Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Anton reported, amused, that when he was discussing his bill with the founder of a company to which he consults, the founder accused him, Anton, of being richer than the founder.

"You're calling me rich?"

"You own a house in San Francisco, and that means you're rich!"

We had a good laugh over that.

Iris has many questions about richness and poverty. Many of her classmates own vacation homes, and she has urged us to buy a second house (dream on, small child). When she was four, she was shamed by a playmate who repeatedly bragged, "I'm rich and you're not!" Iris asked me, shamefacedly, "When I'm five, will I be rich like Katie?" I had to explain to her that in fact, no matter what the other four year-old said, by most American's reckoning, neither family was rich. But, however, if you looked at the big picture, most people in the world would call both families rich.

This year's Nobel Peace prize winner, Muhammed Yunus, creator of "microcredit" (tiny, unsecured loans to the most poverty-stricken in developing nations) has created his own definition of "formerly poor." He looks to see that a family who has received microcredit (loans sometimes as small as U.S. $20 can change a family's life) has managed to obtain a house with a tin roof, clean drinking water, sanitary bathroom/latrine, warm winter clothes, mosquito netting, $75 in a savings account, and an education for the children. By Yunus's measuring, we are wealthy indeed.

Recently the New Yorker covered the growth and horrible poverty of Lagos, Nigeria. Lagos is unusual in that it has no safe neighborhoods or wealthy pockets; the entire city is filled with poverty and misery, and the rich live cheek-to-jowls with the poor. Hordes of people are born and live in the Lagos dump, where they pick recyclables from the trash for pennies a day. Urban theorist (and possessor of the world's coolest name) Rem Koolhaas has raved about Lagos's dump civilization as an "impressive performance", a futuristic ecosystem showing the Lagos could succeed as it becomes one of the three or four largest cities in the world. But, as New Yorker correspondent George Packer writes, Koolhaas observed the dump from a helicopter because he and his graduate students were afraid to leave their car when touring Lagos. They could observe only from the safety of the skies.

In our everyday life, it is so easy to feel resentful of those who have more, but we so rarely stop to ponder our amazing good luck. I am no better than someone who lives in the Lagos dump; I was just born into more advantageous, middle-class American circumstances by luck of the draw.


Freewheel said...

Is it possible to be an American and not always want more? ;)

Susan said...

My definition of "rich" is "how content you are". I know many people who make large amounts of money, have big houses and fancy cars, and always say how "poor" they are.

On the other hand, I know people in this country who barely are above the poverty line, struggle to make ends meet, and have no luxuries, and always say how "rich" they are. I also sponsor a little girl in Indonesia. They live in a shack with a dirt floor. But they are happy and content.

If we could stop chasing after the Joneses, stop buying in to this materialistic society, and just be content with what we have, we will feel rich!

Anonymous said...

In this country if you resent someone for having more than you, then you are a hater because even with all of our countries faults, it is STILL the land of oppertunity.

I play lotto for grins and giggles, but being first gen American I KNOW that I have already won the only lotto that counts because I was born in Texas! LOL

Anonymous said...

Tell founder you USED to be rich until you found out you had a terra cotta sewer line. Now you're poor, and a plumber is rich(er)

Comb & Razor said...
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