shelters, or have obvious health problems and lack of health care and dental care, or have transportation problems or lack child care for sick children, they often have difficulty finding and sustaining employment. 


Lacking employment and perhaps having given up on looking for work, desperately poor families enter into what these authors call the “shadow economy”.  Cash poor adults, many of whom have children, may sell their blood plasma once or twice a week. They may earn a few dollars per week collecting cans. They may sell their SNAP benefits at a discounted rate (which is illegal), or remain living with violent men and, in extreme circumstances, engage in prostitution.  Children and youth sometimes develop their own strategies. One of the most painful stories in this book is about an African American teenager living with her destitute family in the Mississippi Delta who is drawn into an extended sexual relationship with a teacher in order to keep from starving. This teenager tells these authors, “He said he had been watching me. Watching me! Since I was young!  Like I was meat.”  This relationship was eventually reported to law enforcement authorities who had done nothing to prosecute the teacher, or even contacted the teenager, at the time this chapter was written, according to Edin and Shaefer. 


Cash poor families sometimes engage in other more creative survival strategies, for example joining large households in which SNAP benefits are combined and managed by a single dominant individual. One enterprising woman interviewed by the authors operates a small business capitalized by selling SNAP benefits. Many of the activities that generate cash in the shadow economy are illegal, “Yet one might argue that these activities are more in line with conventional morality than what goes on in many of the town’s legal enterprises,” the authors state. They ask

“What happens when a community starved for cash (like the Mississippi Delta and many other dirt poor rural areas) forges a shadow economy that threatens to overcome the formal one – and the two become commingled, almost indistinguishable from each other?” Some readers may remember Winter's Bone, the movie that brought the actress, Jennifer Lawrence, to prominence for one possible answer to this question.


Growing up on $2 per day in America


What do millions of children who grow up in these desperately poor families learn about the world? One indelible memory is of being chronically hungry. Chronically hungry people have a visceral understanding of what it means to starve to death. I occasionally read comments or hear poverty experts say things like “In America, the rich are thin and the poor are obese.” Anyone who makes these kind of comments should try going without food or living solely on Ramen noodles for a couple of weeks a month. The teenager mentioned above who survives by having sex with a teacher for 7 months says of the food supply in her family, “It only last a week or two – maybe a week and a half, if we eat one meal a day.” She says of her siblings, “The kids, they so… emotional (about it).  My little sister in the room, and she just crying. My little brother in the room and he just crying … Like a lot of my little sisters and brothers, and them say they wish they wasn’t alive.  And it’s sad because when my (older) brother died … my little brother and them breaking down and … (he) said, ‘I wish I was Mike, too. I wish I was dead.’” Edin and Shaefer go on to say that “Hunger, in turn, may put mothers and children are at risk of demeaning and dangerous sexual liaisons … not having cash means that you have to break the law and expose yourself to humiliation in order to survive.”


Edin and Shaefer hear stories of some extraordinarily virtuous and caring people from the children and parents they interview.  A White high school teacher in Mississippi shows up at the sexually abused teen’s house one day and ends up arranging medical and dental appointments for her and her siblings. The teacher arranges for this teenager to travel to Washington D.C. on a field trip. He helps to stop the sexual relationship of the teenager with his colleague. However, these compassionate actions of a member of a privileged caste contrasts sharply with the intractable disregard for extremely poor families (a large percentage of whom are African American) of most of the political and community leadership in this rural community, and in many other communities around the country.


What Next? 


Edin and Shaefer demonstrate a remarkable capacity to tell these bitter stories, and summarize the relevant scholarship about destitution in America, without being consumed by outrage at the political leadership of both political parties which permit the conditions described in this book to persist. They strongly advocate government subsidized private sector job creation and other subsidized job programs to provide every American adult with the opportunity to work. Adding to local infrastructure for parks, day care centers, after school programs, libraries drug treatment centers is much needed to strengthen American neighborhoods and communities and to give every person able to work a stake in community well-being. They recommend a large increase in the minimum wage and in active enforcement of labor laws that are widely disregarded by employers.


An increase in publicly subsidized housing is urgently needed to create much more affordable housing. TANF rules need to be changed to provide more of a safety net. Currently, states are siphoning off two-thirds of their TANF block grants for other uses, sometimes to fund child welfare. “TANF has become welfare for states, rather than for aid for families in need,” these authors state. Furthermore, “In thirty-two states and the District of Columbia, TANF benefits for a family of three with no other income are now below 30 percent of the poverty threshold,” they assert. Clearly, TANF policies need to be revised and benefits made available to the poorest of the poor families if, for whatever reason, adult caregivers are unable to work.


Edin and Shaefer hold up the Earned Income Tax Credit as an example of what well informed and enlightened public policy can achieve to lift families out of poverty. However, public policy needed to eliminate the desperate poverty described in this book has no chance of being enacted until a critical mass of politically active Americans become deeply upset by the conditions in which destitute parents and their children are living. $2 Per Day is an opportunity to deepen the discussion of homelessness and confront the failure of welfare reform. Looking away, denying that almost one in twenty American children lives with risk of chronic hunger, or (worse) celebrating a cultural myth about equal opportunity and upward mobility for poor children could result in the decision to reduce SNAP benefits, the only public benefit currently allowing the poorest of the poor in America to survive.




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