Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Expenses Vs. Earnings

I have now been on 30 house visits around Oaxaca and should finish up with all of them this week for a total of 34. None too soon as it is the hottest month of the year here in Oaxaca and the temperature during the day when I'm trudging up the sides of hills and sitting in houses made of sheet metal is really quite unbearable. The forecast calls for upper 90s the rest of the week so I will no doubt be the sweatiest gringa around. Yes, I do realize that I'm from Phoenix and I shouldn't be bitching but I also don't scale hillsides during the heat of summer in Phoenix. One of my PhD committee members said something to me once about needing to work in rural areas in order to get respect from other researchers because city life is too easy. Well, I feel that I have paid my dues and any rural researcher who wants to go toe to toe, like Dubya, I say Bring 'em on! Ugh, I can't believe I just quoted that fool.

Today I went on two house visits, the second of which was a bit disturbing. The grandmother was applying for support from the Centro for her granddaughter. Apparently her daughter (the mother of the child) is not completely there mentally, no one knows who her granddaughter's father is, and her conception might have been the result of a rape. Yes, it was very depressing. The pictures I have interspersed below are from this visit (first two) and the third photo is from the visit just before in the morning. I had two today.

I got to thinking that I should post some information about the daily expenses of these families as well as their earnings to give a sense of the degree of poverty I'm encountering. So here it goes....

Most of the women I have talked to earn between 400 and 1000 pesos a week, 1000 being on the high side and not very common. This is the equivalent of (approximately) 40 to 100 dollars a week. 'm assuming a 10 to 1 exchange rate because it is easier for me to calculate. The actual exchange rate is about 10.5 to 1.Many of these women are supporting their families alone although some have husbands who also bring in a weekly salary. The highest salary I have heard for a male household member is 1800 a week and the highest for a female salary 1000 pesos a week. Put those together and the most we are talking is about 260 U.S. dollars a week, mas o menos. Now for expenses...

Transportation: Assuming the family member who works takes the bus there and back each day (which is likely as these families live on the urban periphery) they will spend 216 pesos a month on transportation alone, assuming a 6 day work week which is the norm in Mexico. If more than one family member needs to travel to work obviously the price goes up. Students only pay 2 pesos per trip, but if you have more than one child in school taking the bus it starts to add up. This of course does not take into account any trips to medical clinics or markets that might be necessary and there are no transfers. Get on a different bus, pay the fare again.

Food: The average family spends between 40 and 100 pesos per day to feed everyone, depending on the size of the family of course. If we assume 50 pesos per day that is 1500 pesos for the entire month.

Electricity: This varies wildly but every two months it can be anywhere from 20 pesos to 200 or more. Most families have a television (which in my experience is the only real escape mechanism they have from the grim reality they face) and a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling.

Gas: One tank of gas to power the stove costs 200 pesos and they usually last two months. Of the 30 homes I have been in maybe 1 or 2 families used the oven, most use the oven to store dishes. Gas is simply too expensive to waste on running the oven. Many only have a two burner stove unit that sits on top of a counter, so an oven isn't even an option. When they cannot afford gas they use lena, or firewood, to cook. Though some buy this wood many simply scavenge for it around the neighborhood which leads to completely deforested hillsides.

Water: Oaxacans have to buy drinking water in large jugs and each of these costs 15 pesos. They also must pay for city water (they almost never have a sink, the tap is in the yard) or they must purchase the services of a private water truck to fill barrels with water which they will use for bathing, washing clothes etc. Some families who cannot afford to buy bottled water simply boil water for drinking or, so they don't use the precious gas or firewood, just drink it straight up. You can imagine the kind of health problems that might lead to. Another note about water, very few families living on the urban fringe have proper drainage so they use latrines which are often shared between multiple families.

School: Public school here costs quite a bit of money. Not only do you have to buy uniforms (2 or 3 of them), two pairs of shoes and school supplies, but there are also enrollment fees and other random fees expected throughout the year. Lets say 3000 pesos every six months.

These are just the very basic expenses, if someone in the family gets sick or needs medicine, tack on a hefty amount of pesos to the bill. There are public social welfare programs but interestingly enough they rarely pay for prescriptions and sometimes do not cover all family members.

If I'm a single woman (as many of those seeking assistance have been) making 400 pesos a week washing other peoples clothes (which seems to be the most common occupation) I'm earning only 2000 pesos a month. Food alone is over 1000 pesos a month and if I'm traveling by bus to get to work, well, there goes another 216 pesos. Between food and transportation my monthly salary is pretty much shot and I haven't even started to think about utility bills, rent (some own property but many rent as well), medical bills, school, clothing, etc.

Oh, and guess what minimum wage is here....less than 5 bucks a day. Yes, a day. Almost 80% of Oaxacans live below the poverty line.

I promise I will post something not depressing in the near future. I just felt that I needed to address the assertion that it is cheap to live in Mexico. It is cheap, if you are earning a salary from the United States that is.

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