I’ve been trying to find the time and the analytical thread to write against poverty today in a world where some women are so poor they are selling and eating dirt, grandmothers are shooting themselves to avoid debt, and students are leaving school. The two things that keep popping into my head are neo-liberal economic policies (at home and abroad) and the feminization of poverty. Both of these things have combined to rob the wealth from so many hard working people and their children around the globe and to impact women more deeply, quickly, and along specific gender lines. To discuss them here would no doubt defeat the purpose of blogging – short, digestible, writing – which I violate regularly but not nearly as much as I would to write the piece in my head which would move from Alison Jaggar’s essay on Latin America and the Debt Crisis, to the Jubillee movement (every 50 years you are supposed to abolish debt), to the nasdaq.
Instead, let me just tell you some stories:
- A female professor heard that one of her black female students was going to be homeless if they were not able to pay the mortgage. It was the fourth student she had lost to the mortgage crisis. Fearing for the girl’s educational attainment and economic future since she would not only be falling into homeless but have that stigma multiplied by her blackness and her gender, the professor sent out an urgent email to her colleagues asking each to contribute $100 to help keep this girl in her home for one more month while she figured out alternatives for the long term. The Professor received a total of $300 including the $100 she put in.
- An elderly woman was duped into refinancing her home by a predatory lender who knew she neither needed to refinance nor could afford it. When the mortgage payment came due she shot herself to avoid becoming homeless. She survived the wound and her neighbors and other locals came together to pay her mortgage and publicly chastise the lender.
- Two little girls cry themselves to sleep in a holding cell for new foster kids. They do not know where their mother is, no one has told them. Their mother sits in a different cell crying for her children, she was arrested while cleaning up fecal matter from animals who empty their bowels as they are killed to make hamburger meat for less than minimum wage. Some one on the radio claims she is a threat to N. American values.
- A man, distraught about his financial situation came home and shot his three sons repeatedly while they struggled to escape, his wife and his wife’s mother before killing himself.
- A young blogger sits down a writes a heartwrenching piece about the shame of unemployment. She talks about how her brown skin and her female gender combine to make people see her as a stereotype and to make her feel as if she is failing her culture as well as herself despite having done all she can do to be educated and workforce ready. She says the shame is killing her.
- A PhD comes home to take charge of her grandmother’s home after her passing. The house is the only family wealth they have – no savings, no investments, just a broken down truck and an aging house. The PhD cannot get a job because her degree is in a discipline that was first hit by the hiring crisis in academe, so she sinks her savings into fixing up the house in order to sell it and pay off her college loans, start fresh. The neighborhood she lives in becomes slowly overrun with bored teenagers who cannot find work and take out their frustration by trashing the neighborhood. When she gets ready to sell, the broker says her house is worth $8,000 because of the economic crisis
- Several high school footballers beat and ultimately kill an immigrant for walking through the park with his white girlfriend. When they are arrested, other high schoolers blame the violence on the dead immigrant and immigrants in general, claiming “they took our jobs and we are takin’ ‘em back.”
- A girl cries out in the noon day sun as bombs explode in her neighborhood. She asks why as her mother rushes her into the street and hopefully to safety. Her eldest brother screams at the cameraman about how his father was killed in a bombing of a civilizan area and now his mother is a widow and his family is poor.
- Peacekeepers tell a woman she can have international funded food aid for herself and her 4 children in exchange for an hour with her 4 year old daughter. She knows they will do it anyway.
- Small farmers sit at the table discussing their debt, knowing they cannot pay nor live under the weight of it any longer. They choose a girl child to sell to pay the debt and save the rest of the family. When the girl returns years later with HIV they shun her for the shame her disease brings on them.
- A rural woman moves to a border town to take a factory job, dreaming of a better life for herself and money for her family. One night, at shift’s end, she is taken to the desert, raped and tortured, and finally killed. Her story does not make the news anymore because the link between multi-national corporations, local corruption, and women’s deaths is no longer interesting to a world that blames brown women for the loss of N. American jobs.
- A young girl is so hungry she sits in the shanty town where she lives eating mud cookies made by her mother. Both their faces show shame, the girl sensing that her life is not meant to be this way and the mother for having to sustain her child on dirt. A few 100 feet away, another woman is being threatened for trying to unionize a factory and help get jobs for the women and girls eating dirt.
- A woman falls to her knees from exhaustion on a trail. She has been walking all day with 35 lbs of someone else’s goods on her head. She is a human mule who will earn 25 cents US for her 20 hour trip. If she does not get to her destination in time, she will earn nothing. So she pulls herself up and hobbles the rest of the way.
- A woman seeks out a trafficker, knowing that what awaits her is sex work abroad, because there are no jobs nor a school in her village. Like her mother and sisters, she was not sent to the school two villages over because the family could only afford to send her eldest brother. In her mind, she thinks of the money she can send home, of the home and clothes she dreams she can afford, and she believes the trafficker when he says she only has to work until the debt is paid.
- A woman writes her husband a note in shaky hand writing before faxing a suicide note to the bank. She puts a gun to her head and ends her life. The note says that she loves her husband and son and to use the insurance money to pay the mortgage.
These are the faces of poverty. Many of them in N. America; many others not. This is the price of neo-liberalism at home and abroad.
There is another story about poverty I could tell you. It is a story where people come together and care for one another. Where they work in concert using internet radio, blogs, and alternative papers to get the word out about corruption. Where they drive through the streets making announcements about needs over a loud speaker. Where they tap into water and electric resources that the government has failed to provide them. Where they occupy usable land and usable buildings to give themselves the shelter government economic polciies have robbed them of the chance to own. Where they make agreements to trade fairly and over time so that neo-liberal inflated or deflated prices do not impact the production nor the price. Where they trade goods for services. Where they have made health care and education a priority and work together to ensure there are schools and hospitals in rural and urban areas. And where they work to build an alternative vision of community and economy based on something as simple as a snail or a bible passage.
it isn’t just that a better world is possible, there are people actively working to make that better world a reality for the families, communities, and ultimately the world.
One thing neo-liberal driven global poverty has done is foster community activism, accountability, and strength. As we hear the horror stories of female, and male, poverty in N. America we can also find hope in the stories of over coming in homeless communities in the Americas, debt abolition movements across the world, union organizing in Asia and Latin America, etc.
A man who many in N. America openly mocked, once penned a book (in three volumes) where he warned that these policies would one day come and they would be shown to be morally bankrupt. He also said that the result would be that the goodness in people would ultimately win out as we began to place community and people at the center of our economic, social, and poltical systems and turn away from a world of profit at any cost. I believed him the first time I read his work and I believe it now.