Is poverty always about being poor?
I had a conversation with a coworker yesterday about poverty in Guatemala. According to some research he did for a paper about 80% of the population lives below the poverty line. It sounded odd – that’s a huge portion of the population to be considered “poor”. So I had to ask one question: what establishes the poverty line? In essence, what is “poor”?
In this case it was described in two ways. First the story of a jungle tribe who the government has left to their traditional way of life. The live as they have for centuries, but it’s reported that they’re very unhappy…”miserable” is the word he used. Of course, the most prominent reason for their unhappiness is not based on their way of life, but on mistreatment by sociologists who abused them while there conducting studies. Less prominent reasons include awareness of more “civilized” ways of life, and tribal warfare.
The second description was the (admittedly large) proportion of the population without plumbing, electricity, and sanitation. These things are a necessity if you live in a city. But what if you don’t? What if you live in the mountains, or the jungle, or on a farm? Do you need those things? Sure, they might make things easier, but will they make life better by their presence?
A couple of years ago my wife read a memoir by Sidney Poitier. Poitier wrote that growing up on a tomato farm in the Bahamas he had no idea he was poor. He basically said that when everyone around you is poor, you just think of it as normal.
I wonder if “poverty” has less to do with lack than with want.