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Claremont McKenna Duo Redefine Poverty Research

For The Heights

Published: Sunday, November 4, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

On a daily basis, the average Boston College student probably spends at least $30 on meals alone. Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple, two economics majors at Claremont McKenna College, recently lived voluntarily on only $1 a day. The pair lived off an average of $1 a day for eight weeks in Guatemala in order to understand life below the poverty line. Ingrasci, Temple, and their two photographers recorded their experience in a film titled Living on One. The film’s Boston premiere was held last Friday in BC’s Devlin 008 and drew a crowd of about 300 audience members.

“About 1.1 billion people live on under $1 a day,” Ingrasci said. “Coming from Seattle and New York, respectively, we didn’t really understand.” Ingrasci and Temple wanted to answer two main questions on their trip: How the poor survive on only $1, and what financial services they need to better their lives.

The duo chose a rural village called Pena Blanca in Guatemala, a country in which, according to Temple, half of the population is living in poverty, and more than 15 percent in extreme poverty. As economic majors, they were also curious to know if this 15 percent really thinks about how to manage its money or if “It is just a survival mode and trying to manage to take care of their children,” Ingrasci said.

The film tracked how the two got their answers. In order to simulate living in poverty, they had to echo what they believed were two key aspects to living on less than $1.  Due to unpredictable incomes, “The extreme poor don’t know when they’re getting payed,” Ingasci said. Secondly, according to Ingrasci, the poor use a “complex combination of financial instruments in order to survive.”
To mimic these two aspects, the team of four took their budget for the summer, $56 each, and divided it from a hat each morning, using only the amount that they drew from the hat on a given day. This meant that they could spend anywhere between $0 and $9 a day. Secondly, the team took out a loan in the beginning of the summer and, according to Ingrasci, payed an installment every two weeks, adding to their already limited budget. Indeed, an average of $4 a day for four people (and sometimes $0, depending on the number that they drew from the hat) made it quite impossible for the four to get a healthy nutritional intake, let alone start their own business.

“I’m used to eating a lot, I’m used to being active, but when you’re eating like 500 calories, you feel really lethargic,” Ingrasci said. At one point, Temple had Giardia and E. Coli at the same time and the $2 truck ride, $25 doctor’s visit, and even more for prescription medication forced them to spend more money than their budget allowed. As someone who does not actually live in poverty, Temple was fortunate enough to have access to emergency money to aid his health. He was well aware, however, that it would have been very different for anyone living in poverty.

Health and nutrition aren’t the only victims of poverty: education is affected as well. “Do you choose between feeding your child and keeping them in school?” Temple said. One solution, Temple and Ingrasci found, was microfinancing and microloans. “It was so huge to see the difference that access to a little credit could do for our friends and for our neighbours,” Ingrasci said.

After 56 days, the team of four had collectively lost about 18 kilograms and had suffered from starvation, physical challenges, and various illnesses, but the lessons they learned were invaluable. “Our friends in Pena Blanca became the best teachers we’ve ever had in our lives,” Ingrasci said. “They took abstract concepts that we were learning in the classroom and made them real.”
One of these abstract concepts that were taught is how to approach poverty as a problem. Ingrasci and Temple took their experiences and went on to create an organization, Living on One, that is currently focusing on raising awareness. “If each individual could help the livelihood of another individual,we could change the world,” Temple said.

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