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.
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.
But we're less successful at understanding how people value what they do have. No statistic shows that the young male student who worked as my translator in Burundi always looked better than I did, in business dress and polished shoes, though he was technically homeless. There's no data that describes the song the girls were singing in Liberia as they prepared their family's rice, winding a melody around their percussive pounding. No survey measures how many meals a family shares with visiting Western journalists or aid workers, even though a mother might not know as she cooks for us what she'll feed her children tomorrow.
There's also no formula that accounts for advantages – and costs – of community in places that get defined by the material goods they lack. Uncles send nephews to school when a child's own parents can't pay; nephews, once duly educated, send cousins. There's a network of community obligation as real as any debt Americans have to credit-card companies. That is, in turn, a network of community support.
For people raised in those communities, there's much they notice missing here in the United States. Another Rwandan friend spent the summer with me in New York City. She was stunned to see that women here take their children everywhere. Back in Rwanda, she said, you'd leave a child at home, because there would always be someone there – an auntie, a friend, or trusted house help – and it would be far easier not to cart a kid along for errands.
The trouble with poverty is that the word is about what's missing. Most of us don't dwell on what we lack. People's lives – in Burundi or Sierra Leone or Zambia, and in America – are about what they have. That's easier for me to see in Wheeling, W.Va., because I remember what our town had – that the aqua-colored storefront on Main Street is where most of my classmates bought their prom dresses, and that our tallest office building was Stone and Thomas, regional department store and 150-year-old institution, and also where my dad worked. To you, those buildings would just look vacant, evidence of Appalachian poverty you expect to see.
I also know what our town has: one of America's biggest city parks, a vibrant local theater scene, an active fine arts center, its own symphony orchestra. So the stereotype is a sore point back home. As in places I've worked in Africa, the reputation makes it hard to expand the economy and employ the locals. One governor, in what seemed to many of us a desperate attempt to overcome the poverty stereotype, changed our state slogan from the beloved "Wild, Wonderful West Virginia" to the pleading "West Virginia – Open for business."
When I called my mother to say I was coming home to work on this week's cover story (see page 26), she warned: "We don't really have poverty here. You might have to go down south, like to Kentucky." She meant: "We don't have the kind of poverty everyone thinks we do." That's true. Ohio County, where Wheeling sits, is one of the state's most affluent. Two other things are also true: "That kind of poverty" does exist, in West Virginia and in other parts of America. And despite its wealth, Wheeling, like everywhere in America, also still has poor people, even if they don't "look poor."
Poverty is many things that numbers and studies try to measure and understand. But it's also a way of dividing the world into the people who get to label "the poor" and the people who have the label stuck to them. For those who collect the numbers, or have the debates, or write the articles, the poor are usually other people.
And that division makes it harder to see what unites us, that we're all doing the same thing – the best we can, with what we have.