How Much Change Can You Get For $1.50?
This is the question that the Global Poverty Project set out to answer when we created the Live Below the Line campaign, a five-day challenge where participants agree to live on $1.50/day for five days. The experience is a great way to gain insight into some of the choices faced by the economically disenfranchised 25% of the population that spends $1.50/day for food, education, medical, and housing expenses. It is a show of solidarity to the worlds’ poor and a concrete way to take action in your own life to see the end of extreme poverty.
The challenge is also a way to raise money for our partner charities. Participants (or as we call them, LBL-ers) are sponsored for each day of the challenge, similar to a marathon. Over the years, LBL-ers have hosted Live Below the Line dinner parties (the main meal is typically rice and beans), office-wide competitions, and cook-offs. In 2011 we raised 2,000,000 and are aiming to double that number in 2012.
This past January, the Global Poverty Project office did the Live Below the Line campaign a few months before the official week on May 7-11. It was a chance for us to connect the mission of Live Below the Line without the general frenzy of media outreach, LBL-er engagement, and other promotions that occur during the global challenge week.
During the course of office Live Below the Line week, I developed a habit I call “food stalking”. That is, watching other people—on the street, in restaurants, on the subway—as they consumed their meals. Food stalking often involved following passersby on the street, sometimes in a direction opposite to the one I intended. I perpetrated longing glances through the windows of well-lit cafés. I cozied up to hotdog venders and famished, watched as they prepared meals at lunchtime.
I also had a heightened sense of smell. When I entered my apartment building I could identify distinct smells that I’d never remembered before, or perhaps, never been hungry enough to remember. When I woke up the next morning, the smell of bagels was so strong I almost cheated. On the elevator to the office the sweet smell of melting sugar on pastries made my stomach growl so loudly I received several stares from other employees in the elevator. The confined space made the growling sound echo and I felt embarrassed for my hunger.
When the challenge ended after day five I celebrated. I ate all the unhealthy food that I’d typically avoid out of shear gladness that I could choose what I wanted eat, when I wanted to eat, and how much I wanted to eat. I was overwhelmed at the options. I spent a good ten minutes debating cake before or after the meal. Mostly, though, I felt glad that I could again integrate into society, back into the system that ensured that I’d likely never experience severe malnutrition or hunger unless I chose to stop eating.
Indeed, living in extreme poverty is about being on the fringes of that system. For me, being on the fringes meant staring at others as they indulged, feeling constant longing and frustration that I was could not be a part of that window. For those living in extreme poverty, being on the fringes has far more severe consequences.
In our planet, there is enough food to feed everyone one and a half times over. Yet, there is a failure in the system that distributes food, a failure that results in 300 million children going to bed hungry each day. Even if there is food at market, people are typically too poor to purchase what is available. Nearly 1 billion children are severely deprived of at least one of the essential goods and services they require to survive, grow and develop.
Our motto at the Global Poverty Project is that it is possible to see tremendous changes within the span of a generation, our generation. We believe that it is possible to redefine the system, change the boundaries, and step outside of our own preconceived notions to see the end of extreme poverty. With that being said, did my participation in Live Below the Line change the system? Probably not. But my voice, combined with the voice of my work colleagues, combined with the voice of other New Yorkers, combined with the voice of other Americans can.
So let’s see how much change we can get for $1.50. Then we can eat as much cake as we want, guilt free.