No interview haunts me more than a conversation with a Cambodian peasant, Nhem Yen, in 1996. She was forty years old, though she looked much older, and was living with her family in a clearing in the Cambodian jungle. The area was notorious for malaria, but the family members were ambitious and industrious and figured that it was worth the risk to make more money by cutting wood for sale.
Nhem Yen’s eldest daughter, who was twenty-four and pregnant with her second child, promptly caught malaria. There was no money to get medical treatment (effective drugs would have cost less than $10), and so she died a day after giving birth. That left Nhem Yen looking after five children of her own and two grandchildren.
The family had one mosquito net that could accommodate about three people. Such nets are quite effective against malaria, but they cost $5—and Nhem Yen could not afford to buy any more. So every night, she agonized over which of the children to put under the net and which to leave out.
“It’s very hard to choose,” Nhem Yen told me. “But we have no money to buy another mosquito net. We have no choice.”
That is the real face of poverty: it is not so much the pain of hunger or the humiliation of rags, but the impossible choices you face. If you can only afford school fees for some of your children, which do you send? If you must choose between medical treatment for Dad, the breadwinner, or for Daughter, the A student, which is it? Do you use your savings to provide a good dowry so Eldest Daughter can get a decent husband, or do you settle for the drunkard who will beat her and instead invest the savings in a food cart that may help provide an income to send the younger ones to school?
One measure of the ubiquity of these tradeoffs is that today, as every day, 30,000 children will die of hunger, disease, and other consequences of poverty, according to UNICEF. In many cases, those will be daughters, because parents (particularly in South Asia) don’t have the resources to keep all their children alive, so they put a finger on the scales on the side of their sons. In India alone, among children aged one to five, girls are 50 percent more likely to die than boys—meaning that 130,000 Indian girls are mortally discriminated against each year.
Poverty both in the US and around the world remains a central fact of twenty-first-century life; a majority of the world lives on less than $2 a day, one common measure of who is poor. Yet we manage, pretty successfully, to ignore it and insulate ourselves even from poverty in our own country. When it pops out from behind the screen after an episode like the Watts riots of 1965 or the New Orleans hurricane of 2005, then we express horror and indignation and …