A Profile in Extreme Poverty

By Mother Imogen Rhodenhiser

Michelle stands with her partner Juan and their friend Angel in the shade against
the brick wall, waiting for 9 a.m. to arrive. Juan has the wire cart they’ll need to tote any groceries they glean from this west- side food pantry. ey are among the
rst to arrive this morning; each takes a number—3, 4, 5. As they sit and wait for their turn at intake, Michelle shares that she hasn’t eaten in 4 days. en she shares why—2 years ago, Juan lost his job at the Ford Motor Plant. e savings eventually ran out.

Then he, Michelle, and the three kids were evicted. A friend let them bed down in his un nished basement. Suspicious- perhaps because of a sudden rise in the water usage the landlord illegally entered the home and found the family huddled there. The friend refused to throw the family out. Two months later, all of them were out on the street, possessions scattered across the lawn for neighbors to pick through before the landlord hauled the mess away.

Since the loss of his factory job, Juan had been making the trek to a day labor facility several miles away, starting out at about 2am to arrive at 4, when the rst picks were made. By eight, he knew it was either time to begin his walk home or he was out on a job. Unfortunately, he was put on a job only about one day out of ve. Even then, the yield—after FICA and transportation deductions, is just 30 bucks. Prior to the eviction, Michelle had been cleaning houses in the suburbs. But then the car was repossessed.
Undaunted, Michelle hauled herself to the local plasma clinic about 2 miles away. She “donated” steadily before being pronounced anemic and barred from giving any more.

As a result of her efforts, over three months’ time she managed to save the $425 to secure an apartment. With too many evictions on her record, the lease was held only in Juan’s name. But it was
a one bedroom, meaning the kids had to be sent o to live with relatives. Michelle wept as she told me that she had said goodbye to her 15-year-old just that morning, before coming to the pantry.
Finally, her number was called. She emerges from intake on moments later. She had been denied. Her name was not on the lease so she wasn’t eligible to receive food at this particular pantry. She’s not on anybody’s lease anymore. Juan is called, approved, and apportioned enough to feed one person for
several days. Juan had exhausted his SNAP benefits. Michelle has not yet claimed SNAP, but now, as a “single”, she would be limited to three months. University of Michigan Professor Luke Shaefer is
co-author with Kathryn Edin of $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America and leads our
Sunday Forum on March 31, 2019.