One Dollar Per Day – A Beginner’s Guide (Part 1)

By Jason Jones, Kiva Fellow, Nicaragua

 (This entry is the first in a two-part series.  The second will be published in the coming week.)

I have a running debate with my girlfriend regarding the Nicaraguan class system.  Usually, it comes up as we’re driving around Managua.  We’ll be cruising around a particular neighborhood when one of us will begin speculating as to the economic classification of the area, based solely upon its outward appearance.  For example, I always claim that the neighborhood I currently call home is “middle class”, basing my assessment on such factors as select individuals owning their own vehicles, most houses having non-dirt floors, and in the majority of cases, at least one family member finding him/herself with the luxury of reporting to work on a daily basis.  My girlfriend, on the other hand, looks around at the number of individuals sleeping on the sidewalk at any given moment or the neighborhood’s reputation for being especially high in crime and subsequently assigns it a rating of “upper lower class”.  Of course, being as though neither of our respective opinions is actually based upon any real economic study or indicator, we are probably both wrong.  That being the case, however, I continually find myself speculating about such things, especially when I hear someone use that well-known phrase of “One Dollar Per Day”.

It’s difficult to get very deep into any poverty-related discussion these days without this phrase making an appearance.  It’s cited in anti-poverty campaigns all over the world, it’s touted by numerous celebrities and spokespersons, it makes its way into most studies of the official variety and it’s even listed in the FIRST objective of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.  One dollar per day.  There it is.  Sometimes, it’s listed as “A dollar twenty-five per day” or “Two dollars per day”, and the scale can certainly change depending on the source.  What remains consistent, though, is the idea.  And in this case, the idea is really just a tool by which to measure one’s economic activity.

My Humble Abode

So what does a life based upon one dollar (or one and a quarter or two) per day really look like?  That’s mainly what I ask myself.  Beyond that, how does one go about living on one dollar per day?  Could I personally live on one or two dollars per day?  In all fairness, I should probably mention that I’ve never actually tried, nor do I have any real desire to do so (I suspect I’m not alone on that one).  I mean I do try to keep things relatively “simple” on the average.  I go from point A to point B on two wheels rather than four.  I afford myself very few “luxuries” such as new clothes or cutting edge electronic devices (nope, no smart phone for this guy…..mine is ignorant at best).  Come to think of it, I’ve all but stopped going to any restaurant that charges more than four or five dollars per entrée.  But despite such “drastic approaches” to life, even my modest rent of two dollars and fifty cents per day automatically disqualifies me from the official dollar per day club.  Throw in another five or so for food, one for gas and another for such things as phone and internet, and I’m not even close to the cutoff.  Based upon those numbers alone, I’m living a life of luxury.

According to most statistics, however, nearly half the population of Nicaragua IS living on less than two dollars per day.  How do they do that?  Before I go on, I should lay out the disclaimer.  All expressed views and opinions in the following paragraphs are simply my own.  As I mentioned before, I’ve never lived a life characterized by such figures.  I have, on the other hand, spent the last three years working in one the poorest communities in Nicaragua, and what I’ve listed below are simply bits of information I’ve picked up over the course of that time.  As for the content, it is taken from a specific urban area in a specific nation.

Percentage of Population Living on Less Than $1.25 per day (2009)

It Takes a Village:  I think the first and most important point to remember if one wishes to live on one dollar per day is that it will most likely NOT be a solo endeavor.  Coming from that large land of plenty located a few nations to the north of my current location, I’m accustomed to a significant amount of independence and space.  Prior to moving south, I had MY house, MY car, My stuff, MY accounts, etc. etc.  As one scales down economically, however, such words as space, privacy and isolation get, for the most part, omitted from the vocabulary.  I certainly understand that there are additional cultural and sociological factors at play on this one, but much of it still comes down to a simple consolidation of resources.  For example, it’s really quite difficult to construct a roof over one’s head with a gross income of one or two

A Place to Call Home

dollars per day.  On the contrary, a family of 6 or 8 may very well be able to pool the resources and live in a one or two room structure.  Don’t get me wrong.  These are not “McMansions” appearing on the suburban horizon.  These structures are generally made from scrap materials and may or may not have a functional (i.e. one that keeps the rain on the outside) roof.    Hopefully, though, they’ll provide a little shelter from the elements or those particularly menacing neighbors.  The same idea applies to food.  If I buy MY beans to cook in MY pan over MY firewood in MY kitchen, MY budget is going to disappear quickly.  But, if WE pool OUR resources, OUR one or two meals per day should go much more smoothly.  And so it goes with this form of collective living.  Historically speaking, it’s probably more common than not.  After all, isn’t there some saying about strength in numbers?

Locally Produced Snack

Let Them Eat Cake! (or papaya):    So I’m cutting a papaya one day, when this kid I know approaches me and asks about the fruit.  “You ALWAYS eat fruit!” he tells me.  “What do you mean?” I ask.  “You just had a papaya like a week or two ago!”  As the conversation continued, I inquired a bit more about his particular diet.  Fruit?  Hardly ever.  Vegetables?  Rarely.  Rice, beans, and a tortilla?  Daily.  He wasn’t unusual.  For most of my time in Nicaragua, I worked with a nutritional program in an economically disadvantaged community.  What I learned was that the staples of rice, beans, tortillas and oil make up the large majority of the standard diet.  That being said, if I want to stretch my dollar per day into great culinary variety, I’m basically out of luck.  While I’m at it, I should probably go ahead and forget about quantity as well.  Due to various limitations, the all you can eat buffet is not a popular attraction in such communities.  At the end of the day, if I am a normal member of my economic peer group, I will find myself missing at least one or two of the essential daily nutrients, and a state of chronic malnutrition will often be an accompanying factor.

Neighborhood Health Clinic

A Clean Bill of Health:  Speaking of malnutrition, let’s talk a moment or two about healthcare.  The good news for me and my daily dollar is that the government does provide a basic level of healthcare without charging a fee.  I mean so what if I have to find my way to the clinic and wait around for any untold number of hours, only to receive a potentially substandard level of care.  When I leave, I don’t have to pay the cashier!  The bad news is that if the doctor happened to scribble anything on the notepad falling under the category of “medicine” OR “additional tests”, then I actually DO have to pay in most cases.  More good news; medicine and tests are super cheap compared to other parts of the world!  More bad news; taking my dollar per day into account, there’s really no such thing as cheap prescriptions or medical tests.  Even more bad news; the environmental conditions associated with my minimalist lifestyle aren’t always the most healthy or sanitary available. Chronic levels of malnutrition (see above), parasites and infectious diseases are commonly the result.  At the end of the day, I’ll probably spend a great deal of time making my way to the local medical clinic.  Unfortunately, I’ll rarely be awarded a clean bill of health.

……to be continued

About the author

Jason Jones