Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sharing the Misery

Today, I read with interest, a column by a New York family undertaking the "Live Below the Line" challenge, spending a week living on $1.50 per day of food to get a sense of the extreme poverty line according to the World Bank. The couple decided to keep their young children out of the challenge and opted to try it for themselves, with cheat items like seasonings and cereal, and gladly accepting donations in the forms of cookies at work, when they were offered by friends.

The intention of the couple after this exercise is to donate the money that they would have otherwise spent on themselves during the course of a regular weeks' worth of groceries and have a greater awareness of how hard things can be for other people. It's a laudable goal, a good cause and it's probably a good example to their children so that they can learn and appreciate all that they have. But what really surprised me were the comments.

What could be so offensive about trying to live on a reduced budget and help other people in need? Apparently, it's the very fact that this couple even had the choice which is the problem. The backlash came from those people who have lived this way themselves, have been forced to include their children because there simply was no money available, and who couldn't afford in any way to cheat with seasonings or cream cheese. The tone of the article may have come across particularly bad when the author referred to this process as trying to solve a puzzle and trying to get it right- as if this was a game, when for many, this is a question of basic survival.

While this probably and justifiably caused the backlash, in the author's defense, I would like to say that this is still a good thing to do. Many anti-poverty movements are based on sharing the wealth, but it's not such a bad thing to share the misery, either. On the one hand, it causes increased awareness of what other people go through, empathy, relativity towards food and our attitude towards it and a general feeling against waste.

When you're forced to see food as a necessity and not a luxury and think about what you CAN have rather than what you would LIKE to have, it brings home the basic message that everyone has to eat and make good, responsible choices. You get a greater appreciation of the wealth and abundance that exists in the Western world and how this enriches your life. You also don't waste a scrap or conveniently 'forget' about lettuce. A reduced budget also means that you don't have access to convenience foods which are pre-packaged, meaning that you have to think and plan out your meals. This exercise teaches us to be more reasonable in our needs and many would agree that this is a lesson that people in the Western world sorely need.

So perhaps this couple should not be patting itself on its backs or making a big show of all that they have learned, although the article doesn't reek of self-congratulations, as some commentators suggest. A week of poverty living doesn't exactly make you Jesus or 'one of the people.' It can make you more aware and more responsible. It's a small lesson and a good reminder- and nothing to sniff at. Sacrifice, however small, is still sacrifice. These people aren't throwing caviar out the window. And you can bet that they're looking around the grocery store with very different, more considerate, eyes.

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