When politicians pretend to be poor, are they helping?

Updated

Tuesday marks the seventh and last day of Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s week-long experiment with living on a food-stamp budget.

After exchanging tweets with one of his followers who felt, “nutrition is not the responsibility of the government,” Mayor Booker issued a challenge. He and the follower agreed to live on about a $30 food budget for one week. That’s the weekly equivalent of what participants in SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, receive.

Booker has definitely brought attention to the cause, but is that enough? Sunday in #nerdland, host Melissa Harris-Perry took a look at the potential power and dangers inherent in one “pretending” to be poor.

Columbia sociology professor Sudhir Venkatesh, author of  “Gang Leader For a Day,” spoke about the problems of having a high-profile politician “pretend” but also why it’s also a necessary evil.

“The problem is that it can be short lived,” Venkatesh said. “Would you rather hear from a dry sociologist or would you hear, wanna hear a mayor and his twitter feed? That’s the age that we live in. So he has to go out, be provocative and raise this issue. But what’s going to happen after, is it tied up with any kind of policy? Is he educating people in his cabinet?”

At the beginning of his journey Mayor Booker blogged, “As I begin this journey, I am doubling down on my commitment to the Food Justice Movement that is gaining awareness and participation in this country.”

Once his challenge was nearly complete, Booker blogged again about his concerns writing, “As my food supply dwindles, I am keenly aware that millions of Americans face food insecurity and hunger on a daily basis. I am deeply concerned, and believe our nation needs to be more attentive and engaged. The SNAP program is at great risk for budget cuts as Washington pares federal spending to avert a year-end fiscal crisis.”

Democratic Congresswoman Donna Edwards talked about how these personal experiences can translate into actual policy:

“Elected leaders always bring a lot of both their personality and their life experience as they should to the work that we do and to draw attention to the issues about which we’re passionate. So on the one hand I think that is really great. I talk about going to food pantries, not because I was trying to draw attention to it but because I had to live by going to a food pantries to support myself and my son. So I think that that is really important and not to lose the policy. You know so members of congress for example take that food stamp challenge and then we have to work on the policy to make sure we preserve those important nutrition programs.”


While much attention has been paid to Booker, he’s hardly the first “pretender” in this sense. In the conversation, New York University Law professor Kenji Yoshino noted several prior examples:

“I think that what Mayor Booker is doing is really in sort of a long and honorable tradition. That would include Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed in 2001 where she went to three different cities around the country and tried to live on a working wage, a blue-collar wage. She got all the same criticisms for having a, she was asked if she had a cappuccino fund on the side. She was accused of being able to go back to her privileged existence afterwards. But it created a national debate about that.

“If we go back earlier, Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin living as an African-American man after getting his doctor to supply him with pigment altering chemicals. You know he lived as an African-American man in the south and then went back to his life of white privilege.”


Booker’s project has attracted more publicity than most and inspired talk-show host and former NFL linebacker Michael Strahan to take up the challenge last Wednesday.

Bob Herbert, a distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos talked about why Booker’s challenge should not necessarily be seen as just pretending:

“Booker is not only talking about poverty, he is immersed in the lives of his residents in Newark, many of whom are poor. And since he’s a mayor he’s in a position to do something about policy. Other times you’ll see somebody that’s just doing something, it seems like a lark and you don’t see much of an upside for it. So you have to look at the individual cases.”


See below the second half of our conversation.

When politicians pretend to be poor, are they helping?

Updated