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Living on $2 a day: Exploring extreme poverty in America

In October, the World Bank declared for the first time that by the end of 2015, less than 10 percent of the global population will be living in extreme poverty, subsisting on an average of $1.90 per day.

While experts point to reduced poverty in East Asia and the Pacific region as key marks of global progress, many of the people who survive on almost nothing, it turns out, live in one of the world’s largest economies.

In their new book, “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” academics Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer reveal that there are nearly 1.5 million American households with practically no cash income.

That figure has been on the rise, nearly doubling since 1996 — the same year that a major welfare reform bill was passed. Under the new rules, cash benefits known as welfare were paired with strict work or training requirements.

The policy goal was to decrease people’s dependence on government help and that work would then be supplemented if necessary. The reforms successfully encouraged many people to join the workforce. But those unable to find work found themselves falling without a safety net.

The degradation of jobs in the U.S. caused the problem to continue, Edin told NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan in a recent interview, seen in the video below.

“We can’t deny is at the bottom of the labor market, there simply aren’t enough jobs, much less good jobs, to go around. It’s almost impossible to find a full-time job. Even if you find a job, it’s very difficult to pair one part-time job with another because shifts and hours are always in fluctuation. Wages tend to be very low.”

Edin and Shaefer traveled around the country and embedded with communities big and small, from Cleveland and Chicago to the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia regions, to learn how families living on less than $2 a day ended up there and how they survive.


Editor’s Note: Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.