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Poverty in Panama

Occasionally, income does not provide a true indication of rich and poor and a quality lifestyle can be defined differently.


While Panama is experiencing better than 8 percent growth and our future looks brighter than ever,  a  foreign visitor recently lambasted Panama regarding our level of poverty and warned that we had better watch out because 47 percent of our population lives in  poverty. He based this on the low dollar  income of  almost half of our citizens. Furthermore, while espousing his  reactionary values that  eluded both interpretation and prophecy,  he went on to suggest that Hugo Chavez-type, leftist leaders could be  the future result of our 47 percent poverty level.

Food for thought. What is poverty? Is a quality lifestyle accurately measured by each country?  To different societies poverty comes in different forms. Is there a yardstick by which we can measure real poverty or should we accept it at face value based on dollars earned?  Perhaps if your family cannot afford a car  you are considered poor. Others might feel that one less gasoline-burning engine is good for the environment.

It seems that different people in different cultures consider poverty from various viewpoints, some that are socially relevant and others that are not so relevant. If your government can provide you with schools and medical clinics your subsequent lifestyle  would be a personal choice.  Do you want the big city and what goes with it  such as traffic, congestion, pollution, high prices, etc.,  or do you want the outlying areas that are quiet and cleaner? 

If we measure poor by our monthly income it is obvious that the more developed countries will be richer than those that are still Third World. Some societies make you feel inadequate and shameful if you are poor, as if you do not measure up. Where they live it is not OK to be poor  because they see only low incomes and they are blind to other qualities that sometimes abound.

Occasionally,  income does not provide a true indication of rich and poor.  Some cultures base everything on how much you earn, yet I have often heard it said that you are indeed wealthy if you have a loving family that is healthy. How about the family whose parents are both fast-paced executive superstars working 60 to 80 hours per week and never have time for their children?  Could we say that they are good providers, but poor parents? Should the poverty index include quality of life for parents and children?  Are poor people sad because they are poor or happy because they have less entrapments?

If you have to walk to school each day, as many of our parents did, does that mean you are poor?  There are thousands of children in the countryside of Panama who walk to school every day and they do not consider themselves poor. In fact, they seem quite happy and also appear to be in excellent health. Typically, when they get home from school their mother or father is there waiting for them. In this case, is it good to be poor because you get more quality time with your parents? We might consider the kids of a first-world country who arrive home to an empty house to be poor because they have no mother or father to welcome them with a warm hug and a kiss.

Is it a description of poverty when  many of our campesinos feed themselves from their immediate surroundings with fresh mangos, fresh bananas, or papayas or our native fishermen bring home fresh fish for their families to eat? Does that mean they are poor? Should we be ashamed that we cannot afford to buy the less-healthy processed foods at a huge supermarket?  Did you know that in some first-world countries the government allows you to legally sell “Fresh Fish”, when it is as much as 22 days old? I don’t think anyone in Panama would eat a 22-day old fish. Do you?

I know several fishermen who live on the Atlantic coast and all of them are considered poor. One is named Raul and he lives with his family in a small house with no TV and no air conditioning. They don’t even have an electric can opener or a car, but they know all of their neighbors and either Raul or his wife Rumwalda are home every day when their two daughters walk home from  school. Raul fishes three or four days each week and what his family does not eat, they trade or sell. While his house is quite small, it is ocean-front and they have little stress, no air pollution and almost no noise pollution, except for the lazy dog that starts barking at 6:00 AM.  Most economists that measure by the dollar yardstick would definitely say Raul is poor, but I never thought of him that way because he seems to have so much. A healthy family, fresh food, low stress, beautiful oceanfront view, nice kids who have school and a nearby clinic. It’s a different lifestyle.

Could poverty ever be measured by what percent of your society can wear normal-sized clothes?  One might argue that the 47 percent of our poor population are for the most part, not fat.  How does that compare to a first-world country where 65 percent of the citizens are overweight?  Most medical professionals agree that  it is unhealthy and it is usually considered poor health to be overweight, especially when you factor in the collateral damage of diabetes and heart disease. Could we say then, that 65 percent of that specific first-world country lives in poverty because they are overweight and in poor health? Could poverty be measured that way?  

Are you poor if you only have one television in your house or do you measure wealth by the number of TVs and telephones?  Our poor campesinos might measure wealth by the number of hours they get to spend interacting with their children or their parents instead of watching television or being interrupted by cell phones. Is wealth fuelled by a consumer driven society where you need to buy the latest fashion? Is the fact that children in more developed countries wear designer-clothes  to school a good thing? Who is that good for? Are we poor because our Panama school children wear uniforms that do not include fashion statements? 

Who is rich and who is poor?  Sometimes I’m not sure, but perhaps we can agree that there are different measures regarding poverty that are best suited for different cultures and one assumes a host of unrelated complexities when one confuses different cultures and  values.  

Robert E. Baker is the president of the American Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Panama. This column is based on the AmCham' President's Letter for January 2007.

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