On a warm spring evening, Jamillah Abdul-Saboor steps aboard a crowded bus traveling north on Greenmount Avenue and begins her journey home. If other passengers look up from their newspapers or thoughts as she walks down the aisle, here's what they see: an attractive 29-year-old woman, taller than average, with almond-shaped eyes and long hair pulled into a ponytail.
Appearances are important -- Jamillah learned that at a job-training program -- so this morning she chose a black blazer, long purple skirt, and stylish black boots to wear to her secretarial job at Koinonia Baptist Church in Baltimore. Her fingernails are neatly filed, her silver earrings match her bracelet.
But appearances can obscure the truth.
A glance at Jamillah doesn't reveal, for example, that she no longer eats candy because she can't risk a cavity -- and the need for a dentist, which she hasn't seen in years. It doesn't reveal that her two young children are at home alone because she can't afford an after-school sitter, or that Jamillah was evicted from her last apartment when too many bills piled up, or that her outfit was culled from a thrift store's racks, or that sometimes late at night, when she thinks about the dreams she once had, she can't keep from crying.
But tonight isn't such a bad night, because Jamillah has money for bus fare and doesn't have to walk. At 7:15 p.m., she steps past a brown banana peel and opens the cracked glass door of her apartment building, then walks down a flight of steps and knocks her secret signal: Her children know not to answer unless they hear it. Inside, she collapses on the couch she got for free from her aunt, and thinks about heating up a bagel for dinner. When it gets dark, she takes one of the two lamps her sister gave her out of the children's bedroom and plugs it into a living room outlet.
Jamillah intends to buy another lamp, but it's not high on her wish list. First she'd like a chest of drawers to replace her cardboard boxes. Then some bed frames, because the mattresses look so terrible lying on the floor. She'd dearly love a microwave. Lower on her list are luxuries: Maybe she'll see a movie someday. Get her hair cut at a salon. And her biggest goal: A car, just some $800 rattletrap to get her to and from work.
Her life is a series of tradeoffs. Friday night Happy Meals mean fewer bus rides home, and new winter jackets may mean Jamillah skips meals. But amid this constant calculus, there is one critical cost that even Jamillah -- with her relentless pursuit of bargains and her expertise at stretching her dollars -- can't determine: the price that being poor is exacting on her children.
When these worries plague Jamillah, she turns to her imagination for solace: She envisions herself running a business, owning a home, sending 10-year-old Rasheedha and 2-year-old Juan to college.
Her fantasies provide a respite from her daily struggle -- and a reason to keep going, to get ahead.
"Sometimes I think about how it could have been different," she says, her voice growing soft. "I'm not married. I don't have a car. I don't have a driver's license. Then I think, 'I'm alive, and that stuff is going to come.' I think about the stuff that is going to come, and it makes me stronger."
For now, dreams are the only indulgence she can savor as often as she likes.
amillah Abdul-Saboor is not poor.
That's what the federal government says. In fact, Jamillah's annual before-tax income -- $17,680 -- lifts her family of three well above the U.S. poverty line of $13,874 for the year 2000. But worlds away from Jamillah's North Baltimore apartment, a debate is raging among academics and government policy-makers: Should the poverty line be redrawn? If so, how much, exactly, is enough to live on?
It's a question that defies a simple answer.
Gallup polls have repeatedly shown that Americans believe the poverty line is far too low -- by about 150 percent. Last year, several organizations, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, funded a survey of 800 Maryland residents that showed 77 percent believed a family of four needed an income of at least $35,000 to make ends meet -- roughly twice the current poverty line.
Established in the 1960s as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty," the line almost immediately sparked criticism, yet the formula has remained largely unchanged for nearly four decades. Study after study has shown it is outdated, even biased against certain families and regions of the country. Yet experts say no change is on the horizon.
"I do think it will continue to be a matter of debate for quite a while," acknowledges Kathleen Short, a Census Bureau official who gathers data on poverty and has examined alternative proposals.