Michael wants to give away $78 million

A series of very worthwhile posts going on in the Freakonomics blog at nytimes.com…. a philanthropy consultant is trying to teach Michael, a born-and-raised multi-millionaire, what poverty is.

In this post, Michael is paired with Curtis, a very low-income man living on the South Side of Chicago. The consultant has given both Michael and Curtis $20 to live on for the weekend. Curtis has learned to make it work, but Michael… not so much.

By 5 p.m. Curtis had made his first two purchases: frozen chicken wings and a can of beans ($4.75); a T-shirt and pair of socks from a vendor on the street ($2.00).

Meanwhile, Michael drove his rental car around the neighborhood. When he returned to meet us he was exasperated. “The food here is awful! No fruit, vegetables are moldy. Only meat, canned food, and soda. What do kids eat? The guy at the store told me no one would eat fruit unless it’s in a can. Is that true?”

Curtis shook his head. I told Michael, “When we get back to New York, I will talk with you about diet and quality of food availability in poor neighborhoods.”

But Michael was growing upset. “All I see are liquor stores and dollar stores and fast food. There was one guy who said he’d buy my food stamps — 50 cents for a dollar in stamps? How can people live like this?”

It’s really funny. Not poverty, no. What’s funny is Michael. Not all of us can identify with Curtis, but we can’t really identify with Michael either in that he has no concept of what food costs. (He couldn’t tell Curtis how much a banana costs, for example.)

It’s worth reading about Michael’s experience. It would be easy to blow him off as some out-of-touch millionaire who’s biggest problem in life is what to do with $78 million. WAIT. That’s what he is, actually.

Okay, it would be easy to blow him off. But how many of us know what it’s like to be as poor as Curtis? Michael isn’t the only one.

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