Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Poverty and Good Intentions

Jenn Barron asks,

The Washington Post recently had an article called, "Fulfillment Elusive for Young Altruists In the Crowded Field of Public Interest" which discussed the problems faced by young, professional world-saving idealists like myself. We graduate college with a philosophy-like degree, interested in volunteer work, serving overseas or in my case, urban America, and find ourselves confused. We have an education, and want to continue learning, but we see such a need to be immersed in poverty to really reach the population we serve. We find ourselves in a catch 22, as any semi-stable paying job in this field requires us to have higher degrees, and we can not gain paid experience in the field to determine what graduate work we like to commit to or find ways to pay for this schooling. We start as volunteers, and quickly learn that this lifestyle is an endless, unstable way. My question revolves around this concept of "poverty"- what is it in terms of physical, emotional, and spiritual needs?- I feel unfullfilled in life without investing in serving others, and yet here I start on a path of my own "poverty". This avenue for young adults creates a deep internal problem for us, causing us to ask the question, how can we understand poverty without being immersed in it? Is this the choice we have to make?
Before I add my two cents, check out what Helmut over at phronesisiacal had to say about this question. His somewhat dispiriting conclusion is
My worry is when people with good minds, thoughtful goals, and who are driven to contribute in meaningful ways to society discover that the inherited world has little space for such things. Further, future generations won't inherit a world of decency and opportunity because the people who could help create such conditions encountered insurmountable barriers to doing so.
As a rule, I tend to side with cynics, only because they're usually right, and in this case I think there are a couple of other factors at work here.

First, the problem is that the root of problems that affect the everyday lives of so many people are only in part personal problems, but for the most part are societal structural problems, problems that arise because the structure of our cultural institutions are designed to inequitably favor a few privileged members of the society. To help, then, you could be part of a band-aid which will take a lot of effort and while you will have a truly positive effect on some people, the flow will never decrease much less end. This tends to lead to exhaustion and bitterness. You can beat your head against a wall for only so long.

The other option is to work not in the trenches where you have a direct impact, but in the structure trying to change it from the inside. This means meetings if you are lucky enough to make it that far up in the structure of your well-meaning non-profit, but most likely menial tasks generally associated with raising money. You don't get the sense that in supporting a lobbying organization, you are really having an impact on those you really want to help and you don't get the sense of personal growth, of intellectual challenge, or the satisfaction of seeing the world better off even in small ways at the end of most days.

And then there's the other problem. When you work for positive change, you work for cheap. The source of your paycheck tends to be donations and when people donate to a non-profit designed to help end poverty, save the rainforests, or some other needed change, they want most of their money to go to helping those in need or planting trees, not administrative costs. If administrative costs get to be a sizable percentage of expenditures, they take their dollars elsewhere. Of course, those administrative costs are your salary. Hence, those dedicated to helping out are paid very, very little. So little that you can afford to live like a college student, but not the adult you are now supposed to be. That gets old after a while, especially if you want a family and there are other options out there. Further, you are expected to not mind working for peanuts because you are dedicated to the cause, not to personal gain. As a result, we drive out those with experience, those who would be the greatest assets to helping the cause.

The other side has no such problem. Because self-interest and greed are seen by them as virtues and because the corporate interests have plenty of money and realize that they will see a return if they spend it on people, they have well-paid positions up and down the ladder. As such, those who seek to maintain the inequities that create the problems you are trying to alleviate have yet another advantage over those trying to help those who are voiceless and suffering.

Man, I need a drink. Sorry not to be more uplifting here, Jenn. There are chances to make a real difference and I'm sure there ways to live the life while still having a life, but it ain't as easy as it should be. Somebody say something hopeful in the comments please.