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Could You Survive on $2 a Day?

Nearly 1.4 million American households live on that much per person. Gabriel Thompson reports from one of the nation's poorest areas.

| Thu Dec. 13, 2012 4:03 AM PST

"At least we have family to fall back on," says Harper, 33, who keeps his long brown hair tucked beneath a red-and-blue Fresno State cap. After being let go from his job delivering radiators, he tried starting a handyman business called Jim's Everything Service. It didn't work out, so now he begins each day by calling seven temp agencies. But Fresno was slammed hard by the housing bust, and it remains a tough place for unemployed blue-collar workers. Harper, who is staying with his stepfather, says he's lucky to pull in more than $200 a month. His monthly food stamp allotment tacks on another $200, for an annual income of $4,800.

By now the sun is well above the horizon and it's shaping up to be yet another day without a paycheck. "The working class isn't the working class if there's no work, right?" says Harper, who is wearing paint-stained Dickies and a faded T-shirt. "We're getting pretty desperate out here."

"I like to joke that I'll take any job short of being a male whore," he adds.

Jim Harper could leave Fresno to look for work elsewhere, but without his stepdad's place to rely on, he could end up homeless.

True enough, when the temp office clerk announces that there's a job available, Harper leaps at it even though the gig starts at 2 a.m. and he knows he'll have to arrive at the work site in the early evening, thanks to Fresno's limited bus service. He shrugs off the six hours he'll waste "twiddling his thumbs." What matters, Harper says, is to keep knocking on doors and making the calls, because "you never know when you might get your foot in the door."

Fleeing Fresno's hostile job market might seem like the logical solution, but it's never that simple. As frequently happens with the very poor—especially in light of the restrictions put in place with welfare reform—the informal safety nets that help keep people afloat also tend to keep them rooted in place. Losing his delivery job left Harper homeless. For a few months he lived out of his car or in a room in Fresno's "motel row," notorious for drugs and prostitution. But since moving into his stepfather's house, he's been able to use food stamps in lieu of rent. Leaving town would mean running the risk of being homeless again. And given Harper's income, there's no room for error.

Neither is there a clear path out of deep poverty for Josefa. She puts in 12-hour days six days a week, so there's not much room to increase her workload. By allowing six other families to work, she plays a small but key role in making Fresno an agriculture powerhouse, but her cut is minuscule. "That's why it's so important for my daughter to study," she says.

The last time I speak to Harper, he tells me he's landed a stint working overnight at a series of grocery stores that are overhauling their freezer compartments. "It looks like it will be a 10-day job," he says, excited. In Fresno, that counts as a big success. I ask where he hopes to find himself in five years. He pauses and takes a deep breath. "Best-case scenario, as sad as it sounds, is to be no worse off than I am right now," he says. "That's about all I can hope for."

This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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