Is poverty a state of mind or can it be quantified? This is the first of three blog posts that attempts to address a simple, yet profound question.
The definition of poverty is highly variable. Is it possible then, that is it a state of mind?
An old friend of mine who's an author and a lecturer, is working to put a paper together. He sent me three questions that stem from his attempt to confront the definition and issue of poverty. Here's my response to his first question: What is your idea of poverty?
Poverty exists when people feel dis-empowered. I believe it is a state of mind. That notion may seem disillusioned and naive, but consider this: I met a girl (let's call her Sabina) in Nepal who had dropped out of school because her family could no longer afford it. She was the oldest amongst her 3 siblings, which meant that her two siblings would not have been able to go to school as well. Her father was an alcoholic despite being the most educated in her family - he graduated from college. Her mother worked desperately as a janitor to keep things together, but things were falling apart. They didn't own a home. They were one family amongst millions in Nepal who were grappling with life.
Then, providence. Sabina's situation was picked up by a social worker working with a foundation that offered scholarships to underprivileged women. After an assessment, Sabina was accepted as a recipient of the scholarship. She was put into a school, but that wasn't it. Staff at the foundation didn't just give Sabina a scholarship, they mentored her. They encouraged her to work hard, instilled belief in herself, nurtured her being and her soul. They empowered her. Just as her world as falling apart, Sabina suddenly had hope. Quantitatively, she was by all definition, "in poverty", but qualitatively, she was enabled and empowered. She could once again dream of a future. A future was possible, although the present was pathetic.
With her empowerment, Sabina brought her education home, educating her illiterate mom, and teaching her to read and write. She taught her sisters too. She also taught her educated father, encouraged him to give up alcoholism and work to support the family. Ten years on, the family that was about to live off the streets, now own a two story apartment in the outskirts of Kathmandu, renting out the lower level for extra income. Sabina is a nurse, her sister teaches at an elementary school, and her mother works as an administrator at a school. If you quantified their present collective income, they might still be considered to be living in poverty on many scales, but to the family, they have achieved more than they ever dreamed of. They are not rich. They can't afford luxuries. They still have to be thrifty. But they are happy, they are at peace, and they can afford to dream.
Read the second part of this three-part exploration.