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.
In this first post, I’ll share some of the things I’ve experienced up until now – though by no means is it representative of everything I have observed. Some things are just hard to put into words.
I think the biggest expense of being poor is time. Although people in rich countries never seem to have enough time, poor people have a surplus of time but are also always racing against the clock. They often live hand to mouth and need to work hard to earn what they need to live off of that day. So when a lady sells the lettuce from her garden on the street, she needs to earn her daily take to survive. And produce is especially tense since it only has a certain shelf life. And in such a situation, when do you stop working? Presumably, the longer you work the more you can earn.
Then there is the problem with change. No one ever seems to have change when you want to pay for something. If you are selling lettuce and someone hands you a 100 Peso note ($7.50) for a 2 Peso head of lettuce, that might be more than your daily income. When you live hand to mouth, it’s difficult to have change on hand – especially more than a day’s worth of income in case a “high roller” stops by to buy lettuce.
On many occasions, sellers at small stores have had to run to bigger stores to make change for me when I had no small bills on hand. But this lady on the street, for example, cannot do that. So she loses the sale and perpetuate the cycle. In other cases, stores have told me to return later after I have change to pay them – relying 100% on my integrity.
Switching gears, these countries often have bad infrastructure. Right now in Central America they are dealing with extreme flooding and mudslides given all the rain they’ve received this rainy season. It has rained more than normal, and they’ve been touched by the fringes of several hurricanes and tropical storms this season. It shouldn’t be raining anymore, but the 10-day forecast shows no letting up.
With the rain comes damage to already fragile infrastructure. Since I’ve been in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, for example, I think the electricity has been out about half the time. Same for the city water.
By the way, amidst all this rain, imagine being a restaurant and having to call and order water from a private provider in another country (a Guatemalan company bringing the water across the border to this Honduran restaurant). But that’s exactly what this picture shows. It’s a big tub of water trucked in to supply a restaurant with water after a two-day outage in the city. But if you are a restaurant, water is an absolute necessity to operate.
Speaking of water, you can’t drink the city water. So people have to pay for 5 gallon jugs of water. The alternative is to take a risk with the city water, though in the long-run this is obviously more expensive as you are certain to have health problems that cause you to miss work or require medical treatment.
When you can expect the electricity to go out frequently, you need to have countermeasures if you operate a medium or large business. Thus, most hotels here have gigantic generators on hand to provide power to keep guests comfortable. This is clearly a considerable expense for the hotel. Even small convenience stores have small diesel-powered generators so they can stay open at night and keep refrigerated goods from spoiling when the electricity goes out.
I went to the dentist while here in Honduras and he obviously needs to have constant protection against the electricity going out. Imagine being in the middle of a filling and the electricity goes out for a few days. You can’t walk around a few days with half a hole in your tooth! Or worse, he is drilling, the electricity goes out, he moves a moment to look at the light overhead, and the electricity comes back on only have the drill putting a hole in the adjacent tooth due to his movement!
The dentist’s office is full of power regulators, battery backups, and generators. Quite a tall order for a mouth doctor – and clearly the cost of all this equipment is passed on to customers artificially increasing the cost of dental work. A visit to the dentist is beyond the budget of many people so they just pull their teeth, but the high price is at least partly influenced by having to counteract the bad infrastructure in place.
Similarly, the roads are a mess. Since I’ve been in Copan Ruinas, I have seen several construction sites repairing the roads just in this small town. And I think the town is lucky. Many roads across the country are under water right now, or have been completely washed out. In coming from Guatemala to Honduras last week, parts of the Pan-American Highway have been reduced to dirt roads as the road has been washed away and there is no funding to repair them now. This affects the flow of goods and services and everything takes longer to transport. Though this does not affect the bottom of the pyramid in these countries too much, it affects everyone in some way.
There are many more examples to come in this series, but here is the start. In the next article, I’ll include some numbers to show how a basic product everyone uses is actually more expensive here than in the US.