The War on Poverty and Income Inequality: Between Downtown and the Dump

by Kirk Spencer

war on povertyIn the summer of 2001, I visited the Philippines. My first day in Manila was spent with the children that roam the streets and tin shanties, along the banks of muddy drainage channels. Their faces were dirty and their hair streaked red-blond from vitamin deficiencies. Though they were very poor, they were friendly and playful. They gathered round me asking questions, wanting to know about me, wanting me to play the street-games they had invented. At dusk I saw how the other side lived, watching a beautiful sunset over Manila from the garden roof of a fancy skyscraper. There were rows of televisions, a large swimming pool and a fine Mongolian Grill restaurant. A rich man sat across from me looking quite pleased with himself, eager for me to get to know him. Between frequent cell-phone interruptions, he told me about the low divorce rate in Manila. He explained the reason… Everybody had at least one mistress. He lived alone in a very nice house. His wife lived somewhere else—but he had his mistresses. As the conversation continued, he wanted me to know the money “games” that he played. It became obvious that, as much as he had, he didn’t have enough. He was jealous of how much more he believed his neighbors had.

The next day, I made a trip from downtown Manila to a large garbage dump outside of the city. There were several communities of people living there amid the garbage. That trip showed me something about income-inequality, something I’ll never forget. On the way out of the city, I saw the sleek buildings of downtown Manila. Well-dressed business persons walked by, on their way to their high-dollar, high-pressure jobs. Jobs necessary to pay for their high-income lifestyle and nannies for their children… and to keep their kept mistresses. The faces of these people showed intensity, but they did not appear to be happy or content. They looked stressed—submerged in the polluted city air.

When the glass city was gone, outside the van’s windows, I saw rusted corrugated tin… rows of square shacks, tables and chairs on the sidewalk; in the shade of the trees, neighbors were playing table-games together. A mother was washing her naked baby in a tub. Older children were splashing in the puddles the playful bath had made. Amid such cheap pleasures, no one looked stressed. As a matter of fact they appeared happy and content—and the air was not as polluted.

In the Dumps

When I stepped out of the van at the dump, the first thing I noticed was how springy the ground was. The ground gave under my feet. I was walking on layers of garbage compacted into a kind of collage-like pavement. On the other side of the parking area was a basket-ball goal with a large group of skinny boys lost in the game. There was no net in the hoop, but they didn’t seem to mind. The homes of the community were made of scraps of discarded materials collected from the distant edges of the dump. Some houses were well kept and others were more ramshackle (as is true of most neighborhoods). The neighbors also sat around tables playing games and talking to each other. I’m sure they would prefer not to live in the dump, but I sensed contentment, even in the situation. I guess I had expected misery and insecurity and discontentment among the poor (really poor). But insecurity and discontentment (and even a little misery) is what I detected in the lives of the rich.[1]

What I’m Not Saying

I certainly don’t mean to imply that we should not have compassion on those that are needy and hungry. It is our obligation to give from what we have to help those who are less fortunate. The very reason I was in Manila was to help with missionary aid to the poor in that area.

Even when Jesus was responding to the Judas “kiss” (speaking of helping the poor only to help ourselves to the redistributions), He was referencing an Old Testament passage about our obligation to help those less fortunate. He said, “The poor you have with you always…”  Deuteronomy 15:11 says,

For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, “You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.”

Parable of Income Inequality

What I am trying to say is that income-inequality is only one (lesser) kind of inequality. There is also insecurity-inequality. This may even be one of the messages in Jesus income-inequality parable in Matthew 20. In the parable those paid less for more work are placed at the end of the line so they can see those who worked less get paid more. The outcome was that income-inequality was producing insecurity-inequality. And in our insecurity, we lose what we have, worrying about what we don’t have. It is the very thing I saw between downtown and the dump: the “haves” wasting life discontent about what they do not have and the “havenots” finding cheap pleasure in what they do have. As in the Parable of Income Inequality: Because of our envious eye, we cannot see—or enjoy, or share—God’s generosity.

In the dump, I didn’t see one television or cell phone. So they did not have technology to show them a “richer” world beyond what they already had. They were missing and important source of temptation to jealousy and the discontentment and insecurity that follows. In the dump, they lived in the real world they had, and they found contentment and even happiness in it.  It reminded me of the old proverb “the poor man gets a good night’s rest.” The rich man is worried that someone will take his stuff. And it is true… one day all his stuff will be taken. It will be taken at his last breath. And then what?

Postscript

I remember one tin shanty about the size of a small garage. In the back corner an old insulated box. Inside a small bag of ice and a jar of mayonnaise. On the shelf above, half a loaf of bread. On Sundays this was a church. On the day I visited, it was just a poor man’s house. When we entered he wanted to give us something. So we all had mayonnaise sandwiches. And he was happy to share.


[1] Recently Phil Robertson, of “Duck Dynasty” fame mentioned that when he was young he saw poor black families that were happy and content. He was taken to task for this statement. The implication of much of the criticism was that no one who is poor and discriminated against could never find happiness and contentment in their situation. If this were true it would be sad. It is possible to transcend the situation. It is a double edged lie, that the poor must be sad and the rich happy. It is possible to be content, and to glorify God, in whatever conditions we find ourselves. Such a sentiment may not be popular in our culture today, but I would not expect it to be in such a materialistic world.

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2 Responses to The War on Poverty and Income Inequality: Between Downtown and the Dump

  1. sw4christ says:

    Great post! My wife is Filipino, and I have been there (to southern Mindanao) three times. My trips are a lot more recent than yours, but how you describe what you experienced is very much the same as now.

    The divorce rate is still very low because the Philippines does not allow divorce. Instead they have annulments. The process to get an annulment in the Philippines is very lengthy and expensive. Our wedding was in the Philippines, and that was one of the topics of our required marriage seminar.

    There is the fact that yes, very few people get their marriages annulled in the Philippines, but there is also the fact that yes, many men leave their families and take on a mistress whom they can never legally marry and have a second family with them. It is rather striking that in the US we say something similar to we all have several people in our lives that have been through a divorce or have been affected by divorce. When speaking of the practice men abandoning their families and taking on mistresses and other families, that same thing can be said by most Filipinos. My wife has friends and family with such stories.

    In some instances you will hear about men who have taken on another woman and family, and yet they still are involved with their original wife and family. Sometimes it is just something that isn’t spoken about, or it is something the wife and children just accept. Of course there are plenty of families who don’t accept that from the man and will have nothing to do with him. In some rare instances the woman will be the one who abandons the family.

    Any way, I rambled on enough. Again, great post, and I always enjoy listening to you on the podcast.

    For His Glory!

    • Kirk Spencer says:

      Thanks for the info and the encouragement…

      I have very fond memories of my time there and all the friends I made. And the food was good too (except for the balut… and the chicken feet on a stick).

      take care,
      ks

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