Alcohol abuse is usually treated as a symptom of poverty, but the more I observe its proliferation amongst the poor the more I consider it as a problem in and of itself. Drinking is actually less in South America relative to Europe and the U.S. And of course imbibing is a vice in every culture and isn’t specific to those in need. I should be the first to admit this given that most people my age are actively discovering the meaning of a beer after work and the adventures of a tequila-fueled Friday night. While I don’t pretend to omit myself from my fellow young adults, I do feel the urge to condemn those who turn to drinking as a complement to their poverty. The first thing we tend to do is base our scrutiny of these people off interactions with them.
A local carpenter I had met the day before cornered me one afternoon in the streets of the community. He was swaying as he stood and asked me to come to his house to teach him English and maybe throw a little financial support his way. He would teach me Quechua and we could celebrate the holidays together. I wanted to yell at him and tell him to go do something productive, to leave me alone. I wanted to tell him to stop buying booze and get his own financial support that way. When I finally loosened his grip enough to walk away I said a curt goodbye and left. He followed me.
This became a trend over the next few weeks, with drunkards waiting outside my apartment door and approaching me on the street. Every time I ran into one it put a new twisted perspective on poverty and alcohol dependence that hadn’t occurred to me before. Alcohol itself is a social lubricant, a relaxant, and a depressant all in the same bottle. Even I have found that affording for drinking takes my mind off the Month of TDC, but what kind of influence does such a drug have on someone who is really poor? When their world is predisposed to limitations at every turn, doesn’t that warrant some sense of enjoyment wherever they can find it? Beer is cheaper than tickets to a show or a new TV set. Poverty comes with hardship, and hardship needs rest. Who am I to deny Mr. Carpenter a slew of drinks when I would seldom deny myself a pour at the end of a rough week? Is drinking really a luxury when we all have monetary responsibilities, regardless of amount?
These questions emerge as I worry about future me potentially working in foreign aid, where the moral dilemma of helping addicts and alcoholics in impoverished villages is a common problem. The humanitarian vein in all of us provides the immediate prima facie response: By no fault of their own, people are driven by personal tragedies to drink excessively and require a demonstration of care that donations may be able to provide. We ought help those in need regardless of why they are where they are. On the other hand, a self inflicted waste of human capital would take valuable resources from a family that needs it and feed it, instead, to the vacuum of light beer and Don Blank White Label that smothers him beneath the poverty line.
In this niche issue area within the greater burden of poverty, my experience with alcohol on two dollars a day has led me to a semi-drastic conclusion: these folks don’t deserve help, at least not my help. Alcoholism is patiently alleviated by close relationships and intimately instilled codes of conduct, the kind of love and care that an aloof foreign organization is rarely capable of giving. It may appear cold and practical, but then again so are simple donations. The required affection for deep seeded troubles is lost, to some degree, when we try and spread out our efforts to cover the large spectrum of needs in the poor world. At some level the local society – the friends, family, and company – take on a responsibility to better themselves for themselves. I’m not saying a focused, concerted action couldn’t cater to such a dearth in welfare, but we are indeed alien to the culture and shouldn’t flatter ourselves with overzealous obligations lest we leave those we can actually help out in the cold. We out of town good-doers are not omnipresent curers and we are reminded of this by gentleman like Mr. Carpenter, who test how far we’re willing to go to help those who seem lost.
I would love to hear why I’m wrong in the comments:
I’m guessing that, like a good attorney, you are asking a question while all the while knowing the answer. That said, I’ll take the bait…..
As you know (better than many), for every million people in poverty there are, at some level, a million different stories, and to try and sort out who “deserves” your support can be a major challenge. Those who think exclusively with their “heart” tend to overlook what those who think predominantly with their “gut” see as self-inflicted wounds (like alcohol addiction). When I have tried to engage my brain to sort things out it has led me to, for example, NOT give spare change to someone asking for it in front of a liquor store. But I have on a couple of occasions bought the guy a burger, because while I figured my change might be mis-spent I had the time and couldnt see the harm in some attempt at compassion. In short, in those instances I focused on the fact that I didn’t know his story.
I would agree that a qualified addiction specialist, a family intervention, or both may be the only thing that can really save your carpenter, and that your time and resources would likely be better spent elsewhere. I won’t suggest you buy him a burger, especially since you’re on TDC and a meager budget. But when approached by someone who clearly has a problem one idea is to carry with you contact information for a drug/alcohol recovery center/volunteer group in the area (I understand there is one) and when you slip it to them say something like “I don’t know you, but I’m guessing this may be the best help I have to offer you”.
Will they go? Prospects may be dim. But they might, and it would probably be more effective then telling them to go do something productive. And it is undoubtedy better than taking the suggestion of a potentially desperate man to go somewhere to celebrate the holiday.