Why I won’t live below the line

In the last few weeks, I’ve been hearing more and more about the Oaktree Foundation’s Live Below the Line challenge. The idea is to spend only $10 on food for five days – thus ‘living’ on two dollars a day, an amount that has been defined as the extreme poverty line. In return, you ask people to sponsor you for your participation, and the money raised goes to aid charities in Cambodia and Papua New Guinea.

The campaign brands itself as raising awareness about extreme poverty and promoting empathy with people living below the $2-a-day line – but I’m questioning whether the campaign really reflects people’s actual lives and experiences and makes a useful contribution to society.

Look, I’m not doubting the sincerity of most of the people who jump into this campaign. I do believe that most people who participate do actually care about poverty and want to do their bit to help. But to me, there are some serious problems with the way this campaign works, and what the mindset behind it is.

To start off with, I’ll outline some of the individual problems with the challenge. First and most obviously, the campaign drastically overlooks the actual effects of poverty on people’s lives. Simply having $2 to spend on money isn’t the way it works when you’re living in extreme poverty. That $2 also has to cover your rent or accommodation, your education, your healthcare, your drinking water, your clothing. When it comes down to it, food is one of the smaller parts of your expenses when you’re living in poverty.

The rest of the challenge rules hardly reflect some of the social effects of poverty. For instance, the website suggests that you pool your money with friends to stretch your budget further. That might work in some situations in real life, but given that there is a high correlation between poverty and isolation from personal networks and family, people don’t always have those sorts of friends to fall back on to help. This is true in terms of networking and having friends and family to take the challenge with as well. If you’re not literate, don’t have access to educational resources and don’t know how to access them, then there’s no-one to trade recipes or share tips with either. If you’re feeling unwell, people living in poverty don’t simply have the choice of dropping out and going to see a doctor, either. Even the types of staples that the website recommends eating – potatoes, bread, lentils – aren’t exactly the cheapest foods to buy in supermarkets. Has the person who suggested these foods ever actually had to worry about buying them?

You might think I’m nit-picking with some of this. Maybe I am. But the stuff I’ve mentioned so far isn’t the stuff that bugs me most about this campaign. What makes me angry about this campaign is how it turns into privileged people acting at being poor and pretending that they can say that they know what it’s like.

Eating on $2 a day does not give you an idea of what it is like to live in poverty. It doesn’t take into account the layers and layers of intersecting disadvantage that come with poverty. It doesn’t take into account how poverty operates in a vicious cycle that often goes hand in hand with things like depression, violence and lack of access to education and resources.. And you know what? Poverty is not fun.

This is one of the promotional videos used for Live Below the Line. It starts off like this:

You’ve been wanting to do something good. You’ve heard about people eating on $2 a day for five days, and you like that kind of challenge. But of all the ways you could live on $2 a day, how would you do it?

Because yeah, you like the challenge of being poor for a while, but only if you can stop being poor at the end of the week and go back to your normal life, thinking you’ve become so much wiser for managing to survive.

It goes on to talk about all the fun! creative! ways that you can contribute to the challenge. Be the instagrammer and take fancy photos of your poor-people-food with your $600 iPhone! Be the master chef in the spacious kitchen of your own home, even if all you make is toast with raisins on top!

You know what this all reminds me of? MP Jenny Macklin’s statement that she could easily live on the dole for a week. All this talk, all these campaigns they’re completely missing the point. Poverty isn’t this fun thing you can play at for a week and then think you have an idea about. Poverty is ongoing, always in your face, and never fun.

The campaign prides itself in promoting empathy for people living in poverty, but to me, it seems like it’s having a bit of a joke at their expense, by making their lived experience into a bit of a luxury experiment. Playing at being poor isn’t taking a stand against something; it doesn’t make you magically able to empathise.

The other thing that people involved with this campaign (including the people I see around my uni) seem to ignore is that poverty isn’t this thing that only happens on the other side of the world. I know for a fact that there are people at our university who are struggling to feed themselves and their families every week. I know that there are homeless people living under the highway in Brisbane. I don’t by any means see myself as living in poverty, but even my income is significantly lower than the ACOSS poverty line in Australia, and I do know first hand what it’s like to stress out because I don’t have enough money for groceries anymore and I don’t know how I’m going to pay nest week’s rent.

I’m not saying there’s nothing of value to the Live Below the Line campaign. I’m not doubting that most people who undertake this challenge have good intentions, and the money that is raised certainly does something to help charities working in Cambodia and Papua New Guinea. And maybe some people do get an idea of the sense of absolute disempowerment and psychological effects of poverty while participating in the challenge, which is worthwhile.

There are ways to contribute to alleviating poverty. But I suggest that people stop playing at it themselves and educate themselves on what poverty actually involves and how it operates, and how it isn’t just a one-dimensional issue based on income alone. And I suggest that they look around themselves first, without the blindfold of the $2-a-day mantra.

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29 thoughts on “Why I won’t live below the line

  1. Even though I’ve never experienced poverty, I pretty much agree with you. If I wanted to live on two dollars a day for a week, or even spend no money for a week, that would be easy – pre-pay all of my expenses, stock up on food, and voila! no money spent in a week. I wouldn’t pretend that helps me understand what it’s like to live in poverty.

    And I agree that having a network of people who have your back is a big deal. For example, I recently experienced a decrease in my income, which is making my finances more fragile, and it is so very nice to know that, if shit were to hit the fan, my family (who has money) would help me out financially. I hope shit won’t hit the fan, and that I won’t have to ask my family to give me money, but I would be in psychologically worse shape if I didn’t have that as an option.

    Heck, it’s not just that I have family with money that they would be willing to use to help me. Even in my current position, I would only having trouble paying for necessities if shit hit the fan. For people living in deep poverty, paying for necessitites is an immediate problem, not a ‘if-shit-hit-the-fan’ problem.

  2. Wow, that video is crass beyond belief. The people who made it are clearly utterly clueless.

    Funnily enough, I know someone who has (very loudly) done this for the past couple of years and their recently ex-flatmate informed me that they would simply stock up on shopping the day before the challenge started then raid the cupboards all week while ‘spending’ the allocated money.

  3. Whilst i share an intuitive sense of uncomfortability about the live below the line challenge, this isn’t something to be angry about surely, this is at best something to constructively criticise..

    I’d completely agree that there’s something troubling about the suggestion which this campaign makes that to live on a reduced budget for a short period of time gives you a genuine taste of poverty; as you spell out poverty is a much more complex and intersecting array of challenges and disadvantages than simply reduced spending power for a week.

    That’s not the purpose of this campaign though, it’s clearly a fund and awareness raising project. It appears to be attempting to raise awareness of the presence of poverty around the world through the medium of giving people a taste of that world; what it’s not purporting to do is attempt to truly expose the realities of poverty to the people who take part.

    I dont think the video is unacceptable. It’s simply a marketing tool, aimed at those who wouldn’t normally be concious of poverty. The whole point of the campaign seems to be awareness, and you’d particularily want those who were unaware to pick up on it.

    I guess i’m just unsure what your complaining about. There’s clearly a majority of people who don’t understand the extent of poverty, nor do they understand people’s lived experience. This is an attempt to rectify that, and if the number of people who are aware of it is any indication there doing a pretty good job.

    1. Hi Lewis,

      I’m not saying anywhere that this campaign is rubbish and should therefore be stopped, and that no-one should participate (hence the title of this post: Why I won’t live below the line). I’m saying that I have criticisms of the campaign, and that for me, that makes me question its methods and not want to participate myself. I don’t believe that questioning something equals complaining about it. I just believe that the campaign doesn’t address some things I’d like it to address. We all have different perspectives that can contribute to debating the campaign, but in the end it’s up to us as individuals to say whether we’re on board or not.

      1. I have taken this challenge with the knowledge that I am fortunate enough that after the 5 days I shall go back to a relatively comfortable life style,and no doubt I am one of those rich people who you might think are ‘playing at being poor for a few day’ … but even if this is the case… if by sponsoring me and others like me…. we actually help raise awareness of poverty here in the UK and around the world then something good has come out of it.
        Even this debate itself is making us all think harder, and you are probably right there might be better ways to tackle poverty but this is only a step.
        Its only day one of poverty for me… but I know that all day today I certainly haven’t had ‘fun’ and have already thought about the stress that would be caused by constantly worrying about eating enough and properly has already been uppermost on my mind.

      2. I’ve seen the realities of poverty before and I took this challenge to remind myself of how things could be, not to pretend to know the ins and outs of poverty because unless you’ve lived there, you wont know.

        My experience throughout has been reflective of the fact that people in poverty don’t have as many options as I do living below the line in a developed country, as well as the fact that I’ve lived below £1 ($1.50) on food exclusive of other needs.

        I’ve also written a piece called ‘My apology to the woman in poverty’ on the blog at: https://www.livebelowtheline.com/me/ncsoko talking about the image and the name we’ve given (and not given in not recognising them for who they really are: resourceful, bold and strong) women in poverty based on our own misconceptions of what it really means, please check it out and feel free to sponsor me if you change your mind about the campaign.

        As much as I agree that it doesn’t entirely reflect what poverty is truly like, I believe the campaign has achieved it’s purpose in raising awareness and . More good has come out of participating than speculating/criticising. I admire your sense of justice and I think it should be directed towards making a change and not criticising those that are.

        Nevertheless, it’s your opinion and I understand you’re entitled to it; I just think it could take a different tone and become more constructive by directing your suggestions to the makers of the campaign, to build it up and see how they could improve it, not tear it down.

        Thanks.

  4. Aside from all the points you’ve mentioned, I have an issue with the double standard of food options people will take for that week. What fair trade items will someone be able to afford with $2? Anything organic in that basket? Free range? Cruelty free? Locally owned? Not from Aldi or another major supermarket chain?
    No. For that week, whilst simultaneously raising money for disadvantaged people, thousands will be pouring extra money* into the exploitative, big corporation owned factory farms that have been putting millions of people around the world into vulnerable positions in the first place.
    Considering their suggestions for “how you can keep making a difference once the challenge is over” is stuff like “shop fair trade, cruelty-free, from local suppliers” etc., I feel like the results of this exercise will be almost a nil-sum game, except a few privileged folk get to feel smug for a while.
    *I say extra money because I believe that the majority of people taking this challenge (primarily those with white privilege guilt) would normally otherwise try to limit the amount of support they give to those corporations.

    1. Thanks for your comment Krista, you raise an excellent point. There are many factors involved in the consumption of food, other than just price.

      1. exactly…. I still bought free range eggs… but it became a stressful decision and if I had to live on a low income daily I certainly would opt for cheaper unethical products and feel miserable for doing so! Making me as a ‘poor person’ feel even worse!

      2. Dorothy, I’m surprised you could even find free-range eggs for $2! Here in AU you can’t get any for less than $6 a packet, and that’d be 2/3 of your week’s allowance already gone.

  5. This is the most senseless essay I’ve seen in a while. People do not claim that they know what it is like to be one of the most impoverished people in the world; they just have a more comprehensible knowledge of how difficult it is to be poorer and how lucky they are. Of course, they do not believe that spending little on food is what poverty means! The campaign successfully raises awareness of how difficult it is to be poor; how lucky we are that we cannot experience that fully; how we should care more about the poor; and, how we should try to help the poor.
    Most importantly, this campaign raises huge amounts of money which make a positive difference. If you care about the poor, why would you oppose that?

    1. There are different ways about showing you care about people. I see critically thinking about what we’re taught about poverty as one of those things, rather than just an act of senselessness.

    2. Oliva is right. Live Below the Line DOES NOT give you a sense of living in poverty. Its a metaphor which tries to convey the feeling of a lack of resources one will have. Its a bit like 24 hour famine.

      And Jo, you are also completely correct. Poverty is not fun. But you know what, in this day and age, you can’t keep promoting the negative side of poverty. Even someone as empathetic as myself can dismiss a World Vision advertisement because they ALL say the SAME thing again and again. When its on tv, no one even looks up at it!

      LBL is great because it engages young people. And thats how you go about raising awareness about poverty. Though id like to keep donating to every organisation that needs funds, i am not exactly financially capable of that.

  6. I think you’ve missed the point a little bit. Obviously people cannot recreate poverty; as you say, it is not based on money alone and true poverty is so complex and multi-layered that the only real experience of poverty is poverty itself.

    However, I do think the point of this $2 a day for a week experience is still a worthy cause – it is getting some awareness for a cause you clearly feel passionate about, it is drawing at least some attention to our common reliance on food and choice, and it gets people at least experiencing a form of poverty, however crude and short-sighted.

    Therefore, I would argue it is still a very ‘right’ thing to do. It never claims to show people what poverty is really like, and all the people I know that are doing it are not narrow-minded enough to think this is the reality of poverty. I would also argue that you are placing more self-worth on the campaign than the campaign itself, for the very same reason.

    Finally, think of the alternatives. From reading this blog, it seems you would suggest one of two options – either people should encounter true poverty so as to really understand it, or should not take part in such a crude experience of poverty. It is money for a good cause, it at least gets people thinking and talking about poverty (as we both are now) and it is an experience, regardless of validity.

    Thanks for sharing though, I enjoyed the read!

    1. I think one alternative would be to foreground the voices of people living in poverty rather than speaking over them, which is something I see quite a lot of – in particular here in Australia. There are a lot of assumptions about poor people that are harmful stereotypes and as such some well-meaning charity work or fundraising efforts aren’t actually as effective as they could be because they have different ideas of services/support/funds that people need. It’s probably a bit different when you’re outside of the developed world, but it’s a principle that is still valuable.

      Either way – I’m not actually suggesting that people stop every bit of charity work or awareness raising. I still think that there can be some weird ethical issues with campaigns such as this one. But above all I just want people to critically engage with what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what they hope to achieve. This post is a year old but over the last two days has been getting so much traffic it’s incredible, so I guess it’s getting some people to do that.

  7. yes exactly…. its making us all think just how complicated poverty is an until we bring ethics into our aims and objectives…. not capitalism… its not really going to change… but we all have to start somewhere! and for the next 4 days I for one will be thinking a little harder about it all.

  8. While I agree with much of what you say, I don’t think people will come away thinking they know what it is like to be poor. They are aware that they have a bonus of housing, utilities and running hot and cold water. What it does do is raise the awareness of those around them, and makes them realize how much more they have than those who have to live this way. It results in donations to organizations who can make some headway into the problem. I’m not doing it because I know very well I would not to be able to pull it off, but I support those who do. Most people who take this on are fully aware of how rich they are even on 1.75 per day for food. It’s a lesson in awareness, and I think it is a noble one. Any education about the problem is good. The person I know who is doing this has not “stocked up”. She spent her 8.70 cents and it when it runs out, she will experience hunger. And no, she won’t think she has experienced true poverty. She has raised almost $1000 so far, and will spend her own money on a community dinner after it is over. I think you are assuming a whole lot here about the people who take this on. You are the one who thinks you would be pretending to be poor. I’m sure this is not the majority who take on the challenge. At least I’m honest that I won’t be doing it because I couldn’t pull it off.

    1. Thank you Kasandra….. its only day two for me and I am craving for some fruit … which I can’t afford for the next few days… can’t even imagine how miserable it would be to constantly be in that state!

  9. I am taking the challenge, and I am in no way pretending to be poor. I am fully aware that this is just a fragment of the big picture, and does not properly reflect the daily reality for many people.

    I am taking the challenge alone, and I am not using anything that I have in my cupboards or fridge from before. That’s FYI for the people who say they could easily do this without spending any money at all. I know it’s just for five days, but trust me, if you had to start with absolutely nothing, and had just the daily allowance to spend, it would make you think a little differently.

    I am taking the challenge, fully knowing I can do it, without a problem. Ironically, though, if I just went and asked people to open their wallets and contribute to a charity of my choice, they likely wouldn’t. But if I take on something they know they could’t or wouldn’t want to do, they DO open those same wallets. Not to mention that the money I do not spend on food this week, I will also turn over to the organization I have chosen to partner with for this.

    The challenge is a conversation starter everywhere I go. I don’t think that’s a bad thing because it ALWAYS turns into how easy it is to do this for five days versus how hard it would be to live like this.

    So, how about instead of complaining how this is all wrong, you give up ONE food-related luxury this week, and donate whatever it would have cost you to the charity of your choice?

    1. Would you kindly not assume that you know anything about what I do and don’t spend money on? Because believe it or not, ‘luxury food items’ aren’t something I tend to be able to buy. In fact, every time I go to the supermarket, I have to weigh up whether I can even buy cheese or eggs or anything beyond the basics and still pay my rent. So don’t assume that I’m just complaining with no idea. It may not be the same as extreme poverty, but I do have personal experience with food struggles.

      There have been a lot of comments in the last two days accusing me of thinking this campaign is totally worthless. I actually don’t think that. But I do think it needs to be approached critically, and that that actually increases the value of the campaign. I’d appreciate if future comments could take that into account.

  10. Wow. That’s a pretty harsh reply! I could respond in kind but that really wouldn’t be productive, would it.

    I have, however, always thought that it’s better to come up with actual ideas HOW to do something better instead of just pointing out how others aren’t doing it well enough. Come up with a better way and I will support it.

    1. I made some suggestions in my reply to consciencenonsense’s comment above, including foregrounding the voices of people who are living in poverty in awareness campaigns, as well as promoting more critical engagement with intersecting levels of disadvantage around poverty. I don’t think you can dismiss someone’s criticism just because they don’t have the time to come up with a ten-step plan for you. Poverty is a systemic problem and not one that I have all the answers to off the cuff.

      I apologise if my first reply came across as abrasive. I don’t like it when people assume that I’m motivated by laziness or selfishness, especially when I mentioned in the post itself that I do have some experience with food struggles myself. In everything I write or do in a social justice context, I try not to assume what other people’s backgrounds are, so I would like to assume that other people will do likewise. I hope that is understandable.

      1. The main point of the challenge is fund raising. Hence the “team up and have fun” aspect – the more people participate, the more money is raised.

        You seem to have indicated that most people in this challenge are “privileged” and just having fun experimenting at other people’s expense. That’s a huge assumption and and I imagine somewhat insulting to some people.

        Best of luck in everything you undertake and take care!

  11. Fascinating conversation. Makes me think about the religious practice of fasting in which individuals curtail their consumption of some or all forms of food, in part in order to develop a sense of solidarity with those who have less. It’s not the sole purpose, and it doesn’t happen in 5 days. But if there’s no way for well-off people to at least imagine that they can develop compassion for others, then the world is left in a pretty hopeless place.

  12. I’ve taken part in LBTL the past couple years. I think it does a pretty good job at raising “awareness”, in that everyone I initially talk to about it says, “Well, I bet $1.50 US goes a lot further in poor countries”, and I have to explain that the extreme poverty line is adjusted for purchasing power, which usually blows their minds. I also tell them that people that are below the poverty line live wholly on $1.50 a day, for everything … food, shelter, healthcare, education … and their minds pretty much melt. So definite kudos to LBTL for promoting this kind of discussion. It’s been a disappointment to me in terms of actual fundraising, at least here in the US. We raised just south of $400K in the US this year, which is a lot of hoopla for such a comparatively small sum.
    I can sympathize with the idea of rich people playing poor, but I would encourage you to just try it one year, and see what the experience is like for you. I find for myself that it really makes me realize the absolute luxury of my normal life. I live pretty modestly compared to many of my peers, but five days of eating rice and beans and not doing any of the things I’m used to doing kind of resets my notion of “normal”. I also appreciate that it gives me something physical to do that manifests my concern for global poverty, aside from just giving money. I find it really difficult to stay emotionally engaged in a cause without taking part in some kind of actual action occasionally (even if that action is really just symbolic). That’s one of the main reasons I go to animal protests and take part in LBTL. Really, it’s the money that I give to these causes that actually makes a difference to the people and animals I’m trying to help, but actually physically doing something helps keep me on point mentally.
    I would really encourage you to try this, just to see what kind of impact it has on you mentally. Even if you just do it on your own, privately, sometime over the year, you may find something worthwhile in it.

  13. Reblogged this on Yes this is Amy and commented:
    Wonderful stuff – a continually relevant reminder to critically evaluate our actions, even (and especially, perhaps) those with good intentions.

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