Opinion: Budgeting when you live below the poverty line

Dec 7, 2022, 2:00 PM | Updated: Dec 12, 2022, 2:58 pm
Glass jar with coins on table, closeup. Money saving concept (Adobe Stock)...
Glass jar with coins on table, closeup. Money saving concept (Adobe Stock)
(Adobe Stock)

This is an editorial piece. An editorial, like a news article, is based on fact but also shares opinions. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not associated with our newsroom.

Let’s say you’re married with two children, an 8-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter. You work as a laborer picking fruit for $9 an hour. In 2021, your family of four would have been considered to be living below the poverty line if your household made less than $26,500. Your annual income after taxes is $14,000.

After paying rent and utilities for the tiny apartment you live in, you have $20 a day left over to take care of all of your family’s needs. Your spouse doesn’t work because of a back injury, but at least you don’t have to pay for child care.

You get home from work tonight, and you start planning for the next day. Your daughter has a fever and needs medicine. You need bus fare to get to and from work tomorrow. Your son accidentally tore his shoes while walking home from school. Both children only have one pair of shoes, and the weather is turning cold. You have $20.50 and no money in the bank.

What do you spend your money on?

This is the assignment my 15-year-old son was given by his language arts teacher last week. The class is reading “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

The assignment is called “A Day in the Life of the Working Poor.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines “the working poor” as anyone who spends 27 weeks or more in a single year either working or looking for work but makes an income that falls below the poverty line. 

Aiden’s teacher wanted the students to get a better feel for what the characters in the book, most of whom live at or below the poverty line have to deal with.

My son learned so much from this lesson. He was shocked and saddened by the choices he had to make. I learned even more by going over it with him. I thought you might want to try it.

Admittedly, the prices given in the exercise don’t necessarily reflect the inflationary prices we’re facing today, but based on this list, I’d be curious to know what you chose to buy.

Price list

Apples 75 cents each Bananas 75 cents each
Lettuce 65 cents/head Carrots $1.50/2 lb. bag
Bread $1.99/loaf Butter $3.50/lb.
Can of beans 85 cents Can of soup $1.50
Cereal $3.50 a box Chicken $3.29/lb.
Eggs $2/dozen Hamburger $2.49/lb.
Bread $1.99/loaf Butter $3.50/lb.
Milk $2.35/half-gallon Yogurt 89 centers/individual 8 oz.
Cheese $2.99/1 lb. package Ice cream $3.50. one-gallon carton
Rice $1.00/lb. Tuna fish $1.50/can
Salad dressing $$1.60/bottle Peanut butter $2.90/jar
Jam $1.75/jar Bus fare $1.25 each way
Duct tape $3.00/roll Masking tape $2.00/roll
Medicine $5 per package Shoes $10 for the cheapest

The first thing Aiden bought was the medicine for the sick girl. Have to have that. Then he bought bus fare so the parent could get to work so they would have money for the next day. He wanted to buy duct tape, but he couldn’t afford it. So, he bought masking tape and decided to tape the son’s shoe around and around to hopefully keep the snow out.

He bought tuna fish and an apple for lunch. After he finished breakfast and dinner, there wasn’t enough money left to buy bread. I asked him how he would feel if he had to go to school with just tuna fish and an apple for lunch. How would he feel looking at the other kids eating Lunchables and ham sandwiches and drinking chocolate milk?

“Sad,” he said. “Are there really kids like this?”

“Yes,” I answered, feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude that he has never known hunger. “And worse.”

“How could it be worse? I can’t even buy them new shoes!”

How can you help?

We talked for a while longer about how important education is, and how important working hard is — and then we talked about giving. I told him about the Quarters for Christmas program we have at KSL NewsRadio, how people donate money, and how that money goes to buy shoes and coats for kids who need them. We talked about how much money he thought our family should give.

As you celebrate this holiday season, may I ask you to think about the working poor, our neighbors, and our children’s classmates, who need our help this winter. Please give generously to KSL’s Quarters for Christmas.

Amanda Dickson is the co-host of Utah’s Morning News and A Woman’s View. 

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Opinion: Budgeting when you live below the poverty line