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Post-Brunch Intelligencer

Midmorning ramblings on the state of the species

Poverty comes out of hiding

Posted by Nath at 7:31 AM
The other day I came across this article by Newsweek's Jonathan Alter about "why part of the richest country on earth looks like the Third World" (man, I hate that term). According to some study whose source I haven't bothered to look up, upto 37 million poor people live in the US – about 13 percent of the population.

Skimming the article, I found something of interest on the third page. On Delores Ellis, one of New Orleans' poor, Alter writes, "Before the storm, she did own a stereo, refrigerator, washer and dryer, two color TVs and a 1992 Chevy Lumina with more than 100,000 miles on it." Apparently, Mr. Alter and I have somewhat different definitions of the word 'poor'. See, I've always thought that if you own any electrical appliance larger than a toaster, you're at least in the lower middle class.

In Alter's defence, he only brought that up to make the point that people "spend on consumer goods beyond their means". But the fact remains that being poor in Louisiana is a whole different thing from being poor in Tamil Nadu.

I live in a University town in the U.S. I see poor people pretty often. I can only tell they're poor because they're sitting on the sidewalk outside fast food places asking for money "to buy a sandwich". Now, I sympathise; I've never been in a position where I had to depend on strangers' whims to get some lunch. If I was, however, I doubt I'd be spending five precious dollars (I was going to write 'hard-earned', but...) on a number three with cheese. Five dollars can go a long way. Just down the road from the sandwicheries they frequent is a Walgreens, selling a loaf of white bread for 79 cents.

Obviously, I'm not claiming that this is a universal thing. Most of the poor I've seen here were hard at work, striving to improve their lots (or at least to buy that second TV). Nor is this phenomenon restricted to the U.S. – I've seen comfortably-off pseudobeggars on three continents. (I assume they exist on most of the others, too, but I can't claim to have verified this personally.) My point is simply that poverty is a relative thing, and that desperation is more a function of attitude than income.



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