Coded green.

Sunday 17 June 2001

Screenshot, The Sims

Pic of the day: These two young sims enjoy a peaceful breakfast and each other's company.

Relative poverty

In much of the world, it is still like this: The poor have to go to bed hungry sometimes. More likely, they have had a meal of rice cooked with water, and once a week a spoon of butter in the rice. On a festival day perhaps the large family shares a chicken.

Here in the rich world, we are not unfamiliar with hunger. Here, people go to bed hungry because they're on a diet. But most of us are unfamiliar with the bowl of rice. Or oats. Or potatoes. As the only food most days. Not that I recommend it, in terms of health. But my point is, in rich countries such as Norway, poverty is relative. The poor here feel poor even though they are not starving or freezing. I can empathize with them. I've been there. Still, it is relative.


I grew up on a small farm. Well, it wasn't so small by local standards; unlike most of the village, we could live off the farm with no other sources of income. But it was not a luxurious life. It was hard work for the adults, and light work for the children. Only I got to skip much of the work, because I was the smallest and because of my asthma. Even with all the work, we were far from well off in terms of money.

One benefit of living on a farm is that there's food nearby. Our farm was very varied in terrain and in the food we grew. We had stopped growing grain before I can remember, but we had potatoes and several different vegetables, and various fruits and berries of the kinds that can grow here in Norway. We also raised sheep, goats and cattle, so there was no shortage of meat or dairy products. I never knew hunger or thirst as a kid. It probably helped that my mother was a cook from her younger days.

But there were other ways in which we could guess that money was tight. We did not buy new clothes, but my mother made many of the clothes herself; others we inherited from cousins or other friends of the family. After school, we were supposed to change into our everyday darned and mended clothes, so as to not ruin the good school clothes. We did not buy new furniture, or extremely rarely. Much of the furniture we had when I was tiny, was there still when I moved out. In fact, I think most of it is there still. We did not go away on vacation, but luckily various relatives came to us instead, and we had lots of fun in the summer.

At the age of 15, I moved out of home to go to high school. One benefit of living in Scandinavia is that the state does help out poor students with stipends and loans. This also happened to me for the next five years or so. Then I left school to get a job.

Having dropped out of school before I had really qualified for any particular profession, I had some trouble getting a job despite my impressive grades. I eventually got a office job at a public office. Sorting papers, taking orders from clients, stuff like that. It was, as I later discovered, a typical housewife job, most popular with women who had stayed with their children so long that their education was pretty much worthless. Or who had gotten children before their education was finished. Well, I had no children, but otherwise there was a certain similarity.

The pay was very low by Norwegian standards. Remember, the target group did not really need to make a living. They got some money for themselves and a chance to meet people and play a part in society, sort of. For me, the situation was subtly different. I had no money saved up, only student loans. I had no place to live, except I rented a room in a basement. I had a few shifts of clothes, but I had to borrow money to buy drawers to have those clothes in. And my parents were not much better off than I. They did help me out, but according to their ability. Which, in economic terms, was rather moderate.

Luckily I made friends among the large families of The Christian Church (or Christ-like church, as the name was originally meant to mean); and they taught me useful things like how to find flea markets and pick the useful things from there. Most of my furniture today comes either from flea markets, or from family friends who got new and better. Today this is a matter of priorities. For several years, it was a matter of necessity. I wore the same clothes until they were worn out, then bought new cheap clothes at the cheapest shop. (Unless I got something new for Christmas.) And I still remember that I would eat bread with jam for dinner. That really ticked me off, because I wanted bread with sliced sausages for dinner. Spaghetti with margarin was another big hit.

At work, I listened to the pensioneers whine about how they had no money. They had approximately the same income from their pensions as I had from my work, after tax for both of us. And they lived in their debt-free houses and had a bank account of more than a year's pay, often two or three. If they wanted to eat dog food, I would certainly not stop them. This was 20 years ago. They are dead now, and they did not get the money with them.


Yesterday, I wrote about how Norwegian tax policies and public sentiment encourage people to buy their own homes. This has both benefits and malefits. (Oh, I am so happy to have invented that word! Feel free to use it everywhere except in English exams.) The stronger attachment to one's home - emotionally and financially - means the workforce here is far less mobile than in the USA, a country with comparable standard of living but with less home ownership. This may be bad for industry, but good for the kids, who get to form deeper bonds of friendship (or enmity) before the next move.

But for young people, the pressure to buy easily creates a debt trap. They come out of college or university with a big student loan, then almost immediately go on to buy a home. In a land of luxury like ours, homes are not cheap. Or rather, there are not cheap homes, even for those who would want them. At least, certainly not where the jobs are, in or near the cities and larger towns.

The result is that young people are overwhelmed by debt, unless they have parents who can help them out. Many have, but some don't. Most still have meat for dinner as often as they wish, but then again they are usually two people working full time, and even so it may be some years before they can take the vacation they have been dreaming of. The good times - in terms of economy - typically starts later in life. When the children are grown up, when the income reaches its highest, when the debt is paid down. All of a sudden people have room to realize their dreams.

And then they die. Or at least the men. The women keep whining for another ten years or so... about their relative poverty.

The Itland says: Money is good to keep food on your table and shoes on your feet. But true riches are found in wisdom. And wisdom means understanding the times.

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