Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Living in Poverty ... on Purpose

I got this as a Christmas letter; it is written by a homeschooling friend named Erin Schmidt.

“As we mentioned in last year’s Christmas letter, in hopes of understanding poverty better, we planned to experience it by living at the poverty level ($21,000 for a family of 4) in 2008. The year is almost over, we’ve managed to stick with it, have learned a lot and would like to share some of our experience with you.

Our poverty experiment turned into more of a reality when Dave was laid-off this spring. We experienced the stress of not having health insurance, how much red-tape and time it takes to obtain it – and how expensive it is to simply “continue coverage” through Cobra - $900/month for our very healthy family – or over half of our monthly poverty-level budget. We had our first ER visit – the bill for a 2 minute glue job on a cut totaled $1,800 (luckily still insured). Erin needed some meds which cost us $100 (being uninsured) – whereas her Dad got the same meds for $5 with his insurance. A pharmacist told us that folks without insurance pay a premium amount to make up for the loss incurred by the insurance company’s low rates. We are now aware of the hardships placed upon a person living paycheck to paycheck who needs medicines and/or medical assistance. We’ve become resourceful. When Lucy had a big gash above her eye, we said many prayers, sealed it up with steri-strips and avoided the ER completely.

When you’re living in poverty, it’s doesn’t take much set you back to a point that is very hard to recover from. Often, there's barely enough money to cover your basic needs and little to none is left for any accidents or savings. For us, the unexpected included a traffic violation, a parking ticket, medical bills, and damage to our van. Many things are put on hold longer than they should – like a brake job on the van, trips to the dentist, eye doctor, annual physical, fixing the vacuum cleaner, etc. These things usually end up haunting you in the end – that brake job that you put on hold due to finances, could end up costing you an accident in the future that could cost much more than the brake job. The poor are sometimes viewed as “lazy” or “irresponsible” – for some, this may be true – but most are likely dealing with only the most urgent needs, and “just keeping their head above water”.

To achieve our poverty level budget, we had to cut out all extras: no eating out (bummer), eating cheap food (hello Aldi), no treats (pop, sweets, gum, juice, beer), learned to can abundant food (jellies &; pickles), home hair cuts (yikes), no vacation bible school, swim lessons, sports, music lessons, summer camps, trips to the swimming pool, (sigh), no summer vacation (sob, that’s the highlight of our year), no garage sales (Erin’s favorite hobby), no field trips/outings that cost money (darn), no renewing memberships (Costco, adoption & homeschool support groups, science city, etc), no babysitters (good-bye date nights), no coffee shop visits (a weekend favorite). We tried to keep our energy bills minimal by keeping our house cold in the winter and hot in the summer. The combination of an uncomfortable house and of not having creature comforts made it awkward having friends over and made us feel less hospitable. We calculated the cost to travel (using $.42/mile to include gas & wear/tear) and were amazed how quickly it adds up - a round-trip to the suburbs can quickly add up to $20. We only traveled to see our family when something big was happening this year. Needless to say, it would be easy to get depressed if you didn’t see an end to it. Our situation is different - yet we still had these feelings occasionally.

Poverty is not just about money. We began learning about poverty by reading A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne. She defines poverty as a lack of resources: relational, spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, financial, etc. We experienced financial poverty only; had we been lacking other resources, it would have been a very tough year for us.

Through the year we’ve been trying to be with the poor, to the extent we can by working among the poor at soup kitchens and food pantries, attending discussion groups, learning from those who work directly with the poor, and talking to people on the street that ask for money. It helped soften our hearts, wash away our quick judgments, and recognize that these people are human and like all of us, they have a life story. Our Catholic Worker friends introduced us to the term, “personalism” – which loosely means to make society’s problems your problems or to take on, in some personal way, someone else’s problem and help them work it out – to help work for justice.

Our experience was just an attempt to understand. It’s impossible to replicate a poverty situation, and we acknowledge that we didn’t and couldn’t come close to fully experiencing it. The year was productive though, and we’re glad that we saw it through. We learned that we can live with less. We realize that we were lucky in that we didn’t have any major issues, medical conditions, accidents or other things happen this year. We also have a greater awareness and appreciation for the resources we do have – our family and upbringing, our education, our values, good health and intellect. Thanks to those of you who inquired about our journey throughout the year. It was a year of growth, learning, understanding, and compassion. If this has sparked your interest, you should try it for 3 months, 6 months, or a year!”

Do you think YOU could do this? I know I COULD, but WOULD I? It would be a great lesson for the kids, and we could sure pay off our house a lot faster if we put the “extra” money toward that instead of fast food and a toasty-warm house in the winter.


  1. Wow, this is amazing. I did not know you did this.

  2. Oh please, Nikki...Kerrie didn't do this. She would have to have a gun held to her head and someone monitoring her 24/7 or she would so cheat!!

  3. Huh. No, I wouldn't do this, but I think I could. I hate to say this but the people I know who live at poverty level and are healthy are people who live off the government (in other words, us). I'm not talking about the elderly or those who are medically impaired. My grandma has to pinch her pennies on a set income and I feel so bad for her, esp. now that the government has raised the taxes on the home she's been living in for over twenty years. It's absolutely ridiculous.
    My hubby and I will NOT pay Cobra. Nine hundred bucks a month is ridiculous, if you have a healthy family. Which, thank you Jesus, we do. So what we have is a much cheaper surgical policy for anything that would require an in=hospital stay or surgery. It doesn't cover emergencies though, and I hear your friend on the cost because my son had to get stitches and it was so expensive. BUT you should let her know that they charge the insurance company more than they charge someone who self-pays. Furthermore, the hospital gives a discount to self-payers and is willing to set up a payment plan. The second time my son gashed his other eye (I felt so bad) instead of taking him for glue we did like your friend and bandaged it and said a prayer. God was faithful and the scar is very thin.
    I can't imagine living with a family of four on 21000 a year. There are ways to survive though. I'm assuming your friend didn't go on government assistance?

  4. Amen anonymous! Like Kerrie could go without Dove chocolates and trips to the drive thru for even ONE WEEK! HA!

  5. When my hubby was in the military, and we lived in Texas, we lived on $20,000 for a family of 5. Thankfully we had military insurance to smooth the way somewhat.

    Now, living in NJ, if we were to try to live on that amount, we would be homeless. After just paying our mortgage payments, we'd have only $4,000 left for living expenses for the year. The cost of living here is insane (and we live in one of the "poor" parts of our community).

    Minimum wage in this country is a joke and the cost of living varies so much from one area to the next.

  6. I enjoyed reading about this but I was wondering why anyone would want to try this. I think it's terrific and will make their children be so much more grateful for what they have. I know a lot about this subject. I've lived and worked in some of the poorest places on earth. Africa, Philippines, Madaba, and I've lived in Iraq now for almost 5 years (not military). For 2 of those I was embedded with Iraqi men in the southwestern part of the desert clearing minefields and cluster bombs. We had no supply system or place to buy the basic necessities. Things like toilette paper, lights, running water, toothpaste, drinking water were all non existent. At times we had to collect sheep dung and burn it to cook our food and heat our water. I learned a lot about myself and people and what's truly important. We looked forward to the times we could go to a base and take a shower or have vegetables. We became close as friends. When there is no TV you become closer just out of talking. We spent a lot of time telling stories. One thing I wished was that my sons could have been with me to live life like that. I make good money and when I go to the states it's difficult to see the waste and unappreciated simplicities that we as Americans take for granted. After being home for a couple weeks I see myself doing the same thing. Human nature is strange. Now I send pics of the normal life over here and send them to my kids every week. Usually of other children living their lives. You can visually see the hardships and the closeness of the kids. Thanks for sharing the experience. I enjoy when I see other try a taste of true poverty and what they bring out of it.

  7. I don't need to "try it." I lived it as a child. I enjoyed this post very much (and would like permission to post it on my facebook.) I really like how she talked about poverty NOT just being about money. My Mom has worked at the Post Office for 30 and makes really good money, but my childhood was still poverty stricken because her lack of resources: relational, spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional. Sure we had money, but what good is money if you are lacking in all the other areas? The next time you think people are being lazy...ask yourself did they have all the resources you had growing up? Were you born lucky and they weren’t? I wasn't either, but I don't think I am better or any worse than anyone else, and I am empathic to everyone. I did need to walk in someone else's shoes to feel their pain. I already feel it, I believe this is a Gift I was given from God and I plan to use it.

    PS. We paid Cobra for 6 months and it killed our budget. Responsible parents ALWAYS carry FULL health insurance on their kids if it is at all possible. We still paid ALL our bills on time, but did NOT have ANY 'extra" money. This would have never been possible if my husband wouldn't have found a job in a week and half. God knows what would of happen then.

    Kerrie, thanks for posting this!

  8. i was "lucky" as a child and had hardworking parents who always had a job. dad would've digged ditches if it meant making money and having food and not going on assitance. when i was 18 i got pregnant and had no clue what medicaid and was treated badly on it by many docs. i won't go near shawnee mission medical center ever again b/c of the way i was treated 18 years ago!!! and don't they wish they had me delivering all my babies there!!! anyway, it's easy for me to say that if aron lost his job he'd work 3 to make up for it (but what a strain on the family to never be together), plus i'd have to babysit kids or clean houses or do whatever it would take to stay above water. we'd have to sell things, move to a smaller house, etc. we are not rich by any means, but often i feel guilty having all the things i need and try to share with others when i can. my big dream is to run a food bank when my kids are grown!! i'm as bad as anybody about those on assistance, though: when i see someone who has their daycare, medical, dental, food and apartment paid for and then they go out to eat way more than i ever could and buy their kids every new techno toy, i am stumped and a little pissed.

  9. My family (and my Mom’s family) has never got one penny from assistance...we make too much money and always have. (No money for college, no WIC, no food stamps, no free healthcare, etc.) I am ok with that, because I don't need any assistance. My Dad was an alcoholic and worthless and my mom was a work-alcoholic. FUN, FUN, FUN....I was not a "lucky" child, but I learned from my parents mistakes and am stronger because of it. For that I am thankful to God. I firmly believe God saved me from a lifetime of poverty (all the types of poverty)...because honestly, I statically should not be the person I am today. I thank GOD for that. Sure I give myself some credit (and my wonderful husband), but without God's grace. I VERY easily could have been a statisc. That I know for sure. So because of that I feel “LUCKY ” and thoroughly blessed. Some are not so “lucky”….and that’s why I feel the need deep inside to help them. (not pay for them, but actually help them…there is a difference)I remember where I came from and how easily my life could have been SO different.


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