What can you get for $300 a month in Baghdad these days?

What can you get for $300 a month in Baghdad these days?

What can you get for $300 a month in Baghdad these days?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 12 2008 3:47 PM

Brother, Can You Spare a Dinar?

What kind of lifestyle can an Iraqi neighborhood patrol officer afford?

Sahwas payday. Click image to expand.
A neighborhood patrolman gets his weekly salary in Baghdad

The Iraqi government this week assumed responsibility from the United States for paying the salaries of the Sons of Iraq, the formerly disaffected Sunnis who now serve as neighborhood patrol officers in cities throughout the country. Their monthly salary is approximately $300. How well can a Son of Iraq live on $300 in Baghdad?

He'll need a roommate and some help from his family. Sons of Iraq who live on their own may have to avoid indulgences like air conditioning or chicken dinners. (Many rely on support payments from clans or tribal sheiks.) Rent alone can consume most of their budget. Real estate prices in Baghdad have skyrocketed. A two-bedroom apartment in a safe area currently costs around $400 per month. A small house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood is out of reach at $150,000. Real estate prices in many areas have doubled in the past year and continue to climb due to security improvements and a housing shortage.

Fortunately, basic food staples are affordable. The government's Public Distribution System supplies subsidized monthly food parcels to two-thirds of Iraqi citizens. For approximately 16 cents per month, recipients are entitled to a basket of 10 basic products, including flour, rice, sugar, salt, and cooking oil. The parcel supplies the minimum daily caloric intake requirement, but the central government has discussed steep cuts to the program.

Other food items are expensive. A Son of Iraq earns less than 8 percent of the median U.S. law-enforcement officer's salary, but he pays close to the same prices for meats and vegetables. A pound of potatoes in Baghdad costs 75 cents, slightly more than the U.S. price of 67 cents per pound. A pound of chicken would cost a Son of Iraq $1.63, compared with an average U.S. price of $ 2.08.

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Electricity is supplied at low rates by the government, but it is unavailable for much of the day. During outages, residents turn to personal or neighborhood generators. The cost can run anywhere from $50 to $150 per month to run a fan, lights, and basic appliances. The cost of operating an air conditioner is too much for many Sons of Iraq, despite average highs of over 100 degrees in the hottest months.

Inflation also threatens the already tenuous financial position of the Sons of Iraq. Last year, Iraq's 60 percent inflation was second in the world only to the incredible 100,000 percent inflation in Zimbabwe. In one month alone this year, Iraqi food prices rose by 13.6 percent.

Relatively speaking, the Sons of Iraq are paid poorly for their line of work. Official Iraqi police officers and soldiers earn twice as much as the Sons of Iraq. The Sons' salary would be more comparable to that of a Baghdad butcher. However, many Sons of Iraq are illiterate or otherwise underqualified for official police work. The salary was also set in 2006, when the cost of living was lower, and the majority of the Sons lived in Anbar, a less expensive locale.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Eric Davis of Rutgers University and Corey Flintoff of National Public Radio.

Brian Palmer covers science and medicine for Slate.