The Census Fails to Count 100 Million People as Living in Poverty

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In this Real News Network interview, IPS Fellow Karen Dolan, who works with the Poor People’s Campaign, discusses her new study on poverty in the US.

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us once again.

So how do you really measure poverty? When the war on poverty started in 1964 by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, we used measurements that focused on food cost and other metrics that really don’t speak to 21st-century realities. Listen, I mean, it was a book that came out by Michael Harrington in 1962 called The Other America. It was about the poverty in America, in Appalachia, in the inner cities, and across America, in the barrios. And nobody in our country wanted to even admit that we had a problem. And Michael Harrington pushed that envelope.

And actually, between Michael Harrington and the people in SNCC, and the war against racism in America, it pushed the U.S. government to create a war on poverty. Well, the U.S. Census now says that poverty is falling down to 11.8%, and that means 38.1 million Americans. Yet another study shows that 40% of all Americans could not find $400 in an emergency. So how do you measure poverty? Well, the new study coming out of the Institute for Policy Studies says another hundred million Americans at least are languishing in poverty, hidden by the data.

The author of that report is the Institute for Policy Studies Fellow, Karen Dolan, who directs their Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project; and co-author of the IPS Poor People’s Campaign reports, The Soul of Poor Folk and A Poor People’s Moral Budget. And Karen, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.

KAREN DOLAN: Thank you, Marc. Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: It’s great to see you. So I mean, when you look at this question of poverty, if you look at this census map that they have that just talks about poverty, and you look at this map and see where it is… And I looked at the thing, and since I’m in Maryland, Maryland popped up with just 10% of the people being in poverty. I went, “What? 10%? Impossible. That’s ridiculous.” So talk a bit about the origin of your work and what you did, and why you maintain that the poverty rate in America is so much higher, and what it really is.

KAREN DOLAN: I don’t think it’s uncontroversial that the poverty… Well, among conservatives who’d like to cut social services, they will make the claim that poverty is eradicated already in the United States. But for most social scientists, it’s not uncontroversial that the way we measure poverty in the U.S. is under-counting poverty drastically. So we’re relying on an almost 60-year-old measure that looks at very limited ways in which we decide who is poor and who is not poor. And it doesn’t adequately catch the level of economic hardship in this country.

And so, the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Census Bureau has responded in the last several years by acknowledging something called the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which is a little bit more comprehensive. And it is specific by geography. So it takes into account some of the cost of living and those sort of things and does count some of the supports that people get, and also out-of-pocket expenses for medical care and work and childcare and things like that that are necessary for people to live. The official poverty measure doesn’t do that. However, even with that measure–we’re just talking about a family–the official poverty measure is a family of four in 2018 getting by on $25,000. That isn’t really subsistence living. And even with the Supplemental Poverty Measure, we don’t get that much higher.

So let’s say you’re making–so you’re not under the poverty level–you’re making $30,000 for a family of four. You’re not able to get by and have the kind of full life that people, especially living in most wealthy country in the world, should have. So we, along with the Poor People’s Campaign, are looking at a different way to measure poverty that really gets at that number that you were talking about, that you showed at the beginning of your segment here, about that 40% who are $400 away from an emergency. Well, a $400 emergency happens almost daily to families in this country. And if you’re not able to respond to that without borrowing, without going into debt, without jumping off the cliff into poverty, then you’re really not living a financially secure life. And that’s the case for what we’ve estimated to be nearly 140 million people on the U.S.

MARC STEINER: So I’m curious how we translate that that politically. I was thinking about that on my way back from the dentist this morning. When I got to the dentist, I was thinking about our conversation today because they said, “Oh, Marc, by the way, you need a root canal right away.” I went, “What?” So I went to the other dentist, and the root canal is going to be $1800. It’s insane. And then I think, “Well, supposing I wasn’t working, supposing I was working two or three jobs to make ends meet, to make sure that my kids had food on the table and I could put clothes on their back to get them to school, how would I pay for that? How would I live?” And I could be making 40 grand a year and not be able to find that money if I had a wife and a couple of kids. I mean–

KAREN DOLAN: That’s right.

MARC STEINER: I’m saying… but I don’t think people get that, how deep that really is.

KAREN DOLAN: I think a lot of people feel it. Because we know that is the way we live our everyday lives, even people who have full-time work, some people who are lucky enough to have health insurance through their employer or be able to afford health insurance. The Affordable Care Act has helped a lot of people have health insurance that couldn’t have it before because medical debt is the number one reason for personal bankruptcy in the United States. So people do feel this. We know it on a gut level. But when we see census data that comes out that says… Like your response when you looked at the–

MARC STEINER: Census map? Yeah.

KAREN DOLAN: Yeah, when you looked at the census map and you saw that it says only 10% of people in Maryland live in poverty, when you know at the gut level that that’s not true, and you know your own sense of precariousness. So people understand that, I think. And we’re really trying to speak to the situation that people know that they’re in and talk about, this is a reality for nearly 40% of us, and even above that. So maybe above the 40%, you could afford a $400 emergency, but you might not be able to afford an $1800 root canal. So that’s going to capture even a lot more people.

MARC STEINER: So when you look at these charts, they talk about the cost of medical care and the amount of people who have lost medical care in this country over the last couple of years. It’s actually pretty stunning. I mean, there are more and more people–especially in communities of color; foreign born–that do not have health insurance. It’s just rising exponentially, going towards 20%, as we can see from this chart. And I think that these are the kinds of factors that we’re not always taking into account when we talk about how you measure poverty, how you define what poverty means. Because I think most people in this country, Karen, even if they are in that area where they are tight for money, can’t find the 400 bucks. And we’re talking about hundreds of millions; 140-150 million people, maybe more–you can tell us better about that–people don’t want to think of themselves in poverty either.

KAREN DOLAN: People don’t.

MARC STEINER: Because it’s such a stigma.

KAREN DOLAN: There’s a stigma. And that’s also what the Poor People’s Campaign and the reports that we’ve put out, and the message that we’re trying to put out, that it’s a deliberate attempt. So there’s not only an attempt to hide the poor, there’s also an attempt to–there always has been–to stigmatize the poor as if it’s a character fault. But of course, it’s not a character fault. It’s not laziness. People who are struggling to get by are working two, three, four jobs. So they’re extremely hardworking people.

These are systemic problems. So these are systemic problems in the wealthiest nation in the world; that is a choice. It is a political choice that we have so many people in poverty and so many low-income people struggling to get by. We need to make different choices.

We can, for instance, cut the military budget by $350 billion and afford Medicare for All. We can have a fair taxation policy on the wealthy and corporations, and closing loopholes, and we can get $900 billion out of that. We can get billions of dollars of switching to clean energy and stopping subsidies from fossil fuels. So the Poor People’s Campaign and the reports that we have written on the Moral Budget and on the Souls of Poor Folk, it looks at those interlocking oppressions, how they are systematic, how they are political choices, and how we can make different political choices so that people are not stigmatized, but so that we have chosen to have a society in which everyone can thrive.

MARC STEINER: Right. And so, politically… I mean, I wonder how that gets pushed. Now you have Trump saying because of his thing called the Chained Consumer Price Index–which I had no idea what that meant until I read the article–that way they measure poverty, and poverty is less. So he talks about poverty going down in his administration, not going up. Your reality, your painting for where America is, is much broader than that. So the question becomes how to explain to people about what you’re saying is the depth of poverty, and have people see that given there’s this huge push from the other side saying it’s not as great as it was, that it’s actually going down.

KAREN DOLAN: Well, I think that people aren’t going to fall for this sort of sleight of hand of, “Oh, magically, we’re going to count poverty differently.” Right? So the Consumer Price Index would say, “Oh, the price of gas goes up. So instead of driving gas guzzlers, a person’s going to go out and buy an electric car.” Well, that doesn’t work for people that don’t have the kind of money.

MARC STEINER: Right. After you pay $1800 to get your root canal done, then you go out and buy a Prius because your car costs too much money, you can’t afford the gas. Right.

KAREN DOLAN: That’s right. That’s right. So people that are struggling cannot change their consumer habits in that way. And people do know that. You’ll also see it though, you see, in polling data, you see a huge support for Medicare for All, for instance. You see that people understand the unfairness of all the tax cuts going to the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. So there’s a fundamental sense of justice where I think that people aren’t going to be fooled by these tricks from conservatives. And conservatives want to have it both ways. They’ll say, “Oh, the war on poverty hasn’t worked. These social safety net programs haven’t worked.” Yet, they also want to say, “Oh, there’s no poverty at all.” So which one is it? I mean, both of the stories are false on their face. And these are our lived realities, so we know what these are.

We know, fundamentally, that many of the economic systems are rigged in this country. We know who is benefiting and who isn’t, because the vast majority of us aren’t. And so, just treading water and just getting by isn’t the kind of future we want for our children. So these are very bread-and-butter issues that are very important to all Americans. So when you see some of these proposals from, say a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren, populists that have the message about how we can all thrive, and how we all can have a more just and fair society, that does attract people. People are attracted to that. They’re very taken by Reverend Barber and Reverend Liz Theoharis and the Poor People’s Campaign. That’s now in 43 states, and they’re on a bus tour across the country, and people are really paying attention.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, last week in the midst of all this impeachment hoopla, dropped a program, announced a program, the Just Society Program. And it has five very ambitious bills to attack poverty at its roots. So the more that we’re looking at the systemic causes of poverty, the more we’re talking out loud, getting presidential candidates and other lawmakers to speak about the systemic causes of poverty, get rid of that stigma, get rid of that myth that it is a character flaw in individuals, then people understand it because they’re living it.

And by the way, the Poor People’s Campaign also makes a point of pointing out that the vast majority of poor people in the United States are white. It disproportionately affects people of color, but the vast majority of poor people are white. This has become a racialized issue, especially under Reagan, but goes back before Reagan, but the whole so-called “welfare queen,” these myths that attack people’s character and become very racialized. So the Poor People’s Campaign and our work tries to look at these interlocking oppressions of mass incarceration, denying voting rights, assaulting our democracy, bloated Pentagon budgets, not just paying attention to helping the climate, but actually hurting the climate, and climate injustice by having pollution, and leaded water, and toxic chemicals in schools, in poor communities. At the same time, propping up the very polluting corporations that are hurting most of us.

MARC STEINER: And I think that what you’re saying is really important. I think connecting those dots is really important. As we face this moment with this impeachment process, we forget that it’s issues like this that can push an agenda to change America. And they can get lost in all the other rhetorical battles of the moment. And I think that’s really important to understand.

And Karen Dolan, I do appreciate the work you do a great deal. And thank you so much for taking your time here with The Real News today. And I look forward to really many more in-depth conversations with you, Reverend Barber, Liz Theoharis, and others to really kind of get under this issue for Americans who really grasp who we are and what we’re facing, and how we can change it. So thanks for your work, and thanks for joining us today.

KAREN DOLAN: Thank you, Marc.

MARC STEINER: It’s always a pleasure. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Please let us know what you think. Go on our website and just send us a message. We’d like to hear from you. Take care.

DHARNA NOOR: Hey y’all, my name is Dharna Noor and I’m a Climate Crisis Reporter here at The Real News Network. This is a crucial moment for humanity and for the planet. So if you like what we do, please, please support us by subscribing at the link below. Thank you.

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  1. tegnost

    Re “Trumps chained CPI”

    I think it was coined as “The Grand Bargain”, but around here we called it “The Grand Betrayal”

    FTA…Obama’s backtracking set off a furious reaction from seniors groups and progressive activists, who for the next few months mobilized their members to pressure Congress to reject the proposed change. By April 2013, 2.3 million Americans had signed petitions calling on the president to back off of chained CPI. The signatures were presented at a White House rally that featured Sanders, who vowed to “do everything in my power to block President Obama’s proposal to cut benefits for Social Security recipients through a chained consumer price index.”
    Thanks Bernie!
    I got a kick out of the tweet from her highness, paraphrased here for clarity
    How dare you to force me to make a public promise that contradicts my private position!

  2. Arthur Turovh Himmelman

    I can confirm the data in this article anecdotally from my ongoing efforts to help people living with extreme “economic hardship.” I am wondering if the mainstream media’s unwillingness to better inform the American people about these very serious issues is mainly willful ignorance or intentional deceit. I hope the former because studies like this can at least challenge willful ignorance. Of course, the lack of coverage is likely a constantly changing combination of both.

    1. David B Harrison

      Try intentional deceit.They know who butters their bread and they are going to protect them at all cost.As I have said before, all protest should be directed against the MSM.They are the guardians of injustice.

  3. BernieBro7

    I was looking for some realistic income numbers as to where the floor is on ‘poverty level’ in this article and across a google search, got frustrated, so here are my own. Having lived this experience in SE Michigan for the last 45 years, I consider myself an expert. This is to show a base amount, obviously, millions struggle along on much less.

    Basing my philosophy on Social Security Administration’s own advice I’m using one third of household income for housing costs (again, SE Michigan is a secondary or tertiary market zone), as a guideline. Rent for a studio apartment (500 sq ft) plus heat and lights runs about $600/mo. Adding in taxes of 14% (State of Michigan flat 4%, SS 6.7% Federal 2%), yields these monthly amounts of minimum income for 1, 2, 3 and four person households. Each additional person in the household was calculated to cost about 60% more.
    $2,052.00, $3,283.20, $4,514.40, $5,745.60.

    1. BernieBro7

      The editor timed out. To clarify, a family of four living on $5700/mo would currently face more than 2% Federal tax rate so the numbers are really just back of the envelope type.

      1. Anarcissie

        I think this sort of account — money and the things that money is needed for — is far more effective than talking about gut feelings. The latter will not convince skeptics who may have different feelings.

        I doubt that the United States is the most wealthy country in the world, speaking in terms of the per capita median. Indeed, the present wealth of the über-rich seems to be mostly funny money, so much of their apparent wealth may be entirely fictitious. It’s hard to say, given the fact that thousands of very intelligent people labor ceaselessly to hide the facts. I suppose we in the US are fortunate in still having a lot of agricultural land; if only we New Yorkers can convince the despised farmers of Kansas to keep sending us food for whatever it is we send them. Crap television shows? Arcane financial swindles? Toxic politicians?

        1. John Wright

          Good point.

          I get irritated when I see the “USA is the wealthiest country in the world” statement.

          A wealthy country SHOULD have invested in public held-in-common goods such as good infrastructure, good public transit, good public health facilities, and good and inexpensive education.

          If the USA were improved in any of the above, the average Joe/Josephine would benefit by the use of common goods/facilities that are not dollar denominated and not counted as part of their (or anyone’s) personal wealth.

          Too much of the time the political class gets to “grade its own test” by choosing a metric that helps them justify the current legislative process.

          Now RussiaGate and the impeachment process give the political class even more opportunity to avoid doing something that would improve the voters’ lives.

    2. inode_buddha

      I would like to point out that your figures work out to around $16/hr for a 50-hr week, after taxes, for a single person.

      I know, because I’ve spent the last few years living on that, and the infuriating part is that its the best I’ve ever done in my life. That is after completing 3 trade schools (at own expense), and 30+ yrs experience.

      What is wrong with America is that we are owned and governed by those who have no shame whatsoever,
      and sleep very soundly on piles of money because of it.

  4. Susan the other`

    You would think that back in the early 2000s after offshoring had clearly failed, when world leaders realized we had a critical problem with exponentiating capitalism in order to maintain growth in order to maintain capitalism and when ploy after scam failed to rein it all in and money finally accumulated like garbage, that somebody somewhere would have said, Hey we’re headed for utter disaster. But no. LBJ couldn’t budge the “14%” poverty rate of the US with all his efforts. And that was before the real SHTF. When the GFC clocked us it wasn’t an accident. We had foolishly made the decision to just let it happen because there wasn’t anything we could do as a “capitalist” country to stop it and it was part of the free market process. Some people somewhere must have known that it was all over but the shouting. Instead of changing our social system to accommodate the inequality that hit us like a tsunami, we pretended it would all work out. We still aren’t ready to admit things won’t set themselves right. But they won’t. They never have and they never will. I believe Karen Dolan when she says we have a nearly 50% poverty rate. When capitalism comes to a screeching halt; when labor is chopped off at the knees and pension funds are raided what else can possibly happen? That’s just one more reason why the Medical Industrial Complex is such an absurdity. It is a throwback to innocent times, before anyone knew capitalism without social justice was a very dead end.

  5. Henry Moon Pie`

    “So let’s say you’re making–so you’re not under the poverty level–you’re making $30,000 for a family of four. You’re not able to get by and have the kind of full life that people, especially living in most wealthy country in the world, should have.” (emphasis added)

    Money spent in a year is closely correlated to one’s adverse impact on the environment, including carbon contribution. To reduce adverse environmental impacts, we need to be reducing income, not increasing it. At the same time, as this article points out, there are many of us already suffering from an acute lack of health care, housing and education.

    I live on $650/month after Part B is taken out of my SS. If I had free medical, dental and optometric care, I’d have no complaint. That’s possible because I have close-to-free housing by virtue of undertaking a house rehab project over the past 8 years that’s provided mortgage-free, (eventually) comfortable housing for as many as six adults. Pooling our resources, each of us is able to pay around $125/month to cover all utilities, property taxes, insurance, cell phones and even some streaming subscriptions. For food, we garden, buy in bulk, can/freeze and hardly ever eat out. For transportation, I drive a 16-year-old van that I’m able to keep running, mostly doing my own mechanic work. I’m also 1/2 a block from 24-hour public transportation that I use when I don’t have to haul something.

    It doesn’t take a lot of money to live the author’s “full life” with a few provisos:

    1) No one should be without health care in a country this rich, and health care in a civilized system includes dental care, mental health care and vision correction;

    2) Society’s stake in educating its populace, especially the young, requires that money be no barrier to obtaining an education;

    3) No child should ever be left neglected because the custodial family member doesn’t have the time or the money to provide quality care.

    As for housing, the neighborhood of century-old multi-family houses where I live reminds us that extended families used to share housing and pool resources. The “nuclear family” concept was a great way to sell more houses in the ‘burbs, but it has burdened the environment, made families much more vulnerable to economic shocks and given birth to neglected “latchkey kids.”

    Let’s not adopt a standard for a “full life” that dictates a newer-model SUV, even an electric one, in every garage along with a single-family house in the ‘burbs. There are plenty of poor folks in my neighborhood who lead “full lives” on very little money. Let’s make sure all those folks have those “basics” like health care and a quality education for their kids while teaching the middle class how to live a “full life” without keeping up with the Joneses.

  6. bmeisen

    With all due respect to the dedicated people working on it, the US census is an obsolete instrument that is further weakened by the misinformed expectations placed in it. A democracy justly collects information on its free citizens in order to serve them most effectively, for example by putting schools and teachers where kids are. The most efficient, least invasive instrument for gathering this information is not a census conducted every 10 yrs but a citizen registration requirement: a law that requires every resident to register with local authorities when taking up residence in a locality. Name, address, birthdate, nationality, previous residence. More info is not needed. Without documentation of registration individuals cannot access municipal services including drivers license, education, usd of dump, water, and no voting. With a current and accurate profile of the population the kind of discrepancy discussed here would be less likely.

    1. JBird4049

      Oh, God, no. That is an extremely foolish and possibly deadly idea. The constitutionally required decadal census is necessary to apportion representation in the federal and state legislature as well as giving the raw numbers needed for such things as planing for the required public infrastructure. The current census questionnaire, while useful, is not required.

      Drilling down into a person’s life, demanding everything about themselves, and then requiring identity documents to go anywhere, do anything, and get any services is how authoritarian governments control their people. The Antebellum South, Nazi Germany and the occupied countries, and China since 1949 did or do require documents to get anything. If you did not have them, at best, you would be denied services and, at worse, arrest, torture, and long imprisonment.

      Also consider that the people who need services the most are the ones most likely not to have any documents. The lack of such papers like a birth certificate has been used to deny the old, the poor, and the isolated from getting services and being threatened with deportation. Just look at the last four Presidential Administrations or a future Clintonesta one and think of the possibilities for abuse.

      1. bmeisen

        Thank you for your response. You are misinformed. Most advanced first world democracies including all Scandinavians require citizen registration. The UK and the USA do not and arguably the Wall hysteria and Brexit would not be happening if both countries caught up with advanced democracies. The notion that we have to protect those who are unable to present documentation and thereby disadvantage the vast majority is Kennedy guilt-tripping at its worst. Yes even the poor can get to city hall – might be a good reason to invest in rural mass transit. And the notion that anyone who sets foot in a country deserves to stay there is absurd. Yes, citizens enjoy more rights and privileges than non-citizens, and all of us should register.

        1. JBird4049

          I really agree on the mass transit. I disagree on everything else.

          A society should be judged by how it treats its most disadvantaged and not the well off.
          The majority of people in American who lack what could be called proper documentation are native born American citizens. This includes the growing numbers angrily living in the underclass

          Using the pretext of better delivery services to this growing American underclass for better knowledge and therefor control of the population is a good tool for an authoritarian or corrupt government. American government is growing more corrupt, more authoritarian, more lawless, more dysfunctional, and frighten at the possibility of push back by the ballot box, demonstrations and reform movements, or worse for all, by the gun at all three levels, that of federal, state, and municipal.

          There is no need at all for me to register with the local government with documentation every I move for me to get my garbage collected, water delivered, medical care delivered, or perhaps even get social services. It however is a great way to keep track of, and control the movements of me. Claiming Kennedy-est guilt tripping is denying both the historical and practical realities of this. Perhaps, maybe in later decades that might change, but not in our lifetimes.

  7. cripes

    “Still no leads on killing of Joshua Brown, key witness in ex-cop Amber Guyger’s murder case in Dallas:


    1. barrisj

      Brown apparently had an attempt on his life well before the Dallas cop murder trial, and his family reckoned that the shooter or shooters were still tracking him…not saying, of course, that some post-trial vigilante action wasn’t responsible.

  8. Tomonthebeach

    Psychologically-speaking, no calculus that defines almost 1/3 of the country as poor will be accepted by policymakers in a country that brags it is the richest in the world (alas, few of us have ever been to Norway). Moreover, neither will the American people who would fall into that expanded category because they too think of themselves as rich or on a path to rich.

    This sad fact of American culture is why the poor will always be with us – but out of sight.

    1. jrs

      I don’t think almost anyone who is poor thinks of themselves as rich. It’s not actual possible to live in that degree of denial about things that are in one’s face every day (distant stuff yes like climate change or foreign wars, yes, but not things so directly lived). Those better off, truly middle class might think of themselves as rich, but they aren’t the bottom 3rd (and they might be rich by global standards). And thinking one will get rich, how many rich people do you think poor people know? Does buying lottery tickets really indicate a high expectation of getting rich?

      1. JBird4049

        The problem now is just how hard it is to become middle, never mind upper, class and how easy it is to fall all the way down into the working, or just poor, class. That is a cause for much of the corruption. In the past, playing by the rules got you fed and often a rise in class. The precariat is corroding its way into the top 20% and approaching the Credentialed Class or the top 10%. Too many refuse to see it, but their subconscious, the part that remembers being hungry and being prey does. It gives power to their more vicious side.

        1. alan2102

          JBird4049, I wish I could understand what you’re talking about. “CORRODING its way INTO”? What is that supposed to mean? Last two sentences do not make sense either. Who are you talking about?

  9. RDE

    About that $1800 root canal operation for the 40% of Americans who don’t have $400 in savings—.

    Last year I had a old root implant canal fail. I was referred to a specialist by my primary dentist. The price quoted— $1800..Of course my Medicare was no help because dental needs are not considered health needs in the USA.

    The next morning I was on a flight to Mexico where the same operation cost $280. Total cost for the round trip airfare and a week in a nice hotel on the beach was $1100— still $700 less than staying in the US. I wonder who the real poor are— the 40% who can’t afford health care in the US or the citizens of a second world country who can?

    1. alan2102

      YEP. Step across the border into Los Algodones, and suddenly you have 100 options at a modest fraction of U.S. prices. For my extensive dental work, however, I chose the Cavallini clinic in Costa Rica. Excellent care. 7 implants, full zirconia restorations, sinus lift, $13K all-in (including hotels and flights). Was quoted $50+K by U.S. dentist.
      It has been about a year since the work was completed. I’m now happily chomping on raw carrots, popcorn, and anything else I like, whereas before I was down to smoothies and cottage cheese. Huge quality of life issue.

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