Living on One Dollar and the First Presidential Debate

This evening I had two very different viewing experiences: First, I attended a film screening at Georgetown about four college students who tried living on one dollar a day for eight weeks in the rural highlands of Guatemala. After that, I went home and watched the first presidential debate of 2012. In many ways, the perspectives shown in these two events could not be further from each other.

Let's begin with the film: It's called Into Poverty: Living on One Dollar, and it was created by two economics majors and two filmmakers who went to Guatemala to live on $1 per person per day for eight weeks, or $224 total. They took out a microloan to get a house and some land in a village of about 300 people, where only one person had a formal salary, and everyone else worked as agricultural laborers. The students simulated the insecurity of informal wages by randomizing the amount of money they would receive each morning out of their $224 pot - anywhere from zero to nine dollars, based on numbers out of a hat.

They struggled to save money, faced with costs for essentials like firewood, rice, beans and bananas, and paying back their loan. They experienced how impossible it was to get adequate nutrition and calories, and when one of the guys fell ill because of Giardia and E. coli, the experiment essentially failed, as they couldn't afford treatment within their simulated wages. Most important, though, were their interviews and interactions with their Guatemalan neighbors, who, while all living on very small amounts of money, still had distinct experiences: Many children were able to attend school, while others couldn't afford it. Some children were noticeably stunted in growth, and some families couldn't get medical treatment. In the end, however, the students pointed to microloans as one of the partial solutions that can help, and they gave examples of neighbors who were able to improve their lives and start businesses because of them.

I would have loved to get even more information from the film about the details of life in Peña Blanca, Guatemala, but I really respect what the people who made the film did and what their organization Living On One is continuing now. I'd encourage you to check out their website and YouTube channel, learn more and do something, like fund a microloan at Kiva.org. Not everyone can have an experience like living on one dollar a day, but everyone can try to reach out to those in need, and try to empathize with those in poverty.

Then I watched the first presidential debate. I think Romney did well in the debate (and was hailed by the pundits as the winner) because he was - for once - himself. He agreed with many of Obama's positions, embraced his gubernatorial record, and it seemed to me he was more genuine and confident than he's been for the past year of campaigning. Although Jim Lehrer kept trying to insist the candidates had big differences between them, the fact is they really don't - at least not on the topics they discussed tonight, including the economy, the deficit, healthcare and education.

Although their topic was the economy, neither Romney nor Obama said anything about poverty, except for Romney saying that states "can care for our own poor." [See transcript.] As I wrote about last spring, nearly half of Americans are at or near poverty today, by U.S. income standards; there really isn't an "American middle class" any more, although politicians and media continue to insist there is. Judging Romney by his words and Obama by his actions, neither of those men really cares about the poor - or at least, they're not willing to stick their necks outside of the political norm in order to show it.

Thankfully, though, neither you or I have to choose between just two candidates for president. I will be voting for Jill Stein come November, whose running mate, Cheri Honkala, is an anti-poverty advocate (unlike Paul Ryan). Stein and Honkala's platform actually mentions the poor and proposes some powerful and radical ideas for changing American society with her Green New Deal. Neither Obama nor Romney's websites, as far as I can tell, mention that poverty exists - within our own country or anywhere in the world.

I propose we send Obama and Romney to Guatemala with one dollar a day, or better yet to Atlanta, Minneapolis, or Phoenix, with $31 per day. (That's about the HHS poverty guideline divided by 365.) People will continue to suffer as long as the impoverished have no voice in politics.

Images: Gaston Hall at Georgetown before the film screening, plus logos for Living On One and the Green Party.

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