Skip to main content
PBS logo
Want fewer ads?

Book Review of $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America
esjro avatar reviewed on + 775 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 3

I received a free advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

In $2.00 a day, Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Schaefer give readers insight into the lives of the very impoverished in America. While many of these people receive some sort of assistance in the form of medical care or food credits which allow them to survive, they lack the cash needed to pay for a bus fair to travel to a job interview, or to wash clothes at a laundromat. The early chapters of the book focus on how welfare reform contributed to the epidemic of those living on less than $2.00 a day: when AFDC was essentially replaced with programs like SNAP and work incentives such as the EITC, the situation for many poor people was made much worse, especially for those in rural areas where job opportunities are minimal, and the low income work force is treated as disposable. It is the author's careful explanations of how the current situation came about where the book really shines.

Middle chapters focus on specific families. Their back stories are told, their hopes and aspirations (which are not lofty but basically amount to asking for a chance to make a living) shared, and their survival strategies revealed. It is heartbreaking to read about a mother of two selling plasma 10 times a month to pay utility bills, or a semi-disabled father searching for scrap metal to feed the 20+ children and grandchildren he houses under his roof. Indeed there does not seem to be much hope for these people, which is why I wish sites that feature reviews would allow readers to give half stars: the authors have lived their professional lives studying these issues, so I am sure they have strong opinions and suggestions for what needs to be done to help break the generational cycles of poverty described in this book, but sadly, these are not explored in detail. The obvious are mentioned (people need access to stable jobs with living wages, job education, housing assistance, etc.), but I was hoping for more regarding how to make these changes come about. This book raises awareness, but clearly policy changes are needed.

All the individuals profiled have children, which makes it all the more difficult for the parents to find a way out of poverty. It is impossible to go off to a job when you cannot afford childcare, and there is no one who is willing to do it for free who is trustworthy. While reading this book, it struck me that those whose political opinions favor defunding Planned Parenthood mostly likely would overlap on a Venn diagram with those who oppose a more traditional welfare system of giving some cash as well as other benefits. In several of the families profiled here, an unexpected or poorly timed pregnancy forced a mother to leave a job or educational opportunity to care for a child. The children born into these circumstances have little chance of faring much better, so the cycle often repeats. I would be curious to learn the authors' opinions on this: How can we as a society help young women and men make mindful decisions about when to have a family, and how can we help those with children so that their children will not be caught in a cycle of generational poverty?

Overall, $2.00 a day is a fascinating and compassionate read. It is sure to start some lively conversations (or maybe doughnut fights) around the water cooler.

Want fewer ads?