Free Lance-Star reporter Amy Umble covers Stafford County schools and other education issues

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Lessons in Poverty

This morning, University of Mary Washington students took down their temporary shanty town in Ball Circle.

For the past week, students have slept under a tarp and lived on $2 a day. The annual experiment is an educational exercise aimed at teaching empathy, humility and respect.

Most of all, the lesson is designed to teach one truth: That these students can never truly understand what it is like to be poor.

This lesson is crucial to helping alleviate poverty, economics professor Shawn Humphrey said.

The annual $2 a Day Challenge raises money for microfinance projects in Honduras. Last year, the challenge raised $2,500.

But in addition to raising money, Humphrey hopes the event will raise awareness too. The students begin the experiment aware that about half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. They end the experiment with an understanding of just how hard it is to get by on so little.

One student said that he usually eats organic and all-natural food, tries to eat healthy and work out every day. But on $2 a day, he was limited to Ramen noodles, beans and rice.

“The only green thing we got was a green beans in a can,” he said last night while slurping Ramen noodles.

After a week of such a diet, he realized how hard it would be to be healthy and energetic while living in poverty.

Last night, students said that the week taught them humility–and appreciation for what they have.

One student said that she felt like an impostor when she walked by a homeless man under a bridge. She said that she wondered if she shouldn’t just take the $10 she was using to participate in the five-day challenge and give it to the man instead.

Another said that while he learned empathy, he realized the experiment was simply that–an experiment.

“I can get out of this,” he said. “No one else in this situation but us can do that.”

And that’s pretty much what Humphrey wanted students to learn.

By understanding that they can never truly feel poverty, students will be better empowered to help. Humphrey also includes reading a sermon by Monsignor Ivan Illich called “To Hell With Good Intentions.” That reading tells humanitarian volunteers to stay home because they’ll do more harm than good.

Humphrey said that he wants students to be aware of “poverty tourism” and the pitfalls of charity. To truly help people in poverty, volunteers must first build trusting relationships. And that can only happen with empathy, humility and respect, Humphrey said.

The $2 a Day Challenge started at UMW in 2006. Since 2008, the challenge has spread to nearly 20 other college campuses. About three years ago, the effort also included the microfinance institution La Ceiba, which offers loans to people in Honduras. So far, the program has had some success, but it’s too early to see if there is a long-lasting impact, Humphrey said.

The UMW group has also started the Month of Microfinance, and this month, colleges across the country are participating in the awareness project.



  • stonewallpark

    I wonder why the money is sent to Honduras ? Why not help poor people in the fredericksburg area ? I guess that’s what the Professor wants them to do. This is what has happen to the greatest country in the world, give everything to other countries and let you own poor people do without .