Pretending to be poor

// 11 April 2012

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£1_Gloucester_Old_Bank_note_for_Charles_Evans_&_James_Fell_1814.jpg A few days ago I received an email asking me to participate in a scheme to live on less than $1.50 a day for 5 days to raise awareness and funds against global poverty. It was accompanied by a video of an international movie star explaining that he couldn’t do this particular challenge, because of his job, but that instead he would give up coffee and sugar for 5 days.

While I have no desire to call out this charity in particular, I do want to write about the problems with this kind of campaign.

The first problem is that the charity makes a huge, and incorrect, assumption that the people in receipt of their email are not already living on a very low income of less than $1.50 a day.

The second is that they assume that a well-off person living on a very low income for 5 days can get some kind of real insight into what someone living long-term on a very low income goes through.

The thing is that while living on $1 a day for 5 days may be tough, and it may raise awareness, it bears no relation to what life is like living on a very low income long-term. Those doing it for charity will be counting down until the day, only a few days away, when they can go shopping. Those living this reality long-term have no such anticipation.

If you are on a very low income and your cooker breaks, then you have no cooker. Indefinitely. If you are on a very low income you probably have pre-payment meters for your gas and electricity, so unlike those ‘being poor’ for 5 days, you will have to factor in £5 to keep the lights running. £5 is more than 4 x $1.50. If you are pretending to be on a low income you probably have good kitchen equipment and a good winter coat and so on, making pretending much easier than living it.

Above all, it is missing the point. To raise awareness of what life is like on an extremely low income, ask someone who lives on an extremely low income.

I’ve seen television programmes where famous people pretended to be in a disadvantaged position and then talked about what it was like. I think I saw Anita Roddick dress in a fat suit for the day and go shopping. I think I saw Gail Porter wear glasses that mimicked what a visually impaired person could see, and then travel around. I’ve certainly seen celebrities sleep rough for a night.

The awareness of those individual famous people was raised, and that is a good thing. Where it is problematic is that each of them then talked about what life is like when you are fat, visually impaired or sleeping rough. After their day, or week, pretending to be something, they then became temporary authorities on the issue.

The thing is, you don’t need to dress someone in a fat suit, give them distorting glasses or set up cameras and challenge a celeb to sleep on the streets, to find out what being fat, visually impaired or sleeping rough is like. There are plenty of fat, visually impaired or homeless people who can talk to you, with much more authority, about how their lives are. With true and genuine insights, not a flawed sense of lived experience after pretending for a day or two. After her experiment, Gail Porter denounced the inadequate systems on public transport, for instance. But the media could have asked any visually impaired person about transport accessibility and got the same answer. Why get a celeb to fake it then assume they know best?

I’m sure the celebrities involved in previous campaigns, and this current one, have the best of intentions. And I do hope that this particular campaign will raise awareness about global poverty. However its lack of appreciation of the potential poverty of the recipients of the email is insensitive, and its assumption that pretending to be poor equates to anything that resembles actual poverty is misguided and worrying.

[The image is an 1814 one pound bank note from Gloucester Old Bank made out to Charles Evans and James Fell. It is a scan of the original and is in the public domain]

Comments From You

Jenny // Posted 11 April 2012 at 12:29 pm

This is one of those “I agree with you *but* …” posts.

Firstly, while restricting yourself harshly for five days doesn’t give you anything like a complete insight into living on a very low income, for all the reasons you mentioned and more, it does give you a look in the right direction. Some people will feel the impact of it more than they would the impact of listening to someone. So although it has limitations, I think it’s potentially useful – I just hope the people promoting it point out the things like having a good winter coat and heating and electricity and so on, to remind people that they’re not going all the way.

Secondly … if you’re, oh, a magazine editor, you can go out there, in theory, and commission stories from some low-incomed people, and get their stories out there. And I think this hypothetical you *should* do so. But for me? As it goes, most of my friends are pretty lucky; a couple of them are in negative equity and there’s a few with financial worries, but because of the demographics of my life, most of the people I know well enough to talk budgets with aren’t on seriously low incomes. If I walk up to either a casual acquaintance or, say, a homeless beggar, and start asking them to tell me their stories of low income, I am going to run the risk of coming off like the most intrusive and patronising cow in the world, aren’t I? Obviously, there are ways to achieve asking for the stories less intrusively – the obvious way that occurs to me is either volunteering in a homeless shelter, or cultivating a beggar over time, starting with casual chat – but all the ways I can think of involve serious time investment. As it should, I think; getting people’s personal stories of hardship should surely never be easy?

So … while I agree with you that there are serious weaknesses to this “live for 5 days on

Claire Donnelly // Posted 11 April 2012 at 1:18 pm

100% agree. It’s fine for people to do these things if they want, so long as they’re aware of the limitations of them. As you say it’s probably better to actually talk to the people in these situations! One of the worst things about living on a low income* is the grinding day in day out reality of it, with little prospect of escape and a constant amount of stress worrying about what will happen if something breaks, if someone needs something (new glasses, new school uniform, etc etc). and the hidden costs that come with being on a low income. You can’t experience these things by living on a low income for a week.

* of course I am talking about a “low income” in the UK/Europe, not globally which is a whole other discussion.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 11 April 2012 at 2:12 pm

Claire, I agree, it’s the relentlessness of poverty that is what grinds people down. Plus things like not being able to take advantage of special offers because 3 for 2 still involves buying 2…

Jenny, the publicity I got from this charity didn’t mention anything about how factors come into play other than not spending much for those 5 days – no mention of emergencies or winter coats or anything. The movie star I mentioned was very self-congratulatory about his forthcoming 5 days without coffee, and that bugged me a lot!

I do agree with a lot of what you say, it is more complicated and harder to reach people living those experiences, and people can learn from restricting their own spending. I just don’t think it’s the solution that it’s being described as.

longerpig12 // Posted 11 April 2012 at 2:17 pm

1. The email communication referred to in the article is likely to be from a charity from which you opted to receive contact. The charity quite possibly segments their data before sending approaches like this, for example, on the basis of previous donations made or how the contact information was acquired – e.g. from someone attending a festival and signing their clipboard. It is therefore feasible they may have made use of such information (an indicator that the recipient has disposable income) before sending out the email.

2. Why not do both? Why not ask people as well as inviting others to do this action? That two pronged approach is likely to be more effective, and is the strategy most charities promoting this action have adopted. Out of context, and devoid of first person testimony, the action would indeed lose its meaning.

3. “celebrities…have the best of intentions” – the action doesn’t seem to me to be particularly celebrity-led. The approach seems, looking at the leaderboard of the UK Live Below the Line site, to be aimed at individuals and communities.

4. Completely agree that it’s an artificial situation and not a reflection of the reality but I think most people willing to do this action understand this point well from the outset, and by the end of it, if anything, understand this even more. Surely that’s a win in itself – for people to acknowledge that you can never understand what it is to live as someone else does but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to empathise.

5. Arguably the campaign isn’t trying to raise awareness of what it’s truly LIKE to live ‘below the line’ but rather to raise awareness THAT people live below the line. If the latter is the case then I think it’s doing it’s job well.

5. Not only does the campaign raise awareness, it also helps raise funds for charities working to combat poverty.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 11 April 2012 at 2:24 pm

Hi Laura,

It wasn’t an email list I had subscribed to, it was a press release. So, if it was segmented, it wasn’t based on any information we had given them. It was badly targeted, imo. I know one person who received it who is living on less than £1 a day at the moment, not by choice.

Raising funds for charities is a good aim, and hopefully the campaign will be successful in that respect.

longerpig12 // Posted 11 April 2012 at 3:27 pm

Agreed, it was irresponsible not to target the approach appropriately.

Clare // Posted 11 April 2012 at 7:00 pm

Five days are about 1% of the year. So by living on £1 for five days you will probably experience about 1% of the difficulties that those on the lowest income experience every year. However I still feel that those attempting this challenge will realise that. I would imagine a lot of the responses would be along the lines of “Goodness, those 5 days were hard enough, I cannot see how people can survive every day like that. I must do all I can to help them”. Surely the aim of the challenge is to help the general public realise how privileged they are, and what in life is truly essential. Then maybe people will consider donating time and money to helping those for whom £1 a day is their life.

Imagine if you were taking up the challenge and eating your meagre packed lunch in the staff room at work and using it as an opportunity to educate those who you work with. The same with your friends, when they ask why you cannot come out to socialise, or are sitting sipping at your tap water when meeting them it would be another opportunity to educate others.

So yes, you will not know what it is truly like as you can budget and arrange to buy your luxuries out side of the 5 day period. But it does give an opportunity to raise awareness of how others live. Before reading this article I had no idea there were people in this country living on so little, and I am sure I am not alone in my ignorance. If this campaign is designed to raise awareness that people are living on so little, I think they have chosen a clever way to do so, and best of luck to them.

As far as the film star giving up his coffee and sugar – totally with you. I am not quite sure what they are hoping to achieve, but giving up coffee and sugar is more of an insult than anything else and to be honest if that’s all they can give up – as everything else in their lives is “essential” – they may as well not bother.

The Goldfish // Posted 11 April 2012 at 7:49 pm

I would go a little further than you have, Phillipa. I think that very short-term experiences of disadvantage (or a rough approximations of that disadvantage) are not merely inadequate but may actually promote the *wrong* kind of response.

If I wore a fat suit for a day tomorrow, I imagine the greatest thing on my mind would be discomfort and the added difficulty of moving about with that extra girth. I would feel very very sorry for a fat person, for being so wide. If I wore a blindfold, I would be constantly frustrated by my new inability to see. I would feel very sorry for blind people because they can’t see.

If I experienced discrimination or abuse whilst pretend-fat or pretend-blind, I would think it was very unfair and horrible. But until I had completely overcome the massive sympathy I’d feel, I wouldn’t be able to properly assess the injustice. I might still be thinking, “It must suck to be fat/ be blind, and people’s attitudes are part of that, poor things.” rather than, “It’s not fair that anybody should be treated that way!”

However, if I listen to a fat person or a blind person, I hear them as people above all else – I don’t look at them and think how difficult it must be to occupy their body – until writing this comment, I’ve never considered what it would be like to move around with greater girth than I’ve ever had – that information is of no use to anyone. I have, however, considered myself lucky to have sighted privilege and relative slim privilege, because I read and listen and have friends who don’t.

I think it’s a huge error to think that experience is necessary for empathy. It underestimates our capacity to listen to others. It overestimates the power of *sympathy*, as opposed to empathy, as a force to guide change. And like knowledge, a little experience can be a dangerous and misleading thing.

IronFly // Posted 11 April 2012 at 11:37 pm

Poor person here. Not particularly bothered by this campaign but find the discussion here really interesting. Experience isn’t necessary for empathy, definitely. See here:

http://blog.ted.com/2011/04/18/a-radical-experiment-in-empathy-sam-richards-at-ted-com/

Eva // Posted 12 April 2012 at 3:56 am

I did this challenge for 5 weeks in 2011, and my view on it is this: Unless you are homeless or incredibly disadvantaged in our society, there is no way on earth you can even begin to understand what it is to live in poverty- extreme or relative. The whole point of this campaign is to give people a glimpse into what it feels like to be so restricted in the choice and freedom of something so simple as food and drink. And while people in many developing nations must use this small sum on every aspect of their daily lives- heath care, education, transport- it is unrealistic for people in the developed world to do that if you live 3 hours from your work and a bus ticket costs five dollars. Plus…the point of this campaign is not to put you in absolute hardship or to force you to live in absolute poverty, but to give a little glimpse into how 1.4 billion people live every day.

While talking to somebody that has experienced poverty can be eye opening and powerful, it is nothing compared to what it feels like to not be able to just go to dinner with a friend or go out for a drink with your colleagues, or to not be able to reach for that tim tam right in front of your face. Of course there is no comparison between these things and actually living in poverty, but for someone like me, who is surrounded by an abundance of food and drink and the luxuries of living in a developed country, it was a mighty big eye opener. THAT is the power of this challenge- understanding and empathy for those whose experiences we can never truly understand. It’s the same with the fat suit example, or sleeping rough- these are things you can’t truly sympathise with until you experience them.

On the subject of celebrities- we unfortunately live in a culture where these people have incredible influence over what we wear, eat and watch. It is simply a promotion tool to include celebrities in these types of campaigns- a way to encourage more people to want to take part. It is by no means saying that these people need to be the heralds of this message, or that they are in any way experts- this experience is for everyone, including the rich and famous. It’s just easier for them to have their experiences profiled in a large scale way.

After doing this challenge, I would strongly recommend that you try it before you knock it. It is a simple way to connect people to the issue of extreme poverty and to raise money for real on the ground positive change. It really is an experience like no other.

Harriet R // Posted 12 April 2012 at 9:37 am

You might be interested in a book called Hard Work by Polly Toynbee – she lived in a council flat in London and worked minimum wage jobs for about a month, then wrote a brilliant account of the experience. It covers poverty but also looks at how many jobs that we consider “women’s work” are so poorly paid when they are so essential. I seriously recommend it. There are bits you might find annoying though, because normally she’s a well paid journalist who doesn’t have to think about money, so she is very privileged, but I think she handles it well.

Rose // Posted 12 April 2012 at 3:48 pm

Yeah, I agree with the article.

Growing up, I stole food to get by. I had friends that were forced into child prostitution to help feed younger siblings, and I was powerless to help them. I saw people around me with money to spare, that just kept it to themselves. Being poor includes watching your loved ones suffering too, for years on end, with no end in sight. I have never been proud of myself.

At one point I got extremely thin – much thinner that you would after a 5 day experiment, I was grey, and cold, and couldn’t stop shivering. I got so weak that I would faint a couple of times while getting up in the morning. When those around me saw my desperation, and it was desperation, more guys greedily, hungrily started offering me money for sex, telling me they wanted to use my hair as a leash, than people willing to give me 5p (unconditionally) towards something to eat.

So I got thinner. It has permanently affected my health.

I’m doing okay now, but I still have nightmares, and horrible guilt about all the people that I’ve lost track off, and left behind.

Poverty trashes your health, sleep, inter personal relations, view of humanity, hope…. .

To me, this ‘exercise’ sounds like getting people to take a taxi ride to understand what it’s like to survive a highly traumatic car crash, and experience the PTSD that follows.

It just seems to grossly downplay what the ‘problem’ is.

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