Being Poor in the Third World

Being Poor in the Third World April 13, 2014

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.

Nevertheless, I hope that I have, in some small way, made the daily experiences of the least among us more tangible.  I would welcome corrections and emendations to this list.

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.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I don’t know that I have anything to add to the list, but I did want to say that I did like your list; I’ve always thought Scalzi’s list goes the opposite way of romanticizing and maudlinizes the poor, by trading on how people who usually have not faced these kinds of situations imagine people might feel in those circumstances — which may sometimes be right but is as often going to be due to a lack of imagination on their part as anything real.

    I think by focusing on the busy-ness of poverty all the things one has to do, just to do get through simple things that other people take for granted, and on things that are simply out of one’s power and have to be taken into account in decisions whether one wants to or not, you’ve avoided that very well.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Interesting take on Scalzi: I felt that he avoided being Maudlin because his vignettes do seem to have a high degree of verisimilitude. From his brief online biography I cannot tell if he has had any periods of real poverty in his life, but he seems to write about poverty with real empathy. And while I did not read all 500+ comments his original post accrued, it is clear that a lot of people felt his comments resonated with their own experience.

  • Jordan

    Thank you David for helping to open our eyes. There is one point on your list which is particularly pertinent.

    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.

    Amen for bringing this up. The bald discrimination visited today on undocumented immigrants in the United States will, I am convinced, one day rival the national shame we Americans experience over the historic discriminiation against African Americans and Native Americans. What our undocumented brothers and sisters need is not just a “pathway to citizenship” but also a pathway to dignity. Will this dignity arise through the non-violence of the 1960s civil rights movement? I am convinced that almost nothing is impossible in non-violent protest.

    The nativism quite evident in the discrimination against new immigrants from Central America at the heart resides in the fear that American citizens who work at lower-income jobs will lose them should undocumented immigrants be given a chance at citizenship. When an American citizen is a paycheck away from starvation, she will certainly oppose any newcomers who might destabilize her precarious finances.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      For anyone interested, I strongly recommend the book Enrique’s Journey, which shows just how harrowing the trip to El Norte can be. The author, who retraced Enrique’s entire journey, at one point had to be accompanied by guards armed with semi-automatic rifles.

  • My one concern is that the poor in these vignettes are seen mostly as “victims.” They are more than that. At times they are victimized, at times they are the protagonists of their own poverty; most of the times, as it is for all of us, they are a combination of both.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I am not sure what you mean by “protagonists of their own poverty”: do you mean they are directly responsible for the fact they are poor? I would dispute this, but before I do I want to make sure I understand what you really mean.

      • There are cases where people cooperate in their poverty. Sometimes that is due to the situation they find themselves in – but the poor are as susceptible of sin as the non-poor. Of course, their situation often makes the consequences of their acts much more serious.

        For example, alcohol abuse may have much more serious consequences for the poor than for a person who isn’t poor. The non-poor person can cover up his/her alcohol abuse and also can often pay for treatment.

        But I want to repeat my main concern with the lists of “Being Poor” – it identifies the poor with their poverty and treats them as mere victims. It leaves little room for either the sinfulness or grace that I see at work among the poor themselves. The poor are considered passive.

        It can also lead to a first world “savior” complex.

        One of the simplest descriptions of what it means to be poor comes, I think, from Jon Sobrino: When you wake up in the morning, you cannot take life for granted.

        When we non-poor wake up we normally take it for granted that there will be food, clothing, work, a place to sleep, security, and more.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        John writes:

        “But I want to repeat my main concern with the lists of “Being Poor” – it identifies the poor with their poverty and treats them as mere victims. It leaves little room for either the sinfulness or grace that I see at work among the poor themselves. The poor are considered passive.”

        I don’t think that situating the poor clearly in their social/cultural matrix treats them as mere victims. Admittedly, I do not address the ways in which they respond to their own poverty, but I do not think that I am thereby denying them their own subjectivity. My goal was more modest: to get westerners to see, however dimly, what the experience of the poor in the third world is like. This may lead to a “first world savior complex”; my hope is that it will simply lead to a better answer to the second of the three questions I am using in my ministry: “why are they poor?”

  • Derrick
    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thanks for this link, though some of its rebuttals of social/cultural problems are as facile as the arguments it is trying to refute.

  • TauSign

    [comment from someone having trouble posting—dcu]

    In 2008, 17% of the world’s population was practicing open defecation. Further, over 39% of the world’s population lives without access to hygienic sanitation (referred to as ‘Improved sanitation’ by UNICEF/WHO, and defined as “a facility that hygienically separates human excreta from human contact”). (Source: Franciscans International)

    Great start to your new ministry!

  • Stuart

    This may be off-topic, but for me, fighting poverty is at the heart of being pro-life. Here’s the problem–how do I vote for programs to help eliminate poverty when I automatically excommunicate myself if I vote for a candidate who supports a woman’s right to choose but otherwise is sensitive to the needs of the poor, marginalized, and unemployed? That’s not a sarcastic question–I am often confronted for supporting what others see as “pro-choice” candidates. When I explain how a certain candidate’s vote might help lift a person out of poverty (here in Nebraska, for instance, by voting to expand Medicaid), the only thing I hear is, “That guy is pro-abortion, so you can’t vote for him.”: Articles like this make me more compassionate for the poor, but I can’t do a lot to help if all I’m allowed to do without going to hell is vote for candidates who claim to be anti-abortion. God help me if it turns out that Hillary presents the best anti-poverty programs in the next election–I won’t even have a quick stop in Purgatory if she wins my vote!

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      This is a serious and important question and one that has been thrashed many times in the commboxes here at Vox Nova. I don’t know if there is a single good answer. I believe it is appropriate to vote for a candidate who supports abortion as long as that is not the reason I am voting for him/her. (I think the USCCB has said as much itself.) Others vociferously disagree.

      This plays a role in discussing Third World poverty since overpopulation (in my opinion) plays a role. However, any mention of population in this context, no matter how carefully phrased, has gotten me accused of being pro-abortion. I toyed with including one anecdote in this area, but could not think of a way to frame it that would avoid a tangential flame war.

  • Reblogged this on Intersections.

  • Stuart

    It’s hard to have a preferential option for the poor when we can only vote for candidates who claim to be anti-abortion without excommunicating ourselves.

    For some reason, those who claim to be anti-abortion are also against the minimum wage, funding prenatal care, expanding family leave, funding SNAP, and some even want to get rid of Medicare and Social Security outright.

    Right now, the abortion rate is at one of the lowest levels ever. One could argue that the poor-friendly policies of Obama have led to a reduction in abortions. One could argue that creating a strong safety net for the poor and providing everyone with access to healthcare does a better job of reducing abortions than outlawing abortion and shaming scared women with useless ultrasounds.

    There are many things we Catholics could do the both help the poor and reduce the abortion rate, but our hands are tied since we can only avoid mortal sin if we vote for Paul Ryan.

    • Jordan

      It’s important to remember that the Church (the People of God, not the company of heaven) has always been, and will always be, a political body. Do you think that Cardinal Richelieu spent his days playing pick-up-sticks rather than assist Louis XIV in the suppression of the third estate for the economic, financial, and social gain of the Bourbons?

      The temporal Church has always favored dogmatized rather than intellectualized political ideologies. It considers both social democracy and “pure” socialism as little more than anthropocentric ameliorators of the injustices in life (the official suppression of liberation theology under John Paul II is a good example of Holy Mother in this regard). While I do not claim that the political Right parties in developed democracies are inherently fascist, Right politics often appeal to a superficial moralism, nativism, and patriotism to create and maintain a voting bloc. Throughout history, the Church has willingly settled for a politically convenient moralism rather than a (fallible, human, if borderline agnostic) moral political action consonant with the poor.

      Pope Francis’s great solicitude for the poor, indeed his desire to live “as close to the ground” as possible, directly contradicts the many American bishops who willingly and uncritically support Republican politicians. Indeed, Pope Francis’s example demonstrates that political parties and constructs cannot fully embrace poverty. Still, the incessant pull of power towards self-aggrandizement will always exist in the human mind and will. The Republican disdain for the poor, combined with the party’s refusal to enact legislation which might lower the number of abortions, only serves their choice of moralism to divide and conquer. It is a shame that many leaders of the Church cannot see (or blind themselves towards) this deceit.

  • Ross

    With regards to… “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”. I’m not sure how much of a sin that is… “Cardinal Frings is eternalised in the Kölsch language with the word “fringsen” (verb, literally translates as “to Frings”) which became synonymous for “stealing food” and other low-value consumables out of need. The expression dates back on his New year’s Eve sermon which he held on 31 December 1946 in the St. Engelbert church in Cologne-Riehl, in which he referred to the looting of coal trains and the bad supply situation in the grim winter:

    We live in times where the single individual, in his need, ought to be allowed to take what he needs to preserve his life and health, if he cannot obtain it through other means, work or bidding.

    Accordingly the term “fringsen” refers to obtaining food and fuel for the winter among Cologne citizens.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Interesting story!

      I think it is an old precept in Catholic moral theology that it is not a sin to steal food if you are hungry and have no other legitimate ways of obtaining it for yourself (and presumably for your dependents). Off the top of my head I want to attribute this to Aquinas, but it may go back to John Chrysostom. Can anyone provide a better reference?

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    The Guardian has just posted an interactive documentary about the clothing industry in Bangladesh. It provides an excellent counter-point to my post:

  • Hermann

    I´m with you – except for No.5.
    My father was away for work Long months – he did not see the need to become unfaithful to his wife! This has nothing to do with poverty and all to do with the husbands fidelity and self-conrtol or lack thereof.


    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Well, except that this is part of the every day reality of life for many poor women in Africa. Poverty does not cause infidelity, but it sets up a situation in which this kind of thing happens.