Nine years ago the science fiction writer John Scalzi published a blog post entitled Being Poor. It became very popular and was reprinted in a number of venues. It consisted of a series of short statements that attempt to encapsulate what being poor in America really means. The list is long, but here are a few examples:
Being poor is stealing meat from the store, frying it up before your mom gets home and then telling her she doesn’t have make dinner tonight because you’re not hungry anyway.
Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal. [In 2005 the Federal minimum wage was $5.15. ed.]
Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.
Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.
Being poor is getting tired of people wanting you to be grateful.
Being poor is a $200 paycheck advance from a company that takes $250 when the paycheck comes in.
At the time I found the blog post reprinted in World Ark magazine (house organ of Heifer Project International) and posted a copy outside my office. I had more or less forgotten it was there until one of my current students noticed it and said to me, “Why did you put this up? It makes me sad!” (Unfortunately, there is no way in print to capture the precise combination of humor, defensiveness and sadness that tinged his voice.)This encounter led me to revisit the original. As I discussed in an earlier post, I have started a new ministry in my Secular Franciscan region, and as the first step I led my own local fraternity in an open-ended discussion about poverty and the poor. In the course of this I was surprised by some of the things I heard. Two things stuck out: the first was an inability to really articulate any sense of what it means to be poor in America. The one in my community who could speak to it was an elementary school teacher, who talked about students living in shelters and depending on free lunches to eat. As a result, I am going to incorporate Scalzi’s list into my presentations in the future in some way. (I am still discerning whether to use them to start the discussion or introduce them after the discussion has gotten rolling.)
The other thing that struck me was an attempt to romanticize third world poverty: “they have nothing but they’re still happy—happier than we are in the West!” But while they extolled life in a mudbrick house on the banks of the Nile, no one indicated any desire to trade places. Several members tried to challenge this view, but they made no headway. They tried to speak to what it means to be poor in the third world, but could only frame it from a western perspective: e.g., we buy clothes made in sweatshops as opposed to the actual experience of workers in sweatshops.
To address this in the future I decided to write about the daily experience of the poor in the Third World in the way that Scalzi did in his post about America. The following list is my first attempt to do so. This proved to be much harder that I thought. I claim no particular expertise in poverty, but I do realize that it is not monolithic: the experiences of a slum dweller in Port Au Prince, Haiti, are not going to be the same as those of a factory worker in Bangladesh, which in turn differ from those of a peasant farmer in Bolivia or Peru. Moreover, there are cultural differences and social institutions that are not simply outside of our daily experience but totally foreign to our understanding of what the world is like: human trafficking, death squads, crop failure and pervasive infant mortality have no real meaning in our middle class (or even working class) lives.
You feed your children mud cookies because you cannot afford anything else.
You cannot send your children to school even though tuition is only $50 per year.
You raise poppies for the heroin trade because it is the only crop that pays enough to feed your family, and then soldiers come and burn your crop.
You walk five miles every day to get water from a contaminated well.
Your husband is gone for years to find work in the city, and when he comes home he gives you AIDS because he was having sex with infected prostitutes.
You sell your daughter to a brothel to get enough money to feed the rest of your children.
You live and work next to a toxic waste dump, recycling computer parts dumped there by western corporations.
Your wife dies in childbirth because the closest clinic is twenty-five miles away over dirt roads.
Brutal murders happen in your neighborhood every day and the police do nothing.
Your land is expropriated because a foreign corporation wants it, and you have no recourse at all.
You live in a shack and raw sewage flows past your front door, but you think you are better off than you were before you moved there.
You do piecework in a dirty, unsafe factory for $2 a day, and your employer tells you that you should be grateful to work there.
You watch your children die of diseases you know can be treated, if only you could afford it.
You are beaten and shot for trying to organize a labor union.
You travel 2000 harrowing miles to the United States, work twelve hours a day in a minimum wage job, pay taxes, and send money home to support your relatives, but are called a parasite when you want to send your kids to school.
You are expected to be grateful when your local clinic is given a shipping container filled with expired drugs.
Your nation was exploited by colonial powers and multinational corporations, but it is your own fault that you are poor and underdeveloped.
The rest of the world only pays attention to you when there is an earthquake or hurricane, and their attention wanders long before anything gets rebuilt.
You try to advocate for your village and you get branded a terrorist.
You can see a rich beautiful world, but you know that you will never be able to give it to your children, no matter how hard you work.
You sit and beg from Western tourists every day, because you are willing to endure their pity and contempt if it means you can feed your children.
You are pressured into letting a foreign couple adopt your child because they will be better parents than you are.