Please Don’t Say, “They Are Poor But They’re Happy.”

by Rachel Pieh Jones on March 21, 2014

Katherine Boo talks about the western ‘conceit that poverty is ennobling.’

Tracy Kidder, in his book Mountains Beyond Mountains, quotes Paul Farmer,

“There’s a WL (white liberal) line – the ‘They’re poor but they’re happy’ line.’ They do have nice smiles and good senses of humor, but that’s entirely different.”

I am of the opinion that the stories of the poor need to be told and that sometimes it takes an outsider to get those stories heard, ála Katherine Boo or Nicholas Kristof, author of Half the Sky. But we need to be careful about the attitudes we bring to these stories.

Some of the gravest offenders in this regard are bloggers and people on short-term missions or aid trips. Talented writers, loving and creative people who maybe haven’t wrestled deeply with the implications of their words and involvement. Understandable, as international aid and development isn’t their focus, but also regrettable because they are the ones people listen to and form ideas, assumptions, and expectations through.

Bloggers and writers and tourists and expatriates and development workers, I have two questions/challenges for us.

  1. Can we stop finding holiness in poverty?
  2. Can we stop saying: ‘they’re poor but they’re happy’?

noble poor

Holiness in Poverty

There are poor people who live lives of holiness and pursuing God but this is not because they are poor. It is because they live lives of holiness and pursuing God.

Poor people and rich people deal with selfishness, envy, greed, gossip. They feel joy, pride, satisfaction. They are violent and cruel. They are generous and creative. They oppress and take advantage of others, they lift up the downtrodden and care for the weak. They tell hilarious jokes and suffer debilitating addictions.

Again to quote Boo, “When I’ve had hardships in my own life, it doesn’t make me a better or nobler person,” she says. “Suffering doesn’t necessarily make people good in my experience.”

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,” he didn’t say “holy are the poor.” He said, “It is easier for a camel to go through an eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” He did not say, “The poor flow into the Kingdom of God like water over Victoria Falls.”

Desperation can lead to evil and abuse and depravity. There is nothing inherent about poverty that makes people holy or noble. However, there is incredible nobility in how certain people bear their poverty, a holiness in how they interact with others. We need to see what is there and not what we want to project. If the poor are noble or holy in their suffering, the wealthy can be relieved of an urgent need to examine our own complicity and apathy.

Poor but Happy

This article on Humanosphere found that in sub-Saharan Africa among those stuck in poverty, their happiness index was far below those in wealthy countries. Poverty is not just the lack of wads of cash. It is the lack of options, choices, autonomy. It often means disease, children dying young, lack of education, illiteracy, hunger, hard labor, oppression. I don’t know many people in these circumstances for whom ‘happy’ is the primary appropriate adjective. This is intensely not hypothetical for me, I know a lot of people in these circumstances.

Denying that inequality is problematic, based on happiness being important and the poor being happy, offers a pretext for not thinking more deeply about the impacts of inequality. Anna Barford 

If the poor are so happy, that alleviates some of the rich person’s guilt. The wealthy outsider can praise their good attitudes, their thankfulness, they can categorize their smiles in the face of dire circumstances as evidence of happiness. And in doing so, they remove the burden of guilt, complicity, and the pressure to act. The also remove the poor person’s natural human ability to feel complex emotions, happiness being one of the most simplistic emotions there is.

That the poor are happy is an easier narrative to swallow than that the poor are desperate and will flash a smile, a good attitude, and gratitude when the rich westerner has come around to offer something of short-term benefit.

The other, more nuanced and complicated narrative is that the poor have beautiful smiles and wonderful senses of humor because they are human and fabulously diverse. But learning this requires time and personal investment, it requires listening and careful observation. It requires blunt honesty with ourselves and with those we want to help. And it requires that we remember they would do almost anything to get out of their dire, used-shoe-strained-gratitude circumstances.

There are so many other issues to be discussed and addressed under the banner of writing about the poor and sharing the stories of others, but I think if we start with these two questions, which I set before us as a sincere challenge, we will be taking long strides in the right direction.

What do you think about the ‘poor but happy’ narrative?

(This post was partly inspired by the book discussion going on this month at SheLoves. I’ve noticed cross-over in readership and authorship and so am happy to send you over to the SheLoves Red Couch where Wednesday March 26 they will discuss Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I have read every single article this woman has written and almost every single interview she has given, multiple times. She’s one of my writing heroes.)

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • mpieh

    These are great questions, Rachel. You make great points and observations…and you’ve given me lots to think about. However, it’s almost midnight here in Alaska, I’m exhausted, and I’m fighting a cold…I need to get to bed. I’m going to sleep on it, do some pondering, and post my thoughts tomorrow. You know we introverts need time for contemplation before speaking articulately. 🙂

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Go get your sleep! Hope you feel better soon Mandy, I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

  • Thank you for writing this. I used to say this. In fact, it took two years of living overseas before I was able to admit that the locals were just as sinful as we are. They so some things better, but at the end of the day, we have the same struggles in different forms.

  • There’s something to that observation. Westerners’ eyes are opened to the bondage to consumerism when they step outside of the materially abundant world, and a willingness to observe and learn is a good posture. The problem with the prevailing narrative of “poor but happy” is that it is falling into the trap of reducing people to one dimension. We must learn to treat others as equally human even if our circumstances are vastly different.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Exactly, thanks for phrasing it so succinctly Cindy.

  • Kimberley Cadeau

    Thank for writing this. I lived in Haiti for 3 years and heart this phrase a lot and it always made me cringe but I had a hard time explaining exactly why it made me cringe. You have said better than I ever could. Now I have a better response the next time I hear this phrase. I agree with Cindy as well, I knew lots of Haitians who I might describe as happy, but they weren’t always happy, they also had a lot of stress, sadness, and fear in their lives as well. To stereotype an entire group of diverse people with two simple words doesn’t respect the complexity of their lives or who they are.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Right – they are happy, sometimes. LIke me, I’m happy, sometimes. But we are so much more than that!

  • Thank you for sharing about the Red Couch book club! I just downloaded the next book and will definitely be joining you there! 🙂

  • Richelle Wright

    Yes! I think it part of the response is complicity and guilt – this statement ~ “If the poor are noble or holy in their suffering, the wealthy can be relieved of an urgent need to examine our own complicity and apathy.” ~ so accurate and well said.

    I also think, after having heard (sometimes in my own mind) “but they’re so happy…” so many times… It is sometimes expressing “How can those in such poverty exhibit such happiness given these circumstances? I couldn’t be… I wouldn’t even try…” And in that sense, I wonder if people aren’t actually wrestling with conviction of their own tendencies to discontent, materialism, wrong priorities and focus in life, etc. Those, who at least at the moment know better, have the opportunity to gently challenge and/or confront. Blog posts like this, conversations like the one over at SheLoves – keep participants wrestling, in a good way. In my opinion, the “poor but happy narrative” is more reflective of the one who uses it rather than the one who is the subject of said narrative. When I’m thinking this way, I’ve noticed I’m thinking more about me than serving…

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Really good point Richelle – how we can think about our own possible responses to a situation like the ones we observe. It is a little bit like when someone says about boarding school, “Oh, I could never do that.” I’m not sure where that connection is coming from, but in my mind it makes sense. Somehow it communicates that a person is unwilling/unable to enter into empathy and can only observe from outside a situation. Maybe I’m wrong about that…

      • Richelle Wright

        Entering in is scary – observing from outside is safe. Entering in changes me and makes me accountable. Only observing allows me to pronounce an impartial judgement with no accountability- and most times renders me totally unqualified to do just that. I’m wondering if impartiality is all it’s cracked up to be… Having no part of something is contrary to vulnerability, identification… entering in.

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          Entering in changes me – yes, yes! And that IS so scary. The accountability part too. It is scary for me still, after all these years. I’ve tried to observe and write about this running team and find myself continually entering in, I can’t stay out, but it challenges me deeply too.

  • asmithb

    “If the poor are so happy, that alleviates some of the rich person’s guilt.” So succinct and so well-put.

  • I read a photo-journalistic article yesterday, “Happy smiles of Ghana” or something like that. The children there are most noble, happiest, etc, etc. It was hard to swallow. To me, the idea of “poor, but happy” insinuates that those others are somehow naive, that they don’t know to expect better, don’t know to dream. Happy simpletons.

    In my time building relationships within the homeless community back in America I learned how close poverty can be – a few paychecks, one crushing sadness, one injury away. That was over time, learned through relationships and experience. Is there any way to break down the barriers between us and “Them” without experience and time? Is it possible to live a middle-class life with little personal interaction with the poor, and come up with anything other than the “poor but happy” narrative?

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Grace, your questions at the end of the comment are really challenging and so important, so key to being able to share stories well. Boo also talked about the ‘earned fact,’ that she wouldn’t write something until she had seen it/heard it often enough that she could, with integrity, write it. That takes a lot of time, a lot of investment.

  • Dalaina May

    Rachel, THIS. IS. AWESOME. I grew up overseas in a very poverty stricken area of the globe, and my parents hosted about a zillion short term teams. If I had had the ability to put words to what was in my heart as I heard all the comments from those short-termers, THIS is what I would have said.
    I do think there is something to idea that poverty in some way makes it easier to see/acknowledge God. At least that was my experience in the village in Peru where we lived. There was no access to things like medical care or nutrition, so many people seemed to go straight to God. In my community in the USA, it feels like God is often a last resort. God shows up for the people that are desperate, who have an expectation that He will come through for them, and I have found that desperation most commonly linked to my brothers and sisters who live in poverty. I wonder if that is the “blessed” part of being poor… that the kingdom of God can be so visible because it is welcomed there in a way that it isn’t in other parts of the world.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Dalaina, thank you so much for bringing this point up – Jesus did say ‘blessed’ are the poor. I don’t want to ignore that. You put it really well – how desperation can lead to faith and an intimate relationship and reliance on God. Wealthy people can so easily rely on our doctors, savings, support networks that we aren’t forced into faith by necessity.

  • Ellen

    My husband and I currently live in northern Ghana. I could write a book, but suffice it to say, the people lack hope – don’t even have a word for it in their language and can’t agree even on a phrase that would describe it accurately to another from this culture. Happy in their poverty? No way. Working and straining to survive another day? Absolutely.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Working hard, yes, it is the same here. Of course they love and celebrate but to get through the day is such a challenge.

  • Bethany

    I write for a missions organization and it can definitely be a challenge to strike a balance between “Look at how God has changed their lives! They have so much joy now! This is wonderful!” and “Please keep praying for them because their lives are still pretty rotten in a lot of ways.”

    If I can show that the people have joy in Christ *despite* the hardships in the same way that you or I would, I feel like I’ve succeeded. They aren’t too sheltered to know there’s a better life out there. They aren’t too simple-minded to wish for it. It’s by the miraculous grace of God that they can find peace and trust in Him to provide.

    And yeah, what you said about short-term mission trip smiles.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      It IS really hard to know how to communicate with people who aren’t here, who don’t know the people or the context. That is one of the hardest things for me as a writer – how to do it honestly and helpfully.

  • Shari

    I fed some inner city homeless people back home for a period of time, but can honestly say now it didn’t really sink in. I see more clearly what a surface act it was. For the last 8 months I’ve been taking aid to homeless people on the streets of a 3rd world country. I provide formula for a baby that might otherwise have joined her deceased siblings by now. The widowed grandmother that raises her (praying this one will live) has the most beautiful smile, always glad to see me, and seems so lovely and elegant in her own right, under her tarp on the sidewalk. Do I confuse this with happy? Not for a minute. A young widow, shot by her father-in-law, now living on the street, told me how westerners had photographed her asking someone for money. She cried telling me, her dignity trampled. Did she set out to live this life? No. When she smiles at seeing me is she forgetting the desperation of her circumstances and elevating to a happy place? Never. I know I have no real deep-in-my-bones idea of what they live, but I know it isn’t next of kin to happiness, no matter how beautiful the smile.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks Shari, for sharing these hard stories. There can be contentment, even peace, but those are different emotions than happy, aren’t they? There can be an affection and a gladness to see a friend, to be served, loved, cared for with dignity. These stories capture that really well.

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Love this Rachel! Thank you for consistently bringing up issues of poverty in your writing. We got involved in ministry among the poor in America, sort of accidentally, and completely without understanding of all the issues. Only after it failed did I read “When Helping Hurts” which, for me, really illuminated what poverty is, and also why what we did was such a failure. (Yeah, we didn’t do any research into best practices before spending tens of thousands of dollars on a bus.) This was in the context of a local church, and when the leadership decided that what we were doing wasn’t working, and couldn’t work, the congregation was upset. We were bussing kids to church once a week to feed them and teach them. (Ack! Just writing that now is so mortifying. Yes, we did that, and yes, we thought we were doing something good.) The people who weren’t working in the ministry that was burning everyone else out thought it was a great ministry and didn’t want us to stop, and I wondered if they just liked it because they could check that off their list, and say, well, I don’t have to help the poor, my church has a bus ministry. So we did it, we did what the book said, we tried to help, but instead we hurt. Totally changed my ideas toward working with the poor, and also toward working solely with children and not their parents.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Elizabeth I love your humility and honesty here. I think it is also important to have grace on ourselves, on each other, as we all learn and grow. It stinks to have something to look back on that you regret (I sure do) but I also believe that God will use and does use anything, loving attempts to serve are good, we just need to be willing to change and learn. My husband says generosity trumps best practices, in other words, love and sincerity are truly valuable as well. But yes, let’s learn! Both/and.

      • Elizabeth Trotter

        Thank you for your encouragement, Rachel. You are right, love and sincerity do matter, although, in this case, we may have had a bit of a savior complex in our approach. :/ But we did learn so much, in many ways it was good to learn it hands-on before moving overseas, where adding the cultural/language aspect to the issue can be so confusing. Although, I would certainly say we were working with a culture different from our own white middle class suburban backgrounds! And while our actions were not very well thought through, and I *think* I have better ideas now, I’m still not sure I actually know any of the “right” ways to do it. As you said, always learning 🙂

  • Wendy

    Just today my dad referred to a desperately poor couple he met in India that seemed so happy. Although he wasn’t pointing out their suffering because we know that indeed they truly suffer, I knew he was just saying that those lacking in the fog of materialism are often more at peace than those of us living with so much. It never occurred to me that this saying could ever alleviate anyone of our responsibility to assist them! OF COURSE they have misery beyond what we could imagine. How can we state that happiness can be found easier sometimes in those who have few possessions?

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Just to argue against what I wrote myself – there IS a sense though in which wealth sucks away happiness and contentment. I think we simply need to be careful in our attitudes and how we can use these things like happiness as an excuse.

  • petervandever

    I am convinced that poverty in a choice in most cases. In fact, they didnt even know what poverty was until the Westerners came and told them they was poor.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I would like to let this comment go, but I’ve got to say that people who are hungry, dying young, struggling to clothe their families – they know very well that they are poor. And I strongly disagree that poverty is a choice in most cases.

      • LIKE.

        Oh, wait. We’re not on facebook. But you get the point.

      • petervandever

        Poverty is mainly a western concept.

        Philippines, for example, lived the same way for generations and did not think of themselves as poor. The Westerners come and now they see them as “poor.” Poverty is really a white man’s idea.

        Poverty is something that can beat but mission work is not an international version of welfare and ObamaCare 🙂

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  • You are a superb quoter, Rachel! To follow up I will add a quote from a renowned author,

    “A person’s a person…”

    Yes. I agree with you. People are people. We ALL have our baggage no matter our income bracket, our address (or lack thereof), or the biological stick we drew.

    Currently reading ‘Half the Sky’. WOW.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      The hospital mentioned in the Somaliland part – Edna Aden’s hospital – that is where we stayed for a week mid-evacutation back in 2003. It is a really amazing book.

  • Simret

    All I want to say is: BRAVO! I would just like to add one respond to this statement that most often comes to mind when people say “Oh, but they seem so happy!”. Well what do you expect them to say or be like? Even the poor have their pride, self respect, and honor. Most will not share their struggles, and bemoan their dire circumstances or their fears to every stranger, well meaning as they may be. As you so stated this does indeed takes time! Most will only share those deep feelings and thoughts when they believe you know them in that very sense of the word… not just superficially.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks. Exactly – people will behave with dignity and kindness (of course not all!) and in the context of relationship, reveal the deeper parts.

    • Well said. My friends in Central America had a culture of politeness and formality especially with foreigners. They did not share right away that they lacked money to buy a barrel of water, or that the baby had anemia, etc. They always wear their best clothes in public, too. My friends didn’t see the facade at first. When you stay longer than a week, or perhaps you visit multiple times, then you see that the home has no plumbing, that most of the household has no shoes, that the children have skin infections, etc. Then you realize that mom cries because there’s no money to send her son to high school, or that her dad will die of diabetes because the distance to the clinic to obtain medication is too far for him to walk. Then, you realize that the smiling, beautiful face has many more struggles than the average US citizen.

  • Good conversation. A couple of variations come to my mind.

    One is the observation that sometimes “poor but happy” is a way of saying, “Until I came here and saw the poverty and how, rather than appearing pressed down and miserable all the time, people still laugh with their children, chat with their neighbors, go for evening walks, sing and dance in church, and otherwise live the dignity of their humanity.” There is an expectation that poverty and oppression will mean obvious and continual sighing and despondency, dead eyes, bloated stomachs and diseased skin. The discovery that life goes on, communities care for one another, children are prized, husbands and wives spat, families are loved, news and football are avidly discussed, graces are noticed–for many, that comes as a surprise, a freeing one. “These are people–like me in all the good stuff and the bad” is perhaps a piece of discovery when one comes alongside poverty. Not so much romanticizing it, as you discuss, as humanizing it. (Of course there are so many levels and depths of poverty, including that level when there is nothing left but abject suffering in starvation, disease and exposure. That is another thing entirely.)

    The second observation is that culture determines much of what any person reflects about their situation. We live among a people who have a cultural value of laughter, warmth and hospitable welcome no matter what is going on in their lives. Sometimes we are let in on cracks of awareness that they are doing it: “We smile and cover our misery,” can be spoken with tinges of anger and sorrow in rare moments.

    Thanks for your stimulating piece.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Really good points Jeri. I don’t have much to add to them, but I especially appreciate what you said about not romanticizing poverty but humanizing it, thanks for sharing.

  • Annie

    I love this, Rachel. Honestly, I get so tired of the opposite (“all poor people are horribly depressed and desperate and need your help right now or they will die/starve/be uneducated-homeless-unemployed, etc”) that I have not really stopped to think much about this mindset before now. Thanks for bringing it up!

    I live in Kenya and sometimes when short-termers leave, I look at their Facebook pictures of snot-nosed kids with torn clothes and no shoes and a blank stare, and knowing the children they’ve photographed think “man, they totally missed her with this shot.” Of course “happy” doesn’t always define them–but those clothes are torn because he and his friends roll down the hill everyday after school like other 5 year old boys love to do… she’s not smiling because she is staring at that big shiny thing that is blocking your face that she hasn’t even seen yet because it’s always behind a DSLR. I just hate any of us KNOWING someone or a situation as we simply pass through… I don’t want to do that to other people and I also don’t want them to do it to me.

    In my experience, people in poverty who follow Jesus have taught me incredible things about joy despite circumstances–but I certainly agree that most of my friends in these circumstances would not associate themselves with the “happy” adjective. It is so simplistic and barely scratches the surface of the emotions we as humans are capable of feeling, especially during hardship.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      This is wonderful Annie, thanks for commenting. I agree – there IS a happiness, a humanity that is real. Of course poor people enjoy life and laugh and have wonderful relationships! I guess it is the simplicity of only seeing that, not the full complexity, that gets me. Or showing those photos without really knowing the kid, even if they are a generally happy kid. And I agree, people in poverty who have faith do teach amazing things about contentment. I’m glad you brought this up because I know the post only begins to open this topic and the Word is FULL of verses about how wealth destroys and how God has a unique love for the poor. I’d like to continue thinking/writing about these things.

  • John Donaghy

    I am trying to think about your questions from my experience here in western Honduras, as a Catholic lay missionary.

    I agree with you that the “poor but happy” theme is very disconcerting and reveals a failure to have a more profound experience with the poor that listens to their joys and fears, their hopes and desperation.

    But I’m not at all sure about your remarks about “holiness and poverty.” I do see the venality and the sinfulness of the poor I meet. I’ve gotten over romanticizing the poor. But I still think there is something about the poor and their condition that can open them more to God and that can open those of us who are rich (even comparatively so) to God’s love.

    I do believe in the preferential option for the poor as an essential part of evangelizing, but this is not because they are good – but because God has chosen them and loves them. After all, we Christians have a God who made himself poor. There’s got to be something about this that helps us to holiness.

    I am struggling but I don’t think it’s enough to just say that there is nothing inherent on poverty that leads to holiness. However, I’m coming to believe that poverty of some sort – or at least solidarity with the poor – is part of the way that God will save us.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      John, thank you for this comment. You’re right, and I’m hoping to write more about this in the future – about the reality that the lack of material goods opens people more to God, and how wealth is a challenge to deep faith. My point is that it oversimplifies and that just because someone is poor – that alone does not make them holy. And yes, Jesus emptied himself of EVERYthing. This piece just touches on some things about poverty and I think this kind of conversation is so necessary, I need to be challenged as well to do what your last sentence says – grow in solidarity with the poor.

  • I think that any narrative that can be distilled down into three words is probably deeply problematic when you look at it too hard. Beyond that, I’m still struggling with exactly what I’m thinking of with regards to this… and blogging trips.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Can I say me too, even though I wrote it? I say don’t oversimplify and then in one post, of course, I oversimplify. But stirring up conversation is partly the point. And the same thing on blogging trips. I’d like to hear more candid discussion about them, but that is really intimidating to do, especially online/in public.

      • Course you can. Someone once told me “You’re an ARTISTE, you can say and do whatever you want.” That mantra’s probably deeply problematic, too. But I still pull it out whenever it suits me. And it certainly applies to you too :).

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          Love this, thanks Lisa!

  • Bonnie Wilcox

    When I have met those who live in rural Tanzania who have the treasure of joy, I reflect sadly upon our Western themes of scarcity and isolation and fear. Why don’t we have the richness of their relationships? their generosity that does not hold on? and their understanding that hard times come, and it will get better?

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  • Maria Pescadora

    I love your post and find a lot of truth in it. I think one thing that you are missing about the “poor but happy” statement from Americans is how much the statement is really about personal trauma with our own identity. We’ve pretty much been taught from birth in America that being poor is the worst thing that can happen to you (which is clearly untrue) and that being rich is the goal. When Americans travel to developing countries for the first time and see that in fact, poorer people sometimes have better family relationships, are more generous with each other and are not all on antidepressants, it can be a real shock. It makes us question all the messages that many of us had not even known to question previously. Essentially, the statement, to me, is more about our painful realization that we could never be as happy as they are if placed in their same situation and that many of us are not in a much more economically privileged one. That shock is confusing and enlightening at the same time. So, while that statement is problematic if it their way of understanding those living in poverty and their struggles, I believe it can be an excellent lesson that more Americans need to realize that the more we get, the less happy we seem to be. I believe this is important because if we realize we don’t need so much, the whole world would benefit. In many ways our greed is killing everyone else just as much as it is us.

  • the Tamster

    Also, although I agree that poor does not equal “happy”. I do think we need to be careful in how we define poverty. My mother grew up “poor” in what was once an “off the heated path” part of Hawaii, but she always says that she never knew she was poor because everyone in her part of Hawaii lived the same way. She has memories of fishing and climbing coconut trees and not wearing shoes to school or anywhere until she was about 12 and feeling like she had a great life, even though money was always tight. She lived the way everyone around her lived, so her poverty was her “normal”. It wasn’t until she went to the University of Hawaii in Honolulu and heard how people talked about her section of Hawaii and saw how others grew up that she found out that she had been considered “poor”. Even today, mainland churches send mission teams to this part of Hawaii and the local people are somewhat offended by this. They are are poor my American standards but not destitute or hungry. My aunt said that it made her feel poorer than she had ever considered herself when outsiders wanted to come and help them. So, I think we need to be careful in how we define “poor” .

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  • Colleen Connell Mitchell

    I. Oh. Rachel. I am sick today and can barely put together a coherent thought except YES! Truth spoken here. My friend sat across from the table from me the other day after we had laughed over dinner and a beer–“happy”–and confessed how the memories of growing up in poverty with an abusive/alcoholic father were haunting him at night so he was barely sleeping. How sometimes he dreams of the day he punched his father to protect his mother and wishes he had just killed him. How he is desperately afraid that one day it will surface in him and he will hurt his wife and his children. He is our guide when we have visitors. He smiles and shares his culture and makes people happy and makes a wage that feeds his family. I’m sure they would tell the tale of his happiness. And the other side is not my story to tell. But I do hope that our interaction long term with our friends here helps those short term visitors stop playing “poor people paper dolls”–tape clothes on a one-dimensional figure and think you have helped/

  • Lourens Laureti

    Its a good point! We are working amongst the Mengen people in Papua New Guinea, who are under the impression that they are rich and blessed, but as soos as the West entered they started to evaluate themselves differently and are now under the impression that they are poor! I guess poverty depends framework of the society you live in?

  • Heather

    I’ve never heard such truths in such a simplistic format. You rock!

  • CCurbow

    Thanks for writing this! It is so refreshing and needed to be said. Yes, the poor are noble in which they approach the challenges of each day with humor and in peace. I believe that these are emotions and mental stages which help them get through their day.

  • Adam Willard

    I’ve been living in a small village in rural Madagascar (one of the world’s 10 poorest countries) for over two years now. Before this village, I lived in a different village in rural Madagascar with a different tribal group. Before that, I lived in a rural village in South Africa for a couple of years. My point being, I have experience living with and among “poor people”. Before that, I taught at an inner-city high school in the US and worked child protection services (mostly serving “poor” people) in the US. (Though I admit, I didn’t live in their neighborhoods, when I worked those jobs.) And my experiences shows that poverty is internalized very different by rural South Africans than by rural Malagasy, and much more differently still by “poor” Americans.

    The rural South Africans we lived among (about 20-30 times poorer than average Americans) were at least 10 times wealthier on average than the rural Malagasy we live among now (and have lived among in other locations in Madagascar). Yet the Malagasy truly are, for the most part, “happier”. I’ve lived long-term among and with (and spoke the local language) of both of these communities, and I’m telling you this is true. I believe the reason is because the Malagasy we live among are not often stigmatized for their poverty, there’s not much of a push to be anything else. Everyone’s “poor”; or more accurately, everyone’s more or less the same.

    Whereas in South Africa, the proximate wealth inequality was much greater. Though the South Africans had access to free schooling a short walk away, free meals for the kids at school, great access to very cheap electricity, (eventually) free running water, multiple and affordable options for healthcare not too far away, and (sometimes) free housing, and much greater annual income – yet they felt very poor and thus weren’t always happy. A multitude of TV shows and advertisements made it clear that they were among the poorest in their country, and a short bus ride would demonstrate wealth they’d never attain. Nonetheless, I feel like our South African neighbors demonstrated much more happiness than the “poor” Americans I’ve worked with in the past. I will admit my judgment here is lacking as I never lived in an especially “poor” American neighborhood.

    Our Malagasy neighbors have none of these things. They’ll most likely never (in their lifetime) have access to electricity, to running water, they’ll always have to pay for school and they’ll probably always have to travel hours to get to middle school and above, they’ll never get someone to build them a house for free, their decent healthcare options will always stretch their budget (if they can even travel the distance), and if they don’t grow enough of their own food, they’ll probably starve during the year. But as a whole, they’re pretty happy with life. Sickness (in my experience) is the main time that lack of happiness is evident. Of course there are things they want in life: better education for their kids, a new canoe, a new fish net, whatever. And when a planting season is bad, they’re obviously less happy because their rice might not be sufficient. Nobody anywhere (that I know) is without want, and the wants of our rural Malagasy neighbors aren’t of a different kind than around the world, just of a different scale. There are few people in the world who have the money to provide all their wants, and of those who do, are they really happier because of it? As a whole, our Malagasy neighbors are much more satisfied (and happy) with life than our South African neighbors were/are.

    The truth is, as you only barely pointed out: wealth and poverty have very little to do with happiness. It has far more to do with expectations in life, both internalized ones and socialized ones. “Poor” Americans are typically much unhappier than their much poorer counterparts in other areas of the world. I believe it’s not because of what they lack in wealth/access, but because of the expectations that they need or deserve or envy the things they lack – and those feelings are mostly influenced by those around them, by their society as a whole. A Malagasy person (and even a rural South African’s) life isn’t founded so much on wealth and possession, the way a Westerner’s is, as it is on relationship and harmony. You can do fine in relationship and harmony (and thus be happy) even with a bare minimum of wealth and possession.

    To say, “They are poor but they’re happy” is one way of acknowledging that wealth itself (or lack of it) isn’t the primary factor in happiness. Maybe that’s not what everyone means when they say it. But to pity the poor, to exclaim loudly and publicly how much they “need help”, and worse, to try to “save them from their poverty” – all of those things are what contributes to poor people being unhappy. A poor person becomes poorer still when others arrive to proclaim their poverty to them. But to show up and acknowledge the vibrance of their lives, their joy in relationship: to acknowledge and accept a poor person’s happiness goes much further towards maintaining that happiness than a multitude of efforts to “save them from their poverty”.

    I’m not saying the wealthy aren’t complicit in the poverty of the world. I’m not saying economic injustice isn’t present everywhere and isn’t a terrible thing. But the best thing a person can do for a poor person is to live with them. They can realize that being “poor” isn’t the worst thing in the world. Being unable to accept your general circumstances in life (whether wealthy or poor) is much worse. So why not say “they are poor but they’re happy. They know a heck of a lot more about what matters than materialist Westerners do. Maybe I should stop pitying the poor and start pitying discontent.”

  • Jocelyn Walmsley Jelsma

    Thank you for writing this… So many short termers come and say: “They are so happy!” But they don’t see the ongoing struggle facing the families we work alongside. They don’t see that the women are only eating once a day, if they are even eating. They don’t see how one illness in the family can lead to bankruptcy over medical bills. They don’t see the lack of choices, lack of educational opportunities, the poverty of an acceptance that “things will never change”… loss of hope. Yes, there are smiles, shared jokes, laughter over babies, and joy in singing. But there are also tears, frustration, apathy and fear for the future. Communicating reality is so important. Yes, God is near, yes He is caring for those living in poverty, but the struggle is real.

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