Beginning to See Poverty
One challenge in trying to serve people who experience significant material lack is trying to identify those people experiencing significant material lack. We tend to be proud people, hiding our wounds and struggles from those around us. Instead we often rely on proxy measures of income estimation and geographical clues to figure out if people live in poverty. Frequently the discussion of poverty involves considering people “in Africa” and those who “live on less than one dollar a day.” Unless we happen to be in Africa, these poor are far removed from our direct sphere of influence, making it much easier to think about responding to poverty as a far-away problem. Learning how to see poverty requires work.
No one particularly likes to see poverty, particularly those people who live within the situation. To be materially poor is quite the blow to one’s pride; people sometimes go to great lengths to hide. On one level, poverty carries a wholly created construct like the concept of a poverty line; but on another level, hearing stories of people fighting courageous fights simply to survive in our materially-driven world can be inspiring and heart-wrenching all at the same time.
To me, looking for poverty seems to carry the questions of “Why do you care? Why do you want to see poverty?” Some act as a sense of mandate, as a requirement of their humanity, as a chance to guide the less fortunate, as an opportunity to enter into a shared experience with the humanity of another. But, for the most part, I would hazard a guess that defining poverty remains the domain of the elite, often as a way to assuage the conscience that one is doing all one can.
Yet we so often fail in our journey to come alongside of the materially poor in a way that honors their humanity. I recently read an article about the participation of low-income students at elite UK universities (where interestingly, the measure of poverty comes from geographical considerations) where I could hear echoes of a familiar argument. The argument asserts that by making conscious effort to identify low-income students to participate in elite universities, invariably an academically “deserving” student will see his or her seat in an incoming class go to a “charitable case.” The dichotomy gets to me as the poor are neither academically able nor deserving of an education.
Sometimes the label can be helpful, but often we employ the label to advance our own agenda. Consider Gustavo Esteva’s thoughts about living in an underdeveloped country:
To become underdeveloped is very undignified and humiliating. You can no longer trust your nose: you need to trust the noses of the experts that will guide you to develop. You can no longer dream your dreams; they are already dreamt: to be like them, like the developed, to adopt their dreams as your own. But development also comes with fascination. You want to have what they have and you begin to want what they want. I wanted development for myself, for my family, for my country…
It is very hard to come alongside of the experience of another person, entering into a fully mutual and equitable relationship. As human beings, we do not seem to be very good at creating fully mutual and equitable relationships. Yet, looking at the world around us, seeing it as it is, and struggling with the tensions of how we personally ought to respond invites us to practice what it means that we ourselves are human.
And unfortunately, it can be much easier to simply keep our eyes closed.