Review of the Documentary Living on One Dollar— The North Star Reports – by Ellie Swanson. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

Review of the Documentary Living on One Dollar. 2013. By Chris Temple, Zach Ingrasci, Sean Leonard, and Ryan Christofferson.


[Film poster from: ]

Poverty. One dollar a day. Microfinance. Malnutrition. These words are used frequently during conversations about global poverty and international development. But what do these words really mean? What do they look like in real life? College students Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple set out on a mission to find out for themselves. In their documentary Living on One Dollar, Ingrasci and Temple, along with two film students, agree to live on one dollar a day—internationally accepted as the extreme poverty line—in Pena Blañca, Guatemala, a small village where many people work as farm laborers for about a dollar a day. The team documents their attempt to live as authentically as possible on their meager income for 52 days, while also researching how their neighbors survive and plan their finances with so little to work with.

What a photographer’s micro lens is to his wide-angle shot, this documentary is to overarching discussions of poverty and development. The producers take us for a close, intimate look at how poverty plays out in the lives of real people. Malnutrition, lack of money for education and health care, lack of clean water, and lack of savings in case of disaster: these are the challenges that living on one dollar a day presents.

As Temple and Ingrasci embed themselves in village life and make friends, we begin to see these challenges come to life. Inquisitive, friendly, twelve-year-old Chico, has resigned himself, already, to a life as a farm laborer—working long, hard hours for an income that will barely sustain his family in the future. We meet Rosa, who has to defer her dream of attending school because there isn’t enough money for school fees. Such stories abound, but the film presents reasons to hope. The students explore how gaining access to credit and a savings plan via microfinance banks can aid families in earning more income. Rosa utilizes this type of system and is able to pay her school fees so she may continue to study. Additionally, Temple and Ingrasci stumble upon a unique way of communal savings that their neighbors utilize, in which each member in turn benefits from the collective savings, which is substantially more than each would be able to save alone. This is one of the more ingenious ways of survival Temple and Ingrasci discover but not the only example.

Along with ingenuity, they find warmth, generosity, curiosity, hardship, misery—hard lives led by hardened, yet generous people. They also discover that living on one dollar a day is something they were not prepared for, nor is it a lifestyle they would like to continue. But the point of their experiment is clear: life at this income level is hard and dangerous. Ultimately, Living on One Dollar asks us to imagine what it would be like to not have enough food, to not have access to health care when ill, and to not have the money to send a child to school. The perspective and the individual stories the viewer experience are what make Living on One Dollar an educational and moving documentary.

For more information, see:

Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at)

See also, our Facebook page with curated news articles at

The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, The Middle Ground Journal and The College of St. Scholastica’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our program. We also welcome Duluth East High School and other schools around the world. The North Star Reports has flourished since 2012. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:

The North Star Reports publishes edited essays from our students, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. Students have reported from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing reviews of books, documentaries, and films, projects on historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and analysis of current events from around the world. We will post their dispatches, and report on their interactions with the North Star Reports students and teachers.

We thank The Department of History and Politics and the School of Arts and Letters of The College of St. Scholastica for their generous financial support for The North Star Reports and The Middle Ground Journal.

Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA

(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy The NSR is sponsored by The Middle Ground Journal and The College of St. Scholastica. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact chief editor Professor Liang at HLIANG (at)


Filed under North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

37 responses to “Review of the Documentary Living on One Dollar— The North Star Reports – by Ellie Swanson. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

  1. Carley Henning

    I think what these two men are doing is eye opening. Many of us can’t imagine living on just a dollar a day yet this is what is happening around the world. After this I’m sure Ingrasci and Temple were grateful for what they have and now appreciate what is given to them.

  2. Samantha Roettger

    This really puts lives of those in poverty into some sort of a perspective. Most of us cannot imagine living on one dollar a day so this article, and I’m sure the documentary, attempts to put this lifestyle into something imaginable.

  3. Tyler Winkelman

    This really does show us how great our lives are in the U.S., and it should not be taken for granite. I couldn’t imagine living on a dollar a day!

  4. Camila Garcia

    This movie seems like a very interesting insight to the reality of the majority of people over the world. Sometimes since we are in a very comforting position we forget that there are still many people in need. Coming from a third world country, I have seen how some families live with less than a dollar a day. Is always very sad to see how the lack of laws and corruption affects the people who needed the most. But in the other hand I thought it was very interesting how Guatemala uses the idea of microfinance. This idea which was awarded with a Nobel Prize, for me is a very good option for people to work as a community and try to overcome poverty. I hope that other countries like mine have such a model.

  5. Kendra Johnson

    I can’t even imagine doing what these two men did for their experiment. it’s a real eye opening experience that more people should try. Maybe not this drastic, but at least something similar. People rely and focus too much on things they want than things they actually need for survival. This sounds like something that would help put people’s lives into perspective and think more of how others live that are less fortunate than themselves.

  6. Josie Thao

    What a realistic and approachable way to look at poverty in its finest form but my question is, do the individuals who live on a dollar a day consider themselves impoverished or believe that they live in poverty? Sometimes, I believe their are cultures that have a metric system for happiness, wealth, you name it.

  7. Katy Goerke

    Through my experience as a social justice advocate, I’ve seen many activities that seek to give us above the poverty line an incite to how hard it is on the other side. None of them hold a candle to what these students have done for themselves.

  8. Benjamin Carlson

    Regarding the line, “Temple and Ingrasci stumble upon a unique way of communal savings that their neighbors utilize, in which each member in turn benefits from the collective savings, which is substantially more than each would be able to save alone.” this is how life was before money. In order to survive, we had to rely not only what what our neighbors had but what skills they could offer to the group. Hunters, fishermen/woman, farmers, everyone had their part and everyone had to contribute. Being forced to live on “one dollar a day” just forces us out the of the current way of live and pushes us into the not so distance past.

  9. Emily Schiro

    I think what these two college kids set out to do is incredible. It had to be a difficult thing for them to do but also very eye opening because college students always complain about being broke when reality we are doing quite well. I have seen this documentary on Netflix and am very intrigued to now watch it on my own.

  10. Becca Smith

    This really puts poverty into perspective. I was shocked that the poverty line is so low across the world. It’s hard to imagine living like this for a week, much less 56 days. I will have to find this to watch because I’m interested in how they made it work – especially since Gwyneth Paltrow wasn’t able to do the food stamp challenge for more than 4 days.

  11. Luke S

    I really like the way this piece is written, and the way that you use photography/film terminology to describe the relationship between this film and larger world issues. Very well written. I would very much like to see this documentary, especially because of the way that it seemed to impact the creators, that they were unprepared and would not want to go through that experience again.

  12. LIving on one dollar a day, and all the struggles that comes with it really makes you think about how grateful you are to have to clothes on your back and food on the table everyday. I know I am very thankful for everything I have and it is very sad to see others struggle. Thank you for sharing!

  13. Kyle Hellmann

    Very interesting idea, and I’m sure it was a great documentary. I’ve been looking for a good one to watch, and this looks like a good one! Thanks for sharing!

  14. Ashley Svihel

    This article was very interesting. Also it was sad to read about because of that girl that couldn’t go to school because of lack of money. I feel like living on one dollar a day would be an hard but good experience to have.

  15. Hannah Johnson

    I can’t believe what these two men did, I could not live on a dollar a day. I think that this is really eye-opening and should make people think about how lucky their life is compared to others and not take what we have for granted.

  16. Hannah Kunde

    I remember seeing a commercial for McDonalds talking about a person running around with one dollar and asking people what he could do with it. As can be expected, he found he could spend his one dollar on the dollar menu at said restaurant. This documentary puts that commercial to shame. We often take what a dollar means for granted and don’t look at what that value means to not just the people around us, but the people around the world. As said in the article, “Malnutrition, lack of money for education and health care, lack of clean water, and lack of savings in case of disaster: these are the challenges that living on one dollar a day presents.” Your article on this documentary shows that we need to learn to take another look at what is deemed not a big deal to us, because for some it just might be life or death.

  17. Bao Vang

    I watched this movie last year in my psychology course and I would highly recommend people to watch it. The whole notion of the video, from my perspective, really opened up my eyes to how life is like throughout the world. Not only is it the life of those accross the globe but life of those who could be living three or four blocks away. Everyone has their struggles in life and it is important to never that things for granted. Thank you for sharing.

  18. It must have been so humbling for these young students to experience what it’s like to “have nothing,” living on such a meagre amount of money. It’s exciting to hear about microfinancing – it’s a shame that the world bank is so exploitative of these impoverished nations that they would rather have them suffer or offer such impossible financing offers that they would become economically indentured. Great review, thanks for sharing!

  19. Mackenzie Sherrill

    I cannot imagine getting to experience this during my lifetime! It’s hard for me to even get a sense of what this would actually be like, since I have never struggled financially on a level like this. I bet this is an experience you both will never forget.

  20. David Miller

    Powerful story that these two students have brought to our attention. Taking a step back and really thinking about what it would be like to live on one dollar a day is really amazing, and makes one feel blessed for what they have. I saw a stat somewhere that said if your income is I believe $20,000 a year that you are among some of the richest in the world. This statistic is shocking because everyone wants to be a millionaire but there are those who will never com out of poverty throughout the world.

  21. Mike Lehmann

    Its extremely sad that the world poverty line is so low. The fact that so many people have to live like this is horrible. But like Jen said it must have had a huge effect on those two students, if only people had experiences like that we could change the world for the better.

  22. Kyle Stepka

    Its crazy how the world poverty line is this low. I couldn’t even think about living like this. Things like this would have such a big effect on people and students.

  23. Kaitlyn Young

    Reading this article saddened me because of the poor conditions that these people live in. It makes me realize how privileged I am to have the opportunities in my life. I can’t image how having this experience changed these two students. It sounds like a very interesting documentary!

  24. Evangelista Chicheko

    This is such an eye-opening documentary. It is sad to realize that there are some people who truly survive on a dollar per day yet we all know its insufficient. I can imagine how life is like for most of these people. Thank you for sharing!!

  25. Austin Kindt

    Just like reality shows are not true reality because there is a camera crew following them around, neither is this a true representation of what poverty is like because these guys can know that there is an end in sight because in 52 days they will go back to living they way they used to. Therefore it does not reflect a true “authentic” level of poverty because they do not have the psychological stress of not knowing if it will ever end.

  26. Whenever I see the one dollar per day statement, what always rings in my head are a bunch of questions. You have one dollar in your hands, what is going to be your priority? When someone is going to work all day to earn a dollar, what gives them the energy to keep going? All I have is questions. However, I am glad this article shed some light on them.

  27. Andy Lawrence

    I can’t imagine living on a dollar a day. It is incredible how they were able to live that way.

  28. Eleni Birhane

    Poverty is one of the biggest and most ardent problem human beings face today. Coming from a third world country I have seen it and the devastation it causes. This documentary is a great way to show people who are unaware of the depth of the issue how much people go through in their daily life. The fact that the film had a positive attitude in the end by showing how some of the people who were featured found ways to better their lives is a beautiful way to show people that there is hope as long ass we keep trying together.

  29. Carley Nadeau

    This is a wonderful review on this documentary. I can’t even imagine how I could live on one dollar a day. This makes me realize how much I take my life in a well-off(ish) family for granted.
    I often forget that this is the reality for many people across the globe, and it’s important to have things like this remind me of the realities.

  30. Pingback: 11.10: Film Reviews | A Blog for WRT 205

  31. Ashley Kittelson

    Thank you for writing such an informative review. I don’t watch many movies because it’s hard to find ones that will provide insight and be a valuable use of my time. However, you clearly show that this film gives an authentic look into the lives of many people around the world. Additionally, it promotes people from wealthier countries to reflect on their involvement with this issue. Fortunately it’s on Netflix, so I look forward to watching it this weekend.

  32. Amanda Greene

    I have actually seen this documentary before and really enjoyed it. I traveled to Guatemala about 3 years ago and stayed in a village very similar to where they stayed. I thought this documentary did an excellent job to demonstrate the poverty and the hardships that many Guatemalans go through every day. I stayed with a family who struggled to make ends meet so that the children could go to school or to be fed every night. I had quite the culture shock when I first arrived, as did Zach and Chris. That trip really benefited me because now I am more appreciative of the life I have.

  33. Kalley Friederichs

    I thought this article was extremely interesting! I find it so sad that a dollar a day is the extreme poverty line in some countries. It is no suprise that those in Pena Blanca, Guatemala are suffering from malnutrition. With such a low income when buying food what is cheapest is chosen over healthier option. I find it so sad that many of the children growing up in these families are set up for failure from the start. They lack many of the opportunities we take for granted, like access to an education and health care.

  34. Angela Pecarina

    This article helps put everything into perspective. Living on $1 in the U.S. would be impossible. Something I can say for myself is, I take for granted how ‘good’ we have it here in comparison to other countries sometimes. The fact we are here at CSS getting a 4 year degree is amazing, We are so lucky. This should be a film more people see to instill in them how important it is to be thankful and give back when able to.

  35. Jane Kariuki

    Hello Ellie,
    Your article made me think of a few things that we are analyzing in our historiography class. The notion of how information is discovered and shared with the general public. An interesting idea is documentaries and how far they have come. Over time, they seem to be getting longer and longer, where all the issues addressed seems to be important. On another note, is the intention of point of view. Whose message is being portrayed and at what level is the message being portrayed true to those who are recorded? For instance, poverty, how is this defined both by the documentary and by those who ‘live in poverty’. Would the locals measure poverty the same way people from outside measure it? Is it even the same entity? Another thing that sticks out to me is the title “living on one dollar”. Why that certain currency? How have we evolved where international communities are measured under the substance of the American system. Overall, your article was interesting, thank you for sharing.

  36. Audrey Tusken

    Hi Ellie – Your review was very interesting to me because I have actually seen this documentary. I first saw it as part of a high school Spanish class unit about poverty. We also learned about an American woman who created a school for children whose parents spend their workday foraging in a city’s landfill. Another video taught us about a mom who got up in the wee hours of the morning to make the trek from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso to sell cigarettes. These lifestyles are all unimaginable to me.
    I am in historiography class this semester, and I wonder about the history of the town of Pena Blanca. What can we learn about the town itself and the history of Guatemala that might clue us into why the people there are so impoverished? Because of their status in the world, their stories (and millions of others just like theirs) are viewed as less important to the narrative of world history. Oftentimes, they are just silenced altogether. We seem to have many societal problems with recognizing the dignity of people who may look differently or act differently than us, and maybe if we understood their history as well as we do the mainstream events, we’d be much more willing to accept and celebrate their humanity.

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