A senior U.K. politician who said he could live on just $80 a week now has more than 450,000 people daring him to try.
During an interview with BBC Radio 4 last week, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith made the claim while defending a welfare shake-up initiated as part of the embattled coalition government’s unpopular wave of austerity measures.
When a member of the public complained that he must survive on just $80 per week after rent and bills, Duncan Smith was asked if he could do the same. “If I had to I would,” the lawmaker replied, causing outraged listeners to join an Internet petition that gained 25,000 votes in its first day and now has more than 450,000 signatures.
“For a man in his position to say that at the moment is both incredibly insensitive and he has no way to qualify that statement,” Dom Arvesano, a musician from south London who set up the petition, told BBC News.
Duncan Smith earns $2,400 a week after tax as a Cabinet Minister, meaning to take up the challenge would require sacrificing around 97% of his wage. Current unemployment benefits in the U.K. are $85 for people under 25 and up to $110 for older claimants.
The petition is less than 40,000 votes shy of its goal, but it seems unlikely that Duncan Smith — a father of four and former leader of the Conservative Party — will take the bait. “This is a complete stunt which distracts attention from the welfare reforms which are much more important and which I have been working hard to get done,” the MP told the Wanstead and Woodford Guardian.
“I have been unemployed twice in my life, so I have already done this,” he added. “I know what it is like to live on the breadline.” Duncan Smith collected unemployment benefits after leaving a distinguished career in the British army in 1981, and also lost his job as marketing director for a property firm amid the U.K. housing crash seven years later.
However, things have been rather rosier since. Duncan Smith is married to the daughter of the 5th Baron Cottesloe and currently resides in his in-laws’ 16th century mansion, worth some $3 million, in an affluent village outside London. He sold his family’s previous home for about $1 million in 2002, according to the Daily Mail.
Duncan Smith sent his eldest son to Eton, the exclusive private school where Princes William and Harry were educated, and he doesn’t always come across as a man of the people: in 2002 he told the Daily Telegraph: “The side of London I like is the opera, but I hate the noise, the dirt, the fumes and the grinding chaos.”
Under the controversial welfare reform, dubbed the “bedroom tax,” approximately 660,000 social housing tenants deemed to have a spare room will lose about $20 a week in housing benefits. Labour MP Helen Goodman tried living on a $25 food budget to highlight the hardship the new tariff will cause and claimed she was left “starving” after just days, reports the Sunday People.