Sometimes today when I read news stories or see headlines contrasting images flash in my mind. The stark contrast of rich and poor in the United States today often feels like living in the third world, as I remember it as a kid living in El Salvador and the Philippines. I’ve captured a few of these, in style of the Internet meme, which tell the story in a way that is perhaps more accessible that the numbers used by the economists.

Living in the third world. Image shows a shanty town in Fresno, California and another in Chancheria, Peru

Fresno image via Salon article via No, poverty is not the fault of the poor
Chancheria via Mission Meanderings, blog of Rev. Canon Dr. Ian Montgomery

3000 SHOES: living in the third world.  Image shows closets filled with shoes, Mariah Carey's on the left and Imelda Marcos' on the right

On the other side, looking at the very rich, Imelda Marcos made headlines with her 3000 pairs of shoes left behind when she and her husband fled the Philippines in 1986. Here in the US, celebrity closets tell a similar tale “Mariah Carey has also admitted to owning between 2000 and 3000” pairs of shoes, and Linday Lohen reportedly has 5000.

For those who might feel that this is emotional hyperbole, there’s data tracking this very real trend. Economists quantify the gap between rich and poor with something called the GINI index, which is getting worse in the US, while getting better in El Salvador. (In the graphs below, a lower number is better.)

Gini index from 1913 to 2004 is U-shaped -- peaking in 1928 and 2004 with low points from 1940s to 1070s
Gap between rich and poor is increasing in the US since the 70s
GINI index shows that the gap between rich and poor in El Salvador is decreasing in past decade.

What I Remember…

I was in 4th and 5th grade when I lived in the Philippines and El Salvador. I saw extreme poverty, where public schools lacked books, where children and sick people begged on the street. In the Philippines, we travelled to rural areas where I saw people who worked in rice fields and live in huts on stilts. Their children were skinny, but not starving. That was the middle class. In Manilla, the Americans and very rich, lived in a walled city around or near the army base. We went there for Halloween, and the poor kids would sneak in and try to get candy from the rich houses. One of the moms told me she only gave candy to kids in costume, since she didn’t want to encourage that kind of behavior. I wondered why I was allowed to get free candy and these other kids couldn’t. Would it be okay if they came back next year in costume, pretending not to be so poor and hungry?

In El Salvador, there was a soccer field near my house, and up the hill beyond an overgrown area, in the shadow of the Sheraton Hotel, there was a place where people lived packed together in little shacks made of metal roofing material with no running water or electricity. We didn’t live behind walls in air-conditioned houses as some of my friends did, but we were members of the Brittish-American club down the street where we could swim in the pool. Sometimes, I would see kids my age with dark hair and wide brown eyes peering over the wall at the pale kids splashing each other with moms sitting in the sunshine with their big sunglasses and iced drinks.

One day my mom came home from the bank. I think she was in shock, because she told me she had just seen someone shot by the police. “Because they were poor,” she told me. Perhaps oversimplifying the situation, perhaps not.

When I came back to the United States, I was acutely aware of how privileged I was, how wealthy my family, relative to many of the people of the world, despite being middle class in America.

And now?

In the intervening years, I’ve seen my country decline for the majority of the population, while the rich become richer. I hope that by illustrating this contrast, or lack of contrast, between these worlds, more people will see what is happening around us. With awareness, I hope we can work together to change it.

In my little corner of the world, I’m volunteering in way that I believe makes a difference. I think government policies could have more of an impact, but that’s not really my area of expertise, so I focus on education, where individual effort can have significant impact. I do this work with Bridge Foundry and its related volunteer initiatives. If you see the same trends that I do, and you have a job or have skills to share, get involved. Make a difference.

Here’s my to do list for 2014…

  • Spend more time walking under trees and on the beach, looking at the sky and digging in the garden.
  • Make time for awe
  • Learn new languages like Clojure and Mandarin Chinese
  • Write code that I’m proud of, while doing the simplest things that could possibly work
  • More fear therapy: Let the experiences that I want to have pull me through my fear, and try a few new things I’m afraid of even if I’m not sure if I’ll like them at all.
  • Speak more, write more. About things that matter, and some things that don’t.
  • Do less, better.
  • Remember that the most important part of my life are the people in it.
  • Be kind.

I love making stuff, especially stuff that people can use. The act of creation is itself a joy, and I must admit that there are times that I get lost in it. Sometimes, when I’m making software, or otherwise swept up in some corner of my own mind, I lose touch with the people around me. Then I get kind of pissed off that they are interrupting my blissful state of self-absorption or I wonder why they won’t just get with the program which is all laid out in imaginary detail and coherence in my head. Of course, I like the people, and usually, other perspectives are needed to turn my imaginary solutions into ones that will actually work. This little list for 2014 is one way of reminding myself to stay in touch with the world, and the people in it.