Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Poverty, in American and elsewhere

Every now and then I get caught up in a subject that is much too big for me. Poverty is one. Sunday's NYTimes magazine had an article about presidential candidate John Edwards' end-poverty platform. There were some satistics and plans and references to Lyndon Johnsons' War On Poverty. Probably academics have assessed the extent to which that succeeded or failed, but I haven't read them. Of course there is poverty, I see it every day, the men sleeping in the bowels of Penn Station on Sunday morning and on the subway grate every afternoon as I go home. These are destitute people, so are the several I see asking for money on the streets or in the subway. I do not see the people with empty cabinets and refrigerators. People are hungry, people are desperate, and they are miserable. Here in the richest city on earth. Out in the small towns, the farms, the mountains, on the Indian reservations, people are also poor and miserable. I know this, I think about it; I don't turn it off. I know many people don't read the articles, prefer not to think about it.

I have just finished reading Geroge Crane's BEYOND THE HOUSE OF THE FALSE LAMA. By and large I was disappointed but the last third is in Mongolia. He glories in too much vodka, as earlier he enjoyed wasting time being depressed in Paris. But I'm thinking about poverty and what I will remember vividly from this book is Crane's discription of visiting an American Buddhist nun working in Ulan Bataar with "orphans" -- homeless children who may or may not have living parents. The children, some as young as 3 or 4, live like little animals, spending the terribly cold winters mostly below the street in the spaces around the heat [steam] pipes that keep the city warm from a central power plant. [Such as Manhattan once had] The children scounge garbage for food. Often they have only the clothes they are wearing and never change. The nun is able to maintain a food kitchen and care for many children for $5000 a year! How little money it takes to do something marvelous where poverty means something beyond the imagination of most Americans. When I visited Mongolia the tour company said we could donate to an orphanage if we wished. They sent a list of things the children could use -- it was everyting! Everything a child might need. Many of us did take things but we never visited the orphanage, the local guide found time to take us to a cashmere sweater outlet instead.

I grow impatient with myself and with almost all Americans when I think about the great inequallity in the world. The horrible disparity between our concern with obesity which is rampant in America and that when a politician like Edwards seems to truly care about doing something about poverty it is seen as a campaign issue and it's clear that this will not bring him voters, people just don't care that much. It hurts to think about it so we'll think about the lastest block buster movie and whatever new tunes can be put on the IPods -- so many prefer to be constantly entertained, to have constant music in their ears which they interrupt only to chat on their cell phones saying almost nothing. This is definitely not one of my most cheerful posts -- most cheerful day.

No comments :