There is no running water or adequate protection from the elements. Whenever it rains hard at the border, or temperatures rise past 100 degrees or we run into a cold winter spell, I think about these people.
Seeing them struggle to survive on a daily basis makes me think about poverty and how it is defined. I always say that I came from a poor family but, compared to other parts of the world, we were definitely better off.
In the U.S., poverty is defined as an annual income below $23,850 for a household of four. Even in places where the cost of living is low, a family earning below this threshold is hard pressed to make ends meet.
In 2012, it was estimated that approximately 16 percent of the population in the U.S. was defined as living in poverty. However, there are programs to provide needy families with food and medical care, and private organizations, such as homeless shelters and food lines, that help people living below the poverty line to survive.
At the global level, rather than taking one static measurement, such as average annual household income to measure poverty, the United Nations uses its Human Poverty Index.
This tool takes a multifaceted approach in measuring poverty by examining factors such as quality of life, low literacy rates, life expectancy and overall living conditions. An index is then developed to rank countries based on poverty.
The top five countries that have the lowest poverty rates based on this index, in order, include: Norway, Australia, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the U.S.
Countries ranked as having the most people living in poverty are: Niger, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Chad and Sierra Leone. Countries such as Mexico rank in the middle of the pack between the more developed countries and the ones at the bottom of the list.
But do these figures and rankings really give us an idea of what it means to live in poverty? In the U.S., I have seen people living on the streets in large cities, and in what pass for shacks and beat-up single-wide trailers. I have been on the Navajo Nation in the northwestern corner of New Mexico and seen Native Americans living in hogans, built with wood and mud, unequipped with electricity and water.
In Germany, I saw poor people on street corners playing classical music for tips in order to eat. I had a conversation with an Iranian immigrant doorman in London, whom I asked how he could survive in one of the most expensive cities in the world with the salary he earned in his job. He told me that it was barely enough to buy himself food, and to pay for a flat that he and other immigrants were crammed into.
When I lived in Mexico City, I saw poverty in much more severe conditions. In barrios around the city, people lived on the sides of hills in makeshift dwellings that would be washed away during heavy rains. Some of these people lived in what would scarcely qualify as shelters.
Years ago, there was a dump located in what was then the western edge of this city. I was told of a group of people called the pepenadores (“pickers”) who lived in the dump scrounging for recyclables or any scrap of value to make ends meet.
To see for myself, I asked a friend to take me to the dump and I saw families with children not only searching for any scrap that could be sold, but also actually living in the dump. I could only watch for a little while before I became nauseated.
Some of the worst poverty I have ever seen was in Caracas, Venezuela, when we were passing through shantytowns on our way to another neighborhood.
Raw sewage was running between shacks that looked like a calm breeze would blow them over. People were half-clothed in whatever scraps they could muster, and most of the children were naked, filthy and walking through the muck.
The solutions to helping people living in these conditions are difficult and complex. It is not as simple as saying that increased economic development and industrialization will automatically lift these people out of poverty. In many instances, this can make the gap between rich and poor even more pronounced.
The benefits of increased economic development cannot positively impact the most poverty-stricken elements of society if they don’t have a minimal level of education and mobility.
However, many of these people cannot become educated because they are poor and must get up every morning in the hope of creating opportunities to feed themselves and develop adequate shelter from the elements.
Nor can they easily move themselves to where jobs are being generated. Thus, a vicious cycle is created that has proven hard to break in the developing world.
From the economic development standpoint, we must look past simply developing for development’s sake. We need to consider how the creation of opportunities can be beneficial, not only for society as a whole, but also especially for those people who have been unable to pull themselves out of poverty.
Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.