On Poverty

I was wandering aimless in the crowd recently when I saw a truck with a loud ad for a just released KFC product. The ad was in Spanish. Beneath the enticing burger were the words that translated as, ‘To eat well is a blessing.’ Leaving aside whether any burger is eating well, the ad struck me as tauntingly cruel in a country where one third of the population is lucky to eat at all. For KFC owned by Yum! Brands, a Fortune 500 company spun off from Pepsi, to attach itself to religion is cloying. It is more noxious when that country is steeped in Catholicism, mysticism and superstition, a nation with too many people vulnerable to false promises, long trodden by the rich looking to get richer at the expense of those who have not.
Other than what immediately follows, I am not going to write about the causes of poverty, a list that would count apathy, colonialism, globalization, unfair trade practices, unjust tax laws, biased immigration policies, avaricious land owners, greedy industrialists, religious authorities aligned with the powerful and corrupt governments that make private deals with public resources. On this, much has already been written. Optimistically, more will be composed in the future. Where there is money to be made on the toil of others, there will be gluttons ready to exploit the others. The excessively affluent have their justifications, advocates and apologists. Nothing outside of legislation will change their behavior. It is why they spend so much ensuring that ‘business friendly’ candidates are elected. The game is rigged. The rich win, the buffer class gets by and the poor will always be poor.
For too long poverty was foreign to me. In the sense of my being poor, it still is. I gave to food banks or threw money in the kettles at Christmas or donated to the United Way. Depending on the decade and what was in my pocket, I handed dimes, quarters or dollars to the street destitute. I also put my head down or pretended I didn’t hear or mumbled ‘I’m sorry.’ I often was sorry but not so much that it motivated more than tokens. Living in a country where there is or was, a social safety net, I took solace in the taxes I paid, wanting to believe that those bi-weekly deductions would help those that I didn’t.
To this day I remember the address, 56 Sparks Street, and the name, Lotta Hitschmanova, the face and voice of the Unitarian Service Committee. Sometimes I got up from the sofa and switched to the other channel. When I was too lazy to bother, I stared through the faces of people in Africa or Latin America or Asia. Though it was hard not to empathize, it was far removed. Lotta was an interruption of the World Series game for which I had played hooky.
My view is larger now. I have had occasion to visit some of the places that Lotta Hitschmanova brought to my living room. Unfortunately, not much has changed. The difference between then and now is that I have met people who lead lives of what Thoreau, in another context, called ‘quiet desperation.’ Poverty is thorough. It dictates life to the finest detail. For some, it is a day to day struggle to feed themselves. Millions cannot and die.  Those with enough food to survive are lucky but their luck is limited. Disease is never far away. Be it poor diet, lack of clean water, unsanitary living conditions, limited or no access to health care or the need for the young to forego school and join the fight to survive, poverty never lets you slip its grasp. It is a dream crusher, a bringer of despair, a governor on the possible. It is every shade of dullness.
On weekend walks in the city centre, I pass people pleading for money. One group of many is a family of nine. They have moved from a big city to a bigger one, hoping that the increased number of walk-ups will augment their take. They used to be eleven but two of the children died. The father sits against a building playing an accordion while, depending on the day, between two and four of his kids stand nearby with cups. The oldest, maybe twelve, can often be seen on the opposite side of the street, spreading the reach of their impoverished hands. Sometimes, when the father finds a short term job, the boy is in charge of his five year old sister. She is bright, pretty and unaware of the life that awaits her. They both have a way of saying ‘thank you’ that gets me in the gut. The ‘gracias’ deserves more than me.
The mother has the remaining kids, including a baby, in another part of the downtown. The children, appropriately dressed for their roles, spend most of every Saturday and Sunday beseeching passersby for coins. Hour after boring hour they stand or finally sit, attempting to add to their meagre results. When finished they go to a one room house where all nine sleep on the floor, no TV to distract from their monotony or help avoid getting on each other’s nerves. The money they receive on the weekends, maybe five dollars a day, and the income from the father’s rare employment, go first to putting a simple and repetitious meal on the table. What’s left goes to the rent and to buy school uniforms for the kids old enough to be in school. Apparently one of the boys, always with the mother, is a good student, the one most likely to succeed. Odds are that one or more of the other children will quit school to work so that the boy with good grades will be able to continue his education. It is the lot of the desperate.
Child labour laws don’t apply to family run businesses. It is common to see young children working beside their parents selling things, food mostly, or offering services – shining shoes, parking cars for tips, pulling weeds or cutting branches. The people who bag groceries are either the elderly with little or no pension or kids from impoverished families or no families at all. The hours are long, leaving scant time for life. Outside of work and sleep, life barely exists. There are no paid breaks, no holidays, no bonuses, no relief from a grinding, crushing battle to be.
I have a friend in Peru. He lives in a house in the worst part of the city. The water comes on for two hours in the morning when the whole family must go to the toilet, shower, wash the clothes and fill enough pails to last until the next dawn. At times they have a phone line, usually not. They have a TV that they can’t afford to fix. The father, as often happens in Latin America, has left. The mother has diabetes. In a country with a higher standard of living, she would be receiving ongoing treatment. She cannot afford the care she needs so the condition is addressed only in the direst of times.
For my friend and his family, health care is like that. None can afford to see a doctor until the illness or disease is acute, well past the point when it would have been treated in a wealthier country. The doctors they see do not have the equipment they need to diagnose properly. The cost of using modern machines is beyond their financial grasp. They can hardly come up with the money for the generic medicine they require. I think back to many occasions and wonder what would have become of me had I not had access to immediate and effective medical treatment and the latest in new drugs. At a minimum, I would not have had the quality of life that I take for granted.
The family is split now. Poverty does that too. The brothers and sisters are scattered among uncles and aunts. The mother is in Argentina, living with a cousin, trying to maintain a job while she struggles with her illness. To a North American or European, given the economic turmoil that has overtaken the country in the last fifteen years, Argentina seems an unlikely destination for improving a life. It’s all relative.
My friend has moved to another city where he works twelve to fourteen hours a day, six days a week, as a security guard for a large department store. He wanted to be a chef. He studied to be a chef. There were no jobs for a chef so he does what he can. For up to eighty hours a week he earns six hundred soles a month, about two hundred dollars. He feels fortunate.
We used to chat or exchange email every few days. I haven’t heard from him in over a month. That’s unusual. He may be dead. Where poverty lurks, crime is its shadow. He has been assaulted and robbed for the little he has on more than one occasion. I hope nothing has happened to him. He is a good person who deserves better. The same could be said for millions in Latin America and elsewhere. People subsist in the most wretched of circumstances.
There is little hope of escape in these countries. Poverty is hard to breech in more prosperous nations. In Latin America, where help from the government is limited or non-existent, it is almost impossible. I know now why Lotta Hitschmanova used to ask me for money. The selfless, unglamorous work of thousands of people who dedicate their lives, or parts of their lives, to help the helpless, the sick, the starving, the war-torn, the poor and the poorest of the poor, is of immeasurable worth. They are better than me.
It is trying to look at the face of poverty. It is an ugly countenance, one which makes me uneasy. I want to avert my gaze. It is harder to mitigate my emotions. The Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, described Buster Keaton as having ‘sad, infinite eyes, like a newborn beast of burden.’ There was only one Keaton but there are millions of ‘sad, infinite eyes.’ Surrounded, I have trouble avoiding them all.
Paul Heno October 2010
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