We Have It Backwards

First Posted 10-Mar-2015

Netflix suggested a documentary about living on $1.00/day. I have it playing in another window behind the one I’m typing this post in. It is two young men, one from New York State and another from Seattle. They are typical for us, for Americans, college age, with all of our first world worries. The thing that struck me, that has me writing another post, is this assumption that curing the poverty of the Guatemalan village where they made the film, would mean transforming their hosts into first world Americans like them. Uhm, no.

I’ll get to answers and more on why I don’t think the answer is to turn this remote village into Seattle or New York City. First, Poverty Facts and Stats–almost half the world, 3 billion people, live on less than $2.50/day. At least 80% live on less than $10.00/day. By comparison, I consider a living wage to be at least $100.00/day, 40 times what most of the world lives on. So, we have it backwards.

The problem isn’t that the majority is poor. The problem is that our idea of not-poor is distorted by our wealth and success. Most of the world lives on very little and survives. We get freaked out if the Internet bill is in peril and we might have to use the Public Library to connect. Tell one of our teenagers that they have to live for a week without a cell phone and you’d think we’d asked that teenager to commit ritual suicide.

We really have to think about our end game. What do we want for these people who we say are poor? Do we want them living in rent-controlled high rise coops paying more per month just for rent than they made in a decade back in the remote village? Is it a fail if they can only afford a candy-bar phone with no data plan? Are they poor because they don’t have smartphones? What are the criteria we will use to say we succeeded? What is our definition of the problem? If the problem is that they don’t have the latest smartphones then a reasonable solution is to install XLTE cell sites and set up a means for them to acquire smartphones at a reasonable price. An iPhone retails here for $600.00. At $2.50/day, that’s 240 days or nearly a year of money to afford one phone. Plus all of the first world infrastructure that goes with maintaining an XLTE cell phone network. Expensive.

Unless . . . the lack of cell phones isn’t the problem. Unless “end poverty” means something else. The thing is, our idea of utopia, of all the technology and mechanical marvel that makes our ideal life possible, of what we would say isn’t impoverished, is not what most of the world would define as non-poor. Most of the world doesn’t have a car. Most of the world doesn’t own a house. Most of the world doesn’t have electricity. Most of the world shops on market day, sometimes each day, for that day because there isn’t refrigeration.

To say that the marker of whether someone is poor is whether they share our lifestyle is arrogant. It also makes a mess of things where it rears its ugly head in the name of good intentions. Our definition of poverty is not always helpful. I think we have to redefine what we mean by “end poverty”. In the example of that remote Guatemalan Village, simple things like access to healthy water, micro-lending to facilitate small business, and artful use of our first world blessings to strengthen the indigenous life are things I can get behind. Christ told us we’d always have the poor with us. For me, that resonates this way, that the task is to improve the opportunity, not the outcome. Where we can do that, cool. We should be careful not to measure the success of our work by whether those we help come closer to living our first world life.