This week NBC News aired an eleven-minute story about children as young as four forced to work in underground mines in Madagascar to produce mica—a mineral used in products around the world (including the United States) such as cosmetics, vehicle batteries, microwave ovens, hair dryers and electric furnaces.
Madagascar is an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa. Cute cartoon movies aside, it is one of the poorest nations on earth. Three-quarters of the population live on less than $1.70 per day.
It is also the world largest exporter of mica. To meet world demand, adults and children regularly work twelve-hour shifts in the mines, for which standard pay is $3 per week. They accept these jobs because there are no other jobs. Three meals a day for these workers are unheard of. Two meals a day are unlikely.
Yes, there are schools, but families face a bleak arithmetic: sending children to school risks the family’s eventual starvation. All hands are needed in the hardscrabble fight for pennies.
When you’re six or seven years old, and every sunrise guarantees only 12 more hours of work to literally earn your daily bread, housing and clothing, there’s no time for school, or homework, or science fairs, or play dates. Thus, the cycle of poverty rolls on, like gears that inevitably crush all who are caught in the grinder.
I’m sharing this extreme example of poverty to address the idea I’ve repeatedly encountered: that people who are poor somehow have it coming.
Through the years I have heard a dozen variations on this theme: poor people don’t want to work. They are lazily content to draw welfare checks paid for by rest of us. Or, they’re poor because, as a group, they just don’t have the smarts. Natural selection, and all that.
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These days we see a lot of poor people on our southern border. Most are attempting to flee their home nation’s systemic lack of opportunities, crushing poverty and crime—should anyone care.
But we don’t have to head to the southern border to find people mired in poverty. They exist in our own cities and larger towns. The fact that we can look at such people and wonder why they choose to live that way suggests that those of us who grew up in homes in which meals were rarely missed, parents were rarely absent, and opportunities arrived faster than we could take advantage of them—it all suggests reasons why we, the comparatively affluent, have little actual ability to judge those hanging on the lowest rungs of America’s social ladder.
It’s certainly true that even those in America’s basement have it better than child laborers in Madagascar. But it is still far too easy for us to hide behind the over-generalizations that allow us to wash our hands of the great unwashed. “There’s plenty of opportunity out there,” we recite with sing-song judgmentalism. “If you can’t make a go of it, it’s your fault, not mine. And it’s not my job to bail you out.”
Here’s the thing. When we speak in such generalities, it’s an easy leap to conclude that we no longer have to worry about specifics, or the specific people we so easily gloss over with our casual, albeit unintended, cruelty. It’s a one-size-fits-all approach in a world of billions of individual souls.
Yes, there are those who rise above poverty. But setting aside the athletes and rappers, they may well be the exceptions that prove the rule. True, some break out. The overwhelming majority don’t.
And their failure doesn’t come from one-size-fits all criticisms, but from a million unique problems and situations.
So while you’re thanking God today that you’re not one of those who struggle but fail to succeed, I hope you’ll listen for a moment to see if there’s a return message. Perhaps you’ll feel inspired to reach out beyond generalities in whatever way seems best to you, and begin the hard, messy, but beautiful work of helping the invisible ones around you break out of the cycles of poverty and desperation in which they struggle, and of which—truth be told—you and I may likely have no real comprehension.