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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Relative Deprivation
distributed 8/1/03 & 6/16/06 - ©2003, 2006

When sociologists speak of "relative deprivation," they are not talking about those of us who seldom get to attend a family reunion. The term refers to the way we understand -- and more importantly, the way we feel about -- our poverty or wealth.

We generally don't measure our affluence in absolute terms. There's no specific dollar amount that is the dividing line between rich and poor. We do tend to define poverty and wealth in relative terms. We feel rich or poor in relation to how much others around us seem to have.

I'm poor in comparison to Bill Gates. I'm rich in comparison to the homeless woman down the street. Both statements are true.

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I was flipping through a little booklet the other day that had some interesting statistics about life in the US. (The figures are a few years out of date, but the general themes are probably still accurate.)

  • The median size of a new house in the US has grown from 1100 sq. ft. in 1949 to almost 2000 sq. ft. now, while the number of people living in the average household has declined. And yet, people still seem to feel "crowded."

  • 27% of Americans making over $100,000 a year agree with the statement, "I cannot afford to buy everything I really need."

  • Polls over the last 20 years show that, while income has risen steadily, we always say that we "need" just a little bit more than we make.
Statistically, for people in the US, incomes and affluence have tended to rise through time. We earn more, and have more, than folk 20, 50 or 100 years ago. Things that were unknown a few decades ago -- cell phones, internet access, or bottled water -- are now considered necessities by large parts of the population. But even with those new things, most folk don't feel rich, and they don't feel like their "needs" are being met.

There's an image that expresses how most of us experience our growing affluence. We feel like we're riding on an escalator that is carrying us all up and up in a very tall building. As we ride in an orderly manner from floor to floor, most of us stay in the same relative order. The person who was 10 steps above me when I started from the ground floor is still about 10 steps above me as we ride from the 3rd to the 4th floor.

As we ride the escalator up to greater and greater wealth, we don't judge our sense of comfort and sufficiency by how far we are above the ground. Instead, we look at the people who are near us and constantly check our relative positions. I've been riding up from floor to floor, and that guy who was 3 steps below me is still right there. I don't feel like I'm making any progress! And that woman a full floor above me is always much higher than I am, so I feel relatively deprived -- even as I also pass through the levels where she was just a short time ago.

The escalator image reflects the reality of how we generally travel through life. Just like on those moving stairs, we tend to look in one direction -- forward, which is the same as upward. We rarely look down the escalator. But it is possible to look the other way.

Tink Tinker is a professor at the Iliff School of Theology, and has served on the Board of Directors of Eco-Justice Ministries. He told me a story about a sabbatical that he spent in Guatemala. For a while, he was out in the countryside among a group of farm workers, people who earn $1 a day for their work. One day, the translator passed along a question from one of those farm workers: "How much do your glasses cost?" Suddenly, Tink became aware of the fact that almost none of the people he had seen in the countryside were wearing glasses. And it struck him that it wasn't because their eyes were better than ours. One set of his prescription glasses might take a half a year's wages from one of those people.

Tink suddenly had a different view from the escalator. He saw all the way down to the ground, and realized how far up he was.

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The environmentally destructive over-consumption of the US society is fueled by the psychologically destructive way that we tend to perceive our poverty and wealth. Influenced by the explicit and implicit messages of advertising and the popular media, we all tend to feel deprived. We all think that we need more money, more things.

We suffer when we are trapped in that endless struggle for more. And the planet suffers from the devastation of our increasingly consumptive lifestyles.

It doesn't help much when we tell others -- or ourselves -- that we should consume less, because that sense of deprivation is still there as a driving force. It can help when we are able to shift the frame in which we make our comparisons, so that we generally see those who have less than we do, so that we see ourselves as privileged, not deprived.

It helps when we turn off the TV. It helps when we volunteer at a soup kitchen, or tutor in a school. It helps when we support the mission and relief projects of our churches.

When we start to feel rich in comparison to others, we may be inclined toward less consumption, and more compassion.

And that would be good for us, good for our neighbors, and good for the Earth.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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