Tales of the Two Dollar Challenge
by Ken Patterson
On April 6-10 I took the Two Dollar Challenge, a simulation designed by a brilliant professor at the University of Mary Washington. The purpose of the simulation is to help participants bridge what author Nicholas Kristof calls “the empathy gap,” and to have us think about the relationship between “service” and “the served.” So, I went to Hopey and Company on Saturday, April 4, bought $10 worth of food, and rationed it for the week.
The experience was enlightening. In purchasing my food, price was critical. I had to point out to the checkout clerk that my bananas and yams were $.49 per pound, not $.99, to make my $10 limit. I could have purchased cheaper coffee, but the eight-ounce package was too much, so I had to buy a couple of ounces more expensive beans at $9.99/pound. I ended up spending $1.80 of my $10 on coffee. Some might call this a bad decision, I thought, but only I knew what it would take for me to function during the week.
I spend a lot time thinking about food — what would I eat next? Would my food last? What would I really want to eat if I had a choice? I noticed that my cheap food had a lot of sodium and fewer calories. And though my food lasted, by the end of the week I was definitely thinner. It was clear that a regular diet of what I ate would deplete me within a few weeks.
I also had some interesting insights. I was shorter tempered on at least one of the days because I felt hungry, and it was harder to focus on my work. I felt kind of isolated in my $10 world — like life was happening around me, and nobody was aware of what I was experiencing. And I wanted the week to be over so I could leave the restrictions and isolation.
Then I tried to imagine what it must be like to have limited resources, not just for food, but also for rent, transportation, utilities, education, health care, clothes, and other living expense. And heaven forbid
I would have a medical emergency or other unforeseen expense. I concluded that living on severely limited resources must be extremely taxing and stressful. I also realized that I would probably never understand what it’s like to live that life because I have the resources that allow me to make choices.
The experience helped me see that it’s pretty easy to be out of touch with the challenging lives that many people lead daily, 365 days per year. Anyone struggling to meet their basic needs definitely sees the world differently, which causes them to make choices that we with resources may never understand. Solutions that seem natural to those of us with the latitude to make choices just aren’t there for them. Ultimately, there is a huge gap in understanding between those with resources and those living on the edge.
Our policy makers could learn from an experience like the Two Dollar Challenge. They might find it a whole lot harder to cut billions of dollars from our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as our current Congress has. They might be more forthcoming in directing our foreign policy resources toward helping mothers and babies survive, and kids get proper nutrition and schooling. I hope we can count on Sens. Burr and Tillis, and Reps. Meadows and McHenry to fend off cuts to our SNAP program, and to support forthcoming maternal and child survival legislation. It would demonstrate their understanding of the empathy gap.
Ken Patterson is director of global grassroots advocacy forRESULTS.