COMMENTARY: As you are reading this, you might be wondering what a Hollywood blockbuster can teach you about poverty. If you pay close attention, read between the lines, see beyond the screenplay and all the gore and violence in this movie, you will find that the feelings, actions and dialogues of the characters send a hidden, but powerful message regarding the economics of poverty.
In the first film of “The Purge” franchise, (direct quote from the official trailer), “America is reborn, unemployment is at 1 percent and crime is at an all-time low. In this hypothetical scenario, most of the causes and effects of poverty are eliminated in the following way.”
In an America held hostage by the consequences of poverty, high crime rates and overpopulated prisons, the government decides to sanction “an annual 12-hour period during which all crime, including murder, is legal.” Yes, during one night a year all criminal activities go unpunished and some individuals unleash the violence that they harbor inside them.
In other words, the movie’s script implies that the government and society sanction an “anti-poverty strategy” that consists in getting rid of the poor and those underprivileged members of society rather than getting rid of poverty itself.
As you can expect, only those affluent members of society can afford to protect themselves during “The Purge.” For example, the main character is portrayed as an individual who enjoys economic success. Even though he shows empathy for those who have to survive the insanity that is taking place outside his home, he has access to a state-of-the-art alarm system that can protect his family.
However, the main character and his family face a “lose-lose” situation when they allow a stranger into their house who inadvertently brings mayhem, envy, resentment and the viciousness of a parallel outside world inside their “virtual fortress of solitude.” As a result of their decision, this family ends up paying a steep price as they try to endure this nightmare while shielding themselves from the self-destructive behavior they loathe.
Having that said, how many times have we been “guilty” of turning a blind eye on those problems that (apparently) do not affect us or our loved ones? “The Purge” is a fictitious and extreme portrayal of criminalization of poverty in America (in which death is the ultimate punishment). We are obviously not that far gone, but criminalization of poverty is a harsh reality in America. Also, poverty kills Americans (and people all over the world) in the following ways.
Those living in poverty tend to live close to pollution centers. It should not come as a surprise that these individuals are often diagnosed with kidney disease, asthma and other illnesses. These individuals often live in high-crime areas without access to safe and affordable housing. The list goes on, but keep in mind that poverty affects both the poor and the affluent. Poor individuals are often denied the social and economic capital they need to reach their potential, but affluent individuals can easily become a target for criminal activity.
Thus, the point of this story is to shed some light on how we perceive and fight poverty while trying to stay away from a message of pessimism. You might then be wondering why I brought up the doom and gloom scenario portrayed by “The Purge.”
Because, in Leibniz’s words, “he who hasn’t tasted bitter things hasn’t earned sweet things.” Hence, we must realize what our challenges are so that we can overcome them.
Let’s end on a happy note.
During my short tenure in the nonprofit/asset-development field, I have had the honor to meet people with brilliant minds and beautiful souls who are tirelessly working to create anti-poverty strategies that foster an inclusive economy. You have reminded me that the lean manufacturing concepts I learned in the past can easily be translated to the asset-development field. Asset-development professionals will seldom hit a home run that will end poverty with the blink of an eye; however, you have taught me that you serve as ambassadors who promote revolutionary change one step at a time — and every “small hit” brings you closer to your vision.
Your actions send a message of action and optimism during my darkest hours and (again in Leibniz’s words) you help me fantasize that “this world is the best of all possible worlds.” It is easy to get discouraged these days, but all of you remind me of an unstoppable force that won’t give up. You exemplify the type of practitioner and individual I would like to become. Your enthusiasm is contagious, and I am sure your courage has helped many individuals overcome the internal struggle they have to go through on a daily basis.
In closing, your convictions make feel like I am part of a love story in which romance, idealism, passion and commitment will conquer all.
To all my colleagues and friends, who never cease to amaze me and who use their intellect, time, energy and talent to fight for a noble cause, this letter is for you. Thank you for everything you have done and will continue to do for me.
Rodolfo Acosta Pérez is director of family empowerment for a nonprofit organization in Las Cruces and a former research assistant at the Arrowhead Center for Economic Development.