Reflections on Living Below the Line
Last week, I lived below the international extreme poverty line for five days, in solidarity with the 1.4 billion people who have to do so every day. I did it to generate awareness about their situation, and to raise funds to address the injustice of extreme poverty. It was a challenging and thought-provoking week.
Thankfully for me, the poverty line of $1.25 a day from 2005 has been adjusted to $1.50, to account for inflation. Nonetheless, $1.50 doesn’t go very far in the up-market part of Manhattan where I’m privileged to live at the moment. Thanks to some good help from a colleague who lives in the slightly less expensive Brooklyn, I managed to procure the following food on my $7.50 budget for the week:
- 1 bag of rice
- 12 eggs
- 1 bag of lentils
- 1 bread
- 1 sweet potato
- 44 cents worth of bok choy (Chinese vegetable)
Money left over for (hypothetically) covering rent, health care, transport, education for my (hypothetical) kids: $0.00 – a disturbing observation, given that $1.50 a day in reality has to cover all expenses for the world’s extremely poor. All through the week, I tried to remind myself that I was far better off than every fifth individual on the planet every time I was tempted to complain.
While the physical hunger was tough, the psychological aspect of living below the line was the greatest challenge. Having grown up in countries where extreme poverty was an ever-visible part of my surroundings, I’ve always been passionate about this issue. Still, last week has changed me. After only five days, I can quite honestly say that I can relate much more to the profound sense of disempowerment that accompanies the physical deprivation of extreme poverty. To me, the intensity of this feeling was unexpected.
Below, you can read about some of my experiences and reflections as I recorded them during the week. At different points I went out to socialize with friends over a glass of water, I ate rice and lentils while everyone else was eating burgers and fries, and I sat in meetings with a lingering caffeine-withdrawal headache smelling the coffee that everyone around me was drinking. In addition to the hunger (which really dominates your thoughts), the feeling of being left out was quite a challenge. This is daily life for far too many people.
Although the days felt exceptionally long, the week came and went. Come Saturday morning, I euphorically devoured a large breakfast of eggs, sausage, yoghurt and fruit, washing it down with orange juice and several cups of coffee (quite a shock for my system, incidentally…). In retrospect, I reflected on the fact that I had probably devoured the good part of a week’s budget for a poor person in one single meal – which was a sobering observation. I am truly privileged.
The most common question I was asked during the week was: “why are you doing this? How will you starving yourself make anything better?” My answer: I believe that generating awareness is the first step to getting something done. I believe that each person in the more developed world has the power to make a difference – through everyday choices (e.g. using one’s consumer power to support fair trade and other such initiatives), through sharing some of their surplus with those less fortunate (i.e. through donating time or money to initiatives such as Generation, see www.salvationarmy.org.uk/generation), and through using their voice – encouraging the powers that be to do what they can to address the systemic issues that cause and perpetuate extreme poverty.
Far more can and must be done. I encourage you all to do your part.