When I was volunteering at Maya Pedal in Guatemala there was a sign on the wall that said “Que Caro Es Ser Pobre”. It means “How expensive it is to be poor.” As I travel through many of the world’s “poor” countries, I am writing a series of articles about how expensive it is to be poor. I don’t think many people in “rich” countries understand how difficult it is to climb out of poverty. I am all about positivity and I am having the time of my life right now. But I would be doing a disservice to the amazing people I’ve met if I didn’t share their story of what life is like dealing with poverty.
Poverty does not immediately mean that a place is unsafe. Not at all. But so far in Central and South America, I have seen how a lack of security ends up being a hidden tax embedded in society – in some ways perpetuating the poverty cycle through inflated prices for everything and higher taxes.
I don’t remember seeing any in Mexico, but otherwise pretty much every bank I’ve seen in Latin America has had one or several armed guards at the entrance. I have had to leave my backpack outside many banks for security reasons, and I’ve been subjected to metal detecting wands and pat downs just to enter a bank. Apart from the annoyance, these security guards cost money to employ.
Similarly, many stores employ security guards. They are often armed, though it depends on the country. Some might stand guard at the entrance, reminding people that they can’t bring in bags/backpacks and need to leave them in a locker in the front of the store. Others might check your receipt against what is in your bags on the way out to make sure you didn’t steal anything. Others might walk around the store to deter shoplifting. Again, they cost money.
In many countries (Guatemala and Venezuela come to mind) there are parking lot attendants for businesses. They are employed to help facilitate parking in crowded areas, helping people get in and back out, and keeping a watch over the parking lot to minimize break-ins and theft. A tip is often expected for their services. I’m not sure if they are also on the store’s payroll, but in Guatemala the people I was with were afraid not tipping well would result in theft or damage.
Many neighborhoods have a gated entrance to control access and minimize break-ins/theft. Again, 24-hours a day 365 days a year someone is standing guard, receiving a salary.
In all of these cases, the cost of employing security personnel is passed along to customers (or residents in the housing example). That’s why I call it a hidden tax. It’s a necessary evil as often the mere presence of a security guard is enough to thwart a threat. Criminals can move on to an easier, unguarded target.
This applies to the public sector as well. Of course, government buildings are often guarded by the police and that’s a tax on society. But in many places the police seem omnipresent on the streets. This was especially true in Colombia, but I recall strong police presences in Panama and Honduras as well.
These policemen are paid through the government, which collects its money from citizens via taxes.
State Of Mind
Living under the constant threat of being robbed, or worse, is also a hidden tax on your mind. You subconsciously change how you live to minimize risk – though the risk never totally goes away. It’s always in the back of your mind. When you grow up and live in such an environment, you may not even realize this mental tax exists. It’s just there, always.
In many ways you organize your life around it. Safety and security is one of the basic things human beings need. It’s at the base of Maslow’s pyramid, for example, along with food and shelter.
When I lived in Scandinavia, where it’s very safe, and when I lived in the Middle East, where people would leave their cars on and empty while they were inside a store, well…. The people in these places just feel safe. It’s great.
But after traveling in so many comparatively unsafe places, I wondered if, even if the security situation improved, people would change their attitude and outlook appropriately to reflect a safer situation.
The Monkey Experiment
Losing one’s sense of security can happen in an instant. But I think it can take years, even generations, to regain a sense of security. It’s like the famous experiment with monkeys that is discussed in business schools with regard to organizational behavior/culture.
In the experiment, bananas were hung and five monkeys were put in a cage. Each time a monkey went to grab a banana, the other four were all sprayed with water. Thus, whenever a monkey went to grab a banana, the others physically acted out of self-interest to prevent the monkey from taking a banana.
After a few days, one of the monkeys was replaced with a fresh one. Naturally, the fresh monkey instinctively started climbing up to get a banana. But the other four monkeys stopped him.
Pretty soon, all the original monkeys are out of the cage. None of the new monkeys knows why they can’t have a banana or what the consequences are for grabbing one. They all just know that grabbing a banana is off limits.
I think such retained “knowledge” exists in all societies and cultures. Constant, life-long low-level fear ends up being a heavy mental and emotional tax as well. You probably don’t even realize it’s there as it’s probably something you’ve lived with your whole life. And this applies heavily to one’s sense of security.