Getting by

Some 50 million Americans live below the official poverty line, and millions more are barely making ends meet. This series explores how people try to survive.

Sonya Begay
Richmond, Ky.

A decade ago, Sonya Begay fell into a second round of parenting. Her oldest son, Ruben Eppele, was struggling with drug addiction and temporarily lost custody of his three children to Kentucky’s foster care system. The kids — Damian, now age 16; Lea, 15; and Kayle 13 — are Navajo like their father and grandmother and should have been placed with Begay or another relative in accordance with the Indian Child Welfare Act. But it was almost a year before she could sort things out in court and take them home.

Begay and her son shared custody of Damian, Lea and Kayle for the next several years, and when she relocated from rural Richmond to Washington, D.C., for a job, the children moved with her. In 2010, she was raising them and working long hours as a policy analyst for the Department of Labor when she learned that Ruben had been murdered in Kentucky. Begay decided to leave her job and take the children back to Richmond. "I was gone [at work] 12 hours a day, so to be away from them while they’re in their grief, while I’m in my grief, you can’t do that," she says.

Begay has since shepherded her grandkids through school, therapy and sports, but four years later, she remains unemployed. When the children are at school, Begay scours the Internet and calls old contacts to ask about job openings, volunteers in the Native American community and helps other "grandparents as parents." Her middle son, Shawn Cote, 27, is currently staying with the family to provide extra support. "You don’t want your grandchildren to be raised by someone else," Begay says. "Here in Kentucky, you raise your own. Taking on three children is a lot for me, but that’s the sacrifice I’ve had to make."

Income: While at the Department of Labor, Begay earned $75,000 a year. Now, she, Damian, Kayle and Lea live on the children's Social Security survivors benefits of about $3,000 per month. The household's income is too high to qualify for food stamps, but low enough to qualify for public health insurance. "I was making good money in D.C. and now, all of a sudden, we’re at the poverty line over here," Begay says.

Scrimping, not saving: Begay leans on cost-saving strategies: "Some of the things I do now are couponing a lot, also buying in bulk and then economizing — repackaging [in smaller portions]. If [we go to a movie], it’s a matinee with coupons."

Interaction before Internet: The family puts conversation before computer screens. "By the time [the kids] get home, about 4, we start preparing dinner. We sit down and eat and talk about our day," Begay says. "These kids, they don't request a lot of things. We don’t have cell phones for them. Things other children at school have, they understand that's not a necessity."

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How you cope

In January, we published "America’s have-nots: what it means to be poor" and heard from many readers living below and above the official poverty level. Russ Bowers from California had a compelling story to tell, so we followed up with him. Other readers submitted the stories below.

Submit your story at the bottom of this page.

Sometimes I'm convinced that the stigma of poverty is worse than the actual conditions. In this country it's assumed that if you're poor, you've somehow earned it/deserve it ... Living in poverty has been and continues to be, an intense as well as an invaluable education. My life is rich and happy.

I had a good job but lost it in the crash of 2008 ... I was an artist before ... so if I can get a little money, I buy art supplies.

I live month to month, and I'm broke most of the time.

I was living paycheck to paycheck, and essentially still am living that way ... It’s bittersweet, because I finally made it after working so hard through college and through a long drought of under-employment, and now that I’m here, I’m still living the same way, and will continue to do so for years until the loans are paid off.

Learn to cook and take good advice from the grandmothers among us. They lived in depression-times and made do. We can learn these skills again.

For seven years I lived on $500 a month.

Submit your story

We invite all of you to share your experiences with us — via the form below, via email ( or by posting in the Al Jazeera America Poverty Community on Facebook.

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