Thinking about income disparity

I came across this blog post today which really put into perspective the budget we’ve been working on for our time in Davao. We’ve been basing our estimates for our cost of living there on guidelines from Newlife School.

A Philippine peso is just a little over 2 cents.

The “poverty threshold” for the Philippines was 16841 pesos per capita annually in 2009. In USD, that’s $384 per person per year, or just over a dollar a day. According to official statistics, over 20% of families and over 25% of the population is living in poverty.

As clearly demonstrated in the post I linked above, most families whose incomes are technically above the poverty line do not allow for anything like “comfortable middle class lifestyle” in North America. Some things (particularly services and labor) are much, much less expensive in the Philippines than they are here. Many other things (gas, electricity, cheese) cost as much or more than they do in the States.

Those budgetary guidelines we’ve been using will make our family part of the top 1%. This despite the fact that our month-to-month expenses in Davao will be dramatically lower than our living expenses in Mason, Ohio, and the fact that we will be living without a lot of “stuff” that we take for granted in North America. (For instance, we don’t expect to have air conditioning, a dryer, hot running water, we may or may not purchase a vehicle but we certainly won’t have more than one as we do in the States!)  We aren’t used to thinking of ourselves as “part of the 1%” — because here in Mason, we’re not! But in comparison to most of the rest of the world, we are the “rich Americans.”

Global poverty and income disparity are big, ugly problems without simple answers. Thinking about these questions can be overwhelming. Making a difference can seem impossible. But we as Christians living in North America need to grapple with these questions. I read the book of James and tremble. If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? I want to live for God’s kingdom and value what He values, and I see that far too much of my life is wrapped up in my earthly possessions. Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. I am the rich American. I am the 1%.

I do not imagine I am going to solve the big ugly problems, but at the least I can wrestle with them. He was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Are my possessions keeping me from following Jesus? Are they hindering my love for my neighbor? Better to be destitute. But “voluntary poverty” is not the same as involuntary poverty. Even if I were to “sell whatever I have and give to the poor,” I cannot give away my white skin, my American citizenship, the privelege I was born with that makes me part of the 1%.

So, as I wrestle, a beginning: to try to use the gifts God has given me to try to serve and bless the poor, in the most direct and personal way that I know. I am a midwife, a word that means “with woman.” I sit with women during the most intense and vulnerable moments of their lives. I know how to look in their eyes and reassure them with that they will make it through. I know how to stop a hemorrhage and how to help a baby who does not breath.

No matter how poor you are in the States, if you are having a baby, you can have skilled medical care when you give birth. Yes, there are income disparities which are reflected in the provision of health care, but we have a safety net that simply does not exist in the Philippines. The clinic where I will be volunteering as a midwife provides free maternity care for the poor. The women who come to the clinic know they will be treated with respect, kindness, and compassion and will be able to give birth in a clean, safe, comfortable environment with skilled midwives and access to lifesaving medications should they or their baby encounter complications.

with a new mother whose baby I delivered in 2009

There are many things I cannot change, but I can sit with a woman giving birth and be a calm and steady rock for her. I can know her name and her baby’s name and listen to her story. I can do my best to show her Christ’s love in the midst of her birth pains. I can make a beginning, each day, to try to open my heart and my life to what Christ wants to work in me.

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