The Live Below The Line challenge is sweeping the nation this week. The campaign brands itself as one raising awareness about extreme poverty and challenges its participants to spend £1 a day on food. Whilst I do believe that most people who participate do care about poverty, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious problems with the campaign and the mindset behind it.
Live Below the Line’s first mistake is using the word “live”. To live means to really experience something, to acutely understand an existence. Not spending a lot of money on food isn’t “living” below the line; regardless of how you eat, chances are your home is still stocked with furniture, hot water, and heating. To think you’re living like them because you’ve decided to give up your Tesco meal deal or Prêt bonanza for five days is akin to someone saying they can empathise with Nelson Mandela because they spent a night in the drunk tank.
Extreme poverty goes far beyond spending £1 a day on food alone. The £1 would also have to cover rent, accommodation, education, healthcare, water and clothing, with all of these duplicated for parents. If anything, for those living in extreme poverty food can become their last worry; no one will be sending bailiffs to your door should you be hungry. The amount of people needing to make use of food banks and drop-in cafes and centres is huge for this very reason.
This year, Oxford is proposing people team up to raise more money and also to support each other. Aside from the fact that this disturbingly accentuates the game aspect of the campaign, it would be interesting if people truly living in extreme poverty could behave in the same way. Access to educational resources is either extremely limited, making trading recipes or sharing tips unfeasible. If feeling unwell, people living in poverty can’t drop out and see a doctor.
The challenge, for them, doesn’t end on the Sunday morning with a celebratory brunch and compliments on the part of those surrounding you for your endurance and strength. How patronising, in turn, is it to encourage anyone to feed into the stereotype that everyone studying here in Oxford is privileged enough to treat this as a challenge when they themselves may have that kind of background?
Poverty isn’t limited to other continents – there’s probably someone in your college whose family is struggling economically on a weekly basis. Eating on £1 a day does not give you an idea of what it is like to live in poverty, for it doesn’t take into account the layers of intersecting disadvantage that come with poverty itself. It doesn’t take into account how poverty operates in a vicious cycle.
Public figures seem to be playing the game, too – whilst Gwyneth Paltrow’s food stamp stunt may be the latest episode to spring to mind, in 2013 MP Iain Duncan Smith claimed he could live off £53 a week (£7.57 a day), when defending benefit cuts – but didn’t take on the challenge he thought he could so easily undertake when a petition of over 300,000 asked him to. On the other side of the world, Australian Families Minister Jenny Macklin claimed she could live on the dole – undeniably, given her weekly $6321 income. There’s a danger of people participating in Living Below the Line believing that the project will help them, to quote the website, “develop a better understanding of the challenges faced by people living in extreme poverty,”; it won’t develop that understanding, at least not in any meaningful way. While living on £1 a day for 5 days may be tough, it bears no relation to what life is like living on a very low income long-term.
I’m not saying there’s nothing of value to the Live Below the Line campaign, and I’m not doubting that most people who undertake this challenge do have good intentions. Perhaps some people do get an idea of the sense of absolute disempowerment and psychological effects of poverty while participating in the challenge, which is worthwhile. What I am saying is there are ways to contribute to alleviating poverty which don’t need to try, and fail, to place those taking the challenge into others’ shoes – which is at best naïve, and at worst grotesque.
Those taking part in the campaign this year should look around first, without the blindfold of the £1 a day mantra. If you’re living below the line this week, turn your heating off. Don’t take public transport. Don’t give yourself access to a cooker, gas, electricity, running water, Internet, a wardrobe full of new clothes, a fridge, a phone, all the things that you take for granted on a daily basis, and perhaps you’ll be closer to tasting reality for those living in extreme poverty. Or alternatively, rather than posting your boiled potato lunch on Instagram with your #surviving hashtag, donate that amount of money directly to a charity, and talk to those really living in this situation. It might surprise just how aware confrontation makes you.