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Must the 'Poor People' be always with us?

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Social scientists have long sought to define and quantify poverty, but the concept has remained stubbornly amorphous. In Poor People, renowned author William Vollmann (winner of the 2005 National Book Award for his novel "Europe Central") investigates global poverty through a series of interviews with poor people he encounters around the world. Vollmann's compassionate and ruminative account asks crucial questions, but provides few definitive answers.

"For me," writes Vollmann, "poverty is not mere deprivation; for people may possess fewer things than I and be richer; poverty is 'wretchedness.' It must then be an experience more than an economic state."

Poverty, notes Vollmann, is a relative matter dependent on local contexts of "normality." Some people Vollmann meets are resigned to their impoverished condition, viewing it as fate. In Bangkok a cleaning woman named Sunee (she makes $3.50 per day) with five children and a drinking problem tells Vollmann, "We believe in the Buddhist way. Some people are rich because they were giving in a previous life. What they gave gets returned in this life."

Other poor people rage against their condition, seeking to strike back at the rich. One impoverished Colombian tells Vollmann, "The rich take advantage of the poor, and the poor hate them. I hate them."

Vollmann learns about the violence, much of it motivated by class resentment, that has haunted Colombia, and describes the walled mansions built by the rich and the private security firms they hire to safeguard themselves and their children.

Some poor people are neither resigned nor outraged, but view themselves as defeated by circumstance. In Russia, Vollmann speaks with a 57-year-old man who believes he cannot work due to his role in cleaning up after the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster at Chernobyl. The man blames the government and tells Vollmann that if he hadn't been sent to Chernobyl, "I would be able to have a decent job, enough money."

Often, Vollmann meets poor people who are filled with shame and self-blame. In Kyoto, Japan, he encounters two former "salarymen" who became unemployed after corporate restructuring. One man, nicknamed Little Mountain, explains that, "of course I want to [work], but because of age restrictions they don't accept me." To Vollmann, Little Mountain, seems "to be infected by numbness[.]" The other ex-salaryman, nicknamed Big Mountain, describes his situation as "utterly hopeless."

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