I missed last week’s post and another in January because I tried writing about a topic that concerns me, but about which I’m completely unqualified to write. I try to, either directly or run into it unknowingly while beating away at another idea, and end up just digging a hole into my own ignorance and unearthing embarrassment. That topic is poverty, both here and in the US.
I see it daily. Across the road from the school is a settlement of homes made from scraps of wood and metal sheeting. A few of the nicer ones are made of dark wood 2 x 4s. Most, perhaps all, don’t have electricity. While I think there is a central faucet, there is no running water in the homes. Some of our students live here.
The story of its settlement once made me happy. A man owned this large piece of land. Then, for some reason, it was taken away from him, perhaps for not paying taxes. A year ago people started moving in with tents. Over the year, witnessed by last year’s teachers, these tents grew into more durable dwellings, the ones I see today. I imagine they would eventually grow into small cement block homes, the ubiquitous style down here, with pilas, electricity, and running water. Other areas have been settled in this way and are now flourishing colonias, areas, as best I can understand, that aren’t incorporated into a city. So while the settlement is at first glance the picture of extreme poverty, its history gave me hope for the people’s future. With a semi-secure living space, moving forward and creating a livable future is much easier. Why shouldn’t fallow land be occupied by people without homes? How could there be a loser in that situation? I thought it comparable to Dignity Village, a semi-permanent encampment in Portland created by a small group of people experiencing homelessness. It now, according to various articles I glanced through, is home for over 60 people. It has non-profit status, a CEO, and rules to ensure a secure community for its residents. While not ideal, it is a place to sleep at night, to find community, to work toward something better. It is hopeful. I realize this is a gross oversimplification of Dignity Village and that it is far from perfect, and it is something better than no cover in the rain and no community.
The settlement story changed this week. The land is still owned by the same man, he just didn’t have all his paperwork in order. Paperwork involves rolls of red tape, the knots in which I can guess by the length of time it’s taken for the school’s attorney to process our volunteer visa paperwork (BTW, that tape was too tough; it’s not going to happen.). The residents who thought they owned their little plots of land, in fact, were ripped off by land sharks who sold what wasn’t theirs to sell. The police are now involved and, if the rumors are correct, are removing the residents. I am reminded of The Grapes of Wrath and people moving West with deeds to non-existent property. Humanity will probably lose this time around.
Two weeks ago I was at the local coffee place with a former substitute math teacher from our school. She is a young woman, nascent 20s at most, studying at a university in San Pedro. She wants to improve her English, I my Spanish. Our goal is to meet weekly. She asked me about the States, as many Hondurans do. The States is often their mecca for finding work and material wealth, for escaping the violence and poverty. It is hope. She was surprised to learn that poverty and homelessness are a problem in my home country. That I would see people sleeping in parks, under bridges on my commute to work. I’m not sure why I brought that up, maybe because I was talking about the widening divide between rich and poor, North and South, liberal and conservative. Maybe because it is difficult for me to listen to people idolizing and idealizing a place that is not worth its reputation. But I’m sure their idealization is not unlike mine of Sweden and Denmark, those socialist leaning societies with healthcare, paid ma/paternity leave, higher education, unemployment compensation. What I experience as a morass of decay, sickness, and greed, Hondurans see as their country on a hill. Most I’ve talked to, anyway. I have spoken with a few returnees, those who worked up North for a period then returned, who prefer the laid back lifestyle and affordability here to the busyness and stress and pressure there. Those comments fill me with schadenfreude, delight in outsiders seeing through our facade of excellence. If outsiders wonder why many US citizens dislike their country so much, consider that we’re raised to think anything is possible, that we all can become President, that riches are around the corner for all who try. All we have to do is work hard and happiness is ours. It’s in our Declaration of Independence, after all. Of course, it isn’t true and the antithesis to the American Dream is shown to us everyday, by our own media, by the politicians in power who care about anything but the citizens.
But I rant. I dislike rants filled with blanket generalizations. Let me avoid making this post unreadable.
How do you talk about the poverty of a wealthy country to a resident of an impoverished one? Is it possible for her to truly believe that people in the golden country live in cars, on the streets, under tarps, that there are many who go hungry, that millions of children are without homes, that we can have clean streets and despair and anger and sadness? This is where I always lose myself in the maze of ignorance and embarrassment, as I did in our conversation. She was quite obviously skeptical and I too aware of how my world view is colored by my own privilege of comfort and education. How exactly is poverty different here than in the US? A few ideas, and please forgive the oversimplifications and be gentle with my ignorance:
- Services: It is skimpy, holey, ridiculously difficult to qualify for, and underfunded, but a social support system does exist in the US. There is unemployment insurance, for a time. There is subsidized housing, food aid, health care, and, by law, you can’t be turned away from the emergency room (though you can be billed for it). While a person can still hit bottom, there’s a thin cushion. Honduras has none of these things. Now, I did ask my young friend if a person in trouble could expect support from his/her community in times of trouble. I’m unsure, but I think she affirmed this. I’m don’t know that the same can be said of the States. Community and US aren’t words that frequently appear together.
- Education: Based upon my discussions with some of our teachers, most of whom also teach at public schools, those school are little more than holding pens. Class sizes are a minimum of 40 kids; chaos, beyond what I complain of, is the norm. CBS, where the largest class is in the mid-20s, is a heaven. Education beyond grade 6, approximately age 11, is optional. However, I see far too many children younger than this selling snacks on the highway. Public education in the States is wildly variable, with poorer districts having crowded classrooms and minimal resources, but free lunch is an option for those who qualify, books, while not guaranteed, might be provided, and those with special needs are more likely to get help. There are no definites, but there is hope.
- Scope: The World Bank says that 64.5% of the Honduran population lives in poverty; the US Census Bureau says that 14.5% of the US population lives in poverty. It’s unclear how many impoverished US citizens are children; I’ve found estimates of 3% and 20%. The problem with this comparison is that the definitions of poverty are different, with the definition of poverty in the US being ridiculously low (~$23,000 for a family of 4). Also, $1.25 a day, the definition of poverty to The World Bank, can buy you monotonous if sufficient food for the day in Honduras, but not in the US. I’m sure I’m not understanding the calculations, but, numbers aside, the scope of poverty in Honduras, a country the size of Kansas, is much more pervasive by capita.
- Bribes: Bribes happen in the US, but if you want anything significant done here, if you want the law to be enforced, bribes are a requirement, I’ve been told. Now, this can work in your favor. If you need to renew your visitor’s visa but don’t want to hop borders all the way to Belize, you can bribe an immigration official and receive a 90-day stamp. The bribe is far less costly than transportation and exit/entrance fees. When my bus was pulled over by police—not unusual—for a papers check, some slipped lempiras into their passports. They were allowed to reboard and continue their journeys. Perhaps they had questionable legal status or were perfectly legal residents but knew to suspect trouble.
- Transportation: Transportation is cheap here and decently connected. A bus from here to San Pedro, approximately 45 minutes away, costs $0.50. My rapidito to La Ceiba, about 4 hours away, cost less than $10. While it would take some time, I could travel across the country quite affordably and easily. Tuk-tuk taxis wait at the major bus stops and if one weren’t available, hitchhiking is a norm. The same cannot be said of the US. Granted, the country is substantially larger, but good alternative transportation is the exception, not the norm. It’s infrequent, limited, or non-existent in non-major areas, which is most of the country. More often than not, you need a car.
- Internet: Most, though not all, of the States is wired, and it is too expensive, yet, internet access is much more likely to be found than here. Internet is a requirement for social advancement.
- Employment: Unemployment hovers around 6% in the US right now and in Honduras, around 4%, but it’s unclear how the numbers are gathered here. No doubt, as with the US number, it doesn’t take into account underemployment, ability to live on earned income (see: service industry), and those not counted because they’ve dropped out of the market or are working under the table.
- Awareness: Wealth does exist here. Honduras is one of the most unequal countries in the world (not that the US is far behind in the rankings). The mall carries major designer brands; you can purchase an iPhone at full price; billboards show people enjoying life with perfect skin. Some people have servants, drivers, guards, pools, etc. Yet, none of this is constantly glaring at you outside of the major cities. I never see billboards, most of the clothing is resale, and until the arrival of Maxi-Despensa (a Walmart family owned chain), I’d never seen a store with shiny big screen televisions. All this to say that if you don’t have a television and have no reason to travel to the mall in San Pedro, you can believe that your way of life is the best it could be Perhaps this is better for the spirit.
- Potential: Because of the above mentioned differences between Here and There, the likelihood of crawling out of poverty is probably greater in the US. I speak from complete ignorance, but I have to believe that the little layer of padding we do have toward social good does give more reason for hope. I haven’t even touched on comparative violence levels, efficacy of the justice system, sexual politics, or The Church’s influence.
Lately my posts have left me feeling especially vulnerable. This one especially so—I keep avoiding it—because I know so little about this country in which I live and the topic on which I’m writing. I’ve been too poor to afford healthcare, but I’ve always had a place to live and a family I know would help me if needed. I have few personal connections in this country. For my knowledge of Honduras I rely on overheard stories, images of semi-starved cows, overly thin children without lunch, laundry washed in the river, and a warning not to use my iPhone in town. For the US, I rely on myriad articles I’ve read, minor brushes with US social services and applications for medical assistance, personal anecdotes of poverty from previous jobs, and observations of the same people pushing shopping carts through Portland streets for years.
Going back to my problems with idealization of the US, it bothers me because I worry, as is my privilege, that it motivates people to leave their country rather than stay to help make it better. Their flight is based on a myth. But how can I blame them? I, too, often dream of leaving the US, because the problems seem too big to fix, especially in my lifetime. I suppose to fight that fight, ever the good one, is to look beyond myself more than I’m able, to future generations that will benefit as I won’t. It requires me to see the small progresses as steps toward a larger betterment. Yes, there is a problem with police violence toward minorities, and the Supreme Court seems close to declaring marriage exclusion laws unconstitutional. Yes, states are making it increasingly difficult for women to take charge of their own vaginas, and Obamacare has enabled people like me to catch up on delayed healthcare. Yes, it is possible to work full-time at Walmart and still qualify for public benefits, and Seattle’s minimum wage is gradually increasing to $15 per hour. Pair the bad with good.
Deal with the reality and keep up hope, and build, always build and re-build.
Yours in contemplation,
P.S. Speaking of building, one of the teachers has constructed tables for the schoolyard, made from discarded materials.
P.P.S. I was unsure if I should publish this in two parts rather than one. Thoughts?