Stories from the War on Poverty: 'We rationed rice for 4 months'

It's been 50 years since America declared a War on Poverty. How would you survive at the federal poverty level?

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

On the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, we asked Al Jazeera America readers to weigh in on what poverty means to them and how they would (and do) survive at the federal poverty level. Some readers explained how living in poverty would change their life, while others shared their personal stories of the challenges they face each day.

(Editor's note: Submissions have been lightly edited for clarity)

How I would survive

2010 Getty Images

"At the federal poverty level, my husband and I would lose our house, one of our cars, and have to adopt a completely different way of feeding ourselves. We wouldn't be able to afford our community-supported agriculture program, so our nutrition would suffer. We wouldn't be able to save toward our retirement, travel to see our families or have Internet at our house for entertainment.

The federal poverty level is not a place where I would like to be."

— Rachel Fives, New York City

"It would be difficult but not, I hope, impossible. My main concerns would be fixed costs: electricity, water, gas, telephone. We already live lightly by eating mostly vegetarian, fresh, whole grains, and shopping at farmers markets."

— Alan Young, Hilo, Hawaii

"I would start by applying for public benefits, like Medicaid, food stamps and cash assistance. Luckily my state helps single adults, but most states do not.

Still, where would I live? I would have to try to get into a shelter. The waiting list for public housing and housing assistance is miles, years long."

— Eliza, Brooklyn, N.Y.

"I would sell my partially mortgaged home, put money in a savings account for emergencies only, sell my car, charge nothing, eat food I can grow, purchase no more than one meal a day at $3 per person and other meals at less than $1.50 per person, eat out only on celebration days, make do with clothes on hand, and rent apartment based upon how much left over from my Social Security check after health insurance costs and food."

— Bill Davis

"The real question is how would I survive living at a yearly income just above the federal poverty level, say $12,000 to $15,000 a year. In Austin, I'd have to have more than one roommate in a one-bedroom apartment in a high-crime neighborhood with a shared landline, an analog TV without cable, a used bicycle for transportation, and almost all of my clothing would be from thrift stores or charities. 

All of these steps might allow one to save enough money to eat nutritious meals — though they would be very lean meals. The greatest detriment to the poor is a bad diet, as it leads to poor physical, dental and mental health. The old adage is true: Without your health you have nothing."

— Laura, Austin, Texas

How I live in poverty

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

"I have been surviving by eating cheap canned food, using a prepaid phone for emergencies only, and only watching TV with an antenna. I communicate with friends only through the Internet, on an old computer.

Thankfully, I'm finally employed at my skill level, and I'm now making more money. But before I was making $8.50 an hour (up from minimum wage before that). I was making the minimum payments on multiple student loans for my bachelor's degree and a credit card that I used for car repairs and food while I was in college.

In Virginia, I made too much to qualify for food stamps, which made paying for food, rent, gas for the car (an old beater) and bills barely possible. I was living paycheck to paycheck. I am essentially still living that way, except since I'm making more money at a job more tailored to my college degree, I've been using the extra income to pay off the credit card and start on the loans.

It's bittersweet, because I finally made it after working so hard through college and through a long drought of underemployment. Now that I'm here, I'm still living the same way, and will continue to do so for years until the loans are paid off.

A statistic I would love to see that is not listed is the percentage of people with college level degrees who live in poverty."

— Pat Q, Philadelphia 

"My husband and I are already under the (federal poverty level) for two people. We cut everywhere and juggle bills. There have been times without utilities and lots and lots of pasta. We have never asked for or received assistance; we're always thinking there are others with kids that need it more. It is a never-ending worry, never-ending struggle and takes a toll on our health and well-being. Yes, we work (my husband even has a second job). Yes, we are educated (my husband has a BS in business and I have college, less a bit for degree). We have both been working since 1972.

— Kathleen Pfeiffer on Facebook

"Our household consists of three adults, all of whom are unable to find employment. All are living on less than $900 per month from Social Security.

Despite now being in my 70s, I trade labor with my landlord for half of my rent, visit the food bank regularly, walk when I'm able, and drive only when necessary.

If the food banks ever stop we may be in 'real' poverty, and if that ever happens, I have no idea what we will do."

— Russ Bowers, California

How I overcame poverty

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"I've hit the poverty line several times with job losses over the years. That is always the catalyst, as unemployment insurance rarely even covers rent.

I have a BS in business, marketable skills and a great track record. Still, I am one of a growing number of middle-aged, single, well-educated adults that did everything right (we went to college, paid our way through, got jobs, didn't get pregnant or into drugs, were responsible and upwardly mobile) who have been thrashed around the last 20 years.  

I left the newspaper industry for good in 2008 when I realized that in 1991, without a college degree and doing the same job (ad sales), I made 64 percent more (when adjusted for designated market area and inflation) than I did in 2006. In 2006, I was in a larger market with 20 years' experience, a proven track record and degree. I was shocked at how low my salary had become, even with commission. In 1992, I could buy a house with my earnings in Seattle as a senior account executive with a major newspaper. In 2006, I couldn't even afford a decent two-bedroom apartment doing the same job for a larger paper in the Los Angeles Designated Market Area. In both cases I was one of the top salespeople.

Like most of my peers in similar situations, I chose to go out on my own, freelancing and starting my own companies. This pushed me well below the poverty line for several years, and I am just now starting to crawl out. Persistence, shoestring budgets and major sacrifices are beginning to pay off.

Falling into poverty in the U.S. costs much more than money. You lose lifestyle, opportunities to date eligible men, friends, security. You age faster, and this affects your physical health and biological clock. Your entire life gets put on hold for years at a time. Poverty has a very high price, even higher I believe for those of us who were upper middle class and lost that due to the 2000 and 2008 downturns.

I have never considered myself poor. Broke, but not poor. Poor people don't have options. I have options. I have an education, brain, skills and health. Plus I've seen poor people in foreign countries: Gaza, Brazil, Mexico ... they are poor, really poor. I've never seen anyone as poor as a child in Gaza or a Rio slum in the United States. Even our poorest are far wealthier than the worst off elsewhere."

— Laura Dawn, Los Angeles

"When my parents divorced in 1980, my single mother, my sister and I dropped below the poverty line for about seven or eight years until my mother was hired by the civil service. It was hard. We were always stressed out. I remember in September we could afford one new outfit for school, on layaway. My sister and I grew up talking to utility companies and creditors, learning how to get on payment plans and such. I must have eaten thousands of bowls of cereal and never brought friends over. We lived in depressed neighborhoods and had no health insurance. It often seemed to me that we were moving from crisis to crisis without a break. The overall sense of squalor and anxiety was probably the worst thing."

— Nick, New York City

"I lived in poverty for all of my life until last year when I finally graduated from college and got the job I have now. You have to be smart to get out of poverty. I worked my entire way through school, knowing that my school would help me obtain a job when I graduated. Any position will do, but if you can find a position at your college, that is best.

You should also know that you are never too far gone to come back. I graduated summa cum laude from the University of Florida. I also dropped out of high school after the ninth grade. You can always take steps to improve. They are extremely hard steps, but it's the only choice you have.

Anyway, I didn't hate my life. Sure, I dealt with eviction, hunger and having no electricity, but I don't get upset about loss anymore. If I can't pay a bill, I just can't pay. So they will kick me out, turn off my water, turn off my phone. This is nothing I haven't faced before. It never killed me, and I was always able to come back.

The worst is being hungry. We rationed rice for four months one summer. A half cup a day each. You are shaky and can't function well. You get light-headed (especially if you stand up too quick). You always seem to be in a bad mood. You jump at any invitation to free food. Sometimes I would call my family crying when I got too hungry. Strangely, I was very happy as a child and never knew I was poor until I tried to have a sleepover for my 11th birthday. None of my friends were allowed to spend the night because of where we lived. It was the first time I realized that I lived in poverty.

I did become angry with my situation in college as I watched my student loans grow and felt anger toward my parents. I was tired of working so much and just wanted to go to school and do nothing else. I got over that. My parents loved me and kept me happy. It was the best they could do.

I am more worried now about the income gap. The middle class is dying out and the price of college is rising. I am not sure how I am going to pay off my college. With my current payment plan and interest rates, I will pay a total of $110,000. I plan on going back for my MA since my current job will pay for it. But the amount I get paid now, while better than most, doesn't seem worth the price."

— Jamie, Florida

Do you currently live below the federal poverty line? How do you survive? Share your story as part of Al Jazeera America's report on the War on Poverty.

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