Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Poverty and the loss of dignity

I live in Brazil and am frequently confronted with poor people. As many people, I initially understood the essence of the word "poor" to mean "lack of income" or something similarly economic.

The real sense of the word "poverty" however, I think is more associated with a lack of choices and capabilities in the social sense. I watched the Holland game on the Recife beach last week and talked to another Dutch person about the issue of poverty in Brazil. This person was specifically upset about how homeless people have no privacy or intimacy, since they live in the street and there's nothing that is private to them any longer. A specific example was a couple in the street, living under a piece of cardboard with a grudgy blanket, lying close together, with buses and cars driving by.

Many traffic lights in Brazil are used by poor people as a commercial station, since it's the only place where people are required to stop. So, people with cars have at least some money, the poor people depend on that middle-class to sustain themselves, so all traffic lights are full of merchants and window-cleaners.

With poverty thus, I see there are even define-able levels. But the levels are not so much economic, more social.

I found the article on Wikipedia shows some good links and explanations of what poverty really is, rather than just assuming it as the lack of the flow of money:


There are some documentaries running on the issues of poverty that show how poor people also have a need to be recognized, not so much as being a poor person, but simply as a person. This fight for recognition sometimes causes them to do severe things. One guy in Brazil in Rio de Janeiro at one point kept a whole bus hostage for a number of hours, screaming out of the windows and threatening the people inside. He fired some shots, but never at people. He maintained the hostage situation only because cameras were aimed at him. It was clear he was under the influence of drugs. Later he stepped out of the bus with a single hostage and the police promised not to hurt him. A police officer approached from the sides and took a shot, two shots fell and the pregnant hostage was hit, dying on the way to hospital. The suspect himself was apprehended by a number of policeman, protected from an angry mob. The guy was suffocated by police on the way to jail due to the number and manner of police officers piled on top of him.

No mercy?

When you ask people how poverty should be resolved, the one most single answer of them all is: "Education." But this only goes so far. It implies that these people will be able to resolve their problems themselves as far as you teach them the basics of living in society and teach them skills and if everybody has access to education, the problem of poverty is resolved.

After the war in Holland, the politicians organized themselves to construct what is now called the "social welfare" system. 50-60 years later, this system is now under attack from diverse groups that object to paying for family situations that will not (likely) occur to them. For example, some single persons object to paying for the health costs associated with having children (costs like nurses, hospital checkups on babies, etc.). Why should they be accountable for those costs?

This is a view that is individualistic and capitalist. Only pay for what you use in a society and no dime more.

Poverty itself, I believe, also has the properties of a vicious circle. You cannot attack just a single point (education?), or you will fail. If you attack many, are there sufficient resources available to make the change worthwhile?

One of the latest news articles showed an organized crime group that over the past 5 years has bribed government officials in the health department to sluce all money for ambulances and health spending to that particular company. They would charge twice for every ambulance sold basically and divide the profits with the officials and themselves. The total "profit" of this group amounted to something like R$60 million. A good amount of money that would have been happy to enrich the overloaded and under-equipped hospitals in Rio de Janeiro for example with waiting queues of 7-8 hours. Of course, these are "public" hospitals, not "private".

This is the cost of an individualist society which feels no responsibility for others outside the family. A society where politicians do not make choices in favour of society itself but choose to use their appointed post as a source of corrupt income. Only a relatively small layer of society can still thrive in this situation. But the people that need protection the most, the poor, suffer harder and remain deprived of their dignity. It is possible to ignore the poor for some time, until at some point the pressure becomes so high some action needs to be taken.

Final numbers. 10% of the richest people in Brazil, 18.5 million people, were earning 68 times more than 10% of the poorest people in Brazil, another 18.5 million. The same factor in Norway and Holland was 9-12.

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