Poor, Poor Bulgaria

It’s the Poorest Country in the European Union, phrasing promulgated decisively if not precisely. Or sometimes the moniker is Poorest Country in Europe. Either way, the appellation is clearly considered absolutely indispensable to journalists writing about Bulgaria. Even when—in fact, despite when—these words have absolutely nothing to do with the subject at hand, say, when headlining an article on Bulgaria’s admirable wealth of women in the tech world.

It is exasperating to read one or the other of these phrases printed just before or after the word “Bulgaria” in virtually every instance that “Bulgaria” is deigned to provoke journalistic interest. What on earth does “the poorest country” mean? You certainly won’t be enlightened by the article itself—we are clearly meant to accept and understand what is meant without explanation of how this apparent poverty is measured or by whom. It merely fits a sort of post-1989 narrative of Eastern Europe or the Balkans generally or Bulgaria specifically. It presumes an easy path to understand the entirety of the country in all its complexity by placing it in a piggy bank filled with only a handful of pennies. It announces the absence of responsible journalism with critical thinking skills and imparts to the reader the shoddiest of reportage without actual information. It is, in brief, a sort of propaganda.

I certainly wouldn’t argue that Bulgarians generally have a lower standard of living than in the Scandinavian countries. Or that infrastructure is less than ideal. Or that many healthcare facilities aren’t in dire need of upgrades. Or that Bulgaria has not for years been suffering a brain drain that puts a terrible drag on the country’s ability to grow and prosper. And so on.

But poverty can be measured in vastly different ways by individual countries and transnational organizations, by economists and sociologists and political scientists, by people’s sense of their own lives and well-being. What exactly is being measured when Bulgaria is called “the poorest country’? Is it the average—knowing that average itself is a highly imperfect, often deceptive measure—daily income? I remember when I first lived in Bulgaria that Bulgarians often asked me about my salary in the United States. I demurred, because I knew that salary alone explained nothing; the cost of rent, food, clothing, healthcare, transportation, and taxes had to be set against income for any numbers to be meaningful. Telling me how much a Bulgarian makes in a day as compared to a German is worse than telling me nothing because it purports to give me information and instead gives me a distorted data point that misinforms.

Is home ownership being measured? Bulgarians own their own homes in strikingly high measure exceeded only by several other Eastern European countries. And that doesn’t include the great number who additionally own a weekend cottage in the mountains or a seaside vacation spot or a house in the family village. Of course one can be a homeowner and have so little income that impossible choices have to be made between heat and prescription medicine and food. Impossible choices so many Americans make each month in a “rich” country.

Perhaps “the poorest country” is being examined macro-economically in regards to its national debt, pension funding, currency stability, or inflation. In all of these, Bulgaria compares favorably to other European countries and in some cases leads by example.

Access to health care, education, transportation? All systems needing more funds invested, facilities modernized, personnel better paid—that is without question. But the systems are there, funded regularly if not optimally, and Bulgarians have access to all despite the inadequacies. As important as the social safety net provided by the government is the social safety net provided by extended family. Bulgarians in the city can provide funds to buy shoes or home repairs for their village relatives and those in the village provide their all local, all organic food to take back to the city. How can the cost of such food be measured? It figures nowhere, because no one is counting.

And then there are the myriad non-monetary measures. Bulgarians, notoriously pessimistic and cynical in the best of times, might be stymied by Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, but they value leisure time (working to live vs. living to work) to enjoy Bulgaria’s natural beauty and cultural expression. These are dimensions of a country’s wealth that enrich the lives of its citizens.

I have no objection to calling out Bulgaria’s weaknesses, or those of any other country for that matter. There are pensions so terribly low that they cannot be stretched to meet the most minimal needs. There are salaries too low for young people to move out of the parental apartment and lead independent lives. Too many people exist on the margins. But simply pointing a rhetorical pen to casually label Bulgaria as “the poorest country” tells us nothing. It’s lazy, it’s ignorant, and in many instances it’s just not true.

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