A revelatory account of poverty in America so deep that we, as a country, don’t think it exists
Jessica Compton’s family of four would have no cash income unless she donated plasma twice a week at her local donation center in Tennessee. Modonna Harris and her teenage daughter Brianna in Chicago often have no food but spoiled milk on weekends.
After two decades of brilliant research on American poverty, Kathryn Edin noticed something she hadn’t seen since the mid-1990s — households surviving on virtually no income. Edin teamed with Luke Shaefer, an expert on calculating incomes of the poor, to discover that the number of American families living on $2. 00 per person, per day, has skyrocketed to 1.5 million American households, including about 3 million children.
Where do these families live? How did they get so desperately poor? Edin has procured rich — and truthful — interviews. Through the book’s many compelling profiles, moving and startling answers emerge.
The authors illuminate a troubling trend: a low-wage labor market that increasingly fails to deliver a living wage, and a growing but hidden landscape of survival strategies among America’s extreme poor. More than a powerful exposé, $2. 00 a Day delivers new evidence and new ideas to our national debate on income inequality.
This is an excellent book about deep poverty in modern America. It covers a lot of big issues – employment, housing, public benefits – but also makes them personal, through the well-told stories of eight families struggling and often failing to make ends meet.
In the U.S., we tend to think that our version of poverty is cushy by global standards; respected news outlets mention people living on $2 a day or less in India and say, “We can’t imagine that here.” Unfortunately, all too many people don't have to; at any given time, 4% of Americans are living on a cash income of $2 a day per person or less. Many of these are actively looking for work, but with welfare (i.e. cash benefits to needy families) mostly eliminated, or reduced to the point that eligible recipients may be better off spending their time looking for work, those who can't find jobs quickly are usually out of luck. Most poor people can get food stamps, but there’s not enough housing assistance to go around. As for everything else – utilities, transportation, clothing, school supplies, etc. – you’re on your own.
At first I thought the title was a misnomer, that while some people have literally no cash income (i.e. nothing other than food stamps, which can only be used for food), nobody actually earns $2 a day. Turns out I was wrong. One family of four – a married couple and their two young children – live on the $60 a week the mother makes by donating plasma. A huge extended family, whose family business went bust during the recession, lives on the grandfather’s disability benefits and whatever they’re able to scrape together by selling scrap metal. A single mother with two daughters and a grandson makes do with $150 a month in child support and a bit of cash earned by selling homemade sweets to her neighbors; she’s too sick to work but not enough to get disability benefits, yet – due to a housing voucher – heads likely the most stable household in the book. It’s probably not a coincidence that it also seems to be the happiest, and with the best hope for the future (the older daughter is preparing to go to college).
Most of the families in the book are just scraping by, though, ricocheting from one crisis to the next. Work isn’t a magic wand: at the bottom of the market, it’s hard to find a job (especially without money for transportation or decent clothes), and the jobs that exist are poorly-paid, tend not to offer full-time hours (to stay off the hook for benefits), and yet have inconsistent schedules that demand their workers be available at all times. This isn’t to mention the health hazards that come with many of them: one single mom finds that her job, cleaning out foreclosed, and often unheated, homes in the dead of winter doesn’t just make her sick, she passes it on to her kids as well. And compared to professional jobs, low-wage work is often unforgiving: miss work because you don’t have transportation, and you can find yourself out of a job as well. Plenty of other people are available to take that spot.
Meanwhile, without a decent income, housing is a huge problem. There is actually no state in the country in which a single, full-time minimum-wage income is sufficient to afford a two-bedroom apartment at market rent responsibly (meaning 30% or less of household income goes to rent). So even when they’re working, many of these families can only dream of a place of their own, and when they’re not, well, homeless shelters are limited time only. Instead, they double up with family and friends. That can be a godsend, as it is for one young couple struggling to get on their feet, but oftentimes it causes more problems. One mother and her two kids bounce among bad situations: an aunt rents them a bedroom cheap, but the cousin and her boyfriend drink and fight all night, resulting in regular police calls; then the mom moves the family in with an uncle, only to catch him molesting her 9-year-old daughter. Another single mom, without family to rely on, lives in the dilapidated home (water has to be hauled up from the basement) of some dysfunctional friends – but at least it’s better than living with the abusive ex who fathered her child.
The authors do a great job with the individual stories, which are compelling, but also at weaving in the bigger picture through facts and statistics. For a short book – only 174 pages plus endnotes – it has surprising breadth. Unlike most similar books, set exclusively in one major city, the authors here follow families in four very different places: Chicago; Cleveland; Johnson City, TN; and the Mississippi Delta. This creates room for interesting contrasts, including the recognition that the level of services (homeless shelters, food banks, free medical clinics, etc.) provided in major cities is not available in most smaller places. There is also diversity in the families portrayed, the one similarity being that all have kids: because these are the people who would once have been eligible for welfare, but also because hopefully everyone can agree that no child should have to grow up in these circumstances. Especially in a country that has the money to do something about it.
The epilogue contains a number of policy proposals. Interestingly, the authors themselves don’t think the U.S. should bring back welfare as it once existed; getting paid for doing nothing goes against American values, to the point that many recipients hated it. (I might have wanted to disagree with this, but found my own reactions to these stories in line with the authors’ claims about American values. The ones I felt for most were the ones who, despite incredibly traumatic lives, found some measure of success: Tabitha, who is hopefully headed for college, and Rae, who doesn’t have that chance but is still named “cashier of the month” at Walmart.) The Earned Income Tax Credit has been far more successful – though it also costs more than welfare, and redirects that money to people who are already earning, albeit not much. The authors’ suggestion is a jobs program along the same line, that makes it possible for people to work and rewards earnings, coupled with emergency cash assistance for crises.
Sadly, I’m not sure if any solutions are realistic; deep poverty is not a problem politicians are much interested in talking about. But the book certainly raises awareness, and it is well-written, engaging, and persuasive. And short! I hope that more Americans will read this; perhaps that will get us a little bit closer to a solution.
I'm not as enthusiastic as other readers of this book, though I do agree that it addresses an extremely important topic. I think the authors tailored the book for readers who are almost total newcomers to the question of policy and social policy in America. That may have been a wise choice, but if you are not such a newcomer, it may seem a bit boring, and perhaps somewhat superficial. The summary of policy history is very general, and likewise the policy proposals in the final chapter. What seems to be the book's primary contribution - what the authors have learned about this ignored subgroup of the American poor - is also slow-pedaled. The authors profile four to five families, but in most cases somewhat superficially; in particular, the family in Johnson City receives very little background. They do note that they interviewed more than 20 families total, but this material isn't used here; perhaps it surfaces in a scholarly monograph? I feel they should have either focused much more in depth on the families they chose, rendering it almost an ethnographic study (Random Families comes to mind), or provided deeper and more systematic policy analysis. This book falls somewhat uncomfortably between the two categories.
I really do not wish to review this book. The poverty that the people experienced was far more serious than how I grew up. I leave you with a different kind of review.We were poor, I said. Sister. No, we weren't. We had food and never went hungry. Me. It is true that we Never went hungry, but most of our food came from dented cans. End mom had credit at the grocery store. Are closed were used. I only had 2 dresses to my name. My shoes had holes in them, and I used to put newspaper or cardboard in them. I never wanted kids to see that my shoes had holes . We lived in a shack.
Sister we did not! It was a nice house. Me. What? The bathroom was falling away From the house. When billy and I found the basement there was a shelf that went all the way up to the floor of the house. When he moved away I took the shelf out and learned that it had been holding up the Bathroom. There was a silence, so I added And I might add, mom was on welfare even though she worked everyday. When she remarried we got out of this poverty. This was in the 1,950s from about 1952For another 7 years Today, welfare is almost dead. So now people are living on the streets..
I read Nickel and Dimed and Hand to Mouth few months ago, and this book is a continuation of that theme. It’s not a firsthand account poverty, but rather it is a sociological survey of poverty in America. The accounts in this book were eye-opening and depressing. After reading Nickel and Dimed, which was published fifteen years ago, I had wondered if the issues of poverty and low-wage employment had improved or if things were still just as bad. This book, published in 2015, provides a more recent picture. The authors tell the stories of families who are living on $2 a day, what they do to make ends meet, how they ended up in those situations. A quick and important read, especially given the current political climate.
This slight book packs a powerful punch. The authors focus on desperately poor Americans who live on almost nothing - - just SNAP benefits (food stamps) and virtually no cash. No safety net. Edin and Shaefer tell the stories of individuals and families who are resourceful, determined and optimistic - who want to work but for a variety of reasons cannot find or keep a job. This is an excellent book - a great book to read along with Evicted and Nickel and Dimed. Unlike some non-fiction books I've read lately, there is no padding in this 174 page book - every page is vital.
This highly readable book is riveting and shocking. The authors, both professors of sociology, profile real families (changing only their names) to illustrate extreme poverty in the USA. After welfare reform in 1996, cash payments pretty much stopped, or became very temporary. Income help , instead, was given in the form of tax credits for the working poor. SNAP, or what used to called "food stamps", is what remains, which means many poor must function with no cash. No cash for transportation, rent, bills, clothing, etc. Income tax credits only help when there is an income, but how can a person even find a job when that person lives in a homeless shelter or moves from place to place, has no phone, no presentable clothes for an interview, nor any means to get to an interview or job? As we all know, jobs for people with low levels of education or skills not only pay little but are hard to come by and often have no set schedule, number of hours per week, sick days or other benefits. These are stories that will break your heart. These people dream of steady work and a place to call home, yet they are so far down in the hole, those simple wishes really seem unattainable. This country should be so ashamed, that we have such wealth here and yet we allow this sort of poverty to exist. The authors note that many of these people rely on "public spaces and private charities". For my friends who work in libraries, the following passage will come as no surprise. [speaking about a mother and her two young children, living in Chicago] "Those days, their walks most often brought them to the neighborhood library, a one-story brick building taking up most of a city block. The building features columns of windows on each side of the entrance, along with columns of glass bricks in the circular lobby, framing scenes that hold meaning for residents of this predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. The small library has book collections for everyone in the family, computers with Internet access, and programming for neighborhood children. Nine-year-old Kaitlin would dash through the door (hair bobbing as she went). Greeting the librarian behind the checkout counter, she would ask is she could 'do my job'. After a warm hug, she would be given a pile of books to shelve, which she would do in short order and with great intensity. Cole would head over to the picture-book section and browse through a number of titles, several of which were well-loved favorites. The Hernandez family visited this library nearly every day. They couldn't use the Internet because doing so required a permanent address in the neighborhood and Jennifer was too ashamed to get the requisite letter from La Casa [homeless shelter] explaining that she was a resident there. Instead, while Kaitlin shelved books, Cole lugged book after book over to Jennifer so she could read to him. During the school year, they did their homework there. The library was a second home to the kids. Maybe it was the closest thing to a childhood home they would ever have. Places like the public library where Jennifer, Kaitlin, and Cole found refuge are crucial to the day-to-day survival strategies of the $2-a-day poor. They offer a warm place to sit, a clean and safe bathroom, and a way to get online to complete a job application. They provide free educational programs for kids. Perhaps most important, they can help struggling families feel they are part of society instead of cast aside by it. Sometimes these institutions serve those in need begrudgingly---a library might prefer that it not be a rest stop and warming station for the city's homeless people. But other times they attend to destitute patrons with tremendous love and warmth. Kaitlin's friend the librarian gave her more than a job; she gave her a way to contribute, a place to belong." (pages 100-101) This book is not long---just 174 pages of text (not counting notes and index), but it packs a punch. I think these people's stories will haunt me for days to come.
This is not a book about how to live on $2.00/day, but about who is living on that amount or less. The cases cited are tragic and memorable, and at best it is disheartening to read about the poorest of the poor, but in reality the book simply exposes how little government assistance is being received and proposes it should be more. The policy recommendations are thin and are incredibly outdated. This is almost laughably out of step with current trends in policy discussion.
In October 2014, ACOSS released a new report revealing that poverty is growing in Australia with an estimated 2.5 million people or 13.9% of all people living below the internationally accepted poverty line. Of those, 603,000 or 17.7%, are children.
And as politicians whine about the increasing costs of the welfare system (from the suite of their tax payer funded five star hotel room) and the media whips middle class society into a frenzy by highlighting the worst examples of the minority who abuse the system, the Australian government is considering implementing a program similar to America's model of SnAP.
What $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America shows is that the American welfare system, and specifically the reliance on the SnAP program, fails to provide for or protect its most vulnerable citizens. It looks generous on paper but in practice, but it leaves families without access to cash, vital for everyday life. Without cash they are unable to use public transport, pay bills, buy underwear, or school supplies, without having to resort to trading SnAP for half its worth on the dollar, selling blood, collecting cans, or illegal activities, such as prostitution, all for a few dollars.
Statistics show that the number of American families living on $2.00 per person, per day, has skyrocketed to 1.5 million American households, including about 3 million children, and the authors introduce the reader to eight families who are struggling to survive on incomes of $2.00 per person, per day or less.
The causes of such extreme poverty are complicated. 'Get a job' cries the middle classes, but with scarce unskilled work opportunities and exploitative employers, the answer is not that simple. Modonna worked as a cashier in one store for eight years but when her register came up $10 short after a shift she was fired, and even though the store later found the money, she received no apology nor an invitation to return to work. Unable to keep up with her rent she was evicted and she and her teenage daughter were forced into a homeless shelter, and despite applying for hundreds of jobs, Modonna remains unemployed.
And what of the children? Tabitha is one of thirteen children. She grew up with one set of clothes, sharing a mattress with seven of her siblings in a three bedroom apartment. They often went without food especially when their mother found it necessary to trade some of the SnAP she received, at almost half its value, for cash in order to pay the electricity or water bill. In tenth grade a desperate Tabitha agreed to sleep with one of her teachers who offered her food in exchange in for regular sex. In her junior year she was forced to leave home when she intervened in a fight between her mother and her abusive partner and the man issued Tabitha's mother an ultimatum. Now eighteen she is finishing high school and has a place to live thanks to a boarding school scholarship, but she will graduate in a matter of months and though she'd like to go to college, there is no money to do so.
There are no easy solutions to the kind of poverty experienced by Modonna and her daughter, or Tabitha and her family, but its clear the current welfare system is failing. Without cash, many families have no hope of escaping the cycle of poverty, or surviving the experience without deep physical and emotional wounds. The authors argue for sensible reforms that would go some way to alleviating the plight of those living on $2.00 per person, per day.
This is an eyeopening and important book that will challenge your preconceptions of poverty, welfare and the poor. It is much harder to blame or condemn the homeless or unemployed (or dole bludgers in the Australian vernacular) for their circumstances when you understand the challenges they face.
"...the question we have to ask ourselves is, Whose side are we on? can our desire for, and sense of, community induce those of us with resources to come alongside the extremely poor among us in a more supportive, and ultimately more effective, way?"
I've had this book on my TBR for years now but never got around to reading it until recently. I'm always a bit wary of these kinds of books when they start to age, simply because the information in them becomes dated and invalid after a time... I mean, in the 8 years since this was written, much was likely to have changed, right?
No. Not so much. It's probably gotten worse, actually.
This book was a truly heartbreaking look at the ways that the richest country in the world leaves the poorest and most vulnerable behind.
With books like these, I always find myself wondering how recent developments might have affected the information that was relayed in the book, and wishing for an update based on them. For this book, I found myself wondering how the Covid-19 pandemic affected people, more specifically the checks that were provided, and the expansion and extension of some governmental assistance programs. I would like to think that this was helpful, (at least the assistance expansion was likely to be, right?) but I wonder. There are so many hoops that must be jumped through to get assistance normally that many simply don't bother trying, and so I wonder if many of the people who would have benefited the most from these things even applied for them.
This book was really sad, and some of the stories genuinely broke my heart... but this problem is so big, and so ingrained in the individualistic 'pull yourself up by the bootstraps' American cultural mentality that nothing I personally could do would even cause a ripple on the surface of the ocean of need out there. But I can vote, and I can talk to my neighbors and friends and make sure that they understand the importance of voting for people who favor enhancing and strengthening and expanding social safety nets and aid and assistance programs. These programs offer so little, and the income thresholds for qualifying are so staggeringly low, and the work & asset requirements so harsh, that it makes the argument that people are living the high life by mooching off of the system utterly laughable. Nobody wants to live the way that American assistance programs are designed to make people live in order to qualify for aid.
Interesting and horrifying. The challenges facing the unimaginably poor families profiled here were just mind boggling. Not just the lack of money, though that is a pretty monumental road block, but, for most, the lack of social supports, decent nutrition, a safe place to sleep, bathe, etc. As the authors point out repeatedly, it's hard for a potential employer to contact you about a job when you don't have an address. Just so many problems. The authors do recognize that in some instances their subjects are making poor (sometimes dreadful) choices, but those things are pretty obvious and their focus here is on bringing out what is generally less well understood, which is how heavily the deck is stacked against the poorest of the poor in our country.
Like the excellent Evicted by Matthew Desmond, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin is an excellent overview of extreme poverty in America written by an academic sociologist. Both document the struggles and strategies the poorest of the poor employ just to exist. But while Desmond focuses on a single locale, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Edin examines poverty in multiple locations, from post-industrial urban areas like Chicago and Cleveland to rural Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas surrounded by agriculture... and little else.
A long-time poverty researcher, Edin performed her PhD thesis documenting the lives of the poor in the 1990’s. Back then, poor people had access to a solid safety net. Aid to families with children, while only able to cover about 3/5ths of a family’s expenses, was a great start. To close that gap, poor people worked in the underground economy, received food stamps, visited food banks and sought housing vouchers. A creative scramble, but they managed. And that 3/5ths of monthly expenses helped.
This changed when Edin went back to the field in the 2010’s. Whereas in the 90’s being poor was challenging but manageable, the outlook today is grim. Edin traces the change to Bill Clinton’s welfare reform bill of 1996, which killed the welfare system she had researched. Instead of direct assistance, "Welfare 2.0” focused on the working poor by moving welfare spending from flat-out cash grants for all poor to the Earned Income Tax Credit, which rewarded the working poor.
Problem was, some poor people found it impossible to get hired. They often lacked skills, lacked cars to get to and from work, etc. This made being “gainfully employed” near impossible for some. And adding insult to injury. pro-business/ anti-worker policies allowed low-rent employers, like retail stores and fast food restaurants, to give the poor “flex scheduling,” often calling them day-of to show up to work. Which made lining up child care or a ride if an employee lacked a car near impossible. Which often led to their being fired.
A never-ending cycle.
However, in the post-welfare reform era, no work = no Earned Income Tax Credit = no money for the needy. Worse, Congress has slashed dozens of other programs that could help, like Section 8 housing vouchers.
Edin documents a “hidden America” whose denizens survive on $2/ day. These hard-working people turn meager, almost non-existent means into food and shelter for their families. Here are a two examples of the dozens in the book: 1) To cut expenses, a Cleveland man (who's lucky enough to own his home) captures both his washing machine’s rinse water to wash his next load, and rainwater for the toilets, shaving hundreds off his water bill... necessary because 24 people live in his tiny bungalow. 2) A woman in rural Mississippi who uses her food stamps to buy bulk supplies which she turns into snack treats she sells to her neighbors at a profit, her only job.
But despite these people’s hard work, the current systems stacks the cards against them. For instance, Walmart fires one of Edin’s interviewees despite her being named cashier of the months several times over the prior year and picking up numerous shifts because her car runs out of gas, making getting to work impossible. She's broke. This is only one example. Edin provides dozens more.
Heartrending. This poverty is grim. America treats its poor like human offal. Which strikes me as immoral. We need to reach down to pull up instead of kicking down.
I learned a lot from reading $2.00 a Day. It’s insightful, providing a window onto the lives of the underclass that few of us will ever have to experience. And it’s informed my opinion about welfare recipients and the struggling poor. Evicted is better, but $2.00 a Day is very good, so I’m rounding up to four-stars.
I was shocked and saddened to read the stories of the families living in poverty that the authors write about in this book. Saddened too for all the families that find themselves in similar situations. It made me feel helpless in even being able to help. What can I do as one person to make a difference for a family living in this kind of poverty? I wish this book had focused a little more on that but it did give some ideas, it talked about employers who offer regular schedules vs. on demand work schedules (Target vs. Wal-Mart). I can choose to spend my money at a retailer that has more humane employee policies. I can be more generous in my giving to the local food pantry and the regional food bank. I can donate my children's toys, books and clothing to an agency that gives them directly to families in need. But I'm not sure how much of an impact that will have.
It seems like a lot of people want to blame the poor for being poor and accuse them of being stupid, selfish and lazy. But how can people be expected to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" if we don't invest in teaching them to pull or giving them boots with straps? Our education system is failing and in an attempt to improve it we are only creating another divide between the students who are struggling and those who do well. Students are pushed through the system without becoming proficient readers or being taught life skills. Not everyone is going to go on to college, why can't we recognize this and focus on preparing students for the real world?
This book makes some really important points. I'm just going to share some of what impacted me most.
About one in four jobs pays too little to lift a family of four out of poverty. Few families in $2-a-day poverty are chronically disconnected from the workforce. Rather, most of them are workers who fall into extreme poverty only when they can't manage to find or keep a job. The typical family in $2-a-day poverty is headed by an adult who works much of the time but has fallen on hard times. Yet even when working full-time, these workers often fail to lift their families above the poverty line.
Service sector employers often engage in practices that middle class professionals would never accept. They adopt policies that ensure regular turnover among their low wage workers cutting the costs that come with a more stable workforce including guaranteed hours, benefits, raises and promotions. Many communities are caught in a downward spiral of bad jobs that don't allow families to meet their basic needs or even ensure against extreme destitution.
White job applicants with felony convictions are more likely to get a positive response from prospective employers than an African-American job applicant with no criminal record.
Today there is NO state in the Union in which a family that is supported by a full-time, minimum-wage worker can afford a two bedroom apartment at fair market rent without being "cost burdened". HUD deems a family that is spending more than 30% of its income on housing to be "cost burdened". Between 1991 and 2013, rents rose higher than inflation, between 2000 and 2012 alone rents rose by 6 percent. During the same time period the real income of the middling renter in the US fell by 13 percent. In Chicago, during the summer of 2012, the waiting list for subsidized housing or public housing included 85,000 families and was closed to adding any more to the list.
In the US in 2011 there were about 1.5 million households with children in $2-a-day poverty in any given month, based on their cash income. The nation's child poverty rate is high, about one in five children live in poverty. In Sunshine County, Mississippi, poverty rates are well over 40 percent and the child poverty rate can surpass 65 percent.
Some counties in the Mississippi Delta are so poor that they don't have buses or public transportation of any kind, they don't even have an ambulance. One person reports that if you want to get your loved on to the hospital you must drive to the county line and meet the ambulance from the next county over. This is in America in the year 2015. I think this was one of the most shocking things I read in this book and it made me angry that our Federal government doesn't step in to make sure that the most basic needs of the citizens of our nation would be ensured if the pockets of poverty are so deep that the local government was unable to meet this need.
Everyone has their own ideas an opinions about poverty and governmental assistance but for those who beat up on the poor and say they are stupid, lazy and selfish I'd love to see them try to last a day or week living in their shoes. The problem of poverty in America is huge, so huge it seems insurmountable but if those of us who are more fortunate could also be more compassionate it might make a difference. For the people who think poor people are poor because they aren't as hardworking as those who are better off I'd like them to read this book and look at the systems that impact poverty in America.
Thank you to the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and the Amazon Vine Program for making the Advance Reader Copy available to me.
First, it focuses primarily on people with children. Having children basically relegates a person to poverty status automatically and deepens poverty for those already in it when they choose to have children. Solution? Don't have kids! Having children is a choice in the modern world. Always.
Secondly, in the book's final list of solutions, it says nothing about how the wealthy are contributing to the problem of poverty in America and how taxing the wealthy could help solve the issue. The book likewise glosses over the problem of corporate greed and how big corporate entities like Walmart use a "scorched earth" policy to wipe out jobs and competition in some places. (But I guess if you wanted that information, there are other books for those topics.)
Otherwise, this is a good read about what poverty is in the United States... a condition that should not have existed and should not be ongoing, even in the 21st century.
Extremely important read, especially for those who tend to think of the extreme poor living ONLY outside of America. An eye opening look at those who struggle to survive all around us, with tales of survivors who don't let poverty or abuse define them. The authors also take the time to attempt to carve out real solutions to help the $2/day poor, beyond welfare programs and SNAP. It is easier to let this kind of book go by, and not look the homeless or destitute in the eye. I specifically challenge my Christian friends to read this, and look for ways to help alleviate the poverty all around us.
I work at a non-profit that works with families living below the poverty level so I really feel like this is an important book. I really enjoyed reading it and it gave me a new appreciation for the work that we do.
This is a very read-able qualitative study about deep poverty. Edin presents an in-depth look at a few families in a few locations across America (Deep South, Chicago, Cleveland, and Appalachia) and intermingles stats from survey data. It is a very moving book with vivid details about how people live at the extreme margins.
She gives a grim picture of the way that historical welfare reform has left these families out in the cold (quite literally): "At the old welfare program's height in 1994, it served more than 14.2 million people....By fall 2014, the TANF caseload has fallen to 3.8 million" coupled with the frustrating fact that "even after a watershed welfare reform, we, as a country, aren't spending less on poor families than we once did. In fact, we now spend much more." She further covers the housing crises: "Today there is no state in the Union in which a family that is supported by a full-time, minimum-wage worker can afford a two bedroom apartment at fair market rent without being cost burdened, according to HUD."
Edin sets up a dual pronged suggestion (following Ellwood's original model) that increases federal jobs for low skill workers, raises the minimum wage and benefits, and increases affordable housing. All of these ideas are good, but enacting this sort of change (especially in today's political climate) may be rather far-fetched.
Overall it was easy to read (if hard to face) and included lots of information. Edin's writing style was not quite to my taste and I found her repetition of the "2.00 a day" phrase to be quite annoying, but otherwise it is a worthwhile read.
There's poor, and then there's $2 a day poor. The authors of this book followed several American families who live off of practically no money at all. It talks about the struggles they face, and how then ended up there. Most of these people just had a string of bad luck that could happen to anyone. Others were born into it and had the odds stacked against them from the start.
It starts and ends a bit dry because that's where it introduces the current welfare system and it's history, and then gives suggestions on ways to improve it. The author did an excellent job at making me feel for these people I've never met, and see how easily I could've ended up in a similar situation.
The problem with $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America is that those who should read it won’t; and those who will read it are already sympathetic to the plight of poor Americans that it documents. I am in the latter group, and having spent enough time studying and working with poor Americans the book offers nothing new.
I do not really remember how this book was recommended to me. The source must have been a good one, since I had given up on books of this nature long ago. For a time in the early 2000’s I read a slew of these books by authors like Jonathan Kozol, but in the end I gave them up feeling as if the case studies documenting other people’s suffering had become exploitative. This book has the same failing.
It begins promisingly enough with a generalized history of welfare reform. But then the authors claim without any substantiation whatsoever that the rise of $2.00 a day poverty is an unintended consequence of welfare reform. Rather than attempting to provide proof for this thesis, they launch into a series of “cases” that document how people living on $2.00 a day survive. The stories are harrowing and memorable, and for someone who has never read a book like this before this is a good starting spot.
But the authors never establish the link between welfare reform and this form of impoverished subsistence. Worse, it appears to me that there are several other factors that are bigger culprits than welfare reform including: time-limited homeless shelters systems, inadequate housing, the punishing structural forces of the job market, the unethical and immoral practices of employers, the issues of mental health, community crime and the list goes on. There is just no way that a social scientist could control for all of this and argue that the replacement of AFDC with TANF created the circumstances for this level of deep poverty.
In the end, I found the book deeply disappointing. It could not demonstrate its central thesis, the cases covered did not stand out from other books that treat of similar stories, and the solutions it offers in the final chapter do not really get us anywhere. If you have never read a book like this, $2.00 a Day is as good a place to start as any, particularly if you are one of those folks who thinks the poor are deserving of their lot in life. But if you already have familiarity with poverty in America, pass on this one.
Maybe 3.5. It wasn't as dry as it could have been and much more truthful than how I would have written it!
This book focuses on the people who earn no money at all. Since "welfare is dead" there's few ways of getting cash. Kids can net parents food stamps, but that's not cash. Sure, you can live with relations but they don't have much, and let's face it, some relations are just bad news that you want to stay far away. The old adage, it takes money to make money is really true when you can't get a job (or even interview) because you don't have bus fare or a working cell phone or laundry detergent.
So I understand and I sympathize. But some of the subjects the authors interview--well, let's just say some should be prosecuted. For example, one woman, at the age of 26 and having multiple children already, hooks up with a SIXTEEN year old and then has EIGHT children by him. Doesn't statutory rape cover males as well as females? She then admits to selling some of her children's SS numbers so others can claim them on their tax records. Whoa, that affects everyone's tax rates.
This woman's story was at the end of the book so instead of feeling all "let me write my Congressman and donate til it hurts!" I'm mad instead. Not the reaction I'm sure the writers were hoping.
Also at the end were some phrases such as "Americans would cringe when they hear of people picking up aluminum cans to sell". I don't think that's so terrible. I can remember taking my kids to "feed" an electronic goat to get our deposit back for cans.
During the depression I know people who lived on farms had a similar issue, they had food but no cash. Just as then, the writers propose having a National Works Act again which I think would be great especially as our roads and infrastructure are falling apart.
This was written before the Obama healthcare insurances were fully in place and it would be interesting to see if that made a difference for some of these families.
Two take-aways: I'd rather be poor in a city than in the boonies and If you have too many tattoos you can't donate plasma.
This book does bring up essentially paramount issues in our country today, especially when we are often labelled as the “Land of Plenty”, yet many in our country go homeless or are hungry.
That being said, I probably wasn’t as enthusiastic about the book as a whole compared to the overall consensus of reviews. The individual cases that are delved into and discussed definitely have a realistic feeling to them, and you feel for those who are struggling day in and day out to try to make ends meet and provide basic shelter and food for their families. I think, though, at points there are moments where those individuals in the book who you empathize with are projected in a less-than-favorable light, such as those in desperation and need using money for alcohol and cigarettes, making poor decisions time and time again, etc. At points, there is also the feeling that authors have intentionally left out, or not told, the entire picture of the said individual's life. In addition, the author’s take on the issue does get a tad repetitive after each of the cases discussed, rather than furthering the discussion with something more definitive. For this reason, I had to set the book down a few times and then pick it up later.
Over all, though, certainly those who are depicted in this book have circumstances that are a difficult and a challenging obstacle to bear on a daily basis, and the author’s purpose is bring immediate attention (and most importantly and hopefully, a solution) to the welfare crisis. $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America is an important book, as it covers key issues we need to try to solve as a nation, and for that reason it should be read. But, I think that there are other books out there that delve deeper into the struggle of poverty/welfare problem in America.
This is a grim, mostly anecdotal look at the poorest of the poor in the United States, interspersed with information about how they got that way. (Note: that's not $2.00 a day for food. That's $2.00 per person per day for *everything*, including food and housing.)
It's a fairly depressing read, obviously, albeit not as shocking as the authors expected. (Again, books on poverty appear to be geared to an audience that can't or won't do basic math. If cash welfare is almost impossible to get, and housing subsidies are almost impossible to get, and there's very little other help available, and there are long-term unemployed people and people who can't work...like, it is not hard to see where this ends up, mathematically speaking.) I think probably this book would be most useful for people who believe that poor people do nothing, and that willingness to work is all that's needed to rise out of poverty.
Yikes. You must read this book and you will feel depressed and very very lucky. The new $2 a day poverty is appalling and Edin does a fantastic job at explaining both policy and the people. It is important to know exactly what policy decisions led to such stark poverty in America, but even more important to actually understand what it is like to be completely hopeless and disconnected. Edin's solutions are not at all radical and the dreams of the people she profiles include minimum wage jobs with predictable schedules. This is not a populist rallying cry, but it can certainly be used as such if read with other books like Reich or Picketty. We cannot have a country where this exists at the same time as the top strata keeps getting richer.
All too frequently in America we are given the impression by politicians and/or the media that the poor are poor not out of circumstance, being born into poverty, victims of inner city schools or failed institutions designed to educate, but because they are immoral, lazy, or prefer to live on some type of government assistance. This book goes out of its way to analyze this stereotype and provide a body of evidence and real-world examples that contribute to and exacerbate poverty, how our notion of 'welfare' is incorrect, how the safety net allows all too many to fall through, and is often completely inaccessible to those who need it most or live in rural areas.
If you consider yourself to be compassionate person, a Christian, or even a generally moral person, I strongly encourage you to read this book. It is relatively short and easy-to-read, and backs up its claims, figures, and statistics with 22 pages of endnotes.
People in America, particularly the 1 in 5 children who live in poverty through no fault of their own save being born (or in Mississippi the two out of every three children) should not have to wonder about trading sex with their teacher to sleep in a warm bed and have a full stomach at night. People shouldn't have to sell their SNAP benefits at 50 cents on the dollar to pay an electric bill or to have running water. People shouldn't have to live in apartments so filthy that the walls and carpet are covered in mold, exacerbating their health problems. The section 8 housing list for NYC alone shouldn't have to have 268,000 families waiting on it.
Of those living on 2 dollars a day in America, 70% have worked in the last year, often victims of wage theft, a practice that costs American workers more than all the burglaries, larceny, auto thefts, and theft in general in the nation per year. These people work extraordinarily hard to provide for their families, and deserve to be treated better than human refuse.
Edin and Shaefer have given the extreme poor a voice, finally giving them the opportunity to humanize themselves while reinforcing the validity of their lived experiences with statistical analysis. Intensely readable. More to come.
Multiples tales of people trying to survive on welfare or with low paying jobs. Made me appreciate how much I have and also to try and do more for my community and the less fortunate. There's even a few insightful tips in here for how to make do with less.
I read this for my AP English class, and I honestly didn't know what to expect. I went into this thinking lets just get this over with and all I have to do is remember the major points.
And that is where I went wrong.
This book has so many facts and stories that you wouldn't think still go on today. How is the richest country in the world still have this going on. Honestly, a few pages in I was thinking... What year is this from, the 90's?
That is how bad it was. People today can be so oblivious to things going on around them and this is one of them. Surprisingly enough a lot of people are in poverty with only a few dollars a day. Most people spend more than a few dollars before heading to work or school. That is insane how so many people have to stretch the few dollars to fit their day.
I personally think that everyone should ready this. Its not even just not having a job, families neglect some of their homeless relatives, making them go from shelter to shelter. Welfare doesn't help everyone that comes in. They give the excuse that there are "Too many people who are in need" So I guess that just mean Welfare can't help anyone? We need to fix that.
It is surprising how real this book is. And how all of this is happening under our noses. America needs to open its eyes and come to terms with this. And to fix it.
If you don't know much about social policy changes in the US, particularly between 1980 and 2000, then this provides a great overview of changes/policy creation to both food and monetary aid to the poor. It also provides good insight though personal stories of those who must get by at extreme subsistence levels. It's interesting, insightful, exasperating, and educational. Yet, the switch back and forth between the history of policy and the personal stories didn't work for me. The policy parts are surface only, yet are at times confounded by a mention with no explanation of some big economic change that had a big impact. In other words, the policy is surface but also only makes full sense if you already know all about it. The ethnographic parts are heartbreaking but don't always illustrate or provide context to the policy chapters/information. Was one supposed to inform the other or remain two separate parts? Still not sure. This was a good book to follow my read of Evicted by Matthew Desmond, but I think this is best read in the context of other research into poverty in the US.
In the introduction, you are introduced to some people and their financial situations. I did like how the authors explained the "in-depth ethnographic studies" they launched in different places across the U.S. They chose the following sites: the "typical" American city, the "old poverty" a "rural locale that had been deeply poor for half a century or more", where "widespread poverty was a somewhat more recent phenomenon", and a place that had been very poor in prior decades but had recovered in recent years". They went to Chicago, the Mississippi Delta, Cleveland, and in the Appalachian region - Johnson City, TN.
A lot more of the book focused on individual's circumstances than what I would have liked. I would rather have a broader picture presented. When talking about one of the women, an odd sentence stood out to me. The authors were explaining that, in worse-case scenarios, women would turn to prostitution at times. One of the women explained how, only in desperate situations, she would resort to prostitution. The book then states "Certainly, she wasn't a prostitute". What? Do they not know the definition of prostitution? There's a difference between calling a women bad names and stating action she took to have food, or a safe(r) place to live. The authors didn't want to call her a prostitute, but by definition, she was engaging in prostitution. The authors need to call them like they see them, honestly.
One thing I picked up throughout the book is something I don't think the authors would like anyone to take note of. When speaking of these individuals and families, I was struck by how often family won't help out family. One mother had a sister who was a cop, and even her sister wouldn't let her stay with her for more than a couple of weeks! Another mother caught a family member trying to molest her young daughter. It made me wonder if families treated each other better, if just that wouldn't help out the poor a lot.
I was disappointed the authors were making so many assumptions throughout the book; again, I was hoping for more facts. Thankfully, this book can at least be used as a reference source, as they list all their references in the back of the book.
At the end of the book, the last chapter is "Conclusion: Where, Then, from Here?" where the authors present how to fix our poverty problem with three principles: all deserve the opportunity to work, parents should be able to raise their children in a place of their own,and not every parent will be able to work, or work all of the time, but parents' well-being and the well-being of their children, should nonetheless be ensured. They go into detail on all three of these points.
Conclusion: I wanted this book to be more fact-based and have a scientific approach to the problem of poverty in America, and I feel like they fell short of this. I was surprised how little they thought of private charities. I felt like they came to their conclusions before reviewing all the facts. Overall, it was an interesting, but a little disappointing, of a read.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.