Deciding between paying for a uniform so your children can go to school or buying firewood and food for the day is not a choice many Americans have to make. Neither is sending children to work in a factory for some extra money knowing there’s a risk they’ll become victims of sex trafficking.
But for families living in extreme poverty, defined as income of less than $1.50 per day by the World Bank, this is reality. The World Bank estimates that for 1.2 billion people, 21 percent of the global population, life is all about choosing between spending money on food or facing starvation.
In 2000 the United Nations announced eight goals. At the top of its list: eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. It is an ambitious goal, and according to World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, accomplishing the goal will only be possible if everyone participates. “I have no doubt that the world can end extreme poverty within a generation,” he said, “but it is not a given and we cannot do it alone. It requires focus, innovation and commitments from everyone.”
The Global Poverty Project, an international anti-poverty advocacy group, has been working since 2008 to find ways to get people to work together to end extreme poverty. One of their projects for raising awareness is called Live Below The Line. Those who want to participate are invited to spend $1.50 per day on food for five straight days. The challenge starts today.
Organizers of the campaign hope that as participants experience a sliver of what it's like to live in extreme poverty they will feel compelled to act. The Global Poverty Project has set a goal of having 30,000 people participate in the challenge. So far the response has been impressive, with celebrities including Ben Affleck and Hugh Jackman tweeting messages about their plans to participate.
But it's not just celebrities who are spreading the word. Sydney Pedersen, a 15-year-old from Orem, is spearheading a campaign in the state to raise $100,000 for nonprofit groups that fight poverty. She’s off to an auspicious start. So far, she's raised nearly $35,000. She has also convinced 47 local high schools, seven universities and numerous businesses to promote the campaign with their students, employees and customers.
How it works
Pedersen, a bubbly junior high student who looks more cheer squad star than poverty activist, sits up straight in her chair while she outlines the rules of the Live Below the Line challenge. When planning what to eat participants must budget for the full cost of packages of food, not just the portion they plan to eat during the challenge. Participants are not allowed to accept donated food from family or friends and can only use food from their gardens if the cost of producing that food is factored into their budget. The one freebie, according to Live Below the Line challenge guidelines, is tap water.
She opens a brown cardboard box in front of her to reveal some examples of things participants can eat. There are three hard-boiled eggs, a bowl with about a cup of rice and half a cup of black beans, a cup of ramen noodles and eight soda crackers, and a small potato. The food adds up to about 1,000 calories, about half of what nutritionists recommend growing teenagers should eat a day.
Pedersen acknowledges that this isn’t a healthy long-term diet, “Some of the people I’ve asked to participate were worried that the challenge would be bad for their health.” It’s not a diet that most teenagers are used to, but she argues the challenge will help participants better understand the challenges faced by people living in extreme poverty. “This is reality for (so many) people in the world,” she said.
Does it accomplish anything?
Rich Fleming, of the Global Poverty Project, came up with the idea for Living Below the Line during a conversation with a friend. “We started talking about the difficulty of communicating the lack of choice and opportunity for those living below the extreme poverty line,” Fleming wrote in a blog post for the Global Poverty Project. Fleming decided to try living on $1.50 a day for food for three weeks. Friends started to notice his change in eating habits, which lead to conversations about the difficulty of escaping poverty. “Living below the line created a window into the world of extreme poverty,” he said.
Critics of the challenge suggest it trivializes the experiences of those living in extreme poverty by turning the life and death decisions they face into a game for the privileged residents of industrialized countries. “This all sounds very self-indulgent, and to some extent, it is. (You don’t) feed anybody else by doing Live Below the Line," said Meg Watkins of Global Poverty Project. But the Live Below the Line challenge is not about “playing poor,” Watkins said. Any time “we want we can buy a slice of pizza or a sandwich, and of course we still have access to health care, clean tap water, and the comforts of our apartments.”
For Watkins the challenge is about raising awareness and "showing solidarity with the extreme poor; acknowledging that the differences between people in the world are profound, but that it is possible to feel real empathy for another; recognizing the enormous and undeserved gift we have been given by being born in our nation and time.”