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.