Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thought Experiments In Poverty

by Laura Clawson

Pretending to be poor is a lot of work. This is 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.

There's Barbara Ehrenreich's classic Nickel and Dimed, in which Ehrenreich spent a month living in each of three places, to see if she could make ends meet at the jobs she could get without her graduate degree, professional-writer credentials and employment history. Writing in 2001, the scenario she posed was of a single mother leaving welfare; how would such a woman survive in the labor and housing market? Making the attempt—three times—without children, with her health, and with whatever intangible benefits being middle-class might carry, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress, a hotel housekeeper, a "Merry Maid," a nursing home dietary aide and a Walmart employee. Even without lavish expenditures, she found that there was no way to make ends meet with only one job at a time, but that working two jobs made it harder to manage the commute necessary to get a cheap place to live, or simply that finding two jobs with hours that would never overlap was a struggle.

There's the fantastic online game Spent. Created by the Urban Ministries of Durham, Spent walks you through a month as a low-wage worker, offering you dilemma after dilemma, detailing the realities behind them and not letting you pretend that there are perfect choices. In Spent, you have a kid, and even if you can pretend you could go to work sick, refuse any pleasure, eat ramen noodles—could you say no to sports or a gifted and talented class for your child? Spent makes clear that your answer to each question might have a backlash just a little down the road. And it uses Facebook to integrate the moments when, in real life, you might need to ask a friend for help. Still, when Spent asks you to go grocery shopping, it can be a lot easier to tell yourself that sure, you could live on ramen noodles and beans than it would be to actually live on those things day in and day out.

That's where the food stamp challenge comes in. In the food stamp challenge, you try to do all of your eating—for days or a week or, if you're really crazy, longer—on the average food stamp budget. If it's not enough, there's no fooling yourself. You're hungry, for real, even if food is the only area of your life where you are—temporarily—on a poverty budget. Members of Congress and religious leaders are encouraged to take the food stamp challenge; for lawmakers, it can make clear the stakes of what they are voting on when they vote to add or cut funding from the program.

“All I think about is food and food,” he said, his voice trailing longingly over the phone as he spoke from his apartment in New York City. [...] People on rigid budgets are limited not only by what they can eat but also by what they can do, Gutow said. “It feels a bit like you’re imprisoned,” he said. A lot of mental energy is spent thinking about food, when it could be spent on something else, he said. “You can’t be all you can be.”
Four days into the challenge, Gutow started to feel like he did at the same point during the 2007 challenge: “dead in the senses.” No one should live like that, he said.

For Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA):
“I thought about food constantly,” she said in a conference call. “I still yearn for a good cup of coffee. When I would see someone walking around with their coffee cups around the Capitol, I just had this envy.”
Speier said her diet consisted mostly of hard-boiled eggs and tuna. For her last meal, she packed some leftover tuna casserole for her plane ride from Washington to San Francisco.

One of the things the food stamp challenge lays bare is the degree to which it's not just about getting enough food and not just about getting the right nutrients. It's about your most basic assumptions of what a day of food looks like, of what compromises are acceptable to make. Speier posted a YouTube video of another woman preparing to do the food stamp challenge going through the first items in her cart: a red pepper and a yellow one, a head of what looked like red leaf lettuce, tomatoes, a jalapeno pepper a nub of fresh ginger, an avocado, a box of spaghetti. She acknowledges that she doesn't yet have a protein, that she's going to be hungry. Well, yeah.

Here's a woman who is taking on the challenge, and she's starting off the attempt with close to a week's worth of vegetables on my buy-what-you-want, money-is-no-object plan. And not cheap vegetables—red peppers and avocados are not exactly the great deals of the produce section.

I felt competitive, I admit it. And that shamed me, because, well, what a damn thing to be competitive over, and because here's a woman whose attempt at a cheap diet looks a lot like the level of vegetable-eating I am proud to have achieved in adulthood, and she's trying something I've never given any real thought to doing myself.

The truth is I'm not sure what I really think about the utility of doing this. I mean, Nickel and Dimed and Spent are important challenges to anyone who thinks poverty is easy and they could succeed without any difficult tradeoffs. I think if you're a member of Congress and you find yourself tempted to vote to cut nutritional assistance, you should be required to spend a week eating on the budget you're proposing to cut. But the people who need to do these things never do, and does it make a difference if the people who already believe benefits should be higher, the safety net should be stronger, and the economy should work for working people live on a food stamp budget and confirm that yes, it sucks, and no, no one should have to live that way? I'm honestly torn. But as punishment for my flash of stupid, arrogant competitiveness, I decided to give it a shot. That story comes next week.

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