What is poverty, she said, and washed her hands?

One of the Vietnamese people I met here asked a question I had a hard time answering, even though she spoke excellent English: why, she asked, did DC have so much crime?

Even with no language barrier, I found myself staring across a cultural gulf I couldn't bridge in the 45 minutes we had to eat lunch. I wanted to say, "they are poor". But that seems a ridiculous statement in a country of 85 million people who are nearly all living at a lower standard of material consumption than the poor of DC. I feel a lot safer walking around in Hanoi than in most parts of the district, though of course, this may be tourist folly (I also felt safe walking through bits of Dublin that gave my host near-hysterics.)

But the poor of DC are still poor. It's still very hard to be one of them, and even harder to stop being one of them. I'm not a convert to the idea that the only thing that matters is material poverty; clearly, there is also something soul-killing about having your society brand you and everyone you know as failures. On the other hand, "culture matters" doesn't get you very far as a poverty eradication program; no matter how much money you give welfare mothers, they'll still be on welfare. And "they're poor" has proven to offer little in the way of crime-reduction strategies; we've been much more successful with things like more police on the beat.

I'm not sure what I mumbled, but I changed the topic pretty quickly. I wonder how often my hosts have done the same to me when they just couldn't explain.