ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
With the Pope's visit and a new set of goals announced by the U.N., there has been a lot of discussion this week about extreme poverty. The definition of extreme poverty is living on less than $1.25 a day. NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell takes a look at what it means to actually survive on that.
RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: Breaking bricks - that's what 50-year-old Mohammed Alfazuddin has done for half of his life outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. He says he does it to support his family.
MOHAMMED ALFAZUDDIN: (Through interpreter) Because we don't have any stones in Bangladesh, so we need to break up bricks to mix in with the concrete when we make buildings.
BICHELL: For each brick he smashes, Alfazuddin makes the equivalent of about three cents. He's illiterate, lives with his family in a tin shed and says money is often on the mind.
ALFAZUDDIN: (Through interpreter) So I worry about finding some way of getting a house of my own somewhere. I have to worry about my children. That's why I worry about money.
BICHELL: The U.N. estimates that some 840 million people worldwide live on a $1.25 per day. That's an average of the poverty lines in the world's 15 poorest countries.
But these definitions can be misleading. People come in and out of extreme poverty. The exact cutoff doesn't really matter. Here's MIT economics professor Abhijit Banerjee.
ABHIJIT BANERJEE: Being under stress and always solving problems and trying to find ways to make do, that I think of as being the defining characteristic of very poor life.
BICHELL: Overall, the extreme poor are not beggars. Banerjee says many will do up to four jobs on any given day.
BANERJEE: It takes enormous amount of effort and discipline.
BICHELL: And just because they don't have much money doesn't mean they don't manage it. They are constantly making choices with the resources that they do have, even saving money, though usually not in banks. In a study of 13 countries, Banerjee found that extremely poor people will buy little things like tea, tobacco and alcohol, even if it means forfeiting a meal.
BANERJEE: They tell you, look, I spent a quarter of my daily income on tea.
BICHELL: The vast majority of the world's extreme poor are in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, but there are extremely poor people in the U.S.
KATHY EDIN: Oh, there are, definitely.
BICHELL: Kathy Edin is a professor of economics and sociology at Johns Hopkins.
EDIN: So at any given time, 1.5 million U.S. households with children are living in extreme poverty, defined as less than $2 per person, per day in reported cash income.
BICHELL: It took a lot of digging to find them, but after years of study, Edin has spoken with dozens of extremely poor Americans.
EDIN: We end up with this group of people who are living in the world's most advanced capitalist nation with no cash to speak of.
BICHELL: She's talked to a Tennessean who repeatedly sells her own blood plasma to keep her family from being evicted, a single mom who roams the streets of Cleveland sometimes for 14 hours a day looking for scrap metal to sell.
EDIN: We watched, over time, our folks visibly age and get sicker as they experienced repeated spells of extreme poverty.
BICHELL: The bodily toll is something that 25-year-old Thovonda Brown, of Washington, D.C., has felt during times when she and her son were living on about $2 a day. She started having seizures.
THOVONDA BROWN: I may not be showing on the outside, but on the inside, there's something that's, like, killing me.
BICHELL: But that's changed.
BROWN: I prayed and prayed, and I made it through.
BICHELL: She now has a job helping the handicapped ride buses, and her 9-year-old son is in a college prep school. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.
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