Sunday, March 3, 2013

Notes from Below the Poverty Line

I'm taking an online course on global poverty offered by MIT through a website called EdX. The professors, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banjeree are rock stars of sorts in the economic development world. They're renowned for their  groundbreaking and often surprising poverty research. Last week's class was on nutrition and one of their findings presented in the lecture was particularly unexpected to me until I considered my own life as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Duflo and Banjeree found that when families living below the poverty line were given an additional expenditure for food, did not buy more food. Instead they bought tastier food. That us to say poor people, rather than bridging their caloric gap with low-cost staple items just bought junk food.

The world's poor are rational agents and I don't mean to make light of their nutrition challenges but I will use this economic paradox to shed light on my own silly Peace Corps-kind of poverty.

My friend, Sarah, pointed out that this is exactly how a PCV behaves when she gets a similar injection of capital in the form of pay day. Sarah and I have been known to eat ramen noodle soup two meals a day all month long, then go to Bangkok with our pay day surplus and eat nothing but pizza and McDonald's (one of the great ironies of my service is how much more often I eat McDonald's in Thailand than I do in the States).

I make roughly $310 US per month (for those of you following along at home that's about $3600 per year- which makes my parents happy because they can still claim me as a dependent this year), but I don't spend $10 per day. It's feast or famine or me. I've often said that if the University of Wisconsin could see my bank statements they'd take away my economics degree. At site I may spend one or two dollars per day, but on vacation bpai-tiao, vacation,  I spend like I'm still an entry level accounting assisting living with her parents; basically I make it rain.

This counter-intuitive consumption pattern is particularly accurate for me this month, having already blown through most of my monthly $310. Paying three different month's rent this week has left me high and dry.

I have 100 baht to get me through till March 25th. Can I make through the month on three dollars? I'll keep you posted. Lets just say, I'm glad Thailand has so many available flavored of ramen.

If I make it, one day Ill be telling my children (and probably my grandchildren) about the time I lived on $3 for 21 days, then proceeded to spend a hundred dollars on pizza over the course of a weekend in Bangkok.


  1. Don't forget about Mexican food!

  2. This is awesome. I see your three dollar challenge and will raise (lower?) you to two at some point during my service.