Sun, Sep 30, 2007 - Page 18 News List

Book Review: Have-nots have no idea why they're poor

William Volmann hits the streets of 14 countries - including Japan, the Philippines and China - with one question for the down-and-out: Why are you poor?


By William Vollmann
464 pages

I don't suppose many Taiwanese people are very interested in the subject of poverty. Taiwan's "tiger economy" has resulted in extensive prosperity, and there are few things the newly rich want to think about less than those who remain poor.

But William Vollmann has dedicated a great deal of energy to researching poverty worldwide. His method has been to interview the very poor wherever he happens to be, paying them to answer some questions, most typically "Why are some people poor and others rich?"

Most of them have no answer. The Marxist belief that the poor are poor because the rich have taken everything from them doesn't seem to be widespread among the poor themselves. If they're Buddhists they think they're poor because they've misbehaved in a previous life, and if they're Muslims they consider that Allah has been good to them in other ways, even if they don't exactly know where their next meal's coming from.

Vollmann considers what it means to have an income of US$1 a day, no savings and no prospect of earning anything at all when you're too old to go on working. He visits 14 countries, including Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan, Pakistan and the Philippines. A resident of Sacramento, California, he calculates that as a writer he earns around US$100 a day after tax, and hence considers himself by world standards indubitably "rich." What, he asks, does this, in practical terms, mean? And what does it mean to be poor?

Among his answers to the second question are that the poor are effectively invisible, that they have no choice but to do dangerous jobs, that they develop a numbness to setbacks, that their bodies smell of sweat and become misformed through work-related injury. On invisibility, he observes that the rich don't notice the poor because it would be too painful to do so. When someone extremely deformed can be found, the rich will pay to pass by without having to look more than once. The poor, in other words, are usually invisible, but can sometimes profit from their invisibility by drawing it momentarily to other people's attention.

The author's method is conversational and relaxed. He paints vivid pen-pictures of squalid living conditions, then veers off on random thoughts. He quotes classic authors like Rousseau, Turgenev and Montaigne. And he does some sums on the life of self-imposed "philosophic poverty" embarked on by Henry Thoreau (for three years only) in 19th-century Massachusetts.

One of Vollmann's main conclusions is that the opportunity to consider who you are and to speculate on your place in the universe is one of the rewards of having money, and hence genuine leisure. Of course many of the great visionaries, with advanced views on the nature of the world, either extolled the virtues of the poor (as Jesus did) or adopted poverty voluntarily despite being born into riches (the Buddha is one example). Nevertheless, many of the world's really poor have had little or no education, often can't read or write and almost invariably have no developed theory as to why their lives are as they are. That some of them are nonetheless remarkably astute only adds to the desolation of their plight.

This book is in a way untypical of its era. Today we may be interested in crises and war zones, but the permanently poor aren't often written about. But the 19th century was obsessed by them. In England they were subjected to statistical reports, researched in depth and divided up into "deserving" and "undeserving." In the 1840s Dickens, Disraeli and Elizabeth Gaskell wrote novels about "the condition of England" (which meant what to do about the poor), and the successful dramatist Henry Mayhew interviewed them at length for London Labor and the London Poor. Marx filled Das Kapital with descriptions of English 18-hour workdays, atrocious housing, and diseases entirely attributable to bad working conditions.

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