Thursday, April 30, 2015

What’s different about our poverty in the U.S.?


There is something different about poverty in the D.R. and poverty in the U.S. – but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

These two pictures show places that are directly across from one another in my neighborhood. The place on the top is a large, fancy house in a fancy neighborhood. And the place on the bottom is an open field…where I think a guy has created a home.  I walked past this place for 3 months before I noticed that it was more than just a field of rusted cans, plastic bags, and chickens. 

First, I noticed that there was a rusted sheet of zinc propped on its side, and smoke rising from behind it – a kitchen I think.  Then I saw an old plastic chair under a tree and palm tree leaves spread on the ground –a bed?  Most days at lunch time, he has guests – the guy who rides the bike selling ice cream and a motorcycle taxi driver.  Sometimes, there’s a bowl of fruit or plantains on the curb – income?

I have two points.  First, for a long time, I didn’t see this person or his home because I didn’t have to. I went from point A to point B focused on my own plan. My own destination.  Second, poverty in the D.R. is “in your face” in many places whether you want to see it or not.  Young boys with torn cloths and worn faces carrying tin cans and shoe-shining kits ask to clean your shoes. Or to wash your car windows. Or to watch your car while you get groceries. Or they just ask for a few pesos.   

I mean, it’s interesting that this guy lives (or spends an extensive amount of time) in this field in a nice neighborhood and the neighborhood association hasn’t mobilized to get him kicked out. Granted, there is still segregation in Dominican neighborhoods, but here, the rich and the poor have to interact.  Or, I should say, the rich have to interact with the poor (the converse may not be true…).

So maybe limited interaction between the rich and the poor makes U.S. poverty different.

Maybe our poverty in the U.S. is neatly sequestered in dilapidated communities that we don’t have to drive through, ever. Maybe our poverty invokes feelings like guilt and blame – or just blame. Many Americans believe in individual causes for poverty: the poor are just not working hard enough. Maybe our poverty is too closely connected to criminalized, pathologized black and brown bodies.

One reason why certain white people can condemn the protests in Baltimore is because they have NO ability to empathize with black people living in high poverty/highly policed/low resource/low income communities.  But I guess my question remains: why can’t people empathize? What is it about U.S. poverty that renders people unable to empathize?

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