When my dad was a child, he (like most his age) didn’t always want to eat what was for dinner. My grandfather, like most parents, was very exasperated with him. One night my grandfather had enough. He resorted, in desperation, to what other parents were using then.
“Don’t you realize there are starving children in Asia that would be lucky to have this much food on their plates?” he asked (probably with a raised voice).
My dad, ever quick with words, grabbed up the plate and shoved it across the table. “Well here, then! Send it to ’em!”
I think the story ended with my father going in time out, then eating the cold dinner. I doubt my grandfather tried that logic again.
It brings up a good point. Why do we tell children about the starving children in Africa at dinnertime? Is it to make us feel lucky or blessed that we have food on our plates? Is it to motivate us to help others in need? Has a child, when confronted with that reality, ever said, “Well geez, Mom and Dad, I had no idea that kids like me on the other side of the world didn’t have enough to eat. Thanks for the broccoli. I like it now!”?
While the intentions behind that phrase are good, I don’t think its very effective (and not just because teaching empathy to children is one of the hardest things in the world).
When I went to my first developing region (parts of Mexico and Belize, later Nicaragua) I wasn’t shocked by the poverty I saw there. Believe me, it was there. I just wasn’t shocked. This probably has something to do with my personality (I rarely feel a strong sense of culture shock), but also something to do with what I have been told my whole life. I can’t even count the number of times people returned from mission trips, youth groups, or a well-meaning adult has told me, “You are lucky to be American, to never want for food or a roof over your head. There are people that live on less than $1 a day!”
And it’s true. It’s all true. I am blessed. I have never wanted for food, even in the first couple months of marriage when almost all of our food budget was used up buying basic ingredients. I have never unwillingly spent the night outside, even when our housing situation was up in the air (though that was due more to generosity of friends than our bank accounts). There are people so poor, so destitute that it is shocking. But hearing it over and over deadens the impact, particularly if someone never does see that poverty firsthand. I have now been through some very poor regions of the world. Jordan had gone through some poor parts of the United States (and they do still exist). So we have seen with our own eyes the dirt floors, the cardboard walls, the trash heaped everywhere. And I wonder, would I be more shocked if I hadn’t heard the statistics before? I don’t know. I just think that sometimes a person can’t understand an idea or reality unless they have seen or experienced it for themselves. No amount of slideshows or well-meaning speeches from youth group pastors will make them understand.
Absolute poverty is terrible. And we should do something about it. But the way we motivate one another is also important. A good way to get the attention of complacent, insulated teenagers that all have iphones and nice clothes is probably to shock them. But shame is the worst motivator, and guilt probably not a lot better.
During my time in impoverished places, I have felt more compelled and eager to act not from the shame of being from the wealthiest country in the world, but from the smiles and dignity of the poor, and my gratitude for my own wealth. I don’t know how most Americans are, but I do know that Jordan and I are very frugal with our money, as we were taught to be from childhood. We tithe, we sometimes (not often) give special gifts to church, we stick to a budget and try to do the best we can. We have fun, of course, I mean, we’re on this trip! We stretch our money as far as we can, and so are able to do so much more than someone with the newest smartphone, latest design of clothes, new car, or whatever other material “needs” he spends his money on. So because I know that we are careful with our limited income, that we spend responsibly, and try to avoid companies with unethical business practices, I am not ashamed of my wealth. We are are far from rich, compared to the average GDP per capita of the United States ($54,678.17 in 2014), but we have so much more compared to some people we have met. Rather than shame, I am thankful for what I have and the small amount of excess we can give away.
Shame doesn’t motivate. It might make us give a dollar to a beggar once or twice, but it doesn’t change our hearts. Gratitude does. Shame also usually involves showing the people in need as just and only that: poor people. Photos of starving African children often precede a commercial to give money. This shock-and-shame technique, I think, doesn’t just hurt us rich people, but also strips them of their human dignity. When was the last time you looked at a photo of a starving child and thought, “I wonder what her name is. I wonder what type of music makes her smile”? Really, we even have a well-known phrase for them: the starving children in Africa. While the poorest of the poor are victims of income inequality and the trouble it brings, that is not their sole identity. They are not, and should not, be only known as victims.
We should feel compassion for the least of us, and we should want to help them. True help, or “sustainable development,” however, only comes when dignity is preserved on both sides of the equation, when giving is done from abundance and gratitude, and when receiving is done with agency and respect.
I don’t have any real answers for how to combat poverty. I’m still figuring life out, and poverty is a complicated issue. But I don’t think I’ll use the “starving children in Africa” trope to shame my children into eating their vegetables.