(Don't forget Blogging Against Disablism Day!)
Arguments about the absolute minimum amount of money people need to survive on should be confined to history, but have become tragically relevant in recent years. Benefit cuts threaten to push already poor people into dire straits. This is a scandal, but BBC news approaches this like an amusing lifestyle conundrum, publishing How little money can a person live on? and today, an article that really made me cross;
How to eat healthily on £1 a day
which should be titled How to survive on £1's worth of food a day - there's a lot more than £1 being spent on food, travel and cooking and there's little evidence of the healthily bit. For example, there's nowhere near the five daily 80g portions of fruit and veg recommended to by the World Health Organisation.
This kind of article angers me because it is about poverty as a hypothetical experience, being used for entertainment. There's no practical advice here, nor is there any discussion of why anyone should be in this position and what needs to be done about that. (See also, Pippa's Pretending To Be Poor)
I am not in poverty any more - I have a low income and am having to live with parents in my thirties, but I have eaten purple flowering broccoli in the last seven days, so I am definitely not poor. Nor have I ever been so poor that I was hungry. Poor people are poorer now than they used to be. Benefits have been cut, especially housing benefit and many disabled people are having to endure periods of extreme poverty whilst appealing bad decisions on Employment and Support Allowance.
As well as using the suffering of others as an entertaining thought experiment, there are really six massive problems with the idea of eating healthily on £1 a day:
1. Poor people cannot afford to waste food.
All the meals listed include small portions of bulk buys - for example, 1/4 courgette which was bought as part of a six pack. You can't say you're eating on £1 a day, if you're spending £1.60 on courgettes and wasting 95% of what you bought. The Oh My God Dinner actually totals a bank-breaking £8.31 unless you
(a) share your meal with the rest of the street
(b) use up all the spare ingredients in other meals
Pasta is no problem, but eating six courgettes at a rate of a quarter a day? If there's one of you, there's guaranteed wastage. Otherwise, you need to be eating these tiny portions of courgette on a near daily basis.
Or it could be you
(c) happen to have all these bits and bobs at the back of your fridge. Which you don't.
This latter point really frustrates me. I remember reading an article which described poverty stew and included a wilting leak and some scraps of prosciutto found at the back of the fridge. I had to look up what prosciutto was (back before I rose to the heights of purple flowering broccoli consumption). Anyone who is finding perishable surprises in their food cupboards either isn't poor or is extremely new to this business.
Very quickly, you learn to plan. You don't buy anything you're not going to eat. If you do one weekly shop, you eat or at least cook the fresh stuff at the beginning of the week, and live off tinned food or things you've cooked and frozen at the end of the week. You never face old vegetables because you ate everything when it was fresh.
The only time there are leftovers is when you made a mistake (which happens), someone gave you food unexpectedly or you've been too unwell to prepare or eat the things you planned to.
2. Poor people can't shop around like that.
All the ingredients in the meals the journalist supposedly ate came from their cheapest supermarket source, with items from Asda, Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury's going into the same meal. There may be areas within the big cities where all these places are all within walking distance, but poor people are unlikely to live in those places.
Folk living on the breadline are unlikely to have their own transport and any money they spend on bus fare is money they can't spend on food and other essentials. I'd guess that most people only have access to one supermarket. Most people don't have the time, money, physical or mental energy to perform the calculations and travel between different supermarkets, buying the cheapest option for each ingredient. That would render food shopping a near full-time occupation.
I have never lived within walking distance (let's say a mile) of one supermarket, and I've lived in three different towns (one big, one medium, one small) and three different villages (only one of which had a supermarket). On-line grocery shopping has made most sense, since it was first available, but you're not going to pay for deliveries from more than one shop.
3. Poor people can't always eat whatever happens to be available.
I don't consider myself to have complex dietary needs, but I can't eat the white bread and biscuit diet proposed by the article. I need a very high fibre diet, and that's when I'm already on a metric tonne of prescription laxatives. Stephen would fare even worse, being outright allergic to dairy and eggs, and intolerant to wheat and garlic, among other things. Wealthy middle-class people can afford to eat fad diets based on the idea that their extra-special bodies can't digest this or that, but some bodies really can't.
Then you have diets based on religious taboos, ethical positions and food aversions. These are not to be underestimated; it is really a huge ask to expect people to eat foods that they consider disgusting. If they were stranded on a desert island (as opposed to the dessert island I spelled originally) and it was pork scratchings or death, folks would compromise. But such fundamental compromises should be completely unnecessary - unthinkable - as a consequence of unemployment in the United Kingdom in the twenty-first century.
4. Poor people can't always cook.
This isn't about the absence of skills - skills can be learnt and goodness knows there are enough television programs demonstrating how food can be prepared. This is about the absence of energy or capacity through illness or impairment, the absence of time because of work or caring responsibilities and the absence of the tools and materials - hobs, an oven, a microwave, some surfaces to prepare food on, space to cook, pans, knives, chopping boards etc.. as well as everything you need to clean up afterwards.
There's also the cost of cooking in terms of gas or electric, which is another very tricky calculation - variations on jacket potato may be a very cheap, nutritious meal, but not so much if you have no microwave and have to put an aging electric oven on for an hour and a half every day.
There are many gadgets and gizmos which can help with frugal healthy eating, such as a slow cooker. But you need to be able to afford and have secure space for that stuff in the first place.
5. In reality, calories are cheap. Healthy food isn't.
The real reason that you don't find people starving to death in 2013 UK is that calories are cheap. It's quite easy to get 2000 calories out of £1 worth of cheap cake, pastries, biscuits, sweets, crisps or peanuts without having to put down £8 on a meal and hope to use the leftovers with equal efficiency. This is why there's a correlation between poverty and both obesity and malnutrition (which can and frequently do go together); calories keep us alive, but not necessarily in very good health.
6. Nobody should ever have to live like this, ever!
Are poor people part of society? What do we want to do with them? If poor people are going to be (a) in any position to improve their situation or (b) not end up costing the state in terms of poor health and crime, they need to be able to eat decently. They need the absolute minimal level of dignity that comes from having some choice about what they eat and not having to worry about going hungry. This is especially the case for children, but applies to absolutely everyone.
We're a country recovering from a recession, but we're still the seventh richest country in the world. We measure extreme poverty on a global scale when a person has to live on less than $1 a day. We shouldn't be talking about people on our own shores living on £1 a day ($1.55) as if that's just a sign of our times.
[Edit: Funny Grrrl wrote a similar thing on MP Helen Goodman's attempt to live as some of her constituents were being forced to in Helen Goodman, class-privilege and unrealistic expectations.]