University of Georgia

What it’s like to be poor

hands holding an empty wallet

About one in seven Americans live in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, but many do not understand how difficult it can be.

UGA researcher Mary Caplan turned to Reddit, a social media and discussion website, for insight. Caplan and her colleagues analyzed more than 14,000 archived comments responding to a post from an anonymous user: “What do insanely poor people buy that ordinary people know nothing about?”

The responses provided insight into how those living in poverty manage to get by. Many reported making heavy use of free or found items, including those of borderline quality.

“I grew up eating expired foods because they were cheap or free,” wrote one commenter.

Two phenomena surprised the researchers: children who deliberately did without, quietly giving up fee-based activities such as school field trips to avoid burdening their parents, and the profound effect of unexpected generosity when it came at a crucial time.

“People were haunted by those experiences and had a strong desire to give back,” says Caplan, lead investigator and assistant professor at the School of Social Work. “Social service personnel need to consider it when developing interventions.”

The study was published in the online issue of the Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work.

This brief appeared in the spring 2018 issue of Research Magazine. The original press release is available at