Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Poverty Analysis

Since posting yesterday, I’ve been thinking more about poverty and stereotypes.

My recent thoughts remind me of a conversation I had a couple years ago with a Latino friend.  His family immigrated to Canada on refugee status when he was a child.

When I first saw his family’s house – 10 years after they had immigrated – it shocked me how expensive their stuff was: huge flat screen TVs, expensive furniture sets, crystal glassware.  Weren’t they supposed to be refugees?  I thought they sent most of their money to relatives back home.

In contrast, my middle class family has old furniture and cracked plates.  I’ve been living on my own for over 6 years now and only a marginal amount would be considered “nice.”

My friend from Latin America told me I have a flippant attitude towards money because I’ve always had it.  He said that if I’d been poor, I’d understand what real want is: I would have grown up jealous of all the things I couldn’t have and wanted to buy it as soon as I could.

I don’t think his interpretation is right.

Someone else told me that you only get rich by being selfish. 

Maybe I have a rich mentality and enjoy hoarding my wealth in the bank.

I don’t think that’s right either.

Both of these two theories are broad simplifications.  My own analysis is also a sweeping generalization.

I argue that consumerism goes much deeper than natural human greed – a concept I don’t believe in.  I think greed is a societal value taught to us because the world’s influential individuals want the majority to associate wealth with power and happiness.

The powerful also recognize the inherent inequalities in the way the world currently functions.  It amazes me that so few people can hold so much power.  Why haven’t the masses banded together to create an alternative to neoliberal capitalism?

Why would we?  Most of us have vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

We’ve been taught to value wealth and possessions.  If we focus our energy into acquiring more stuff, we’ll have less energy to imagine other definitions of happiness.  When you work 8-10 hours/day so you can keep up with your neighbours, are you going to spend your spare time contemplating new economic systems?

Furthermore, if you’ve worked hard for the life you have, are you going to jeopardize it by opposing the system that gave to you? 

If we consider a cynical approach to De Soto’s theories regarding slum dwellers and titling, we see that extending property rights to slum dwellers may give them a political voice, but it also gives them a reason to support the status quo.  (More info here: https://rebuildingfoundationsblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/slum-housing-101/)

So why does Joburg’s poor spend their hard-earned money on expensive furniture and fancy electronics?  Well, what else are they supposed to spend their money on?  What other alternatives are available to them?

As usual, my views lean heavily on structuralism.  I welcome any other interpretations.  As you can probably tell, I’m still trying to make sense of these issues.

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One thought on “Poverty Analysis

  1. This post deserves a Pulitzer Prize.

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