20 May 2011

Pretending to Be Poor is Fun! (and Useless)

When I learned about "Live Below the Line," I was going to shoot off a snarky post about the idea. Unfortunately, I have been on a semi-vacation and did not write the post. Fortunately, Good did write a post and it was much better and snarkier than anything I would have written.
Live Below the Line makes its first mistake in using the word "live." To live, at least in my mind, means to really experience something, to understand an existence in such a way that you could describe its nooks and crannies with your eyes closed. Not spending a lot of money on food isn't "living" below the line, because regardless of how you eat, chances are your home is still stocked with Ikea stuff, a comfortable bed, hot water, air conditioning, digital cable, etc. People forced to spend no more than $1.50 a day on food are also forced to live with violence, exposure to the elements, disease, and war. Saying you're living like them because you've decided to give up fancy sandwiches for five days is like someone saying they can empathize with Nelson Mandela because they spent a night in the drunk tank.
What strikes me is that this is "One Day Without Shoes" packaged with new wrapping paper and a shiny bow. Although two different writers, Good was much kinder to TOMS than it was to the Global Poverty Project when the two did the same thing. If you take the excerpt above and change the context to not wearing shoes for a day the appropriateness of the criticism would remain.

Author Cord Jefferson gets at the idea of the fact that it is patronizing. These types of campaigns want people to take a short period of time to experience what it is like to be living in poverty with a short-term projects meant to make them uncomfortable. The push is to say that it is an act of solidarity by living as many people around the world live every day.

What is missing from this is the fact that nobody is asking for people to experience it. I am sure that going to Kibera and telling people there that Americans are living on $1.25 a day to know what it is like to be from a slum would be met with a confused glare.

That aside, the exercise has no value because it is a simulation. The people living on very little money for a week have an end in sight. They have made the choice to enter simulated poverty and will leave it as soon as the week ends. Even if they were homeless for the week* they still get to go home with a bank account, job, family support, material goods, etc.

No matter what, the safety net will always be there. For someone living in poverty the net was never there and likely never will. Struggling to meet the needs of a family is constant, not a vacation. So, rather than continuing these exercises which miss the point and demean those living in poverty, let's look at poverty solutions through aid and development.

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After writing this, I read this comment by David Week on Ed Carr's post on the campaign:
One of my favourite books is “Instructions to the Cook”, by Bernard Glassman Roshi. This is a re-interpretation of an 800 year old Zen text, for modern times. And one of my favourite parts of this book is a description of how Glassman’s Zen community in NYC decided to set up a program for the homeless. Before doing so, they decided that they couldn’t help the homeless unless they understood the homeless, and the only way to understand them was to become homeless for a while. So all the workers in this program, including Glassman, spent two weeks homeless, living on the streets of NYC, meeting up just once every 24 hours to ensure everyone was okay.

The outcome: almost every preconception they had about the lives of the poor was turned its head.
I do not think this refutes my original argument in regards to the lack of permanence in such exercises, but does suggest that there might be an effective way to accomplish broader awareness. Living homeless for two weeks is very different than staying at home and surviving on $1.25 a day for a week, but they both still do have an end point. Overall, it would be impractical for every person to live among the homeless for two weeks, but personal experience can be a long-lasting solution.

Knowing David, he would want to also add the comment he shared with Ed, so I wanted to present it as something else to consider.

*A really good satire of this is the film Sullivan's Travels. See it.

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