Stories of Living on Two Dollars a Day

Some good news on global poverty: between 2001 and 2011, according to estimates from the Pew Research Center, the share of people around the world living on less than $2 per day fell from 29% to 15%. In fact, one of the Millennium Development Targets—halving the proportion of the world’s population living on less than $1.25 a day—was accomplished in 2010, five years before its 2015 target date.

And yet.

15% of the world’s population living on $2 or less per day is still at least one billion people, and likely more. These numbers are still so astounding, so appalling, that I think the way we deal with them is to tune them out. At least I do. Because if we really internalized those numbers, that level of poverty and suffering, how would we continue to maintain our lifestyles as they are? How would I buy a coffee knowing that what I was spending on a luxury was all another individual had to meet all of their needs for the whole day?

I am trying to keep the global poor at the front of my mind, not to fuel guilt, but determination. Determination to resist a culture of consumerism that tries to tell me what I “need.” Determination to use my great resources to improve others’ physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Faceless poverty statistics do little to keep me present with the poor, but their stories are different. When I connect people to the numbers I feel a stronger sense of urgency and a call to action.

Photojournalist Renee Byer and Tom Nazario, founder of The Forgotten International, traveled in 2010 and 2011 to ten countries on four continents to document the lives of people Living on a Dollar a Day. Their 2014 book illustrates the daily lives, with joy and pain, of people across the globe who walk a thin line between life and death. They tell stories of the “Kayayo girls” of Accra, Ghana, who move from the rural north to the city to work carrying heavy loads in the market for a couple of dollars per day. Slums on or near the city dump provide crowded shelter for the lowest rent. They write about some of the poorest residents of Bucharest, Romania who live in the city’s sewer tunnels and heating vents where steam pipes provide heat at night.

A new book by Kathryn Edin and Luke Schaefer, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, shows that this desperation is also close to home for those of us in the U.S. They calculate that in 2011, about 1.5 million U.S. households–home to 3 million children–lived on cash income of less than $2 per person per day.** This income does not even approach what the federal government has designated “deep poverty,” at $8.30 per person per day.

People who find themselves in these circumstances had often been getting by working hard at low-wage jobs when they were hit by an event that cut down their already minimal income. One woman, successful in her position as a cashier at a grocery store, had the gasoline for her car stolen by a person she lived with. Stranded with no money to fill the tank, she called her boss and was told that if she couldn’t make it to work that day she shouldn’t bother coming back. A hundred resumes later, she still hadn’t found another job. Others take employment that compromises their health, slowing their performance and frustrating their employers. Edin and Schaeffer talk about the survival strategies used by people going through long spells with little cash income, from families with children moving from shelter to shelter every night, to mothers donating their plasma for compensation as often as legally allowed.

These narratives motivate me to give more financially—to the organizations providing the poorest with the resources that allow them to eat and sleep for another day, and to other organizations that provide training to help them access steady employment. But these books are also pushing me to consider ways I (and BFJN) can contribute to changing the systems that perpetuate this type of poverty.

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