Poverty as a choice: Response to a friend


This is a response to a long and rambling comment by a dear friend.

Dear Venki: thank you for being an avid reader, even if it is against your best instincts J I can always take some words of encouragement from a “senior” of my high-school days. Your words were encouraging and I am keen to accept the personal remarks. That said, I will have to respond to your worldly wise(?) comment about poverty being purely a choice. That is a little too tempting, considering that much of our relationship is built on arguments. Let’s get an argument out of the way. If you were to say that every individual – rich or poor, Ph.D. or barely literate – irrespective of her circumstance has the space to take initiative, to be enterprising and to advance her well-being – I will have no quarrel with it. If you were to extend that argument to say that space for personal improvement means that the context in which we live does not matter to our well-being, I will have to quarrel with you.

Do young parents in our dear city line-up at midnight to get an admission form for Pre-KG because specific schools don’t matter? Is it silly of people to pay a lot more to live in neighbourhoods with a good school in the US? After all, one can get a much bigger-better house for the same price in a “crappy neighbourhood” (to use a popular American term), if the neighbourhood does not matter. There are way too many things that we do for our children in preparing them, no matter what choices they would make in their lives later.

Such preparation, investment and consistent support that we will provide will make them what they will be, and such things have made us what we are. While choices matter, we are also a product of the environment. The question I need to ask you is whether you recognise that the majority of people in India were raised under oppressive circumstances: from having to be hungry in childhood, to living amidst violence, and being curtailed of the most basic civil liberties imaginable. Even in our parent’s generation bulk of the boys and girls of this country were chided for wanting to go to school. What good will education do to these children is a popular cultural phrase that millions of children had to hear growing up. Will our children grow up and make the ‘same choices otherwise’ if they hear it again and again? Will we let them hear such remarks? Will they choose to focus in school irrespective of whether they are well fed or starving? I have been stubbornly individualistic and protective of my realm of choices. This involved going against the things that are ‘done’ in our culture in matters including education, employment, choice of entertainment, fashion, and marriage – some of which, you would agree are of a consequence. I do tend to think that I have worked hard – not always – but quite often.

I believe that thoughtful choices and hard work have mattered in keeping me happy, and I would vehemently disagree with anyone who would claim that they do not matter. But then, how can I ignore what a creature of privilege I have been? Wonderful parents, inspiring teachers, supportive friends, and incredible random strangers have lent a hand time and time again. Let us take you, for example. The discussions I have had with you and our other close friends in our formative years opened my world to all sorts of things. You guys inspired me to learn words voraciously and to play with them. We started a magazine together. Today, you appreciate my writing. I have struggled to improve it, but what would it be if it were not for all of you? We read, we debated, we engaged, and we were passionate about so many things under the sun. You mention the passion in the writing. Where would passion be if it were not nurtured in companionship? I have made choices, but not without encouragement, tips, support, teaching and affection.

In making the rather abstract comment about poverty being a matter of choice, you mention in essence that others do not matter. In saying that, you are ignoring an essential aspect of human lives. In saying that, you are negating the good influence that you have been in the lives of others. I can’t let you do that my friend.

P.s. Ok, that was a little too much. Our common friends will recognize the rather partial representation of our engagements, but then extreme arguments do seem to help with my whacky friends. Hope you enjoyed the read!


About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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