Living on Almost Nothing in America


$2 a dayThis book by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer says something important, though the style isn’t my favorite.

As Steven Pinker says, “if narratives without statistics are blind, statistics without narratives are empty.” My analytical mind leans to statistics while Edin and Shaefer lean to narratives.

The title comes from “one of the World Bank’s metrics of global poverty in the developing world – $2 per person per day… The official poverty line for a family of three in the United States worked out to about $16.50 per person, per day over the course of a year.” Even America’s definition of “deep poverty” is $8.30. I hadn’t expected to discover that 4% of Americans live in the poverty of $2 per day.

The book explains the history of federal government “welfare” in America, starting with States overwhelmed by Civil War widows and orphans, and continuing through the 1990s reform era to today.

People are often trapped in $2 poverty by physical and mental health issues – their own or family members they care for. They live in areas where low-level jobs are few, but haven’t the money to move. The authors focus on heart-breaking stories of individuals who surely deserve better – like a young father who presses his shirt before going to a local store to seek a job – even while showing that the individuals deal with addicts, abusers, and craziness around them. But I can understand the difficulty of landing a job at a retail store if your teeth are rotted and your clothes are stained. Applying for government aid can require so much time, jumping through so many hoops, that it prevents individuals from seeking and holding jobs!

Failures throughout history
If you think all the deeply poor deserve their fate, read the stories here. Most $2 poor have a history of work and want to work. While some studies that establish such facts are explained in the book, in other places I wish a reference was included.

The authors say (missing those statistics and references again) that the old welfare system is not proven to create dependency, “indolence and single parenthood,” but that doesn’t really matter. Programs begun during the Great Depression that offered money, penalized mothers who had a husband in the family, and demanded nothing in exchange are “so out of sync with American values” they are “doomed to fail” in the long-term.

A majority of Americans reject “welfare” in polls, but “the number of Americans who thought we were spending too little on help for the poor actually rose” over time. The government is failing to deliver what most Americans want and what the poor need. Even the deeply poor hate “welfare” programs.

After three chapters (out of five – this is a short book) I was ready to believe government programs are failing. (I was ready to believe it before I started the book.) I jumped to the Conclusions.

What to do?
Reforms in the 1990s did a lot to help the working poor – the authors especially like the Earned Income Tax Credit. But the number of $2 poor has risen, so the reforms are not a success for everyone.

  • There should be three guiding principles: (1) every adult deserves the opportunity to work; (2) parents should raise their children in a home of their own (which will be rented in most cases); and (3) children should be cared for even if their parents cannot work.
  • The old welfare system is not the answer… “This is not merely an argument about political feasibility… [the old system] is out a sync with American values and [serves to] separate the poor from the rest of society… may even have created a class of outcasts.”
  • “Work opportunity is vital” and the 1990 reforms failed in that regard. The authors explain many benefits of work, some quite lofty: “[Work] may have a certain healing power.”
  • The book documents a successful program of government-subsidized private-sector jobs and says the government must crack down on illegal practices such as paying below minimum wage, requiring employees to work hours “off the books,” and irregular schedules that leave parents unable to plan. A proposed law to require employers to post work schedules three weeks in advance sounds reasonable to me.

Edin and Shaefer offer proposals with liberal, conservative, and libertarian bases. That appeals to me. I don’t see how we can solve problems in today’s poisonous political atmosphere where a “red team” or “blue team” rejects any suggestions from their opponents.

Agree or disagree with their specific proposals, but this book contributes to an important discussion. And polls indicate this is a discussion Americans want to have. And then act on.

What others say
$2.00 a Day averages 4 stars on Amazon from 64 reviews. Only 10% of reviews are 3 stars or less. Of those 3 star reviews, some feel there were too many “hard luck” stories, that the book didn’t offer hope problems can be solved, and that mothers with many children are creating their own problems: “I guess it just really bothers me that it’s almost like a shell game. We’re being asked to concentrate on the dire circumstances (which are undeniable) of the kids but nobody asks why the parents keep making babies.” I think this comment really nails the debate over the “deserving poor” which we need to be able to discuss without calling each other names.

I’ve reviewed other books about poverty:
Gang Leader for a Day:
Hand to Mouth:

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