Tuesday, April 03, 2007

One Dollar a Day

In my research leading up to joining the Peace Corps, I read a lot about the number of people who live on one dollar or less a day (1 in 6 people in the world). Reading that number from the comfort of a $720/month apartment, it was hard to even imagine how that was even possible, one dollar per day. Though the number still shocks me, 11 months into my service I have a much better idea of what one dollar a day means.

I get paid 3600 cordobas per month, the equivalent of $200 per month or $6.67 per day per month. This monthly salary is certainly higher than most people within my town, yet I still manage to spend every last cord every month. Since I’ve been keeping track of where I’ve been spending my money, I’ve found that almost a third of my salary is spent on what I define as “entertainment.” This includes anything that I buy or do that isn’t needed, such as a night out with friends, a trip to visit another volunteer, gorging myself on McDonald’s or Burger King when I’m in Managua, going to the beach, having a beer or some rum, etc. Now, I could make a strong case that this “entertainment” is actually an absolute necessity considering it’s the only thing that keeps me sane here, but for the sake of argument, I’ll say it’s unneeded.

So, if I subtract a third of my salary (3600-1200) that I spend on completely unneeded things, I’m left with 2400 cordobas, $133.33 per month or $4.44 per day per month. At this level, I can still live very comfortably and still have a lot of unneeded expenses. For example, I am able to rent my own house, to buy expensive gringo food like peanut butter and olive oil, to use the cyber cafĂ©, to have a cell phone, and to eat meat a few times a week. But, you can imagine that this isn’t the case when you make 2400 cordobas per month and you’re supporting a family of four or five.

My good friend here is a teacher at the local high school, making about 2500 cordobas per month, $139 per month or $4.63 per day per month. Her husband occasionally has part time work, but is mostly unemployed, so the family lives on and depends on my friend’s salary. $4.63 per day per month divided by the four person family means each person lives on about $1.16 per day (defined as moderate povery). They all share a bedroom, in a house with 5 other extended family members. They eat rice, beans, and tortillas everyday with an occasional serving of meat. Besides a few trips to neighboring cities, they rarely leave the town. In fact, a couple of weeks ago when I asked her if she could come to a training conference two hours away, she couldn’t go because she didn’t have the 15 cordobas to pay the fare. $0.83 cents.

Unfortunately, the teachers, including my friend, are the lucky ones within the country. It’s a horrible monthly wage (the lowest in Central America), yes, but it’s still a monthly wage that is almost always paid and paid on time, unlike the majority of the other work that is available. According to the Central Bank of Nicaragua, 64% of the people employed are working in the informal sector performing such work as producing foods for local consumption, making handicrafts from local materials, or working as tailors, shoemakers, shoe shiners, carpenters, etc. They are self employed, making little money month to month, and at times, making less than what’s needed for survival. 48% of the population lives below the poverty line, making Nicaragua the second poorest country in the western hemisphere (Haiti is number one).

So, given the money that most people are living with, my salary of $6.67 per day puts me at a level that very few in Nicaragua reach. Tack on to my salary the health benefits I have through Peace Corps and an American credit card, and I'm one of the most fortunate persons in my town, despite living at a level that is lower than any I've experienced in my life. And though I now have a better idea of what one dollar a day means and I can see everyday the people living at that level, I'm convinced I could not do it. Whether I'm sitting in a $720/month apartment in Ann Arbor or a $27/month house in Nicaragua, one dollar a day is not right.


  1. They should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

    -John Marfoe.

  2. Pawel & Ela8:02 AM

    And what if they don't even have the bootstraps? Have you ever been there? Have you seen Nicaragua? Nicaraguans are generally great, warm people with lots of honour and ambition. They have been dealt really bad cards in the last 25 years (the major earthquake, civil war and then hurricane Mitch).
    They need constructive help and smart investment, not moronic "help yourself" comments like that.

    It's good to see people like Dave and other kids with the Peace Corps doing amazing work there.

  3. I was joking. Apologies for the confusion.

    -Not John Marfoe.

  4. I agree w/ pawel & ela, and though I appreciate the (sophomoric) humor, it's never fun when someone google's you and finds words shoved into your mouth.

    No side of the political aisle owns the spirit of volunteerism that I happily see that Dave has taken up and many others have as well.

    Hope everything is going well!

    - The real John Marfoe