1.5 Million U.S. Households Live on $2 a Day per Person

Monday, September 07, 2015
Homeless in New York City (photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

A person living on $2 a day conjures images of late-night TV commercials with a teary actress seeking donations for people living in a third-world hovel. But there are 1.5 million households in the United States whose members are living—barely—on that tiny sum.


Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer point out in their book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, that far from Ronald Reagan’s fictional “welfare queen,” there are a significant number of people in America who receive no benefits, have no job and are hanging on with virtually no income.


“Most of us would say we would have trouble understanding how families in the country as rich as ours could live on so little,” Edin, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, said in a conference call to discuss the book. “These families, contrary to what many would expect, are workers, and their slide into poverty is a failure of the labor market and our safety net, as well as their own personal circumstances.”


Sometimes even those who are technically employed fall into this category. Large retailers and fast-food chains have begun to use scheduling programs that allow supervisors to call in workers only as needed. Thus someone can have a job, yet receive no income if they’re not given any hours.


“Time and time again, we would constantly see people’s hours cut from week to week,” said Shaefer, associate professor of social work at University of Michigan. “Someone might have 30 hours one week, down to 15 the next and down to 5 after that. We saw people who would remain employed but were down to zero hours. This was incredibly common in this population.”


The welfare reforms enacted during the Bill Clinton administration have made it easy for states to cut off funding to even the most desperate. Studies have shown that the number of people neither working nor receiving benefits has increased substantially since then, according to the authors. Even when benefits are available, many don’t know to apply. Some people are left to survive by donating plasma, selling aluminum cans for scrap, or in some cases, entering the sex trade.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

The Surging Ranks of America’s Ultrapoor (by Aimee Picchi, CBS News)

‘$2.00 a Day,’ by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer—Review (by William Julius Wilson, New York Times)

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer)

More than 1 Million U.S. Children Live in Households with Income of Less than $2 a Day per Person…Including Public Assistance (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


Dave 8 years ago
The U.S.A. should busy iletsf ameliorating these problems at home &cease engaging in warfare & big-noting acts of foreign aid to other countries.This is very grim reading &, if true, is very disturbing because America issupposedly God's Own Country'.Shocking stuff &,if true, must now be even worse. Fancy allowing any governmentto spend trillions on winning Democracy for Afghans .. & their own peopleare ill-nourished, poorly housed & can't afford medicine.The Chinese must be laughing their heads off.
johnc 8 years ago
30k in benefits? most people just don't want to work? what a load of horseshit.
june 8 years ago
Get rid of their 30k/yr in non-cash benefits and then they'll all of a sudden get a job.
William Rothschild 8 years ago
What I don't understand is that in our town, there are plenty of jobs, even the daily work, daily pay places can't find enough workers. Yes, there are people who are in need, but most people just don't want to work.

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