a few thoughts on poverty

ramen noodles


Some tangents I cut out of an essay I provided for a very cool ebook project I’ll tell you about later:

Many – in fact, most – donors and activists have never been poor themselves. I haven’t. So when we try to picture poverty, we confuse the concept of poor with the concept of “broke.” Broke is a temporary state. You’re broke as a college student; it’s a phase you go through until you graduate and start to earn money. Maybe you’re broke while you pay down your student loans, or while you’re looking for a job. You have no money for luxuries, you live month to month. You might even think you’re poor.

But you’re not. You don’t have money right now, but that’s not going to last forever. Your life is not built around poverty. You’ll finish school, you’ll find a job. It’s a transitory stage, and it really is empty. It’s about waiting for something better to come. There is no point settling in, since it’s not real life. That life has room for poorly thought out aid projects. Poverty does not.

Another complexity in the lives of poor people: when you have very little money, the relative value of the rest of your possessions increases. These could be tangible objects like jewelry or appliances. If you’re poor and you lose your watch or your cellphone, you don’t get to go buy a new one right away. You save up, or you buy on credit. You also possess intangibles, like social capital. Or pride.

I like knowing my neighbors, but it’s not essential to me. If I need urgent babysitting, or an extra egg I call a sitter or walk to the corner store. If I was poor, the neighbors would be key to my survival.

photo credit: GorillaSushi

In the US, you’re poor if you have to eat ramen. In Tajikistan you’re poor when you can’t afford ramen.