This article published in the Atlantic today resonated with what I was (and didn’t finish) reading this summer.
“When we [make financial life easier for the poor], we liberate some bandwidth,” Shafir says. Policymakers tend to evaluate the success of financial programs aimed at the poor by measuring how they do financially. “The interesting thing about this perspective is that it says if I make your financial life easier, if I give you more bandwidth, what I really ought to look at is how you’re doing in your life. You might be doing better parenting. You might be adhering to your medication better.”
…and, contradicted with what I experienced from talking to people in Mexico.
This summer, I was wading not-terribly-successfully through Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen, a book one of the pastors at my church mentioned during a sermon. (Also…found out that Dr. Sen is my research grandfather, since he was my research mentor’s mentor in graduate school!)
My pastor credited the book with the fascinating idea that when we aim to relieve poverty, what we’re really aiming for is not just an increase in money but an increase in freedom–that poverty is a form of slavery, or unfreedom from worrying about what one’s going to eat or wear or how one’s going to pay the bills, and also that as we think about development, just giving people more money doesn’t get at the heart of the issue.
The people have to be seen, in this perspective, as being actively involved–given the opportunity–in shaping their own destiny, and not just as passive recipients of the fruits of cunning development programs.
And all of this is what I’ve believed for a long time. Which is why it was so jarring to hear from several of my Mexican friend that they thought many Mexican people were poor or that the country’s problems stemmed not from systemic injustice or barriers-to-entry but from a fundamental laziness of the people themselves.
My friends would tell me things like “The Mexican government has achieved the perfect level of corruption–not enough that the people actually feel burdened enough to rebel or try to change the status quo, but just enough so that they can keep benefiting.”
“Even if you give a family with a dirt-floored house the option of a tile floor and running water, they’d still prefer their dirt-floored house. Old habits and ways of thinking are hard to change.”
“People don’t want a better life. Too many people like to drink and party and are happy enough with what they have even if it’s very little, and aren’t willing to work any harder.”
“About 80% of my friends would agree with me, that the problems of Mexico are because of the people. The other 20% might say it’s because of the government.”
I haven’t had time to process this…is it the same blame-the-poor rhetoric espoused by many middle- and upper-class Americans? How does it mesh with the reality that Mexican life just seemed so much happier to me than American life, despite these so-called problems and my friends’ belief that Mexicans should imitate Americans or the Chinese with regard to work ethic? [And with the fact that so many of the Latinos I meet in the U.S. are incredibly hard working?! The lady who cleans our kitchen works from 6:30am to 10:30pm every day!]
How does it mesh with my own existential struggle since the end of year 1 with how hard to study in the face of increasingly difficult classes but pass/fail boards, and no clearly dilineated objective to aim for–that basic question that normal people, not us absurdly type-A perpetual students, might actually wonder: how hard should I work?
As with a million entries in the past, lots of questions and no answers. This past summer showed me another slice of this intricate panorama called social justice/the human experience/insert-abstract-name-here…showed me how little I know even in this area I thought I’d had all figured out.