After his appearance on a BBC radio program Monday, British Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith probably wishes he could eat his words — because now he may not be eating much of anything for a year. Smith said in the interview that he could survive on £53 ($80) a week — the amount one welfare recipient complained he was forced to survive on after his housing stipend was cut — and now Britons are asking him to prove it. As of Wednesday morning, roughly 350,000 people had signed a petition on Change.org urging the secretary to make good on his pledge.
The petition calls on Smith to stick to the budget for "at least one year," thereby helping to "realise the conservative party’s current mantra that ‘We are all in this together.’" Doing so would require him to take a 97-percent salary cut while living in London, one of the world’s most expensive cities.
Smith has been less than enthusiastic about the petition, which he called a "complete stunt" in an interview with the Wanstead & Woodford Guardian. The demand "distracts attention from the welfare reforms which are much more important and which I have been working hard to get done," he said.
If he warms to the idea, however, Smith won’t be the first politician to take a trial run on the dole. In 2012, Jagrup Brar, a member of British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly, spent a month living on $610, the province’s welfare rate for a single, unemployed adult. After the last night of the month, which he spent "couch surfing," Brar was 26 pounds lighter and $7 in debt — even after selling his backpack to buy a train ticket home.
Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J. pulled a similar stunt several months later, living on the equivalent of food stamps for a week. The mayor was forced to cut caffeine out of his diet, eat "singed" yams for lunch, and consider "making a meal out of mayonnaise and salsa."
As appealing as it sounds, Smith may not be interested in the politics of empathy, having already gone through two real periods of unemployment in the 1980s. As he said in an interview Tuesday, "I know what it is like to live on the breadline."