Could You Survive on $2 Each Day?

On my way into work this morning, I made my usual stop at Dunkin’ Donuts and bought a medium $2.11 cup of coffee for the hour ride into work.  At 7:08 am, I had already spent more money on a cup of coffee than many individuals in America have available to spend in an entire day.  I was thinking about this more, having just read $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by professors Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer.

$2.00 A Day is comprehensible and enlightening. The authors share the impact and consequences of the holes in the legislation and safety net by introducing us to actual families who are living day-to-day on $2.00 a day or less.  The book is a must-read for all professionals working in the field of workforce development or financial capability.  It’s also an interesting eye-opener for anyone looking to read a fascinating piece of nonfiction.

Edin spent more than 25 years researching, writing, and talking with low-income individuals and families across the country. In 2010, she returned to several communities and over the course of a few years, met new families across America. During this time, she also teamed with Shaefer who—using available data—was able to shed more light on the issues of extreme poverty and on what Edin was unearthing as she met with these families.

Edin and Shaefer discuss their book at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.


The authors intelligently weave a historical account of our welfare system and governmental social safety programs in the U.S. from Presidents Johnson through Clinton with stories about real people. They share the highs and lows of social welfare legislation and programming from Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), the cash assistance program first created in 1935 to the start of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in 1996 which “by mid-2011 was lifting only about 300,000 households with children above the $2 day mark.” Edin and Shaefer heavily discuss programs like  the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program which have helped, yet do not help enough.

The book also highlights the common struggles of everyday people and how, demonstrating that with just one wrong jump in the hopscotch game they need to play, they may find themselves unemployed, causing even further poverty.  We hear that working gives them purpose and helps them stay focused. Yet, our system is not set up to help people succeed with the many challenges they face to obtain and keep a job they so desperately would like to have (and need).

Readers learn about the survival strategies of Modonna Harris, from Chicago, who never considered applying for welfare despite qualifying for it. The thought “never occurred” to her despite the fact that her unemployment benefits was not enough to pay for rent for her and her daughter. Modonna would sometimes put six creamers and 12 sugar packets into a cup of coffee, since she could not afford to eat and cover other “more important” expenses.  In fact, we learn about the survival strategies of over eight families and their personal stories in this compelling book.

The book concludes with authors Edin and Shaefer providing a set of strategies and ideas for us to think about as we look to raise the social safety net and sew its holes tightly.  They discuss legislation and what we—as employers—and we—as everyday consumers—can do to help.

Whether you read this book on your own, choose it as your friends’ book-club-of-the month pick or discuss it in a reading circle with your fellow staff, I promise you, it will spark interesting discussion and perhaps new action.