Poverty


Proofs sent to the library at work–a high school–cannot legally be used on the shelves so they end up in various places.  Somehow I end up where they reside and read them.  My latest, The Boiling Season by Christopher Hebert provides abundant food for hard core thinking.  The setting, a Caribbean island, reeks of political turmoil and the legacy of slavery.  Unless you are totally ignorant of Caribbean history and the various cultures there, it does not take long to figure out the setting is Haiti.  In case you want to read the book, I will give you only a cursory introduction.  The main character grows up in basically what we call here a slum.  His mom dies of malaria when he is quite young and  his dad owns a small store.  He hates it and focuses most of his life on getting out of these circumstances.  He gets a job and a place to live with a senator, meets important people, and eventually discovers an abandoned estate out in the country.  He moves there after it is bought by a wealthy foreign white woman who hires him to restore it.  He absolutely loves the place.  It is an island of beauty and peace in the middle of squalor, poverty, and strife.

The details you can read for yourself.  It’s focus is the dilemma many who grow up poor and want to better themselves face:  if you progress, are you abandoning your roots, to whom do you owe loyalty.  And, indeed, what is progress?  Civil war breaks out and the main character is torn between his desire for peace and a more elegant lifestyle in this beautiful place and the needs of the poverty stricken people who surround it and who at one point work there.  Is he a free person or just a fancier slave for the rich who own the place?  Has he deluded himself into thinking because he worked hard to get where he is that he is better?

Although the book’s setting is a particular place, the theme remains universal.  I think of individuals I personally know who could not cope with success and riches, who felt they must “save” all their relatives and then were left with nothing themselves.  The thinking is this:  if you come into money, you must share it with everyone; to keep it for yourself is morally wrong.  If this is the case, how can the cycle ever break?  This sort of thinking is very difficult for those of use who work hard and save for the future to understand.  We question why we should help them when they hit the bottom.

Yesterday my hard working, single mom, going to graduate school daughter went on a rant about people she knows who get food stamps, Medicaid, etc. while she works and goes to school and gets nothing.  They have fancier cars, better TVs, etc. than she does.  I do understand both viewpoints although I admit I am the frugal without being austere.  I remember a time several years ago when several of my poorer students–I teach at a Title 1 school–wore jeans more expensive than I would ever buy–its jeans.  We got into a discussion about this.  I informed them that all the clothing I had on except for underwear and socks came from a thrift store.  When I take things to the thrift store, I actually shop.  Thrift stores are full of “finds”.  The response of one student was echoed by others, “I would never go into a thrift store.  Someone might see me go in there.”  Because they were poor, they wanted to avoid anyone seeing them do anything they thought might confirm this.

Although fraud exists in programs for the poor, it also exists in high end banking and just about everything.  The solution is to work hard to investigate and prevent it.  I keep wondering what is the solution for the people truly in need?  Do we punish everyone to prevent the fraudulent acts of the few?  And what about the children?  What happens to the dependent young?  Obviously, the world has not found answers.  I wonder if we ever will.

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