American Expats – The perception of America’s wealth by the world’s poor

Tourists have always been admonished not to flash their wealth or passports when visiting developing countries. Further specific warnings have been issued for American citizens living and travelling abroad to be on high alert since the World Trade Center/Pentagon terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Iraq war, such as the standing World Wide caution, expiring July 9, 2004, as set forth by the U.S. Department of State.

Politics aside, a major reason why America is hated and targeted is her wealth. Envy and greed can incite people and nations to horrific acts of violence. And when the U.S. or Canadian blue collar worker protests that he’s driving an 8 year old Ford Escort, juggling credit cards and mortgage payments, and living from paycheck to paycheck, it’s time to examine someone else’s reality.

Magda, 15, lives in Poland, by no means a third world country. She told me that, as in so many families world-wide, her parents both work full-time; her father earns 1,000 zlotys a month (about $250 U.S.) and her mother (who’s an orphanage caregiver working 12 hour days, seven days a week) earns 700. They do not own a vehicle or computer. Her mother’s entire salary goes to paying for their two room apartment, with heating/electricity running about 300, rent 200, plus expenses such as telephone, water and cable. Magda shares one of the rooms with her parents; while she does her homework, no one watches TV. Her older sister, in the other tiny room, wants to be a doctor and is getting tutored in three science subjects, the fees running 150 zlotys per week. The two girls pick raspberries all summer and earn perhaps 2,000 zlotys each.

Grella, a 30-something year old kindergarten teacher in a tiny Polish village, worked in Chicago all last summer, illegally of course. She made perogies and other Polish delicacies in a basement sweatshop, earning just enough to purchase a sofa and easychair for her living room, after covering the cost of return airfare and visa application. Her Polish take-home salary is 700 zlotys per month, the same as for a full-time registered nurse.

Beata, a high-school graduate, is a full-time live-in nanny for a Canadian couple some hours south of Warsaw and she earns 600 zlotys monthly, plus room and board. She works from the time the two children wake up until they are in bed, seven days a week, and is not paid for days off.

Staple food in Poland is quite cheap (a loaf of fresh bread is 25 cents U.S.) as is rent. But clothing, hydro, natural gas and fuel is all very expensive – at least the same as North American prices or higher.

A Big Mac meal at McDonald’s costs 10 zlotys; for that money, you can buy a carton of milk, a bag of oatmeal, three pounds of apples, a head of cabbage, two loaves of bread, some cheese and a few sausages. If you have some extra change, you can get one disposable diaper (Huggies or Pampers), by opening up the large bag of thirty and reaching right in, common practice in smaller towns and villages.

With the unemployment rate at 18%, futures don’t look rosy. Furthermore, the WTC tragedy has led to tighter U.S. visa and immigration policies and the European Union right-to-work delay makes jobs abroad (illegal or otherwise and on either continent) harder than ever to procure.

That’s the economic reality here in Poland – a moderately developed democratic country already ten years into free-market economy, with no fanaticism to tangle with – so does it become any easier to see why a Moslem in Pakistan might envy his American counterpart?