You can’t read an article or essay on our economic condition without there being some reference to “the poor.” The comment may be one of concern, admonition, repudiation or despondency, but what all share in common is a lack of clarity about what is presented as an assumed undesirable condition of humanity.
The Poor are defined in various ways: the amount of money that one lives on; inflation adjusted US dollars is the typical measurement (for example, 2 $US a day). Sometimes available calories is an efficient metric. A more subjective measure is to describe poverty in the negative by presenting what one aspires to; no one is supposed to aspire to poverty. This is almost always done in money terms; “I want to be rich!” The assumption, usually correct, is that the speaker wishes to have lots and lots of money, and so is defining poor as having not so very much money. That it is possible to be rich in some other commodity than money is rarely realized, appreciated or desired.
But these ways of thinking and measuring are so foolishly limited as to only be useful in the news media and conservative propaganda. This is a far richer field of study than it is given credit for. It will return vast dividends on the investments of time and effort to accumulate the wealth of understanding contained there in.
Is being poor a bad thing? Is being poor and poverty the same thing? If being poor is a condition to be avoided, then how is that to be accomplished, individually and in societies? What is the relationship between being poor and social status? More questions will be added to this little treasure trove we go along.
George drove the school bus in the mornings and afternoons; there were two buses in the district. He took care of the town garbage dump on garbage days and drove the backhoe that dug the holes and buried the packaging, wasted and rotted food, broken things and other derelict items. I first meet him when he came to my house with an envelope in his hand, my address on it; not my address in the little village were I was then living, but my name was on it. He politely informed me of the designated garbage days and the proper procedures for the use the town dump – especially pointing out the ones I had recently violated (I write in a somewhat stilted style, not in mocking, but to represent the correctness with which George performed). At the end of the conversation George had established himself as an authority and the superior man. He parted with a rapid reversion to warm hearted joviality.
A few weeks later I walked into a locals-only hangout, bar and liquor store for a bottle of wine. The narrow room was filled with what might be called local toughs conversing in a provincial Spanish, George was among them. I am tall, fair skinned and blond; I stood out! As I walked toward the bar a tension crackled. I heard a little grunt. Everyone did a quick glance at George. He spoke to me by name, something utterly forgettable, and I was suddenly acceptable (not accepted, that being another state altogether).
Just down the road (the only road) was a big, well-groomed house with a barn in back. Well maintained farm equipment, tended fields and very pretty sheep surrounded the place. In the two years that I lived in the town I never saw the man who owned that land or his family in a store or on the street in the village, although he was occasionally spoken of –in unflattering terms.
George was a village leader, had little money, but had everything he wanted since he apportioned his energies to that purpose. The “rich” man may have had everything he wanted also, but to live in a town where you are not really welcome would seem to belie that.
In the largest city in the region live a couple who both received large financial rewards for their work. They had, at separate times, left jobs with even higher levels of financial reward to do the creative work that they preferred. Still they never had enough.
These are a tiny few of the personal data points that create the intuition over which the demographic and other research can be spread. What they do is suggest a form and understanding (what might be called a theoretical basis) that is not inherent in the research. It is too easy to take on the monetary model that equates amounts of money with being poor, wealthy and ultimately with wellbeing.
Is being poor a bad thing? If poverty and being poor equate with inadequate nutrition, unsafe shelter, ineffective protection from the elements and other failures to meet primary biological needs, then it would be unambiguously a bad thing. However, most developed-world ‘poverty’ is defined, not against such absolute criteria, but against the conditions in the immediate experience of the community. George would have been considered impoverished in the regional city – he might have even come to see himself in that way. In the village, money was only one, and not the most important measure, of wealth and wellbeing.
The question can be rephrased to be: Is being money poor a bad thing if the primary biological needs are satisfactorily met? Now the focus can be on what is required of the person, family or community to meet those needs; how much time, attention, effort and even suffering must the people contribute (and sometimes endure) for those needs. This is a very different question. A question that I will get to a bit later, but first there is need for more context.
Context one: What must begin to be understood – slowly at first and fully eventually – is that as long as there is significant excess (energy, material, basic needs) there will be the temptation to hoard, then to steal: those who hoard will steal from each other so to hoard more and those who have nothing will steal to have something. This will create a need to control or remove those who steal, a need for armies and for war. There is no social, political or economic design that is not driven by the existence of excess into some form of plutocracy.
The vast effort and barrels of ink that have been expended on trying to solve this issue without giving up the wealth and the privilege that comes with excess has been wasted.
The unquestioned, even more absolutely accepted and basic, assumption that economic growth is the cure for poverty, or being poor, misses an essential understanding. Reading projections and prescriptions for improvement, population growth is presented as some natural process like progression of changes in a star or force of gravity. Economic growth is always presented as the way to reduce absolute poverty, evidenced by the reduction of poverty in developed countries, but it is not recognized that economic growth is the source of population growth and the increases in the numbers living in absolute poverty.
This leads to various absurdities. In 1800 (a little over two hundred years ago) there were about 1 billion people on the earth. Of that number perhaps a third lived in absolute poverty; many in Europe, the US, China, India. Indigenous peoples were under severe stress in many parts of the world, but much of the world’s agricultural peoples lived, much as they had for millennia, in the protection of their lands and skills. In other words, absolute poverty, while in regional pockets, was spread around the world.
In 1900 there were about 2 billion people on the earth and about a third of them lived in absolute poverty; a increase from 300 million to 600 million over a hundred years. But those living beyond poverty had gone from 700 million to 1.4 billion. Again, this poverty was spread around the world but was beginning to concentrate outside of the developing countries. Traditional agricultural communities around the world were being disrupted by aggressive extractive and agricultural interests from the developing world with the result that low income, but self-sufficient communities, were driven into absolute poverty. This was ‘compensated’ by a reduction in poverty in the industrializing “north.”
In 2011 there are almost 7 billion people on the earth and about a third of them live in absolute poverty, roughly 2 billion (the total population of the earth just about a hundred years ago). But, they are concentrated in the so-called Third World, or that part of the earth that the developed world has determined to use for its own purposes. This has been accomplished by using the force of superior arms, the hiring of willing local leaders to suppress the people and by disrupting local traditional property mores and replacing them with property rules that remove land from the local people and put it in the control of foreign entities.
The natural and eventual consequence of this process is not the reduction of absolute poverty, but the return of poverty to those places that have used the third world as the repository of poverty to relieve their citizens of poverty’s burden. The projections are that the earth will top out at about 9 billion people in 30 to 40 years. There is no reasonable way that that increase will not result in, at least, 3 billion people living in absolute poverty. If there are the expected reductions in cheap energy and material sources, loss of agricultural lands, increasing climate variation and systematic change, social and economic disruptions and other possible perturbations, we can expect much more absolute poverty; and this will have to be, increasingly, in the developed world.
Context two: Biological populations (people, muskrats, pea plants) distribute qualities in a pattern, a pattern typically like the one that statisticians call a normal distribution. The mathematical origin of a normal distribution is based on the assumption of randomness: a ‘population’ of behaviors (say throwing a hundred coins at a time, many many times and counting the numbers of heads and tails) will produce a perfect normal distribution with all the numerical properties that are learned about in a statistics class. If the hundred coins are thrown a thousand times a remarkably accurate guess can be made for how many times the throws will contain 20 heads or fewer, or any other prediction.
Much of human life can be described with some version of a normal distribution. One meaning of this is that much of what happens in the overall is random. We don’t like this so very much – assigning causes has been and remains an important part of our survival – but ultimately, in the big picture there is much randomness in the world. Healthy people “go with the flow” or understand that “shit happens” and keep on plugging along.
The limits on energy and material means that these will be distributed in greater and lesser amounts and never in equal amounts to all participants; that is, there will always be a distribution, resembling the normal distribution, of material wealth and other measures of wellbeing. There will always be those who have too little and those who have too much. The question is, how can our species adjust to this reality in ways that do not destroy our best efforts to live well – and much of the rest of life on earth in the process?
Context three: Look at ecological foot print data. In essence, the present world population (of humans; more if all of life is added in) is using the earth’s productive resources at a rate that would require 1½ earths to sustain (2 or more to avoid a major extinction event). About a third of the world’s people are using 1½ hectares of productive surface or less a year. On average the developed countries are using between 7 to 15 hectares per capita with the wealthy requiring up to hundreds of hectares per capita of the earth’s productive capacity for their exclusive use (exclusive meaning that no other living thing is getting the benefit of that amount of productive capacity). This means that total material/energy taking by humans will be reduced either by us or by exhaustion of capacity in the near term future.