16 May 2010

Third World Poverty Views Harmful to US Poor?

I have been bothered, more like plagued, by the way that poverty is discussed abroad and domestically. What has struck me most is the fact that attitudes concerning both are often entirely divergent. People feel bad for those in the third world, yet chastise the poor of the West. My hypothesis is that it is based on the depictions of third world poverty and the fact that it often (and many ways rightfully) dominates the discussions when concerning poverty. There are few things that I feel have led to this split. To keep things simpler (for myself mostly) I am going to go with a Huffington Post format post (aka a list).

  1. Images of Poverty (or the distribution of third world poverty porn) – The US [Feed+the+Children_1.jpg]used to be a great place to find sad pictures of the the poor thanks to the Great Depression. With times better and the spread of media, there are no longer images like the one to the right coming out of the US. Conversely, the rise of media here and concern with Africa has provided for the rise of the image on the left. When looking at the child on the left, even relative to the Great Depression image, we have it pretty good. Certainly it is true that the standard of living here is much higher and the relative difference is significant, but when you see images of a starving naked skeleton, you cannot help but feel bad for the child. This links to the next…
  2. Higher Standard of Living (or we are richer so poor doesn’t look all that bad when there are starving children in Africa) – How can they be poor if they have _______? (insert: a cell phone, a nice car, a place to live, multiple children, nice clothes, etc.). Related to number 1, people are confused when they see that a woman has an Iphone and her child is playing a PSP. They say to themselves that the person cannot be struggling that badly when they these things. What is not seen is the fact that the mother had to get another credit card to pay off previous debt and is on her third phone line because the previous two were cancelled and the afforded the PSP by spending her last pay check. With more material goods at a relatively cheap price, it becomes easy to accrue them while neglecting the more important things. I have experienced this first had as a teacher where a mother drove a Lexus but was evicted from her home. As misleading as the image of a starving African child is, the American poor with an Iphone is an equally misleading instance in the other direction. This is compounded when considered in a sense relative to third world poverty. Again, I am not suggesting that starvation is equal to not paying for a cell phone, but there is just as much complexity to American poverty as there is to third world poverty.
  3. The American Dream (or how you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps but the third world is helpless and needs the nurturing of the compassionate first world) – This concept is actually damaging to both groups. Americans believe that hard work is the solution and that it is enough to overcome any circumstance. We like to think of Chris Gardner being portrayed by Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness and nod along as if it is possible for anyone to escape homelessness through hard work. There are plenty of studies and research that proves this to be untrue, but Gladwell’s Outliers is the easiest and most accessible on the subject. Due to this belief, it is natural to then accept that the poor of America are lazy. One might imagine them laying around collecting welfare and food stamps to then go out and buy cigarettes (sadly have seen this too) and new televisions. Unfortunately, this image is not struck down because people actually do that with their government money. Still, there is a much deeper issue going on when this happens that cannot be summed up with the word ‘lazy.’ For the third world, the opposite exists because most believe that they cannot help themselves to buy a t-shirt, so we send them our used t-shirts, crayons and bras.
  4. American Exceptionalism (or we are super awesome and there is no way that someone can actually be poor in the greatest most free country in the world) – This relates to the idea of the American Dream, but goes a step further. For many, there is a belief that America is the greatest country in the world. They champion our freedoms, global hegemony, and giant economy. To me, there seems to be a bit of a cross between Dorian Gray Syndrome and Narcissism. America is so perfect that it does not need to change, is the attitude that has become a regular part of American politics and political discourse (re. Sarah Palin, John McCain, Clinton(s), and so on). Being that America is so great and free, it is just not possible to have a population that lives below the poverty line (hence little change in the minimum wage and an absurdly low poverty line designation).
  5. The End (or I made a list and 4 points did not seem like a rounded number because lists, for some reason, often have to come in 5 or ten)