The Concept of Poverty: Abstractions and Voids
by B.J. Delas Armas
on 10/15/2008 05:52:00 PM
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...Has driven my political and spiritual leanings since high school.
Maybe it was also my mom's do-gooderness, my high school's "Man for Others" philosophy (a Catholic school near downtown Los Angeles), but I just couldn't imagine why this wasn't a big deal for people or people in power. I couldn't imagine why poverty, homelessness was not that big a deal. It was like people didn't know it existed, when it was right there.
Downtown Los Angeles, around my school, and just about anywhere we went, there were people panhandling. And after a while, it's normal to build an immunity to giving any change at all to anyone.
Every Thanksgiving or Christmas season, I've imagined myself without the luxuries that I have and still do enjoy. I find myself asking the internal ego: what would I be without my education, my computers, my parents? How would I deal with the battle for food from the garbage? How would I walk 6 miles a day to fetch clean water?
When I say I "imagined myself", I actually can't, so the best I could do is sit on my thumbs and feel bad. Or sometimes go down to Skid Row. Or sometimes offer change to a homeless guy. Pretty randomly distributing my funds at that, sometimes not at all depending on my mood and the context.
What do I know about poverty, other than I don't want it to happen to others, I feel bad for people who can be considered in it, and I do not want it to happen to me?
I was an AmeriCorps VISTA in orientation when we had this discussion about the concept of poverty.
Poverty is in my estimation a combination of not having resources, not having support systems, and not enough money. It's a socally determined condition, which means it was created by us, which in theory means it could be resolved by us.
Historically located, the concept seems to be one outcome of the field of statistics.
Poverty the concept is a tool that serves as a reminder for the local, state, national, and global level that there are a chunk of people who do not have resources. It's a tool that helps us think about social ecology. It brings us awareness via numbers that people are not doing well.
To the casual observer, they are people who try to make the ends meet, as if they were trying to bend a steel bar to meet one end to another. They are people who do not have means, which means in this society that they lack money. Consequently, with a lack of money, they do not speak a language of repetitive acquistion that can connect us from "us" to "them".
There's a scene in Rush Hour 2 where Chris Tucker's police character is in Hong Kong in a taxi. Chris Tucker orders the driver to follow a limo, but the driver apparently doesn't speak any English. In a hurry to follow a car, Chris drops a bunch of cash on the driver, to which the taxi driver replies in English "Now You're speaking my language."
In a somewhat similar, yet less humorous way, without speaking that language of money, people described in a state of poverty easily become demarcated as a group. They are a group unlike the rest of "us", but they become "them." As them, seperate from us, "they" can become objects, rather than the part of "us" who are subjects, people like us, people we can relate to.
They are to be studied up, labeled as if to be filed away like information, and accordingly stereotyped.
Or they in poverty become entirely invisible.
I've spent a lot of time in South Los Angeles, East Los Angeles, and Downtown Los Angeles. I can't believe that it's still Los Angeles I'm in. It definitely isn't the Los Angeles you see in popular tv unless you're watching one of Boyz N the Hood or Cheech and Chong or Born and Raised in East LA. Stars like to shine their spotlights to their causes, but not over here.
Poverty is an abstraction to describe people who have voids. People who are void of resources, people, and currency.
The people with those physical voids become voids themselves within the larger community. Voids meaning invisible dark holes. In popular discourse, they are rendered virtually invisible and non-existant, perhaps only there on occasion for a celebrity's opportunistic photo op, or as community service projects for high school students, dissertations for researchers, or even objects for me to write about. As these voids, they are particularly vulnerable to be used as tools, objects for other people to use.
When we don't ask these broke folks about their stories, people presuppose and make up stories about why they don't have money or why they become "voids" can easily be rationalized away.
Money is supposed to signify work done. If you don't work, you don't get money. This quickly becomes a moral slippery slope of reductionism, which presupposes that there is always work available, which might be true in theory, but doesn't explain why the unemployment rate is at 6.1% and why California has seen its rate shoot up its highest since 1996.
Ironically when they aren't being ignored, they become the convenient target for blame. "They" eat up resources in the form of "handouts". They sit on welfare, they have too many kids, they take up too much space. They are dead weight.
To the blunting of their humanness, their emotional developments, their stories, their intelligences.
I'm curious as to what these people are not as objects of inquiry, but as subjects. As people with their own stories of human life with language, codes, humors, and intelligence.
Labels: Consciousness, Popular Discourse