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Let's Stop Doing These "Pretend to Be Poor" Experiments

A new charity project, Live Below the Line, reminds us that pretending to be broke is offensive and unhelpful. Stop doing this.

A new challenge called "Live Below the Line Week" started yesterday. Organized by the Global Poverty Project, Live Below the Line asks people to pretend to be poor from Monday to Friday of this week, spending only $1.50 per day—an amount on which 1.4 billion people are forced to subsist—on food. Why is the Global Poverty Project doing this? "Because it’s important," says the Live Below the Line website. "It matters. It takes courage to take a stand."

I agree with that last part—it does take courage to take a stand. I'm skeptical, however, that pretending to be poor for a week matters at all. These "play poor" projects seem to pop up every few months, and while some are marginally worthwhile, most are unintentionally offensive and grotesque. Why haven't we abandoned these things already?

Live Below the Line makes its first mistake in using the word "live." To live, at least in my mind, means to really experience something, to understand an existence in such a way that you could describe its nooks and crannies with your eyes closed. Not spending a lot of money on food isn't "living" below the line, because regardless of how you eat, chances are your home is still stocked with Ikea stuff, a comfortable bed, hot water, air conditioning, digital cable, etc. People forced to spend no more than $1.50 a day on food are also forced to live with violence, exposure to the elements, disease, and war. Saying you're living like them because you've decided to give up fancy sandwiches for five days is like someone saying they can empathize with Nelson Mandela because they spent a night in the drunk tank.

As if the premise of Live Below the Line wasn't problematic enough, the website offers participants a ridiculous "survival kit," the second part of which (PDF) teaches you how to shop and live on such a meager budget. It warns you to "Expect 'weird' cravings." It does not explain that this "craving" is called hunger, and it's not too "weird" for billions of people around the world. Even the guide itself is a sign of the Live Below the Line's failure—real poor people don't get to pop into a Trader Joe's for pasta and sauce, and they definitely don't have handy manuals telling them how to get by and eat well.

Playing poor doesn't have to be this bad. In the early 1990s, Lawrence Otis Graham, a hyper-educated African-American lawyer, left his six-figure job in Manhattan and took a job as a busboy at the Greenwich Country Club in Connecticut. It's doubtful Graham, who had written 11 books by the time he became a busboy, actually restricted himself to the wages he earned serving coffee at the country club. But the book and article he eventually wrote about his experience blew the lid off one of the most racist, ossified institutions in America, the all-white club. Graham was even credited with getting the PGA to stop holding tournaments at segregated golf courses.

In the same vein, Barbara Ehrenreich abandoned her comfortable life as a journalist to dive into the world of blue-collar jobs for her 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed. While Ehrenreich falls short in that she occasionally writes about poor people as if they're an alien species—it's newsworthy, for instance, that manual labor isn't only for stupid people—at least she delved deeper into the lives of poor people than Live Below the Line.

Ehrenreich and Graham show that playing poor isn't a crime in and of itself. Rather, the crime is playing poor and somehow believing that it has given you a good glimpse into "the other side." Ehrenreich and Graham immersed themselves in a different life in order to painstakingly report back on what they saw, not out of some desire to feel blue-collar pain. There's a danger in people participating in Living Below the Line believing that the project will help them, as the website says, "develop a better understanding of the challenges faced by people living in extreme poverty," because it won't develop that understanding, at least not in any meaningful way. It will mostly just make it a pain in the ass to buy lunch for five days.

It's worth noting that Live Below the Line also has a fundraising aspect to it, the fruits of which will go toward anti-poverty initiatives, so the program is not completely pointless. I just wish the Global Poverty Project would have saved everyone's time and dignity and asked participants to donate their daily $1.50 meal allowance directly to charity. Every little bit helps.

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