Monday, May 17, 2010


Poverty is faith in government who is robbing the population blind while leading it over a cliff. Poverty is ignorance and illiteracy. Poverty is accepting your fate of servitude without so much as a whimper. Poverty is misplacing your trust in ordinary men while neglecting God. Poverty is a lack of hygiene. Poverty is watching your children and loved ones die because you failed to wash your hands or obtain clean water. Poverty is watching 3 million people die of malaria world-wide in the misplaced belief that DDT is worse. Poverty is death by famine near silos full of genetic engineered corn and grain. Poverty is being unable to get clean water. Poverty is accepting welfare and expecting entitlements from a omniscient and omnipotent government. Poverty is losing the will to fight to better yourself.

Westerners understand poverty as the difference between haves and haves not.
I remember the conversation I've had with my former mother-in-law long time ago. We were talking about Romanian poverty and I asserted that I was poor. Jean angrily declared my statement to be false. I considered myself poor since I did not have a dime to my name, a home, or any wealth. I was 21 years old, freshly off the communist boat so to speak. Her explanation was that I could not possibly be poor, I was married to her son, we lived in their nicely appointed ranch home, her son ran the farm, and they had money in the bank. Many Americans would respond to the question, are you poor, with a resonant yes. The reason most people answer yes is that they confuse wealth and income. They are short of cash in their pockets, others have no money in the bank, some do not own the car or home of their dreams, or have no accummulated wealth. They may be cash poor but are even poorer in certain commodities for which they are willing to give up their cash. Are we really poor in America? By most standards, Americans are not poor. Even homeless people have more wealth when compared to many citizens of other countries. Poverty is thus relative to most people. Poverty does not make one sad just as wealth does not make one happy. Some people don't even realize how poor they are, they are blissfully ignorant of reality, or may not even understand that such a concept of poverty exists.

Years ago Americans took a group of home-grown homeless to Russia to demonstrate the evils of capitalism that allowed these people to be homeless. The Russians stormed out of the building in disgust when they found out that these so called "homeless" did not work. How did they expect sympathy from the Russians when they made no effort to work? The soviets' philosophy was simple, if you did not work, don't complain that you are homeless.

People living under communism did not live pampered lives and the communist government did very little to improve their lot in life, just a bare minimum. The utopian society in which everyone was equal was not so egalitarian after all. Everyone lived in ugly and drab concrete appartments, sparsely furnished, and paid similar rents. The government decided what the needs of each family were and that was how far anyone could advance, if you can call that progress. Few families actually owned their own home in the city. Anemic bulbs provided intermittent lighting when the party did not shut the power off for reasons of conservation or inability to produce or pay for enough electricity.
The ruling elite occupied elegant villas that had been forcefully confiscated from businesses and individuals after the rightful owners were jailed on trumped up "crimes against the communist ideology." The elaborate grey complexes in the city had five to nine stories with semi-finished stairwells. Nine story buildings had elevators that constantly trapped its riders for hours when power outages occurred or from lack of proper maintenance. The common area and the stairwells were the responsibility of each renter to maintain and clean. Fines were levied if people did not take turns to clean the stairs. The garbage bay was always nasty, smelly, and unsanitary since the city was supposed to provide these services whenever they saw fit to do it. Kids played in very large groups and nobody supervised them to make sure they were safe. They were often run over by cars while playing in the streets, on the sidewalks, or crossing the road. People used sidewalks for parking, with total disregard for the law which was never enforced. Very few people owned a TV or radios and phones were even scarcer. One in ten apartments owned a TV and it was customary to invite the whole street over in the home with a TV if a good movie, football game, or concert were playing. That was not a frequent occurrence since the communists only broadcast two stations in black and white, both heavy on constant propaganda and nauseating 24/7 speeches by the president/dictator. Radios were more common but people had to pay a fiscal monthly tax for the right to own both a radio and a TV, a type of subscription that one had to pay whether they had an antenna or not. Inspectors came into homes unannounced to check ownership of TVs and radios, and compliance with the fiscal tax. Phones were rarer because it took close to 14 years to have a phone installed from the time application was made until it was actually installed. My parents applied for a phone when I was in kindergarten and we did not get it until I was in 12th grade! There was a joke about a person going to the post office to fill out a request for phone installation and the clerk told the customer that it will be in 14 years. The customer asked whether it will be a.m. or p.m. Irritated, the clerk answered, "what differenc does it make, it is 14 years from now." The customer answered calmly, "the plumber is coming in the morning."

Because everyone earned the same amount of money, there was no incentive to excell, to work harder, or to go the extra mile. The work ethic was, "we pretend to work, they pretend to pay us." My dad who was an engineer, was responsible for several men in his crew at the refinery. Most days his charges were hard to find because they were hiding in different areas, asleep. The work ethic was non-existent thanks to the low pay and the communist mentality to give everybody a living wage for just showing up, not based on performance.

Country folk were a little better off - they could grow a garden and raise farm animals, a luxury that city people did not have. They could also own a modest home, some better than others. In some far away villages, homes were made of bricks built of mud mixed with straw. Come to think of it, it was cheap and a great insulator both in winter and summertime - and a great burrowing and hiding place for mice and rats. Some homes were built of wood, brick, and stucco but lacked basic amenities such as electricity, indoor plumbing, and running water. A small barn provided winter shelter for farm animals. Dogs were kept outside in a dog house, poor creatures, but cats had better lives indoors. Dogs were more utilitarian than pets in the sense of providing guard to the owner or the flock of sheep. Only large animals were tended to by vets. It was a luxury - real vets were hard to find. A person with some vet training sufficed. Even in times of food shortages, village people had chickens, cows, pigs, and gardens to feed their families. A small plot could raise enough corn and vegetables to sustain them through winter. It was harder getting rice, flour, and oil and other basic staples. The communist co-operative who had forced everybody to give up their lands for the "common good" would force villagers to work in the fields, back breaking work, for a small percentage of the crop in the fall. The government took the lion's share, what was left was divided among the collective villagers who had plowed, seeded, weeded, hoed, and harvested the wheat, corn, or whatever crop the collective cooperative had planted on directions from the communist party planners. The common land and labor did not work very well since some villagers were more industrious and motivated than others yet the remainder of the crops was equally shared. This angered those who worked hard to see the fruits of their labor go to lazy villagers who did not contribute much work to the crops. The crop and industry planners had no experience in any of the sectors they made life and death decision on and often no formal education, but they were considered the "experts." Their only qualification was membership in the communist party and the ability to change their views on command as the wind blew from the direction of the dictator president and his wife who was very much involved in politics.

Children had few toys and improvised creatively for entertainment and play. I personaly owned one doll, a doll bed, a teddy bear, and a set of 9 block puzzle that could assemble a different picture on each side of the cube. I felt extremely lucky when my grandfather cobbled together a sled from a few wooden slats and two pieces of heavy iron which he welded together. This sled gave me endless hours of joy and many scrapes and bruises. My grandfather was the kind of man who could make McGuyver proud - he put together repair parts for the villager's bikes and motorcycles. He never charged them, he bartered or expected nothing in return. I watched him in fascination when he welded bike tires with glue and pliers. I used to joke that grandpa could fix anything with dirt and spit.

Everybody owned one nice outfit and pair of shoes which they only wore on special holidays: Easter, Christmas, baptisms, weddings, or funerals. The rest of the year, villagers went about happily in their bare feet and some old, sun washed, well worn outfit. City folk at least wore shoes all the time. They had to, there was too much debris and opportunities to get hurt. Every summer I got a new pair of sandals and every winter a new pair of boots. They were usually ill fitting and they caused me years of pain and surgery later in life.

The sparsely, spartan furnished apartments had a bed and a chifferobe, there were no such things as walk-in closets. Our kitchen, hallway, and bathroom were about the size of a large walk-in closet. We had a living room that doubled as dining room and my bedroom. It contained a bed, a couch, a dining table with three chairs and a bookcase. The one bedroom, my parents', had a bed, a black and white TV, and a chifferobe. That is how rich we were because the communist party had decided those to be our only needs based on the pay my parents received in exchange for their hard labor, as in the communist mantra, ... "to each according to their needs." The kitchen had a small cupboard, a sink, and a table with two chairs. When I was in high school, my parents had bought a very small, dorm-sized refrigerator which we placed in the hallway because there was no room in the kitchen.

Few people owned a car and most of us took the bus anywhere or walked. Children were not ferried to school by buses, nobody was fed breakfasts or lunch at school. We were lucky if we had something home to eat. Nobody went on vacations and travel abroad was impossible since the government only gave visas to very special people who were part of the communist millieu. The citizens had very little contact with the outside world, save for listening to Voice of America via short wave radio. Such broadcasts kept our hopes alive for a better life. And Hollywood gave us a fantasized world of America and glimpses of celluloid life in everyday America, or at least, what we thought everyday America to be. Many of us really thought money grew on trees for Americans. They were not blessed because they worked hard, were entrepreneurs and free, but because they were born rich. The first few years of my moving to the U.S., every friend and relative sent letters requesting blue jeans, medicine, thinking that they cost a pittance in such a rich country. It did not matter that I was poor as a church mouse and could not afford my own medicine, clothes, or visits to the doctor. How could I be poor in America, the land of opportunity? My family could not understand that wealth took time to create and income would come later with the opportunity to better myself.

Cities had museums, theater, and cinema, and although not very expensive by western standards, few Romanians could afford to go since there were other needs that had to be met before a movie, a play, or a visit to the museum. Some larger villages, closer to a metropolis had movie showings once a month in the collective co-op meeting center. John Wayne was everybody's popular hero and his movies played over and over, with subtitles. As a matter of fact, I taught myself English by watching John Wayne movies. I could hear the American English and repeat and mimic his accent. This resulted often in mispronounciation since proper diction was not the goal of a movie dialog. I later took two years of English in high school and learned proper British English.

Medical care was free to all, but the quality and availability of it was very poor. Villagers were worse off since their care was relegated to a nurse with 6 months of training and the ambulance took days to arrive with no help, medicine, or life saving support, just a driver. Each village had a co-op store with a few supplies of necessities, none of which included food. Villagers had to take the bus into town if they needed staples such as flour, sugar, cooking oil, and rice. The bus made twice a day runs, if it was closer, 10 miles of less, to a metropolis. If the village was remote, there were no bus routes and the villagers traveled by wagons once every so many months to get supplies for several families. They were totally cut off from civilization although they may have been only 35 miles from a large town.

And yet we were so much better off than other third world countries. Poverty is relative, no matter how you dice it. If I had to choose, United States is still the best country in the world to be poor in.

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