In Poor People, William T. Vollmann reports on poverty with personal interviews from around the globe. Through the use of local guides and interpreters, he asks randomly selected individuals, and in some cases their family members, if they consider themselves poor and why some are poor and others rich. Poor People is therefore Vollmann’s report about those he interviewed. His narrative recounts their lives, the conditions surrounding them, and their answers to his questions.
The responses to his questions range from a religious belief that the poor person is paying for past sins from a previous life to the practical response that there is no work. Vollmann offers his own perspectives and philosophies and compares poverty among different countries. For example, in the United States, poverty to some might mean not being able to afford cable television, while in Vietnam it might mean not being able to have electricity. Poverty also seems to be subjective to the afflicted, as he notes when he asked one young woman if she thought she was poor. Her reply, “I think I am rich,” provides an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be poor and who makes the determination, society or the individual.
Building on this subjectivity, Vollmann delves deeper into the issue of poverty by examining what it means to live a normal life. He wonders what living conditions create normalcy and how that view of normalcy affects poverty. Is it normal to live in a cardboard box or beg for money? Who decides? He also examines the effects and consequences abject poverty has on the individuals he interviews. He notes how the poor seem invisible and theorizes that perhaps the condition of poverty itself is what makes them invisible. Is the invisibility due to a lack of money or is it because society, or at least those with money, would like to pretend it does not exist? Do the affluent tend to ignore the poor because they do not know how to help, or is it out of fear that they could end up in a similar situation? For the poor women in Afghanistan, who are required by the Taliban regime to wear a burka but forbidden to beg, the garment, along with the government, comments Vollmann, makes them invisible.
In later chapters, Vollmann notes that in some instances poverty seems to offer its victims a certain level of freedom that the more affluent do not have. For example, he observes that poor children typically are able to roam and play freely, while experience with his daughter and even his own childhood memories offer no such recollection of being free to play with such wild abandon. He comments on some men in a tea shop leisurely enjoying the afternoon conversation, contrasted with his affluent neighbors who seem to be in a constant state of motion while rushing from one event to the next. Vollmann states that while the poor may lack monetary resources, they are rich in time.
Another consequence of poverty that Vollmann describes is a condition he refers to as accident-prone-ness. In this context, he is not writing about a tendency toward having accidents but the tendency to have detrimental consequences arise because of the conditions of poverty. An illness that might easily be cured with proper rest and appropriate medicine but instead is detrimental to the poor victim who can afford neither is an example of accident-prone-ness. The man who, in trying to resolve an arrest for violence, most likely due to poverty, ends up with more fines and a dead pet because of his lack of resources is another example. Vollmann also talks about crime as a condition of poverty, how a lack of resources seems to correspond with a loss of personal security, with more incidence of rape and murder. He devotes an entire chapter to the Snakeheads, Asian underground gangs primarily involved in human trafficking. His stories of the Snakeheads show how poverty...
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