What's it really like living in extreme poverty in the developed world?
February 4, 2014 3:06 AM   Subscribe

What's it really like living in extreme poverty in the developed (western) world? I am writing a dystopian sort of post-mini-apocalyptic novel. The themes are investigating something else, but for a realistic setting, I would like to know real stories (anecdotes & journalistic) about living in a contemporary semi-urban environment where resources are scarce. Stories detailing daily life post-katrina, war-torn environments in Europe, experiences of low income people who can not easily access nutritious food, medicine, clothing, information/Internet/tv - anything a middle class person in Australia might take for granted and not even consider - for example (can't remember source) a diabetic without regular power will be at extreme risk, because of an inability to securely store insulin. What's it like living in an environment where the invading force are unpredictable? What freedoms do you lose, what work arounds do you pursue? How differently does the community act, faced with these problems - and in what ways does it bring them together, and in what ways does it divide them? (I wish to avoid fictional accounts).
posted by b33j to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I lived in Mosman while working in Mount Druitt with homeless sex workers. It's a hard life. Extreme poverty is largely invisible. It also happens in spousal abuse situations and with people in delicate immigration situations.

I also travelled to the NT in 1979 to visit aboriginal settlements with a Labor senator. It was distressing. Everything they were given was dodgy quality and the rest of Australia thought they should just shut up and be grateful. We saw a house that government builders had used glue to hold the weatherboard on. Except it didn't.

I can tell you more about it but I'm going to bed now and tomorrow is a big day. I'll write here, for posterity, but am also happy to email. Just not for 24 hours or so.
posted by taff at 3:41 AM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would recommend Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed, about her life trying to live on a low income. Note: she lived on nearly twice the official poverty rate. It is a tale of huge frustration, obstacles and of so many things being more expensive for poor people.

It's a bit of a tangent on what you asked but if your dystopia includes huge wealth inequality you should find some useful themes.

In short, it's stressful. Frustrating. Degrading. Boring. Often unending. We talk about work as a daily grind. In extreme poverty the grind is barely a metaphor. The entire machinery of society grinds against you by repeatedly making it difficult to find work, pay rent, buy food, save money and, more importantly, exit poverty.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:50 AM on February 4, 2014 [10 favorites]

For the opposite angle to Nickel and Dimed, you could read Scratch Beginnings by Adam Shepard.

(I lean towards Nickel and Dimed being more accurate, but I'm also sort of suspicious about the way that both authors clearly setout to prove a point and did so)

Also, and slightly unhelpfully vaguely, somewhere on the internet I saw an interesting article written by someone from some country that's had an economic crash lately - possibly Russia, possibly somewhere in South America, describing how to survive it. Things like developing practical skills, trying to get rid of any medication dependencies to the degree it's possible (clearly often not), etc.
posted by curious_yellow at 4:21 AM on February 4, 2014

In the UK this woman who blogs about feeding herself and her child on tiny, tiny amount (like 31p) has become a bit of a poster child for the left/opposition to public sector spending cuts. Might be useful if you want specific experiences.
posted by fishingforthewhale at 4:31 AM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you for replies so far. I know poverty sucks. I've done some time in it myself, so I don't need to know so much about feelings and frustrations - I'm after more concrete issues. For example, I had a very low income, two small children and no transport. I would walk two kilometres to shops, with one kid in stroller and one walking. Coming home, I had to carry groceries, the kid who wasn't in the stroller and walk uphill in high temperatures. That was unpleasant, but it became worse when it damaged my back, and I still had to do it anyway. Walking 2.5k to get one kid to preschool, I either stayed for his entire session (9-12) or walked back home to do a couple hours chores, and some transcription work, and then walked back to collect him, and take him home again (10k every school weekday).

So please examples rather than emotions? Thanks.
posted by b33j at 4:37 AM on February 4, 2014

It's old, but, especially in terms of the feelings and social treatment of the poor, Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London is a deserved classic on this topic. And unfortunately, not that much has changed since he wrote it, 80 years ago.
posted by ubiquity at 4:46 AM on February 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have you checked out accounts of the Yugoslavian civil war?
posted by longdaysjourney at 4:46 AM on February 4, 2014

I just recently read the entire comments section on John Scalzi's Being Poor. Some really heartbreaking stories in there; a lot of people spoke movingly about their "time in the trenches."

Someone in the comments linked to Dutchman Jacob Holdt's American Racism e-book/lecture material. (Warning: explicit content; nudity, graphic violence.) The latter includes thousands of pictures that show the abject poverty experienced in some parts of Appalachia and the Deep South in the US. Really sobering stuff, but might give you some ideas.

The documentary The End of Poverty? (free on Hulu) discusses global poverty, good political/economic analysis.
posted by cardinality at 5:00 AM on February 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

Dee Xtrovert's comments here on Mefi aren't specifically about poverty but highlight the extreme poverty that comes with the aftermath of war.
posted by goo at 5:40 AM on February 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

The Boxcar Kids blog chronicles the tale of a woman who grew up with a solid position, even adopted four kids from China and then lost her job several years ago. After a problem with a renter who refused to pay her rent she lost both a house she was renting and then their own house and they lived homeless and then in an RV trailer for years.

She has subsequently moved to Indiana and is trying to go through teacher training. I would recommend it as it is very resource focused and not overly emotional even though the struggles she is going through is very distressing. Currently they are riding out the Indiana winter with limited electricity and propane access, no running water, etc.
posted by aetg at 5:46 AM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

There Are No Children Here
posted by mai at 7:43 AM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlamc
posted by Ideefixe at 8:00 AM on February 4, 2014

The Wire (TV show) had some good depictions of inner city poverty. Extension cords running from window to window, no running water, a bunch of kids sleeping on a mattress on the floor, etc.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:02 AM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

ubiquity: "It's old, but, especially in terms of the feelings and social treatment of the poor, Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London is a deserved classic on this topic. And unfortunately, not that much has changed since he wrote it, 80 years ago."

It's fiction, but The Road to Wigan Pier is also probably relevant.

Also, Danziger's Britain, which was written in 1994.
posted by hoyland at 9:01 AM on February 4, 2014

I have not read it myself, but if memory serves Baghdad Burning is said to provide a quite detailed account of being an Iraqi national during the recent/ongoing war (2003-2007) and may be of interest.
posted by mr. digits at 9:28 AM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Jeanette Walls's The Glass Castle is about growing up in poverty with quirky, dysfunctional parents (her mother ends up homeless by choice).
posted by changeling at 9:49 AM on February 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maybe you can volunteer at a homeless shelter, or talk to impoverished people that you meet. I have a friend who interviews homeless people and writes about it, and she doesn't seem to have trouble getting people to talk to her (she does this in NYC).
posted by bearette at 2:14 PM on February 4, 2014

People with disabilities who live in nursing homes because they can't take care of themselves physically. (PDF) They often become completely impoverished: the care home claims to fill all their needs and thus takes all their check. They don't have freedom of choice; their mobility, cleanliness, "leisure" depend completely on overworked, terribly paid carers. Some of those carers are wonderful human beings who manage to bring the light into inmates' lives. The harm that the others do ranges from nasty (sitting on a toilet for a day) to murder (not reporting a pressure sore).

The same goes for elders, but there's less US data.

Similarly, prisoners are removed from a standard money economy for the duration of their term, and mainly leave completely broke when they're released. Without the standard economy, cigarettes and drugs become currency; it's a puzzling economic system when currency is consumable.
posted by Jesse the K at 2:28 PM on February 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

hello b33j, I actually grew up in extreme poverty in both the developed world (major city in Canada) and the developing world, so some of my experiences might be helpful to your story. That said, I was never homeless. I won't get into what life was like in the developing world - in fact I would prefer to forget it ever happened. Here are my relevant-to-the-question tales:

- it was always miserable being on my period because sometimes there was no money for feminine hygiene products. So to help make what I had last, I would have to supplement with folded up toilet paper from school. Which was horrible, and chafed, and made walking unpleasant, and had to be changed very often because it soaked through so fast (you could layer it on top a pad for extra help). Now that I am not poor I always have to keep at least a year's supply of pads on hand. The teen years were so traumatizing in this respect

- at home there was not always toilet paper so one would use napkins stolen from fast food restaurants (stolen because there was no way your family would waste the money eating fast food) and then, if the supply was limited and it was a bowel movement, hop in the shower for a quick rinse (if the water bill was not bad; also traumatizing and why I stockpile toilet paper). More pleasant was using public facilities at school, the mall, or the nearest gas station / convenience store

- sometimes the water bill WAS bad and we would get yelled at to stop wasting water - especially hot water. In such circumstances, you could fill up a bucket with cold water, then heat some water in a small saucepan to simmering on the stove. Then pour the hot water in the cold water to make lukewarm water and use a bowl to help you bathe with that. When it is done, it is done

- we could not afford field trips so my parents would send me to school and I would sit in the library while my class went. Often teachers would feel sorry for me and pay on my behalf though. I was lucky enough to have fantastic elementary school teachers who cared about me. They make a huge difference

- pretty much everything we had was purchased from flea markets and garage sales

- there is no such thing as food sitting in the pantry not being eaten. It is pretty amazing what you will eat out of hunger

- this is not my experience but that of someone close to me from the Toronto area - they lived in an apartment complex and the father would lure wild pigeons to the sill. The father would then catch them, kill them in the bathroom sink, and cook that for dinner. Not very healthy but you can develop a strong stomach when you are accustomed to eating unpleasant food. I really believe pigeons and Canada geese are common foods for the very poor. Also, when I was growing up it was common to give children worm medicine (just like vitamin C) due to this. I myself ate a lot of unpleasant things as a child out of necessity and have many memories of sickness as a result. One time my father cooked our rabbit (I am now a vegetarian due to being fed my pets as a child and being told it was "chicken")
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 2:46 PM on February 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

You might want to check out some of the books written by Jonathan Kozol.
posted by oceano at 2:50 PM on February 4, 2014

From an anonymous MeFite:
Things I've done, or that happened to friends:

Living in an illegal rental with water service but some plumbing that's connected to nothing. The kitchen sink's drain is disconnected at the trap and drains into a bucket in the cabinet under the counter. If the bucket isn't emptied out the back door periodically it overflows and water creeps across the kitchen floor.

Renting a room in a house from an unstable landlord/homeowner. No lease agreement, everything's verbal. The relationship deteriorates and you have to round up friends to move your stuff out, but can't get all of it. The landlord claims it's his after it's been there there for a certain amount of time (but not long enough that he could possibly have a legal claim to it).

Rinsing dishes (instead of washing with soap/detergent) leads to the accumulation of a lacquer-like layer of polymerized grease over the course of a few months.

Keeping food outside during the cold part of the year because the fridge is broken, either in an unheated back porch, or a windowsill if not occupying a whole building. This causes the food to spoil faster than expected but at an unpredictable rate because the temperature isn't constant. Or, it freezes. You spend a lot of time thinking about the temperature outside.

Inside temperatures during winter are kept as cold as possible without freezing the pipes. Miscalculations cause the pipes to freeze. Coats and hats are worn inside and while at home you spend as much time as possible in bed because it's the warmest place to be. Being in bed all the time makes your back sore. Having your hands out of gloves to do stuff makes them cold and you have to take breaks to stick them in your pants. On the other hand, the cat is extra interested in cuddling.

A broken window in the basement intermittently causes exposed pipes near it to freeze despite attempts to insulate them and block off the opening. You know exactly which pipes lead to which taps because you need to strategically open them to prevent freezing.

(Not sure this is still current, things change so fast) No cell phone contract; prepaid only. Internet access is entirely through a smartphone, or if data costs too much, in 60 minute blocks at the library. You don't use checks or a check register, but you do have a debit card.

If you don't have internet access, you monitor your balance by visiting ATMs or trying to balance the account in your head, but mostly you don't think about it. The bank gives you the option to decline any transactions which would overdraw your account, but you opt not to because you're afraid that someday you'll need the temporary line of "credit" that you can access by overdrawing your account, and the other options (payday loans etc.) seem worse. Sometimes you mess up and make three or four small purchases on an account with a negative balance and the overdraft fees add up to more than $100.

In general, things which require you to have a credit rating are out of reach, including apartments which run credit checks on new tenants. You tend to stay in bad rental situations because the expense of moving plus the limits on which apartments will accept you (and each one charges $30 or $50 for the check) seem like an insurmountable expense.

You're late more than you would be otherwise because you have limited transportation options. Losing the bus pass and running out of bus change at the same time are especially disastrous. Even if you have a large bill, you either have to spend some money or find someone who's willing to make change before you can take the bus. Either way, you end up spending more than just your fare. Destinations which require multiple transfers, or, worse, are off the transit lines, seem as inaccessible as the moon. You think "next Saturday maybe I'll make the trip out to _____" but you end up putting it off over and over again because it's such a pain in the ass.

Owning a car, and having enough money for gas and insurance, but maybe not all the time. Maintenance is definitely not in the budget. So you leave the car parked somewhere because it died and you can't afford to have it towed to your street, let alone to a garage where you'd also need to pay for repairs. So you leave it there while you save enough to handle it. But the city impounds the car after a few weeks. Maybe they put a notice on it, but it wasn't somewhere you could check on it every day and push it to a new parking space so it didn't look abandoned. Reclaiming the car from the city lot costs hundreds of dollars on top of the repairs, and they punched the lock on the trunk when they impounded it.

When you have bronchitis/sinusitis/maybe pneumonia? severe enough to make you really miserable and anxious you purchase tetracycline or erythromycin from the pet store (it's used to treat aquarium infections) and take it yourself.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 10:28 PM on February 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

Thanks everyone. There's lots for me to work through here. I suspect I didn't word my question very well, but I've tried to mark as best answers those that describe specific resource shortages that I would not have thought of. Every response greatly appreciated and I will be following up every suggestion.
posted by b33j at 12:43 AM on February 5, 2014

Oh and further, the dystopia is not about inequality of wealth but the impact of reduced resources that I take for granted - public transport, feminine hygiene products, access to food and the storage of it (though my characters will be dealing more with food spoiling because of heat, rather than becoming frozen, because the setting is rural Queensland, an area not known for freezing temperatures). Some of the responses here reminded me of ordinary experiences as a kid - family friends where bath water was shared because the solar heating wasn't very good - I forgot how much I disliked getting into a bath of dirty water, powdered milk because buying fresh milk involved a 50k trip to town (powdered milk is gross on cereal). Considering things like cigarettes and alcohol - I know my mother used to buy chop chop - black market tobacco, and there was a story in the news in the last couple of years of a couple of young men dying after consuming home made alcohol.

The grapes of wrath have always stood out to me as a shocking e pressing of poverty, particularly with the daughter sharing her breast milk with a starving old man, but I'm reluctant to borrow directly from fictional accounts - a quirk.

I also hadn't really considered the impact within families of resource scarcity - so domestic violence is very helpful reminder, as is the increased impact on those with disabilities, whether physical or through mental illness.

Again, thank you - I'm sure every post will lead me to find something new, interesting and relevant.
posted by b33j at 12:55 AM on February 5, 2014

Rural Queensland? Potable water. No town water, the water trucking companies have high costs to refill your tank if there's a drought. You probably have a tank, full of dust and perhaps an occasional drowned animal. There are also dams for your cattle, which are drying up. You're choosing between selling your cattle stock at bargain prices and paying to buy feed, or at least cowlicks to supplement the dried hay they find. If you sell your cattle, you have nothing to build back up from after the drought. One of the heartbreaking stories from the drought was that when there finally was rain, the dust turned to mud, and the cattle that were still alive got bogged in the mud, and farmers had to go shoot the cattle to save them from starving to death. Isolation, depression, losing family farms.
Access to petrol - high prices, no subsidies, you might be far out enough that there's only really one petrol station near you. Repairs for anything get expensive, including parts.
Access to medicine - depending on how rural, this could be no specialist care, no access to GPs. Not being able to have a baby without moving to the city a month beforehand, because there's no-one to help if it goes wrong locally. Home remedies of honey and tea tree oil.
posted by quercus23 at 1:39 AM on February 5, 2014

Seconding The Wire, and adding HBO's Treme, and the movies Winter's Bone and District 9 - media that teases out the nuances and effects of poverty in ostensibly developed nations.

The US radio show This American Life did a program about the Harlem Children's Zone, a project aimed toward alleviating the social issues that plague families stuck in low-income cycles.

The Diamond Age is an (awesome!) expansive cyberpunk science fiction story that deals with resource inequality in a dystopian future.
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 12:35 PM on February 7, 2014

There was an essay published by HuffPo recently that gave a few concrete examples of the type you are talking about (it was later criticized as being an aggregate of experiences rather than entirely personal experiences, but still maybe helpful): Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty Thoughts
posted by ReBoMa at 2:53 PM on February 10, 2014

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