Monday, February 16, 2009

On Poverty Tourism

Didn't Barbara Ehrenreich teach us anything? The "Nickel and Dimed" author went undercover as a low-wage worker in several US cities to find out just how people survive on wages of $6 or $7 an hour. The trouble was, Ehrenreich didn't start from scratch--she had a private safety net consisting of rental cars, "just-in-case" credit cards, a college education, a savings account and--most importantly--the knowledge that she was just play-acting at being poor. You can't know what it's like to survive minimum wage until it's actually a matter of survival, any more than you can learn what it's like to be homeless by spending a night in a homeless shelter.

Well, here we are again: A CNN reporter named Sean Callebs (left) is attempting to live on a food stamp budget for a whole! month! Since he couldn't actually get food stamps (that would be fraud), he put $176 on a debit card--the maximum amount a single person can get for food stamps in Louisiana, where he lives.

His lessons so far:

Don't buy brand names.

Eating out is expensive.

No more bottled water, sob!

OK, I'm being a little unfair; he's also learned that it's actually really tough to get by on just over six bucks a day. And he's an empathetic guy, if not particularly self-aware (he really does seem baffled by the prospect of life without Diet Coke and bottled water, and he treats the news that he can buy stuff and freeze it like a major revelation).

But I can't help noticing that despite his painstaking efforts to describe every last meal ("peanut butter sandwiches, a banana, and some left over rice"), he neglects to mention the many little comforts and privileges that differentiate him from people who actually live on food stamps. I'm speculating, but here are a few things I'm guessing distinguish him from a typical food stamp recipient:

• Reliable transportation. I'm guessing Callebs doesn't get around on public transportation. In fact, I'm guessing he drives to the grocery store to get what he needs--and that he's able to comparison shop if his neighborhood supermarket doesn't have the best prices. That's not something you can do very easily on the bus, especially if you're working more than one job to make ends meet.

• A decent grocery store. In most cities, the number of grocery stores in a neighborhood correlates directly with income. In poor neighborhoods, the only option within easy walking or busing distance is often the local convenience store--where the markups are guaranteed to be high, and the food to be packaged and unhealthy. Callebs describes going to "health food stores" as well as a regular grocery store. Show me a health food store, and I'll show you a middle-class neighborhood with plenty of fresh, affordable options.

• A well-equipped kitchen and plenty of access to information about how to stretch a small food budget. Callebs repeatedly mentions having readers (and his mom) email him recipes, and he mentions making broth with chicken bones, a stir-fry, beans, and mac and cheese. Those are all great, thrifty ideas, but they assume a fair amount of culinary knowledge--or, in Callebs's case, the wherewithal to make up for lack of cooking skills with extensive research on the Internet. I'm not saying poor people can't look up recipes and make food from scratch, just that it's less likely they'll have the time, energy, Web access, and resources to do so.

• Most importantly: The knowledge that eating on a food-stamp budget is a temporary "lifestyle," not a way of life. At one point, Callebs mentions that he's on vacation--a luxury that, needless to say, isn't part of the typical food-stamp lifestyle. And he's only doing it for four weeks, not months, years, or a lifetime. That makes a big difference, both in terms of the day-to-day experience of eating on a budget (if peanut butter sandwiches get old after a month, imagine how they'd taste after several years?) and in terms of what it does to your long-term outlook. Knowing you're going to be able to eat out again on your CNN salary in two weeks is much different than not knowing whether you'll have enough money to make it to the end of next month.

1 comment:

  1. On one hand, I do admire that Callebs was being empathetic. But as you may have observed, there's more to it than just living on a food stamp budget. At least he didn't finish his mission without learning anything & sharing it with the world.

    - Imee