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The Price is Right: Extreme Poverty at the New York Bodega

The New York bodega – part convenience store, part deli, part produce stand, part imports store, often with a surly cat lording over the place to keep mice from entering. Need sugar, two eggs, an avocado, a ham sandwich and some surprisingly effective laundry detergent from Mexico? Your corner bodega has you covered. 
When you work at Global Citizen, you talk a lot about extreme poverty. We measure it as people who are living on $1.50 a day or less. On my last visit to my local bodega, it made me wonder, if I were living on that budget, what could I buy? It feels a little game show style, and I’m excited to take on the challenge. 
Right away, I see a childhood favorite, Barnum’s Animal Crackers. I remember elementary school lunches (on the good days) and think I’ve stumbled on success.
But no – they’re  $2.19. I can’t afford them.
This trend continues. Cheez-its, Hostess Chocolate Donnettes (mini donuts covered in delicious waxy chocolate substance), and even my favorite salt and vinegar potato chips are all out of reach for $1.50. 
I consider that if I were actually trying to use this $1.50 to cover my whole day, I might want something other than junk food. Something substantial. Something in a can. 
Tuna! Solid white albacore tuna. This feels like a solid decision. 
Nope. My fancy tuna comes in at $1.99. 
I can get the chunk light tuna nearby. For $1.49, it’s all mine, with a penny to spare!
When I realize that a penny won’t get me the mayonnaise, salt, pepper and lemon that I need to make the tuna worth eating, I put it back on the shelf. Moving on. Spam is way too much, thankfully, at $5.49. Sardines, too, at $1.69 a tin.
I’m beginning to think that canned meat is just out of reach for a girl on my budget when I spy a small can of Vienna sausage for 99 cents! With chicken, beef and pork added, this can feels like a satisfying, though scary, option. Plus I’d have 51 cents left. 
I walk around the store for a bit with my prized sausages, but my 51 cents isn’t really getting me anywhere. Also, I keep wondering what the chicken, beef and pork have been added to. The mystery turns me off the sausage. Back to the shelf it goes. 
Hormel Chili – now there’s a meal! At $2.39, it’s not a meal for me. But still. For someone. 
Hmm. This isn’t as easy as I expected. I turn around, frustrated. Right in front of me sits a bag of plantain chips for only $1.49! Mmm, I like plantains. And gluten free? What luck. 
But seriously. A bag of plantain chips for the day? That’s bordering on craziness. 
I’m excited to see that I could feed my dog (if I had one) with a feast of chunky beef for just $1.39. I couldn’t feed myself and the dog, but that’s a choice I might be willing to make. I love dogs. 
The dog food brings back memories of the Vienna sausage, so I back away. 
My mind wanders off food. I need to do a lot more than eat today. There’s laundry to wash, too. To my surprise, I find bargain laundry soap – Pink Zote for only $1.19. 
This is great! I can clean my clothes! I can’t eat on this particular day unless I figure out how to do it for less than 31 cents, but I can clean my clothes. 
All these trade offs are making me thirsty. I turn to the refrigerators to find I can have any Snapple or Vitamin Water for $1.50. That’s my budget. I can do this. 
I consider that my mom would start to worry about me if I were trying to subsist on only a Vitamin Water a day. This is getting ridiculous. 
Exhausted, I move toward the cashier, nothing in my hand. I look back at my old favorites, the Hostess Chocolate Donnettes, sitting on the top shelf, and completely out of reach budget wise. My head drops. On the bottom shelf I see another nostalgic treat, the Nature Valley granola bar in Oats n’ Honey for 75 cents. Done. I’m sick of this. 
I pick up the granola bar, figuring I can work out the rest of the day later. When I get to the cashier, I decide to blow my budget completely, buying the granola bar and a Powerball ticket (don’t judge, it’s up to $289 million!) – for $2.75. I can’t help myself. I can’t live like this. 
As I walk home, I realize I was only dealing with a tiny part of what people who actually live in extreme poverty have to face. Their $1.50 each day is paying for more than food for them, their dog, and doing their laundry. It has to cover things like medicine and education for their children, shelter for their family, clothes, transportation, and more. Oh, and food. On this budget in New York, I can’t really afford to eat, let alone go to work (a $2.75 subway ride), fill a prescription ($15 co-pay), pay my student loans (much, much more than $1.50 a day) or have an apartment (let’s not even talk about it). 
I tear open my granola bar and think about how lucky I am. 
Amy Freeland