Showing posts with label poverty. Show all posts
Showing posts with label poverty. Show all posts

Thursday, November 10

Battling the grotesque





















Most readers quickly and rightly reject novels that detail abuse of animals, children or other vulnerable populations. Reading about systemic poverty and lack of opportunity – the slow neglect and breakdown of human spirit – should be equally disturbing. The Rabbit Hutch alludes to first while detailing the humiliations and weariness associated with the second. 
The debut novel by Tess Gunty explores how individuals slide into disturbing behaviors, influenced by surroundings, circumstances and other people. The setting is a dilapidated apartment building known as the Rabbit Hutch in Vacca Vale, a dying Indiana industrial town. Most occupants resent and avoid their neighbors. These include a quiet middle-aged woman who moderates comments for online obituaries and four young adults recently aged out of the foster-care system. 

The characters are flawed, insecure in this desolate environment. A visitor from Hollywood, the depressed son of a child movie star, suggests that other people are "dangerous because they are contagions. They infect you with or without your consent; they lure you onto paths you wouldn't have chosen.... if you collide with someone, you must be prepared to reside inside their psychology indefinitely, and this is the burden of a lifetime." These characters, struggling to communicate and launch meaningful relationships, do collide rather than connect. 

The discomfort over an inability to find companionship is not limited to dying communities, and the visitor from Hollywood concedes that his own conversations with others are a mess as "he doesn't know how to have clean ones anymore." While in Vacca Vale, he wanders into a church and agrees after a priest asks if he is there for a confession. After describing his fears and worst behaviors, the man questions the priest’s assessment. The priest admits to weariness and advises the confession might be his last. Unleashing regret, the man mourns “rot at the center of the Catholic Church,” Rather than effect change, the priest felt infected. “Abuse should be condemned. Birth control should be encouraged…. These are easy things, obvious things, unavoidably right and good, and yet I’ve come to believe that they’re never going to happen within this decaying institution. I’m sick of following orders, meekly playing the game, waiting for the rules to change themselves.” 

His complaints target one institution, yet capture the dilemma of anyone trapped within systems, playing by questionable rules while ignoring massive, obvious problems. The priest counsels the visitor that no person can be all good or all bad. “You’re just a series of messy, contradicting behaviors, like everyone else. Those behaviors can become patterns, or instincts, and some are better than others. But as long as you’re alive, the jury’s out.” 

Progress depends on breaking old patterns, avoiding old mistakes. 
Blandine
St. Blandine

The apartment is the first for the foster children, three young men and a woman, Tiffany. She is intelligent, well-read, but she drops out of high school after a misguided affair. Despite or maybe because of her own history of hurt and neglect, she continues to study and learn, touting a library copy of She-Mystics: An Anthology and adopting the name of Blandine, a slave girl martyred for her Christian beliefs in the 2nd century. The teenager stands out as odd, fascinated less by religion and more by ethics, philosophy, and ancient saints who practiced self-abuse to achieve immortality and godliness. 

With a few exceptions, Blandine is wary of new relationships – "My whole life has educated me against investments whose rewards depend on the benevolence of others." And so she regards Hildegard, a mystic from the 12th century, as her only true friend, relying on quotes for guidance: “Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked, remain brave and strong” and “Humanity, take a good look at yourself. Inside, you have heaven and earth, and all of creation. You are a world – everything is hidden in you.”  

St. Hildegard von Bingen
















Blandine ponders how the mystics, despite their gender and solitude, left their mark on history and human thought. And while she does not believe in God and regards the mystics as selfish and individualistic, she wonders how a modern mystic might challenge climate change, systemic injustice, the “plundering growth imperative,” and other obvious challenges in Vacca Vale. 

Ambition mixes with fear, and Blandine admits to often being “attacked by an awareness of how impossible it is to learn and accomplish all that she needs to learn and accomplish before she dies.” She denies herself a high school scholarship, the chance to attend college, appropriate roommates all while searching for virtue in a community seeping with inequality, corruption, insecurity and depression. Reflecting on her own life, she concedes that "It all looks so - so grotesque." She longs to transform her community but lacks tools to intercede. 

Another neighbor – Joan, the editor of online obituaries – is fearful and lonely, witnessing the pain of Vacca Vale on a more personal scale. One day while walking, she observing the impulsive ease of strangers demonstrating care for a person who collapses on the street. She understands that “human tenderness was not to be mocked. It was the last real thing.” 

The disjointed plot is relayed with exquisite sentences. The theme is strong – people can transform, breaking habits and moving the many obstacles they have placed in their own way by practicing kindness. A brief and awkward encounter between Joan and Blandine in the book’s earliest pages isn't the last. The two women discover a shred of connection – thank to persistence, hope, empathy – hundreds of pages later.

Monday, October 24

Abandoned

 












The Foundling, set in 1927 at a state institution in Central Pennsylvania, is modeled after the real Laurelton State Village for Feeble-Minded Women of Childbearing Age, that operated between 1920 and 1998. The institution's purpose evolved over the decades, but the goal during the early years was eugenics – to prevent troubled and “feeble-minded” women from reproducing.

Soon after opening, Laurelton had a waiting list to care for women deemed insane by husbands or abandoned by families, women who had large numbers of children by multiple men, as well as women who relied on prostitution or careers deemed as unsuitable. The state Public Charities Association supervised Laurelton along with prisons, orphanages and other facilities that cared for the “dependent classes,” explains a brief history in the West End Quarterly. 

“Throughout the early twentieth century, researchers, social reformers, and politicians cast a wide net for classifying people as ‘feebleminded,’” explains Micalee Sullivan. “The term lacked clear standards or definitions of who constituted ‘feeble-minded’ in the reports of the government agencies, as well as the report of directors at the Laurelton State Village. During the planning stages of the institution, an article described an institution that would ‘provide several groups embraced under the terms "idiotic," "imbecile," or "feeble-minded.'" 

Sullivan argues the institution’s history is complex, providing care and vocational training for women while also restricting freedoms. 

Pennsylvania Heritage praises Laurelton’s first superintendent, Mary Moore Wolfe: “Wolfe rejected the established medical traditions of the early 20th century that argued ‘mental deficiencies’ caused people to commit crimes and warranted locking them up forever. She believed ‘the problem of mental deficiency is not primarily a medical problem’ but instead was ‘an educational, and to a lesser degree, a sociological problem.’ Determined to make Laurelton Village a place of rehabilitation and not permanent segregation, Wolfe developed academic, vocational and moral training programs for the women living there.”

Laurelton sewing class, 1920s

The novel is more critical about such institutions and the power of those who profit from society’s most vulnerable. Protagonist Mary Engle feels fortunate to land a job as a secretary at the facility lauded as “progressive,” run by elegant Dr. Agnes Vogel, psychiatrist and one-time suffragist. Mary, raised in a Catholic orphanage after her mother’s death, squashes memories of seeking favors while enduring sexual abuse by an uncle during occasional visits. The orphan, learning more about the case histories of inmates, could only muse, “There by the grace of God …”  

The facility, not religious, is touted as “modern” – emphasizing rigid controls, long hours of hard work as ground crews, factory workers, dairy maids or housekeepers. Unlike Laurelton, the fictional Nettleton is described as offering no education or treatment. For favored staff members, there is luxury housing and meals, as well as alcohol purchased under the guise of “medicinal treatments” during the era of Prohibition. Local and state authorities pay little notice to the facility that boasts of self-reliance, requiring no tax dollars, while offering local jobs and revenue for local businesses.

Mary – a skilled professional – works tirelessly for Dr. Vogel, and the older woman eventually trusts her like a daughter, a closeness that creates distance for the secretary with other staff members and entangles her in corrupt activities including transport and misuse of alcohol. Mary soon detects physical abuse, harsh punishments and insults, but trusts that Dr. Vogel acts in the best interests of inmates. Skepticism grows as she meets more people her age, including a nurse in the facility, a journalist who is curious about rumors of cruelty, and eventually an inmate and one-time friend who grew up in the same orphanage where Mary was raised. The secretary struggles to act on her empathy for Lillian, the inmate, understanding that admission to a previous relationship with an inmate would result in termination of employment. Lillian, like many other inmates, is hardly feeble-minded, but the records do not reflect her education and capabilities.  

For weeks, Mary, torn over job security and her admiration for Vogel, avoids Lillian and rationalizes that that the other woman resists, simply not understanding the difference between right and wrong. As an orphan herself, Mary fears imperfection in herself and others, failing to understand that any attempt to assess others as feeble-minded or flawed reflects arrogance.  

Mary begins dating Jake, a journalist who questions eugenics and notions that some human beings are not meant to start families or participate in society. Jake is Jewish and Vogel is anti-Semitic, and Mary initially takes offense at his candid critiques of her employer along with the judges and politicians who support the institution. Relying on arrogance herself, she tries to dismiss his concerns for inmates who are institutionalized until they can no longer bear children: “Why would I waste time worrying about his ill-informed ideas when I, at age eighteen, already knew more than he’d ever know about how power and justice really work in this world?”  

Power corrupts, including onlookers who may benefit the least. As Albert Einstein noted, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” As an orphan herself, Mary is timid and na├»ve, trying to rationalize the cruel inequities. At times, the book is too optimistic, offering minimal tension and obstacles in what had to be a treacherous workplace.


Mary and Jake manage to rescue Lillian, but Vogel and her political backers move on to more prominent positions, never investigated or condemned for forcing hundreds of young women to work as unpaid laborers, preventing them from pursuit of any type of normal life. Many women won their freedom only with menopause, and if they were lucky, families and friends helped keep past lives a secret.  Women raised in in rural Pennsylvania during the early 20th century feared and whispered about such places. Orphans, homeless, scorned wives understood they could be locked away for the best of years of their lives. And during the Depression, many families simply could not afford to assist or speak out. A century of change exposes the nightmarish conditions, regardless of good intentions, and readers can only wonder how citizens a century from now might assess today's under-funded schools, homeless shelters, prisons or immigrant camps. 

Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime, noted Aristotle. 

The real institution of Laurelton took on many forms over the years, finally closing its doors in 1998. The empty buildings and more than 265 acres were sold for $1 million in 2021. 

Photos courtesy of Pennsylvania Heritage and Architectural Afterlife.


Saturday, January 15

Rescue












A 7.0 magnitude earthquake strikes Port-au-Prince in January 2010, a place already so desperately poor, prompting survivors to scramble to rescue loved ones and strangers and “to save photographs and whatever trinkets they held dear that meant nothing at all to anyone else on earth.” In the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and later in the refugee camps, people become the same, “were always the same,” and as one market vendor observes, this was “something we had always known from our low-to-the-ground perches…”

In What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J.A. Chancy, ten narrators, connected by blood and, in some cases, friendship share the story of the earthquake and its aftermath. the stories are poignant and brutally honest. Often, small and seemingly inconsequential objects and memories link the characters and the relationships they cherish. Even before the earthquake, all held “dreams about where they’d rather be.” Individual methods may have varied, including wealth, marriage, or crime, but the common hope is to escape hardship and grinding poverty.

Haiti ranks among the poorest countries in the world with a GDP per capita of less than $3000. Such poverty blurs individuality, and vendor Ma Lou, mother and grandmother of two narrators, describes the marketplace as a place of “colliding senses, … much of it decay, especially at the end of the day, when the best of what’s available is gone and all that remain are castoffs, the leftovers.” She describes the market workers as blending into the dust, becoming “one with the elements…, the nothing that we are.” She adds, “striving toward perfection is beyond our reach.”

Haitians who managed to flee prior to the earthquake learn the news by way of international broadcasts. Haunted and torn, they do not feel as they belong in their new homes: “Sometime, being an immigrant is like being illiterate,” explains one of the narrators. He feels the weight of the tragedy, knowing that up to 300,000 died and survivors endure unthinkable hardship – hunger, sexual assault, cholera, injuries while no medical treatment. Yet he also understands there is little he can do to help by returning home. “The weight of not being able to do enough,” Didier notes. “If I was honest with myself, that was why I’d left.”

The book lightly criticizes charity and donors who set agendas for tackling crises, drawn into assisting others while seeking credit. Organizations and donors judge needs while victims can only wait and accept whatever is given. Of course, after the earthquake, Haitians required safe shelter, clean water and nutrition, yet what should be so easy, supplying basics, becomes overwhelming. And of course, individuals have needs and priorities less obvious to others – a photograph of a loved one, bones of a deceased husband, the fading memories of a child’s pattering footsteps, giggles and final kiss.

One of the most vulnerable narrators, a woman who loses three children refers to NGOs as Not God’s Own. The tent where she lives after the quake includes a label, “A gift from the American people … in association with the Republic of Ireland” and she finds herself regretting dreams and plans made with a husband who abandoned her after the tragedy. “She wished they had other things in mind, escape routes and exit strategies. They’d set their eyes on nothing but a future in which everything would go according to a fabricated plan that they believed in more than in reality itself – or that amplified it.”

Globalization of news, the instant knowledge about a distant crisis, might catch attentions briefly and that invites comparisons. Not long after the tragedy, one of the narrators, an architect, receives an email about an earthquake in the Italy and the loss of 200,000 rounds of pecorino. Activists quickly organize a global campaign to cook Italian recipes and donate proceeds to the region. “It was a kind objective, a goodwill gesture, but reading about it only made me sigh wearily,” notes Anne. “For every round of cheese, a person had died in the Haiti earthquake, and now I was expected to respond to this regional calamity while still burying our dead as if I, and others, might be ‘over’ what had happened to us….”

Still, the architect flounders in helping her hometown and leaves for Africa, later putting her energy to entering an international competition for rebuilding a Haitian cathedral near her neighborhood. She cares deeply about the project, describing the luxury of researching the history, exploring and imagining new beauty, while deciding whether her goal in creating a replacement is to commemorate the dead or recognize what remains. Her section concludes: “I did it for the satisfaction of doing something, of imagining a better, less hostile future, where a God might still exist to watch over us.”

As pointed out in Allure of Deceit, no amount of rules and regulations can prevent the ambition, greed, judgment, control, or inequality that can accompany organized charitable giving. 

The publication of What Storm, What Thunder, a work of fiction, was timely as another earthquake, magnitude 7.2, struck Haiti in August 2021, about 70 miles away from the capital, destroying more than 60,000 homes and killing more than 2,000 and injuring 12,000. 

Monday, January 27

Corruption

The future of Afghanistan is in jeopardy, because of poor governance and basic hunger.  UN data suggest that 55 percent of the country's children have stunted growth because of hunger. 

"The statistic is a damning one for western powers that have poured billions into Afghanistan to fund development and reconstruction. The US alone has spent $90bn (£54bn)," reports Emma Graham-Harrison for the Guardian. "Such funding aimed to modernise Afghanistan, but return on the spending seems to have been low."

Not so much damning, but frustrating and challenging. Such funding from afar will slow if the Afghan government can't reduce waste and corruption. The funding will vanish if Taliban extremists resume control.

Surveys suggest that Afghans view corruption along with insecurity and unemployment as an even more pressing challenge than poverty, suggests the United Nations. Yet corruption is embedded in the culture, suggests the UN Office on Drugs and Crime:

While corruption is seen by Afghans as one of the most urgent challenges facing their country, it seems to be increasingly embedded in social practices, with patronage and bribery being an acceptable part of day-to-day life. For example, 68 per cent of citizens interviewed in 2012 considered it acceptable for a civil servant to top up a low salary by accepting small
bribes from service users (as opposed to 42 per cent in 2009). Similarly, 67 per cent of citizens considered it sometimes acceptable for a civil servant to be recruited on the basis of family ties and friendship networks (up from 42 per cent in 2009).


Corruption erodes community trust, and yet tolerance for corruption remains high in Afghanistan and contributes to poverty and misdirection of resources. Hunger is the most basic problem, one that hampers student learning and worker productivity. The CIA World Factbook lists other statistics that point to a weak, yet dangerous place: The country's literacy rate hovers around 40 percent.  Unemployment stands at about 35 percent. Half the population is under the age of 18. The average number of children among women is five. The country produces 90 percent of the world's opium and more than 5 percent of the population may be addicted.

The harsh truth is that only a fraction of any funds directed at Afghanistan will achieve their intended purpose, and donors must decide how to proceed. Weak governance and high levels of corruption ensure uncertainty in future foreign aid for Afghanistan.

Photo of member of US Army medical unit treating a malnourished child, 18 months old, in Afghanistan, courtesy of Capt. John Severns and Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, October 13

Poverty

Data from the CIA offer one strange look into the relativity of national poverty. The definitions of poverty vary wildly among nations. Here's a select group of nations ranked for percentage of the population living below the poverty line.

Poverty is in the eye of the beholder.