Social Fault Lines: The Disaster of Poverty in Haiti

Laura Wagner, a U.S. anthropologist who survived – barely – Haiti‘s earthquake in January, writes, "Social scientists who study catastrophes say there are no natural disasters. In every calamity, it is inevitably the poor who suffer more, die more, and will continue to suffer and die after the cameras turn their gaze elsewhere. Do not be deceived by claims that everyone was affected equally — fault lines are social as well as geological."

It is doubtful that anyone of any class was spared the horror of the 7.3-scale earthquake. In a country where one in every to 18 to 30 people died (no one knows the fatality figure), everyone knows someone no longer amongst the living. No one is sheltered from the jarring public visuals of catastrophe: rampant displays of wounds and freshly amputated legs; mountains of rubble on every city block; tents and improvised shelters clogging streets; houses and walls looming ominously over sidewalks. No conversation appears to veer long from the earthquake and its aftermath.

But the direct impact of the earthquake varies markedly between class. The solidity of housing construction was the primary variable in whose home stood and whose did not. The toll of lost family and friends is a direct result of that, too, as most died due to buildings collapsing on them. Income lost is also largely class-dependent, since the poor’s job security and access to the informal sector earnings are much more precarious.

For those in Haiti‘s middle- and upper-income strata, before-the-earthquake privileges are returning. Lines are long in Port-au-Prince’s few grocery stores, where one can buy an array of imported goods and where one need not sweat, haggle over prices, or stand next to fly-filled garbage piles while shopping. Jazz clubs are reopening in tony Pétionville. Easter celebrations were, for some, lavish.

For most, though, post-earthquake ‘normalization’ means adaptation to even higher levels of social and economic precariousness. Life was somewhere between unsustainable and miserable for most Haitians before. Then – in what were, inconceivably, better times – 80% lived below the poverty line and 54% lived in abject poverty.[1] Then, Haiti was the third hungriest country in the world, after Somalia and Afghanistan, and ranked 149 out of 182 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. Life expectancy at last count was 55 years for women and 53 years for men, while adult literacy stands at about 62%.[2]

For those already exiled to the absolute margin of survival through government neglect, unchallenged concentration of land and other resources by a few, and foreign economic policies, the effects of the earthquake ripple in ever-expanding circles. These survivors lost not only family members, homes, and all their personal belongings. Many have also lost the merchandise they were selling, their informal sector jobs, and whatever else might have given them a little protection from hunger, suffering, and accelerated death.

No reliable statistics exist to demonstrate the socio-economic impacts of the earthquake. And no metric can measure how poverty has increased the emotional and psychological suffering of Haiti‘s defavorize, disfavored, as they are called. For now, anecdotes will have to do.

  • In a collective taxicab, I ask the driver the same question I ask all day long. "Did you lose anyone?"

    He nods. It was his 8-year-old daughter Wesline, named for him, Wesner.

    "She was playing in the yard and a big house fell one her. I had to pull her out from under the house."

    Wesner lifts up a swatch of carpet covering his dashboard, and pulls out a miniature Bible. He rifles through the pages to find a postage-stamp-sized snapshot of Wesline, a slim girl resting one hand stiffly on a table, surely under instructions from the photographer.

    "You know no morgues or hospitals were working. I wanted to bury her in the countryside but I didn’t have money for transportation. I tried to get the money, but after three days she started to rot so I couldn’t wait anymore. I had to put her beside the road.

    "The tractors came with their buckets in front. But I couldn’t stand for them to scoop her up. So I wrapped her up tightly in a sheet – two sheets, in fact – and placed her in the scoop in front myself."

    Do you know where they took her? "They dumped her." He flicks his hand out, away.

    I ask how he’s faring with this loss. His stoicism gives out, and his face crumples like a balloon when the air rushes out. "I’m resigned to it. But I never stop thinking about her for one minute."

  • An elderly woman lives in a small maroon tent in the middle of a courtyard. She spends her days sitting on a wooden stool under an almond tree, listening to a little radio in her lap. I don’t know her name, as she’s rarely during the two months in which I have passed her on the way to and from my apartment. One day, she began returning my smiles. Yesterday she suddenly informed me, "It’s so hard. Sometimes my courage gives out, and I don’t know what to do.

    "I rented a house before. It wasn’t destroyed, but now the landlord took it back. I don’t have any money to rent another one. I used to work, I sewed for people, but my sewing machine got destroyed during the event. I’m old, I don’t have any other way to make money.

    "Shabim [another neighbor] gave me the tent, but I can tell the owner of this place doesn’t like me being here. I used to bathe in the courtyard" – I have seen her washing from a tin of water behind a tree, trying to shield her bare top from public view – "but now I’m too ashamed."

    "I can’t see what I’ll do or how this will end." She whispers, "It’s hard, it’s hard.

    "This morning I went to church. I didn’t have anything to say to God so I just lifted my arms up" – she does this now, straight up toward heaven – "and I said, ‘God, I’m here. Please see me.’"

  • Getro Nelius gives a tour of the stadium, on whose field his family now lives with more than 700 others. Do they feed you? "They gave us a bag of rice, nine big cans, when we first got to the stadium. They haven’t given us anymore."

    They don’t give you any food?

    "I think they don’t want us to get too comfortable here, thinking we can get food and water and a tent."

    "Well, once they gave us a card to get cans of Spam. But otherwise we have to find it."

    Find it? With what money? Not one homeless person that I know is working. Even if they came upon something to sell – a few pairs of shoes donated from the U.S., say – who has money to buy?

  • The sociology student Fito Beaubrun talks often about his daughters, 8-year-old Vanya, who died in the earthquake, and 2-year-old Lexia, who did not. His wife Rosette and Lexia have gone back to the countryside to be with family, because Rosette could no longer take living in the street. Fenelon worries aloud about the problems that have come between them due to the separation and the anxiety, and fears that he will soon lose Rosette to another man.

    He also worries about Lexia. He had difficulty meeting her 2-year-old needs even before the earthquake, but now the situation has become dire. Take milk which, Fito claims, is Lexia’s main passion. "The quality of the milk I can give her corresponds to the quantity of the money I have."

    Lexia now gets the lowest quality of milk available. Even that her parents give her with twice the standard ratio of water.

  • My old friend Alina "Tibebe" Cajuste is, inconceivably, even skinnier than last time I saw her.
    Her life has been hard ever since her enslaved mother birthed her in the middle of an intersection, but it has just grown harder.

    Tibebe used to live in a 15′ x 15′ house next door to her landlord on the noisy, polluted, stinking Carrefour road. The walls of her house collapsed during the quake, leaving nothing but a cement floor and a tin roof. Tibebe, one of her daughters, and two other families – eight people in all – now sleep on the slab. One family has gotten hold of a Coleman tent; another has a thin single mattress. Tibebe and her daughter sleep on the cement. They own nothing except one suitcase of clothes that they managed to rescue from under the rubble.

    Blocks fell on Tibebe during the earthquake, breaking her toe and injuring her back. She mentioned in passing one day that she was spitting up blood. Another of her daughters was badly injured when a cement wall fell on her during the earthquake, but it was weeks before Tibebe was able to get money for her medical care. She worries constantly about the daughter, but doesn’t have the bus fare to go visit her.

    Tibebe says, "It’s only the heat of the sun keeping us alive."

[1] CIA – The World Fact Book,

[2] For individual sources, see Global Issues,

Photo from the UN Development Programme

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds,, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.