Michael, Meet Curtis: Philanthropy Gets Personal


This past weekend I had the opportunity to bring two ends of the American income spectrum together. I introduced Michael, the blue-blood New Yorker who plans to start a family foundation (see earlier posts), to Curtis, a squatter in Chicago who moves from one abandoned apartment to another.

Michael, a multi-millionaire with a team of professionals managing his assets, must donate $78 million over the next few years. Curtis lives off $5,000 per year; he rarely has more than a few dollars in his pocket. Michael is white, Curtis is African-American.

For 48 hours, Michael observed Curtis and, just as important, Curtis tried to help Michael understand “low income living.”

First, some context:

Michael came to me frustrated. He had just paid three consultants nearly $20,000 for advice on philanthropy. Specifically, he wanted to learn as he gave his money away: could they engineer a program of professional development? The consultants’ overall wealth management strategies utilized predictable business models, while their estate planning suggestions were cautious and conservative.

And, to my surprise and Michael’s, their responses about personal growth were largely uninspiring. A strange mix of entrepreneurial zeal and self-help filled three equally impressive, glossy documents. Phrases like “giving to yourself can be the greatest gift,” “charity is a windmill turning intent into action,” and “embrace the inner you” (neither Michael nor I could figure that one out) saturated the pages — but little else about how to mature as a donor. The common thread was that learning “happens.”

Instead, Michael decided to spend a year with me understanding poverty in urban America — I’m not sure that’s a much better choice(!) — but he liked the experiences of other donors with whom I’ve worked. As in the past, I will not accept any money from Michael — only the freedom to write about our time together.

Our journey begins with Michael and Curtis sharing a weekend together in Chicago. Each year I spend several continuous days with squatters to understand how they live on the streets. In Chicago public housing, squatters survive because some housing authority managers to pay them under-the-table to clean and fix the place — instead of unionized janitors. I learn a lot about the community by sleeping, eating, and otherwise hanging out with Curtis and his friends. This time, Michael joined me.

At noon on Saturday I asked Michael and Curtis: “With only $20, how will you survive for the weekend — from now, until Monday morning?” (Curtis and I agreed to exempt rent. It was hard enough using $20 to meet food and personal needs — Michael would never figure out how to squat.) Michael wouldn’t sleep at Curtis’s place — he stayed at the Four Seasons, but to his credit, he hung out in Curtis’s neighborhood.

By 5 p.m. Curtis had made his first two purchases: frozen chicken wings and a can of beans ($4.75); a T-shirt and pair of socks from a vendor on the street ($2.00).

Meanwhile, Michael drove his rental car around the neighborhood. When he returned to meet us he was exasperated. “The food here is awful! No fruit, vegetables are moldy. Only meat, canned food, and soda. What do kids eat? The guy at the store told me no one would eat fruit unless it’s in a can. Is that true?”

Curtis shook his head. I told Michael, “When we get back to New York, I will talk with you about diet and quality of food availability in poor neighborhoods.”

But Michael was growing upset. “All I see are liquor stores and dollar stores and fast food. There was one guy who said he’d buy my food stamps — 50 cents for a dollar in stamps? How can people live like this?”

Curtis laughed. He asked Michael if he’d like some chicken and beans. Michael said, “No thank you,” and sat on the cold linoleum floor. He was silent.

“How much does a banana cost,” Curtis asked Michael. Michael looked embarrassed, unable to answer.

“You don’t know, do you!” Curtis laughed. “See fruit is expensive; raw food is too much for low income people. And we don’t always have a fridge, so you got to keep things in cans. That way it can move with you. And one thing you need to know: low income people always are on the move — not just squatters, all low income folks.”

Michael started to write on paper and looked at me, as if to ask for permission. Curtis told him he could take notes freely.

When we met at the end of the evening, Michael bought two double cheeseburgers and a soda at McDonald’s ($3.50). Curtis had purchased “a ten pack of Sanka” (instant coffee) ($2.00), a lock ($2.00), and four loose menthol cigarettes ($1.00).

The subject of the conversation turned to personal needs. Curtis made Michael some coffee and patted him on the back. “Don’t be shy, ask me whatever you want.”

Michael sipped the coffee and checked his notes under the dim kitchen light. “I saw a mother and child on the way over here. They were walking into buildings with no windows, no doors. Are they going to sleep there? Where do they bathe? What would it cost to build facilities for children? Are there soup kitchens around here?”

Curtis showed Michael a rag and cleaning brush. “See this, Michael? Keep this around, and you’ll always have a meal or a place to sleep — or both.” Michael looked confused. Curtis explained further. “People who got places to sleep will let you stay a night. But you have to pay $10. And I don’t have money, so I clean up, fix things. That woman you saw — she probably will clean for a good night’s sleep. Maybe a store needs mopping, maybe your uncle needs his garage cleaned.”

“Why not stay at a shelter?” Michael asked.

“Not enough of them around,” Curtis replied. “And you have to be out by 6 a.m. If you got kids, you can’t take them out in the cold. So you stay in a store, or you stay in a vacant building. And no more food kitchens since the projects went down. Not a lot for poor people.”

Curtis then took out a cigarette. “See this? Always have a loose cigarette. You can always use a bathroom in somebody’s house — maybe even get a shower — for one. Maybe your kid took a dump in his pants. Maybe you need some toilet tissue. Always keep a cigarette for emergencies.”

Curtis cooked another plate of chicken and beans. He was about to eat it, but once again he offered it to Michael. This time Michael accepted. Michael looked overwhelmed; his face was perspiring. Curtis refilled his coffee and gave Michael one of his cigarettes to calm him down.

“Not everyone lives like this,” I said. “And don’t feel bad for Curtis.”

“No!” Curtis exclaimed. “Don’t pity me,” he said, pouring some whiskey in Michael’s coffee. “This will help you sleep tonight …” Curtis lit a cigarette and leaned back on his busted plastic chair. “Just understand that you got to be creative. Even if you got a home, you still got to pay rent — so you take in somebody now and then. Maybe you let your friend stay in the house and they watch your kid, or clean up, or pay you …” Curtis kept on talking. Michael kept on eating.

Sunday was much of the same. Michael struggled to finalize his budget, while Curtis escorted him around Chicago’s Southside neighborhoods. Curtis and I introduced Michael to friends who struggled like him to make ends meet.

Michael met Lena, a 45-year-old woman with three children who works part-time at a fast-food restaurant. She agreed to let Michael observe her strategies to put food on the table and keep her family together. Michael offered to pay her a fee for a week of conversation. Lena said, “How about we exchange our paychecks for one month.” Michael turned bright red.

At the end of the day, Michael showed us his creative budget to survive on the Chicago streets for one weekend. “Buy $20 of Yahoo stock. Hope for the best.”

Curtis laughed and we tallied up his expenses for the same time period:

$4.75 chicken wings and canned beans

$2.00 shirt, pair of socks

$2.00 coffee

$1.00 four loose cigarettes

$2.50 polish sandwich and fries

$2.00 rat infestation powder

$2.00 lock

$2.75 medicine, band aids

TOTAL: $19.00 (one dollar in savings)

Stay tuned.

Dale S.

To AaronS #63: The point being: People WILL make it...if you give them the basic tools and needs.

Will all make it? I think the correct version of this sentence would be "Some people will make it, if given the basics in life".

There are plenty of others who are content to live day to day for the rest of their lives if they have little genuine purpose. And their children will only perpetuate the entitlement mentality as they mature since they never had a role model growing up to learn a work ethic from.

Question is, once someone is given this "chance" in the form of a public-subsidized lifestyle, how long would they have to make good on it and become independent? What happens if they have more children?

Dale S.

Lena said, "How about we exchange our paychecks for one month." Michael turned bright red.

Could this possibly be due to the fact that Michael actually EARNED less than Lena in a month? Having money does not mean earning money.

Also to George #55: I would like to see him live in a variety of poor environments. How do Koreans or Mexicans or rural whites cope with equal money incomes?

Excellent idea. Why are some of America's poor so much better than others at pulling themselves out of poverty? Especially when some of these bootstrap-pullers are from completely different countries/cultures?


Great post. Michael's getting quite an education for so few dollars.


"Michael wouldn't sleep at Curtis's place - he stayed at the Four Seasons, but to his credit, he hung out in Curtis's neighborhood."

This put me off a bit. If you truly want to know how a low-income individual lives on a day-to-day basis, you can't pick and choose which aspects of their life you want to experience and which you don't. If you really want a glimpse of this kind of lifestyle and what it's like to live it, you have to step out of your privileged comfort zone 100 percent in order to do so -- and Michael doesn't seem entirely willing to do that. It would be like Michael saying, when offered some chicken and beans by Curtis, "No thanks, I think I'll go dine at a five-star, four-course restaurant, because I'd rather not know what it's like to eat that junk." A little bit condescending for someone who is trying to understand what it's like to live low-income, if you ask me -- sorry, but unless you have satin sheets and room service, I'm not sleeping here.



I guess its hard to say any thing meaningful, but as Bill Strickland points out. "The only thing wrong with poor people is they don't have any money."

But I guess $78 Mil, is enough to buy basic human needs for that many people. Just on scale alone, I could see that amount disappearing, with out a shred of evidence that it did any good.

How does one ensure the help that you want to provide gets to those that are in need. On a per individual basis, you can see the results directly. But one the scale grows even to the hundreds, we're at the stage where we enact policy, and leverage some form of bureaucracy. (Micromanagement?)

Just like designing any other flavor of system, you're initial policy has some metric of success. For every improvement you implement, the % gain for the next improvement gets smaller, while the cost of that improvement gets larger. In a Xeno paradox kinda way, it'll never be perfect.

When can you say it's good enough?

You should really talk to some one whom understands scaling systems. Perhaps they might have some more useful information as opposed to a team of professional asset managers.



If Michael wants to keep up his studies on poverty, I suggest he also read "Nickel and Dimed: On Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich. He's witnessed some of what her book covers already, but her book will add to his experiences.


Very compelling piece. I am interested in the tipping point for a low income person and if patterns emerge. The moment at which they can no longer afford housing/food. That would seem to be the moment to struggle against or apply Michael's philanthropy or the public's assistance.


You lost me at "he stayed at the Four Seasons."


Curtis's saving rate is orders of magnitude larger than that of most "middle class" families in America. Yet I must wonder how many of those families would tend to think of people in situations like Curtis's as economic drains.

(It's not entirely off-base - for example, delivered health care costs more for people without access to any sort of preventive care or primary care.)

B K Ray

They do not actually 'sell' food stamps, it is more a figure of speech. In Illinois welfare and foodstamp benefits are on a card system called LINK. What happens in the transaction that 'sells' food stamps is the the person receiving food stamp bennies will allow someone to use that portion of their benefits for anywhere from 1/2 to 3/4 cash equivalent.

A person will give you their card or accompany you to the store, where they will use the card to purchase $50 in grocery items for which you will pay them about $25.


I'm also wondering why some are assuming these folks are in their situation because of drugs/alcohol. I would think it's more common for people to start using AFTER getting into these situations--to help cope with the life they're now living. Obviously using just perpetuates that cycle, but I doubt that drug use gets most people into the situation to begin with.


frankenduf - People sell their foodstamps to buy booze and drugs. You can't buy stuff like that with them, so you sell your monthly food stamp allowance to someone at a discount.

Here in Philly the food stamps have been replaced with ATM type accounts that get filled every month, so you really can't sell the benefit without physically buying food for someone with your card and then getting cash from them.


While a student in college, I sat in on a short course on the homeless. The University of Virginia is in a relatively small town and county - maybe 100,000 people. The instructor said that there were 33 homeless families in town during one particular month. Most students did not question that statistic. I was a bit stunned - given the local population. I pressed the instructor to explain that number - she became agitated but relented. There were actually two families int the shelter for the said month. Those two families were counted each day - one family for 31 days straight and one family for two days straight. After revealing how the 33 figure was calculated, everyone laughed.

For those of you enamored by the writing and feel good about the information, do something...local churches do more than the government will ever do - beyond the money. Help your church - donate money and time.



In spite of many of the negative comments from posters here, I give Michael a lot of credit for his willingness to learn. If more of us were as interested in seeing what goes on around us, the quicker many of these problems would be resolved.

Sudhir, thanks for continuing to chronicle this.


Good story. I'm waiting for Michael to actually put more into it and spend the night.

This story is similar to an episode of Morgan Spurlock's "30 Days", where he and his fiance try to make ends meet by working minimum wage jobs,
which includes paying rent.

Robert Muncy

Couple of surprising things.
You would expect some discussing of trading sex for somewhere to sleep. Also for those who think that is poor, in mexico the average person (think over 50%) live and eat on a $1 or less.
One also has to wonder how we got to the point that raw food is not as cheap as processed food?
I would also wonder what would change the patterens these people are in? Is it a question of education? Chance? Durg use? Lack of Jobs? Lack of commen sense eduaction, IE how to feed and cook for a family on a limited budget?

But in trying to find a solution you must solve some base issues.
A) Housing- Without somewhere to call home you will never make any other headway on this issue.
B) without some type of sensible stragery to comabt drug use you will continue to have a cycial of people in trouble, And I mean all drugs acholol, tobacoo and others.
C) we need to examing how we teach people to live, we do a great job (In comparison) of teaching math or reading verus how to make meals or budgeting. most of this is taught by parents or by the street.

Fix those and you will be on the way to combating extreme poverty.

And if they want to spend another $20K I can put all of this in a nice powerpoint :)



This entire article just blew my mind. What Michael is doing is incredible, but how Curtis lives is even more stunning. At least now I have some strategies in case I ever end up on the streets.

@ #2
Right, if you're poor, it has to be because you messed up. Clearly our meritocracy works otherwise.



Before food stamps were replaced by debit cards in this state -- as a measure to remove the stigma from using them -- I would see them used in a supermarket for things such as the Oscar Meyer plastic kid's meals. Those things had a few crackers, a chunk of cheese, and a small portion of lunch meat. The child trailing the mother using the food stamps -- it was ALWAYS a mother, usually obese-- usually brandished one as a prize.

For the same price as that tiny portion of processed food, the mother could have bought an entire package of lunch meat. Since there were usually a few of these in her cart, they could have been replaced with a loaf of bread, a brick of cheese, a head of lettuce and a tomato or two which would have yielded a week's worth of lunches with leftovers.

Invariably, I would not see any fresh fruit or produce in her cart, although the supermarket had an abundance of same. However, I would see snack foods such as chips or cupcakes and soda.

It doesn't take a college degree to pick out healthy food. It takes a desire to to eat health meals and a modicum of planning and preparation, which no doubt was as infathomable to these women as the very idea realizing there are consequences tomorrow for actions today.



what's with the selling food stamps for $?- just cash em out at the dollar store- that way you can have your pack of gum and eat it too


Why am I reminded of Professor Higgins and Liza's father in My Fair Lady? I hope Curtis doesn't come to the same unhappy fate!