There is an opinion that I have found distressingly too often among typically reasonable and intelligent people during conversations about poverty and development. The origins of this idea (in my opinion) are rooted somewhere deep within Western individualism, hidden subtly in the mentality of a world mystified by an un-analyzed, un-criticized notion of “freedom” as fed to us by the powers that be. This opinion automatically assumes that if someone is poor then they must therefore also be lazy or inept. On the surface, this already sounds like too absurdly general of a statement. Most people, even those who do indeed believe as such, would shy away from full-fledged allegiance to such ignorance. “Of course,” they will likely say, “there are always exceptions and people with genuinely bad luck.” But even such a caveat is poison.
Within this idea lies the fundamental disconnect in our collective perspective on poverty, be it domestic or international, urban or rural. Believing that being poor somehow equates being lazy is a wonderful prescription for those that seek to not only ignore history but also to wash the dirty hands of those who have benefited the most (directly or indirectly) from the inequalities that have subjugated, disenfranchised and otherwise dehumanized those very poorest among us for centuries.
And as those neo-cons and pundits dismiss any acknowledgment of our tainted history as “white guilt” or “liberal scheming” the reality is that we should be guilty. Not to the point where we sell all our worldly possessions and become prostrating monks begging for forgiveness (although for you Christians out there, this was kind of what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Drop everything and follow me.”), but to the point that we realize that we are responsible to those most wretched of this earth and that our good fortune was not, could not ever have been, entirely our own making. Our fates are intertwined, we are a collective humanity or we are without any.
Here’s the economic reasoning, the morality of it all has to be worked out individually, that’s the only way it ever sticks anyway:
We live in a world of classes--upper, middle and lower class. This economic stratification is evident to a greater or lesser extent in every society through time and space, with the only exceptions being (depending on how you look at it) the most egalitarian societies of hunter-gatherers. The reality of life, of humanity, is that there are differences between people, between individuals and between cultures (this is not meant as a qualitative statement, but an objective observation). Variation is a biological, social and cultural necessity, it is a physical predisposition, it is that thing which colors our world. Difference is inherent, beautiful and necessary and yet, it never justifies discrimination in any form.
In this world of differences, ultimately there are those who win and those who loose. Capitalist ideology would have us believe that those who win are those who achieved while those who lost are those who just couldn’t cut it. Only those who deserve to win would ever do so, and those who loose, well, they deserved their lot just as well. If we lived in an “ideal” world, one where everyone was competing from an even platform and only with their ‘god’ given talents, perhaps I could get more on board with such capitalist ideas, but that is not the case. We living in a world that is the contingent product of millennia of war and slavery and exploitation and treachery and all of the worst aspects (and at the same time, all of the best aspects as well) of human history. We cannot ignore this because to do so would be to ignore ourselves, we are the products of inequality, the most successful and the most impoverished alike.
So what does this mean? Do we wallow in our guilt, paralyzed by the heinous inhumanity of our past and to a large extent, our present? Not at all. We must, however, be willing to recognize that “free competition” as idealized and essential as it is to the capitalist model, is a fantasy that can never and will never exist. One could never make the argument that the earning power of a poor Latin American farmer is equal to that of a middle-class, white-American male (me, for example). Why? Not because of any inherent differences in intelligence, capability, or our willingness to work hard but, simply because that Latin American farmer has been disenfranchised from almost every direction since before he was even born.
Let me relate an example from my own work here in Paraguay:
For those who have never experience farm work, particularly manual farm work (that is without any machines, just your two hands, a machete and a hoe) I would highly suggest trying it on for size. I live in a community right now where every family engages in small-scale agriculture. My next door neighbor and best friend, Don Zaccarias will turn 80 years old next month. Every morning at 4 am he gets up, drinks his maté in the dark and goes out to his field before the sun rises. He works for hours, farming by hand about 3 hectares of cash and consumption crops, and comes home before the sun peaks in the sky and the temperature soars to over 100 degrees. If he can coax his weary body and sinewy muscles back to life later in the day, sometimes he can put in a few more hours in the evening before the sun sets. He has been doing this backbreaking kind of work his whole life, literally since he was a child and could carry a hoe. His story is not unique among my community, or among most people in the developing world for that matter.
If effort and gumption could somehow be equated to success (as traditional capitalism would have us believe), the my good friend Don Zaccarias would be a millionaire. Instead, he lives in poverty. Abject poverty. The kind of poverty where I need to visit his house daily to make sure he has something to eat for the day. The kind of poverty where he refuses to go see a doctor, despite the fact that his heart condition desperately requires it, because he can’t afford the bill, let alone the medicine. This was Don Zaccarias’s lot from the day he was born. He is the victim of a system that never allowed him to receive an education, to make a different sort of life for himself or his family, a system that is increasingly reinforced on a global scale every day. Still, the Don would never say he was a victim, and truly, he laughs and smiles more than most people I have ever met. Tell that to a Wall Street executive who wouldn’t even know how to hold a shovel, let alone use one.
I am not here to preach Marxism, for that is not what I believe. To me, it seems that the strong leftist ideas of Marx and Hegel were really more reactionary than practical, responding to the global inequalities it saw stemming from a newly industrialized, capitalistic, and Western-oriented world. But we must be willing to admit that any submission to pure capitalism represents the greatest possible injustice we could possibly commit. No one, not even the most “I built this!” people of capitalistic-repute can claim that they did it all on their own. That is not how this world works. It never was. We are not programmed that way.
While yes, there are always cases of people breaking out of the lower-classes to achieve the Holy Grail of entrepreneurial stardom, the system is such that there will always be a lower class. No matter how many success stories there are, there are a million losers along the way--not because they didn’t try, and certainly not because they are lazy--but simply because that’s the way it is supposed to work.
Of course, there are freeloaders, there are always a few rotten apples. But I posit this comparison--what is the difference between someone living off of government welfare and someone who makes their living buying and selling toxic financial “products” that create absolutely no value in this world and are ultimately set up to fail? The prior is, at worst, a passive beneficiary of an inefficient public service. The later is an active saboteur, willing to trade anything, even his/her most precious of American ideals to make a buck.
Are we really so naive to think that there are no freeloaders on Wall Street or among the elite? As a matter of fact, the amount of corruption and mismanagement that is so common of politicians and CEO’s receiving underhand government contracts (the economics behind the War in Iraq would be a great case study) would lead me to believe that there are even more freeloaders among that bourgeoisie, or at least freeloaders who drain so much more from society than a single mother collecting food stamps ever could. There are always bad apples, regardless of class or nationality or race or creed or gender or whatever else, but that doesn’t mean the whole barrel is rotten, or somehow undeserving of our compassion or relief. I’d rather feed a poor freeloading family any day, but that’s just me.
As a conclusion to this post (which turned out to be a lot longer than I thought it would), poverty is not a product of laziness, or listlessness, or lack of motivation. It is a symptom of a sick system, a fallout for which we all (and especially those most successful among us) bear an enormous burden. We need not rise in armed insurrection or flagellate ourselves upon the alter of guilt and shame, but we must, we must, come to honest terms with the world we have created. It is our collective history, our collective present and our collective future. Poverty and inequality are not on their way out any time soon, but the greater we can empathize and internalize the struggles of others, the more compassionate and holistic our future will become. As the Buddha so wisely noted so long ago “Life is suffering.” We should strive always to turn outward with our own love and ability to alleviate that suffering and make it the pinnacle of our struggles not the capitalist ideal of wealth and status, but the humanization of every aspect of our world.