Monday, September 04, 2006




By Richard E. Noble

Poverty seems to be both universal and timeless. But, as with pornography, everyone recognizes it when they see it, yet find the concept impossible to define. My reading in philosophy has led me to believe that nothing can be understood adequately unless it can be defined.

So far the simplest and most straight forward definition that I have is that poverty is a lack of money or material possessions.

This definition, of course, is very vague. Almost all of us can attest to having a lack of money and material possessions - to some degree - but we don’t necessarily consider ourselves to be living in a state of poverty. Today many consider the State of Poverty to be a real place - namely Mississippi. But even given this terrible set of circumstances most of us would agree that we would rather be poor in Mississippi that in India or Bangladesh, Bangkok or Baghdad.

So what is poverty? Let me give it a shot here:

Poverty is that state or condition in which an individual or a group of individuals within a given society or structure are unable to provide for themselves adequately.

Right off, I see that the problem with this definition is the word “adequately”. Who or how do we determine what is adequate?

Let’s try again:

Poverty is that state or condition in which an individual or a group of individuals are unable to provide for themselves in a manner acceptable to the majority of the people composing the group or community of which the said individual or group of individuals is a part or member.

This would make poverty into a relative concept. In other words whether a person is living in poverty or not would be determined by the judgment of the majority living within that particular group or community. And I would say that this is the case or fact of the matter. What would be considered poverty in Denmark might not be what is considered poverty in Bangkok.

But whether in Bangkok or Mississippi whatever we decided is poverty, this state is determined by “money” and or “material possessions”. It is not a state of mind. It is a condition that exists in economic reality.

And what determines a person’s relative poverty is a matter of what he owns or earns. If what he owns or what he earns is below a certain standard then it is deemed that he is living in a state of poverty.

The solution to poverty would then be that an individual or group of individuals living in poverty must somehow have their material possessions or quantity of money enhanced to that degree considered to be acceptable by the surrounding society or group.

So obviously, if we determine who are poverty stricken within a given society and we “give” them money and or material possessions in sufficient quantity we could eradicate poverty from within our society or any given society.

But as far as I know there has never been any society that has found this to be an acceptable method for the eradication of poverty. There are a million problems with this method and I don’t think that I have to elaborate.
But before we even get to the possibility of the above as a solution we must all be brought to accept that poverty does exist in reality within our particular societies.

In the early days of human civilization poverty was somewhat glossed over by the institutions of slavery and peasantry. And in these early days both slavery and peasantry were accepted as destined, inevitable, acceptable and in most cases established by God. Most of the early religious leaders - Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, and many of the early Jewish prophets - saw an “injustice” in this attitude. They set out on the charitable mission of reforming the established acceptance of poverty and turning the eradication of poverty into a religious goal. Instead of the elite and successful being the “chosen people” of God - Egyptians, Romans, Greeks etc., these reformers taught that the “poor huddled masses” were the “chosen” and if not the chosen at least they were to be included and not excluded from God’s select circle.

This went on rather haphazardly until Calvin and others of his time began to spin the story of God’s love back onto the lives of the rich and famous - and I would say that this is pretty much where we stand today on this matter.
The debate after Calvin was picked up though once again during the enlightenment. Certain social thinkers - Godwin, Voltaire, J. S. Mill, Karl Marx and many, many more - began to suggest that poverty was not a condition established by God or that this condition was not inevitable but was brought on by society in general. This did not sit well with the Generals of society. One of the first defenders of the status quo and society in general was Malthus.

Malthus suggested that the reason that poverty, starvation and destitution were growing at such an alarming rate was very simple. Food supply increased arithmetically while people increased geometrically. Therefore starvation, destitution, and poverty were inevitable. It was not so much that the rich were not willing to share or that society in general was inadequate, but more because of mankind’s sexual practices - and especially the sexual overindulgence of the poor and poverty stricken.

Today conservative thinkers like George Will still advocate this same notion. George Will says that the eradication of poverty in the U.S. is simple; all we have to do is stop teenage pregnancy. George says this because 55% of all women living in poverty in America today were once pregnant teenagers. I would also bet that over eighty percent of us alive today were born of a teenage mother or a very recent graduate from teenagerhood but ... whatever.

Both of these answers I find problematical. First Malthus:

If the question is: How can poverty be eradicated or how can we eliminate poverty. Neither of these answers addresses the issue.

If as Maithus suggested we have people who are living in poverty or who are of the poverty stricken class, produce fewer children - we would still have “poverty”. We could have fewer people living in poverty provided we do not have more people immigrating into this class (peasant) from other societies or that the economic circumstances within the society do not deteriorate thus reducing more and more people to a state of fewer and fewer material possessions or less and less monetary income. Poverty as you will remember is an economic condition. It is defined by how much money and or material possessions a person has.

Mr. Will’s solution would also fail to eliminate “poverty”. People would still be living in a state of poverty if teenage girls did not become pregnant. If all the daughters of the wealthy in America were allowed to become pregnant as teenagers and all the poor and poverty stricken in America were prevented from giving birth as teenagers the ranks of those living in Poverty would probably not be changed one iota. We may have fewer teenage girls living in poverty but poverty would remain.

By keeping your daughter free from teenage pregnancy you may decrease her chances of living a life of poverty but you certainly won’t eliminate poverty. Poverty depends on how much money a person earns or has access to – not on whether she is a teenager or if she is pregnant.

This also applies to those who advocate education as a means of eliminating poverty. You can educate a child and thus give him a greater chance of earning more money - but this will not eliminate poverty. You can educate everybody in the world but if the world does not have enough jobs of above poverty level income available you will simply have smarter people living in a state of poverty. You will probably have the additional challenge of trying to outsmart brighter thieves and burglars. Then you will have to create brighter police officers - that may prove to be even more difficult that eliminating poverty.

If in the time of Malthus all poverty was in the peasant class, then it would follow that poverty could have been eradicated by eliminating all peasants. But if I have my history in tact, peasants were the people who did the farming - they did the hoeing and the cultivating. So if the peasants were all eliminated the food supply would also have been eliminated. In which case Malthus’s bright idea would not only have eliminated “poverty” it would also have eliminated “prosperity”. One may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth but if there is no pudding or porridge or Campbell’s chicken noodle soup what good is your silver spoon?

The bottom line is - if the peasants constituted “poverty”, in order to eradicate poverty the peasant material condition must be enhanced - somehow.

If a pregnant teenage girl must live in “poverty” because she is only capable of working at a job that provides a poverty sustaining wage - if she delays her pregnancy ten years but at the end of that time she is still only capable of working at a job which pays poverty sustaining wages, then what have you accomplished?

There is an elephant in the living room here that neither Malthus or George Will want to face. As long as you have jobs that supply only poverty sustaining wages you will have poverty.
Now we are getting to the real problem.

If your “system” demands that your employers must, of necessity, pay wages that sustain poverty - you either have to learn to accept poverty - shake your head and blame it on God as they have in the past - or you have to tweak the “system.”

The system can only be tweaked in so many ways as I see it.

You can leave the employer alone and “subsidize” those who must perform the poverty producing jobs by some sort of redistribution of wealth via taxation; or you can standardize the pay rate so that no job is poverty sustaining; or you can do a combination of both of these alternatives until there are no people living under the conditions that the majority of the people of this society find inadequate.

Unfortunately the poor can not eliminate poverty. One poor person can work and possibly change his condition but this does not eliminate the economic conditions that dictate the necessity of poverty. Poverty is not individual but systemic - only the wealthy or those who control the supply of money and the opportunity of attaining money can eliminate poverty - in other words those who control the “system.”

If we apply the Willie Sutton Principle here; If a situation can only be satisfied by money, then those with the money or those who control the supply of money are the only ones who can apply the solution. This means business, banking, government - society.

The poor have to be willing, able and have the capacity to earn the money if it is made available. This is understood. There will always be those that are incapable - but that is a much different problem.

In the U.S. it is estimated that there are between 36 and 40 million people living in what is defined by the government as poverty. Unemployment is estimated to be between 4% and 5%. That means that one third of these people are currently registered to be looking for employment. There are no statistics on undocumented workers or on the criminal underclass of chronically unemployed. So this means that over two thirds of these people (36-40 million) are currently employed. These people are working to maintain their poverty. You can either raise their wages, or give them what they need. As long as society allows employment that pays wages that sustain poverty - there will always be someone who is living and working in a state of poverty. You can not educate away poverty; you can not de-populate poverty; you can not racially cleanse away poverty. To remove poverty requires “money” - somebody is going to have to pay for it.

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