#Human Orbit

Wealth Isn't a One Size Fits All Concept

What is necessary to live, or to thrive in life? Comparing these ideas across culture may not be so easy. What is wealthy in one country may not be in another.


scale for measuring gold being calibrated

Can we truly compare wealth between cultures? This is a question I’ve pondered extensively during my travels. While converting everything to a standard currency like the US Dollar might provide a baseline comparison, the world is far more nuanced than that.

Part of my pondering is due to the fact that I grew up well below the poverty line in the US, but well meaning individuals would often remind me that our version of “poor” was considerably richer than life in the world’s most impoverished regions. There is truth in that, but does that really discredit the struggles of people growing up in poverty within a region because their poverty isn’t “as poor” as another region’s poverty?

well-dressed man sitting at a table with an exotic bird and bottle of wine
At least our poors are richer than their poors.

Outside of access to basic necessities needed to live, how can one person’s struggles be compared so easily?

Cost of Living vs Cost of Goods

My wife and I recently visited family and friends in the Philippines, where the conversation of perceived wealth arises a lot. People assume we’re wealthy, since the dollar has incredible buying power there; a stark contrast to the US, where the same amount of money may hardly buy scraps. It is a difficult point to communicate.

First we have to define wealth. Is it the ability to buy fancy clothes and gadgets? The latest appliances or cars? Or is it the ability to provide food and shelter for your family, provide healthcare and other of life’s necessities?

photo of woman in fancy clothes holding multiple shopping bags
I wish I could afford food.

These aren’t universally equivalent. Costs of goods don’t scale linearly with a country’s economy. A mid-range $400 dollar computer in the US is attainable for most families, but in a region where the average monthly salary is the US equivalent of $300, it remains a $400 expense. It could take years of saving to afford such a substantial purchase.

Conversely, with that $300 dollars a month income you might not be able to afford computers or fancy cars that are common in the rest of the world, but you are able to afford a sizable plot of land, a comfortable home, food, education, and healthcare. In that context, a sum that provides very little in the US, might ensure a comfortable, debt-free life elsewhere.

This highlights cultural differences in priorities. The inability to afford a computer in the US, which is central to society there, can carry a stigma of poverty. In contrast, a society where the ability to afford a computer is uncommon, there is less societal pressure surrounding ownership.

Cultural and Social Priorities

This raises an intriguing point: we might view another culture as lacking due to the absence of things we consider staples in ours, yet those same circumstances may not be felt as a lack by the people living them. Can you miss what you’ve never had?

I'm not making an argument right now about the ethics of whether one cultur should have access to technology and not another. This will be a future discussion.

For example, I consider a washing machine a staple in the American household. The time and effort it saves is incredibly convenient, allowing me to tend to other household responsibilities. I recall a conversation with my mother-in-law about buying a washing machine so she didn’t have to spend all day washing clothes. She opposed the idea, as she had experience with lower quality machines previously that caused her to have to rewash all the clothes by hand, wasting time. In her mind, a washing machine was both unreliable and a tool of the lazy.

gray front load washing machines
Truly this is the bane of modern society

Outside of material objects, there are social stigmas around poverty that should be considered as well. For example, in America, social safety nets and community outreach programs make it possible for a family in poverty to feed their families, have a roof over their head, and put clothes on their backs, which highlights why American Poverty is treated with higher regard than a more impoverished nation lacking these resources.

Despite this, those at the bottom face harsh judgements and social isolation. In America where success is deemed a personal responsibility, poverty then too is considered the fault of the individual and little empathy is granted. Children are bullied by their peers, and parents are left to fend for themselves. This social isolation and judgment creates a breakdown of society in impoverished communities fueled by conflict and resentment. This, in turn, envelops impoverished communities in violence and crime.

man in white dress shirt holding a smoking gun
Call my momma poor again

On the flip side, I’ve been to impoverished communities around the world where the inverse was true. The lack of individual wealth promoted strong family and communal bonds. The shared struggle meant less judgment and more mutual support. People were not competing for survival, instead success was measured by the welfare of the community. If one family couldn’t afford food, the neighbors would gladly share, knowing that the family would then help when they’re in a position to do so again and another one needs it.

Could we really compare these situations? The material possessions of an impoverished American might be unimaginable luxuries elsewhere, yet would those be valued by the other community at the expense of family and communal bonds? Conversely, would someone from American culture desire those bonds at the expense of the conveniences they take for granted?

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.


Ultimately, wealth is subjective. The real question is what “you” value. Everyone has their own distinct struggles, and those struggles are all valid. There is far too much nuance to make accurate comparisons in life.

Pursue life to the goals you want to achieve, and be aware everyone else is too. We may not share the same struggles, and our struggles may not always be understandable to one another, but we’re all in life’s journey together. Understanding this is how we work to build a better society for everyone.


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