Further thoughts re. “poverty tourism”

I’ve now seen several more angry articles decrying “poverty tourism”. Something to do with Gwyneth Paltrow (boy, people really don’t like her, do they?).

I do get where people are coming from in some of the criticisms they make, but I think some are overstating the harm of well-off people playing poor. This Time article claims “people already know that other people are hungry. And telling people that others are hungry by pretending to be like them for a short while doesn’t help the lower-income community. In fact, it could even hurt. In the Orange County example, those families took rare fresh produce from those who really needed it.” Well, I agree that taking fresh foodstuff from a limited supply when there are others who need it more is harmful, but regarding the first part of the sentence, they may know others are hungry in the abstract, but if you’ve never experienced hunger or want or having to make tricky decisions about what to choose with a tiny amount of money then I don’t see how you can have more than a smidge of an idea about how it might be for people who live like this for longer. Sure, playing poor for a few measly days isn’t going to thrust you into the world of real, grinding poverty, and anyone who says they now understood all the issues after taking part would have to be a clueless fool, however I haven’t seen anybody actually saying that!

Most Live Below the Line blogs I’ve seen mention how lucky it made the people taking part feel, but that it gave them a slightly better understanding of how hard it must be to live on less than £1 a day in the long term. If enough well-off people are interested in taking up the challenge and they talk about it to their friends, they are likely to tell them how hard they found even the lightweight dip into constricted living, and some of those people may be in influential positions in government, local government, etc. and may be influenced to consider how their actions could improve the lives of those who do not choose poverty but have to live in it anyway. It’s to be hoped that those who develop a better empathy are more likely to dig into their own pockets and/or make more effort to help with poverty relief initiatives as well.

I guess I’m a little thin-skinned about the criticisms because I dread being perceived as insensitive or patronising. My own earnings are less than the Joseph Rowntree Foundation defines as poverty level in this country – “Those with less than 60 per cent of median income are classified as poor. This ‘poverty line’ is the agreed international measure used throughout the European Union.” Clearly this is a relative measure of “poverty” and in a completely different class to those who Live Below the Line are attempting to help. In part the fact that I earn so little is also my choice based on personal preferences and possibly slightly masochistic tendencies! I don’t feel I need a car, a television, frequent holidays or most “luxury” goods, so I don’t work every hour I possibly could. I usually manage okay, but those who read back on this blog will see that I’ve spent several months documenting varying levels of restricted spending. These were restrictions based on less than the amount I could have spent, but not by a wide margin: I didn’t have a particularly large safety net as my permanent job did not cover my outgoings, some bills and all in-hand expenses were covered by extra casual (zero hours contract) work, so any prolonged period of sickness which meant I couldn’t pick up that work would have dragged me into debt pretty quickly. But, perhaps selfishly, having the choice to take part in a challenge like this really helps me realise how lucky I am compared to many others in the world. I also get a buzz if I feel I am able to help other people, and if I am spending £1 a day for 5 days it means I will have extra money available to donate.

I am a bit obsessed about the nuts and bolts of the challenge and I hope to make a lot of spreadsheets comparing prices by supermarket, cross-referenced with nutritional values, as well as meal plans, and I think these will actually be pretty helpful to people. I’ve always been fascinated by this kind of thing and read with interest any articles/books about how to manage on very little (there’s a good essay in The Man Who Ate Everything), but obviously food prices and types change according to crop failures, supermarket price-wars etc., so it really needs a database to be kept up to date. I am considering trying to eventually create something a bit like Barnivore for vegan foods ranked by protein/cost/other nutritional info, I don’t know if that’s too ambitious, but for veg*ns on the poverty line boundaries or those trying to save money for something I think it’d be a very useful resource.

So, I’ve got that off my chest! I’ve been practising recipes, so expect more food, less self-justificatory rambling next time!


One Comment on “Further thoughts re. “poverty tourism””

  1. Rebecca says:

    I think you’re right, it’s about raising awareness and influencing key people into making changes to combat food poverty. I look forward to following your challenge and how you complete it as a vegan. Best of luck!


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