Poverty, lack, enough

I meant to post this two weeks ago, but my access to internet has been spotty the last few weeks. Looking around our new location (we have moved to SE Asia) has sparked thoughts about, among other things, what is poor and what is not. I am looking at the cover photo right now of Richard Peet and Elaine Hartwick’s Theories of Development. It is a rural African scene, with the small clay-brick houses and stick-wall-and-thatch-roof homes of smallholder farmers. There are tools on the roofs, fruit trees around the homes… this field-and-tree homesteader view rolling into the distance, where it creeps one third up a mountainside, with the top two thirds of the mountain still wild-forested. The scene appears to have sufficient water, and there are harvested crops stacked and stored.

In terms of ‘material civilization,’ this scene doesn’t have a ton. It is a relatively sparse setting, in terms of the number of objects the households own. But does that make it ‘poor’? If there is sufficient water, food, shelter and clothing, is that poverty because there is less than rural Pennsylvania? (My grand parents and their parents used to say to me “we didn’t know we were ‘poor,’ everybody was.”) Or is poverty more an issue of enough, and then access to sufficient education, healthcare and opportunity to exercise one’s freedom and develop one’s life (… aka Amartya Sen)?

I have a feeling we often think ‘poor’ when looking at a material civilization without as many accumulated household goods and gadgets as is typical in the West. But I don’t think that’s accurate. My family of six came here with 12 suitcases of clothing and small personal effects (no one in their right mind goes across the world without their favorite fishing reels!) We then bought some furniture, an iron, some cooking and eating implements, and mosquito nets. Our new home (palatial as it is!) seems more than adequately outfitted. I now am wondering, aside from my books, why we shipped 200 cubic feet of household items and fun stuff. The families around us have far fewer material possessions than people accumulate in America, yet they do not seem poor at all. Alongside Sen, I wonder if our impressions and measurements of ‘poverty’ and ‘lack’ are often skewed toward material possessions that are not actually the determining indicators.

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