Saturday, October 16, 2021

A Leisurely Stroll Down Dollar Street

If you can spare a toothbrush and a bedsheet or two, you're richer than at least a billion people right now.

This website is – not merely a time sink, but a time vortex: Dollar Street, a long-running ongoing photography project by the Gapminder organization. The idea is, imagine everyone on Earth lives on a single long street according to income: poorest at one end and richest at the other. As you stroll down Dollar Street, residents are asked about their everyday material existence: how do you clean your teeth? Where do you go to the bathroom? Where does your drinking water come from? What dishware and cookware do you have, and how and where do you wash it? How do you wash and dry your clothes? What soaps or cleaning products do you have? Where do you sleep, what furniture do you have, what toys do your children play with, and so on.

I first learned about this a couple years ago from a TED talk “What toothbrushes tell us about inequality,” discussing the varied ways residents of Dollar Street clean their teeth:

 A woman in Malawi answers the question, “what do you use to brush your teeth,” by extending her index finger toward the camera. It’s a common response among the 1.2 billion people who live on less than a $1 a day. For toothpaste, she points to the mud walls of her hut. The mud contains abrasive sediments, which she also uses to scrub dishes and clothing as well. “She scrapes some mud off the building, she mixes it with water in her hand, and then she brushes using grains of sand," [photographer Anna] Rosling-Rönnlund says.

Other examples: a Burkina Faso family has a tree branch whose end is carved in such a way as to make a useful toothpick. A slightly less poor family in Liberia has one plastic toothbrush, shared by the whole household. A Nepalese family can afford separate toothbrushes for everybody, but to store those toothbrushes they put them, handle-first, in gaps in the fairly primitive/crude brick wall of their home.

I just inventoried my own toothbrush supply, for a two-person household: two in-use brushes by a bathroom sink (stored in a bone china toothbrush holder with 24kt gold accents, which sounds fancy, and I suppose it is, but that toothbrush holder only cost me 99 cents at a thrift store). Two more used toothbrushes in the little toiletries-suitcase Jeff and I take with us when we travel. One in the backpack Jeff carries to work. And 16 unused, still-wrapped toothbrushes in the “toothbrushes/toothpaste” drawer on one of the bathroom shelves, for a grand total of 21 plastic toothbrushes. We also have literally hundreds of yards' worth of disposable dental floss, multiple tubes of minty fluoride toothpaste, and myriad accessories like “little plastic snap-on cases to cover the brushy end of a toothbrush between uses.”

I'm not saying this from any attempt to brag, or make my online friends envious of my dazzling riches, because my friends and I all live in rich industrialized nations where owning a plastic toothbrush, or even a dozen, is not considered a sign of “wealth” or “status” by any measure. Some of my unused toothbrushes and related accessories were acquired for free – advertising tchotchkes which dental offices would hand out at county fairs, or even send through the mail, in hopes of drumming up new business.

One question asked of families in the Dollar Street series regards their hopes and dreams. The richer-nation families gave answers similar to what American “middle-class or better” families might say: I dream of owning rather than renting a house, or retiring early, or taking a year-long 'round-the-world vacation to all sorts of fascinating places … and then there's the Njoka family in Malawi, monthly income approximately $31 in US money, whose dream is to one day buy bed sheets.

There's fix or six sets in my linen closet right now, in addition to the set on my bed [which entails not merely a mattress, but a box spring and dedicated bedframe, too]. And where their $31 monthly income is concerned, I once spent more than that on a single visit to the dollar store … not even to buy “stuff,” but to buy a variety of plastic bins, boxes and baskets to store and organize “stuff” I already owned in such abundance, it made my living space look messy. By American standards, my plastic Dollar Tree organizing bins are cheap and low-quality (you can find sturdier and much nicer-looking options at standard department or home-improvement stores, if you're willing to spend four to ten times as much money), yet they still represent an unattainable, well-nigh unimaginable, level of wealth for the poorest couple of billion human beings living today.

Anyway, check out Dollar Street if you have time to spare. You can search by country, continent, or income level to see how people live throughout the world.

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