Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Who Are the Poor?

A few years ago my teenaged daughter asked me a question that stopped me dead in my tracks, and I’ll pose it to you too:

Are the poor people in Third World countries really poor, or are they poor just because they know what we have?

I’ve give you a moment or two to let that sink in and to let you think about it. This was not the snarky comment of a spoiled middle-class kid who thinks way too much. Well, OK, maybe she thinks way too much, but she is definitely not spoiled. This was really a very good question.

Think about it…if people living in certain parts of Asia, Africa, and South America were living their indigenous lifestyle, with absolutely no knowledge of how those of us in the industrialized world live, they’d probably be pretty happy. Sure, they’d still be living in mud huts, but they’d only be comparing themselves to the family in their village with the bigger mud hut. On their scale, they’d be middle class.

And indeed, those people who are still living indigenously probably don’t see themselves as being poor.

However…once those people are exposed to images of what the rest of us have, once they leave their villages and enter the big city to try to “make it,” suddenly, they realize that they’re “poor.”

This means that the people we think of in our own culture as being among the poorest of the poor, are probably rich by Third World standards. This might be why so many of the refugees who reach our shores look at their living conditions in a much different way than our “native poor” do. To the refugees it’s a huge step up from where they were, and they intend to keep stepping. Our native poor, on the other hand, see themselves as at the bottom with no reasonable hope of improvement. The “baby steps” that don’t seem worth the effort to our own poor are huge advancements to those who came from far less, and so they are willing to put forth the effort.

But I seem to have taken off on a slight tangent here. Let’s go back to the original question: are the poor people in Third World countries really poor, or are they poor just because they know what we have?

I’ve always said that the difference between the middle class now and the middle class of 40 or 50 years ago is that the middle class then saw themselves as “lucky poor people.” Today’s middle class tends to see itself as “not quite rich enough.” Turning my daughter’s question on its ear, do so many of us feel that we don’t have enough because we really don’t, or because we’ve seen too many images on TV and in movies of the super-rich, and feel resentment because we don’t have what they do?

This isn’t to say that there aren’t people who are legitimately poor. But let’s not confuse true poverty with not having the latest stuff, and with not living with the same comforts as someone else. After all, I’m sure that no one would call the Amish poor. They are rich in ways that many of us are not, and yet, it’s also a lifestyle that most of us wouldn’t want to live.

So, to answer my daughter’s question, there are poor people, there are legitimately poor people both in the Third World, and here at home; and it’s not simply about them knowing what we have, and being jealous. And to make things worse, sometimes our abundance contributes directly to their poverty.

However, we, knowing what they don’t have, should feel some sense of responsibility toward them, and try to help them in some way. So this Thanksgiving, in addition to being thankful for what you have, I’d like you to take the extra step of trying to help someone who could only wish to have what you’ve been blessed with.

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