February 27th, 2020

Two kinds of poverty

There's no shame in being poor. Many poor people never really had a chance to live any other kind of life. Contrary to what many people insist so that they can feel better about themselves, it's not true that everyone has a chance at "success", which is a concept not really defined anyway, but which people usually simply think of as meaning "to have a lot of money". There are people who are poor due to their own actions: Perhaps they once had money but squandered it wastefully or carelessly, or perhaps they had opportunities in life which they didn't take advantage of for whatever reason, but if there is any shame in such lives, it's not because of the poverty itself, but rather because of how people came into (or remained in) that poverty when they had a personal chance to do something more with their lives.

Then again, many people would say that if people didn't want to become rich, if they are happy being poor and feel no need to be anything else, then that's their life and they should be allowed to live their life however they want to. You may or may not agree; personally, I don't fully agree because it simply isn't true that people's lives don't affect other people's lives. Particularly in economic matters, every person's actions affect every other person's life, and people choosing to be poor does have an economic impact on the lives of other people, but that's a different matter. People are poor for a variety of reasons, and there is sometimes a fairly complex set of circumstances and personal decisions which go into the process whereby human beings descend into and remain in poverty.

On that note, I think it's useful to distinguish between two kinds of poverty. As I describe these two kinds of poverty, it's perhaps worth keeping in mind that what I am about to describe is not necessarily two distinct types which are mutually exclusive, but rather something more like two poles of a continuum upon which you could find people who live in many intermediate states. There aren't just two kinds of poverty, of course, but I wanted to take a moment to focus on one distinction which tends to prominently stand out to my eyes when I travel through the world. Having travelled through most of Europe now, there are a few patterns that I've noticed, and it may be to some degree enlightening to other people for me to share my personal observations and intuitions with others.

Very broadly, one might designate the two kinds of poverty I'm about to describe as "self-made poverty" and "unavoidable poverty". A more judgmental way of phrasing the distinction might be something like "shameful poverty" and "noble poverty", but I think the distinction is already clear: I'm talking about the difference between a poverty that is created or sustained through people's own neglect, laziness, and carelessness, and a poverty which people could not avoid but which they try to make the best of using what they have.

There are many places where people are poor, but live well despite this. Particularly if people live in tight-knit families, it is possible for the family members to support each other. In many low-income countries, people's quality of life is much better than you might think given the economic situation, because in most such places, people already have their own house, meaning they don't need to pay rent, which is usually one of the biggest costs of living for people in North America and Western Europe. The only real living expense, then, is food, and particularly if people are involved in making their own food (which most people who live in low-income areas are, at least to some extent), then you don't actually need to pay that much for food, and if several people in the family work and pool their income together, they find that they can live surprisingly well on surprisingly low incomes.

It's not just about families supporting each other, though. Even if someone lives alone, what they do with what they have says a lot about who they are. I have seen places where people are obviously poor, but where there are no signs of urban squalor: Buildings are clean and well-maintained, garbage is appropriately disposed of, and people spend their time productively, thoughtfully, and soberly. This is, of course, in contrast to a place where buildings are visibly dirty and falling apart, trash is simply thrown into the street or the gutter, and people spend their time drinking alcohol, having pointless conversations, and making a lot of noise to amuse themselves.

Clearly, the latter type of behavior is a self-sustaining cycle: If someone is poor and spends most of their time and money on alcohol and other types of entertainment, their poverty perpetuates itself because they have no way to get out of that poverty loop without changing their lifestyle. This is, of course, why people sometimes blame the poor for being poor: because of the stereotype that the poor are lazy, drug-addicted people (bearing in mind that alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine are also drugs) who are not willing to do anything to lift themselves out of their own poverty. If someone deliberately lives this way, then yes, they are perpetuating their own poverty, and that is a kind of poverty which has some shame in it, which is why I somewhat cruelly describe it as "shameful poverty".

That kind of poverty exists, of course, and it is perhaps the most prevalent or at least the most visible kind, which tends to perpetuate negative stereotypes about the poor. But I have seen places where people live in profound poverty but spend their time fixing up their houses to address things like broken windows or peeling paint, tending to home agricultural plots so that they could grow their own vegetables, and reading or teaching their children how to read. These places, although visibly poor because they lack much of the ornamentation that gives away wealth--cars, if they exist at all, are old and well-worn, women wear little or no makeup and jewelry, and houses contain simple furniture that looks like it's from a previous era of humanity--are nonetheless clean, safe, and well-educated, because people bother to invest what time and money they do have in simple things that can make their quality of life better: A can of paint isn't that expensive, and putting a new coat of paint on a wall where the old paint is peeling off goes a long way toward making a neighborhood look better-maintained and encouraging other people to similarly take care of their own homesteads. And even in very poor places, books are not that scarce or expensive, and reading classic literature and encouraging your children to do the same goes a long way toward supporting culture and society in the local community, particularly when contrasted with the effects of a society where people spend most of their time drinking in bars, playing card games with each other, and telling stupid, pointless stories to each other for amusement because they feel like they have nothing better to do.

The kind of "noble poverty" which I describe may even be a better life than being financially wealthy, because a place which has a lot of money tends to attract people who want to move in just for the money. The influx of a lot of people who only want to chase money is incredibly destructive to any geographic location, because it destroys culture and society and turns that place into a cesspool of greedy people who place money above everything else in life.

I mention this partly because of an article which I recently read indicating that a new wave of migrants is on the way to Central Europe. Currently, these migrants are being held in migrant camps in Greece and they are having difficulty moving on because Greece does not have land borders with any other Schengen countries, but one migrant who spoke with journalists declared openly: "Everyone here wants to go to Germany". The people who are desperately trying to enter Europe are not fleeing war or genocide (because if they were, they would be content to remain in Greece), but rather pursuing money, and because they think that Germany is the richest country in Europe, they make the logical decision that since Germany has the most money, that is where they should go. This kind of money-oriented thinking is destroying German culture and society, because Germany is rapidly filling up with people whose only thought is how they can get as much money as possible. It is better to live in a place which has no money but a strong sense of its own culture and society, because then it will stay that way. A noble, conscientious poverty is better than a disgusting, shameful wealth.