I spoke before a college social work class last week. The theme of the discussion was the impact of public policy on the lives of not only U.S. citizens, but also on residents of other countries. I appreciate sharing the Winds of Peace experience with young people for several reasons: they universally exhibit an interest, they represent the best opportunity for future impact and I can usually recognize “lights turning on” in the face of dramatic stories and photographs that are shared. What more could a speaker ask?
In this particular class, I tried something new to make a point. Since the class size was only 15, I decided to distribute brand new $2 bills to each person. (Thank goodness the class was not immense in size- I might have been forced to reconsider this strategy altogether.) Initially it may have seemed as though I sought to pay the students for their attention and interest, but not even I am desperate (or wealthy) enough to stoop to such a tactic. Instead, as I explained, the $2 bill was theirs to keep and to reflect upon. For there are many for whom that $2 represent an entire day’s wages. The $2-a-day threshold has been widely referenced when talking about global impoverishment. Unfortunately, it has been recited often enough that the notion no longer seems to stir the incredulity that it once did; it has become a sad and interesting statistic with less “punch” than it had when we first heard of it. I wanted the $2 bill to change that, by providing a unique (we don’t see many such bills in circulation anymore) and tangible ($2 in the hand is worth more than words) representation of just how little that amount is. Then we went on about how some of our own consumption habits influence this state of affairs.
The first reaction of the students was bemusement; perhaps not many guest presenters have left money behind. But once the bills were in hand, I invited them to consider how their money should be spent, given the realities of everyday needs. To complicate their deliberations, I also suggested that their dilemma might be even more difficult in real life with the presence of a child or two; the $2 bill is still worth only $2. There are not many Starbucks coffees to be consumed in that scenario.
When I have spoken about Nicaraguan poverty in the past, some have questioned whether goods are considerably less expensive in Nicaragua than in the U.S. But by offering a comparison of some common grocery and clothing items in each country, that myth was quickly dispelled in class. There are no “easy outs” or solutions for this reality. The fact is that $2 does not come anywhere close to meeting basic living needs, and it’s emotionally disturbing to come face to face with that. If the students keep the $2 bills for the uniqueness of the denomination, maybe they will also retain the empty feeling they experienced as they contemplated a life of deprivation.
I don’t have enough $2 bills to give away to everyone. (Do we really need them?) I can nevertheless invite people to use their own resources to consider what life might be like on $2 a day. The exercise quickly moves from thinking about which niceties we might be able to do without to a more difficult evaluation of which essentials would have to go. The first part of the deliberation is vexingly entertaining; the second part is maddeningly impossible.
If the $2 exercise properly infects the students from last Tuesday’s class, they will be left with a virus which has a cure, albeit a difficult one. The treatment for the disparities between those with more than enough and those with less than enough is personal understanding, knowing in both head and heart that the gap exists. If that treatment truly takes hold, we’ll know what to do next….