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Could your family live on $2, a person, a day? More than 1 million American households do

Aine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

Professors Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer were startled to recently find a trend in American poverty that they hadn’t seen since the mid-1990s: the number of American households living on around $2, per person, per day has reached 1.5 million, including 3 million children.

With this statistic in mind, Edin and Shaefer set out to write “$2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” which was released hardcover in September.  On Wednesday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” Shaefer joined host Don Marsh to discuss what families who bring in this amount of income live like, where they live and how they become so poor.  Shaefer is an associate professor at University of Michigan School of Social Work and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

Two dollars isn’t just a random number — it is what the World Bank uses to determine extreme poverty all over the world. What Shaefer and Edin found, however, is that living in extreme poverty in the United States is different than anywhere else given the type of economy that makes this country run.

“Imagine, even if you had something like food stamps, what it would be like to go from day to day in the most advanced capitalist economy with no cash income at all to buy things like underwear or a bus ticket to get to a job interview,” Shaefer said. “We think there’s a certain salience to cash in this country that isn’t important in the world’s poorest countries, where this is a thriving partner economy.” 

Welfare, which is what provides the minimum level of social support for United States citizens, has shifted since the 1996 passage of the Welfare Reform Law away from offering such cash support. Some of the change was good, Shaefer said, such as the earned income tax credit and food stamps.


The effect of changing the cash assistance program is to make it “a shell of its former self,” said Shaefer.

“I think that any time you have a government policy, you want it to be in line with American values,”
Shaefer said. “The welfare program itself, the way it was before the change in 1996, really wasn’t in a lot of ways. It was cash, it was help for doing nothing.”

If you ask Americans, “Should we help the poor?” Shaefer says the majority say yes. If you ask them “Should we spend more on welfare?” the majority will say no. He also said the cash program was not well-liked by welfare recipients, and that they would prefer to have stable jobs.

A large part of Shaefer and Edin’s book involves case studies of individuals and families in America living on two dollars per day and the sacrifices they have to make in order to get by. Listen here to learn more from Shaefer:

"When we look at the number of families below this two dollars, per person, per day threshold it more than doubles over the past 15 years,” Shaefer said. “We sort of mark 1996, when we made this landmark change, as our starting point. It is on the rise, when we looked deeper, we see it isn’t really short spells like a month or two months, that’s happening too, but what’s really grown is families that are in this seven, eight, 12 months of the year.”

Related Event

What: Empower Missouri Annual Conference "Poverty and Inequality: Separating Fact from Fiction"
When: October 22-23, 2015
Where: Holiday Inn Executive Center, Columbia, MO 65203
More Information

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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