Upon arrival at the Jinotega city dump, our noses were flooded with the potent smell of trash and feces. Roaming dogs were so emaciated their ribs were protruding. A plethora of flies swarmed us. To my surprise, families lived among the heaping piles of rubble. We were informed these families couldn’t find employment back in Jinotega, so they moved here to scavenge for scrap metal and any other items to sell. By the living quarters, kids were smiling and playing soccer with one another. I was absolutely flabbergasted—happiness without material comforts? What’s that? Growing up as a child of immigrants, I was indoctrinated to believe that happiness was tied to economic circumstance and the material divine. Then I caught myself looking at the soccer match and smiling too. Human resiliency is beautiful. There is nothing beautiful about poverty, but there is something remarkable about the will to persist, the ability to circumvent destitute conditions, and the propensity to cultivate joy—riveting joy in your community and between loved ones. Even years of schooling and learning two languages couldn’t have taught me what I learned that day about the human condition.
We often act like poverty is exclusive to “other,” something featured on a UNICEF advert discussing a far away land, something enigmatic that eludes the privileged, because we don’t experience it, “other” people do. Well, I come from the United States of America, the richest country in the world. Poverty—extreme poverty—like the kind I witnessed in Nicaragua exists in the United States of America. People in the United States of America also rely on selling scrap metal for sustenance. People in the United States of America also live precariously, one paycheck away from losing the roof over their heads. People in the United States of America also struggle with malnutrition and food insecurity. Poverty is not a prerogative of “other,” nor is it something we have to idly accept as inevitable or normal. To have egregious poverty exist in the richest country in the world is not only offensive, and shameful—-it is morally repugnant.
Not only is capitalism responsible for the environmental degradation of beautiful Nicaragua, capitalism cultivates, supports, and sponsors poverty. Capitalism is contingent on poverty’s existence. Low wages are necessary to maintain profitability. Coffee beans are a popular export of Nicaragua. A cup of joe will cost anywhere from $2.50 – $5.50 depending on where you are, yet coffee farmers make $1.00 – $3.00 per day, often living in poverty. The profitability of American coffee conglomerates is contingent on undercutting everybody else in the supply chain, including your coffee farmer and your barista. The wealthiest 2000 people have more aggregated wealth than the bottom 4,600,000,000 people. For reference, there are 7,800,000,000 people on this planet. This is the why, so what can we do about it
Discontent with capitalism is pervasive, and we are in dire need of a world that prioritizes human-well being and the sanctity of this Earth. The capitalist culture of consumption does not provide meaningful sustenance for large numbers of people, so we must ask ourselves: what brings us joy? True, riveting joy? Is it something new picked off the catalogue, or is it the people we’ve always had? We must focus on equality as the driver of prosperity. We need to give workers a just return on their investment for their arduous labor, time, and commitment. Abolishing the practice that shareholders are the only constituents of business that matter can help with that. Employees matter, every single one of them, from the farmer to the barista to the janitor. Another tangible strategy for greater equality is to unionize: allow workers to have their fundamental right to bargain collectively against intuitions of extortion. We need a complete reframing of the tax codification. The list of viable solutions goes on and all of them have the potential to materialize if we demand for it.