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    Indonesian Travel Journal: Poverty or the Highs and Lows of Instant Gratification

    I didn’t have internet service at my house this week. There was nothing wrong with the service. I paid the bill and magical signals were coming through the cables hanging high up above the street. I say magical because I don’t understand the ins and outs of how I can sit down on my couch in Jakarta and communicate with people all over the world through invisible electrical impulses. What’s more, I don’t really care how it works, just that it does. And when it fails, I get the tiniest bit cranky. 

    I live a very spoiled life. Five days a week, my employer sends a person to my house to clean and wash dishes. Three days a week, someone else comes to do the laundry. And, when something goes wrong—mechanically speaking—we make a call and people appear to fix the problem. The most pressing recent problem was a leaky roof. It was leaky for a while, but it was the dry season so we didn’t care. At the beginning of October, it started raining every day, so we called and, sure enough, the next day there were people on top of the roof. The leak is gone, but they decided—apparently, to prevent future leaks—that it would be a good idea to trim all the trees. 

    I’m not sure if the Indonesian government has an OSHA-like agency, responsible for protecting the health and safety of workers, but if it does, the staff is likely more concerned with protecting the financial security of their families and friends through graft. As a result, the idea of ladders or tree-trimming buckets or even minimal safety equipment is laughable. What happened is a couple of guys showed up, took their shoes off, shimmied up the trees, machetes in hand, and started hacking away.

    Surprisingly, they unhooked the cable that brings internet access into my living room, so they wouldn’t hack through it. I say “surprisingly” because thinking ahead does not seem to be valued as an important skill here. But, in any case, the cable running from the house was unhooked from the main line and thrown to the ground as the men hacked their way from the top branches down. By the time I noticed that our internet access had been interrupted, there were only a few low branches and two skinny trunks left. 

    I went outside to ask the men when the internet connection would be restored. They looked at each other and at the cable lying on the ground. Then, they looked toward the sky and said, "Ngga bisa." That means "can't." As in, we can't plug it back in because we forgot it was there and we cut away the tree so now we can’t reach that high.”

    Oy. Welcome to Indonesia, land of thinking only of the moment in time you currently occupy. 

    Sometimes, I find this cultural trait endearing and useful, like when I want or need something. It seems like anything is possible here and I only need to ask for it. When I started my job, I used to make notes about things that I would need for the week, like supplies or copies, with deadlines. I would give the note to one of the staff on Monday at two o’clock. Monday at two-thirty, I would have everything I needed for the week. I tried my best to explain that I didn’t mean to interrupt their work and that I was planning in advance. It didn’t matter. They persisted in jumping up from whatever they were doing whenever I asked for something, even if I didn’t need it for three days. So now, I ask for something only when I want it. Minutes later, I have it. I still feel like I’m constantly interrupting, but at least I’m spacing it out. And, who doesn’t love instant gratification? 

    There are other times when I find the lack of planning skills absolutely maddening. In a taxi, for example, I can rarely give more than one direction at a time. I can’t say, for example, “Take the toll road to the exit at the city center and then take the main road to the Hyatt hotel. Then, make a U-turn and stop in front of the mall.” Those are way, way, WAY too many steps. In these situations, I have two choices. I can either impart one step at a time, paying close attention to where I’m going so that I can give the next instruction moments before it’s time to change the direction in which we’re traveling. Or, I can tell the driver the final destination and cross my fingers that he will know where it is. 

    In some respects, having to let go of a planning instinct that borders on obsessive-compulsive has been good for me. In other respects, it’s probably not all that great for my blood pressure.  

    The phenomenon has become a frequent conversation topic for me and the other foreigners I encounter here. We’ve wondered at the marvelously silly lack of planning at the simplest level (like hacking your way down a tree and not being able to get back up again) and the staggeringly inadequate level of planning at the community level (like the fact that traffic is predicted to come to a complete standstill in Jakarta in 2012 and, while there is lots of talk about the problem, little to nothing has been done to forestall it). Yesterday, I was talking about it with a friend who mentioned casually that it probably all comes down to hunger. 

    Hunger is the basest motivator, he said. If you, or your children, are hungry, nothing else matters except where you are going to find food. You can’t think about what might happen in the next year, or the next week, or even the next hour, until you have filled that basic need. If enough people are hungry, for a long enough period of time, the tendency to fill only your most immediate needs spreads throughout the society and is very difficult to change until a large enough number of citizens is able to meet their basic needs consistently enough that planning for the future has greater benefits than living moment to moment.

    My friend’s suggestion offers another explanation for the existence and persistence of systemic poverty. Two other popular schools of thought are: 1) that the poor are responsible for their poverty due to their behavior and so they deserve what they get (or don’t get); and 2) that society in general is responsible for the conditions surrounding poverty and therefore has a responsibility to improve those conditions.

    The Culture of Poverty theory first appeared in the late 1950’s to explain the persistence of poverty in the developing world. It was soon seized upon in academic and political circles in the United States. The argument was that the poor feel that the social conventions and institutions of mainstream society don’t apply to them because they feel marginalized and helpless. Therefore, according to the theory, poverty becomes self-perpetuating—in other words, if you are poor, it’s your fault because you act poor.

    Or, put into more eloquent terms from Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Social Issues

    The first explanation for the persistence of poverty holds that among some groups there is a culture that breeds poverty because it is antithetical to the self-discipline and hard work that enable others to climb out of their poverty. In other words, the poor have a culture all their own that is at variance with middle-class culture and hinders their success. Although it may keep people locked into what seems to be an intolerable life, this culture nevertheless has its own compensations and pleasures: It is full of "action," and it does not demand that people postpone pleasure, save money, or work hard. And it is, for the most part, tolerable to those who live in it. Furthermore, according to this argument, not all poor people embrace the culture of poverty, and those who embrace middle-class values should be given every workable form of encouragement—material and spiritual—for escaping poverty. But for those poor who embrace the lower-class culture, very little can be done. These poor will always be with us.

    This is what I consider the more conservative approach. It conveniently absolves those of us who are privileged from any responsibility for those of us who aren’t. If you’re poor, it’s your problem. If only you acted more like me, you wouldn’t be. 

    The more liberal explanation, also from Taking Sides, puts the onus on society to provide the resources and opportunities to help people leave poverty behind:

    [M]ost of the poor will become self-supporting if they are given a decent chance. Their most important need is for decent jobs that can go somewhere. But often they cannot find jobs, and when they do, the jobs are dead-end or degrading. Some need job training or counseling to give them more self-confidence before navigating the job market. Others need temporary help such as rent supplements, inexpensive housing, income supplements, protection from crime, medical services, or better education to help them help themselves.

    In Indonesia, a lot of people (including me) have access to jobs, housing, medical services, and education that match anything the developed world has to offer. But a huge number of people don’t. And when you don’t know whether you’ll make enough money to feed your family this month, or if you don’t know whether you’ll be able to afford to send your kids to school next year, remembering that you have to leave yourself a way to reconnect a cable that sends invisible signals from a pole in the sky into somebody’s living room just isn’t on the mental radar.





    I recall reading somewhere that the idea of building a subway in Jakarta (I think it was Jakarta) was so daunting that they were even considering moving the capital to another site. Here's a reference but looks like they may actually go ahead.

    While the metro project will be costly, it would be less of a strain on the treasury than the proposal mooted by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in August to move the site of the capital to another location, with either Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan or Jonggol in West Java as the leading options.

    I have a book, Working Poor - Invisible in America, and I read a good deal of it before getting distracted. One of the concepts is that the system seems to conspire to take money away from the poor, because everything is more expensive when you have to buy it at the last minute - like emergency rooms instead of regular doctor visits. Another is that the poor often make poor choices - drugs, bad marriages, etc - that keep them in financial trouble. These concepts seem to echo both sides of the explanations that you mentioned.

    The system conspires even against the middle class, what with credit cards and interest rates as penalties for not being able to pay cash.

    They're talking about a monorail system in Jakarta. I'm not sure they could build a subway because Jakarta is at sea level and has a chronic flooding problem during the rainy season. It doesn't help that the canals that run through the city (built by the Dutch) are big sewage dumps, since there is no central sewage system. That makes the floods super gross in addition to super wet.

    But they've been talking about the monorails for a long, long time and there hasn't been any demonstrable progress. What funding they may have allocated is probably long gone into personal pockets of government employees.

    I take your points on hunger and primary needs possibly obviating other considerations.  Though future-thinking is what caused many early agrarian societies to grow or forage extra food and store it, even create vessels for storage, etc.  And not to step on any toes, but IMO, in many developing nations, it's the women who tend to look to the future more, and plan for it.  It seems to be a developing trend, so is becoming an almost accepted idea.  Some account for it by positing that since women bear children, need to look ahead to protect them, they may come by extending their imaginations further into the future.  Semi-stable family units may have come from the same impulses or biological/mental directives.  Just a thought.

    Now and living for the moments is cool, and in this society we need more of it.  That Native Americans live more on their own time drives White People nuts.  We try to make them understand, so they'll fit into modern society and business better.  Who knows if they should, or we should?   ;o)

    Patricia Cohen in the NYT just penned an article on the comeback of "culture of poverty" after the controversy erupted over the term in the early seventies.  She was also on a recent  Topic of the Nation discussing this topic.  Last year, Talk of the Nation did an episode that also explored the extent term has value in dealing with poverty.

    The basic jest of much of it is that there are cultural facets to why some people remain in poverty and that academics are returning to this concept.  Saying this, however, is not necessarily blaming the "victim."  It is merely acknowledging that there are certain patterns of behavior and thought that facilitate a greater likelihood that individuals growing up in neighborhoods in poverty will remain in poverty.

    A basic example of this is that many people who are poor have very little education, in part because they were never very successful in school.  They're parents had a similiar experience.  What one discovers is that in many of these homes, the parents never read to the children.  In fact, in many of these homes there are no books.  So when the child shows up to school for the first time, they are already behind the curve and this creates a greater likelihood they, too, will not have a successful school experience.  Since many of these parents do not have fond memories of school, they are less likely to be engaged with the children's afterschool work.  Of coure, one then puts on the emotional and physical stress financial difficulties bring to households, and by the third grade many of these children are on track to dropping out. 

    The way to deal with this is not by ignoring the pattern, but by developing early childhood education programs to work with the mothers at the moment she goes to deal with her pregnancy, helping her and the father to prepare the child for kindergarten in the years prior to the child's entry.  At the same time, programs working to help bring more financial stability to home (from immediate basic needs to access to health care to job training and other forms of education for the parents) need to be implemented.

    In Europe, much more so than in the US, the concept of social exculsion has replaced the simple concept of poverty which tends to define folks simply by the amount of income.  Social exclusion looks at the structural facet of "poverty." In other words, two individuals who make the same amount of money are not equal in looking for work if one has access to quality public transit and the other doesn't.  From a governmental point of view, social exclusion would look to eliminate or lessen the structural barriers individuals and families face in dealing with the day to day demands as well as with seeking opportunities to improve the quality of their life.  Social exclusion also takes into consideration the pyschological facets that comes with marginalization. 


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