The Culture of Poverty
Today is March 9th, 2009 and I am in the richest country. (By their own reckoning and calculations.) But I am amidst a very disadvantaged part of that population. This is not Japan... you would know why if you are to read the just published book,
The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Allen Lane, 297 pages. In a review, it was written: Within the rich world, where destitution is rare, countries where incomes are more evenly distributed have longer lived citizens and lower rates of obesity, delinquency, depression and teenage pregnancy than richer countries where wealth is more concentrated.
So I am in a rich country, with a distribution of wealth similar to many Latin American countries, but without much destitution...Poverty yes, but not destitution, the kind one would see in SlumDog Millionaire!
I met a 35 year old from the Culture of Poverty today.
What is Culture of Poverty? Anthropologists would immediately recognize this sociological moniker of Oscar Lewis.
The culture of poverty concept is a social theory explaining the cycle of poverty. Based on the concept that the poor have a unique value system, the culture of poverty theory suggests the poor remain in poverty because of their adaptations to the burdens of poverty. (From Wikipedia)
The culture of Poverty is not just about MONEY and income but as many thinkers have pointed out, it is about values which are upheld by the society and also by individuals in that society. Those of us who are travelers would agree with my Meskwaki teacher, who told me... We may be poor, but we have our culture; we don’t mind poverty, we can deal with it, but it is misery that we don’t like. Recent excellent literature in English from India, (Vikas Swarup: Six Suspects; Arvind Adiga: The White Tiger) mould the characters with the motto: it is not just about poverty but Suffering…
Let me tell you about this representative of the culture of poverty. He had a nonchalant way of talking, the friendly way of talking of his people. He is 35 years old. He was happy to see me, having come to get some medications from the Pharmacy. He has not taken any medications (which he receives free of charge) since he left the job because he did not like the rules and regulations and the control the supervisor had over his work habits. (He was the janitor at a Clinic). He had been to the Casino, and had won some money, 1500 USD and has been in a splurging mood, and he and his wife has been out drinking each night and also visiting popular all you can eat restaurants in the vicinity. He looked at his watch and said, can’t wait to leave to go back to the city for some drinks and food.
The nurse opens the door and slips me the result of his blood sugar, it was over 525 mg/dl, a level at which any “normal” person would be suffering enough to be admitted to a hospital. Are you OK, yes, I feel fine…
He then began ranting and raving about his wife’s 18 year old son, who has dropped out of school, and thus depriving himself of a chance to learn a skill, ability to exercise his body by playing football...Now, I am told, he stays in bed during the day, at night gallivants around, with other in his age group..
Where is his father? I asked. His father lives nearby with his new wife and a daughter who is 16 years old. This boy used to live with them, but the father had kicked him out of his house after the boy made the girl (who is the daughter of the wife of his father) pregnant and before he turned 18, he was already a father. Now with no education, no skills, depending upon his mother for his daily expenses, this young boy stare into a future of darkness.
When I was his age, I was working, I was responsible, did the chores around the house, my new friend continued. This kid does not lift a finger, sleeps most of the day, does not prepare food for himself, throws something into the microwave oven and waits for his mother to prepare him something to eat in the evening and give him some money to go out and have fun with his friends.
My friend, to whom I had just administered 10 units of Insulin to bring his high blood sugar down, said... Soon after my sixteenth birthday, my girlfriend who was 16 at that time gave birth to my daughter... I worked hard and always provided for the girl who is now 19...
Words of a soldier of the culture of poverty, who at 35 is already a grandfather (his stepson has a one year old daughter!)...Unemployed and very soon unemployable, with no great skill to offer the society, and his health failing. (Even though he has type 2 Diabetes which affects adults, he has had this diabetes since he was 19 years old and is already beginning to show signs of complications such as early blindness!)…he has already created directly or indirectly another generation to carry on this legacy of poverty... Money, Job will not carry him out of the hole he has dug in the society, the very same society which discriminated against him and he is paying it back by becoming a burden and creating another generation of burden... and he will have the greatest revenge… by dying early... to hit this competitive society where the material production is most valued, he dies and deprives the society of its investment on him, whatever little it was. He will not pay them back and even in his death, he will continue to demand payments for those he had created…
I felt immensely sad. A life without hope. A darkness. And this in the richest country, he has become the measurement of the crimes the society as committed: dropping out of school, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, early death.
“Society prepares the crime, wrote Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian statistician, in 1835, and the guilty person is only the instrument.”
So I present to you, the instrument of the Culture of Poverty.