I came across an article recently – Poverty is often looked at in isolation, but it is an American problem. A photographer set out from California on a trip across the US to find and photograph the poorest communities, and was surprised that he never had to go more than 20 miles to find another community with a significant percentage of the population living in poverty.

There is poverty in Panama also, sometimes extreme poverty. The indigenous seem to suffer the most, especially in the comarka or land under their control. But, there is poverty in the general population as well. It is worse in rural areas but also present in cities. We have seen slums in cities, and shacks made of foraged materials along roads in the country. I know there are many protections for the indigenous and programs to help the poor, and frustration among the general population that the helping hands aren’t always used or welcomed.

I have rarely seen begging on the streets of Panama. Occasionally there is an indigenous person, usually a woman or child, outside a supermarket or place where people gather. I have seen a few people begging in Santiago where people get off the buses for a break and a bite to eat. There is a blind man I’ve seen a few times, and occasionally an indigenous frail looking woman. I have also seen many people drop a few coins in their cups as they get back on the bus.

There is also poverty in the US, and the homeless population has been on my mind a lot since my bicycle trip. Then, I saw the article and these photos by Matt Black from the article above (check them out, very striking black and white photos). I think many agree that the distance between the haves and have nots is increasing, and it seems that more people are struggling. The last recession hit many people hard, and the lack of job opportunities is still a problem especially for people closer to retirement age.

The people living on the streets are at the bottom, and they seem to be everywhere I went. In my experience when I was homeless (by choice on my bike) I learned a valuable lesson about the social isolation these people also face. The majority of homeless who I met were not young people either, but people probably in their 40’s, 50’s, or more.

There was a lady living in this RV with her disabled grandson in an RV park in central Washington state, trying to make it on $750/month social security. The roof leaked, the electric didn’t work, and the toilet had fallen through the floor. She said the low income housing program had been cut back so there was nothing for her, and she had no idea what she was going to do.


There was the homeless man on the bus. The bus driver was kind enough to give him a ride to the next town, and he had all his belongings in a trash bag. He said he had just gotten out of the hospital with pneumonia. He was still weak and having trouble breathing, but he was taking antibiotics and breathing pills. He only had a daughter who was estranged so he was very alone. As a nurse I wouldn’t have a lot of hope for his health, sending him back to the streets in his condition.


These are only two people for whom I have photographs. I also spoke to others, the guy who’s only friend was his dog and a sign that said if you don’t help me, at least help my dog. The lady with her stuff in a shopping cart who said she just walked every day hoping to find a place where she could spend the night in peace. There was one who didn’t want to be approached but all the others seemed surprised and happy that I would take the time for a short chat.

I know there are some people who choose to live on the streets. There are others who are mentally ill. But, how many are not there by choice but can’t get themselves back on track? My CA daughter works for the county government. After hours they open their large parking lot to people living in cars and RV’s, and it’s so full that they are looking for more space. In Oregon I saw a news segment from Portland. People don’t want the homeless in RV’s and cars parking in their neighborhoods, but if everyone feels like this where can they go? In Seattle, I saw another news segment about the homeless living in tents, and they are causing a problem with their trash but there are no provisions for them to dispose of their trash.

This poverty and homeless problem really bothered me, and still does. I have never seen it at such close range or talked to so many people. When I lived in Sarasota FL there were homeless people, three I knew fairly well, all mentally ill and the community took care of them. But, the community also put a lot of effort into pushing the homeless out. The benches in the park were removed so people couldn’t hang out, for example.

I know people are trying to help and there are programs, but it’s obviously not solving the problem. And, when you add the social isolation and disrespect from the general population, it’s even harder for people. At least here in Panama I don’t see that. You are judged much less on your economic circumstances. I have no answers. Panama is not my native country and people with much more understanding and wisdom are working on it. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m in sync with the US either, where priorities seem to have gone so far off track.

From the article above, this interesting thought from the photographer – “… what has surprised me is the similarities I have encountered as I traveled from one community to another. All these diverse communities are connected, not least in their powerlessness. In the mainstream media, poverty is often looked at in isolation, but it is an American problem. It seems to me that it goes unreported because it does not fit the way America sees itself.”


About Kris Cunningham

We live in David, Chiriqui Provence, Republic of Panama! This blog is about some of our experiences in our new country.
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14 Responses to Poverty

  1. ME BE in Panama says:

    Reading this, I’m agreeing with you, Kris, about the pervasive nature of poverty and its heartbreaking ramifications. Causes? Wow, where to start? In the U.S. at least, it’s so connected with capitalism itself, our lack of mental health care and concern, dismissal of the poor as separate from the rest of us and a perverse belief that assisting poor people creates more entitlement, and yet more government aid. But there’s something wrong in a country that tolerates such harsh treatment of its poor, yet buys unneeded military hardware costing billions of $$$ and defers to the ‘corporate entitlement’ that we ignore. In Panama that seems less a problem, yet poverty persists, and no answers are forthcoming. If you’ve not seen Michael Moore’s latest film ‘Where to invade next,’ I highly recommend it. It’s truly eye-opening, and embarrassing from an American standpoint. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ly4_QiXv8es
    Thanks for writing and keep it up!


    • I like Michael Moore. I think he works hard to shine lights on things that need to be seen.
      I don’t know where to start either. Of course there are people who will take advantage of the system, but I think there are also a lot of people who could be helped. I am also aware of the billions we spend in the military. It’s not just adults either. A lot of children are suffering. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/07/nyregion/public-school-188-in-manhattan-about-half-the-students-are-homeless.html
      Joel just came back from Portland Maine, and said he also saw homeless people everywhere there. It gets darn cold in the winter, and what do people do?
      I should go back to hunting for bugs and painting waterlilies. I only make myself nuts with all this.


  2. Thoughtful article Kris. My thoughts: capitalism run amok. When you look at the statistics and see that the average CEO’s income has increased 997% since 1978 : http://www.epi.org/publication/ceo-pay-has-grown-90-times-faster-than-typical-worker-pay-since-1978/
    “Over the last several decades, inflation-adjusted CEO compensation increased from $1.5 million in 1978 to $16.3 million in 2014, or 997 percent, a rise almost double stock market growth. Over the same time period, a typical worker’s wages grew very little: the annual compensation, adjusted for inflation, of the average private-sector production and nonsupervisory worker (comprising 82 percent of total payroll employment) rose from $48,000 in 1978 to just $53,200 in 2014, an increase of only 10.9 percent. Due to this unequal growth, average top CEOs now make over 300 times what typical workers earn.”
    – what hope do the poor in this country have?
    I grew up in India, where there’s also a discrepancy between the haves and the have nots – however, in India there is a steadily growing middle class. In this country the middle class is declining, fast.
    When the political will (especially on the far right) seems to aim primarily towards reducing the social programs that constitute our social safety net, calling them, derisively, “entitlements” – what hope do we have?


    • I understand that there is terrible poverty in India, and I’m glad to hear about the growing middle class.
      I wonder how things would change if the politicians who make the decisions had to spend a year on the street with no access to their bank accounts, business connections, etc and had to make their way like a poor person.
      I’ve seen articles like the one you shared. Gone are the days when the average family can make it on one paycheck. It’s a struggle to make it on two, and they are the lucky ones who both have jobs. Meanwhile the rich get richer and care less and less about the rest of the people.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. oldsalt1942 says:

    We have talked about this before…As you travel around the back roads of Panama, like when we went out to Boca Grande, or up into the mountains towards Serreno and on my most recent “Bus Roulette” ride out to Divala, one sees quite a few “huts,” and that’s the only way to describe them, made out of split bamboo with tin roofs with families living in them. They aren’t something WE would aspire to live in, but at least these people have a roof over their heads. They have somewhere to lay their heads at night and a place that’s probably dry when it rains. And while these people are living in poverty they HAVE A HOME, unlike so many in the States who live under bridges and in the doorways of stores. The poor of Panama, in most cases, are far better off as far as housing is concerned than the poor back home.


  4. Sunni Morris says:

    I agree that homelessness is a big problem. I’m sure it’s probably everywhere and not just in the US. But it’s disgusting that the rich get richer and take big raises and then decide that even a small raise in SS isn’t affordable for the retired folks. And you’re right about people having to work two jobs or more to make ends meet. It’s no wonder the young kids get into trouble with no adult supervision because the adults are working! I’m also sure there are plenty of mentally ill folks on the streets.

    I honesty don’t know what the homeless do in the winter time to stay warm. I do know they open homeless shelters here for the evenings, but the people can’t stay in there all day so they roam the streets and go there to sleep. But once spring gets here they are closed until winter. And let me tell you the desert gets mighty hot in the summer (115). I guess these people must take shelter under bridges, although I’ve never seen any in places like that.

    But on the other hand, there are people who are homeless by choice (like one of my brothers who prefers to live in his car). He works and has steady income but won’t rent a room or small apt because he doesn’t want to spend the money.

    And then there are those who do take advantage of the system and have done so all their lives. I know some of those people who will remain nameless.

    As kids all seven of us grew up in poverty too and lived in a sharecropper’s shack, but at least it was a roof over our heads. Poverty is a big problem, but the haves don’t seem to care about helping.


    • No unfortunately, the space between the haves and haves not just seems to grow and the middle class is shrinking. I know there are mentally ill people on the streets (which is a whole other subject), and people who are homeless buy choice, but there are many just down on their luck. How long would any of us last without a source of income? Yes too, there are those who take advantage. It’s complicated, way too complicate for me, but looks bad enough to really upset me. Thanks for your comments and taking the time to share them here.



    I read a unique article where they explained that the huge amount of Money that the USA spends in Armaments and in Killing people or helping others Kill by selling them these armaments, is so enormous, that just a small fraction of this would be enough to feed all of the worlds hungry and starving people. That is to say, hunger in the world could easily be eradicated ! WOW !


    • Yeah, very sad state of affairs. And, there is enough pain and suffering in the world, but we can’t seem to resist inflicting a lot more of it on each other. It’s been like that throughout history and I don’t see us improving much, unfortunately. Meanwhile, our brothers and sisters all over the world are starving.


    • oldsalt1942 says:

      There is an aviation boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force base, AZ, where there are 21 BRAND NEW C271 aircraft worth $1.6 BILLION…… scrappped…But what the hell, Let’s cut Food Stamps and screw the homeless!


  6. Here’s an apt line from Paul Simon’s most recent album – on the new song Werewolf, Simon writes, “most obits are mixed reviews/life is a lottery, a lotta people lose/the winners, the grinners with money-colored eyes/eat all the nuggets/then order extra fries.”


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