Poverty – What is a Compassionate Response?

by Christine Mason

Editors Note: in 2016-2017, CEI took a deep look at hunger and food scarcity. Over several months, we conducted background research, wrote blogs, posted eArticles in Wow! Ed, and even held a competition to stimulate classroom investigations and projects.  This year we are turning to Poverty, with a similar in-depth dive.

Poverty? What do you know about it? What do you know about the adults, children, men, women, and families who are poor?  William Vollman traveled the globe to interview people living in poverty. In 2007, he published his findings in a 300+ page book, Poor People. Written in a style that reads almost like fiction, Vollman’s book could be an important resource for teachers and middle school/high school students. In his introductory pages, Vollman says that he did “not want to experience poverty, as that would require fear and hopelessness” and that he could therefore, “only view it from the outside.”

To get answers about poverty, Vollman, a National Book award Winner and Pen Center USA West award winner, traveled the globe between 1994-2005(Thailand, Mexico, Russia, US, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Japan, the Philipines, Columbia, England, Syria, Bosnia, Keyna, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Iraq, Australia, India). Vollman began his book, asking the question, “Why are you poor?” Vollman explains his view that “the protagonists in book are not desperate. They are neither happy nor sad; they have their good days and their extremity and their quotidian” (the ordinary).

Vollman divides his book into 5 sections: Self-definitions, Phenomena, Choices, Hopes, and Placeholders. He covers topics such as invisibility, dependency, unwantedness, accident-prone-ness, deformity, pain, numbness, and estrangement. Vollman, in the chapter on accident prone-ness, describes a man in Imperial County, California, “who while driving to his court summons for an act of possibly self-defensive violence was ticketed for having a cracked windshield; when he returned home to his squatter’s camp, he found that his dog whom he had to leave alone in the heat, had gotten tangled up in his leash and choked to death. Had he not been poor in terms of both money and friends, he could have found someone to take care of the dog; if he had possessed resources to take care of the windshield   . . . had he had resources not to be a squatter, he and his assailant victims might never have met, let alone fought (he claimed they ambushed him alone at night). . . What sort of character he had and what he might or should have done grew nearly irrelevant in the light of such considerations.” (p. 137). Perhaps you have heard of others in a similar downward spiral where a multitude of problems feed one into another. Where do we even begin to make a difference when we multiply this man’s circumstances with the needs of so many others? What role could we and our students, our schools, have in solving these issues?  In the CEI series on food scarcity, we discussed the roles of government, individual philanthropy, and civic responsibilities. What is the role of each when we examine poverty?

Vollman not only gives a voice to those who are poor, he connects it to facts, statistics, philosophy, and the insights of other creative thinkers. There are 194 footnotes in Poor People. Vollman cites UN reports, the US Census, the US Department of Commerce, international and in-country reports on the economics of poverty, Gandhi, Marx, Rousseau, Turgenev, the New York times, studies of environmental chemistry, several international authors, and others.

That last 2 sentences of the book cover an interview with a man in Japan in 2005. ‘ They just want to have no homelessness here for this year, he replied calmly. They budgeted 5 million yen (slightly less than $5 million) to move us’…’ So telling. We believe to adequately address poverty, we first have to increase our consciousness. Vollman’s book seems to be a good place to start – it gives us some feeling for both the extent of poverty and  also its toll on human existence. It also gives us cause to pause, reflect, and ask questions such as “how am I contributing to this ongoing plight?” or “what else could I be doing to help?”

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