10 February 2007

Poverty, American-style

This old article got me in trouble with the left-leaning at law school. (Nota bene: I'm not the materialist I come across as below; it's called being provocative to prove a point.)


I was 12,000 feet up in the Andes. The view was stunning, the air crisp, and I had just finished retching from having downed some bad pork. A group of us had arrived in Ecuador that morning, winding through five hours of dusty, unpaved road before reaching Secao, a pinprick of a town nestled in the mountains. On the way we had stopped at the local roadside bar and grill. The daily special, as it was every day, was pig carcass, slung head down from the roof beams. We paid, they carved--instant dyspepsia. In Secao, we would spend a week living among the Quechua natives, helping to construct their new church building.

All the school-aged girls crowded around with cheeks cracked and raw from the cold. We were told to refrain from too much affection, as they had lice. I let the giggling kids pile onto my lap anyway. During the day, we would lug concrete blocks several feet at a time, stop to wheeze, proceed a few more feet, then wheeze again. Proudly conveying our burden, we would arrive at the site only to find we were outdone.

The natives are a hardy folk--we witnessed one woman five months pregnant out each day slopping on cement and stacking bricks. At night, in 40 degree weather, Quechuans from all over the hillside walked three miles barefoot to attend church with us. Others were shod in what we fondly termed "jellies"--clear, plastic sandals in colors like fluorescent pink and lime. When church finished three hours later, they trekked back with only starlight--and glowing jellies--to guide them.

When I flew back to the States, lice-free, I can't say I ever saw things quite the same again. I've made trips to other third-world countries since, and I must say, all things being equal, that of all the places I would choose to be poor, it would be right here in the United States.

The fact is the poor here are doing remarkably better in material terms than the poor elsewhere. The National Center for Policy Analysis lists a slew of statistics guaranteed to surprise. The lowest 20 percent of the income bracket spent approximately $13,957 in 1993 while their earned income averaged only $6,395. The fact that these families are paying $7,000 more than they earn can be chalked up to non-income related benefits, like public housing and food stamps. As housing and food comprise some of the largest household expenditures, a portion of the poor are actually better off than reports reveal. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Commerce's Census Bureau Report of 1992 revealed that 92.2 percent of the poor own color televisions, 60 percent own microwaves and 41 percent own homes. Of these, 70 percent are free and clear of pesky mortgages the rest of us have to deal with. Not bad.

Europeans are right to be jealous. More of our poor own VCRs than all non-poor in Europe, excluding the United Kingdom--which means Blockbuster would be wise to limit property investments to primarily English-speaking countries. Compared to non-poor in the Netherlands, Italy, and Great Britain combined, American poor own more dishwashers. Even the well-off in Europe own fewer microwaves than our poor here. America, quite frankly, is wealthy. And we share the wealth, despite what angst-ridden socialists might say.

There is also much mention of the widening gap between rich and poor. Could someone please tell me precisely what the appropriate gap should be? Larry Elder, in his book "Ten Things You Can't Say in America," makes the point that if gap measurement were more accurately attuned to the exorbitant taxes imposed on the rich and the non-cash benefits enjoyed by the poor, it would be considerably reduced.

It actually took two years living in a non-third-world country to make me realize how well off I have it here. We expect to be shocked by the third world. We've all seen the World Vision infomercials; we know the lowdown. But an extended stay in Europe, of all places, turned me from blasé anti-American college student to patriotic poster girl. Apparently, the worst thing to be in England is American. Some of my patriotism is due to having been on the constant defensive from attack after attack on the country I call my own. But, more relevant, I noticed that a place as bejeweled as England conspicuously lacks many of the material goods we enjoy here. The same can be said for the rest of Europe. It might be the case that our overabundance adds to our international reputation as free-market-loving materialists. But that is the wonderful thing about America. As long as we keep it legal, we are free, free, free to be hogs.