Believing game, doubting game: on poverty

Peter Elbow used to ask his students to read a classmate's draft two ways and respond in the spirit of both ways of reading because they would see different things in a piece when they did so. Read as if you find it easy to accept what you see there; allow yourself to dive in and experience the world as the piece offers it. And read as if you must resist what you see there; push back because you know that you want to ask questions and come to your own conclusions. Read generously and openly; read carefully and critically. Believe, and doubt. Elbow said that we would become better readers if we were good at both kinds of reading.

For six weeks, the Wall Street Journal's @BrettArends ate for $4.30 a day, the amount our country's Nutritional Assistance Program provides. Otherwise known as food stamps. His article makes a good test case for Peter Elbow's advice about reading. [If you subscribe to the WSJ, his article is here. I read it a few blocks away at our excellent public library.]

The believing game. If you have a good strategy and build a good set of skills, and if you can overcome the transportation challenges, you can eat on $4.30 a day, Arends discovered:

  • Eating reasonably well on $4.30 a day turned out to be a bit like a Rubik's Cube puzzle: It seemed impossible until I worked out the trick. Then it became surprisingly manageable, if monotonous.

For starters, no eating out, no packaged or processed foods, no energy bars, no empty-calorie white bread or noodles, no coffee from a shop, he says in the next paragraph. Then he found three sources of protein that would have to form the core of the diet: peanuts & peanut butter, eggs, and split peas and lentils and their cousins. Next to no meat or fish--no money for that. He got better carbohydrates going: "oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, baked potatoes, and [his own] whole-wheat bread." Fresh fruits and vegetables were tough to afford, he said, but frozen veggies and bananas worked into the budget okay. Add one vitamin pill and a cup of milk a day.

What else? Buy what's on sale. Take the subway to the bigger, less expensive stores. Plan meals ahead so food doesn't go to waste. And for six weeks, Brett Arends ate for less than $4 a day, he reports. His doctors said the food balance was fine, although he ate a lot of peanut butter, he said, and "my diet wasn't always virtuous and dull." There was popcorn; there were homemade sweets based on marshmallows and peanut butter and chocolate chips.

His conclusion: we can eat much better, and much more cheaply than most of us do now. But we'd need to make a good number of changes. And there doesn't seem to be much of a problem with the level of food stamps, he seems to be suggesting. [Hard to tell for sure about that last item.]

The doubting game. Well, unless you have the money for a Wall Street Journal subscription, you had better live near the public library or you'll never see this story--it's behind the paywall. So it's not meant especially to be read by the people who live it: it's for others who want to have an opinion about food stamps. That would help explain why nobody who lives the $4.30 a day life is interviewed here--no need to give them a chance to speak because it's not about them, their insights, their experience. It's about the opinion of others. I'm suspicious of an article that has such a glaring silence at its core. I start thinking about Driving Miss Daisy syndrome. long-term sustainability of health and monotony. expense of travel. estimate of travel time. building skills

There are questions I wish the author had thought to ask and things I wish he had taken time to speak about.

    1. He reports the monotony but doesn't evaluate it. I wonder: how much peanut butter are we talking about? Was there enough variety to keep the average person from going crazy in time? I bet there are some $4.30 a day people who could advise him on this point.
    1. He reports on the transportation challenges. How much time and money was he spending a week to locate the inexpensive foods he needed to make his budget?
    1. The doctor who told him that frozen veggies were "often as good or even better" than fresh veggies--where's the data on that?
    1. It would be useful to catalog the skills needed for this way of life and talk about how long it takes to build those skills. Are there places where even a skilled person would struggle to live the $4.30 a day life that Arends describes?
    1. Who else has written about living decently on this kind of budget? I know of one person right off, the very interesting blogger who publishes The Skint Foodie.
    1. And about that Rubik's Cube metaphor: almost nobody I know can solve a Rubik's Cube, even though we know it can be solved. What are you saying there? I'm not sure. The political implications are elusive.

The silences, the untouched areas of the topic--these can make the piece unsatisfying for a reader playing the doubting game.

Both doubting and believing. In a case like this one, believing the author is onto something leads me to think about fairly concrete life-style changes that might be within reach of many of us and that could make a big difference in the food quality of life and the budget of those in poverty. It feels as though there is a particular set of lessons there. In a case like this one, doubting the author leads me to suspect that there are more structural challenges that need to be addressed, and that it is too convenient to research this topic so narrowly, in effect silencing those who probably know the most about the experience. It feels as though the medical expert reports might have been presented in a prettier way than another reporter might have done, too--not sure about that: they get fuzzy and general at a couple of important points. It feels as though there are lessons on this side of the game, too. Both doubting and believing make me feel more well-informed about this topic, or maybe just more thoughtful, even in reading just the one piece.

Last built: Sun, Feb 23, 2014 at 10:53 AM

By Ken Smith, Saturday, December 14, 2013 at 12:19 PM.