Suffering in Word Pictures: While we generally associate extreme poverty with other parts of the world, it can be found in tragic proportions in wealthy countries, especially the United States.

Award winning author William Vollmann spent years interviewing poor people around the globe, compiling hundreds of their stories in the 2007 volume Poor People. Here is a glimpse of the suffering in a New York City rundown apartment building. This conversation was with a teenage girl who had just used the sixth floor bathroom, stinking with no lights or toilet paper.

“Them toilets, let’s just say they’ve got so bad I just piss on the floor. Gotta go see my friend on the first floor….. Her baby died.”
“What did it die of?”
“Natural causes.”
“They said she flushed it down the toilet,” explained one of the kids. (Poor People, p 255)

At the end of such heart-rending stories, Vollmann’s book contains 128 photos taken from 25 countries around the globe. Eleven were taken in the United States, but it’s impossible to tell who the Americans are. Both his stories and photos demonstrate vividly that the face of poverty is the same the world over. The social context changes but the misery remains surprisingly constant.

“For me,” Vollmann wrote in Poor People, “poverty is not mere deprivation; for people may possess fewer things than I and be richer; poverty is wretchedness. It must then be an experience more than an economic state. It therefore remains somewhat immeasurable.”

Suffering in Statistical Bullet Points (Source)

  • Poverty is projected to peak in 2013 at 14% of United States 306 million people. One in five US children already lives in poverty. (Projections by OMB, CBO, and EIU.)
  • Almost half (50%) the world’s 6.8 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • The number of chronically hungry people in the world rose in 2009 above 1.0 billion, which is a sixth of the global population. (UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization report, 2009)
  • An estimate of 25,000 children die each day due to poverty. (UNICEF)
  • 300 million children have no access to health services.
  • Less than one per cent of what the world spends every year on weapons is needed to put every child into school.
  • Nearly 2 billion people do not have nearby water but consume around 20 liters per day. Americans consume an average 600 liters per day.
  • Indoor air pollution resulting from the use of solid fuels kills 4,000 a day, half of which are under age of five.
  • For every $1 in aid a developing country receives, over $25 is spent on debt repayment.
  • Yearly suicides each year worldwide is 600,000.

These statistics imply vast global suffering. Failure to alleviate this suffering is a matter of priorities, not resources. World spending on illegal drugs last year was $214 billion USD ($31 per person. World military spending last year was $736 trillion USD ($108,000 per person).