Life Below the Line
What is poverty?

You get off the bus. It's 7:30 at night. You're tired. "Hi mom, what's for dinner?" You're preparing to say as you walk in the front door. Food is on your mind.

Actually, mom isn't home. You just passed her on the street.


You're experiencing the life of a teenager named Sarah.

And yes, her mom, Linda is heading for the bus stop on her way to her overnight job. These are the moments when Sarah gets to see her mom on school nights. And Sarah's part-time wages help support her family.

Life below the line

Sarah and her family live in poverty.They struggle to manage on about $18,600 a year. Sarah, a sophomore in high school, works 10-15 hours per week at a fast food restaurant.

While Sarah is cooking carryout food for other families to take home and enjoy, most of her paychecks are helping put food on her own family's table.

For example, from her recent paycheck of $174, Sarah gave her mom $66 toward groceries.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) calculates poverty guidelines that are slightly different than the threshold. They use the guidelines for determining eligibility for certain programs.

Making ends meet

Why is it more expensive to live in some places than others?

Sarah's brothers, Malcolm (age 17) and Otis (age 18) had jobs, but lost them. Otis is struggling to complete high school.

Sarah, Malcolm, and Otis do without what many teenagers think of as necessities. Like staying in contact with their family and friends in Chicago, where they used to live.

"The kids rang up a $442 phone bill that I'm still paying off," says Linda. They no longer have a phone, and to cut costs, discontinued cable TV.

Another item they have learned to do without is their favorite brand-name clothing. Instead, they take what they can find in second-hand stores. It's hard, because of peer pressure.

Malcolm wants baggy pants. "I tell him, ‘If I spend $83 on a pair of jeans, that's all the clothes I can get the whole year for you.'"

Linda says, "Don't concentrate on what your friends have, that you don't have. Concentrate on getting your education, and getting a good job."

Poor enough

Linda brings home $715 every two weeks. Her family qualifies for $419 of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Formerly called "food stamps," SNAP benefits consist of electronic cards that the government provides. The cards look like credit cards and can be used to pay for food.

Sarah—student by day, employee by night—knows what it's like to be part of the working poor. Try working this schedule!

More month than money

Linda says there are more days in a month than the ability to pay for them. When there's "more month than money," as she puts it, holidays take on new meaning.

At Christmas, decorations are scant, just two candles forming a festive centerpiece on the kitchen table. But this family of four is plenty thankful to have a place to call home.

Less than two years ago, they were homeless.

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