One point four billion people in the world live in what the World Bank calls "extreme poverty." According to their definition, that means that those 1.4 billion -- amazingly, 20 percent of the world's population -- spend less than $1.50 a day on food and drink. Now may be a good time to check that receipt from Starbucks and see how much you spent on coffee this morning.
To give you some type of comparison to make sense of this $1.50 number, the average American household spends $151 a week on groceries. Broken down to a family of four over a week-long period, that's $5.40 a day per person. Which certainly doesn't seem like a lot, but it's more than three-and-a-half times higher than those living in extreme poverty. (Also, this is probably a good time to note to any wiseacres out there, before you start saying that $1.50 goes a long way in developing countries, that number's been adjusted for use in the U.S.) But still, that comparison doesn't do a whole lot in helping us understanding how little $1.50 a day is.
Therein lies the problem of with numbers that are super-huge or super-small: Both the near-infinite and the minuscule are hard to wrap our heads around. An astrophysicist announcing the discovery of an Earth-like planet that's only 1,200 light years away means about the same thing, conceptually, as "living on $1.50 a day." Luckily, an organization is trying to bring the latter number a bit closer to home.
Starting today and running through the end of the week, Live Below the Line is issuing a worldwide challenge urging people to only spend $1.50 a day on food and drink. To help spread the word, they signed on a bunch of celebrities, including Ben Affleck, who are themselves taking the pledge to live well below their means this week.
Now, first let me state that this, of course, is a good cause. And while the cynical side of me looks at any celebrity involvement as something to be wary of, the fact is that getting people like Affleck on board helps spread the word; that's the only reason I heard about this in the first place. But what gives me slight pause is a few of the rules regarding the challenge. Some of them are there simply to help clarify a few things -- for instance, the explanation that you can use your $7.50 for the week however and whenever you want, instead of just being allowed to spend $1.50 a day -- but there are a few that keep the challenge from being as accurate a representation of "extreme poverty" as it could be.
For instance, one thing Live Below the Line's challenge allows is the pooling together of resources, where groups of folks can come together, commune-style, to make their $1.50 go further. Allowing for that certainly makes people more apt to actually try out the challenge, giving it a "we're all in this together" mentality. But the problem with that thinking is that a lot of the marginalized people living in the world are, well, marginalized. They have no one they're in this with, which for some is kind of why they're allowed to live in extreme poverty in the first place.
Another issue about the challenge that's troublesome is allowing participants drink as much tap water as they want. Certainly, the higher-ups at Live Below the Line aren't going to tell people not to drink water -- in fact, they make a point to tell everyone to drink their doctor-recommended 6 to 8 glasses of water a day -- but by doing so, the challenge ignores one of the biggest aspects of living in extreme poverty: Not having easily-accessible free and clean water.
Which isn't to say anyone should hesitate trying out the challenge. It's certainly a good starting point to see how difficult it is to live on merely $1.50 a day. But just be aware when you're doing so, you still have it plenty easy.