During a recent team visit, we went to a village to help a local non-profit making heating bricks from recycled paper. While we were working, I (Jon) had an extended conversation with one of our Roma friends who was working alongside us. We were talking about a local housing project for Roma, and I mentioned that we had many similar projects in the U.S. In particular I was discussing projects like Habitat for Humanity.
He asked about who benefited from these projects – I told him that it was “mostly poorer people in the U.S.”
A note: I have mostly stopped using the word “poor” in English, because people usually only think of material poverty… and that’s only a small part of what it means to be “poor.” But in this conversation, we had already talked about how we consider the Roma to be rich in community, so he understood my meaning, I think. The following is a condensed version of our conversation.
“So you have poor people in America?” he asked.
“Yes, we do. People live in different kinds of conditions. But there are people in America who are very poor.”
He was surprised to hear this. “But you are such a rich country!”
“It’s true,” I answered, “but there are poor people everywhere, even in the richest countries.” He paused to reflect for a moment, then said something that took me by surprise.
“We don’t have poor people in Slovakia.”
It was my turn to pause. “What do you mean?”
“We don’t have a lot, it’s true” he said. “Let’s compare it to apples. Maybe you have four apples, and we only have two. But we know how to live on those two apples. Sometimes something happens – someone gets sick, the car breaks down, or the government comes says you have to pay something. We’ll lose one of the apples, and then we’ll only have one. But we can always get by, we can always live on what we have. We aren’t really poor.”
“So you’re saying if you can survive on what you have,” I asked, “then you aren’t really poor?”
“Yes, I think that’s right” he answered. “There are some people who have a lot more apples, but they still can’t live on what they have. I’ve met some Roma people in Czech Republic; compared to us they have four apples. There was a crisis and the government cut some of their payments. They didn’t know what to do with themselves. There were riots and fights over that one apple. But not here. We just learn to live on what we have.”
It was an enlightening conversation – our friend put into words something we’ve been pondering for a long time. I’m not sure everyone here – Roma or non-Roma – would agree with his assessment. But it helped me think more deeply about what it means to live in poverty.
Since we’ve moved here to Slovakia, we’ve had many conversations and read many books about poverty, and we’ve come to realize that we need to rethink what we mean when we say the word “poor.” It’s true that in the U.S. we have a lot more stuff. But I’m not so sure that’s as good a thing as we make it out to be.
If I were to wake up one morning and find I’d switched places with one of the 3 billion people in the world who live on less than $2.50 a day, how would I fare? How would any of us fare? Take away our cars, our computers, our houses, our smartphones, our credit cards… take away those apples, and would we be able to survive on what’s left?
More thoughts on this in a future post. In the meantime, what do you think – those of you who have interacted with people in material poverty, what does it mean to be “poor?” Is it more than just the things you have?