New Internationalist

Living on One – the reality of a dollar-a-day existence

Living on One [Related Image]
Living on a dollar a day in Guatemala © Living on One

Economics students are no strangers to numbers. Chris Temple and Zack Ingrasci were familiar with the overwhelming statistic that 1.1 billion people live on a dollar a day, but they still couldn’t understand it.

‘Coming from Connecticut and Seattle we just couldn’t comprehend how someone could manage such a small amount of money for all their costs,’ said Temple. ‘We wanted to get a first-hand understanding and share it with our friends – we couldn’t be the only people struggling to connect to these issues.’

So, in the summer of 2010, Temple, Ingrasci and their filmmaker friends, Sean Leonard and Ryan Christoffersen, left the comfort of their middle-class homes in the US, and rented an abandoned storage shed in Peña Blanca, an impoverished Mayan community in Solola, western Guatemala. They lived on $1 a day for two months, battling parasites, fleas, financial stress, fainting spells and a never-before-experienced hunger along the way.  

‘We knew that we could never fully replicate poverty, but we did want to simulate a few key aspects in an academic way,’ said Ingrasci. ‘We made our income unpredictable and tried to start our own business.’

To imitate the unstable income that their neighbours faced as casual labourers, they distributed their joint budget of $224 into 56 daily incomes of between zero and nine and placed each of the numbers into a hat. Each day they drew a number at random, which would give them their daily budget. Some days they got lucky, pulling out an eight or a nine, and some days they had to go without.

After mastering the essentials, such as levelling the dirt floor they were to sleep on, finding a water source and making a fire, they learnt how to barter in the local market and buy ingredients that would make their limited diet of beans, rice and tortillas go further.

Alongside the economic challenge of trying to survive on $1 a day, the four university students also wanted to gain an insight into how microfinance, giving small loans with mandatory savings to poor people, is helping to reduce poverty and spur entrepreneurship in rural areas. They took out their own $125 microloan to start a small business growing radishes, and conducted a series of financially themed interviews with their neighbours.  

‘In these interviews we saw the disparity between our lives and theirs. There’s no way we could replicate living at this level of poverty [our] entire lives,’ said Temple.

Keen to share their experience with friends and family back home, the team started editing short video blogs on the dirt floor of their hut and uploading them to YouTube – their first video made it onto the site’s front page and received 400,000 hits on its first day.

After weeks of sleeping on a dirt floor, drinking dirty water and eating an inadequate diet, the four students started to see changes in their bodies:

‘It was the first time in my life I’d ever been hungry, and it’s not just about having hunger pains: it’s about how it affects your entire mentality. You feel your body deteriorating and your mind working slower. Our nails changed colour and we worried there were going to be long-term health effects,’ said Ingrasci.

Three weeks into the experiment, Temple contracted giardia, an intestinal parasite, which gave the team an unforeseen insight into trying to cover unexpected medical bills on an already strained budget.

‘When Chris got sick, our simulation failed because we couldn’t cover the cost of medicine. It was $25 and we tried to save up for 10 days but it was impossible. $25 when you are spending money on firewood, food and paying back loans – it was impossible.’

Temple resorted to emergency medicine they had brought from home, knowing that his neighbours did not have that luxury.

When they returned to the US two months later, each of them nearly 10kg lighter, both Ingrasci and Temple felt optimistic about the potential their generation has to end extreme poverty. Their insight into how microfinance is having an effect on people living on the poverty line and empowering them to start their own businesses showed them there is hope.

With over 300 hours of footage from their time in Peña Blanca, they decided to make a documentary and use their experience as a way to connect with other students and increase awareness of the financial reality of the poor.

‘We felt like a lot of [poverty] films and documentaries are about making you feel bad about the situation and guilting you into making a difference. What we wanted to do was inspire people to make a difference and hopefully empower them to feel like they can create change in the world,’ said Ingrasci.

Shortly after returning from their trip, Ingrasci and Temple were invited to give a TED talk in Buenos Aires. Earlier this year, Living on One, which has been endorsed by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, was awarded Best Documentary at the Sonoma International Film Festival.

To learn more about Living on One visit:

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  1. #1 bee bumble 14 Sep 13

    dear New International People

    what this article does not say is that real people who really have to live on one dollar a day obviously do not have a spare fund of cash to go to when they or anyone of their families are sick and they need to pay for doctors and/or medicines. hence what they do is default on the dreadful micro-finance loans and/or go to the usual loan sharks to pay the micro-finance loans.
    no wonder that the crook Muhammed Yunus endorsed their film for hiding the truth about micro-finance loans leading people ever deeper into poverty.

    keep up the good work?
    bee bumble

  2. #2 Miguel Webb 16 Sep 13

    In Argentina, the goverments screwed stat´s insist that life is possible with 6$ (pesos)(aprox 1U$S) a day. The finger now having been introduced in our anatomy, is curved and twisted around announcing that in the Pink House´s resto (goverment house)one can have a full three course meal for 6 pesos. Try to get in? Ha! If you insist you´ll get bashed.
    This is not new.
    What is new is that now we know it exists simply by waching the news whilst we clogg up our arteries with oxford sossies, bacon and eggs toast and cofee...yes, three sugars please.
    Argentina produces enough high quality food to sustain 200 million people yet 20% of our (40 million) people are hungry.
    So let´s blame the media then.

  3. #3 Viv 17 Sep 13

    I work with an NGO in Solola Guatemala, close to where Living On One was filmed. In response to comment #1: to say micro-finance loans 'lead people ever deeper into poverty' only displays your ignorance. In the past few years I’ve personally seen these loans have the opposite effect. They require customers to make small mandatory savings, which means after a couple of years they’ve saved a sizable amount of (their own) money that can go towards something that will really lift them out of poverty. Women from the project I work at have been able to set up their own small businesses on the side such as selling wood and weaving – after buying the initial equipment with the money they saved from their micro-finance loans. The film doesn't hide the truth of micro-finance loans; there’s a section dedicated to them, the pros and the cons.

  4. #4 Annie 24 Sep 13

    Viv, my experience of micro-finance loans is similar to yours. I don't believe it's the only tool to ending poverty, but it's a sustainable solution for customers who have few other options. Many of Guatemala's rural poor do not physically possess the documents that banks require and are therefore excluded from accessing this type of financial service. Micro-finance loans have had a hugely positive impact on the community of Pena Blanca so I would argue that for them it does anything but 'lead them deeper into poverty'. Of course there are risks but, as long as these risks are understood, there can also be immense benefits.
    'Bea', you said that my article failed to mention that real people living on one dollar a day do not have access to spare funds like the guys in the film. That's not true. In paragraph 14, I do actually state that using emergency medicine is a luxury that this community can't afford. Despite saving for 10 days, Chris and Zack couldn't afford the medicine so effectively their simulation failed, which highlights the severity of extreme poverty and how difficult it is to even simulate a few key aspects of it.

  5. #6 Paul Smith 12 Apr 14

    Great article and hats off to the students who did this. It gives us some optimism for the future that young people are passionate and caring enough to undertake this and broadcast the results.
    Great site, a noble and relevant cause!.

  6. #8 Vanessa Velez 31 Jan 15

    Watching this now. I'm hoping they helped some of the people on their departure.
    They have more in the US then all these people combined.
    My next trip to Guetemala- I'm going there in hopes of providing
    Months of paid bills to some of the people there.
    I have enough in the states. My heart bleeds for my people.

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About the author

Anna-Claire Bevan a New Internationalist contributor

Anna-Claire Bevan is a freelance journalist currently based in Guatemala City. She writes about political, environmental and social issues for magazines both in Guatemala and back home in the UK. Anna originally set up her first blog Vida Latina as a result of her travels in Latin America and frustrations at the lack of international media coverage that this area of the world receives.

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