'I feel rich when I have food.' Stories from the War on Poverty

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

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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)

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Living in poverty

"I do live on the lowest income [listed by the federal government]. I was middle class, went to college, and worked for years before the surprise outsourcing of my work. Then my own business slowed due to housing loss and health problems, and now I'm caring for relative with cancer. I have now lived on my own, homeless (out of car or couch surfing) for several years. I am 48 years old. I survive by eating a lot of Top Ramen.

It is sort of a joke to hear how so many people talk about living in poverty.  Many of those people have no real clue what it is like and how stressful it is until you have to do it year after year. In my 20s, I had no idea this would occur in my life. At first, I had strength to fight back, but now I am worn down. It feels like falling in the ocean and treading water for years with no real ladder to a ship to get out and get stable and warm. It is hellish stress and very humiliating.

I pretend it is not that bad to others. I wouldn't even tell my doctor at the low-income clinic how bad things are for me. I am too embarrassed to let anyone know that I sleep in my car and have only one pair of pants left to wear. I used to have a good income. I used to go hiking and work full time and walk my dog and jog five days a week. I had what many people have in America, and I took it for granted that I would always have a home and a job and enough money to at least pay the bills and keep my clothes clean and eat healthy food. I never touched Top Ramen back in my 20s.

Yes, I do know that there are even many people worse off now than me, but until you experience this long-term poverty situation, you can't really understand how it devastates your ability to function and robs you of your health from the stress, the instability, and the lack of ability to eat healthy. I do my best, and still I am grateful for the basic things in life, even the Ramen noodles, although they have caused me more health problems. I don't see a way out of this situation at this time.

I do hope another Martin Luther King, Jr. comes along to push for help for those in this rich country who have fallen into such unstable and difficult times. Most of us have worked hard, still want to, and paid plenty of taxes in our lives, and all people deserve some basic dignity, and at least medical and housing. It is not as easy to get help in this country as some think."

-Mary Lee in Bellingham, Washington

"I am already facing this. After raising my children and going through a divorce from an abusive husband, I worked for the past 20 years at physically demanding jobs. I am currently a bus driver, and my body is giving out (I'm 63 years old). I am no longer able to work. I have filed for Workman's Compensation, was denied, now have an attorney working on that. Next will be disability, which I understand will be denied, and I will need an attorney for that.

I understand that I will be expected to live on maybe $900 a month. I clear $2000 a month as a driver and just have my head above water. I am planning to possibly move to South Dakota, get a trailer and live with my friend of 35 years. She is also struggling and helps care for her aged mother who also lives on a small fixed income."  

-Virginia in Omaha, Nebraska

"Wishing I was more eloquent with my wording, but here it goes. I live off grid. I supply all of my own needs. I do not receive food stamps or federal assistance. I am getting heath insurance for the first time in a couple decades. I use solar, catchment water and wood for heating. Poverty isn't a bad thing, It just shows you what you really need, not what is to be desired. My motto: 'have what you need and need what you have'." 

-Eugene in Taos, New Mexico

"I'm a single mom and I make under $11,000 a year. The only way to do well for us is with food stamps. Without it, we couldn't eat. The government reduced the amount we get so by the end of the month we ran out of milk, juices, bread, eggs. It's difficult when one child is only three. They have health insurance, but I was told I don't qualify for it. In my area, rent is high and all of my income goes to it. I don't want to become homeless again. It's scary."

-Tania Parsons

"For seven years, I lived on $500 a month. The cost of taxes on my small home was more than $200 monthly. Volunteering was the only "recreation" I could afford. I feel rich when I have food."

-  Sharon Dory in Mendocino County



Living in poverty while young

"In my 20s and 30s, I was paying off college loans and making $6,000 a year working full time, even with previous college. About a third of my take-home went for college loan payments -- I did pay them all eventually. The unemployment rate (this was in 1976 or so) was close to 10.25%, as I remember it.

Here's what I did: I lived with others in whatever places I could afford, had poor or no heat and never air conditioning, no screens, bad locks (in bad neighborhoods), barely-working stoves and fridges, iffy bathrooms, with abusive landlords. I ate a lot of eggs, peanut butter and bread. I did not own a car; it took me two hours to get to work and two hours to get back on the bus (I ended up taking two buses and and doing lots of walking). Work was only 13 miles away.

As a small female, I was often under the threat of violence and harassment by strangers. I did not have a lot of clothes and what I got was from Goodwill or thrift stores, but I was always very clean. Winter clothes and shoes were the hardest to find. When I got pretty sick, I could not afford the $50 to go to a doctor; I had insurance but only for catastrophic coverage. I had friends and we got by with each others' help.

I learned a lot in those years and would not want anyone else to go through them. Some things I faced were stunted and delayed promises, hunger, constant fear of harm, and ill health. I did much better as the years went on, I fought hard for that, but I have known ever since then that this is a country which does not care about it's people and it has gotten a lot worse."

-Jay Gee in Los Lunas, New Mexico

"Back in 2012, I was at the federal poverty level. I was a raising senior at UC Davis, and while I had a scholarship that covered my tuition and books for four years, I lost my student assistant position with the state, which paid $10 an hour. My parents have not financially supported me since I started college and for a period of time I was taking odd jobs to keep myself afloat. It was not until I started working at Costco, getting paid $11 and hour and worked some over time before I was able to stop eating canned food. I remember all my bills (rent, utilities, food) and wiping out my savings that I had built up for three years. It was a stressful time.

I don't look back on college fondly because all I remember is working and resenting all the privileged students around campus who never worked a single day in their lives."

 -Mira in Sacramento, California 

"I don't need a chart. I've been on my own since I was 17, and I've never made more than the federal poverty level.

I have horrific health problems which can't be treated. I've been homeless for about a year and, all told, much of that was while I was employed but not making enough to make ends meet.

I tried to go to college. I worked 60 hours a week at minimum wage jobs and pulled a full load at college. I had a 3.75 GPA, but I to drop out to take care of younger siblings." 

–Amanda in North Carolina

"Unfortunately, I spent most of the 1990s at the poverty level for two adults and as recently as 2004 lived with a total annual income of less than $12,000. This also came with the added pressure of not reaching out for assistance from welfare and food stamps, but rather, we chose to let go of the amenities - no TV, a budget telephone service ($6.11 a month) dumpster-diving for clothes (except underwear, of course) repairing our own automobile with parts from salvage yards, going to the public library to check out movies instead of renting them, and eating a lot of 'Happy Hour' bar food, stuff like buffalo wings, potato dkins, leftover sandwiches and soups that made a filling meal for the cost of a $1.50 bottle of beer. We ate a lot of chicken wings that way. It wasn't fun by any means, but both my husband and I managed to squeak by.

Could I do it again? Yes, but it would only happen if I completely stopped working as my own business finally is getting traction and it's been a long, long 22 years getting to this point.

With the economy mismanaged by the bankers that are running the government and so much of the capital diverted into the stock market accounts of the investor elites at the top, it really does behoove every person living at the poverty level to stop looking for assistance in the form of jobs creation. Business isn't going to hire and employ Americans anymore by default, so the only option is to work for yourself. Waiting on a government that is sinking in debt from the mass transference of jobs away from the taxpaying public to the workers in the Far East - who do not incur tax liabilities to that same government - is a fool's game.

As Warren Buffet said in a 2006 interview in the New York Times: 'There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.'

So the 'poor' need to stop looking to these cretins or the government they've financially starved for help. Shuck, hustle, do what you can, but don't expect the 1% or government to help. In fact, they'll probably try to get in your way using laws and regulations." 

-Deborah in New Hampshire


What I learned

"I have lived below or at poverty level for ten years now. My wife and I earn minimum wage, but due to work levels one or both of us have not worked consistently in any year. We avoid comparisons, we avoid social media, do not eat out, do not really do anything but work and love each other doing free activities: hiking, exercise, reading through library. We both volunteer a lot because that is free and helps us feel connected to our real community.

I love America but income inequality is worse stress than any job if you buy into it. The trick we found is be happy with what you have and do not compare. Just live."

-KC Mulhall in Wenatchee, Washington State

"I've lived below the poverty line for years now. There's a number of things you can do to make it: don't own a car, try to grow your own food, cook everything from scratch, don't buy anything unless you absolutely need it, couch surf with friends, barter rent for yard work, cleaning or other services, try to shop at thrift stores or garage sales.

Last year, I found a pair of shoes my size that were getting thrown away. The threads started coming off, so I fixed them with shoe glue: they were much better shoes than the cheapest ones you can find which only last a month at most. I know so many people living like this.

The idea of having things like cable TV, cell phones or iPads is so ridiculous -- many of us read books from the library for entertainment."

-George Leake in Vallejo, CA

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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