“Long ago it was said that ‘one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.’ That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles and less for the fate of those who were underneath.” - Jacob A. Riis <How the Other Half Lives – 1890>
This is about the have-nots … “the other half” … this is about poverty and this is about perspective.
I decided to write this after a disturbing conversation among friends about “hand outs” and how low income people need to assume some personal responsibility <the implication being that most are lazy, not ambitious or not working hard to change their situation>.
At the core of the discussion was about how people believe other people were using, and abusing, government support systems.
Of course I heard the infamous “they checked out at the super market with porterhouse steaks using food stamps” example.
The real point was that a bunch of people think that another bunch of people are getting support <hand outs> from the government while they are working their own asses off.
I tried. And after maybe making up some ground by suggesting that the majority of people getting government assistance really did need it <and there would always be a minority who will abuse anything> the next suggestion hit the conversation … someone said “I know people need help but there should be limits.” <i.e., at some point we need to stop>
Ok. Enough with that discussion. Because inevitably we are discussing a lack of understanding for ‘the other half.’
It is a fact that the world is becoming more unequal with wider disparity between haves and have nots than ever before (in measured history). This disparity is very real <in terms of income> and it is even more real when thinking in terms of perceptions.
Me? I personally care less about equality of income (or the gap as it were) but more on equality of opportunity. Therefore I see the inequality as an outcome of an opportunity, or lack thereof, issue.
And therein lies the issue to me.
Too many people want to see it as an economic issue when it is actually an opportunity issue. This issue is created around a belief that people are lazy and actually are happy living off these hand outs. I believe the issue is that most of these people not only cannot tangibly get out of the hole they cannot even see the opportunities to get out of the hole. That is a double whammy of reality + lack of hope.
Which gets me back to poverty and living below the line because most of us don’t understand the reality <of life in poverty> and cannot grasp the lack of hope <because we believe we live in the land of opportunity … if someone works hard enough>.
Why do we struggle with understanding? Because most of us who have it ‘tougher than we had it before’ are NOT living in poverty.
Sure … a tough global economy has impacted everyone forcing some fiscal decisions. And many middle class people consider this hardship. And they combine that attitude with “if you work hard you can gain opportunity.”
Well. I hate to break the news. In today’s world working hard doesn’t guarantee anything and those of us in the middle class have no concept of the really difficult decisions many of the people who the government is helping have to make … every day.
Someone at the table said “I see these people making irresponsible choices, I make responsible choices so should they.”
I would argue that those of us who have not lived in their shoes cannot really judge fairly. Our ‘responsible choices’ are not the same as their ‘responsible choices.’
Let me try this out on you.
I equate a head of household in an income challenged household in the same decision-making grouping as a small business owner or even someone like a president of a country – day in and day out every choice and decision is important. Every one.
The difference is that they do it without the luxury of a comfortable bed, some bottled water (or a beer) in the ‘frig and a car to get away from it all.
Try this on for size. They are a small business owner who never gets a vacation. Never.
I understand, or I imagine, the question everyone seems to be wrestling with is how much should a government assist.
And that gets driven by “geez, I am paddling as hard as I can why should they get a handout.”
Here is why.
Because they need it and you don’t <reality>.
Oh. And because we have not offered them a way out <opportunity>.
I admit. I don’t know how to offer a way out. In my table conversation I even sickened myself when I said something like “maybe our efforts should be focused on the next generation of kids … be sure they have an opportunity … be sure they have a chance at a good education <which is the research proven leveler between economic inequality>.”
Sickened? Yeah. My flippant thought implies you are giving up on a group of adults who never had the opportunity to get out and be all they could be.
Regardless. Solving poverty is a huge issue that is not going to be solved in this post.
But I can bend your ear on government assistance to low income households.
Here is the hard part to tell my readers <maybe the part we just don’t want to hear>.
We may be struggling, we may not have it as easy as we have had it before as we look at our stack of bills, and we absolutely are probably more worried about paying bills … but most of us definitely do not understand sheer poverty and the life you lead when you are within poverty.
I do know that here in America the election seems to bring out the worst in us … entitlements, handouts, food stamps for those who don’t need it, etc. … all these simplistic frustrated comments avoid the fact that America has, and has had, a large number of people in extreme poverty and the world has significantly more.
But our simplistic frustrated comments avoid the fact that recent global studies suggest that “opportunity” <the ability to change social/economic status from lower to higher> is not a truth in today’s America. People born in poverty and/or low income households are more likely to remain a poverty/low income household in America than in most European countries <although we do beat Mexico … but not Canada>.
In fighting extreme poverty it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of just how extreme the conditions that we associate with poverty is … even within our own countries.
Approximately 1.2 billion in extreme poverty globally.
That’s those who live on $1.25 a day. That is about 17.6% of global population.
This does not count “the vulnerable.” Vulnerability measures those who are “sometimes poor” while poverty measures those who are “always poor.” Between one year and the next, many people move into or out of poverty. Thus measures of who is poor now are imperfect guides to who will be poor next year, yet it is the latter that is relevant for public policies that aim to reduce poverty. The solution is to identify those who are vulnerable to poverty—that is, who have a significant probability of being poor next year. People are highly vulnerable if they have more than an even chance of being poor in the next period, and moderately vulnerable if they are more likely than the typical person to be poor next year. <worldbank poverty data>
All this thinking got me thinking about living below the line.
Thinking about how I could put myself in their shoes if but for one week and doing a reality check.
And what made me truly decide to take the step on living below the line <this ‘line’ of $1.25 a day from a global poverty perspective> was not this table discussion among friends but rather when I heard a story about a 3rd grade daughter asking her mother for a pair of $1,500 <yup … those are thousand 0’s … I did not forget a decimal point> shoes for getting straight A’s.
I must be getting altruistic in my old age because, to me, this is lesson time for the daughter.
To be fair, if the story had been $150, I am not sure I would have got so wound up on this topic <not sure what that says about me> but the combination of $1,500 and SHOES kind of put me over the top. My hope is that I would have been a strong enough parent to have stepped back and taught a lesson. But that is for my parent readers to figure out.
I am not going to preach.
I thought I would do something to see if I knew what the hell I was talking about.
So let me take a second and talk about the “living below the line” thought.
Yes. That is living on $1.25 a day. Yup. 125 pennies or 25 nickels if you don’t like pennies.
The World Bank defines “extreme poverty” as living on the US dollar equivalent of $1.25 a day, or less.
Regular everyday poverty is actually $2.50 a day just to put ‘extreme’ into perspective for you.
That said, nearly 1.2 billion people around the world currently live in extreme poverty, surviving on $1.25 a day. That is their <dangerous> reality.
I don’t even have to type the choices one would have to make living on $1.25 a day because I would imagine it is so far out of most of my reader’s realm of possibility that it isn’t feasible.
Therefore I found a game developed by the Global Poverty Initiative that actually allows you to put yourselves in those shoes <even if it is just a game>.
Survive125 is an interactive game that puts players in the shoes of Divya Patel, an Indian woman with four children, trying to survive on $1.25 a day:
Players will be faced with many of the impossible choices that those living in extreme poverty have to make every day. It is not only an educational game, it’s a painful experience. By placing themselves in the shoes of someone living in extreme poverty, players are able to struggle with hard decisions and ultimately choose their future.
I have played it several times.
Why several? Well. The first time was simply so unimaginable to me that it ended up being slightly surreal <if not irrelevant>. So I went back. And played around with it. The first time you play through it you will find yourself going “this is not my life.”
By the 3rd time you are saying “shit, could I make these choices?”
I am honest with myself.
From my altruistic ‘children’s education’ pulpit I began as a high & mighty futurist and eventually I ended up as a more realistic survivalist.
Enlightening? You bet.
Realistic survivalist. That phrase will now enter my ongoing lexicon in discussions.
Think you can live on a $1.25? Play and see if you can Survive125.
Then I took the next step.
A real reality check. I said maybe I could do this for a week. Actually live on $1.25 a day for food & beverage & entertainment.
Keep the car & gas, home & electricity and I will even give you the cellphone <I said to myself>.
When I started this personal challenge I didn’t think it was going to be that difficult for just one week. I am a single guy for gods sake. I figured I could easily drink tap water, eliminate the diet coke <and, grudgingly, the coffee> and gather the ingredients I needed to throw a bunch of stuff into a crockpot that I could live on for a week or so.
I mean, c’mon, for one week how difficult could living on $1.25 ($8.75 for the week) a day actually be?
I learned very quickly that it is pretty fucking hard.
For all of the whining that I may have done throughout my life about having to budget or scrape money together to pay bills … I have <apparently> never come close to experiencing anything even near to poverty. Nor <apparently> have I experienced the lack of choice, monotony, and plain hard work that is all part of having to live on such a dismally small amount of money.
My reward for all of this effort?
A truly terrible and relatively tasteless soup/stew <because you cannot afford to buy salt or spices> that I had to ration out so it lasted the week. And more water drinking then I have done in possibly my entire lifetime.
The point is that for all of my effort I received no reward. None. There was no money or energy left for a reward. In fact my only reward was I existed for another week.
This reminded me of a couple of things:
- A life lived in poverty is met with little reward and is unfair … relentlessly unfair … so unfair that reality is grinding.
- A life lived in poverty with no possible reward of ‘opportunity’ seems a pretty dismal space to reside in within life because that means the grinding just puts you further and further into the hole.
The unfairness wasn’t the stew <although it does make you really really think about what someone in poverty feels when they see someone drive by in a nice car or watch commercials with some succulent meal sitting on the table> but it was from the understanding that all choices are eliminated. The food I bought was dictated by my financial means, where I bought it was dictated by my financial means, and my entire life was dictated by financial means. Any extraneous choices were taken away.
In the context of a real lived extreme poverty these choices would become far more serious.
Healthcare or no healthcare?
Do I feed my child a decent meal?
The list is … well … relentless.
Relentlessly in your face day to day. There is no relief.
As I stated upfront … this was as tiring as running a business … but with absolutely no reward or breaks.
Okay … moving on <because I imagine many of my readers will think $1.25 is just not realistic>.
Don’t want the 1.25 test because you say ‘no way’?
For my middle class friends I will throw you a couple options because when I have talked about world poverty people say “but that is there … you could never live here on that.”
Yes, folks, some do.
Okay. Try this on for size then.
I have readers all around the world. Find your country’s poverty level <for example … Rodrigo in Brazil would see $29.45/day is Brazil’s poverty level>.
In America poverty <not extreme poverty> is about $24,000 annual for a family of 4. Say it is actually close to Brazil’s for a single person so you also get about $10,720 annually if you are single.
That is $462 a week <$66 a day> if you are in a family.
- Now halve it <assume it is being used for home> and you have $231 for the week <$33 a day> for food & beverage & entertainment.
Single? This is $206 a week <$29.45 a day> if you are single.
- Now halve it … a single person gets $103 for the week <$14.71 a day>.
Disregard mortgage/rent/cell/utilities/gas and do it.
Watch how difficult it is. Then imagine you actually had to pay utilities, rent, gas, etc. within it.
I offer no solution today.
Today I simply ask you take a minute and walk in their shoes.
It may make you feel differently about “hand outs” as well as why “work hard” just may not be enough advise to give someone in this situation.