American Privilege and Living On One Dollar a Day

living on one dollar

by John Ellis

In 2012, President Obama, after uttering the words, “you didn’t build that” in a campaign speech, found himself in a conservative built maelstrom. Conservative talking heads condemned the President for rewriting the history of America’s self-made man into that of socialist ideology that despises hard-working men and women[1]. I definitely don’t agree with President Obama on everything, and I’m not sure that I completely agree with his overall message that July day in 2012, but whatever disagreements I have with the President’s speech that day pale in comparison to the disagreements I have with the Conservative backlash. You see, while the President and I may disagree on how best to apply the truth of his statement, I agree with his statement. Before I explain why and what my point is in what is supposed to be a movie/documentary review, here’s a longer transcript that provides some further rhetorical context to “you didn’t build that.” –

“There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me—because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own… If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Image Bearers don’t exist in a vacuum; there is no such thing as a purely individualistic action. Our actions and words shape the world around us, including the people in that world – however big or small you believe your world to be. For example, my wife and I, among other things, have a bedtime for our children. We make them go to bed at a certain time because we know that sleep is vital to the development of their prefrontal cortex – you know, the part of the brain responsible for cognitive planning, decision making, and moderating social behavior. This is also the reason why we make sure that our kids eat their fruits and veggies. Left to their own devices, our kids’ diets would consist mainly of Kit Kat bars, Doritos, and chicken nuggets from McDonalds. And, as a result, of course, our kids would not reach their developmental potential – both physically and cognitively. All that to say that if and when our kids are successful business people[2], they’ll owe at least part of their success to our parenting. If our daughter owns her own company one day, she won’t have built it by herself; the parenting choices, among other things, will have contributed to her business success. There are variables that we have no control over in all of our lives that help make our path’s easier or harder. We don’t build anything by ourselves; on the opposite side, we don’t tear anything down by ourselves either.

Many of us in the incredibly wealthy United States of America resist the notion that our wealth and success are at least partially owed to variables that we as individuals can’t take credit for. The documentary Living On One Dollar is a stark, although entertaining, pushback on our unearned privileged myopia.

How many of us in America could survive on one dollar a day? In the context of the documentary, the question is that of obnoxious privilege, and I think that’s kind of the point. Four college students spending two months in the town of Peña Blanca, located in rural Guatemala, limiting themselves to one dollar a day, which is about the average for the locals, rings false. There is never one moment during the documentary that the viewer isn’t acutely aware of the incredibly soft and secure safety net that these four privileged college boys have under them – not when they are faint from hunger, not when they are faced with having to pay the micro loan they took out in order to finance a place to live and grow radishes, and not when Chris is diagnosed with giardia[3] and they can’t afford the medicine. Nothing that the filmmakers suffer erases the contrast between their contrived existence in Peña Blanca and the lives of the locals. And that contrast makes all the difference.

Throughout their two month experiment, the four friends meet and interact with their neighbors. Those personal connections and the peek into the lives of those who live in Peña Blanca bring the reality of living on one dollar a day home much more clearly and poignantly than their own roughing it does. That experience isn’t entirely shared, though, because only Chris and Zach speak Spanish. After listening to Sean say that he had learned how to survive and it wasn’t that bad, in fact he “could do this for another two years,” Chris and Zach realize that the truth of what they were doing wasn’t found in their own manipulated two months, but in the stories of the gracious and hard-working people of Peña Blanca. Those stories are the heart of Living On One Dollar.

For me, Antonia and his family created the sharpest prick that my white privileged guilt had to kick against while watching the documentary. Calling the four college boys his brothers, Antonia invites them into his home and slaughters the fatted calf for them – the fatted calf in this case being pulique, a meat and vegetable stew reserved for special occasions. As the documentary progresses, it’s revealed that Antonia is the only person in the village with an outside job that comes with an assured and steady income. What does Antonia do with that income? He shares it. When a neighbor’s wife is sick and the husband can’t afford the doctor, Antonia pays for it. When neighbors need food, Antonia pays for it. In fact, Antonia organized a system by which people can save money and help each other with large purchases like a stove. A stove. A stove drastically changes the lives of the citizens of Peña Blanca that are privileged enough to own a stove – a wood burning stove, I should add. The time saved preparing meals on a stove means more time to farm, or weave, or whatever the individual can do to make a little more money to pay for the lard that adds calories to their black beans[4]. Antonia understands how to love his neighbor far better than I do.

I know that there is a lot of noise, both positive and negative, around microloans; and I’m not fully endorsing (the nonprofit started by the filmmakers that has as one of its expressed purposes the raising of money for microloans), but I do believe that we in America need to consider how we can use the material blessings that God has richly blessed most of with to ease the stress and burdens of fellow Image Bearers. The example of Antonia, who could hoard his salary with the justification that “I built that! I earned this!” but instead considers the needs of others, should prompt us to evaluate how we define “investment.” In other words, we need to recognize that clinging to our abstract rights is antithetical to the Biblical admonishment to love God and to love our neighbors[5]. For most of you reading this, God hasn’t called you to live on one dollar a day, but He also hasn’t called you to defend your rights and build your portfolio at the exclusion and detriment to those whom He has called to live on one dollar a day. Remember, whatever material blessings you have, you didn’t build it by yourself.

Note: the documentary is streaming on Netflix.

[1] I’ve combined many of the comments from conservative pundits into one long pejorative. I’m not sourcing those comments because they’re easily found on the internet.

[2] Business is just an example, we’ll support whatever career path they choose – except politics. Politics will get ‘em disowned.

[3] A bacteria that lives in the intestines and makes the host disgustingly sick.

[4] Refried beans add calories to a diet that is drastically lacking in calories. When I eat refried beans, I’m making a culinary choice and congratulating myself on my ethnic palate. When people in Peña Blanca eat refried beans, they’re supplementing the caloric intake so that they don’t pass out while eking out a living.

[5] If you’re interested in learning more about what’s helped bring me to that conclusion, I encourage you to read Covenantal Rights: A Study in Jewish Political Theory by David Novak.


5 thoughts on “American Privilege and Living On One Dollar a Day

  1. oh man this is a great post. thanks for writing.

    America is the richest nation in the world by far. Head and shoulders above anyone else. If there is indeed a Divine judgment of the nations, I tremble to think of facing God Himself and explaining why my country freaked out at the thought of taking in more immigrants, denied that 25% of school children suffer food insecurity rather than taking corporate steps toward alleviating that suffering, and allowed its people to struggle in the name of a “Dream” that’s defined entirely by material wealth and individual happiness. *blinks*


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