The price of being poor (besides being poor)

Sindiso walks into a store to buy a blanket – six blankets, in fact, to serve as traditional gifts to the local sub-chiefs whose people she has come to consult regarding the status of local justice under customary law. There are no prices or fancy barcodes. The clerk attending her is Mozambican, a poor man by appearances. The store owner is Indian, aspiring middle class. She has R200 to spend on each blanket. The clerk tells her in his broken Zulu that the price of the desired blankets is R230 – but he can fetch a lower price: would she only just do something for him in return (his family is hungry).

What does he mean by this?, she asks. Hesitatingly, out of earshot of the owner, he explains that there is a fruit vendor down the street whom she should give a cash gift to on leaving the store and he will keep it for the man.

She is uncomfortable. She has not participated in such a scheme before, is not in the habit of bending the rules. In fact, she assigns considerable weight, on principle, to fair dealing and the preservation of “law and order” when the laws are not obviously unjust.

But she can see that this man is in need. Knowing him to be an immigrant and familiar with the local labor conditions, she confidently assumes that he is paid a small pittance, below the already poverty-level minimum wage. Knowing also how far a single income must be stretched in these parts (unemployment tops 40%) to feed immediate and extended families, she is concerned that this man shares little part in the owner’s proceeds for the work that he does.

Sympathetic as she is on consideration of the man’s circumstances, there is a simple technical constraint: she is purchasing on behalf of her employer and must have the appropriate receipts for all that is spent. She is somewhat relieved that it is sufficient to rule out such shady dealings (my wife is not naturally shady :)

No, he implores, Let me just speak to the owner and he will agree to write you receipts for more than the amount you pay – we’ll say it’s to cover your ‘travel’. I will be able to fetch you a superb price of R180 per blanket, marked as R200 each on the receipt. That would allow you to share with me the difference…

When is it appropriate to “take the law into our own hands”? What level of injustice should suffice?

That there is such a point somewhere along the spectrum seems to Sindiso and me clear. On the one end, we do not drive through red stoplights or steal from our neighbors because we value living in a world where others do the same, where Kantian “categorical imperatives” stand. On the other end, we hope that we would have the courage to answer No to the Nazi SS when they came to our door asking if we had hidden our Jewish neighbors, whose fate in Nazi hands would be certain death. But where is the inflection point?

Rather than seeking to answer this trying question here, we want to make another point in keeping with this blog’s theme, The status quo ain’t neutral: it is a privilege enjoyed by middle class and wealthier people not to have to ask or answer such moral questions – questions which come at a cost.

Injustice occurs all around us. The clothes we wear were likely produced in sweatshops far away whose workers were women or children earning poverty-level wages at best: one in four children in developing countries works for wages (UNICEF study on child labor). The meat we eat at school or work was likely hormone-injected and raised on factory farms where little care is taken for the wellbeing of animals and workers, never-mind the natural environment: 100 acres of rainforest are being cut down every minute of every day, largely to make room for the raising of livestock to feed our fast food fix. And so on…

Part of the beauty of being middle class is that we don’t have to see these rampant injustices attached to many of our daily decisions, and not seeing is not believing. Because to be made aware that our every decision has moral consequences is to be necessarily made uncomfortable. It is to participate, albeit modestly, in the suffering and injustice around us. It is not free.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, considered by some to be “America’s founding thinker”, observed of his countrymen before the Civil War in his essay Circles, “people wish to be settled: only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

Back in the blanket store, Sindiso had to make a decision, Yes or No. Would she bend the rules to help a man in need who was almost certainly underpaid for his services by the profitable owner up front? A man standing there before her plaintively asking for help? Or would she stand firm in her commitment to “law and order”, abstract though it seemed in that time and place for all its universal appeal. The first option would make her the perpetrator of a kind of rough-and-tumble distributive justice while the second was an opportunity to buck a murky system and set an example of “right conduct” for those around her.

It was a decision of the kind never asked of her in middle class stores with barcodes and the rest – and not normally having to make such decisions, she saw, was part of the privilege of being middle class. Being confronted was a rude awakening.

The point is not to be discomforted for discomfort’s sake: seeing the injustices around us should fire in us a kind of “righteous anger” that will make our tolerance for injustice short and compel us to work for change.

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