Panama 2017: Impossible Choices

Poor people around the world, and in the small Panamanian village I visit, really do face impossible choices. Without enough money for the basics, they play a kind of shell game with the ordinary demands of life. In the poorest families in Rio Hato, one form of this is rotating who gets to go to school. To sit in a classroom, a child must have a uniform and a certain kind of shoes — sold quite cheaply, but still. The child must have a pencil and a blank notebook for each subject material. The child has to bring a lunch. If you have nine children, as some families still do despite the wider availability of birth control, that’s a big daily outlay. They make it work by rotating who gets to go to school on any given day — rotating the uniforms, the shoes, the notebooks and pencils, the cold rice with a bit of protein left over from the night before. Sadly, you can’t rotate learning, which requires a constancy day in and day out.

Gloria faced an impossible choice when I was still trying to provide seed capital for a small business to support her family. She kept getting sidetracked by other calls on the money, some quite serious. She had a lump in her breast, and a mammogram through the free public health system would have been months away. In panic about cancer, she asked me about using some of the seed money to pay for the test so she could get it sooner. I said I couldn’t make that decision for her, and didn’t know what I would do in her place. She got the mammogram, and the seed money got smaller. She has a brother in a wheel chair who needs considerable care. He was living in Panama City, and his caregiver was no longer able to fill that role. The family begged Gloria to come up with the money to bring him back to the village. The seed money got smaller again. Last June, when her father died, Gloria was the only one of nine siblings who had any cash. She wound up paying for all the funeral expenses, which took much of what I paid her for the week of work when she cooked for me and the families who came from Boston.

This is why the ideological exhortation that if only the poor worked harder, they’d climb the socioeconomic ladder and move out of poverty, is so off-base. They do work hard. What they don’t have is any redundancy in their fragile economic ecosystem. A child who falls and cuts his hand on a random piece of glass, then has be rushed by taxi to a clinic to get stitches, wipes out the family budget for days. Compound that with a father who can’t find enough days of work, and with rising prices on the basics of rice, lentils, cooking oil, toilet paper, soap, coffee, and sugar, and you have a family living in perpetual and unrelenting crisis.

Over the last decade advances in the global economy have lifted a lot of families out of this kind of radical poverty. Now, Trump’s America First mantra threatens to undo the win-win economic philosophy that has accomplished this miracle. I’m sickened and shamed by the turn our country has taken.

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