The pros of experiencing the cons of poverty

At the beginning of October, I slipped five crisp Benjamins into my purse. I don't usually carry any cash at all, so I was feeling flush with $500 in my pocket.

It was all part of a simple experiment: Could I save on my grocery budget if I only paid in cash? While I will share more in the future about what I specifically learned about groceries and my budget, this experiment made me think about a bigger problem.

By mid-October, I had about $30 left. I valiantly tried to stretch the money to the end of the month, but I couldn't. A family of five simply needs more food than $30 can buy. So I dipped into the checking account. For me, it was not an issue. But what if this were another family's grocery budget and they had no savings, no access to credit cards or any other source of money? You can't just ask your children to starve until payday. So what do you do?

Since you read this blog, I am guessing we have a lot in common. Can you identify with any of the following situations? If I need to go somewhere, I get into my car. If I am thirsty, want to take a shower, or need to brush my teeth, I turn on the water faucet that comes directly into my home. And get this, the water is disease-free and ready to use. If one of my children is sick, I take them for medical treatment or raid my medicine cabinet. When I think about what's for dinner, I open my refrigerator, my pantry, my big freezer, or search the shelves that hold my canned goods. And I am ashamed to say that I still don't have a clue of what to cook for dinner sometimes. I don't even think about these things. They are just there, and it's just the way life is for me.

Experimenting Encourages Empathy

Relationships and community are very important to me. I believe that the financial excess I have been given is a responsibility that I must steward wisely. I don't know why I wasn't born in an African village without access to clean water or why I was born into a family blessed with generally good health, a strong support system, and enough tools to help me figure out how to get by.

Now that I am a mother, I really want to rear my children so that they have compassion for others who have less and can be grateful for what they have as well. Sometimes I catch myself getting frustrated with them when I see them being greedy, ungrateful little kids. I mean, my oldest two children lived in an orphanage — a very good one as far as orphanages go — so they should be thankful for all the good things they have, right?

But then I take a look in the mirror and realize that I am the same way. I don't think about the people who don't have running water when I wait until the water is warm before I step into the shower. And with Thanksgiving around the corner, I want to understand and have compassion in my heart and gratitude for my blessings that I believe the holiday is meant to help us remember.

I think the fact we're a few years removed from poverty can dull our sense of empathy somewhat, and I think performing a social poverty experiment can help us better appreciate the concerns of others.

So why experiment?

1. Humility — If I never make an attempt to understand what it is like to live in poverty, I might give myself a little too much credit for getting where I am financially — and I might forget that we don't all start in the same place.

2. Empathy — If I can imagine, just a little bit, what it is like to wonder where my next meal is coming from, I am more likely to be compassionate to others.

3. Waste less — One of my friends spends weeks at a time in Haiti, coordinating construction projects. During one trip, his Haitian friends invited him to a meal they had prepared. The meal included chicken, which is — at least I've been told — a luxury to the typical Haitian. Despite fears of getting sick, my friend and the rest of his American crew ate the meal. When the meal was over, he watched as the plates were scraped clean and the leftovers were given to the Haitian people to eat. The leftovers! I am ashamed of the food I waste when others have to gnaw on chicken bones that someone else had already picked clean. Or the water I waste when some mothers spend hours a day carrying water to care for their family.

How You Can Experiment

My employer used to run poverty workshops. If you participated, you were assigned an income and stuff happened to you — car repairs, illness, you name it. It was a very clear illustration of how precarious survival is in poverty.

Others have challenged themselves to live on a poverty-level income. You could challenge yourself to live on a smaller food budget, for example.

If you are used to commuting by car, you could take public transportation or walk. Everywhere. Find out what it is like to carry your groceries home. (I realize some of you do this already, but I don't.)

Maybe you could try taking a cold shower or filling your bathtub with buckets of water from the kitchen instead of turning on the water faucet. Or maybe you should stop your daily shower and go to every other day. Or weekly. Then you may find out what it's like not to have a support system. I kid, but only a little. Good hygiene practices are important when working.

While doing some research, I came across a fascinating TED talk called “Social Experiments to Fight Poverty” by Esther Duflo. Sometimes I don't do anything to fight poverty because I don't know what to do. Sometimes I don't do anything because I am not sure where my money will be best used.

But if I do nothing, I won't change anything.

How do you reconnect with the meaning of Thanksgiving? Would an experiment help you appreciate what those who face poverty are experiencing? Have you ever gone without something to gain empathy for someone else?

More about...Giving, Frugality

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Petrish @ Debt Free Martini
Petrish @ Debt Free Martini
5 years ago

Poverty is real and some people have no idea how it feels are taste. The Haitians that ate those scraps know what poverty taste like. I always take the time to remind my daughter of how much she has and she is very much apart of my process of becoming debt free. I am fully aware of what poverty looks like and it always breaks my heart to see it. Just thinking of the things I have wasted in my life at times makes me sick. This post was fascinating Thank you so much for sharing it.

Marsha
Marsha
5 years ago

“Sometimes I don’t do anything to fight poverty because I don’t know what to do. Sometimes I don’t do anything because I am not sure where my money will be best used.” Perfect is the enemy of good. Instead of running these artificial experiments, just do something without worrying if it’s the “best.” Best is a matter of opinion, anyway. Subjecting yourself to suffering in order to gain more empathy for the poor sounds pretty self-centered in my opinion. It may make you feel more enlightened, but it does nothing to help the impoverished. Donate to the local food bank… Read more »

Mrs PoP
Mrs PoP
5 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

“Subjecting yourself to suffering in order to gain more empathy for the poor sounds pretty self-centered in my opinion.” I don’t know if I agree with this. As a teenager I participated in a fundraising project called 30 Hours of Famine where we went without food for 30 hours and slept in our own little box city on our church grounds while completing service projects for the homeless in our community (including making lunches for and serving the homeless while we had not eaten in 20+ hours). By the end of it kids that had never really considered what it… Read more »

Matt
Matt
5 years ago
Reply to  Mrs PoP

It’s a lot easier to tolerate something if you know it will eventually end.

That’s why these experiments or voluntarily exercises miss the true difficulties of poverty.

Kimberly
Kimberly
5 years ago
Reply to  Matt

How about credit for even trying? The first step in a long journey is the first step. Good that people even try to raise their personal awareness, even for a short time. And “experiencing poverty” might pale in comparison to true poverty but it’s getting them out of their comfort zone so maybe they can at least feel a little discomfort to raise their level of awareness. Better to try than not at all.

Lisa Aberle
Lisa Aberle
5 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

I don’t understand how trying to gain empathy is self-centered…unless it’s because I would try to gain empathy and then not use that knowledge to help others? Is that what you meant? It feels like bragging to tell you that I actually do some of these things you mentioned, but I don’t want anyone to think this article is about experimenting and then going back to the old conveniences, unchanged. I really believe that walking a mile in another’s shoes (as someone else mentioned) always results in more kindness and compassion. And our world could use a lot more of… Read more »

Marsha
Marsha
5 years ago
Reply to  Lisa Aberle

It’s self-centered because it’s focused on how YOU feel, on how you can improve yourself as a human being. Give to others because it’s the right thing to do regardless of how you’re feeling at the moment. Don’t let your emotions determine the recipient and the amount of your donation. Emotions change all the time. I make myself give even when I’m feeling very apathetic, because the poor and needy are still there no matter how I feel. I don’t believe that empathy experiments lead to long-term change for most people, because they’re based on emotions. When you know something… Read more »

Lisa Aberle
Lisa Aberle
5 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

Thanks for coming back to clarify! I appreciate your perspective.

getagrip
getagrip
5 years ago

While not necessarily a bad thing to have a focused experiment I don’t know that you have to wait for it to find opportunities to point out to your kids things to be thankful for. Life throws us many just through living and observing. For example, we’ve taken our share of cold showers (camping, busted water heater). I, and I think most of my kids, have gone days without solid food (injury, illness). We’ve gone without many creature comforts on occasion. It certainly won’t replicate the experience of the people who really suffer these things on a daily basis for… Read more »

Elle
Elle
5 years ago

I agree with Mrs PoP…. I suppose that there are a few people out there who have gotten some leverage/”fame” from blogging about their little experiments, but aside from those examples, I think that most people who attempt to do these things (fast for a period of time, etc) come away with at least a slightly higher awareness. MOST people in our first world are on auto-pilot and coast through life without really thinking about how much they really have. Here’s a funny (?) story: we were in NYC yesterday and encountered two men in Time Square (with IDs and… Read more »

Steve K
Steve K
5 years ago

Getagrip —

Brilliant, thanks.

Some of the “benefits” of spending a career in the Army was to “visit” third world countries, to go days, sometimes a week or more, without showering, walking everywhere, sleeping in tents (or less).

I was lucky enough to marry a gal from one of those third world countries 45 years ago. She grew up in a village without electricity, and today knows very well how graced we are to live as we do in America.

If only our grandchildren could know what she (and I) know.

been there
been there
5 years ago

Have to agree with Marsha,
Still experience some things mentioned in the article, but have found ways to help get on better footing. Getting Rich Slowly is one and Mr Money Mustache is another. There is more that follow, but these two have been very helpful.

Gratitude is something that makes a world of difference and can help make lemons into lemonade.

cherie
cherie
5 years ago

I have to say I sort of agree with some of the commenters. Mrs. PoP I think it’s a wonderful sort of thing to do for those who are younger and really are so self centered, not selfish necessarily but they are neither experienced enough to see that the world is not all like THEIR world, nor knowledgeable about the real world of costs, income, bills etc. I agree with Marsha – start – do SOMETHING. Take a bag to the food bank from your pantry. Do that each day till you find something better to do! I have volunteered… Read more »

Laura
Laura
5 years ago

I was raised in a family that straddled the poverty line and know well what it’s like to go to bed hungry, so being grateful is a little easier for me. I found that attitude made me a better parent because children learn from the example their parent(s) show. So I try as much as possible to avoid kvetching about first world problems, or if I found myself doing it, to correct myself and say something like, “Oh well, I’m just glad we have a good warm house on such a cold and rainy day,” or “It may not be… Read more »

Budget Girl
Budget Girl
5 years ago

I’d like to second the comment above about talking about family. My parents are from a third-world country. My mother still remembers how hungry she was as a child, never having meat, never having anything but the sweet potatoes that my grandmother grew in the yard, and the bananas from the trees around them. Every meal would be sweet potatoes and if you wanted a snack, you had to find and climb a banana tree. There was never enough to ease the hunger in my mom’s belly. Sometimes she would climb the neighbor’s trees was able to steal mangoes if… Read more »

superbien
superbien
5 years ago

I have been researching food stamps – SNAP – and found that the average food stamp benefits that “welfare queens” live on is $4/day per person. FOUR dollars. Up to $5 and change in some cases, and reduced by your income. One can live on pasta and ramen for $4/day, but not eat nutritious food that keeps you from getting sick. Empty calories are cheap, vitamin-filled ones are expensive – why we have obese people who are malnourished. And vitamins are not covered. Further, good food at $4/day usually requires a lot of prep and cooking – ie time, which… Read more »

BD
BD
5 years ago
Reply to  superbien

An actual “Welfare Queen” isn’t living on just welfare. That title refers to scammers who know how to play the system. They often have a pretty good side hustle (either legal or illegal) going that pays under-the-table or they are being supported by someone else, and the income or support is of course, unreported. The welfare money is icing on the cake, extra cash for nice things.

Beard Better
Beard Better
5 years ago
Reply to  BD

An “actual” Welfare Queen is a largely imagined racist caricature used to further political goals, and is not supported by any actual statistics on welfare fraud.

BD
BD
5 years ago
Reply to  Beard Better

The only people who seem to pull race into everything is the Left. I’ve never seen a political group so stuck on seeing colors. To me, there are just people: Some are good, and some are bad, and some are somewhere in between. Everyone bleeds the same color.

Dennis Frailey
Dennis Frailey
5 years ago
Reply to  Beard Better

I have to disagree with the comment that only the left brings up race. I encounter racially based remarks now and then from people on both ends of the political spectrum. (Much less these days than in years past, a sign of progress I hope.) The difference I see is that those on the left are more likely to use racial prejudice as an excuse for one thing or another [“I didn’t get the job because they were prejudiced”] whereas those on the right are more likely to bring it up as an explanation for one thing or another [“They… Read more »

Anne
Anne
5 years ago
Reply to  superbien

I just wanted to say that that good and cheap cookbook can only be viewed properly on a computer, smartphone or tablet and is useless to me, because I can’t print it out and use it as intended. Yes, I have a computer and printer, but no laptop or handheld device. The arrogance of that woman who wrote it! 1st world arrogance? I think so.

Beth
Beth
5 years ago
Reply to  Anne

http://www.leannebrown.com/contact/ — “I also spearheaded a project to fund a print run of Good and Cheap to get it into the hands of those who can’t afford a copy.” I’m sorry, but i don’t consider that arrogance. If she was charging people for the PDF, that’s one thing. But print books with colour photos are expensive to print. IMHO, it’s better to get the information out to as many people as possible and digital is still the cheapest way to do that. True, some people won’t be able to access the cookbook on a mobile device, but a PDF means… Read more »

Christina routon
Christina routon
5 years ago

Just recently we had a major car repair needed. We were without a car for almost three months. We had to figure out how to get to the grocery store, the bank, etc. We borrowed a car for a while once a week, then that fell through. Then we took a bus at 6:30 am to Walmart. We had 20 minutes to buy whatever we could before the last bus to our area came back down. We’re in a rural area so the bus only runs this way in the mornings and again in the evening. We received help from… Read more »

Bat Toe
Bat Toe
5 years ago

You know the crazy thing is when I lived well below the poverty level, I voted Republican. I hated peoole on welfare and food stamps. I never even dreamed of applying for such. Now I feel like a fool that I didn’t. Food was so much cheaper back then that feeding yourself, even on my $3.35 an hour salary was pretty easy.
Now that I’m in my 40s with enough saved to live the rest of my life in a comfortable lifestyle I rarely if ever vote Republican. It almost feels like sin.

Steve K
Steve K
5 years ago
Reply to  Bat Toe

Bat Toe, we balance each other out. When I was younger and definitely poorer, I was idealistic and liberal and couldn’t understand anyone voting Republican. Now that I’m older, hopefully smarter, my idealism gone, replaced by realism, and I can’t understand anyone voting Democrat. I still like some of my old ideas. I recognize some things Republicans are dead wrong on. Still, if we distill the difference between the parties, it comes down (in my eyes anyway) to one party thinking government is the solution, the other thinking government is the problem. But we digress, don’t we, from the discussion… Read more »

BD
BD
5 years ago
Reply to  Steve K

Steve K, thank you! We’re in the same boat. 🙂

Zambian Lady
Zambian Lady
5 years ago

Experimenting with poverty is a good thing. However, I am not sure that you would be walking in a poor person’s shoes. There were a couple of years when my family lived way below the poverty line. These were times when we did not know whether we would have our next meal, I walked about two four kilometers one way through the bush alone just to get to school, not have food at school and walk back home. What is the difference between the experiment you mentioned and what I went through? With the experiment, you know that it is… Read more »

Sharon
Sharon
5 years ago

I feel the same way whenever I clean closets or the basement. Why do I have so much stuff? Why did I waste so much money on things I used just a few times and now no longer need? I wish I had wised up much earlier in life than I did.

Zambian Lady
Zambian Lady
5 years ago

Experimenting with poverty is a good thing. However, I am not sure that you would be walking in a poor person’s shoes. There were a couple of years when my family lived way below the poverty line. These were times when we did not know whether we would have our next meal, I walked about four kilometers one way through the bush alone just to get to school, not have food at school and walk back home. What is the difference between the experiment you mentioned and what I went through? With the experiment, you know that it is only… Read more »

Patrick
Patrick
5 years ago

Although growing up poor is no fun, you do often appreciate what you now have. I have poor relatives and I don’t know how they do it. Although food banks are handy.

You know, when you are poor you just learn to live with it. You don’t worry too much to run out of money because you usually don’t have any. Speaking from experience.

I feel sorry for relatives who grew up in affluence. Many don’t appreciate what they have.

sarah johnson
sarah johnson
5 years ago

I read the comments and I cry. This was a super article. I also want to tell Zambian Lady that I have scratched a lot to live and I made it OK. Do not diss people like me. I would talk to Zambian Lady if she wants a conversation.

Thank you for this article.

BD
BD
5 years ago

“If you are used to commuting by car, you could take public transportation or walk. Everywhere. Find out what it is like to carry your groceries home. (I realize some of you do this already, but I don’t.)” It’s a real workout and not very convenient, that’s for sure. I haven’t owned a car since 2009. I am fortunate enough to live in a city with semi-decent public transportation, and I do own a cheap bike, but oh man, grocery shopping. It’s a pain. You can only go to one store at a time, because it’s too hard to carry… Read more »

Jen
Jen
5 years ago
Reply to  BD

Depending on where you live you might be able to rent a car for the day or do car sharing
(where you rent by the hour). If you have space you can do months worth of non-perishable shopping at once. I rent Hourcar for a few hours every month and then go and get tons of canned goods/jarred foods at Aldi’s so then a have less stuff to get during my normal shopping trips.

Also something like this http://www.amazon.com/Whitmor-6307-1729-BLK-Rolling-Utility-Black/dp/B001DZ4RGE/ref=sr_1_9?s=office-products&ie=UTF8&qid=1416591736&sr=1-9&keywords=utility+cart is great for being able to carry lots of heavy stuff at once.

patrick
patrick
5 years ago

Living off a little money to eat is not that hard when you have grown up doing it. It’s actually pretty easy. Our routine growing up was to skip breakfast. When we could get a free school lunch, we took it, but in middle school we skipped breakfast and lunch. But you can eat a sandwich here and there or something to eat during the day. Dinner is easy. You get government cheese and noodles from the food bank. Then you cook up and make mac and cheese. Then, you eat that for a week. Same for spaghetti. You cook… Read more »

S
S
5 years ago

Anne the cookbook is available as a free pdf. I have no problem printing it. also you can buy one. It costs $25 and she donates a copy to non profits that request one when you buy one. She is fundraising to get the books to those in need

Dennis Frailey
Dennis Frailey
5 years ago

One of the best things that ever happened to me is that I was brought up at a time when my parents were relatively poor. Certainly not the worst form of poverty, but by today’s standards things looked rather sparse – no TV, one land-line phone in the house, one bathroom in the house (for a family of 7), one very used car that my father took to work every day (so my mother walked if she wanted anything during the day). The toys we got for Christmas were not the current “hot” ones but still entirely suitable (and cheaper).… Read more »

Steve K
Steve K
5 years ago

Frailey, are you sure we weren’t raised together? Me: no TV, no car, 1-bathroom house (always rented), sandlot and playground sports…. “I got a good education, worked my way into a respectable career, earned good money toward the second half of my working career, and when I retired I had enough money in the IRA and other retirement funds to retire comfortably.” That sounds like me, too. Have we stumbled onto something about success in life? And how do we convince our children not to spoil our grandchildren? It’s a different world now. As a boy of five or six,… Read more »

Dennis Frailey
Dennis Frailey
5 years ago
Reply to  Steve K

There’s research that shows if you grow up poor you often don’t see yourself as poor unless and until you see others who have more (this can be one of the cruel aspects of going to school). If you later move up and have a little more, you tend to appreciate it and if you have a setback you are better able to handle it because you’ve been there before. (But if you become too rich too soon, the tendency is to not know what to do with the wealth and to end up back in poverty – a common… Read more »

Steve K
Steve K
5 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Frailey

“For example, in a local high school in an impoverished area, the culture discourages people from getting good grades in school. Anything higher than a C is considered socially unacceptable.”

This reminds me of a good book, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.”

Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
5 years ago

This post really struck a cord with me. I myself was raised in poverty and money was scarce, having the essential was an indulgence. I managed to claw myself out of poverty and experiencing hardship has made me appreciate more if life. Whenever I get complacent or frivolous I always think about my past and those below me and it makes me happy. I think happiness equates to being grateful, patient and thinking about those who are less fortunate than us.

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