The first time I visited a country where real poverty existed, as opposed to the comparative poverty that can still be found in many developed countries, it was a strange experience; as though I was the only one there who was conscious of it. That was because everyone in the vicinity, and everyone they came into contact with on a regular basis was in the same predicament; and although their lives were hard, they seemed reasonably content. In that country, at least the basic needs of the people were provided for at a rudimentary level. No one starved, although the food was simple and lacked variety. Everyone had shelter, although cramped and lacking in amenities by any standard I had experienced. Basic, albeit primitive, healthcare was available to all. And the children went to school, at least for a little while. They didn’t think of themselves as poor because they weren’t constantly reminded of how poor they were; and this made me feel guilty as I walked among them, inadvertently flaunting my wealth, wearing shoes that would have cost six months of their annual income; carrying cameras that were worth more than one of their tiny houses. But they didn’t seem bothered by this. They were openhearted, friendly and generous people. They laughed a lot; mostly at me. But I didn’t mind that. I’d much rather be laughed at in their happy, inclusive way than be ignored. Their poverty had been a shock to me, at first. But it was just another day in their lives to them.
But the second country in which I saw real poverty was a very different story. Here, the poorest of the poor lived within sight of the obscenely rich. They had nothing. They sheltered under cardboard beneath motorway flyovers. The only clothes they appeared to own were those they were standing in; filthy rags covering equally filthy bodies. Even the air they breathed was robbed of oxygen and replaced with exhaust fumes and thick clouds of diesel smoke from the clapped-out trucks and busses that growled and wheezed past their encampment. None of them had jobs. All they had to offer was their labour and they were too emaciated to be of much use to anyone. They had no hope. But they were still there.
In other parts of the city you could find a better class of beggar. Some would even try to salvage a modicum of dignity by offering something in return for the alms they solicited: a near-dead flower, scavenged from a near-by garbage bin; or pathetic garlands woven from limp, lifeless daisies. But the kids who raked through the mountains of refuse in the city dump were better off than they. And on the next rung of the socio-economic ladder were the walking vendors who’d work the intersections selling to trapped motorists all manner of portable goods from cigarettes to newspapers, wash-cloths to matches and disposable lighters, feather dusters and fans, soft drinks and snacks, et cetera, et cetera. And when the traffic ground to a halt the vendors and beggars would pounce, spreading among the cars like an army of locusts. And inside the car, my young son would stare out at children his own age, ragged, grimy, forlorn, a hand stretched out, palm up, tapping gently on the windscreen; and he’d turn and look at me as if to ask, “What do I do, Dad?” And I didn’t know what to tell him because I didn’t know, myself, what to do. I was one of the lucky ones. Not rich, but comfortable, growing up in a society where this direst kind of need was rarely, if ever, seen.
This was a country that seemed incapable of solving its problems of poverty; or perhaps unwilling to. This was a country of four classes: the super-rich, the middle-class; the beggars and the criminals. And over the years that I visited this country, I did see demographic change. As time went on, the super-rich seemed to find it increasingly challenging to maintain their margin of advantage because the middle-class was growing, driven by a desire to emulate the super-rich. The middle-class began to develop its own hierarchy. And as the upper reaches of the middle-class began to accumulate some modest wealth, the criminal class adjusted its focus to target them. The pickings might have been less but so was the risk of being caught. The middle-classes could not yet afford their own security.
The middle-class created new markets for the super-rich but they also encroached into the wealth pool, putting pressure on the rich to diversify and to move money off-shore where there were other poor countries to exploit. The economic seesaw was tipping; but the rich had money and experience on their side and they weren’t going to give up without a fight. The middle-class demanded higher wages, charged higher prices; but the rich knew how to make money work for them and they were always going to be ahead of the game. And through all this change, the number of beggars on the streets never seemed to diminish. They had no money to spend so they were of no value to anyone.
The quandary for the individual in these circumstances is whether or not to succumb to the pleadings of the beggars and momentarily ease their misery, at the cost perhaps of alleviating the government of the burden of care. Do you give the man a fish, while teaching him to fish? If so, where is the incentive to learn? And why bestow favour on that one beggar when there are so many others in similar plight? And there is always the thought that the beggar who provokes sympathy is in the employ of a criminal who will not settle for the few coins you might dispense. There are no easy answers; but I’m pretty sure if I were hungry, I’d rather have food than philosophy.