Money Matters: When Poverty Is An "Experiment"

Illustration for article titled Money Matters: When Poverty Is An "Experiment"

Time's piece on frugality experiments — like living on a dollar a day, or abstaining from buying new clothes for a year — is a depressing reminder that for many, thrift is a necessity, not a stunt.


Time's Brad Tuttle is a little late to the party — the Food Stamp Challenge, in which Congress members and others tried to feed themselves on a food stamp budget of $21 a week, started in 2007, and reduced consumption for environmental reasons has been a Thing for some time. Tuttle pegs his piece to the book On a Dollar a Day, in which authors Christopher Greenslate and Kerri Leonard spent just a dollar a day on food for a month — and then binged on chocolate donuts. This presence of an endpoint — even an escape hatch — is common to several of the frugality experimenters Tuttle profiles. Of "Seattle clotheshorse Sally Bjornsen," who's blogging about her "yearlong quest not to buy a single garment other than underwear," he writes,

It's difficult, particularly for affluent consumers, to stick to their own arbitrary rules. Bjornsen admits she's fallen off the wagon at least once. Arriving at the gym with no workout pants and with a babysitter already paid for at home, she sucked up the guilt and bought a $98 pair of Lululemon pants.

An understandable cheat, perhaps, but one that speaks to several layers of privilege — a gym membership, a babysitter, $98 to spare for brand-name pants. Another blogger, Rachel Kesel, says her crusade against consumption has made her realize "how mindlessly I'm capable of buying stuff." But not all Americans are capable of "mindlessly" buying — as evinced by another feature in Time. For How Americans Spend Now, Time talked to unemployed couple Barbara and Kevin Lowe, who say,

It's hard to invite people for dinner, so we don't accept many invitations. We went to the art show on the day tickets were discounted, and told friends we'd brown-bag our lunches. One of them said we could go to a cheap restaurant, but I can't. I'm not sure they really understand how it is. I know I didn't until it happened to me.

While reining in waste is certainly laudable — and as Sadie pointed out, many of us could benefit from reining in some of our shopping impulses — it's also not true that all Americans are buying lots of things they don't need. And while "deprivation experiments" may be instructive for the middle class, I'm not sure what they do for those who are already deprived.


Cheap Thrills [Time]
How Americans Spend Now [Time]

Earlier: Abstaining From Crappy Clothes (Let's Not Say "Diet" More Than Absolutely Necessary)


Hazey Jane

And while "deprivation experiments" may be instructive for the middle class, I'm not sure what they do for those who are already deprived.

I think this is another case of raising awareness vs. taking action, which has come up in a lot of posts. In addition to everything that's been said, I wonder how instructive it actually is for the middle class, since—as you pointed out—coming in from a middle class perspective already gives you privileges that most people who survive on a dollar a day don't have in addition to the option of quitting as soon as it gets too hard.

It's nice to show solidarity and walk a mile in someone else's shoes, but at the end of the day, the goal should be making it so that nobody has to live on just a dollar a day (or, alternatively, making it so that a dollar a day is plenty to live on), rather than "understanding" what it's like to do so.