Friday, March 29, 2013

Preparing to Live Below the Line

Next month, I'll be taking the Live Below the Line challenge (which I blogged about earlier this month). It means feeding myself on the global poverty line of $1.50 per day for 5 days.

To prepare, I've been tracking my food spending for the last month or two. The last time I tracked my food spending closely was in 2005 and 2006, when I was fresh out of college and making about $18,000 a year. Back then I was spending about $25 a week on food. There was hardly a packaged item in my house. The freezer was empty, except for portions of soup that I'd make from scratch in large batches. Meals were based around lentils, beans, dried peas, potatoes, rices, and pastas. The fresh vegetables I could afford were primarily cabbage, carrots, and onions.

Today, I'm spending two or three times as much on food: $50-75 a week. I admit, I was a little surprised my spending was that high. But it is easy to look around my kitchen and see why. My freezer is stocked full of cheese-less pizza, Gardein chickin' fingers, veggie potstickers, and coconut ice-cream. My pantry contains not just modest dried goods that cost $0.99/lb, but fancy french lentils, heirloom beans, and a rare Italian grain called farro that sell for $4.50/lb at Whole Foods. Raw nuts and dried fruits at $7-10/lb are in stock, and at least three different kinds of non-dairy milk. I see a few avocados, which cost $0.50 each on a good day, but up to $2 a piece if you aren't paying attention.  I see chips and crackers and chocolate bars. Those were $2-4 a package. Add in a $10 restaurant lunch during the work week... yup $50-75 makes sense. But how unnecessary.

I don't remember feeling deprived when I was eating on $25 a week. I'm not exactly sure why I drifted from that life-style, except that I was living without cable or internet back then, and I hadn't established a group of friends in the area. All that free time meant I was happy to prep lots of food from scratch - it's not like I had anything better to do. If I avoided Hulu and Facebook, I bet I could pull it off again. But I'm lazy and I have the extra cash. So I've been making the selfish choice to spend far more on food than I need.

But even at $25 a week, I was still way above the global poverty line. The money I use to spend on food for the day will need to stretch to cover 10 meals during the challenge.

I've got some planning to do...

-Selfish Blogger

P.S. You can donate through my Live Below the Line page here.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Preach it Francis!

Pope Francis will be officially inaugurated Pope in the coming hours and, if he has anything to say about it, his fellow Argentinians won't be there. He has encouraged them to watch the happenings from home, save the money that would have been spent on travel, and make a contribution to the poor instead.

Just one more good thing in a long line of good things Pope Francis has said/done to bring attention to the plight of the poor, and our responsibility to help those in need. OMG Pope Francis is the BEST.*

-Selfish Blogger

*excludes gay rights, women's rights, access to contraception...

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Pope for the poor

I couldn't be more delighted. The new Pope says he wants "a poor Church, for the poor", the BBC report today.

Sarah Silverman (and others) have done a great job articulating why the Vatican's wealth-hoarding ways should end.

His roots as a Jesuit from Latin America made me hopeful that he would understand the problems of extreme poverty. And when he took his new name (the name of my favorite Saint), Pope Francis I had already signaled his commitment to helping the poor and living a life of poverty. He declined to wear the gilded cross and other symbols of wealth associated with the Papacy.

And now he is speaking forthrightly about the concept of a poor Church early into his reign.

I am hopeful. It's difficult to know how much wealth the Vatican controls, but the physical manifestations of that wealth are on display. A shift in priorities of Vatican spending, the sale of some assets, even the example of the Pope living modestly could have huge implications for impoverished people world wide.

Keep up the good work Pope Francis I. I hope you can prioritize the poor in the Church's spending.

-Selfish Blogger

Friday, March 15, 2013

What happens when you see the problem?

I've taken the Live Below the Line challenge, which has given me a great opportunity to speak about extreme poverty to friends and colleagues. These conversations have not gone the way I anticipated: most of the people I've spoken to don't see the problem. And they push back when I start talking about the reality facing 1/3 of the world's population living off $1.25 a day. Here are some of the ways the people I've spoken to imagine extreme poverty:

- Not being able to afford organic food.

- Buying large quantities of rice in bulk, which is "much cheaper than those little bags you get at Trader Joe's" and eating small portions of vegetables and meat.

- Delighting in fresh fruits straight from the forest, the luxury of which we could imagine here.

- Hunting wild game on the Savannah.

- Living in tribal societies without the distractions of technology.

They don't see the problem. In fact, some sound almost envious of the simple, pollution free life these "impoverished" societies enjoy. Of course, the situations they are imagining are not extreme poverty, but they seem unable to imagine something much, much worse.

Here is how those living in extreme poverty have described what it means to them (from

- You are short of food for all or part of the year, often eating only one meal per day, sometimes having to choose between stilling your child’s hunger or your own, and sometimes being able to do neither.

- You can’t save money. If a family member falls ill and you need money to see a doctor, or if the crop fails and you have nothing to eat, you have to borrow from a local moneylender and he will charge you so much interest that the debt continues to mount and you may never be free of it.

- You can’t afford to send your children to school, or if they do start school, you have to take them out again if the harvest is poor.

- You live in an unstable house, made with mud or thatch that you need to rebuild every two or three years, or after severe weather.

- You have no close source of safe drinking water. You have to carry it a long way, and even then, it can make you ill unless you boil it.

Really think about what these words mean. Imagine how hungry you would feel after a full day of work, with no lunch, and how unsatisfied you would feel with a small bowl of grain at days end. Think of the physical weakness, the mood swings, the lack of concentration that comes from being really hungry, and imagine feeling that way every day. Think of the last big storm you sat through, safely in your home. Now imagine that you weren't safe in your home, because your home was falling apart around you. How terribly frightening! What would happen to your things? Imagine the emotional trauma of having your house destroyed, and imagine using what little money you have to rebuild a weak house that you know will be destroyed again.


Today, I had a long phone conversation with one of my board members who just returned from vacation in Africa. He has been changed. The need he saw was so great, and so heart-wrenching, that he was sickened by the excess of his own life. He wants to go back. He wants to help. He wants to leave his job and commit his life to helping the people he met in the villages where he stayed. The experience was so far removed from the suffering he has witnessed to this point, that he was at a loss for words to even describe it. He doesn't know what to do, and he doesn't know who to talk to, because how could anyone who hasn't seem what he's seen understand it?

-Selfish Blogger

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Live Below the Line

Chances are, most people reading this blog have no idea what it means to be poor. I know I don't. That's one of the reasons I'm going to Live Below the Line in May.

Live Below the Line is a challenge that gives people in the first world a 5 day taste of what it truly means to go without. For 5 days, people taking the Live Below the Line challenge must feed themselves on no more than $1.50 per day - the equivalent of what 1.4 billion people the world over have to live on. That $1.50 figure is the purchasing power parity rate. That $1.50 does not buy more in the third world than it does in the US. 

I've been looking forward to the challenge, and I've been paying close attention to food prices to try and figure out what I'll eat - I'll have exactly $7.50 to cover 15 meals plus snacks. Rice and beans look like my staple. Nothing canned. Nothing from a box. A $0.50 apple is out of the question. I'm hoping to afford a $0.19 banana. If I can make it to the farmer's market, there is a vendor that sells huge bunches of kale for only $2 - enough kale to last me the full 5 days, and leave me with $1.10 per day for rice and beans. It's going to be tough.

Live Below the Line is also a fundraiser, and I'm asking for sponsors to help me raiser $1,000 for CARE (don't be put off by the dramatic music in the video, it's a great cause).

I hope you will consider supporting me and CARE by giving through my Live Below the Line page or by joining my team and taking the challenge.

--Selfish Blogger

Monday, March 4, 2013

Mind the wealth gap

I've been having conversations with people on opposite ends of the political spectrum about wealth inequality and extreme poverty. And I can't help but feel that liberals and conservatives are looking at the problem through very different lenses. It results in a feeling of "talking past" one another. No one feels heard. No one feels understood. And while these conversations can be terribly frustrating, I think I have finally spotted why communication breaks down.

Liberals tend to see extreme poverty as a systemic problem - one in which most poor individuals face insurmountable obstacles to improving their circumstances. Conservatives tend to see extreme poverty as an individual problem - one in which most poor individuals make bad choices or lack the character traits necessary for financial success. These two different views seem pretty obvious now that I've written it on the page, but they've been invisible to me in all but my most recent conversations.

Take a look at how the videos below frame the conversation.

Coming from a liberal perspective, I think the first video is fantastic. The second video, to me, is downright insulting.

The next time you find yourself discussing wealth inequality and extreme poverty, pay attention to the way each person is framing the issue. You just might be able to make that conversation productive, instead of talking past one another.

--Selfish Blogger