In the U.S., the “poverty line” for 2006 was set at $9,800 per year of income for a single person, or $20,000 for a family of four. But it is misleading to judge poverty in this way: surely some people can live comfortably below those income levels, and some—those with significant medical problems, for example—couldn’t pay for the necessities of life even if they earned substantially more. And doesn’t $20,000 go a lot farther in, say, North Dakota, than it does in New York City?
The United Nations offers a more flexible definition:
Poverty: a human condition characterized by the sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security, and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights.
An improvement, certainly, but any definition of poverty can only bring more questions: What is “adequate”? What are these other “rights”?
Even if these questions can be resolved, definitions still don’t describe the condition of being poor; they only circumscribe its boundaries. The U.N. also attempts to describe the “dimensions” of poverty: short life, illiteracy, exclusion, lack of material means. But of course, some poor people aren’t illiterate, some wealthy people are excluded or live short lives, and some people with few material goods are quite content with their lives.
In 2001 while working in Thailand on his new book Poor People, William T. Vollmann fell headfirst into the problem of defining “poor.” He hired an interpreter to help interview poor people. They soon located Sunee, a middle-aged woman who may have been a former prostitute. Sunee led Vollmann through rotting slums to her mother’s home, a leaky corrugated iron shack erected on a concrete slab. The interpreter hastily informed Vollmann that Sunee’s mother couldn’t be poor because the home contained more appliances than she herself owned: a television, water filter, and refrigerator.
Only when they later visited Sunee’s abode—an oppressively hot room at the top of a rickety staircase, with laundry and mosquito netting strung across the ceiling and nary a single luxurious appliance—did the interpreter finally acknowledge that Sunee was poor. Vollmann asked Sunee the same question he asked every person he interviewed for this book: “Why are some people poor and some people rich?” She attributed it to karma—the poor, like herself, must have done something bad in a previous life.
In Poor People, Vollmann succeeds by circling rhythmically around the problem of global poverty, offering readers sometimes a quick glimpse, other times a detailed accounting of his interactions with his subjects. Ostensibly, the book is organized into five parts, each composed of several chapters and exploring the problem from a different perspective. Part 1, as the reader begins, appears to offer detailed personal stories, one “poor person” at a time, but just a few pages into chapter 1 it becomes clear that the book is much more complex than that, for other stories are quickly woven in to the narrative, and even within a particular setting, the stories of many characters are intertwined. In Russia, for example, we hear the story of both the beggar Natalia, who suffers from debilitating epilepsy, and her rival, 81-year-old Oksana, who supports a large family suffering ill effects from the Chernobyl disaster. In Part II, “Phenomena,” Vollmann gives his response to the UN list of the dimensions of poverty. His list is a bit different from theirs: Invisibility, Deformity, Unwantedness, Dependence, Accident-Prone-ness, Pain, Numbness, and Estrangement. He draws on the stories he’s already told as examples, but also adds new stories as needed to illustrate his point. The rest of the book spirals in ever-more complex gyres, integrating and adding information and complications as it proceeds.
Importantly, Vollmann acknowledges that as a rich man his presence necessarily alters the dynamic of these people’s lives. They not only treat him differently because of his wealth, he pays them to be interviewed. Much of the book is reflective: how can he properly show respect for these people? What amount is too large to give? (Too large of payment would make the recipients targets for thieves—often their own family members.)
Vollmann’s personal approach necessarily makes the book bad science. While he strives to be thorough, Vollmann makes no pretense of being objective or removed. For example, he takes mind-altering drugs with the courier he profiles in the Philippines. He allows homeless people to sleep outside his own home and then makes critical commentary about their behavior. Yet Vollmann also realizes that the more “standard” approach of a researcher is condescending in its own way:
Because I wish to respect poor people’s perceptions and experiences, I refuse to say that I know their good better than they; accordingly, I further refuse to condescend to them with the pity that either pretends they have no choices at all, or else, worse yet, gilds their every choice with my benevolent approval. Once again I submit the obvious: Poor people are no more and no less human than I; accordingly, they deserve to be judged and understood precisely as I do myself.
“Do you think you are poor?” Vollmann asks a Yemeni fisherman who makes the equivalent of $13 per day. No.
Sunee, the Thai cleaning-service employee who makes $3.85 per day? Yes.
Wan, a frail, nearly starving beggar (also from Thailand) who clearly has a lower income than Sunee? No.
Angelica, a Mexican prostitute “stinking of urine and sweat”? No, because I can work.
In meeting face to face with his subjects, Vollmann takes both a personal and a literary risk. A “wealthy” man traveling the world and offering money to the most destitute individuals he can find, Vollmann is clearly putting himself in harm’s way. Moreover, Vollmann, as always, isn’t afraid to tell us just what dangers he faced: In Japan, he sought the “Snakeheads,” brutal Chinese gang leaders responsible for smuggling prostitutes and criminals to Japan and extorting money from their families. In Colombia, he visited regions where murders occurred daily. In Kazakhstan, he defied orders to stay out of a zone where the government was attempting to cover up deadly pollution from an oil refinery.
Vollmann’s literary risk, of course, is being labeled as a braggart. You, reader, he seems to insist, you think you’re compassionate about the poor? Then why don’t you let the homeless sleep in your yard, defecate on your wall?
But Vollmann doesn’t come off as boastful, because he also shows us that he has his own limits. He treats the homeless with civility, but he doesn’t invite them inside his home. He offers assistance to the people he interacts with, but eventually, he returns to his comfortable home, and their problems remain. Here’s how he describes his feelings upon leaving the broken homes of hundreds of Nan Ning residents, destroyed to make way for new economic development in China.
The hour-long glimpse I had of the rubble-hill and the destitute people stooping and wandering upon it haunts me more and more. As I think upon its sickening implications . . . my mind swings back to Michelle, who was a likeable enough person. You should never complain life is unfair to you, [she said,] and she never did. If she lacked compassion, well, just what was she supposed to do for those people? For that matter, what had I done? I threw a little money and some attention at a random few, then departed the premises.
The genius of Poor People is how Vollmann demonstrates the arbitrariness of the line we draw between “self” and “other.” We’re shocked when we see Ivy-educated Vollmann treating homeless beggars as true equals. The first reaction is to assume he’s a holier-than-thou self-aggrandizer. But the more we read, the more we realize that it is we who are mistaken, that the psychic gap between the rich and the poor is our own creation.
Poor People doesn’t offer any solutions to the problem of poverty, and it doesn’t even suggest that we should try to do as Vollmann does and venture into the world of the poor. But it does offer real insight into a vast, diverse group of people, connected to one another more by their exclusion from mainstream culture than because of any intrinsic similarity. By showing us how strange he is for trying to be the poor person’s friend, he shows us how strange we are for hewing to the belief that the poor are that different from us.
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