Fighting Poverty Domestically: Lessons Learned From A Year Of AmeriCorps VISTA Work In Washington, DC

“If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting our time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Australian Aboriginal Elder Lilla Watson

Capitol View

No one said the migrant’s work would be simple. The choice to leave home and journey in search of jobs and the hope of a brighter future–or, indeed, any economic future, is the one I picked, a year ago, when I moved to Washington, DC. In my reflection for moving (Turning the Page in ‘Chocolate City‘), I highlighted how DC’s 1950’s migration, which reigned in the era of Chocolate City,’ is now in shift and pace with today’s changing community demographics and socioeconomic disparities. As an AmeriCorps VISTA, a federal national service program fighting poverty, part of my year of service was committing to live on the poverty level in order to engage and empathize with the individuals and communities we serve more deeply. Living and working alongside both the indigenous locals and fellow migrants, my first year in DC was a lesson on the changing face of poverty and why it matters to understand.

U.S. Poverty Threshold

Working as a VISTA, meant I lived on the poverty level by choice. However the families I worked with, as part of my year of service at Turning the Page in Washington, DC, wouldn’t say the same. Through my assignment I took on the call to support and build the organizations capacity in linking DC public schools, families and community partners, to ensure DC students receive valuable resources and high-quality public education. In carrying out this mission, I interacted and built relationships with families from the corners of Anacostia and other low-income DC neighborhoods, who all shared one goal, which was/is to provide their children opportunities unconfined by the thresholds of U.S. poverty.

With the AmeriCorps year stipend being $16,000 (before taxes), and DC average rent for a one bedroom –within the district, at $2,030.00, working as a twenty-something living in our Nation’s Capital, which also happens to be noted as the country’s most expensive place to live (here/here/here), challenged idealism with financial constraints. For instance, instead of buying the extra drink or two at the bar, that $18 (avg. cost of 2 drinks + tax/tip in DC) savings can now buy three or four more items of groceries for the week. But hard choices like this are nothing new for the families I served, and more than 14 million other people in the U.S.

(Hierarchy of needs diagram)

In a May 2014 report, the U.S. Census Bureau notes “individuals and families whose incomes are between 100 – 125 percent of their poverty threshold, are characterized as near poverty.” Specifically, the report provides descriptive indicators covering 1966 to 2012 that include age, sex, race, family type, and region, as well as educational attainment, employment and health insurance coverage.

Figure 1
(Figure issued May 2014. U.S. Department of Commerce / Census Bureau)

Measuring the Line

For individuals living within and near the poverty threshold, financial strain is a daily struggle. Inconsistencies in shelter, food and work, and choosing basic needs or/and entertainment…are choices of values, which enrich the quality of human life. In November 2013, the Census Bureau released an alternative measure of poverty;  when cost of living is taken into account in different parts of the country, poverty rate is higher in the Washington area.

  • A family living around Washington could earn almost $10,000 a year above the federal poverty level of $23,550 for a family of four and still be poor.
  • In the District, for example, the alternative measure pushes the poverty rate to almost 23 percent compared to just over 19 percent officially.
  • Under the alternative measure, the line in the Washington area would be around $33,000 for a homeowner with a mortgage, about $26,000 for a homeowner with no mortgage and $32,000 for a renter.
  • In other parts of the country, the threshold is even higher under the alternative. In the San Jose and San Francisco area, anyone earning less than $35,500 can be considered poor. 

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau, cited: Washington Post, Data published 11/06/13.)

Lessons Learned

I am a part of these demographics by choice. The conclusion of my year of service means I can walk away from a life near poverty and possibly never return (God-willing).  But not everyone has that choice or opportunity. In these past 12 months of AmeriCorps service, I have gotten just a small glimpse into the constant emotions that envelopes from not having a weekend that is financially stable, let alone a day, or an hour, that is monetarily inconsistent, but I have only gotten that, a glimpse. Imagining households, who live at this convergence of near and within poverty on a daily (with school children in tow), is a mind stretch not to be taken lightly. I still have a safety net; which removes me a degree from poverty’s threshold, and keeps me from fully experiencing life below the line. Through my migrant journey, I hope to contribute my lessons learned living in Washington to enable growth and empower people to pursue many different life paths –in spite of these constraints; thus developing human capacity. I will do what I can in my ability to raise awareness, understanding and resources that work to change systems, misconceptions, and constraints that perpetuate poverty and all its capabilities.

Things Learned and Confirmed 

  • There Is such a thing as extreme poverty in America.
  • Contrary to popular belief, it is not always by choice.
  • Living above the federal poverty line doesn’t always mean your doing just fine.
  • Lack of education and literacy on poverty only perpetuate misconceptions.
  • Everyone (within/near/above and beyond the poverty line) pays taxes in some way or another

I can help by investing in people, but I commit to not overstate my claim of knowing how it is, because I don’t. I get to go home and eat regularly. Others can’t and don’t. This glimpse of the human struggle for a more dignified life is a profound reflection on the search to find balance in the midst of strife. AmeriCorps’ success scared me away from choosing to live near poverty threshold, but because of the journey, I grew a bit more and the mission of work was continuously fulfilled.

To the fellow migrants, indigenous locals, and AmeriCorps VISTA service members in pursuit of that brighter future, I think Lilla Watson sums it up best,

“If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting our time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Australian Aboriginal Elder Lilla Watson


About the Author
Mariel Kanene is Founder and Editor of and lead storyteller with a focus on music, startups and travel. His passion for storytelling was born in Kinshasa, Congo and bred in Washington, DC where he resides. By day, Mariel spends his days slowly trying to change the world—one meaningful interaction at a time. He loves reading factual-fiction, good podcasts, traveling, health and fitness, foreign languages and good conversations over good coffee and even better rum. He hates talking about himself in third person.Thanks for stopping by. Always appreciated. Find me on: Twitter | Instagram | Linkedin | Website.

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