Let’s Dig A Little Deeper And Visit The People Underground

It’s easy to get caught up in your own life and perspective on things.

That’s one reason I’m such an avid consumer of news, books, films and music — because they are able to give me a wider perspective on things and prevent me from getting so caught up in myself.

This also helps develop a very important muscle called empathy. Too many people don’t exercise it enough.

I know I have my own work to do in this area.

I’ve been consuming a plethora of information about poverty lately — a lot of it by accident. It’s a subject that has really been occupying my thoughts more than usual and prompted me to write a column recently.

Last night, I stumbled across an incredible documentary from 2001 that is streaming on Netflix. It’s called “Children Underground.”

If you can handle a punch to the stomach, watch it and see if it doesn’t put some things in perspective for you.

Wikipedia sums up the film’s contents:

Homeless children are the casualties of Romania’s recent history. In an effort to increase the nation’s work force, former communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu outlawed contraception and abortion in 1966. Thousands of unwanted children were placed in state orphanages, where they faced terrible conditions. With the fall of Communism, many children moved onto the streets. Some were from the orphanages. Others were runways from impoverished families. Today there are 20,000 children living on the streets. The resources for sheltering these homeless youths are severely limited.

Children Underground follows the story of five street children, aged eight to sixteen who live in a subway station in Bucharest, Romania. The street kids are encountered daily by commuting adults, who pass them by in the station as they starve, swindle, and steal, all while searching desperately for a fresh can of paint to get high with.

If you don’t have Netflix, the whole Oscar-nominated film is available for free at various online sites, including Youtube. Here is the first 10 minutes:

When some individuals advocate making abortions illegal and contraceptives more difficult to access, “Children Underground” demonstrates the potential outcomes of those policies. Granted, the circumstances in Romania are/were much different than the United States. But it’s something to think about, all the same.

I also ran across a great column in The Guardian about poverty written by Jonathan Glennie.

It opens:

Speaking at a business meeting recently, I was reminded of a deep-seated instinct common among the elite, political and educated classes that continues to prevent many countries from addressing historic inequalities and progressing on poverty reduction: that it is the poor’s own fault that they are poor.

I have lost count of the number of well-educated, well-off people I have spoken to who seem to believe that poor people somehow “want to be poor” or are simply too dim to escape from poverty.

The banana-businesswoman’s view that “poor people suffer from a culture of poverty”. The ex-beauty queen who told me that she had once begged at a traffic light as part of her studies and had come to the conclusion that it was an easy way to make money – poor people must just be lazy, she said. The USAid consultant who explained to me over lunch that “some indigenous people just don’t want to develop”.

It is not only failed economic and social policies that are barriers to poverty reduction; it is this failure of so many people – voters, politicians and so-called “development experts” – to empathise with the reality of poverty and the problems poor people have to overcome.

Because, in a sense, the USAid consultant was right – many indigenous people see “development”, as traditionally understood, as a threat to their way of life, and therefore don’t want to “develop”. And some poor people have had so many knockbacks that they have become resigned to their poverty, which, to a non-empathetic mind, may look like laziness. In some cases, communities are just not as interested in making money as development experts think they should be. (And, yes, some poor people are lazy, just like lots of rich people.)

Read the rest of the column here.

How often do you find yourself thinking the same things Glennie laments hearing? How often do you hear other people say these things?

It’s very easy to project things onto people we don’t know, especially when they lead very different lives from us.

At a time when debates are being had about the poor (very much in the vein of “Are they poor because they are lazy and/or want to be poor?) in our own country and cutting more services available to them, it is important to dig into these subjects and better understand the circumstances these people face and figure out what we can do as a society to bring people out of or avoid poverty.

OK, this has been kind of a downer post, so perhaps I should end it on a musical note. It’s very much related to the subject at hand but also happens to be one of the best Britpop anthems of the 1990s.

Behold Pulp’s smart, wonderful (and glorious!) “Common People”:

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