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What Daily Life Looks Like at Different Income Levels

A new website tracks global wealth stratification through photographs of household items.

The front door of the Lien family home in Can Tho, Vietnam. (Victrixia Montes for Dollar Street)

In Vietnam, a family living on $266 a month locks the front door of their three-bedroom home with a rusty padlock. It’s not unlike the one that shutters the entrance to the house of an Indian family living on $245 a month, or a Nepalese family with $201.

Locks are just one type of household object that the new website Dollar Street is documenting to create a snapshot of global wealth stratification. Anna Rosling Rönnlund, the cofounder of the Sweden-based Gapminder Foundation, developed the project in 2014; since then, her team of photographers has traveled to 200 homes in 50 countries. They spend at least a day in each home, interviewing the family and taking pictures of household objects—from stoves to toothbrushes to toilets to telephones—that fall into the 135 categories that Dollar Street uses as points of comparison.

The stove of a Romanian family earning $163/month, left, and a Jordanian family earning $7,433/month, right. (Roland Zsigmond and Zoriah Miller for Dollar Street)

In a 2015 TEDxStockholm talk, Rosling Rönnlund described how photos and snapshots are often used to create “fairytale” images of other countries, capturing stereotypical scenes of poverty and wealth, and ignoring the vast array of incomes and lifestyles in between the two extremes. People in other countries, Rosling Rönnlund says, are often portrayed as exotic or unknowable. “This has to change,” she says. “We want to show how people really live.”

On Dollar Street, Rosling Rönnlund imagines all the households in the world arranged by income level along a single residential road. Rather than relying on geographic boundaries to inform our understanding of other countries, she says, we need “a visual framework that we can use to understand the socioeconomic reality of the world.” Each family’s monthly income serves as their “address”; the block spanning the global median of $250 to $390 a month contains households from Rwanda, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bolivia, Indonesia, Thailand, and India.

A plate of food for a family in Malawi earning $30/month, left, and for a Mexican family earning $6,342/month, right. (Zoriah Miller and Daniela Ortiz for Dollar Street)

Speaking to Fast Company, Fernanda Drumond, a project manager for the Gapminder Foundation, says Dollar Street breaks down stereotypes by showing myriad similarities across countries. “If you look at wealthy families in the United States and compare [them] to wealthy families in Mexico, and wealthy families in China or India, you’re going to see that they’re very similar,” she said. While the similarities are striking, they also display a decidedly western preference: A wealthy Ukranian family displays the latest iPhone; the TV of a Chinese family earning over $10,000 a month broadcasts an NBA game.

Toothbrushes belonging to a Swedish family earning $2,223/month, left, and the toothbrush of a Rwandan family earning $251/month, right. (Moa Karlberg and Johan Ericksson for Dollar Street)

Through Dollar Street, Rosling Rönnlund hopes to humanize the differences often understood only through statistics. During her TEDxStockholm talk, Rosling Rönnlund plays a video of families at all income levels brushing their teeth. It’s an activity that everyone does, but a motorized toothbrush in Sweden, at the higher end of the income spectrum, looks very different than a woman in Malawi, who brushes her teeth with her fingers.

Differences between cultures and income brackets run much deeper than can be fully expressed through a collection of photos, even the vast array that Dollar Street currently contains. But Rosling Rönnlund emphasizes that Dollar Street is still a work in progress. She has over 30,000 images to sort through, and envisions the site growing even larger into a collaborative platform, where families can submit their own household photos. “We want it to be possible for you to compare all nations, all cities, and all suburbs to see the diversity within the world,” she says. “It’s when we can start comparing across country borders that we start to see interesting patterns.”

H/t Fast Company

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