03 2 / 2013
I really liked this post about poverty from another PCV’s blog from Nicaragua. Sometimes we think of poverty as images of crying and gnashing of teeth, when really poverty doesn’t preclude happiness in the slightest.
“First, the reason that I think I’ve learned important things about poverty is not because I’ve gotten closer to defining what it is specifically. Instead, I’ve been able to shatter the simple definition into little truths and misconceptions. I’ve learned that our everyday conception of poverty is oversimplified, often mistaken, and subtly judgmental. Most of the poor people that I met don’t match the image we have in our head of shivering, starving people living in dirt-floored shacks. Poverty doesn’t mean suffering, injustice, failing, nor even ‘need’ in the way that we think of it. Poverty isn’t necessarily a problem that needs to be fixed, in the way we tend to think of it. I would define poverty as simply having material possessions that are below a relatively arbitrarily set international standard. Here’s an example: imagine a family that lives on less than two dollars per day of income. Probably you can barely imagine someone taking care of a dog on that amount. But often the reality is that the husband and one son work on the farm during the day while the mom and daughter clean, cook, and take care of the animals at home. Maybe another son has a part-time job as a security guard at a local hotel. He makes the $2/day, but that just goes to cover buying specialty foods, clothes, and school supplies. The family eats the chickens, pigs, and ducks that they raise in the backyard, they have several different fruit trees on their land, and have more than enough rice, beans, and plantains from their farm to feed themselves. They don’t eat much meat and their meals can get kind of bland, but nobody goes hungry. Basic healthcare is provided by the state. It’s not very good quality, but there are lots of pharmacies, nurses, and other men and women in town who have been treating illnesses by traditional means for decades. The children go to school and play with their neighbors and other family members nearly every day. Sometimes they work hard in the fields or hand-washing clothes, but working hard does not often make one unhappy. In fact, I’m sure that all of you reading have had the experience of doing a hard manual-labor task and feeling incredibly satisfied afterward. They spend a great amount of time visiting neighbors, shopkeepers, and extended family. They take care of each others’ children. Another important note: this family has no mortgage payments, no car payments, nor a sizable debt burden of any kind. Sometimes to purchase a TV or refrigerator they have to take out a small loan, but nothing comparable to the debt levels of most industrialized countries. So how much does that description match the idea you had of almost unimaginably ‘poor’ people? We tend to imagine that material poverty indicates suffering and unhappiness when the reality is that they are only indirectly related. If someone is suffering, then they are suffering, but if they are poor they may not be suffering and they may not need our help.”