Gauging poverty from Appalachia to Africa
A Monitor correspondent, who grew up in West Virginia, discusses the poverty she's seen firsthand while working as a journalist in Africa.
When New Yorkers find out I grew up in West Virginia, they often ask if I've read "The Glass Castle." Jeannette Walls's memoir, on The New York Times bestseller list for an absurd 288 weeks now, is about growing up poor. At one point she lived in Welch, W.Va., where her house leaks and freezes, where she makes her lunch out of sandwiches kids throw away in the bathroom at school – and some days that's all she eats.Skip to next paragraph
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It's only one woman's story, but it reinforces Appalachian poverty stereotypes that much of the rest of the country accepts as truths.
I've seen that happen elsewhere. As a reporter, I've spent a lot of time in parts of Africa, a continent most Westerners think of, first and foremost, as poor. In Africa, as in my home state, what's missing is often the easiest thing for outsiders to see. In the rural African communities, floors are made of dirt, roofs of grass. In some communities, girls pound the rice their families will eat. In others, women strap babies to their backs and hoe potatoes and cassava. What you eat and what you sell come from the same fields, and they compete; children in crop-rich but cash-strapped families may be malnourished because most of their harvest goes to market.
Westerners see this as poverty, and measure it in economic terms. The World Bank says anyone living on less than $2 a day is in "extreme poverty." The United Nations keeps a list of "least developed countries," which it classifies based on an income measure, the "human assets index," and the "economic vulnerability index." There's even an index for just how poor "poor" is in any given country, a way of measuring what's missing in one country, relative to other countries.
When a Rwandan friend of mine, Damas, told me about his visit to a township in Cape Town, South Africa, he spoke with compassion and concern. Officially, South Africa is richer than Rwanda and more economically developed. Damas, from rural Rwanda, was a child during the genocide that killed his entire family. He grew up with nearly nothing – in a country with little more – to become a doctor. He still marvels at the unlikelihood of that.
"Ask kids in the village what they want to be when they grow up, and it will be a torture," he says. "[The mind] is a blank. When we were kids, we'd say 'a teacher' because we see that he drinks banana wine and he sometimes wears shoes" – signs of wealth, relatively speaking.
But the South African townships showed him something different. "People there, they live in a box," he says. "You can see that there is no way for them. The system is locked." In his country, by contrast, "yes, people lack. But there is no class of 'cannot.' "
There is, Damas was trying to say, something different than a poverty of goods. There is poverty of opportunity, which can become poverty of imagination. No annual statistics exist for that.
Policymakers and politicians have created a numerical vocabulary for what people lack. That's useful; numbers tell the public things it needs to know and let all of us measure change – progress, or its opposite – from year to year.