Temporary forays into a form of poverty help show what it’s like to face scarcity—and why it’s hard to break out of it. Politicians ought to physically encounter the circumstances of their constituents, to observe the trials of the most needy, and most importantly to experience the conditions themselves. This isn’t a new suggestion, but its original iterations haven’t been taken seriously.
Periodic attempts to bring attention to poverty through assuming poverty oneself—eating off a SNAP (food stamp) budget or sleeping outside—are regularly ridiculed as publicity stunts, but the impact on the participants is far from cosmetic. Representative Stewart McKinney, a Republican who led the Great American Sleep Out in 1987, helped pass landmark legislation and fundamentally alter many participants’ experience (he also ultimately lost his life to pneumonia contracted during a stay near Capitol Hill).
The SNAP Challenges, where participants eat on a food-assistance budget, have formed lasting impressions on the members of Congress willing to take part. Separated from their political connotations, this shouldn’t be surprising. Sleeping outside in 20 degree weather, or in a homeless shelter, or eating less and eating worse leave fundamental physical impressions that can supersede partisan affiliations (at least if given the chance). Participants in SNAP challenges, find it hard to focus, report more irritability, and perform worse at their tasks. This might inform skeptical members of Congress who believe current services are adequate or believe individual initiative is all that’s required to overcome poverty. Like my more basic experience of witnessing a transaction, immersions in poverty constitute a fundamentally different form of education.
It’s not surprising that many of the champions for the poor rely on personal experience. Barbara Lee, a coordinator of the food-stamp challenges on the Hill, was once on the program. McGovern has repeatedly engaged in similar exercises—recently spending a night in a homeless shelter. As a young man, Lyndon Johnson taught in a school in dire poverty; the experience formed a lifelong commitment to fighting it. There are exceptions to the rule. Franklin Roosevelt, immensely important in caring for the poor, never suffered anything close to poverty (though he did give great credit to a schoolteacher who taught that caring for the less fortunate was a duty). Not all advocates must experience poverty, but witnessing and understanding any difference firsthand is often a precondition to authentic empathy.
Of course, a one-time jaunt in to poverty can’t emulate the real thing. As Mullainathan and Shafir quip, “One cannot take a vacation from poverty. Simply deciding not to be poor—even for a bit—is never an option.” Our elected officials will still know that their warm bed awaits them the next night, that their favorite foods will return the next week, that they are assured prosperity for the coming years. Their attempts to understand poverty will be, at best, incomplete.
Until larger economic trends are reversed, however, stopgap measures are the only resort. If taking food-stamp challenges, trying public housing, and engaging with the poorest Americans doesn’t sound brilliant or terribly original, that’s fine. Encouraging a regime of experiential immersions is difficult to propose, hard to implement, and even harder to ensure success.
But at this point, visiting the bodega and considering the plums might be the best chance left.