Did you know that in Chinese, the character “four” makes the same sound as the character for “death”? This is somewhat appropriate, as many students are feeling the tickle of the scythe now that we have entered week four and are officially beginning midterm season. Much like audience members on “Oprah,” we all get midterms this time of quarter; midterms atop essays atop projects atop midterms, and why hello there — are you another midterm? Unlike finals week, where you can get them all done in one meticulously planned-out week (or in a rush driven by that unique student mixture of caffeine, adrenaline and procrastination — up to you), midterms seem to eternally linger on and become The Thing That Would Not Leave.
There is a good reason why we stress out over them, since they usually account for a significant chunk of our final grades. Procrastinators and high-achievers alike trade their iPods for books, hole up in faraway corners of Orbach Library and stop worrying about the last time they took a shower. Free time is a thing of the past. And through it all, people binge on their favorite study snacks, whether it’s trail mix, chips, ice cream or grapes.
For me, cookies are my stress relief, and I will gladly endure the maddening struggle of finding an unwrinkled dollar bill that the vending machine will not spit back at me like a four-year-old refusing to eat broccoli. If I have a handful, I am comforted in that knowledge. It is easier for me to read through those last boring pages deriving a formula for something that is probably pretty important.
This year, however, I will not have those cookies by my side. In fact, I doubt I will have much food at all by my side. This is because I will be taking the Live Below the Line Challenge.
The idea is simple: From April 27 to May 1, can you live off of $1.50 a day for five days? That means that out of all the food you eat and water you drink, it can’t cost more than a ten-dollar bill.
If those conditions sound spartan, that’s because they are. And yet, 1.2 billion people around the world are living in extreme poverty, which the United Nations defines as earning less than $1.25 a day. Given that there are about 7.2 billion people living on the planet, that means one out of every six people is currently living off of less than five quarters a day. In the United States these statistics are significantly better. Despite some studies showing the contrary, the extreme poverty rate in the U.S. is relatively close to zero. That doesn’t mean that the situation is any better for those living in the clutches of poverty, and 14.5 percent of the U.S. population still lives under the federally defined poverty line, which is $17 per day.
The problem should hit close to home because students are more likely to be poor than the population at large. A stunning report found that a majority of public school students in the United States live in poverty — something that hasn’t happened since since the 1960s, when Volkswagen vans were cool. On college campuses, the poverty rate is hard to ascertain because there’s not a lot of data, but one Census Bureau working paper has found that a majority of students living off-campus and on their own live in poverty. This does not include college students living in dorms, who are automatically eliminated from poverty calculations. Nor does it include students who do live with their families but nonetheless fall under the poverty line. Suffice to say, being a starving college student is not merely an ascended meme, but something that countless college students go through every day.
However, because we live in a first-world country with a huge economy, a social safety net and HBO GO, the lives of those in poverty are often rendered invisible. We think that extreme poverty can only be something that happens halfway across the globe in a country we can’t pronounce, when many people living in poverty are right here.
Either way, we go on with our lives and try to ignore the lives of those in poverty, even if they’re sitting right next to us in lecture. But like the rest of us, these students will be heading to the lecture halls in the coming weeks to fret about their midterms. But they will be worrying about other things as well. Is my paycheck enough to pay my rent? How many meals will I have to skip this week? Can I go without electricity for the next few days? Imagine taking a multivariable calculus midterm with those thoughts bouncing around in your head.
And when you’re making just a handful of dollars a day, every one matters. The money you spend on bus fare is something you can’t spend on eggs. Taking a sick day means having to put off your next grocery line.
I do not want to live that life. Not with a blade constantly hanging over my head, poised to fall at any moment. Yet I do want to take the challenge. Part of it is to test myself, to take a challenge and say that I was able to overcome it.
But the other part is to experience — not just comprehend at an intellectual level, but truly understand in the marrow of my bones — what it is like to live in extreme poverty. I am fortunate that I do not have to worry about food on a day-to-day basis. That does not mean that we can forget about everyone else, though. A different sword is hanging over my head.
So as we are struggling to rid ourselves of the midterms penned by Bartleby the Scrivener, remember that Bartleby may not have a home he can pay for or food he can eat. Take some thought about where our meals are coming from, and be thankful that we can have them. And perhaps, if we feel emboldened enough and are up for a challenge, try living below the line.