Originally published in the Glasgow Guardian
As I write this article, representatives of the four student bodies are coming to the end of the Live Below the Line challenge. For five days, participants have lived below the poverty line, spending no more than £1 a day, with the aim of raising money for the Glasgow north west food bank and raising awareness of the struggle of those living in poverty in our city. However, the challenge has not been beyond criticism. Of course, this is true of virtually every charitable endeavour from students at Glasgow university, but something about this particular debate struck a chord for me. On the face of it, there is something a bit problematic about predominantly middle class students playing at being poor; five days of faux poverty does not even begin to cover the experience of actually living below the line. The relief felt by students at the end of the challenge as they order in a Domino’s is a luxury which is not afforded to the poor.
Students should not need to watch their friends moan about their fifth day of eating watery porridge for breakfast in order to empathise with people in poverty. We should listen to the people who experience this every day. The problem is, most of us don’t.
Last year, an article was published in the views section of this paper on the controversial proposals for a sugar tax. In the article, the writer questioned Jamie Oliver’s recipes aimed at those on a low budget, and pointed out that many of them required ingredients adding up to around £15. Students flocked to the comments section to point out the writer’s lack of understanding. Stock cupboard ingredients are an investment. They will be used several times a week and last months. Cooking from scratch is cheaper in the long run. I don’t deny this, but how can we expect someone living on only £1 a day to invest an entire day’s budget on a jar of herbs, a bottle of cooking oil or an obscure condiment? When you are living on such a small budget, investments are a luxury you cannot afford. Live Below the Line participants will have discovered this for themselves as their store cupboards became off limits.
This is the crux of the issue. Students should not need gimmicks in order to empathise with people less fortunate than themselves, but many of us do. The naïve comments about investment ingredients only serve to confirm this. The purpose of the challenge is not to teach people what living in poverty is like, and five days of living below the poverty line would not achieve this anyway. It is intended to start a conversation within groups that have no need to consider these issues in their day to day lives. Most Glasgow University students fall into this category. If the live below the line challenge has resulted in middle class students discussing privilege and poverty, surely this is a positive thing?
Students are often guilty of moral narcissism, spending so much time considering whether something might be offensive that in the end nothing is achieved. Wherever you stand on this issue, we should all take a moment to consider what we have done recently to help those less fortunate than ourselves. Have the critics of the live below the line challenge donated money independently to a food bank, or offered their time and volunteered? You should not criticise students for appropriating poverty whilst doing nothing to fight poverty yourself. Discussion is important, but action is better. Whether you agree with the premise or not, the live below the line challenge raised money for charity and started a conversation about poverty in our city. What we do with that now the controversy is over is up to us.