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Gauging poverty from Appalachia to Africa

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When a Rwandan friend of mine, Damas, told me about his visit to a township in Cape Town, South Africa, he spoke with compassion and concern. Officially, South Africa is richer than Rwanda and more economically developed. Damas, from rural Rwanda, was a child during the genocide that killed his entire family. He grew up with nearly nothing – in a country with little more – to become a doctor. He still marvels at the unlikelihood of that.

"Ask kids in the village what they want to be when they grow up, and it will be a torture," he says. "[The mind] is a blank. When we were kids, we'd say 'a teacher' because we see that he drinks banana wine and he sometimes wears shoes" – signs of wealth, relatively speaking.

But the South African townships showed him something different. "People there, they live in a box," he says. "You can see that there is no way for them. The system is locked." In his country, by contrast, "yes, people lack. But there is no class of 'cannot.' "

There is, Damas was trying to say, something different than a poverty of goods. There is poverty of opportunity, which can become poverty of imagination. No annual statistics exist for that.

Policymakers and politicians have created a numerical vocabulary for what people lack. That's useful; numbers tell the public things it needs to know and let all of us measure change – progress, or its opposite – from year to year.

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