Media has made a distorted face of poverty that the dominant impression created inside one’s mind is that of an African child with a bloated stomach lying on bare ground while behind him is a vulture waiting for him to die to devour him. Aside from the fact that this kind of picture numbs our sensibilities until we reach a point that we feel nothing, only that of fascination seeing a freakish-looking skin-and-bone child lying on the cold ground, it also presents to us a singular face of poverty, leaving behind the subtle distinctions and unique experiences of what it is to be poor, hungry, cold, unclothed, homeless, uneducated, unempowered.
Poverty means different things depending on the color of one’s skin, gender, political persuasion, age, or location in this planet. According to the generally accepted definition, “to be poor is to be deprived of those goods and services and pleasures which others around us take for granted”.
Very broad I must say and simply a bureaucratese to be helpful in giving us an idea of what is poverty in real life. According to another definition:
It is the deprivation of common necessities that determine the quality of life, including food, clothing, shelter and safe drinking water, and may also include the deprivation of opportunities to learn, to obtain better employment to escape poverty, and to enjoy the respect of fellow citizens (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty).
This one may sound complete and encompassing but it does not distinguish between absolute poverty and relative poverty for every country has a certain level of poverty called poverty line. On the other hand, international organizations, most of the time, focus on absolute poverty since it is easier to define and measure.
These sanitized definitions that are used by policy-makers in the government do not give us a believable images and realities of how it to be poor. It is not just about not eating a full meal three time a day, or not having access to clean drinking water, or the absence of a roof that protects from sun and rain; poverty is also missing the opportunity to grow as a person, leaving your loved ones to find employment in a foreign country where dogs are treated better than you. Poverty is that look of pity (imagined or real) from people as they stare at your despicable clothing which you cannot manage to change because you have to prioritize some other things.
I will not talk about how it is to be unable to eat a square meal in a day, or not to go to college because of lack of resources to have a university degree, or the lack of decent housing. I am lucky enough not to be absolutely poor, and besides these images of poverty have been overly exploited and romanticized by media and politicians, which caused us to be overly-familiar to it and therefore take them as part of life or ignore them altogether. Such is the result of exalting poverty, as if being poor is tantamount to being virtuous. Far from it.
I knew my family is poor when I took my first plane ride. I was thirteen years old then. Although I never considered myself an envious teenager, when I saw my fellow students who were comfortable inside the plane, walking around, using the lavatory, I made a mental picture of myself feeling so uncomfortable because I’ve never ridden a plane before. Then I’ve realized a very simple truth that I used to have a hard time contending with – my family is poor and will never afford to allow me to ride a plane going to places I’ve dreamed of going. I had to secure myself using the seat belt because I was so scared more of the fact that I’ve never been inside an airplane before than the fear of the plane crashing.
The years following that experience were nothing different. I have had chances to stay in expensive hotels where the luxury offered is complete opposite of what my family’s house in Mindanao has. I stayed in Makati Intercontinental Hotel, Manila Peninsula, and hotels in Europe, where the price tags are simply scandalous in my opinion, a taste of the luxury of sleeping on a bed softer than I could imagine, then going back to my apartment in the university and sleep on a bed with mattress that barely dulled the hard plywood of my bed. It’s going to Europe for free and confirming more the fact that I am poor, for a trip to Europe is as elusive as the moon had it not been for some foundations who think that the content of my brain is worth the round trip plane ticket, equivalent to a year of hard work of my parents in my third world country.
These opportunities given to me, aside from giving me a different perspective of my world and my role to play in it, also made me feel that being poor is getting rid of my sense of shame. For poverty is not only about the absence of basic necessities but also the psychological torture of receiving scholarships, staying in five star hotels, and free international trip, and realizing that you would never have afforded them. What if I was not lucky? What if I was not in the right place at the right time? Will I ever experience these opportunities. Never. I simply do not have enough money to pay for them, to have them, because I am poor.