|Geraint Rowland, Flickr|
This is what I thought as I scrolled down the "what life below the poverty line looks like" pictures on this site (click here).
Admittedly, the first thing that comes to mind when you look at the pictures linked above might be something along the lines of "Come on, people, take charge of your own lives!"
It is hard to understand why people would
- give babies coffee (or soft drinks, as seen elsewhere)
- be extremely poor yet obese or a regular smoker or drinker (all that wasted money, some will say)
- have babies in the "wrong circumstances"
But as my friend K's wisely remarked when, in my younger years, I started commenting on the way some of her students (she's a special ed teacher) were probably raised...
Many North Americans who live below the poverty line still do have a roof, heating, drinking water, food, some furniture, some appliances, some clothes. Their material belongings and income might not differ that much from those of people who actively choose simplicity - and are happy about it.
Which makes you wonder: why does it seem like "the poor"'s life sucks then?
The difference lies in that simple word: choice. There is a huge difference between choosing frugality and being forced into it because of external reasons (which are usually not good reasons, by the way).
More than once in my life I made the choice to live simply. At some point I did not own a microwave nor a TV, which is unthinkable to most. My weekly groceries were monastic. My spending money almost nonexistent. And you should have seen the size of that apartment! It all felt good because 1) I had made the decision myself and 2) I knew that my choice could be reversed if I decided so.
No matter how little money or stuff I was living with, I was still floating on the cloud of a happy childhood, a nice upbringing, a solid education.
I did not feel poor.
I am not in a position to judge.
Judging is the first mistake we make when observing people who are struggling. We assume they have total control over their destiny, if only they were willing to pull up their sleeves. We misunderstand the reasons underlying their "questionable" choices. Yet we have not walked a mile (not even a foot) in their shoes. What is their background? What are their circumstances? What is the society we live in doing for them (or against them)? What is their level of personal agency, real or perceived? Ever heard of the term "vicious circle"?
Things don't have to be that way. But it will take a whole lot of elbow grease to make them change.
Wealthy, educated and generally speaking privileged people don't always make the right choices. How can we expect those who had a rough start to make the right choices?