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.

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