As soon as we “cheated” on Valentine’s Day and bought full price happy meals, it got harder to maintain a consistent food stamps diet over the weekend. On Saturday I was good, eating hash browns for breakfast and then fasting all day, until we ate chinese take out for dinner, because I really wanted it.
On Sunday I didn’t try. On Monday I kept it simple: Cabbage, apple, and a slice of pizza for lunch, and homemade burritos for dinner. I costed out the pizza slice at $0.88 (as part of an extra large) and believed I could afford it. In spite of keeping to just $2.38 for the day, I still couldn’t make the processed/restaurant food work on this budget. As tasty as it was, it didn’t fill me up, and I found myself hungry before bed, and I ate at least another dollar’s worth of food after my planned meals for the day were done.
My failure to maintain a $2.83 per day diet is mostly a lack of willpower, because a carb-heavy diet of grains works for billions around the world. The particular context in which I am trying this diet also makes it difficult. If I was living where there was no option for pizza, McDonalds, or General Tso’s Chicken, I wouldn’t crave and cave.
For comparison, Heather provided me with a record of her meals for the past week. Her diet is typical Kenyan cuisine and well within the USA food stamps budget:
Kenyan Diet (for two people)
Dinner day 1: Rice and yellow lentils
So except for the Valentine’s Day feast, her family eats for about $0.67 per person per meal, or $2.00 a day. This is less than what Americans get for food stamps! And it makes you wonder… why must things cost more in America than the identical foods elsewhere?
The Economic Illusion of Prosperity
This is what my week-long experiment has been leading up to. No matter what I do, I cannot make the meager food allowance of $2.83 work in America, and all attempts lead to a sudden and dramatic decrease in the quality of my life.
If you ask economists why things cost more here, they will tell you that the relative cost of goods is higher in America because it costs more to produce here. They will defend this reality, saying that we pay our workers more, and so they have more purchasing power.
In my experience, the poorest have less here than elsewhere. We pay our workers more in absolute dollars, but not enough for their relative buying power to be higher. When you earn below a certain amount, you will actually feel poorer here than elsewhere. The economists are wrong because they don’t factor in community resilience, nor do they account for the difference in what one must buy in America versus the Tropics; the poor must buy everything at consumer prices here, but the poor (aka the largest class) in Kenya trade with each other in a non-cash economy at a discounted rate that gives them all somewhat more purchasing power.
Prosperity calculations should compare the cost of living against our assets and income. Instead, economists add up all the goods produced and divide by the population to get the gross domestic product (GDP). But GDP has nothing to do with prosperity. Quality life is built on more than what’s for sale, and more than just what we consume; a quality life is built on relationships, joy, meaningful work, a sense of possibility and opportunity, and love. It is foolish to read this chart and assume that the lines that go “up and to the right” are the best places to live:
China and USA are on the same wrong track. Leaders in both countries overwork their workforces to drive the economy and grow GDP, but for the masses, the fruits of that labor increasingly remain out of reach. This chart hides that reality.
Robert Kenedy said, “GDP measures everything that can be counted, except what really counts.” And I am beginning to feel the importance of that statement. Our leadership needs to undergo this experiment and see for themselves what kind of nation they are building through pure analytic decision-making without lived experience.