A New Perspective On Poverty

I suppose that first of all I should clarify the title of this post.  By “A NEW perspective…” I mean “new to me.”  For, I am quite positive that many wiser men and women have had these thoughts long before me.   

Let me introduce myself before introducing my new perspective on poverty.  I am Seth Johnson:  the quintessential middle class, white, male, American.  For the vast bulk of my life I’ve neither considered myself rich nor poor. 

There have been exceptions.  When I was a child I recall fellow parishioners bringing canned goods to the door because they were afraid we – their church neighbors down the pew - couldn’t afford to eat.  Times were so hard when I was seven years old I’m not sure how we did afford to eat, apart from God’s grace poured out through others.  Then there was the day in 1989 when Dad sat us down and told us that we couldn’t buy gifts for Christmas.  But, alas, a local church came to the rescue.  Thereby I was saved:  I cannot remember a single Christmas in which I didn’t get a gift.  And, then there were the years when I was a “poor college student” or a “poor seminarian.”  These were the years when I ate the free Zesta crackers and peanut butter pockets in the cafeteria, because I was too “frugal” to buy a meal plan.  Ramen and pasta were my diet.  But, after all, “What can beat al dente angel hair?: – no matter how much you might be able to afford.

In reality, for the most part I’ve always enjoyed a thoroughgoing middle class lifestyle.  I’ve driven Mazdas and Toyota’s (except for the one year when I drove a hand-me-down Infiniti).  I’ve neither associated with the wealthy nor those who can barely afford to eat for a day.  And, even the rare exceptions in my life have only served to prove the rule.  Yes –I’ve always fraternized with those who certainly had enough to “make it.”

Until now…

Now, I continue – by God’s generosity (imparted through the faithful donors of IAMercy) – to enjoy a “middle class” lifestyle.  I have my own room (although I share an apartment with six other people); I live next to the mall (although I walk there, instead of driving– but this is because I’m afraid to drive in Nairobi, and not because I can’t afford a jalopy); I eat meat multiple times a week (every day, in fact, with the exception of Vegetarian Chili Mondays and Moroccan Chickpea Soup Tuesdays (parenthetical note within a parenthetical note:  Yes, I’m a creature of habit)).

But, I am becoming exceedingly aware of how different (and how rich) this lifestyle is compared to what the boys I now call “sons” have previously enjoyed. 

You all know that I live with former street boys. 

But, did you know:

A street boy – if he will diligently collect recyclables – can earn between 55 cents and 110 cents / day?

And did you know that this money must all go toward food?

Caveat:  Thank God that it doesn’t have to go toward water.  Potable water, in Nairobi, can still be found for free.  That said –multiple street boys have asked me (on varying occasions) “Help me with water.”  As I walk around the mall area with water that has clearly been filtered and bottled many boys have asked for this favor.

Another caveat:  What in the world happened to all the street boys who used to hang out near the mall?   I used to encounter at least two or three on my daily walk.  Recently I see none!  I’m afraid they’ve been rounded up and thrown in jail.  This actually happened to my son, Julius, once.  He was tossed in jail for being a street kid – where they made him sing “songs of praise” to God at midnight.  They didn’t feed him either.  He remembers this as one of the singularly most difficult situations he has ever been through.  Imagine: Three days in jail, without food.  People defecate on the floor.  You have to bear the stench and the hunger.  And then, in the middle of the night, your jailers command you to sing praise songs.  The Psalms really are timeless:  “On the willows there, we hung up our lyres, for our captors there required of us songs, and our tormentors mirth.”

There is no extra money to be made – by a street boy – to be spent on things like shelter, clothing, toiletries, etc.  No – you must spend everything that you make through collecting cans and recycling them on the second most basic necessity of life:  Food.

So – around the dinner table recently I’ve intentionally begun discussing money.  I’ve asked questions like, “How much money do you think you need to live?”  “How much money do you need to make to ‘be doing alright.’  And, “How much money do you need to make to be considered ‘doing well for yourself.’

Here are some of the answers I’ve gotten:

Most of the boys consider our Caretaker (the guy who makes sure that our apartment complex is clean, etc.) – Johnson – “lucky” to be in his position.  They say, “It takes a connection to get a job like that.  There are a lot of people who would like to be a Caretaker – and they just don’t know the right people.”

I know Johnson decently well.  He’s come over for breakfast before.  And, we’ve chatted many times (I live on the ground floor –and so we frequently talk when he’s working and I’m sitting out on the balcony).  Johnson makes $110 / month.  He has a wife and two kids.  His rent is $22 / month.  He lives in Kawangware (which some consider a slum, while others do not.  When you think how awful Kibera is – it is hard to even imagine anything better being a slum).  He is worried about his Mom who has cancer.  He can’t afford to help her very much – so he asks me to pray for her health.  Management didn’t pay him on time last month.  He was in dire straits – because if he didn’t give the money due for his rent, they would gouge him by making him pay an overage of about $5.50 / day for every day that he was late.  That could be ruinous to a guy like Johnson.  If memory serves correctly, around the holidays he was attacked by robbers.  They sliced his arm up real good  - and made away with what little money he had.   Not terribly long ago, a man and his wife in our apartment complex had marital conflict.  The wife made off with some of the household items.  Johnson was the scapegoat.  The husband accused Johnson of assisting his wife in stealing the items.  After all – shouldn’t Johnson have stopped her at the gate and not allowed her to make off with his things?  Johnson was thrown in jail for multiple days for this “crime.”

Yet –the boys consider him “lucky” to be in a position that makes $110 / month.  Not all of the boys would take the job.  Brian says, “You would need to explain to management that you are NOT a guard – and therefore can’t be held liable for any thieving that happens.  And you would need to explain that you aren’t willing to work on Sundays.”  (Johnson works six days a week.  Monday through Friday he arrives at about 7 AM and leaves at about 5 or 6 PM.  He works on Saturday until 2 PM.  He isn’t supposed to have to work on Sundays.  But, because management is so pathetic when it comes to things like reliable water – he frequently has to give up at least a portion of his day off to make sure that the tenants have the basic necessities).

So – what do my boys think about how much money they need / want to make in life?

My boys – my sons – consider $220 to $330 a month to be a baseline desirable wage.  It certainly isn’t guaranteed (as can be seen by their assertion that Johnson is lucky to have his job).  But, if you make this, you could make it work…although you would need to pray a lot.

Side note:  I’ve now – many times – done the Bill Cosby routine, Monopoly money lesson with the boys.  I’ve asked, “So – how much do you think rent costs?  And how much for electricity / water?  And how much for food each month?  And how much if you have a child – and need to pay school fees?” As they see the schillings metaphorically dwindle away the common answer is something akin to “Wow – yeah – if you are only making  $220 to $330 / month you will really need to rely on God.”

My sons consider $550 / month to be a good salary.  This – to them –seems like a salary that represents someone is doing pretty well.

And – if you make $1,100 / month –then you are doing very well for yourself.  That’s a great wage.  Anything $1,100 / month and above seems to them to be a high earning.

I only have one son who seems to really believe that he can make $1,100 / month:  Dan.  When one night at dinner he voiced to the other boys that he wanted to make this amount, they laughed.  He said, “I want to become an engineer.”  They told him, basically, “You are only in the 6th grade.  You have no idea how hard it is to make it.”

How much could my sons make per day, and per month, if they went out and tried right now?  My guess – based on what they’ve told me - is that the more capable among them might be able to land a construction job paying $3.50 to $5.50 / day (that’s about $88 to $139 / month).  And it would be sporadic.  They would have to take the work as it comes.

And, the least capable among them?  They would have to pick up cans –and hope a bigger boy didn’t steal the goods from them.  And they might make $1.10 /day.  That’s about $30 / month.

So, what is my new perspective on poverty?

Basically this:  America has no idea.  The poverty line in America would be considered extraordinarily “well off “by many world-citizens (some of whom I happen to consider family).  In America, the worst-case scenario, at least for a city the size of Nairobi, is that you end up at the homeless shelter.  Nairobi could only dream of such a thing for its poorer citizens.

There is no comparison.  In fact, it seems to me, there is no such thing as a poor American citizen who inhabits a large city.  Now, don’t get me wrong –I could see how desperate poverty could exist in Appalachia.  But, not in Boston.  And, not in Roanoke.  Not in a place where there is not only potable water available for free, but also the thing for which so many street boys hustle all day:  Food.  And – when you consider that in the places where I grew up there really is no reason to sleep outside at night unless you just choose to do so – well –again – we begin to need to use different words to describe the “poor” of my home-town cities, and the “poor” of my new African world.

What’s the take-way?

Comparing the poverty of my sons with the poverty of an American in Roanoke City, VA, is like comparing my wealth with Justin Bieber’s.  It’s a laugh - and a sad one at that.  We must specify what we mean by poverty.  And it does a tremendous injustice when we use the same word to describe many lower class Americans, and perhaps Westerners in general, that we use to describe the down and out in places like Nairobi.

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