Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

Blog Action Day – Poverty

I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty for the past few weeks. I decided before I knew this year’s topic that I would participate in Blog Action Day. Last year the topic was the environment, which is a no-brainer in terms of the intersection with animal rights.

This year’s topic is Poverty, and the more I think about it, the stronger the connection I see with the more general topic of resources. That’s something that seems obvious, and perhaps simplistic, but as I thought about it I realized that to examine “resources” as an issue is to examine the entire world. Not exactly in the scope of a blog post. Or even within the scope of my abilities.

And first, what is poverty?

That is a question that I also found surprisingly complex. In the U.S., we have an income level that we declare to be the poverty line. Yet I have lived below that line, and not because of a political, activist, ethical or aesthetic stance…I lived below the poverty line because I had a crappy job with crappy pay.

Yet I was not living in poverty, as I saw it. I had an apartment, and was able to pay my rent on time every month. I was able to pay my utilities every month. I even had health insurance, despite that I didn’t have it through my job. I lived on $8 of food per week, which amazes me now to think about, but I never went hungry and neither did my dog. I was, amazingly, able to save money to move across the country. That doesn’t sound anything like poverty to me, even though I was on a very strict budget and lived on very little money.

Gas was cheap then. I was living in, as it turned out, the cheapest place I have ever lived in. (Nashville, if you’re curious.) So poverty income or not, I was doing okay. I was lucky too, because I didn’t have any big events, no health issues, no pregnancy, my landlord didn’t get foreclosed on, no car accidents, etc, that could have wiped out my savings in a heartbeat.

That was my experience at the poverty line. For me, living at that income level was precarious because though I was able to pay my bills and keep myself and my dog fed and housed, I was also very aware that I could fall off that cliff way too easily and with no notice. Getting a bag of chips from the vending machine was, after all, a luxury I almost never could justify indulging in at that time. Yet my life was luxurious in comparison to others.

Many people are supporting families on that kind of income. And then there are the situations such as of those in Bolivia, where people drink gasoline tainted water because they do not have the money to connect to the water pipes that are taking the water from their own land to be sold to the rich countries like the U.S. In the U.S. we have access to water from our own taps, yet we will often ignore it so that we can buy water from companies that knowingly prevent people in other countries from accessing water they need for life. Our convenience drives the degradation of lives elsewhere.

Or what about the people in China (and other places) who are “recycling” our used electronic parts by melting them down at great damage to their own health and the environment? Our luxuries create waste that harm others. It would be illegal to do in our own backyards what others are forced to do for lack of options.

That is what comes to mind, for me, when I think of poverty. A lack of options, forcing people into impossible situations, impossible choices. There is an unending list of other examples, many of them in our own backyards. Or perhaps only a bit further out of sight than that.

Poverty is not merely a lack of housing, to me. I remember being at a festival of some sort in Boulder, Colorado. I had been on my feet all day, and wandered into an area where there was a band playing and amphitheater type seating. A man wandered by with a backpack. The kind of backpack I traipsed around Europe in, back when I was doing a semester abroad. His was very well worn. He was well worn, wrinkled around the edges, road dust embedded into his very soul.

I talked to him for a few minutes. I can’t remember how or why the conversations started, and I can’t remember exactly what we said. I do remember that he is homeless and unemployed, and that both are by choice. He didn’t want to live a life hemmed in by rent and wages, he wanted to live a life that he felt gave him freedom. It was a risky choice, sure, but it was his choice.

That’s an important aspect to consider. The key point is by choice, because it actually highlights several issues.

If someone chooses to live without a permanent address, society sees that as a problem, but why? That’s a recent aspect to society, when you think about it. Only people who are rooted somewhere are seen as legitimate. Those who would choose to not have a residence are discouraged in specific ways that end up impacting everyone.

Water is severely restricted. Potable water, at least. Public lands are restricted as well. Public, they might be, but there are rules as to how long we can sit on benches, whether we can sleep on a piece of grass, or whether we can do something like grow strawberries on land that we do not own. Who makes these decisions? What kind of of society is this where growing strawberries on our public land is illegal? Why is potable water a privilege? We’re not living on Dune, after all.

So it isn’t really the resources that are the issue, so much as the access to them. We, as a society, have made basic requirements of life a privilege. Why?

This is taken further elsewhere. Companies based in this country, go to other countries where people have little to spare, and they will find ways to trick people into giving up what little they have, and even what they don’t have.

Nestle is one example. Nestle will go to countries in Africa and convince new mothers that there is something lacking in a mother’s milk. These new mothers are given formula, for free at first, and by the time they realize that they can’t afford to purchase the formula, their milk has dried up, and they’re left with little choice other than to use resources they don’t have to purchase milk. Unethical and perverted, companies like Nestle perform a double-whammy of exploitation. The cows have their entire lives controlled, including their reproduction, so that this milk can be stolen from them and their babies, in order that it can be used to steal milk from other women and their babies.

Sick.

This entrenches the poverty of these families in Africa that are tricked by the snake oil salesmen of Nestle.

Control and exploitation. Control of resources to further exploitation and expand the profits of the corporations.

This is the same pattern we see repeated over and over.

Control of resources is where it seems to start. The same pattern applies to the exploitation of animals. Control their resources, control their reproduction, control how they live and when they die.

The location of these animal exploiters is telling also. No one wants this in their backyards, so they are forced on communities without the economic and political power to block them. The resulting environmental and economic degradation of the area creates a backlash that degrades the local society as well. The pattern repeats, entrenching poverty, pushing people closer to that precarious line. And not by choice.

Groups that seek to alleviate some of the symptoms to meet the immediate needs fall into two general categories that I’ve seen. Those who help without question, and those who help with controlling conditions.

Some who help with no conditions have few resources themselves. Some try to use edible food that others are throwing out, to address environmental resource issues even as they work on poverty resource issues. Food Not Bombs is one such groups.

The government harasses groups like this. Threatened by the end-run around resource control?

There is no quick and easy solution to poverty. Not in this country, not in others. The way I see it, we need to work on many levels.

We need harm reduction. This is working on the symptoms, finding ways to get food, water, shelter, and medical care to those with too little access. This is about life, it should not be about privilege.

We need to address the contributing factors, such as education, environmental degradation of economically suppressed areas, and access to fresh vegetables and other healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods. We can get bikes to people with transportation limitations so they achieve greater mobility and independence, so they have one sustainable tool for breaking out of the limits that access imposes.

Finally we need to address the root of the issue, which has elements of “society’s ills”, as in laws and atttitudes, as well as corporate greed. This one is tougher, and less clear. As expected.

I don’t have all the answers, only things that each of us can do. When we consume something, whether food or clothes or anything at all, we need to ask: is this necessary? Is this ethical? Who is this impacting? Is this a good choice?

We can donate our time and/or money to those groups whose ideals and ethics match our own. There are so many things we can do.

I saw this on a coffee cup, of all places, attributed to Tom Brokaw:

It will do us little good to wire the world if we short-circuit our souls. There is no delete button for racism, poverty or sectarian violence. No keystroke can ever clean the air, save a river, preserve a forest. This transformational new technology must be an extension of our own hearts as well as of our minds. The old rules still apply. Love your mother – Mother Earth.

I just spent a couple days at an expensive Web Design conference held at an expensive hotel where we were given stuff, free food, unending supplies of snacks and various drinks, and even an iPod Touch to one lucky person. It was the antithesis of poverty in many ways, yet at the same time there was an underlying theme: Think Of Others.

And it was actually meant on several levels, not just the superficial one, which would be “think of the end user/customer” which is not that different from “think of the money.”

One of the last speakers talked about William Morris. Who is he, you are likely thinking. I had no idea, myself. He was essentially the Father of the Arts and Crafts movement. He was someone who valued the work of others, even the tedious work that he himself did not like to do. He did it all, ast least once, to make sure he understood and valued what he’d hire others to do. It was part of his ethic.

What drove him was a desire to make the world a better place. The details matter. What we do, matters. How we do it matters. Beauty matters. Ostentatious displays of wealth do not.

This struck many chords for me.

What we do matters. What we do impacts others. Choosing bottled water degrades the environment and gives greedy corporations incentive to steal water from people whose land contains it. Choosing to eat animal products causes death and suffering to those animals, and entrenches poverty and violence and environmental degradation in the communities who are forced to house those companies profiting from the exploitation.

What we do matters.

Choose with a conscience. Take action. Change the world.

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6 responses to “Blog Action Day – Poverty

  1. rich October 15, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    Thanks for tying in so many of the issues into one thought provoking post. I do a lot of work with two local Food Not Bombs groups. One is harassed and the other left alone at this point.
    But clearly to me is the government has an interest in keeping people down. There needs to be an underbelly of abject poverty in order to make the working poor realize they could have it worse. If you are happy to have a roof over your head,minimal food to eat, you are one step ahead of someone else and you will work for what they offer you.
    Until we realize this and the people decide to change it we’ll never see change. Groups like Food Not Bombs, Rock Dove (a NYC based health care collective), Justfoods, and other grassroots collectives empower people to not need the government the cycle will continue. But if these groups make a difference maybe the masses will force the government to change.
    Once again thanks for the thoughtful post, it got my wheels spinning.

  2. Deb October 16, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    Rich, I’m glad you got something out of it! I’ve been really impressed/inspired by your work with FNB. I have often thought about how I’d like to help out with a local group, but I have heard mixed information on whether there is one active. I had never heard of JustFoods. I’ll have to look them up. And if nothing else, the infoshop might be a good place for me to start to see if I can get people together to do stuff.

    I really like what RockDove is about as well. You said it so well about these groups empowering people. If we wait for the government to make the changes, we’ll wait forever, and people need assistance and change now.

    Reminds me of ani “the system gives you just enough to make you think you see change…”

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