Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Poverty Isn't Romantic

I don't understand how so many people in International Development (myself included for awhile) have come away with the idea that poverty is so romantic. Every discussion I heard was, "Well Americans (especially along either coast) have the money but these people (in developing countries) are so happy and value life so much more! Their lives are so uncomplicated!" Um, really?

First of all, most Kenyans I have spoken with lament that they have not the money to come to the U.S. I've spoken with teachers, secondary school students, leaders of youth groups, and others, many of whom are wonderful, joyous, lovely people. At the same time, they want the opportunities the U.S. has. From my conversations with coworkers at a restaurant back in the States, even a dishwasher making less than minimum wage can make more money in a day than they'll see in a month in their home countries. This is money they can send to families, save for a house (hey, the ones I know are extremely frugal and there are those who have done it, even on low wages), send for loved ones, etc. They can send their kids to school for free and not have to buy uniforms or books. They'll have more access to things such as running water, a functioning toilet, electricity, food. They know that Americans have a relatively stable political system. Yes, they want it too.

There's nothing romantic about extreme poverty. Nothing romantic about having your child die in your arms because you can't afford the hospital. There's nothing romantic about having your parents oust you and completion of your education denied to you because you found out you were pregnant at thirteen. There's nothing romantic about having to drop out of school because your family can no longer afford school fees. There's nothing romantic about living in your own muck because there's no sanitation. There's nothing romantic about having to live in illegal housing because you can't afford to live anywhere else. There's nothing romantic about having to take care of relatives with serious maladies because the water's dirty.

You know something? As lovely as many of the Kenyans I know are, their lives are not uncomplicated. "Value of life" is a relative term and I've seen fiercer levels of competition here than in the U.S. (considering that 66% of Nairobi lives on less than $1 a day, that's not highly inaccurate to believe). While we should not believe money is everything, it does help. It helps if you can gain steady employment to support yourself and your family. It helps if you can get sturdy housing with a functioning bathroom. It helps if you can afford nutritious food and feed your family. It helps if you can gain access to medical care and education. Having money, the basics, and some nice things does not make you a good or bad person. However, while man does not live on bread alone, man cannot live without bread. As much as these same people say they want to help, their attitudes about poverty give little incentive to end it.

I also wish to point out the hypocrisy of those who look down on "materialism." These same people are the ones who will gladly indulge on beautiful clothing and jewelry from Kenya, who love to have nice clothing back in the States, who would not care to live anywhere other than midtown Manhattan or near the Hill in Washington, who eat only at nice restaurants and look down on people who live in small towns and take their families to McDonald's. I'll admit, I do want to live in those places as well (though I'm content with living in the Bronx or in Northeast, if it was what I could afford)and I love me some good food and pretty clothes. But I'm a materialist and I can't pretend that I'm not. Yes, I want people in Kenya and in the U.S. to get jobs that enable them to support themselves and I believe their wage levels should be concurrent with their work. I want all children to be able to finish secondary school, without having to worry about school fees. I believe everyone should have access to health care and that insurance companies shouldn't act like oil companies. At the same time, there's nothing wrong with a little materialism. Not if it helps us improve our own lives and better the situation of others by providing them with employment and a market.

Ending poverty starts with the knowledge that poverty is not a good thing. If we keep acting like it is, many people will still experience social injustice every day. If we keep romanticizing the struggle, we will never help people pull themselves up by their bootstraps and end it. By contributing to this attitude, we're denying people their dignity and their right to do everything to improve their situation. We rely on the hand out when we should be giving a hand up. People need not just money but a sustainable way of earning it. Yes, this involves competition and hard work. Who said they had to be intrinsic evils?

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