Reflections on relative poverty in North America and Africa

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : December 22, 2005

Check out this fascinating article about 3rd World versus American poverty. Poverty is a complex issue, and the Church needs to understand its complexities.  This article helps put things into perspective.  The article compares the lives of 2 men: Mr. Banks, who is Appalachian  "trailer trash" and Dr. Kabamba who is a well-to-do surgeon in Congo. Here’s some snippets, followed by my own thoughts:

Dr Kabamba earns enough to feed his children, but not as well as he
would like. The family eats meat about twice a month; Dr Kabamba calls
it “a great luxury”. In America, poor children eat more meat than the
well-to-do. In fact, they get twice as much protein as their government
says is good for them, which is why the Wal-Mart near Mr Banks sells
such enormous jeans.

“Poverty” describes two quite different phenomena: utter penury, of
the sort experienced by the billion or so souls who subsist on $1 a day
or less; and the situation of people in rich countries who are less
well off than their compatriots.

For the first group, finding enough to eat is a daily struggle, and
a $2-a-day job hand-washing mineral ore in a river is a lucky break.
Shortly before meeting Dr Kabamba, your correspondent interviewed a
group of Congolese ore-washers who were delighted to have found such
lucrative work…

…All one can say is that whereas the poor in Kinshasa [in Congo] complain about
the price of bread, the poor in Kentucky complain about the price of
motor insurance. Fair enough-they need to drive to work.

Granted, the poor in America do not starve. But their relative
poverty can hurt in other ways. To be poor in a meritocracy implies
failure. Eastern Kentucky is one of America’s least meritocratic
enclaves, but failure still carries a stigma. Though few Americans say
that the poor have only themselves to blame, many believe it. Many of
the poor believe it, too.

For a Congolese peasant, there is no shame in living in a hut made
of sticks. Everyone you know does too. In America, by contrast, the
term “trailer” denotes more than a mobile home, and the people who live
in one know it. They are also acutely aware of how richer folk live,
because they watch so much television. A typical poor household in
America has two televisions, cable or satellite reception and a VCR or a DVD player.

Dr Kabamba, though hard up, enjoys the respect that doctors receive
in all societies. Perhaps more, for people can see that he does an
essential job under the toughest of conditions. That his hospital still
functions despite years of war, corruption, economic decline and the
occasional “grand pillage” by unpaid soldiers is, he sighs,
“almost a miracle”. His compatriots might add that it is almost a
miracle that Dr Kabamba, whose skills would allow him to emigrate, has
chosen not to.

Those who know Dr Kabamba treat him with deference. When your
correspondent was detained by the police outside his hospital, for the
crime of appearing to possess a wallet, one telephone call to the
doctor was enough to fix the problem. The officers even apologised…

As somone who spent his late childhood well below the poverty level, I have to say that I have always been over-fed, comfortable, and highly entertained.  Most of the poor in this country could say the same.  However, there is a sense of shame attached to being poor that those who are Middle Class will simply never understand.  I am white, but I would wonder if the same couldn’t be said for being a minority–that there is a constant awareness (even if it is false) that others think less of you.  I always felt like I either needed to be invisible or I had to fight.  There simply wasn’t much room to feel comfortable with myself.  And yes, most of it was probably in my head.  THis isn’t to say that I was worse off than a Congolese doctor.  It is to say that poverty carries many different problems with it.  I for one would rather be respected and have less than be disrespected and have more. 

Why do I bring this article to your attention? I think we need to think about how we, the Church, respond to poverty.  First of all, if we give to charity mostly to alleviate the physical suffering that poverty causes, it is probably best to send those resources overseas through World Vision (which I strongly encourage you to do).  But often, when we serve the poor in this country, we assume that if we give them stuff, we’re serving their greatest needs.  Actually, when we give them our stuff, it sometimes can make things worse.  When someone who already suspects that others look down upon them are given gifts and treated, as is often the case, condescendingly, it confirms their suspicion.  This article shows us that the poor in America need respect more than they need goods.  And I for one, as someone who still bears the inner wounds of being considered white trash, would agree.  We, the church, need to offer friendship as well as charity.  We need to offer respect along with our gifts. 

for further reading . . .

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5 Responses to “Reflections on relative poverty in North America and Africa”

  1. Rich on December 22nd, 2005 1:01 pm

    Wonderful post. I too grew up in poverty here in the US. East Tennessee, single mom, living in a trailer. Like you state here, there was always a feeling of failure and being looked down on. Even now, with 4 children I think I am still technically on the poverty line. But we make out fine. I think many would see me as being a failure. You make some good points and create some good things to be thinking about.

  2. Chris B. on December 22nd, 2005 1:52 pm

    This is a really great post, Mark. It gets at the essential nature of poverty as a comparative measure. Poverty is always measured in terms of what one person or group lacks compared to another. It would be even more interesting to see a comparison of both Mr. Banks and Dr. Kambamba with the life of a medieval European serf. A Congolesse peasant probably has something over a medieval serf that makes his poverty considerably less poor: property and a measure of personal liberty. Not only is poverty a comparative issue cross-culturally, it is a comparative issue through generations of history.

  3. Daniel on December 25th, 2005 8:35 am

    Thanks for this. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about poverty in the US since we moved into the city. My thoughts had been on the track of educating to empower. I think the being seen as a failure part of it has been a blindspot to me.

  4. Keith on December 30th, 2005 6:29 am

    Thanks for your thought-provoking writing here and throughout the year.

    god bless you and lead you on your walk with him in 2006!

  5. Pastor Jesuspadam on May 16th, 2006 5:12 am

    pentecostal { full gospel}
    Dear Beloved
    Greetings and warm wishes to you in the precious name of our lord Jesus Christ.
    It is my privilege to share these few lines with you. For your kind information I am Pastor , kancharla Jesus padam ,a resident of ponnur, I have been continuing in His service for proclaiming the Lords fame
    My wittness
    After blessing with two children , We prayed for no children ,as my wife became physically weak . After seven years passed, we have prayed for a Male child along with our friends .God heard our prayer and given reply to our prayers with blessing son Daniel on 05th Jan.1983. Again we prayed for a male child. The Lord spoke with us that He is gifting a boy for us and ordered to put his name Job. When the first boy was at 5 years old. The Lord ordered to put his name Daniel. After that I have prayed Lord for my poor living .In my vision I have seen Abraham was distributing his property to his children. I also stood before in the line Abraham gave me some amount gold, which was shinning has a flash. The Lord said in our prayers that a third boy will be born. We put his name Israel. We have all five children two female and three male.
    When I was praying in the year 1982, without sons the Lord called me in names of Jesus padam ,Daniel , Job and Israel. I was astonished while I could not understand about the call of Lord and explained this with my wife. Now I was calling my children with their names I understood.We are all dedicated to do His service
    After my Baptism, When I was praying in fasting in the church prayers the Lord showed His vision, standing before me. When the Lord asked Satan whom requiring, Satan chosen me as its choice. From that time the disturbances and temptation started in my life. As a result the Satan tempted me from 1978 to 2005 living with one pair of dress for a period of three years and suffered like anything for financial cresis, debts with high rate of intersts. At this time the satan offered me with lakhs of amount, but I blindly rejected. Then Satan uttered the Lord will never give money to me with any kind gift. I was tempted and suffered due to lack of food and clothing and ill-health
    At the age of 18 years, in my student life I have asked the Lord to show my wife. In my vision the Lord showed a shape with lean body and ugly physic. Then I was distressed like any thing. This vision has been fulfilled 1978 to Repalle and we are tempted by the Devil .We are still living in Lord by faith as the evidence.
    When I was praying in 1982 due to the problems of debts and ill-health. I have seen bright light in my vision. In this vision , there was word Rev. 3:10 on the board . when I wake up and read verse ,I praised Lord for having spoken the Lord with me through vision. I feel much joy & happyness Again in 1984 when praying in tears, I could find the sky opened and a soul lifted down from the Heaven. That Lord before me and expressed to read pslms.92:12 and it lifted to the Heaven . I wake up and read the ward .The Lord has spoken with me again through the Word Jer.1:5. Praise the Lord. In this way many vissions has given to us
    We are regularly working to distrabute theGospel in different ways.
    1 to preach he Gospel ,public meetings ,siminars and fasting prayers for the sick
    2 Distrabute the NewTestaments and Tracts.
    3 Video & Audio films in rural Areas.
    Our vission— To makes Gods victorious army strong
    We have need building construction at ponnur
    we have no permanent church and we are conducting the worship in a rented house, we are praying for a church to be built for 200 people . we are requesting you to kindly pray for our need. We have 10 CENTS of place available and we can build the church in that place .
    Our need - the church buildlng at ponnur { $ 5000}
    2 Films Project
    3 Jeep {or} Van for distrabute the Gospel in Rural and Forest Areas {or}
    Please pass our best regards to all who are with you.
    Your brother in Christ
    Pastor Jesuspadam phone —08643 243053
    ponnur near RTC depot guntur dist AP India

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