Poor People

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1584

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.

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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.

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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 breeds organized crime groups who prey on those seeking to escape their impoverished conditions. Vollmann also includes a chapter on pain, noting that lack of access to medical care for the poor results in missing teeth, visible sores, and premature aging. He explains that he did not include a section on hunger because it is a given when discussing poverty.

Vollmann goes on to offer more than just the commentaries from his interviews. In offering a broader perspective of poverty, he proposes that in some instances the poor hate the rich or may blame the rich for their present conditions. He also notes the expectation of the poor to be helped by the rich. There are times and circumstances where those with money, in turn, hate the poor because they may feel forced or pressured to give up their hard-earned resources. Vollmann shares his own experiences, noting that as a nonpoor person, he at times has felt inconvenienced by the presence of the homeless. There is also conflict that may be experienced by those who want to help but do not know how to effectively do so. Vollmann himself explains how he paid people for their interviews, noting at times his own desire to do more to help and knowing that simply throwing money at the people might alleviate hunger for a day but do nothing to alleviate their long-term impoverishment. He also touches on a fear of the poor by commenting on how intimidating it can be to interact with people who have nothing and who might be willing to resort to violence in order to ensure their own survival. He shares several personal stories to illustrate his own instances of fear and intimidation when interacting with people on the streets. He thus addresses many of the issues surrounding poverty by discussing how poverty affects everyone, rich and poor.

Vollmann shows in subsequent chapters how a desire for wealth and prosperity can create better conditions for some while creating more poverty for others. His chapters on the oil refining in Sarykamys, Kazakhstan, and the development in Nanning, China, illustrate that for those who are already living marginally, there are few choices for escaping. In these examples, it seems that Vollmann suggests that in some cases government is to blame for creating or continuing impoverished conditions. With Nanning, home owners were forced to sell their homes so that a larger road and newer housing units could be built. Their homes were demolished, and the payment they received from the government was not enough to afford the newer homes.

The story of Sarykamys highlights the problems that governments and big corporations can create in their pursuit of wealth. In this small corner of the world, the initial discovery of oil was viewed as economic salvation. Unfortunately, the necessity to refine sulfur out of the oil has created hazardous living conditions. In a footnote, Vollmann seems to indicate some notion from those he interviews, and perhaps his own bias, that governments should step in to prevent this type of abuse and to some extent that the affluent people of the world are to blame, because they demand the resource, causing the need to produce it, which in turn causes human ailments, further suffering, and more poverty. He does not directly place any blame with the corporation.

For whatever reasons, the mind-set of the townspeople in Sarykamys, who most likely live from one paycheck to the next, is one of acceptance of their conditions. Even more disturbing and perhaps more revealing of the problem is that many of the people from this town whom Vollmann attempted to interview would not talk with him out of fear of repercussions. He infers from his stories of Sarykamys and Nanning what happens when governments and corporations view people as somewhat disposable. He also highlights how poverty can create an unfortunate acceptance by those who lack the resources to fight or demand more equitable conditions. Ironically, the governments in both cases are, in theory, trying to create better conditions for the inhabitants.

Poor People has been well received, although commentaries on Vollmann himself seem contentious. Some have compared his work to another similar text on poverty written by James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Even Vollmann himself mentions this work. Still, while similarities between the two works may seem obvious, Poor People offers a current global perspective on poverty. Vollmann also notes that his previous works have been criticized for being difficult to read; Poor People, however, is difficult to put down. While Vollmann does not himself offer any answers to the question of why some people are poor and others rich, his reporting of the matter provides groundwork for a better understanding of poverty and how it affects those afflicted. His comparison of the poor among various countries also shows both similarities and differences.

If Vollmann were a social scientist instead of a journalist, he might have attempted to conduct his interviews in a more systematic and controlled manner. In place of a scientific study on poverty, he offers a glimpse of poverty from many different angles. Along with his interviews and findings, he interjects his own experiences and suppositions. As he explains, he is not himself poor, nor has he ever experienced poverty. He also suggests that most of the people who will read Poor People will not be poor. Nevertheless, his snapshots of poverty, along with the deeply moving photographs of those he interviewed, provide a personal account of poverty from those who live it daily.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 43

The Atlantic Monthly 299, no. 3 (April, 2007): 116-117.

Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 30, no. 3 (Summer, 2007): 457.

Booklist 103, nos. 9/10 (January 1-15, 2007): 32.

Esquire 147, no. 3 (March, 2007): 86.

Harper’s Magazine 314 (March, 2007): 81-82.

Library Journal 132, no. 4 (March 1, 2007): 98.

New York 40, no. 8 (March 5, 2007): 66.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (March 18, 2007): 11.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 4 (January 22, 2007): 172.

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