What I Learned By Living on $1.50 a Day

By Ruth Messinger, President of AJWS, Guest Author

Earlier this month, I spent five days living below the poverty line: eating on just $1.50 a day. Like many people who enjoy the physical comforts that I experience, living on extreme poverty wages is neither easy nor intuitive.

On the first day of the challenge, I ate half a green pepper, using peanut butter as a dip, and a small amount of pineapple. On the second day, I ate more of the pepper and more peanut butter, a hard-boiled egg, and about half a cup of cooked beans.

After I completed the challenge, the contents of my “meals” looked like this:

1 1/2 green pepper $1.25
5 eggs $1.50
1 container pineapple $1.00
1 apple $1.25
1/2 lb beans cooked $1.20
1/3 jar peanut butter $1.50

In full disclosure, I accepted a glass of wine and could not give up my tea, knowing full well that people living in poverty don’t have the luxury to cheat.

Obviously, this is not enough food for five days and it’s certainly not sufficiently healthy. No school child could actually be expected to learn on this diet, for example. But, tragically, getting through the day with just a spoonful of beans and a green pepper is a reality for millions of people in the United States and around the world.

Many people living in poverty in the United States are in refugee families who are trying to build new lives from the wreckage of persecution. This is not only a terrible reflection on our country, but a serious problem in our health system and a detriment to our economic potential.

With Passover just behind us, I’ve been reflecting on the essence of the Exodus story—the journey from a narrow place of constriction to an expansive place of liberation. I’m reminded that this journey manifests in our consumption habits. Some of us are enslaved by scarcity: a lack of clean drinking water or a lack of healthy food. Others are enslaved by excess: too many super-sized sodas and too many hours on the Internet.

In my role as president of American Jewish World Service, I am reminded, quite regularly, of the sobering fact that the richest 85 people in the world share a combined wealth that is equal to that of the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet.

Now that I have completed my five-day challenge of living below the poverty line, I am grateful that I survived but know that no one should have to live this way—on too little food, with a lack of nutrition, and with the chronic yearning to feel sated. I have renewed empathy for those who never feel healthy, in body and in mind. And I am recommitted to closing the gap between those who have too much and those who never have what they need; to building a world in which all can experience the sweetness of having enough.

Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service.

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