Living on One Dollar a Day - the reality

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Living on One Dollar a Day – the reality

by Anna-Claire Bevan


Living on a dollar a day in Guatemala (© Living on One)

Economics students know a lot about numbers. Chris Temple and Zack Ingrasci knew that 1.1 billion people live on a dollar a day, but they still couldn’t understand it.

‘We come from Connecticut and Seattle we just couldn’t understand how someone could live on such a small amount of money for everything,’ said Temple. ‘We wanted to understand this directly and share it with our friends – we knew we weren't the only people trying to understand.’

So, in the summer of 2010, Temple, Ingrasci and their filmmaker friends, Sean Leonard and Ryan Christoffersen, left their middle-class homes in the US, and went to live in an old shed in Peña Blanca, a very poor Mayan community in Solola, western Guatemala. They lived on $1 a day for two months. They experienced parasites, fleas, financial stress, fainting spells and terrible hunger.

‘We knew that our experience would not be the same as the 1.1 billion people, but we wanted to have some basic aspects the same,’ said Ingrasci. ‘We made our income unpredictable and we tried to start our own business.’

Their neighbours had unstable income (they worked as casual labourers – they never knew when they would have work). To be similar to them, the researchers divided the total amount of money they had ($224) into 56 days of between zero and nine and put the numbers into a hat. Each day they picked a number at random – this was the money they had for that day. Some days they were lucky, with an eight or a nine, and some days they had nothing.

They did the basics first: they made the dirt floor level, to sleep on; they found a water source; they made a fire; they learnt how to ask for cheaper food in the market; and how to buy food to add to their limited diet of beans, rice and tortillas.

The four university students wanted to try to survive on $1 a day. But they also wanted to understand how microfinance (small loans with mandatory savings to poor people), is helping to reduce poverty and encourage small businesses in rural areas. They borrowed money with a $125 microloan to start a small business growing radishes, and they interviewed their neighbours about money.

‘In these interviews we saw the difference between our lives and theirs. It would be impossible to live at this level of poverty our whole lives,’ said Temple.

They wanted to tell their friends and family at home about what they were doing, so the team started making short video blogs in their hut and putting them on YouTube – their first video got onto the site’s front page and 400,000 people watched it on its first day.

After weeks of sleeping on a dirt floor, drinking dirty water and eating a bad diet, the four students started to see changes in their bodies.

‘It was the first time in my life I’d ever been hungry, and it’s not just about hunger pains: it’s about how it affects your mind. You feel your body getting worse and your mind working slower. Our nails changed colour and we worried we would have long-term health effects,’ said Ingrasci.

Three weeks after the beginning of the experiment, Temple got giardia, an intestinal parasite. So the team started to understand how to try to pay unexpected medical bills with very little money.

‘When Chris got sick, our research failed because we couldn’t pay for medicine. It was $25 and we tried to save up for 10 days but it was impossible. $25 when you are spending money on wood, food and paying back loans – it was impossible.’

Temple had emergency medicine from home, but he knew that his neighbours did not have that luxury.

When they returned to the US two months later, each of them weighed about 10kg less. Both Ingrasci and Temple felt optimistic about the possibilities for their generation to end extreme poverty. Their understanding of microfinance is having an effect on people living on the poverty line. Giving them power to start their own businesses showed them there is hope.

They have more than 300 hours of film from their time in Peña Blanca, so they decided to make a documentary. They are using their experience to connect with other students and help others understand the financial reality of the poor.

‘We felt like a lot of [poverty] films and documentaries try to make you feel bad about the situation and make you feel guilty so you want to make a difference. We wanted to inspire people to make a difference and make them feel able to create change in the world,’ said Ingrasci.

Soon after they returned from their trip, Ingrasci and Temple were invited to give a TED talk in Buenos Aires. Earlier this year, Living on One, which has been endorsed by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, was awarded Best Documentary at the Sonoma International Film Festival.

To learn more about the Living on One project, look at:

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