Another Set of Shoes: Life Below the Poverty Line

Photo by Jakob Owens

This past fall, the New York Times published just another piece about wealth. Entitled “What the Rich Won’t Tell You,” it is an exploration of how people in the top 1% relate to the fortune they’ve accumulated. What the comments section contained was much more sinister. Rife with stereotypes, cliches, and classism, it was a painful reminder of how divided our country is when it comes to wealth and our opinion of it.


At the center of the article was the idea that the top 1% (which would include anyone making over $608k/year in NYC) was not so different from the rest of us. Which made me wonder whether those who make over a million dollars a year know the pain of having to choose between paying medical bills and buying groceries? When they discuss the normal cost of furniture with their housekeeper, do they have any idea what “normal” is for her?


And when alt-right complains of welfare culture, do they understand what life looks like for someone who is working at a $101 deficit every week after paying necessary bills?


Today we’ll be walking in the shoes of Sandra (for the protection of her privacy, this is a pseudonym), a New York native, who has been chasing the elusive poverty line since before she could say “poverty”. Sandra is one of the 43.1 million people who were “officially” poor according to the poverty rate of 13.5% in 2015. For New Yorkers like Sandra, “poverty” is defined as having a household income of $32,000 per year or less. She makes exactly $32,000, or about $465 per week after taxes.


The average monthly rent in Harlem, the neighborhood where she lives, hovers around  $2,528.

This is her weekly budget:

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Starting a new week, Sandra aims to wake up at 6:45, but usually closer to 7:45, after a night full of late night feedings for her 18-month-old baby. Because her daughter is still nursing (and because breast milk is free), she finds herself the sole caretaker of a restless daughter during long nights while her husband sleeps in the adjoining room. The mother-baby duo wake up together in their low-income, city-sponsored apartment, and Sandra manages to shove something edible in both their mouths before heading out the door by 9:00 am… assuming there are no poop-splosions or inconveniently timed tantrums.


Jog-walking to the corner, she stands outside with her baby, willing the parenting Gods to let this ride be a calm one. As a cab pulls up and the two hop in, which will end up costing $12 of the $465 weekly paycheck she just recently cashed.


Fifteen minutes later she spills out of the cab, picking up speed as she careens into her mother’s house - the only affordable solution she could scrounge up for childcare. The baby cries as Grandma rummages through the cabinets looking for sugary cereals. The TV is blaring in the background and a chorus rises up from the crowd, “Jerry! Jerry!”.


It’s not ideal, but it’s $90 a week and the childcare vouchers haven’t come in yet. She closes her eyes and turns towards the door, making a mental note to look up educational games to play at home.


Back outside, she hears the familiar rumble of a train arriving at the subway platform. Running full speed, she pulls out her $32 weekly MetroCard, and does her patented swipe-and-sprint, barely squeezing between the doors as the train pulls away. By 10 am she’s jogging into work, sweat dripping from her temples.


Who needs a gym membership anyway?


Throughout the day she weeds through her workload — paperwork and meetings with parents in the community where her office is located. The mission of the organization where she works is to end generational poverty, and her role is to help manage the various cases that come through the doors. She observes tricky relationships between clients, and helps families navigate the difficulties of surviving in the “welfare system.”  One parent mumbles about electricity bills when passing by her desk, reminding her of the $200 ConEd bill sitting on the couch at home. Another two hundred dollars that cannot contribute to her husband’s engineering degree.


Before long, it’s lunchtime and she wonders how many animal crackers her little one has eaten today, as she pulls out a Tupperware container filled with food made on Sunday afternoon. Eating homemade stew and an ear from the crate of corn her and her sisters purchased at a nearby market, she smiles. By pulling resources with her extended family, she can usually make do on a budget of $63 a week for food.


Her mind wanders as she peruses the sale ads from a grocery store while on her phone. In a year, her child will be old enough to attend daycare at the facility where she works.


A year is nothing in the span of a lifetime.


5:30 pm rolls around, and Sandra launches into another project that will hopefully fill the next hour. One extra hour equals overtime pay, which will help cover that $20 she sends every week to a relative whose disability wages are garnished on a regular basis.


As her co-workers head home, she looks around at the organization that she loves, the organization that allows her to make a difference in the world. She relaxes into gratitude for the manager who provides flexible start times and measures her work in output rather than timeliness.


The appreciation comes fast and strong as she clocks out, knowing that her single unit of overtime has been reached, and then she takes off again. Workout #2.


By 7:00 pm she’s in her mother’s house, baby in arms. Smothering that little girl with kisses, she reminds herself that animal crackers never killed anyone, and her baby has something so many others don’t - a family full of love. A little Jerry Springer in the morning will never take that away. With a purse full of food from her mother’s house, Sandra hops back on the bus to head home.


God willing, she collapses inside around 8 pm. Chatting with her husband about his immigration status (the papers have been filed, but not yet finalized), she tidies the house and washes her baby’s hair. By 10 pm she’s back in bed, quietly nursing her little one and hoping - in vain - for tonight to be a restful one.


6:45 am — The alarm rings.


Did You Know?

  • 40.6 million: # of people living in poverty in 2016. 2.5 million fewer than in 2015. 6 million fewer than in 2014. (source)

  • 41 million: # of households with “food insecurity. 13 million: # with kids. (source)

  • OECD says children in the U.S. experience higher poverty rates than other developed countries like Spain, Greece, and Italy, yet the US is the wealthiest. (source)


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Thanks to Jakob Ownes for the graphic.