Sunday, November 27, 2011

Playing at poverty

The Food Research Action Center has issued a Food Stamp Challenge. The goal is to live on the average food stamp budget (about $3/day) for a week to catch a glimpse of what it might be like to be in poverty. There are some really good diaries on Daily Kos about people musing about poverty, and trying the challenge.
Pretending to be poor is a lot of work. That's both because being poor is a lot of work and because, the more distance between a person and poverty, the less their life is organized in a way that accommodates pretending.
Conducting the thought experiment of poverty, or some selected piece of poverty, is a not uncommon way to try to convey, to oneself or to readers or listeners, the appalling reality behind the statistics—like the 46.2 million people living in poverty in the United States in 2010.
Ten years ago, I spent a couple years living in the country of my parents origin, in a rich girl's dreams to find her roots. I worked in the NGO sector, determined to live, at least superficially, like a single woman making the table scraps offered by small local NGOs. Along the way I met a dear friend, B., who had fled violence in her rural home to come to the city and actually live like a single woman making the table scraps offered by small local NGOs. The lesson in poverty was immense, the food poverty being the least of it.

The main thing I can say about why my life then wasn't hard during this period was that I had set the arbitrary limit of 2 years of living there, and the only thing preventing me from pulling up camp and coming home was my own stubbornness. B. never had that option, nor did she have many of the resources poured into her, including good childhood nutrition, that I had.

The contrast between B's and my life was amazing, and more painful than I would like to share in this post. However, a few stories jumped to my head when reading the above diaries.
  • Adjusting for purchasing power parity, I earned about $10 a day. As a single woman in a misogynistic country, I spend half of that on housing, and about $2/weekday on transportation. This put me at about the average food stamp budget of $3/day. When some other large expense came up, I ate less. This is about what B. had for her food budget every day, but for much of her time, she was hosting a sibling at her place who was looking for a job, or getting an education. Sometimes the sibling could contribute to the food budget from their own job. Sometimes not.
  • There was a stark difference in B.'s and my health during those 2 years. B. was regularly sick. After adjusting to regional water differences, my only visible effect was a significant weight loss and a couple fainting spells.
  • We both were creative in how to extend our budgets. My human capital was greater. Plenty of medium profile activists made friends with me out of my curiosity factor and/or my ability to translate, edit and typeset their pamphlets. These friends were more settled, and spending a weekend day working at someone's house meant that I didn't pay for meals on that day. Going over socially to their house meant that I didn't pay for that meal. B. had access to very cheap grains/tubers from when she went back to her village. I do not pretend that lugging a 20 pound sack of starch through several forms of transportation to eat is the same advantage of the occaissonal meal for typesetting.
  • I am a vegetarian by choice. B. was a vegetarian by force during that period of her life. Most days, neither of us could afford milk. When riding on the back of a friend's bike, my driver always commented on how I am much heavier than I look. I once could afford milk. During the last month of my stay, I took a moderate spill and had an bump on my shin that just wouldn't heal. For a month, it was painful and behaved in a way that I've never had a wound from a similar source behave. I left the country for the developed world, took up eating cheese sandwiches again, and within 2 weeks, the wound was gone.
  • I think of myself as a relatively disciplined person. One way I keep food discipline in the house by not having foods I shouldn't be eating around. If I have to walk to the store every time I want a chocolate bar, I eat less chocolate. Never before, and never since have I felt such a NEED to splurge on my food budget. I would regularly spend bus fare on a snack, and walk the distance instead. By the end of my time, I would routinely take the money set aside for dinner ingredients and spend it on high sugar, high carb junk food, not only because it was faster and didn't require fuel to cook, but because the carbs looked soooo good, even though I know they will do me harm in the long run. The type of discipline required to eat well in those circumstances is phenomenal.


  1. I always think about the problem about saving money/living cheap when you don't have any savings/buffer.... especially when it comes to living and finding a place "cheaper and safe" than week to week etc. Not to mention the storage/fridge[freezer] space and what it does to your food account.

    When I was a student (I'm not even pretending i was poor, but it was penny pinching at least) one of the hardest parts was to be able to buy food in bulk since there was no storage possibility (one shelf in the fridge and half a shel in a freezer). It makes a huge difference in food cost.

  2. I agree. While bulk food was not a cheap commodity where I was living, saving the time cost of going to the market every day would have helped matters greatly for me. A lot of poverty is paying in time what you can't pay for in cash, not that you are necessarily time rich.

    I also noticed that one could buy things in incredibly small packages there. Need shampoo? A full bottle is 3 days spending money, but a single shower's package is just a few cents. Its not cheaper in the long run, but if you can't afford to pay for the bulk item...