A Critical Look at Two-Dollar Challenge

It’s that time of the year again, folks. That’s right, the time when a handful of students embark on the “Two-Dollar a Day Challenge” so they can feel like they’re making a difference, even though all they’re really doing is trivializing a serious issue.

For those of you who don’t know, the Two-Dollar Challenge is a week-long game that some students play every year where they camp out on Ball Circle and pretend to live in a third world country the way little kids camp out in their backyards and pretend to be adventurers.

They start with two dollars each day and aren’t allowed to use showers or other common amenities that we take for granted in our lives. It’s all meant to simulate what it’s like to be destitute, but none of it even comes close. Students are allowed to accept donations, for instance, meaning that any time things are just too hard for them, they can just get someone to stop by with a sandwich and a drink and make it all better.

Students can also solicit odd jobs from fellow students to earn more money and work around the $2/day limit, another concession that sounds in the spirit of simulating the life of a homeless person, but once again totally misses the point.

Camping out on Ball Circle, sneaking showers in, and drawing funny faces so someone will buy you a frozen yogurt from the Underground does nothing but turn the plight of third world countries into a novelty, almost like an anti-vacation. And at the end of it all, you get to go back to the warmth of your dorm room with a rugged sense of, “Yeah, I’ve been homeless before.”

No, you haven’t.

All you did was camp out with friends in a well-lit environment during an unseasonably warm April, protected by a sea of blue lights, campus police, and fellow students. You all huddled under your big blue tarp together, illuminated by the glow of your iPhones as you posted on Twitter about your “struggles.” And even then, you still cheated by taking showers, spending more than $2/day, and getting your friends to bring you food.

You didn’t take to the streets for a week, experiencing the real dangers of being homeless. You didn’t have to scrounge through dumpsters behind restaurants for scraps or stand on the side of the road for hours, just holding up a sign. You didn’t have to take your chances hitchhiking. You didn’t get beaten for the fun of it by a sadistic passerby, or told to fight another homeless person on camera for a little change.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness recently reported that there are still an estimated 600,000 homeless Americans today. Their life expectancy is over 30 years lower than an average citizen and men make up 85 percent of the total homeless population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, those homeless citizens are 15 times more likely to be assaulted than the wider population, according to BBC News.

So rather than turning being homeless into a game where you try to look high and mighty amongst your friends, why don’t you try volunteering at a homeless shelter? Or calling your Congressman to demand more support behind H.R. 3528: Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act of 2011 that would add crimes against the homeless under the umbrella of hate crimes?

Or why don’t you just raise money for the homeless instead of turning their lives into a novelty?

10 Comments

  1. Arnold says:

    I agree with Mr. Kroll.

    • I talked about this last year, this year, and I will for subsequent years. This is a nonsensical event that I don’t understand. And everyone who participates say that they talk about a book written to enlighten the students on the plight of the homeless and less fortunate. However, I fail to see why they can’t do that already without imitating in a grotesque fashion the people they are learning about.
      .
      I’m prepared to defend Mr. Kroll with her opinion, as this is probably one of the few things that Arnold and I can actually be hand in hand to support. My hand in yours, Arnold. It’s a beautiful thing. Let’s have it finally come to fruition….please? :D

      • Arnold says:

        This is indeed a dilemma, agree with Fleur, or disagree with Mr. Kroll. I’m not sure how to resolve this tension in my heart. Maybe we’ll just leave this as a cliffhanger for next year’s Bullet comment section?

  2. Brad Brarfrar says:

    Mr. Kroll is probably the most sensible man on campus.

  3. A. Lewis says:

    The whole point of the challenge was not to play at being homeless or destitute, but get a feel for how they might live. Might being key word. Since these students are still attending school and there may be safety concerns and issues that the school has to deal with, there is no way that they could possibly completely and faithfully emulate the conditions people in third world countries live in. The whole point was to both a) raise awareness that many people do, in fact, live on less than two dollars a day, and b) to show the students who want to get involved with helping people who do live on that amount how difficult it is to plan for the long term, and even for just a day, if you have to base your day around where you are getting food and water from. The students were only allowed to obtain water from one spot on campus, and were required to boil it before consumption, a process that takes time, effort, and planning in order to coordinate it with the rest of their daily schedule.

    Yes, some kids probably cheated, had showers, and whatnot. The act of doing odd jobs for food may be silly in application (such as chalk drawing or performing a dance or song), but it still makes the student take time out of whatever they were doing to perform said act, and they would not have gotten the food or drink if they had not done something for it. In the end, it’s supposed to both raise community awareness and self awareness of what we take for granted every day, how much the individual spends on food, and what people in the rest of the world spend. It’s not meant to be a perfect simulation, nor is it meant to belittle the real challenges that homeless or third world country people face: it is meant, simply, to make you more aware of how you are different, and what you need to take into account if you want to help those people. If you are attempting to give microfinance loans, for example, you need to be aware that the recipient may well spend the money received on food and not on whatever their proposed loan was for, simply because of their lack of access.

    All in all, I think you missed the point of the exercise, and this is coming from someone who didn’t participate.

    • How is having students sit under a tarp on Ball Circle going to raise awareness if all it really succeeds in doing is causing criticism (or in my case, ridicule) of the concept and execution of UMW’s Two-Dollar Challenge? My main issue that I consistently raise is that there are better ways to do it, Ms. Lewis.
      .
      And I assure you, boiling water is not such a time-consuming affair that students must plan it in between courses or showers. I’ve been forced to do the same for a lengthy survival training. I would rather see those students spend their time on something more meaningful in addition to their building of awareness.

  4. Alison K says:

    Most people are aware of poverty but it’s something we put on the back burner so I think “awareness” is a good goal, but it’s not enough. Awareness doesn’t help the situation- it doesn’t put food in mouths or take people off the street. This event has so much potential to do it right. The students could get community sponsors to pledge to donate a certain amount of money for each day they are able to do the challenge (also an incentive for doing it right). They could actively engage the community in trying to get signatures for the hate crimes bill. They could take field trips off campus to volunteer at Bragg Hill or raise money for Thurman Brisben. Without real, tangible steps towards change, the $2 a day challenge falls flat.

  5. Arnold says:

    Can I say that The Bullet hassling people in the $2 challenge is an important part of replicating the homeless experience? No one looks at real homeless people as honorable or doing something important, in fact we turn our backs on them and try to avoid eye contact as we walk by. Maybe in our minds we think something about how they should just get a job instead of begging for money. And maybe we write our state senator and announce that we should start drug testing those lazy welfare recipients as a prerequisite for giving them their meager benefits. It’s not difficult enough to ask for help so we demand some body fluids from them first.

    Being homeless isn’t just about not having a place to live, it’s about suffering social stigma and scorn from others. The annual criticism of the $2 challenge doesn’t fully replicate that either, but maybe it can actually help create a greater sense of empathy in those that go through it.

  6. Meg says:

    Oh wait. Haven’t we already seen this article before? Criticizing something that you clearly STILL do not have a full understanding about (as money was, in fact, raised for the underprivileged throughout the course of the week) without freshening up your content certainly makes for a dull, redundant read.

    Here’s the attention you wanted with this – you’re welcome.

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