Monday, June 8, 2009

The Poverty Experiment

Lately, I've developed a nagging concern that our children have little appreciation for how blessed we are. Don't get me wrong. They are amazing kids (thoughtful, generous, sensitive to the needs of others...) It's just that they show too many of the normal signs of American entitlement. We all do. So, my wife and I decided to do a little gratitude exercise and live below poverty level for seven days.

The boys got to choose three toys for the week, each of which had to value under $10. There were no computers (except for work), DVDs, gaming systems, etc. After doing some research and a little creative math, we came up with a weekly income (after rent and utilities) reflective of the national poverty level. We ate, fueled our vehicles, purchased incidentals, paid for school field trips (and the like) for just slightly under this magic number. We ate a lot of beans, rice, pasta, etc. and very little meat. We played board games, with playing cards, and sidewalk chalk. We read books available to us through the library.

We didn't widely publicize what we were doing. In fact, only three people knew about it outside of our family. Each family member did, however, keep a nightly journal and, at the request of a friend, I will share my entries for the week here.

Day One- Monday, May 18, 2009
I’ve actually been looking forward to the start of this little exercise for a few days. Shopping for the week was a fun challenge. But, now that the week has officially begun, I’m finding this a bit more of a challenge than I could have anticipated.

For two reasons: First, an unplanned turn in my dental health has made it so that I will be having my wisdom teeth out tomorrow morning. I am a bit nervous and not looking forward to the painful recovery. But, because of this week’s exercise, I’m not sure I will even be able to “shop” for my recovery like I would otherwise. Luckily, we had planned at least a few soft foods into our poverty budget menu. Still, this may prove to be a real challenge.

Fortunately, it seems the procedure is covered by our dental insurance. Yet, it occurs to me, if we really were living below the poverty level, we wouldn’t likely have such insurance. I’m not sure what I would have done if this were the case. My pain level, at present, is barely tolerable. I am extremely thankful for our dental insurance and my wife’s job with the school district.

Second, I have found myself, a surprising number of times today, thinking of things I need to go “pick up” from the store; things like hair conditioner or more plastic spoons for my office. Ordinarily, these thoughts are fleeting and pass without action— but only because I don’t have time or because it’s not worth a trip to the store for such few items. It is never because we just can’t afford these things. I’ve never thought of basic toiletries as luxuries. Sobering.
Day Two- Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Today I had all four of my wisdom teeth removed. They had become impacted and were causing swelling and discomfort. I was told that I would need someone to drive me home because I would be under a general anesthetic.

One of the most striking things I’ve learned about combating the struggles of poverty is the unmistakable importance of community. For those that “have,” independence is the rule of the day. For those who “have not,” interdependence is survival rule #1. My wife had to work today. In fact, most everyone in my “community” was at work today. We have built lives of individuality and semi-independence. Thankfully, a good friend was able to become available during the day (rearranged her obligations) in order to drive me to and from the appointment. Afterward, she was kind enough to purchase a chocolate milkshake for me and then, to purchase (insurance co-pay) and pick-up my post-surgery prescriptions. It is only Tuesday and after purchasing groceries for the week and gasoline for the truck, we are already through more than half of our money for the week. I offered to pay for the shake, the mashed potatoes (another purchase made by our friend on my behalf) and the prescriptions, but she wouldn’t accept. Later, another friend brought me a smoothie from “Juice it Up.” And yet another couple of other friends sent text messages asking if I needed anything. Now, more than ever (and for many reasons), I am thankful for friendships—for community.
Day Three- Wednesday, May 20, 2009
The eating part of this is proving to be more challenging than I imagined it would be. Tonight for dinner, we made tuna casserole. Ordinarily, this is a low budget family favorite. But, I found I couldn’t take more than two or three bites. Chewing is next to impossible. I put my portion back into the pot and proceeded to drink a shake again for dinner just before rushing out to take my oldest son to his all district band concert.

The concert was wonderful. I was duly impressed with the students’ performances at all levels. I was slightly less than impressed with the school board and administration representatives who spoke throughout the concert. I was more aware than ever before of the range of dress clothing worn by the students— everything from jeans and a T-shirt to slacks and black tennis shoes. There were some kids dressed to the nines, but very few who looked as though they had the appropriate attire in their wardrobe. We are so blessed to be able to afford dress slacks, socks, shoes, and shirt for our son.

By the way, this morning, since I was still under the 24 hour mark with the anesthetic and unable to drive, a friend came by and picked up the boys to take them to school. Another above-and-beyond moment in our relationship. And, yet another representation of the wealth and strength found in community.
Day Four- Thursday, May 21, 2009
This morning, I woke up more sore and swollen than yesterday. Not fun.

I read an article today about how it is more expensive to be poor than it is to be wealthy or middle-class. When you can’t afford to shop around for the best price (due to lack of transportation or the cost of time lost utilizing public transportation), you can end up paying quite a bit more for everyday items such as milk or bread. In addition, with limited assets or credit, you may end up having to finance purchases at a much higher interest rate. What a vicious catch 22.

I was getting a little frustrated this evening. I’m not sure, as a family, we are doing so well at the focusing through this exercise. My wife had to sit down and write out what we’ve spent so far to mentally get back on track. It seems she had been using a few items from the pantry that we hadn’t factored into our budget (chips and sunflower seed butter for the little guy’s lunch). My youngest son has been sneaking in play time with more than his three selected toys (under $10).

I think all of us have been challenged in keeping the experiment pure. If I had it to do over again, I think I would have done more physical prep— cleaning out the cupboards, putting away all the toys, etc. Also, I’m sure, at or below poverty level, we would not have a washer and dryer in our home. We probably wouldn’t have a dishwasher either. My oldest son asked today if we were supposed to be using our blender. I’ve had to use our food processor to puree my food (since I can’t chew, at present). I don’t feel like we are cheating, exactly. But, I do feel like we are getting less than the full experience for lack of thorough preparation.

So, it is Thursday night. We have spent nearly 80% of our budget for the week. Three more days to go. One of those days includes a picnic and another a baby shower. I’m on less than a quarter tank of gas. Heaven help us!
Day Five- Friday, May 22, 2009
I am completely over this whole eating mushy foods business. My mouth/face can’t get back to normal fast enough.

I was thinking earlier that it would be nice to just sit and watch a movie tonight. But, alas, no T.V. or D.V.D. in our below-poverty-level household. That’s okay. The truth is, I didn’t really want to watch anything. It’s just that the other, low cost entertainment alternatives all required more effort. Reading, playing a game, etc.—all required more thinking and/or energy.

I really want to adventure outside the house tomorrow (Saturday). The beach, or mountains, or something. I’ve been a little stir crazy stuck around the house the past few days (recovering). But, alas, no gas money and almost an empty tank. Guess more creativity is called for.
Day Six- Saturday, May 23, 2009
Today was a lazy day spent at home. At least for the most part, anyway. Lazy for me is relative. My wife had a baby shower to attend. One of her colleagues from school came by for an hour or so before the shower. My wife has been helping the woman with her professional writing skills.

Though my swelling has decreased over the past few hours, my pain level has only increased. My jaw is extremely sore and contributing to a dull, but constant headache.

While my wife was gone to the baby shower, the boys and I sorted and folded laundry. I made them lunch and introduced them to my wife’s rice pudding. It was a huge hit! Who would have thought the kids would make a new food discovery in all this?

We’ve been playing a lot of “Rummikub” and “Apples to Apples.” There are quite a few other things (fun, family things) I would love to have done today but gas prices are outrageous. Still, we’ve gotten a lot accomplished and have had fun in the process. We haven’t needed money to laugh, sing, dance, play, and make an adventure out of just about everything. It’s been good to see!
Day Seven- Sunday, May 24, 2009
I have mixed emotions about the success of our little experiment. On one hand, I feel like my family has at least a cosmetic understanding of how blessed we really are. By that I mean, we have been made more consciously aware of the “stuff” we take for granted every day. To a lesser degree, there have been moments of recognizing how blessed we are to have each other—to truly enjoy one another. There is a lot of love in our family. I feel it is too often overlooked because we are always running and working to make (or maybe keep) life “better.” Which begs the question, “better than what?” Is this the great “American Dream?” To ignore (or at least set aside) the things that should truly be most precious to us in exchange for the ongoing opportunity to prove in visible ways to the rest of the world that we can afford these all but neglected “precious things?”

Also, I feel that, in the end, the awareness that we’ve only been pretending has inoculated the whole experiment. There has been little real bite to this. Even now, I am thinking about the things I’ve been putting off until our little exercise is over (hair cut, lunch with a friend, replacing my broken guitar, etc.). But, I can honestly say I have a deeper appreciation for the circumstances that afford me the resource to be able to “indulge” in such things. Hopefully, for my family, even if in the smallest of ways, they too may be coming to recognize just how much of an “indulgence,” not an “entitlement,” these things are. For MOST people in the world, they are extravagances.

We still haven’t decided what we will do with the money we have not spent this week. I don’t mean the few dollars we have left from our allowance. I mean the money we would have spent if we hadn’t been on it. We haven’t really even discussed it. I think it should be a family decision. I can’t wait to see what we come up with.

Finally, I’m forced to wonder, “what is our cut-off?” Do we have one? What I mean is, it seems we had less trouble than anticipated living at or below poverty income for a week (though, I’m not sure my family would enjoy the idea that any of our sacrifices become permanent). But, what do we really need? What is the bare minimum required for us to survive as a family? What changes in the way we think about ourselves and our world would be required to go below that line? Would they be worth exploring? What would God have us do with what we’ve discovered and experienced? Where do we go from here?