Live Below the Line. For a Bit.
There’s been some chatter in the news and on the social media gob-stream lately about the ‘awareness campaign’ Live Below the Line. By chatter, I mean patronising tosh. The central message behind Live Below the Line is “Could you live on a food budget of less than £1 a day for five days?” Well, yeah. I could. I’ve been doing it for years, thanks.
Everyone from local news reporters to Hollywood actors have been pledging to raise awareness of global poverty by taking the ‘challenge’ of eating in the way that 1.4 billion people have no choice in, for a bit. The official website has a handy list of rules, that make it sound like so much of a game, you’re wondering where to get the dice and cardboard counters shaped like pound coins. Look at this guy from a regional newspaper, he’s Living Below the Line and having a whale of a time.
“Pound a day for five days? Sounds like a jolly jape!”
This whole campaign is offensive bollocks, but let’s imagine for a moment that good intentions got a little misguided and merely point out that, at best, this is an idea that’s deeply, fundamentally flawed. The true killer of living so meagrely is the overwhelming, crushing sense of hopelessness; the feeling of fear, of “Well fuck, maybe I won’t be eating next week at all. And who knows where I’ll be in six months time.” 5 days can’t give you that any more than you could empathise with the plight of a wrongly convicted death row inmate by spending 24 hours alone in a room. In your house. With the door unlocked.
To take one element of poverty and briefly co-opt it into your non-poverty life is a bullshit, patronising misunderstanding of what it is to exist on that level, with no choice in the matter, and no option to call it quits if it gets too much. Okay, so you’re spending £1 a day on food for not even a full week? Are you turning your heating off too? Because if you can’t afford food, you certainly can’t afford heating. Are you going anywhere that isn’t within walking distance for 5 days? Because you don’t have the money for a train or bus fare, and certainly can’t afford to run a car. And no nights out, right? Because you haven’t any disposable income, so a trip to the pub or to catch a film is out of the question. Ditto on buying, well, anything for yourself. What about clothes? Still swanning about in fresh selections from your wardrobe, or did you toss out everything but a couple of pairs of jeans and some fading t-shirts with the logos flaking off, to really get that “Haven’t had the money for new gear in years” feeling? How about replicating the sense of complete isolation that goes with the territory? Any ideas about recreating that for this little adventure of yours? No? Oh.
The recent petition to make loathsome Tory Iain Duncan Smith live up to his words and survive on £53 a week like he claimed anybody could suffered from the same flaw. Of course he could. In his mansion, with his fully stocked larder. I could survive quite easily on nothing a week if I had a support network of millionaires and a fucking driver. You can’t dip your toe into poverty like it’s a fancy dress costume. ‘Campaigns’ like Live Below the Line reduce human suffering to the level of charity-tourism, like those middle-class gap-year Christians who go to Africa for 10 days to take photos of themselves putting three bricks onto the foundations of a half-built classroom. Their iPhone pics of giggling groups of little black children feeling their blonde hair, and being held, smiling, in WWJD-bangle-adorned arms, to be revisited in later years like snapshots from an outing to the petting zoo or the local museum, in the knowledge that, for a while, they really slummed it; really experienced.
So, if you do manage to Live Below the Line for five whole days, be sure to let everyone know how tough that was for you, little soldier. Stick photos up on Facebook of you sat at your dining room table in the decently furnished flat or house where you live, taken with the smartphone you can afford to own and use, in the clothes you aren’t ashamed to be seen in. And when you get to the end, and you enjoy that big, hard-earned celebratory “We did it!” feast, try not to choke.